Starting Over

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


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A birthday wish

gift-444520_640I have always wondered what is at the heart of motherhood, this state of being, this title that I hold. What is my purpose? What is my responsibility to my children?

It is more than providing food and shelter. It is deeper than laying a strong foundation. It is greater than nurturing even. As the years go by and I see the inevitable march of time that distances me from my children, I realize that my job as mother is to give them all that they need to form their own core – a sense of self that is solid and reliable, loyal and loving. In short, my job is to help them build their inner strength. To foster self-confidence that breeds resolve. To help shape human beings who can handle all that life brings with equanimity.

Today Princess turns 12. More than the cake, gifts and birthday parties, my wish for her is best summarized in the words of one of my favorite authors, Anna Quindlen.

“Someday, sometime, you will be sitting somewhere. A berm overlooking a pond in Vermont. The lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset. A seat on the subway. And something bad will have happened: You will have lost someone you loved, or failed at something at which you badly wanted to succeed. And sitting there, you will fall into the center of yourself. You will look for some core to sustain you. And if you have been perfect all your life and have managed to meet all the expectations of your family, your friends, your community, your society, chances are excellent that there will be a black hole where that core ought to be. I don’t want anyone I know to take that terrible chance. And the only way to avoid it is to listen to that small voice inside you that tells you to make mischief, to have fun, to be contrarian, to go another way. George Eliot wrote, ‘It is never too late to be what you might have been.’ It is never too early, either.”

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Wish I had written that

I came across Phyllis Theroux’s memoir The Journal Keeper earlier this year.

Her words about her mother and her new life as a divorced mom of three children gave me inspiration and a desire to put down my thoughts in a time of personal transition.

Here I would like to share some of the gems and a video link to the interview with the author.

About mothers/mothering

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.

About love

One of the strongest illusions in life is that another person’s love will liberate us. The illusion is hard to let go of, even when one lover after another has disappeared, because while they are present they do set us temporarily “free”. We do feel as if we are more talented and lovable and then they turn away and stop loving us, and we realize how much our balloon depended upon their hot air.


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A mom who works

ASKOKI_woman_on_tightrope

“Why can’t you come to the bus stop to pick me up?”

DQ asked me this question everyday when she was eight. It would be followed by a list of names of friends whose moms dropped them off in the mornings and waited for the school bus to arrive each afternoon. The children would hand over their backpacks to the obliging mothers and walk home safely.

I listened but didn’t act on her unspoken request. I had returned to work six weeks after DQ’s birth, leaving her in my mother’s care as I rushed out and back again to nurse her during the early days of infancy. I cleaned up the drool on my shoulder with a Kleenex and attended 9 a.m. meetings. As DQ grew older, she got used to the fact that both her parents went off to work each day. She didn’t know any different. I dropped her to daycare and picked her up. I drove her to swimming lessons and took her trick or treating. I showed up for the Easter egg hunt and Christmas performances at her preschool. It wasn’t easy but it was necessary.

I thrived at work –intellectual stimulation, interactions, goals, deadlines, and meetings! My work took me to Switzerland, my salary meant unrestricted shopping and a holiday in Hawaii. I had a life beyond the dishes and laundry. I got great feedback from bosses and coworkers and most importantly, I found value in my work. In a small way, I felt that my work made a difference to people.

Work also meant dealing with diapers, daycare and daily dilemmas. Every time I took DQ to the doctor for an ear infection, I cringed with guilt when she cried out from pain.

“My son didn’t have any infections until he was three, ” claimed a catty mom who stayed home.

“I am so glad I was home to see my daughter take her first step.”

“I make my own baby food.”

I took all comments personally. Every lapse was my fault. Every milestone was marred by the possibility that I had missed “the first” moment my child had uttered a word or mastered a skill.

My mother, the quintessential stay at home mom wasn’t very supportive. She expected me to quit my job after DQ’s birth. Her philosophy was simple, time away from home meant missing out on the best years of your child’s life.

I was physically exhausted and mentally depleted with my hectic life. All I wanted was “balance”. I talked to other women who walked the tightrope between office and home, calls and homework, travel and school events. I found tips like hire a cleaning service or find a daycare on the way to work very useful. Other advice like take an afternoon off and go to the spa, I chose to ignore. I read books with titles like “Downshifting”, books targeted towards working women.

At a seminar on work-life balance, one woman expressed the view that striving for balance was not the right approach. Cutting down on what you like to do, in order to reduce stress was what most women did. She conversely suggested that we find things that add meaning to our life. Put more on my already full plate? My first thought was – how ridiculous! In hindsight, I think that was the best advice I have received.

I signed up for lunchtime yoga classes. I started writing at night after DQ went to bed. I hired someone to clean my home on a regular basis. I read a book while DQ splashed in the pool. I went for an early morning walk on weekends. I found time to take courses in the evenings after work. Some of my writing got published in local print publications. Not surprisingly, the most well received article was one on motherhood!

In a self-help book titled “Find your strongest life” by Marcus Buckingham the author argues that women should look into their life and relive those moments that reinforce your strongest tendencies; instead of balance, he says, reach for fullness. I understand the concept now. The word balance implies a sense of equilibrium, but also conveys stillness, stagnation. One needs to move to feel alive, so move in the direction of what makes you feel good. Even if that means adding one more item to your to-do list!

For me, work fills me with enthusiasm and meaning. When a worthwhile pursuit energizes me, I am a happier person, a better mother. It was no wonder for me when a year later, without provocation, DQ said “It’s OK if you can’t pick me up from the bus stop. You do so many other things.”

For a mom who works, life can’t get better than this.


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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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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.”


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How I miss my mother

What does little birdie say

In her nest at peep of day?

Let me fly, says little birdie

Mother, let me fly away

Birdie, rest a little longer

Till the little wings are stronger

So she rests a little longer

Then she flies away

 

What does little baby say

In her bed at peep of day?

Baby says, like little birdie

Let me rise and fly away

Baby, sleep a little longer

Till the little limbs are stronger

If she sleeps a little longer

Baby too shall fly away

I heard this poem first from my mother. I recently learnt that these words are part of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s work “Sea Dreams.” I did not study English literature in college and I knew Amma had pursued a graduate degree in Mathematics. How did she remember these words so clearly then? As if she had memorized them in her childhood, like nursery rhymes that linger through the decades of ones life. I wish I could call her and ask. I miss my mother when I read beautiful poetry and prose.

A visiting relative once casually labeled be as “minus” while counting my two brothers as “plus”, a fairly common occurrence in a culture that favors sons. After he left, I asked with a small voice whether that was true, was I a liability? “No”, she emphatically replied, “you are my one and only special daughter. Let him think what he wants to, I think you are the best”. I miss my mother the tigress who protected me from unkind people and harsh words.

I had to be at Andheri station on time to catch the 6.03 a.m train in the thick humidity of Mumbai in May. The Churchgate local train ensured my early morning attendance at the extra classes during summer holidays the year I was 17. Each day I slept through the shrill ringing of the alarm but never missed the train. I miss my tender mother who stroked my hair and woke me up softly each morning.

When DQ was 4, each Saturday morning I would write for an hour, attend yoga class, start a load of laundry and put away the groceries I picked up on the way home so I could be fully present when my little girl woke up. I miss my practical mother who taught me how to be efficient in and out of the house.

We are in the midst of festival season. The house has to be cleaned, fruits and flowers have to be bought, sweets have to be made, friends have to be invited and religious rituals need to be completed. On special days I read the prayers from the books I took away from my parent’s home. I want DQ and Princess to be aware of traditions that will anchor them and build cohesion into our family. I miss my mother’s daily prayers, which showed me how faith is built in small steps.

My music teacher insists that we perform as a group at the annual celebrations at the institute. I am scared. Did I get the notes right? Does it sound good? How can I improve? I need honest feedback from someone who knows enough to give appropriate inputs, someone to encourage but not praise me falsely and breed complacence. I miss my mother when I need support.

Most of all I miss being loved for just being me, the way only a mother loves her child.

I fully agree with Maya Angelou who said “I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.”

I have missed my mother and managed without her for six years. Six years in which my life turned around 180 degrees. In that year, I lost her and dissolved my marriage of almost 18 years. Amma had been keen that I marry young – “so you could have children at a young age and get on with your life”. She had worried whether they could find me a suitable groom had I continued with my plans of higher education. She suffered through my tears and disappointment when I underwent painful medical treatment for my infertility. She held my hand through the hours of labor that preceded DQ’s birth. She stayed up all night to help me care for a newborn. Amma was that constant presence in my life that I took for granted, like sunshine. I was never really alone, even when thousands of miles separated us in those pre-internet days, when I lived in America and she in India. I was always in tune with her, like a radiofrequency. She could sense my mood through a bad telephone connection. She knew what to say. Sometimes it was practical information (how to make soft idlis), sometimes it was philosophical advice (even this will pass!) and occasionally she would send me thoughtful gifts (the hard to find pressure cooker gasket of the right size).

Although it was Woody Allen who said “80 percent of success is showing up”, Amma was the one who practiced the showing up bit, by spending high quality “quantity time” with us. When Princess comes back from school and shares the highlights of her day, when DQ sits next to me with her laptop seeking my advice on school projects, when HH and I watch “House of Cards” before dinner on weeknights, I understand the value of her actions. I can feel her smiling at my new homemaker avatar.

On days when DQ and I find ourselves on opposite sides of an argument, I often wonder, what would she say? “Be gentle with her. When children become as tall as you, you need to be more of a friend and less of a parent”.

I miss her as a daughter and I miss her as a mother of daughters.

Will my daughters perceive the value of my presence? My words? My actions?

However tough the transition maybe, Tennyson’s poem celebrates the natural order of things, little birds leaving the nest when they grow. A quiet pride accompanies the twinge of loss, of continuous contact, of constant nurturing. Losing parents, on the other hand, is a seminal event and a logical one in a life that runs its course. How do I deal with this loss? How do I handle this intermittent but powerful undercurrent of grief that tugs every so often? How do I cope without the supporting roots that allowed me first to fly away?

Grief can be a catalyst. It can be a raging fire that can cleanse or a brilliant heat that can change.

As Sue Monk Kidd says “I should let myself grieve. To deny grief is to squander a transforming and radiant possibility.”

I wonder if Amma would agree. I wish I could call her and ask. And while I am at it, I could get the recipe for her lemon pickle.