I was raised in the 80s by three selfless mothers (biological mother and two aunts) in a loving joint family that comprised of 14 members. When I was younger, I wondered how my mothers were able to give endlessly. How could every part of their day be about filling someone else’s need. They were my heroes and I knew they had unique talents that could take them beyond the mundanity of everyday life. I knew my badi ma liked to sing and was good at it, I had witnessed remnants of chachi’s artistic creations from days of her bachelorhood and I had heard numerous stories of mummy’s leadership skills and creativity. But here I saw three women, completely disconnected from their personal desires. Their needs and ambitions were invisible spirits and it seemed wrong to me. Fortunately, the bonds in my family were very tight and the air was infused with spiritualism, so my mothers never lost their smiles. But yet, I wished they could do more for themselves. I wondered if this phenomenon was universal.
Everywhere I looked, housewives had forgotten themselves. They lived cookie cutter lives of service with dissolved identities. Whatever minute pleasure could be drawn from community events or dressing up for a festival was accepted as sufficient. But for the most part, they had surrendered every bit of themselves to the chase the slippery Indian Mother dream. Harshly put, the mother was the martyr.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that self should come before others. But I do believe that the self should not be forgotten. And I know that the traditional Indian housewife is a champion at forgetting herself. And the rare occasion when she does something for herself, comes with the baggage of guilt. The Indian housewife is equally good at not forgiving herself if she falls short of her own elevated expectations.
There may have seemed nothing wrong with this forgetting of oneself a few generations ago. Lives were laborious and busy, people lived closely in large numbers, didn’t have access to the dynamic world out there and were generally more spritual. Unfortunately Kalyuga does not provide the environment for this identity merge.
And in today’s flat universe, there is no dearth of information, exposure and accessibility. Anyone can see the latest version of the world, even if it’s only on television. Labor replacing technology has enabled us to have some spare time. The conjunction of these two (the exposure and spare time) brings about desires and ambitions as well as the possibility to fulfill them.
The Indian housewife is standing on the threshold this modern life, with one foot here and the other one dangling on to an obsolete value system. She has the knowledge of the universe’s possibilities and may have the desire to explore. But she has dissolved her identity so deep somewhere inside that she does not know where to begin.
How does this ‘Forgetting of Self’ Happen?
Clearly, no girl is born prepared to forget herself. And while growing up, there are specific hobbies and ambitions that keep her mind motivated and her spirit buzzing. But it is not uncommon for her to be introduced in passing to the clauses of the Bahu Constitution. “Don’t laugh or talk too loudly, you have to get married one day” or “Be prepared to give up, you need to mould yourself for your future home” or “Good girls don’t have strong opinions or don’t express them at least” were the cliches of the time. Even though life in her parent’s house is cushioned, the girl begins to sense what lies beneath. She subconsciously begins to develop a value system that puts herself last. After all, mother did the same.
And then she gets married. This dissolution of identity may not even be noticeable for many years. In the very early days, the wedlock retains its flavor and the good Indian bahu does everything to please and perform. With the arrival of her children, there is a fulfillment like no other. May be for the first time, there is a purpose of being. And rightfully so, most infants need the mothers as their lifelines 24-7. This is a pretty surreal feeling and it is natural to want to hold on this feeling forever.
As the baby grows, she may try to retain the “24-7 on duty situation” even though realistically, it may not be needed. She finds new ways of being useful to the children and her family. Helping with homework, planning birthday parties, cooking favorite meals, arranging everyone’s closets, rescuing them from trouble, protecting and over-protecting.
Then as the children grow older and bolder and the hugs and cuddles decline in frequency, a lurking feeling of hollowness begins to sink in. Compared to her own mother, the housewife’s family is smaller, chores are outsourced, the children have more activities and time is plenty. She feels likes she is constantly moving, but getting nowhere.
I know firsthand that motherhood is hard and keeps you very busy. The outcome is not tangible and can get quite frustrating.
She hits a point called the mid-life crisis. The woman is stuck with herself, the person who has now become a complete stranger.
Depending on the woman, her family and social standing, this scenario can play out in many different ways.
A generation before ours, this emptiness and the anger for not leading a fulfilling life led to deep resentment, blame, undiagnosed depression, a feeling of victimization, health issues and even cancer. Perpetual negative emotions and stress hormones took on a serious battle with one own’s body.
If the woman was wise and had some vision, she took to a spiritual path or found another raison d’être which was acceptable to her family.
Today, the woman has it much worse. She has lower tolerance and more ways to temporarily distract herself, pushing the problem only deeper inside. It is not uncommon for facebook or whatsapp become her favorite companion, masking her problems, even from herself. But eventually, she starts comparing everyone else’s colored world online to her own lack-luster life. Yet, she is addicted. Solace is sought in occasional retail therapy and meaningless luncheons, but not for many years. The outcome is a cranky woman, with an active nervous system and low self esteem. She may hate her life as well as everyone around her. She is now prone to a number of physical and mental ailments.
20,000 housewives in India kill themselves every year since 1997 and this does not include dowry deaths. This number is 4 times higher than the rate of farmer suicides.
What can we do about this?
Let’s accept that times have changed and we have smaller families, less children and more time. We must embrace this opportunity rather than trying to fit our new lives into an old mould. For us to move towards the ultimate goal of self-realization, we must first acknowledge and deal with our primary desires. The four goals of life, Dharma (primary duty), Artha (monetary goals), Kama (worldly desires) and Moksha (self-realization), all need to be pursued appropriately.
Firstly, we must respect and honor ourselves. A mother can not radiate happiness if she is not happy within. Talk about your needs and everyone else’s needs too. This will create a value system of mutual respect in the family, which is very important for the future generations.
Secondly, we must identify areas where we have the tendency to overprotect and coddle our children, stealing from them the opportunity to grow. When we let go of that tendency knowing it is for the greater good, we will be able to free ourselves and do something personally meaningful without the guilt for not being on duty 24-7. There are mothers who spoon-feed meals to their 10 year old children to satisfy their own desire to provide. This is neither healthy for the mother, nor the child.
Thirdly, we must recognize that it is not normal for children over 2-3 years old to be with their mother 100% of the time. This concentrated interaction is very unnatural and has never existed before. In the several generations before ours, children were raised in huge families with very little age gap between two children. It was not uncommon for the mother to be working on the farm or in the kitchen, and the child left in the care of another family member. Agreed, that no one else can do as much as a mother. But being away is good for the child occasionally as long as the environment is safe. He can hone his alertness, assertiveness, social and survival skills. It is the way in which many generations before ours have existed.
Lastly, I assure you that quality is more important than quantity. I know of many mothers who hang out around their kids all day, talking on the phone, cranky and whiny. Their annoyance with their house arrest emanates from their body language and tone. Their children also take them for granted and lose respect for them easily.
By contrast, the mothers who may not be around every minute but believe in quality time spent and really tune in closely to their children are likely to raise more emotionally independent, secure and compassionate children. Occasionally entrusting their care to another gives them the signal that you trust them and the world. These mothers do not feel guilty taking time off to look after their needs and health. They are also more respected by their children and less likely to be taken for granted.
In practical terms
I am not advocating that you pack your bags and leave on a jet plane or start a women’s lib movement. Rather that you identify your genuine needs and ambitions one at a time and make room for them.
Start out with your health needs. Take some time off to meditate, exercise or walk. Every morning, I tell my 5 year old that I am in the room next to hers finishing off my pranayama as she dresses for school so that we can eat breakfast downstairs together. She understands and respects it. She also feels capable and therefore good about herself. I am fully (physically and mentally) present at the breakfast table having completed my morning routine.
Similarly, start by finding one more hobby or activity you like to do. It could be reading, dancing, singing, cooking or anything else. Find some time at least every other day to pursue it. Even if its just half hour, truly immerse yourself in that activity, forgetting every other role you play. Measure your progress, take a class, take it one step higher. You will begin re-discover yourself and enjoy pushing your limits. Seeing a motivated mother who understands her goals is very inspiring for her children.
My badi ma is now is a spiritual guide to many, chachi is an active social worker and takes art lessons, and mummy is an active Vippassana meditator and a wedding planner for all her family weddings. They listened to their hearts and I thank them for teaching me to listen to mine.
Lastly, please limit screen time, both on the phone and television. It is not an anomaly to find housewives compensating for their ennui by living in the exciting worlds of TV characters, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter stars. Give yourself a screen-time limit so that your own life does not slip by as you are watching someone else’s.
As you live a little and find moments when you are not playing mother, wife, daughter, daugher in law, sister or any other role, moments when you are just you, your raw and pure version, moments when you let loose and honor yourself, I assure you, you will begin to create magic!