Starting Over

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


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Am I a tiger mom?

Or a cub brought up by one?

The one enduring memory that I have of my mother is looking up from my bed late one night, delirious from malarial fever and finding my mom looking at me with concern. She kept cold compresses on my forehead and reassured me. Each time I woke up over the next few days, she was always there. I don’t remember her ever telling me that she loved me.

My brother sometimes refers to our mom as Hitler. In the era before washing machines, she made us wash our school uniforms. Clothes dropped carelessly on the floor were not to be seen in our home. Shoes were stacked, books stored away carefully after use and plates were taken to the sink after each meal. As we grew older and stayed out longer with friends, it was an absolute must to inform her if we didn’t plan to eat dinner at home. She didn’t talk about discipline.

Sometimes I was too tired to do my chores and she would ask my brothers to fill in just as I would have to do for them. She made us take turns to read books that all of us wanted to be the first to read. She would hold grandma’s hand as she negotiated the stairs and sometimes we would help grandma. I would go to my brother’s friends place to pick up schoolwork that my brother had missed due to illness. My brother would escort me home if I had to stay late at college. She didn’t talk about showing concern for others.

When my brothers started picking up filthy language from their friends, she quietly made it clear that it was not to be tolerated at home. When I started talking to boys, she asked me to invite them home. With three children of varying personalities, she knew who we hung out with, how far out of our comfort zones we had drifted, who needed to be reeled in, who needed a push. Very rarely did she praise us. If we didn’t do something well, she sat with us and made us do it till we got it right. I looked at other moms who were cheerleaders for their kids, afraid to correct them or advise them. The parents who thought their only job was to indulge. And sometimes I felt she didn’t care.

Love and care are two different things. For best results they must go together but one can exist without the other. What distinguishes the two is that they manifest differently. A parent who loves accepts the child as is. A parent who cares, shapes and influences each child uniquely. Love sometimes means glossing over the imperfections, care requires looking closely. Love binds, care releases. Love may create dependence, but when you take care of what needs attention, you foster independence.

My mom was strict, perhaps more of a disciplinarian than other moms but she was not a tiger mom, one who emphasizes academic excellence above all. I know she loved me because she was with me during what seemed like the unending years of growing up but also because she was with me in the delivery room when DQ was born, her eyes wet with tears, happy that I was now a mother. I know she cared for me not only because she stayed awake at nights to burp DQ and change her diaper in the early weeks of DQ’s life but because she encouraged me to make my own decision about staying in my unhappy marriage or moving on.

My brothers say that I sometimes sound like mom on the phone and I cook like her. I can’t say I agree with those observations. One thing I know. I learnt how to be a mother from her. I am a mother who cares. And that probably means, I might be nicknamed Hitler. On occasion, my children will storm into their rooms, unwilling to listen when I tell them what needs to be said. I will be called unfair and rigid for setting clear expectations of behavior and household rules. I will impose a curfew and confiscate devices if required. I will make them clean their rooms, apologize when needed and take responsibility for actions. They may even wonder whether I love them.

It may take years before they realize that I will be with them to celebrate their triumphs and also when their tears need to be wiped away. There will always be comfort food and a comfortable bed for them in my home as long as I am around. I will push them to do better and hold their hand while they do so. I will encourage them to soar and help them build their own nests. For their own good, I will tell them what many others may not tell them for fear of losing their love.

Because I am a mother who cares.

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Mindful of motherhood

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It’s Monday morning and there is an eerie quiet around the house. No cups of milk and chocolate chip cookies on the table. No pink and purple lunch boxes, no water bottles. No shouts of “I don’t have socks” or wails of “where is my ez-link card”. HH is sitting at the table quietly reading the newspaper. I sit on the sofa watching the last of the darkness melt into the rising sun.

Princess has a two-week break from school and has chosen to spend it in India with grandparents. DQ is off on a school trip to Indonesia. And suddenly, there is no bustle in the house. No “busyness” of a weekday morning with the school rush hour that jump-starts our day. No homework reminders in the evening, no dinnertime tantrums, no night walks as a family – at least for a few days. How dull!

Life with children is a whirlwind, unpredictable and uneven by definition. The best planned pregnancies lead to uprooting of stable routines and a leap onto the first car of a roller coaster. You can see the steep incline and anticipate the dip in your stomach but you can’t stop it or yourself, from staying unmoved. While we may moan and complain about a previous way of life being lost, it is we who are lost.  Parenting fills our days; expands us in ways we didn’t think possible (notwithstanding the flab around our middle). The neat freak learns to live in an untidy house; the rigid disciplinarian gives in to giggles. We are irreversibly bound in a contract that requires us to set our children free. Of all the career paths we may have wished for, parenting is the one we are least prepared for and the one that turns out to be the most rewarding in the long run.

This week we are celebrating the arrival of a new baby in the family. Hold on, I said “in the family”, not in our home. HH’s brother and sister-in-law are proud parents of a little boy. Princess was among the first people to see her new cousin in India. I shared the excitement hundreds of miles away in Singapore. “Babies always seem to make you happy” said a good friend when I shared the news. She was right.

Birth is life-affirming. Every new baby who is welcomed into the world has the capacity to change it, perhaps not in a planet-changing way, but in a life-altering way for his/her parents. Children are symbols of our mortality, they remind us of our age as they grow. Children also contain the seeds of our immortality. They carry forward our words, our deeds, our imprints. They keep us on our toes, allow the child in us to surface, enable us to stay youthful. We love them for who they are and also for what they make of us. I am now more patient, persistent and polite, qualities my mother wished I had had when I was little. It takes a child to raise a parent.

I miss having my children around. Not just their groans and squabbles and demands but the vibrant life they create for me. In their presence I am more mindful and responsive. I feel more, I show my feelings more openly. I express my vulnerability. They have given me a great gift, the opportunity to be in their life and influence it. And I in turn, have experienced the joy of simply loving, unconditionally.

As Phyllis Theroux puts it,

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.


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Testing Tolstoy

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“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy

And so begins Tolstoy’s classic, Anna Karenina. It’s a great beginning for a novel. I remember this line even if the other details of the story seem sketchy now. I dwelt on it constantly during my long and unhappy first marriage. Looking at happy couples locked in an embrace, smiling into each other’s eyes, I wondered why we could barely make eye contact. The simple joy that radiated from mothers and fathers with little children out in the park on a Sunday afternoon, in the gentle San Francisco sunshine, seemed to emerge from a secret source unknown to us.

“How do you know when you have had enough?” asked a friend recently. “How long can you cover up, make your marriage work for the sake of children, keep up appearances?” she questioned. She was struggling with a difficult choice; to stay or to leave, an option that most of us in unhappy marriages refuse to acknowledge and even if we do, we push it to a vague future date – when the children are older, when we are financially independent, when I have my own home. I sensed her pain because I had voiced the same.

There was a time when each day brought me pleasant moments with DQ but the short-lived smiles alternated with a crushing sense of loneliness. I thrived at work but withered within my home. I laughed amidst friends but cried alone. I carried an emptiness inside which wouldn’t go away no matter how much I filled my day with activities. I made great strides in meeting personal and professional goals but the formula for marital happiness continued to elude me.

Now, I am one half of a happy couple; one fourth of a family of four. Newly married, excitedly commencing my second innings. I have my share of adjustments and change of priorities to manage. But I also have the long lens of past experience and wisdom of hindsight to guide me this time around.

Among the great enigmas of life is the relationship between a husband and wife. Like an iceberg, for every inch that is visible to those outside the relationship, there is much more that remains hidden. Each marriage is defined by a mysterious equation that maintains a delicate balance between two people who share a life, a home and children. If this is true, was Tolstoy wrong? Are happy families not all the same?

“Can I ask you a personal question?” enquired another friend this week. “It must be so exciting, the newness, getting to know each other, settling down with a new person. We have been married for so many years that even the monosyllable responses from my husband have deteriorated into grunts”.

Yes, it is exhilarating; to be wooed, to know you are desirable, to feel special. Courtship is a delightful phase – like a movie trailer, it shows you only the best bits while leaving you to imagine the rest as an endless song and dance sequence into happily ever after. Marriage however is not a short musical but an epic saga of daily chores and errands, expectations and obligations, peppered occasionally with unexpected sweet and memorable moments.

What begins with a quest for novelty to add spice to your life devolves into a need for stability. After the initial euphoria of telling each other your life story fades, you realize that the most interesting stories are the ones you will write together.

A customized guide to a happy marriage would be a handy wedding gift for all couples, even a sample page from the “all happy families look the same” club manual would help. After all, happy families do look similar from the outside – mildly complaining but mostly content; jointly looking forward to each day together.

I didn’t receive such a gift. And I know such a thing as a miracle formula for marital success doesn’t exist – age and its twin, maturity told me the day I got remarried. Like recipes passed down through generations, there are staple ingredients that are necessary – respect, kindness, love. Certain techniques need to be applied – consideration, communication and care. But when it comes to the key constituent that makes your recipe unique, you need to supply your own magic. Constantly.

Marriage requires effort – a relentless focus on each other, thoughtfulness and compassion. It requires alertness towards your spouse; reading of silences; responding to unspoken requests.

Perhaps Tolstoy was right. Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way. But what unites and distinguishes happy families is their commitment to work for it.


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I witness

“Tell me. Who proposed? Did you propose to Dada or did he propose to you?’ Princess asked me last week. We were on our nightly walk after dinner, Princess and I. What was once an exercise in solitude has now become a family activity where Princess or DQ or HH or all three, accompany me.

“Weren’t you present when Dada got down on his knees the day before the wedding?” I replied.

“Not that one. He only did it because your friends insisted on proof at the mehendi party that there would be a wedding the next day. I am asking about before that.”

I couldn’t clearly recall who had proposed, when and how. So I did what anyone in my position would do. I changed the topic.

It wasn’t a “senior moment” that had me at a loss. Perhaps it was the fact that for me, this time, it wasn’t an arranged marriage. HH and I had known each other for almost a year. Perhaps these details are not as important second time around where the focus is on the specifics of what happens next. Or perhaps, we are just an unromantic pair of oldies who would rather skip the rigmarole and get on with our life together. I think it was simply because I did not insist on a formal proposal even after we broke the news to our respective families, which included our kids who would take on starring roles in the new family show.

Coming from a cultural mindset that puts marriage as the center-piece of a woman’s existence, I had taken a long time to get over the fact that mine had crumbled. After the formal divorce, I went through a phase that alternated between relief and grief, freedom and fear, exhilaration and exhaustion. I struggled with anger, sadness, rage, self-pity and remorse. I stayed away from depression because I did not have the luxury to do wallow in it. I focused on rebuilding: a home safe for the two of us, a career that would support my single-mom lifestyle and a reputation that would enable me to respect myself and my choices.

I also avoided men, if not ignored them completely.

Until one morning, feeling particularly happy about the life I had created for myself, attributed in part to a good hair day and a hearty lunch, when I confessed to a friend that sometimes I wished I could share my life with a suitable man. My friend, no points for guessing, a guy, put on his problem-solving hat and said, “I know just the person you should meet.” With those fateful words, my fate was sealed.

HH came into my life first via email, then phone calls. We shared stories, songs, quotations, book reviews, movie dialogs, quiz questions. The first picture of himself that he sent should have warned me about jolly times ahead when I saw a photo of an ageing movie star with the modest disclaimer that he looked better in person! Our first meeting was, to put it mildly, dull. The great phone conversationalist was tongue-tied. A true scientist, I called him to ask why. And once again, we were on track. Thanks to technology, I got to know more about him through text messages than eye contact. He joked, I laughed. I sang. He listened. We talked, shared, connected.

At a restaurant one afternoon, he sat across the table. A comfortable silence hung between us. A random thought, like a spider’s web, took root from thin air. “If he walks away from me now, I don’t know how I would handle it.” That moment I realized how much I had come to count on him. A part of me was tired of being alone. Strangely though, we lived in different cities then, bringing up our kids with our own support systems; we didn’t really have a pressing need to be together.

“I am not tired of being alone” he said. “I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

Was that the proposal? I am not sure. All I remember thinking later was what I should have said.

“I don’t want you to marry me because you don’t want to be alone. I want you to marry me because you want to be with me.”

Sometimes my smart-alec brain is not fast enough. So the words remained unsaid.

And now I find myself at an important milestone. It is exactly six months since we tied the proverbial knot. I know more about HH (and as a corollary, myself) now that we live under the same roof.

He needs to play a sport everyday; I find solace in meditation

He loves to surprise me by walking in unannounced; I prefer to know if he will be late.

He can spend hours researching what I call “pointless trivia” and quotes Bertrand Russell -“there is so much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.”

I see him differently now. “That’s because I am not your boyfriend anymore” says HH, with his infectious smile.

I know why.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

–       Rumi

Once I broke my walls built of anger and covered in hurt, I didn’t have to look far. Love walked in without an invitation. We are bound together now, still unsure who asked first. But I have made a promise – to see, to be, to bear witness.