Saturday, January 19, 2019

Mommy rules

It was around 2 years ago that I came across the concept of 'mental load' when this comic strip by French cartoonist Emma was going viral. Something clicked into place. Mental load! That was it. There was such a thing as mental load. Suddenly things started making sense. Why, in spite of Viv being very particular about sharing all chores relating to the household or Xena, sometimes I felt exhausted, but not in a physical way.

I had taken on all of the mental load, you see.

Without us realising there was such a thing, there was no way I could split that with him. I viewed myself as the ultra-efficient manager of job, house, husband, and child. I had a plan, you see. Everyone knew what they had to do. It was all divided equally. Of course, I did all the thinking and planning, but that was not actual work now, was it?

It was. In a big way.

Like Emma says, "The mental load is almost completely borne by women. It's permanent and exhausting and invisible work."

So then I started to look at things a little differently. I realised that the fact that I LOVE planning and getting stuff done was sometimes getting in the way of my own sanity. When you have a kid around the house, it becomes infinitely more difficult to keep things tidy. You can give your husband or kid chores to do on an ad-hoc basis to help you, but what needs to be done is to be able to shift not just the physical chore itself, but some of the mental load as well. (See this.) Instead of telling Xena to refill the hand soap when I was busy, I needed to get her to do it whenever it was time to refill it. the last person to use up the last drop of soap refills it. That's it. But of course, that is not as straightforward as it seems. If soap-refilling became everyone's job, I would have no idea when it was time to buy the next batch of soap. Because I'm always the refiller, I have a clear idea of when to add it to the shopping list. And we would suddenly have a situation of no hand soap in the whole house!! You see what I mean? So it just seems like the easier path is to do it all myself... that of taking on the physical load (refilling the hand soap) and the mental load (remembering to add it to the shopping list). Now multiply this tiny example by ALL the 238748926589624085734 things that need to get done in a typical household. It's a lot more work than what you would associate with a typical works-half-day-from-home mother-of-one-kid who also happens to have 3827483947 hobbies. But I did it anyway. Because I was the girl who wanted to do everything, and did it. (Ooh, cool phrase for my epitaph!)

Last year, when I was in discussions with my publisher about taking up the full-time position, I had many many other things to consider. What would we do about breakfast? When would I go to the gym? How would I do laundry, considering I'd totally miss the sunlight hours? How would we keep the house tidy? I used to make an elaborate breakfast every day, a different item daily. And cook and pack two boxes for Xena's recess and snack break. And go to the gym before I started work. And do laundry and drying and folding and ironing almost every day. And when taking breaks from work, because I had no colleagues to chat with at the water cooler, I'd go around the house tidying up. Though we have generally taught Xena to be tidy, we have probably not done a great job at enforcing it. She may remember to put her uniform in the laundry hamper after school, but she would read books all over the house and I'd find a Tintin in pretty much every room. Sometimes I'd wait till she was back from school to get her to tidy up, but sometimes I'd just do it myself. After all, I was the one spending most of the time in the house and I needed it to be moderately tidy at least. I'd be amazed at how, in spite of my daily clearing up, every table in the house would disappear under stuff. Every single day. It didn't happen all that much when it was just Viv and me, but ballooned to crazy proportions once Xena was old enough to carry and leave stuff around. And doing all those things was no longer making me feel efficient; it was making me feel exhausted.

A lot of the time, I would sacrifice my me-time to do it. I'd think of catching a Koffee with Karan episode over lunch, but there'd be something that needed my attention more so I'd have a quick 5-minute lunch and get on with the task. I always told myself that I was only forgoing stupid Bollywood nonsense, but you know what? Sometimes you badly need some stupid Bollywood nonsense in your life. I know I do.

Once I signed the contract with my employer, I knew we had to start doing things differently. It might take a while to find a way to split the mental load equally, but with me being away at work all day, at least the random physical loads had to be readdressed. We had to learn to do things without being told to. Some things had to be a given, like putting things back from where you took them.

So I came up with two rules/resolutions for the family -- the 5% rule and the black box rule.

The 5% rule
The 5% rule involves completing each task 100%, and not leaving the first 5% (Mama, can you give me a glue stick for my craft project?) or/and the last 5% (putting the glue stick back in the craft drawer, where everyone knows it belongs). Or removing only enough dry laundry to make space for the exact load you're currently washing, but not removing the rest. Or folding all the clothes but leaving them folded on the bed. Or tackling a messy room but leaving some items on the floor because you didn't know where to put them. Or taking something from the wardrobe but not sliding the door back. I want to ask, "So who is supposed to do this last 5% and why can't/didn't you do it?" So according to the resolution, Viv and Xena now have to make sure that anything they do is done 100%. No, I will not be the one bringing them the tool and no, I will not be the one putting it back. When we renovated the house a few years ago, we Konmarie-d the hell out of it -- enough to make sure everything has a proper place that everyone is aware of.

The black box rule
The biggest hindrance to a tidy home is all the stuff that doesn't make its way back to its original resting place. So now I have a black box in the storeroom where anything not in its correct place will be put away and not returned for a week. If it's something unsuitable for the box (dirty clothes left on the chair, for example, will of course not be put in the black box (omg!) but something valuable to the offender (say, one Tintin comic for Xena) will be taken in lieu. And it's not just for Xena's stuff (though to be honest, it mainly is); she has also been given the right to 'black box' any of Mama's or Daddy's items that have not been put back in their correct place.

When I first introduced this, Viv was all up for it, but I did get some groans from Xena who, as I mentioned before, likes to keep one Tintin in each room of the house (for easy access?). So we gave her a grace period of 2 weeks where we would point out her black box candidates but not implement the rule. Last week, the grace period ended, and now I've fully gone into evil mode. The first day itself, I black-boxed 7 (let me say that again...  SEVEN!) Tintin books. I haven't seen an out-of-place Tintin book since then.

Let's see how these rules work out for us. I am giving all of us a year to reach the stage where we will not need these rules anymore because they would have become second nature to us. Fingers crossed.

And then maybe my epitaph phrase could be changed to 'The girl who did everything she wanted to.'

PS: Sharing Emma's comic strip once again, because that's how important it is. Whether you read my post or scrolled through, whether you're a guy or a girl, do read what she says about mental load. It will change you. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Back to the mothership

So yes, I have gone ahead and done it.

I've joined the full-time workforce again.

After 8 years of working from home.

I'd made the decision to quit the corporate world in 2011 when all the complications with Xena's health began. To someone who was very ambitious and driven about climbing the corporate ladder, it was quite a shocker to consider a break like this that could possibly never end. But I knew it was the right thing to do, the only thing to do, and to this date I've not had a single regret about giving up my career for Xena. What I did know was that I needed to continue working, in whatever capacity, to retain my sanity during those dark and difficult days. Just something else to fill my head with other than my seriously sick kid. I am grateful that my publisher (my first employer) always had enough writing/editing/freelance projects to keep me busy. And all these years, they had also been patiently waiting for me to join them full-time, telling me every year that they will always have a place for me.

This year, I finally gave in. I'm back at the mothership, the company where I started my first real job. The job that gave me a chance to permanently lock up my engineering degree and do what -- in Marie Kondo's words -- sparks joy in me.

It was been such a strange experience going back to the same office building I left 12 years ago. So much has changed and so much is still the same. So many new faces and yet, so, so many familiar ones. Many editors have come and gone and come back and then gone back again, but some of the illustrators and designers are still there. They never left. It was so lovely to be greeted so warmly by all of them.

My ex-big-boss who's also my current big boss saw me working at my cubicle and said, "It's like you never left." I know exactly what she meant. It does feel like I never left. I merely moved into the cubicle adjacent to my old one. In fact, quite often, I find myself turning into the wrong lane, towards my old place! How can muscle memory still function after 12 years??

And then there's the emotional dinosaur part of me. The one that has preserved all the memorabilia from the good old days. I have an A-3 sized poster that my designers made by photoshopping my face over Priyanka Chopra's body in Krrish so I'm in (sheesh!) Hrithik Roshan's arms (they knew me as that crazy Bollywood fan so they thought this would make an apt card), a mock cover of my precious magazine (I worked on it from 2003 to 2018 till it ceased publication) with me as the queen bee and my team members as the other busy bees, and here's the most hilarious one -- a 'mass resignation letter' bearing the signature of 17 editors, which was presented to me when my team found out about my resignation. There's even a tiny footnote: 'If Management is reading this, it is just a joke. If Sayesha is reading this, it is for real.' And they had all tried to "jump off the building rooftop" if I left (I had blogged about it; there is a even silhouette picture of them on the rooftop!) The Krrish designer came by my desk today and you had to see how his jaw dropped when I showed him the poster he had designed all those years ago. At times, I feel so silly and foolish hanging on to these little things, but I am also happy that these precious little memories have a proper home now.

Quite a few things have changed greatly. The IT lady came over to 'set up my computer' and she was armed with a MacBook Air "I won't get a desktop?" I asked. She gave me a funny look. I have never in my entire working life, worked using a laptop. So it has been rather strange getting used to it. And there are so many systems and databases and spreadsheets to learn about. But I have to say it's exhilarating to be back in the thick of business decisions.

Another big change is the sheer number of people in my life right now. I'm not used to having so many adults in my everyday life, and boy, is it a welcome change! All these years, it had been me+comp for the first half of the day, and me+Xena for the second. This sudden swarm of adults around me is exciting and sometimes scary at the same time. But I have to say it is nice to dress up in my formals (just a few weeks ago, I was looking at them and wondering if I should Konmari them away) and take the bus to work and spend the day working on stuff I'm passionate about and go for lunch with colleagues (OMG colleagues -- I have real, human colleagues!!) and then end the work day and really end it (well, so far), unlike my freelance days where I would work every minute that Xena was away (at school, sleeping, art class, etc.) so that I could be fully there for all her awake moments.

Come to think of it, everything has really gone according to the new plan. *touchwood* I wanted to give Xena all my time during her early years and then get back to a full-time career once I was assured that she would be okay. So far so good. She seems to understand that this is important to me and has been very supportive.

Because I had waited so long for this and sincerely paid my dues, I bounce into the office every morning like an excited fresh graduate and not someone who's worked in the industry for 16 years. The jaded folks at the office must really be wondering what's wrong with me. Especially since I have to wake up at 5:45 am so I can make and pack Xena's recess and snack boxes and send her off in time for me to catch the 6:45 am bus to work. (Yes, I literally watch the sunrise every morning... from the bus!) I've made my work hours start really early so I can pick her up from studentcare as early as possible so we still have some time to play and share about how our day went.

My schedule is a bit bonkers at the moment as I try to get used to this new development, and I'm hoping that things will be smoother soon. I still want to make time and do all the things that I don't want to stop doing, like reading and cooking and baking and gymming and... blogging!

Wish me luck (and please pardon any typos or grammatical errors -- this post was written in a I'm-kinda-sleep-deprived-but-I-wanna-blog-now state)!

Friday, January 04, 2019

Annual report - 2018

2018 - what a year! Here are some key highlights.

- Since Xena started primary school in 2018, all three of us had to be up really early in the morning. 6 am to be precise. (Ouch. I know.) Luckily, the khadoos mommy that I am, had made it a rule that in 2017, we would wake up at 6:30 in preparation for 2018, and honestly, it made waking up at 6 am a lot easier for all of us. I wake up a little earlier, in fact, to cook and pack the two snack boxes for Xena's school, and I've found great pleasure in making all sorts of things for her snackbox -- broccoli patties, atta pancakes, pizza-dosa, wholemeal sandwiches, etc. etc. I baked a whole lot in 2018, with a keen focus on wholemeal stuff. After many unsuccessful attempts, I finally found a wholemeal bread recipe that works for me, and now it's a staple in our home.

- The biggest personal highlight for me in 2018 has to be my inline skating lessons. It literally felt like a rebirth (and still does, with the exception of my old knee injury that keeps coming back). Under the tutelage of my amazing instructors, I am now somewhere between levels 4 and 5. If my knee allows, I hope to pass level 5 and get the coveted black certificate, which not a lot of skaters manage to get. Lately, my instructors have started teaching me more complex slalom moves. Here's one of my favourites.

You're supposed to do it with cones placed on the ground, but I didn't have any so I, um, imagined them.

Our instructors organised an 8.4-km long urban skate-a-thon. Can you spot Xena behind me? The photo was taken by Viv who decided to run alongside us, doubling as the official photographer of the event. 

- 2018 was also the year when Viv broke into the kitchen. Like, seriously. Because of my skating classes on Saturday and Sunday mornings, he decided to take on the task of making breakfast on weekends so Xena and I could focus on getting ourselves and our skating gear (that weighs approximately 897893246793264 kg) ready. It has been both an amusing and touching experience to see him attempt to make new things. We always had very clear roles when it came to food, and they had nothing to do with gender -- I like to cook and he likes to eat. Simple. So to have this system reversed was kind of funny, but a welcome change nevertheless. He's now pretty good at making omelettes, poha and uttapams, and I'm looking forward to newer items in 2019.

- 2018 marked our 20th year in Singapore! I still have very clear memories of landing on this sunny island in July 1998 as a clueless teenager. To mark the occasion, I organised a 'back to school' event for our university friends. We had all landed in Singapore at the same time to pursue the somewhat-loved but much-loathed engineering course. So we spent the whole morning walking all around Nanyang Technological University, telling the not-so-interested kids, how cool we (and the other uncles and aunties) were two decades ago. We even posed against the same backdrops that featured in our old photos. It was fun. For us, at least.

-  We did a fair bit of travelling this year. Early in the year, I travelled to India for my cousin's wedding (my first flight without Xena!). It was weird and nice at the same time. I more than made up for leaving her behind by taking her on a reward/incentive cruise that one of my publishers sent me on -- and they offered to pay for her ticket too! This time, we left Viv behind. Poor guy was absolutely miserable by himself. We need to do a cruise together at some point. In June, we went to Gold Coast, which is now my favourite Aussie holiday destination. In December, we did our big family reunion, which has become a tradition over the last few years. Us, parents, in-laws, all in one place. The first year, we did Mauritius, last year it was Sri Lanka and this year we decided to check Kerala off our bucket list. I'll be writing about it soon on my travel blog.

So that was my 2018. How was yours? 

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

A new start

And a brand new year begins!

So I have this (silly?) belief that whatever you do on New Year's Day is representative of what you will do for the rest of the year. For the last many, many years, I have made it a point to make sure that on New Year's Day, I do a bit of everything that I intend to do all year. Today was no different. Heck, I even went to the gym for just 20 minutes in spite of a very bad knee (that's been giving me hell at my skating lessons).

And of course, I couldn't let this day end without blogging!

I will blog later about the highlights of 2018, as well as share some strange family resolutions I have planned to implement for 2019 (one called the 5% rule and another called the black box rule). For now, I just want to wish all bewdas a very happy new year! Sending you all the positive vibes I can, especially those related to good health and happiness.

See you soon!