I had a trial run of the hospital I will be giving birth in on Sunday.
I no longer have to drag my whale-of-a-body to work. I no longer have to force my way out of a crowded train in the morning and painstakingly explain to a taxi driver my office address while he gives off an air of unexplained irritation. I no longer have to heave myself to the closest lunch option. I no longer have to sigh to get up for the printer or a drink of water. I no longer have to plead with my eyes for a seat in the train in the evening (which thankfully always comes).
One of the reasons I was dismayed about the prospect of giving birth to a son was the assumed inevitability of the popular understanding of the Oedipus complex*. Not so much the part where sons are obsessed with their mothers (which is actually the crux of the complex), but the mothers being obsessed with their sons aspect. I find it really creepy and yet it seems almost biologically fated.**
But then the other day a new theory struck me. New to me anyway; I’m sure someone somewhere has articulated this before. It came to me while I was reading this book Caramelo, which is a great read btw. In it, there’s a character called the Awful Grandmother, who among other awful traits, is obsessed with her sons, especially her eldest son, and horrible to her daughter-in-laws. It is pointed out that this is fairly typical in Mexican culture (very similar to Indian culture) as is the Mexican male trait of thinking their mothers can do no wrong. The novel goes into the grandmother’s life story and tells how her first son was born at a time when her marriage was at its lowest point, and how her son became the focus of her attention.
And it struck me that isn’t this so often the case? Women in unhappy marriages, whose husbands have neglected them, tend to replace their husbands with their sons in terms of emotional bonding. This is probably more acute in women like the Awful Grandmother who actually had a passionate relationship with her husband before he went cold on her. I’ve noticed that even in the previous generation’s traditional Indian marriages, in the initial stages, the men are quite romantic in private with their new brides… and if that never was the case, the women have fairytales to fuel their fantasies of loving husbands until it all comes crashing down. And then along comes the son, who can be made to fill that emotional void.
Freud saw the typical mother-son dynamic as ubiquitous and because of this theorised it as a biological fact. But maybe it was ubiquitous not because of biology but because of society. Because in most marriages, men grew distant from their wives and the women sought solace elsewhere in socially acceptable ways – by channeling their passion onto their sons.
Because although Freud seems to stress sons being obsessed with their mothers, what I have observed is the other way around… mothers who are obsessed with their sons. There may be a stage in their young life when little boys are obsessed with their mothers but most seem to grow out of it. Even in the novel, the oldest son was made to choose between mother and wife, and chose the wife. Sure, there are boys/men who remain tied to their mother’s apron strings and I think this is because the mothers have guilt-tripped them succesfully as a result of their own needs.
The rare cases I have observed where mothers are not obsessed with their sons are where the mother and father have a close and loving relationship. Then the son is just another child.
On the flip side, what about fathers and daughters? Sure fathers and daughters have their own dynamic but you rarely see fathers continuing to seek control over the lives of their daughters in adult life the way you see mothers with their grown-up sons. Even where the relationship between father and mother has grown distant, the daughters don’t generally become a wife-substitute. Maybe because men don’t need that kind of emotional fulfillment the way women do. If there is an emotional void in their marriage, they deal with it in other ways probably.
On the other hand, daughters keenly feel a distant or absentee father. There have been studies about how girls with dysfunctional relationships with their fathers tend to be promiscuous. I have observed this among friends who had troubled relationships with their fathers – not so much promiscuity (which could be a teenage hormone thing) but a dependence on the boyfriend as a shore against insecurity and a bolster for their personalities. Again, girls need the men in their lives to fill an emotional role and when that doesn’t happen, it gets channeled into something a little strange.
What is this all about, you wonder? Well, basically, I feel kind of relieved that I don’t necessarily have to fight some deepseated Oedipal impulse. As I told V last night, if he keeps me happy, I won’t be an obsessive mother and a horrible mother-in-law. And if I was and my son complained, I would tell him to blame his father. To which V replied: “Tell him whatever you want, pal” and rolled over and fell asleep. Hmph. Does not bode well for the future actually…
*I must confess that at some point, quite early in my pregnancy but after I knew I was having a son, V joked about how I was going to handle it when my son got a girlfriend and moved on. And my face just fell. The thought of my son with “another” woman threw me. I quickly recovered but V had seen my first reaction, and never lets me forget it. I don’t know if I would feel the same way about a daughter and her boyfriend but I think it’s also because when sons leave you they leave you so completely. Boys seems capable of an emotional connection with only one person at a time… first it’s their mothers they open up to, and then their girlfriends. And when the girlfriend happens, they don’t need their mothers. Daughters stick around. From that moment, I started prepping myself for the day my son moved on in life. And he hasn’t even been born yet! I know all this sounds scarily Oedipal but my theory has convinced me there’s a way out. If V keeps me happy. So he has been instructed to pamper me for the rest of my life. The end.
**Anyone with a background in psychology/sociology feel free to put me straight. I only studied both for two years so my knowledge is rudimentary.
In India, there is a tendency to:
a) see India as a competitor to China. Think the Commonwealth Games/Beijing Olympics comparison (ha! Please note that in China, India is not considered competition. They have their eye on much more developed countries).
b) When we fall short, pat ourselves on the back because we have democracy and freedom. China is The Other, the one we can project the nasty onto and feel good about ourselves.
Since moving to Hong Kong, I have begun to question the latter. For one, I discovered that China is much more free than portrayed in the Western media. Far from a communist wasteland, Chinese cities are quite capitalist looking. People go about their daily lives with a great degree of entrepreneurial spirit. Sure, there is The Party but in daily life it’s possible to negotiate one’s way around it, just as one negotiates a corrupt bureaucracy in India. Moreover, in person at least, Chinese people are surprisingly open with their opinions, even on sensitive topics. They are not unaware (how could they be, having lived through them) of the failings of their government.
Second, I have come to realize that for vast swathes of the Indian population, democracy and freedom are meaningless. In elections, it is not the vote of the educated population in big cities that matter but the slumdwellers and residents of small towns and the rural areas. For them, what is the point of a vote if people are forced/bribed into voting for whichever candidate? Moreover, has being able to vote made their lives any better?
For the small farmer, the tribals and the poor, is the Indian government, democratically elected, any different from the dictatorial leadership in China? If the Indian state can randomly push you off your land to enable the construction of a dam or a mine that will not benefit you at all, can submit your homeland to army rule for decades and cover up the resulting atrocities, can arrest you and throw you in jail for associating with those it doesn’t like, can forcefeed you through your nose for 10 years for protesting its authority… really, how is India different from China?
Then I began to think about these stories from China – a man sentenced to jail for trying to organise parents trying to get justice for their babies, another man jailed for pointing out that shoddily constructed schools had led to children’s lives being lost in the Sichuan earthquake. The Chinese government has taken these incidents seriously and heads have rolled literally but somehow it seems wary of letting individuals have their say. Let’s not even get into the absurdity of the Ai Weiwei studio demolition and house arrest or the continued detention of Liu Xiaobo.
And I realised that the difference, and the reason so many of us are quick to feel good about freedom in India, is that in India people like us, the middle and upper-middle class have a voice. We can protest (or do meaningless candlelight vigils) and some notice is taken. We can go to court and might get justice. The media may just listen to us, because we are the media’s customers, unlike the dispossessed tribal who noone cares about.
If as middle-class citizens our children were poisoned with melanin-tainted milk, there would be outrage and the government dare not penalize the man who fights for justice for himself and other middleclass families. Of course, if you’re poor and your children are poisoned by leaks from a nuclear plant in some far flung village, you will just be ignored and if you protest, there are means by which you can be silenced.
But, at least, in India some of us have a voice. So, I suppose that’s the difference – in China, only the very rich and the politically connected have a voice. In India, apart from this obvious group, the middle class has some chance of being heard. The poor in both countries, a vast majority, remain voiceless (but who cares about them?). I suppose that’s something to be proud of.
Finally, after months of shocking my colleagues by walking to and fro in rain and sun and shamelessly eating forbidden things like shrimp, I feel heavy. I do not want to move. The act of getting up is painful. My pelvis is feeling the weight above it and my right buttock is ensuring that my waddling gait is one-sided. My double chin is undeniable.
My husband reminds me every day to “be careful”. To not read while on the escalator. To get up slowly. To stop walking so much.
Little things continue to crop up. Now my weight is fine but my pee has too much protein. On Sunday, I dined with a person who had a cold sore and then I panicked.
My son is upside down and has been for a while. He is big and he is cramped and he kicks me for it.
It’s only a matter of time.
Yesterday I interviewed a couple of mathematicians. I was dreading it because even while researching the article I got a headache. I tried to figure out what their areas of expertise were and everything just started glazing over.
I really do hate maths.
Finally, I figured out some very broad and general questions and crossed my fingers that these eminent experts in their fields would not be embarrassed by them. And that they would answer them without going off into jargon, which is what generally happens when I interview scientists, especially those in the academic arena.
Weirdly, it was fine.
My attempts at abstract questions fell flat (because frankly they bordered on making no sense) but they answered the to-the-point simplistic questions well. Yes, there were things I didn’t catch but that was generally when they were reminiscing about eminent Russian and Chinese scientists who had formulated the theories we study in textbooks. The interview was more like a conversation between the four people there, peppered with “oh Markov, he founded the Academy of so-and-so”… and some story and giggles. Most of all, they seemed like nice people.
Anyway, I came away with the never-before-had feeling that mathematicians are people too.
* * *
When I was 15, I decided that despite my stellar academic record and propensity to geekilly top the class, I was going to study Arts in college and not Science. I’ll admit that a small part of it was rebellion – I disliked the idea that everyone assumed I would take Science, an assumption that involved schoolteachers calling up my mum after the board results were out to convince her to change my mind. The compromise was that I took Math in the 11th and 12th, an option that our college annoyingly offered. It was the class I bunked the most and very nearly flunked one exam, a historic first because I had never flunked an exam in my life.
Beneath the rebellion there must have been some instinct about where my real interests lay, despite me confusingly testing high in math on an aptitude test (but very low on physics and logic) and being urged to at least do commerce. Apart from the Math class in college, I genuinely was interested in what I was studying in college and (gasp) enjoyed going to class. I will never regret the decision to major in Literature because it was a year of loving what I learnt.
But sometimes I think science allows you to do more life-changing things. As a kid, I had always wanted to be a vet, and I still think I would have made a good one. But it’s something that I gave up on because I didn’t want to do science. I think I would’ve made a good doctor too… I think being a doctor is one of those professions where you don’t have to be at the top of your profession to change lives, you do it every single day. My brother-in-law, an engineer, is working on a project that could literally change the world.
I know that as a journalist one could do this too, though it generally doesn’t happen because the profession isn’t set up that way. Or maybe I just didn’t make enough effort or have the grit and courage that being a journalist that makes a difference needs. I know that artists are important, that there’s a reason dictators try very hard to silence artists.
But these days, I wonder what would have happened if I had been in science. And then I think… oh well, at least I’m not a banker.
Just when I was beginning to think that my sister and I having babies in the same year was eventful enough, my sister-in-law has adopted a baby girl. They brought her home last week and she is super-adorable.
So, now my son will have two cousins of exactly his age to play with. Except they are both girls. Hmph. Also they are both in different countries. Double hmph.
Maybe because I am about to have a baby, I was greatly excited about this new niece. The night my Sil told me the news, I dreamt about the baby, about how she was a blessing, about how we’re going to love her. My Sil and I get along (for the most part) but we don’t talk that often. But around the time she was bringing home the baby, we were on the phone to each other three times in one week.
My Sil might seem unusual because she is adopting a baby although she already has a daughter. It’s not because she can’t have kids herself. I don’t think it’s because she thinks she’s doing something noble. She and her husband decided this is the way they want to build their family.
Both V and I have cousins who were adopted and so it’s not out of the ordinary for us. It’s hard to even remember they are adopted. My cousin looks racially different from other members of our family, and yet, we’ll make remarks like “oh, you’re looking so much like aunty so-and-so.” Sure, an adopted kid will face some complex issues of identity at a certain age – this is something it took me a long time to accept because I couldn’t see why my cousin should face any emotional turmoil relating to her identity when she was so completely a part of our family. (I was even slightly offended – she was my baby cousin, how could she even consider belonging to anyone else). But for whatever angst my cousin who was adopted goes through and puts her parents through, I came name two other cousins who were not adopted who went through equally serious issues.
I have always supported the idea of adoption and people who choose to adopt without thinking I could do it myself. The reason being I don’t like babies enough. I figured that going through pregnancy would make me bond with my own baby (which it has) and so I could mother my own biological child. But I wasn’t sure I could love someone else’s baby as my own child.
Ironically, going through pregnancy has changed my mind. Honestly, after going through this process (which is not pretty, and I’m assuming will only get uglier with labour), I figure if I can love this child, I can love a child who doesn’t put me through this. Especially a girl child.
So, I want to adopt too. I don’t want to spend another year of my life going through this. I want to be sure my next child will be a girl. The only obstacle – my husband. Although he’s sure he won’t make a difference between his nieces, he’s not sure he could bond with an adopted child as his own. However, he has already started talking about having another child, maybe because he panics slightly when I declare there is no way I’m going through this process again. So, I’m hoping that watching the niece grow up and loving her will convince him that whether your child is adopted or biologically yours, doesn’t really matter much.
* * *
Also, an insane number of people I know seem to be having babies. First, there’s the apartment complex we moved to. Hong Kong has an extremely low birth rate, but in our apartment complex one can be standing in the lift lobby for five minutes and two preggers women will waddle by (apart from self, so that makes three).
Then, there’s my immediate family: my sis, my closest cousin, and another cousin had babies in March, April, May. Then there’s me due soon. And now another cousin called in to say she is pregnant, due June.
In HK, I know at least 3 friends who are pregnant and due around now. This, of course, can be put down to age. We are at that age when we decide to have babies.
And finally, yesterday, I learnt that one of my ex-boyfriends had a baby. Really, it’s getting hard to keep track.
And then we got around talking about living abroad versus living in India.
Arrgh back to square one.
So, the conversation.
One of the things my friend keeps saying is that she is not interested in a long-term relationship. She says this as if it is supposed to scandalise. Maybe in her community it does. She keeps repeating that she is commitment-phobic. Listening to women say they are commitment-phobic has become extremely boring to me. I hear so many women say it, it’s almost unbearable only because they say it with this air of rebellion. Ladies, every second one of you says you’re commitment-phobic and often it’s when you’re in between relationships. (To be fair to my friend, she hasn’t been in a relationship for a long time.)
The “commitment-phobic” line has become one of my pet peeves (for its ubiquity) as have women who go on about their sex lives, another thing I find annoying. Having sex is not reinventing the wheel, I really don’t want to hear the details of it. I’m not going to find you more interesting because you’re having sex, because I assume everyone of past my age has had/is having sex (occasionaly or frequently) and does it in interesting ways, and that’s nice but why tell me? Now, if you told me you’re a 30-year-old virgin, that I’d find interesting.
(ok clearly i am ranty)
Then this girl surprised me. She told me she keeps meeting men who want long-term relationships.
My ears pricked up.
In Hong Kong? My understanding is that the entire social scene in Hong Kong is peopled by men who do NOT want to have a long-term relationship. Finding a long-term partner in Hong Kong is notoriously difficult, especially for intelligent, articulate women who are not stick thin. Men in Hong Kong have plenty of options of women who are not too demanding and look fabulous to bother with women who might actually hold them to the standards and work involved in what goes as dating in other countries. In short, it’s fantasy land for men and my understanding of most men’s intentions is that if you tell them you want an uncomplicated, no-strings-attached-relationship where they don’t have to call you every other day, they would jump at the chance.
Hell, most of the men in India I know would jump at the chance. Though they probably won’t say it. In India, men feel obliged to say the right, romantic things. But tell them you don’t want to marry them, just have a good time with them and watch them sparkle.
(She was surprised; she assumed that if she said something like that to a guy they’d think she was a slut. Of course, one has to suss out the kind of guys one can say this to. But generally, I’d assume the kind of guys one would be interested in would be the kind of guys openminded enough not to be shocked by women expressing an interest in life other than marriage. I assured her I had tried it and it worked).
I pointed out to her maybe because she was Indian, non-Indian men in Hong Kong also felt the need to say the right thing to her. Bottomline, I don’t think they mean the long-term stuff.
I finally suggested to her that maybe she should do a Samantha and just state her intentions. Then, she got defensive. She said she’s more a Charlotte than a Samantha. That she’s not too interested in sex.
What she is interested in is going for long romantic dinners and having fascinating discussions that might end in a kiss.
Ok, is this possible? Are there guys who would wine and dine a woman, go on dates etc. with no hope of sleeping with her? Maybe. But I think most guys assume that “relationship” (in the dating sense of the term), whether it’s short or long-term, generally is going to involve sex. Hell, I’ll go so far as to say for most guys, this is the point. The interesting conversation is an extra.
I’m sure there are guys out there who prefer just going to dinner or the opera with women and end the night with a goodnight kiss. Indefinitely. Only, isn’t this called “friendship”? Why does it have to be a guy then?
So maybe what my friend wants is not a “short-term relationship”, because for me a “relationship” involves a sexual, or at least physical, aspect. Maybe it’s just friendship, with some flirting.
Is that a deal heterosexual guys would go for?