Just before I sat down to wish you a happy mother’s day this week, I scanned my usual thick stack of Sunday newspapers and their headlines. “POWER MOMS,” screamed one. Bright, colourful pictures illustrating the label: politicians, actresses and business leaders who also have children.
Not people like us.
Another year of celebrating motherhood, with yet another set of expectations.
But you know this better than I, having invested your life in other people’s dreams and stumbling over the question, “So what do you do?” Not until I moved to your native India did I realize women’s roles since your day to mine have shifted, liberalized and modernized at work—yet somehow stayed stuck on issues of marriage and motherhood.
Thirty Mother’s Days have passed since we first met. Me—a red, round newborn. You—an immigrant mother giving birth alone in a New York City hospital. I was a girl, which you welcomed after having my elder brother four years earlier in India. Papa was at work.
He would remain there for much of my childhood, slogging long hours to climb the corporate ladder. My memories of you in those early years are hazy yet sweet, sharing naps, smelling flowers, rolling coconut laddus.
Most of my adult life, I have lauded my father’s intellect and work ethic in getting me where I am. I turned to him to help file my taxes, buy property, invest in mutual funds and make major career decisions.
You probably remember my quick and desperate tone when I would call: “Is Papa there?”
Sometimes, you’d react: “You never talk to me. I know about some of these things, too.”
“Whatever,” I’d say.
It was not until I moved here that I understood why you might have become the mother you did, the kind who stayed home most of the time, who entertained guests and family endlessly and patiently waited till they left to complain, who gasped at the air steward’s suggestion that a mother should take the oxygen mask before her child.
Lately, I have been trying to jog my memory for anything to give me insight into how India, its climate and culture might have shaped you and so many of your peers who followed their husbands’ dreams, instead of their own.
I remember once watching Sangam in our New Jersey family room and you let slip that your father never wanted you to go to the movies, that you wanted to take singing and dancing lessons, but your parents felt proper girls didn’t do that.
I remember another time that you mentioned having high marks in math, but being discouraged from pursuing it. You were told an arts track would be easier, that the goal was to get married.
Such words are still uttered in India today, drastically curbing women’s potential, from poor households to the supposedly learned middle class.
The day after Mother’s Day, I read a letter in another newspaper from a software engineer angered that his wife’s family hadn’t paid dowry and justifying his mother taking away all her possessions. Young women cringe at the now-common interview question: “Are you planning on having children? Won’t that affect your work?”
What could have been for you, Ma? I saw you struggle through much of life for definition: Our mother, Papa’s wife, sari, slacks, Indian, American, housewife, domestic engineer?
“My daughter doesn’t really spend much time in the kitchen,” you told someone proudly when I was in college. “But she reads a lot of books.”
I realize now that much of your rearing was spent making sure I didn’t have the life you did. Among our Indian friends, you were seen as the most liberal, the one who didn’t set double standards for my brothers and me. When I broke up with a boyfriend at 22, you told me to stop crying and get my master’s degree.
India’s organized work force boasts more women than ever—26% in the services sector, according to one count—and I have a feeling a lot of us had moms like you. There’s hope as some expectations and roles have been added; our next challenge is reducing the loads we have carried for centuries, perhaps onto our male brethren.
We might not be as selfless, but we will try to impart your messages to our daughters, too.
They are likely to grow up in an era where working in or out of the home will be a choice—with any option perfectly respectable: perfect mom, power mom, somewhere in-between mom. I wish you had had that.
For today, though, I am happy to share the job profile in which you really made a mark: “Mother.”
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