Tag Archives: angst

The Problem That Has No Name


I first read ‘The Feminine Mystique’ when I was in my twenties. I was just out of college and anything feminist had instant appeal. Betty Friednan, I was told, was the original feminist (as it turned out, she wasn’t, there are many claimants to that appellation. She sparked, what we learnt later, a second-wave feminism). But, these were pre-Google days, rather these were pre-the-world-as-we-know-it-today days, and our biggest sources of information were our teachers and, who we liked to call, the Phd-types (we had no idea where they got their information from; it remains a mystery to date). Needless to say, their word was law. If they recommended a book or an author, we would go scurrying to libraries (any that we could get access to, which weren’t many, hence the scurrying) to lay our hands on the them. Friednan was suggested one such friend, who was really a step above the Phd types, she was the sure-shot-UPSC-type (though later I found out that she married her local guardian’s son and proceeded to live an obscure life defined largely by motherhood)

She was the real thing, however, in those days –  the sort who would read ‘The Communist Manifesto’ before bedtime; the Oracle we would go to before any exam in the hope that we would generally absorb the wisdom that seemed to float around her like a glowing, massless orb. She had read The Feminie Mystique like a pop-fiction book and passed it on to me. And since anything she read was Gospel, I had declared my liking for it before she had had a chance to offer it to anyone else (I preferred it to ‘The Communist Manifesto’). I accepted the book with a mix of alacrity and grace, and read it from cover to cover, spouting quotes wherever I could, mainly to make points in arguments and debates. The real feminist book to read, of course, was The Second Sex, but my friend probably thought it too dense for non-Phd types like me, and had thus recommended Freidnan.

Years later, I came across the The Feminine Mystique again. For all my enthusiasm about the book, I realized that I didn’t remember much of it, except the fact that the women being talked about in it were far removed from my life – I didn’t know much about suburban American wives as a twenty-year-old. I remember understanding it, but not being able to relate to it, even if I quoted liberally from it (to appear academically superior to my peers; it mostly worked).

This time, however, I had no such problem. The opening paragraph made my hair stand on end, as I realized that the reason I could not relate to it earlier had nothing to do with geographical boundaries, but to do with the age I was at. I was twenty, single and full of idealism that youth bestows in abundance, blissfully unaware of the realities of life. Now, as  a thirty-eight-year old mother of three who had been on a break from work, I was anything but unaware. And Freidnan’s words spoke directly to me: “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night–she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question–“Is this all?”

Friednan had hit the nail on its head by asking – is this all? It was the very existential question I had been avoiding asking myself. As I lay in bed at night and thought about the years that had slipped by, as I shopped for groceries, chased my children with spoons, took them to the doctors, drove them to their piano lessons, tennis classes and birthday parties, I realized I didn’t want to ask myself that question; I didn’t want to address the “strange stirring” Friednan spoke of. I felt old, fat and unemployable. After re-reading Friednan, however, there was no getting away from the question. Also, by now my Phd-type, bleeding-heart liberal friends had been replaced with mommies, who were at a similar stage in their lives and who collectively seemed to suffer from a similar affliction as me – with the problem that has no name.

The more I read Friednan, the more I seemed to meet women she was talking of, except these were women who were living fifty years later, and more than twelve thousand kilometers away from the American suburban wife Friednan spoke of. And yet, they seemed to be bound by a common thread; they felt the exact same sense of “stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning”.

What I must add here is that these were affluent women, much like their American counterparts (and for this Freidnan has faced criticism, but that’s for another story). They lived comfortable lives and had most things desirable – rich husbands, big houses, rocks on their fingers, luxury cars and all that came with being married into wealth. What they lacked, I realized, was a sense of self, a sense of accomplishment and purpose. And, that was exactly what I lacked too. For us (them and me) motherhood had been all consuming, but it had not provided the sense of fulfilment that society supposes it should for mothers. I cannot remember the number of times I have been told that I was doing a terrific job as a mother, the innuendo being that it is something I must continue to do, to the exclusion of all else. Motherhood, women are brought up to believe, is defined by the sacrifices you make as a mother – and this is exactly what The Feminine Mystique addresses – to the fact that women are/were trying to conform to some ideal image, despite their lack of fulfillment.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not belittling mother hood. I know, only too well, what it takes. My problem, so to speak, is with the picture that society paints of a mother – a sacrificing, patient, selfless, long-suffering woman– one who puts her own aspirations on hold for the sake of the ones she loves. And the problem with this picture is that little girls grow up believing this to be the image to aspire to. Worse still, little boys too are led to believe that there are predefined roles and definitions for men and women, ideas which they carry into adulthood.

Which brings me back to “the problem that has no name.” Women, whether in the previous generation, this one, or the next, will continue to feel a sense of restlessness (and depression), as long as they are made to be subservient to men, as long as they are expected to live their lives by rules defined by others, and as long as they try to conform to an ideal image of a woman, a mother, a wife.

The Feminine Mystique inspired a women’s movement in America. It irreversibly changed attitudes about women’s role in society and led to widespread activism for women’s rights and equality. In India, we need such a manifesto for change. We need to spell out the “problem that has no name”, or, as a first step, identify that there exists a real problem, only then can realities change. And while I didn’t read The Communist Manifesto at bedtime, a line from it leaps to mind, which I modify here:

“Women of India unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains”

Leave a comment

Filed under home, motherhood, ramblings

What Changed When I Started Working

Untitled-1 copy

For one thing, going for gatherings became easier. I had a ready answer to, “so what do you do?”. Yes, I know I being at home with the kids is “commendable” and one of the “toughest jobs in the world”, and that I should never have felt bashful about being, well, just a mom. Except, that I was – bashful, as well as just a mom. I hated the question, no matter how innocuously it was asked. And I never felt fulfilled (whatever that means) doing a seemingly noble job that was supposed to satisfy my motherly instincts. I was happy, yes, spending time with my kids, but always felt a sense of restlessness that took away from the contentment that motherhood is said to bring.

But, that was then. Now things have changed. And not. I still hold the portfolio of the home and cabinet minister combined. I won that uncontested, of course, and my having returned to work did not mean that the posts had fallen vacant. All it meant was that I had, willingly, taken on more responsibility. The previous ones still stood (and shall continue to do so as long as I live). That was the truth.

Why? Because I am the mom, and that’s the way it is. Mommies fix things, as everyone else pretends that they can’t. That, and also because I earn so little that it has no bearing on the husband’s life. He still has to bring home the bacon – so his life has not changed, while mine has turned on its head. And that’s why yours truly still does the stay-at-home-mommy things – ferrying the kids to classes, remembering the vaccinations, getting berated by the doctors when she forgets, rushing home to tend to a sick child, getting the house cleaned, things fixed, dry-cleaned, darned, repaired, cooked – you name it. And of course, added to this is the unenviable task of making a dash to the stationary shop on a Sunday evening, when mommy is most kindly informed about a project due on Monday morning. Yes, that is fun and brings me to the conclusion that real estate prices should not be driven  by hospitals or schools in the vicinity, but by the number of stationary shops near the house – try getting into one on a Sunday evening. I can tell you, from experience, that entry into sold-out Broadway shows are easier, as opposed to getting into a shop to buy Blu Tack. Try elbowing out harassed moms being trailed by sulking kids. I do it with more regularity than I comb my hair.

My bag, much like the rest of my life, is also bearing the brunt of the additional responsibility. Because it’s still a mommy bag (I am just not the sort to change bags, and when I have tried to be the sort, I have ended up returning home to pick up my wallet I forgot in the old one). So I carry one bag that lets me switch from the calm, working-mom at the office to the, never-know-what-you’ll-need mommy once I am back home. Which means that in office, when I reach for a pen, my hand returns smeared with ink from a leaking felt pen or a half-eaten melted chocolate (which I had refused to mop up and shoved into my bag a month ago). Or both. I also find broken crayons, smiley stickers, biscuit crumbs, spoons, flattened candies, paracetamol syrup, headache medicines, tampons, tissues and often, an expired credit note I had declared lost. Underneath all this is where I usually find the notepad on which I scribble notes while my boss rambles on about strategies we ought to be impressing our clients with.

So I would say that working has not changed so much as it has added things in my life. And on that note, of adding, guess what else has been added on me? Yup, the weight. I haven’t been able to run that much in the past year and bulges have started to appear, much to my consternation.

But, having said all of that, I will take the working mom, any day, over the stay at home one. No question about it. Sure, I am tired and my plate is spilling over, but I will not trade places with my old self at all. I love the fact that I leave the house and get into my own space, even if that space belongs to my boss and even though it’s not exactly the corner office (to put it mildly). But, just being out of the house and leaving the chaos behind me is liberating. Of course, the chaos tends to follow me – with the maid, the kids and the mother in law calling to ask inane questions. But still, I am physically away and don’t have to deal with it all the time.

“I was in a meeting” is a wonderful phrase I have re-discovered and use it quite liberally.


Filed under mommyrage

A Mother – In Life & In Death

Suicide Series 3

A neighbor of mine recently killed herself. She was around forty, has two kids and was separated from her husband. I knew her a little. She wasn’t a friend, but was more than an acquaintance (there really should be a word for that). I used to wave to her every morning, as she brisk- walked around the colony and I zipped past her with my kids in the car, in a mad dash to make it to the bus stop on time – pretty much a daily morning routine for us both.

And now she’s gone. She decided to exercise the exit option, something that has been topic of hot debate in our otherwise sleepy little colony. Unsurprisingly, she’s being judged by all and sundry, irrespective of their closeness to her. A suicide evokes everyone’s opinion, especially if the person in question was a mother. So the leitmotif, so to speak, that binds everyone’s judgements is that she had no business killing herself because she was a mother. Why she did it, or the fact that she was depressed to the point of suicide is not something anyone wants to deal with – she had kids, so she owed a responsibility to them. That’s that.

Sure, I agree that parents ought to be there for their kids. I’ll get to that shortly. But, before that there is a larger point I want to make, which is about the woman herself, about her own desires, her needs and her wishes. We expect mothers to be superhuman, to never tire, to indefatigably battle all emotions, all odds, all the time, irrespective of their nature and intensity. That’s the mother we put on a pedestal, and there she must remain – any sign of her stepping down and we start to lament, to question the sanity of her mind, to wonder how she sleeps at night (she probably just passes out) .

The truth is that when this incident happened, everyone in the society was only interested in knowing the gory details, in assembling in corners and talking in hushed tones, and then announcing their unsolicited opinion. It’s what we like to do – to judge, to take a stand, to climb onto our self-made pulpits and announce our verdicts, which we see as extremely logical and reasonable. We don’t like to answer uncomfortable questions or face the truth. No one really understood why a mother would kill herself. We judge a woman in life and in death. She is not free to even die on her own terms. I feel terrible for her kids, but, somehow, I don’t question her decision. What I do wish was that she had not reached that point, one where life looks too dismal and bleak, when the thought of waking up and taking on another day seems like an insurmountable burden, when the walls close in on you and you just want to end the trauma that is life. That’s what depression does to people. Yet, it was hard for people to understand that she simply ran out of steam. She had kids, is all they chanted, in unison, almost like they’d rehearsed it.  I didn’t bother to try and make them see her point – because they seemed to lack the bandwidth.

Also, there is another aspect to this. As Indians, we don’t really accept depression as an illness that needs addressing, let alone medication (exceptions aside). We believe we don’t need shrinks because that’s really for the “westerners”, who don’t have families to fall back upon. “Our Indian families are structured to provide emotional support to each other” – said my aunt once, whose son was diagnosed with depression. For years, she waved it off that finding as nonsense, till she was forced to accept when his condition got worse. I am not so sure I buy into the whole Indian-family thing. I mean, sure, we’re close/er to our parents than some other parts of the world are (though by saying this, we are implying that our definition of closeness is the accurate one- it could mean different things to different people, but that’s another post). However, even if we believe that Indian families are closer knit than the western ones, it does not mean we don’t feel depressed or that we always share everything with each other. I would actually argue that the average Indian woman is a lonely one – she toils at home and sometimes at work too – all day. She is never really asked how she is feeling, or what she is going through (a few cutesy television ads aside, this is the grim reality for the average Indian woman). She lives among constant, unending and enervating chaos –  the husband, the kids, the assorted in-laws, the house issues – she handles all of it, and she does it at her own cost.

The term lonely housewife applies to the Indian woman as much as it applies to any woman from around the world. A housewife is surrounded by people, and yet she is lonely. Often, her only real friends are other women like her, who she befriends here and there – in her colony, at the market, at parks, as she tends to the needs of her home and kids – and they develop a strange connection, an enduring I-hear-ya-sister kind of bond.

Anyway, to come to my neighbour and her kids. I believe that wanting kids is a selfish need and once we give in to that need, it becomes our duty to be responsible for them. But life’s not that simple. Parenting is hard and nothing prepares you for it. Not the child’s mistake I know, but if there’s one thing I have learned about being a mother is that parents are humans but we don’t expect them to be. My neighbour was a human who just gave up. Call it cowardice, selfishness, what you may, but she could not go on. No one saw the warning signs, because, as another tactless neighbour remarked, “why would she want to die? She had kids, but maybe she was insane”. Well, she was not insane, nowhere near it, but she was alone and that can be hard. If only someone had stepped in and helped her, that was probably all she needed. Her kids now face a life without a mother, but it did’t have to be this way.

I am, once again, reminded of a quote from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. She was writing about American suburban moms in the thirties, but what she said applies to women around the world, even today.

“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question– ‘Is this all?”

I have often been afraid to ask myself that very same question. The answer can sometimes lead you down the wrong path..


Filed under mommyrage

The Guilt of a Woman

Untitled-2 copy

Ever since I’ve started full-time work, I’ve been grappling with a nagging guilt. Not that this came as a surprise to me. I’ve always said (here and on many other occasions) that there’s a weird connection between guilt and women. It never leaves us actually, this guilt – we carry it like an eternal and cursed burden, like the rock of Sisyphus. It’s ever-present, at the back (sometimes in the front) of our minds, and, unlike Sisyphus, who lets the rock roll down the hill, we never let go of our guilt. Not for a moment. We nurse it, we feed it and we often we let it tear us apart.

As I write this, I can think of a million things that I could tear myself apart for. I know this sounds extreme, but it is true. I grapple with guilt on multiple fronts, everyday (as do a lot of women I know) – for not calling my mother, for not going for lunch with my sister, for leaving work early, for leaving work late, for not being home with the kids, for not supervising their homework, for yelling at them, for not accompanying my older daughter to her piano class, for not having met one of my closest friends who was visiting from out of town, for declining another friend’s invitation to tea, for not having run this morning, for not having visited the local electricity office for a over-charging, faulty meter, for having forgotten a friend’s birthday..the list is endless. Maybe it’s me, or maybe it’s a phase, but I do wish I could do more with my time, do more for the
people I love and somehow, magically, at the same time, do what gives me a sense of accomplishment as well (the two are often on parallel paths)

The reason I am feeling more guilt than ever is because now that I am working, I get less time for anything else (don’t get me wrong, I had guilt when I was not working too). I enjoy going to work, but I do feel that the house is suffering because of it. The other day my daughter got some math sums wrong – she knew them but was doing her homework distractedly. Earlier I would be around to make sure she sat at her desk and focused on work. Now she runs around the house and finishes her homework in spurts. And while I know she has to learn to work on her own, the fact that she got her sums wrong upset me. Not so much because she made mistakes, more because I took that as yet another sign that my leaving the house had been detrimental for the kids. yes, I know I am overthinking this. And it’s complicated. Because it’s not like my not leaving the house was ideal for the kids either – that too was detrimental, though in a different way – unhappy mommy, unhappy kids kinds of thing.

So I am not sure what the solution is. And I am not sure I am even looking for a solution. I am just pouring my thoughts out in order, I guess, to get some clarity in my own head. And also, maybe, to feel a little less guilt in the process. Writing about an issue helps me deal with it better.

I know that getting out of the house was the best thing I did for me and for the family. It comes at a cost, but everything does. So if my working means that there are winter clothes sitting on my chair waiting for me to find place for them in my cupboard, or the fact that my kids sometimes get their homework wrong, or that the winter plants are not planted yet, or that I miss going for the kids’ lessons, well that may not be so bad when I weigh it with the fact that I am much happier now and have this sense of purpose that I was lacking before and thus when I am with the kids I am much happier, if a bit tired.

There’s no ideal state, I am old enough to realize that. But there is always guilt, no matter what the state. A friend came over the other day and I asked her if she felt the same. She did, but she said that she had learnt to let go of her guilt, because otherwise it could overpower you. I am not sure if I can reach that state – because it’s not easy to do.  And I am not sure I have it in me to say – ah well, I’ll just not let the fact that I could not call back my mum when she needed me bother me. It bothers me big time.And I still hope for that Utopian state when I will have ticked off all the things from my feeling-guilty list. Not going to happen anytime soon..


Filed under mommyrage

A Race Against Myself – It’s Marathon Time Again

Untitled-1 copy

After I ran the marathon last year, I was on a high. For me, it wasn’t a tick-off-your-bucket-list kind of thing. I enjoyed running and despite finding the 21 K quite challenging, I wanted to do it again. I really did.

Except, I didn’t expect that time of the year to come rolling by so soon. Because no matter how much you run otherwise, training for a marathon requires dedicated focus for at least 10 weeks (if not more). The fact that I ran last year has no real bearing on this year, because I have to build up my stamina again.

So here I am, almost a year later, wondering if I can do it again. I mean, I know I can do it again, but this time, it’s not that simple.

Why? Because, as they say, I have a rep to protect. And it’s all about the timing. Last year, I was baggage-free. I was a novice, a mum who’d decided to run because she needed to do something that made her feel a little better about herself (let’s face it, that’s always a part of it) – I needed to get away and do something for myself and do that whole stereotypical thing about feeling a sense of accomplishment and getting the high of having pushed your body to the limits. All that good stuff that runners love to say. Yes, it’s all true and I felt all of it.

That, however, was then – a year ago. This year, it’s a whole different ballgame. Now I am racing against myself.

If you are a runner, or if even if you vaguely know one, you will know that there is one thing that is of supreme importance – and that is the timing. Anybody who tells who that it does not matter is basically fooling himself or herself. It matters big time. I cannot possibly take longer to finish than I did last year. I mean I can, but I am not going to be thrilled about it, especially when all and sundry ask me what my timing was.

And it’s really not about other people either – I have a benchmark, and most people don’t like to fall short of it.

So I have little choice but to train hard again. And it’s not that I don’t want to, but this year has brought a big change in my life – I have started working, which leaves me little time to run. Yet, I will try, because running changed me in many, many ways. Not physically (though toned legs are always welcome) but mentally. I feel it made me stronger mentally – I learnt to push my mind to believe that I could do it. And that’s half the battle won.

I am not sure I can repeat last year’s magic. I want to, but it’ll take work – more than last year in a way – because, as I said before, now it’s a matter of reputation 🙂

Leave a comment

Filed under about

From Kids to KPIs

G4 and womans hands

The past few months have been interesting. I’ve been working full-time, sometimes more than that. And all that I feared would happen, has happened. Kids have fallen sick, maids have gone on leave, weekends have been awash with work. Yes, I am quite the working mom now and it’s amazing how I have slipped into that role like I was always doing this. The truth is five months ago I was your typical stay-at-home-mom, quite reconciled (if grudgingly) to the idea of never setting foot in an office again.

And how dramatically that’s changed.

I know I’ve said this before, but I am already facing a lot of pressure – mostly from myself. So on the back foot am I that I feel I have to constantly prove something – that I am serious about my work; that women who return to work after a hiatus may not be able to ace power point presentations, but they do add a lot of value to a company. And in my blind wish to prove this I have gone and done something that I now find impossible to get out of – I have poured cold water all over the negotiations that I made when I joined work – that I would leave at 4 and work flexi.  Not only do I not leave at 4, I also had a washed-out weekend where I worked flat out for a deadline, while my younger twin lay next to me with high fever. On Sunday night at 11:30 when she finally looked at me with watery eyes and asked me if I had the time to lay next to her, something in me snapped. I know there are good days and bad days and I was determined to not let anything get in the way of me proving myself – but when I saw her tiny face, all I could think of was the fact that she needed me. I sent off one last slide to my boss and shut my computer down. I was tired. And I thought about how much my life had changed.

I guess this was a test, of sorts. To try and work when you have a sick child tugging at your clothes. I did it, but with a lot of guilt. But, guess what, when I shut my computer, the guilt did not vanish – it merely shifted base – to work. I wondered if my boss would think I was shirking work – the fact that I worked the whole weekend with a sick child was not enough I guess. And I didn’t even want to tell my boss that my daughter was sick – because, in this flu season, my kids have been falling sick one after another and I didn’t him to think that it would affect my performance.

Anyway, long story short – the basic point I am trying to make is that a working mother has to constantly shift gears – from work to home and back to work, and to home again. It’s a constant cycle and I am still getting used to it. I am trying my best to do both, but there’s always guilt – of leaving the kids, of leaving work – that I haven’t been able to escape. And I doubt I ever will. It’s a woman thing.


Filed under about

Life Changing Moment


This April my twins started full-day school. It was, as they say, a life changing moment. Or, that’s what I thought. That moment, actually, lay just a little ahead. Full day school was great, but what came after is what’s really changed my life. It arrived, without warning or signal, out of the blue, like my mother always told me it would (ya ya she was right). Let me just go ahead and say it – I’ve started working. Yes, it’s true. Just like that.

If you read my previous post, then you’ll put two and two together. I started this Monday, and I now await Saturday like I have never before, or so it feels. It’s a start-up. Which means many things. The first being the pay, but I am not thinking about that right now. It also means that you have your finger in many pies and, as I am discovering now, leaving at 4 is not going to be easy. Sure those where the terms of joining, but if a project is not done, what are you going to say? Time up? I don’t think so. Because then you’ll be looked upon as the one thing that will make you squirm – as an unprofessional mommy who could not commit because of her “limitations” (see previous post). No, I’d rather get biffed on the head with a brick!

I came to a realization a long time ago – that a woman trying to make her way back into the workforce is hardly in a position to negotiate terms. It’s sad but true. She’s just so glad that someone opened the freaking door, that she’ll take it. She knows she’s capable, and she knows she’s worth a lot more, but the gaping black hole in her resume is such that it has acquired a life of its own, as it crawls into her bed at night and haunts her in her dreams. It reminds her, constantly, that it’s growing and, like the mythical Hydra, sprouting more heads with each passing day. I know this, because this is exactly what’s happened with me. And now when someone has shown confidence in me and the only thing I can say to myself is “don’t let this go!”, and that this will never happen again. It’s a panic-stricken moment when this happens, because you wind yourself into a frenzy thinking that this bus will never come down the road again (hell, you’ve been waiting many years), so whatever it takes, you have to get on it. Otherwise you’ll wander aimlessly for the rest of your life, lost in the labyrinths of domesticity that will lead you to a long, lonely road, where you will find yourself once the kids fly the nest and your husband is neck-deep in his venture. Yes, I was all too aware of that road and when I saw even the glint of that bus coming down the road, I told myself that no matter what, this one I had to catch. And so I did.

So, long story short, I have a job and I love it. The honeymoon is not going to last I know, but I am, for once, not thinking too far down the road. I like where I am and I plan to take each day as it comes. The summer vacations begin tomorrow and they stretch long ahead of me. Let’s see how that goes. The guilt is yet to rear its ugly head. It will one day soon. It’s only a matter of time. Till then I’ll enjoy this golden period. And the weekend, it’s almost here.

Leave a comment

Filed under home