Starting Over

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


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Pretty happy girls

girl faceWe had an emergency last week.

Princess (age 11) had to be sent to school with her annual day costume and “full stage makeup”. We had no makeup at home!! Not the heavy makeup required for stage performances. We had no makeup at all. No foundation, no pressed powder, no mascara, no eye shadow, no lipstick!

For a household of four with three females including one teenager, you would think we would be better equipped for just this type of situation. But we were not prepared.

As the Mama Bear, I ensure we always have fresh home-cooked food, for us and for friends who may drop by. We make room for unexpected guests who may wish to stay over. We have books to read and lend. There is music to lift your spirits and a willing ear if you need one. DQ helps create colorful rangolis for Diwali and Princess makes rainbow loom wristbands and earrings for friends. We dress modestly and spend moderately. But when it comes to adorning ourselves with cosmetics we are severely lacking. And it’s totally my fault.

I grew up in an era where makeup was used only by movie stars. Makeup was a luxury available to a few. Growing up in Mumbai which has two levels of humidity – monsoon (100%) and pre-monsoon (90%), makeup was not even practical. Why pay big bucks to put stuff on your face that will run down in rivulets within minutes? My mother didn’t color her hair or visit a beauty salon all her life. I lived with two brothers who wouldn’t give me a second glance even if I had horns poking out of my head. I figured fairly early on that in order to get attention, I would need to work on stuff that would last longer than mascara in the Mumbai heat.

Over the years, as I lived in other places, I acquired products that served the basic purpose of hygiene and personal grooming. My stash of beauty products includes common stuff like shampoo, conditioner and body lotion. I use sunblock everyday and a moisturizer for my dry skin at night. I apply kajal (kohl) to my eyes occasionally and colorless (cheap) lip balm as needed. I choose from this small list when I step out to meet clients, hang out with buddies or attend parties.

I have spent all my adult years staying away from chemical cosmetics that embellish only the surface. I dislike lipstick. I cannot stand strong perfume. I don’t have the patience for eyeliner or a fascination for eye shadow. I prefer to let my skin breathe instead of layering foundation and concealer over it. I live a basic “earth mother” life which is authentic to me.

But have I done right by my girls?

I was stumped that day. I felt foolish, incompetent, out of touch with today’s world. I was caught off-guard, shocked at missing something obvious and necessary for life. Like salt in the pantry, I seemed to have forgotten a common but critical item normally found in a women-centric household. What would my husband think of this lapse? How could I approach other women to lend me stuff just to tide me over? How would Princess feel when she showed up at school with a bare but clean face? I was such a loser.

There was a time when DQ loved putting lipstick on her face (not just her lips!), using the makeup samples that came with the moisturizer I bought at Macys. DQ and I spent a few hours painting our nails at Frankfurt airport one night when our flight to San Francisco was delayed. She would apply eye shadow to her cheeks and eyelids, wear her Snow White outfit, step into plastic high heels and hold court with her stuffed toys. Somewhere in the years between five and fifteen she stopped playing dress up. I threw the old cosmetics out and didn’t buy new ones.

My daughters don’t have access to makeup at home. Will that be a long-term handicap for them? There is enough pressure through peers and media to look pretty, to focus on the superficial, to be obsessed with image, not achievement. Will they secretly try makeup outside the house? Will they harbor an unnatural attraction for cosmetics on the rebound? Would they turn into social misfits in their adulthood? Do they resent me for not stocking up on makeup essentials at home?

I had an hour to get Princess ready for the school program. The questions could wait. DQ looked through her supplies and found eyeliner. I handed out my lip balm. I combed her hair and helped her into her costume. Princess looked in the mirror, proclaimed “I look weird,” and rubbed her eyes. Now she looked like a raccoon. I mopped the soot off her eyelids. She looked fine. And set off happily for school.

“Should I buy some makeup this weekend?” I asked my husband.

“Why?”

“Didn’t you see what just happened? It was so awkward for me, not having makeup at home.”

“All of you look great without it. I am very proud of my women.”

That made me really happy. And proud, of my girls, who also prefer to let themselves be seen as they are, happy in their skin.

I may not have makeup to share with my daughters, but I want to share these words by Audrey Hepburn:

“For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”

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Letting go

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body” – Elizabeth Stone.

I waved to DQ as she passed through immigration and security at the airport and walked towards the departure gate. She would soon board an international flight and return home in two weeks. I was quiet, mulling over this temporary separation from my child. It wasn’t the first time she was flying alone to another country, it was the second time in 6 months. I had been nervous then. This time I was cool. It was my calm acceptance of her ever-increasing steps towards independence that rankled more than the travel per se.

“Are you upset about DQ going away? It’s only for a few days” said HH, observing my silence.

“I am used to it” I replied. “These pangs began long ago. From the moment I delivered her” I snapped, a little too sharply.

The toughest part of mothering is letting go. It begins initially with physical separation.

On DQ’s first day at preschool, she held on to my legs and wailed “Don’t go, don’t leave me here.” I went through the workday with intermittent visions of her tear-stained face. A concerned coworker observed my plight and said “Enjoy this clingy phase while it lasts. My teenage boys don’t want to be seen anywhere near me.” I smiled, secure in the knowledge that my little girl would never do something like that. Now I know what parenting a teen means. My coworker was right. In the early years, whenever I traveled for work, I acutely missed DQ. She seemed perfectly happy subsisting on Dominos and Baskin Robbins without my nagging.

It hurt to acknowledge that my child can survive AND function fully without my constant inputs.

A friend tells the story of his 4 year old daughter who would say she didn’t like chicken, having been brought up in a vegetarian household. As she grew older, her response to “do you like to eat chicken?” changed to “I don’t know, I haven’t eaten it yet.” Slowly, ever so subtly, children inch away from being your echo to finding their own voice.

My child has her own opinion which is different from mine and she does not hesitate to say it. Should I admire her or be upset?

DQ and I were movie buddies for a long time, happy to watch romcoms and sitcoms together; until she became a teenager. Birthday parties, movie outings, mall crawls – Mom was no longer the first choice. Between phone, Facebook and face to face with friends, there were no details that needed to be shared with Mom. Unless there was a school-related emergency of course.

The young woman who shares some of my genes and quirks, no longer leans on me exclusively. How can I not feel abandoned?

Children can be our mirror, reflecting us completely, warts and all. Children are also a prism, splitting our thoughts like light beams into many colors. They illuminate our world; add meaning and depth. How does the little person who you care for and coach turn into a free-thinking planet, tethered to your gravity for a while but always in the process of generating the required escape velocity to pull away and launch whole-heartedly into her own orbit?

Life is a series of acquisitions – objects, information, skills, abilities. Life is also a list of losses – objects, innocence, relationships. With life comes the experience of having things move away from your control, voluntarily or otherwise. Logically, letting go should come easily. But it doesn’t. Specially for a mother. Not because we grasp too tightly, but because we remember. The warm baby breath on your neck as your infant falls asleep, the bruise from a fall on the playground, the smile when you cheer enthusiastically for your child, unaware of how embarrassing it looks. We linger on the sweet memories and the terrifying ones. We save the keepsakes for later. We savor the moments. And from this storehouse, we pull up recollections to compare, or to complain.

Watching your child grow up and away is hard because it involves a conscious process of detachment. Letting go involves selectively forgetting what once was. Letting go requires effort to let things be. Letting go is an exercise in discipline. Letting go, paradoxically, is a form of control. I control my instinctive impulse to hold on, I control the flood of memories each step towards independence brings, I control my fear for my child’s safety.

So I let go of my doubts. I set aside my anxiety. I focus instead on how far we have come, DQ and I, on a road that has not always been smooth. I wave her off with a smile, secure in the knowledge that she will travel the world with confidence. There will always be a part of me with her, the part that steadies her hand as she takes off on this adventure called life.