The 7 Year Itch
Hi, my name is Sanober and I am a housewife. There, I said it, very reluctantly, but I said it. I still get a funny feeling in my stomach when I am forced to say it out loud and yet it barely comes out as a whisper, as if it’s something to be ashamed of. Gasp. Ok I can see the SAHM’s (stay at home mom) already shunning me. I have a problem, I know, but it will get better, I hope? I am in some sort of denial about it all, living and to some extent, well to quite a large extent, enjoying being a housewife, I mean Stay-At-Home-Mom (somehow that’s easier to accept than the former) but there’s a part of me that keeps trying to convince myself that this is all one big extended vacation. I still have not bought an apron because that would seal the deal. So I cook in my pajamas. My trusty ‘Jamas’ (as my daughter likes to call them), concealing the evidence of oil splatter and spice stains in their plaid glory as I drudge on in denial.
So what’s my story? Why can’t I admit to this recent role change? Well, let me try to give you a brief intro into who I was and who I am now. As for ‘who I am going to become’ I hope will transition before your eyes through this memoir.
Having been brought up in dual countries with dual value systems of east meets west which often becomes east VS west, it’s no wonder that I grew up with an internal struggle of finding that perfect balance. I did not realize this internal battle was even going on until I entered my early twenties finished my education and entered the real world of work. Right until then it was easy to see who was leading the outward influence – good ol’ western values. The ones that brought out the feminist in me, the urge to reject stereotypical roles of the ‘domesticated female’ whose domain lay in honing her culinary skills, being matched with a suitable boy to then live a suitable life with suitable children (apologies Vikram Seth). Little Women and Pride & Prejudice framed my thinking on strong, rebellious women and by golly I was going to prove that I was not just a girl, forget typical South Asian girl. Perhaps being the elder of three children, the other two being boys, I also felt I had to be the ‘older brother’ that set the example for them. So in my mind I set my goals and ambitions. I will excel in school by being as well rounded a student as I can (student council, smatter of sports here and there, “masculine” subjects such as Additional Mathematics and Economics). But now and then I would succumb to some of what I thought was “girly” i.e. English Literature, French, Drama and Fine Art. The latter being a love affair that I betrayed (Will get into that another day). I “tried” not to allow myself boy crushes, just celebrity ones…oh Leonardo Dicaprio, but even those would never be admitted out loud. To me crushes were distraction. I would look down on the girls who obsessed about their make-up to attract the boys they wanted and then spent their nights crying about the boys they didn’t get or rejected them. I felt pity for those girls and I certainly did not want to become like them. I had bigger plans for myself. That intellectually arousing place called University. Back then not all the girls had the opportunity to study out of the country (at least not all the ones I knew in that eastern society). In my mind there was no question of it. The need for my parents pride fuelled this ambition.
I made it abroad (Canada) to University to study Economics (typical- and oh so boring-no offence to the economists). It just wasn’t my cup of ‘doodh patti’ tea; My world came crashing down. With each passing year I realized I had missed many opportunities to pursue passions that I had some talent in but wasted because they did not fit MY stereotype of a stereotype. Disappointed, filled with regret thinking time was not on my side any more, I immersed myself in the wonderful friends I made and begrudgingly completed my education. My practical, logical mind demanded that I get a job, get my small feet in a door, any door and build a career. It was precisely at this mundane juncture that karma stepped in.
As is the pattern of my life, every few years (never more than 7) the direction of the wind changes and takes me either East or West. It was a return to the country of my birth (Pakistan). I went back and fell in love. Three times! The first time it happened it was with my job at a leading consumer goods company. I loved the work, I loved the people, and I loved how it gave me drive to prove my self worth and to succeed (finally!). The second time it happened it was when I met and married my now husband (a love story that in itself demands a dedicated memoir). The third time it happened was when I gave birth to the most heavenly, beautiful being; my daughter (a series of blog entries to follow). It was the BEST move ever. Those are what you call the winds of change my friend and it is nothing short of Divine direction.
Outwardly it seemed I had managed it all. Despite being labelled a workaholic, I was determined to achieve the accolade of Super Mom. Admittedly, I secretly revelled in the fact that I returned to work three months post-baby, continued nursing my child for 14 months and made sure I got in plenty of date nights with the hubby. Of course it would have been IMPOSSIBLE to do this without the absolute backing and support of the trifecta, nay the Holy Trinity of Matriarchs; the Mother in Law, the Mother and the Sister in Law. Amen. These ladies have been available at a drop of a hat, prioritizing their lives around their first granddaughter/niece. The best kind of nannies you could ever dream of. They did not just ‘watch’ over my daughter while I was at work, but they were actively involved in providing her constant stimuli, helping her reach her milestones well before the average and that too with only the kind of love a blood relative can give. I was blessed. Except, what I didn’t realize at the time was that I had started to change. I experienced severe guilt when leaving my daughter to go to work. My routine consisted of waking in the middle of the night to nurse her, a quick feed in the morning before rushing off to work and then hurrying back home during my lunch hour for her mid-day feed. These efforts, however worsened the guilt. It still meant I had to leave her again. I was missing out on each new development that happened during the course of the day. Video capture cannot replace physically being there. I missed her first steps. These things started to eat at me every single day and while I still enjoyed my work, my passion for it had started to wane. I realized with ever more clarity that it was a one way love. I suppose I already knew this. No corporation can give you back the kind of love you put in as an employee, that’s just life, but what had changed was before the existence of my daughter, I was fine with this one-way street. Whatever I got back was more than enough for me. But now I wanted more and I was getting pure, infinite, non-judgemental love from this tiny creature waiting for me at home every single day. How could I not be giving her the same dedication and passion that I was giving something else – that too at the cost of spending time with my own daughter! How was this normal? How did I think it was normal before? Ironically, the guiltier I felt the more I immersed myself in work. I was still putting in ridiculous hours. Despite what was happening to me emotionally, I was a committed employee. I took loyalty to another level. Talk about being ‘consumed’ by the consumer goods. My work philosophy: I am getting paid to do a job. I will make sure that job is done and done well; even at the cost of family life, because well you know family will understand, your boss wont. Right?
And then those divine winds of change blew my way again. On cue, as seven years had elapsed since that move back to Pakistan. The direction of the wind was of course westward bound. My husband’s immigration came through and it was time to return to Canada.
Bye to “The Man”…Hello Stepford!
We were excited to start a new chapter in our lives. The three of us on our own, living a grown up life without the spoils and luxuries of living in a joint family with domestic help, basically not having to lift a finger (Ahh..the charms of Third World life). My husband and I having both lived part of our lives in a First World country understood the effort required and also the peace of mind involved in doing things ourselves. We wanted this time to detox and un-spoil to be able to take care of our daughter (and possibly future children) on our own.
Our first three months in Canada (while we stayed at my grandparent’s place) were spent in apartment and job hunting. Luckily I had part of the trifecta, i.e. my mother visiting to help us settle in. She and my Nani (grandmother) would care for my daughter as my husband and I looked for a place of our own. The reality of living by ourselves had not set in as yet. I momentarily forgot my internal struggle with guilt. I has all this time to spend with my daughter. It felt like a vacation. It was the Summer; the weather was pleasant, the mood happy. Life was good.
Suddenly I was pulled out of my reverie. I received a call from a HUGE multi-national company. They wanted to interview me. I couldn’t remember when I had applied for the job. Vacation mode took a back seat, my workaholic instincts got into high gear; I forgot everything else. All I could think of was THEY wanted to interview ME!
Oh by the way I think I mildly suffer from the post Big-Bad-British-Colonialism Syndrome, known as the BBBC’s which results in the Gora complex: an auto response reaction to thinking the White Man has all the power. Funny how even though I was born a good 35 years after my country’s independence and yet I somehow inherent this! The acronym may be made up but this state of mind definitely exists.
I immersed myself in pre-interview prep. I barely took notice of my daughter, reassuring (justifying?) myself my mother and husband were there to take care of her while I sought out this incredible opportunity. With each successful interview, the old me from the B.M era (Before Motherhood) returned in full swing. All I could think was how amazing it would be if I got this job and how everyone would be so proud (seeking constant approval- help!). I made it to the final interview and then it was time to wait to hear back. It was a long wait.
During this time we found a place of our own and my mother returned to Pakistan. Reality hit. We were on our own. My husband, by the grace of God found employment in a similar position as he had in Pakistan. After hearing discouraging stories of how long it could have taken to find an experienced position we were considered lucky. I on the other hand, disappointed nothing had come out of that “amazing job” had some time to reflect on my behaviour during that process. It had reared the ugly head of all-consuming monstrous ambition. I hated how with a turn of a switch it was so easy for me to disregard my family, treat them as if they were disposable. I hated how I attributed self-worth to a specific kind of position, salary and status. After that something changed in me and a most peculiar thing happened.
I discovered the kitchen. Logic dictated if the husband is at work somebody has to cook and that somebody had to be me. Ordering in and dining out every day didn’t make financial sense. The only problem was I could count the number of times I had “cooked” on my fingers, of just one hand! That too way back when I was a student. I was clueless but decided to approach it in a very businesslike manner. The kitchen became my ‘office’. The crockery cutlery became my ‘files’ (not so neatly) organized in the cabinets; the kitchen counter became my desk literally with my laptop on it with the browser open to Google searched recipes of the day. When the result was an actual edible and tasteful meal that did not end in food poisoning my family, my ego got the boost that it needed and I found myself enjoying the process. So much so that I decided to delve into baking! Positive reviews later, I can finally say that I know my way around the kitchen, well at least my kitchen. The satisfaction of knowing I can provide sustenance for my family, simply by taking a few ingredients and creating something out of it really caught me off guard. It was a different kind of pride. And it felt good. (Oh my God, I was becoming a Stepford wife!)
The Flailing Feminist
The days flew by; filled with cooking, cleaning and serving the Toddler Queen, hand and foot. I slowly started to accept the happiness and internal content I was feeling by being able to watch my daughter grow in front of my eyes, by providing a freshly cooked dinner for my husband after a weary day at work (believe me I realize how this sounds). I finally (cue dramatic music) donned an APRON, a gift from a friend, which came at perfect timing. This seemed to seal the deal at my new SAHM status, whilst wounding the ego of the feminist in me (who may as well have read SAHM as SHAM=SHAME). Sorry. More so, I finally accepted that the role I valued the most in my life was that of a mother. My daughter needed me and I wanted to be there for her. (Inner Feminist: Oh it was a CHOICE, good for you carry on). I did not want strangers raising her in these crucial early years of her development. I had a responsibility towards her. I was fortunate not to be in a position where the second income was a necessity (err, I could learn to ‘just’ window shop?). I mean, sure it would have been a great asset (more bags! more shoes!), but not at the cost of the personal care I could provide my child (For free!-have you seen the fee structure of Daycare?!). It was a choice I made. I only realized I had fully accepted this when a couple of things happened.
1. That huge multi-national ended up sending me the most vague email without actually telling me if I got the job or not to which I did NOT follow up on.
2. I decided not to respond to emails from recruiters about potential positions.
I did not feel any regret. Heaviness had been lifted from my chest. My self-bound shackles had been broken free. I wasn’t a prisoner of ‘The Man’ anymore! I finally understood myself. If in my seven year career I wasn’t able to figure out work-life balance (it really doesn’t exist), I knew I was not going to get any closer to it now. I certainly didn’t want to risk that with “My Precioussss” (LOTR?) child, as unfortunately work would somehow manage to come first. That was just me.
When I started writing this piece, I was still dealing with the role change from career mom to stay-at-home-mom. I have now since accepted the latter. I have become the exact stereotype that I rejected and fought against while growing up, except it wasn’t what I thought all this time. I was so afraid that I was betraying a woman’s right to work by choosing to opt out of it, betraying Feminism and the Modern Woman when so many strong female role models had fought so hard to get us so far. Giving up on my mantra to have it all, do it all and do it impeccably. What would Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Myers and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, inspirational women who are out there making it happen, think of this decision? Sandberg in her recent book speaks about how women put limitations on themselves by internalizing societal gender roles. I feel I have been putting barriers on myself by doing the opposite, by trying to rebel against those gender roles. Not to say this applies to all women. For me I became a prisoner of my own making by feeling the pressure to succeed in the same manner as the outstanding glass ceiling breaking women of my generation. Those traditional gender roles would never allow such achievement and therefore had to be rejected. But as my responsibilities started to increase, from a daughter to a wife and then a mother, the gender fight became more difficult. I realized I was the only one fighting with myself, no one else was fighting against me. Once again a woman had put a limitation on herself. This time it was not because a man was telling her she could not do the same thing as a man, but the modern day woman was telling her she should not do the same thing as a woman? What? So confusing! (If you have managed to follow along this far, thank you!). When I became a mother, I realized I was fighting my INSTINCTUAL need to care for and raise my daughter MYSELF. That was just ME. I do not believe that I was giving into the pressure of societal gender roles because there never was any. It was all in my head, because it has been ingrained in my generation’s head to fight against Tradition and Societal Pressures. Tradition and typical gender roles has replaced evil corporation as The Man (well somewhat). I swear on some days I hear Darth Vader in my head and he says “I am your father-err no Mother…No I am your Caregiver”.
All I’m saying (with the utmost respect for all mothers) is we as women have the wonderful opportunity to experience multiple roles throughout our lives. Some will intersect, some will collide and some will work best on their own. It is up to us as the individual woman to figure out what works best for us during each of these roles, which are forever in flux. There is no ONE way about it. As for Sandberg encouraging more women to be in leadership roles; Heck I am the CEO in my household (the hubby is CFO naturally) and I feel I have the best qualifications to help my little girl become a leader in her own right.
So now after truly experiencing motherhood I have to say I have the deepest respect and honour for all mothers, whatever their situation may be, working moms, stay-at-home, balancing both- it is a hell of a job (no seriously, some days it is Hell and my daughter the Devil, not just a demon, actually the Devil Incarnate) but I am privileged to be a member of this amazing Women’s Club. I must acknowledge my own mother, because to this day I still remember coming home from school, still a small child but knowing that no matter how my day went I was coming home to my mother, and I immediately felt secure and more confidant. I want to thank her for aspiring me to become a better mother.
That being said who knows, I may progress next to Work-at-Home-Mom (WAHM=WHAM! I like the sound of that). But we’ll see. For now I am at peace. For now 😉
None of this self-realization could ever have been achieved without the unfaltering support and encouragement of my husband. He is an inspiration to me as I have witnessed his journey and growth from just a boy in love to an incredible husband and father. He makes me a better person, every day.
We both believe in an equal partnership and because of this he takes over doing the dishes without me having to say so, he never crashes on the couch after a hard day’s work, in fact plays with his daughter as soon as he gets home (allowing me some mama time).
We share our responsibilities, which make us respect each other more and love each other more. So thank you, my dear hubby for this beautiful family.