Me: Let me write a novel. A murder mystery about a young mother. I can do it. I will win a prize. Or maybe not. I’ll self-publish if I have to. Let me just write this thing. The children will watch TV. I will not feel guilty.
Inspiration level: 100%. Motivation level: 100%
“The last time I gave birth in this hospital, the nurses had been lovely, reassuring me gently when I baulked at having an enema inserted and my privates shaved. They’d allowed me to suck on chips of ice and instructed Ashish to rub my back as I whimpered in pain. They’d whisked away the bloodied and beslimed blue alien I gave birth to and returned in my arms a tiny pink newborn girl with a soft cotton cap on her head. Hours later, the room had been festive, festooned with pink balloons and filled with proud relatives.
[MAMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA, Where is my PONY bottle? I need my PONY bottle. Why are you so mean MAMAAAAAAAAA]
Me: Stop it. The bottle is in the fridge. Now WATCH TV. EAT CHIPS. EAT SUGAR. Just be quiet.
Inspiration level: 75%. Motivation level: 85%
“And today, here I am, getting ready to give birth again, 3cm dilated after a steady drip of drugs to coax the baby out from the comfort of my womb. Some of the nurses that flit in and out of the room look familiar, but I can no longer be sure. The smiles from my memories are absent; they can barely look at me. “You don’t know the whole story,” I want to shout but I don’t because my lawyer has told me to not say anything that could make me look worse than I….”
[MAMAAAAAAAAA. Can you wipe my POTTY? Mammaaaaaa. I’ve done POTTY]
Potty is wiped.
Inspiration level: 65%. Motivation level: 60%
“….already do. Instead I say, “Can I move around a bit, please? It helps with the pain.” The nurse gazes at the monitor, her face impassive. After a few minutes of silence, she says, “We don’t allow too much movement during the induction process. We need to see how the labour is going.” She is polite but there’s an edge to her voice. “Please,” I say. “They let me move more than this last time, I had an induction then too.” She finally looks at me, and offers the facsimile of a smile. “Maybe you hadn’t….”
[Mamaaaaaaa he’s peeing on the floor. Mamaaa SUSU, there is SUSU on the floor.]
Susu is cleaned.
Inspiration level: 65%. Motivation level: 60%
“… killed anyone back then. I’ll be back in half an hour.” She briskly adjusts the sheets around me, and walks towards the door. “Can you at least put on the fan for me?” I yell after her. She does not reply, as she shuts the door behind her with a sharp click.
Daughter: I love you
Son: I love you.
Me: I love you. How about getting some Paw Patrol on?
Inspiration level: 35%. Motivation level: 25%
“The room is silent except for occasional beeps from the machine. Nothing seems amiss, except that there is no Ashish to hold my hand. My mother has not answered my message…”
Mamaaaaa. Ma’am told me that you need to help me research on festivals. Can we do it now?
Daughter: Please can we do it now? Please? Please?
Me: What’s wrong with watching TV?
Daughter: It’s bad for my brain.
Me: I’ll be there in 10 minutes.
Inspiration level: 15%. Motivation level: 5%
Three-year-old son bounds in and sits on lap. Punches the keyboard a few times.
Inspiration level: 0%. Motivation level: 0%
Moral of the story: It’s impossible to write a novel with two small children in the house.
Parents. Oh, long-suffering, self-sacrificing parents. How they dedicate their lives to their children. The snot stains on their crumpled clothes and the dark circles under their puffy eyes are badges of honour. Their inability to watch Netflix marathons in peace can be likened to the great sages going without food and water to achieve enlightenment. Look, look, see how they give, give, give. Instead of romantic vacations in Ko Phi Phi, they endure roller coaster rides on Sentosa Island, instead of dining out every night, they sink most of their finances into school fees. Selfless, selfless parents.
Sorry, I beg to disagree.
If anything, parents are way more selfish than those who choose to be child-free. How do I know? I’m a parent! I have two beautiful babies, a daughter and a son, and my ovaries keep whispering at me to have a third one before it’s too late. In short, often to my own surprise, I love breeding and rearing kids. But I also know how selfish this entire pursuit is. It really struck me the other day when I was lunching with an old friend of mine. She is pretty certain she doesn’t want to have kids, but her choice is being deemed as “selfish” by many family members (and others who have no business poking their nose into what she chooses to do with her reproductive organs). Wherever she turns she finds herself looking into the baleful eyes of wannabe grandparents and friends who keep trying to convince her she will regret her choice.
If you really love children, don’t have them.
The term “childfree” invokes images of twerking in an Ibiza nightclub and eating croissants in bed all weekend (and WHY NOT), but what it actually entails is constantly battling societal pressure, emotional blackmail and the need to justify one’s own existence—it’s as if those without kids become living spectres if they don’t produce replacement versions of themselves. And they are repeatedly told they are selfish, selfish, selfish. Now, I don’t believe being selfish is necessarily a bad thing, but if the title really HAS to be given to anyone, it is parents, not non-parents.
Here are my reasons.
The world is an ugly place
Air crisis, water crisis, food crisis, Donald Trump, war, cyber-bullying, reality TV, Justin Bieber, climate change… the list goes on and on. It is morally wrong to bring innocent babies into this mess. I was acutely aware of all these things and more, but I was selfish… I wanted to feel a baby grow, to birth them, feed them. And having done it once, I wanted it again, and again… even though it is wrong on so many levels, like a hit of heroin. I love them so much but I have done them no favours by giving them a ticket into this hellhole. Fortunately, as this article in Scroll points out, many Indians are making the wiser and kinder and less selfish choice.
Babies are bad for the planet
Yes, I know they are beautiful look at and delicious to smell and hold. And there is a tiny chance that a baby will achieve great things… but let’s be honest, how many of the 131.4 million babies born each year will actually change the world in any positive way? They will add further stress to already burdened resources and end up as cogs in an increasingly meaningless and dubious wheel. Do you know that the biggest personal contribution you can make to climate change is having less/no babies? If we were so unselfish, we would have thought of that instead of buying plastic ovulation sticks and starting a diaper fund. Oh, you’re one of those virtuous parents who uses cloth diapers, and each load of shit you clean adds to the halo around your head? Sorry, your overpriced organic cotton options are just as bad.
They are unlikely to be happy
An insane number of children suffer abuse—physical, sexual, emotional. The world is becoming sadder and sadder, and so far none of the pills we’ve produced have helped very much with the anxiety and depression that so many young people go through. In India, for example, suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth, who were cute little babies not so long ago. It is heartbreaking. It seems like a healthier choice to prioritise one’s own happiness and wellbeing rather than birth kids who may not have the same luck. Why play Russian roulette with the happily unknowing unborn?
Poor parenting could destroy them
Families can be wonderful, but they can also be sites of abuse and murder. Too extreme? Murderous or not, how many of us can truly say that we will be good parents? Are we sure that we can give them the financial and emotional security that will give them a much greater chance of becoming productive citizens? Are we good enough role models? The chances are your parenting could add to crime statistics. It seems like a rational choice to take that uncertainty out of the mix and do the best you can do to follow the law and not transfer your insecurities, pathologies and hang-ups on to someone else.
Children are not objects
SO many people have kids for the wrong reasons. Some do it without thinking (so selfish! See all the reasons above), others shamelessly and narcissistically want a “mini-me” (what if it looks like Aunty Reena with the unfortunate nose, what then?), some misguidedly want to undo the mistakes of their own parents (are children experiments for you to demonstrate your superior skills?), others think their children’s job is to take care of them in old age (invest in a retirement fund instead of selfishly burdening your kids!) Some get tired of the constant pestering and have babies to “give” their own parents grandchildren (are children playthings to be produced for people who will not be their primary caretakers?).
It is absolutely morally wrong to have children just to make someone else happy, or to fill up a void or unmet need in your life. It is selfish. Babies deserve better. What will you do if they don’t make you happy or you can’t properly take care of them? There’s no store to return them to. If you have such an emptiness in your life, get a hobby or a prescription. Babies are not antidepressants. They are people. Respect them, even if they are never born.
Being a parent doesn’t add joy to the world
When you don’t have babies, you are doing a favour to cinema-goers, restaurant patrons and airline passengers. There are a few less wails and tantrums for the public at large to endure just because you decided to multiply. Also, parents are grumpy… no surprise that a study found that having a child causes a greater drop in happiness than divorce or unemployment.
7. You can do better than merely propagating your genes
Let me give you my example: motherhood has made me extremely complacent about my hard-earned education and work experience, and I choose to spend the majority of my time engaged in raising my babies. Like many parents, I have taken a backseat to my kids. Their needs, ambitions, goals—those are the things I’m focused on. But that could very well come to nought. I may try to create a beneficial set of circumstances, but I cannot control what they do with their lives. Instead of driving myself to contribute more economically, or achieving more ambitious personal goals, or working for the greater good in some way, I am cleaning bums all day with wipes that are probably going to do all sorts of awful things to the earth. So maybe I AM contributing something despite my paltry earnings and fixation on creative purees for my infant, but what about me and what other things I’m capable of?
The argument often trotted out is that many parents (and we all know, by parents every one means “mothers”) do end up achieving great things and “having it all” but that’s a cop out. Something has to give—you’re either going on the mommy track and retiring—in a sense—prematurely, or you’re as focused as ever on your personal goals, but your kids lose out on a strong parental presence. In both scenarios, you stew in guilt—guilt for working, guilt for not working. It’s little wonder that so many mothers are depressed—which is neither good for them nor their babies.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to be the best you can be rather than sinking your all into a tiny being who you will likely screw up?
At the end of this rant, I have realised something. I love my children. But if you love all children, you won’t have them.
We all have some vicious, horrible people in our lives. But we also have some nice, well-meaning ones that grate even more on our nerves. So, if you’re a ‘nice’ and ‘sweet’ person who is wondering why all your calls go to voicemail and why all you see is a twitching curtain when you ring the doorbell, perhaps you’re guilty of the sins below.
You open requests with “It would be nice if you could…”
When did “Could you please” or “Just do it the fuck already” go out of fashion? It makes me want to spit when someone says it would be nice/good/great if I did something. It is the most sly and repugnant way to emotionally blackmail someone into doing your bidding. If you say no to such a request, you’re basically admitting to not being ‘nice’, to being a horrible person with no moral compass or human decency. How can you even say no? Sorry, but I don’t think I want to be nice? No thank you, I’m just going to carry on doing the not-nice thing I was doing? A direct request does not put the other person in this position of being nice or not being nice.
People who use “It would be nice…” think they’re being very tactful and open-ended, but really, they’re just being assholes and insulting your intelligence. Slap them down.
Example: “It would be nice if you could get the groceries on the way home.”
Answer: “It would be even nicer if you could.”
This normally causes the nice person to snap back to reality and say, “Just do it the fuck already.”
You hound people to wish others on their birthdays and anniversaries.
Guess what? Facebook is the mega-aunty of the entire freaking world. Facebook’s job is to remind you that it’s your second cousin’s birthday or your ex’s wedding anniversary (screw you, Facebook). People who are not on Facebook are too cool and unconventional to care whether you wish them or not and in any case no one can be bothered to stay in touch with them.
Yet, despite these contemporary realities, some people continue take it upon themselves to call and tell you to greet a relative or family friend on their birthday. If you refuse, they might even try to steal your phone and change their voice to wish that person, who clearly will not be able to survive the day without your greetings. These are people who buy birthday presents and add your name in the gift tag even though you didn’t even remember the damn day.
I once had a relative who called to thank me for a giant bouquet of flowers that I DID NOT EVEN BUY (another relative did, on my behalf). It was disturbing, like a stalker movie in which you don’t mysteriously get flowers but mysteriously give them.
This behaviour is unacceptable because the “nice” person in her own sneaky way is trying to run your relationships for you. For some reason, they are invested in how well you get along with or please someone else, and they feel everything will collapse into a heap of regrets unless they pull the strings.
The point is, if you’re an adult, you’ll remember if something is important to you. If you forget, you will, like an adult, deal with the consequences. Either way, no one but you should try and determine whether your relationships live or die, or if there are some frosty silences at the next family gathering. A relationship built on reminders by a third party is a lie. Choose truth.
You do everything for everyone, and you never complain
Lovely, right? No, manipulative and painful. You may be proud of never complaining, but your eyes always have the look of Jesus on his cross, and your tubercular cough is a persistent reminder of how you’re being taken advantage of. But try and help you and you’re outraged, you won’t allow it for a second, you stop coughing and insist on doing the washing up/childcare/filing. But when the dustpan is handed back to you, the tortured eyes and hack are back in five minutes. Guess what? You’re not helpful, you’re just addicted to being a martyr.
You prefer maintaining a dignified silence to fighting
Fool. It just shows you are too gutless and desperate to be liked to express an opinion. Now if you really did not have an opinion, it would be OK. It’s just a sign that you don’t think very much and that’s acceptable. However you DO have an opinion and guess what, it leaks. Your pained expressions, hurt sniffs, and sighs of disapproval don’t escape anyone. When you say “to each their own”, what you mean to say is “no better can be expected of these savages.”
Being a stay-at-home mother in a somewhat nebulous employment situation, I appreciate the fact that people are no longer as quick to ask, “What do you do?” It’s a refreshing change from the early 2000s, where every dinner party served as a reminder of career failure. But if anything, I probably resent the replacement conversation starter even more: “Where have you been?” If you don’t give the right answer your life failure is clear for everyone to see.
It is assumed that you are cash-strapped or your kid is a travel hobgoblin or that perhaps you do not fit into an airplane seat.
Thankfully, when that question floats out, someone or the other usually pipes up with revelations of hiking in the Andes or scuba diving in the Andamans or volunteering in Bundelkhand and sharing a hovel with former dacoits. What can I say? I’ve been to the grocery store? To Bangkok? These answers — if you manage to make them heard over the cacophony of exultations over Everest Base Camp or Saint Tropez — are still acceptable, though. It is assumed that you are cash-strapped or your kid is a travel hobgoblin or that perhaps you do not fit into an airplane seat. You are offered pity and murmurs of encouragement rather than contempt.
Try telling the truth, though, and most people look at you as if you’ve whipped out a cervical mucus sample. They wrinkle up their noses, they edge away, they suddenly discover a pressing need to make amends with a former friend they haven’t spoken to for a year. You have marked yourself as a boring person. Someone who is not fun. Who knows what you might want to talk about next? Hepa versus ionic air purifiers? Cartesian dualism? Cat poo? There’s something not quite right about you.
So, I may as well say it. I do not like travelling. If I can avoid it, I will. For me, a trip is usually like being dragged to a distant cousin’s wedding, having a sort of good time and thinking “this is not so bad” — and then coming home, kicking off the nasty gold high heels and saying, “Never again.” The packing, the waiting, the cramped spaces, the hotels, the tourist traps… once a year — once a year is my limit. I’d much rather despatch my child to play school, make some sandwiches and read an Inspector Wexford mystery – hello Sussex, bye bye NCR.
Do you think I’m hopelessly narrow-minded? Provincial? Fearful? I don’t think any of that is true. It’s just that I sometimes feel as if my horizons are made broader, the distance I’ve covered is greater and the relaxation I’ve felt is deeper on my own darn couch — I have truly felt immersed in different cultures through books and even TV shows, and never more alienated than as a tourist rooting about in her pocket for enough change for the next “authentic” experience or photo-op. Can I not just shudder at Amazonian leeches and learn about their life cycle on Discovery Channel? Must I have my blood sucked by the disgusting little critters? Can limbo dancing on a cruise ship or relinquishing my savings to the dark forces of Disneyland really connect me better with the people of the Caribbean or the United States than a session with VS Naipaul or Jonathan Franzen?
If I’d been single, I probably wouldn’t have been writing this. It’s virtually a law that you must include a passionate love of travelling in your online dating profiles.
In real life, “connecting” with the locals means you’re either intruding or presenting a business opportunity… no matter how many times one flings one’s arm around the neck of a Turkish waiter or a wrinkled Ladakhi woman or an Afghan chieftain (not recommended) and presses click. All too often, the “other” encountered in the course of one’s travels is assigned with qualities of unparalleled nobility or wisdom. Deep conversations with cabbies are noted on blogs, artful photographs are taken of smiling urchins — every air ticket should come with a guarantee of free life lessons. Really, can I just say I’ve had it with pictures of wrinkled Ladakhi women or sadhus at the Kumbh Mela and their transcendent qualities that you think rubbed off on you?
Now, of course travel does widen your horizons, and is in fact necessary for personal growth in some ways. What I have a problem with is the not-so-subtle pissing contest, the endless comparisons of travel creds. The assumption that you must keep going to “bigger” and “better” (whatever your definition of these) places to signify momentum in your life. It’s ridiculous that travel has become a yardstick by which we measure the achievements and qualities of other people, or even ourselves.
It’s not that I’ve had a hopelessly static existence. I’ve studied abroad, travelled to many countries and places in India, I’ve had a gorgeous destination wedding (not my idea, of course!) and spent a large chunk of my career working for travel publications, including a stint as a commissioning editor for Lonely Planet, that bible of evangelistic high-carbon-footprinters. I once won the first prize in a national-level travel writing contest, my disingenuous outpourings subsequently preserved in a book. Basically, I have lived with the imposter syndrome for too long and it is time to come out.
This fetishization of travel, to me, ultimately reflects a particularly shallow and materialistic view of the world and its people. How far you’ve gone matters, not how far you’ve come.
“Coming out”, of course, is made easier by the fact that I have found a life partner. If I’d been single, I probably wouldn’t have been writing this. It’s virtually a law that you must include a passionate love of travelling in your online dating profiles. You must match passports where you once matched horoscopes. It’s no longer enough to say you enjoy sunsets or walks on the beach or a cup of good coffee. It has to be sunsets at the Serengeti, strolls along Kroh Kradan, coffee brewed from beans freshly defecated by Asian palm civets. Then, my friend, you might get laid on the first date.
“Date a boy who travels” say viral blogs — boys whose “hands have explored the stone relics of ancient civilizations” (conservationists, are you listening?). “Date a girl who travels”, say others, because “she’s seen so many things, met so many people, and if she had chosen you, better grab that opportunity.” Implication: people who don’t travel are not adventurous, they’ve probably never met another human being or had an experience in their life. Really? Is going from point A to point B to point C and Instagraming every moment all that matters?
This fetishization of travel, to me, ultimately reflects a particularly shallow and materialistic view of the world and its people. How far you’ve gone matters, not how far you’ve come. Some people are already taking this fetishization to the next level. If you’re as hot as Natalie Wood here, you can offer your companionship to rich men for a free vacation. Inspired? Try specialized dating services like MissTravel. Forget the person you’ll be with, just think of the places he’ll take you. It’s as if nothing else matters. Even on social media, you’ll find that apart from the odd virulent political comment most friends will reveal nothing of their lives other than where they have been. Cocktails made of dragonfruit, feet in various scenic locales, the Eiffel tower, zebras, coral reefs, sunset profiles, suggestively unmade hotel beds, mountain vistas, delighted leaps caught mid-air… these have become the tropes of our lives, proof that we’re having a good time. It is as if we want to deny the authenticity of the mundane, it’s very existence. Life isn’t worth much unless you’re elsewhere. Pleasure must be chased, but contentment is taboo. Movement is everything, stability is stagnation. This ethos, this selective exhibitionism, exhausts me. I’ve always wanted someone I could be still with.
I understand that Indians of the particular subsection I belong to are mobile in every way and this reflects in their obsession with logging airport check-ins, their preoccupation with flight, with elevation — literal and metaphorical. But it’s all become part of a new class system, where homebodies are the lowest in the pecking order. How can anyone want to be where they are? How can anybody want to stay in the lives they’ve built? Guess what, they can. All it takes is some imagination, a Kindle account and cable TV for some of us, and I’m not going to apologize for it any longer.
“It’s happening,” I whispered to my husband, smiling in the dark. It was 1am, our daughter was asleep, and what I was feeling were unmistakably contractions. Not long after, I felt an urge to push, but instead of racing to the hospital, I went and sat on the toilet and let the inevitable happen. I was having a miscarriage, and I felt nothing but relief in that moment.
Later in the day, once the goriest parts were over and I went about my routine as usual, I felt a certain discomfort. Wasn’t I supposed to cry, to grieve, to be miserable for days on end, especially considering this was a much wanted baby that I had just lost? What kind of person was I to be so self-congratulatory about what I boasted to my husband was a “perfect miscarriage” (natural, not much bleeding, a quick cessation of pain)?
I’m not a heartless, emotionless person. The three weeks preceding the miscarriage were hell. I’d had a chemical pregnancy in May 2016 and two months later I was pregnant again. I was so anxious about it sticking; after wiping, every non-bloody piece of tissue was like a talisman as were the pregnancy tests I took every other day. I told my 2.5-year-old daughter that she could expect a sibling, took my vitamins, milked every twinge for sympathy and dismissal from childcare duties. It all went downhill at the reassurance scan I took at 6 weeks. There was just a wonky looking sac that measured behind by about 10 days. Progesterone pills were prescribed, another scan was scheduled. A week in limbo followed. Endless lurking on a website about misdiagnosed miscarriage, tears, hope, feelings of failure — I could barely function. The second scan revealed the presence of a foetus and that the sac had grown, but no heartbeat. Yet another follow-up scan was scheduled. Another week of being a shit parent, obsessive trawling of forums, tears, rage, grief. Misery all around.
Is dissolving into tears and sinking into a depression the only acceptable and “real” response to a miscarriage?
Then at the final scan, when I was about 9 weeks along, I was told there was no hope. The baby had probably died around 6.3 weeks. And that’s when the gloom started to lift. I was being released from limbo. There was nothing I could do, no amount of “research” on the internet could give me the hope I craved, I could get back to my life. I could stop grieving.
I told my husband we should go “celebrate” at a nearby restaurant, which we did. I tucked into cured meats with gusto and knocked back a few strong coffees. I felt quite cheerful. My spirits were further uplifted that very evening, when the bleeding started. No D&C, no misoprostol! This may have been a rubbish pregnancy but at least I could have a good miscarriage. My luck had not run out completely.
Once the fetus was out (I told my husband it felt like chunky vaginal diarrhoea while I was “evacuating” it, and he went grey in the face), I had no desire to look at it, to assign it a gender, to name it, to think of it as a potential person. I told myself all the clichés you’re not supposed to say to women going through miscarriage, and they helped me cope: it was just a ball of cells, everything happens for a reason, it was not meant to be, it was all for the best, at least it wasn’t ectopic/molar/late in the pregnancy, at least I had another child, I could try again. Every at least made me feel better because it reminded me that other people were worse off than me. I was still charmed dammit.
I did not take the day off at work and decided to go the doctor for the all-clear once the bleeding had subsided completely — I was not in much physical discomfort, I didn’t want manufactured sympathy or clinical prodding and the practice I go to plays Kenny G’s more plaintive saxophone renditions on loop, which I find unbearable.
Most people who knew what had happened made it a point to commend me on my “strength” but they were also a little appalled. I sometimes make jokes about it and that freaks people out too (I was quite proud of a little limerick I came up with: “My oven threw out my bun, so maybe now we are one and done.” Well, at least it rhymes). Some people think I’m faking it. Others say I’m not allowing myself to grieve. My husband actually told me to at least behave a little less clinical and cheerful about the whole thing because it makes me appear as if I am dissociated from reality.
But am I? Is dissolving into tears and sinking into a depression the only acceptable and “real” response to a miscarriage?
There’s almost a taboo around being able to “get over it.” It somehow makes you this insensitive, unfeeling person. Not woman enough.
There are so many articles about there being no one way to grieve or cope. I completely agree with that and feel great sympathy and empathy for everyone struggling in the aftermath of a miscarriage. I felt all of those emotions myself in the weeks before I physically lost the baby. But it should swing both ways. There’s almost a taboo around being able to “get over it.” It somehow makes you this insensitive, unfeeling person. Not woman enough. On occasion I found myself pretending to be sadder than I was because it was expected of me. That sucks. It’s not that I don’t regret what happened. Of course I do. I wanted that baby. But once I lost it, moving forward was the only way for me and I was grateful I was able to do it this time. It was a blessing to me that I could find that resilience, because that doesn’t always come easily to me. I definitely feel worried about ever being able to carry another pregnancy to term and sometimes I don’t want to even try again because the whole process causes so much anxiety.
Last month, a sweet old lady hugged a sweet old man. He kissed her back. They were “two old people reaching out”, she said later. But let me complete the picture for you: the setting for this display of camaraderie was a courtroom. The sweet old woman was Eva Mozes Kor, a holocaust survivor and the sweet old man was Oskar Groening, one of her Nazi tormentors at Auschwitz. Since then, the press has been waxing eloquent about the humanity of Nazis and so on, but the fact remains that the former Auschwitz “book keeper” (or rather, money launderer) remains on trial in Germany for the crimes he committed in the youth, and rightly so even though it is hard not to feel compassion for his frailty and watery eyes. Regardless, his current age is no excuse for what he did.
Now, let’s head to a drawing room in Gurgaon for a moment. I was visiting some relatives along with my husband and 15-month-old daughter. It was a congenial, feet-up sort of evening – the wine was flowing, there were toys on the floor. One of the guests there was chatting happily enough with the rest of us. She cooed and smiled at the child, got some coos and smiles in return. But at some point her mood seemed to sour.
She gazed at the child appraisingly and turned back to me. “Your daughter is very thin,” she said. I agreed, “Yes, she is on the slim side but the doctor is very happy with how she is growing.” It’s as if this lady never heard me. She said loud enough for most of the people in the room to hear, “You’ve obviously not been feeding her properly and instead have grown so fat yourself.”
I was not quite as stunned as I might have been, because she’d said similar things before– at my engagement party (“the girl is pretty enough but she is fat and better lose weight before the wedding”), during my mehendi, after the weight had been lost (a stage whisper: “What is that awful thing this girl is wearing?”) and when my baby was born (“What a weak-looking child and what a large nose she has”). And, of course now — when I am fat again and no longer a trophy for the family to show off.
All kinds of retorts lingered on the tip of my tongue, as they had many times before. We all cannot be Miss Universe like you Ammaji or perhaps I’m fat but you’re a nasty person or even a simple and polite Wow that was a very unkind thing to say. I itched to get up and just leave as I had many times before. So far, though, all I had managed to do was block her number temporarily in a passive aggressive fit of rage.
But this time, as I had every other time, I sat still with a fixed smile. I met familiar, sympathetic eyes all around me. My mother-in-law gave my hand a squeeze. She understood my anger, but her message was the same as everybody else’s: Let it go. She is an old lady. And with decades of cultural conditioning having taught me that particularly Indian self-destructive brand of submissiveness I let it go.
I now wish I hadn’t. This woman had been cruel about my mothering, and had viciously tied her criticism in with my changed appearance. Her aim was to embarrass and humiliate me. She has had a history of such behaviour with certain sections of her family for decades. She gets away with it every time. At most, people will avoid her or act coldly towards her but they will never call her out. We need to question why older people get a free pass to act like assholes just because they managed to live to a certain age. Respect your elders, we are taught when we are still in our diapers. But to what extent? Our reverence for matriarchs and patriarchs should never come before our self-respect.
Let’s face it, the older generation in the name of preserving “tradition” has perpetuated all types of cultural tyranny. At one end of the spectrum you have the village elders in a khap panchayat dictate dress codes for women and on the other you have an educated dowager in a drawing room spewing venom at anyone (other than her favoured female relatives) who doesn’t look the part of a “fair, slim, homely” wife. Then there are “elders” who throw a fit if “the girl’s side” doesn’t bring enough dowry or if a son isn’t produced within the first few years of marriage. And those who have different sets of rules for their daughters and their daughters-in-law. No one dares question them and this needs to change.
This old lady’s repeated rudeness is unacceptable and if there is a next time I’m going to tell her so. People meet her and gush about how lucid and active she is (which she is) but they should compliment her for another aspect of her youth that she has preserved so lovingly – being a playground bully. As is said often enough, growing old, even to 100, is not the same as growing up.
I think courtesy and respect are due to everybody but if others, including the elderly, are discourteous and disrespectful we owe it to ourselves and to society to not take it lying down. Much as we now question those who think housework is women’s work or dynasts who talk about suit-boot ki sarkar, we need to question older people who think their advanced years give them a free pass to say and do whatever they like without consequence.
I didn’t respond. My eight-month-old daughter was licking crusted-up cereal off the floor and I fussed around her, hoping the question would go away.
“You know, you should have done it when she was a newborn. I hear they don’t feel so much pain then. Now, of course she is teething so I can understand why you don’t want to cause her any more discomfort.”
My relative was being sweet and understanding.
But she did not understand at all.
The truth is I was not so worried about the pinprick of pain or rusted implements or bacterial infections – none of the things that people attributed my lack of enthusiasm to.
“I don’t think I will get her ears pierced at all. Not until she tells me she really wants it done,” I said.
This was too much! The poor woman had to intervene!
“Oh no no, that is not a good idea at all. For one it will hurt her. Trust me, she will cry her eyes out when she is older.”
“That’s OK,” I replied. “We’ll see when the time comes.”
The woman’s smile faltered. “She is going to hate you, you know. All her friends will have piercings and nice earrings and she’ll be the only one who won’t. She will resent you.”
I took stock of the situation. Should I tell this woman the real reason? Would she take it as an affront?
I smiled blandly as if my wont, but here’s the real reason.
The reason I will not get my daughter’s ears pierced before she is old enough to request it is because I refuse to have holes punched into her body just so that she can meet some ideal of feminine decorativeness. There is a world of difference between cruel practices such as female circumcision or foot binding or forcefeeding and getting a baby’s ears pierced, but think about it. They ARE along the same continuum, albeit at opposite ends. They all involve encroaching upon the child’s bodily integrity so that she may be made more attractive – to men eventually.
In my culture at least, no one would think to ask me to get a son’s ears pierced. So, why my daughter? So that she can practice being bejewelled and bedecked for her wedding day? Even those who agree that Barbie dolls and traditional fairytales set terrible examples for young children, do not question the assumption that a young girl ought to have her ears pierced as early as possible. We think nothing of mutilating our little girls just because it ‘looks pretty’. To whom? Why? “No no,” you might argue. “It’s cute is all.” But then why isn’t it cute for most little boys? Conceptions of beauty and cuteness or whatever evolve for certain reasons. They are rooted in culture, gender expectations, in age-old power equations. “Oh but I do it for myself,” say those who enjoy adorning themselves. Good for you, but you enjoy it because you’ve internalised that beauty depends on how you decorate yourself, and wellbeing in turn depends on beauty.
And what if the child wants her ears pierced when she is five or six or 13? Then so be it. For all my feminist ideals, I can’t prevent her from assimilating the gender codes she sees around her. At most I can downplay the importance of appearance (also hard because she is an extraordinarily pretty child and that is what everyone focuses on), but I can’t prevent her from making her own decisions and supporting them if they do not cause her real harm. But at least my conscience will be clear in that I didn’t make a baby cry and bleed, however little, just so she could flaunt overpriced markers of femininity.
Find time for your interests, take the time to dress up, to exercise and eat healthy. Enjoy a date with your husband. Nap when the baby naps. Read inspirational books. Everywhere I looked I was confronted with this exhausting advice for already exhausted new moms. It’s not that I didn’t try out these things. I did. Each one. And they only made me feel worse during the baby’s first three months – the dreaded ‘fourth trimester’. That is when I accepted I’d have to do things differently and leave worthier goals for later. My only principle for lazy moms like me: be twice as lazy. Here is how extreme slothfulness helped me survive the first few months:
Give fashion the finger: I spend most of my days in a nightgown. It was a decision I took when my pre-pregnancy jeans refused to go up my thighs and my maternity ones added an extra pooch to my belly. The nightgowns are comfy and airy, make me feel smaller and are ideal for nursing. I did not want to think about the shape of my body – only its function. I don’t bother with maternity bras at home – the lacy ones are the worst – and leave my teats hanging free for my little calf. Funbags are now feeding bags and that’s all they need to do. Does anyone tie pink ribbons around Daisy’s udders? Answer: no.
Live while the baby sleeps: Are there really mothers out there who hit the sack the minute baby does through the day? For one I don’t fancy being wrenched in and out of consciousness all day and two, I want there to be a little more fun to life than sleeping and babycare. I like to take my time to have a nice bath, watch a TV show and stuff my face in peace. My baby goes to bed at 11pm and I go to bed at 3am and it’s my favourite time of day.
Make your husband PAY: I’ve decided to stay home for at least a year for the baby, but I do demand a monthly salary from my husband. My uterus was the soil for his seed, and my breasts her food and water. I have also gained a significant amount of weight and have lost a significant amount of brain function. His weight is the same, he can work uninterrupted and his body is not fair game for a milk leech. His money, therefore, must feed my need for chocolates and trashy novels. The upside is that these keep me tranquilized enough to deal with being a full-time mother – a hunger for achievement and enough energy and confidence for outdoor/social activities could ruin this gig.
Stop hoping: I stuffed my size 10 jeans into the back of my closet and tucked away my half-written manuscript. The sight of them just depressed me more. For the first three months at least, my only real purpose in life was to feed and be fed.
Watch TV: I watch back to back episodes of a fourth-rate true crime how while nursing. It’s dramatic, it’s predictable and I don’t have to use my atrophied brain. Am I turning my baby’s brain to mush by exposing her to this tawdry show? Probably not because she is too young to actually ‘consume’ this junk. I will mend my ways when she is older but this is how I cope with the numbing boredom of sitting on a chair all day. There’s only so much one can gaze lovingly into baby’s eyes. In any case, she is like the pervs who line Delhi’s streets and has eyes only for my chest.
Get part-time help: I’d say full-time, but I personally can’t bear to have another human being hovering around me all day and being judgy about my dirty nightgown. Instead, I have a nice carer come in for a few hours every afternoon and baby gets her fill of energetic games and singing. I still have to spend at least eight waking hours with baby but there’s not so much pressure to be creative and lively. Plus it’s good for the kid to have a break from her boring mother too.
Go easy on the cleaning: For scientific reasons, of course. See point 2 of this post.
Screw dieting: I tried going low-carb but baby didn’t like it and I didn’t like it. Cookies make me happy and I am nursing. Enough explanation.
Some monsters hide under beds and some lurk in closets. Others loiter near the playground, their fingers sticky with candy and nervous sweat. Then there are those that sit in the comfortable armchair near the window, wondering with gentle exasperation where the little woman disappeared with their afternoon tea.
As an Indian woman I am considered lucky because I got to have an education, didn’t have to give dowry and never feared that my daughter might be despatched along with the day’s trash. After all, what are rights for many women in the Western world are privileges for their South Asian sisters. This lucky and charmed life has spoiled me, some would say.
It is true that I have evolved parents, a wonderful husband and very modern in-laws. But despite my protected life, I have observed in friends and extended family how the insidious poison of patriarchy seeps into everything from domestic communication patterns to gendered ideals of behaviour. You don’t have to have third degree burns from dowry torture to feel angered by it.
Like me, no daughter of mine shall be dandled on the lap of the demonic force known as patriarchy. It has recruited uncountable foot soldiers and hand maidens through the generations not just by brute force but through the transmission of ‘values’ and platitudinous advice that are as lethal as they seem bland.
Here are some classics (might add more later) that I want my daughter to beware of:
1) Be selfless: In other words, eat leftover scraps, abandon your own interests and priorities, become an unpaid servant at worst and a beloved pet at best. Selflessness is greatly valued in wives and daughters-in-law because it allows men and others further up the hierarchy to be selfish. In so many Indian households, you see the men enjoy festivals and other events while the women scurry about waiting on them, their pain a badge of honour. I have noticed that many Indian men love the joint family system. Why is that? Because they have to do none of the work. Status quoists express great pain over the takeover of Western values, often introduced by rebellious daughters in law. The old days were so great, these men say. All of us were smiling and laughing and lived together happily. Nonsense. The women were voiceless slaves and you enjoyed their service. If India had such a great culture it wouldn’t still be ranked 101 in the 2013 global gender gap index. It’s still better than Pakistan or Yemen, right? The payoff for the selfless woman is that she gets to play martyr and at a later date perpetuate the cycle by using her list of sacrifices to get others to do her bidding. The whole charade creates an atmosphere of oppression and repression. If you are indeed without a ‘self’ then what about self-respect? Self esteem? Autonomy? It is important to teach values such as kindness and consideration but selflessness belongs in the dustbin.
2) Obey your elders: Age and experience may count for something, but you are not necessarily wiser if you are older. You may have experienced a great many more situations and picked up a big bag of tricks but your values could be completely retrograde. In the traditional Indian family system, it is considered almost sacrilegious to question the patriarch and, to a lesser extent, the matriarch. If they told you drink gallons of ghee for better lubrication during childbirth, you did it, never mind how obese it made you. If they told you you were polluted when you had your period, you segregated yourself, perhaps thinking of it as a break – after all, you certainly didn’t warrant one if you simply wanted it. I will certainly expect my child to follow my house rules and learn certain values from me but I will never try to stop her from questioning me. I need to be accountable too – the things I ask her to do or not to do have to make logical sense. It is logical for me to stop her from sticking her finger in an electrical socket but it is not logical for me to throw a hissy fit if she wants to cut her hair short. She must conduct herself in a respectful and polite way to EVERYONE, but this does not amount to deference or blind obedience.
3) Silence is golden: To which I counter, tell the truth and shame the devil. Using silence to conceal problems or punish others makes issues worse, perpetuates injustices and kills any chance of a meaningful, honest relationship. Indian women should be seen, not heard is a common expectation. Rendered voiceless, many victims often learn to employ their enforced silence as a weapon and make a bad situation even worse. My daughter must always speak her mind or at least not fear doing so. See this post.
4) Always adjust: This is one of the sneakier ones. There is nothing wrong with being adaptable and accommodating. But ‘adjusting’ in Indian society is usually a one-way street. I will tell my daughter to be very wary if her in-laws tell her to ‘adjust’ to their way of life. It is simply a euphemism for obedience. She has to make it very clear that they will have to adjust to her as well. If she is not comfortable doing something, she should not to it and not have to face censure for it. Coercers know how distressing social rejection, pained sighs and huffy facial expressions are and you can have your arm twisted without even knowing it. Watch out and stand your ground. Mutual respect is possible only with proper boundaries and with an acknowledgment and acceptance of differences. It goes both ways and with open communication it is sometimes even possible to find a middle ground. Live and let live is a far better cliché.
5. It’s up to you to keep your family together: We’ve all seen the sugary facebook forwards about how a woman gives all of herself to being a daughter, wife, mother. There’s always something in there about how no one notices the tears in her eyes or how everyone kicks her in the spleen while she’s having chemotherapy etc etc. This kind of advice tells women that they are defined by their relationships. The job description for a wife includes playing people pleaser, peacekeeper and punching bag. Just so that everyone can sit in strained, murder-plotting silence around a dinner table. My contention is that not every family is best served by staying together. Divorce is an example of eroded family values in the West, right? Then tolerating domestic violence and abuse is the Indian way. My second point is that everyone in the family needs to work on relationships. It is not the woman’s prerogative.
Go out there my daughter, and be a selfish ‘bitch’! You’ll be happier for it.
It’s been about six months since I was paid to work. The last four have been a whirl of poopy diapers, endless nursing and crash courses in Incy Wincy Spider and Patty Cake. So, is the sacrifice of a job and social llife worth it? Desperate to convince myself that indeed it is, I compiled this list in one of my anonymous Twitter accounts. Now, since I have someone to watch the infant for a few hours, I shall expound on the advantages of being a lazy housewife and stay-at-home mother.
Cleaning shit is better than eating it: Success at work is often contingent on how eagerly one can lap up the boss’s frothy diarrhoea straight from the source. Office politics stink way more than any number of dirty diapers. I feel my life is cleaner now than it has ever been before.
Housework is bad for your baby: Domestic drudgery is no longer necessary. All the latest studies say that a spotless home can keep your baby from developing a robust immune system. And if you have a dirty dog, you’ll be doing your child an even greater favour.
Dirty laundry means dirty laundry: And there are unholy piles of it, nothing metaphorical about it – but all you need is a washing machine, not a PR campaign or social media clean-up operation. No one can drag your name through the mud, partly because you aren’t really meeting anybody to do nefarious things with. And since you’re no longer part of professional power struggles, no one cares enough to gossip or dig up incriminating things about you.
Spreadsheet isn’t a single word: It’s two words on my calendar, done every Tuesday. Could never quite figure out those fucking Excel sheets. Spreading out the 100% Egyptian ones is so much easier.
Baby talk means more than small talk: A heartfelt goo-goo sometimes makes more sense than the meaningless noise that small talk often is. This really hit home a few weeks ago when someone asked me how my father was. I paused – at that point of time he was grappling with an interesting dilemma and I was wondering if I should mention it. I started to, but seeing my hesitation, my guest stopped me, ‘Oh don’t bother, I am just making conversation.’ Now, in a way this was nice. She gave me an out and I appreciate it. But at the same time I felt a rush of irritation – what is the point of ‘conversation’ if it is purely dramaturgical in nature? Small talk is a way of filling in silence and a polite way to make listening unnecessary. It is a fundamentally dishonest mode of interaction. When a baby coos and gurgles, he or she is communicating love and a sense of connection. There is nothing false about it. My baby never talks about the weather. Yet, anyway.