Starting Over

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


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My mane girl

I step into her room at 6.45 a.m., like I always do, to wake her up on schooldays. Princess is lying face down on the edge of her pillow with Bobby the stuffed dog peeking out of the crumpled sheets. Her hair is a dark halo around her head. I touch her shoulder.

“Five more minutes” she mutters. As I try to step out, she grabs my hand and pats the space beside her. I acquiesce. I run my fingers through her hair as she grabs the last few minutes of sleep, trying to finish the dream starring teenaged Greek demigods.

A year ago, DQ, Princess and I got haircuts on the day we boarded the flight to Singapore, to join my husband, Princess’ father, to begin life as a new family. At the salon, I noticed how thick her hair was; a legacy from her deceased mother, I assumed. She gamely agreed to the short bob suggested by the hairdresser, pleased with the extra attention. She looked cute, a little older, more sophisticated than her ten years.

DQ has thin, straight hair, like me (and my mother and maternal grandmother). DQ’s silky hair doesn’t tangle even after a rough night. She moved from a short style in kindergarten to long braids to finally settle upon a ponytail as her preferred hairstyle for school. I call her my little pony. One day in the park, a stranger asked her what shampoo she used. I took it as a personal compliment; after all, I was responsible for her general health and shiny hair! We went through a phase where she wanted curly hair. As a birthday treat, I took her to a salon where they twirled her hair around curlers and brushes, blow-dried and sprayed her cascade of hair and generated a few ringlets. DQ’s excitement lasted longer than her curls, which went back to their default position, like a dog’s tail, in less than 24 hours. DQ then started lobbying for getting highlights in her hair. A few streaks of honey blonde, or red – why won’t you let me, she wailed. We have agreed to revisit this issue after she turns eighteen.

In our blended family, the responsibility of caring for Princess’s thick tresses naturally fell on me since HH, like most fathers, is clueless in this regard. With my considerable expertise in this department, I thought this would be an easy task. Ha!

For tomboy Princess, hair care is the last item on her priority list. On good days, it’s a waste of time, similar to daily showers and on bad days, it is an enemy to be subdued if not attacked outright, like the monsters that her beloved hero Percy Jackson tackles. If she could have her way, she would leave her hair in an isolated quarantine facility, out of reach of well meaning but pushy family members. The first time I tried to comb her hair, she bolted out of the chair as if I had pronounced the need for a root canal. If brushing her hair was a chore, washing it was a punishment – for both of us. She hated having me hover around in the bathroom trying to shampoo her hair that had been tortured by basketball games in the humidity of hot Singapore afternoons and twenty laps in the pool.

Some of my favorite memories of childhood involve the time my mother spent rubbing coconut oil on my scalp, trying to cool my head from “all the studying”. I loved to sit on the floor as she combed my hair and braided it. This was my special time with her, time that I didn’t have to share with my brothers, time where I had access to my mother’s complete attention. While my DNA strands may connect me genetically with my mother, my hair strands connect me to my mother on a visceral level. These strands that she caressed and cared for were proofs of her affection and building blocks of our strong bond.

I desperately wanted Princess to allow me access to her tangled mass of hair, initially, to get her into a presentable form. Awful hair is a symbol of a mother’s neglect. With immense patience (and a little bit of pressure from HH), I was able to convince her to sit still while I combed out the tangles. I told about my petite grandmother with waist length shiny silver hair who looked like a character from a fairy tale. She showed me her baby pictures with a head full of hair on her newborn head. DQ shared her admiration for a friend who had recently had her head shaved for a good cause. In the context of bad hair days, Princess told us the story of Medusa. The girls and I tried out a few shampoos and conditioners until we found the right one. As her hair grew, we bought accessories and tried new styles. Over time her hair transformed from battlefield to bonding opportunity. Each morning before school when she asks “Can you comb my hair?” I know we have turned a corner.

I pull my fingers out of her hair and Princess stirs to an instant state of wakefulness.

“Good morning. You look like Simba.”

“Why?’

“Look at your hair” I say. She smiles.

“See what I found in your hair” I show her the pink clip that has been in her hair all night.

“In my mane, you mean” she says with an impish grin.

“That’s right. DQ is my little pony but you are my mane girl,” I say as I hug her and pull her out of bed. We laugh.

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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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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.”