Being married to my mother

GUEST POST:

BY ZARA CHOWDHARY

My son’s parents ended their marriage two years ago.

One day his father was there, the next he’d moved out. And suddenly, the scared little child had a cat too depressed to get out from under his bed, and a mother too broken to get off the couch. The boy ached for company, for things to just go back to ‘normal’ as his four year-old memory last remembered it.

And then one day, his grandmother arrived at their door – with a fresh haircut, a spring in her step and a super-sized grin that’s hard to miss. She was everything his slowly crumbling household needed. She spoke in absurd languages that made us laugh even when no one felt like it, she cleaned out the unattended organisms from the fridge, replaced all three forgotten multigrain bread loaves with three kinds of seasonal fruit, threw out the wrinkled packs of frozen fries and packed in fresh meats in separate bags, she put bleach in his uniforms, oil in my scalp, and threatened us if we forgot to turn on the lights around maghrib (our evening prayer time) saying ‘The angels won’t come in’!

Slowly and simply, the smells, the sounds, the sights of one person we’d been used to for five years, were replaced by the noise, the madness, the super-loud, body-jiggling laughter of this other person whom we’d otherwise only seen during the holidays.

And that’s the thing about people when they become habits. It’s important when replacing alcohol or cigarettes (or any other analogy that works for you), to choose a healthier option in its place. Our oats-loving, Abba-singing, paintbrush-wielding Nanoo was better for our well-being than any new pets, friendly neighbours or (God-forbid!) rebound boyfriends could have been!

I’d seen my mother do this so many times in her life: walk into an empty house, set up the kitchen, whip up a meal, fashion sofas out of metal trunks, fill the balconies (and bathrooms!) with plants and make it a home —  all in a matter of hours. I watched her as a 29-year old with the same awe I had at ten, efficiently piecing my life together and putting it safely back in my hands for me.

People in my ever-shrinking social circle kept pointing out, how lucky I was to have my mum around to ‘support’ me. But I don’t think it hit me until I finally got off that couch (thanks to her threatening to throw away or burn my pajamas), found a new job and came back home from my first full day at work.

I opened the door and stepped in at six in the evening, the house was all lit up like we’d become used to by now. The scared four year old now a more confident and chirpy five year old came hurtling out of the room and torpedoed into my navel, the cat lay belly-up and smiling at the fan, and there mum sat at the dining table, art material piled up in a heap, my spare room officially converted to her studio, a new business plan swirling in her head — and I knew. This was mum telling me in not so many words: ‘I’m not here to just support you. You can never crash on me like that again. Looks like you’re doing better now. So I’m going to do what I need to do to keep that spring in my step. And we’ll both be doing the supporting from here on.’ I paused for one second wondering if I should say something about the paint likely to stain my chair covers. But instead I scooped my son up, plonked on the sofa, and started to tell them the story of my first day back in the world. Cheesy as it sounds, it did feel like the angels had finally come home and brought with them a partner for me, someone I’d never thought I’d be living with as I turned 30.

My son now has two parents living with him again, there are two individuals playing tag between what they want for themselves and what they know their family deserves. If you ever heard us squabbling over closet space and what to watch on Netflix, you’d think there was a couple living together here. And some days how we both wish we could have it any other way but this interdependence. Yet it’s been nothing short of amazing being married to my mother this way for the last two and a half years. It has taught me what marriage is supposed to look like. There are the occasional expectations that go unmet and some sulking happens with both parties. There are days when nobody wants to have to care about what’s for dinner. There are days of feeling frustrated and taken for granted, but usually some ice-cream or a drive to town or a movie date when the child visits his dad can sort those out. We take turns playing good cop-bad cop because no one parent should ever have to be just the one. We try to never sleep over a fight. Hugs and cuddles are a daily prescription, though the cat son usually claws his way out of those.

It’s a household that depends on honesty more than anything else — it requires being harsh enough to tell each other when we’ve lain long enough on that couch and need to get off our asses or be nagged to death. It’s a house that acknowledges the two little boys and the two grown women in it, and that no job is too big or too small or too ‘girly’. It’s a home where you will always find food, laughter and lessons in how to give before taking. And it’s a place that will, hopefully, always remind my son of what family is supposed to look like, no matter what marriage it is built on.

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The day my heart went walking around outside my body

GUEST POST: BY RUTVIKA BHIDE CHAREGAONKAR

When I look at my two-month old baby sleeping on my lap, satisfied after nursing for half hour, I often wonder: how did this miracle land up in my life?  The baby was just a thought up to a year back and now he is here. And then I realize: Oh, I made him. These tiny little fingers, that beautiful curve of his lips, the peach coloured skin, I made all of him.

Why did I decide to have a baby? Frankly, in my mind there was never any other way. Having a child was always the plan. Like millions of women, I always wanted to get married at an “appropriate” age, and then eventually have kids. Preferably two.

Having a baby seemed the most natural, instinctive thing to do.

When I started seriously thinking about it, I realised that the baby business was a permanent fixture, an irreversible act, which will be our responsibility at least for the next 18 years. Were we in the state of mind to make a lifelong commitment we could not run away from?

I had read many articles where women/men said most people have babies to make their life complete. That was not true for me. I felt complete enough. I have a good career, a challenging job and a baking and blogging hobby which filled my weekends. The husband and I love to travel and we travel very often. So I felt completely satisfied as it is. Even without the baby, I had a big list of things I wanted to do. Accomplishing those would already take a lifetime.

 So having babies to feel complete was out.

 The second common reason was ‘wanting to live your life, fulfil your dreams through your kids’. Hell no! I have to live my life, be happy with the way I do things and only then can I provide a stable, fulfilling life to my kids. I never once thought that I will live out my dreams through my kids. My dreams are my own. I want to fulfil them. Our kids will have a life based on their aspirations, their view of the world. Some of our goals may coincide and I hope they will want to do some things their parents like to do, but that’s about it. Thank you.

 Then why do I want kids?

Till now I have been a daughter, a sister, niece, wife, daughter-in-law etc. But not yet a mother. It is one role I get to play in life only after I have kids. So much has been written and said about ‘mom’ that in a strange way, I want to live up to that image. I want my children to grow up into enriched individuals and look back at their childhood and say, “It was good”.

My mom is my shrink. There is nothing in the world that she doesn’t understand by merely looking at me and nothing she can’t solve by a few soothing words and a warm bear hug only moms are capable of giving. I want to be my child’s shrink. I can’t give up on being that amazing person for my child as my mom is for me.

 Also, I want kids so that I can look at life from a different point of view. Life makes us all cynics. Growing up takes us away from innocence, one day at a time. I want to see things from my little child’s perspective. Everything in the world that we take for granted, is new for them. I don’t remember the first time I saw a dog, or sat in a Ferris wheel or felt rain pouring down my face. But I will see my children discover all these things and I will capture those moments as if my own. I want to take a swing so high that the world looks tiny. Dance in the rain, sing silly songs, go running after a butterfly, or simply kneel in front of a dog and stick out my tongue like he does. Only a little kid will give me the liberty of doing such childish acts. And to look at the world through a wonder filled kaleidoscope.

It is a going to be a beautiful journey, but right now I write this when my days and nights have morphed into one unending time slot of 24 hours which is on a continuous loop of feeding, burping, nappy changing, soothing and back to feeding again. But yes, now I know.

About the author:

Rutvika is a Chartered Accountant, so she crunches numbers on the weekdays and spends her time writing and baking for her blog www.sizzleanddrizzle.com on the weekends. She has done a Basic Patisserie from Le Cordon Bleu, Paris and wishes to go back once her 8-month old baby Arjun is a little older. She lives in Mumbai.

 

Why I never worry about empty nest syndrome

Earlier this week, Re told me he wants to be a ‘take-carer’ when he grows up. I was amused, and asked him what that was. He replied, “It means I will take care of you when I grow up.”

I have no idea where that came from. Perhaps it is from the fact that we now have my mother around, so there is a constant shift in balance of who takes care of whom. So there is Re who looks after his babies (Dipsy and her baby, various princesses, Pooh, Bertie, Twilight and the gang) and occasionally, doubles as their doctor when it’s time for their checkups (ever since he took a shine to Doc McStuffins). There is my mother, who looks after the cats, Re and me in turns. And lastly there is me who looks after Re (when he will allow me), and my mother (when she will allow me or when it comes to doctors or paperwork or airports and other outside world negotiations that she cannot be bothered with). So there are three generations simultaneously playing out roles of child and parent and quickly reversing them with great felicity. But in the overlap of these roles is a lovely, fuzzy comfort zone where we are just ourselves, with no tags attached.

Re is taking his future ‘take-carer’ role rather seriously. He’s been holding doors for me and my mother and fetching our slippers when we can’t find them. He is the chief locator of my mother’s reading glasses and my phone, and the presser of lift buttons and the answerer of doorbells and telephones. So far, so good, I thought.

I watched Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (it could well have been called Motherhood) a few months ago, and it’s a movie that moved me deeply. The movie was made over 12 years, in real time, and films the coming of age of two children and their parents, as they individually and collectively go through some big and small upheavals. Patricia Arquette’s remarkable portrayal of Olivia, the doughty single mother in the film who is struggling to keep her family together fetched her an Oscar for best supporting actress this year.

“I just thought there would be more”, she says in an emotionally intense last scene, as Mason, her screen son is leaving home to go to college. In that one scene, she manifests the empty-nest syndrome as a full-blown existential crisis. She talks about her life as a series of milestones revolving around men, marriage, babies, career and raising kids and at the end of all this, there is a sense of bankruptcy which is so palpable. That scene encapsulates with minimal words the gritty and sobering nature of motherhood, the story of mothers who live for their children and completely lose purpose without them.

A few months ago, Re and I were riding with a PYT who was visibly intrigued that I chose to be a mother when I was 40 and clearly youth and sprightliness (the two ingredients most marketed for motherhood by the media and doctors) were not on my side. I told her it was all in the mind and my mind has never been as fertile as it is now, so clearly my child is at an advantage, because there is no angst of having to spend my ‘youth’ rearing a child.

She didn’t get it, and said, “But the gap between you and your child is so much!”

I then realized our vocabulary was different. She was a checklist girl and I was a follow-your-heart girl. So yes, the fact is that I will be 60 when Re is 20. And I will be 80 when Re is 40. But then, it is still math. Life is something else. I would like to meet her at 40 (if I am still around) and compare notes once again, but for now, I am going to let it go. Because we all plot our coordinates and figure the optimum time to do this and that when life is stealthily creeping up on us, and the funny thing is, even if you do everything by the book, there absolutely no guarantee that you will get it right. We are all winging it, as Ethan Hawke says in the movie. And the beauty of not knowing what comes next is a huge facilitator.

But I can say this with complete confidence that I will never be high and dry one day when he is all grown up and flown the nest, wondering if there should have been more. Because there will be more. There will be me.

 

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 11th May, 2015)

An online letter to my mother who is too busy doing motherhood offline

Dear Amma

I am doing something so typical of our times, which is writing an online letter to my mother, as opposed to just saying this aloud to her in person or on the phone. But then, like so many other things that seemed alien in the beginning, for example, the concept of  “parenting” or “work life balance” or “gender neutrality”, I think this is also one of those. You have so much to say to your mother, that you may as well put it out there, on the World Wide Web , so others can find a vocabulary for their feelings too. And it also becomes clearer when you write, doesn’t it? Although I know you believe in the philosophy of show, not tell.

First off, I salute thee. You are a true rock star. You had three children (two of who were twins), a real job, that you managed to keep for 36 years (I am guessing that was enough time for us to turn into adults), you kept our big fat south-Indian family together (in-laws, out-laws, the whole deal) and you are still the glue, you had friends for life (some of whom you still speak to every day), you made every birthday memorable (you still do), you never let go of traditions and rituals and when I look back, I wonder: how did you do it?

mommygolightly with ammagolightly

mommygolightly with ammagolightly

You got Appa to be an equal partner in parenting and got him to be a hands-on daddy before hands-on-daddydom existed. You just threw him into the deep end, he figured the rest. You and Appa defined gender neutrality for us before the term was even invented. It was never a case of who did what. Things just got done, whether it was cooking or time spent with the kids or markets or planning holidays. Never once in our growing up years was the boy-girl divide as strong as I experience in a sometimes overt, sometimes covert way in Re’s world on a daily basis. The two of you define ‘leaning in’ for me.

Yes, sometimes when I was growing up, I longed for the words “I love you”, words I say to Re often enough so he doesn’t forget it. But you made up in actions what you didn’t say in words. I remember you would always tell me, “You will only understand when you become a mother,” and I always thought there was a veneer of martyrdom behind those words. There were times when I hugely underestimated how much you were capable of understanding me, times when I wanted to run away to the hills and start growing coffee and starting a bookshop, times when I wanted to remain forever single, times when I changed careers before you even understood what I did.

I love you for raising me to believe that every cloud has a silver lining, as opposed to every silver lining has a cloud hiding behind that some parents did. I love you for never getting in my way and for all the PTA meetings you never came to, for you trusted me completely and allowed me to be the person I was. I love you for never praising me enough; it was the only way I could have polished myself the way you wanted me to.

There are also times when I get into turf issues with you on Re, and there were enough of those when he was a baby (oh, how much you believed in maalish and swaddling!). There are still times, when you indulge him and I feel like the bad cop, but then I realize, just as I expect you to let go, I must let go too.

grammies are the best!

grammies are the best!

( A version of this post appeared here)

Lost and found in motherhood

Last week, I went to visit my mother with Re. Once there, he told me he wanted to stay on for a hundred days.

I did a quick mental somersault and tried not to look excited. I was already plotting what to do for the next 100 hours. This sounded like a dream come true. I was going to be child-free for the next few days (hopefully). I was finally going to be a girl alone! Was this for real?

I made a hasty exit from my mother’s house before he changed his mind. I was not even careful to conceal my excitement. I have never driven so fast in my life. I was high on freedom. I couldn’t wait to spend the rest of the week with me!

First, I went on a sleep overdrive. I never realised I was such a deep sleeper until this week. I didn’t even know I missed sleep so much. I didn’t know that given a chance, I could dream in the afternoons too.

You are told you will lose a part of yourself when you become a mother. So you lose yourself. Then you are told you probably won’t be able to do all the things you’re used to doing. So you stop all the things you had fun doing, things that defined you, that made you you. You are told you will be transformed by this experience in ways you could never imagine and no one could ever accurately describe to you. You start looking for your halo. A few years later, you find there is none. It was never meant to be. And there are no motherhood rehabilitation centres. It’s as though losing yourself was just a rite of passage of becoming a mother.

I knew motherhood wouldn’t be easy, but I had no idea just how hard it would be. And sadly,  the wisdom of motherhood doesn’t came attached with a pair of ovaries. Most of us are still fumbling around, doing things by trial and error, because the books are rubbish anyway. What they call ‘instinct’ is things you figure out as you go along. Some of the changes were absolutely not okay with me but it was up to me to renegotiate my way back into the world.

The good thing was, like most things in life I could do motherhood in moderation. There were days when I felt so much love for Re that I felt I needed little else. There were days when I missed the me I was so much that I felt Re was getting in the way

I was a get up and go woman. I quit jobs, I found jobs. I quit careers, I found careers. I quit men, I found men. I always went travelling in between. Sometimes I even travelled alone.

No, even the all-encompassing love for my child never made me lose sight of the woman I was. I was constantly rearranging my life so that the self-respecting feminist, the loving mother and the ambitious writer could coexist. It was hard. It still is.

When women say motherhood changed them, the danger is that sometimes the change makes them unrecognizable. Few mothers have the time and self-love to indulge in contemplations and machinations of selfhood. Most days they play a false version of their true depleted self, keeping others at a distance, saying only what is expected from a mother: “I’m thrilled, it’s amazing, such an incredible journey, I’m loving every second of it.” I did it too. I did the blissed out new mother dance for a while, while a little bit of my selfhood got obliterated. Fortunately I was totally and completely aware of it when it was happening. I realized motherhood couldn’t complete me. Only I could.

I realised Re deserves better. He deserves the fuller, happier version of his mother. His mother, the reader. The writer. The feminist. The traveller.

Unlike most women, I am unafraid in mother-love. I don’t worry over Re growing into a teen, a man, having to make choices and mistakes, feeling confusion, anger, sorrow, regret. I don’t dread his heartbreaks. I don’t pre-mourn his future disappointments, injuries, illnesses, and setbacks.

Now, after  five years of making difficult choices, negotiating day in and day out, there is still a lot left of me. I am raring to go, write more books, write fiction, write for children, do new things with my life, travel, teach, perhaps even study. Mother-love was not enough for me to feel me. I needed more, and I went after it. That was the only way I could retain my selfhood. That’s the only way I want Re to remember me when I’m gone. Not someone who lost herself in him.

 

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 16th Feb, 2015)

 

On becoming our parents

In between our mothers and fathers lies us.

We set out to be our own people. And then there comes a moment – maybe quickly, maybe in our middle age, maybe later – when we turn around and think, “I have become my parents.” However much we may try to insulate ourselves, it is true that we are turning into our parents in strange and insidious ways. In our ways of looking at the world. Ourselves. In our ways of being happy, sad and everything in between. In our ways of living and loving. That’s the treachery of inheritance. Research says that 32 is the age when it usually happens. I am way past that, so I am sure I am a huge blob of dichotomy by now. Albeit a happy one.

When we were kids, Sunday mornings were about dosas. Actually, every other day was about dosas, but Sundays was when we could have them leisurely, all crisp and brown, ghee-roasted and paper- thin. My mother would be in the kitchen, doling them out one after the other, keeping up with the collective appetites of three kids. As we crunched on the ghee-roasted crispiness, we would bellow requests to the kitchen. “Make the next one light brown, not dark brown” Or “Don’t fold the next one please, I want to fold it.” Sometimes, our neighbours would smell the dosas and step in uninvited. I often wondered how my mother kept pace, since I am sure we ate faster than she made them, despite having two tavas on. Very often, by the time we were done eating, the batter would be over, and my mother would be seen eating the ‘rejected’ or ‘burnt’ ones. I would ask her why she hadn’t ensured there was enough for her and she would say, “When you children eat, I feel like I have eaten.”

When I became a mother, I realised this was the biggest load of bullshit ever. That if mothers have martydom written on them, it is their own doing. Perhaps that’s why mothers are more scarred by parenthood than fathers are. They start putting themselves on the back burner and some never reemerge.

I started baking after Re was born. Whenever I made a batch of cookies, I ate the crumbs and gave him the best pieces. I felt like my mother, although she never ate what she baked. A few weeks ago, a friend came visiting and got me mawa cakes from Kayani’s. Re staked his claim to them. I was a bit despondent, because sometimes, you want your treats to yourself. When it was down to one, I asked him if we could share it. He refused and proceeded to eat it all by himself. Once he was done with the exciting brown top half, he handed it back to me saying, “Okay, you can have it.” I felt cheated. The next time mawa cakes came to the house, I kept three aside for myself and ate them all alone. It felt good.

I remember my years of singledom in my cute little apartment that I always loved coming back to, shopping for produce, planning meals, deciding what I wanted to eat.

“How can you cook for just one person?” they would ask. It was as though doing things just for the pleasure of it was an indulgence.

My father gave us a childhood full of journeys, never mind if some of them never made it to the destinations. Our means were limited, but our hearts were full and our lungs always had more oxygen than they could handle. He got off platforms and missed trains, he forgot to confirm reservations, he made us ride back from Dhanolti to Dehradun on a truck laden with peas, as we missed the only bus for the day (we ate a lot of peas on that ride). He spelt wanderlust.

At 74, my father left home to pursue his dream of becoming a farmer. When he showed up at the ration office to get himself a separate ration card, he was reprimanded for abandoning his family and leaving his wife in her old age. He waited all his life for his ‘someday’, but when he exercised his option, he was written off.

I exercised mine much earlier. And almost in the tradition of my father, I was abandoning the known for the unknown. Leaving something I could do in my sleep to doing something I had no clue how to. Like my mother, there is frugality even in my dreaming. But like my father, I take my chances and there is method in my madness. He is still the young-at-heart, living-life-to-the-fullest guy. My mother is still the one who worries for all of us. I am somewhere in between, the worrier and the liver in equal measure. I think they did good.

We all need to claim our crusts back. We need to stop eating crumbs and broken cookies and demand the whole brownie. We all need a place in the world we don’t have to share with anyone – children, parents, siblings or spouse – to find the essence of us.

My father called me a few weeks ago and asked me,”How’s life?” He was at his farm, I was on my hill. “I heard about your new adventure,” he said. “It must be so thrilling!” Yes, I said. When I am I seeing you? “Let me finish my harvest. I will hop on a bus and come there. We can share stories of our adventures,” he said.

I can’t wait to.

This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on September 15, 2014

Fertility politics and other horror stories

Pregnancy is not always cute. Not to everyone. Because the one thing a pregnant woman reminds you of, in an in-your-face sort of way, is that she is pregnant and you are not. Or that she is married (for the purpose of convenience, I haven’t included pregnancies out of wedlock) and you are not. Or she is fertile and you are not. Or she is having sex and you are not. Or she’s in for the long haul and you are not. Or she is simply ready and you are not.
Unlike marriage, boyfriends, affairs or relationships, which can be camouflaged and on which information can be shared only on a need-to-know basis, pregnancy is out there and very public. On one hand, it makes things look bright and beautiful (at least to the couple involved). But it also changes the dynamics of relationships – at work, among friends, in your social circle, in the family – sometimes resulting in turbulence.

If you have a full-time job, you’ll be spending at least a third of your day at work. A pregnant woman with her belly prop somewhat rocks the oestrogen atmosphere in the space  around her. When I got pregnant, it was almost like I had betrayed the rest of my ilk at work and would no longer be synchronised with their biological cycles.
It was official. I didn’t belong. I was an outcast. I ate too much, peed too much, tired too easily, sat too much, felt sleepy a lot, yawned too much, and smiled a lot. No one told me any gossip anymore, hardly anyone bitched to me, no one asked me if I wanted to ‘hang out’ after work. People tend to think you are too zoned out to want any of this when you are pregnant.
Most other mommies at work pretended they didn’t remember what it was to be pregnant (if they had a baby three or more years ago). They looked at me like I was part of some lofty science experiment. It’s like smug-marrieds totally forgetting what it was like to be single.
On the other hand, to single women, I was a reality check. Is this what it will come to? Can they see themselves doing this? Or does it totally scare the shit out of them?

(An excerpt from my book “I’m Pregnant, Not Terminally Ill, You Idiot!“)