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Eleanor

To Be or Not to Be: The Conundrum of a Working Mother in Shanghai

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Eleanor    0

I can almost accurately predict the response that follows when I tell people we currently reside in Shanghai.

“Oh, you must be a “Tai Tai” (太太)…(insert envy laden look)…so good” .

Do you get that too? Or is it just me?

“Tai Tai” (太太), a term often used in these parts of the world to refer to ladies who engage in daily high tea marathons while balancing lapsang filled china cups with carefully manicured pinkies, seem to represent the epitome of what women world-wide strive to become and apparently the role that I ought to be fulfilling now that I am the wife of an expatriate in Shanghai. The expectation has escalated more so now that I am a mother.

I was a trailing, working spouse before we got pregnant. Though I was on local terms and so as many quipped “not economically viable to even put on the face paint and head out each day”, but being gainfully occupied for eight hours a day has helped me to retain a sense of well-being, not to mention my husband’s. My Love has always sagely said, whatever peanuts I bring home to him as salary, are still nuts. It doesn’t matter if they are big or small nuts, but at least having some peanuts in one’s hands are better than having none”. Now, who can argue with such a profound statement?

This lovely equilibrium changed when we got pregnant with Baby R. Should I become a SAHM or a PTWM or a FTWM? For the uninitiated, the first stands for a Stay At Home Mom or Mother if you must, the second, a Part Time Working Mother and the last, yes, you’ve got it, a Full Time Working Mother. It was one of those questions that one should commit to memory and bring forth when conversation is running dry – it is almost always guaranteed to solicit an opinion and provide a boost from a stalled conversation, even conversations at the neighboring table in a restaurant.

Respondents crossing gender, culture and social-economic backgrounds can be classified into two major camps. The “Are you crazy? It’s a joy to watch your child grow” faction and the “Are you crazy? I (My wife) need(s) my(her) sanity/career/money/freedom” faction. Yes, I have not forgotten those enviable few who have happily managed to find bliss straddling both camps, though I must say the last I looked, such career opportunities seem to be as scarce as a hairy crab that is really originated from Yung Cheng Lake. Very, very rare.

As I got bigger and Baby R’s EDD date drew closer, that’s Expected Due Date for those who are still wondering, I sat My Love down for a Serious Talk.

“Look hon,” I say “What do you think of me being a SAHM? Not work and just be here full time for Baby R.”

“I’m fine with that,” My Love grunts over his laptop and its busy Inbox “My mother stayed home and raised us three brothers, so why not? Look how great we turned out and its not like we couldn’t live without your peanuts” Now that got me riled up as my mother was a FTWM who ran her own business enterprise and ran a household very efficiently as we were growing up. Does that mean my sibling and I didn’t turn out great? And anything she can do, I can do too. Or can I?

Baby R arrived and as planned, I took an extra three months no pay sabbatical from work to be with her. I was effectively a SAHM for a full seven months or so and got a real taste of being one. Besides doing the usual feed-poop-change routine, I found myself endless trying to get involved in projects and causes. When Baby R was 6 weeks old, we started going to Baby Yoga classes; Baby socialization for her, inner peace for me. A perfect balance! At 10 weeks old, we co-attended a Baby Massage Train-the-Trainers’ certification program; At 15 weeks, I left her in the care of my parents for a week and flew to Michigan to visit my sibling and take up a Baby Yoga Instruction course. We scoured the malls, networked with other parents, dreamt up new business ventures and basically filled up our days and nights with many activities, easily rivaling that of a full work day schedule. I think you get the picture.

The question of my career: to be at home or at the office kept creeping in now and again over these seven months and as the date for me to return to the office drew closer, I started to get cold feet and the sweats. I furiously re-read parenting guides to try to rein in this surmounting fear and spoke to moms who have Gone Back and Live To Tell in order to keep myself calm.

Go back for a week or two and take it from there, My Love said.
Good idea.
And so I did.

It will be a lie to say that it was not heart wrenching that July morning when I first shut the door and tried to remain composed after biding my Princess goodbye. I remember almost bursting into tears as I continued to express breastmilk for her twice that day at work, simply wishing that I could just latch her on instead, as this had been one our bonding activities and a real form of almost zen-like comfort for both of us. I remember that I had rushed off at six on the dot that evening to zoom home, a real first for me and swore on all the shoes in my cabinet that I will just give myself till the end of the month to see if this all works out, else I’m going to call it a day. The separation just seemed so hard.

But things got better as each day progressed, as they normally do. It helped a lot that I had a Super Nanny looking after Baby R who was with me since her birth and had worked with us long to understand how fastidious (and queer) I can get about certain things. She managed to keep Baby R to our routine and was tuned to My Way of How I Want Things To Be. S.N. is very capable and did not at all mind at all when I rang every other hour to find out if Baby R had pooped/puked/slept/ate/passed gas.

The end of the month came and went and it has been more than a year since. I am still a FTWM trying to be a mother and to be an employee and there are still days when I still fantasize that I had stopped my work but there are also days when I am glad that I am had given the office another try. For now, this arrangement works for us and will probably remain so till something else causes us to have to change.

In all brutal honestly, juggling this many balls in the air has stretched me to a limit I have yet to reach before, this for someone who has been exposed to New York City’s brutal banking world and lived to tell the tale. If anything, this role has taught me to multitask more efficiently as I now need to make every moment count. I use my lunch hours wisely to either enjoy some well-deserved quiet time alone or to drop by R’s school to meet her before she makes her way home. My cell phone rarely leaves my side during work hours since I make sure that I am contactable at all times for my child and her nanny. Meetings and deadlines have to sometimes be planned around R’s schedule and a flu bug means extra hard work for me as I sit up with her through the night coughs and fevers.

People have commented that it is almost impossible to achieve success in both worlds without having to pay a high price for it. I somehow tend to slightly disagree as I have chosen to surround myself with people who have done it all before, especially mothers with children in their twenties and thirties, making them veterans in this game and their stories and coping strategies a reference and inspiration for me.

Am I a successful FTWM? I will only know for sure twenty years or so later when R is a grown adult and turns out normal. For now, I get my performance evaluation forms now and then. When I got an unexpected promotion at work and My Love pronounced that I had gotten it Done Well, my heart soared. When mothers ask how I am able to hold a full time job and yet be so involved in R’s life, I beam with pleasure. I recently got the affirmation I did not even know I was consciously searching for when my boss pointed me out as an example in response to some colleagues who had questioned if it was possible to successfully straddle both home and work. Me? Are you sure it is not someone else you mean to be referring to? It was as if blinders had been removed from my eyes and I see myself in new light again. Yes, I try hard at both and yes, this has not been an easy choice but darn it, I have tried and that is what really matters.

I now realize that as with most things in life, we can only take things a day at a time and as long as we are at peace with whatever decision we make, the rest does not matter. There is no right or wrong answer and every family’s need is different. Whatever works for us will not necessarily work for others.

I have no idea if I will continue to be a FTWM if we have subsequent children, what happens if I decide to take on a new role in my career or if we move on to become an expatriate in another host country. I just know that whatever world I choose, be it at work or being a full time mother at home, I will need to gainfully occupy myself and my talents for this is the personality I realize that I have and need to acknowledge because for me, anything less will simply not do. So I guess, no Tai Tai role for me, not anytime soon.

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