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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Letting go

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body” – Elizabeth Stone.

I waved to DQ as she passed through immigration and security at the airport and walked towards the departure gate. She would soon board an international flight and return home in two weeks. I was quiet, mulling over this temporary separation from my child. It wasn’t the first time she was flying alone to another country, it was the second time in 6 months. I had been nervous then. This time I was cool. It was my calm acceptance of her ever-increasing steps towards independence that rankled more than the travel per se.

“Are you upset about DQ going away? It’s only for a few days” said HH, observing my silence.

“I am used to it” I replied. “These pangs began long ago. From the moment I delivered her” I snapped, a little too sharply.

The toughest part of mothering is letting go. It begins initially with physical separation.

On DQ’s first day at preschool, she held on to my legs and wailed “Don’t go, don’t leave me here.” I went through the workday with intermittent visions of her tear-stained face. A concerned coworker observed my plight and said “Enjoy this clingy phase while it lasts. My teenage boys don’t want to be seen anywhere near me.” I smiled, secure in the knowledge that my little girl would never do something like that. Now I know what parenting a teen means. My coworker was right. In the early years, whenever I traveled for work, I acutely missed DQ. She seemed perfectly happy subsisting on Dominos and Baskin Robbins without my nagging.

It hurt to acknowledge that my child can survive AND function fully without my constant inputs.

A friend tells the story of his 4 year old daughter who would say she didn’t like chicken, having been brought up in a vegetarian household. As she grew older, her response to “do you like to eat chicken?” changed to “I don’t know, I haven’t eaten it yet.” Slowly, ever so subtly, children inch away from being your echo to finding their own voice.

My child has her own opinion which is different from mine and she does not hesitate to say it. Should I admire her or be upset?

DQ and I were movie buddies for a long time, happy to watch romcoms and sitcoms together; until she became a teenager. Birthday parties, movie outings, mall crawls – Mom was no longer the first choice. Between phone, Facebook and face to face with friends, there were no details that needed to be shared with Mom. Unless there was a school-related emergency of course.

The young woman who shares some of my genes and quirks, no longer leans on me exclusively. How can I not feel abandoned?

Children can be our mirror, reflecting us completely, warts and all. Children are also a prism, splitting our thoughts like light beams into many colors. They illuminate our world; add meaning and depth. How does the little person who you care for and coach turn into a free-thinking planet, tethered to your gravity for a while but always in the process of generating the required escape velocity to pull away and launch whole-heartedly into her own orbit?

Life is a series of acquisitions – objects, information, skills, abilities. Life is also a list of losses – objects, innocence, relationships. With life comes the experience of having things move away from your control, voluntarily or otherwise. Logically, letting go should come easily. But it doesn’t. Specially for a mother. Not because we grasp too tightly, but because we remember. The warm baby breath on your neck as your infant falls asleep, the bruise from a fall on the playground, the smile when you cheer enthusiastically for your child, unaware of how embarrassing it looks. We linger on the sweet memories and the terrifying ones. We save the keepsakes for later. We savor the moments. And from this storehouse, we pull up recollections to compare, or to complain.

Watching your child grow up and away is hard because it involves a conscious process of detachment. Letting go involves selectively forgetting what once was. Letting go requires effort to let things be. Letting go is an exercise in discipline. Letting go, paradoxically, is a form of control. I control my instinctive impulse to hold on, I control the flood of memories each step towards independence brings, I control my fear for my child’s safety.

So I let go of my doubts. I set aside my anxiety. I focus instead on how far we have come, DQ and I, on a road that has not always been smooth. I wave her off with a smile, secure in the knowledge that she will travel the world with confidence. There will always be a part of me with her, the part that steadies her hand as she takes off on this adventure called life.


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My mirror and me

DQ and I attended the university open house yesterday. A scorching dry day in Singapore, filled with the expectation of a much needed rain shower. Thousands of youngsters milled around the information booths handing out brochures and balloons, information and ice-cream, facts and freebies. Loud music buoyed the palpable atmosphere of eager anticipation. Smiles and laughter punctuated the hot afternoon as prospective students did the rounds of the booths while worried parents milled around the financial aid station. DQ and I took the campus tour bus. We added brochures to our goody bags and took selfies with our balloons. We switched moods, sometimes she worried about what was ahead, I laughed at the kid dressed in an oversized mascot uniform. Sometimes I wondered how my tiny newborn had transformed into this budding woman and she seemed jubilant, mouthing the words of the song playing around us. At times, we were both silent, contemplating our own thoughts of what this moment meant to us.

How can I not get sentimental at such times?

My child is my mirror. I should have recognized this truth the week I brought DQ home from the hospital. My mother had come to help me for a few months and one day she stepped out for a few hours to visit Monterey with a cousin. I was left alone with DQ. She fussed and cried inconsolably. I couldn’t tell if she was hot or hungry. Cuddling her didn’t help. Leaving her in the crib made it worse.  With each hour I got more agitated and she in turn became harder to manage. I was in tears, feeling helpless and incompetent when my mom got home. Seeing her, I relaxed and handed over my wailing infant to her loving arms. And from that minute, all was well. DQ became quiet and took a nap. I wept with joy and took a shower. At that time I thought it was mom who had made the difference. Over time I realized that it was my frame of mind that DQ as reflecting, ever the eager untainted glass to show me my inner terrain.

I don’t stand in front of a mirror for long. It shows me gray hair and wrinkles, proof of the years that have passed; years during which I was too busy to appreciate my firm body and unlined skin. I gaze more often at DQ and her transformation. As she rehearses the speech she has to make at school tomorrow, I see her toddler-self trying to reach the bowl on the kitchen counter repeating “stoberry”. I drove her to play-dates not so long ago, now I worry about her going on dates. From focusing on looking presentable, she now focuses on her upcoming presentations. Her growth curve and my timeline are intertwined. But her outlook is not always mine. I am flattered when people say we look alike; she hates the comparison. People ask her if she will pursue a science education, like me and I know she will not. Just as I can’t make my image in the mirror to look like a younger me, I can’t make DQ become a second-generation avatar following in my footsteps. And I don’t want to.

My mirror doesn’t show me what I want to see but what I need to see. So does DQ. Today I am a person who is excited by learning; the prospect of expanding my outlook, which enhances the anticipation of new experiences. DQ seems hesitant. In her I see myself, more than two decades ago, in a new country, figuring out the next steps for graduate school. A little shy; extremely skeptical. I worried about fitting in, being understood, meeting expectations. The opportunity for pursuing higher education in the USA kept me going, the challenges of finding my place in a foreign system kept me engaged and I am forever grateful for that experience. DQ is at a similar threshold now. Looking at the sea of bright faces, hardworking Singaporeans of many races, vying for a seat in a prestigious institution. Not sure of her place in this system, wondering if she can keep up with the high standards.

DQ mirrors my own doubts at finding myself in Singapore subsequent to my choice to marry again. She just followed me. But I am excited to be here. I love being in a place of education and yesterday was no exception. I would like her to catch the contagious enthusiasm that pervades colleges and universities, its irresistible, wave of youthful optimism. I want to tell her what a wonderful time of her life this is, how easily she has found herself in a place where she can choose her course of study in an excellent academic environment, how she must count her blessings. But I refrain.

The best way to change what you see in the mirror is to change yourself. So I allow myself to be carried away by the exuberance of the surroundings, by smiling so much that my face hurts, by feeling excited and peaceful at the same time.

And I see my mirror doing the same.


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Happiness is….

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Drama Queen (DQ, who is now 16) must have been about four when she asked me,

“Amma, did you ever want to be a dog?”

She was a huge fan of Clifford, the big red dog cartoon on TV and had watched a show in which the little kid imagines life as a dog. An ardent dog lover then (and now), we were having this conversation on our way back from day care. The Los Altos hillside looked green and graceful, as I pondered on an appropriate response.

“No, but when I was a kid, sometimes I wanted to be a boy.”

“Why?”

“I had two brothers and I felt life would be more fun being a boy, doing boy stuff, I guess.”

I turned around to see her scrunch her face in concentration in the blue car seat. She was quiet for a few minutes before she knocked me over with her reaction.

“But if you were a boy, you could never be my Mommy.”

Getting into “mommy school” probably has been the toughest educational experience in my life, notwithstanding my Ph.D., which in retrospect can be called a cakewalk. I know I am not the only one who says this. The not-so-fun part of motherhood is in knowing early on that you will never graduate from this institution, which is as old as humanity itself.  The daily grind of mothering that begins with breastfeeding and diapers continues into constant supervision of meals and homework and unending arguments about friends and Facebook. It is a course of study that only underscores what you already knew the minute you held your baby in your arms – once a Mom, always a Mom.

Working full time with a small baby left me with very little bandwidth to enjoy the big moments. But we found happiness when we stopped to appreciate the small, uncomplicated moments together.

Happiness is….watching a snail on a sunny afternoon with your toddler.

Happiness is ….counting the colors of the rainbow after a brief rain shower.

DQ and I have both grown together, the years filled with toothless smiles, cheeky grins, hugs and laughter giving way to pimples, cramps, boys and non-specific teenage angst. The baby with a round face and stubby nose has morphed into a gangly teen with a perfectly oval face and a sharp nose. People say she looks like me but she doesn’t. She stands shoulder to shoulder with me, looking like the girl I wished I was when I was 16. She already exudes a quiet confidence, grace and sense of self that has taken me years to develop. She can do stuff that I can’t. She swims effortlessly and loves the feel of the wind in her hair as she bicycles down slopes. When she insists on shopping for new clothes, again, patiently trying on outfits, I know she didn’t learn this from me. When she enthusiastically gobbles up sickly sweet cupcakes I see a tiny reflection of my sweet tooth. She exasperates me with the number of hours she sleeps when she should be studying. The phone is glued to her hand and when its not, there is an iPad at her fingertips. And did I mention, fingernails dipped in brilliantly colored nail polish?

When she is nice, we discuss her day at school, laugh at her weird dreams and sometimes, boys. When I am nostalgic I remember that she was really good with naps but was a fussy eater in her toddler years. We drool over “hot” movie stars and play the same song over and over to get the words just right. She doesn’t borrow my shoes any more, they don’t fit her “giant” feet, a sore point over mistaken genetic selection. I share my love for books with her, forever pushing a suitable selection her way. She configures my phone and thinks I am cool for not wanting to “friend” her on Facebook. There are unreasonable demands at times but tears are rare.

I watch her closely, trying not to crowd her. I am always unsure whether I have got the balance right, allowing enough freedom with its consequent responsibility without sparking a teenage rebellion. We argue occasionally but hang out together more. I nag. She bickers. I bake. She eats. And once in a while, she gives me a giant hug. The “thank yous” are few but heartfelt and unexpected. DQ has been my anchor, my one constant during the years it was just her and me, when her dad and I parted ways. We continue to define happiness in the small uncomplicated moments together.

Happiness is….getting piggy-back rides from your daughter in the swimming pool

Happiness is ….sharing a vanilla cone on the beach after sunset

And now, in a new country, with a stepfather and stepsister, she is once again the rock on which I rest when I feel jittery. She made me a birthday card shortly after we moved to Singapore. It simply said “Home is where Mom is.” It’s probably a cute phrase she lifted from the internet but it shows me that she still binds her coordinates to mine, no matter where my journey takes her. I didn’t imagine my life taking this detour but I was strong for having a daughter to hold my hand. I don’t know how life will unfold but I now have another one too. The big questions can wait. I know this for sure. All I need to do is find happiness in the small, uncomplicated moments.

Happiness is ….. having two daughters!