Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 09/4/06 8:32 AM

Feature: On Downscaling


The view from the other side

Drawing from personal experience and outside advice, SHEILA KUMAR details the life of a downscaler.

Downscaling is when a man or woman decides to downsize their professional life, for a variety of reasons, all hard to contemplate, harder to act on. And, surprise, surprise, downscaling happens to women three times more than men. In fact, women have been downscaling sans fuss but with much heartburn, for years now, in order to raise a family, follow a transferred husband, look after ailing elders or to just take time out.

The problem is, today, when an individual’s self-worth is inextricably tied in with her earning and power-garnering capacity, it calls for equal amounts of courage and foolhardiness to give up a healthy paycheck, to take a back seat, as it were.

I know, because I am a downscaler. I gave up a regular job with the country’s leading media group to move with my Army-man husband to the hills.

Moving on

The hills. A magic mantra with its own colour-washed visions. Of a cottage with honeysuckle growing on the red-tiled roof. Of fragrant coffee on misty mornings, of giving up clock-watching, of being able to catch up on a humungous amount of deferred reading. I was going to have a life and then some.

In many ways, the dream came true. The house was exactly as I dreamed of it, a 99-year-old cottage with parquet flooring, a wide gleaming staircase straight out of “Gone with the Wind” and even a gazebo with wild roses growing atop. I would take walks along pine needle-laden paths, breathing in the oxygen-rich, eucalyptus-tinged air. At night, the lights of Wellington shone like moon rocks in the midnight blue stole of the sky. We had a small circle of extremely convivial company.

Of compromises

Yet, the conditioning of years tended to overwhelm me. It’s like the man in the circus who rides a motorcycle in a steel sphere: once he’s on, he’s on and it isn’t easy for him to get off.

I was forced to acknowledge a hoary truth: a cut in earning power is linked directly to a diminishing of confidence. I started to assimilate the word `compromise’ into my lifestyle. I learned to do without a professional haircut or haircolour job.

I was able to suppress that slightly panicky feeling I’d get upon reading the latest “How to clinch that promotion” story in one of the many magazines I subscribed to. While out shopping, I trained myself to walk past the section advertising perfectly cut work jackets.

Sooner or later, the gulf started to yawn. Friends told me of ambitious targets reached, of glitzy parties and thought-provoking book readings. I told them of rainy noons, of trying to make the perfect Bolognese, of training the wisteria to grow on the roof. And I reflected wryly that life’s simple pleasures had indeed, become simple for me.

I caught up on that pile of reading matter, Faludi, Neruda, Virginia Woolf, Chatwin… But always, there was this lurking fear that I would finish them … and then what?

What next?

Now that I’m clear in my mind that I’m not likely to return to the regular workplace, this `then what’ query has assumed alarmingly large proportions in my life. I do not have a clear answer, not as yet. What I do have is a large reserve of (sometimes flagging) enthusiasm. And a determination to make the most of my time out. I’ve got myself a life all right. I just need to work on it some.

Read what Dr. Vijay Nagaswami, psychotherapist and relationships consultant, has to say on downscaling. “Downsizing does affect the self-worth of a person, even if one makes a conscious choice to do so. The main reason for this is that today, we tend to derive our primary identity from work and in the absence of work; we tend to feel a sense of low self-worth. The positive benefits of downscaling takes us through for a short while (a kind of honeymoon period, as it were), following which, we tend to be filled with self-doubt until we realise that the original reasons for which we sought downscaling are really substantial ones. This usually happens when we find a substantial enough alternative.”

Dr. Nagaswami has a few pointers on how people should cope with the inevitable downs of downsizing. “First off,” he says, “One should have a definite and specific plan of action (not something vague like `I will do what I’ve always wanted to do, like read `War and Peace”) before implementing our plans to downscale our lives.”

“Second, one needs to discuss the decision to downscale with all the members of one’s support network so that they can remind us of the benefits when things look bleak. Finally, one should try and look around for alternative things to do, to fill at least part of the time we would have otherwise spent at work.”

Downscalers have their say

SHIVAKUMAR: Focus. It’s all too easy to potter about doing nothing. You need to plan your day, plan activities, get down to the nitty gritty at a designated time.

MADHUMITA MITRA: Stay connected. It really is `out of sight, out of mind’ for friends, colleagues and potential employers if you don’t keep in touch. Make liberal use of the landline, mobile, e-mail and fax.

SHINIE ANTONY: Get on the learning curve. Enrol for an online refresher course that boots your skills; write in for literature on whatever interests you or download all the info you want. Try your hand at something not too different but lateral to your field of work. Ask former employers for projects.

RENU NARULA: Network. Ensure everyone has access to you. Make it clear you are only too willing to freelance, to work from home. Even if responses aren’t as prompt or enthusiastic as you wish, keep those networking lines humming.

ASHOK SENGAR: Stay cheerful. Don’t fall prey to the `that could have been me’ syndrome that overcomes us when we read of a colleague’s promotion, a friend’s new business and other such milestones of success. Tell yourself you are far too busy having a good time and will do everything you want to do. What’s more, believe it.

This ran in THE HINDU of 4 Sept 2006.


a less busy lifea quieter lifedownscalingdownsizingFeatureFeatures

Sheila Kumar • September 4, 2006

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