"When I left my young children in Mumbai to study abroad, everybody thought I was nuts"
Dr Jenny Benoy moved continents to chase her academic dreams, while navigating motherhood from a distance
“A few years ago, I left my teaching job, an ongoing PhD programme at TISS and my family behind in Mumbai to pursue my doctoral studies in Ireland. It meant navigating long-distance parenting. People thought I was nuts. I have made some choices in life, and some were imposed on me. But today, I have no regrets.
My mother single-handedly raised me; I lost my father when I was two and a half. I had dreamed of going abroad to study, but my mother said she only had enough money to pay for my wedding. By the age of 23, I was married and had my first child. After my daughter suffered a severe attack of pneumonia and bronchitis, I quit to look after her.
A few years later, I took up the job of a college professor because everybody advised me that teaching was the best option if I wanted to raise kids. I wanted to keep growing, so I cleared NET, finalised my area of research (cross-culture management) and joined a course while teaching and taking care of the household.
My routine was to go to college, come home, take care of my kids, and start studying once the children were off to bed. On days when the workload was extreme, I’d work until 3.30 am, nap till 5 am, then wake up to go to college again. My in-laws had a defined role for their bahu, and my actions never fit their definition. But my mother stepped in to help out around the house.
When I was awarded a full scholarship to pursue my PhD for four years in Ireland, I was overjoyed because I had earned it.
Breaking the news to my kids (ages 10 and 8) wasn’t easy — kids hate uncertainty. I started preparing them. Every time I travelled for outstation conferences, I would video call, so they got used to this communication. My husband didn’t want me to move abroad, he would say, ‘What are you trying to prove? I’m doing well in my career. Why do you want anything more?’ His parents felt I had gone mad. But I had my heart set on this. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and not everybody gets this.
When I left, he became more present at home to ensure that they didn’t long for both of us. The first year was difficult, everybody was still adjusting.
My kids and I longed to meet. I promised them that every year I would make a month-long trip to India, around one of their birthdays. We’d look forward to those vacations. In 2017, when my husband was going through a rough patch, family needed to be the priority. So I stayed back for three months.
Being open to making these changes is crucial when you’re following something like this. You can’t be selfishly chasing a dream. You have to apologise for mistakes because there are hiccups; no one is perfect. One time I had to sign a form for my daughter’s school, and I missed the deadline. I felt terrible, and remember crying to her. Owning up to your mistake and being accountable doesn’t make you any smaller.
Long-distance parenting doesn’t mean an absent parent
Long-distance parenting isn’t impossible. My kids never asked me to drop everything and return, that would have made the experience difficult. You need to be present in some way or the other. Despite the distance, on the eve of my daughter’s competitions, I sit with her virtually to help her prepare. I am in constant contact with their class teachers, my daughter’s dance instructor… the children are assured that I’m actively involved in their day-to-day life.
The bonding between my husband and the kids is great, he’s their buddy. He is happy that he knows exactly what they’re doing in their lives, and not just the highlights. In fact, the last time I visited and I was busy checking on their homework and giving them a hard time for missing study hours, they joked, “Mom, it was great that you were away. Dad isn’t this strict”.
This last year has been especially difficult because of COVID-19. It’s easy to slip into loneliness, but we are looking forward to a reunion as soon as the situation improves.
My 20s and 30s have taught me that having a job or ambition isn’t looked at in the same way for men and women in our society. For women, excelling professionally isn’t key. As long as you have a job, you don’t need to look for anything better. Your primary role is to manage the home, and if someone has bigger aspirations, it’s looked down upon.
Nobody tells you but the balancing act isn’t always about 50-50. You have to know that sometimes it will be 60-40, on others, 70-30. Don’t kill yourself over it.
The last few years have affected my relationship with my husband. We’ve been through the good, bad and ugly, together. Today, we are great partners when it comes to parenting, but my idea of companionship has changed forever.
Your strongest ally may not always be your husband. Your pillar of support could be your mom, sister, friends, kids, anyone. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you. To reach your dream, you don’t want people pulling you down, you want people who will walk with you, no matter what.
Sometimes I tell my daughter that we are going to live together soon, but if a day comes when she receives a great opportunity to follow her dreams, she shouldn’t think twice if she really has her heart set on it.
I learnt resilience from my mother, and her discipline shaped me. One’s ambitions and goals cannot be decided by society. Believe in what you want, and go for it with focus. I hope to have passed these values on to my kids, even from a distance.”
(Dr Jenny Benoy is a 38-year-old researcher of international trade at Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada)
– As told to Arundhati Chatterjee