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Mom without a capital M

Sorry Dr. Spock, there's no user manual for motherhood, says Sadiqa Peerbhoy, in her latest book

Sadiqa Peerbhoy is stunned by today's young professionals who give up their jobs to have kids — Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

YOUNG MOTHER opens front door to find panting nine-year-old. "What?" she says, stopping him at the threshold. "Finished playing already? Go-back-go-back-go-back." She has visitors and wants him out of her hair. More crucially, she knows that if she lets him inside he'll pick up a fight with his four-year-old brother who's quite a handful. An interior décor consultant, she has no time to sort out her sons' squabbles and so she has come up with a brilliant plan: keep them apart for as long as is humanly possible. The older boy is shunted out to play when he comes back from school, and on holidays he spends most of his waking hours with the other children in the massive condominium, coming home only for meals, homework, and rest. Her strategy would invite stern disapproval from the good Dr. Spock but it works, doesn't it?

Young mother-to-be grandly announces that she will quit her demanding job, stay home, and spend all her time with her firstborn until he's old enough to look after his basic needs. She resigns, promptly gets depressed, and spends her entire pregnancy "feeling blue". The arrival of the baby should have cured it, but love doesn't conquer all, alas. Barely two months later she's lustfully eyeing all sorts of enticing job ads in the papers. Blue is her colour despite the thrills of watching her baby grow, and the only cure is for her husband to find employment in the city where her mother lives. They move when the baby is just a year old. A part-time job puts the spring back in her step.

Young woman-in-labour curses and complains, in between shooting pains, about a task that she has left undone in the office. She had her nose to the grind till the last minute, and while her mother is all a-twitter in anticipation of her first grandchild, she is toying with highly impractical ideas (even as the pangs hit her) of completing her unfinished project "once I get this over with".

Whatever happened to those Femina articles of the 1960s, providing detailed advice to the expectant mother on her "confinement" — eat right, sleep right, take leisurely walks, knit booties, stock up on maternity dresses, and get pampered while waiting for the little bundle of joy? Motherhood had by then already acquired a capital M. Magazines started celebrating this once mundane vocation so that they could sell it to a generation of home-makers who were gradually beginning to wonder whether they were born only to give birth. These were the women who, once their children turned into adults, ventured into employment or entrepreneurship on a minor scale just to fill the strange emptiness in their lives.

By the Seventies and Eighties there arose a multitude of identity-conscious women in hot pursuit of full-fledged careers, and one such was Sadiqa Peerbhoy, writer and advertising professional. Her recent book, a compilation of 76 pieces that appeared in her humorous newspaper columns, is about the "tussles, trials and triumphs of motherhood". But Other Mothers Do (Arc Publications) takes its title from a phrase that her children used to hang over her head like the sword of Damocles "in order to extract rare concessions". Although she "suffered huge guilt pangs" for spending most of her time outside her home when her kids were young, there was no way she would renounce her career or her "hyperactive social life".

The experiences she narrates in her book would find an echo in mothers of all ages; "Bedtime Bedlam", for instance, is sure to ring a bell. In that sense, "all mothers, children, are the same", but attitudes vary across generations. "I am the total opposite of my mother," she says. "She was typical of her generation. She believed that mothers should stay at home, mind the kids, and not go out every evening. After working all day we used to go out and party. I got a lot of flak for that." Sadiqa grew up in a large family and there were plenty of servants around who acted as emotional buffers, whereas the "nuclear" nature of her own family lent a heightened intensity to the mother-child relationship.

Today's young urban woman is matter-of-fact about motherhood — it has no capital M. She takes maternity leave after delivery and resumes her career with the support of mother, ayah, or crèche. If she takes a break from her profession she either opts for a flexitime job or focuses on her child with single-minded determination. "They have everything planned," says Sadiqa in an awe-struck voice. "They're so responsible and serious. I'm stunned by today's young professionals who give up their jobs to have kids." She has written, in one of her columns, about these Young Anxious Mothers who're transforming their tiny tots into super achievers: a two-year-old is doing a course in Transactional Analysis, and a five-year-old, in Yoga for Good Sex.

Talking of young mothers, has her 25-year-old, Kavya, considered being one? She has. And what, as a mother, would she do differently from Sadiqa? "I would wait till I had the time to be with my kids," says Kavya who admits that there were times when she and her brother used to miss their mother being around. "But I don't hold that against her," she is quick to point out. However, she wants to wait till she's "mature enough" before having children. An art director in an ad firm, she plans to start a family only when she is in a senior position where she can exercise control over her working hours.

Which of her mother's qualities would she emulate? Her being friends with her children. "We've had a great relationship," says Kavya emphatically. "She's always been a friend." As for Sadiqa, she realises that she has muddled through motherhood pretty successfully. "Where I thought I was messing up pretty badly, I have these kids who are good human beings." Their value systems are in place and they've turned out all right.

"There's no user's manual," she says. "It's trial and error." Amen to that.


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