The Non- Conformist


When my first child was born, one of the visitor said, “Congratulations on the birth of your motherhood!” The greeting was unusual; it arrested my attention. But even stranger was her expression. She seemed very concerned. I know she was trying to tell me more than her words said.

She sat down with me, ostensibly to play with my new-born, but actually to talk. She told me things I needed to be prepared for; the sleepless nights, the health issues. She told me not to allow myself to be pressurized by other people’s idea of what a mother is supposed to be, is supposed to do. She warned me not to let this pressure take away my pleasure in my child. She told me not to expect too much from myself.

At that time I was puzzled, I didn’t really understand what she was saying, or why. Expectations? Surely, I thought, there will be expectations. I was too young to take that amiss and buoyantly thought I would exceed everyone’s expectations- including my own. I had no idea what I was thinking. Youngsters are usually clueless, aren’t they?

To hear someone talk of a twenty- four hour vigilance was one thing, I came to understand, than to live it. I was completely unprepared to withstand the onslaught. Many months later, I began to understand what my visitor had been trying to say.

Our perception of a mother is that of a quiet, calm, all-sacrificing paragon whose very presence makes all troubles seem insignificant and petty. She is a person in whose presence no challenge seems too big, no mountain insurmountable. She is as steadfast as a rock. She dispenses advice; wholesome, well-cooked and delicious hot meals and the short end of the stick, with equal equanimity. Her poise is impeccable and she is possessed of a patience which can only be called monumental.

Nothing shakes her; nothing upsets her. She rises to the toughest occasion faultlessly. She always knows what to do- whether it is planning a birthday bash or knowing how to quash a particularly obnoxious boy- whose only aim in life seems to be to make a pest of himself till you are itching to help him locate his self-destruct button- and then press it for him.

I knew such a mother; I had such a mother. She was my mum-in-law. She passed away many years ago.

She was the most perfect mother I ever knew. She was a working mother, teaching in a day school. She had the uncanny ability to unravel the most complicated skein. She understood children perfectly. I saw her with my eldest one. She was an inspiration to me. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t come even close to my ideal. Her boots were too big for me to fill.

This left me feeling inadequate as a mother. She never- by word or gesture- made me feel I was not measuring up. But the role-model I had was so perfect, I never felt I was doing enough for my kids. Until a few years ago, I saw myself as a bad mother. Those questions still raise their heads sometimes. I know I’ll never get rid of them.

What changed me? Well, for that I’ll have to introduce you to my own mother.

My mother was a working mother too- she was a lecturer in a college. Her workday began early and usually ended at 2pm. She was rarely out after that. She broke all the MOTHER laws simply because she knew of none. She was her own standard, her own law.

She was never patient. There was no calmness or peace around her. She fully justified the name her professors had given her in college- HULCHUL (disturbance, the antonym of CALM). She never gave me advice, not because she didn’t know how, but because she preferred me coming up with my own solutions. I don’t remember her ever pushing me for anything- not even studies. If I happened to get a not-so-good score on my report-card, she’d just glance at it, turn up her nose and say, “CHHEEE..!”

I dreaded that expression and that derogatory, single syllable word. She would close the report card, return it to me and promptly forget all about it as if it had never existed. As a result, I pushed myself to perform better. I found that both my parents didn’t give a fig for my not- so great marks; they were an embarrassment only to me. It irritated me quite a bit at that time, I must confess. I felt as if I were an adopted child- a notion all kids fantasize with at some time or the other; as I found later.

When I tell you that the only thing I can say of the meals she served was that they were hot; occasionally wholesome; more often tasty and almost always comprised of something that had the shortest cooking time, I guess you’ll have a pretty accurate idea of her style of mothering.

She was the most unconventional mother I have ever come across. She taught all my friends and I how to apply make-up (when we were thirteen, mind you); it naturally got all of them into deep sh*t with their own mothers. She hated to cook with a passion which could force my poor dad-in the dead of winter- with the hotels nearing closing time… to cajole, threaten and get a meal packed. This would usually happen when she was curled up with a novel and would NOT be disturbed at any cost!

She was a passionate bibliophile. I remember her staying up all night (I was all of eleven years old) to read aloud to me my first P.G. Wodehouse novel. She was exhausted by 3am and went off to sleep, her voice hoarse. She left me reading on, hooked forever to a world of laughter. I slept only after finishing the novel. Naturally I missed school that day, which was more than fine with my mom. She didn’t think schools were for education anyway. She was a rather unconventional EDUCATOR I guess.

It gives me great pleasure indeed to see the stubbornness of an incorrigible nonconformist warmly acclaimed.

~ Albert Einstein

My mom was not a traditional mother. When I was feeling inadequate as a mother, I recalled and relived my childhood with her. I realized that I didn’t remember the haphazard meals, the missed school, the less-than-perfectly kept house. All I remember is that my mom gave me wings and told me that I had an unlimited sky.

To be a good mother, perhaps I needed to create my own style of mothering. I needed to form my own rules; draw up my own laws. I decided to throw away the Standard Motherhood Manual because there is no one perfect way to be a mother. Just as there is no normal for human beings, there was no normal for mothers either.

I decided not to mind too much what went into my kids’ stomach but to worry more about what they allowed into their minds. I concluded that while my kids needed to see me at home in the evening, they needed even more to see their mother live her life on her own terms. I know my kids needed a mother who was patient, kind and calm, but more than that, they needed a mother who never permitted even her own fears to hold her back from doing what she thought was right.

I don’t need to fill anyone’s shoes; I have my own.

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32 thoughts on “The Non- Conformist”

  1. This is something that every mother needs to come to terms with. She is her and no one else can be her. She needs to do things her way and not measure he capabilites according to some idea of perfectness that eveyone has. I am learning to do that everyday.

    1. I am sure you are the perfect mother to your kid(s) Jaibala. As long as you are doing your best, what more can anyone ask for?

  2. Absolutely, Dagny! I am sick of tired of how moms are projected to be these goddesses who are paragons of virtue and whose life ends once they have kids. My mother was someone like you mil — extremely loving, wise, excellent at household chores, a great cook who made most things at home painstakingly. But she had a life. She enjoyed socializing and festivals. She was the friendliest soul around. And she thrived in the attention my dad bestowed upon her. She was the Queen of the house, accorded respect and love and deferred to in all matters home. And I was brought up in this home where I pursued my happiness instead of chasing dirt. My sister and I were not initiated in any household chores. We studied! I haven’t done too bad as a mother. If I cook with passion, it is because I love doing it. No one can make me do anything I don’t want. Motherhood is rewarding even enriching. But I am no saint. I have my life, my passions, my dreams, and I will fulfill them. Like you said — I don’t need to fill anyone’s shoes; I have my own. Great post! Completely resonates with me. I so loved your mom.

      1. You had to Sakshi. I had to. We are one of a kind after all. 😀 A pleasure to see you on these pages after ages!

    1. Rachna, you are exactly the kind of mother I admire. Your values find perfect resonance with mine. To me the same things are important as those important to you. You are the kind of woman who wouldn’t be bound by any definitions. Neither ‘feminist’ nor ‘liberal’ could ever clip your wings. And I simply LOVE that. Hence you have been elected surrogate- mother to my kids if ever needed.

      Your mom sounds like an absolute dream. She seems to have made the best of both worlds… and all those in between. My MIL, unfortunately, missed out on ‘having her own life’. She wasn’t allowed an unrestricted sky. She was the epitome of ‘restraint’. It was as if she was tied in a million knots. She learned to live in the space and to convince herself that it was all she needed. It breaks my heart now, to think of it.

      Here’s to you and to the spirit that nurtures young India!

      1. Hugs, Dagny! This is the biggest compliment that a mother can give another mother. And I am honoured that you think me to be capable enough to be a surrogate mom to your kids. Truly touched every time you say that!

  3. Not all moms do that though many go through the fight of fitting in the definition of ‘good mother’. I absolutely adore you for coming up with a post like that. Your mom set her own bars and I love that about her.

  4. Dagny, I loved reading this tribute to motherhood, simply loved it. It is so moving, heartwarming…lovely absolutely. You know, after reading this it occurred to me that what I remember most about my mother, who was also more like your mother than mother-in-law (except for the study-pressure part, in that area she was quite a contrast to your mom!) are not those times when she was a “perfect mother” whatever that means…but all those times when she allowed us, especially me, her oldest daughter, to see her vulnerability, to be a witness to her fears, to her pain and helplessness. This made my inner bond with her so much more real, I could connect with her as a human being and not just in the confines of a mother-daughter relationship. And the more she allowed me in, the more perfectly I could know her as a mother too, with all her imperfections which really didn’t matter. It may sound strange but that’s how it has been for me. Really we don’t need perfect mothers or perfect anyone in our lives, we just need to be reminded that each one of us needs to walk on his or her unique path to gradual perfection without worrying about whether we will ever reach there.
    Your kids are fortunate to have a mother who is filling her own shoes quite nicely 🙂
    And oh, one more thing – regarding that very sweet thing you said on my blog…surely there is one very important commonality between me and your mother which I must share. I absolutely admire your mother’s philosophy of cooking. Meals that take the shortest amount of preparation time are the best meals 🙂

    1. You mom and you are both so lucky Beloo! You must have been a big solace to your mom and she must have been a powerful teacher and friend to you. It made me feel good to read of the bond you shared. Such precious memories! Thank you for sharing them with me.

      As you said, we don’t need ‘perfect’ anyone… we just need people who will do what they can in all sincerity.

      Your criterion of what makes a good meal made me grin. My mom and you do indeed share a few traits. She’d have loved to talk with you for hours.

      Thank you so much for such a heart-warming comment. I cherish it! 🙂

  5. Lovely post Dagny.. your post and the comments that got triggered through it are like pearls of wisdom for people like me who are yet to take on that role. Yes, I think most us would like to be the way you have defined it to be… fill our own shoes well rather than try and force fit into someone else’s..

    1. Seeta, I envy you. I wish I was given a better glimpse into a clarity of thoughts before I had to take on the role myself. I’d have spared myself a few years of agony.

      I am very happy that you liked this post. <3 😀

  6. A brilliant and different post Dagny…in the sense I don’t know when last you used the personal “I” so emphatically and moved from within that to connect to the larger public sphere. And I also read a second layer, beyond the issue you raise about insecurity of not being able to slip into mother discourse, how that results in loss/lessening of self-esteem and the need to resolve it by developing more realistic human-human standards. The second layer is have we given mother/mothering more responsibility/pressure than is needed. Is the way we pick up from environment and from our parents is not a direct correlation but a rather an interesting mix of what is directly given, what is picked up by our mental faculties, how we respond to situations, and how Universe supports and catalyzes the effort. As I hear you listening to your mother reading PG Wodehouse and falling sleep and you continuing till next morning, I hear a moment that came into your life, that was initiated by your mom to a ripe reader-to-be in you, awakening and discovering what will become your life passion. Are parents agents of Universe playing roles intentionally and unintentionally?

    1. Bhavana, Mothering/ motherhood are indeed given too much responsibility. Parenting is just one more influence, though it is stronger than any other. Yet, it is still just an influence. Like all other influences, the choice remains with us whether to reject it or to be swayed by it.
      The purpose of all influences- parenting included- is to fulfill your soul’s agenda. At least, this is what I believe. The universe too conspires to help the soul complete it current lap in the manner it wishes to. To that end, parents are certainly agents of the universe.

      It was like you to delve to the second layer. Thank you for this treat! <3

  7. Nice post Dagny. When I was a young mother, people would often advise me to feed my child this or that…which had worked for their own child. Or they would criticize the way I put them to bed and I used to say…to each his own. The pediatrician whom I consulted said…never compare your kids, they are two different human beings and so, I never compared motherhood and the choices of parents regarding their kids well being.
    To each his own…in every way. And now when my kids see the parents of their friends…they say I am far better than them. A nice reward 🙂

    1. Agree with you completely Janaki. Each mother- child pair is absolutely unique. For each of my 3 kids, my mothering is not only detemined by my own nature but also by what THEY need from me. What one child needs the other doesn’t. Some basics might be the same, but there will surely be different nuances to customize the kind of ‘mother’ inputs each child needs?
      Thank you for your comment. It reinforced my own thoughts.

  8. Dagny – Word rarely fail me. Yes, some of my words make no sense at all, but I always (and I repeat always) have a comment on everything. But for the first time in a long time, I’ve been rendered speechless. Here’s to all those imperfect and real mothers who have shoes of their own to fill. Hugs 🙂

    1. Here also to all the fathers who are unique in the way they play out their fatherhood. May you too always be comfortable in your own shoes Sid. You don’t really need to fill someone else’s, right? 🙂

  9. Dagny, your thoughts on your mother and MIL take me back to my early days of motherhood. My mother wasn’t perfect, neither was I. I had my fears recurrent disturbing thought was ‘not getting enough sleep’ :). The clarity of your thoughts and the fine use of language brings me back to your blog 🙂

    1. Anita, for my ‘fine language’ you must give credit to my mother. She was a professor of English and so my skill with language was a certain given, no? 🙂
      Thank you for reading this. It is one of my best loved posts. 🙂

  10. My mum I think has been the most imperfectly perfect mum! 😀
    she showed us she was human. She taught me and my sis that we needed to be ourselves first and that the shoes we wore were just about right.
    I hope when my time comes, I will be as imperfect as her! Filled with nothing but common sense and laughter! 🙂

    beautiful post Dagny! I called up ma and told her how a friend had written about her and gave her the link to your post! 🙂

    1. Aww Pixie! How sweet of you! Isn’t it strange how similar people are even though they have no common influences? Give my love to your mom! 🙂

      1. oh yes!
        I will Dagny. Thank you! She said to quote her “One of the most sensible things I’ve ever read about motherhood”

  11. I’m glad glad glad I read your post. Living up to varied mothering standards can be so exhausting. Your post makes me feel good even though I fit in somewhere between your mom-in-law and your mom. Sharing on FB.

    1. Thank you so much Tulika! I am pleased that you could connect with this. I think we allow too much pressure on us. Perhaps it is time for us to redefine our roles.

  12. I am one of those unconventional mothers too, Dagny! I used to cook the most perfunctory meals that I could find the time for, as I balanced home, work and some moonshining to add to the household kitty. The house was not from good housekeeping, nor did I drive the kids to perform better at school. The teachers of the younger one were more exasperated with me than with him, for not taking his grades seriously 🙂

    We are all imperfect but as you say, it is more important to see what goes into their heads than their stomachs! Hugs dear Dagny! You are a great mother and yes, you have your own shoes which fit you perfectly!

    1. I was sure of it! I was pretty certain you must be an unconventional mother. Everything about you declares it.

      As for children’s grades, I can’t be bothered either. I mean, what difference does it make what they score on their report cards? I was never a fan of formal education. I’ve meet too many people who have barely scraped through minimal school level education and yet are highly successful and much respected CEOs of companies. As Mark Twain said, one must never let one’s schooling interfere with one’s education. 😀

      So happy you read this!

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