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