Starting Over

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


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Second place

“The desire to get married is a basic and primal instinct in women. It’s followed by another basic and primal instinct: the desire to be single again.” – Nora Ephron

takes twoI wonder if things would have been different if I had read these words at a younger age.

HH and I got married exactly a year ago. 365 days – that makes it 8,760 hours of “being married”. Maybe that’s what makes it still feel a little new, a little strange. 10,000 hours of practice forms the foundation for the phenomenal success of athletes, artists and businessmen claims Malcolm Gladwell. What about successful marriages then? Is there a minimum span of time beyond which you can be declared as “having made it”, like a quarantine period for diseases? Or is there a qualifying exam that requires a high score to graduate? What about a quality metric that aggregates behaviors, gestures, words and feelings to predict success?

The first year is a tough one for any transition, whether it follows the arrival of a new child, a wedding, a job change, a move or a loss. For us, it has been a year of all of the above. By choosing to get married, we embraced each other, one child each from our previous marriages, a job change for HH, and a new country for all of us. And yes, there was loss too. We left behind our old way of life, the cities we lived in, friends and comfort zones.

Getting married a second time is not hard. Being number 2 is. I was the second-born child and spent most of my childhood wondering why I was not the first. I hated using the same schoolbooks that my brother had used. He knew the alphabet, how to ride a bike and the route to school well before I did. It bothered me not because I couldn’t do those things, but because there already was a benchmark for what I could achieve. While others considered securing a second place in a competition or being placed in the top three in school as an achievement, I rated them as failures. Number 1 is what I thought I was and first place is where I wanted to be.

While this marriage is the second one for both HH and me, the prefix “second” bothers me more. I chose to walk out of first my marriage. HH did not. How can I match the ideal of a deceased spouse? It is an impossible situation that I have voluntarily walked into.

My drive to excel served me well for many years but now in the second half of my life, I can see that I learnt more when I missed the top slot. Failing my driving test the first time, made me a conscientious and cautious driver. Enduring a first trimester miscarriage the first time I conceived, made me genuinely appreciate not just the miracle of a baby but the road to motherhood as well. Not getting the first job that I interviewed for turned out to be a blessing in retrospect as the perfect work environment came my way a few months later.

I have learnt more from failed recipes, difficult coworkers, unreasonable clients and unexpected events than from the easy, predictable, controllable variables in my life. I like a smooth ride like everyone else but failure has been a better teacher than success, not because it saps my confidence but because it forces me to grow, to adapt, to mature.

Marriage is not a competition and having failed the first time does not preclude a successful second innings. A second marriage starts with a clean slate as a couple. But what happens to our individual pasts? The years where our memories do not overlap? It’s neither easy nor right to make the entire past irrelevant. Each of us brings our experiences and expectations to this union. At times, it seems to be of no consequence as we seek to build a new life with those parts of ourselves that we want to preserve. At other times, we consciously choose not to repeat past behaviors and attitudes that didn’t serve us before.

“It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness – Chuck Palahniuk

Kintsukuroi-photo

Picture courtesy Google images

The template for happiness that we carry within us comes from a selective memory of things that brought us joy. It originates from the past and gets modified as we actively add to it, moving pieces, rearranging colors and shapes. We get to redo the map of our life. And therein lies the gift of getting to do it again, a second time. I am lucky to have this gift. The path stretches out ahead, silent and mysterious. I may be the second one to hold his hand, but I am the only one now. We walk confidently ahead with these words to guide us.

Life has taught us that love does not
 consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward 
together in the same direction – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 
Wind, Sand, and Stars

Happy anniversary my dear husband!

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Stepping into the unknown

“Don’t let go” I begged HH, holding his hand tightly. He couldn’t hear my words but could certainly feel my nails digging deep into his arm. We were in the waters around Bali, on a snorkeling outing. The mask covered most of our faces and I was trying to bite down on the mouthpiece and breathe through my mouth as instructed. The water was clear, blue and choppy. The old man who drove the boat out to the ocean and dropped anchor, shook his head. Probably wondering why a woman who clearly couldn’t swim, didn’t trust the life jacket to keep her afloat and wouldn’t let go of the side of the boat wanted to snorkel at all.

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I was thinking the same thing.

I have to assume, so was HH, though he didn’t voice it. Probably stunned speechless by the pain of my harsh grip. “I won’t leave your hand, just move away from the boat” he coaxed. I took a few short breaths and found that I could indeed stay upright. I learnt to breathe through my mouth and slowly titled my face forward and looked below the surface of the water. Blue fish! Yellow fish! Striped fish! Big ones and small, regular shaped ones and unusual ones! They were everywhere, near the flippers that extended from my feet, almost touching my fingers as I broke the bread into pieces. The old man helpfully handed me a long plastic rope attached to the boat to guide me in an attempt to convince me to move away. I lifted my face up to the sun and saw many others in blue and red life jackets bobbing up and down in the vicinity.

The light gently reflected off the water. The boat rocked vigorously as the waves crashed against it. I looked down and was once more drawn into this parallel watery universe under my feet. There was a whole world down there. Rocks on the bottom, swaying trees, schools of fish, a couple of scuba divers exploring the depths. I held on to the rope but moved away from the boat, engrossed in walking into this giant, live aquarium. I wondered at the mystery and majesty of nature, and at my foolish ignorance of what lay beneath.

Nature is a great teacher. With a gentle but firm hand, she cuts us down to size. How insignificant is our knowledge and our presence in this vast vibrant natural world? Can notions of self-importance and conceit hold in the presence of such beauty? How trivial are the daily dramas that we create in our petty lives? 

I felt a strong pressure on my arm and looked up startled. I had moved away from HH unaware of consciously doing so. He was giving me the thumbs up sign, relieved and surprised by my obvious pleasure at this experience. I smiled.

Peering into the water I realized how closely my willingness to try my hand at snorkeling even though I don’t swim, mirrored the way we tend to handle our lives. There is an entire, novel ecosystem within reach. A new life possible if we only let go of our need to control. Holding on to what is familiar, fear of change holds us back from all the pleasures and fullness that life can bring to our doorstep. I am not a great fan of change. Status quo generally works for me. Trained as a scientist, I like to experiment but need to know the general outcome based on the variables I can control. Throwing caution to the winds, jumping off the deep end is not my style. But I had done just that, not only in stepping of the boat in the middle of the ocean but in stepping off the tried and tested life path as well. And look what a wonderful experience it has been! Life is undoubtedly an adventure, even if you choose to color within the lines. Unless we trust in the goodness of nature, in the strength of our own abilities, it will remain a mere exercise in checking the right boxes. But stepping out without guarantees into unknown territory gives depth and insight, a prerequisite for making the journey worthwhile. . 

“Time to head back” said HH, holding out his hand. The old man tugged at the rope. Reluctantly I climbed into the boat. I peeled the wet flippers off my feet and leaned into the water, waving a silent goodbye to the fish. I smiled contentedly, happy as a clam. 


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Confessions of a stepmother

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“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.


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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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Family ties

“Have you made any friends in Singapore? Do you feel settled yet?” asked a well-meaning friend.

The short answer was “no, yes”. But the simple answer was far from the true one.

Now that we have crossed six month milestone as a family, life seems to have taken on a different hue, and its not due to the haze that has begun to descend, thanks in part to the longest dry spell within Singapore and brush fires in the neighboring countries. 

My initial days in Singapore were action-packed, full of jobs that HAD to be done in order to

  •   Make the home livable and functioning
  •   Sort out visa issues – multiple trips, paper work, waiting
  •   Get kids ready for school – books, uniforms, bus routes

Then I had to get the family organized which required me to

  •    Figure out food preferences
  •    Lay down some house rules
  •    Look into hobbies and activities

The third phase was to come together as a unit in spite of our

  •    Personalities (irrespective of age or gender)
  •    Sleep cycles (teenager and others)
  •    Mood swings (irrespective of age or gender)

HH feels like a deer caught in the headlights in a full-fledged household. He has to work at the office and work at home. Was there such a time when he could prioritize a game of golf on a carefree weekend?

I feel swamped with homework, exams, activities, miscellaneous errands, PMS (mine included) and the general chaos of a home buzzing with constant activity. Am I the same person who spent one whole month at an ashram last year, away from “real life”?

Princess feels there are too many rules in this house. Why can’t clothes be stored in a pile on the floor and why aren’t French fries considered acceptable breakfast, lunch AND dinner food

DQ thinks there are too many people in this house. Why can’t she be allowed to study, text and Facetime simultaneously without people looking over her shoulder? 

HH feels there are too many women. Why are we always late everywhere?

I think there are too many demands. Do we have enough milk, a healthy after-school snack each day, clean and ironed clothes?

Some of these questions can be answered and some will linger eternally, each generation seeking answers that are acceptable at that age and maturity level. Till then, we can only focus on our actions, not knowing whether they are permanent solutions or interim management measures. So we set a few expectations.

  •    To eat dinner together, even if the meal does not have the preferred food of each member
  •    To go out for a walk at night, sometimes all of us, sometimes I go alone
  •    To allow each other the space to do what they like, whether it is silence for me to read, or Saturday mornings for HH to play squash
  •   To listen, to speak, to cry if needed, without interruption or judgment
  •   To laugh heartily as we bake cakes and muffins each week and consume whole-heartedly

At dinner we hear that Princess is making new friends since her overnight picnic organized by the school. While walking, I learn that DQ likes the Leadership Series of lectures at her school specially when the speakers are spiritual people who offer insight. I read to HH from a book that lies besides our bed. He tells me how is trying to workout in the gym in the office.

I still pick up towels from the floor. DQ and I argue about the hours she spends online. HH tells friends we are late because he can never herd three women out the door in time. I try to fit some writing into each day.

These have become our bonding rituals. With these we underline our philosophy for our family. These are our family ties.


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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!


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Pinderella

She held my hand as the flight took off, but a little too firmly. She put her arm around my neck, tight enough to choke me. She squeezed and pinched and laughed when it caused pain. “That’s what the relationship between a stepmom and stepdaughter is supposed to be like” she giggled, looking out of the airplane window at the lights of the city she had grown up in becoming tiny specks.

We were on our first flight together towards Singapore where we would start our life as a family – she and her dad, my daughter and me.

“Hold on” I said to my new stepdaughter (who was later conferred the title of tween Princess). “ All the books I read said it was the step mom who was mean to the girl, not the other way around. This doesn’t look like Cinderella to me. Are you saying our story is going to be different?”

She smiled but didn’t reply.

“We should find a new name for our story.”

“How about Pinderella?’’ she ventured, with the diffidence of a ten year old who wasn’t sure about the turn her life was about to take.

And thus began the story of our life.

When my husband, HH (short for His Highness on account of the girls being named, Drama Queen and Princess in chronological order; or Handsome Husband, which is what he secretly wishes to be called) and I decided to get married, we braced ourselves for exciting times ahead. And five months later, it has been all that and more.

Becoming a mother is a unique and universal experience.  Each woman who has given birth can attest to the contradictory feelings that motherhood sets off in us after months of pregnancy. While multi-tasking like never before, you feel inadequate. While dealing with the strength of maternal instinct, you grapple with vulnerability where your child is concerned. You love fiercely, live fully and revel in the maze of motherhood. A large part of motherhood is based on instinct, honed by the special relationship you had with your biological child in utero. How then to prepare for mothering a child who is now yours but who did not, as Kahlil Gibran puts it “come through you”?

Being a stepmom is tough and it begins with the title itself. No matter how old the child is, or who has been the primary caregiver, you are the one who starts with the wrong title. I never liked that term, with all its negative connotations, assumptions and behaviors.

Princess calls me “Ma”. I call her “my little girlie” when she is good and “Pinderella” when isn’t. She tells me about school as she sits on the kitchen counter while I cook. She sulks when I ask her to clean her room and makes faces when she has to eat veggies. I comb her hair. She teaches me how to swim. I ask her about her friends in the new school. She enquires about my job hunt. She borrows my sandals. I take her shopping. We bake sometimes. And talk for a few minutes each night before bed. She is learning to share her dad with me. I am trying to see how best to help her turn into the bold, brave, beautiful young woman I know is hiding below the tantrums and tears that have been her coping mechanism thus far.

One day on a bus ride, we both observed a little baby, busy playing with his toes, the pacifier, a rattle and his mother’s hair.

“What did you want Drama Queen (DQ) to be before she was born, boy or girl?” Princess asked.

“I knew I would have a daughter” I replied.

“What did you want me to be?” she asked, tongue-in-cheek.

I was speechless.

I had always hoped to have another baby, a sibling for DQ. But life did not grant me the chance to have a biological one. Instead I was handed this child, many years after I gave up on that dream. I was not given the luxury to choose. It was a package deal, a husband plus his child. I embraced them both. This time around, I am learning to expand my heart further. Once again, a wife; once more, a mother.

The day after we got married, we visited the home of a childhood friend. His kids were friends with Princess just as their dad and HH had been all these years. The grandmother of the children was home that afternoon. HH introduced me as “Princess’ new mother.” I smiled in relief.

I will take the title of “new mother” for a while, until its time to graduate to just “mother”.

As Gibran says in “The Prophet”

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you.

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”