The Sabbatical Story

S is the only person in my lifetime with whom I have spent every waking minute for a year and a half. Waking minute may be an understatement here, we probably dream about each other as well. I had not planned for this long a break away from work, but so it happened. Overall, its been a great journey, though we have had our share of pitfalls, frustrations and disappointments. Its been a great journey because I got a chance to re-live my long forgotten childhood. Things I either wasn’t exposed to, or which I didn’t have the time to explore and enjoy. Most of my life, was spent busy studying and building a good career. As the offspring of a conservative Tam-Brahm family with no much fortunes to speak of as inheritance, you could probably take a blind guess on how programmed my life would’ve been. Thanks to S, I rediscovered bubbles, butterflies, and fairy tales. Eating to your heart’s content, the magic of morning garden time, and waking up free and bright on a Monday morning. I found my art for making funny faces which made the baby laugh uncontrollably. I found the amazing ability of a good ginger-lemon grass tea to break the stupor of a drugged afternoon nap. I found the art of healing my headaches on my own, without taking a pill. And the art of figuring of why the headache came in the first place (I have not yet developed an ability to prevent headaches, so let’s leave my spiritual quest there). I learnt to bake and realized that no matter how many cakes I baked, the excitement while opening the oven door to get the first glimpse of the cake did not wane. I am not saying I am a pro, but the cakes I bake are nice and tasty and enough to excite me and the kid. She devours them, even the wheat based ones (if you still didn’t get it, I am now gloating about my capability to bake maida-free cakes. Sorry!). I cherished reading every single day, whenever baby napped. I stumbled upon the amazing ritual of having coffee in my balcony. Such an irony that though we made sure we bought a flat with a balcony, we never ever found the time to have a relaxed cuppa, in all these years. The evening caffeine kick was at the office for sustaining our sleepy nerves and the mornings were too much of a rush.

                       

I had certain epiphanies and made some stubborn choices. Like I would stay at home for a couple of years before getting back into the (big bad) corporate world. I would not raise my hand on the baby, ever (although a number of my family members are waiting with bated breath for the day when I will lose my temper, just to prove me wrong). I would not wallow in self-pity for choosing to stay at home while others seamlessly pursued their career choices. I would not compare my spouse or kid with others. In the time I choose to spend with S, I would not just ‘appear’ to be available, armed with a smart phone or laptop. I would be available to my kid well enough to have a conversation with good eye contact. I would not push my kid into learning from a tender age (read educational toys, educational books, and all things educational). Kids are anyway naturally hyper-inquisitive, and have the ability to pick up a tremendous amount of skills themselves, which is one thing that amazes me till date.

                       

If I am going to rant on like this, saying that stay-at-home mommies’ lives are all about rainbows and bubble baths, then I am just overly romanticized and been wearing pink tinted glasses all along. Saying that I have absolutely enjoyed every single minute and every single day of my sabbatical would be like someone saying their favourite writer is Chetan Bhagat. A naïve, constricted view. I have realized that no matter how much ad films and magazine covers glamourize the mom and baby combo, its not entirely the truth. Those glossy pictures you see are a Kodak moment. There are other moments before and after that. I wonder why we relentlessly target the seven year itch for married couples while we still do not exhibit complete frankness about the roller-coaster relationship that one shares with children. One reason I can think of is that children, at least till the age of five, are beyond human weaknesses, and love you unconditionally, no matter what. Something like pets. The only difference being is that the amount of care and attention children demand are way way higher than your furry companions would.

                       

There are times of the day where S and I are inseparables, cuddling away to glory. There are also times on the same day, where we have got so tired of each other that we mutually agree to get on with our own separate activities. The third slot is the toughest – one of us has got tired of the other one. The other one is still eager to get along. No brownies here for guessing who’s who. Just picturize a killer client who keeps you on your toes 24/7. Calls you at the weirdest possible hours. Doesn’t let you eat your food in peace. Forget food, you probably even miss drinking enough water and postpone loo-trips. That’s the pressure full time baby-raising can put on you. The only big difference is that the baby will give you a joyous gurgle at the end of the day, that has the effect of Ctrl-Z. Your lunches have to be planned well so as to attract minimum disruption. At least for the first six to eight months, you are reeking of baby food, Dettol and J&J. You feel like going to the mall to distract yourself and the baby, but the baby is too small. After few months, the baby is too cranky. After that, the baby is quite mobile and insists on running the length and breadth of the mall, making you appear like a joke to people around.

There are days when I yearn for the office goers look. A look practiced over the years, of posh Fabindia kurtas, unruffled silk dupattas, and printed salwars, with not a single nail chipped, eyebrows trimmed well at all times, coordinated earrings, footwear, bags, and ensemble completed with a smudgy kohl and an everyday lipcolour. Aaah, the simple things I wanted from life. Of course, sitting through office was by no means a la-la ride. We had to work our bums off. Pester clients, talk sensible stuff all the time, manage projects impeccably, hold attention spans, create favourable perceptions everywhere. Have an updated Linked in account, network well at corporate get togethers and be uptodate with the day’s business headline. Act as if you are born to handle crisis, at all levels, between your subordinates, superiors, clients, whoever. Move around with a Zen-like smile till you reach that place called home. Where the Zen in you crumbles, and all rules break. You are once again human, a daughter, a wife, a mother. You make up for all the calmness in daytime by unleashing the real ‘yours truly’ at home. Strangely, a part of me even today longs to return to this lifestyle. The lifestyle I used to crib about every weekend while I was working. The lifestyle I so badly wanted a break from. The lifestyle I had decided never to recommend to anyone. We humans are a fickle minded lot. We unconsciously adapt ourselves even to unfavourable environments, so much so that we even manage to create a comfort zone within it. We nevertheless keep cribbing about the negative conditions as that gives us some form of catharsis. Finally, when pushed out of the comfort zone, we miss those trying times badly.

During this break, I did try hard at times to don the avatar of a supercool mum and wife. Efficient, never clumsy, who knows her plain olive oil from extra virgin olive oil. Who rattles off clever tricks and tips to solve any household trouble. Who appears glamorous even while shes cooking. Harmonious and blended, with the ease and grace of a geisha. Who can switch fluidly between discussing money market instruments and idli batter recipe in a jiffy. Who makes lovely cakes without a spot in her apron. Who can say intelligible things like ‘The roasting and browning of the pumpkin is key for giving this soup its special taste’…and so on. But I was miserably unsuccessful. Though I did learn some survival tricks at the kitchen and the art of churning out my own dosa batter, I still have a long way to go towards being the queen of the hearth.

Despite all odds, when I look back at the motherhood experience that has been so different from the rest of my life, I am surprised that the only aftertaste I have is contentment. Of having invested time to bring up S in my way. I know some of this might get eroded but at least I gave it a good enough shot. Babies, though extremely demanding, come with inbuilt stress busters. Like a beautiful smile thrown at you. An unexpected peck on the cheek. An trusting finger curling around yours for security. Making you feel so so important in their scheme of things by wailing for you when you are away. Makes me forget, at least temporarily all the good nights’ sleep that I have missed. The innumerable diaper changes. And every other hardship. Maybe that’s why mothers generally develop short term memory loss. Makes life that much more beautiful.

I am now harbouring thoughts of slowly getting back to work. There are obviously mixed feelings. Thank you S, for having entertained me. And for giving me another chance to grow up once again. Only, this time around, I will take my own sweet time to grow up.

Feed it back!

In the corporate world that has now taken a sabbatical from me, feedback was always the ever-important term. I also give it credit for making me go weak in the knees every time I came into any kind of contact with it. No, I am NOT a weakling (Really, you know, am not). The special thing about feedback is that it’s one of the very few things that can be treated as both art and science. As they say, a giver of feedback should know –

When to give, Who to give, What to give, How to give and such others.

The recipient of feedback (yeah, the victim) should know –

How to listen,

What to listen to (Very very important – separating the rice from the chaff types),

What to say (well, the clever thing to say after the session. You get the drift, right?)

How to put ‘feedback into action’ (tough one, eh?)

Now amidst all this mayhem, the feedback Cupid (and I am sure there’s one) plays his role to determine if ‘what you intended to communicate’ was exactly ‘what the recipient understood’. Or  misunderstood.  Totally. Or partially. Whew!

As I sometimes do, in a pocket of time that I suddenly find to be ONLY mine, I started mulling over how much I was missing the feedback session of my corporate avatar. It did yield results, I thought. For all the hard work by everyone.

Suddenly, I rubbed my hands in glee. I would apply the feedback in my day-to-day life. Well, who says it’s meant only for the office. For all you know, it may better my life. (Not all by-products of free time should be given wings, was something I didn’t realize then).

My maid cum cook was the first target. I was all armed. I gave her one of my most beatific smiles and asked her to first sit down before starting her work. We need to have a discussion, I said. With a million worry lines on her forehead, Vandana Maushi prepared to sit on the floor. ‘No, no! Idhar’, I said, pointing to the dining table chair. We made a strange pair on the dining table, she, with her frown laden face, as if I was going to ask her about a missing golden bangle, or about the dead fly in the lunch she had made.

Me: Maushi, aap hamare liye ek saal se kaam karte ho. Aapko kaisa lag raha hai? (Forgive the ‘Aaj Tak’ punch line)

She: Pauses interminably before asking ‘Kyun, mujhe teremnate karnewale ho kya?’ (Are you going to terminate me?)

Me: (trying to put the merits of feedback in the ‘layman’est of terms) ‘Nahi Maushi, mujhe jaanna tha aapko kaam me kya achha laga, kya accha nahi laga, kuch badalna hai kya, woh sab. Tumhala samajhla na?’ (literally translated from Marathi as ‘you understood, right?’)

She: Worry lines reduced somewhat. Hmmm, everything is fine Didi….. (Now don’t ask me why ‘Maushi’ calls me ‘Didi’. It has worked for our excellent chemistry so far, you see)

Me: ‘To kuch badalna nahi hai kya?’

She: ‘Manjhe?’ (means?)

Me: ‘Kuch bhi, kaam karvane ka dang, kitne bartan daalti hu, kitney chutti deti hun. Kuch hai to bolo maushi!’

She: ‘Chutti to accha deti ho. Magajmaari bhi nahi karti. Bartan kabhi jyaada hai to kabhi kum. Chalega didi, sab theek hai.’

Me: (Now a little exasperated that the session is just not yielding any improvement point) ‘Ok, to kuch bhi change nahin karna?’ I add a final twist. ‘Kuch hai to bol do maushi, nahi to agle mahine ko hi bol paoge.’

She: ‘Haan didi, yaad aaya. Ek chhoti si baat hai.’

Me, happy that its finally going somewhere. ‘Bolo na!’

She: ‘Bas woh 801 wale ko mera pagaar mat batana. Har ek kaam ka unse jyaada paisa leti hu didi. Kya karu, kaam bahut hai udhar, aur who aurat kitna jhikjhik karti hai, maahit?’

I almost want to bang my head against the nearest wall.

The husband comes home. I greet him with a very very unusual smile. Usually its a curt ‘hi’ which means a lot of things –

You’ve had a good day out working, look at me, dealing with diapers and nappies all day. You better take care of the baby now.

Don’t ask me to make tea now, I really need to put my feet up, have been running all day! Etc. And etc.

He: ‘Hey! Seem to be in a good mood today eh?’

I: ‘Yeah…kind of.. do you want me to make some tea?’

He: ‘uhmmmm..ok…thanks for asking.’

I: ‘Anytime! Hey, by the way, need to have a discussion with you.’

The husband’s high drops a bit. ‘Yeah?’

‘Lets talk over tea. Nothing to worry, just a casual chat.’

We start chatting. Luckily the baby is asleep.

I: ‘I was thinking, you know, that we should have a feedback session’

He: ‘About?’

I: ‘Well, about what went right during the month, what didn’t, you get it – just like our corporate ones?’

He: ‘Hmmm…Why do you want to do it?’

I: ‘Well, you know, the benefits of feedback n blah blahs. I have a feeling such regular sessions will help us to be better partners in the long run.’

He: ‘Ok, if you really think so. When do we start?’

I: Cocking my eyes slyly, ‘What’s a better time than now?’

He: ‘Fine. So let me start. Things that I didn’t quite like in you in the previous month –‘

  1.  ‘You cut your hair. Real short. Without even telling me.’ (hey come on now, it wasn’t that short to really pre-warn you. And remember, your sister streaked her hair red, and you didn’t even notice?)
  2. ‘You bought yet another truckload of bed linen which you will definitely not use in the near future as we can’t leave the baby on it for all the right reasons.’ (Hello, but it was on sale!)
  3. ‘You didn’t act cheerful enough in front of my friend who visited last Friday’ (now whatever that means? Well, how cheerful can one get when someone is invading your only TGIF evening of the week)
  4. ‘You never take good photos of me.’ (Like model, like photo)

At this point, I have to time-out the husband to warn him that he is getting too micro. He shushes me, and goes on, this time attempting to be more macro, and macho.

  1. ‘You never cook for me.’ (Typical MCP point)
  2. ‘You don’t offer me tea.’ (Still thinking of an appropriate retort to this one)
  3. ‘You don’t call my dad very frequently.’ (But even you don’t call him twice a week, baby)
  4. ‘I have learnt Tamil to an extent, you are not even making an effort to learn Gujarati. How will the baby learn the mother-tongue’ (Hmmm, but I thought it was the mother’s tongue)
  5. You didn’t encourage me for my bullet trip to Himalayas (Encourage? Hey, you just went on a backpacking trip to Sikkim with your friends)

At this point, I almost want to wail like a banshee and curse my hormones for bringing this feedback thingie up and out in the open.

‘OK OK!!’ I scream. ‘Enough! I haven’t heard so many complaints in all the four years of married life. And it’s all about negatives. Where are the positives?’

He pauses just for a moment before retorting that he needs some time to think and get back. ‘Yeah, right’, I yell, at my sarcastic best, ‘You never thought even for a millisecond before you spat out all the complaints. It was as if they were sitting neatly wrapped, right below your tongue, ready to be released anytime’. And, phew, there goes my evening.

Next day, my deal is with the baby.

‘S, don’t step on the book. It’s ‘Jay-Jay’ (meaning ‘God’ in Gujarati baby-talk).

S gives me an understanding nod, and feeds puffed rice to the book, all the time standing over it.

It’s on my nerves now. Feed it back to the corporate world, pleaseeee!!