It takes a village to raise a Mother


 

Recently, on a mothers’ group, someone posted an anonymous post, and it was a very distressed mother from the looks of it.

The mother was extremely upset—to the point of hitting her child, locking him up in the room and letting him cry himself to sleep—and the reason was that he “preferred” her mom-in-law over her. He followed his grandma around wherever she went but he didn’t do the same for his mom. The kid even followed his grandfather—her father in law—but just didn’t seem to care about his mom. It made her so furious that she refused to breast feed her child that day. And then she also spoke about how she had left a high paying job for the kid and she is not back in shape after having had a baby.

At first look people would judge this mother, calling her horrible and irresponsible and all sorts of insensitive things. Almost everyone was on the ‘side’ of the baby, little realising that the mother and the baby are always on the same side. When one is angry and hurt, the other cannot remain happy.

This post was a cry for help. This lady needs a lot of love and tons of hand holding and hugging—and more importantly, empathy.

Having been there myself—hitting my son and unintentionally taking my frustrations out on him—I truly, deeply feel for mothers who are so distressed.

The problem in the above case, the way it appears to be, is that the lady in question has many frustrations piling up one upon another. She is hurt and upset by the fact that she had to let go of a successful career, and she probably has major differences with her in-laws, so the idea of her son—whom she considers a part of her soul, and for whom she made major sacrifices—preferring those people over her, people whom she probably dislikes intensely, makes her feel unloved and defeated.

The lady didn’t speak of her husband, but I’m guessing there’s a lot of frustration there as well. If the husband were supportive and affectionate, she would find the love that she craved from him and not feel quite so possessive of her son. The boy in question is merely 2 years old.

This mother is perhaps a quintessential example of distressed moms in our society, who suffer intensely on account of a lack of love and appreciation. Lack of love makes us lonely and angry. Lack of love makes us bitter.

In addition this is also a showcase of the problem that ails women by and large, even unconsciously: having to let go of all your dreams for the sake of motherhood, and then attaching all those unfinished goals and unfulfilled expectations with your child.

People expect the mother to be mature, grown up and sacrificing and able to handle every problem even at the cost of her own wellness. That is too much pressure on a young woman, especially a first time mother, and especially one who had to let go of a successful career. People forget that the world of parenting is as new to a young mother as the world of people is new to the baby. The child and mother are both growing together, both learning to navigate in and make sense of an unknown environment, facing stresses they never faced before, coping in a high pressure world. The new mother is almost as vulnerable as the newborn. She needs to be taken care of and soothed and loved as much as the little baby—and yet she is the one responsible for the rearing and nurturing and keeping alive of one whole human being, while no one pays the scantest attention to her needs.

Inevitably, her pent up frustration pours out on the child. And then the world shames the mother for being cruel to her child, the world shames her for being incompetent, the world shames her for not being “mother enough”.

What’s to be done in this scenario?

Let me hark back to the famous statement: it takes a village to raise a child.

Now let me twist it a bit: It takes a village to raise a mother.

What we are used to is the idea of insta-mothers served up in 9 months with garnish on top. Mothers, on the contrary, are created over years and years; they grow and evolve and learn on the job. A mother is a human being first. She is an individual first. She has her own needs and desires and dreams and problems and expecting them to put everything aside and just focus on being a mother is downright cruel. It takes a village to raise a mother because when everyone chips in to ease the burden on her, only then can she be a happy woman and, by consequence, a happy mother.

Unhappy women do not make happy mothers. How can they? You can only give what you have in the first place, and if you have no joy in your heart, how can you share it with others?

It is the imperative therefore, of the entire village—the new age village that includes not just spouse, in laws, parents, friends but also bosses, co-workers and flexible workplaces—to raise the child and also raise the mother. Raise her happiness levels, raise her self-esteem and her self-worth so she does not have to live her life bearing only the burden of sacrifices.

In the case mentioned above, the mother is plagued with extreme insecurity related to her child, she is stressed by feelings of rejection that arise from her child following his grandparent about, “preferring” them over her.

Herein lies another major problem that I’ve talked about on several previous occasions: making your child your only source of joy and love in life, attaching all your dreams to him/her. It has happened for decades in previous generations— when women were deprived of love from every other source, focusing solely on the child—and still happens when women give up all their dreams for motherhood.

The child was not born to fulfil your expectations or fill the gaps in your soul. Every child is born with a destiny of his/her own, with a purpose in life to be fulfilled by him/her alone. Your children will not remain attached to you forever, they will—and they need to—become independent and find their way in life and find other attachments and people to love. It is important for them to have healthy relationships not just with grandparents but also siblings, friends, classmates, teachers, girlfriends/boyfriends, spouses, co-workers and so on. With each new relationship their circle will get bigger and you will naturally have to share more and more. How then will you find the strength to let go?

It is extremely important, therefore, for a mother to have other people to bond with—spouse, siblings, friends, co-workers, neighbours. Other sources of love and joy in life. And also to keep following one’s own dreams, perhaps a little more slowly than before, perhaps with some breaks, but keep following them nevertheless—to keep a sense of purpose and direction in life. To have other sources of achievements and fulfilment than just ‘parenting’.  Not only does it ease the misery of your heart, it will greatly ease the debilitating burden of expectations upon your child.

Lastly, but most importantly, when you’re under extreme stress, get help. Get professional help from a therapist or counsellor, or at least approach your closest friends and confidantes. You mental wellness is paramount, and approaching a psychologist/counsellor does not mean you are ‘mad’, any more than approaching a doctor means that you are disabled for life. (No offence to differently abled people.) It merely means that you’re facing a health issue at a certain point in time, and proper care and treatment will lead you to wellness once again.

To the lady who was facing those issues, if you happen to be reading this, let me first hug you. One big, squishy hug to let you know you are not alone. We’ve all been there, and it’s terrible, but trust me you’ll come out of this, and both you and your baby will be happy. You are loved, my dear, especially by all of us mothers out here. One big solidarity bump.

But one word of advice to you—and to all those mothers reading this.

Mothers, please put yourself first.

Yes, you heard that right. The world will tell you to put your baby first, put your family first, and some people will go to the lengths of calling you selfish if you dare to voice your own desires and any kind of ambition for yourself.

Don’t pay any attention to them.

Tune them out like static and ugly sounds from a bad radio. Turn them off like that hollering news anchor on TV (you know who I mean). Shut them down like the gaping smelly mouth of a toilet seat.

The child does not come first. The Mother comes first.

Mothers, please learn to value your sanity, your happiness and your dreams as well. And most of all learn to focus on your health and wellness, because that is crucial to happiness.

Relatives and family members, stop pressurising the woman to sacrifice everything for her child. Stop putting a halo atop the heads of mothers and turning them into martyrs.

Stop worshipping the kind of mom for whom ‘nothing is more important than her child’.

Everything has its due importance in life. Friends, family, work, ambition, children and yes, the self. The mother must not be pressurised to give up all of them and keep just one.

And yes, I’ll say it again to you— the mother must come first. Before you think of what’s best for the child, think of what’s best for the mother. Because unless she is in the best state of mental, physical and emotional wellness, the child cannot thrive.

Think of it this way: the mother is most important for the child’s well-being, and if anything bad were to happen to her, who would be most affected? The child. If you would not be functioning one hundred per cent healthy and happy, who would be most affected? Your child. So, for the sake of your child, put yourself first. Treat your health, wellness and happiness as paramount. That’s what I always tell my mother. If you don’t take care of yourself, who’s going to be there for us? Who will we turn to whenever we are down and out?

And that’s what I say to all mothers out there: For the sake of your children at least, take care of your own self.

For you must always remember, you can only give what you have.

Mom n Child

 

 

 

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Who’s watching your mess?


kitchen

Our cosy little two-bedroom flat high up in a tower has an open kitchen, like most others in Delhi/NCR. Whatever goes on in there is visible to everyone else, including the guests.

To the visiting relatives from our respective native towns this is blasphemy.

“Oh! You have an open kitchen! I seriously can’t stand those,” says a visiting lady.

She is one of those relatives on my ‘nice’ list and if this statement had come from anyone but her, I’d have taken it as an insult. This being her though, I laugh amiably.

She continues. “Everyone gets to see the clutter inside the kitchen! It’s so awkward and uncomfortable.” I laugh a bit more, for I am genuinely amused. I’d have contradicted her, but I can’t do it out of the respect I have for her. I know what she means though.

Sajjad looks at me with a meaningful glance. He rarely ever contradicts relatives but every so often he will give me this fleeting glance to let me know he and I are on the same side.

I know he loves open kitchens as much as I do—even more, to be honest. Even better, he will often talk dreamily of us having a home with an island kitchen—you know, the kind with high stools arranged round an ‘island’ countertop right in the centre of the room. He’s had this dream for a long time now, and he will always come up to me holding a magazine or a newspaper supplement in his hand, pointing to an advertisement of a gorgeous designer home with an island kitchen that is to die for. The sheer enthusiasm with which he shows me these glossy pictures, the confidence with which he promises me that one day we’ll have such a kitchen is absolutely endearing. It makes me laugh. But he also knows it’s not a certain kind of home that makes me happy. It’s the people I’m sharing it with.

On the subject of kitchens, though, I’d take an open one any day. I’d take the oneness of the open kitchen that merges it with the rest of the house, bringing it within the fold of family space, as opposed to a restricted, sweaty space where women alone are segregated.

The kitchen in my flat opens into the lobby, with the dining table visible directly from the cooking space. This dining table is more of a watering hole for the family—a place to sit and chat or read or write. So when Sajjad sits there reading the newspaper, or doing nothing but waiting for food to be served, we can chit chat across the kitchen and the lobby and hold entire conversations as the food is cooked. Sometimes he might come and start cooking alongside me. Or when he’s cooking and I’m at the dining table reading a book or writing one of my articles, we still feel like we’re in the same room, close to each other, and cooking becomes a family activity. My son is the one who utilises the open kitchen to its fullest—dragging his little chair close to the counter and standing on it to investigate the recipe every time something is being cooked. He is a regular little chef in the making, and roots ardently for his dad every time he sees the big man cooking.

An open kitchen makes the culinary space gender-neutral and inclusive somehow, welcoming the entire family with its open arms. The closed kitchens I’ve seen all my life, both at my mother’s house and at my in-laws’ place seem somehow designed to keep the kitchen a private, sacrosanct area. My impressions of them alternate between two extremes: sometimes an exclusive club meant for dominance by a few, at other times a ghetto meant for an underprivileged minority.

I’d rather not be in either of those.

As for the mess on display that our relative complained of, I am reminded of a statement by Adil Ahmad, founder of The Palace Collection and one of India’s best interior designers, whom I interviewed last year. His office was a riot of colours and objects as I walked into it, and this is how he described it: “Contrived Clutter.” A meticulous kind of mayhem.

He told me he was put off by homes that looked like showrooms when you entered them—homes that had no personality of their own. What he liked instead, were spaces that were “well lived”, spaces that said you had been on a journey. And journeys, as we all know, aren’t just made by road, rail or air. The kitchen is the living example of culinary maps charted out and journeys undertaken every day.

So if you have guests over today, for instance, and the kitchen is full of sights and smells  that speak of the journey you undertook to create that magic loaded onto the dining table, what’s wrong if they get a glimpse of it?

I suppose it is again connected with the differences in perception between this generation and the previous one. For them, it was very important that the messes and the chaos be pushed behind a curtain, and only a perfect façade put on display. For people like me, life is beautiful regardless of the clutter, for that is an equal part of who we are.

Messes are to be celebrated. They speak of a full life—a chaotic one, perhaps, but a real life. One that is filled with sounds of laughter and shrieks of glee— as opposed to the silence of a morgue. Celebrations, reunions are punctuated with noise and revelry. Loneliness is silent.

What’s a little mess on display compared to all of that shared joy?

Waiting for the story?


So what happens next? 

All you lovely folks out there who’ve been waiting for the story of The Reluctant Reproductionist to continue, please don’t worry. You’ll get to read the rest of the tale. Just bear with me awhile, and I promise you’ll get the whole story straight from the horse’s mouth. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy being my companions on these other little trips through life!

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Chapter 43 (ii): Letter to my 60-year-old self


(Disclaimer: This post is not supposed to be a comment or judgement on anyone, it is merely a presentation of thoughts on how I’d like to see myself in the future.)

“Perhaps the world progresses not by maturing, but by being in a permanent state of adolescence, of thrilled discovery.”

― Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

About a year ago, when Richard Branson turned 65, he took on 65 challenges given by fans. Those challenges included writing a letter each to his 10, 25, 50 and 65-year-old selves. Interestingly, not one of those challengers asked him to write a letter to his older self—none went beyond 65, his age at the time. But why not?

Penning a letter to your older self would be far more fruitful than penning one to your younger self. Let me explain.

Writing to your younger self is like baking a cake for a dead person on their birthday—they can’t actually enjoy it (though you might feel good about doing it). In effect, it’s just an exercise in self-congratulation. You will never be 25 again—or 10 or 15—so there’s absolutely no point in giving advice to a non-existing person. In truth, these letters are written purely for the benefit of others—younger people, newer generation—so they may benefit from the wisdom of your years and all that you accumulated in experience, which is particularly pertinent when you’re a swashbuckling entrepreneur like Branson.

But as far as your own self goes, the exercise is completely futile. What would be more meaningful, I suppose, is to write a letter to your older self. Assuming that you stay alive till the date, it would be quite a revelation to know how your younger self saw the world, what she or he thought and experienced. Memory is a fickle lover—it plays tricks with your consciousness; it shows you past events coloured in the light that you’d like to see them in right now. But it would be infinitely interesting to know your real experience of that moment, as and when it happened. A few months ago, I happened to come across an email conversation with a friend of my college times, and I could neither recognise my own voice, nor did she recognise hers when I sent it to her. We had both forgotten so much of our younger selves from merely 10 years ago. So what makes you think you’d remember yourself correctly from 30 years ago?

That’s actually what a diary or a journal is for—recording your former self. But a journal is a record, not really advice per se. Giving advice to your older self might open up a whole new perspective. Perhaps, once you reach that age, it might enable you to see things from your children’s perspective—and lessen the inevitable generation gap. The acuity of youth is so badly discounted, and then you let it all slip away, turning into an exact replica of your forefathers and foremothers.

Which brings me back to myself— sitting on the fence, peering into the unknown future, thinking: Someday, I’ll be a mom-in-law too. And though there are numerous reasons for writing a letter to my older self, this one is as good as any. Here then, is my letter to my 60 year old self. 60, because I was 25 when my son was born and hopefully he’ll find himself someone to spend his life with by the time he’s 30, give or take a few. Here then is my strategy for the future. It may turn out to be completely unusable advice by the time I actually reach the said age, but it’s worth a shot anyway:

Romantic girl writing in a diary lying down outdoors

Dear 60-year-old me,

If you’re reading this you’ve managed to stay alive for six decades, which is no mean feat in itself. I’m sure you’re far wiser than me; you’ve experienced the vicissitudes of life in far greater measure. But I’m also quite sure that your memories of me have faded to a point where you see me only in sepia tint.

You’re standing at a great height now and can see a greater expanse. But since I’m standing lower than you, closer to the ground, I can see small things in much greater detail, with a lot more colourful vibrance. And I want you to never, ever lose the colours in your life. I don’t want you, 60-year-old me, to find your colours fading into grey like your hair would be for sure. Grey in the hair is a good thing, actually: it means you’ve got dual-toned hair without spending a dime at the beauty salon. But I’m hoping you would still be visiting the salon when you’re 60—don’t let yourself slide into dreary ‘sainthood’ just because your kid’s all grown up.

The reason I’m writing to you now is to remind you of how you were 30 years ago, and to remind you of what youth is like. So you can understand those who would be ‘new’ then, even as you’re slowly entering the ‘old’. Now, here’s my little secret to remaining close to your child—and especially to the woman that falls in love with your child: Don’t Grow Old.

You heard that right—Stay New.

Don’t you have heirlooms and jewellery and chandeliers and all, which never deteriorate no matter how “old” they technically get? They remain classy— vintage, so to speak. ‘Good as new’, don’t they say? But being vintage and remaining ‘good as new’ requires a lot of effort. And no, I’m not talking about trips to the salon—although those won’t hurt either.

The most important thing that needs to be kept as good as new is your mind, through careful maintenance and refurbishment. If you are to understand the ‘new’ people of your time, you will have to read and watch carefully the thoughts and ideas prevalent among the youth at the time, you’d need to be aware of the things they find entertaining and the things they find enthralling—as well as the evolving thought process— without being dismissive and judgemental of them. I can tell you for sure that they would be miles away from your own value system and interpretation of the world, but being dismissive or disparaging won’t help. In fact, you’d need to keep an open mind, for it may well be that the things you considered acceptable turn out to be truly outrageous—don’t forget that there was a time when slavery or sati or domestic violence all were considered acceptable. It won’t harm you to try and understand where your generation had been wrong, too.

You’d need to read as much contemporary literature of the time as you can, and watch contemporary movies and read/watch the news and be aware of events around you. You’d need, beyond anything, to listen to what your children are saying, analyse the things they say and discuss them along with your own ideas. If you feel they need guidance, discuss your ideas with them based on reason and sensibility, without resorting to the clichéd appeal: “in our times, my son…” or “when I was your age, my son…” I know for a fact that I absolutely resent being presented with these lines, and your son will resent them too—to say nothing of the woman he will share his life with.

The best approach is to find a middle ground— but only when it’s absolutely necessary. In most cases, children that have grown into adults can and should be able to take their own decisions, and the best approach for you as a parent is a hands-off approach. You raised your son to be an independent boy, so let him exercise that independence now, and let him take decisions together with his partner. If at all you need to offer advice, offer it in a positive manner—and preferably to the boy you raised, not to the girl raised in another family with possibly an entirely different set of ideas, values and lifestyles. You may not understand her at all at first, so it would be best to let the man she chose to live with handle all the sticky bits.

How else do you remain new? By adopting the gadgets and technology of the age you live in. I understand it wouldn’t be easy at all, for I can’t imagine what the technology would look like 30 years from now. But I need you to recall now, how difficult it was to first learn to cook. To first learn to drive. To first learn to bring up a baby. To first learn to manage in a big city all alone, after living your overprotected life in a small town. Everything is difficult for the first time, but you’ve mastered bigger things than a new-age gadget, so I’m expecting you to be interested in and using new age gadgets even now, when you’re 60. New age inventions will let you into the fresh world and you won’t feel left out. That’s going to be important, I think, as you get greyer in the hair.

What’s going to be even more important, dear 60-year-old-me, is to have other achievements, involvements and sources of joy than just your kids and grandkids. Believe me, that’s going to be crucial for your own happiness. That’s one of the reasons I find so much joy and pride in my writing—both personal and professional—and in my books and in my travel. If I were to centre my entire life round my son, and make him my only achievement in life, you would be the biggest sufferer, for sure enough that achievement—that son—would no longer need your mothering at 30, and find solace in another woman instead. I want you to be prepared for that, and to not make your son the focus of your life.

I don’t want you to base your entire happiness on events in his life either—his marriage and his kids, because the core of that happiness belongs to him; for you is only the periphery. If you’ll draw your entire happiness from his marriage and his kids or even his professional achievements, you’ll find yourself trying to control all those decisions in a way that makes you happy. If for instance, he chooses a profession or a girl that doesn’t fit your ideal you’ll feel betrayed because that was your only source of happiness. If he chooses to have/not have kids against your wishes, you’ll feel betrayed for you’d have concentrated your happiness only on them. For the sake of your sanity, your happiness and especially that of your son, draw your joy from things in your own life.

Set goals for your own self, goals unrelated to family. Goals for your own achievements, professional or otherwise. Don’t let your only skill be taking care of others, for then you’ll never be able to let your son behave like a grown up. Worse, you’ll even begin expecting your daughter-in-law to act like a ‘mom’ to your son—which is a fatal mistake.

Instead of expecting your kids and grandkids to return the favours you did for them and make you happy, construct your own happiness around you. Stay in touch with friends and visit them. Join a book club or some such community where you have other people to share your days with. Don’t make family the only focus of your life. Make a list of books you’d like to read now, make a bucket list of places you’d like to travel. Yes, I said travel. Just because elderly people in India aren’t expected to travel anywhere except for pilgrimages doesn’t mean that elderly people from other countries don’t pack up their bags and globetrot once they’re retired!

In fact, just imagine how big an opportunity this is, for travel as well as for romance.

Your son is all grown up and has a family of his own. You finally have the house all to yourself and your man. Isn’t that a delicious thought? You could just take your cue from the grey in your hair: grey is sexy. Don’t believe me? Just ask all those screaming fans of Fifty Shades of Grey.

So go all out and plan vacations, explore the world, try new things and have fun. Age is no bar for adventure—and young people anyway would like more enthusiastic elders around! Plus, when you’re having fun in your own life, you won’t grudge all the fun that your daughter in law would be having in hers.

Yes, you heard me. That’s what generally causes a lot of heartburn to mum in laws: “Hamne to kabhi aisa nahi kiya!”

‘We never used to do this, tsk tsk.’

When in truth what they’re really thinking is: “Kaash hamne bhi aisa kiya hota!”

‘Wish we could have done this too!”

You better believe it.

And yes, when your son becomes a father himself, try and understand that it’s his turn at parenting. You’ve had yours when you were bringing him up. So you let his wife and him bring up their kid their own way. Suggestions are good, but be careful that they are worded positively and don’t turn into taunts of incompetency or laments of “aaj kal ki maaein… (oh, these modern mothers!)” If you want people to benefit from your experiences, try and be helpful instead of judgemental.

Of course, I understand that when you’re 60 you’ll be possessed by a fair bit of nostalgia for the world as you knew it, the life that you’ve lived. It’s only natural, and you’re only human. And it’s perfectly okay to be nostalgic, because youngsters like listening to stories of an age past, stories of a time they never knew. It offers them a doorway into a wondrous ancient world—ancient to them, at least.

It fascinates them, just as 16 year old me was fascinated by the stories of her maternal grandfather who watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on a large screen in a London street, or the story of how he defeated King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan in a clay pigeon shooting competition aboard the ship that took him to England.

Remember him, the gentleman that he was—how he quoted Ghalib and Meer and Dard and Iqbal with aplomb, but dearly loved Simba from The Lion King as well!  Remember the things he stood for— always ready with kind advice but never dismissive of the new world.

And yes, there will be so many times your kids will still need you, times when they’ll be at their most vulnerable. In those times, I hope you’ll be like your own mother in law—in the way she stood by 24-year-old you when you were pregnant and a complete mess, how she took care of you when you were struggling with a newborn, how she taught you things you never knew, and especially how she never once gloated on all these favours upon you.

And I also hope that you will possess some fraction of the steel that shows through your own mother’s nerves, in how she coped with a devastating personal tragedy, how she single-handedly brought up two headstrong girls and how she still retained her infinite kindness, humanity and generosity.

Dear 60-year-old me, I’m quite sure you’ll rise to meet all the challenges and responsibilities life brings your way, but I’m also hoping you’ll have fun in the process—finding moments to bathe in the rain, to explore a new land, to steal a kiss.

I’m hoping you’ll stay new forever.

With love,

Your inexperienced, short-tempered, impatient, naïve, idealistic 30-year-old self

Chapter 43 (i): Someday you’ll be a mom-in-law, too


mum in law

Relationships that come as appendices to the main wedding clause are perhaps the trickiest ones on earth. You could argue that professional relationships are equally difficult, but if your boss turns insufferable—no matter how cushy the job—you can stick your tongue out at him/her one day and call it quits. No such exit clause available here.

When a daughter is born, very frequently your mind shifts to that time in the future when she would be taken from you by people who would claim her forever. You often wonder how that new world would treat her—and hence the extremely common blessing for girls: ‘Allah naseeb achha kare’, or ‘Saubhagyavati bhava’. May you be blessed with good fortune forever.

And though it is meant to be a blessing, it is a profoundly sad one. Ever wonder why we do not bless boys this way? Because everyone expects boys to be able to create their destiny. A woman, feeble creature that she is, is bound to her destiny forever.  And so, perhaps, if I had a daughter, I would have blessed her thus: “Allah tumhein apna naseeb banane ki quwwat de.” May you be blessed forever with the strength to make your own fortunes.

In fact, I don’t remember ever hearing my father bless me with a prayer for “achha naseeb”. On the contrary, what he repeatedly quoted to us, me and my sister, were these immortal lines from an Urdu couplet:

Khudi ko kar buland itna

Ki har taqdeer se pehle

Khuda bande se khud puche

Bata teri raza kya hai

(Elevate the self to such a height

That before your destiny is inscribed

Allah himself would ask his slave

What is it you would have me write?)

He would repeat this couplet day and night to hammer into us one single thought: we are the masters of our own destinies.

Nevertheless, he was a rare Indian parent, an exception to the norm—because the norm comprises of people wringing their hands in despair at her destiny the moment a daughter is born.

But now, tell me, when a son is born, does your mind wander to the time he’d be taken from you by another? A woman, a rival for his affections, an idol he will worship—much to your chagrin? I’m betting, no. Pardon me for generalising—it’s not a practice I’m fond of —but most Indian moms are so attached to their sons, they place them almost at the pedestal of ‘man in my life’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not indicating some sort of Oedipal complex here. I’m talking of this—which was more prevalent in the previous generation than it is in ours, but it exists nonetheless:

The husbands were supposed to act superior to their wives—the whole ‘mardon ki shaan’ thing [The Man’s Pride] and not show their emotional side or the wives ‘would get too big for their boots’.  I actually know a person among my relatives who would tell his wife, “If I’m not criticising the dish you’ve cooked, it means you’ve cooked well.” Criticism or silence. Compliments be damned.

The woman, emotionally parched, unable to quench her thirst for approval and admiration, unable to express her physical desires for fear of being considered wanton, unable to find solace in the mere fulfilment of obligations, lives an unspeakable life of bottled frustration. And then, along comes the son. He loves what she cooks. Every son does. (Mine does, too.) And she finds herself showered with compliments. He is a baby. Babies express their love unhindered.

And then, slowly, as he grows up, he starts caring for her—for her happiness and her health. Sees his mother being verbally, emotionally, or even physically abused by either her husband or her in laws, and becomes that Man—the wall of support she always sought.  He becomes the mainstay of her life.

Then, of course, enters the other woman.

His wife. But he’s not the husband his father was.

He compliments his wife’s cooking, has eyes for her, cares about her well-being. And one day, he confronts his mom, taking the side of his wife—much like he had taken the side of his mother not so long ago.  And this woman, who had spent a major portion of her life fussing over her son—considering him her sole achievement, in the absence of all other avenues— feels cheated. Betrayed. For her to grudge the daughter in law’s happiness, then, is quite natural.

If you haven’t already, read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and specifically go through the lines about Mammachi and her son Chacko. You’ll know what I mean.

Granted, all of this is rather dramatic, and not everyone had a life like that. But to varying degrees, most couples—small town, middle class, ‘Indian values’ type— fell within this range.  My father was an exceedingly romantic, mostly liberal guy who fed milk from bottles to his kids, changed their nappies and combed their hair for lice, frequently massaged his wife’s legs and back—something unheard of in his generation— because she suffered from a slipped disc and requested his wife to keep her hair loose down her back and her hands henna-painted at all times, because he loved to gaze at her beautiful self. He would take her out for a stroll by the river, and hire a cameraman to follow them and record their movements like a personalised romantic movie, while a chapraasi (man-servant) trailed behind them, holding the baby (me, one year old).

And this was in the year 1988.

But even then, my mother remembers being fairly intimidated by his quick temper in the early days of marriage, and watching, fascinated and thankful, as his temper completely mellowed down after I arrived:

“He would leave for office in a huff, angry over something, and be sure to not speak to me when he came back. But when you were born, and he came back still angry, he took one look at you and his anger evaporated. And I was so thankful for this angel in my life.”

Now this is a very loaded (offensive, too) statement, but I think this provided a major motivation for women to long for children.

I remember when I was pregnant and not very happy about it, my mum in law would reassure me saying: “Just wait till your son is born (the unborn baby is always a son for in-laws all over India). You will have a great pillar of support!”

What she could not understand, of course, was that I already had a pillar of support—my husband. Relationship dynamics had changed drastically over the previous generation. I already had a complete, fulfilling relationship; I didn’t necessarily need someone else to soften it.

But now, now that I am a mother myself, I often find myself sitting at the fence, wondering what lies on the other side. The side when I’ll be the dreaded law.

So when you are the mother of a son, tell me, do you ever wonder about the time you’ll have a daughter in law? More precisely, do you pause to consider what kind of mother-in-law you would be?

Because, to twist that line immortalised by Ekta Kapoor, the queen of soap operas: Kyunki Bahu Bhi Kabhi Saas Hogi.

The daughter-in-law, too, will be a mom-in-law someday.

 

(To be continued…)

Chapter 42 (ii): Village Life


village life

 

A village is a hive of glass, where nothing unobserved can pass

—- Charles H. Spurgeon

 

May 4, 2014

Before I was married, I had no idea what village life was like. Even my grandparents on both sides were city dwellers. And never had I glamorised country life either, the way many people do—for its simplicity, slow pace, close knit family atmosphere, fresh organic produce and so on. I was a city slicker through and through.

I never actually had to live in the village after marriage either, for my immediate in laws—the husband’s parents—were city dwellers too. It was just the ancestral home and the extended family that we used to visit in the village and that only on festivals, weddings and special occasions. And to be fair, my husband’s ancestral home in the village is a far cry from the typical village homes you’d imagine in India.

A sprawling khandaani house spread across 10 acres—40,500 square metres, to be precise—flanked by the family’s mango orchards on one side and a small lake on the other, and divided into separate, independent sections for each of the six families that make up the home. Like a private colony with interconnected doors that are forever open to each other.

The rooms all come equipped with most of the amenities you’d find in an urban middle class home. My bedroom is a large, well ventilated room with a sparkling bathroom that I particularly adore, mostly owing to the rain shower head fitted especially for me upon my arrival. But the thing that most delighted me when I first arrived as a bride was the courtyard facing my room—all abloom with pink bougainvillea and the Madhumalti or Rangoon creeper. The adjacent courtyard boasts a flowering pomegranate tree and a grand old Neem, another one has a flowering peach tree while yet another boasts red chilli plants. A veritable organic heaven of sorts.

And yet, what struck me hard right from the beginning was the huge cultural chasm. Within the beautifully painted walls and blooming courtyards, the lives and mindsets are quintessentially representative of regular Indian villages. The values I’ve lived and sworn by all my life are alien here, drawing blank astonished looks if I so much as utter the phrase “women’s rights” or “gender equality”— unfortunately/fortunately my favourite phrases in any conversation. Women are expected to know their place– quite literally.

But then again, this isn’t something odd or astonishing—considering that I’ve met some of the most deep rooted patriarchal mindsets in swanky urban settings as well–it’s not like my own relatives are immune to it either. It’s a general Indian trait—except I happen to not share it, and thankfully, neither does my husband. But the effects of patriarchy are never as manifest as when you become a mother.

In truth I am aware that this is just for a few days. I am aware that it springs merely from a place of love for the kid, I’m aware that all their advice can be taken calmly. But with everything going wrong in my life right now— dashed hopes, frayed trust and unreliable business partners—calm is the one thing I cannot be.

What I am is desolate, suffocated and utterly trapped.

 

Chapter 42: In-laws and outlaws


May 3, 2014

And so life continues as usual. Usual being, in the Indian context, amid the hot and spicy curry of relatives, social gatherings and, not to be forgotten, constant social scrutiny.

Right now I’m in a small village almost at the border of Western UP—the ancestral home of the in-laws. My existence post marriage has been a strange crossover between extremes—my urban, English-speaking family and my husband’s completely desi and robust, village-dwelling extended family—plus my own journalist-blogger self who feels happiest in the Metro city of Delhi. An interesting mix, if a tad un-mixable.

But never had the distance felt so glaringly obvious as when my little one appeared on the scene.

The birth of my son has literally landed me in the midst of a crossfire, a tragi-comic tug of war that never ends. This has, in fact, led me to conclude that all relatives—regardless of whether they are yours or your husband’s— should always be referred to as in-laws. For they are the ones always laying down the laws. In-LAWS.

Now, it’s a fairly normal occurrence in life—no matter how unpleasant—that mothers get shot down all the time for their alleged incorrect parenting. You child might be hyperactive, not active enough, too polite (hence a pushover), not polite enough, too fat, too thin, too addicted to books, not interested in books, too talkative, not talkative enough—there’s a whole variety of parenting flaws that relatives will only be too happy to point out to you.

This is irritating enough in the normal course of things, but the impact of being constantly belittled is magnified manifold when you are the only one at the receiving end, with no partner to defend you or even to share the blame. To make matters worse, people from both sides of the fence are having a go at you.

To my family, my boy is a junglee—a wild child absolutely bordering on the uncontrollable. Having been exposed to a baby after almost two decades, they have completely forgotten what children are usually like.

“What an atrocious kid he’s turning into! He just keeps upsetting things and throwing stuff and running around. Can’t you even keep him in check!”

Directly opposite this, to my extended in-laws from the village, he is a pushover, a whining mouse of a boy. They have a house absolutely teeming with kids who create a racket all day long.

“What! Is this what you have turned him into? You have a ‘mard bachha’ {male child} and this is what you’ve made him? He ought to be able to hold his own, he ought to be able to fight and run and kick and punch! Make him a man, not a mouse!” So on and so forth.

The worst part is they’re both correct.

My one and a half year old boy is a regular monarch when he’s in familiar surroundings amid people he’s more familiar with. But as soon as he’s out of his den, he clutches at his mom in terror, bawls at the slightest provocation and cowers in fear when faced with a bully.

But let’s not forget that he’s only a year-and-a-half old, for heaven’s sake—19 months to be precise. It’s perfectly normal for a little boy to be scared of the outside world, to be wary of strangers and to be intimidated by bullying. Except for one little thing: my boy is a little exceedingly possessed by stranger anxiety, and a little too unused to rough-and-tumble play. Which isn’t surprising, considering that he’s growing up in the absence of his father, with no ‘manly’ activities to speak of. What’s worse is that my mom has always had the chicken-soup syndrome: too much protection and too little independence. I’m nearly always over ruled when it comes to letting him play a little rough and go out there and explore. There’s always a set of arms nearby to either haul him up or haul him out. This constant hovering has created an additional disadvantage of him being a bit more uncoordinated than kids his age—walking and running only on his toes. Naturally, he keeps tripping and falling over his feet.

Now this becomes particularly terrible when you’re visiting a joint family (with not one but multiple joints) that boasts not less than 2 dozen members— and guests besides. Every time someone tries to pick him up, he bawls. Add to that the village courtyard with uneven flooring and his uncoordinated, running-on-toes gait—and you have a kid that falls flat on his face every half an hour, with his lip cut and gums bleeding each time.

A sureshot recipe for disaster.

A recipe for day long allegations of over-parenting, which is ironic since back home I am subjected to day long allegations of under-parenting. The constant whining, of both the boy and the relatives combined, is getting far too much on my easily-frayed nerves. In case you didn’t notice, though, there is a major difference between being heckled by your husband’s relatives, and being heckled by your own: with your own people, you can snap back and tell them to back off. No such liberty with the husband’s family—not by a long mile.

Grin and bear it gets a whole new definition—only in my case it’s weep and bear it. Every time someone heckles me for my ‘insufficient parenting’, I go back into my own room and weep it out.

I hate and curse my son for being such a cry baby and a pipsqueak. I hate my mom for being such an overprotective hovercraft. And I hate and curse the father of my son for leaving me alone in this onslaught.

He ought to be here. He ought to be the one fielding these questions, he ought to be the one teaching his son to be ‘a mard.’ He ought to be sharing this responsibility with me instead of sprinting off to another country like an escaped fugitive, an outlaw. How I hate him.

More than anything, though, I hate myself for being incapable of properly bringing up my son. For being incapable of handling my own life and doing something about it. Wretched, contemptible, loathsome woman.

I feel it. I feel it again.

The rage that underlines my very being, the magma that bubbles and bubbles. Chokes me with its fiery flow, but finds no escape.

loneliness