I was 16 when I started clipping images of wedding trousseaus from Eve’s Weekly, a magazine my mom subscribed to. I knew the exact decor I wanted and the hairstyle I’d sport when I got married. I also knew I would have two kids, two years apart. And that I’d be a stay-at-home mom.
All this, despite the fact that my mom worked full time, I possessed no dolls or kitchen sets, I had a “boy cut,” and my parents were wholeheartedly invested in the idea of me having a career.
Perhaps I wanted do things the “normal” way to spite them. Perhaps I wanted to go against the grain, just because. Perhaps I wanted to right every wrong in their modern marriage and my unique upbringing by sticking with the traditional paradigm.
Perhaps it was just peer and societal pressure: to be one of them; to have the same dreams and aspirations as every other 16-year-old; to feel safe in those choices.
I had always been that kid without any siblings, whose mom never showed up at any events, whose dad lunched with her daily and taught her badminton on the weekends. I was a misfit. And I hated it.
When I entered college, I started growing my nails, painting them, using makeup, paying attention to things like earrings and bracelets. I also discarded any clothes from my previous tomboyish life. No more baggy shirts and rompers. I was all about the graceful, dainty, form-fitting dresses.
My hair kissed the back of my knees and I stopped letting my mom braid it. I’d either let it loose or make a bun. I’d learned how to make soft curls kiss my jawline, accumulated hair accessories like there was no tomorrow and looked every bit the neighborhood version of the Indian Goldilocks.
I had also started hanging out with girls whose parents expected nothing more of them than getting married at the ripe age of 19, so they could have two kids before they turned 22. What an easy life!
“Tormented” by my career-driven parents, locked up in their dreams, I waited for my knight in shining armor to come and sweep me off my feet to domesticated bliss.
And come he did. He was short, chubby, not very bright, and cracked sexist jokes. His idea of the ideal girlfriend was a walking-talking replica of the common matrimonial ads one can find in any Indian newspaper: subservient, docile, charming, and fair. I fell hook, line, and sinker. I wanted to be his arm candy.
He didn’t read books, but I believed I could entice him with the Sherlock Holmes series. He didn’t care for politics, while I was on the current affairs debate team at school. But I didn’t need to have those conversations with him, did I? He was shallow, narcissistic, demeaning to his mom, but those were all qualities of a great male chauvinist! The absolute, complete opposite of my equal-rights-crying effeminate dad. My antithesis.
He was just right for me.
His cousin, my BFF, disapproved, but I was determined. He would be the guy whose children I bore. The clandestine meetings after school, the skipping classes in college, the leaving-home-and-coming-back-with-girlfriends but spending the in-between-time with him at a park. I was giddy.
We weren’t supposed to have boyfriends or girlfriends growing up. Everyone knew everyone else. People had their noses up their neighbors’ business at all times. What I pulled off for three years was nothing short of a miracle!
When mom found out, as inadvertently she would, there was no hysteria. Just a calm, “Call him over. I’d like to meet him.”
They were the most awkward 15 minutes in the history of time. His confident demeanor gone, he looked like a scraggly kid in front of the school principal. She asked him about his aspirations. He had none. She asked what he did in his spare time. He said, “just lie around…”
She asked no more.
I remember silence hanging over our house for the next two days like an ominous lull before the storm. I remember feeling ashamed. I wanted to dig a hole and die in it.
Her lack of histrionics to his complacent attitude had led to a complete erosion of my fantastical plight.
On the third day, she said, “If you don’t value your self, no one else will.”
I hadn’t wanted a self. I had just wanted to belong. To disappear in the ennui of nothingness. To be a ghost.
What I had really wanted was a sense of purpose. I had needed encouragement, not pushing. I had needed my mom to believe in me and let everything else be. I had needed her to see me for the deep-thinking, touchy-feely writer I was, rather than trying to groom me for a high-ranking well-paying management job.
I had needed her to listen, to observe, to guide. I had needed her to recognize and embrace just how different I felt. I had needed for my mom to see I was a little, insecure girl who wasn’t always “just as good as the boys.”
The breakup wasn’t easy. “How dare I?” “Who did I think I was?” “A feminist whore!” But it was fast.
Mom fielded the apologetic calls that came later. And ensured I could focus on what would become the beginning of my writing career.
No one I knew was earning their keep at 21 years old. Not a single girl from my college had her own weekly column in a national daily. Nobody in my social circle was still unmarried.
Yes, I was the odd one out. And I had started taking pride in it. I flourished as a writer, I found my wings.
Now – 20 years later – when I think back to that time, I feel grateful for those experiences. They made me the person and the parent I am today. I feel a tremendous amount of respect for my mom. I understand better the lesson she was trying to teach me that day. A milestone day.
I have a sense now that teenage daughters are a species unto themselves. I realize that my mom was just trying to raise me to be independent and self-sufficient. All she wanted was to see me succeed in life. And happiness would follow.
As it turns out, I am a stay-at-home-mom now to a two-year-old. I married this guy I randomly met online. He wasn’t from our caste. He wasn’t even on the same continent. But through our email and IM exchanges, I found him to be compassionate, intelligent, rational, funny, and caring. Most of all he loved me for the unconventional Indian woman I was.
He helped nurture my dreams. He heard my unsaid thoughts. He fought for me when I wanted to keep my maiden name after marriage. He supported my writing career and, later, my choice to quit it all when I became pregnant. He became the son my parents never had. He didn’t want kids for the longest time until suddenly he did – we did.
Some days as I’m combing my fingers through my daughter’s curls, I wonder what our future holds. If she’ll resent me just as much as I resented my mom. If she’ll ever notice how much of myself I’ve given to her. If she’ll love her father more. If she’ll rebel. If she’ll crash and fall. If I’ll let her fail.
She’s not even two yet and I already see her unique personality shining through: decisive, empathetic, strong-willed, very much her own person. When someone points out how advanced she is verbally or how she knows a lot for her age, I have to stop myself from comparing. I have to stop myself from thinking, “She’s not like the other kids.”
She is who she is.
I tell myself, she isn’t me and I’m not my mom. That we’ll have our own unique challenges. That she’ll need to find her own “self” and learn to value it. That I’ll love her through all the heartbreaks and bad decisions. That I’ll always be her safe place. That she’ll know happiness shouldn’t be a byproduct of anything. That we will ride through all the storms and rainbows with grace, respect, and trust. That we will have our own moments of happiness and despair – our own milestones of trust and letting go.
And somehow the collective consciousness, the shared experiences and accumulated wisdom will complete this cycle of mother-daughter relationships on a high note.