Turning thirty, they say, is a turning point in our lives. I admit, I totally agree.
I can remember it quite clearly. A sense of despair, a deep angst within me. Life seemed rather empty and at the same time, I knew in my bones that something beckoned. But a fog enveloped me and the path was unclear. I had no idea what to do, where to go.
Why? You see, all through my life until then, I had made choices and decisions with one primary objective. To please my father.
My father — the self-made man. Who beat all the odds stacked against him to create a whole new life. Moving from a tiny village to study at one of the most prestigious institutions of India. Without any financial or other kind of support from his family, through sheer hard work and tenacity, somehow he completed his education. He moved a few jobs and eventually decided to move to Mumbai — to create a new life for himself, and for us — my mother, my brother and me. He spent a whole month, to get an appointment with the principal of one of the best schools in town, so we could have the best education possible.
Little surprise then, that he held us all up, to the same exacting standards. High standards, that I found extremely challenging. Not just during 4th grade when we moved to Mumbai, but for a long time to come. Nothing I did was enough to please him. My brother seemed to receive his approval almost instantaneously. But me? It was always an uphill climb. Even something small like a new school-bag had to be ‘earned’ by me. I had to demonstrate that I could stay at the top of my class.
And so I became habituated to think about what he would want, and agree with his choices and decisions. It was way easier this way! So never mind that I wanted to continue in the dance class. My father thought I should go along with my brother for martial arts and tennis, so I endured the misery and did my best to make the most of things.
From choosing extra-curricular activities to my major in college to my first job to marrying someone I barely knew and moving to the US. Everything I did, was done with an unconscious attempt to gain his approval.
Little wonder then, that I had very little idea of the things that made me happy. Over time, life took on an undefined meaningless quality and I found myself struggling to make sense of where I was headed.
And then, one day, I came across an obscure ad and found myself calling to set up a meeting. I will never forget that afternoon. As I sat playing amidst mountains of Lego blocks, with a four-year-old in my lap. Taking turns placing one block over another until the tower became taller than him. And it didn’t topple. The look of sheer joy on his face as he hugged me tight. I fell for the job, hook, line and sinker.
The position was that of a development therapist, working with children with disabilities, primarily on the autism spectrum. I had no background or education for this, but I took up the job. And everyone took notice.
“What? You make just $7.50 an hour? Is that even minimum wage? You do realize you have an MBA? With your background and experience you could easily get a ‘good’ job. Why are you throwing away years and years of hard work?”
Shame. Guilt. Remorse. My share of emotions from the disappointment my father expressed yet again.
However, through all this, every day I spent with those children, brought me back, closer in touch with myself. They loved me simply and without holding back. I found myself laughing more often. Sleeping more soundly. I found some semblance of meaning back in my life. Loving and supporting these kiddos with an open heart, helped me connect with my own heart. And learn to follow what it sometimes said to me!
I started to find my voice. From ordering my own entrees at restaurants to telling my Mom what I wanted her to cook for me when she visited, to taking up pottery, something I had wanted to do for years. Feeling the moist clay take form under my hands was centering and grounding in a way I can’t describe. I even snagged the role of a mean, old woman in a theater production. As I connected more deeply with art in myriad forms, my inner voice grew stronger.
Life, with its ups and downs continued, and when my grandma passed away, I decided to go to India. Much against the advice and wishes of everyone else. But my inner voice told me in no uncertain terms, that this journey was critical. It was the distance I needed. And the different perspective that only distance and death can bring.
I found myself back in Seattle, facing the end of a ten-year marriage.
My father didn’t take it well.
“Are you sure about this? Why don’t you give it more time? Let me come and mediate. Just take a break and live separately for a bit until things settle down. What will the rest of the family say? What about society? This is not in our culture.”
By this time, I was more confident about following the advice from that inner voice. When I followed my gut, I found I received support from totally unexpected sources, in unexpected ways.
People helped me move, ready to come over at a moment’s notice, at all hours. A dear friend brought me a meal at work — with a sweet treat I love and the sweetest card ever. Friends from fifteen years ago reconnected with me and two of them visited me in within two days of my move into my own apartment…
And it continues. As I’ve embraced and welcomed this inner voice, allowing her expression in multiple ways, new opportunities have come my way that I wouldn’t even have dreamed about even as recently as two years ago! I’ve landed at a workplace I enjoy immensely, in a role that is very meaningful. I get to work with all kinds of nonprofits in our community, helping them to expand their own capacity to serve.
My Dad didn’t completely understand my decision to work at a nonprofit either. But after my parent’s visit to Seattle last summer, things have shifted.
I’ve discovered a different facet to our relationship. Perhaps it is called growing up and realizing most first-borns share a similar story of dealing with super-high expectations!
I think it was clear that I was in a much better space. He could see I was happier, more centered and at peace within. And I could see that even though he might not understand why I do all that I do, ultimately, all he really wants at the end of the day is for me to be happy. To spread my wings and soar high. To be the best I can.
It’s a journey and I’m enjoying every moment of it. I’ve gone far beyond the little girl seeking approval. I’m learning constantly to make my choices from my heart. To heal and transform my relationship with my father into a friendship. To pursue my passions — to travel, and write and express the artist within. To spread my wings and soar high. To be the best I can.
And this is what I find I wish to convey to him now…You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up… To more than I can be.