Lessons from Aikido and how inadequacy is all in the head


You think you would have outgrown it! After all 42 years of age is old enough to know better. But a couple of days ago I realised that no matter how much time has touched someone’s life, certain things never change.

Let me add a bit of background here.

I quit working, as in with a company, for a monthly pay cheque, about 5 years ago. Since then, I have tried to survive as a freelancer. Having a husband who supports my love for writing and foots the bills helps for sure. But I take my job as a freelance writer for publications and PR firms seriously. Then yesterday I had to go for a meeting in relation to a new long-term freelance writing and editing gig. This basically means I am assured some money every month as a freelancer. This was my first meeting with these folks who will be sending work my way for the next year.

After 5 years of not being answerable to anyone, I was back. To say I was nervous would have been an understatement. I wanted to make a good impression. I wanted them to realise that I am really good at what I do and hell, they are lucky to have me on board. I wanted to be good enough to be on board. I wanted to impress. I wanted to crawl into a cave. I did not want to go. I wanted to call up and cancel and then plan what to cook for dinner and maybe work on chapter 5 of my novel.

I have been a writer pretty much all my working life… that is 20 plus years… with magazines, newspapers, websites, film companies, TV companies and whatnots. When I am not writing to earn my bread and butter, I am writing poems. I am writing stories and even blog posts. And all the time, I am writing to unravel my thoughts. Many a times I have sat down in front of a blank journal, my brain racing a mile a second, my heart close behind, and feeling stressed, anxious and well, inadequate in the face of life. But if someone were to ask me what the problem was, I would be left floundering, trying to pin down the elusive source of my unease but getting nowhere. It is a lot like those faint outlines of a tree that you see on a fog covered mountain track. It is vague but you cannot really assess its actual size, colour or distance from you. And then I start writing, filling in the blank spaces in the page in front of me and 9 times out of 10, by the time I have filled a couple of pages, I know exactly what is bothering me.

Why am I telling you all this? So that you understand how important writing is to me. It is like breathing. It is what I do. Sometimes I think, it is the only thing I can do and know how to do.

So for me to feel this incredible amount of inadequacy was shocking. For the last one week I had been trying unsuccessfully to come up with an excuse to avoid or at the least postpone the meeting. But the lady in question has a lot on her plate and can suss out bullshit in a nanosecond, and I could not think of anything even remotely creative or original.

The universe, however, does teach us our lessons in the most unusual manner. It was a day before the meeting and I was feeling increasingly powerless. My 9-year-old daughter Aku (that is her pet name and she has a few) had to go for her Aikido class. It was her first class after a two month long break. (We are based in Dubai and schools here have their summer break in July and August.) Two months in India, lapping up her ammamma’s and achamma’s treats had left her a bit heavier and feeling sluggish. She was also experiencing a growth spurt so her outfit, called the gi, was pulling at all the wrong places. She felt that she would make a fool of herself and did not want to attend her class.

If there is one thing I had promised myself I would never be, it is a Tiger Mom. Not my cup of tea. So she and I chatted and talked and eventually I got it. She likes Aikido and she wants to continue but she does not want to go back for the first class of the term, as some of the other students who had stayed on in Dubai during the summer would be really good at doing their Aikido moves, whereas she will be floundering. In her words –“I have forgotten everything mumma! E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G!”

I kicked in to my wise mother zone, (yeah I have one. I also have silly mumma, angry mumma, strict mumma and cuddly mumma zones. Who doesn’t!?) and asked her, “So you will go for the class next week?” “Yes mumma.” “But Aku, won’t next week still be your first class back if you don’t go today?” It took a moment for that truth to hit home and she quietly went away to get ready for the class. Of course there was grumbling the entire drive to the class.

When she stepped on the Aikido mat in the dojo, I could sense her nervousness and fear. I felt it along with her. The sensai started with the warm up exercises and then moved on to teaching the new defence moves… 5 minutes later, Aku turns to me with the biggest grin ever. She is back and she remembers and she is enjoying it. The relief!

The remainder of her class was a blur for me as I sat there and realised that my journey was not all that different from Aku’s. The meeting was my first class back. I could postpone it but I could not really cancel it… not unless I wanted to quit writing professionally. There was only this far that I could run away or this long that I could hide. Eventually I would have to step out unless I wanted to remain in a shadows, a shadow of my former self.

Many of my friends are at that age where the kids have become old enough to not need their attention all the time. Quite a few had taken long sabbaticals from work, some had never ventured into that. But now, they want to. However, there they are standing in front of us… our fears, our doubts, our belief that while we may ace at a myriad things that go in to being a home maker and mother, we don’t have what it takes in the outside world. Not in a world peopled by beautiful, talented, successful, confident young women. This is what I have to say to my friends and to my own self… keep moving. I can bet you that that confident young woman is right now battling her own inner demons but instead of turning back and running to her cave she is moving onwards. Like Aku. Like you. Like me.

How did that meeting go? Great.

Silly mumma.

About the author:

After 20 years of being in the print and visual media industry, Binu Sivan finally called it quits to become a freelance writer and focus on becoming a writer of stories, poems and an occasional blog post (https://binusivan.wordpress.com). When she is not writing, she is busy cooking non-gourmet meals, hanging out with her friend, nagging her husband and daughter, being a mom, reading, avoiding exercise and planning her next road trip in India.


How cut-offs, lists and percentages are robbing our children of happiness

Seeds of tomorrowBy the time you read this column I would have spoken about and moderated a discussion on ‘How to make your passion your paycheck’ at a career and networking forum aimed at women’s empowerment. I am glad they called it passion and not hobby. It somehow seems more legitimate.

It struck me a few years ago that I had got to that place where I could unflinchingly write ‘writer’ in the box that said ‘occupation’ while filling a form, any form ranging from visa to child’s admission. I couldn’t earlier, even though I had decided a long time ago that all I like to do is write. So I would disguise it as ‘advertising professional’ or ‘journalist’ or ‘editor’ or ‘content creator’ or some such.

I remember vaguely talking about following your passion many times to various groups of students at the school I taught at last year. They were in awe that I had a Masters in Pharmacy and chose to write (or then, teach English).

I met quite a few really talented students. One girl doodled like a magician. Another was a dream with a guitar. A third wrote songs she could make a living off. A boy made the best origami lanterns. Another did water color with the most delicate strokes. A third knew every species of bird in the Sahyadris. Another made the finest batik art I have ever seen. There were pianists, sitar players, basketball whiz kids, cricket prodigies, poets, botanists, tabla players, singers and dancers.

Somewhere I think they all knew that while their parents were ‘allowing’ them to indulge in their passions for a while, sooner or later, they would all have to fit into neat little boxes. Being old enough to appear for their boards also meant being too old to pursue your passions as if they were your life.

June and July are months of lists for students. Lists of those who make it and those who don’t. Except you really don’t know if not being on a list can actually be a good thing for your kid in the long run.

When I thought back to my days of board exams and the results thereafter, I was on every list. And that was my greatest undoing. Because being on a list and walking away was not acceptable then. May be it was and I didn’t really have the courage to walk away and pursue what I thought was my passion. I then imagined myself as a vet, a dancer or a writer. I pursued none. Years later, through a very long and convoluted path, I was glad I could still go back to being a writer. But it was too late for the other two.

It’s been a long time since then but the boxes haven’t changed much. Admissions have become online, but the cutoffs remain relatively the same. Or as my mother would say, marks have no meaning anymore; they are being doled out like crazy. But the higher the marks, the higher the cut-offs too.

One of the dear friends I made through this column has a son who has recently cleared his 12th with much flourish and was at the crossroads. The choices were many. Media studies, business school, oceanography, design, architecture and more. The parents offered him many options, and did their bit of research to figure what would be best for him.

The child was of course bogged down by all the choices, applying for admissions and the pressures of masculinity from his alpha male father. He turned to his mother for comfort. He knew she would understand what was going on in his mind, and more importantly, his heart. She asked him what was it that he really wanted to be when he grew up. And he said, ‘I want to be really really happy when I grow up, mom!”

And I think that nailed it.

We are okay with happiness as a byproduct, but not as a goal, as Eleanor Roosevelt reminds us. This is why it took me two decades after schooling to reach a point where I could say with all honesty that I made my passion my paycheck.

We are often putting our children into little boxes, defined by the marks they get or the marks they didn’t get. So our children are forced to say that they want to go to business school when all they want is to teach origami, or study engineering when they would rather be ornithologists or take up media studies when what they actually wanted to do was study rivers. So a great saxophonist becomes an MBA, a wordsmith becomes a Chartered Accountant or a food stylist pursues law. And they lock all these little passions in littler boxes which may or may not be opened for a long time. And in some sad cases, will never be opened.

I know I am not good at giving advice and don’t know enough to do it, but try not to see your children as the boxes they made it into and the boxes they didn’t. Because there is a lot of them that will never fit into any box. And that is what will eventually make them truly, really happy. And happiness is a great goal for anyone.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 29th June, 2015)

Won’t stay-at-home mom: How I came full circle

I found a really shallow reason to go back to the workplace in my fourth year of stay-at-home mommyhood.  I wanted to dress up and go to work. I wanted to change footwear, earrings, wear hair-product, lipstick, nail-polish, perfume, cotton sarees and silver jewellery.

Fact is, I was tired of mommy dates. And pushing swings. And being told that I cannot take a nap when I thought I had earned it.  I was tired of the husband always whining that he had the most stressful job in the whole world.

On most days, I can see the humour in motherhood. I also think children are deep and there’s a lot to learn just by listening to them. I found myself laughing and crying in equal measure as I spent hour after hour with my son, just the two of us, and the ‘casulls’ we constructed, the mess we reveled in. I made plenty of “I quit my awesome job because I really wanted to be a stay-at-home-mother” mommy friends. I believed them. I began to say the same thing.  I believed it. It felt good. There is the power of the collective. Blogger mommies. Twitter mommies. Working-from-home mommies. School gate mommies. Facebook mommies. Desperately-social-networking mommies. It was important.

But here’s a simple truth: no one leaves a job that is perfect, that truly makes them happy. The same holds for SAHMhood

Just like no one gives up on a relationship when the sex is really good.

Here’s another confession: When I first quit my good-on-paper job to pursue motherhood four years ago, I had reached the point where I was sapped by the job, by its sameness, by its autopilotness, its rinse-repeatness. Motherhood at that time was like a sizzling affair; it was a start-up; I felt like an entrepreneur, I liked the fact that I could do it by trial and error, that there were no style-guides or briefs, that my baby was a brand I could totally make my own, that it didn’t come with excess baggage, that I had no boss! Plus Re was curly-haired, dimple-chinned and drop-dead-gorgeous.

When I was asked “When are you going back to work?”, it made me mad. I wrote angsty blogposts. I got hate-mail and love-mail in equal measure. I smiled and waved.

I had what many women dream of having. Unlimited credit. The husband said it was my reward for doing what I was doing. He was lavish with praise, gratitude, money; he fixed me the best drinks after particularly dreary mommy days, he massaged my calves, he always fed the cats, threw the garbage and made me tea. I flung and he picked up after me.  Sometimes there was a voucher for a dress, sometimes I had a cash-bonus thrown in, sometimes a ticket to Goa; he did his best to keep me incentivised. I had three years in which I could sit around, paint my nails, outsource babyness, buy clothes, go to spas and do pretty much anything for self indulgence, as long as HE was off baby duty.

I wasted it; I outsourced nothing. I took my job seriously.  I treated SAHM-hood like I would a new job. I was always trying to think out of the box, do things differently, wake up every morning and plan meals and things for the day, find ways of making every minute I spent with the boy fun and inspiring. I planned outings, library visits, beach dates, cookie dates, activities, park dates, pot-lucks with much gusto. When things got really intense between Re and me, I started the saga of play-dates and mommy dates. It was the beginning of the end. I met mommy after mommy, each time hoping that she would be THE ONE.

And one day, I got bored. Really bored. And tired. Really tired. I had decided though that the day I felt it was a drudgery, I would stop and try to get back to the work space. I didn’t want Re to be at the receiving end of this energy.

The problem with women like me who are awesome with domesticity is that you can begin to think it’s a career. I am great with food, baking, décor, lighting, furniture, clothes, PTA meetings, play-dates, money, you name it. I know places, I drive, I can create adventure out of nothing and I have lost count of the number of brunches I have hosted. Three  years later, I hated being a SAHM for the same reasons that I loved it in the first place. That it sucked me out. That it consumed me. That I was so emotionally invested in it that I thought it was me.

I am shallow enough to think motherhood is about logistics, after a point. I was done with plan Bs and Cs. Sometimes I wished I had half a dozen kids, so I could have said “fuck-you” to no-shows.The straw that broke the camel’s back was being dumped by a mommy on a play-date I had planned for our boys. A mommy I didn’t really give a rat’s ass about.

Meanwhile every Sandberg , Slaughter, Mayer and Bhagat were holding forth on women in the workplace, constantly making a case for or against SAHMs. It was like there was a conspiracy to shake women out of their complacency and get them back into the race. Mommies on twitter were constantly up in arms or really gushy about their words, depending on which side of the fence they sat on. Twitter was full of mommy angst, very cleverly camouflaged to fit a 140 character breeziness. Mommies instagrammed photos, they wrote micropoetry, they posted link after link (I still don’t how whether they actually read all that content). The ones who spoke about the motions and the mundane were termed whine-bags and dismissed. If you had to be cool on twitter, you had to rise above mommyness.  You had to be with-it.

But it still didn’t bother me. I was as happy as can be, I reasoned. I had a book deal, a blog, a column, I wrote for various newspapers and magazines, and I ran a well-oiled home. What more could I possibly do? On the face of it, I had it all. But it wasn’t enough. It was all too deep. I needed the shallow, the frivolous to feel real. And no, working in PJs is not as much fun as it’s made out to be.

I realised one thing: It’s okay to call your job a drag, but it was not okay to call motherhood a drag. And then I read something which truly explained the intensity of what I was feeling, and it’s the best thing I have read about the work-life balance. In the language of economics, the marginal utility of time with your kids—the happiness you get from the last hour you spend with them—declines as you spend more hours.

It motivated me enough to send out my resume, line up meetings, and announce that I was ‘ready’. In less than a month, I had a job.

I am liking it. I like swiping my card and hanging out with my team in the canteen. I like the quality time over the quantity time with my son. I like that I have outsourced the dreary bits. And I am no longer afraid to call them dreary. I like me more. I know there should be deeper reasons for going back to the workplace, but for now, this will do.

There have been good days and bad days. I have been late for pickups, I have snapped at the husband on the phone, I have run out of meetings like Cinderella, I have got on the wrong train and got so immersed in my book that I didn’t notice, I have started dreaming about work.

But it’s not bothering me. For now, I want to wake up every morning and GO TO WORK. For now I can pretend to be Rapunzel who has been rescued by the Prince from the tower.

P.S: Here’s a tip: If you do decide to be a SAHM, pretend you know nothing about food. Or pest-control. Or rent-agreements.  Or what does a driver cost. You’ll do just fine. And don’t go anywhere near the oven.

Finding me in mommee

The first movie that Re and I formed a bond over was Finding Nemo. It’s a story about an ocean fish who one day, finds himself in an aquarium and how he and his friends mastermind his escape. For a long time, I watched it at face value, making appropriate exclamation sounds when Nemo gets trapped by the deep sea diver, his dad’s search mission with the absent-minded Dory, aided by the turtles and finally, Nemo’s grand escape.

But one day, close to Re’s second birthday, it hit me. I was Nemo. I was the ocean fish who had been moved into a tank. I had actually walked into the tank with my eyes open, thinking that I would really love it there.

Till I became a mother, I was always a get-up-and-go girl. I had quit the comfort of my parents’ home, jobs, hostels, apartments and boyfriends to break free, to pursue my dreams, however short-term they were. So the one thing I was missing the most in this whole motherhood business was me. The me that took off to Pondicherry or Gokarna on a whim. The me that wanted to open a bookstore and cafe at Thekkady. The me that wanted to grow coffee. The me that wanted to go to Jomsom so bad that I checked into the Kathmandu airport six days in a row hoping to hear that the weather had improved enough for flights to take off. The me that joined salsa, taichi, capoeira, dance meditation, pottery and film-appreciation workshops because I wanted to. The me that quit advertising to run an animal helpline.

Now, even going for a book reading or a tea-tasting is a multiple-backup project. It was hard to live life with a little person always to account for. Even if that little person was something you birthed and loved dearly. And it was not about finding help, or a day-care or calling your mother. I remembered something someone said. “The day you have a child, you are finished. Your life is no longer your own.” At the time I heard it, the free-spirited soul that I was, I brushed it off. That can never be my life, I thought.

My new universe was full of women who lost themselves after they had children and then blamed motherhood for it. I didn’t want to be that woman, but for the first year or so, I found myself drowning in the quicksand of motherhood. I was no caterpillar, but I was struggling in my motherhood cocoon. If you are a working mom, you legitimately claim it back as soon as you can. But I had let that universe go. And there was no turning back for me. I realised I hadn’t thought it through. There would be enough left of “me” after a whole lot of “me” had been spent by motherhood. And that “me” needed to be nurtured as much as my baby.

I found my ways. I wrote a book. I started a blog. I started tweeting my highs and lows. I was writing and reading more than ever before. Morning shows were my new thing. I found coffees and cupcakes. I found graphic novel libraries. I found every little place that set me free.

When the husband asked me what I wanted for my recent birthday, I said, “I want a real holiday.” “Okay then, why don’t you firm up the dates and book us tickets?”

“You got it wrong. I said I wanted a holiday, not we.”

He looked a tad disappointed, but then, I reminded him that political correctness was never my suit. He smiled. I plotted.

Someday I may want to go back to school. Or just backpack for six months. I didn’t marry spontaneous, so I know it’s going to be tough. I’ll figure out how to make it happen. And if I want it real bad, I can.

A few weeks ago, I joined a street jazz class. I am now learning to pirouette and have just mastered the choreography of 4 minutes by Madonna and Justin Timberlake. Most of the class is half my age, or perhaps younger. Sometimes they call me aunty, sometimes ma’m, and sometimes, when I take Re along, they don’t even look at me. It’s only about him. They have lean, fit bodies, shapely legs and they move with style and attitude. I am having a tough time keeping pace with them, but feeling inadequate has never felt this good. It’s not about getting my body back or shedding that flab or getting into a bikini. It’s just about feeling free, feeling me. I practise hard, it takes me longer to learn the steps that the youngsters have such a natural flair for. But for the first time, I am not afraid to say “I don’t know.” Or “I didn’t get it.” Every Wednesday and Saturday, I put on my dancing shoes and I am out of the house, in a world all of my own for two hours. I am trying to find my inner Nemo, and I must say, I still love her.


This post was first featured as my column for the Freedom Special Issue in the Indian Express Sunday Eye on 12th Aug, 2012