‘I Scheduled My Own C‑Section,’ She Said, ‘Because I Had a Job Interview’
In one generation, so much — and so little — has changed for India’s working mothers.
“I scheduled my own C-section when I was pregnant … because I had a job interview 10 days later,” said my mother-in-law, while showing us her shopping for her impending trip to the mountains. My husband, born of that C-section, and I listened to this story, though we had heard it many times before. She was just a good storyteller.
“But, I thought you already had a job then,” I asked, knowing this was going to get the full story out.
Let’s rewind to five years before the point where her story began.
My mother-in-law, a nutritionist, had just been hired at a national-level organization. She was working on a maternal nutrition programme. Towards the end of that project, on which she had worked for three years, she predicted she would be given a permanent position in the organization, as was the norm at that time.
“But, I think they got a hint that I would get pregnant around the same time. In fact, most of the team would keep commenting about how I work on maternal nutrition, and would myself get pregnant soon enough. Exactly around the time I was expecting a permanent role, the head of our organization called me in, and asked me if I was pregnant.”
“But, that’s none of his business!” Not to forget – discriminatory.
“I told him that I was in the early stages of pregnancy. And that pretty much became the end of any hopes of a permanent position there.”
“I told him that I was in the early stages of pregnancy. And that pretty much became the end of any hopes of a permanent position there,” she added with easy emotion. Her ease of expression always gets her a lot of friends. “When others in the team got to know this, they accused me of speaking unnecessarily. One man asked me why I had to tell the truth!”
In effect, she was put on a six-month unpaid maternity break from work while she was pregnant the first time around.
“Later, we found out that someone had gone to the court when they faced something similar. I could have taken it up in the courts as well, I just did not,” she explained when I would not stop screaming discrimination.
Like most women, she knew what was right; she just did not have the time or energy to pursue it till the end.
Eventually, my mother-in-law gave birth to my husband’s older brother, and started her quest for work, again.
“When [he] was just a 4-month-old, the organization called for me once again. They had a position for me – however, it was fieldwork. It meant that I had to be on field through most of the day, and I was not sure I could do it so early after childbirth.”
But she didn’t get the chance to decline the organization that had written her off as a pregnant woman. On the desk at home, she had left a few papers – blank, but for her signature – on which she was about to send applications for other jobs.
“You know how your father-in-law is, no? Impatient. He just picked up one of those blank letters, and wrote a particularly caustic response to the organization, specifying in detail how they treated me badly despite my dedicated work for them. That really was the end of my work over there.”
“He wrote a letter on your behalf without asking you?” Men never fail to surprise me.
Shortly after, she joined a wing of the state government to continue her work in the space of nutrition, however, this was also a contractual position. The option for a permanent job role did not come for another three years – when it did, she was already pregnant with my husband, her younger son.
“Somehow one of my seniors figured out a way to accommodate my pregnancy. So, she checked my due date, and fixed an interview date for later.”
The due date arrived, and then two more days passed, but the baby was in no hurry to get out.
“I went to the doctor, but they said it was not happening today, and asked me to go. But, my interview was in 10 days, I could not just go [home],” she said, calmly.
So, she waited without eating any food. Her work had taught her that one should not eat food before major surgery.
“I went as soon the doctor was available and told them to do the C-section. My first childbirth was also a C-section. They laughed, then checked, and finally agreed. They kept joking that I can lead my own childbirth anyway.”
“And then what happened?”
“[He] was a big-sized child when he was born. One of my seniors changed my interview location to be situated closer to the nursing home. And, I finally got the job. [She also] managed to get me approved maternity leave, though I was not eligible for it. I joined after 40 days.”
Last year, in a move against the kind of professional precariousness my mother-in-law experienced, the Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Act was passed, mandating women get 26 weeks of paid maternity leave. Some states have extended that to 52 weeks for government employees. And a High Court ruling has said that contractual employees, like my mother-in-law, working on government projects are also entitled to the same.
However, the law affects only the 5% of women who hold formal, salaried jobs. By and large, workplaces continue to be unsupportive of their pregnant employees. The vast majority of working women hold contractual jobs, like my mother-in-law, or work in the unorganized sector; they still do not get maternity benefits.
My mother-in-law kept her job until retirement, and went on to do a PhD as well. Today, countless women manage to focus on and work towards their goals, despite the odds stacked against them.
Swetha Dandapani communicates about issues of gender and the environment, by writing, reporting and producing videos.