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How does she do it? It is a question that every woman must have asked.. how does she play all those roles with such ease? There are only so many hours in the day, there are so many of me to live – and they must all co-exist in this one life I have for myself.

At our business school, there was a course that I regret not taking. I was told I would regret missing out on this chance. Entitled Explorations in Role and Identity, it spoke of much beyond what a business school curriculum covers. We were told, everyone cries there, and spills all their secrets. Us, the alpha achievers – and all of us were – hesitated. But again and again, this is the very question that haunts us. I want to say – especially the women. But that would not be true in my experience. What is true is that more women than men seem to choose roles that limit them in many ways – life experiences, range of people they know, geographic reach, incomes and incentives, and of course the possibility of fame and glory.

Tomes have been written on this, including summer reads (old) that include my favourite ‘How does She do it All’. Anne Marie-Slaughter revived the discussion with her now famous ‘Having it All’ article, written after she left Washington’s corridors of power soon followed by Sheryl Sandberg holding her own with the book – Lean In. And of course the inevitable backlash of people exhausted with trying to hold it all together saying – enough! If I lean some more, I’ll topple! Can I please lean back? I prefer it that way.

Choice without compromise. Earning that right to make that choice. That was the goal. Being visible, working harder than others just because that was the only way nobody could ever possibly find a chink in the armour. Being perfect all the time. Being all the roles so that nobody could ever guess that it was not the whole of your being. 10,000 hours is what they say it takes to obtain mastery. Mastery over a skill, not a whole role. How much work would it take to train oneself to be the perfect banker, baker and smile maker?

I’d look around me to understand how they did it – the ones who seemed to have it all. Yes, some thing were obvious – delegate, organise, outsource, focus, multitask. But they always left every mother torn. The only ones who seemed to be comfortable in their skin were those who outsourced childcare to family. I may be wrong, but that is what I saw. If only because they had reliability and flexibility as much as they had trust in their back up system. No amount of money – nannies, daycare, technology – could substitute for family ir eems. Of course, like anything, there must have been side effects too.

Amidst all this debate, I wistfully thought of the old, traditional homestead with a ‘joint family’. At least that is what they were called in India. They must have had different names in other places for the concept is common. There are fewer active homesteads now, but that is where the family would centre, where the prodigal son (or daughter) could rest their weary head, knowing that whatever they could not cope with at the moment would be managed.

The traditional Indian joint family has been much romanticised, and has fallen into disuse in many ‘modern’ towns. But it had its merits if viewed as an organisation. There was clear and distinct leadership. Clear progression. And choice. Since tasks were often assigned to roles, there were efficiencies of scale, much like what drove the concept of a company. Or much like the concept of shared services that group companies often use. These synergies gave greater choice to the members of the household. Some, like in the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s household (admittedly a rich zamindari household with myriad servants) used the time to explore their talents. In other households this time was used in other pursuits. While women rarely worked a hundred years ago, things have changed now. There are still those who live in a single house with three or more generations of family. Some would have it no other way. And this is how they have it all. Since the tasks are shared, everyone spends less time than a single person running a nuclear household would. After all, the bins are emptied only once a day – whether there are six family units or a single family unit in that homestead. In fact, with six, the chances of being able to pool resources and outsource jobs are higher. Releasing even more time for each family member to pursue their interests and careers. The children of all the sub-families eat together, play together, learn together and there is always some adult from the family to look after them. (The internal financial structure of these families is a fascinating study in itself)

Does that still work today?

Let me tell you about Sona (name changed). She is a school teacher (one of the best I know) and lives in a three storied house with her extended family. Her parents in law have two sons and a daughter, each is married with two children each. Each one of them has a career or business except for the mother in law who has interests of her own. Sona leaves early for work, since school starts before most of her family members wake up. She does no housework before she goes, unlike those who run smaller family units. She knows that her unit will be fed, washed (she has a baby too) and kept busy even if she does not plan for it. Her mother in law looks after the morning chores. Her elder sister in law enjoys the same privileges – she runs a business and leaves at around ten, having been fed and watered. She has had time to spend with her loved ones all morning, and will do when she gets back home too. She will cook one dish a day, and tidy up her room, and supervise the tidying up of her children’s room. Her husband starts work at noon, and works till late – he is being groomed as the successor to the family business, so spends more time there. Sona’s husband, on the other hand is an entrepreneur. He goes to work with his elder brother but takes a break after she comes back from school, just in time for a late lunch together. The mother in law spends every afternoon and evening with her friends at the local temple, or a kirtan in a neighboring house. Often Sona takes time out in the late afternoon and evenings to meet her friends, while her sister in law gets to go out later, when Sona is back. At every point of time there is at least one adult male and one adult female looking after the children, even if the household help is not around. Men and women both cook. And everybody eats dinner together, however late. This is a family that backs each other up. If Sona has to stay late at school, she knows her children will be taken care of well. If the entrepreneur husband has an intense week, it is fine – the family offers enough companionship for such blips to be absorbed. If the daughter -in-law who is a businesswoman (she owns a gym) needs to study for another certificate that qualifies her as a nutritionist or nurse, she will have the space and the support. Is there a downside to this? Of course. As they say in India, when you have dishes and vessels, they will make a sound. Conflicts must be managed, as in a workplace, for they are a team. Do they survive, strong, as a unit? Yes. This is a modern Indian household.

It does not take much money for support networks to be built. Career women who are not in high-paying white collar jobs report that their careers are possible because of these networks. “Where is your child?”, I ask. ‘With the neigbour’. ‘With my mother – I go over to drop him there first, before coming to work’. ‘With my in-laws, in the village’. Support networks are the only thing that allow them to keep earning and pursuing their dreams. Do they want more time with their children? They have never said so – stoic in their determination to do their best by themselves and their families. Do they have fun with their friends and family – yes, most of them have seen the latest movies, heard the songs, had days off with their family due to festivals and functions. They are working to fulfill their dreams, and they are inching step by step closer to it. Do they have it all? Maybe, this is as good as it gets.

Maybe having it all is about working on a wider canvas, with more people and more resources. Maybe leaning in is about being a master juggler with more people to pass the ball too. Maybe, just maybe, life is a team sport where the bench, the locker room and the paraphernalia are as important as the performance on the pitch. Yet, we all know, there is no substitute for performance on the pitch. That is when the fun can begin.

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2 thoughts on “Synergies for Support: Being the banker, the baker and the smile maker

  1. Ms. Sengupta, you know that I greatly admire your wisdom and thoughts on different aspects of education, and rarely do I have an/any occasion to disagree with what you write; however, this essay of yours seems one of those rare occasions, where I disagree with your overall thesis.

    This response is not to engender acrimony between us, but to present a viewpoint that is – as will be apparent – patently different from yours in this regard. This is a matter of some significance to me, and I don’t want to clutter your space with unreasonably long harangues; hence I chose to respond via a blog post of my own – http://ohthehumanityofitall.blogspot.com/2013/07/traditional-indian-joint-families-are.html

    I request your perusal, and you can respond, if you wish, anywhere – here or in my blog.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. Acrimony? Bah! This is a complex issue, unravelled layer by layer. Ultimately it is a complex network of individual choices and circumstances. The view that I present in my article is also fairly nascent – I understand where you are coming from.. consider this a coming of age, where I seek to explore a traditional sounding model with new algorithms. At this stage, a hypothesis with a few concrete examples that support the possibility. Just a note, before a response – the example is that of a family with resources – but there are differences (embedded in the text, if you look), but towards the end of the article there are tales of those with few resources who operate with similar models with equal success. Acrimony? Politics? As much as in any organisation maybe. Again – this becomes a leadership and governance issue. As an aside, I have received notes from various women who have agreed that this model enables them to combine career and home with less stress than their previous nuclear family model could afford them. This is not just about money, this is a classic shared services model 🙂

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