The Disease of Slander and How to Cure it

Bollywood times

As an Indian Gujarati, I grew up watching Hindi movies depicting stereotypical gender roles and personalities such as: the domineering mother-in-law who believes no woman is good enough for her son; the dutiful daughter-in-law submissive, obedient and never speaking out for her rights; the interfering aunt who makes it her business to know everyone else’s; the son with no real backbone who just wants to be adored by his wife and mothered by his mother; and either the quiet and deferential father-in-law or the father-in-law who rules the household with an iron fist and against whom no-one can speak.

And the typecasts go on.

is TV an influencer?

This isn’t a one woman crusade against the Indian film or TV series industry, however I do believe that given its pseudo worshipped status amongst the Asian community, it has a role to play in how it depicts the various familial characters on screen, and the typical conflict and conspiracies which transpire between the personalities.

In a study of the effect of TV violence on children’s behaviour, Palermo* concluded that: “…it is not the programming per se that creates violence, but that the violent programs may influence negatively those individuals who are already violence-prone…”.

Taking the essence of this, would it not be fair then to say that if you were gossip prone and regularly following those TV series which promote patriarchy, familial infighting and power struggles, then you’re more likely to be negatively influenced and exude those same qualities in your own daily life?

keeping up with the Patels

Growing up, I noticed that in my community there was always a lot of interest in what others were doing; be it comparing one’s station in life or their children’s academic  performance. The effect of this was that others’ successes became the yardstick against which one had to measure up to show that they were equal, good enough or worthy to be in the same company.

Factors for comparison between families could be anything tangible such as money in the bank, property owned, accolades achieved, countries travelled to, parties hosted – if it was measurable, it counted – and was talked about.

The problem with this is that the bar isn’t static; people keep achieving things, buying things, travelling to new places. As such, many of us Asians are constantly striving, never being content with what we’ve achieved and where we are in life, because it doesn’t fare as well compared to some other person in the community.

Growing up, it was rare to see or hear someone simply being happy for another at their success – and leaving it at that. It always became the gauge for the next endeavour.

I recall as a child being unjustifiably chastised that so-and-so’s child had achieved 10 A’s at GCSE and am I really doing enough studying to ensure that I bring home the same results?

Constant comparisons.

About everything.

It was like being in a race – I an unwitting participant – and every time I approached the finish line, it moved.

self-examination

What is it that stops us from simply celebrating another’s success without immediately employing it as a barometer to measure how we’re doing? And why do we look for the negative in every success story – and then talk about that with others?

Blogger Angi* says:

“… When I’m suffering a scarcity in the fulfillment department, seeing others thriving can sometimes create a twinge of jealousy. That’s a subtle tap on the shoulder for me, a reminder that it’s time to search out more purpose in my life.”

GoodTherapy* says:

“People might gossip for a variety of reasons. Sharing negative information about others can be a method some individuals use to feel better about themselves… Sometimes gossiping can also be a way to get attention—knowing something no one else knows about another person can make a person feel important. In some cases, people may engage in gossip in order to feel accepted. If other people in a social group are spreading gossip, it may feel necessary to participate in order to fit in.”

Could it be that inherently, we feel a sense of unworthiness or a lack of purpose in our lives and the only way to reconcile this with ourselves is to look outwardly and bring others down to our miserable soul level? Is this so inextricably weaved into our culture that we don’t know how to function, i.e. how and what to say to people, if we don’t have gossip as a common denominator as the basis of our conversations?

If this is true, then it’s time to take stock and change gears if we want to leave behind us a culture which is all embracing, unified and wholehearted.

that aunty

Growing up, I recall an animated aunt (who doesn’t?) who’d circle the room at weddings  and download exactly what was happening in everyone’s lives; where the kids were studying (and what, after all, media/business/travel studies weren’t proper subjects), how many bedrooms their house had, what holidays they’d been on, extracting every bit of information which could be cooked up into salacious gossip and then redistributed to listening ears.

There was a running (not publicised) joke amongst us that if there was any key announcement to be made such as a birth, death or marriage, one needn’t inform people individually, simply let this aunt know and the news will have spread to all and sundry by nightfall.

Human nature is such that people love to talk about themselves so when my aunt was  providing her undivided attention, people wouldn’t think twice about responding to her intense and persistent questioning.

It was only after she’d left the conversation that they’d realise they’d imparted information their own extended family didn’t yet know and that apart from learning that the aunt’s son was marrying a doctor (“by God, they’re so wealthy; they live in a six bedroom house in Windsor, far out of our humble league”) they hadn’t gleaned anything about her family’s movements.

And then after all the mingling, the well wishing of the bride and groom and goodbyes to everyone who should know that she’s now leaving, she’d get in the car and and before the car exited the car park, the post mortem would start. It would go something like this:

“Did you see Chanchal Masi? She’s walking with a stick now. Her legs must be giving up on her. Anyway, she’s 72 now so she’s had a good life if it all ends tomorrow. God, Bharthi has put on so much weight! She had her baby three years ago so she should have lost it by now. After I had Manisha, I was back in my clothes within six months! And Harsha’s son is going to Oxford university this year. Funny how she was less quick to talk about her other son who was recently cautioned on drugs charges I heard. And that Magan Kaka’s son has bought a villa in Spain. His dad must have left him a good inheritance to suddenly be able to afford that. I remember when he got married, Magan Kaka only gave saris to Kaki’s sisters, no laani* or gifts for anyone else. It’s all people could talk about for ages; doesn’t bother me in the slightest, just what everyone else was saying. I tried to tell them these things aren’t important but you know how people can be…”.

And so on, recounting every last detail of the conversations had and her take on things in a one way diatribe all the way from Birmingham back to London.

who’s gossiping? we’re just sharing information

Those of you from a similar background can possibly identify corresponding members of your own family who resemble my late aunt. In fact, there are some who expect and even consider it endearing when they hear their elders rambling on about others in this fashion.

Some consider it a facet of our community – but I reject this.

Often people engage in this type of talk to feel good about themselves. But this isn’t true contentment; it’s oneupmanship at play and it’s superficial, so is quickly displaced compared to true happiness which yields “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” (Sonja Lyubomirsky*).

For the Asian community to be a close knit one which our children will want to be a part of, we need to understand that inane and purposeless gossip is mindless and damaging.

We need to demonstrate and inspire our children to commend others’ successes and genuinely be delighted for them without drawing any reflective interpretation on themselves or their own abilities.

Furthermore, we need to teach them to filter out and consciously reject idle chit chat about others. But it starts with us.

all change!

Situations don’t change, people do – through the choices that we make.

We are each the custodians of our culture; we can choose how we react to information and situations – and we can choose to change our emotional responses too. It’s not just me saying this; there is significant commentary from people who’ve studied this topic, about the difference we can make to ourselves and others by reframing how we react to situations.

The incredible writer, speaker and research professor Dr Brené Brown says:

“… A lot of times, we share things that are not ours to share as a way to hot wire connection with a friend, right? …Our closeness is built on talking bad about other people. You know what I call that? Common enemy intimacy.

What we have is not real. The intimacy we have is built on hating the same people, and that’s counterfeit. That’s counterfeit trust….”

By being more mindful when we speak and by consciously rejecting low level conversations about others, we can empower ourselves to  feel healthier emotionally and psychologically as well as role model to those around us – young and old alike – what it means to be truly content and live in a positively charged state.

let’s be practical

“This is all very theoretical, how does this actually work in practice?” I hear you wondering. Here’s one suggestion, if someone starts tattling on about another to you, you can choose to:

  1. change the subject completely
  2. pick out the positives from what they’re saying and focus your discussion on those
  3. be bold enough to say it’s best not to talk about this because it’s nothing to do with you.

the BMW story

Not long back, my dad bumped into a family friend, Hansaben, whilst shopping for Indian groceries; he’d not seen her in about eight years. She and her husband had always been a quiet, salt of the earth couple and he received word that her husband had passed away last year. Hansaben exchanged a few words with my dad and then walked to her silver BMW 1 Series (latest reg) car. When recounting the interaction to me he said: “You should have seen that car, so beautiful and brand new. Bharatbhai must have had some good insurance policies to enable Hansaben to buy a BMW car!”.

Not wanting to instigate a conversation about what possible assets Bharatbhai may or may not have had here and in India, I replied “isn’t it lovely to see that since Bharatbhai’s passing, Hansaben has adapted to being independent and is shopping and managing all the things which he used to do. Well done to her”.

And that was literally the end of the conversation.

Gossip thrives when it has an active audience. But if the conditions aren’t present for it to grow, that is, if there’s no-one to entertain it and give it attention which enables it to spread, it’ll die its death swiftly.

be the change

“When words are both true and kind they can change the world” – Buddha

We’re so conscious about upgrading our technology; we need to ensure that we are also regularly checking in and upgrading ourselves; an internal audit where we question ourselves and our beliefs and check the needle is where we want it to be on our inner compass.

By doing this, we can consciously create a rich and wholesome culture for our children where they are fulfilled and energised by others’ accomplishments and where their own efforts are genuinely championed without worrying about how others may perceive or speak of them.

Now that’s something worth talking about.

 

Acknowledgements:

laani = traditional gifts given to all guests at pre-wedding functions often comprising organza bags of mixed nuts or sweets, something for the home, saris, money or other tokens.

Palermo, G. B. (1995). Adolescent Criminal Behavior — Is TV Violence One of the Culprits? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 39(1), 11–22.

Angi (blogger): http://www.mindfulandmama.com/blog/2017/9/12/when-women-support-each-other-incredible-things-happen

Sonja Lyubomirsky, positive psychology researcher and author of The How of Happiness

Dr Brenè Brown, The Anatomy of Trust, speech transcript available on https://jamesclear.com/great-speeches/the-anatomy-of-trust-by-brene-brown

GoodTherapy: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/gossip

photo credit: ‘Gossip at the West Gate’ by cowyeow on http://www.flickr.com/photos/cowyeow/8061307642/in/photostream/

 

“It’s not abuse if he didn’t hit me”

I recently attended a panel discussion where representatives from Women’s Aid and Surviving Economic Abuse [SEA] talked about raising awareness and responding appropriately to economic abuse and coercive control; politically, socially and professionally. SEA have been instrumental in pushing for the concept of financial abuse to be broadened out to include economic abuse – within the overall policy definition of domestic abuse.

The government has responded to this and in January 2019, the draft Domestic Abuse Bill was published aimed at supporting victims and their families and pursuing offenders. The new legislation will specifically include “economic abuse and controlling and manipulative non-physical abuse”. [source: http://www.gov.uk]

what’s financial abuse?

Financial abuse is “a pattern of controlling, threatening and degrading behaviour which restricts a victims’ freedom”. It’s usually experienced alongside other forms of abuse.

“Financial abuse involves a perpetrator using or misusing money which limits and controls their partner’s current and future actions and their freedom of choice. It can include using credit cards without permission, putting contractual obligations in their partner’s name, and gambling with family assets.

Financial abuse can leave women with no money for basic essentials such as food and clothing. It can leave them without access to their own bank accounts, with no access to any independent income and with debts that have been built up by abusive partners set against their names. Even when a survivor has left the home, financial control can still be exerted by the abuser with regard to child maintenance.” [source: http://www.womensaid.org.uk]

and economic abuse?

As well as the above, victims can experience restricted access to things like food, clothing or transport as well as opportunities to upskill themselves. The charity Surviving Economic Abuse [SEA] describes it as:

“Economic abuse is designed to reinforce or create economic instability. In this way it limits women’s choices and ability to access safety. Lack of access to economic resources can result in women staying with abusive men for longer and experiencing more harm as a result.”

relevance to me

Throughout my life, I’ve met many Asian women who are not just compliant but actively and consciously submissive to their husbands out of fear.

They may work but their husbands control the finances and make all key money related decisions.

They sign papers where told without the opportunity to read them or have a conversation about what they’re agreeing to.

They couldn’t tell you whom their mortgage is with or where their savings are kept.

They can go shopping with friends with their husband’s permission – but have no access to funds to buy things for themselves.

Sometimes their husbands aren’t physically violent; never a finger laid on them. But they’re met with spontaneous and erratic verbal vitriol without cause so they never know what to say or when, in case it triggers an explosive response.

Such a woman may not recognise herself as a victim of domestic violence, economic abuse or coercive control – but under the updated legislation, they very much are.

The sad truth is that even if they identify themselves as a victim, for reasons such as keeping the family together, fear of what society will say and a multitude of other shame related explanations, they won’t leave their husbands or speak out for themselves.

We all know such a woman.

In reality, the change in legislation will probably come and go – and they won’t even have heard of it.

We might not be able to help them exit their situation if they don’t want to, but we can be there for them, support them, listen to them, love them.

From attending the forum, hearing about the proposed legislative changes and reflecting on the ladies I’ve met who have experienced different forms of domestic abuse, I was motivated to write this poem:

I Know A Lady

I know a lady…

….who’s afraid to go out in case her husband needs her to do something and she’s not there to comply 

…who’s too embarrassed to speak to the neighbours because they hear her husband shouting and she worries they’re talking in hushed tones about her

…who awaits her instructions each morning as to what meal she is expected to prepare; she can’t volunteer any suggestions

….whose husband is praised by family and friends for his likeable manner but who never utters a word of love or kindness – or even meets the gaze of – his wife

…whose once broad and active social circle has now diminished to passing platitudes on the street because she’s been told not to maintain friendships with “troublemakers” who speak against him

…who is criticised by her husband when she offers to help and accused of deliberately belittling him

…who goes to the supermarket with her husband but isn’t allowed to choose anything

…who didn’t know that there were works starting at her home until she opened the door to the builders one morning

…who has no idea how much her mortgage is or how much money is in the joint bank account

…who relies on money from her children to buy clothes, shoes and food

…who experiences shouting, door slamming and controlling behaviour everyday but will say she’s not an abuse victim because she’s never been hit

…whose inner circle knows the truth about her reality but no-one talks about it

…who experiences physical symptoms of anxiety when she hears his footsteps descending the stairs, afraid of what mood he’ll be in

…who is only allowed to speak when addressed by him directly

…who can’t shake off his influence so even when she’s out, she’s anxious to return home

I knew a lady.

She was incredible.

A reservoir of love – always celebrating your achievements and commiserating your losses.

She’d cook up a feast for 20 in a couple of hours and serve you with the warmest smile.

She gave love in abundance to everyone she met but her heart ached for acknowledgement from her life companion.

She left with a heart full of promise of the places he’d take her and what they might see together.

She longed for the touch of his hand, a softly spoken word or a look of affection. To be included and noticed, to have an opinion that counted.

She had no appetite for material things and she eventually succumbed to emotional starvation.

She believed that God would make it all alright in the end.

Do you know a lady?

what can I do?

If you know of anyone suffering from domestic or economic abuse or is under the control of someone else, please offer to talk about it. You can provide practical support such as referrals to organisations that can help; or take them to a safe place where they can talk and unburden themselves; plan respite trips such as to a meditation class or for a coffee; help them realise their own self-worth by reminding them of what they’ve accomplished; and avoid platitudes such as “everything will be ok, don’t worry” which serves only to tell the victim that you’re uncomfortable talking about the problem.

The reality is that many (especially older) Asian ladies won’t leave their husbands following decades of marriage; they’ve become used to living in an unequal partnership and have grown to be dependent on their abuser husband. And there are many women who simply won’t reach out to organisations offering support because of shame and fear of judgement by the community.

listen

But we can each make a positive difference to the life of someone we know who is a victim of domestic abuse or coercive control. We can offer support and the gift of our time to hear their story.

I was once walking with my two year old son on a cobbled path at night in Africa and concentrating on where I placed my feet so I didn’t fall and take him down with me. He exclaimed “look up mummy!” and I followed his finger to the night sky which was bursting with millions of brightly shining stars. It was utterly magical. I was so consumed by the cracks in the floor that I almost missed the star studded spectacle above my head.

I learnt a valuable lesson that day.

We are one humanity; let’s look up from our lives and see what’s going on around us.

Let’s look after each other.

 

Acknowledgments:

Women’s Aid – https://www.womensaid.org.uk/research-and-publications/dame-project/

Surviving Economic Abuse [SEA] – https://survivingeconomicabuse.org

photo credit: bbc.co.uk

 

Why your back pocket isn’t as secure as you think: choosing creativity over compliance

hairdressing talk

So I was sitting in the hairdressers recently – the greys in my roots meant I’d started taking on a zebra-esque appearance which required swift attention – and the hairdresser serving the client next to me enquired about her daughter. I observed the following conversation (C is client; H is hairdresser):

C: “She’s doing so well with her acting; in fact, today she has another audition to be in a film and there’s only a couple of others in the running. She’s been acting and dancing… she just loves it and she’s really doing well”.

H: “Ah how lovely- you must be so proud! It sounds like she’s going to be a star. Does she want a career in acting?”

C: “Oh yes, she talks about it all the time. And I don’t mind her trying it out but I’ve told her she needs to stop for the next 3 years and complete an academic degree in something so she has something in her back pocket in case it doesn’t work out”

say what now?

When I heard that last sentence it took all of my energy not to turn around and say “what are you doing?!”. Here’s a girl who’s clearly talented and you’re telling her to cut her creativity and success mid-flow and park her ambitions to complete a degree in anything academic just so she has something to “fall back” on? Where would that leave her acting career in three years time and how is she supposed to switch her attention to something “academic” if she’s not persuaded that it’s going to serve her future ambitions?

And even if she does complete a degree and then pursues acting, the fact that she hasn’t utilised her degree or gained any practical experience might make her qualifications effectively redundant if there’s no connection between her qualified subject and her acting. I’ve experienced enough rejection from recruiters to know they can smell commitment from beyond your LinkedIn profile – try explaining that you’ve completed an International Relations degree and then trained as an actor for a few years but really all your heart ever wanted was a job at the UN or Foreign Office.

let’s talk (on my terms though)

I wondered whether the mum had entertained thoughts of a year out, a part time degree or a vocational qualification perhaps for her daughter? Or better still, allowing her the freedom to express her creativity and then revisiting a return to academia at some point in the future. I pondered if it had been a mutually agreed two way conversation or whether the mum thought she was actually being very generous, accommodating and even forward thinking, by letting her daughter have the option of going back to acting after her academic degree had been completed.

Because I (a) wasn’t supposed to be listening and (b) thought if I said something and it wasn’t received well the next two hours would be rather painful and awkward, I kept silent. Maybe I oughtn’t have. I’m something of a reflector so making spontaneous decisions like whether to intervene or not, doesn’t come naturally to me and I replay scenarios over and over in my mind before I often actually decide anything.

what’s actually going on here?

But I did reflect on it and the possible motivations and mindset of this lady.

It was abundantly clear that she loved her daughter and wanted her to be successful – in whatever made her happy. But to me it seemed that there was a fear which perhaps unwittingly was driving her decision making.

In the Asian community we place great pride in academics. Perhaps it’s because as the children of migrant families we’ve been able to establish ourselves, access education and create opportunities which otherwise may not have been available. And as beneficiaries of this we consider academic achievements as the hallmark of success.

I’ve seen the hardships of my own parents in establishing themselves in this country and the tenacity and resilience they’ve shown, to be able to provide opportunities for me and my siblings, is both laudable and inspiring.

But the landscape of success for our children doesn’t have to be confined to academic prowess.

looking within

What if we asked our children to look inwards, identify the skills which come naturally to them and encourage them to pursue what they’re passionate about? From hairdressing to fashion design to engineering and computer programming – if we look closely at the people whose names are synonymous with success we’ll see a combination of talent, persistence and truck loads of passion. These people don’t work to live; it’s not even considered work for them – they are living their passion everyday which is what gives them the edge over everyone else in their field.

Steven Pressfield talks about each of us being born with the most unique identity and nothing – however powerful – can change it. In his book The War of Art, he postulates upon our existence:

“We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it.

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

If we were born to paint, it’s our job to become a painter. If we were born to raise and nurture children, it’s our job to become a mother. If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it’s our job to realise it and get down to business”.

If it’s sounding a bit deep, it’s because it probably is. I love the idea that each of us is so incredibly unique holding an abundance of talent which isn’t replicated in a single other body in this universe. And yet, culture and societal norms unwittingly lead us to shoehorn our children down a path which might not serve their true calling on this earth.

my journey

Taking my own example, I always loved to write. I recall writing an essay until 3am at the age of 12 because I simply couldn’t stop riding the buzz of words flowing from my brain to my finger tips. I created my school’s first ever year book at the age of 14. I took photos of every single girl in my year group (it was a girl’s school), interviewed teachers, procured quotes from pupils and raided the art submissions for the past year to create a collaged outer cover. I had no experience of putting a publication together – but I did it. There was a fire in my belly and it came so naturally to me.

And then I got good grades and was pondering what path to take. I wanted to become a journalist but I had no idea how to go about this and had unsuccessfully approached many newspapers for work experience only to be told ‘no’. My careers officer at college produced a compatibility report having asked me some basic questions about things I was doing well at. The report recommended a career in law amongst other humanities based jobs which I now can’t recall – but journalism wasn’t on there. Added to that, family and friends started to ask which illustrious profession I was going to pursue. It felt like such a burdensome question to answer – that once I’d declared my chosen path that was it; I’d be wedded to that career for life. There was lots of encouragement to be a lawyer and the seeming financial incentives – having come from a thrifty background – made it attractive.

So that’s the path I took.

to law or not to law

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, I did enjoy parts of it – I loved research, writing essays and I made some lifelong friends. But I didn’t ever feel complete or aligned from within. I never felt I was an excellent lawyer; I was a hard worker and certainly competent and thorough but I didn’t have the flair and exuberance as some of my colleagues who loved to debate points of law until the small hours, got excited about tax issues and were giddy with excitement when the Human Rights Act was about to become ratified into UK law.

I followed the path; I became a lawyer and I felt that now this was my career, any deviance from this into another career was a big no-no. I didn’t just tell myself this story; I contacted several organisations about policy or other public sector work and the feedback was always that my experience was only legal and this is what I was best suited to. Thankfully, the employment industry has since evolved to take better account of transferable skills.

square peg, round hole

But this feedback and feeling that I was destined for a life as a lawyer and nothing else, left me feeling inadequate and dented my self esteem because it seemed to me that I had to work so much harder than my peers to achieve the same results they did. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps I wasn’t in a job which I felt aligned to and through which I could achieve my life’s purpose.

Fast forward and I ended up working for a public sector organisation when the markets crashed and every property lawyer I knew was clinging on to their job. It was a refreshing change where I learnt more about myself; I loved to write, serve people through my work and feel like I was making a difference – lots of continuities from being a lawyer but I felt better about this job and could feel some inner alignment coming through – but not completely.

Finally, following my operation [see Accepting Life’s Lemons] I took up writing. Now I can see how everything I’ve ever enjoyed has led me to this moment; the first year book, the numerous articles for the college magazine, the dissertations and legal arguments – the thread which bound everything together was my love of words and writing. So here I am, I want to write and to serve through my writing – I’m doing it and it feels good. I’m feeling pretty aligned right now which is a feeling that’s quite incredible. Sometimes I don’t know what I’ll write about but I’ll sit down and it all flows out – it isn’t dragged out or jostled along – I feel like a mechanism from which my inner creativity pours.

setting up our children

Maybe on some level as Asian parents we think that if we’ve put our children through university then in the eyes of society, we’ve properly discharged our parental duties. Forcing our children to study an academic qualification just to satisfy a checklist which we’ve had no input into is both an insult to the creativity of our children and is potentially damaging for their long term outcomes, including their mental health and sense of fulfilment.

If we accept that we all have at least one gifted talent, then forcing our child to compete with others for whom the area is one of interest, passion and purpose is setting them up to fail – because they’ll never have the edge those children have; the edge that comes from working alongside and harnessing your innate talent – the edge that makes work hardly feel like work.

are you excited?

So I’d invite you to ask yourself and encourage your children to do the same; what makes you excited? What things do you do that come so naturally to you you don’t even have to think about it. Maybe you’ve always loved creating fusion food or drawing still life pictures; maybe you’re into animal welfare, writing poetry, applying make-up, creating handicrafts or creating a travel blog – whatever it is, it’s fine if it’s just a hobby and you’re happy with that.

But don’t rule out turning your hobby into something more just because you’re afraid it’s not the “done thing”. In the end, you are harnessing something within you which no-one else in the world can offer. Aren’t you even a little tempted to see the impact your talent could have on the world? Don’t wait for society to tell you to pursue your dreams; society praises results and likes predictability and conformity. If you ask others, they’ll ask why you want to upset the apple cart because presumably things are quite organised in your life (you have a regular income, a loving partner and maybe a kid or two – it’s all quite a pretty picture).

If I had any advice for my younger self it would be this: trust yourself and just try. It might work out, it might not – but you’ll always learn something about yourself from every experience and you can build on this.

“Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be; embrace who you are.”

Brenè Brown

now what?

So if you’re thinking, where do I start? My humble advice is:

  1. Question your purpose.
  2. Carve a way to experiment with what you love, i.e. if you want to write, start a blog. If you like to paint, buy some paint and set aside one hour to just see what happens.
  3. Follow your instincts – how did the activity make you feel? Enjoy it? Then do it again.

It’s said that no-one ever regretted the things in life that they did; only what they didn’t have the courage to try.

Be brave and try; if we come to the world with nothing and leave in equal measure then by definition, you’ve literally nothing to lose.

Photo by jarmoluk on canva.com

 

Mummy Doesn’t Always Know Best; the Benefit of Coaching in Parenting

Being a mum of an autistic child I’ve learnt to flexibly adapt my plans to suit my eldest’s mood – often it works but sometimes I end up with slapped-palm-to-forehead woe when I’ve missed something blindingly obvious (like taking him to a fancy restaurant sans iPad, toys or any other variation of distraction so his attention becomes naturally focused on the dainty glassware and heavy cutlery).

having a plan for your plan

Over the years, I’ve learnt to make a plan A, B and even a C for most things; from sandwich fillings to activities. For example, my eldest loves climbing (walls, trees, rocks, furniture – if it can carry his weight, he’s climbing it). So, if I’ve agreed to a trip to the local climbing centre, and this can’t take place, it can only be replaced by a trip which achieves the same aim so, perhaps to one of the local parks which has a climbing wall (this still requires significant explanation and evidenced based rationale as to why said plan needs to be amended but if undertaken sensitively can still lead to a positive outcome).

Ultimately, climbing has to happen because that was the verbally binding contract I entered into and there are no exclusion clauses; I’m well and truly committed. Any retraction of my agreement would be a betrayal in his world of the gravest kind and lead to mistrust, anger and heightened anxiety because the ‘plan’ has been changed so critically.

boo!

In practice, this means that spontaneity doesn’t really have much of a place in my home.  An example is when I’ve forgotten an ingredient I need to cook a particular meal and need my eldest to come with me quickly to the supermarket to pick it up. If I am to traverse this path, I need to be prepared for intense questioning as to what exactly I need to buy; how – when knowing I was making this dish – I managed to miss a vital ingredient and why an alternative dish can’t be prepared; accompanied by the qualification that I need to wait for whatever activity he’s engaged in to reach an appropriate point when it can be left (this can be anything from five minutes to twenty) or for the episode of whatever is on Disney Junior or CBBBC to have ended.

One of the classic manifestations of his autism is that there has to be an explanation for everything; nothing just ‘happens’. And trying to fob him off with a half hashed explanation is a false economy; if you omit detail you can bet your last penny that he’ll find the loopholes and put your own argument back to you, creating further explanations (or hole digging in my experience) and inevitable delay.

Not unlike a chief prosecutor intelligently unhinging an unreliable witness.

It goes without saying that the old Indian way of parenting (the one I certainly grew up with) of “just get in the car or else” is a huge no-no because it stokes the fires of anxiety, creates stubbornness, foot stomping/door slamming rage and lots of tears – if we’re in this zone, no-one’s going anywhere and nothing’s going to get cooked anytime soon.

All this for some basil to make a basic pesto. I could probably have ordered and have had my food delivered to me on Uber Eats in the time taken from the initial request to accompany me, to our actual exit from the house.

tipping the scales

One thing that puts my son on high alert emotionally is the prospect of being in an unfamiliar environment with people he doesn’t know. He thrives in familiarity – with everything. He has a visual timetable at school so he knows every activity he’s doing and when his breaks are. He likes knowing the rota for his teacher helpers and when one’s off unexpectedly, it can cause him anxiety and derail his day as his insecurity manifests through outbursts of frustration and anger.

He needs to know any changes to the usual schedule (at home and school) in advance so he feels ready for them; he needs to feel like he’s part of the planning process, not like events are being done to him. Through his beautiful eyes there is no discrimination or hierarchy; everyone’s equal. But this means that he wants to be involved in any decision affecting him; from what he eats to where we holiday.

no surprises

Whereas many neurotypical children love the excitement and anticipation of surprises, for my eldest this is akin to hell. You couldn’t say you’re taking him somewhere but keeping it a surprise without him stressing the whole time as to where he’s going. And until he arrives he’ll guess relentlessly and ask inumerable questions in his quest to know what’s going on.

Knowing things gives him security. It enables him to feel in control and minimises the anxiety that comes with anything unexpected.

His preference for familiarity pervades everything. He loves all foods and will try new varieties of cuisine but if you’re going to change something he likes, you need to tell him beforehand. I once blended spinach into a quiche mix and it turned the whole filling green – he wasn’t impressed and instead of digging in, he spent at least 20 minutes asking for an (adequate) explanation as to why I altered the recipe whilst poking it from various angles to ensure a nether beast wasn’t hiding in the pastry waiting to make an impromptu appearance. Well intended variations from the usual, generally, quickly lead to me being apprehended for my divergence.

So with experience – this is a new journey for me as well as him – I’ve learnt how to make him feel involved and encourage more peer level type coaching discussions rather than trying to flex my parental obedience muscle.

the plan that put all other plans to shame

Recently, feeling smug and content that for once I was ahead of the parenting curve (a rare occurrence), I told him he’d be spending the Easter break at a gymnastics club. I thought this was a foolproof holiday plan. He’d love it because:

  • he went to the gymnastics holiday club last year and loved it;
  • it was the same gymnastics club he frequents every week and he already knows the teachers;
  • his gymnastics training is massively boosting his confidence, flexibility and balance and he’s regularly chosen for demonstrations – which appeals to the showman in him.

However, instead of the awaited ‘thank you’, I was met with a look of pained disappointment and the statement “but I don’t want to go mummy”.

what?!

This was plan A; there was no alternative – I was so sure of plan A’s success that I had flippantly discarded the requirement for a plan B let alone C.

Alarms started going off in my head; I was thinking “but he has to go, there’s no alternative” whilst knowing that there is nothing I can make him do. My part time work means that my annual leave is pro rata’d and quickly consumed by half term holidays, a bit in summer, Christmas and inexorable medical appointments.

I felt that my unpreparedness had completely exposed me as a failed autism mum. If I couldn’t predict what my son wants and likes then no-one could.

I started rapidly scanning options in my head. All the holiday clubs locally would have been booked months ago and the choice of going to just any one isn’t a luxury we can avail ourselves of; I need somewhere that can accommodate his needs and where I can spend at least the first day settling him in and ensuring he’s getting enough one to one attention and is comfortable.

cross examination

But why didn’t he want to go? Like a barrister mentally trying to work out all the possible answers to the question before completing my sentence whilst simultaneously tiptoeing the line between aloofness and incredulity, I asked: “what’s wrong? why don’t you want to go?”. He replied “the place is different, it’s a girl’s school and I won’t know anyone”.

Oh heck – he was right (cue slapped-palm-to-forehead woe again).

Yes, it was the same gymnastics club and teachers but they relocated the holiday club this year to another school ten minutes away. This was a change in his world and I’d not prepared him for it at all. Damage control was needed for sure, but this was still a concern I felt I could reassure him about. I explained that the place was different and on the first day he’d need to learn where the toilets and lunch rooms are but after this, it would all be familiar. He was contemplative – a good sign.

With point two, I explained that usually it was a girls’ school but in the holidays it was for everyone; this explanation created no extreme reactions – another positive.

who’s going?

I explained he’d know other children from the club. “Who?” he asked, his interest peaked and wide eyes expectantly awaiting my reply. I was stumped. I couldn’t say for sure who’d be there; I don’t know any of the children’s names because there’s so little interaction with the parents at the class.

Generally when the children are reunited with their parents, it’s akin to a swarm of ants being released, each running to their respective carers who bustle them up and usher them out of the door whilst their arm is still half way through their jackets. (I’m as guilty of this as anyone, steering him to the car whilst he practices gymnastics moves in the car park, so I can get back to my tired toddler and avoid the looming 10 minute catnap which will recharge him and make sleep elusive for everyone).

To add to my ignorance, some parents elected for the odd gymnastics day and others (like me) put their children in for the whole Easter break. I expected that on a balance of probability someone either from his school or the gymnastics club would be there but I couldn’t specifically say whom or on what days.

‘Probably’ is not an answer my eldest can understand; it’s too uncertain. In his world things are black and white – it’s either happening or it isn’t, it’s guaranteed to be fun or it’ll be as boring as sin.

the failed oracle

In this case his gym buddies would either be there or not and why, as the mummy, do I not have this critical data? In his world, I know everything; I’m the supreme oracle, knower of everything with mental arithmetic abilities akin to Gauss, artistic abilities in the region of Van Gogh and the singing skills of Ava Max (he totally loves her). So on top of being fairly mediocre in these categories at the best of times, today, I didn’t have the answers to his concerns either.

“I don’t want to go” he said. “I’m scared that I won’t know anyone”.

Now what? It was Friday and the Easter break had started. My racing mind (and heart) flitted between “I need a back up plan” to “what other clubs did I know?” to “if I ignore it and wait until Monday, what if he plainly refuses to get ready?” to “I’m expected to be in training at work, how can I negotiate this when I’m perpetually self-conscious about working part-time?”.

In that moment I had a choice about how I was going to react to this situation. I could create a frenzy around me (and within me) or I could see it for what it was – my autistic child who looks to his mummy for security was telling me he was scared and supporting him was my priority.

chop chop

So I cut the negative self talk and told myself “If he goes happily on Monday, great – that’s plan A. If not, we’ll work it out whether that means I stay with him at the club or at home – and everything else will be dealt with once I know he’s ok”. I needed to say this to myself to (a) be ok with the absence of planning involved in this ‘plan’ and (b) acknowledge that I succeed as a mum everyday and not to allow negative self-talk to unhinge me when things haven’t gone the way I’d intended.

With this clarity of mind I told my son I had a proposition. He could counter it if he disagreed with any part of it (as if he needed permission) but he needed to hear it first; this was the peer level coaching in effect.

I had his attention.

I acknowledged that his feelings of nervousness were valid but unless he tried a day he wouldn’t know if he liked it or not. I proposed that he attempt one day – I’d stay with him until he felt comfortable – and if he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t need to go to any more; no questions asked.

It was a successful negotiation which ultimately resulted in him completing two weeks there and even obtaining two grade promotions. But even if it hadn’t played out that way, he’d have still had a happy time with a quickly cobbled scheme essentially consisting of being ferried between my husband and I, his doting grandparents and someone else I could rope in (that he likes) to exhaust the local climbing, soft play, cinema and trampolining facilities.

life’s lessons

I learnt two things from this situation:

(1) my son’s autism makes him so hypersensitive to change that as much as I’d love to plan for every eventuality, this is plain unrealistic. I need to get comfortable with this knowledge because it’s so counter intuitive to my highlighting-Post-it noting-mind mapping-diary managing self;

(2) whenever something purportedly goes wrong with my son, I turn to myself to ask what I did to cause it. And yet when it goes well I don’t credit myself with equivalent speed. Listening to my inner dialogue, cutting it as soon as the ‘blame’ conversation starts and replacing it with the question of what I can learn from the situation has literally saved me from self destruction.

Steve Chandler insightfully says “Only two things can result from having expectations. One: the other person will not meet your expectation and you’ll be disappointed (or even betrayed). Or, two: they will meet your expectation, and because you expected it, you won’t feel anything, because, after all, it was what you expected. So your states of feeling will either be Disappointed or Nothing” – Crazy Good.

So the me of today is planning not to over plan and not to hold expectations of others – including my son.

I should probably do a quick mind map to make sure I’ve explored the remit and ramifications of my new plan…

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

How I’m turning yesterday’s pain into tomorrow’s promise

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.

doors

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.

and?

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.

searching

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.

nourishment

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.

who’s thirsty?

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.

pouring nectar

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.

Without qualification.

Just as they are.

 

some notes:

*bhaji – a dry spinach curry

** taken from a podcast with Oprah Winfrey named Super Soul Conversations; Elizabeth wrote the hit Eat, Pray, Love

Photo by Hossam M. Omar on Unsplash