Stepping Up The Woman
By Arathi Devandran
My mother and I are having a conversation about her early working years, where she talks about the opportunities that she had as a young woman, to travel and work overseas. As a 20-year-old newly qualified midwife, she left her home, moved to Saudi Arabia, and practiced midwifery in some of the best hospitals in the Gulf at that time. Whenever my mother talks about “her past life”, as she calls it, her face changes – her eyes soften, and she looks almost wistful as she recounts her adventures in Saudi Arabia.
Even after my mother was married to my father, she worked abroad, while my father remained in Singapore and continued with his career. My parents sustained a healthy long-distance relationship until I came along. And then, inadvertently, things changed. My mother left her job, and all that she had created for herself in the Gulf, and came back to Singapore to be a full-time mother. (A full-time mother, until one day, a ten-year-old me told her that I was old enough to take care of myself, and that she should go back to work. But this is a story for another day).
Do you ever regret coming back, I ask her after some time. What I really mean to ask is, has she ever regretted having a child and giving up her career in the process. Her eyes refocus on my face and she replies firmly that she has had no regrets about the decisions she has made in her life. Her reply, unsurprisingly, leaves no room for doubt.
As a woman in her mid-20s, surrounded by a bevy of women (friends and strangers alike) who are involved in an elaborate juggling act of being mothers and successful working professionals, my mother’s single-mindedness and surety seems almost baffling.
To give up everything that you’ve worked so hard for to raise a child – does this selflessness only come about with motherhood? What about her own dreams and aspirations? Were all her dreams shelved just because she became a mother? What does success mean for her, then?
I try to voice these thoughts, and my mother is quick to remind me that life is not always seen as a question of absolutes. I have always wanted a child, she says, and that determined my life decisions. Her tone changes and she looks at me thoughtfully. Different people want different things in life, Arathi.
They aren’t better or worse choices. Just different. And each of these choices comes with its own sets of triumphs and failures. The most that we can ask of ourselves is to these outcomes with grace, whatever that may be. That is what I’ve learned of success, she says.
My mother has a tendency to preach (most of which I tune out, I must confess), but this conversation has left a lasting impression. As part of a generation that is constantly seeking some form of superlative in our lives, it is difficult to accept that in the process of making choices, there are compromises that have to be made, and opportunities that may have to be given up. It is difficult to forego one “good” for another “good”.
It is difficult to accept the fact that we can’t really have it all. It is possible to achieve different things at different stages in our lives.
It is also very possible to be bloody successful in our endeavors in these different stages. But it is almost naïve to think that one can always have one’s cake, eat it, and then try to eat the neighbour’s cake, too.
The conversation with my mother gave me no answers about what success means to a woman. It would be extremely presumptuous and foolish of me to think that there would be an ideal answer that could encapsulate the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the larger female population in the world.
But what my mother has gently reminded me is that I should not to be too hard on myself in my own pursuit of….whatever it is that I am pursuing. And that perhaps the most important thing is for me to reach a point in my life, at a ripe old age of say, 72, look back on all that I have done, and say with no room for doubt, that I have not regretted most, if not all of the decisions I’ve made in my life.
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