Mid-Life Calm

mlc

I watched Jyothika’s “36 Vaiyathinilae” yesterday. It wasn’t a great movie by any standards and in fact I felt it dragged quite a bit. However, there were somethings in the movie that struck a chord with me. I am sure that most women in their late thirties will find something in it to relate to.

It is a movie about a 36-year-old woman facing a mid-life crisis. It is about the journey she goes on to rediscover herself and come out winning, along with some preachy advice about growing your own organic produce. There were several things in the movie that irritated me from the spoiled brat of a daughter to the statement that “all food grown in Ireland is organic” *eye roll*. But it did do a great job capturing the sense of hopelessness and regret that comes with a mid-life crisis. And for me it hit the nail on the head when it all began with the protagonist turning 36.

I never believed in the concept of a mid-life crisis until I experienced one myself. For me too, it began around my 36th birthday. Maybe “crisis” is too strong a word. It was more like mid-life stress and I noticed that it didn’t just happen to me. I observed that other women I know also went through this mid-life coming-of-age stage in their lives.

I think its because most people never visualize themselves beyond the age 35. When we are young we plan our lives: school, college, graduate school, career, marriage, children. And that’s where it stops. We don’t really make plans beyond that. We go through each of these stages, adapting to each role: student, employee, girlfriend, fiance, wife, mother etc.,. At around age 35, most have us have gone through these stages and suddenly stop and wonder “what next?” By the time we hit mid-to-late thirties, most of us have children who are not as dependent on us anymore as they were when they were infants and toddlers. For some who chose the path not to get married or have kids, they might suddenly realize that they have’t found “the one” or they might start to hear their biological clock ticking. When we don’t know what to do next, we invariably turn to the past and remember lives we planned for ourselves. We realize that life didn’t really go according to plan and we are not where we thought we’d be financially, or career-wise or family-wise or whatever.

Regret is central theme at this time. No one plans for regret. Everyone wants to live their lives without regret. But I think regret is as inevitable as death. Humans will always wonder what would have happened if they they had chosen a different path when they were at crossroads in their youth. The tendency to think that the grass is greener on the other side is very real. Stay-at-home moms wonder if they chose right, as do working moms. Sometimes I can visualize my past as a tree branching off into different directions at important points in my life and wonder what it would have looked like if the branches had grown in other directions.

What if I had never gone to Australia? What if I had gone to graduate school in India? What if I had never set foot in the US? What if I had not transferred from Mississippi State University to Ohio State University? What if I had ended up having an arranged marriage? These are questions I asked myself. Sometimes I wonder, what if I had gone to art school instead? or journalism? or psychology? As I worked through these what ifs, I couldn’t help having a few regrets here and there. Its part of being human.

The other thing that hits me in my late thirties is the very real fear that my parents are getting old. I now have to condition myself to become their guardians and care for them like they cared for me. This a role that I didn’t really anticipate until it hits me in the face. It is a difficult role to grow into. I now worry about my parents like I do about my children. I realize now that Death is a reality, not just as some far-off thing that is doesn’t concern me.

One of the big things that I went through in my mid-life crisis was wondering if I had failed to pass on my culture to my children. I am not sure how universal this turmoil is. I know that my interracial marriage and US residency contributed to these feelings. I wanted to take my children to my childhood haunts, have them experience some of the same things I experienced and loved as a child. I wanted them to know more about Indian culture, my language, my heritage and traditions, my religion and beliefs.

A lot of it is just coming to terms with aging. I realized that no one ever calls me “akka” anymore, only “auntie”. Its hard enough when the movie heroines were younger than me but if feels so unfair that even the heroes are younger than me now! My body feels like it is falling apart and I have become aware of achy joints and lower energy. Late nights are not interesting anymore, for I just want to be in bed early enough so I can get a good night’s sleep. All the things my parents told me make sense now. My children are starting to say the same things I told my parents.

Like all the other turning points, the mid-life crisis itself can go any of several ways. I have seen it destroy marriages, plunge people into despair and depression. For me though, it lead to a lot of introspection. I found an anchor in my faith, like many people do. I re-evaluated my beliefs, my biases and my goals. I learned to stop fighting life and to go with the flow instead. I sorted out what was really important to me in my life. Most of all, I learned to forgive myself.

I finally reached a state of mid-life calm. I believe that everything in life happens for a purpose, or at least that you can find a purpose for everything that happens. The roads I took brought me to where I am. And where I am is a very blessed state. Some decisions still nag me… If I had not transferred to Ohio State University, I would have maybe earned my PhD. But then,  I wouldn’t have met my husband. I am glad I took that transfer, and even though I took it for all the wrong reasons, something wonderful came out of it. What I regret is the reasons for which I made that decision, not the decision itself. It has made me realize good can come out of wrong. Maybe when it comes right down to it, its all just about seeing what you want to see; what you choose to see.

Now that I am almost ready to walk up the 40s, I feel relaxed. I feel wiser. I have gone through some tough times and have come out just fine. I am blessed and I am grateful. I have my faith to fall back on. I have my family to help me out. I know that calm doesn’t last forever, but this time I know where I can turn to when I need a calm moment. I also know when I need to turn to calm. I know there is still a lot of life to live, a lot of challenges that will come. There will be ups and and there will be downs, but a lot less regrets. For this time, I choose not to regret.

-AB

If I were a bird, I would be an Owl

After trying and failing many times before, I have successfully completed a week of regular meditation. Seven consecutive days with just 10 minutes each day. So far, I haven’t noticed a difference in my stress levels or a feeling of ‘zen’. However, I did notice that meditation itself became easier each day. My mind does not wander as often as it used to and when it does, I catch myself much faster. It is also easier to refocus.

My sustained motivation to keep meditating this time is because my insomnia has recently taken a turn for the worse. I suffer from severe and chronic insomnia. It takes me an average of 45 minutes to fall asleep and I almost always wake up after 4 hours of sleep. It is easier and faster to go back to sleep the second time around but, there have been days when it has taken me more than an hour to fall back to sleep. Naps are a different cup of tea. Depending on how sleep-deprived I already am, I will fall asleep in about 20 minutes or not at all. The concept of a power nap or even a nap shorter than 2 hours just never made sense to me, because I just can’t fall asleep that fast. On weekends, especially Sundays, I will take a 2 hour nap.

A few months ago, I had a pretty the levels of vitamin B12 in my body hit a long time low. During that period, I used to be so exhausted all the time that I would literally fall asleep at my desk at work. Unlike most people, my dip in energy does not come after lunch. For me it hits earlier in the day around 10 to 11 AM. If I can get through that hour of the day without falling asleep I don’t need/ won’t be able to sleep at all during the day. Now that my B12 levels are back up I don’t feel that pull of sleep as much during mid-morning.

I think my weird sleep patterns primarily stems from my innate night-owlness, which makes it so hard for me to fit into a world that largely works in favor of morning larks. I just don’t feel sleepy at bed time. In fact, I feel fresher and more active and creative in the late evening. When I was younger and could get away with it, I would just stay up until I felt sleepy, usually around 2 AM.  When I lived by myself in Australia, I regularly went to sleep at 3 AM and woke up at 11 AM and it worked so well for me. Unfortunately, it just was not a long term option.

To make matters worse, being a night owl is looked down upon in Indian culture. All my life, I have had my parents berate me for waking up late and going to sleep late. So much so, that I instantly feel guilty if I wake up past 7 AM on any day. If I am up past mid-night, I have a nagging fear in the back of my mind that my mother will wake up and come and yell at me to go to bed. This happens even if my mother is half a world away! When I was in 12th grade, my mother would wake me up at 5 AM, hand me a cup of tea, and leave me in a room without a bed so that I can study. In 10 minutes, I would be asleep in the chair and will wake up with a start to face her wrath when she got up an hour later. My mother is a big believer of “its better to study in the early morning because your mind is fresh at that time”. She herself is a Lark and just could not figure out that I got my deepest sleep between 3 and 6 AM. Out of sheer desperation, she dragged me to a doctor to find out why I was incapable of waking up or staying awake at 5 AM. That doctor did me a big favor and I am still grateful to him. He sat my mother down and explained that being a night owl was just hard-wired in to me and that I would probably learn better at midnight than at 5 AM. He encouraged her to allow me to study late nights instead of early mornings and it made all the difference when I was in college. My mother trusted the doctor, but I think even now she is not fully convinced that it is not just a bad habit or laziness.

For the longest time, I struggled only with a displaced sleep. I tried everything I could to set it right. I would go out into the sunlight in the early morning, dim lights in the evening, follow a bedtime routine, have a warm shower, drink a glass of warm milk, take the herb feverfew, the works. The one thing I could not do was keep the same bedtime. I did not take any sleeping pills for a long time and just stumbled along. Motherhood made me an even lighter sleeper as my firstborn used to wake every 4 hours until she was 11 months old. Then, about 5 years ago I was diagnosed with carpel tunnel syndrome. My hands would go stiff and hurt all night long and it made me more sleep-deprived than usual. My GP prescribed a common sleeping pill to me- the magic of a good night’s sleep in a little blue pill (here in India, its a bright orange pill). No sleeping pill is meant for long term use, and the doctor should have cut me off after 6 weeks, but he didn’t. A year later I had carpel tunnel surgeries in both hands and the pain was gone, but I still take that pill.

I have successfully weaned myself off that pill twice in the last 5 years. The second time, I actually shaved a little bit of the pill every night to lower my dosage. However, every time life hits me with a stressful event, my sleep is the first to go and eventually I go back to that little pill. A couple of years ago I discovered Melatonin, which is non-habit forming and does not seem to have any known dangerous side effects. With my medical history, it is likely that I might be melatonin-deficient.  Melatonin also helped me get off that pill. You cannot get Melatonin in India and I ran out of my stash a month ago.

I have not had a full night’s sleep in a month, even with my bright orange pill. For the first time in my life, I increased its dosage on Friday nights just to get one good night of sleep a week. I am starting another stressful journey in my life right now. The big move back from India to the USA. Did you know that moving is a life event that causes very high stress levels? Only death and divorce are greater. So moving from one country to another is a pretty big life stressor and like always it is eating into the little sleep I get.

My brother sent me some melatonin yesterday and I got a good night’s sleep after a long time. For once, I woke before the alarm feeling rested instead of wondering how I was going to get through the day. But, I am sick of being dependent on medication for sleep. I also know that is is very harmful to me. The pill I take is known to cause memory loss and that is one of my biggest fears. So this time, I decided I needed to do something else, something safe and long lasting. Hence, the motivation for the meditation. It does help slow down the monkey that is my mind at bedtime. So hopefully with its help, this third time will be the charm and I will finally get rid of getting my sleep in a pill or a capsule. Wish me luck!

I believe that those who are truly blessed in life are those who fall asleep the minute their heads hit the pillow!

-AB

The slow and agonizing death of Common Sense

Did you know that Common Sense officially died two years ago? It’s true, they even published an obituary in the London Times. Although, I am not cynical enough to believe it to be dead, I do think it is on the critically endangered list. Common sense is fast becoming vestigial in the human species. Evolutionary pressures that made common sense an advantage have been lost with the advancement of science and technology. But I do believe its not fully gone. I think it survives in small pockets of society.

We go to school when we are young and learn that all things are not as we thought. We learn from history that humans as a species slowly learned that all that they believed is not true. No, the Sun does not revolve around the Earth. No, the Earth is most definitely not flat. Infectious diseases are not caused by noxious gases. You will not catch a cold if you go out in the cold. Ulcers are not caused by stress (check out Helicobacter pylori). Spontaneous generation is not a thing. Blood letting does not cure diseases. You cannot turn base metals into gold through alchemy. These were inherently held beliefs that were shown to be absolutely wrong. Some of them were probably believed to be common sense. Mark Twain even remarked, “Common sense is the sum total of all prejudices acquired by the age of 16.” I do not completely agree with Mark Twain. Many old-time beliefs that been proved otherwise start with a grain of truth. It maybe an occurrence that is later proved to be just a correlation and not a cause. But, the fact remains that many such beliefs arise from some ‘common’ observation or ‘common’ truth. A lot of times we forget this, even as we start to believe that all ‘old’ ideas are nonsense, irrelevant and not based in truth or science. For example, studies show that people do catch more colds in winter. There is some science behind that belief after all.

I have observed that after we go through schooling and college, we start to learn from experiencing instead of books.  Due to this many of us in middle-age rediscover the value of ‘good old common sense’. We realize that some of the things that people have believed for centuries does not necessarily have a basis in ignorance or prejudice. People might not have been able to explain the science behind some beliefs in the past, but there was science behind them all the same. At times science confirms some things considered to be common sense. Here is another example: In India, traditional mourning following a death lasts between 10-13 days. During this period, the family members of the deceased are not allowed to go to temples. On the outset, this sounds like a ridiculous superstition. What does someone dying have to do with a family member going to the temple? Now, cast your mind back to the past when this rule originated. It is likely that most of the deaths that were caused during those ancient times were from infectious diseases. If someone in your family died of an infectious disease, it is likely that you are either dying from it or a carrier to it. Temples are places where large numbers of people used to gather every day. It is therefore, common sense to know that if you were to visit a temple during the mourning period (which coincides nicely with the incubation/contagious periods of many diseases), you can start an epidemic! Now it doesn’t sound so ridiculous after all.

What I mean by the death of common sense, is the tendency of people to dismiss older beliefs as ignorance, prejudice or just old-fashioned without thinking about it critically. Experience is a good teacher. It is likely that if people have believed something for a long time, there was a good reason for it. This is the background in which I saw this article about people creating artwork with menstrual blood. A lot of young women today think that the taboo against menstruation and menstrual blood is just a product of patriarchy. I disagree. I think it has to do with some common sense about hygiene. Menstrual blood is shunned because it is body fluid that is considered to be a waste product by the body and eliminated as such.  Nobody (unless you were a toddler) would think its cool to make art with your poop or your boogers! but, art with menstrual blood supposedly wipes away the stigma of period blood! What stigma is this? you mean the same stigma that is rightly attached to human urine and feaces?  Saliva, non-menstrual blood, seminal fluid, mucus and even perspiration is considered disgusting due to personal hygiene reasons.  The knee-jerk reaction of disgust to this art with menstrual blood is because of the evolutionary human reaction to all body fluids (waste or otherwise). I cannot think of any body fluid that is revered, can you?  No, like all other body fluids, menstrual blood is also simply a bio-hazard once it is out of the body.

And while I am not the subject I would like to add another two cents on a couple of other Indian customs, specifically with regard to menstruation. Women in ancient India were not allowed to visit the temple during menstruation and were physically isolated during their period. Women in ancient times didn’t have tampons or pads or menstrual cups. It would have been very messy and unhygienic to go to a temple (again a place of large public gathering) while one was actively menstruating. That is why women were not allowed into temples at that time. In those days, all housework was done by women without the help of any electronic doodads like washing machines and dish washers. The reason menstruating women were isolated during their period was to give them a break during a time when they are weaker due to blood loss. Don’t you wish you could just chill all by yourself when you are on your period? I do not think that these customs were patriarchal ploys to subjugate women  (I do not rule out that they were maybe later made into tools of power by men as the real meaning behind them were forgotten). However, I do not think that was the original intention.

When you really think about it, I think it smacks of common sense. Don’t let poor old common sense die a slow and agonizing death at the hands of some twisted view of political correctness. Let’s learn, educate, and revive it instead.

-AB

When empathy failed me

Today I read this article about women who regret having children. Apparently, there is even a Facebook page dedicated to providing support for such people. Upon reading this, I felt astonished, a bit disgusted, and then a mix of irritation and anger. So I decided to delve into these emotions and figure out why this affected me so.

Fact #1: I tend to be conservative. By this I don’t mean to say that society should not change or that all change is bad. The key word here is “tend”. Many a times my initial reactions are conservative. Then I think deeper about issues and my actual actions end up being different.

Fact #2: I am totally fine with people who do not want kids. In fact, I appreciate those who have the good sense to know what they do and do not want. If someone knows that they are not cut out for parenthood and choose to be childless, they are doing themselves and the whole world a favor. Motherhood is sacred to me, but I get that it takes all kinds of people to make the world.

However, this “I have kids but I regret having them” just rubs me the wrong way. When I initially felt disgust after reading the article, I told myself “hey there, slow down. Don’t be so quick to judge. You do not know their lives, so don’t make up your mind so fast”. But really, unless you had kids and you were so bad at parenting that they turned out to be serial killers or something, I don’t get how a parent can say that. I certainly do not understand how there can be so many people who feel that way. It is true that the internet brings even small groups of like-minded people from the world together, but it really stunned me that there is a Facebook page for this.

Most if not all people who are ambivalent about parenting usually fall in love with their baby at some point or another. It may not be the first time they see them or hold them, but it most certainly happens at some stage. You have to be a special kind of weird to go through parenthood and then turn around and say that you regret it.

I believe that people who don’t want children just have different priorities. But these people who regret parenthood are just plain selfish. In the article that I read, this mother told her 12-year-old daughter that she regretted having kids! That to me is a whole other level. Its one thing to even regret it but to tell your child that, that is the height of selfishness!

I take pride in being very empathetic. It’s my strength and my weakness. But this time, empathy fails me.Try as I might, I am unable to put myself in their shoes. I dreamed of being a mother from the time I played with dolls as a 3-year-old. I was in love with my children even before they were conceived. I didn’t just embrace Motherhood, it completed me. This is not to say that I have never had bad days with my kids. Sometimes, when I feel frustrated at being behind in my career because of the break I took to have kids, I quickly realize that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The article says and I quote ” Would I have published my novel by now? Would I have time to read the stack of lonely books on my nightstand?” I just do not get how one can compare accomplishing a reading challenge to having given birth and raised a whole other human being? (and if you know me, you know how important reading challenges are to me!)

Life is full of regrets. Everyone sets out to live life with no regrets, but rarely do people actually achieve that. I dare anyone to truthfully say that they have no regrets in their lives. If you can, hats off to you. But most people can’t. Regrets are inevitable, because hindsight is 20/20 and buyer’s remorse is a real thing. But to regret having children?

I just don’t get it.

This is probably the most polarized post I have posted. I just wanted to be honest. I believe in the adage that we shouldn’t judge another until we have walked a mile in their shoes, but like I said, I am unable to put myself in those shoes at this time.

-AB