My Mother as I know her

This is one post I always wanted to write but never got down to it because I have so much to say and only so many words to say it in. This post is about my mother.

In one of my favourite pictures of my mother, she is in her early 20s, a teacher, out on an excursion trip with her students. Her suit is the same colour as her skin – pale and wheatish. The wind is playing with loose strands of her hair, rest of which is tied up in a braid falling down up to her waist. She is wearing oversized glasses that sit comfortably on her thin, pointy nose and a little below her sharp cheekbones. She is perched atop a megalithic rock, looking up at the sky, a pose that is reminiscent of her young and carefree days.

The young woman in this picture has already gone through a lot judging by the string of stories that have been told and retold. She has lost her mother to paralysis and her youth to becoming a mother to her siblings. The young woman in this picture has no idea that life will bring her a husband (loving yet eccentrically different from her) and three children (two daughters and one granddaughter – so far atleast).

I remember whisking away this picture, one afternoon, from our large and unwieldy family album when my mother was not looking. I did not put it in my wallet. I did not place it on my cupboard door. Instead, I tucked it away safely in a book titled Only Love Is Real. Months later, when she asked me about the missing picture, I shrugged because if I told her that I took it with me, I would also have to tell her why. I wasn’t quite prepared for that.

I remember looking at this picture of her’s a lot during my pregnancy. Wondering whether my child too would have a favourite picture of me from my younger days, of who I was before I became her mother.

“You are so much like me”, my mother says ceremoniously.

“I see a lot of me in you too.” I confess.

Particularly when she is sulking. I locate something of myself in the deepened lines on her forehead. It is an echo of my voice that I hear when she is muttering under her breath out of anger. She often reprimands me for exhibiting similar behaviour in front of my daughter, “Speak up, so that we can hear what you’re saying!” I want to tell her I get it from you but I end up muttering that too.

Whenever she is with my daughter, I often find glimpses of that young woman in the picture in my mother. A certain goofiness surrounds her demeanour, they dance, sing and laugh like no one is watching. All parts of her that she let go of when or just because she became a mother.

Behind the etchings of age and motherhood, is a past version of my mother that I long for. I have only come across that version in brief spurts yet it has been there all along. Still is. She can be pestering, disapproving and sentimental all she wants. She is also fiercely brave, insanely comical, eloquent and sublimely generous.

The other day I went upto her and confessed to having stolen her picture and misplaced it too. She looked unpreturbed.

“I knew you had taken it.”

“Then why did you ask me about it?”

“Because I really looked good in that and I thought of putting it up as my Facebook profile picture.”

Almost just like that she became that young woman in the picture again.

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Watch Your Language

Z has been at it for half an hour now. She has been babbling away into a cordless receiver, talking supposedly with her ‘favourite’ friend from school. I am looking at her from a distance, eclipsed by an almirah, trying to process what she is saying. It is like two real words intermingled with a long string of gibberish and then another couple of comprehensible words. Complete with gesticulation. I make a mental note of the real words she speaks. I wonder what she is thinking.

This reminds me of a scene from the movie Lost In Translation where Bob Harris (Bill Murray) attempts to converse with an elderly Japanese man in a hospital waiting area. They seemingly communicate, just not in the same language as two women eavesdropping on their conversation giggle away in the background.

Language can connect and distance us at the same time.

In another scene from Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara, Imran (Indian) feels comfortable in opening up about his step-father to Nuria (Spanish), a complete stranger, who comforts him even though she does not understand the language he is speaking his heart out in.

Can thoughts and feelings exist without language? Who are we without our words? I often wonder.

I was raised bilingual. Born to Gujarati-speaking parents and grandparents hailing from the west of India. My mother was an English teacher at a school in the quaint town of Sidhpur in Gujarat. When I was ten, my grandfather, an avid reader, used to highlight passages from Reader’s Digest, huge stacks of which outlined his study and made me read them aloud in order to help me enunciate better. Thus started my love for the English Language.

Recently, at a family picnic, a cousin’s wife overheard me talking to Z in English. She was quick to point out that I was doing a major disservice to my child by not talking to her in her mother tongue. Moreover, if I continued this way, my daughter will end up monolingual, knowing only English and I will deepy regret not teaching her Gujarati when the time was right.

I told her that I am bringing up Z in a multilingual household. At any given time she is exposed to four different languages in the house. My mother-in-law speaks with her in Gujarati. Our domestic help talks to her in Hindi. Our cook is rather blatant about her insistence to speak with Z only in her native tongue, Bengali. While H & I talk to her in English. There is no compulsion on anyone to talk to her in a particular language. I suspect it is a familiar story with most urban households in a multicultural country like India.

The best way to learn a language is through consistent exposure to it. Rather than following misplaced-patriotism what is the harm in exposing her to a fair amount of English, which will benefit her hugely in the longer run?

The other day while we were dining at a restaurant, Z launched into one of her rants. She usually picks up words from all the different languages she is hearing through the day to form a sentence.

‘Mamma, let main finish jaman then we go party ma

(‘Mamma, let me finish food then we go to the party’)

I quickly nodded in agreement to make her stop.

The lady serving us got intrigued by Z’s choice of words and could not resist asking.

‘If you don’t mind my asking, what language is this?’

‘It is a language my daughter has invented so that none of us in the house get offended’, I joked.

To Have or to Have Not

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It was 11 o’clock in the night as I sat on the bed stroking my two-year-old daughter’s hair as she lay in a deep slumber beside me. A sleeping child is a sight for sore eyes. As I watched her sleep in that moment filled with tranquility and gratitude, I felt blessed to be a mother.

A feeling that was in stark contrast from the one I had only a couple of hours ago.

Earlier that night, at 8 o’clock I reached home after a particularly arduous day filled with unnecessary work meetings, necessary odd jobs, and dealings with errant Uber drivers. To add insult to injury the elevator in my building was adorned with an Out of Order sign. So I tottered up three floors with bags of groceries, laptop, and other belongings. My body had reached a state beyond exhaustion.

As soon as I rang the doorbell, a joyous shriek of ‘Mammmaaaaa!’ preceded the door opening. Z hopped off her cycle and barreled down the hallway toward me. As she flew into my arms, I instantly unloaded my physical and mental baggage at the doorstep, letting her wave of love wash over me.

This bliss was short-lived though.

Upon entering the bedroom, I went into a tailspin. The floor was strewn with toys and bed with biscuit crumbs. The curtains had white paint on it and the walls were scribbled with a permanent marker. I drank a glass of water to calm my nerves, told Z it was cleanup time and began hustling without so much as a word. Except for the fact that Z was not in a mood to cooperate. While I gathered the toys in the storage box she threw them out again and a few at me. I tried talking her out of it but my attempt was responded to with a big ball thrown at me that barely missed my right eye. I hoisted her on my shoulder and put her in front of the television in the living room, shuffled back to the bedroom thinking to myself that perhaps motherhood was not for me.

These days my emotional graph looks a lot like this. The curve rises to the highest point in one moment and plummets to the lowest in the next. In order to ride the surge and land on my feet, I have to be ready with the surfboard of patience at all times.

What if I was given an option to go back in time and make a different choice of not having a child, would I take it? My answer is a vehement NO. I suspect this would be true for many other parents too. Parenting is the most challenging job and yet most of us who have already taken up the mantle would admittedly be miserable without it.

So what advice we as parents would give to the ones sitting on a fence about having children? Is having children the best decision they will ever make or will it be a decision filled with regret and what ifs? I would say, take your time, have them when you are sure about it. However, the truth about having a child is that you can never be sure about the choice you are making. Not before. Not during the pregnancy. Not after. Not ever.

A close friend (newly married) and I were indulging ourselves in a light-hearted banter about the irrevocable choices we make. She told me matter-of-factly that parents these days do not make having children sound like an attractive prospect. True, I mused. Never before has a generation put so much thought into whether they want to have children or not. The choice did not exist. It was the most natural and logical thing to do after marriage. They raised multiple children in a seemingly effortless manner.

Perhaps the problem with the current generation of parents it seems is more psychological than philosophical. We are constantly weighing ourselves down with our own thoughts, words and actions. Instead of pausing to think what our children mean to us and how they make us feel, we get bogged down by the specifics, if or when we have them, what should they wear, eat, learn, and how should they behave. Specifics aside, if we dwell more on the rewarding moments, a different picture would emerge.

In his poem, The Blue House, Nobel prize-winning, Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer, talks about looking at your life from a vantage point, seeing it for what it is, while appreciating the lives you might have had if you had made different choices. He writes that every life has a ‘sister ship’, one that follows a completely different route, one that did not carry us, one that we did not take.

Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.

Whether or not you take the plunge into parenthood, either way, the decision is filled with what-ifs, may-bes and if-onlys.

The parenting ship I am on is treading uncharted waters but after every night of storm it braves, I am rewarded with the tranquility of the sea and a rising sun at the horizon. To the ‘sister ship’ that I did not take – ‘Au Revoir!’

Guilty as charged

IMG_8496.JPGAll guilt consists of 3 parts:
1) what you did was avoidable, 2) but you did it, 3) and you will do it again.

Guilt is a double-edged sword. You let it cut deep enough to ooze out all the toxin from that big lump in your chest and then use it as a spatula to apply balm to your wounds. Guilt is a hateful emotion but also one that punches way above its weight. We have the capacity to feel guilty about almost anything and also the exact opposite of it. About not spending enough ‘quality’ time with the children when busy at work. About neglecting work while on a spontaneous holiday with the children. About that expensive treadmill bought on a whim, some part of which is being used to dry off clothes now. About devouring a bar of chocolate when that same morning the number blinking on the weighing scale was screaming for urgent attention. No one likes feeling guilty but it is essential to a certain extent because, without this system of internal checks and balances, we would all become sociopaths.

As a mother, guilt is riding on my shoulders all the time. Like a secret, bodiless child I am parenting apart from the real one. It was rather well-behaved before the real child came into being. However, now it has gone rogue.

Recently at a family wedding, I accomplished the impossible – found a quiet spot to escape a hubbub of laughter and shouting that is often an upshot of a large family coming together for a wedding. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love weddings and get-togethers. However, with a toddler in the house, I often crave for quiet moments with myself. Z was playfully occupied with her cousins under the watchful gaze of many elders in the family. Seizing the opportunity I retreated to the lawns to read some poetry on my phone, under the winter sky.

Hunched over my phone, enamored by Rupi Kaur’s words, oblivious to my surroundings, I was having a bit of a moment in an unfamiliar place. Suddenly I was snapped out of my reverie by a squawky voice. I looked up at a yet-to-be-introduced-to face smiling down at me.

‘Here you are! Your daughter is crying her eyes out looking for you while you are busy staring at your phone. Maybe she is hungry.’

Guilty as charged or was I? I flushed in that moment but was almost as quickly indignant in the next. Here I was, I thought, a lover of poetry, reveling in some of it on a hand-held device, well-earned break after a chaotic (to put it mildly) first half of the day, while my child played. Somehow, inadvertently I had managed to cast myself into this familiar, much-maligned character of a mom who is negligent, distracted and possibly watching mindless videos on YouTube while her child is starving and distressed.

To avoid any further guilt-inducing reproach, I rushed to the rescue of my crying daughter only to find that she had forgotten all about her mother’s existence and was successfully distracted by a pigeon on the porch.

Guilt is a self-feeding monster. The remnants of the last one I felt were beginning to snowball in my chest. I silenced my phone, put it away, held my daughter’s hand and headed for the play area on the lawn. Z took to the swing while I stood behind her rocking the swing back and forth.

The crisp wintry breeze coupled with the warmth of the winter Sun and Z’s playful giggle had calmed my senses. I was beginning to enjoy myself again. We were seesawing and swinging and sliding and chasing each other and hiding behind trees. While Z was hiding and I was seeking her, my cousin found me. We were being called inside for lunch.

A casserole of guilt is a staple at the family lunch table. Everyone partakes from it. Body-shamers, fussy eaters, diabetics with a major sweet tooth, fried-food fans, pass-me-the-carbs kinds, and on-diet-only-salads-please kinds. I sat at the table with Z on my lap feeding her from my plate, while I ate too. Just then, my share from the guilt casserole was handed to me on a platter and this time by a familiar face.

‘Oho, you seem to be too besotted by your daughter. Leave her be, she will feed herself when hungry.’

Besotted? Really? Because only a little while ago I was guilty of being seemingly negligent. Inside my head, a scene from a video game played out wherein I was shooting pellets at tiny guilt monsters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Definition of You

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You are all the singing, all dancing crap of the world”

~ Chuck Palahnuik, The Fight Club

For an obnoxiously long period of time, I believed – what you do defines who you are.

I started earning while I was in school. I was good at academics so started giving private tuitions to my juniors. Worked as an intern with a corporate communications firm while I appeared for college entrance examinations. Turned the internship opportunity into a part-time job while studying to become a graduate. I was in a hurry to grow up. Switched jobs till I found something I enjoyed doing and gave my heart and soul to it. Graduation happened. Marriage happened. Work sustained through it all. My job had become a way of life. It defined me and unbeknownst to how precarious it can get, I allowed it.

When we allow what we do, to shape who we are, it is dangerous territory we are venturing into and yet we have little control over it. The psychology of the culture we inhabit daily seeps into our consciousness which forms our view of life and idea of self. We carry that psychology with us into our personal lives and relationships. The danger here is that although influenced, our outlook feels natural to us when it is anything but that.

Sometimes all it takes is a chance encounter with an individual or an event or a place that is very different and new from the one you are accustomed to and voila! Layers of conditioning and becoming peel off to expose the ‘you’ who was before the ‘you’ who became.

A few days ago, at a birthday party, a mother who had only just made my acquaintance asked me one of the worst cookie-cutter questions. A question that perhaps I am guilty of asking too in the past.

‘So, what do you do?’

This question assumes an awful lot of things. It attaches a person’s identity to a job instead of attaching a job to a person’s bigger and evolving identity. Akin to that annoyingly boring question we often ask children. ‘So, what do you want to be when you grow up?’

I wanted to ask her if she had the time, patience and inclination to hear me go through a laundry list of things I do throughout the day. Whether she would judge me if I told her that I am a stay-at-home-mom who keeps a quivering toe in the workforce because she is struggling to come to terms with her constantly evolving self. Basically, I wanted to request her to stop asking such a question or come up with a better one if she was genuinely curious.

Instead, I answered her question and asked her one in return.

‘What do you like doing with your time?’

She paused for a while.

‘I cook. I love cooking!’ She beamed at me.

I could see that she really loved cooking because her eyes gave away more than those three words (I love cooking) could ever express.

‘Wow! I am not much of cook but I like to eat.’ I said with a wink.

From thereon, the conversation went places.

From culinary snippets to kitchen hacks. From how she makes the perfect potato gratin to how I make a mean Maggi. From Julie and Julia to The Hundred-Foot Journey. We got so involved with our intermingling worlds that we lost track of time and of where our children were at.

I went home that day and tried her potato gratin recipe. Called her soon after to let her know that it turned out rich, creamy, sapid and by far the most perfect potato gratin I have had.

She was ecstatic and then she said. ‘You know I don’t usually talk about my cooking skills because it is kind of a given when you are a housewife but when you asked me what I liked doing with my time, I couldn’t resist telling you.’

The realization dawned on me that our conversation would have happened very differently had I asked her the same question she asked me. Somewhat like this maybe.

‘… and what about you? What do you do?’

‘Oh, I am just a housewife.’

– The End –

Being a housewife is a job too but if you let that define you then everything that is intrinsically you will take a backseat.

Turn off the autopilot because it is for when we are dead.

Angry Mamma?

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Life is really simple for a child. It’s either black or white. All the varying shades of grey in between does not matter.

Z, my two-year-old daughter had carefully plucked out two labels from the broad spectrum of seemingly complex human emotions – angry and happy. If Mamma is not happy she must be angry and vice versa. She made it a point to present me with her two options every time I appeared to her as ‘not myself’.

That day it played out for the third time. The back of my eyes hurting from staring at the computer screen for long hours, I sat with my face buried in my hands when Z walked up to me holding a miniature cup of imaginary tea.

‘Angry mamma? Angry?’

‘No baby. Just tired.’

‘Then, happy?’

‘Yes.’ I concluded dejectedly, taking the cup from her hand and gulping down the imaginary tea.

She then followed it up with her warmest hug in an attempt to lock in my state of presumed happiness in that moment.

Z gives the warmest hugs. Her tiny arms wrapped snugly around my neck. Her soft cheeks touching my earlobes. Her irresistible baby smell filling my lungs. Warming the cockles of my heart. I can feel all the accumulated tension leaving my body inch by inch.

Happy is doable, I told myself. What I couldn’t fathom was how did angry become an option? Had I been angry at her or around her too often? Had I been so frustrated and overburdened that for her it had become a normal state of being when not happy? Yes. Oh my god, YES.

‘You’ve got to calm down. Get a grip.’ My husband tells me. More often than not his words have the opposite effect. Sensing failure, he often turns to Z, using my anger as a tool to encourage her to behave herself, ‘please don’t make Mamma mad’.

This grown-upness is hard work. An upshot of unwanted experiences, bad choices and tough lessons combined with an ever-changing perspective on the way we see the world in general. Happens to us all. Exhaustion seeps in and suddenly you are no longer in control of your words and actions. In that moment it may seem like you have earned your right to be angry and whine endlessly.

A rather preposterous presumption. How am I entitled to exercise my right to yell at someone just because I had a tough day? Anger cannot be used as a privilege. Yet here I was, wielding my sword of anger as if it were my birthright.

Young children are good at mapping emotions. They read non-verbal cues and sense the energies projected from feelings and thoughts of people around them. Laugh loudly and they may start giggling too. Cry in front of them and they may start sobbing too. In a manner of speaking, it is as simple as ‘I am happy when you are happy and sad when you are sad’.

Children’s emotional expression is pure and visceral, unlike us. Sometimes only they can feel what we are feeling and when that happens we should not make the mistake of pushing their love aside.

That day, I let her hug heal me.

 

 

 

 

What’s in a Gender?

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“Of all difficulties which impede the progress of thought, and the formation of well-grounded opinions on life and social arrangements, the greatest is now the unspeakable ignorance and inattention of mankind in respect to the influences which form human character. Whatever any portion of the human species now are, or seem to be, such, it is supposed, they have a natural tendency to be: even when the most elementary knowledge of the circumstances in which they have been placed, clearly points out the causes that made them what they are.”

Source: The Subjection of Women (1869) by John Stuart Mill

Gender conformity begins from the time the child is in the womb.

Oh, you are glowing! Must be a girl. 

Judging by the size of your belly, I think it’s a boy. 

You need a boy now to complete your family.

Many such statements fill the air you breathe in during pregnancy. It infiltrates your thought process, makes you wonder about your unborn child’s gender, even if it doesn’t matter to you or wasn’t even on your mind to begin with.

Every birth announcement ensures that gender is the first label a child is given when born. What follows then is a tsunami of pink or blue; of prince or princess; of dolls or cars, the list is endless.

A neighbour came to visit us when Z was still an infant and me, a neophyte mom. She left us with a big present wrapped in bright pink and a remark laced with a smirk for my shrieking infant, “She is too loud in her crying, you know, for a girl.”

It is about time that gender stereotyping is seen for what it is – a plague, that has affected us, our parents before us and their parents before them.

We may have come a long way as far as awareness of gender equality goes, what with ‘Feminism’ been named as the word of the year in 2017 by Merriam Webster. However, a trip to a toy store, a visit to a birthday party, a peep into children’s books or watching a children’s television program will make you realize that gender stereotypes are far from gone.

The other day, I came across a mother’s post on Facebook. She had put up a picture of her little girl wearing a glittery tiara at her fifth birthday party surrounded by a deluge of gifts mostly in pink. Through this constant fixation with making princesses out of little girls and the colour pink, children come to believe these messages about themselves. Girls may grow up assuming they are to behave gently, speak softly, look pretty or dress well all the time. This kind of reinforcement of stereotypes is hindering the overall development of their personalities, which has further ramifications.

“When the environment makes gender salient, there is a ripple effect on the mind. We start to think of ourselves in terms of our gender, and stereotypes and social expectations become more prominent in the mind. This can change self-perception, alter interests, debilitate or enhance ability, and trigger unintentional discrimination. In other words, the social context influences who you are, how you think and what you do.”

Source: Delusions of Gender By Cordelia Fine

Gender equality begins or ends at home. We have to practice what we preach because children are excellent at internalizing what they observe.

H and I struggle against conventions, external and internal, on a daily basis to create an environment for Z that is free of gender stereotypes. First, it takes a lot of unlearning of the messages we ourselves have internalized while growing up. Splitting up of household chores and responsibilities come next. There should be nothing that is either a ‘mom’s job’ or ‘dad’s duty’. Both can do school drop-offs and pick-ups, stay at home when the child is unwell, buy birthday presents for her friends, remember to cut her toenails et al. Easier said than done? Absolutely. Is it really necessary? Undoubtedly.

“The idea of having it all never meant doing it all. Men are parents, too, and actually women will never be equal outside the home until men are equal inside the home.”

– Gloria Steinem

The idea is to poke holes in the status quo. Make gender less important in our conversations with children. Point out inequality based on gender norms in the world around them. Not make one gender uncomfortable and awkward in the presence of another.

Toys do not have a gender. Colours do not have a gender.

Why offer them the choice of pink or blue when they can have the full rainbow?