Reading through “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe as part of my curriculum during my B.A. course was when I first thought, consciously I mean, about my fear of becoming my mother, just like the protagonist Okonkwo lives his entire life trying not to be like his father and despite all the efforts, ends his life just like him. To be very honest, it scared the shit out of me. My mother and I have always had a rather turbulent relationship which has only stood the test of time owing to a strong undertow of desperation in us holding on to it, never ready to give up on “us” completely. For a very long time, I despised even the positive qualities I have inherited from her only because it made me look and sound like her. Over time though, I learned to get over that ‘generalized aversion’ and appreciate the good that came to me from her and capitalize on those in a good way. But in spite of the shared positives that were no longer a liability, our differences were so huge that my fear of turning into her someday was as strong as always. And the day I finished “Things Fall Apart”, I knew that the fear, the seeds of which were sown in my mind when I was around 7, wasn’t going away anytime soon. And that fear had a very strong reason behind it.
Contrary to the hunky-dory image that people had about my childhood, I had an extremely traumatic childhood, filled with multiple episodes of molestation and sexual abuse from multiple people, spanning around six to seven years from the time I was 7 years old. While people thought of me as a super-confident, brave little chatterbox, they didn’t know of the fragile, scared little girl whose rambling hid so many dark secrets. That little girl grew up to be a broken woman who trusted another person for the very first time only two decades later. Like a glass vessel that is broken, you can never fix a broken person perfectly back to the former self. You could pick up the bigger shards and try to put them together, but you will never be able to pick up the tiny splinters or put them back in the right place. Essentially you remain broken for the rest of your life in some way or the other.
No matter whoever did whatever, the ones I held ultimately responsible, rightly so as a once-little girl who had zero sense of security, for the broken mess I ended up, were my parents. And of both my parents, I held my mother more responsible, whether it was fair or not, maybe because my dad was away at work almost always (not that it would have made a difference if he was present). Somehow, I believed, and I still do, that whatever qualities others hailed her for and helped her be the “trusted insider” for others were the exact qualities that put me in the humongous and dangerous mess I was in. The absolute lack of acknowledgement from both of them of even the tip of the iceberg that I could share with them much later in life, pushed the ‘dangerously fragile me’ into a ‘completely broken me’, feeling very much like an orphan, in a sense others might never understand.
Moving on from that broken self to one that is healing and happy, albeit with regular professional help even now, has been a slow, yet satisfying journey. I strived to envelope my glued-back pieces and the glued-back ‘me’ with all the love and happiness that I found in my journey from those who I finally got to call ‘family’ in its true sense, so much so that I am turning into an imperfectly beautiful glass vessel now, a much stronger one that wouldn’t break all that easily with just one fall.
The truth is that I cannot ever forgive my parents completely (that would be a highly unrealistic expectation to burden myself with). And I feel uncontrollably infuriated inside when they pass even the slightest critical or judgmental comment about my parenting, the first question that pops into my mind being “Do you seriously think you have any right to be talking about parenting after what you did to me?” But I am finally kind of on terms with the fact that I can live without their acknowledgement or understanding of what happened. That, coupled with the fact that I never stopped caring for or loving them somehow, helps me maintain a ‘not very easy, but more or less happy’ relationship with them, where they see my girls every day on video call without fail and get to be an important part of their life. Honestly, that is more than I could ever ask for, given the circumstances.
But one worry kept tugging at my heart, never really letting me heal – that my children, my little girls, might grow up to be like me. Although it sounds like the very same fear of “me growing up to be my mom”, these two fears are as different as they can be. My fear for myself has been that I would end up a failure in protecting my girls, that I would end up breaking them. My fear for my girls was that they would end up as broken as I was. These two fears, intertwined and feeding off of each other, kept me from moving on and healing. Until Vedu asked me the question – “Amme, when did you learn to say “No, don’t”?” three weeks back.
I was reading a book of short rhymes for her at bedtime. There was one about a boy who kissed girls and made them cry, and ran away when the boys came out to play. We both made an “Ewww” face and went on to talk about how he was a bad boy and how the girls should have given it back to him right away instead of crying and waiting for the boys to come and scare him. Like always, I found this rhyme to be yet another opportunity to have a talk about bad touch, consent, how to tell someone firmly that she doesn’t want them trying to hug or kiss her, or even touch her at all if it is inappropriate or making her uncomfortable, when to get help etc. This has been a golden talk Hari and I have had with her time and again from the time she was hardly two years old, obviously without making it preachy or repetitive. Even from a young age, she used to listen to this with utmost seriousness on her face, whether she understood it completely or not. Of late, she is giving me good reason to believe that she has definitely understood it all. And the conversation that followed kind of cemented that belief.
Vedu: You know X (an older boy in her school bus) who is my “bus friend”? Sometimes he tries to hug me, and I tell him “Don’t do that” (acting out the stern look she gives him when she says that).
Me: And does he stop when you tell him that?
Vedu: He says “Okay, I won’t hug you then.”
Me: That’s good.
Vedu: He does try to hug me once in a while even now. But every time I tell him sternly “Don’t do that, I have already told you I am not comfortable with that.”
Me: That’s super brave of you. I hope that has helped. But if he keeps trying to do that, it’s not a friendly thing to do. Friends will never make each other uncomfortable deliberately, you know. They respect each other.
Vedu: Hmm yeah. We do have fun talking and singing. But if he tries to hug me again, I’ll tell him “If you do that once more, don’t ever sit with me in the bus.” How does that sound?
Me: Sounds fair enough because you are nice to him otherwise and you have told him this a few times already. But if you feel he is not listening to you at all, talk to those didis from 10th grade that you are friendly with in the bus. They will help you deal with it without much trouble. And remember that your teacher, Aayammas and of course, Acha and Amma are all there to help if something makes you really uncomfortable, okay? You just need to tell us.
Vedu: I know. For now, I think I will handle it myself. It’s not too big a deal.
Since she had the expression of someone for whom it really wasn’t a big deal, I didn’t want to confuse her by letting out my happy tears for something seemingly trivial. But I did give her a big hug. And then we had a tiny bit of heart-to-heart that made my days to come.
Me: You know baby? I am so happy you come home and tell us all these things so we know what is going on with you when you are away from us. And I am so proud of you for knowing how to say “No, don’t” at such a young age.
Me: Because people will always hesitate in hurting those who are strong and confident in speaking up. When you say “No” strongly, even if they are much stronger, they will think “Oh, she will not take it silently. Better not mess with her and get into trouble.”
Vedu: Hmm, makes sense. Amme, when did you learn to say “No, don’t”?
Me: Much later baby, much later. But it doesn’t matter anymore, because all that matters is that you are learning it already.
In the movie ‘The Good Dinosaur’, Arlo’s Poppa tells him “You are me, and more.” Today when I look at Vedu, I know the depth of that line. Because that line can easily sum up how I feel about her. She is so much like me in so many ways that it used to scare me sometimes, that she might end up just like me. But then I see her at the age of 5 – stopping bullies with a ‘big girl’ talk or a look of badass attitude that says “Who cares”, I see her coming back from her first talk in front of a crowd with an easy “Yeah, that was cool. I want to go back up there again”, I hear stories of how she stops the school bus guy from trying to hug her… and I know that while she has all my good and bad, all my strengths and weaknesses in varying degrees, she is so much more than me. She is stronger than I ever was and even if she breaks down ever for any reason, she will never be a broken person, she will never let herself be shattered, she will rise from any fall with a look of determination I am very much familiar with now.
It has its temporary (I hope) downsides of course, since she is on a rather confused transition from scared and uncertain to strong and confident. She is still learning the “when and how” of this newfound strength. It does take a lot of patience in slowly helping her navigate through the confusion to understand that strength is not about doing everything the way she wants or always getting her way. It is also about knowing when she is wrong and accepting it with grace. She is slowly understanding the responsibility that comes with her strength, and the fact that she can still be our sweet little girl, while being a strong and confident badass! And seeing her gives me absolute confidence that someday, my other badass girl, Taaru will find her strength too, in facing the big, bad world.
When I closed her door after kissing her goodnight that night, I could feel tears running down my cheeks. For a couple of minutes, they were tears of sadness, when I was transported back to my childhood, a huge sense of loss overwhelming me – the loss of my innocence, the loss of my entire childhood, the loss of a part of myself, the loss of decades’ worth of joy and peace – all because I didn’t know how to say “No, don’t”, all because I had nobody to turn to, nobody to ask me what was happening with me, nobody to listen, nobody to trust, nobody to tell me how to deal with whatever was going on for so long… until I learned it all by myself when I turned 14, when I was fucking tired of being looked at as an object of sexual pleasure at such a young age. But almost as soon as it came, the sadness was washed away by an overwhelming sense of peace knowing that my little girls are never going to be broken for the same reason I was and that my lost childhood and lost decades would all fade away if I can help my girls have a childhood and a life that they deserve.
In that moment of peace, I knew that the role Hari and I have played in not just protecting them, but also empowering them to protect themselves, is in no way small. That realization has finally done the trick in helping me slowly get out of the strangling hold of both my worries – “What if I end up like my mother?”, “What if my girls end up like me?” I know now that I haven’t and I will never fail as a mother. And my girls aren’t made of fragile glass, they are made of iron – bold, beautiful and not the kind you can break. Maybe someday I will be able to look back at my younger self and say with absolute conviction – “See? I told you not to worry!” 🙂
Also published on Medium.