The question of how women balance work and child care is a topic of intense debate worldwide. In honor of International Women's Day on March 8, we look at the lives of working mothers in Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Montenegro, Iraq, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and the Russian republic of Tatarstan.
AZERBAIJAN: 'More Hard Parts Than Good Parts'
Roya Rafiyeva grew up watching her mother, an accountant, work long days in an office. "Sometimes she took me in with her and I’d do my homework there," she says.
Now, 31-year-old Rafiyeva is a working mother herself, a full-time journalist in Baku with two small sons, 8-year-old Shakir and Amin, 3. Rafiyeva’s day starts at 6 a.m., when she makes breakfast and cleans the family flat before sending Shakir to school and accompanying Amin to preschool.
As a correspondent at the "Yeni Musavat" newspaper, Rafiyeva sometimes works as late as 8 p.m. and pays a babysitter to pick up Amin from school. Her husband, a cafe manager, keeps even longer hours, often returning home after 2 a.m.
"The last time we all had dinner together was New Year’s Eve," Rafiyeva says. "And even then it was only for an hour because my husband had to go to work."
Many Azerbaijanis still rely on parents and grandparents for help raising children. But that’s not an option for Rafiyeva, whose own family and in-laws both live far from Baku.
"Sometimes I’m so tired when I get home I don’t even have the energy to make dinner," she says. But she tries to make the most of her time at home, helping Shakir with his homework and caring for the family’s pet cockatiel.
Shakir, who lets himself into an empty apartment after school and spends afternoons watching television alone, sometimes complains that his mother has to work so much instead of spending time with him. Rafiyeva feels the same.
"I see my children just three or four hours a day," she says. "The good part is that I can cover my family’s financial needs. But there are more hard parts than good parts."
– Rena Allahverdiyeva and Nushabe Fatullayeva
IRAQ: 'It’s Because Of Work That I Know Who I Am'
Iman Mohammed is the first woman in her family to hold a job.
"As soon as I graduated from college I applied for work," says the 36-year-old schoolteacher, who lives in Baghdad’s Al-Baya neighborhood. "Work has always been a source of pleasure for me. It was the only place I could go for a change of scenery."
Now Mohammed is the mother to three girls, primary-schoolers Shahad and Shams and a 15-month-old toddler, Batoul. She hopes her daughters will follow in her footsteps and choose to work when they grow up.
"Shahad already wants to become a doctor," she says proudly. "And staying at home eventually gets boring, with the same daily repetition of housework."
Like many working mothers, however, Mohammed’s life is as much about housework as it is about career. She is responsible for preparing all the family meals and keeping the family apartment tidy. Some days she rises for morning prayers before making breakfast and taking Shahad and Shams with her to school. On other days her shift starts at noon and her husband comes home to watch the children.
"We cooperate," she says. "I make lunch, clean the house, and make sure the children have what they need. My husband keeps an eye on them."
When both she and her husband are at work, Mohammed leaves Batoul with an elderly neighbor, whom she pays a monthly salary. She says she’s reluctant to put her daughter in a nursery, citing continued insecurity a decade after the U.S.-led invasion of her country.
"There are also so many diseases around. Children in nurseries catch the flu, measles," she says. "I feel safer leaving her with my neighbor."
Mohammed admits to a common working-mom lament: exhaustion.
"There’s all the housework, and then at school we have to stand up through all our classes," she says. "At home, there are a lot of stairs to climb."
Does she ever think about giving up teaching in exchange for a little more breathing room? Never.
"It’s because of work that I know who I am, [that] I’m aware of my existence," she says. "I would never consider giving it up."
– Imad Jasim
TAJIKISTAN: Striving For Success,
In Career And At Home
When Shahnoz Komilzoda heads to work, she looks every inch the Dushanbe businesswoman, clad in a stylish black-and-white dress and sleek, perilously high ankle boots. But even in the office, where she runs public relations for the Tajik division of Russian mobile giant MegaFon, Komilzoda’s mind is never far from home and her 8-year-old son, Surush, and her daughter, Mumtaz, who is 6.
"It’s very difficult to have a successful career if you’re a mother," says Komilzoda, 32. "If one of my kids is sick I can’t concentrate. I’m calling home constantly to ask how they’re doing. I can’t commit 100 percent to my work."
In a country racked by poverty and labor migration, Komilzoda’s circumstances are better than most. Her husband shares in some child-care duties, her parents live nearby, and the couple employs two babysitters, paying each $135 a month to care for Surush and Mumtaz after school.
Komilzoda herself tries to shed the businesswoman image at home, wearing traditional clothes, playing games, doing laundry, and showing Mumtaz how to roll out dough for meat-filled mantu, or dumplings. To her, the work-life balance seems natural. Both her parents worked when she was a child; she still remembers receiving her own house key in the 6th grade.
"I’d come home from school and stay home alone and wait for my parents to come back," she says.
Still, she worries that her children are missing out by having a working mother and concedes that she’d have to give up her job if she and her husband decide to have another baby.
"It’s really hard to raise your children and make sure they have enough love," she says. "The best part is when I come home completely stressed and my kids jump out and hug and kiss me. I love hearing their voices."
– Barot Yusufi
PAKISTAN: 'I Took A Lot Of Abuse'
It’s still unusual for women in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province to work outside the home. But Shazma Haleem has been doing it for 30 years, ever since she was forced to find work as the eldest of seven daughters in a struggling household with no male children.
"I took a lot of abuse from my relatives and other villagers," says Haleem, who today is a popular television and radio actress in Peshawar with two sons of her own, Mashaal and Abdaal. "It was against their culture, for women to work. But at some point I finally managed to convince them. They respect me now."
Haleem is busy but satisfied. She rises early in the morning to cook and see her sons off to school. She and her journalist husband, Aqeel, both spend their evenings helping the boys with their schoolwork. Haleem’s early years at work helped put her six younger sisters through school; for her, education is paramount.
"The best thing in life is to help my children learn, and my happiest moments are when they come home with good grades," she says.
She credits her husband of 11 years with giving her the freedom to work even as they raise a family.
"He helps me in everything I do," she says. "Without him, I’d still be in my father’s house, waiting."
– Israr Atal
KAZAKHSTAN: Out In The World, But Longing For Home
No two days are alike for Dinara Qiyalova, a 27-year-old university lecturer in Almaty with two small children. Her 4-year-old son, Abzal, and daughter Aighanym, 2, are already attending preschool. Qiyalova and her husband, a programmer for an oil-equipment manufacturer, start their day at 7 a.m. and are rarely back home before 8 p.m. Qiyalova’s parents, who live nearby, fill the gap.
"During the day, all the responsibilities tied to cooking, clearing, and taking care of the children – that falls to my mother," she says. "And my father picks them up from school."
Qiyalova, who teaches broadcasting, enjoys being part of the working world.
"You get out of the house, you meet people, you have to dress nicely and be presentable," she says. "I talk to my students every day, so I hear about all the latest trends. I feel like I’m up on modern life."
Even so, the idea of staying at home is appealing. Qiyalova and her husband are hoping to have a third child. If they do, she says she’ll give up her job.
"Children need to have their mother around them as much as possible and guests need to feel they can enjoy good hospitality," she says. "It’s important to have a cozy home."
But the notion of switching to a single income is daunting. Her husband’s job is going well, but he’ll need to earn more if Qiyalova opts to stay at home.
"At this point, I’m doing my best to help my husband get a promotion,” she says. "Not me."
– Maqbal Kozhakanova
MONTENEGRO: Running A Busy Home Office
Marijana Kadic-Bojanic, the deputy director at Podgorica’s TV Vijesti, didn’t take any time off when her daughter Iskra was born seven months ago. Instead, she just moved operations home.
"I want to breast-feed for at least a year," says the 37-year-old mother of three. "It’s the best and healthiest way to start your life."
That isn’t to say that the pace is relaxed – for her or her two sons, 8-year-old Niksa and David, 10.
"Telephones start ringing at 8 in the morning, and they often act as my assistants," she says. "They already know which phone calls are important: most of them."
For essential meetings, she hands Iskra to her mother and heads – briefly -- to the office. "But I always hurry back home to breast-feed, and then the boys go to school at 1," she says.
From there, things get intense. Kadic-Bojanic hands Iskra back to her mother and tries to wrap up most of her work by 4:30, when Niksa and David return home. Even so, the work seems to trickle into the evening most nights.
"My husband takes care of the baby and helps the boys with their homework, and I continue to work until late," she says. "There’s always something to do."
– Olga Nikolic
UKRAINE: Not To Work Is A Sin
March 8 is not a significant day in Natalia Boiko’s household – which isn’t to say the role of women isn’t celebrated. Boiko, as the wife of an Orthodox priest, says she prefers holidays such as the Day of the Myrrh-Bearers, which commemorates the women who brought ointments and spices to Jesus Christ’s grave.
Boiko, 28, lives with her husband, Petro, and their 2-year-old son, Volodymyr, on the grounds of Kyiv’s newly reconstructed St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, where Petro teaches in the Orthodox academy.
"We’ve already taught Vova to cross himself and have told him about all the holidays and fasting days," she says.
But Boiko acknowledges that raising a toddler has its day-to-day challenges, no matter how hallowed the setting.
"I have worries and nights without enough sleep, like any mother," she says. "The good thing is that my husband always helps me with the baby. Vova is always very quiet and well-behaved with him. With me, he can be a little bit capricious."
Boiko works as a nurse and teacher at the preschool that her son recently began attending for half-day sessions. For Boiko, who compares a mother’s love for her children to a believer’s love for God, it’s an ideal arrangement.
"I don’t know who’s luckier – me, because I’m with my son, or my son, because he has his mother nearby," she says.
At times, when both Boiko and her husband are working, they turn to close friends and relatives for help – Vova’s godparents, grandparents, and even a great-grandfather. Boiko says she and her husband sometimes feel guilty turning to their family for help. But she won’t give up her job, saying it’s a sin not to work.
"If you aren’t going to work, you’re just going to sit, eat, drink, sleep, and all sorts of ailments will come to you. You’ll start to have headaches, you’ll be overcome by laziness," she says with certainty. "If you work, then you feel healthy and you overcome your differences easily."
– Kateryna Nedesnova
TATARSTAN: 'It’s On Women’s Shoulders – Everything'
Laysan Akhmetova, a 31-year-old mother of two, is savoring her last few weeks at home. She’s been on maternity leave since giving birth to her son nearly three years ago, but once his birthday passes she is legally obligated to return to her job as a police officer in Kazan, the capital of the Russian republic of Tatarstan.
Police officials are already under pressure to fill out their ranks before the city hosts the Universiade sporting event this summer, and her supervisors have already called her to try and persuade her to come back early. Once back at her job as an administrator at a pretrial detention center, she’ll work a single 24-hour shift, followed by three days off.
Akhmetova already relies heavily on her mother, who lives 30 minutes away and often takes care of the 3-year-old and a daughter, who is nearly 7, sometimes for entire weekends or longer.
Once she’s back at work she says she’s not sure how she and her husband – who is also a police officer – will make do with such a difficult shift. But she says she’s afraid she’ll lose her job if she refuses to go back at the time her bosses have asked. She’s already taken so much time off that she’s been warned she won’t be able to take any sick leave once she’s back at work.
Even on maternity leave, Akhmetova was working, visiting women in their offices and homes as an on-call hairstylist. It’s work that she enjoys and that pays well, especially during holidays and around March 8. But police work still pays better, and she and her husband want to buy an apartment. Given a choice, she says she’d stay home longer.
"It’s really hard to balance small kids and work," she says. "But I don’t know any mom who can’t manage it, one way or another. It’s on women’s shoulders. Everything."
– Alsu Kurmasheva
Czech Republic: 'It’s Hard Not To Break Down'
Neurologist Eva Vitkova describes her daily routine as a "carousel" – one that begins at 5:30 in the morning and ends at night with her “collapsing in a heap.” Between working, errands, and getting her children -- 8-year-old Veronika and Adam, 7 – to and from school, she says whatever energy she has left she dedicates to “finding ways to liven up the stereotype” of life as a working mom.
Work has always been an important part of Vitkova’s household. Her own mother, also a doctor, returned to work when Vitkova was just 3 months old, often leaving her in the care of grandparents. Today, the friends-and-family network still applies: Vitkova frequently turns to fellow mothers and her parents, who are still working, for help with the kids.
When Veronika and Adam were small, most of Vitkova’s income went to private nurseries and nannies, but things have improved now that they’re older. Vitkova also credits her husband with helping to keep the carousel running.
“We’re fully interchangeable as parents,” she says. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t survive.”
The best part of life as a working mother? “Your priorities in life are clear,” she says. “It gives you perspective and the ability to work efficiently.” But keeping the balance is a challenge. “It’s hard not to break down under pressure from your employer,” she says. “And pressure from colleagues who don’t have kids of their own, who haven’t been on maternity leave and haven’t fallen behind professionally.”
– Lucie Steinzova
Compiled and edited by Daisy Sindelar