I’m the eldest of three children who grew up in a traditional Indian Gujarati household where the gender roles were squarely defined. This meant that from the age of eight, I’d stand on a brown plastic chair and wash the dishes because I was too short to reach the taps. By the age of 11, I was folding clothes, vacuuming, polishing and generally keeping house as well as being chief chopper of vegetables. I wasn’t unlike an Indian entry level kitchen porter who’d wash each spinach leaf in cold water to get rid of the mud (no one likes mud in their bhaji*) but never had the opportunity to do the cool stuff mum did like putting the array of spices in the dishes (freehand of course, no measuring).
low necklines, short hemlines
Being the eldest put a lot of implicit and explicit pressure on me. I had to be the academic role model and also the epitome of ideal behaviour (no boyfriends, alcohol, bad language, backchat, low necklines, short hemlines to name a few) because if I wasn’t our family reputation could be tarnished and no-one would marry me or my sister (cue dramatic music). At least that’s what I was told.
Looking back, I don’t mind that I was expected to do well at school and beyond; it made me aim high and push myself and if my parents didn’t keep reminding me of how hard they were working to enable us to have an education, perhaps I wouldn’t have such a sense of gratitude and value for their sacrifice now.
But I never felt good enough; I never had a sense of worthiness. Praise was directly connected to academic achievement but even then, every accomplishment was met with a “good – make sure you keep doing it”. I formed the connection that as long as I did well academically I’d be worthy of attention from my parents otherwise that attention – however momentary – was inaccessible to me. I believed that my academic achievements were the key which unlocked the door to my self worth but the problem with this was that behind each door I opened, after the immediate high, I was faced with another door to unlock – so self fulfilment was always just out of reach.
My parents weren’t the touchy-feely type; I think post adolescence the most physical contact I had (and still have) with my dad is when I touch his feet in reverence at the beginning of each new year. I’d get birthday ‘pats’ from my mum but no bear hugs or kisses – that’s not to say they never happened when I was a child, they probably did but it just wasn’t the done thing in our house certainly from around age 11 onwards.
So what, you might ask? What difference did it make because ultimately they fought all odds to provide for us, working seven days a week running a grocery shop and scraping by financially such that physical, let alone emotional, nourishment probably never even crossed their minds.
The difference is that if you don’t instil a sense of self worth in your children, they’ll seek validation from others. And if they’re not getting emotional validation from home, then they’ll look for it outside – and that’s risky.
I did just that.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had all the usual insecurities that come with being an adolescent Indian girl – my dark upper lip hair was growing, what was I supposed to do about that? Why was I so plump compared to my tall, elegant White British best friend? How did I navigate the world of fashion when all I knew how to wear were matching tracksuits my parents bought from the cash and carry? And so much more.
My mum and I never talked about girly things like this or feelings generally so I looked outside to learn about the world. I learnt from friends to cake my face with makeup which hid my insecurities about my appearance and to wear fashionable, attractive clothes which hid the parts I didn’t want to draw attention to. The dolled up Reena was more outwardly attractive and drew the attention of the opposite sex – finally, some validation that I was beautiful, clever, funny and worth spending time with.
This all could have gone so horribly wrong. In the wrong company, I could have had my self-esteem eroded to dust or taken a completely self destructive path in my pursuit of worthiness. Luckily, my story didn’t travel that way but I was dangerously close.
And for many young people, this is how their story might play out – regardless of gender.
As a culture, we have to make a conscious shift to nourish the emotional and mental health of our young people. I know that it’s harder because historically our ancestors didn’t do this and so it doesn’t come naturally to many Indian parents (my father was beaten daily by his dad and my mother never had positive affirmation from her mother) – but that doesn’t mean that we can’t change.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve nailed the ‘stiff embrace and patting’ technique – you know the one we give to friends we bump into in the street or relatives we meet at weddings. The type of contact which acknowledges someone without needing to put any feeling into it.
I’m not saying we should dispense physical contact to everyone we meet like chocolates to Trick or Treaters. It’s much more complicated than that and it starts with how we treat ourselves before we think about how we treat our children.
You’ve heard the saying you can’t pour from an empty cup – well for me this certainly rings true. I’ve reconciled with myself not to resent what I didn’t have emotionally whilst growing up and instead to be grateful for the experiences I’ve had which make me who I am today. I’ve learnt to square up to my past without feeling shame or regret and to use my experiences as the foundation to influence positive change in me, my family and wider.
Something which the author Elizabeth Gilbert** said sums this up perfectly:
The things that have shaped me most are the failures, mistakes and the disasters but here’s a very important thing to recognise… failure, disaster, shame, suffering and pain do not necessarily make you a better person unless you participate in turning it into something good…
Never waste your suffering; suffering without catharsis is nothing but wasted pain… If you don’t transform from your pain then it was for nothing, you just suffered for no reason whatsoever… when bad things happen I think “how can I grow from this?”
We’ve all suffered some trauma in our lives – be it actual harm or the absence of something – but we’re all empowered to use what we’ve learnt from it to transform our lives for the better.
what I’m saying to my children
I’ve made a deliberate and conscious commitment to myself to raise my children in an environment of love and positive affirmation. I praise their efforts – not the result – when they draw (even if I don’t know what on earth I’m looking at); I tell them they can accomplish anything they put their minds to; I hug and kiss them everyday not in response to a good report but just because (this sometimes irritates them); I tell them I’m so proud to be their mother; I don’t label them, only their behaviour (i.e. instead of saying “you’re really annoying me”, I’ll explain “the longer you take to put your shoes on, we’ll have less time to play in the park” (don’t be mistaken, I get this wrong daily but at least I’m able to pull myself up on it and correct it).
drops creating wells
Will it make a difference? I think so. The drip effect of showing them everyday that they’re valued as people within their own right – not because of something they’ve said or done – I’m convinced will lead to an inner well of self worth where they won’t need external validation that they’re good enough; they’ll know that they just are.
We are all humans whose primary nourishment comes from love; love of oneself and love to others. And we’re each empowered with how we want our culture to be carried forward for generations to come. Do we want a culture where academic achievements define our children’s self worth? Or where their sense of worthiness is entirely dependent on pleasing others? Do we want to raise our children thinking they need to earn affection like a trader in the market place where self worth is traded on the size of the accomplishment, so the more you do the bigger pat on your back you get?
This is the way to go if we want society to be filled with children who are materially fulfilled at the body level but are emotionally empty at a soul level.
Love can’t be assumed; it’s not translated through university fees being paid or items being bought. Pure, nourishing love which reaches your soul is felt from one heart to another.
So let’s make a commitment to ourselves to acknowledge our own past hardships and use the strength those experiences have given to us to affirm our own self worth. Once our cup is full we can pour into our children’s through our language and action; remembering that each child is a spark of divine human creation whose deepest need and soul nourishment is simply to be loved.
Just as they are.
*bhaji – a dry spinach curry
** taken from a podcast with Oprah Winfrey named Super Soul Conversations; Elizabeth wrote the hit Eat, Pray, Love