Starting Over

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


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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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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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It’s not about the money

Money won’t create success, the freedom to make it will – Nelson Mandela

I can’t put my finger on it. This lingering sense of disquiet, an emptiness, a longing.

Is it the waiting? “Waiting” is not my favorite status. Waiting patiently is excruciating. Waiting with no end in sight is almost impossible. That is exactly what I am doing right now. Waiting for a job, to be gainfully employed. To do meaningful work that also pays.

Is it the lack of a regular income? I like making my own money and have been self-sufficient financially from the time I left my parents home. Money represents value for my time and skills. Money helps pay for mundane but necessary stuff – DQ’s college tuition, HH’s birthday present, travel and bling.

Is it because I am unemployed? Work gives me a focus for my attention, an outlet for my energy and the opportunity to complete a job to my satisfaction. I meet people, I contribute to something outside of my little world and I find balance in the multiple personas that I juggle.

Is it because I have to list my occupation as “housewife”? Although my own mother was happy to be one, I always knew that my work would distinguish me from her and so many others. Housewife indicates an area of specialization on the home front, a level of expertise which I am sure I will never acquire even if I spend more years with the title.

Is it a consequence of spending so much time at home? I appreciate the rewards of solitude but not the hours spent in solitary confinement as most weekdays seem to be. I turn on the TV during lunch just to have voices around me, how depressing!

A critical ingredient that completes the recipe of my life is missing, something small and insignificant by itself, like salt, but one that adds flavor and zest to everything else.

If I seem to be bitching about the life of privilege I am currently leading, I agree. Sometimes I feel I am being unnecessarily grumpy about a phase which I know will pass like all the ones before this one.

I find myself unhappy when I am a human “being”. I would much rather be a human “doing”. I prefer to be actively pursuing something, moving towards a tangible goal, not necessarily a material one. Striving for something, self-improvement, personal development or whatever you call it, seems to be a worthy way of living. Passive existence is lame, as a teenager may label it. If I look back at my life, there have been times of intense activity followed by a period of dormancy. Not of my choice but brought about by circumstances. How often have I waited for an event, a milestone, like a child on Christmas morning, piling all my hopes on it? And how many times have I learnt (in retrospect of course) that the very same object of my fascination becomes superfluous, a burden even, inciting a reverse activity of sorts, to change things again?

There was that time when I waited impatiently for my green card. I thought it would solve all my problems. It made life a little bit easier for a few years once I got it. But a few years later, I found myself turning it in to the officer at the US consulate in India who accepted it wordlessly. The green card no longer served any purpose for the life I was living. My life got simpler without it.

About a decade back, I left my lucrative job in San Francisco, confident of taking a well-deserved break after the move back to India. I didn’t have a job. I was in a new city with no friends, no income, no specific goal. It was a painful wait. One day I landed a great job and the life of leisure I had envisioned soon morphed into an overwhelming work life remarkably similar to the one that I had left behind in another continent. I resigned from that job after a few years, choosing to make my own way, not employed by a giant corporate but being my own boss, the much-anticipated job cast aside easily.

As I look at career options in Singapore, exasperated by the lack of opportunities, I fret, I clam up, I vent my pent-up frustration. It’s not just about the money. It’s the lack of prospects. A part of me knows that what I yearn for now will be just another episode in the drama of my life. I need the structure and support of work that confers financial independence to the insecure me, the one who had once been left to fend for herself and her child. I need a physical space, a productive place where I interact with people and get rewarded for doing what I am good at.

Just as salt added to the food we eat unites the flavors, money is the key ingredient that gives a material dimension and a quantitative perspective to our work. A little is nice, just the right amount makes life easier but a whole lot more is neither necessary nor good.

So I wait – impatiently perhaps, while the next act unfolds, anxious for a honest day’s work.


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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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Listless and loving it

“Purpose of life is a life of purpose.”

I am not sure where I read this or even when, but as far as I can remember, I have been a busybody, always doing things. It has been a long quest, trying to find life’s purpose and to pursue it, there was always a list.

As a child, it was simple and unwritten, but followed dutifully.

  •  School
  •  Play
  •  Homework
  •  Read books (for pleasure)

As an adult in graduate school it was still fairly simple; nothing written but unwavering, all the same.

  •  Schoolwork
  •  Housework
  •  Read books (for pleasure)

As a working mother, written lists made an appearance.

  •  Drop and pickup kid from daycare
  •  Work
  •  Drive kid to activities, birthday parties, play-dates
  •  Doctor’s appointments
  •  Shopping – kids clothes, diapers, food, birthday party gifts
  •  Housework – cooking, cleaning, laundry
  •  Read book to fall asleep

As a single mom working from home, my list included

  •   Meet clients, work, send invoices
  •   Pay taxes
  •   Get car serviced
  •   Pay phone, utilities, maintenance bills
  •   Drop teenager to mall, birthday parties, movies
  •   Take Dad for doctor’s appointments
  •   Join girlfriends for lunch for birthdays, women’s day, movies
  •   Order takeout
  •   Read books

As a newly remarried woman in a new country, with a husband and two kids now, I have no list. My day begins when I send the family out to office and school respectively. I read the newspaper as I sip my morning cup of tea. The day stretches before me like pristine sand on a beach, waiting for footsteps to mark it. I have many hours in which I can do pretty much anything I like. I can lounge in front of the TV all day, hang out in air-conditioned shopping malls on Orchard Road, join a group of housewives for an impromptu lunch or just chill. How wonderful to have so much unstructured time on my hands! But I am stuck.

With no “must-do” lists to execute, I am lost; a lonely traveler without a map in a strange country. Well, not literally lost in Singapore, although it is still a fairly new country to me. I seem to have lost my inner compass. Having always prided myself for being a karma yogi, a period of inaction seems wasteful, criminal almost. Seems pretty rotten to whine about this wonderful time in my life where I can just “be”, without constantly having to “do”.

I think a part of my angst stems from the feeling that my life should have more meaning than checking off a daily timesheet, even if I score “excellent” on the routine tasks that fall in my wife/mother domain. I completely identified with the young Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady – “I will not die washing up a teacup.”

It’s a question of identity. Whether I have lost mine, which was predominantly defined by my working woman/mother persona. Does being a stay-at-home mom take away from my core identity, the one not defined by my career? Does the fact that I am not earning a salary or regular income make me feel “less than”? These are superficial manifestations of a deeper concern, the one about the purpose of my life. My head has always been the dominant part of my personality –thriving in logic and organization, seeking control, looking for purpose in the lists I made (and executed sincerely). But now I am letting my heart lead. This new life feels strange but soothing, calm and carefree. There is a peaceful pattern to my days. There is less stress, fewer expectations and total freedom to explore other avenues and therefore a feeling of not doing enough.

How do I turn this feeling around and make it work for me? I put this question out during my meditation. I laughed at the response that came from the universe – make a list. How simple and intuitive! My head has been hurting, from all the disuse, now that the heart is leading. So my compassionate heart, is pulling my head into the game once again. Go ahead, make a list, it sends out a challenge.  Here it is.

–       Read books

–       Write!