Woman up! The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is here

Image courtesy: Amazon Prime

Somewhere in the past few years, at least in my slice of the universe, women found self-love. Brene Brown became a role model, vulnerability became an asset, and ‘I am enough’ became something to wear on one’s t-shirt. In the ensuing Instagram avalanche of personal stories, embracing our imperfections and owning our bodies became a thing.

But nothing truly prepared us for The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, currently in its second season on Amazon Prime.  On the face of it, Mrs Maisel (referred to as Midge or Miriam) is a privileged Upper West Side (New York) woman with a marriage and two kids, a manicured home and a talent for baking (she trades briskets to gain spots at a café for her husband’s unoriginal standup acts). When Midge’s husband decides to leave her for his secretary one night, her carefully curated life becomes a house of cards; she responds by venting in a drunken stupor in front of an audience at the same café and discovers something about herself: she has a flair for standup comedy.

Mrs Maisel is a lot.  She’s endearing, witty, attractive, poised, well dressed, the life of the party. She is the loud one, the funny one, the ballsy one, the weird one – and she lets all of them thrive.  Midge has the goods to do whatever she needs to do to survive in a world of patriarchy, but there is no feminism in her universe, even though she occasionally stumbles into rallies and says things like, “Women will fix it. And accessorize it!”

Yes, she is a “fix it” bomb, much as my mother and I are; much as we all are.

She wears her sexuality lightly, her motherhood even lighter. When she talks about pregnancy – “allowing another human to grow inside you till it reaches a size of 6-12 pounds and then giving it an escape route the size of a change purse,” you chuckle. When she wonders if she was meant to be a mother and maybe she picked the wrong profession, you find yourself leaning forward. Ever so slightly.

But Midge’s journey towards finding her voice is far more layered than the predictable evolution from housewife to career woman. She in that sense is Everywoman — angry and sad, inspired and hopeful, vulnerable and buoyant at the same time.

The part that I found most straightforward and progressive is that she turns her marital mishaps into material and she does this without pointing fingers. I may not have her waist, or share her fetish for hats but I could see scenes from my life playing out as comedy (even the sad ones). Everything is material.

I wasn’t perplexed that a show about a woman who is a mother does not focus on her motherhood; her children are like byproducts, props in the background, almost invisible, inaudible even. As someone who struggled balancing motherhood with a writing career (and still does), I was reminded that even with all the strollers, baby-wearing gear, and tactile toys in the world, birthing and caring for children inevitably presents a roadblock to nurturing the self. Women who write “having it all” essays obviously haven’t struggled with stifling creative freedom.

She talks to the mothers who rejoice when their children go to school than to the perpetually-joyful mothers.  Yes, she has parents in the same building (and later, in the same house when she moves in with them); yes she often leaves her kids with them, yes they were far less hands-on than she was, and yes, it was the maid who really looked after the kids – I didn’t process the logistics. Except that one time when she, midway through wheeling her kid in the park, starts addressing a rally and I wondered where the baby was. I still loved her, and at no point was in in the mood to analyze her motherhood skills, a thing I probably would have done in my early years of motherhood, perhaps still hung over from prostaglandins. Motherhood doesn’t seem an obvious challenge for her; perhaps she doesn’t overthink it, although she phones her mother while on tour and wonders if “the baby” has forgotten her.

The fact that her children seem to deliberately fade into the background is exactly why The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel worked for me. May be it shouldn’t have.

She has a day job as a sales counter girl or cloak girl at a departmental store and is demoted to working the phones, but money is never a problem for her. As a single mother with no child support, this should have jarred or made me angry – how unequal our lives were, despite having something in common. But it didn’t.

The point is: the show isn’t applauding Midge’s bravado of venturing into a standup career despite having two small children. It worked for me because it treats the two as mutually exclusive events.  The show is set in the late 50s but remains very now: the universally internalized notion that motherhood should be joyful is often in conflict with the desire to pursue joys of a different sort. We can’t pretend that deriving joy from our children does not, at some point or another, come at the expense of our own professional and creative journeys.  Because despite all the cacophony of voices we nurture and support, we can still hear our own. And that’s just fine.

(An edited version of this post appeared as an article in the Indian Express Sunday Eye on 23rd December 2018) 

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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)