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.