Mental health activist Neerja Birla tells how she balances motherhood and work with equal panache
Mental health activist and founder-chairperson of Aditya Birla Education Trust, Neerja Birla shares how she balances motherhood and her work with equal panache
Beyond her agility, matchless class and impeccable sense of fashion, the one thing that will impress you the most about Neerja Birla is her genuine warmth. An active force in the field of mental health, Neerja, who is the founder and chairperson of Mpower and Aditya Birla Education Trust, was in Kolkata as a keynote speaker at the National Conclave – Dream, Believe, Magic! hosted by the Kolkata Chapter of Young Indians (YI), the youth wing of CII (Confederation of Indian Industry). Ahead of Mother’s day, we caught up with the very articulate Neerja about juggling roles as a mother and a mental health activist besides her love for sports. Excerpts:
Did we realise at the onset of the pandemic that mental health issues would become so very pertinent in our lives?
When the pandemic started, right in the beginning one didn’t realise that mental health in itself is going to be a pandemic and as months went by, very early on we realised that this is going to be an area of concern and we launched our Mpower one-on-one health line at that point in time and also started offering our services to the frontline workers and police personnel.
How is Mpower growing in the post-pandemic times?
For Mpower post and pre-pandemic growth is pretty much the same, but having said that, we are working on a couple of special projects where we are working with the government of Maharashtra, the police and CISF, thereby creating further changes in lives.
Tell us a little about your integrated School and Education academic initiatives. Are there any innovations you are introducing since the pandemic has changed forever the way a child learns in school?
At the Aditya Birla Integrated School and at the Aditya Birla World Academy, our pedagogy is centred around empowering every child to fulfil their innate potential.
The pandemic certainly has been a game-changer, bringing with it a set of challenges and opportunities. Almost overnight, we had to switch to virtual classrooms and re-imagine and redefine the classroom experience for students. EdTech tools became a go-to during this process, introducing us to new ways of interacting and learning. With these experiences, came a lot of opportunities as well. In a sense, being liberated from the confines of a classroom gave them the space to truly ‘learn out of the box’ and to embrace multidisciplinary learning with renewed vigour.
Among your roles as a philanthropist, mental health activist and educator, which one defines you most?
I would define myself as a mental health activist because I believe mental health activism is something that covers all the other spectrums and is an indispensable part of our lives.
You have raised three children successfully. Tell us how difficult the journey has been as a mom who balances work and home?
Of all the different roles I play, being a mother is the one that’s closest to my heart and gives me the greatest joy and fulfilment. However, it does have its moments of challenges too. I think we can try to do our best to manage our roles as parents and professionals, but it would be impractical to expect to find a perfect balance. Life doesn’t fit neatly into boxes and sometimes you must make difficult choices. For example, you could have a very important work commitment one day and your child could unexpectedly fall sick. In these situations, there is no perfect approach, you just do what works for you and your family. I prefer a more hybrid approach, where I take it one day at a time, organising my priorities for each day as it comes. So far, this has been helping me manage my time such that I’m able to do my work and also be there for the kids when they need me.
Your mothering tips for working women?
We all go through pangs of "mommy guilt," where we feel like we’re not doing enough as mothers. Though we’d all like to be supermoms, I think it’s worth remembering that we’re humans too. Contrary to what a lot of articles on parenting say, we don’t need to internalise that pressure to be perfect. It’s okay not to do things perfectly all the time. Just do your best and do it with love, and you’ll always be a supermom to your kids.
Do talk to your kids about your day and your challenges in a way they understand. It’s important for kids to see the myriad roles their mother plays and that she loves them even though she has to work. As they grow up, this will not only help strengthen your bond but also give them a healthy and realistic concept of how to work hard, manage relationships and develop empathy in their own lives.
One thing that my journey continues to teach me is that self-care is not selfish. We get so caught up in our ‘to-do’ lists that we never have time ‘to-be’. Underneath all the different hats you wear, you’re an individual above all else, and it makes a world of difference when you make time for her too. I’ve observed that carving out some time for the things I enjoy or am passionate about goes a long way in recharging the body and soul. This adds to my happiness and mental wellness, allowing me to continue trying to do my best every day. After all, as the saying goes, you can’t serve from an empty vessel.
You are an avid cross-country cyclist, your realisations?
One realisation is that there are two Indias and rural India is a beautiful part of it and I think that’s the true India. The people are so very warm and welcoming and I had lovely experiences and I look forward to exploring that part of our country more. Besides cycling, I am an avid trekker as well and play badminton and I am a keen fitness enthusiast. I like starting my day by spending a little time all by myself and I step out and start my day by sitting for a while outside followed by exercises that are a combination of cardio, strength and weight training.