Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around


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Mindful of motherhood

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It’s Monday morning and there is an eerie quiet around the house. No cups of milk and chocolate chip cookies on the table. No pink and purple lunch boxes, no water bottles. No shouts of “I don’t have socks” or wails of “where is my ez-link card”. HH is sitting at the table quietly reading the newspaper. I sit on the sofa watching the last of the darkness melt into the rising sun.

Princess has a two-week break from school and has chosen to spend it in India with grandparents. DQ is off on a school trip to Indonesia. And suddenly, there is no bustle in the house. No “busyness” of a weekday morning with the school rush hour that jump-starts our day. No homework reminders in the evening, no dinnertime tantrums, no night walks as a family – at least for a few days. How dull!

Life with children is a whirlwind, unpredictable and uneven by definition. The best planned pregnancies lead to uprooting of stable routines and a leap onto the first car of a roller coaster. You can see the steep incline and anticipate the dip in your stomach but you can’t stop it or yourself, from staying unmoved. While we may moan and complain about a previous way of life being lost, it is we who are lost.  Parenting fills our days; expands us in ways we didn’t think possible (notwithstanding the flab around our middle). The neat freak learns to live in an untidy house; the rigid disciplinarian gives in to giggles. We are irreversibly bound in a contract that requires us to set our children free. Of all the career paths we may have wished for, parenting is the one we are least prepared for and the one that turns out to be the most rewarding in the long run.

This week we are celebrating the arrival of a new baby in the family. Hold on, I said “in the family”, not in our home. HH’s brother and sister-in-law are proud parents of a little boy. Princess was among the first people to see her new cousin in India. I shared the excitement hundreds of miles away in Singapore. “Babies always seem to make you happy” said a good friend when I shared the news. She was right.

Birth is life-affirming. Every new baby who is welcomed into the world has the capacity to change it, perhaps not in a planet-changing way, but in a life-altering way for his/her parents. Children are symbols of our mortality, they remind us of our age as they grow. Children also contain the seeds of our immortality. They carry forward our words, our deeds, our imprints. They keep us on our toes, allow the child in us to surface, enable us to stay youthful. We love them for who they are and also for what they make of us. I am now more patient, persistent and polite, qualities my mother wished I had had when I was little. It takes a child to raise a parent.

I miss having my children around. Not just their groans and squabbles and demands but the vibrant life they create for me. In their presence I am more mindful and responsive. I feel more, I show my feelings more openly. I express my vulnerability. They have given me a great gift, the opportunity to be in their life and influence it. And I in turn, have experienced the joy of simply loving, unconditionally.

As Phyllis Theroux puts it,

When I think about why people have children, I realize how little it should have to do with the future. If, before any children were conceived, we knew that our reward for raising them would be perhaps several phone calls a month, a very occasional visit, and the sense of having once been important in their lives, we might not do it. But if we realize that the rewards are given during the raising, we will calculate the cost differently. My children have taught me more than I have taught them, given me more joy than I have given them, and their not being present or even much aware of me now does not alter this.

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If the first lady can do it, so can I

I wonder how she does it. Who you ask? Michelle Obama. While the world may focus on her enviable position as first lady, my question is a more prosaic one. How does she manage day after day, to be in the limelight, not for her credentials as a Harvard-educated lawyer but as the wife of the President of USA?

The newspapers are busy comparing the first ladies of USA and China, now that Michelle Obama and her daughters have landed in Beijing. Madam Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping was a well-known folk singer before her husband rose to prominence. Michelle Obama was the primary breadwinner of her family as her husband worked his way to the Oval office. Today these once formidable women, have chosen to take a step sideways to stand as spouses besides the world’s most powerful men.

I wonder how they truly feel. Was it hard? To give up work that you were good at, a career that you enjoyed, an identity forged as an independent woman to take on life in the public eye?

I know how hard it is for me. Ok, ok – so I am not married to a President and have only seen the Istana in Singapore from the outside. I was no celebrity but I felt a tug as I moved to another country after I married HH. For many years, both in the USA and in India, I had work I enjoyed, friends to hang with and a life that was predictable. After working full time when DQ was little, I had managed to carve out a work life balance in India that made it possible for me to earn enough to support a comfortable lifestyle and have the freedom to pursue other interests.

I do appreciate the comfortable life I have today, taking primary responsibility for my home and family. I have the luxury of spending quantity time with my girls and enough energy to ensure that it is also quality time that we spend together as a family. I am grateful for not having a crushing commute and a competitive job. But I hate marking “housewife” under “occupation” when I fill out forms. It irritates me when my thoughts focus on what to make for dinner tonight instead of deadlines on projects. I hesitate to have long chats with friends knowing that there was a time when “I am on a call” meant it was work-related. I get really upset when DQ mutters, “Dude, you need to get a job” after a particularly inquisitive conversation with her about school.

What I miss is the focus that work brings to my day. It gives me a legitimate outlet (which also pays me) for the high intensity churning that my brain indulges in, night or day. Having tuned my body mechanism to operate at full capacity all these years, shifting into lower gear seems counter-intuitive. Life may be in neutral but there are days when I feel like it has moved into reverse gear. I accomplished more when I was busy. I have not just done away with lists; procrastination has become a way of life.

There are pictures of Michelle Obama with Madam Peng, discussions about their outfits and roles at this historic meeting in China. Their responsibility is to look good, send out feminine vibes, build soft ties with the countries they visit and provide perfect photo-ops. One article even called the wives of politically powerful men “accessories”. Does it hurt when people judge these women who are capable of more for making personal choices that have now cast them into symbolic roles of first ladies?

I don’t really have a right to ask. I found myself judging the stay-at-home moms in my neighborhood soon after I moved to Singapore. While I was home too, I justified my time as a legitimate gap while settling in with my new family. And yes, I was actively looking for work. I would be gainfully employed in no time, that’s what others said. That’s what I said to myself, as the weeks became months and the job trail didn’t look as if it was leading anywhere. I still consider myself a career woman even though I attend yoga class on Friday mornings, go to the library on Wednesday afternoons and meet a friend for lunch on other weekdays.

Last week, one of the moms enquired about my job hunt. I confessed that it wasn’t going too well and I feel a little depressed sometimes. “Don’t get depressed. Talk to me when you feel blue. I have been looking for a job for two years and have only recently made peace with staying home after 18 years of working at a job I loved.” I was shocked and humbled. Here I was, turning my nose up at the women who stayed home, not knowing their story, while they had been welcoming, inclusive and supportive without prying into the details of my life. As a group they were kindred souls, as individuals they had their unique stories. I felt I didn’t fit in because I had labeled myself “working professional”. I wasn’t willing to accept this homebound version of myself. They weren’t judging me. I was. I had made a choice but was not embracing its consequence on my career gracefully. It was time to do so.

I still don’t know how the first lady does it. But she seems to be enjoying this time of her life, using her presence at the podium to take on issues that she cares about. She has chosen this role and essays it perfectly. All I can hope for is to move through my life with the same grace.

Don’t struggle so much, the best things happen when not expected” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez


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Testing Tolstoy

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“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy

And so begins Tolstoy’s classic, Anna Karenina. It’s a great beginning for a novel. I remember this line even if the other details of the story seem sketchy now. I dwelt on it constantly during my long and unhappy first marriage. Looking at happy couples locked in an embrace, smiling into each other’s eyes, I wondered why we could barely make eye contact. The simple joy that radiated from mothers and fathers with little children out in the park on a Sunday afternoon, in the gentle San Francisco sunshine, seemed to emerge from a secret source unknown to us.

“How do you know when you have had enough?” asked a friend recently. “How long can you cover up, make your marriage work for the sake of children, keep up appearances?” she questioned. She was struggling with a difficult choice; to stay or to leave, an option that most of us in unhappy marriages refuse to acknowledge and even if we do, we push it to a vague future date – when the children are older, when we are financially independent, when I have my own home. I sensed her pain because I had voiced the same.

There was a time when each day brought me pleasant moments with DQ but the short-lived smiles alternated with a crushing sense of loneliness. I thrived at work but withered within my home. I laughed amidst friends but cried alone. I carried an emptiness inside which wouldn’t go away no matter how much I filled my day with activities. I made great strides in meeting personal and professional goals but the formula for marital happiness continued to elude me.

Now, I am one half of a happy couple; one fourth of a family of four. Newly married, excitedly commencing my second innings. I have my share of adjustments and change of priorities to manage. But I also have the long lens of past experience and wisdom of hindsight to guide me this time around.

Among the great enigmas of life is the relationship between a husband and wife. Like an iceberg, for every inch that is visible to those outside the relationship, there is much more that remains hidden. Each marriage is defined by a mysterious equation that maintains a delicate balance between two people who share a life, a home and children. If this is true, was Tolstoy wrong? Are happy families not all the same?

“Can I ask you a personal question?” enquired another friend this week. “It must be so exciting, the newness, getting to know each other, settling down with a new person. We have been married for so many years that even the monosyllable responses from my husband have deteriorated into grunts”.

Yes, it is exhilarating; to be wooed, to know you are desirable, to feel special. Courtship is a delightful phase – like a movie trailer, it shows you only the best bits while leaving you to imagine the rest as an endless song and dance sequence into happily ever after. Marriage however is not a short musical but an epic saga of daily chores and errands, expectations and obligations, peppered occasionally with unexpected sweet and memorable moments.

What begins with a quest for novelty to add spice to your life devolves into a need for stability. After the initial euphoria of telling each other your life story fades, you realize that the most interesting stories are the ones you will write together.

A customized guide to a happy marriage would be a handy wedding gift for all couples, even a sample page from the “all happy families look the same” club manual would help. After all, happy families do look similar from the outside – mildly complaining but mostly content; jointly looking forward to each day together.

I didn’t receive such a gift. And I know such a thing as a miracle formula for marital success doesn’t exist – age and its twin, maturity told me the day I got remarried. Like recipes passed down through generations, there are staple ingredients that are necessary – respect, kindness, love. Certain techniques need to be applied – consideration, communication and care. But when it comes to the key constituent that makes your recipe unique, you need to supply your own magic. Constantly.

Marriage requires effort – a relentless focus on each other, thoughtfulness and compassion. It requires alertness towards your spouse; reading of silences; responding to unspoken requests.

Perhaps Tolstoy was right. Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way. But what unites and distinguishes happy families is their commitment to work for it.


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Stepping into fashion

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“The ugly shoe is in” stated the article in the newspaper this morning. A picture of sensible Prada sandals accompanied the text. Hallelujah!!

The impossible has happened. Something I have been wearing happily and advocating zealously is finally in fashion!

Comfort above couture has always been my mantra; one that I have held on to steadfastly since I was a teenager and continue to do so now as a mom to a teenager. In my twenties when I had a body that (in retrospect) was worth showing off, I covered up in turtlenecks and sweaters in the Washington DC winters. By the time I moved to sunny California, I was pregnant and have sported the baby bump remnant ever since. I wore cool cottons in the dry heat of Hyderabad when I moved back to India and now in sultry Singapore, I find myself wondering about appropriate attire.

I know I am not alone, but I surely belong among the world’s minority of women who have access to information about fashion but choose to completely ignore trends, top buys and must-haves that are routinely posted online. I stay away from skinny pants, stilettos and short shorts. The language of fashion is as foreign to me as … Greek.

In Singapore the women are petite, the colors bright and dresses skimpy. Business attired women ride the metro alongside aunties in saris, young girls with sequined hijabs covering their head and the elderly in loose clothes. The buses are freezing death traps at night when the riders are few but being outdoors during the day is like stepping into a brilliantly lit oven. I am home most days, trying not to turn the air-conditioner on, in a futile bid to be kind to the environment and the electricity bill.

The hot, dry spell of the last few weeks sent me to the famous Orchard Road shopping district yesterday, to find suitable clothes to survive in Singapore. HH insisted and a girlfriend agreed to “update my look” – whatever that meant. I spent a few hours in air-conditioned comfort in spacious stores with attentive salespeople. As I made my way through Robinsons and Takashimaya, I was fascinated by the $500 umbrellas, blinded by diamond studded clutches and amazed by lingerie whose price per square inch would rival New York city apartments on a price per square foot. I ruffled through the racks at H&M and Mango and quickly exited Forever 2l, before they spotted me as being well over the age of their target customer segment.

I don’t know whether it was the price or the merchandise but I came home with a solitary black sweater, a staple addition to any wardrobe without looking any different for the effort. In some ways I am more confused now than when I launched the campaign for a new look (even a store named New Look was of no help). However, I feel no different than on my previous attempts to change my way of dressing. The rub between what people think I should wear and what I feel comfortable in has always been irritating if not downright uncomfortable. Add to that the gentle messages by mother nature as you age. I can choose to ignore the hints and fall prey to those who say, “Come on, with your figure you can carry off this outfit”. I have bought clothes ten years ago that still fit me but do not befit me. And now I don’t want to accumulate stuff that doesn’t feel right.

I would rather be comfy than cool. I like natural fabrics and earth colors. I go for no-frills, clean linear cuts. I feel calm in cottons and prefer a dressed-down look that also covers me up. I need clothes that radiate the inner serenity I am trying to cultivate, not attire that grates. Added to all these requirements is my conservatively brought up in India frugal mentality that requires shirts to have sleeves, pants to be loose and skirts to be long. No wonder I have a hard time finding clothes that fit the bill (pun intended).

When it comes to shoes, practical and versatile are my favorite adjectives to describe the footwear that I own. The national dress code in Singapore considers flip flops acceptable in most places. As a family we own multiple pairs of flip flops but I favor my good old adidas sandals. My toes love the ventilation and the rest of my foot is grateful for the comfort. My daughters think they are hideous. I seldom shop in fancy shoe stores, just as I seldom check out the latest gadget or gizmo. If I have a laptop and a phone that works, I am a happy camper. I don’t need to sport the newest version. Same holds for clothes and shoes. If my answer to the question of whether I am comfortable using/wearing these shoes/clothes is yes, I am pleased. And when sandals like the ones I normally wear make it to the top of the fashion news, I am astonished. Its high time the world came around to my way of thinking.

Even when the trend moves on to something else as it inevitably will, you can count on one thing. I will still be wearing my ugly sandals, perhaps Prada.


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Making sense of living in “misery city”

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The city I live in has been in the news for the last two weeks. First came the survey that pegged Singapore as the most expensive city to live in, more expensive than Paris! This week it has been tagged “misery city” by BBC freelance writer Charlotte Ashton for her experience on the Singapore metro where she wasn’t offered a seat or asked about her wellbeing as she struggled with pregnancy-related nausea. Both times, there has been public debate, several inches of newspaper columns devoted to discussions about reasons for and actions against such incidents respectively.

My reaction on both occasions began with a roll of the eyes and “What kind of a place have I come to?” I am still figuring out bus routes and the business district. Hawker centers and hang baos are terms I have newly added to my vocabulary. My Singlish stinks, so does durian. Such news doesn’t help quell my settling-down jitters. Its tough enough to plan for an impending college education while living in the most expensive city without feeling that we are inhabiting a society that suffers from a massive “compassion deficit” as the BBC article says.

The first time I left my home in urban India to move to the USA, I remember feeling forlorn. For one, I could hardly see people in suburban Washington DC, when compared to the millions I had grown up with Mumbai. The sheer vastness of the country made me feel trivial even though the density of the Mumbai population should have made me feel insignificant. But I was the outsider, looking in. My eyes were accustomed to the dust and haze of city life in a developing country. The expressways and cleanliness didn’t bring comfort; they only highlighted the differences. I worried about safety in deserted train compartments during the day and taking a cab alone at night. In Mumbai I roamed free, safe in the anonymity and presence of many strangers who milled around at all times of the day and night.

The few I encountered in America seemed pleasant, mouthing a “hello” as they walked past. A kind lady once dropped me home from the train station when my ride did not show up. The train conductor consoled me another evening when I woke up right after the train left my station. A young woman offered to pay for me at Taco Bell when I ordered a meal only to find out that I had left my wallet at home. But there was also the grumpy old man who loudly proclaimed, “we walk on the right side of the path in this country” to my mother and me as we pushed the stroller with DQ around the park in California. And the attendant at the gas station who saw me every week but spoke to me only once, the week after Sep 11, 2001, to ask where I was from.

Growing up in Mumbai, taking the public transport everywhere, I experienced fear when pushed into and out of crowded trains, shame when groped by strangers and anger when people boarded buses without standing in line. A benevolent man once brought my 11-year-old brother home after taking him to a doctor for first aid when he fell from a public bus. He refused to take money either for the medical treatment or taxi fare for returning him home safely. I have taken shelter under the umbrellas of strangers when caught in an unexpected downpour during the monsoons.  I have relied on fellow travelers to guide me to the correct bus routes when traveling to unfamiliar parts of the metropolis.

I didn’t think poorly of Indians when I lived there because that was my milieu. I didn’t jump to conclusions about Americans just because I was in an unfamiliar environment. The sum total of my experiences was merely a collective recollection of individual episodes, governed by random situations with a distinctive set of people in each instance. Perhaps if the people involved were different, I would have different stories to tell. No matter how accepting  we consider ourselves, how open we think we are to new people and places, we hold biases which may ride on the surface like a leaf on water or lurk beneath like a stingray. And depending on the stimulus, our belief surfaces, clouding our reading of a one-off situation, making us paint the rest of our stay with the same brush.

The value of an immersive experience in another country depends on our ability and the ease with which we see the people around us, not as representatives of preconceived stereotypes or statistical data to be verified but for what they are, fellow humans. We may not share the same skin color and racial characteristics but we are all united in humanness. And that includes the errors in judgment that we make, whether it is in not offering a seat to a fellow passenger on a train or in labeling every person in the country as lacking compassion for doing so. To set this right, someone has to take the higher moral ground. Who will rise first?


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My mirror and me

DQ and I attended the university open house yesterday. A scorching dry day in Singapore, filled with the expectation of a much needed rain shower. Thousands of youngsters milled around the information booths handing out brochures and balloons, information and ice-cream, facts and freebies. Loud music buoyed the palpable atmosphere of eager anticipation. Smiles and laughter punctuated the hot afternoon as prospective students did the rounds of the booths while worried parents milled around the financial aid station. DQ and I took the campus tour bus. We added brochures to our goody bags and took selfies with our balloons. We switched moods, sometimes she worried about what was ahead, I laughed at the kid dressed in an oversized mascot uniform. Sometimes I wondered how my tiny newborn had transformed into this budding woman and she seemed jubilant, mouthing the words of the song playing around us. At times, we were both silent, contemplating our own thoughts of what this moment meant to us.

How can I not get sentimental at such times?

My child is my mirror. I should have recognized this truth the week I brought DQ home from the hospital. My mother had come to help me for a few months and one day she stepped out for a few hours to visit Monterey with a cousin. I was left alone with DQ. She fussed and cried inconsolably. I couldn’t tell if she was hot or hungry. Cuddling her didn’t help. Leaving her in the crib made it worse.  With each hour I got more agitated and she in turn became harder to manage. I was in tears, feeling helpless and incompetent when my mom got home. Seeing her, I relaxed and handed over my wailing infant to her loving arms. And from that minute, all was well. DQ became quiet and took a nap. I wept with joy and took a shower. At that time I thought it was mom who had made the difference. Over time I realized that it was my frame of mind that DQ as reflecting, ever the eager untainted glass to show me my inner terrain.

I don’t stand in front of a mirror for long. It shows me gray hair and wrinkles, proof of the years that have passed; years during which I was too busy to appreciate my firm body and unlined skin. I gaze more often at DQ and her transformation. As she rehearses the speech she has to make at school tomorrow, I see her toddler-self trying to reach the bowl on the kitchen counter repeating “stoberry”. I drove her to play-dates not so long ago, now I worry about her going on dates. From focusing on looking presentable, she now focuses on her upcoming presentations. Her growth curve and my timeline are intertwined. But her outlook is not always mine. I am flattered when people say we look alike; she hates the comparison. People ask her if she will pursue a science education, like me and I know she will not. Just as I can’t make my image in the mirror to look like a younger me, I can’t make DQ become a second-generation avatar following in my footsteps. And I don’t want to.

My mirror doesn’t show me what I want to see but what I need to see. So does DQ. Today I am a person who is excited by learning; the prospect of expanding my outlook, which enhances the anticipation of new experiences. DQ seems hesitant. In her I see myself, more than two decades ago, in a new country, figuring out the next steps for graduate school. A little shy; extremely skeptical. I worried about fitting in, being understood, meeting expectations. The opportunity for pursuing higher education in the USA kept me going, the challenges of finding my place in a foreign system kept me engaged and I am forever grateful for that experience. DQ is at a similar threshold now. Looking at the sea of bright faces, hardworking Singaporeans of many races, vying for a seat in a prestigious institution. Not sure of her place in this system, wondering if she can keep up with the high standards.

DQ mirrors my own doubts at finding myself in Singapore subsequent to my choice to marry again. She just followed me. But I am excited to be here. I love being in a place of education and yesterday was no exception. I would like her to catch the contagious enthusiasm that pervades colleges and universities, its irresistible, wave of youthful optimism. I want to tell her what a wonderful time of her life this is, how easily she has found herself in a place where she can choose her course of study in an excellent academic environment, how she must count her blessings. But I refrain.

The best way to change what you see in the mirror is to change yourself. So I allow myself to be carried away by the exuberance of the surroundings, by smiling so much that my face hurts, by feeling excited and peaceful at the same time.

And I see my mirror doing the same.


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Family ties

“Have you made any friends in Singapore? Do you feel settled yet?” asked a well-meaning friend.

The short answer was “no, yes”. But the simple answer was far from the true one.

Now that we have crossed six month milestone as a family, life seems to have taken on a different hue, and its not due to the haze that has begun to descend, thanks in part to the longest dry spell within Singapore and brush fires in the neighboring countries. 

My initial days in Singapore were action-packed, full of jobs that HAD to be done in order to

  •   Make the home livable and functioning
  •   Sort out visa issues – multiple trips, paper work, waiting
  •   Get kids ready for school – books, uniforms, bus routes

Then I had to get the family organized which required me to

  •    Figure out food preferences
  •    Lay down some house rules
  •    Look into hobbies and activities

The third phase was to come together as a unit in spite of our

  •    Personalities (irrespective of age or gender)
  •    Sleep cycles (teenager and others)
  •    Mood swings (irrespective of age or gender)

HH feels like a deer caught in the headlights in a full-fledged household. He has to work at the office and work at home. Was there such a time when he could prioritize a game of golf on a carefree weekend?

I feel swamped with homework, exams, activities, miscellaneous errands, PMS (mine included) and the general chaos of a home buzzing with constant activity. Am I the same person who spent one whole month at an ashram last year, away from “real life”?

Princess feels there are too many rules in this house. Why can’t clothes be stored in a pile on the floor and why aren’t French fries considered acceptable breakfast, lunch AND dinner food

DQ thinks there are too many people in this house. Why can’t she be allowed to study, text and Facetime simultaneously without people looking over her shoulder? 

HH feels there are too many women. Why are we always late everywhere?

I think there are too many demands. Do we have enough milk, a healthy after-school snack each day, clean and ironed clothes?

Some of these questions can be answered and some will linger eternally, each generation seeking answers that are acceptable at that age and maturity level. Till then, we can only focus on our actions, not knowing whether they are permanent solutions or interim management measures. So we set a few expectations.

  •    To eat dinner together, even if the meal does not have the preferred food of each member
  •    To go out for a walk at night, sometimes all of us, sometimes I go alone
  •    To allow each other the space to do what they like, whether it is silence for me to read, or Saturday mornings for HH to play squash
  •   To listen, to speak, to cry if needed, without interruption or judgment
  •   To laugh heartily as we bake cakes and muffins each week and consume whole-heartedly

At dinner we hear that Princess is making new friends since her overnight picnic organized by the school. While walking, I learn that DQ likes the Leadership Series of lectures at her school specially when the speakers are spiritual people who offer insight. I read to HH from a book that lies besides our bed. He tells me how is trying to workout in the gym in the office.

I still pick up towels from the floor. DQ and I argue about the hours she spends online. HH tells friends we are late because he can never herd three women out the door in time. I try to fit some writing into each day.

These have become our bonding rituals. With these we underline our philosophy for our family. These are our family ties.