Mariam: The biggest challenge I face as a working mom is striking the right work-home balance. I’ve taken various career detours to make sure that I’m able to be home as much as possible when the kids are home. This included changing my area of legal specialization, going on flex-time schedules, and even moving to another country.
Margari and Aya, you both have very different careers than me. What have your experience been in trying to strike a balance?
Margari: Even before having my daughter, my career took a number of detours over the past twenty years. In some ways this gives me more motivation to push forward. Before marriage I was on this trajectory in academia. It was a rocky road and due to a number of difficult circumstances, I left.
I taught for two years in an Islamic school and left for maternity leave. I decided to leave teaching because it didn’t make sense financially to work full time as a teacher and put my child into daycare. Over half of my income would go just to daycare, minus food and transportation. I couldn’t see myself being so strained. During the first year off, I worked as an editor and tutor from home. Just before my daughter turned one, I had an opportunity to teach on the college level as an adjunct professor. While it was rewarding emotionally and intellectually, it actually was a financial strain. For me, the best option is working from home.
We are currently a single income home, although both my spouse and I work full time. That is because my work is largely uncompensated. With the high cost of living in California and my unpaid work, I can’t afford the extra cost of child care. Being married affords me the privilege of doing this great work and my spouse is supportive. At the same time, I don’t have a work life balance. I just wake up and go all day.
I have seven day work weeks, juggling my official duties at MuslimARC, writing for Muslim publications, and volunteering in our community. Like other moms in my organization, we are constantly multi-tasking. Sometimes the burnout is real, but I derive strength in how important this work is.
Aya: When I had my first daughter three years ago, as much as I enjoyed being with my daughter and having that privilege of staying at home with her, I missed working and adult interaction on a regular basis. When she was about one and a half I decided to work full time. Luckily there was an on site daycare for her to be at while I taught. It was tough trying to balance teaching full time, being a mother, wife and then I was also pregnant at the same time and we had just moved so we didn’t know that many people. I resigned a couple of months before the school year was over and was glad to spend the last couple months of my pregnancy at home with my daughter. Now that I have an eight-month-old, I work part time teaching adult ESL students, freelance journalism, and volunteer work in my community and local mosques.
Mariam: I’ve often found when speaking to young women that they envision their lives and careers following very linear paths, and they can’t imagine how they will fit a family into this vision. What advice do you give to women in college and graduate programs about work-life balance?
Margari: I have dealt with young women with a range of aspirations and life circumstances. Some of them have similar backgrounds as my own, where a linear career path was not an option. I taught in an inner city Islamic high school and community college. Some of my students graduated and had children before me. Others are non-traditional students and others picked career paths in the health sciences. I tend to give advice more for people who are trying to overcome obstacles.
I have done some mentoring, but people don’t ask me about balancing those roles. I don’t know, maybe my work/life balance is a bit intimidating.
I have felt very blessed to have gained a legal education, and I cannot in good conscience not practice my profession – especially because American Muslims are already so under-represented in the law.
However I also believe as a Muslim mother that no one can nurture and guide my children like I can. Trying to balance those two beliefs has led me to many difficult decisions about everything from where to live and how to manage childcare, to which type of law I practice. For instance I decided to switch from litigation to regulatory law so I could have a more family-friend schedule with less travel and fewer emergencies.
What part has your faith played in the decisions you have made regarding your career and home life?
Margari: My faith had so much to do with my career trajectory. I discovered Islam in community college, and transferred into a history program with the hope of becoming an educator. I think if I wasn’t Muslim, I probably would have gone into a more lucrative career. When I was in high school, I was in a program for STEM and thought I’d go into engineering. I was actually interested in genetic engineering. I wouldn’t have thought as much about service to community, nor would I have been interested in Islamic scholarship or have gone into education. When I went back to school to complete my undergraduate degree, I actually was thinking about becoming a technical writer and working in the tech industry. But with 9/11, I began to engage with my faith and decided on a career in academia.
As an educator, I love what I do and have gained a sense of purpose in giving back to community. For me, it is a way of paying it forward to those who supported me through my roughest times in school.
Ultimately, I try to make the best of this challenging rode so that my daughter will have it easier and that she can shine as a Black Muslim woman in a world that devalues all three of her identities.
Aya: There are very few Muslims in the media when I graduated from college eight years ago.
I decided to go into journalism as an undergraduate student because of the negative portrayal of Muslims in the media.
After a couple of years I decided to pursue a master’s degree in education with a focus on English as a second language. I was pregnant at the time and realized what a great field this is for parents because you learn so much about child development, teaching techniques and different ways to implement what you learn in everyday parenting.
Mariam: My parents have always been tremendously supportive of my career. My mom has helped me raise my boys, and my dad has also been incredibly involved as a grandfather. We’ve moved to Dubai now and even now when spring break or summer vacation come my parents are willing to fly over from Chicago to watch the boys while they are out from school. My husband has always been a great support, and he pitches in to help out with every task from cooking to cleaning to groceries. However, I think my parents and husband are exceptional. I know so many women in the South Asian American community who get very limited support from their families to pursue careers and motherhood together. How much support do you get from your families and communities in seeking your work-life balance?
Margari: I grew up in a single parent household, as did my mother. This idea of staying at home was not an option for many Black women. I think in some ways, my family imagines that I would be immensely more successful if I wasn’t visibly Muslim. They can’t imagine how a Stanford graduate isn’t working for Google or running her own business and making six figures. But with some of the successes I have made with MuslimARC, such as receiving an invite to the White House, our Executive Director, Namira Islam, becoming a finalist for Faith Entrepreneur in the HeroX Under 30 competition, and my getting a Game Changer Award from MPAC this year, my mom is proud of our work.
Since we live far from extended family, my husband is vital in my work life balance. We’re flexible and take on household duties on an as need basis. As a former chef, he’s gotten back to his first love, cooking, and does most of the grocery shopping. We both enjoy cooking. In many ways, he’s able to do more in terms of childcare because he works as clergy. It is always heart wrenching leaving my little one, but he’s been supportive as I travel frequently for trainings or to give talks and workshops. Occasionally we come as a package deal and travel together as family. He also reminds me if I’m doing too much, helping me set some boundaries.
I’ve gotten so much support from the Muslim community. I really don’t know what I would do without the fellow moms who have babysat my daughter when I had an engagement or provided my husband with much needed relief when I was away. The prayers, advice, and kind words from my community really helped sustain me.
Aya: At first my parents were surprised that I wanted to work while my daughter was only one and a half, especially since I lived so far from them. But they were supportive and now that I live in the same town that my family, my mom watches my kids when I teach my adult students or when I have to attend meetings and I am so thankful for that.
My husband has been very supportive and watches the kids if he is at home when I have to do a phone interview or if I’m on a tight deadline. He encouraged me all through graduate school and has always been supportive of my career. I haven’t dealt with any negativity from the community either, alhamdulilah.
Mariam: I think it’s apparent that there is no one way of managing careers and kids, and that none of us could have predicted how we would function as working moms. Our careers and goals change as we grow and evolve even more when we have kids. I hope, though, that these types of conversations highlight the fact that it is possible to manage, and even to thrive as a working mother. It just takes a lot of juggling and flexibility sometimes, along with the support of the other important people in your life.
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Aya Khalil is a freelance journalist and holds a master’s degree in Education. She teaches English as a Second language to adults and has written for various publications including The Christian Science Monitor, ILLUME, Muslim Girl, and Islamic Horizon’s. She also serves on the executive council in her local mosque. She has a 10 month old baby boy and a three year old daughter. She can be contacted at www.ayakhalil.blogspot.com.
Margari Hill is co-founder and Programming Director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, Assistant Editor at AltMuslimah, and Columnist at MuslimMatters. She gives talks and workshops at community centers and universities across the country. She has a four year old daughter who loves painting, playdough, and play dates with her friends.
Mariam Ahmed is a regulatory lawyer and writer, and also the Chair of the AltMuslimah Advisory Board. In 2012 Mariam moved from a large law firm in Chicago to work at a financial institution in Dubai, where she is currently the Head of Compliance & Risk. Mariam has two boys, ages 9 and 5.