How to Have it All

This is somewhat embarrassing to admit but I have the feeling that I have it all.
I just typed that really quickly because although I have been feeling like this for a while now, it seems like a rude or inappropriate thing to say. I don’t mean to be a show-off.

The more I read and hear about women and workplaces and motherhood and childcare choices, the more I recede to the back of the room, waiting to hear a version that will make me raise my hand and say, “Yes, that’s my story too.”

But nothing fits. I toyed with the idea that either I don’t understand what everyone else is saying or maybe I don’t understand myself yet.

So let me put it out there. First, my glorious relationship with my full-time job. Not my work, my job. We were together for 13 years and it was really a love affair for me. The young urban woman and her workplace. It was a buffer from family, a runaway joint from the roller coaster of one’s 20s and 30s and most importantly, it was the scaffolding that held me together as I constructed a sense of who I was.

When I first joined the office, I had given myself a year there. I did some elementary calculations that one year’s savings would leave me free to do what I wanted for the next year. After the first year, I gave myself another year. Then another. And another. It was love all right. We were growing together. When fatigue began to set in, I took a six-month sabbatical. When I needed more time to finish the outside project I had started, I sent a heartfelt note to my employers.

“My office is my playground,” I wrote. In another industry, it might have been a horrifyingly unprofessional confession, but in our office, at that time, it was a compliment. I got extra leave to finish the teaching project I had started outside.

I changed roles within the same workplace. I retrained and switched departments. Like many others, I quickly rose within the ranks.
Then, as soon as I began to peak as a professional, I quit. I resigned, came home, took a break and after I had finished crying and moping around, I began to create a new me.

“Ah, you quit work because of the children,” people would nod with a look of obvious understanding.
“No, because of me,” I would say. “I didn’t quit work, I quit my full-time job. I’m still working…” But no one was listening any more.

I was the mother of two little children. We had excellent, self-managed childcare facilities at the workplace. My role allowed me to work from home when I needed to. My appraisals, promotions and benefits had been soaring higher than ever before. I loved my smartphone.

“I want to stop because I have never stopped and I am exhausted. And I am fulfilled as well,” I wrote in an email to a friend. I was standing on a street corner in Manhattan tapping these words with a stylus into my phone. A pocket of sun, the distance from home and the solitude of a free morning on a work trip suddenly brought some things into perspective for me. “Other Natashas, the ones who write, nap in the daytime, cycle to the gym, cook a meal, I want to let those Natashas out.”

I had wanted to stop working completely for a while. To lie fallow and do only self-nurturing things. I wanted to be available to everybody I had been unavailable to: my children, my parents, my husband, my home. Myself.

Sure, my decision to quit my beloved job was related to the fact that our daughters were five and three years old. The children enabled me. Because they were there, I was able to come home. It was time to remove the scaffolding of my job and inaugurate me.

I mourned the loss of my job. I wrote a poetic email to my bosses as I watched the sun set over the sea on a holiday. My husband was embarrassed on my behalf. Why are you doing this, he asked.

I was sure I wanted to do it. I was letting go of a love and I wanted to express that. I was expressing my deep admiration for people I had grown up with.

One way to have it all is to not want everything together at all times. Something will spill, and we will look around to find someone to blame. Besides, having it all is a feeling, not a comparative analysis.

I was ready to do something new. I didn’t know what that was. But I knew what I didn’t want to keep on doing. I gave myself permission to enter uncharted territory. The way would reveal itself.

Was it easy? Forget it. It was like having a baby. They tell you it is perfectly natural, but everything feels strange and unnatural about it. There is pain. It takes years for the dust to settle. I’ll tell you about it another day.

[This is first published here: How to have it all – http://bit.ly/14j1478 ]

Parent Thesis (for Femina)

What can I say? I had always fantasized about being a parent. Just like you, I knew how good I would be. I had been making notes in The Parent Project file for over a decade before our first child was born.

And they were good notes. The first time I held my baby in my arms, I was still on the delivery table. I began to sing to her. She had been wailing like the just-born infant she was. Her crying trailed off. I was sure she was listening. She knew my voice.

It took me a while to realize that singing wouldn’t calm her down each time. Within a fortnight, my husband, my mother and I had a handy checklist to figure out why the baby might be crying. It went like this:
1) Is she hungry?
2) Needs to be burped?
3) Has a wet nappy?
4) Needs to be rocked to sleep?
5) Nose is blocked?
6) Back to square one.

When nothing seemed to help, we would wrap our baby in my blue bandhini dupatta and go for a bike ride. And that would eventually calm us all down. I remember one eventful evening taking shelter in a roadside chai stall after a downpour interrupted our drive. We were in Port Blair. People were scandalized that the two of us newbie parents had come out with such a small baby.

Over the years, many of my dearly held myths fell away one by one as we raced along the highway with the seasons changing dutifully around us. I learned to let people stare. I practiced my vacant smile in response to comments, advice and even reprimands from random strangers. I held on to my heart as the children moved on to explore their world. Most importantly, I began to build walls to protect ourselves, to create a home where we returned to be safe, to laugh out loud and to rejuvenate ourselves.

Parenting, you know, it is not just about creation. Creation comes later. It’s about destruction first. The soundless collapse of one’s ego. Saying bye-bye to who one was before the first pregnancy. Redefining one’s sense of self. Sense of sofa. Roll up the dhurrie. Put away the flower vase. The breakdown of boundaries. The distant memory of what we used to do together before there was a baby between us.

Being a parent means having this immense sense of pride that co-exists with a sense of loss. This inability to put one’s finger on what one is missing. A reference to one’s growing up years again and again, because that’s where we find ourselves returning to look for clues that shape us. To look for hurts that are lying unhealed and neglected. To look for fears that we don’t want to pass on anymore.

What did I expect and what is it that I received, rather unexpectedly? Let me tally my notes.

For starters, I really didn’t mean to sign up for a self-improvement course in the middle of my life when I embarked on this parenting trip. I had things to teach, not learn. I knew my moral science lessons by heart. I knew manners and etiquette. I knew my websites and had a hardback book with pictures in it for ready reference.

I soon realized how easy it had been to want to be different from one’s parents and how complicated it was to be independent of one’s socio-cultural baggage. Value systems that seem so prim and proper in books and classrooms don’t seem so effective in bright sunlight. They need to be tested and engaged with constantly. Should adults always be obeyed? Are teachers always right? How much ice-cream is too much ice-cream? May I wear my crocs with my lehnga?

The most inconvenient lesson has been this business of leading by example. It is such an underhand deal! Why can’t I stay online when the children need to be offline? How come I have to sleep well and eat healthy and sit up straight, before our children will buy into it? Remember how our parents said you can do what you like when you grow up? Hello, this is cheating, I’d like to declare!

Finally, there is the most unexpected gift. The wisdom of children. It takes so much pressure off me. All I need to do is listen. Children can see through the intricate web of lies that adult conversations often are.

“Everybody loves me,” said our youngest child to me recently. “All the guests in our house love me.” She is four years old. 
“That sounds like a good thing,” I said to her. There was something in her tone that made me say this.
“I don’t like that,” she said.
“Why don’t you like that,” I asked.
“Yesterday, after my Aunt was talking very nicely to me, she was scolding her daughter a lot. I didn’t like that,” she said.

I held her close. Children have a natural sense of fairness and justice. They look out for those who matter to them. They hurt when we hurt. All I need to do as a parent is trust them, so their trust in themselves is not damaged. As usual I need to lead by example. So every now and then I pat myself on my back and say, “Good job, woman. I’m impressed with you.”

[This has been published in Femina, April 17, 2013]


Tareef. Praise. Roger Ebert.

Roger Ebert died today. He was 70. This link below has been sitting in the drafts folder of my blog for a long time.
Of course I am proud of the words he used to describe me. I am proud of the connections he fostered between so many people and me.
I still don’t have words to describe or understand the miraculous bond we shared. How did he see in me what I was not aware of? How did he see what had become dormant…why was he so determined to help me find my voice?I’m going to sit down and write it all down. I’m going to tell you and tell myself the whole story.
Rest in Peace, Roger Ebert.