Last year, I won a major award in my field. As I went to accept it, I choked back tears and thought of my mom. I felt like I was honoring her by my win. I said as much to the audience during my impromptu acceptance speech: “Thank you to so many of you here who are working moms. We cannot be what we cannot see.”
My mom never worked outside of the home. Living within a conservative South Asian society in Singapore meant she had to quickly quell any such ambitions once she had an arranged marriage at the age of 21.
I learned so much from her and all she did for our family, but there was an unexpected side effect of her staying home. It’s one I only realized upon becoming a mother myself last year: I don’t have a role model to look to, or ask questions of, as I balance motherhood with my career.
It’s tremendously difficult to be the first working mom in my entire family (and even among the majority of my childhood family friends). I’m constantly oscillating between what’s “right” and what’s “wrong.” Should I take my son for a walk in the park? Should I let him play indoors so I can take this conference call? Is it alright to have (vetted) strangers care for him while I work? Should I stop working for a few years to care for him?
I’ve realized very quickly that the only way to 'have it all' is to resign myself to the fact that neither my career nor my family will be perfect.
For my own mother and for most of the South Asian diaspora moms I knew growing up, life was a careful balancing act of raising children, maintaining clean houses and serving home-cooked meals. In America, I’ve encountered a new notion: “having it all.” And I’ve realized very quickly that the only way to “have it all” is to resign myself to the fact that neither my career nor my family will be perfect.
Despite this revelation, I can’t get away from the expectations that I’ve created in my own mind based on my childhood. Growing up in Singapore, I knew women who moved to foreign countries to give their children better lives. These women didn’t speak the language, let alone have options to further (or even begin) careers in their new homes. Motherhood meant completely sacrificing your own ambitions or wishes.
I never saw mothers in my community spend alone time with friends. Most women I knew were wholly involved in the upbringing of their children; many often didn’t have a single activity in their lives that didn’t revolve around their kids.
So as I navigate my own career aspirations while raising a son in America, I find myself looking for a guide. But almost every woman I’ve met who’s making this choice has a choice — and that’s the difference. I grew up in a society that failed to offer such options, and that’s making it all the more challenging for me to choose my own path.
I spent much of my young life seeing parenting as binary: Women stayed at home to look after the kids; men went to work. The few women I did see who worked outside the home were almost always unmarried or childless, and looked upon with disdain and pity by our society at large.
This world of limited options never did sit right with me. From an early age, I fought for an education; I was the first person in my extended family to earn a master’s. But I also wanted to get married (I was less sure about kids).
As I aged, I felt more and more isolated in my choices. So many of my childhood friends seemed to settle easily into lives that mirrored those of their mothers, even with advanced degrees. But I saw the deep wistfulness my mother harbored for a career of her own, and was determined to not let that become my life.
Now that I am a mother and building my career at the same time, I find myself repeatedly challenged in ways I never expected. Take cooking. Indian cooking is wonderful.. and intense and time-consuming. I wish there was a playbook for how to balance making fresh, hot chapatis with client meetings and work deadlines.
I also wish I knew someone who could talk me through the practicalities of being a career-focused mom. How do I assuage the guilt of attending evening work events while leaving my son at home? How do I handle traveling for conferences, or even justify the occasional date night with my husband?
These challenges are by no means unique to South Asian women like myself. But the world I grew up in has long-valued women by their abilities to be “good” daughters, wives and mothers and so every choice I make feels particularly loaded. I may be six years and 8,000 miles away from Singapore, but I’m still nervous to tell women back home about the extent of my career ambitions. While I’m finally ready to admit how important it is to me that I do have a career — even if it means missing my son’s bedtime — I fear the judgment that revelation will bring from those I’ve known my whole life.
The Western idea that women can have it all is harmful. The narrative that women can only have a career or motherhood is equally dangerous. But worst of all is not having a choice at all. That’s the world I grew up in, and it’s one I’m determined to leave behind. As I set out, I hope to create a new path for women who grew up like me. It’s time, I’ve realized, to be my own role model.