Twice a week, 34-year-old Manasi Nikhil sets aside time to go to a chic pub or restaurant with her husband, kick back, relax and catch up over three-course meals and rounds of drinks.
These Tuesdays and Fridays are their "time away" from their two-year-old daughter Gia, who is left in the care of a full-time nanny.
"We're Goans. We love our food and alcohol," says Manasi, a marketing communications manager at a Mumbai five-star hotel, laughing. "This time allows me to bond with my husband."
When Gia turned one, Manasi says she made a conscious decision to set aside time for herself. "Sometimes I also use this time to catch up with my friends over drinks, movies, gigs or stand-up comedy acts," she says.
Through the week, Manasi is a devoted mother, rushing home from work to spend time solving puzzles, finger-painting and playing with Gia.
"But being a mother is one aspect of who I am. It's not my whole identity," she says. "Plus, I work long hours and earn well, so I deserve time to pursue my passions - and I can help pay for good childcare while I do so."
In what experts are calling the next stage in the evolution of urban Indian motherhood, a growing number of 20, 30- and 40-something mothers, backed by high-paid jobs and accustomed to a certain lifestyle, are increasingly setting aside time for their non-parent personalities, when they can pursue hobbies and meet social commitments in a carefree and guilt-free manner.
"New-age mothers are not just concerned with a work-life balance. They are now juggling work, parenting and 'me time'," says Nirali Sanghi, CEO of parenting website IndiaParenting.com.
Sociologist Sarla Bijapurkar of KJ Somaiya college says this is a marked shift for urban India.
"Many mothers did not even return to their jobs until recently. It is the rising cost of living and raising children that, in a warped sort of way, granted their professional ambitions some legitimacy," she says.
Even so, all a mother's non-working hours were supposed to be spent with the children, as some sort of compensation, adds Bijapurkar. "Even today, in most middle- and upper-middle-class families, a mother may use her free time only to run errands. Any personal indulgence is frowned upon."
A small but growing number of mothers is now, however, starting to subscribe to the largely Western view that a happier, more well-rounded parent makes for a happier, more well-rounded child - and for better, more peaceful, more resentment-free quality time.
Helping mothers in their quest for 'me time' is a growing bouquet of professional childcare services, including night crèches, theatre crèches and pay-per-hour day care centres (See box: Helping Hands).
A year ago, HR executive Shubha Majumder, 36, mother of a 10-year-old and a four-year-old, for instance, paid Rs. 26,000 for two annual memberships at BookBuddy, which sends a clinical psychologist to her home for four hours a week to read to her children and conduct activity sessions.
This leaves her free to catch up with friends, shop, read, watch a movie or just relax.
"I learnt my lesson with my first child," says Shubha. "I realised just how important it was to have my own space - and that only when I am contented can I do justice to my kids and not instead be venting my frustration on them."
Experts caution, however, that India still does not have anything like the infrastructure available for wealthy parents in the developed world, where most nannies are certified and most crèches staffed by professionals.
"A parent must be very careful when choosing from the expanding range of niche childcare services," says clin-ical psychologist and child coun-sellor Neha Patel. "Always check the cre-dentials of the staff and the safety and hygiene levels."
'I decided not to miss out, lose all balance'
Aparna Talaulicar, 41
Gurgaon-based yoga teacher and writer for a parenting magazine
Raising son Tavish, 9, and daughter Tarini, 6, with husband Puneet Gautam, who runs a TV production house
When her first child was born, Aparna consciously gave up socialising, movies and travelling with her husband because she wanted to spend all her time being as good a mother as she could be. Three years later, after the birth of her daughter, she says she realised how much she had missed out, and decided to create enough time for herself.
She started out by scheduling thrice-a-week exercise and yoga sessions, leaving her children with her mother-in-law. She has since rekindled her love for writing and photography and has taken up painting.
Yoga has become a passion. For the past year, she has travelled to yoga camps and retreats for 30 days at a time, leaving her children in the care of her maid and mother-in-law.
'I had lost my bearings. Now I am at peace'
Kalpana Ganesh, 32
Raising daughter Aadya, 3, with her
husband Ganesh, an IT professional
A former PR executive, Kalpana quit her job after her daughter's birth, but soon began to miss work. To strike a balance, she started an e-commerce portal, working out of home and occasionally leaving her daughter with the maid to meet clients. Still, she says, she felt a void.
A social person and a trained Bharata Natyam dancer and Hindustani classical vocalist, Kalpana felt she had lost her bearings and was not using her talents and education.
A year ago, she found a compromise - she enrolled her 18-month-old in a playschool and a preschool, leaving her time to immerse herself in her business and pursue passions such as sketching and craft.
Despite her mother-in-law's objections, she also hired a nanny to care for her daughter till 10 pm. Between the preschool, playschool and nanny, she says she now has a professional and social life again, frequently meeting friends for lunch or to watch new plays and even setting aside time for date nights and movie marathons with her husband.
"It's not easy," she says. "But I am finally at peace, juggling work, motherhood and my personal space."
'I now feel like a mom and an individual'
Preeti Khare, 30
Raising 21-month-old twin boys, Shaurya and Gyan, with husband Devraj, a businessman
Khare hired three house helpers - a maid, a cook and a nanny - soon after she brought her twin boys home. "Between my work and the housework, I soon realised that there was no way I could do this alone," she says. The maids care for her children till 9 pm, leaving her enough time for a pre-dinner walk every day and at least a few hours of 'me time' - for shopping, errands, socialising or date nights - per week.
"Shopping is a total stress-buster," she says. "Recently, I also started going out to movies and brunches with my mother."