TW: fatphobia, shame, suicidal ideation (graphic images), anti sex work stigma, Desi Family Drama
My mother is anxious. I am at a Tim Horton’s. The problem with living in the middle of nowhere is that there is nowhere to go to when you need some space. I’m glad I make money now because that means I could call a cab which, it turns out, is way more real than screaming “I’m leaving” and being actually completely unable to go anywhere.
My parents live in the suburbs of Toronto. I work downtown. Toronto that is, not the suburbs – not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I had to get away from our little Bollywood drama – recently having reached 26 years – the longest soap opera on daytime TV – yes, even longer than the ones my naani has been diligently watching since her days in Delhi, and TV was new.
My mother isn’t proud of me for who I am because of course, I’m not a doctor yet on her timeline. Because I like dresses that flatter my figure – and ok because I like to dress sexy every now and then. Because I work in sexual health. Because I’m an atheist. Because I like girls. Because I talk about sex(ual health) too much or mental health too much.
She’s anxious about what the builders will think. She’s embarrassed they’ve heard us screaming. And now, even Tamil won’t do – our ultra secret language in the heart of suburban Toronto where everyone usually can understand English *and* Hindi, and Punjabi (not that we speak this last one), but where Tamil was the language of minorities among minorities- well, even Tamil screaming matches won’t do because someone helping us out with the building happens to be Tamil.
They’re putting in a back porch. So far it’s a patch of gravel, like a wound across the earth. Maybe that was a dramatic metaphor. I hope it makes them happy.
My parents live in a city with no public transportation, and no coffee shops to escape you. Escape to, I mean. That was an interesting typo, and I think I’m going to leave it in. I think a lot these days about how so much writing is processed, filtered stuff. I think about what I leave out with whom. I think about what I accidentally write. I think about my piecemeal life. There is more farmland than houses, and the cow to people ratio is disconcertingly high.
I am at a coffee shop. It’s Saturday afternoon. I’m having a steeped tea at a Timmy’s. My mother thinks I’m a failure.
I ran away from home for the first time in my life and it’s hilarious. I ran away from home for the first time in my life at the age of 26. After you know, running away at 18 to go to another province to get a degree, and then running away to another city, and then getting a job in another city, so that finally I’d have enough money to actually be able to follow through with the same broken refrain of “I am leaving, I am leaving (but the broke-ass-money-less daughter still remains)”. Anyway, I have money now so when I say I am leaving and going to the GO Station to go away, I mean it, damn it.
Sort of. I am, after all, having a steeped tea at a Timmy’s. This is not the inter-city travel GO Train station.
It’s father’s day tomorrow. I love my dad. I love my mom too but we drive each other insane. Actually insane. Actually literally, will slit my wrists have come close to it in that house insane. I probably drive my sad (I mean, dad) insane too though, now that I think about it. I came home to visit last night for the weekend.
The first thing my naani told me when I walked in the door yesterday evening was that I’d gotten a lot fatter. I’m a size 8 – sometimes a 10, and in some stores, a size 12 – I mention this only because I can only wonder what my fat Desi friends go through in their own houses – those friends of mine even larger than me. Apparently, everyone was upset with the dress I wore home – catches me midthigh, and I’ve only ever gotten compliments for it, but of course, if I’m not “covered”, I must be a whore. I mean, I wonder what my parents would say if they knew that some of my friends are in fact sex workers who sometimes may reclaim the words so negatively used to define them. Apparently, they were also upset with the fact that I bought two bean burritos from a Taco Bell and brought them home when my naani had cooked food – never mind that I was starving and ate naani’s food on top of the two burritos. “TWO?!” My mother is horrified. I am after all “much fatter” than she was at my age; she was something of a svelte size 4.
My mom is worried about me. This, I am told often and repetitively, is love. In a completely fucked up way, it *is* love, and this is probably the most devastating part of our relationship: my mother has been concern-trolled her entire life, and has been told that getting concern-trolled is love. Of course, it’s no wonder this morning I get told by naani to give up that 3.5% homo milk lifestyle so that it doesn’t “build in the back…area…”
Oh naani, please don’t get me started on that homo milk lifestyle though.
You know, this is why I like writing race theory queer theory crap because writing about family is so much more taboo so much harder so much more destructive to the status quo.
“Naani, I haven’t been working out lately,” I say. “I got my foot checked out, you know the problem I was telling you about last week – “
“Leave it ma,” my mother interjects sharply. “She doesn’t listen to anyone or anything about anything!”
“I got my foot checked out, and I need orthotics so once that’s back I’ll be able to work out more.”
“You know, it’s only skinny people who get angry about being called skinny, but fat people are just always jolly!” Naani says. Yes well, naani, the fat people cry alone or with other fat people because they know the rest of us either really don’t care, or act like we don’t care, or worst of all: pretend we do care when we don’t –I mean, naani, we haven’t really given them too many options other than to *be always jolly* have we, but these are the words I find easy to swallow because it’s naani and she’s sweet and she really really didn’t want me to go today and wishes I’d stay.
When my mom says to my face that she feels like a bad mother because of how my life turned out, that I’ve killed her hopes and aspirations and dreams for myself because I’m living oh so desolately low and far beneath my “potential” – that because of how shitty my life is, apparently she feels like a shitty mom – when she says these things, it’s pretty difficult to not immediately think of these twenty six years of living as mostly bullshit.
Maybe I’m on edge because of the Brock Turner bullshit. Or maybe the Orlando shootings shortly thereafter. OR maybe just close to a decade of living with severe depression and suicidal ideation that my mother, in her anxiety constantly forgets, but to be told that your life, as you’re living it is mostly useless and that this is not just a lamentation in and of itself, and not just a reflection of my own choices, decisions, etc, but a *reflection of my mother’s ability to parent* and that this is the real tragedy –
I can’t imagine what that feels like, to feel like a shitty mother because you can’t respect your daughter’s life as she happens to live it, as she happens to want to live it, as she goes out and does things on her own terms, yes that must be so difficult for you!
I’m whining. I’m winded. I was triggered. I ran away. I didn’t kill myself. I don’t normally write blog posts like this anymore. This isn’t my life anymore. I don’t hate myself anymore except in moments where I’m reminded I should hate myself due to how shit my life is.
Look: my life is mostly about just living it on my terms.
I don’t have suicidal ideations, but apparently, the fastest way to probably push me there is to get told by my mother that my life is basically useless, futile, and sooooo lowwwww without “a professional qualification” and that this is just bringing such shame to her.
Sometimes I’m still a ten year old and want my mother to be proud of me in that aching, desperate, ten year old way.
It’s still unbelievably, punch in the gut, humiliating to realise she likely never will be, and also that she cannot appreciate my life for what it is. It’s a breathtaking feeling to confront the reality that your life – all of it, or most of it, or the trajectory you’re currently on – is disappointing to someone.
My mother is Denethor. I am Faramir, but like, more useless. This is an unfair comparison and I am being dramatic.
“Don’t do this,” She says at the door, after I’ve called the cab, after the screaming and the swearing and all the rest of it has died down. “Your dad will be really hurt – ”
“Yeah and whose fault is that? You know, for your day – for Mom’s day, Dad and I stayed above the bullshit. No matter what, we planned, for months, a surprise for you. We just did that because it was your day. But you couldn’t even last a day.”
And technically I guess, neither could I.
The thing is, she can’t help how she feels. Mom really cannot help how she feels, and I know that to her, I’ve ruined my life. For me, nothing is past tense, and nothing is written in stone, but to my fatalistic mother, all is destiny, fate, and these are the fruits of her past life. “I must have done something terrible” she says to me. She means, to have gotten me as a daughter in this janam. But she says it to absolve me of any guilt – this is her intention. “I must have done something terrible”, and I hear the unsaid words: so it’s not your fault, you see. It’s on me, that I have you for a daughter because clearly I fucked up my last life so badly to have landed you.
Before I’m at the door, and shortly after the screaming match, I wrote an email to my parents letting them know I was leaving early. I told Dad I’m sorry I wasn’t around for Father’s day. I told them I loved them both. Dad was away at work, so he’d see it at some point when he got a chance.
But our interactions are also on me. There are so many examples of me wanting to meet my parents where they’re at – which I’ve written about in the past (here and here) . And I know at this point in life, it’s not about progress, and today isn’t a setback. It’s just an ebb and flow. Some days work. Some meetings work. Some days, nothing works. This isn’t karma, it’s chance and luck or lack thereof. That’s all.
We have a tendency in Hindu families in particular to chalk up the random vagaries of life to karma – a word that literally means action and consequence – it’s a human flaw, to read what happens as causality rather than random chance. But Hinduism also leaves room for the chance – the mirage of life, the random occurrences that occur, or which appear to occur. The word for this is Maya, and (she is of course paternalistically defined as a beautiful woman who “distracts and detracts” from spiritual paths) – and indeed Maya is illusion or appearance, is distraction from spiritual truths, is neither action, nor consequence – She represents physical reality, appearance, which have real impacts and consequences, – she is the philosophical presence behind material realities, but which must be transcended in order to achieve a higher truth. Maya is also seen as a goddess, and therefore imbued with the power to construct such realities/be such realities for humans. Crudely, using an analogy from the The Matrix trilogy, she’s the matrix and the Architect – she is the green code that Neo sees, *and* the physical/virtual reality that is created from that code, and she is the creator of that code; she is the Sphinx and the riddle together; she is a measure of learning, of seeing, of creation.
It is this conflation of Maya with Karma that Hindu families are particularly susceptible to. It’s easy to chalk up any conflict to past karma (action). It’s easy to that conflict as consequence for that past action It’s harder to see that as an interaction in this life, that must be addressed/transcended/Seen to achieve a deeper truth.
Today was bullshit. ( Thanks Maya. )
I still feel winded. I’m still at the Timmy’s. My tea is over. But I feel better. Mom’s doing the best she can. Her best is sometimes shit. My best is sometimes shit. We are shit together. Ok. This is part of life too, and accepting that ultimately… it’s ok.
Asking that my mom respect my life, my journey, and what I have to offer to the world might be too much to ask. But I already knew that. I gave up on us knowing each other a long time ago, but I also have to give up on her ever coming to terms with my life, or recognizing that it’s my own.
All I can do for myself is to comfort myself and still follow my journey, wherever it leads, and not let her be a marker or a measure of my life’s worth or potential. I don’t think she wants that role in my life anyway, I think she landed up there quite unintentionally, completely by accident due to the the role she has in my life as a mother.
“Where you want to go?” The cab driver asks me. He’s an old Sikh man, turban and kind face. I’ve left the house, told my grandmother I’d be back eventually another time. She’s sad.
I say “The Go Station, Downtown” I have to keep from crying but he probably knows. I wonder how many brown girls he’s seen carrying all their crap and asking for a cab to go to the inter-city train station. We’re passing empty field upon empty field and cookie cutter houses in the early phase of construction – a row of wooden creatures, not yet house or home.
“Um, actually, I’d like to be dropped off at the next intersection.” It’s near where my dad works. It’s about a half hour from the train station. There’s a Timmy’s nearby. The cab driver pulls into the parking lot and softly says “So, you changed your mind.”
Of course, I immediately burst into tears and nod quietly. This is after all, a Bollywood movie. My life is nuts. I am nuts.
A lot, I think. He’s probably seen a lot of brown girls in the back of his car, heading to a train station. How many change their mind, I wonder. How old are they. What do they have going on in their lives. Who is there for them. How many leave. How many come back. How many go back in pieces. How many leave in pieces. How many kill themselves. How many find themselves.
I’m still learning what pieces of my piecemeal life my mother is ok with. Not a whole lot at this point. I’m ok with not a whole lot. I hope for some. A little. Maybe it’s nothing at all.
The only thing I can do is meet her where she’s at with where I’m at. Maybe that means sitting at this Timmy’s writing a blog post. Maybe it means not leaving all the way, but leaving for a bit. Maybe it means talking to her about what she needs, and what I can give her, and stop focusing on what she can give me – I’ve stopped on practical terms, or emotional terms.
I need to now just carve out a space in my brain to put all the shitty things I hear from her about my life, and how miserable it apparently is, a space to chuck her garbage, yet well intentioned, comments, a space to put her bullshit in, a compost bin.
And, I need to work out how to respond to those comments where she is viscerally not proud of me, the work I do, or where I am at in my life.
I don’t expect her to ever understand that I am mostly (trying to be) ok with who I am, or that her comments risk making me feel ashamed about myself and that shame is a really unproductive emotion.
I sometimes think shame is all my mother knows – shame about how I’ve turned out. Shame about how she can’t speak to family friends about my life because she’s not proud of what I’m doing or who I am. And shame is an emotion I’m pretty susceptible to. My mother raised me to compare myself with others on a near constant basis. While I’ve had to relearn how to build community, meet people where they’re at, meet myself honestly, some of that residual tendency to “compare” is still there.
I just wish I knew what to say to her. I know she can’t help but compare me to other people she sees, and that by those markers of success, I am not successful. I struggle too sometimes (though less and less often) with my own feelings about not living up to my potential by whatever markers society has set. I also know though that I deal with depression and anxiety. I know how close I came to killing myself. I know that putting that kind of pressure on myself is unnecessary and that the closest I’ve come to following my dreams, my journey, my own unique path is by letting go of expectations, of shame, and by meeting myself with love, respect, and kindness. I also know that the reason I was so stressed out for most of my life was because of interactions like these – constant worrying from her that I was not doing enough, being enough, or fulfilling her expectations of who I should be.
I’m not enough for my Mom, but I’m enough for me. I have to be, and if that means facing her disappointment, that’s ok. That’s a choice I am making – a choice I have to make because I cannot live for her.
I have to live for me, and I have to live my life on my terms.
Even if the sum total of my life is a grand old disappointment to her, I am still allowed to continue living, continue doing me, continue following my goals and pursuits and dreams on my terms.
And I’m still allowed to continue loving her, however best I can.
And I’m allowed to know she’s doing her best to love me too.
I’m at the Timmy’s and I let my dad know that I’m hanging out near where he works, that yes I’m still in town. That I’d really like to come home and that I don’t want to ruin Father’s Day tomorrow. I made sure that when I let him know, it was from a place of self love, of being better prepared to meet my mother with the compassion she so sorely lacks for herself and for me. I made sure that it was an intentional decision, a decision rooted in meeting and loving family from the same place I seek to love myself.
The next day:
We’re at Khana Sutra – this new restaurant in the ‘burbs that takes an innovative spin on Desi cooking – even the drinks have new spins – Naani’s having a Minty Neembu, Mom’s sipping on an Anarkali, kind of a virgin-Mojito situation with pomegranate thrown in.
There’s live music for Father’s Day, and the singer is singing one of my mom’s favourite’s – on request: Raat Kali
Everything is normal and fine. The day before, I was at a Timmy’s drinking too much steeped tea and silently stewing in my own feelings of inadequacy. But I also made a choice, and it’s a choice I’m increasingly doing these days with family: to still approach them and myself with compassion and love no matter what. I understand this may not be everyone’s goal and that people need to cut off from family.
I made a choice to stay.
I already know I can leave, but I also know it would hurt them immeasurably and I can’t really have that on my conscience. Instead, I know that I need to take space sometimes when I’m unspeakably angry, upset, and made to feel worthless by people who genuinely still do care about me.
I know my mother will likely never empathise with, relate to, or appreciate my journey in life, wherever that takes me. I know she can’t be proud of it. But I have to rely on myself in those moments and recognize that fundamentally, my life cannot be about pleasing her – or anyone else.
My life is mine. I have to care about it, and cherish it, and love it. I have to meet myself where I’m at in order to pursue the dreams I have – I cannot, will not, pursue my dreams and ideas for myself from a place of wanting her approval – or fearing her disappointment.
Ok, so she’s disappointed. So what? She’s disappointed because she cares, and is aggravatingly terrifyingly terrible at expressing herself in a supportive way to me, but really: she cares about me. I can hold that sentiment while ignoring all her terrible ways of trying to push me into doing something she finds meaningful.
Her feeling or being proud of me isn’t my job, and it’s not my chore.
And similarly, I can’t let her disappointments in me knock me bad quite so hard. In future, I know that if I feel triggered I can leave. I’ll get out of the house for a little while, go to a coffee shop, come back when I feel like it. Her disappointment can’t be the defining factor in my life in how I choose to see it; the fact that it remains so incredibly searing is just another opportunity for me to understand that really, I still place a lot of weight on what she and possibly others think about my life.
And I need to let that go.
But because I chose to stay, in an indefinite and “long-game” kind of way, I need to also have something in addition to boundaries: I need to have genuine ways of reaching out. When my dad picked me up from the Timmy’s, I made it a point to mention that I’d like to treat them for lunch the next day for Father’s Day.
I didn’t ask for conversations around what had happened earlier in the day. I didn’t ask them to change their perspectives on my life. Instead, I just thought about what I could offer them: my time, my love, my commitment to family gatherings.
So here we are having lunch at a restaurant for Father’s Day, like any other family.
“I love you” my mom says later, and I say it back.