Interview: Most women are concerned about who will care for their baby when they go back to work

Psychiatrist and working mother Dr Sabina Rao talks about mommy guilt, the lack of social support and other pressures faced by new mothers

Do I pause? Do I quit? Do I leave my baby with a nanny? There isn’t a right answer to any of these questions. The answer that works for you is the right one, says Dr Sabina Rao, Consulting Psychiatrist at Sakra World Hospital. The mother of three is very thankful to the medical director of the hospital who allowed her to work flexible hours during and after her pregnancy. Dr Rao talks to us about the debates faced by the urban woman and the need to throw guilt out of the window.

Having a baby is now considered a life-changing decision. What are the conversations new parents are having?  

In cosmopolitan cities, the pressures of producing children immediately after marriage has come down because people are moving away from their immediate families, that is, the in-laws or parents who usually nudge young couples to have children at the earliest. There is certainly a rise in independent thinking.  Women are starting to think along financial lines- for example whether the company will allow her to go back to work, can she and her partner afford a baby. Some women are also starting to ask themselves what it means emotionally, for them to get pregnant. Some companies are getting a little more considerate and women are not considered a burden in the workforce but rather as a great investment. But for most women, the primary concern is who will watch the baby if I choose to go back to work. Choosing to have a baby is indeed a life changing decision. It changes everything about your body, your emotions and often your sense of who you think you are.

So taking your time to think and plan is the key?

Not many couples have the chance to think about it. Even the most educated women give in to pressure from society if not from family. For many women it is the “right thing to do”. Women are brought up to believe that getting married, having a baby is the way things “should “be.  It is often said one can never be ready to have a baby. This is true, in that you can never predict or control what your experience of being a parent is going to be like. But there are factors that can be controlled. What are your finances?  Are you planning to take a break from work? What will be your supports when you get back to work? Planning this may make things easier, if not entirely smooth. How the body reacts, whether it’s going to be an easy pregnancy, whether the pregnancy will be without complications - this might not be in your control.

What are the pressures that come with becoming pregnant for working women?

In India, it’s not just companies that don’t always support a woman’s plans for pregnancy, even the support system, in terms of facilities for baby care, availability of nannies and so on, can be very discouraging.  So in a sense, women who live in cities in nuclear families, are on their own. Some have support from the family, but as the age of women who are having babies increases, so does the age of in-laws and parents. What is a woman to do if she then chooses to work? The responsibility therefore falls on her workplace. Longer maternity leave, crèches at the workplace are some of the ways companies can support their woman work force. As we all know, women are not less competent than men. If companies gave women the time and space for motherhood, women will feel encouraged and be more effective employees.

Then there is the societal judgment of women who choose to leave their babies with family or nanny, and go back to work. All of this works on the minds of women, making the decision of childbirth a very stressful one.

So guilt is big thing?

Guilt is a factor across the world. The IT sector for example does not wait for women who take a break, technology keeps changing. Women who have worked all their lives for this career take one or two year breaks and this leaves them lagging behind technologically. Yet, if they choose to stay in the race, there’s the guilt of leaving this beautiful baby at home and not spending enough time bonding. So women end up being guilty on both accounts. There are studies to show that the children of working mothers grow up to be very confident. If a mother feels good about herself, she is likely to be a mother who can meet the demands of her baby. Mothers needs to feel healthy emotionally. I say- get rid of the guilt.

Women need to understand that whatever works for them, is the right decision. If a woman wants to work to feel complete and accomplished, then she should work towards that. Then there are those who find their calling in caring for and raising their baby. The opposite pressure is true too. Why are you wasting your degree? Women often feel as if they have to succeed at everything- do it all, juggle everything successfully. In my opinion, that is a tall order. Do what you enjoy. This is stressful time and it is okay to be confused and conflicted.

Do these external pressures and societal stresses affect the mental health of women?

Absolutely, it is more common than not. Sliding into anxiety and depression is very easy. Post-partum blues are very common and external stresses can often add to this. So the new mother, who might be going through postpartum blues and has to take care of her baby, feels pressured into going back to work as soon as possible. Many around her say, for example, “What is the point in all the degrees if you are going to sit at home”.

This can often be a challenging time. Women should try and give themselves six weeks of rest after birth. If your organization has a short maternity leave, see if you can negotiate for some extra time with your manager. Asking never hurt anyone.

Where does the partner fit into this?

The partner is the most important part of this decision making. Motherhood is often made out to be a woman’s “problem”.  But for the average Indian man, being involved in pregnancy and birthing is not in the sphere of thought. This is the era of men providing emotional support, and not financial. Sit your partner down and have an open conversation on your hopes and expectations. The conversation should begin when couples are planning the baby. The partner should be involved from the beginning- all the reading, the planning, the feeding, the nappies, everything. To men I’d say, get involved in parenting, it’s a very macho thing to do!

Who do women talk to when they are confused?

If you feel that your mother or mother-in-law might not understand your thoughts then look out for women who have been through similar experiences. Talk to women in your workplace or in your apartment complex, in your neighborhood who are managing both these worlds. But remember that no two people have the same set of problems or outcomes. Some companies have counsellors or senior women in management who are able to help in providing moral and emotional support. One can, of course always seek the help of a counsellor to talk things out.

How can women help themselves?

Most women are exhausted, sleep deprived after the birth of a child and need a lot of support from their partner and family. It may be a challenge to get back to routine chores at home. There are of course those women who get back to schedule in a few weeks, lose all that baby weight in a few weeks, and look completely in control in spite of just having a baby. If you hear of such examples, don’t be discouraged. Remind yourself that every woman’s experience is different.

Some tips on helping yourself out are- Write down your schedule, organize your day if possible around the baby. Get as much rest as possible. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t accomplish even half of what is on your list of things to do. Do everything to take care of yourself. Keep a journal of your thoughts if no one in the house has time for a chat. Visit a psychiatrist or counselor if you are feeling overwhelmed, depressed or anxious.

Mothers who plan go back to work should visit a lactation consultant to understand how they can pump and store breast milk for their babies

The most important thing mothers should remember after the baby is that – you are not the same as you were before the baby, you are better! Give yourself a pat on the back!