Family

We are taught, right from the day we have some understanding of our surroundings, that family is your parents and your siblings. Then you have an extended family which is your aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins. For many years I believed this. Family to me was always father, mother, children. It was an etched-in-stone kind of definition.

The world as we know it as moved away from this definition. There are many women who choose to be single mothers, there are many men who choose to be single fathers. Then there is the gay community, where family is either father, father and children or mother, mother and children. Families now come in all shapes and sizes. Not every family fits into the age-old definition of father, mother and children.

I grew up in a middle class nuclear family. Aunts, Uncles, cousins, grandparents were people we interacted with during the summer vacation. My core was my father, mother, brother and paternal uncle who lived with us. This was my space in the universe. In this space, I was allowed to feel, I was allowed to talk, I was allowed to be me. If I said something out of disrespect, I was corrected. If I said something out of anger, I was given the space to calm down. If I did something wrong, I was told why it was wrong and I was given the opportunity to apologize. My family had a lot of friends and we called them family friends. These were people who lent a hand financially when my parents were struggling to pay my school fees or were short handed at the end of the month. They were there with us emotionally, by encouraging us to push a little higher and have some success in the print world. We participated whole heartedly in each others family events, marriages, death, birth, etc. I have seen more of my parents friends come to our house, have a meal of simple chapathi and curry or whatever was there, than my aunts and uncles.

My concept of family developed through these people. They were family to me, not just family friends, because they were there for us. They didn’t tell my parents that they were trying to do something impossible by trying to set up a print shop. They didn’t judge my parents and say why are you sending your children to the best and most expensive school when you know you cannot afford it. They didn’t comment on the clothes we wore, or the humble living quarters. They sat cross legged on the floor and ate what my mother served. Without asking they brought money and handed it over to my parents. I owe these people a lot and remember them fondly. Many of them have passed, but they were placed in our lives for a reason.

I am a movie buff. A few movies have left a lasting impact on me. One such movie is English Vinglish. After learning English, at the end of the movie, the protagonist defines what a family is, and those words have stuck with me. She says, ‘a family is not judgmental’. That’s precisely how I was raised. My family and everyone around my family, our support systems, never judged us. So that is my definition of a family. A group of people who do not judge you and with whom you can be you.

As I go through my divorce, I have been re-drafting my age-old family definition of father, mother, children. Now my family is mother and children. And that is okay, because for single moms, mom and children is family. My son recently asked me what is family. I told him from my experience this is what I have learnt – a group of people who don’t judge you and let you be you. He said, you took the words out of my mouth. I am glad, rather proud, that my child is not stuck to age old family definitions. That he understands, family is not judgmental.

Destiny..

I don’t know what else to title this write-up. I am sitting here in a ‘media room’, something I didn’t even know existed say ten years ago, in Austin TX, land of the free, typing this on my Macbook. There is central AC in my 3000 sq ft home and luxury seeps out of every corner. It is nothing but destiny that has got me here and a lot of hard work and sacrifices from my parents.

My father was born in Puthur, Mangalore a year before India gained independence from the British. His father was a pujari (Brahmin priest at a Hindu Temple). His family migrated from Puthur to a small place called Shivapuram near Mattanur in Kerala. The king then granted the right to do pooja at the Shiva temple and an acre of land surrounding the temple to my father’s eldest brother. Mi padre went to the local school where he excelled in Social Studies and Malayalam but failed miserably in English and Maths. By grade 8, he was the school magazine editor, wrote plays for the school, and was involved in everything creative at school. That is when his father fell ill and he had to tend to the pooja at the temple. So he skipped school for a year and followed the family traditions. After a year he went back to school and failed grade 9. His skill was arts but the education system back then, just as it now, did not care about his creative talents. He tried again, but failed. After this he quit school.

Sitting at home, he saw an ad in the paper for a course in craftsmanship at Calicut, conducted by the Government. It was free and provided a stipend to the participants. My father applied, got in and went to Calicut with 10 rupees. The institution provided the training but he had to arrange his own accommodation. Staying away from home at the age of 16, made him uneasy. After a week’s class, he told one of the other participants, that he was leaving. He walked to the railway station to catch a train to Thalashery. He recalls how he hid behind a pillar in case someone recognized him and took him back to the training institute. As the train arrived, he dashed into the train and fled.

Back home, with nothing to do, he was called by his brother to join him as an assistant at Suratkal. The Engineering college was being built and his brother had a small contract job as an electrician. My father accompanied his brother on a train journey to Suratkal and did odd jobs handing over equipment or hammering nails helping his brother. During his time there, his brother a few others and my father went on a trip to Mookambika. As my father recounts, the national highway was under construction and due to limited resources, they walked.. barefoot. On the way, a stone pierced through his foot. A makeshift bandage around his foot, he continued to walk.

Due to some misunderstanding, my uncle stopped working as a contract electrician and decided to move to Bangalore. He told my father to go back to their hometown and wait for his call. After my uncle settled down in Bangalore, he would send for my father. My father packed their kerosene stove, and a few other belongings in a burlap sack and headed home.

After a few months he got a letter from his brother asking him to come to Bangalore. My father packed the kerosene stove and a few other things in a burlap sack and was put on a train by his father. In an old shirt and white mundu, he left to the unknown world.

At Bangalore, my uncle cooked sweets at weddings to earn his living. My father started doing odd jobs writing sign boards. They lived near Lalbagh inside a certain Munisamy’s electrical shop, behind the stairs. They cooked after the shop was closed so as to not interfere with the customers and their business. His first sign board assignment was in Natkalappa Circle, so he took the route from Lalbagh Rd, through Lalbagh to get to Natkalappa Circle. That is where he saw a young Jayalalitha dancing on the lawns shooting for a movie.

During those time a certain Saamy visited my uncle and brought the newspaper. One day there was an ad calling for artists to work at the Museum. Saamy encouraged my father to apply. He cut out the ad and walked to Gandhibazaar where his brother’s friend would help him write up the application and post it. After a few days he received the news to attend an interview. In his same old faded white shirt and mundu without footwear he walked into the Museum for an interview. They gave him some assignments to assess his work and offered a job as an intern. They asked him how much we wanted to earn. Since he was earning 3 rupees with his board sign writing, he asked for 6 rupees. He got the job as a daily wage temporary employee at 6 rupees a day.

His first day at office, a colleague came and told him that his attire was not appropriate and he should wear a pant and some footwear. That evening he bought hawaii chappal (flipflops) for 2 rupees. Munisamy gave him 10 rupees and asked him to go meet a tailer for pants. A stitched pant was waiting for him unclaimed by the owner. He bought the pants for 10 rupees and he walked the next day to office (from Lalbagh Rd to Kasturba Rd) looking like Chaplin in his new pants and footwear. This was the first time he had worn footwear, and his feet revolted. By evening that day his feet were swollen and he was in severe pain. His feet were not used to anything beneath them, except the ground. It took him a week to get used to wearing footwear.

After a year, owing to his exceptional work, the Museum created a position as a line artist and competitively offered him the job. His basic pay would be 110 rupees and monthly salary 210 rupees. After his first pay, he went straight to buy cloth for 2 shirts and 2 pants. He got them stitched to his size this time. His colleagues were surprised to see him in clothes that fit him and chided him saying, he looked like a different person altogether. After this his brother and him rented a room with a half wall separating the kitchen enclosure at 30 rupees a month.

There is more from how I got here from his one room dwelling. But that is for another time.

Now do you see why I call this destiny? Hearing these stories from him, just makes me exponentially grateful and humble for everything I have today. It also teaches me the value of hard work. It reminds me how my life is interconnected with many lives and people that I don’t even know. Like it is all a web linking the past to the present and the future.

Fresh eyes

When I was in grade 8, I couldn’t read the board in the classroom. I told my teacher and she moved me to the front of the class. I told my parents and they took me for an eye exam and fit me with these big round black glasses. The first feeling is Wow I look intellectual now. It’s like a fashion statement. I’ve got something you ain’t got kinda feeling. Years pass, every year you go for that routine eye exam and every year the vision gets blurrier and blurrier. First think after you wake up in the morning is to find those glasses. It’s like your arm, you cannot move without it. The thought of losing your glasses scares you. I just couldn’t see anything 5 feet away without my glasses. The springs on either end got loose so often, and I would find a small edge to tighten it or keep shoving them up my nose. The initial fashion statement had worn off. School was okay, but when I went to college, I wanted to look pretty and to me that was not wearing glasses. I presented my case and my parents were supportive. They took me to an eye clinic close to home (near Hotel Woodlands) and there this female doctor fit me with contact lenses. I was tearing up from the foreign object in my eye and from happiness. I remember sitting outside that doctor’s office on a bench with my mom and telling her, “I can see Ma.. I can see with my own eyes.. “. This was in 1995 I think, so the soft lenses weren’t fashionable yet. I was given semi-soft lenses and taught how to use them. Over the years it felt good to be able to wear contact lenses and wear eye make-up, pose for pictures without having to remember to take off my glasses. I could just say cheese and click!

After the initial excitement wore off, wearing lenses became cumbersome. Washing my hands before touching them, rinsing them out, ensuring they were moist all the time. Phew, it was so much easier to find those glasses and put them on. Shoving them up my nose seemed easier. I fell out on my loyalty to contact lenses, yet I tried. That is when I started working and met this girl who I didn’t think wore contact lenses until I went to her house and saw a lens case on her dresser. I was surprised and admired her diligence of keeping those big glasses away from the crowds. I restarted with renewed enthusiasm and imbibe some of her diligence, yet me being me…. it was glasses again.

When I moved to the US, I got better at wearing lens and met this person at work who had undergone LASIK. I inquired about it and he said it was easy peasy. My family (not my mom) however discouraged me and instilled this fear that I could go blind. I put it off until two weeks ago when I thought why not. I have a renewed sense of self-confidence in the past few months and I am finding my old self who believed in ‘just do it’. I found a center and made an appointment for a virtual consultation. You know those times when you want to do something and you get these signs that match your need? I found a random LASIK center and after that when I checked my vision insurance, this was an in-network provider. I thought wow, thats a sign. From nowhere LASIK ads started to appear on TV. I got my evaluation done and as I waited with anxiously to hear the result, I prayed, to all the Gods I knew and to my mom, ‘just make me the right candidate’. And lo and behold, the doctor told me just that. My eyes are healthy enough to undergo LASIK. I still needed a sign I guess. Today’s Daily Themed Crossword Puzzle (part of my daily morning routine), had a clue – technology used in eye surgery – yes, LASER!.

With all the stars aligned and signs evident, to finally rid me of glasses and contact lens, I am scheduled for LASIK next Friday. I guess thats what I will say when I open my eyes the next day ‘I can see with my own eyes’. A fresh pair of eyes, a fresh perspective just as I embark on a new chapter in my life…

Dont fix them..

Parenting a teenager has been and still is the my most challenging yet rewarding experience of these sixteen years of being a mom. This time I am taking baby steps, almost like I am the baby and he is the parent. By the time my second one becomes a teenager, I will probably be sitting up. As I’ve said like many others, there is no golden book. You fall, you get up, again stumble, again rise, you get the idea. There is some method to the madness, but each child is different. The most important lesson being, don’t try to fix them.

As parents we think our primary responsibility is to make them the best, in academics, in behavior, in manners, in their career, their family. In this process we take the leader role and the child is the follower. This is the primary mistake. They lead and we follow. The simple logic being, they are teaching you to be the parent, so let them lead. Of course, few essential things need to be taught by example, but by and large they show you the way. This trying-to-fix syndrome does not work with a teenager. Their mindset is that they are almost adults, as much as we are, so they don’t need any fixing. The more you try, the more they get away from you, emotionally and sooner than later, physically.

So as they start thinking that they are almost adults, you need to treat them like one. Make it real. Tell them one thing about your day, everyday. Don’t bring the work home, but bring the people you work with, home. It’s not about you dressing up and leaving in the car and getting back in the evening. There is more to it, and open those doors to them. They want a taste of the real world, this is when they want to race to their twenties, missing the fact that pre-twenties are the best years.

Remember, what your pre-twenties looked like? No phone, if you didn’t live on the same street, you didn’t see your friend till the next day at school. We live in an age and time that by the time they are 15, they have a phone. They are constantly texting their friends, looking up anything on the internet. Their pressure is greater and I know that fomo is real. If they don’t check their phones every now and then, they think there will be a hundred messages that they will miss responding to. If they don’t respond, they are left out. Nobody has time to wait for someone to catch up. Everyone is running, running towards what nobody knows..

Phone is not something you take away from a teenager. It is the new stuffed toy they probably carried around when they were a baby to drive away some fear. That small elephant or teddy bear stuffed toy they hugged to sleep and walked around with, which was their security blanket. Well, as shocking as it is, that 6 inch of radiation causing non-sensical gadget is that teddy bear now. When it’s taken away, it’s like they have lost oxygen. And don’t even get me started on, if you look at the phone, yes, just look, not unlock, not actually read anything. It’s an invasion of privacy. I think when we gen-x were in our teens, we wanted to tell our parents almost everything, but now privacy prevails.

With all this mess and nonsense that the internet feeds into their brains, they need an avenue to vent. I don’t think it is even venting, it is a release of unwanted energy. This is where your follower vs leader trait is put to the test. If you are a follower, they will vent to you. If you are the leader, they don’t want to get anywhere close to you. You need to give them the room to vent. They are almost adults, remember, so they get angry, and they need to release the anger. This the the age when every emotion is distinct. They are figuring it out, so follow their lead.

When you follow their lead, you also need to lead by example. You cannot tell them to spend less time on their phones while you are glued to your phone. You cannot expect them to pick up after them, if you don’t. They will make the bed as much as you do. You don’t realize much when they are young, that they are observing your every move. Well, fast forward ten years and your teenager will show you exactly who you are. This is when you are shocked, feel like you are a miserable parent, like you’ve lost this race, you’ve ruined it, and your first impulse is to fix it, without fixing yourself. A tween will point out hypocrisy before you see it.

A friend of mine posted a beautiful picture of her daughter and said ‘when parenting seems perfect’. The keyword here is ‘seems’. When there is no hypocrisy, when there is no fixing, when you follow, you will get a few moments of when you feel like you’ve won, it ‘seems’ perfect and you give yourself a perfect score. Just then they will flip and wander off to a direction. So you just have to see where they go, take a few steps further and be ready for them. As individuals we grow within ourselves, but as parents we grow in two directions. Individual growth is so different from parental growth. You have to grow as your child grows, gain strength from your individual learnings and be there for them.

And in closing all I have to say is ‘no one got it right’. Everyone aims for perfection, but nobody is. We need to understand that we are not perfect and should not expect it from our children, specially from teenagers. If you have missed the boat on something before they became a teenager, then don’t try to catch the boat and get in, its sailed away. In time, your fella will catch it.

Starting all over again…

The nineteen inch, nine pound bundle that sat cozily wrapped up in my arms many years ago, today stands next to me, towering over me, looking down to look into my eyes, grinning from ear to ear at his towering achievement. I stand there in my five foot yardstick looking up thinking, well, blank actually.

My teenager turns fifteen tomorrow and I can’t help but pen down the emotions being a teenager’s mom. When I became a mom, now what seems like in another lifetime, I thought been there done that. But that ‘becoming mom’ is just for the first phase when you help the teeny tiny thing in your arms learn basic skills. You feed the baby, rejoice when he starts crawling and then walking, go ooh and aah at his first words, play with him, give him hugs and make him feel loved. Fast forward about fourteen years and you will find yourself doing all of this all over again. Yes, everyone of this, in different ways.

Your teenager will now put into his mouth anything he likes, just like as a baby he picked anything from the floor. When he was a baby you took care to buy organic, or home prep baby food and what not. Now he dunks down soda and burgers and hot dogs what you can group as J-U-N-K. You are not feeding him now, but still have to silently watch what goes down his gut. You cannot say no (not too much coz then it becomes an issue about his freedom), but start learning to explain to him the harmful effects of too much chemicals in his body.

He can run now. He will sit in his friends cars and go to Whataburger or McDonalds and where not. Its your job to know where he is, just to be sure he is safe. As a toddler if he ran into the hallways, you pick him up and bring him right inside. Now, you can ask nicely, ‘where will you be buddy?’, ‘in whose car are you riding?’… You have to magically become smart enough to not cross into his ‘friends’ territory.

He can talk, never ending, he can go on and on and on. You don’t have to teach him the words, but now you have to ensure he is using the right words. Remember at the end of this, you want to give yourself that invisible trophy titled ‘best parent of the year’ award. You dont want him to evolve into a saint, but be able to maneuver his way in the world. He will learn cuss words, and use it. Making him aware of minding his language in appropriate situations is what you should talk to him about.

As a baby you protected him from practically everything. As a teenager, it is time to allow him to expand his territory and test the waters while you are around. Let him make a mistake, let him fall, so you are there to give him a hand while he will take it and you are there. From this whole re-learning to be a parent, my biggest learning has been to keep the communication channel open, both ways. If you want to keep it real, it is important to open up some of your emotions to them so they get an on the job exposure to adult world feelings. He is not a friend from your age group, so use your judgement at what you let him into. The biggest win at this stage is that he wants to talk to you. Encourage conversations and give him some space. In your mind, he is a baby and will always be. My 70+ father thinks of me 40+ as a kid who needs to watch out while chopping vegetables. But giving this space and having those conversations are so important for their emotional growth. Few pointers –

  • What really stands out to me is if you are disagreeing with something they say, be open to hear their perspective. The time when you talk and they listen blindly is over, because now their minds think too and at that age they think ‘they know’.
  • When you ask them to do a chore, don’t order them to do it, work with them. They have a schedule and plans. On one hand when you are encouraging them to make a plan, help them stick to it.
  • Encourage them to plan on their own, not just school work but non-school work.
  • Give them chores at home – loading the dishwasher, unloading, doing their laundry, putting it away, cleaning the toilets, putting the trash out, dusting, mopping, cooking. These are basic skills that every person should learn.
  • Give them real life experiences based on their age – how to board a flight, how to shop for grocery, how to fill gas, how to work your way at the bank, how to get an uber, how to use public transport… etc, the list is endless. These are essential skills that no school teaches.

I have not listed values on purpose. To me values cannot be taught, they should be portrayed. Based on what parents portray, children will imbibe the values.

There is no fool-proof method and everyone parent learns in the class of parenting at their own speed. It cannot be taught and only comes through experience and your unique situation. It has been the best learning school, where sometimes I fail and sometimes I pass. Every small win feels like a leap in faith that you are doing something right. Every fall doesn’t put me down but encourages me and teaches me to do better the next time.

So here’s wishing my first guru in parenthood a very happy fifteenth year of teaching ! I love you, forever and forever…

Choices..

As a mom, nurturing my babies has been a learning. Just as I was getting the hang of it, it was time to start cutting the cord. Yes start cutting the cord and not cut the cord because the cord is never cut. It stays intact in a virtual form for all of your children’s life. There is only thing you cannot replace and that’s your parents.

The strands starting withering away when my younger one just around ten started making choices about his clothes. He knew exactly what he wanted to wear, including his socks and innerwear. It is funny but he started developing his individuality very young, let’s leave it there.

I was talking to some colleagues yesterday, one of them is the father of two young children in their ones and fours. The other is a mom of two college graduates working in different parts of the county. Me with my middle and high schooler was somewhere in between. The lady colleague has been an inspiration for me in the context of letting go or loosening the reigns. She was telling us how there is no one shoe fits all kind of parenting. When she is asked by other parents how she does something, she says, it’s your child, figure it out.. that is absolutely true, when you start cutting the cords and which cord depends only on you and your child.

Since a few years ago, when I bring my boys to the saloon, we google for “boys hair cuts” and start browsing. They have the choice to pick their own hairstyle. To me, giving them the choice to decide how they look, whether it’s their hair or clothes or shoes helps them develop their individuality and confidence.

As my older one sits at the hairdressers chair and gets his first out of the way hairdo I sit here smiling…

The cords are going away one by one, there are more opinions he forms and decisions he makes. It won’t be too long before I take a step back and watch him pick up the baton and tread forward on his lane. From all the children I have seen and parents I have met, I realize that Parenting is an art which nobody masters. There is always something that you will not do and which is fine.. it’s okay. What is important is to let them make choices while you are around to tell them to get up when they fall. I am what I am because of all the choices my parents gave me, good or bad.

I’m learning.. each day.. it’s the toughest yet most fulfilling thing to be – a parent!