By Anjum Choudhry Nayyar
Exhausting. Chaotic. Fulfilling. Just some words many women might say describes their first year of motherhood. Don’t let anyone ever tell you motherhood is easy. Many women emerge from the first year learning more about themselves than ever before as they nurture a new life. But what happens when a woman who is a force in women’s rights becomes a mom? Does the perspective change? Women like Anushay Hossain say through it all, she has rediscovered her life through her new daughter.
Anushay began her career in women’s rights as an intern at the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) where she worked on microfinance for women and girls in her native country, Bangladesh. A University of Virginia graduate, Anushay joined the Nobel Peace Prize nominated Campaign For Afghan Women before completing her MA in Gender and Development at the University of Sussex. She spent a year at UNIFEM’s (United Nations Development Fund for Women) London office before returning to Washington, DC where she invests the majority of her work analyzing the impact of US foreign policy on the health and rights of women and girls around the world.
In this interview we talk to Anushay about what that first year of motherhood was like and what it means to be a South Asian mom today:
What was your biggest lesson in motherhood in your first year as a mom?
Without a doubt, finding the right childcare. Before the baby was born and soon after we had thought family was the right way to go. But as all moms know once your baby arrives you change and circumstances change. As I got ready to return back to work finding childcare was by far the most stressful challenge. My husband and I were in nanny free fall, work on my desk was piling up, and of course it is just not possible to function until you are 100% confident and secure with who is watching your baby when you are not home. Thankfully we found amazing care, but I experienced that at the end of the day, women are really alone. Even if you have a supportive husband, the mother is the one who has to sort out the right care for the baby. You have to provide peace of mind for yourself. At the height of the stress with childcare, I saw firsthand why women drop out of the workforce. There is no structure in place. We all have to fend for ourselves.
What changes have you noticed in yourself when it comes to juggling work and parenthood and culture?
Women are a multitasking goddesses in general and naturally, but sometimes I even surprise myself. I also realized shockingly that instead of wanting to do less, I actually wanted to do more now that I am a parent. I wanted to have the perfect home, become this fabulous cook, be a career woman… things I was already doing I wanted to excel in for my daughter. I wanted to be the best to give her the best.
What role if any has guilt played in your daily life as a mom, and how have you handled it?
There are days when I can’t juggle it all, and I drop a ball or two. Sometimes I have to work late and I miss bedtime, which is my special thing to do, put my daughter to sleep every night. I’ve learned to let things go, take it a day at a time, and not always beat myself up if I cannot do everything I want to do in a single day. There are only so many hours! I have learned to tell myself it is okay, take a hot shower, and give myself a break.
What have you learned about the supports we as working moms have in the workplace or lack thereof?
I found a lot of support in fellow new and young moms. I joined a mom group in my neighborhood, and I highly recommend young new moms to seeks similar groups out. It’s so great to share stories and concerns when you don’t know if you are doing the right thing with your new baby. It’s always nice to know hey, you’re not alone, other people have similar challenges. It was really helpful for myself and my husband because a lot of new dads are in the same boat. The women bring their husbands into the conversation, to find solutions and celebrate together. However in general as far as society and the workplace go, there really isn’t any support. Women have to create it for themselves and every case is unique, and it depends on your luck unless you live in Scandinavia! I work for a women’s non-profit, so they understood flex hours. But the truth is after a while, everybody gets tired of accommodating a mother’s hours, tired of you needing to work from home, and it’s unfair for you and your work. At the end of the day, you’re at the mercy of your boss. I still feel by and large women are punished for having kids, especially in America where paid maternity leave is not even legally required. It’s pathetic, needs to change and so so hard. The workforce is not built to accommodate women. It was created for men. As we all know, things have changed and the system needs to as well to work for women.
Have there been any instances where as a new mom you came face to face with cultural stigmas? How did you handle them?
Culturally the amount of people that gave me a hard time about going back to work having a young baby, stopping breastfeeding when I decided to, having a cat around a newborn, was ridiculous. When you become a mother, the whole world has an opinion about how you should raise your child. There is no end to judgement. This really angers me. What I want to do with my body, my child, my family really does not concern anybody besides my immediate family and myself. I’m a Bangladeshi living in Washington, married to a Persian-American. We had to tackle cultural stigmas from every angle! Some days it really felt like no one was happy with anything. We had family believing I should stay at home at breastfeed for two years, we had friends who thought I should return to work right away, friends who thought I should not work at all after giving birth…I mean you name it, we had to deal with it. That’s when my husband and I realized you can’t make everyone happy. We had to do what we thought was best for ourselves. Finding confidence and strength as new parents is crucial for the well-being of your child. I learned to tell people to go to hell, directly or indirectly, and do what I needed to for my family.
What would you tell your younger self about motherhood?
I spent so much of my twenties being terrified of motherhood, thinking it was this prison that robbed women of their independence and careers. I would tell my younger self not to fear motherhood. The amount of fun, love and joy that my daughter has brought into my life takes my breath away. I can go on and on about it, and I sound like a Hallmark card! All cliches become true when you become a mother, but the sheer joy and love that it brings into your life really took me by surprise. I’m rediscovering life with her. We took her to the beach for the first time this summer, and she touched sand for the first time. I rediscovered my love for the ocean through her. She loves my opera collection and it makes me remember my time living in Italy. I can’t wait to see the world with her. I can have the worst day, but when I lay in bed with Ava, running my hands through her hair, my priorities are astoundingly clear to me.
How has being a mom changed your perception of you own mom and her parenting?
It has changed everything. It’s amazing how this shift happens. Becoming a parent has altered how I see the world, changed my perceptions in such a huge way. It is tangible. I think back to my childhood and I think about my parents, what they did, decisions they made for us, all the time. It’s astounding how choices you make affect and influence this little person for the rest of their lives. I am so grateful to my parents for opportunities they gave us, for my father who always stressed the importance of good education, the sacrifices my mother made for her children. I understand and appreciate all they have given me and my sisters in a way I was not capable of doing before I myself became a parent. The circle of life is also so clear to me now. I know what it’s like now to want the best for your child. I also think back to how much I made my parents worry. As a mother now thinking about my daughter not calling me back, staying out all night without letting my mom know where I was, my rebellious teenage years, oh gosh! I hope my karma does not find me!
What is the best parenting tip you have received?
Enjoy your baby. My aunt told me this when my daughter was still just a few weeks old. I was an exhausted, confused, overwhelmed new mom trying to find my way. I was just diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, and in between my daughter’s naps and breastfeeding, had to sneak in endless doctor visits. I was so stressed out. I use my aunt’s words even now to refocus whenever I am feeling overwhelmed or have too much going on and don’t know where to start first. I start with my baby. Make sure she’s okay, make sure we’re connected, enjoy her and go from there.