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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Mum's the word

It's time to debunk the myth that motherhood 'completes' a woman

Motherhood. It's a tricky business. And no, I don't mean mothering, which comes with its own set of complications -- and rewards. I am talking about motherhood, a state that everyone and his uncle has an opinion about. Motherhood, which is made out to be the ultimate achievement of a woman (and the inability to achieve it the ultimate failure). Motherhood, the status update that sets the women apart from the girls. Motherhood, the rite of passage that is meant to 'complete' you.

And the reason I have been thinking about motherhood over the last fortnight is down to three women: Jennifer Aniston, Sania Mirza, and of course, Theresa May.

Let's begin with Aniston, who has spent most of her adult life being stalked by the Pregnancy Police. From the time she was married to Brad Pitt to now, when she is wife to Justin Theroux, pregnancy rumors have constantly swirled around Aniston. So, you can understand why she finally blew her stack when some paparazzi pictures of her with a slightly more rounded tummy set off yet another hysterical round of Jen-is-finally-pregnant pieces.

In a searing piece for HuffPost, Aniston wrote, her rage fairly dripping off the page, that she was not pregnant but simply 'fed up' of the constant speculation revolving around her uterus. "I have grown tired of being part of this narrative," she wrote, adding that she was "not in pursuit of motherhood because I feel incomplete in some way".

Then it was Sania Mirza's turn to face the mother of all questions from TV anchor, Rajdeep Sardesai. His query was framed in terms of 'settling down'. "What about motherhood...building a family...it seems like you don't want to retire just yet to settle down".

Mirza was having none of this. She responded with a zinging backhander: "You sound disappointed that I am not choosing motherhood over being number one in the world...unfortunately, that's when we are settled, and no matter how many Wimbledons we win or number ones in the world we become, we don't become settled."

To his credit, Sardesai saw the point immediately and instantly apologised, conceding the point that he would never have asked that question of a male sportsperson.

The rest of the world is not always so obliging.  Most people see a childless - or child-free, to use the more politically-correct term - woman as a perennial question mark. Why didn't she have children? Was it down to fertility issues? (If it was, who was to 'blame': the husband or her?) Or is she just a selfish so-and-so, who didn't want kids to hamper her hedonism? What is the appropriate response to her barren state: concern, pity or scorn?

And then come the value judgements. How could she possibly understand what other mothers go through as they bring up their kids when she doesn't have any of her own. She simply can't have the same stake in the future that mothers do - as Andrea Leadsom said so famously and fatally about Theresa May, when they were both running for Tory leader, and the Prime Ministership of Great Britain - because it's not her children who are going to inherit the earth. She can't understand the depth of maternal love because she hasn't experienced it first-hand. And she cannot begin to fathom the despair caused by the loss of a child because, yes, she doesn't have children.

It's almost as if the rest of the world has agreed that a woman who doesn't have a kid is lesser-than in some way. That because an entire world of experience is shut off to her, so is the world of empathy, or indeed, sympathy.

Perhaps this is why childless women so often feel obliged to explain their empty nest to others. Even the resolutely private May had to offer up this tiny morsel about her childlessness: it simply didn't happen (like it doesn't for many people) and while it was an abiding sadness, she and her husband got on with their lives.

Jennifer Aniston, too, responded to the motherhood question a tad defensively in 2014 interview. "You may not have had a child come out of your vagina, but that doesn't mean that you aren't mothering - dogs, friends, friends' children...This continually is being said about me: that I was so career-driven and focused on myself, that I don't want to be a mother, and how selfish that is...Even saying it gets me a little tight in the throat."

But why should any woman - celebrity or otherwise - feel obliged to explain why she doesn't have children? It is nobody's business but her's and her partner's; and presumably both of them are in on the secret.

Thankfully, even Aniston knows better now. As this older and wiser Jen wrote in her HuffPost piece, "We are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child...We get to determine our own 'happily ever after' for ourselves."

And yes, whether that includes children or not is entirely up to every woman to decide for herself. And no, she doesn't owe you or the world any explanations about her decision.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

You go, girl!

When a triumvirate of female leaders comes to power across the world, it inspires young women everywhere

So, it’s done and dusted. Theresa May is now the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. And if Donald Trump keeps up his gaffe-a-day performance, Hillary Clinton is a dead cert for the White House. If you take in the fact that Germany already has a female Chancellor in Angela Merkel, this will be the first time in history that we see a triumvirate of powerful women ruling the world (well, vast swathes of it, at any rate) at the same time.

At the risk of sounding sexist, I have to confess that I find this a rather thrilling prospect. A female US President, a female UK Prime Minister and a female German Chancellor. What are the odds of this ever happening again – at least in my lifetime? So, even though I can see some of you (mostly those with that extra Y chromosome) shaking your heads and tut-tutting at my naivete, I refuse to curb my enthusiasm.

Whenever I express these views – both in real life and in social media – there are a few stock responses that are invariably thrown at me. How does it matter if these leaders are women? Surely, leaders should be chosen for their abilities and not their gender? And why do I assume that having women in positions of power will be good for other women?

Well, first of all, none of these women is in pole position because of her gender. All of them have proven track records in politics and have come through the same hurly-burly (or rugby scrum, to use a more recent analogy) that their male colleagues have failed to negotiate successfully. So, they are not women politicians. They are politicians who happen to be women. Or even women who happen to be politicians.

And yes, leaders should be chosen for their abilities and not their gender. But I am sure that even their most committed rivals would grant that Clinton, May and Merkel have more than proved their political chops during their careers. So, when it comes to ability and talent, they are easily the equals of their male counterparts (though, frankly, it is farcical to compare Hillary Clinton to the abomination that is Donald Trump).

So then, we come to that old chestnut: are women leaders any good for other women? Do they stand by the sisterhood? Is the feminist cause better served by having a female in a position of power?

Well, by way of answer, all I have for you are two words: Barack Obama.

As Obama nears the end of his two terms as America’s first African-American President (well, okay, mixed race, if you want to get all pedantic about it), race relations in the USA are at an all-time low. Just over the last week, we had two young Black men – Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota – shot and killed by police in circumstances that would have earned most White folk a ticket or a caution at the most. And they were just the latest in a long roll call of Black men who have died at the hands of the police. Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson. Trayvon Martin, another unarmed teenager, was killed by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in Florida. Eric Garner, who was put in a chokehold by NYPD officers, was heard saying ‘I can’t breathe’ over and over again before he died. His dying words became a rallying cry for those protesting police violence against Blacks.

According to the Guardian, which runs a project to track police killings in America, at least 136 people have been killed by the police in 2016 alone. And the Washington Post estimates that 258 Black people have died at the hands of the police in 2015. Not surprisingly then, last week saw countrywide demonstrations in the USA against police brutality against Blacks (#BlackLivesMatter). And in Dallas, the police force itself became the target of an African-American sniper, who shot on a protest rally and killed five cops and injured many others.

All this, while the first Black President of America was still in the White House.

So, if the presence of an African-American at the helm of affairs can’t make things better for Black people, why should we imagine that the presence of a female leader will make things better for women?

The simple answer is that it is not so simple at all. Electing a Black President or a female Prime Minister does not mean that the problems of those sections of the community will magically disappear. No, that magic wand does not exist, so nobody – whatever their sex, colour, ethnicity – can wield it to make our problems vanish.

Let’s take an example closer home. The BSP leader, Mayawati, who styles herself as ‘Dalit ki beti’ has been the chief minister of UP four times over. But Dalit women continue to be raped and Dalit men killed if they overstep the bounds set out for them.

But that doesn’t negate the symbolic value of having a Dalit woman at the helm of affairs. By her sheer presence, she serves as a beacon of hope sending out glimmers of possibility to every Dalit girl studying in a remote primary school that one day she too can attain those heights.

And it is that message that will hit home for young girls everywhere when women do – quite literally – take over the world. And I for one can’t wait to see that happen.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Frankly, my dear, I (no longer) give a damn!

After a lifetime of people-pleasing, it is incredibly liberating to not care what anyone else thinks

I spent most of my life as a people pleaser. As a child, I was that annoying, prissy little one who actually volunteered to sit in the front row; who raised her hand to answer a question even before the teacher had finished asking it; who actually asked for homework; who swotted through the night before exams. All because I desperately wanted to please my parents/my teachers/any other significant adult in the hope that this would make them love me.

Nothing much changed when I turned into a young adult. When my friends were cutting classes in college and getting up to no good at college festivals and late-night parties, I was too busy playing the cleverest girl in class.

I devoured my entire reading list in a week; I handed in every essay on time; and when it came to classroom discussions on Chaucer or Shakespeare or Marvel or Yeats, you simply could not shut me up. Needless to say, my teachers loved me (you cannot imagine my happiness when one of them referred to me as "a ray of joy"). But, for some unfathomable reason, it did not make me very popular with my peers; and I stayed up many nights worrying about that.

When I started my first job in journalism, my people-pleasing instincts were entirely intact. I went out of my way to become best friends with the page-makers in the art room (ah, those primitive times before computers; how I miss them!) and the boffins in the office library. I volunteered to stay late so that my bosses would be impressed by my work ethic.

Even my interviewing technique was based on endearing myself to my subject -- and thankfully, it worked a charm. One of the highlights of my early reporting life was when Uma Bharti dragged me in front of a mirror and marveled at how alike we looked. (Ah, good times!) Apparently, you do catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!

My personal life mirrored my professional life as well. Rare was the occasion on which I stood my ground during disagreements with friends. It was just simpler to go along with what other people wanted; or so I believed, in my anxiety to make and keep friends.

On social occasions, I was always the one doing all the running. There was never a silence that I did not rush in to fill. There was never a conversation that I allowed to flag. There was never a lame witticism I failed to laugh at. And there was never a moment when I truly relaxed and enjoyed myself, so anxious was I to get it right.

I can still remember the moment when it finally dawned on me that I was playing it all wrong. Then in my early 30s, I had been invited to a black tie dinner hosted by a great champagne house. And as a mark of great favour, I was seated next to one of the wine makers. Unfortunately, though he was undoubtedly a dab hand at blending grapes, he didn't have much by way of conversation. And it didn't help that his English, rudimentary as it was, was almost incomprehensible because of his French accent.

Nonetheless, I persevered in my usual way to keep the conversational ball rolling. But 10 minutes into the dinner, having met with monosyllabic responses, I asked myself: Why are you bothering to do this? You will never meet this man again in your life. He is plainly uninterested or unable to keep a dialogue going. So why are you trying so hard?

I thought about these questions in one of those conversational lulls I had always felt obliged to fill. And then, I gave myself permission not to try so hard. I stopped talking. I ate my food, I drank the excellent champagne, and I told myself that I didn't care if this famous winemaker thought I was rude. And you know what, after a moment, I truly didn't.

You cannot begin to imagine just how liberating that was. From that moment on, I retired my people-pleasing self and decided that the only people I would ever care about are my family (well, at least, those members who I could still bear to be in a room with) and my friends (you know who you are). Other than this small group, I could not be bothered to be charming or endearing. Of course I would be polite, so long as it was possible. But that was all I was prepared to offer, in addition to unflinching honesty.

Thus it was that when a friend invited me to one of the events her guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, was presiding over, I didn't say yes just to please her. Instead I offered her the truth. Thanks so much, I said, but I'm really not into all this spiritual stuff. She was startled for a moment. But then she laughed good-naturedly and said, "Ah, well, at least you are honest about your feelings!" And strangely enough, there was no threatening clap of thunder, the heavens didn't fall down, and we continue to be friends to this day.

As the old saying goes, we would all stop worrying about what people thought about us if we realized how seldom they do. I am only sorry that it took me half my life to learn that lesson.