Starting Over

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


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A mom who cries

I never saw my mother cry.

Ok, I did. Just once.

I must have been eighteen then. I had been offered a chance to get into a college to pursue an education in engineering. It was a substantial achievement at a time when engineering degrees were relatively rare in India. My mother wanted me to accept the offer. “Engineering is not for girls,” said my father. “But it’s your daughter who has done well enough to get in, not your son” she countered. And so the argument progressed, culminating in my mother’s tears. I can still see my mother wiping away her tears with the edge of her sari, her head hung low, apologizing silently for not winning this battle for me.

As it turns out, I didn’t become an engineer. But the real story is not about career choices and gender roles. The real story lies in all the days that my mother didn’t cry. She didn’t cry from exhaustion on mornings she woke up early in order to get the day started for the family, preparing meals, organizing school uniforms, helping with homework, tending to our minor illnesses and major tantrums. She didn’t give in to tears on days she handled an aging mother and mother-in-law while my father was away at work. She didn’t collapse in a puddle of self-pity during the times she heard rude and hurtful words from her three teenage children.

The advent of menopause signaled the beginnings of arthritis in her knees. Were there days when she felt excessively emotional as her hormones went haywire? I couldn’t tell. What about the pain while walking up the stairs in an apartment building without elevators? She never complained. The Mumbai heat and humidity was unrelenting but I don’t remember her seeking help for hot flashes. Diwali decorations on the doorstep that involved kneeling on the floor to draw elaborate rangolis? She did it each year. Wading through knee-deep water during Mumbai monsoons so she could pay my college fees on time? I knew Mom would do it. Appointment with the oncologist for grandma on the other side of the metropolis at 10 a.m.? Mom would take her.

Like many women, my approach to mothering is heavily influenced by my mother’s parenting style. But I fail in one aspect. I cry. Not often. Just sometimes.

Tears are a symptom. Wipe the tears but treat the cause.

My mother’s unspoken mantra.

I cried when I missed many days of school due to malaria, worried about my performance in the impending exams. She copied pharmacology notes for me while I recovered.

I cried when I had trouble conceiving after my first miscarriage. She held my hand as I entered the operating room at Georgetown for the surgery that would later help me get pregnant.

I cried when I moved out of my husband’s home, not sure of the road that lay ahead as a single parent. She stayed with me until I figured things out.

I was raised in a home where the boys and the girls didn’t cry.

I wanted to be like her, stoic and steadfast. To take everything in stride and ride through life with a strong will and dry eyes. I didn’t cry when I left India as a young bride, the first person in my family to board an international flight. I didn’t cry when I faced hurdles during my years at graduate school. I didn’t cry when I had trouble finding my first job. Professional setbacks I can handle. It’s personal disappointments that ignite my tears. I cry when I am hurt, when I feel helpless, a victim of injustice of the Universe and its people. When I am unable to separate the emotion that fuels the tears from the action that can dissolve them. The tears fall, usually unseen by others. At times, it is a welcome release. At others, it tastes bitter, like defeat. Mothers don’t cry.

Are tears proofs of my failure? Symbols of my incompetence? Embodiment of my inability to rise to the standard set by own mother?

But isn’t crying part of being human? Isn’t it wrong to curb our humanness?

My mom never really voiced a stance against crying. Instead of saying “stop crying and do what needs to be done”, she lived a life where the focus was on doing; showing up, helping out. We learnt to articulate our needs and reach out for help instead of succumbing to tears as an indication to others to figure out what was wrong. Tears were not clues for discovering, tears were not tools for manipulating. Mom just bypassed the teary stage and went right into the next stage of setting things right. Her humanity circumvented the teary path.

What do I do now? I am not my mother; not as stoic, not as stern. I weep for beautiful poetry and at poignant movie scenes. I am dry-eyed at airports and in emergency rooms. I shed tears when a piece of music moves me and clam up when I stub my toe. I cried most when my mother died. I don’t know if she would have approved. But I know something she doesn’t. I saw her face wet with tears in the delivery room moments before DQ was born. She cried not for my pain, but for my joy at becoming a mother, and for the journey ahead of me.

I know that mothers do cry.

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Enjoy this moment

“Enjoy this moment.”

That’s what I said to the young woman glowing with impending motherhood. I was invited to a baby shower last week, a rare occurrence these days, for someone in my age group. Amidst the soon-to-be grandparents and women of varying ages, some pregnant, others still nursing, I felt like a relic. I had heard the same words at my baby shower 18 years ago. I can no longer remember who said it but I took the words to heart.

My favorite photo from the first year of DQ’s life is one in which I am holding her aloft, close to my face. I am wearing an ill-fitting t-shirt. My hair has not been combed all weekend. DQ is about eight weeks old. She is wailing. I have a beatific smile of what looks suspiciously like contentment. Grinning like Mona Lisa with a teary infant! Seems wrong? Actually it’s just right. A representative snapshot of a time in my life where I enjoyed each moment – the days of diaper changes, the nights of teething troubles, incessant breastfeeding, the episodes of colic. Yes, I wished for every milestone to be achieved and longed for one night of uninterrupted sleep. But I also lived each day (most days) fully aware of the impermanence of each stage, the ephemeral nature of things. Is that why my memories of her childhood are like newly printed color images from a digital camera, not faded sepia prints with blurred edges? I remember vividly both the trip to Disneyland and the run to the emergency room one Labor Day weekend with DQ’s face swollen and bruised from a fall in the park.

Enjoy this moment!!!

I hear the admonition. I turn around to look at HH. Did he say it? Or was that me? Did I say that aloud? It wasn’t really a thought, or was it?

There’s a lot on my mind as HH and I walk out of school after the parent teacher meeting. Clouds hang low and heavy, unsure whether to tip their contents now or later. The grass glistens with a sheen left by the previous rain shower. I peer through the foggy bus window, going over the feedback from the teachers, wondering when Princess will start taking her schoolwork seriously. I still have to respond to DQ’s plans to visit a Halloween haunted house late at night with friends. There are errands to be done for Diwali. My to-do list repeats like an old song on tape.

Enjoy this moment?

I want to. Desperately. But how?

The uncertainty of living in an unfamiliar country, finding my place in a different circle of friends, starting afresh with a family, the days morph into a continuum of settling, adjusting, putting down roots. DQ is hitting her stride as a teenager. We are negotiating unfamiliar territory in our parent-child relationship. I am still forming a bond with my new daughter. I haven’t yet figured out how to establish a career in this tiny city-state that I live in. Enjoyable moments seem like stars on a distant horizon. I want to park the enjoyable moment at a time in the future when my children make the right choices, once I achieve my professional goals, embark on the perfect holiday, reach Utopia.

Life, however, lies in the details. In the living of it, we can only handle the present moment bestowed on us. I may want the mundane minutes to simply be done with, like brushing my teeth each morning. Or wish the painful times would just end, like a bad movie. Even if I choose to linger over momentous occasions, I cannot. Every event, every second, every day, we get to live for the exact same period of time. The moments themselves are untainted. Our mental archives may later file them under “good”, “bad”, “pleasant”, or “unpleasant”.

Although John Lennon said “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”, life IS lived as we make plans, hope for the best and make new plans when the old ones don’t work.

Life is waiting for the bus; life is arguing with your teen; life is going for the job interview not knowing if your search will end here. Life is living through the uncertainties without guarantee, because there are none.

Today’s concerns evaporate in tomorrow’s daylight. I know that.

I see the rain and the rainbow. I believe.

There is only way to embrace my life, in all its fickle glory.

Enjoy the moment.


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Bringing up Malala

It’s been a tough week handling DQ. I am worn out from the silence, the sulks, the demands and the all-pervasive bubble of entitlement that she inhabits. I would like her to do be polite at home, focus on schoolwork and get some clarity on what major to pick in college next year. “The kids are under a lot of stress” agrees another Mom with a similar teen situation. Is going to school and managing academic expectations too much to handle for a seventeen year old? I live in a constant state of self-doubt. Am I pushing her too hard? How can I help her? What kind of support does she need? Perhaps I should back off on my demands. All I want for her is to have a happy and successful life.

Then comes news of Malala Yousafzai winning the Nobel Peace prize. Here’s a girl, almost the same age as my daughter who has managed to capture the attention of the fickle news-worshipping majority for the right reasons. I would be pleased to meet her but what I would really appreciate is a meeting with Malala’s mother.

DQ was born about three weeks after Malala. There must have been many months when Mrs. Yousafzai and I shared similar pregnancy-related symptoms, finally a day when we bore the pain of labor and witnessed the miracle of bringing a baby girl into this world. As I juggled teething troubles and toddler tantrums with a full-time job and childcare arrangements in the safety and comfort of Northern Carlifornia, my counterpart halfway across the world must have struggled with providing a safe environment for Malala and her siblings in the Swat valley of Pakistan.

As the years went by, I chose a private preschool and personally dropped DQ to school in each morning. I bought her toys and crayons. I took her to the library and read to her each night. I arranged for swimming lessons and bought her a fancy bike. I accompanied her to movies and let her hang out at the mall with friends. I took her to Italy to show her the world and let her have unlimited wifi access to bring the world to her laptop. For all this, I have a sullen teenager who is confused about college and thinks of herself as a normal teen, no different from her peers.

Malala struggled to get to school safely, have an adequate supply of books to read and didn’t know when or if schools would reopen. She expressed outrage publicly when her right to education was in question. She wrote a blog that gave insights into the secluded society that she lived in during a time of dramatic change, one that directly impacted her present and her future. She faced the consequences of standing out and speaking up for a cause that she believed in. She switched her focus from being a doctor to becoming a politician when she understood what her people needed most, a person to influence priorities and shape their future.

This is what I want to ask Malala’s mother.

How did you raise this girl child to stand up in a society where women are hidden? You have a girl whose public presence sends a message of empowerment instead of girls everywhere who are obsessed with clothes, makeup and body image, caving in to the pressures to conform to damaging stereotypes.

What did you say to her in those early years when children understand the world through what they hear at home? Your daughter uses her voice to underscore her right to education to improve herself, not to demand the latest gadgets that add no incremental value to the self.

How did you teach her to look at the imperfect world around her and not feel defeated? Your child went on to figure out that education was the tool to create a better world instead of teens who focus on material lack in their otherwise perfect world and succumb to depression.

Did you ever feel guilty for not providing the tools that other children in the world routinely take for granted? Your daughter used every opportunity to use minimal resources to reach out to a larger audience and generate support for her cause. In those years, so many of her peers who lived in a hyper-connected world became a part of a generation that feels most alienated.

Most importantly, how did you deal with the threats to your child’s safety? Wouldn’t it have been easier to keep her safe but quiet at home instead of sending her out each day not knowing whether she would return home after school?

As a parent, I worry about the safety of my children. But I worry more about their apathy. The lack of a spark that energizes each day. The absence of a cause that motivates them. I remember being a teen myself (I can see DQ rolling her eyes). It was a rebirth of sorts; a period of intense inward focus and self-centeredness. It was also a time when I formed my basic understanding of the world around me. While the insignificance of my presence in the grand scheme of things rattled me, I understood that only I could make my life worthwhile. It mattered to ME what I did with my life, even if it made no difference to others.

I am not asking my child to be Malala but I want to encourage her with Oprah’s words, “You have to know what sparks the light in you, so that you, in your own way, can illuminate the world.”

Malala’s primary advantage in life came from the fact that she was born into a family that ran schools in the region. She was given access to education and a firm belief in the power that it brings. In the background of the dark strife around her, she held on to her small but steady light long enough for it to ignite a movement.

I am distressed as a parent not for my child’s inability to appreciate the gifts of economic stability and political peace but for her refusal to dig deeper within herself to find that spark. For if she discovers it, I would be the first person to hold out my palms to protect that small glow, to let it breathe and grow, even if it means exposing her to situations which every mother fears. Like Malala’s mother, I will send her out knowing that the world can be a dangerous place for one simple reason; because she has the spark that can make it better.

Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself. – Viktor. E. Frankl


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I am not you

“You look just like your mother”. We hear these words often, DQ and I. From the neighbor, the teacher, friends, random strangers and close relatives. DQ hates it. Every. Single. Time. I don’t mind it so much but sometimes when I hear her vehement response of “Don’t say that”, I feel a twinge of distress.

The generous part of me wants to understand DQ’s angst. For a teenage girl, eager to step into her own identity, superficial comparison to her mother does not serve any purpose. But the sensitive egotistical mom part of me is hurt – am I not good enough? Is it such a bad thing to be seen as junior version of me? After all she does share my genetic material!

“I am not you” she repeats earnestly. Part rebellion. Part plea.

Yes you are, I want to say. I too had been a chubby infant with a head full of black silky hair, twinkling eyes with long eyelashes and a flash of temper if her needs were ignored. Her hair grew like weeds, she sprouted teeth early, walked late and talked without a pause. My mother confirmed that I had been quite a talker as a toddler and I beamed with pride at the similarity. When my childhood friend’s mother heard that DQ got straight A’s in school, she stated “just like her mom”. I couldn’t be more thrilled at the comparison.

I know she isn’t me. She took to water the first time I immersed her in the blue and yellow baby bathtub. She could swim before she was three. She learned to ride a bike without training wheels in kindergarten. She kept her focus when she shuttled between two homes when her dad and I separated. She chooses to stay quiet in situations where I would have erupted in righteous anger. There is so much about her that is not “me”. And I am thankful for that.

Motherhood provides an immense ego boost. Only a part of it comes from sharing a common gene pool.

“There are three types of makers: a parent, an artist, and a god” says Rebecca Solnit in “The Faraway Nearby”.

Equating a mother with the creativity of an artist and invoking the divinity of God in the same sentence seems heretic. But its true. As a mother I have an opportunity like none other – to influence, to interact, to contribute. The relationship DQ and I share is like the one between the clay and the potter, the marble and sculptor. What I say and do, shape her thoughts and behavior. Like a potter, I guide her. Like a sculptor, I chip away at the outer edges to reveal the perfect being that is hidden beneath. But I am not the only one who participates in this creation. It takes a village to raise a child, it is said. The joy of parenting lies in your ability to observe closely and without bias, the formation of a self in the child you helped bring into this world.

I am doubly blessed today because I am a mother to two girls – to be technically precise, mother and stepmother to DQ and Princess, respectively.

When motherhood becomes the fruit of a deep yearning, not the result of ignorance or accident, its children will become the foundation of a new race. – Margaret Sanger

These words calm me on days when I look at DQ, the child born to me biologically, the moody teenager who resembles me physically but who may have been delivered to me by the stork from another planet.

I refer to these words on days when Princess, the preteen who has been my daughter for only a year, comes looking for me when she gets home from school.

Both my girls have come into my life after great deliberation and effort. Getting a Ph.D. takes five years while a child can be conceived and delivered in nine months. My doctoral thesis took less than 5 years to complete while DQs birth was the result of longer and more rigorous scientific and medical investigation. HH and I spent many hours discussing the impact of getting married on our respective daughters and difficulties of blending our families before Princess started calling me Ma.

Motherhood may not always be easy but it has the potential to be empowering.

I want my girls to be like me. To develop a love for reading, a tolerance for differences, a genuine concern for people, an appreciation for life. I may be totally hopeless with makeup and clothes advice. But I am always ready with a book recommendation. Like Anna Quindlen, I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.

I want my girls to be different. To learn new things, to strive, to grow, to be self-sufficient, to become unique role models.

Most importantly, I want my girls to like themselves. Like Maya Angelou, I want my girls to know that the secret of success lies in “… liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

The next time I hear DQ say “I am not you”, I will ask her to just be herself, the most authentic version she can possibly be, to continue “the unfinished work of becoming”.

And if that doesn’t work, I just may take Nora Ephron’s advice –

“When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”