Starting Over

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

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Bringing up Malala

It’s been a tough week handling DQ. I am worn out from the silence, the sulks, the demands and the all-pervasive bubble of entitlement that she inhabits. I would like her to do be polite at home, focus on schoolwork and get some clarity on what major to pick in college next year. “The kids are under a lot of stress” agrees another Mom with a similar teen situation. Is going to school and managing academic expectations too much to handle for a seventeen year old? I live in a constant state of self-doubt. Am I pushing her too hard? How can I help her? What kind of support does she need? Perhaps I should back off on my demands. All I want for her is to have a happy and successful life.

Then comes news of Malala Yousafzai winning the Nobel Peace prize. Here’s a girl, almost the same age as my daughter who has managed to capture the attention of the fickle news-worshipping majority for the right reasons. I would be pleased to meet her but what I would really appreciate is a meeting with Malala’s mother.

DQ was born about three weeks after Malala. There must have been many months when Mrs. Yousafzai and I shared similar pregnancy-related symptoms, finally a day when we bore the pain of labor and witnessed the miracle of bringing a baby girl into this world. As I juggled teething troubles and toddler tantrums with a full-time job and childcare arrangements in the safety and comfort of Northern Carlifornia, my counterpart halfway across the world must have struggled with providing a safe environment for Malala and her siblings in the Swat valley of Pakistan.

As the years went by, I chose a private preschool and personally dropped DQ to school in each morning. I bought her toys and crayons. I took her to the library and read to her each night. I arranged for swimming lessons and bought her a fancy bike. I accompanied her to movies and let her hang out at the mall with friends. I took her to Italy to show her the world and let her have unlimited wifi access to bring the world to her laptop. For all this, I have a sullen teenager who is confused about college and thinks of herself as a normal teen, no different from her peers.

Malala struggled to get to school safely, have an adequate supply of books to read and didn’t know when or if schools would reopen. She expressed outrage publicly when her right to education was in question. She wrote a blog that gave insights into the secluded society that she lived in during a time of dramatic change, one that directly impacted her present and her future. She faced the consequences of standing out and speaking up for a cause that she believed in. She switched her focus from being a doctor to becoming a politician when she understood what her people needed most, a person to influence priorities and shape their future.

This is what I want to ask Malala’s mother.

How did you raise this girl child to stand up in a society where women are hidden? You have a girl whose public presence sends a message of empowerment instead of girls everywhere who are obsessed with clothes, makeup and body image, caving in to the pressures to conform to damaging stereotypes.

What did you say to her in those early years when children understand the world through what they hear at home? Your daughter uses her voice to underscore her right to education to improve herself, not to demand the latest gadgets that add no incremental value to the self.

How did you teach her to look at the imperfect world around her and not feel defeated? Your child went on to figure out that education was the tool to create a better world instead of teens who focus on material lack in their otherwise perfect world and succumb to depression.

Did you ever feel guilty for not providing the tools that other children in the world routinely take for granted? Your daughter used every opportunity to use minimal resources to reach out to a larger audience and generate support for her cause. In those years, so many of her peers who lived in a hyper-connected world became a part of a generation that feels most alienated.

Most importantly, how did you deal with the threats to your child’s safety? Wouldn’t it have been easier to keep her safe but quiet at home instead of sending her out each day not knowing whether she would return home after school?

As a parent, I worry about the safety of my children. But I worry more about their apathy. The lack of a spark that energizes each day. The absence of a cause that motivates them. I remember being a teen myself (I can see DQ rolling her eyes). It was a rebirth of sorts; a period of intense inward focus and self-centeredness. It was also a time when I formed my basic understanding of the world around me. While the insignificance of my presence in the grand scheme of things rattled me, I understood that only I could make my life worthwhile. It mattered to ME what I did with my life, even if it made no difference to others.

I am not asking my child to be Malala but I want to encourage her with Oprah’s words, “You have to know what sparks the light in you, so that you, in your own way, can illuminate the world.”

Malala’s primary advantage in life came from the fact that she was born into a family that ran schools in the region. She was given access to education and a firm belief in the power that it brings. In the background of the dark strife around her, she held on to her small but steady light long enough for it to ignite a movement.

I am distressed as a parent not for my child’s inability to appreciate the gifts of economic stability and political peace but for her refusal to dig deeper within herself to find that spark. For if she discovers it, I would be the first person to hold out my palms to protect that small glow, to let it breathe and grow, even if it means exposing her to situations which every mother fears. Like Malala’s mother, I will send her out knowing that the world can be a dangerous place for one simple reason; because she has the spark that can make it better.

Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself. – Viktor. E. Frankl


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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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What faith looks like

“She discovered with great delight that one does not love one’s children just because they are one’s children but because of the friendship formed while raising them.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

DQ turns 17 today. Each year on her birthday I think back to our first day together.

Twelve hours after her arrival, baby DQ slept beside me, tired from the journey across the birth canal. I admired her cone-shaped head, puffy face and the mass of black hair that peeked from under the yellow cap. Stiffly swaddled in blankets, she was the little angel I had waited for. In the labor room, there had been tears at the first sight of a fully formed healthy baby, shaky hands cutting the umbilical cord and unbridled jubilation. Now it was night and I was alone with my baby, the one who had always been with me, first as a gleam in my eye, then as an intense yearning and later as the bump with octopus-like arms and legs that kicked me at regular intervals just under my ribs. Here she was, visible and tangible, not just the black and white ultrasound picture but a breathing, moving live baby. I dozed off with her warmth in the crook of my arm, smiling. I woke up to a gentle wiggling at my side. It was DQ trying to snuggle further into my body. Sensing my movement she looked up. Our eyes met. And she looked straight at me and through me, a wide-eyed stare made all the more vivid by her unblinking focus.

Do I know you? You sure seem familiar. Have we met before? Why are you looking at me like that? Stop it.

We both echoed each other’s thoughts. A little tentative, a little scared, unsure of each other’s abilities and potential. In that instant, we made a silent commitment to each other.

lotusHow will I bring up this child? I wondered aloud. There is no training or preparation for being a good parent. Have faith, said my mother. You will know what needs to be done. With guidance from a deeply embedded genetic memory of having been a loved baby once, my mother’s physical presence and an instinctive understanding, the years went by.

Today DQ and I communicate through phone messages, slammed doors, raised eyebrows and rolling eyes. We bicker, I nag, she clams up. Sometimes she speaks. Standing on the threshold of adulthood is not easy. Changing families, making friends, finding her way in a new country and planning ahead for life is a lot to deal with.

How do I help my child? I wonder silently. Have faith whispers my mother. Scattered memories of her loving presence and patience jump up from hidden recesses of the conscious mind. What is faith?

How do you explain faith to a teenager? It is easier to convince a child. Children are naturally trusting, eternally optimistic. The teenage years are the ones where the hard kernel of cynicism that adults try to cover up, is exposed unashamedly. Being contrary counts, falling in line is lame and debating each point is a right that is fully exercised.

How do you describe that faith is the color of falling rain on barren land? The droplets measured in tears of frustration and grief.

How do you communicate that faith is the sound of sweet nothings that you wish your sweetheart will fill your ears with? The syllables jumbled but clear in their intent.

How do you transmit the fragrance of hope that forms the wellspring of faith and teases you with promises of wishes soon to be fulfilled? The delicate scent heady and insistent.

How do you reveal the flavor of faith that each one must discover, combining individual insights and experiences to workout a philosophy of the self?

And finally, faith that covers you up like a warm embrace when all other pretensions are shed, when people give up, when the odds are stacked against you?

Have faith, I want to tell DQ.

Faith, is what made me visit the reproductive endocrinologist my infertile friend recommended after she became a mother.

Faith, is that little bundle placed in my arms by the hospital staff, believing that I will do right by this child.

Faith, is the words of a friend who replied “don’t worry, they grow up on their own” when I expressed concern over handling this tiny life.

Faith is staying with your dream, assured that you will be guided.

Faith is knowing you will pass an exam without knowing all the answers.

Faith is in embarking on a path different from the well-trodden one knowing that your journey will be different but worthwhile.

What does faith look like?

To me, dear daughter, faith looks – like you.

I hope you will see it too.

Happy Birthday!!


A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not on the branch but on her own wings. Always believe in yourself.” ― Unknown

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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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A Mom who reads


“You don’t need to check out every book in the library. They will keep it safe for you while you finish the ones you already have at home” admonishes HH when he sees the piles of books on the sofa, dining table, bed! I know I can always go back and get the books one by one but then, how can I experience the joy that having books within reach brings me?

I am a girl who reads. I love that blast of cold breeze that instantly chills me as I walk into my neighborhood library, taking shelter from the harsh afternoon humidity. My eyes take a few second to adjust to the dim interior though it is only a response to the sun’s glare. I feel soothed, as if I am sipping a refreshing cool drink although there is no food or drink allowed inside the library. Its the sight of books that calms me, rejuvenates me and recreates in my mind the endless days of my childhood where I read everything I could lay my hands on.

I have always been a girl who reads even though there were no public libraries in Mumbai where I grew up. But I always had access to books. I read everything in the modest school library, borrowed shamelessly from friends whose homes were virtual treasure troves of books, secretly read Harold Robbins that lay around my grandparents home, probably being read by an aunt. While there were no official-looking libraries, there was the local store which traded old newspapers and magazines and lent paperbacks for next to nothing. The store had entire collections of Nancy Drew, Famous Fives and all the staple English books, many of them authored by Enid Blyton in the era preceding Harry Potter. My brothers and I fought over who got to read the Tintin or Asterix comics first. We narrated the funny bits to each other and to our mother as she cooked dinner. We then traded up to Sidney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer. As I gravitated towards Mills and Boon and Danielle Steel, I veered away from the reading tastes that I had until then shared with my brothers. Reading habits marked my age, ability and personality. It tracked not just my tastes, but my maturity. It held my hand and illuminated the coming of age wonder years. Books were my friend, my guiding light and solace. And continue to be today.

I am a girl who reads and therefore considers access to the public libraries one of the greatest pleasures that life in Singapore offers me. The library closest to home is located in the mall at the metro station and has a limited selection. My favorite is the regional library which is 4 floors of book heaven. I love everything about it; the rows of neatly arranged, precisely labeled and accurately identified books, the long glass windows lining the walls with desks, chairs and thoughtfully provided outlets to plug in your laptop; a separate enclosed “quiet reading area” furnished with comfortable sofas where you can safely browse or drowse. And if you need a break or a bite, a café is located just outside.

I am also a girl who writes. I spent a productive afternoon at the library last week. I finished reading the last few pages of a book and then opened my laptop to write in that strange quiet of shared solitude in a public place. I was afloat in a stream of imagination with words as my oars to navigate the streams of thought. I had been feeling adrift in this new country with no friends to hang out with, to vent or to venture. But the library felt like home, the books like old classmates that I had missed while we had both been busy doing other things. Now I have them within reach. Like the ones closest to you, these books will support me, watch out for me and be there to provide their infinite wisdom when I reach out to them.

Every girl who reads wants her children to read. With DQ it was easy. She chewed the small hardback books I got initially, the ones with pictures and alphabets. She eventually learnt that books were meant for reading and provided food for thought. I used a book to teach her about puberty. I gave her “The Alchemist” when she floundered. I shared my love for music with her through “The Music Room”. When I don’t want to preach, books provide the medium for communication. When I want to share a poignant moment, I read her a poem. I am with her not through my words or my writing but through the writings of others. There is always a book by my bedside. She is free to read anything I read and quite often I insist that she read something that has moved me.

How to get a girl to read? That is what I wondered when I found that Princess hardly reads for pleasure. Like many of her friends, she prefers watching movies and shows on a screen, whether it is a movie theater, television, laptop or ipad. A plain flat paperback with no pictures and action is like a nerdy girl with glasses in a roomful of swimsuit models. Talking about books didn’t help, talking about people who read didn’t work either. She loved Harry Potter movies but didn’t show any inclination to read the books. So I gave up. She accompanied me to the library sometimes. Watched me read voraciously. Asked me what some of the books were about. She saw me read out a stunning passage to DQ. Or discuss a point with HH. And one day last week, she picked up Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief from DQs collection and started reading. She took it to school, read it on the bus, read it during dinner and has it by her bedside. She is now onto the third book in the series.

What more can a Mom who reads ask for?

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What will my daughter eat today?

IMG-20140405-WA0002My mother would ask me this question on Sundays. I must have been thirteen then; still a child who loved to be treated as special, almost an adult who wanted to make big decisions. The line was plagiarized from a TV ad for a popular brand of oil but I loved repeating the routine with her, one that ended with both of us smiling. She would then proceed to prepare my favorite food. The heat of a kitchen in Mumbai in the month of May dissolved against the sweet juice of the alphonso mangoes that were in season. I would peel off my wet school uniform on rainy monsoon afternoons and bite into fried onion pakodas. I learnt to make dosas and fry pooris in my mother’s kitchen. I would munch on nuts from the countertop as I told her stories of my day. Sometimes I would chop tomatoes or roll out the rotis for her. She would wipe the sweat from her brow with the edge of her sari. I would hug her regardless of the humidity that discouraged human contact.

What is it about food that stirs up so many feelings? Not just memories.

Is it the fact that eating is one activity in which we use all our senses? As I pick up each morsel, it carries with it not just the flavor which the tongue seeks but the sight that makes it irresistible, the sounds in the kitchen when its prepared, the aroma of spices that hover in the air and the texture of the food as it moves in my mouth. Each of these sensory experiences contributes to the overall joy of eating. Later, each sense brings forth its recollection, hidden deep in its archives as individual entries. Each sense holds a piece of the puzzle that when recalled together creates an entire memory, like a rerun from an old TV show that takes you back in time many years later.

I was a troublesome little kid when it came to food. Not eating much, always in search of the perfect bite. My dad used to say I ate air, referring to my tiny appetite. I liked to eat, but I wanted every bite to be perfect. No half-cooked, unevenly salted, unappetizing looking food for me, thank you very much. Almost as snooty as a food critic, I would take second helpings only if there was perfection (perfect for my palate of course). I ate my vegetables but I craved sweets. I was game to try new stuff but took refuge in comfort foods. I showed no interest in learning how to cook although I was a competent sous chef. “She will learn cooking when she needs to. She will learn quickly like she learns other things. Its not rocket science” said Mom, when others asked her if I had been trained in the kitchen arts.

I didn’t really like to cook, even when I had to. I chose to make simple stuff that was quick to whip up. I prided myself on my ability to put together a balanced Indian dinner made from scratch in 45 minutes. Until DQ came along.

She didn’t like milk (to this day), ate only fruit and lingered for hours (at least seemed like it) over every meal till she turned eight. Friends suggested I feed her food that kids liked, pizza and fries, pasta and burgers. But even that was not enough incentive for her to eat at a reasonable pace. I chose to stick to offering her healthy vegetarian food but in my quest to make it more attractive, I started doing the unthinkable. Looking up recipes!

I learnt to make quesadillas with broccoli, bruschetta and veggie wraps. In an effort to expand her palate, I broadened my culinary abilities. And over a period of time, DQ became more open to eating regular food and has turned into what I call a “food purist”. She enjoys every bite, appreciates what is cooked and occasionally shows an interest in how it is made. She continues to be the one to finish last at any meal earning her the nickname “Tuas” – short for two hours, the average time spent on a meal.

I think I breathed a sigh of relief too soon because now I have Princess, who thinks vegetables are an unnecessary evil and has vowed to stay way from them unless it is a matter of life and death. So my quest has started anew. This time armed with the limitless wisdom of Google, I am once again on a search for new and exciting ways to camouflage essential food groups into interesting creations. We make bean burritos, corn and cheese sandwiches, paneer parathas, and creamy mushroom pasta. I ensure there is an endless supply of fresh lemonade and banana nut muffins. Every meal has to sound exciting and please the picky eater as well. Progress is slow and changing eating patterns takes time. I know. It has taken me four decades to be classified as “not fussy” when it comes to food.

It bothers me sometimes, this focus on food. We don’t live to eat. We eat so we can nourish our bodies. We need a healthy body to progress in life, literally and otherwise. Making it the highlight of my day feels like I am settling for less. I should be doing more, or at the very least, doing something else, growing my brain in so many directions. Planning and cooking a meal seems almost too trivial.

cupcake with candleWe have friends coming for dinner. Princess wants to know what I am planning to make. She enthusiastically beats the eggs, sugar and butter. DQ offers to help frost the carrot cupcakes. They linger in the hot kitchen, adding to the noise and mess. DQ wants to use the pretty tablemats. Princess takes the plates and glasses to set the table. They take pride in their creation, eat enthusiastically and share stories at the dinner table. I observe my family and have my epiphany.

I am not preparing a meal. I am creating memories.



Confessions of a stepmother


“I would say I missed you, if it were true” remarked DQ when we got back from our visit to Bali. To be honest, it hurt. Perhaps it was a peeved teenager’s response to being left alone while we went off on our exotic holiday. I didn’t respond right away but a day later I said “When your daughter says the same thing to you one day, call me and tell me about it if I am still alive. Or else think of me then.”

I said what I needed to say; not necessarily the right thing. I was miffed and reacted in a mean way. I know it was not my best “mother” moment. And there have been many such moments in the 16 years that I have been a mom.

“We miss you, come back soon” I told Princess while she was in India. “But I don’t miss you” was her reply. And it rankled. I brooded over her statement, upset and restless, for many hours. But I said nothing in response. Not then, not later.

I wonder why.

Is it because Princess is my stepdaughter? Is it because we are still new in our relationship and I am willing to let certain things slide in the interest of long-term harmony? Am I worried I will earn the “evil stepmother” title if I snap at Princess? 

I don’t know the answer. Maybe there is more than one right answer. Perhaps there are more relevant questions as well.

As a young child, DQ has seen my supermom avatar. The mom who would see her off to school, head to work, call to check-in on her after school, run errands, take her to birthday parties, pay the bills, attend to late-night phone calls, take grandfather to the doctor and still find time to have a long talk with her each night before bedtime. She has also witnessed the human side of me when I have snapped irritably, yelled at her for barging in with trivial concerns while on an important business call, ignored her while trying to help a friend through a crisis and collapsing in tears when overwhelmed.

I have been angry, supportive, inclusive, indulgent and always around for her. I don’t worry about being on my best behavior with her, nor does she. I comb her hair into an elaborate French braid. She meticulously paints my toenails. She tells me if I look fat in an outfit and I point out her pimples. She will give me a foot massage in the morning and I will run out at night to get a birthday present for her friend. But we know we can also be rude and refuse to do the smallest favor depending on our moods.

With Princess, it’s different. I am still tentative. I hesitate to give her honest feedback, she holds back while hugging. I phrase my words carefully in situations where I would have simply yelled at DQ. I do not insist that she do things a certain way (my way) but wait for her to see the value in following my words. I choose to focus on the positives. I think before I speak. I speak less. I speak slowly. I wait for change to happen, not beat it into submission as I did with DQ. In a word, I am patient.

I wonder why.

Is patience the bonus reaped as a result of parenting the first child and allowing that experience to mature in your consciousness? Am I able to handle things better because I am older? Am I relieved that this time around I have a supportive spouse? Is the fact that I am not pursuing a steep career trajectory at the same time as becoming a Mom making difference? More questions.

Some of my parenting challenges now stem from having two children instead of just one. I remember reading somewhere – having one child makes you a parent, having two makes you a referee. I haven’t had to play referee, perhaps due to the age difference between DQ and Princess. But trying to ensure parity in whatever I do for them is not possible and certainly the attempt itself is no fun. It’s not just about buying the same clothes or offering music lessons and tennis coaching equally to them. I find myself staying true to the cliché that demands a differential treatment for the stepchild, except in this case; Princess is the one who gets to have the “new and improved” Mommy.

  • The mom who doesn’t yell – even while asking her to pick discarded clothes off the floor for the nth time
  • The mom who gives her the fourth water bottle to school after three others have been lost in the preceding two weeks
  • The mom who doesn’t give a lecture about starving children in India when she brings home an untouched lunch box which contained her favorite food
  • The mom who chooses to wear a different pair of shoes when Princess walks out with her favorite sandals

I am restrained – in showing my feelings and in my expectation of the outcome. It is not easy. My approach with Princess is different, not because I am dealing with a stepchild, but because I am dealing with a new one. Most parents realize sooner or later that “why can’t you be more like your brother (or sister or friend or a child in another country)” just doesn’t work. Each child is the trellis around which we have to weave our parenting style. And with each child, the skill needs to be honed. It’s a work in progress that can be stated in three simple steps:

  1. Observe
  2. Respond
  3. Evaluate.

Repeat step 1.

Parenting is not a linear activity but a circular one. It is a continuous mystery, an infinite enigma. There is no metric to measure how well I am doing, no finish line in sight.

Am I a good mother to Princess and DQ? I wonder.

When such a question arises, I choose to maintain a perspective similar to Anna Quindlen’s in “Life with Beau” –

For children, the point of having a dog is something like the point of having a mother and father. Our job is not to do but to be, not to act but to exist. We are bedrock, scenery, landscape, to be often ignored and then clung to during difficult or frightening or, occasionally, happy times.

Believe me, it helps.