Don’t cut your nails on a Saturday

To understand the context of this statement let me tell you a bit about me. I’m a Hindu Gujarati. My father was born in the Indian state of Gujarat and was one of six children whilst my mother was from Kenya and one of seven children. Both grew up with every imaginable hardship – financial, hard discipline, emotional starvation – and their marriage was arranged via elders. There was no dating; they simply saw a photo of each other. Hinduism and Gujarati customs were an everyday part of theirs (and my) childhood; certain days were observed as ‘vegetarian’ or ‘semi vegetarian’ (fish but no meat), certain foods were prepared on particular days and I was completely accustomed to hearing what not to do to avoid bad luck.

The language of Gujarati is my mother tongue but I confess that whilst I can speak it, understand it and read a little, unless I’m speaking to someone (usually) elderly, I default to speaking English even when I’m being spoken to in Gujarati.

My parents brought me up to follow many things (including the nail thing on a Saturday   which effectively reduced my weekend opportunity to get my nails done by more than 50% when you take Sunday trading hours into account). It’s only later in life and especially after I’ve had my own children and am more spiritually inquisitive and aware, that I’ve started to question why we say and do certain things in our culture.

walking the tightrope of luck

The beliefs I was taught were a mix of what I would loosely call religious and cultural. Religious practices included praying, going on pilgrimages and observing key festivals whereas cultural practices would include things like:

  • Not putting the household rubbish out after dark because good fortune would leave through the open door
  • Never leaving a shoe or slipper upturned because it attracted bad luck
  • Not washing your hair for the entire nine months of your pregnancy to protect mother and child from infections (dreadlocks anyone?!)
  • Not tapping/waggling your foot because it invited bad luck
  • Eating a tablespoon of natural yoghurt before an exam for optimum performance

And hundreds more practices like this. To this day, I’ve never found a universally accepted reason for the ones I was taught – or even a rational reason at that.

do as you’re told

I was also taught obedience and that parents are the personification of God so you do as you’re told and don’t challenge – which limited the possibility of conversation around why. Add to that the difficulty of reverence to parents who sometimes behaved in ways that were morally questionable and you get a flavour of the emotionally conflicting and stifling aspect of my childhood which was probably an unwitting resemblance of their own.

I’m forever grateful to my parents for the material sacrifices that they made. Like many parents of their generation, they slogged night and day to create a life for their children which would be far enhanced materially and educationally than their own. This was the dream; this is what they lived for. But, being a parent is about so much more than this too.

parenting through fear vs. love

I don’t believe that being a parent in itself qualifies you for reverence and even if you do achieve this from your children, if it’s motivated by fear then the depth of loving feeling won’t necessarily accompany it.

Respect and admiration from your children is earned; it’s not owed.

For me being a parent is an opportunity to demonstrate those qualities which you value and want to see in your own children – truth in speech and action, acceptance, compassion towards others, manners, promotion of self-worth, tolerance – and so much more.

why?

I’ve come to realise that relatability is everything. Unlike my younger self, I encourage my children to enquire and be inquisitive whether it’s about our culture, the world and everything in between.

I want to leave my children the legacy of my culture in such a way that they treasure it and pass it on for generations to come. But I know the way I was taught to follow things won’t fly with them.

Immersive appreciation – not blind obedience – is the only way forward.

For example, I observe the Sheetala Satam ritual. On this day, we don’t use the cooker (so usually eat cold food) and light a diya (sacred lamp) offering prayers to Goddess Sheetala. There are many stories about why this day is observed; some say it’s about protecting children from chickenpox, others say it’s because back in the day, people only had a basic earthen stove and it was an opportunity to thank God for the resources He’d provided for us to survive. I’m not sure which version is correct but the reason I observe it – and tell my children about it – is because it teaches me humility. In not using the cooker all day I’m reminded how fortunate we are to have the food and resources we do and to be thankful for them.

For me, this is the take home message; it’s relatable and whatever the future brings when I’m no longer around, the message of gratitude and humility is everlasting.

my banned womb

I’m also happy to observe this custom because I’m not harming anyone by practising it.

By comparison, I was recently told that I wasn’t allowed to participate in a traditional  Shrimanth ceremony* (baby shower) because seven years ago I’d suffered a miscarriage (more in my blog Don’t say the ‘M’ word). I couldn’t believe that the same people who comforted me with assurances that my unborn child was actually a gift from God fulfilling their last karma** were now using my miscarriage as a reason to exclude me from being present and joining my family on such a happy occasion – and citing our culture as the reason for this. Apparently, even though I’d successfully delivered two healthy children my earlier miscarriage meant I wasn’t considered whole.

This experience made me question what messages and legacies we want to define our culture for generations to come.

To take someone’s past unfortunate experiences and use them against them isn’t just a sure fire way for future generations to reject our culture, it’s an affront to humanity at its core.

I’m not prepared to subscribe to any aspect of my culture which alienates or denigrates people. To me culture means inclusivity, celebration of heritage and strengthening bonds based on the foundations of mutal love, promotion and pride.

I don’t want to shed my culture, I want to celebrate it but I want to define my culture positively and set practices and beliefs which enhance and promote people and their wellbeing – not use it as a tool to divide.

To me, culture is captured by togetherness and servitude. It’s sharing meals and resources, celebrating each other’s successes, offering a hand when life gets tough and observing customs which tighten this thread of humanity between us.

looking ahead

Future generations won’t accept legendary tales or customs which shun members of the community. We live in an age where children want answers backed up by reasoning or the satisfaction of their innate sense of justice fulfilled. My humble advice? Be prepared to be asked questions and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know but you’ll find out. And when you do get an answer to your question about why you do certain things, pause and ask yourself if you agree with the message you’re conveying to your children.

We are the beholders of how we define our culture to our children – we’re not slaves to following things we don’t want to or don’t agree with just because that’s the way it’s always been done.

When we’re at the crossroads we can choose the ignorant path of fear or the illuminated path of education and enquiry.

In Sanskrit the teacher is known as Guru which translates as the remover of darkness/ignorance – we are the primary teachers of our children so let’s use this empowerment to shed practices which harm others and redefine our culture so that it’s exclusively rich in love, acceptance and service to all.

some explanations:

*also popularly known as Godh bharai/Khodo Bharavo which essentially translates as “filling the lap” of the mother-to-be with abundant good wishes for a safe and healthy delivery.

**In Hinduism it’s believed that the cycle of birth and death continues until all past misdeeds have been compensated for through good action thereby enabling a person to merge with God and be truly free of this world.

Photo from post.jagran.com – image shows seven chillies and a lemon often placed outside homes and businesses and believed to ward off evil 

 

 

Stand up to Yourself

clarence-e-hsu-778568-unsplash

To yourself, I hear you ask. She calls herself a writer but talks about standing up to rather than for yourself? You read right.

I’ll come back to this in a minute – rest assured it’s a deliberate statement – but first a bit of context.

Golden Time

At my son’s school they have something called Golden Time. It’s a period where the children can choose to undertake any activity they wish, a chance to feel free and to engage in what they enjoy. Needless to say, he loves it and really looks forward to it.

I don’t press him too much on what he actually does in this time. The parent in me prefers to think he’s finding new and innovative ways to solve maths problems using an interactive abacus. The reality is that he’s probably in the mud kitchen finding more treasures to stuff in his impossibly small yet strangely very accommodating coat pockets  (how do kids do that?). Last week he brought back a bone. Like from an actual animal – I kid you not. We’re a vegetarian family; I know said animal had already been consumed by something but it was a new level of grossness in his treasure collection I wasn’t quite prepared for.

Anyway… so Golden Time means freedom, no regimented tasks; just time to indulge in what ignites the excitement within.

Sacred Fridays

The reason I’m telling you this is because Fridays are my Golden Time.

I work four days a week doing a job I love and managing a super bunch of people. Everyday I’m making decisions that can be life changing and restores justice – it’s a pretty great feeling. But that fifth day of the week, that’s my day. My day to indulge, to enjoy, ergo to reflect and write.

It might be short story ideas or blog posts but if I’m sitting at my desk with a steaming cup of tea and my lime green Icelandic wool blanket (slightly itchy but lovely draped over my lap) under the warm glow of my Himalayan salt lamp, I’m in creative heaven.

So if my Fridays are interrupted or taken away from me by life events, it’s not just a mere botheration – it upsets me on a far deeper level and creates a lava-esque bubbling within. We all have something we do that we love and which recharges our emotional batteries and keeps us going? Well, for me it’s Writing Fridays.

And then last week something happened.

Violation

My father’s house was burgled and it took me straight back to the day when I was around 14 years old and had returned home with my favourite cousin and a takeaway. The evening had been planned; we’d be eating a delicious meal together and then have a girly night talking about film stars and trying out different make up. But when we reached the front door we could see burglars through my living room window – it sent a shock through me which is as live today as it was then. I felt a sense of violation of our space, fear of their return and outrage at their temerity to forcibly enter our family quarters and help themselves to what they wanted. Our arrival rattled them and they ran away. But I couldn’t eat that night nor sleep; I was so afraid and no-one around me could understand why. Plus being from a fairly typical Indian household where feelings aren’t generally discussed, it was never spoken of again.

So when this happened at my dad’s house and he was abroad, I went to help restore his house to order. The memories came flooding back like crashing waves on weathered rocks evoking in me that same feeling of vulnerability and invasion that I’d experienced so many years ago.

And then Monday came and I had to put on my manager hat and carry on as normal. I was battling against a wall of work which had mounted from my absence (I’d been off for two months following a knee operation, see Accepting Life’s Lemons) and to top it all off, on Wednesday my son was sent home from nursery with a raging temperature.

Friday came around eventually but my son was still ill and I knew the writing simply wasn’t happening. It was both an emotionally and physically exhausting week – exacerbated by the lava-esque frustration and wistfulness in my drooping shoulders that my Golden Time wasn’t going to be had today.

Uh oh!

And then I remembered at 9pm that I’d seen an advert for a TV presenter role and the audition video was due that day. When it hit me, my heart sank. Ever since I was a teenager, I’d regularly ponder on a career in TV broadcasting and here was an opportunity quite literally under my nose where all I had to do was record a 60 second video about myself and deliver some scripted lines. I could think of every reason not to apply which included (this list isn’t exhaustive):

  • I hadn’t brushed/washed/done anything to my hair
  • I had no make-up on
  • I hadn’t slept properly (courtesy of the visiting Temperature) resulting in bags under my eyes that could accommodate a weekly family shop
  • My wrinkles seemed more pronounced than usual
  • I wasn’t feeling my usual upbeat self so how could I possibly come across as being engaged and excited by this opportunity?
  • What vaguely relatable experience of journalism did I have anyway?

And then I looked at the other side.

Here was an opportunity which had practically been gifted to me. It was a chance – and I could look away and use my near empty tank of energy as an excuse or I could face up to it, pull myself together and throw my hat into the ring.

Ultimately if I didn’t enter the arena how would I ever know if this was the beginning of something new and purposeful? I’d pledged that this year would be about writing, speaking and putting myself ‘out there’ – there was no way I could justify to myself passing up the very first opportunity that came my way to showcase a different facet of my personality. Ok, it might not lead anywhere – and I might not even like it – but equally what if it was the beginning of a new creative outlet for me?

So, armed with my dry shampoo, some flattering lighting and a (slightly forced) beaming smile, I recorded my piece and sent it in.

I was going to show up. I wanted to be in the arena.

Don’t look at the doughnut

The awe-inspiring Steven Pressfield, author of the War of Art personifies resistance and says “its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work”. What’s resistance? You know that voice, the one that tells you to eat a doughnut when you’re on a diet or not to share your innovative idea in a meeting in case it generates looks of derision from your colleagues. That voice that derails you when you’re about to try something new, different or exciting.

Excuses, excuses

I could’ve rattled off a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t submit an audition video and reconciled myself with it – but I didn’t. I recognised that the more excuses I made, the more I actually wanted it. I wanted to have that experience. (In case you’re wondering, the TV company actually liked my video and invited me to a second audition –  I’ll let you know how this part of the story ends in the fullness of time).

Someone once asked me if I was resisting taking actions to fulfil my dreams because I was more afraid of my own success or because of a fear of failure. What’s failure anyway other than an opportunity for us to learn more about ourselves and grow? No, it’s the success that’s more scary – what does that Reena look like?

I might have had a week that’d rather be forgotten. And I might have lost my Golden Time too. But despite all that, I didn’t lose to resistance. This experience reminded me that mindset really is everything. Even the complex yet delicate lotus flower has to push  through murky waters for its beauty to be realised. It’s inherent in its nature – and in ours too.

 

Photo by Clarence E. Hsu on Unsplash

 

Don’t say the ‘M’ word

Seven years ago I lost my baby. Though others didn’t call it that. It was called a ‘missed miscarriage’, a foetus, a zygote and ‘it’ – but never a ‘baby’. Never a word that reflected what by unborn child ever really meant to me. I found out there was no heartbeat just before I was due to have my first scan.

For me, this baby was everything. I had a lovely home and a wonderful husband; my baby was the missing piece of the puzzle. When I started bleeding, I Googled every possible normal cause there could be – anything that could be an alternative to miscarriage because I couldn’t bear to think that this story ended in any other way than my child coming into this world in six months’ time.

Fantasies

I’d already imagined their features and pictured what our new life would look like. My husband and I would talk to the ‘bump’ about our family members, our lives and sing to them. I’d imagined scenes of us taking a stroll in the park, feeding them, stroking them to sleep gazing at their innocence and angelic beauty. I’d thought about their room, possible names and how loved they’d be by our family.

When it all fell apart, the way I was treated was anything but emotional or with care – a complete juxtaposition. I was processed by the hospital; just another ERCP and sent home as they worked through their list of patients in the same boat. What was for me such excruciating trauma emotionally and physically, I guess for the medical staff was as commonplace as the removal of a tooth by a dentist.

Searching

I remember feeling so desperate and alone and searching on the Internet for answers. All I came across were forums where mums were asking the same questions that I was thinking, why did this happen? Was it something I ate? Did I not take care of myself properly and thus put my unborn baby’s life in jeopardy? I just wanted to know why.

I turned to my culture. I was told by some relatives that losing this baby was actually a blessing. That according to karma (paying off the debt of your past actions) and reincarnation, conception was all the baby needed in order to achieve their ultimate realisation and merging with God. This concept was so ethereal and difficult to grasp from my limited human mind but strangely, it did provide some comfort. But not the practical answers and reasons I was looking for. What I learned much later was that there wasn’t a single definitive reason for this happening which I could hang my rationale on and point to as something I would never ‘do’ again.

I was looking for a cause; something I could blame. Then I could demonise it and cast it out of my life forever.

The logical mind looks for reasons I suppose. But what I really needed at that time was the ability to walk and talk through what I was going through with people around me.

Starvation of conversation

But people were afraid of asking me how I was and I was afraid to bring it up directly in case it made them feel uncomfortable. So here we all were circling the subject, each pretending that we were achieving Oscar winning performances wearing the ‘look’ we thought most appropriate for the occasion when the reality was a palpably awkward environment with everyone itching for an exit stage left.

So what were we all afraid of? Were people afraid that if they talked to me about it I would cry? Did they think that I was on my way to forgetting about it all and perhaps talking about it would set me off again? The irony is that the longer I didn’t talk about it the harder it was to deal with. I would’ve really appreciated those around me asking me “so how are you feeling today?” Or “how are you coping with your loss?” This would have at least told me that they were open to hearing about my feelings.

Now I realise that this is about way more than talking about miscarriage.

The problem with asking someone “how are you?” is that you never really know whether they’re asking out of politeness or whether they are genuinely enquiring about how you are coping emotionally with life.

You just don’t know how much of your feelings or experiences to offer up in response when you’re asked this question.

Realisations

I’ve learnt so much from this experience. I’ve learnt to ask people specifically how they are in relation to whatever is going on in their life. I want to be the best mother, sister, friend and wife I can be and I realise that this means being open emotionally and also being prepared to share my own experiences so that others can identify with me.

That’s one of the reasons I’m talking about this today. It’s crucial to acknowledge that it’s not only helpful to talk about emotionally destabilising experiences but that any trauma requires a healing process and internal reconciliation – not just burying it within, which like graves in a cemetery eventually crack through the earth’s surface and manifest again waiting to be dealt with.

Showing up

I remember from my childhood the days when something happened and my parents would make a phone call using the old dial telephone to offer support (you know, the one which if you got a digit wrong you’d have to start the whole dialling experience again) and then if practical, they’d turn up at that person’s house. They didn’t have a lot to offer, certainly not showing up with gifts, chocolates, flowers or any other token item. It was just them. People. They’d show up as a sign of solidarity and whether they said it explicitly or not they were telling people that they were there for them.

Sometimes I feel like we’re living in a parallel universe. How can it be that in a world where you can speak to someone through video phone on the other side of the world in a fraction of a second with complete digital clarity, we’re actually more emotionally isolated from one another than we’ve ever been?

The digital age has made it all too easy in times of suffering for us to just send a vanilla message – “sorry to hear your mum’s died, I’m here for you if you need me” – leaving the onus on the vulnerable suffering to reach out to seek support. Did we really mean that message of support or did we feel that it was something we ought to do to relieve our conscience of a societally imposed obligation? It’s uncomfortable thinking, hey? Hell, I’m no angel, I’ve been guilty of it too.

But reflecting on this has led me to commit to myself that where I can, I’ll make the special effort to make that phone call or to drop by. No chocolate; no flowers; just me. Being present – showing up. On the days when the only time I come up for air from a frantic day is before 5am or post 10pm (generally accepted as times one oughtn’t ring people) I’ll leave a recorded message on WhatsApp. A meaningful dedication with depth expressing what I need to and offering a practical hand of support (N.B. I’m good at popping over with a macaroni cheese).

It’s my small commitment to making this life as rich and deep with meaningful relationships as I possibly can.

And you?

I’d encourage you to reflect on whether your relationships are as nurtured as you’d like. And anyway, you don’t need to listen to me, I’m just some random person spilling out my thoughts and feelings onto the page and hoping you’re not throwing tomatoes at your screen. But various spiritual texts talk about sharing love, speakers qualified to talk about relationships like Jay Shetty, Brenee Brown, Marisa Peer, even Oprah talk about investing in your relationships, listening to hear; not to respond, and being your authentic self.

They must be on to something… surely?

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

Autism, Airports and Indians

Autism creates an interesting reaction amongst Indians.

There’s the Fix-Its who’ll say “we’ll find a doctor in India that will have a cure” (because obviously all other doctors pale in comparison), the Spiritualists who say “we’ll pray that it goes away” and the Ostriches that say “he’ll grow out of it / he looks normal / he’s just a typical boy”. I’ve heard it all.

I think the one that probably annoys me the most is when someone who’s spent an hour or so with my son says “he seems fine to me, you’d never know he was autistic”. Telling me that he doesn’t seem autistic trifles my three year battle banging on the doors of medical professionals looking for answers, to the mere wave of a dismissive hand.

Icebergs

They say still waters run deep. Well never has a truer word been said about my son. He can go from playing a boardgame quite merrily, humming A Million Dreams from The Greatest Showman to full on tears, tantrums and rage in about the time it’s taken you to read this sentence. Oh, and it was probably caused by something as predictable and innocuous as landing on a snake during a game of Snakes and Ladders.

The spectrum in autism spectrum disorder is so apt; today a meltdown could be caused by his brother stepping on a Lego model by mistake when yesterday it was shrugged off. Or me climbing the stairs ahead of him making me the ‘winner’ when normally he’s running up them oblivious to who’s around.

Suffice to say that everyday is an adventure where we learn new things about him, what he likes, dislikes, sets him off or creates anxiety. A few years of this has enabled me to tune my antennae to look for ways to help him be as comfortable as possible wherever we are.

Being autism-travel-savvy

After a few painful travel experiences involving queuing, lots of frustration and my head teetering on the brink of explosion, I’ve learnt to scout out the facilities at every place we travel to and from to minimise the anxiety and bouts of infuriation – for all of us.

When we recently travelled from Heathrow, I was so impressed at the care we received to help us have a smoother journey, from wearing a lanyard as a cue that we needed a bit of extra help and prompting staff to offer it, the border staff who took us straight to the passport checking desks and the stewards that let us board early so we could settle our son.

Where’s his father?

So it was quite a contrast when I rang the airline (who shall remain nameless – being sued isn’t that appealing) ahead of our departure to see what facilities were available upon landing. I explained what triggers can lead to my son’s meltdowns and what facilities I’d experienced previously to give them an idea of what I was enquiring about. I received this response: “but isn’t his father with him?”. I paused. Maybe I didn’t explain my question clearly enough. I tried again. I slowly explained who was travelling, my son’s condition and what can help us have a smoother journey. I was again met with:

Operator: “but ma’am, you just said his father was there right?”

Me: “Err, yes”

Operator: “then can’t the father deal with him?”

I gleaned a few insights from these comments. This operator knew as much about autism as I do about the diet of the Lappet Faced Vulture (don’t scratch your head; the answer really is zilch). He also harboured a somewhat archaic and paternalistic outlook that the ‘man’ of the family could surely save the day and deal with any of his son’s issues (I’m only the mother, pah! In his eyes I probably shouldn’t even be making the call to the airline, far too official for my rank). This airline evidently hadn’t rolled out any hidden disability awareness training for its staff (I also think the general customer service training is questionable…). But I don’t blame the operator.

Ignorance is no defence but equally, education about hidden disabilities is our collective responsibility if we want to create an understanding and tolerant society.

Rise up

In the Indian community, we don’t talk about problems with our children or the difficulties we have raising them. We love to shout about our children getting into the best schools or being inaugurated into one of the holy trinity professions (doctors, lawyers and accountants) but we won’t say how hurt we feel if they’re excluded from school or in any sort of trouble.

There’s a palpable fear of seeking advice out of shame that we will be judged as being inadequate parents.

This cloud that hangs upon our community is serving no-one. Not the child who could be missing out on support and resources they’re entitled to nor the parents whose mental wellbeing is at risk keeping up this Little House on the Prairie charade of perfect family life whilst secretly imploding within.

Hello

Well I’m calling it out.

Yes, I have an autistic son and yes, it’s incredibly challenging. There are days when I have to scream because every single request is met with protests, tears, backchat and foot stamping – and it might only be 8:00am. The other day in all the din I told myself to go to my happy place – but I couldn’t even remember where it was because I didn’t have a second’s peace to collect my thoughts when the diatribe I was being subjected to was just so loud.

Yes, there are times when we eat out that I want to shrink away because he won’t stop pouring the salt, waving the knife or the wine glass or anything else on the table, simultaneously making boisterous noises, whilst the family on the next table eat in peace stopping occasionally to quip with their children about the day’s adventures. Seeing what ‘normal’ family life could be like can feel like the sharp sting of a needle.

Yes, playdates are anything but fun for me; I spend the entire time checking he’s emotionally sound, fearful that an innocent push or shove from another child might lead to a crying, foot stamping meltdown that will take the best part of 40 minutes to recover from.

Pride

But in every challenging moment I have with him, I can draw from an abundance of times that he’s made my heart swell with pride and made me feel so grateful to be his mother.

His eyes see what the rest of us miss. We turn a door handle and walk through a door. He stops to observe the mechanism within the door and the effect of the turning on it. He identifies the scents of flowers. He can create stories on the spot with a theme, purposeful characters and structure whilst simultaneously acting out the parts. He can recall details from two years ago and link them to something that happened today (the memory thing is usually my undoing because he never forgets what I’ve promised him (usually chocolate) as a last resort to getting something done).

And I challenge anyone to beat him at a game of eye spy.

Foundations

My husband and I might be the foundation of our little family but no house was built on foundations alone. You need walls and a roof. For a long time the perfectionist in me said I could cope with anything life threw at me, alone (see my previous post on Handling Grief). It took me a long time to say ‘I need help’. The people around me had no idea because I’d mastered my Little House on the Prairie charade but when I reached out, sure enough, many hands outstretched to grab them. These pillars and roof safeguarded the foundations.

Education

I explained to my extended family what autism was and how it affects my son – and me. Now when they call, I can freely say if I’m having a good day or not, have a rant about how the incessant form filling for support for my son feels like I’m banging my head repeatedly against a brick wall or how tired I am because he wouldn’t sleep alone last night. The conversations I love are the ones where I can say he’s had amazing feedback on his concentration in class or how well he played a board game with his peers. The point is that I can just be me. No shoving things under the carpet or walking around with a painted smile on my face out of fear of judgement.

Yes, I have a son who’s autistic.

Yes, he’s different.

And yes, I’m going to keep talking about it until such time as the sense of awkwardness around the subject no longer exists.

photo by Alexander Hafemann on Unsplash.com

 

Handling Grief

Cancer

When I was 22, I stopped my Masters degree to became a full time carer for my terminally ill mum; she had cancer. She’d first been diagnosed at the age of 41 and had chemotherapy and radiotherapy which succeeded – together with an iron determination – in keeping it in remission for around 12 years. Like the world’s most toxic boomerang, it returned with a vengeance twice more in less than two years and the third time it ultimately defeated her. She was 54.

If I reflect on her last moments, I can remember with a clarity of vision far superior than any curved TV, holding her hand and hearing her breaths slowly being further and further apart whilst my heart raced faster and faster at the truth whose light was blinding but to which I refused to open my eyes and acknowledge. And then she left – finally released from the tortuous prison of physical pain to a world, I choose to believe, of spiritual serenity and every freedom imaginable.

So as mum’s physical life ended, that’s when the next chapter of my own, began.

I couldn’t cook, drive, hadn’t ever paid a bill or run a household before. But in the wake of the trail left by the unwanted boomerang here was its gift to me. I’m the eldest of three siblings; at the time, one was at university and the other was two months away from his GCSE exams. My father is a traditional Gujarati man (think dhal, bath, shak, rotli* most nights, Indian TV series and cricket and you’ll get the idea). So I stepped up; not like the steps you use at a circuit class, I mean I stepped up (imagine the furthest your right leg can reach on a staircase whilst your left foot is rooted to the bottom step, and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about).

Wonky chappatis

I learned to cook (the rotlis* resembled a politically incorrect and geographically questionable world atlas but were edible nonetheless), took driving lessons, kept my home in order, supported my siblings through their exams with innumerable pick ups and drop offs to the middle one’s halls of residence and the younger one’s exam sittings, took over the administration of my dad’s business and resumed my Masters degree. I was doing great; all systems going simultaneously and everything in order. I mean who needs a break when you’re functioning on permanent autopilot mode?

Smelling the coffee

I was living a lie and the worst thing was that I was both the perpetrator and the victim of it. When mum died, in the flick of an emotional switch, the blinkers came on – I was in survival mode and no peripheral emotions or distractions were going to take me off track. So far in life I’d conquered many challenges and this was going to be just another thing that I’d do – successfully of course because there was no alternative. We had to eat, get to places, survive and so much more.

Nearly 20 years later I’ve learned that the way I’d dealt with everything back then was that I hadn’t actually dealt with them.

I prioritised everyone else’s needs not stopping to consider what mine actually were. I thought I was performing a service by being self-effacing and devoting myself to the progress and happiness of those around me. But the truth is that I hadn’t grieved; I denied myself the breathing space to understand what was happening and allow the support network I had around me, in. I was afraid that by showing my vulnerability people would assume I wasn’t coping and would try and take over, threatening the stability of my family.

What a fanciful story I told myself; I had an answer for every scenario, an excuse to hand perpetually as to why I should just keep my head down and keep going. I was a super charged landmine waiting to be triggered before an epic explosion. I’ve learnt this through lots of reflection and coaching conversations that have helped me to grieve for the loss of my mum and for the girl who lost her youth but which has also enriched my relationships and taught me to feature in my own life.

The new ‘me’

Now, I’m much more attuned to my own feelings; if I keep having a recurring thought I know that something’s bothered me and I’ll do something about it. I make time for me without a side dose of guilt that my children will be psychologically damaged because I’ve missed a bath and story time. I’ll sit in a café reading the latest No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency instalment or meet up with friends for a nice meal knowing that by investing in my own well being, I’m best serving those around me because they get a fulfilled and happy mummy, wife, sister, friend and daughter.

I’m no expert; I can’t dispense educated advice on why you behave the way that you do or whether you feature enough in your own life. That’s a path for you to explore when it feels right for you. But from my experience I can say that it’s absolutely worth pausing to reflect on your life experiences, your fears and whether you are your authentic self or wearing the personas you think that others expect to see.

In my case, I didn’t get a handle on my grief and instead let it handle me by shaping how I featured in my relationships. My grief wore a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak that was so convincing even I didn’t know it was there. But it was deceptive because it seeped into every aspect of my life and bore itself out in many shapes and forms – it created an inner neediness that led me into destructive relationships, created a feeling of heightened paranoia and sat on my sense of worthiness like an elephant on a daisy craning its neck towards the sun.

Pausa

I’m inviting you to stop, reflect and take stock of your own relationships. How do you feel when you see or speak to the people that matter most to you? Then ask yourself why – is it because you can show up as your no-holds-barred true self or is there a tension within, an inner rod in your back that stiffens and causes you to behave a certain way? If it’s the latter, you can live with it or you can do something about it.

Truth doesn’t have to be painful. Unless it’s your little sister telling you, you look like a demon from an ancient Indian legend because yes, your hair really was that long, black and poofy when blowdried. Maybe she could have kept that one hidden. Or at least introduced me to anti-frizz spray.

Until next time,

Reena

*staple Indian meal of pulses (dhal), rice (bath), a dry vegetable curry (shak) and flatbreads also described as chappatis (rotli)

 

Accepting Life’s Lemons

So, like most working mums, I pretty much work at full throttle 100 percent of the time. A typical day looks a bit like this:

The regime

alex-loup-397220-unsplash

5:30am – rise and get ready (interspersed with getting kids ready because of course they’re also morning kids – sigh). If it helps, picture me precariously holding an eyeliner brush between my teeth whilst helping #2 take his pyjama top off because apparently only mummy is allowed to do this

6:45am – leave for work and a 1 hour 20 commute where I listen to something inspirational on YouTube (like a talk by Marisa Peer or Brenee Brown for the 20 minutes I’m overground)

8am to 3pm – work with a verve that would give Tim Cook something to think about, eating lunch al desko (anything that can be eaten with one hand) whilst challenging my bladder with the ultimate endurance tests (I just need to respond to this last email before I absolutely have to pee)

3:30pm (because who actually leaves on time) – return commute home and of course normal people don’t travel at this time so there are no ‘fast’ trains or ‘short’ platform exits, no no, it’s the full travel experience the scenic way

4:30pm – home, put the kettle on, quick hugs and hello’s whilst hearing both parties’ representations about how the other has aggrieved them (not easy when they’re doing this simultaneously), express my sympathy and feign understanding at their pain, remind them that they are brothers that actually love each other and there’s no need to quibble over that one toy because there are 999,999 in that pile over there they could choose from

4:45pm – kettle boiled, put (some variety of) pasta on – change into home clothes (the dry cleaning bill would outstrip the cost of my work dresses within a week otherwise)

5:15pm – serve up the kids’ dinner with a dose of ‘why is he eating faster than me, that’s not fair!’ on loop

5:45pm – clear up then upstairs for bath and pyjamas (this bit can take as long as you like because it’s dictated by numerous factors including how long they’re on the loo, if they discover a toy in their room they have to play with straight away, if it’s a hair washing day (God forbid), if the older one decides to practice his gymnastics routine – in his pants or naked; somewhat different to the TV gymnastics most people are familiar with – and of course, mood

7:00pm – upstairs for reading time (again this can vary from one book to five however slow and monotone I make my voice)

8:00pm – If I haven’t accidentally nodded off with one of them (happens a lot) then it’s downstairs to root around in the fridge for the world’s speediest dinner or ingredients to achieve the same end (omelettes and stir-frys are a firm favourite) and I’m usually ably assisted by my darling husband who’s also returned home from saving the world (he’s a hospital based optometrist so only comes home after he’s seen the last patient – not a job you could boil an egg by…)

9:00pm – dinner done, we settle down for some TV time but I’m usually robbed of this and fall asleep a mere 15 minutes into watching a re-run of Gogglebox (why is it so compelling watching others watch TV?!)

The bump in the road

Any of it sound familiar? Well, you can imagine my horror when I recently had to undergo emergency knee surgery (I’m fine, don’t panic) and was told that I wouldn’t be walking properly for up to three months. I was in complete denial with a leg locked at 40 degrees yet still messaging my team from A&E to say I’ll be a “bit late” – that was five weeks ago and I still haven’t made it in.

I was obsessed with getting back to work and managing my household because my body knew no speed other than road runner mode. The thought of being ‘idle’ sent shivers through me; what was I going to do? I’m the matriarch, the one people come to for help when they need looking after; the one who can whip up tasty meals for unexpected guests and can host an impromptu kids party with innumerable activities that could give a vaguely decent entertainer a run for their money.

I was so focused on how I’d return to my crazy normality that I ignored my needs in the here and now.

Well, they say everything happens for a reason (I’m not sure who ‘they‘ are but ‘they’ feature in my life a lot and seem reliably knowledgeable). In my case, my injury provided me with the gift of time and a forced halt to the 1200W blender that is my life.  Instead of focusing on surviving through my convalescence, I used the time to take stock and make some really powerful life changes (more of that to follow in later blogs).

So, I thought I’d share some tips for any similarly highly charged people to avoid derailment if you’re stopped in your tracks for some reason.

My survival 101

1. Accept help.

I know on a normal day you can juggle plates on a scale worthy of the Moscow State Circus but acknowledge that things aren’t ‘normal’ temporarily and so it’s ok to allow your loved ones to cook/clean/tidy/nurse you to recovery – they’re only doing it to reciprocate the love you’ve showered upon them so really, fair’s fair.

2. Make lists.

Writing down the things that you want to get done rather than bottling it up in your head, will make you feel like you’re doing something and then you can either delegate the tasks or if you’re up to it, do them yourself. I took the time to put a bit more effort and research into gifts for the three upcoming kids parties my son would be attending as well as booking a long overdue fridge and oven clean. Amazing what you can do with wi-fi, a credit card and an armchair.

3. Sleep.

Seriously, when did you last have the house to yourself and the freedom to do this guilt-free? My last proper night’s sleep was definitely before my kids were born so nestled with my favourite fluffy pillow and a snuggly blanket, I’ve made my own daytime den in the living room where I can keep Come Dine with Me on low volume whilst I snooze (I can’t reconcile sleeping in my bed during the daytime because it just feels wrong). For the days I need a cat nap but just can’t get to sleep, listening to Dr Wayne Dyer’s Everyday Wisdom on low volume sends me gently to la la land.

4. Read.

Anything – be it trashy magazines, that book you’ve always wanted to read, recipes to finally use up that packet of buckwheat you bought knowing it’s a super grain but having no idea what to actually do with it; just read. When was the last time you read for pleasure or read something which was entirely unconnected to one of the hats you wear (mother, wife, employee), just reading for you. Indulge yourself, you deserve to and you’ll feel great for it.

5. Reflect.

‘Normal’ life is manic, you’re spread so thin across all your roles and responsibilities that you’re practically transparent.

You’re so busy doing all day long that you don’t get the chance to think about simply being.

Here’s your chance. Close your eyes and think about you; what did you aspire to be when you were a child? Did you achieve that? If not, what happened? What excites you? Do you have excitement or passion in your life? What does it look like? If you don’t, can you make some space for it?

Reflection and coaching during my convalescence has helped me to realise that I love to write and whilst my life and career are happily geared towards the service of others, actually writing is also a medium I can use to achieve this. And this is how my blog was born and I’m sitting here writing to you all, sharing my experience from my warm sofa den whilst my leg is bandaged up.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feel free to share your own survival tips with me!

Until next time.

Photo by Alex Loup on Unsplash

 

New Year, New Start

2019 resolutions

Reena Anand

So it’s the start of a new year (well a Hindu one anyway) and like everyone who sees the new year as a time to make resolutions and set some personal goals, this blog is the first step towards achieving one of mine – more about that in a bit.

About me

So who am I and why am I here? The non-existential answer to this (apologies if you were expecting something more abstract) is I’m Reena, a lady within touching distance of her 40th birthday, wife and mother of two amazing boys who loves to dance, wear outrageous lipstick and… write.

Background

I grew up in a traditional Indian household, did well at school and went to a world class university where I studied Law and subsequently became a property lawyer. I got married and moved to suburbia where I spend my time constantly playing catch up as to whether its Christmas Donation Day or some other ‘Day’, ferociously shopping on Amazon Prime for last minute costumes for the kids’ various school ‘things’ (whilst berating myself and affirming with iron resolve that I’ve got a year to prepare for next year’s event), mastering the under 30 minute meal prep time (hint: usually pasta) oh, and actually working for a fantastic not-for-profit organisation helping to restore justice when things have gone a bit awry. Chuck in a bit of socialising with old uni friends and fellow harangued mums and the odd bit of random Bollywood dancing in the kitchen reminding me of my youth, and that’s pretty much me.

A perfect world?

Sounds idyllic doesn’t it? Happy family, good health, means to pay my bills and a job that makes me feel like I’m righting the wrongs of the world. But (there has to be a ‘but’ otherwise this would be as boring as sin) something didn’t feel right. I kept wondering in those rare moments of peace (you can literally count them on your hands post-children) if this was it. Was this my story to be played out until I retired? And how come the more I devoted myself to my children, the more I seemed to detach from me? What’s that all about because I sure didn’t read any sections on this when I was swotting up on night time routines and baby led weaning?

Zoom forward and I met a super amazing coach (happy to share details). In my first call, I said “I’m not feeling right, I think I need to change my job” and rather than shake her head in the “that’s what you think” manner, she helped me explore my childhood ambitions and my life’s journey. Turns out, I’ve always loved reading and writing which is why I’ve gravitated towards careers where I could do this (how did I not know this?!) and I remembered with crystal clear clarity that I’d always wanted to be a journalist. I’d written articles and published my school’s first ever year book but when faced with university choices and eager to please my parents, I took the safer and more perceptively respected route – and I don’t regret that.

But here I am faced with a choice of carrying on my perfectly pleasant – albeit somewhat disorganised – life or dipping my toe into the unknown.

And this is how this blog was born (I had to Google search what the word blog actually meant – it’s a document logged on the web for those dinosaurs like me who still miss ring binders of paper and colourful tags).

so what’s next?

Now enlightened by the knowledge I’ve buried for over 20 years that I love to write, I’ve decided to put fingers to keyboard and see what comes out. Handing in my resignation and declaring that I’m now a self-professed writer would be neither practical financially or emotionally healthy because all I’d do is stress about writing, not write, stress and so on. So I’m going to do this slowly and see what happens, and I’m inviting you to join me on my journey because it’s always better to have someone with you when you’re walking alone in the dark (that must be an ancient proverb or at least a message from the Metropolitan Police). If you can relate to how I’m feeling or have that inkling of “what would happen if I tried…?” then hopefully you’ll take some inspiration from this and please feel free to share your stories with me.

So this is my maiden blog. It’s quite cathartic (and a bit scary) putting myself out there but I also know that whatever happens, I never want to look back on my life and think “what if…?”. Are you with me?

Until next time, bon voyage (and that is literally the extent of my knowledge of French),

Reena