A graduation worth celebrating
Mother’s Day 2023 was an extra special day for me.
I spent the morning at Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley where my daughter received her Master’s degree.
The previous day, a bright sunny one, we made our way to the California Memorial Stadium where thousands of parents had gathered to witness the campus-wide commencement ceremony. The walk through campus took us through paths strewn with blooming rose bushes and streets with signs that said “parking reserved for Nobel Laureates”.
In the moments before the formal ceremony began, enveloped by bright bouquets, loud cheers, and a contagious happy buzz, I felt a warm wetness slide down my cheek.
Were these tears?
How weird! I very rarely cry. And this was a moment of pure joy.
Journeys, destinations, milestones
Exactly two decades ago, my husband of fourteen years and I moved back to India with our five-year-old daughter, hoping for the next chapter to unfold smoothly and easily for our family. But life had other plans for us.
Within two years of our return, I left my marital home and embarked on a prolonged period of separation which eventually led to divorce.
Since that time, my daughter and I have come a long way together. Our journey had been long. It had been far from perfect but we had taken risks, figured things out, and made it work.
At this important moment in my daughter’s life, I shed tears for her accomplishment. If things had turned out differently, this moment of celebration might not have come to pass.
The meaning of tears
My tears of gratitude acknowledged all those times of uncertainty when I doubted whether we would have happy days in the future.
As the cliche goes, these were years of joy but also of relief that all those other terrible scenarios that I had once imagined had not transpired.
The tears were real. So was the bright sun overhead. And the fact that we were celebrating a major milestone, not a destination.
As a single parent, I made a series of choices that dramatically altered the trajectory of our lives. While all parents care for and worry about their children there is more uncertainty, hardship and scrutiny for children of divorce.
A future never imagined
In Stephen R. Covey’s bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the second habit, “Start with the end in mind” emphasizes that creation must first happen in the mind before it can manifest in real life. While this technique may work in professional situations, it doesn’t apply to marriage.
When two independent individuals voluntarily choose to enter a common future that may or may not bear any resemblance to the life they had previously imagined, it doesn’t matter whether the proposal is made after a whirlwind affair or a long courtship. The only ‘end’ that newlyweds anticipate is an unending happily-ever-after.
The hard work of marriage begins soon after the wedding celebrations end. As routine abrasions of cohabitation, daily demands of careers, the burden of family expectations, and the possibility of a life reset in the aftermath of personal upheaval (or a global pandemic) pile up, the likelihood of long-term marital bliss plummets.
The end of anything is actually a what next
In marriage, you need to constantly reassess and adjust the ‘end’ which is more likely a ‘what next’ and not a final destination. As philosopher Alain de Botton observes in his oft-quoted New York Times essay “Why you will marry the wrong person,” “Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”
Despite all efforts, when coexisting compatibly becomes increasingly exhausting, couples take the tough call to split. And when children are involved, the decision to divorce is agonizing. I know this because of my own hesitation but also because many readers of my book, Rewriting My Happily Ever After – a memoir of divorce and discovery, shared their doubts and struggles with me.
The question that I am asked by most readers, especially mothers who hesitate to walk out of unhappy marriages is “How is your daughter doing now?”
What we celebrate
After the commencement ceremony ended, we made our way to the lawns beside Campanile Tower, the unmistakable Berkeley landmark where families stood in the pretty spring sunshine, laughing, taking pictures. We took the elevator up to the top of the tower from where we could see panoramic views of the beautiful San Francisco Bay area. We took pictures, huge smiles lighting up our happy faces as we received and offered congratulations to other graduates.
Later that day, I did something highly unusual. I posted a photograph of my daughter and me on Instagram. Although I use social media, I typically don’t post pictures of myself or my family. But I made an exception that day.
After all, it was my daughter’s special day. It was also Mother’s Day.
A special day for my daughter, and me
The post was in celebration of an achievement that is a common rite of passage. In my own family, my mother had obtained a Master’s degree and I had succeeded in getting a Ph.D. Yet, when I was rebuilding my life after divorce, I wondered about the kind of celebrations that would follow on this new path where I had no role model, no reliable mentor, and no stable family support.
I was afraid. Afraid to dream big, afraid to envision a concrete future which I could confidently create, afraid to hope that life would readjust to a new normal that would be more satisfying than the one I had walked away from. Yet, there we were. Celebrating graduation like any other family.
Beside me were my daughter but also my new husband, and his daughter who was now mine too. We were thrilled to be a blended family committed to supporting each other’s dreams and happy to show up for this important celebration.
A journey of fluid moments
By sharing my raw emotions (and photographs), I wanted to thank everyone who witnessed, participated, and encouraged us along this journey. It was a shout-out to my daughter, to my family, and to my global village stretched across continents that helped us get here.
It was also a response to all those readers who were curious about how things had turned out for me.
As author, Susan Cain notes, “We’re built to live simultaneously in love and loss, bitter and sweet.”
There is no permanently pleasant state – life by definition is fluid. Happiness and sorrow, darkness and light, doubt, and certainty are all parts of our unique human experience. When we accept this truth, we can ride through both the depths and the highs with grace, knowing that both are fleeting but still celebrating them nevertheless.
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