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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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.


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New mother

It’s Women’s Day today. Messages flying across emails and phones. DQ had a busy day planned, doing what she loved most – be with her friends. Princess and I signed up for a parent-child poetry workshop at the Arts House.

Here is my effort at poetry. Trying to capture my feelings at this point.

Was there such a time

I doubted I would feel

Such a love sublime

 

I became a mother

To the one I delivered

Now, I have another

 

Child in my home

To kiss, to hold

To call my own

 

Others may watch, wondering

How it would turn out,

This experiment in mothering

 

A mosaic of a family

Each brings a piece

That fits unevenly

 

Dry seeds to be sown

To flower, to bloom

Together; no longer alone


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Happiness is….

Image

Drama Queen (DQ, who is now 16) must have been about four when she asked me,

“Amma, did you ever want to be a dog?”

She was a huge fan of Clifford, the big red dog cartoon on TV and had watched a show in which the little kid imagines life as a dog. An ardent dog lover then (and now), we were having this conversation on our way back from day care. The Los Altos hillside looked green and graceful, as I pondered on an appropriate response.

“No, but when I was a kid, sometimes I wanted to be a boy.”

“Why?”

“I had two brothers and I felt life would be more fun being a boy, doing boy stuff, I guess.”

I turned around to see her scrunch her face in concentration in the blue car seat. She was quiet for a few minutes before she knocked me over with her reaction.

“But if you were a boy, you could never be my Mommy.”

Getting into “mommy school” probably has been the toughest educational experience in my life, notwithstanding my Ph.D., which in retrospect can be called a cakewalk. I know I am not the only one who says this. The not-so-fun part of motherhood is in knowing early on that you will never graduate from this institution, which is as old as humanity itself.  The daily grind of mothering that begins with breastfeeding and diapers continues into constant supervision of meals and homework and unending arguments about friends and Facebook. It is a course of study that only underscores what you already knew the minute you held your baby in your arms – once a Mom, always a Mom.

Working full time with a small baby left me with very little bandwidth to enjoy the big moments. But we found happiness when we stopped to appreciate the small, uncomplicated moments together.

Happiness is….watching a snail on a sunny afternoon with your toddler.

Happiness is ….counting the colors of the rainbow after a brief rain shower.

DQ and I have both grown together, the years filled with toothless smiles, cheeky grins, hugs and laughter giving way to pimples, cramps, boys and non-specific teenage angst. The baby with a round face and stubby nose has morphed into a gangly teen with a perfectly oval face and a sharp nose. People say she looks like me but she doesn’t. She stands shoulder to shoulder with me, looking like the girl I wished I was when I was 16. She already exudes a quiet confidence, grace and sense of self that has taken me years to develop. She can do stuff that I can’t. She swims effortlessly and loves the feel of the wind in her hair as she bicycles down slopes. When she insists on shopping for new clothes, again, patiently trying on outfits, I know she didn’t learn this from me. When she enthusiastically gobbles up sickly sweet cupcakes I see a tiny reflection of my sweet tooth. She exasperates me with the number of hours she sleeps when she should be studying. The phone is glued to her hand and when its not, there is an iPad at her fingertips. And did I mention, fingernails dipped in brilliantly colored nail polish?

When she is nice, we discuss her day at school, laugh at her weird dreams and sometimes, boys. When I am nostalgic I remember that she was really good with naps but was a fussy eater in her toddler years. We drool over “hot” movie stars and play the same song over and over to get the words just right. She doesn’t borrow my shoes any more, they don’t fit her “giant” feet, a sore point over mistaken genetic selection. I share my love for books with her, forever pushing a suitable selection her way. She configures my phone and thinks I am cool for not wanting to “friend” her on Facebook. There are unreasonable demands at times but tears are rare.

I watch her closely, trying not to crowd her. I am always unsure whether I have got the balance right, allowing enough freedom with its consequent responsibility without sparking a teenage rebellion. We argue occasionally but hang out together more. I nag. She bickers. I bake. She eats. And once in a while, she gives me a giant hug. The “thank yous” are few but heartfelt and unexpected. DQ has been my anchor, my one constant during the years it was just her and me, when her dad and I parted ways. We continue to define happiness in the small uncomplicated moments together.

Happiness is….getting piggy-back rides from your daughter in the swimming pool

Happiness is ….sharing a vanilla cone on the beach after sunset

And now, in a new country, with a stepfather and stepsister, she is once again the rock on which I rest when I feel jittery. She made me a birthday card shortly after we moved to Singapore. It simply said “Home is where Mom is.” It’s probably a cute phrase she lifted from the internet but it shows me that she still binds her coordinates to mine, no matter where my journey takes her. I didn’t imagine my life taking this detour but I was strong for having a daughter to hold my hand. I don’t know how life will unfold but I now have another one too. The big questions can wait. I know this for sure. All I need to do is find happiness in the small, uncomplicated moments.

Happiness is ….. having two daughters!