Jhilmil’s Story – “My Work, My Identity”: on competitiveness, co-parenting & surviving job loss

Work-Life Balance Profile #12

Work:Life Ratio

75:25

“Happy days” – Jhilmil as a student at Architecture College in New Delhi, India

Jhilmil works full-time as an architect in local government, and also takes on freelance work on an ad-hoc basis. She lives in London with her eight year-old daughter, who spends most weekends and holidays in her father’s custody.

By her own description, she is not a morning person, stumbling out of bed after a few hits on the snooze button, and rushing to get herself and her daughter out of the door on time. The school run complete, she’s back at her home-desk to start her working day, which doesn’t let up until late, meaning that after school hours, she continues working while tending to her daughter’s needs.

A “self-confessed workaholic”, Jhilmil says that she “thrives on work” and that it is her “identity”. Nevertheless, she recognises the value of spending time on her interests like reading and playing the sitar, which, she says ‘feed her soul’. A former junior table tennis champion, Jhilmil enjoys letting off steam by picking up a racket with friends. “There are always 10,000 things to do but I do try to find time to pursue my interests”.

There is a stark contrast between Jhilmil’s frenetic weekday schedule and the quiet weekends she spends without her daughter. She readily attests to not getting the balance “right”, and says that she feels constantly guilty and anxiety-ridden for not giving her daughter more of her time and attention.

As a single mother, there is clearly pressure on her to maintain a steady income. But it’s not just for financial reasons that she commits to working long hours and taking on extra projects: “I love what I do”, she says, “I get excited about a project and the next thing I know “yes, I’ll do it” flies out of my mouth”.

Jhilmil talked openly with me about the many set-backs that she has faced throughout her personal and professional life – including job losses, workplace discrimination, divorce and emotional abuse. She makes a point of not harbouring resentment, but using the strength and resilience her experience has afforded her to maintain a healthy state of mind, and fight for what she wants and needs.

Really she would like her work:life ratio to be closer to 60:40. Achieving that would mean stepping back from long-standing habits and responsibilities that have hitherto lead her to prioritise work over most other things; and facing some hard truths about what she really wants.

Going for Gold

Jhilmil grew up in India in the bosom of a loving, affluent, hard-working family. Landowners of a region north of Delhi, her family lived in relative comfort and prosperity, and education was held in the highest esteem. Her parents went against the grain of 1970s/80s Indian conservatism, with her mum working long hours out of the house pursuing a career as a College Principal, while her father, whose management of their estate meant he mostly worked from home, took on the role of main carer.

“Girl in the hat” – Jhilmil with her extended family

Her parents’ unconditional love and unwavering faith in her abilities instilled in her not just a hard-working ethos, but a belief in her own capabilities. “There was no gender discrimination when I was growing up”, she told me. “I was taught that I could be whatever I wanted to be”. There was just one condition: that she should always aim to be “the best” in every endeavour.

On a family holiday with parents and sister
Practising table tennis skills at home as a teenager

It wasn’t just at school that Jhilmil was taught to be competitive and disciplined. From a young age, she showed promise as a table tennis player and her father coached her as a professional competitor. She lived according to a controlled routine, waking up at 5.00am to train and travel around the country attending tournaments. When she reached the age of fourteen, her parents took the difficult decision to pull Jhilmil out of the competing lifestyle so that she could focus on her studies.

Jhilmil seems accepting of her parents’ role in making decisions about her future. She trusted them wholeheartedly and understanding the expectations placed on her, both by her family and the competitive Indian culture that surrounded her, provided a secure base. “It has instilled in me a resilience”, she reflects, “and a confidence to keep going, however tough things get”. 

That competitive culture is something she notices lacking in the English environment in which her daughter is growing up. “I want my daughter to push herself”, she tells me, and is conscious to pass on her parents’ mantra – that she must aim to be the best that she can be, whatever she sets her sights on.

Though far from being a model student herself (“I was no ‘goody two-shoes’ and was quite a party girl…I could have worked harder..”), the example Jhilmil now sets for her daughter is certainly one of hard work and dedication to her career. I recently wrote a blog reflecting on the power that parents have to influence their children’s work-life balance choices and I was left imagining whether Jhilmil will have the same impact on her daughter’s work ethic as her parents’ did on hers. Only time will tell.

Photograph taken of Jhilmil’s parents on her first birthday

Jhilmil is mindful of how competitiveness can impact on definitions of “success”, and is well aware of the judgements cast by her peers and wider community back in India. Many of her former Architecture College classmates have followed conventional paths of marriage and children; some have built up private practices, employing scores of people. In contrast, Jhilmil is a single mother and her career – one that albeit stokes her passions for heritage, conservation and legislation – brings in a relatively modest income.

It shows a strength of character that Jhilmil seems not to be drawn down the rabbit hole of comparing herself with others to define her own success. She says:

I suppose it could be deemed that I have been less successful. But I define success with being at peace… For me, it is about having enough money to live comfortably, to be able to do what I want to do. Nothing more”.

Jhilmil knows what it is to be without work, for her bank balance to hit rock bottom and to have to rely on government hand-outs to make ends meet. Even the most modest of incomes can make you feel like a millionaire after that, she told me. For Jhilmil, true richness comes from working hard on a job she truly loves.

Jhilmil playing the sitar – making time for this “feeds my soul”

Life is like a box of chocolates

There are a lot of ‘back stories’, right?”, Jhilmil paused mid-sentence and said with a smile, her eyes bright and kind, laughing as she delved into another tangential story to explain the roots of her work values.  

Indeed, there is always a splash of colour, spirit and surprise in Jhilmil’s telling of the events of her life. The path that brought her, for example, to single motherhood was an unpredictably long and winding one, which started out with her marrying her childhood sweetheart at twenty six soon after graduating as an architect. During her marriage, she was diagnosed as being unable to bear children. Though disappointed, she accepted this fate with pragmatism, influenced by the fact that her husband had not been keen on starting a family.

The marriage came to an abrupt end after twelve years, something that Jhilmil did not see coming. It came as a blow, and although she habitually sought salvation in her work, she realised that she needed a break. She decided to take a sabbatical and backpacked across India with her brother, which she described as a “life-changing experience”. She returned to London and, after some time, began venturing onto the dating scene. Unexpectedly (to put it mildly!), she soon fell pregnant.

Backpacking across India after her marriage ended

Jhilmil anticipated that she might be scorned or outcast when she announced to her family and community back in India that she was pregnant with a partner outside of the Indian tradition. But they took her by surprise, embracing and accepting her choices, and supporting her when it became clear that the relationship with her daughter’s father was not to continue.

When she returned to work after maternity leave, you guessed it, events took another unpredictable turn. Unable to maintain the “workaholic” pace of work that she had delivered before her pregnancy, she felt discriminated against by her employers, side-lined and excluded. She was exhausted – in mind and body – and was pressured to resign from her post.

Jhilmil with her new-born daughter

The most compelling of set-backs that Jhilmil told me about though, was about being made redundant at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Losing her job felt like “freefalling down a black hole”.

Desperate at the prospect of facing lockdown unemployed, she tenaciously negotiated an exit arrangement that secured her a short-term income while she searched for a job. I felt humbled listening to Jhilmil describe the immense challenge and stress of job-hunting while home-schooling her daughter during lockdown. Her ability to secure a dream job at a time where global unemployment rates were soaring is remarkable, to say the least.

Reader, please don’t be misled that Jhilmil’s interview was full of doom and gloom. On the contrary, her infectious laugh created a warm and light-hearted atmosphere. Her tenacity and resilience shone through in multiple examples, like the story she shared about the period following her father’s death. Overcome with grief, Jhilmil turned to table tennis to reconnect with memories of her father. In doing so, she managed to turn a period of sadness into one of hope and renewal, discovering a new community and rekindling her love of the sport.

With her dad, who died in 2016
Competing again – tournament in Hungary, 2018

Jhilmil told me that in large gatherings, she’s quite shy and inhibited. I did not detect any hint of that during our conversation. Considering that I had never met Jhilmil before we spoke, her ability to engage and connect was so strong, that it felt as though I had known her for far longer. She described her set-backs with vivid enthusiasm, with almost factual detachment and awe at what she went through, as though speaking of someone else. The events were certainly tough on her, but her strong foundations seem to have sustained her.

Living independently as she does, her survival relies on her being self-sufficient and capable. She told me that when she finds herself in adverse situations, she is inclined to keep quiet and walk away from confrontation to protect her “energy field”.

In her view, harbouring resentment is like “carrying burning coal in the palm of your hand. It only hurts yourself”. She added, “I will not do that to myself. I will not live that way”.

However, she has ample confidence to stand up for herself when she needs to for the sake of her own and her daughter’s survival and wellbeing. Her work ethic and passion for her chosen career motivate her to keep striving to succeed; but her responsibility as a single mother is intrinsic to her decision-making – and not just from a financial perspective: “If I catch Coronavirus, who will look after my daughter?”, she asked rhetorically. There is no choice for her but to pursue self-preservation, even if she has to fight for it.

The job losses she has suffered have hit her hard, but she has never been out of work for long, back on her feet as soon as possible to work another day. She likens her life to a table tennis match:

“When I play it’s not about proving myself, but conquering myself; it’s about being able to overcome whatever life throws at me. It all comes back to the ball bouncing in my direction: how am I going to deal with this one? And when can I take my next shot?

Taking Back Control

Professional set-backs aside, the toughest challenge that Jhilmil’s resilience has had to withstand was experiencing narcissistic, emotional abuse during a relationship. Sometimes, she says, it manifested itself in subtle, manipulative coercive controlling behaviour; other times as blatantly demeaning words and actions. The impact can be devastating, she said. It brought her to her lowest point, and she felt compelled to reach out for help.

Allowing me to make reference to this on my blog is a big move for Jhilmil; it is the first time that she has talked openly about this abusive behaviour and she is doing so because she recognises how common it is, and hopes that others will take comfort from reading about it.

She started to recognise the severity of the problem when she noticed that the mental abuse was impacting her day-to-day life, causing detrimental, repetitive patterns; she had constant “brain fog”, had stopped trusting her own decisions and capability to make decisions, and was questioning herself at every turn.

The support of her family during this time was invaluable and she described her mother as “a source of strength for me”. The love and support of her siblings played a significant part in her rebuilding her strength, as did the help of a trusted therapist. The experience prompted her to re-evaluate the balance she strikes between her work and the rest of her life.

“A source of strength for me” – Jhilmil with her mum and siblings

I’d really like my work:life ratio to be more like 60:40, but I’d be lost if reduced my working hours”.

Pursuing her desired balance is not straightforward as she finds herself in a ‘Catch 22’ scenario: on the one hand, she wants to complete her work during working hours so that she can have some space on the weekends to take the time for herself to do the things that she enjoys; on the other hand, she only has custody of her daughter during the weekdays so working long hours during that time perpetuates her feelings of guilt and anxiety.

If some middle ground exists, she hasn’t figured out yet how to reach it. The situation is made all the more difficult by having to co-parent with a partner with whom she has limited contact and inflexible custody arrangements. Consequently, she finds that she is carrying much of the mental load of her daughter’s schooling and day-to-day care, with little time or space to create opportunities for fun times together.

At the opening of our interview, Jhilmil expressed concern that she would come across as “shallow” by saying how caught up her identity is in her work. On the contrary, I think that what she expressed is far from shallow, but rather a deep-rooted universal feeling. It was front of my mind, in fact, when I started this whole project (I mentioned it in my maiden blog) that work is fundamental to how we construct the balance in our lives.

Jhilmil’s pursuit of balance seems a tangle of thoughts about her identity and conflicting priorities. Resisting her desire to work is unnatural to her, though can she find balance without it? She surely has the tenacity and determination to make the changes needed to benefit her wellbeing and that of her daughter. It seems that her primary challenge, which I imagine many readers will identify with, is to see beyond the “10,000” things on her to do list, and work out what she wants the most.

3 thoughts on “Jhilmil’s Story – “My Work, My Identity”: on competitiveness, co-parenting & surviving job loss

  1. What a moving and deeply human story, told by you, Dalya, with such sensitivity, fluency and empathy. We can all learn from this story

    Like

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