Tuesday, October 30, 2018

White Weekdays, Brown Weekends

"Hey hey hey! Stop that! That's offensive. Indians do not eat monkey brains. And if they do, sign me up, because I am sure they are very tasty... and nutritional." --Michael Scott

Weekend mornings from my childhood all had the same soundtrack. I would wake up to the sounds of static-ridden Indian music blaring from the silver radio outside my bedroom. In the 80s, there was one Indian radio show in Detroit broadcast on the AM dial. Even though the static would rarely dissipate, and the sound quality rivaled that of the moon landing transmission, my parents would blast that show at full volume just to taste some of the nostalgia from the life they left in India. I would often be annoyed, but if I was honest with myself, there was a comfort to seeing my parents enjoy the old songs from their past. If a particularly memorable song was played, my dad would exclaim, "Vah! Vah!" (sort of the Indian equivalent to "THIS IS MY JAM!") his eyes would close, and he'd sway his head to the melody. Oh, and my dad would tune every radio in the house to the crackling Indian show so there was no escape. Every corner of our small ranch house in Royal Oak was filled with the voices of Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi and Asha Bhosle. In addition to the musical pleasure for my parents, the sound of Bollywood oldies and Indian Casey Kasem was the perfect transition into my "brown" or Indian weekends.

From Monday to Friday, I had my white life. School days spent with mostly white kids where I would assimilate into a persona of that world. Don't get me wrong, this wasn't some huge Monday morning transformation where I rehearsed saying things like, "Geez Louise!" while locking up my saris. I was pretty much a typical American kid who was never embarrassed about being Indian. However, I learned early on that kids did see me as different and like most kids, I just wanted to belong. 

Kindergarten was my first glimpse of what I looked like to the other kids at Oakridge Elementary School. At that time Royal Oak was predominantly white and I was one of about 6 Indian kids in the entire school district (and that includes my older brother). That first day, a little girl looked at me in line for recess and asked, “Do you talk English?” I was a shy kid, so even though inside I was confused, I just looked down at my feet and nodded. “Oh,” she said, “Cuz you don’t look like you know how to talk English.” Mrs. Pedrick called for the girl to keep walking since her inquiry into my language skills was holding up the line. The memory of this girl and her innocent question is vivid; she was missing a tooth, had a lot of freckles and her breath smelled like a rubber band. The memory of my reaction is also clear; I shrugged my shoulders and ran as fast as I could to the swings. 

Halloween of my Kindergarten year, my super creative idea for a costume was to dress up as an Indian Girl… yes, an Indian Girl. I remember my mother suggesting Wonder Woman or Strawberry Shortcake, but no, I wanted to wear a Panjabi with braids and bindi on my forehead. Looking back, I’m struck by the irony of my immigrant Indian mother trying to convince me to wear something “American” while I was perfectly content celebrating my heritage on a day where children can be anything. Ah, the bliss of innocence before the agony of self-consciousness.

The day of the Halloween parade, the kids were all confused by my “costume,” and to her credit, Mrs. Pedrick explained how I was dressed in “traditional clothes from her country.” “My country?” I thought, “Isn’t this my country?” I twirled in my Panjabi and gently tapped my forehead to make sure my bindi was still in place. “Sheevani, why don’t you tell us a little about your outfit?” At 5 years old, all I knew was I wearing a Panjabi that my Masi (aunt) brought from India during her last visit. “Well, it’s verrrrry interesting!” Mrs. Pedrick said with her eyes wide. I sat down, and all the superheroes, princesses, cowboys and witches stared at me like I was an alien. One boy’s plastic vampire teeth were hanging out of his mouth as he stared at the sparkly dot on my forehead. If I felt anything other than pride, I certainly do not remember it.

The next year, I wasn’t quite so resilient. In first grade, the kids in my class didn’t see me as an Indian girl; they saw me as a black girl. During a lesson about slavery, a little girl turned around and said, “Your grandpa was a slave.” Her lisp launched a spittle that flew onto my cheek when she said, “slave.” I wasn’t having it. “No, he wasn’t!” I said, “I’m Indian!” The girl shook her head completely dismissing my clarification and turned back around. A boy next to me leaned over and said, "Your skin is brown, that means your black." As if clarifying that detail would change my mind. The frustration went home with me that day and I told my mother why I wasn’t in the best mood after school. 

When I think about what my mother did after I tearfully told her what had happened over my after-school bowl of Wheaties, I'm still amazed. She came in after school the next day and asked Mrs. Kampsen to teach the class about India so the kids would understand more about their brown classmate. Mummy spoke slowly and very deliberately, as if she had rehearsed her words. At that point, Bharati Desai had been in the United States for about 10 years. She learned most of her English after she came to this country from night classes at my future high school along with tv shows like Good Times and All in the Family. This immigrant mother saw the pain in her daughter’s eyes and despite her own pressures to assimilate, she made a request unlike any other at Oakridge Elementary in 1984. 

Mrs. Kampsen obliged and the following week we learned about India. I sat a little taller on my carpet square as she talked about how India is a country in Asia with a rich culture and spicy foods. The world map was pulled down in front of the blackboard and she pointed out New Delhi and Agra, home of the famous Taj Mahal. Her lesson was simple and sparse, but I was sure this would clear up the confusion. A little boy raised his hand and asked, “Wait, aren’t Indians the people with feathers in their hair?” My teacher clarified the difference between Indians in India ("like Sheevani's family") and the Indians encountered by the pilgrims. The spittle girl turned around and said, “Your grandpa lived in a tee-pee.” Oh, for fuck’s sake. 

Around that time, an internal duality of self quietly started and continued to spread through high school. Even when I felt I was making progress, I'd get slammed with not being invited to a party or seeing all my friends at the mall hanging out without me. I still remember in 5th grade a girl telling me she didn't invite me to her summer birthday party because she "wasn't sure if I was allowed to go to parties." When I asked why she said, "I don't know... my mom said your parents would probably say no." Now, did all of these things happen because I wasn't white? Maybe not, but for a sensitive adolescent/teen girl, it was my go-to explanation. No matter which way I leaned, the nagging imposter syndrome crowded any comfort I tried to achieve and eventually, I stopped leaning too far either way. 

My "brown weekends" were filled with Indian dance rehearsals, dinner parties, trips to the Indian grocery store to stock up on chutneys and canned mango pulp.  That same store carried all the bootlegged Bollywood movies my parents often rented on VHS. No amount of "fix the tracking!" could save some of those prints. Since my mother worked, she would cook a number of dishes on Sunday to last us for the week. If you didn't like leftovers in our house, you were out of luck! My Sunday afternoons were often spent helping my mother make a variety of Indian breads; puris, rotis or parathas. I could never roll them out into perfect circles like she did, but they tasted just the same. Our house always smelled like a warm hug of incense and spice. 

Royal Oak’s neighboring cities were where a lot of my Indian friends lived. Troy, in particular, was a hotbed of Indian families who, after saving their money following their arrival in the U.S., upgraded to bigger houses in the upper-middle class suburb. My parents never upgraded. We stayed in Royal Oak. As a child, I wanted so badly to live in Troy. It would have been like going from Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink to Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club. For my Bharat Natyam (classical Indian dance) lessons each week, I would go to some Indian family’s basement in Troy where I was taught the intricate steps that symbolized the great stories of Hindu mythology. Most of my dance classmates went to school together so they would be chatting about the latest gossip, the upcoming pep rally, who liked whom, which teacher they wanted the next year, etc. I was just their envious dance friend who lived in that poorer, blue-collar city next door.

Even though I had no shortage of school friends, those weekends showed me the impact of having other Indian kids as schoolmates. I never got the sense that my school life was lacking until I'd see those Indian friends bonding over being "the Indian kids" at their schools. Sometimes I would daydream about living in Troy and going to school where seeing an Indian kid was as common as crunchy curled bangs. I just assumed that when they met their white friend's parents, they never heard things like, "Does your mom/dad speak English? Just wanna make sure in case I gotta call them," or "Sorry dear, I just can't say your name," or "What's that dot all about?" Maybe they still got those questions, but in my fantasy of living in Indian-clad Troy, those experiences didn't exist. Did my Indian friends treat me any differently? Other than not including me in their school discussions, not at all. We all got along, but my own projection of feeling different certainly kept me from making deeper connections. 

I want to be clear that I wasn't suffering (except in junior high, but I mean, who wasn't?), this was the life I knew and like most other kids, I was just trying to survive my specific struggles of childhood. Honestly, I adapted to the dual-life pretty quickly to the point where on Friday afternoons I couldn't wait to see my Indian friends and on Sunday nights I was excited to dive into the week with my white friends. I don't have some sympathy agenda here, this is just an exploration of where this imposter syndrome comes from. As I get older and try to inch closer to being at peace with my flaws, these examinations into my past help me to understand some of my choices. Was the way I grew up the reason I don't have a large group of friends? Does my past contribute to why I preferred to be a loner on most weekends in high school? Maybe feeling like an outsider in both worlds is why I tend to blame myself if a friendship fades away. Did I have a surge of selfishness in my 20s because I was tired of feeling like a fraud? That's a glimpse into my brain, folks. And yes, I'm exhausted. 

Today, my children attend a school with a large Indian population. As a lunch volunteer, I've helped open Tupperware filled with biryani and cleaned up chutney from a kid eating dosas. That stuff warms my heart. Kudos to their immigrant parents for packing lunches without fear of judgement. The world has changed a lot since my skinny brown ass was clinging to whatever commonality it could find depending on the day of the week. The kids today don't even think twice about having friends named Praneeth, Nishant, Divya or Mukti. Since my kids are half Indian, half Polish, they may have their own struggles about where they belong, and I can only hope my childhood can provide some guidance and affirmation that feeling different can be hard, but it's something to embrace. Also, sorry for making you picture my skinny brown child-ass.   

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Reluctant Stay at Home Mom

I am a stay-at-home mom. Whew, the first step is to admit it. I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for over 3 years after working in the corporate world for about 12 years, give or take. Even though I'm 3 years into this gig, I've never really come to terms with the fact that I'm living a life I didn't expect. The SAHM title conjures up a lot of judgement from everyone... including myself. 

I want to be up front about the fact that I’m not a psychologist, sociologist or researcher who has studied SAHMs in a lab. I’m not an expert you’d find on the news speaking on the effects of staying at home vs working at a traditional job. The purpose of this post isn't to advocate for or against staying home. I just… know what I know. And what I know is I’ve never been quite comfortable saying I’m a stay-at-home mom. It’s always said with a tilt of the head or shrug of the shoulders. I non-verbally convey to whomever I’m speaking that I'm not exactly proud that I stay at home with the kids. I’ve judged myself before they can judge me… I suppose it’s a defense mechanism of sorts. Why is that? Why do I feel that way?

Based on my conversations with other SAHMs, I’m not alone. It’s a subject we could talk about for hours. There are a lot of shared feelings about being judged and about our self-worth. We also have a ton of stories about things people have said to us when they find out we don’t have a salary or an office we go to every day from 9-5:

"Oh, good for you! I wish I could do that!"
"Wow, YOU have the hardest job of all!!"
"Ugh, I could never do that, I'd go crazy being with my kids all day!"
"I bet your husband LOVES that!"
"Oh." (freezes and stares at your face not knowing what else to say)

These comments do not offend me or upset me. I've never had an issue with how other people respond, only myself. My own response is what I've needed to work through for the past 3 years.

I do know a lot women who love staying home; it’s what they’ve wanted since they were little. I envy these women because they are living the life they always dreamed of. But for me, this is a life I never guessed would happen. I thought I would work, my husband would work and we’d share the responsibility of kids 50/50. BOY WAS I WRONG… and a bit delusional. 

Along with wrangling my 2 kids, I am also an aspiring actor, writer and comedian. As a child of the 80s, tween and teen of the 90s and starting my adult life in the early 2000s, I was  conditioned to think the only path was to go to college and get a job. After that, find love, get married, have kids and there you go! Life complete! This is something I like to call the “Should Burden.” We do the things we “should” do no matter if it’s the right path for ourselves. It’s what’s expected, so we don’t even question it. 

I did all of that. And I have a great life. I’m not complaining.  I truly believe my life is exactly where it should be at this moment. This isn’t about regrets at all. I made all of these choices because I wanted to, including being a stay-at-home mom. It wasn't an easy decision, but one I came to back in the Spring of 2015. See, my husband is a very ambitious person. It was one of the primary things that I fell in love with and still love to this day. He motivates the part of me that tends to say “I can’t do it” or “that’s too hard.” So, I knew having someone with his work ethic and lofty goals in my life would be beneficial to help me out of the ruts in which I would often find myself. And I was right; he has provided an example I have needed time and time again. 

Ever since I met my husband, his career has been on an upward trajectory because that’s what he works extremely hard for. I've been lucky enough to witness his journey from lowly music buyer to a high-level executive. He is and has always been the bread-winner in our family, so my career as a merchandise planner/inventory manager (so sexy, right?), was secondary. And again, that “Should Burden” was screaming in my ears saying, “Yeah, this is what you should be doing.” Now, was merchandise planning/inventory management my passion? Not. In. The. Least. In fact, I’m not sure I could have been less passionate about it. But, I went in everyday, did my job and came home. I was semi-above average at it AT BEST. When it came to careers in the corporate world, my ambition paled in comparison to my husband. 

Fast forward a few years after we got married to when we had our first child. I quickly learned what it’s like having a new child, a full-time job, an executive husband who was also getting his Executive MBA. What I learned was I was not prepared nor equipped for that sort of stress. Fast forward a few more years after that and I was drowning with 2 kids, a full-time job and a husband who travels at that dreaded consultant frequency. I was exhausted, I was angry, and I was resentful towards my husband. All of these emotions made me a shitty mom and shitty wife. 

During that stressful time, I would HATE myself for not handling it with more grace. It took a lot of time for me to accept that it's completely okay that I'm not the same as friend A or relative B or lady-in-grocery-store-who-I've-decided-is-better-than-me-based-on-her-manicure C. My strengths, and I have many, lie in other areas. That pesky Should Burden would make me feel like shit and I wasted so much time focusing on how I was less than all these other working mothers. That added psychological self-flogging just added to my unhappiness. 

So, I decided to stay at home. I was scared. VERY scared. I wasn’t sure if it would be better having the kids with me all the time. It was a risk for sure, but I knew I needed to change something before I had an absolute meltdown. Okay, I can almost hear the barrage of voices saying, “Oh poor you, you were tired and overworked and overwhelmed, at least you HAD the choice to stay home.” To that I say, yes, you are absolutely right. Believe me, it is never lost on me how lucky I am. I grew up with a mother who fully expected to stay home, but due to circumstances with my father's career, that was not an option. I saw the toll it took on her. Believe me when I say my gratitude meter is at full capacity. I can only tell my story, and my story includes a very successful husband. I'll get into how I feel I don't deserve this lifestyle in another post because that subject is a DOOZY for me!

I should also note that my salary was barely justifying the daycare costs we were paying at that time. I loved the paycheck, but when I did the math, the emotional cost of working at my job and doing 95% of kid duty certainly put me in the red. Those daycare savings were a big factor in our decision. By staying home, our income was pretty much a wash. That being said, I HATED (and still hate) not having an income. It was the first time I didn't have a steady paycheck since college. My father's voice saying, "You should never be financially dependent on your husband," (something he said to me numerous times growing up) was repeating in my head. It has only gotten louder and louder as time as goes by.

This year is the first time my kids are both in school full-time. Upon learning this, the #1 question I would get asked was, "Are you going back to work?" The tone with which this  was asked depended on the person. Other SAHMs would say it with a lowered voice and an expression that suggested my answer would inform what they should do. Working mothers would almost make it a statement rather than a question. They were essentially saying, "If there aren't kids AT HOME then what's the point of staying home?" 

First of all, being alone in the house is WEIRD, man. I remember bouncing my colicky son while running after my energetic 2 and a half year old thinking this day would never come. Back then I had a conversation with a neighbor who was at the point where I am now and she said, "I have 7 hours all to myself, I'm not even sure what to do!" I stood there and strained a smile while my son screamed for the millionth hour and my daughter tumbled off her scooter onto the sidewalk. I wanted to trade places with this freed mother so badly because I knew EXACTLY what I wanted to do; sit on the couch and watch movies all the live long day. 

Well, here I am at that same transitional time in my life. While I haven't spent an ENTIRE day on the couch watching movies, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I've taken advantage of the empty house with a few bubble baths (total Calgone Take Me Away moments), watching Ellen and an occasional nap here and there. Hey, I've earned it! But more than anything, I have a fire in my belly to get going on my purpose. The reasons I decided to stay home 3 years ago haven't really changed, in fact they are a bit more intense. My husband is busier than ever and travels a lot and my kids are getting busy with homework and their own activities. If I went back to work in a traditional office setting, I feel like I'd be going backwards into that pool of anxiety and resentment.

But to answer those inquiring minds, YES I am going back to work. In fact, I'm diving into multiple careers and I couldn't be more excited. I was never meant to work behind a desk balls deep in Excel spreadsheets. I'm a creative person who suppressed my creativity for way too long because it didn't fit into what I thought I should do. Ah, that Should Burden is a real bitch and I was a dumbass who subscribed to it for too long. I feared outside judgement so much that I never really listened to what was in my bones. 

I have an acting agent, I'm launching a freelance writing career and I'm writing a one-woman show that I hope to tour with someday. It's all hustle, but on my own terms. I cannot wait to have an income again and show my kids that working hard for what may seem like impossible dreams is never a waste of time. If I can teach my kids anything, it's that nurturing your talent with hard work and determination is always a worthy path. Staying home with my kids since 2015 was glorious and you know what, I was damn good at it. I have no regrets, I just wish that stay-at-home-moms had a retirement plan.