“I want to live in the Himalayan foothills.” When I declared my long-cherished dream and plan for the future (after our daughter’s schooling), my city and plains-loving husband, to his credit, did not dissuade me. Maybe he thinks it is a phase. However, it has been a while and my dream has become stronger and I am taking small steps towards accomplishing it. It may happen or it may not. But definitely not for lack of trying.
However, I was taken aback by the joke it became among our friends. With a few exceptions, no one took me seriously! How can I want to, and plan to live in the mountains, when my husband is from Bangalore and wants to retire there? I should be settling down there. When I respond that it can be done in the same way that I uprooted myself and moved to a desert nation 14 years ago despite hating sand, I am met with uncomprehending looks. I have become the hard-to-understand, mad woman with plans of my own that don’t fit in with anyone else’s.
Growing up, the plan is simple. “I’ll become big and do what I want to do.”
Some years down the line and you end up standing in front of the mirror looking at a stranger’s reflection. In the intervening years we have done every single one of those things we promised ourselves we will not. We have compromised, adjusted, settled down, downsized our goals, and given up. Given up on our dreams and ourselves. We have transferred our energies from chasing our dreams to being champions of our spouse’s and our children’s dreams.
We live in a time when most girls have access to education and the dreams they engender. We also live in a time when most of us are still taught to be ‘sweet and nice’ girls. From a very young age girls are taught to adjust, be nice, sit properly, talk softly, don’t back-answer (parent code for ‘don’t disagree with us’), sacrifice and be the nurturer, and worst of all to settle for things. If our dreams match the dreams and plans of our parents and society at large then we are set for a smooth ride.
However, if our dreams (be it to go on hikes alone or fly a plane or become an entrepreneur or archaeologist or return to university) put us on a crash course with the rest of the world, chances are, as a girl / woman, we will ‘adjust’. Worse, no one will even have to tell us to do so! We will hang our dreams silently and dutifully.
Girls were never taught and are still not taught to be the champion of their dreams.
I have friends who have not been ‘allowed’ to get a degree of their choosing because it was not considered ideal for a woman. I know women who second guess every single decision they make, despite being highly qualified, because a lifetime of not being taken seriously has resulted in them not valuing their own intelligence. We all know women who give up a lucrative transfer or promotion for the sake of the family, while happily sacrificing their own jobs to follow the husband on his transfers.
Yet I would not place the responsibility for this current situation at the doorstep of men. What we make of our lives is at the end of the day solely our responsibility. Most times no one ‘asks’ us to make these sacrifices.
The reasons – real, and sometimes, imagined – are aplenty. We don’t want to upset the status quo and inconvenience anyone. We fear not living up to the expectations of being the ideal wife and mother. We fear the hurt we will cause our loved ones with our choices. We feel guilt for taking time and energy away to do our own thing. Many of us suffer from a misplaced sense of duty. A lifetime’s or even centuries of conditioning makes it easy for us to slip into and stay in the martyr’s mode. We refuse to spend time analysing ourselves and our life goals. We are crippled by fear, which manifests in our lives as procrastination, diffidence, distractions and laziness. We are afraid that our dreams will be laughed at. Sometimes, we suffer from a genuine lack of family support and have responsibilities like small kids, a terminally ill family member or financial commitments that force us to shelve our dreams (for the time being).
In our rush to keep everyone happy, we end up disappointing ourselves, developing a lifelong acquaintanceship with regret and frustration. Haunted by the feeling that there has to be more, we live diminished lives underpinned by a great silent sorrow caused by the knowledge that we have let ourselves down.
But it really doesn’t need to be this way. No life can exist on a sustained high, but every life deserves its share of deep joy and sense of accomplishment. What can one do?
To begin with, we have to own our dreams and become comfortable with the fact that not everyone in our lives is going to be supportive. We may be labelled mean, selfish and a bitch. But it doesn’t make us one. As long as we are not harming another (kindly note that I am not talking about inconveniencing someone else or making them uncomfortable) with our actions, we need to be fierce. Fiercely protective of our dreams. Nourishing them and taking care of them like they are our babies. And you know what? Our dreams are our babies.
We need to stop apologising for wanting things that make sense only to us. We need to stop using our family and our circumstances as our excuse. We have to teach ourselves to be brave despite a lifetime of learning to be afraid.
The day we decide that we are no longer going to place ourselves last on our list of priorities, there will be a seismic shift in our relationships. It will inconvenience our families. It may make some of the people in our lives uncomfortable. However, things will eventually settle down. We will have to be willing to ride the emotional roller coaster at home. And, we will have to take tough decisions – continue to chase our dreams, keep it alive with one tiny action at a time, or give up on it. Quite often, we will find that most of our imagined fears were just that – imaginings. We may even be taken aback by the support we receive from our family and friends.
The path will not be a smooth linear path – family commitments, responsibilities and sometimes wrong paths taken, and explored, will delay us. Yet, it is vital that we hang in there, because, amidst the upheaval – we are teaching our girls to be strong women. We are teaching our sons that women too have the right to dreams and plans. We are teaching our children that keeping that dream alive over the years, championing it, and working towards achieving it doesn’t make a woman an aggressive bitch but a worthy owner of that dream.