By Sonali Kokra
I have a confession: As a lifelong member of the Imposter Syndrome Cursed Club, I’ve spent a large part of the last decade studying workplace feminist manifestos that encourage women to lean in or bend over or whatever new-fangled motivational advice it is that experts are peddling to women so they can thrive at their workplaces. And after torching countless hours trying to glean some higher truth about professional success, I realised that while we women (understandably) spend a lot of time fretting over how to navigate professional worlds controlled by men, with the odds stacked heavily against us, we rarely get to thank the women who, despite everything that stands in our way and theirs, make life a little less difficult.
I’m talking about the work moms and work wives of our lives — two women that every working woman desperately needs, but not everyone is lucky enough to find.
I met both at my second job. I was switching to magazine writing after a brief stint in TV reporting because I had this irrepressible urge to make less money than I was previously making. At 22, being surrounded by a sea of confident, impatient, and outspoken women who were also scarily good at their jobs impressed and overwhelmed me like nothing before in my life had. For the first few weeks, I walked around our floor terrified of being spoken to, in case someone asked me a question I didn’t have an answer to and I was exposed as the poser I believed I was.
My work mom had a kind, smiling face that could instantly make you feel better about everything. She wasn’t the boss, but within a few hours on my first day itself, I knew this without a shadow of doubt — she was the one who ran the show. I also learned, very quickly, that beneath the laughing, good-natured exterior lay a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense boss who wrote like she was physically imprinting her readers with her words and edited with such ferocity that lyrical, self-important paragraphs were often shred to ribbons of rigorous sentences. I knew, the first time my pages came back to me with a head-spinning number of questions and notes in the margin, that she could either help me become a far superior writer than I was when I found her, or have me scurrying to look for a less demanding job within weeks.
I spent the next two years cursing her under my breath for being cruel with my stories, while simultaneously making greedy demands on her time. More often than not she indulged me, and always laughed when I told her I wanted to be her. Eight years on, I often find myself thinking of her during rewrites, or while turning a phrase a particular way. And I think of her every time I encounter predatory colleagues and seniors at workplaces — she was fiercely protective of the team, ensuring that we never had to encounter the jerks that women in other teams were constantly whispering about.
My work wife and I were hired within days of each other. Like me, she was the junior-most member of the team, but unlike me, she didn’t suffer from any crisis of confidence. She was — is — one of those infuriatingly charming people who glide into places and effortlessly make them their own. I’ve never once seen her looking anything less than completely at ease in her surroundings — whether those surroundings include PR managers trying to earn column inches for their clients or celebrities who needed to be coaxed into interviews.
As two young professionals hired at the same level with the exact same skill sets, we often found ourselves competing for assignments that could help our careers along, while trying desperately to avoid the dull ones that were invariably palmed off from one editor to another until it reached the bottom of the pile: us. It’s tough to imagine your fiercest competitor as your work spouse, but somehow, to our own surprise and others’, we were. I can’t remember a time when either of us played dirty, or didn’t have each other’s back.
Like every solid marriage, ours was built on the foundation of implicit trust – like talking each other out of quitting or torching our careers by telling senior editors exactly how we felt about assignments that were due on Monday mornings but landed on our tables only on Friday evenings, after sitting prettily in their inboxes for weeks. We didn’t have to ask each other to cover for one another after longer-than-necessary lunches; we knew we’d be okay as long as the other was in office to concoct an impenetrable excuse.
I had one of my worst writing phases while we were both being considered for a senior position that had suddenly opened up. My inability to turn in my stories at that time would have all but guaranteed the job would be hers. Instead, she worked with me on weekends and nights so I could stay in the running. Both of us ended up getting promoted, but neither of us landed that job. Dejected, I quit. After a few months of moping, she did too.
It’s been eight years since I moved on from the magazine that brought me together with my work wife and mom. My relationships have dwindled to that of respectful acquaintances, as is wont. Work unions hinge upon shared experiences and the absurd, exasperated observations that stem from them. But every time I catch their names in bylines, I’m reminded of those all-too-brief glorious years when I cobbled myself the perfect work family, with women whose shoes I’m still trying to fill.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius