Starting Over

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


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It’s not about the money

Money won’t create success, the freedom to make it will – Nelson Mandela

I can’t put my finger on it. This lingering sense of disquiet, an emptiness, a longing.

Is it the waiting? “Waiting” is not my favorite status. Waiting patiently is excruciating. Waiting with no end in sight is almost impossible. That is exactly what I am doing right now. Waiting for a job, to be gainfully employed. To do meaningful work that also pays.

Is it the lack of a regular income? I like making my own money and have been self-sufficient financially from the time I left my parents home. Money represents value for my time and skills. Money helps pay for mundane but necessary stuff – DQ’s college tuition, HH’s birthday present, travel and bling.

Is it because I am unemployed? Work gives me a focus for my attention, an outlet for my energy and the opportunity to complete a job to my satisfaction. I meet people, I contribute to something outside of my little world and I find balance in the multiple personas that I juggle.

Is it because I have to list my occupation as “housewife”? Although my own mother was happy to be one, I always knew that my work would distinguish me from her and so many others. Housewife indicates an area of specialization on the home front, a level of expertise which I am sure I will never acquire even if I spend more years with the title.

Is it a consequence of spending so much time at home? I appreciate the rewards of solitude but not the hours spent in solitary confinement as most weekdays seem to be. I turn on the TV during lunch just to have voices around me, how depressing!

A critical ingredient that completes the recipe of my life is missing, something small and insignificant by itself, like salt, but one that adds flavor and zest to everything else.

If I seem to be bitching about the life of privilege I am currently leading, I agree. Sometimes I feel I am being unnecessarily grumpy about a phase which I know will pass like all the ones before this one.

I find myself unhappy when I am a human “being”. I would much rather be a human “doing”. I prefer to be actively pursuing something, moving towards a tangible goal, not necessarily a material one. Striving for something, self-improvement, personal development or whatever you call it, seems to be a worthy way of living. Passive existence is lame, as a teenager may label it. If I look back at my life, there have been times of intense activity followed by a period of dormancy. Not of my choice but brought about by circumstances. How often have I waited for an event, a milestone, like a child on Christmas morning, piling all my hopes on it? And how many times have I learnt (in retrospect of course) that the very same object of my fascination becomes superfluous, a burden even, inciting a reverse activity of sorts, to change things again?

There was that time when I waited impatiently for my green card. I thought it would solve all my problems. It made life a little bit easier for a few years once I got it. But a few years later, I found myself turning it in to the officer at the US consulate in India who accepted it wordlessly. The green card no longer served any purpose for the life I was living. My life got simpler without it.

About a decade back, I left my lucrative job in San Francisco, confident of taking a well-deserved break after the move back to India. I didn’t have a job. I was in a new city with no friends, no income, no specific goal. It was a painful wait. One day I landed a great job and the life of leisure I had envisioned soon morphed into an overwhelming work life remarkably similar to the one that I had left behind in another continent. I resigned from that job after a few years, choosing to make my own way, not employed by a giant corporate but being my own boss, the much-anticipated job cast aside easily.

As I look at career options in Singapore, exasperated by the lack of opportunities, I fret, I clam up, I vent my pent-up frustration. It’s not just about the money. It’s the lack of prospects. A part of me knows that what I yearn for now will be just another episode in the drama of my life. I need the structure and support of work that confers financial independence to the insecure me, the one who had once been left to fend for herself and her child. I need a physical space, a productive place where I interact with people and get rewarded for doing what I am good at.

Just as salt added to the food we eat unites the flavors, money is the key ingredient that gives a material dimension and a quantitative perspective to our work. A little is nice, just the right amount makes life easier but a whole lot more is neither necessary nor good.

So I wait – impatiently perhaps, while the next act unfolds, anxious for a honest day’s work.

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If the first lady can do it, so can I

I wonder how she does it. Who you ask? Michelle Obama. While the world may focus on her enviable position as first lady, my question is a more prosaic one. How does she manage day after day, to be in the limelight, not for her credentials as a Harvard-educated lawyer but as the wife of the President of USA?

The newspapers are busy comparing the first ladies of USA and China, now that Michelle Obama and her daughters have landed in Beijing. Madam Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping was a well-known folk singer before her husband rose to prominence. Michelle Obama was the primary breadwinner of her family as her husband worked his way to the Oval office. Today these once formidable women, have chosen to take a step sideways to stand as spouses besides the world’s most powerful men.

I wonder how they truly feel. Was it hard? To give up work that you were good at, a career that you enjoyed, an identity forged as an independent woman to take on life in the public eye?

I know how hard it is for me. Ok, ok – so I am not married to a President and have only seen the Istana in Singapore from the outside. I was no celebrity but I felt a tug as I moved to another country after I married HH. For many years, both in the USA and in India, I had work I enjoyed, friends to hang with and a life that was predictable. After working full time when DQ was little, I had managed to carve out a work life balance in India that made it possible for me to earn enough to support a comfortable lifestyle and have the freedom to pursue other interests.

I do appreciate the comfortable life I have today, taking primary responsibility for my home and family. I have the luxury of spending quantity time with my girls and enough energy to ensure that it is also quality time that we spend together as a family. I am grateful for not having a crushing commute and a competitive job. But I hate marking “housewife” under “occupation” when I fill out forms. It irritates me when my thoughts focus on what to make for dinner tonight instead of deadlines on projects. I hesitate to have long chats with friends knowing that there was a time when “I am on a call” meant it was work-related. I get really upset when DQ mutters, “Dude, you need to get a job” after a particularly inquisitive conversation with her about school.

What I miss is the focus that work brings to my day. It gives me a legitimate outlet (which also pays me) for the high intensity churning that my brain indulges in, night or day. Having tuned my body mechanism to operate at full capacity all these years, shifting into lower gear seems counter-intuitive. Life may be in neutral but there are days when I feel like it has moved into reverse gear. I accomplished more when I was busy. I have not just done away with lists; procrastination has become a way of life.

There are pictures of Michelle Obama with Madam Peng, discussions about their outfits and roles at this historic meeting in China. Their responsibility is to look good, send out feminine vibes, build soft ties with the countries they visit and provide perfect photo-ops. One article even called the wives of politically powerful men “accessories”. Does it hurt when people judge these women who are capable of more for making personal choices that have now cast them into symbolic roles of first ladies?

I don’t really have a right to ask. I found myself judging the stay-at-home moms in my neighborhood soon after I moved to Singapore. While I was home too, I justified my time as a legitimate gap while settling in with my new family. And yes, I was actively looking for work. I would be gainfully employed in no time, that’s what others said. That’s what I said to myself, as the weeks became months and the job trail didn’t look as if it was leading anywhere. I still consider myself a career woman even though I attend yoga class on Friday mornings, go to the library on Wednesday afternoons and meet a friend for lunch on other weekdays.

Last week, one of the moms enquired about my job hunt. I confessed that it wasn’t going too well and I feel a little depressed sometimes. “Don’t get depressed. Talk to me when you feel blue. I have been looking for a job for two years and have only recently made peace with staying home after 18 years of working at a job I loved.” I was shocked and humbled. Here I was, turning my nose up at the women who stayed home, not knowing their story, while they had been welcoming, inclusive and supportive without prying into the details of my life. As a group they were kindred souls, as individuals they had their unique stories. I felt I didn’t fit in because I had labeled myself “working professional”. I wasn’t willing to accept this homebound version of myself. They weren’t judging me. I was. I had made a choice but was not embracing its consequence on my career gracefully. It was time to do so.

I still don’t know how the first lady does it. But she seems to be enjoying this time of her life, using her presence at the podium to take on issues that she cares about. She has chosen this role and essays it perfectly. All I can hope for is to move through my life with the same grace.

Don’t struggle so much, the best things happen when not expected” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez