What I Learned About Innovation from My Stay-at-Home Mother

By Vidya Raman

I came away from the most recent Girls Innovate! event in June, armed with strategies that I had learned from women and mothers who I wished to emulate and who were in some ways ahead of me in terms of parenting years, career achievement and other never-ending scales of comparison.

At that time, my mother was visiting me from India. Once I got back home, I was enthusiastically sharing with her the highlights of the event and mentioned how lucky the women and girls were for being able to attend it. She quietly nodded in agreement and then disappeared to put away some groceries that I had brought with me on my way home. As she did, I was gazing at her and pondering her life.

She was married away at 18, never finished high school and spent all her life being a stay-at-home mother and taking care of our family’s needs, dutifully, every single day of her married life. I, on the other hand, grew-up with huge aspirations and had never once considered my mother to be my role model. Nevertheless, she has always been my harshest critic, my most dependable friend and most of all, someone that I deeply love. That day, I was thinking about her almost ritualistic routine when it came to cooking and cleaning.

For as long as I have known her, mother has been waking up at 5:15 am every morning. She would cook food, do the dishes and leave the kitchen squeaky clean by 7:30 am. She has had the same routine in all these decades that I have known her as my mother. She has done that even when no one needed the food that early, even after father retired and I moved out, even when she had nothing “important” to fill her entire day.

That evening after dinner, my mom asked me to help her download a song from a website. She wanted to learn the song and so, I was sitting by her side and while downloading the song asked her about her morning routine.

Me: Why do you wake up so early every single morning to do the same boring chores? Why not do them later in the day, after all, you have a lot of time on your hands now?

Mother: Sure, I could do that but I like to be as available as I can be during the day for my friends who drop by anytime. I love to take walks when it is warm and sunny during the day without having to worry about chores at home. I find it easy to focus on new things that I want to learn, such as this song, without feeling guilty.

Me: Ok, I understand you have numerous interesting things and people in your life now to keep you busy during the day. What about the time when I was in school and on those weekends? You surely didn’t have that much going and, yet, you had the same routine.

Mother: Yes, I had the same routine and, no, I had a lot going on then, too, but in different ways. I had found that it was hard for me to exercise, meet with friends or spend time with you in the evening if I had unfinished chores that I had to attend to throughout the day. Also, I have never enjoyed these chores myself, and so, they always tend to take longer if I put them off for later in the day. I had realized early on that in order to do new or interesting things in life, you have to invest the time and energy to take care of the basics, which may mostly be boring.

My hands froze on the keyboard. I was playing back what she had just said:
In order to do new or interesting things in life, you have to invest the time and energy to take care of the basics, which may mostly be boring!

I just realized that what my mother had just said was entirely applicable to the topic of innovation (new or interesting things). This was very much the message I had heard from several women professionals at Girls Innovate!

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{pictured above: Vidya Raman, Johanna Wise, Sudnya Shroff and Macy McGuinness at Girls Innovate! June 2013}

These were women who had transitioned successfully from a stay-at-home arrangement. One such woman had suggested hiring a nanny for at least a few hours every week in order to start setting aside some time for oneself, another had talked about the importance of having ongoing conversations with your spouse/partner regarding shared responsibilities, yet another talked about investing some time to really explore your passion rather than just assuming that you cannot pursue a new line of interest during the parenting years. Each of these strategies, at their core, require investing time in the basics so that one can do new and interesting things. The same is true for kids who want to pursue innovative ideas.

I had just realized the secret to my mother’s very fulfilling life: taking care of the basics first.

How do you take care of the basics in your life in order to make room for new and interesting things?

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