Reading the book Lean-In by Sheryl Sandberg has triggered this blog.
Even though I was born and raised in a society where women were expected to look pretty and make babies since as early as the age of 21, my mother had a different dream for me. When she herself was 8, she had begun cooking and took care of family meals. From 12 years of age, she had to care for her younger brother (who is 12 years younger) as if he were her own child despite my grand-parents still being alive. She would have to ask my father for money and permission every time she wanted to buy something because he was the single-earning member of the family. These are just a few of the several examples I recollect. As a child, to me, it seemed like a pretty dim picture. It wasn’t because anyone had been mean or disrespectful to her, they were all living the way the society was that time. However, she just felt that the whole thing was very unfair. When I was born, she dreamt of herself in me with all the freedom (of choice and life) she had ever imagined. Till date she happily and proudly reminds me how I am everything she had ever dreamt of being.
She had decided that I would earn a living for myself, I would be taught to think for myself, make my own choices and become successful. My kind liberal father supported her decision. So, as they tell me till date, I was raised like a boy and I am to them what an elder son in the family is like. This was also the reason why they literally kept me away from skirts, dresses and kitchen (despite all my family members strongly criticizing them for the kitchen part) and encouraged me to wear shorts and pants because they wanted me to focus on my work and education rather than my looks or boys (which was also criticized by extended family). My education, work, and all-round development were prioritized over everything else in the world, including their own life or happiness. Till date I question and doubt myself of being able to ever make such sacrifices for my children as they did for me.
I vividly remember the day after I turned 18 when my maternal grandfather (a highly influential figure in my life and a successful lawyer himself) informed me that there were some very good “prospects” for my marriage on the horizon if I would consider it; and I strongly declined it saying that I wanted to study further; and my mom who was secretly over hearing this conversation through the kitchen door looked proudly at me.
On a regular basis, I would be given examples of many of my aunts around me who were suffering because they did not take control of their lives when opportunities came their way. “Look how abjectly and sorrowfully they are living now”, my mom would say. “Look at me”, she would continue, “is this what you want to become? No? Then study and work hard, no one has ever died or failed because they worked hard.” I took her pretty seriously. Now when I look back, I find it quite amusing that my life was filled with characters whom I did not want to grow up to be like. For the longest time, I remember thinking proudly of myself as a rebel, until I realized, it wasn’t me, in reality my mom was a rebel.
They brought me up to believe that I had tremendous capabilities and that I could achieve anything I wanted. I remember going to my mom feeling dejected on various occasions and she saying to me in kind but strong tone “There is nothing that you are not capable of doing.” They treated me equally to my younger brother. We both had equal opportunities, equal love and were considered to be equally competent and capable, to the extent that I never realized that not all girls get such equal treatment or feel this way. If I was found looking in the mirror for more than 5 minutes, gossiping, talking on the phone for more than 10 minutes, I would get an elongated hearing from my father (& this has continued till date).
Unknowingly all these experiences taught me to not take things personally when anyone criticized me. If there was ever a bias against me because of my gender, I never realized it. If ignorance is bliss, this was it. Maybe I had subconsciously assumed and accepted the common view that the men were considered ‘superior’ in the world than women and that my goal wasn’t to rebel against that view, rather, it was to rise above despite the challenges and change the perception by leading an example. I began using my gender as an advantage and strength instead of weakness.
This helped me navigate through situations in my career and life that otherwise could have bogged me down. It also helped me be bold, so for example, when I was negotiating for my salary twice over last 5 years, I would first discuss at length with my husband and then negotiate hard (although I was nervous while doing so), as if I deserved it. I usually got what I asked for.
More recently I have concluded that it wasn’t like I did not possess the internal barriers that the book refers to. Only that I tried to fight those internal barriers subconsciously and certainly did not let the external barriers hold me back. And this was because of my parents who had leaned in and paved the path for me. They weren’t perfect but they made my life.