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Do What I Say…Not!

For the last week we’ve had my nieces visiting us from the East Coast. We’ve had a great time, we went white water rafting, indoor skydiving, painted mugs at a ceramic place, went karaoke singing. It was an action packed week and completely unlike what I was expecting. One of my nieces is a 14 year old and I was expecting a stereotypical teen – morose, grumpy and glued to her phone 24/7.

Who I found instead was an extremely level headed young adult. She has very clear ideas on what and who she wants to be, she’s disciplined in everything – her diet, her sleep patterns, her piano practice and she was such a wonderful surprise. I have always loved my nieces because they are my nieces but the past week has proven to me that I’m going to love them for the individuals they are becoming. All credit goes to their parents for raising such wonderful, sensible young girls.

While their wit, sense of humor and clarity of thought surprised me, what was even more surprising was their observation of me. At one point, 3 days into their visit, my older niece went, “You’re always feeding us, Meera maasi or asking if we’re hungry.” The younger one chimed in “Yeah, we are old enough to tell you if we’re hungry and fix our own snack, if required.” The younger one is an extremely petite almost 10 year old that survives on air in my opinion, so I didn’t put too much stock into what she was saying. However, what the older one said struck home.

Growing up, I remember having a lot of friends and family visit. We’d have cousins coming over to stay with us and extended family that was in Mumbai for some occasion or the other and because we were in town, they’d stay with us. All I remember from these visits is my mom in the kitchen, whipping up breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner.

My mother’s had health issues all her life. The very fact that she’s mobile and doing all she does is a testament to her willpower. Anyone else in her place would have given up and been bedridden years ago. The fact that she was taxed so much by visiting family and friends always irked me. If we had paternal relations visiting, of course, they expected to be waited on hand and foot; since my mother was the daughter-in-law, she was there to serve. All day long my mother would provide tea, coffee, snacks, delicious meals and then she’d find reserves of strength previously undiscovered to take them sightseeing, shopping etc. All this she would do with a smile.

While she was doing all this, I’d inwardly seethe at people that wouldn’t bother to put their coffee mugs in the sink or offer to help in the kitchen. I’d have massive arguments with my mom on why she was being nice to people, that in my humble opinion deserved nothing more than a lesson in humility and basic decency. Her response was unfailingly the same – “Guests are to be treated well. It doesn’t matter how they behave. We are here to make sure their memories of the vacation are pleasant ones.” The most important thing, she’d insist was feeding people on time, since, in her experience, this prevented temper tantrums, hurt feelings and a variety of other problems that occur when people have to spend time together in close quarters.

I spent most of my teen years swearing nothing would make me cook and clean for anyone. If I had learnt anything from my mother, it was that the more you did for people, especially family, the more they take advantage of you.
So when my nieces made that comment about me feeding them all the time, I cast a look back at my 16 years of marriage and realized, with a shock, that unknowingly, I have become exactly like my mother.

I am one of those people that cooks every day. In addition, I bake all the time. I’m always trying out new recipes and when I do so, more often than not I’m thinking of who would like what dish the best and then filing away that information for when said family member or friend visits. This discovery shocked me to such an extent that I actually took the time to sit and think about how I’d become exactly the person I’d sworn I wouldn’t be when I was growing up.

The answer lay somewhere between realizing that there was wisdom in my mother’s philosophy – people rarely have temper tantrums and hurt feelings when their bellies are full – and emulating what she did as opposed to what she said. In complete contrast to her advice of “Do what I say, not what I do” I’d imbibed, without my knowledge, all of what my mother does and now I practice it unfailingly in everyday life.

With that came another discovery, an uncomfortable one at that. If I’d ended up almost exactly like my mom then what did it say about the way I was raising the daughter? Is it possible that she was listening to all my lectures and noticing that I don’t practice what I preach? That I have the television on when I’m working, cooking etc? Did she notice that I was upset at her playing Minecraft on the iPod but my being upset with her had little bearing on how much time I spent on Crossy Road and Candy Crush?

Do what I say not what I do is stupid advice to dispense. Children take their cues from us. Whether it’s learning social interaction or life lessons, parents remain the single biggest influence on children. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what lessons we are preaching. What we’re doing will have so much more bearing on who they become.

This whole conversation made one thing amply clear – I’m going to have to watch what I do. What I wear, how I treat people, how I accomplish goals will inform everything the daughter does. So, starting today, I’m going to be less about the lectures and more about exemplifying what I want her to be. I’m going to very fortunate if I raise the daughter half as well as my mother raised us. The daughter’s almost 12 and I’m glad the realization came now. The struggle of raising her to be a sensible, successful adult is also the struggle of becoming the person she’s likely to emulate.

I am mom to a quickly growing 11 year old. I have lived abroad for over 15 years and I struggle daily with the challenges that parenting and straddling 2 different cultures throws at me. I am an avid reader, a huge fan of the movies (Bollywood, especially) and a somewhat sporadic writer. I blog at MM’s musings.