Tag Archives: #ranjanirao

Watching My Daughter Graduate At Home

It was supposed to be a momentous year. I was planning to throw a party. A graduation party. Friends, flowers, photos. Smiles, speeches, tears. A memorable day where I would watch my daughter walk across the stage, surrounded by her peers, basking in the cheers of their families. A communal celebration. A coming of age. A time to fly. A time to sigh.

From the time she was four, I had imagined this milestone moment of her college graduation. Almost twenty years ago, I had heard commentary by Baxter Black about his graduating daughter on National Public Radio. It began with a question. “Did you ever stop and think to yourself – this will be the last time?”

It was a brief monologue, simple and moving, in the way heartfelt words often are. I thought about his words for days, trying to remember the order of those short sentences, trying to grasp the genuine emotions they conveyed. Years later, Google helped me trace the transcript. 

I printed the words on an off-white sheet of paper with green trellis design, inserted it into a plastic sheet protector, and tucked it into a cardboard box. The box traveled from America to India, and then to Singapore. My job was to keep the paper safe until her graduation day. The idea was to hand the sheet to her; to ponder, to keep, to discard, just like all the words I had uttered her over the years. That was the plan.  

To paraphrase John Lennon, Covid-19 is what happens when you are busy making other plans. Instead of the class of 2020, my daughter’s graduating cohort will forever be referred to as the Covid-19 class. 

Without a public ceremony for graduation, there will be no visible marker of an event to signify an end and a beginning. For me, the end of the years of direct parenting; for her, a beginning that would require her to fly away with strong wings and a smile. 

The disappointment of not having a large in-person ceremony was not just hers. I was hoping to vicariously relive the memory of my own graduation that took place more than two decades ago. To temper my disappointment, I revisited commencement speeches that form an important part of the US graduation experience. 

Encapsulating the distilled wisdom of the lived experience of writers, entrepreneurs, and people of substance, each speech is a mini self-help book of sorts, a concentrated shot of a carefully fermented brew that could cause a palpable buzz if swallowed swiftly. Many popular speeches became books that could be handed out as graduation gifts containing words of advice to young people stepping into a world of possibilities. 

But what advice can you give this cohort of millennial youth who feel cheated of their moment in the spotlight? They were denied the chance to post envy-inducing photos of a champagne-popping, hat-tossing, party-hopping day on Instagram. More importantly, they were denied the chance to savor the last in-person class, the last in-class exam, the last time of simply hanging out around campus, and the last chance to say goodbye. 

In an ideal world, my daughter would have heard inspiring words from influential people. All she can do now is hang out with family members with whom she has been stuck at home for months. While I cannot provide her the chance to march across a stage, victorious in a cap and gown, the one thing I can do is dispense pearls of wisdom. After all, I have lived an interesting life. But, as she helpfully points out, I have been giving ‘lectures’ forever. Instead of applause, my monologues are usually met with eye rolls.

Even though I grudgingly agree, I am tempted to install some final pieces of programming code into her before she flies away.

“Uncertainty is inevitable. Doing something is more important than getting it right every time. Take all advice with a pinch of salt.’ 

But in this post-COVID world, I look back on my years of parenting and consider the futility of the insistence on helmets and seatbelts, at the constant attempt to ease my child’s path and smooth the bumps, and wonder if anything I have said can prepare her for a world that has literally turned on a dime.

Words, however, are not empty platitudes. They carry with them the weight of a person’s experience, and their value is proportional to your trust and respect for the person involved. 

There is much I want to say, but this is the time for action, not words. I once again read Baxter Black’s musings and notice for the first time that like me, he has more questions than answers. 

All I can do is mutely nod in response to his final question – “Where did she go, this little girl of mine?” 

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog


This piece was first published here.

It Does Take a Village to Raise a Child

As I watched the Netflix documentary that follows Michele Obama’s book tour to promote her memoir, “Becoming”, I was reminded of a former American first lady who published a book while her husband was in office. 

When Hilary Clinton’s book, It Takes a Village And Other Lessons Children Teach Us, was first published, I read about it in the Washington Post. Intrigued by the unusual title, I wondered about her credentials to write with conviction about raising children. After all, she had mothered only one child. 

During the Clintons’ tenure at the White House, I was first a graduate student, and later, a postdoctoral fellow at a university not far from Washington DC. I knew nothing about motherhood and parenting. Judging Hilary Clinton’s expertise to write a book (that I had not read) was presumptuous on my part.  

About a year and a half later, as I cradled my newborn daughter in Silicon Valley, I asked a friend who came by for a visit – “How will I bring up this tiny baby into adulthood? I don’t know anything about parenting.”

A mother of a preschooler, she smiled knowingly and replied “Don’t worry, they come programmed to survive and grow. You don’t have to know anything.”

I heard her but did not believe her. I had devoured What To Expect When You’re Expecting, during my pregnancy. Knowing my penchant for turning to books for advice, someone had thoughtfully gifted me the sequel to help me figure out the first year of my child’s life. 

During my short maternity break, I could foresee how much more difficult my life would become once I returned to work. With growing demands on my body, emotions, and time, I wondered if I would lose myself as I slowly dissolved into the ocean of caregiving that is motherhood. 

Children consume you in ways few other things do. They coerce you, bind you, and trap you with their heart-melting smiles even as you change diapers and pick up toys innumerable times. Coming on the heels of years of infertility, for me, motherhood, like my Ph.D., had been a long-drawn project, a goal that I had desired and aspired for, and my child, the reward for my prayers and effort. 

In the two decades since that initial expression of doubt regarding my mothering ability, I have discovered, to my eternal surprise and gratitude, that I am just the string that connects every person who crossed my path and provided me guidance and assistance along the way to raise my child. 

Photo Credit goes to Taneli Lahtinen

This year Mother’s Day was especially poignant because, in a few weeks, that tiny baby who used to fit in my lap, will fly out of the nest and head back to America, the country where she was born.

I think back to the village of people scattered across the globe, who not only directly impacted her growth but also influenced my journey as a mother. 

Some, like my mother, Amma, held my hand in the delivery room and took care of me in the early days. Amma rescued me several other times when I was in a pinch for childcare, struggling to remain in the workforce. Always supportive, but not necessarily indulgent, she followed the ‘tough love’ style of mothering, long before the phrase was coined. 

Catherine, the gentle, silver-haired British lady who took over as the local grandmother when Amma returned to India, was the first person outside the home to bond with my child. Using only organic ingredients to cook fresh meals and creating personalized birthdays for the kids in her care, Catherine was a loving, no-nonsense woman. It was impressive how she managed to carve out time for self-care, swimming thirty laps in the community pool after a long day watching a handful of babies and toddlers. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Catherine for providing reliable childcare, the prime reason I was able to focus on my budding career.

Bill, my boss, who looked the other way when he saw me slouched over my desk in the early days of motherhood, first introduced me to a lunchtime yoga class, and later supported all of my part-time or flex-time requests, ensuring my progress through the ranks. I shudder to think of how my life would have turned out without Bill as my boss.

In California, a circle of women friends gathered around me to provide assistance to a working mother in a dysfunctional marriage. When I moved to India, another group of female friends came together in Hyderabad to help me find my feet as a single parent. Loaning me a gas cylinder when I moved into my own place, watching my child if I was late from work, accompanying me to court, or to the doctor’s office, many kind women propped me up. 

When handling everything alone felt overwhelming, I remembered the wise words of a colleague who told me at my baby shower, “Parenting is a series of threats and bribes.” 

When I doubted my decision to quit my well-paying job with long working hours and choose a freelance consulting path that paid less but offered greater flexibility, I remembered my aunt’s advice to make whatever minor changes necessary but to not give up my financial independence.

I am indebted to a large global network of individuals who have shared my journey as a mother. It has not been smooth. I have been far from perfect. 

From our shaky first steps in California to the rocky patch in India, and now in our new blended family in Singapore, motherhood has been a delicate dance. The two of us held onto each other, flowing with life as it detoured into uncharted territories. We are at a point where our paths must diverge. My time of intense parenting is coming to an end. 

The river of life will take her in its fold, whisk her to unknown destinations. But I will send her away with the confidence that there is a village out there, to pick up where my direct influence ends. Just as a village came together and sustained her thus far, I have no doubt that she will build another one for the next leg of her life. 

Even without reading Hilary Clinton’s book, I learned first-hand the powerful lesson embedded in the African proverb that she chose as the title for her book. It does take a village to raise a child. And I stand humbled by the experience. 

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

Raising a Feminist Family

Have I raised my daughters to be feminists? An honest midlife self-appraisal.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Congreso Futuro 2020

Impressed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “We should all be feminists,” I picked up the tiny purple book with the intriguing title, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. Eager to understand feminism in the twenty-first century from this articulate young woman who possesses an enviable clarity of thought, I planned to ask my daughters to read the book once I was done. 

As a lifelong bookworm who turns to the written word for knowledge and guidance, I had picked up “What to expect when you’re expecting,” during my pregnancy. Considerate colleagues gave me the sequel, “What to expect the first year,” at my baby shower. I referred to the book constantly. Like a child reading a mystery novel, I occasionally jumped ahead to read up on the next developmental milestone.

At my daughter’s first birthday celebration in India, seeing the book in my purse, a good friend joked – “You NRI’s bring up children by reading books.” 

I found her comment condescending but she had made an astute observation. Being far from home and lacking guidance from parents, I felt bereft. She, on the other hand, was raising her children in India in close proximity to her extended family.

To me, books had come to my aid when humans had failed.

*****

More than two decades after that conversation, I look fondly at my two daughters. In a few months, the older one will leave home in pursuit of higher education and the younger one will hurtle towards the end of her teens. 

Motherhood has been the most transformative experience of my life and the opportunity to raise two daughters has been a gift and a privilege. 

Adichie’s book is a long, thoughtful response response to a friend’s question about how to raise her newborn daughter feminist. I wondered if I had raised my daughters to be feminists? Would I find myself too outdated to understand this manifesto? I desperately hoped it wasn’t too late to make amends. 

“The solid unbending belief that you start off with. What is your premise? Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not “if only.” Not “as long as.” I matter equally. Full stop.”

Adichie’s first feminist tool seemed familiar. Not vaguely, but intimately.   

By this measure, I have always been a feminist. Perhaps I was born feminist. Although the word ‘feminist’ came into my vocabulary only after spoken and written language became my primary mode of communication, the inner knowing that “I matter’ must have been poured into my veins and set into my bones at the time of my creation. 

Born between two boys, I was the only girl child, brought up with great affection by egalitarian parents. Despite having a level playing field within the home, I was not immune to the rampant sexism that existed outside. I retaliated by waving the flag of gender equality, fighting for fairness, and arguing for justice at every opportunity. 

During the school years, my brothers and I were expected to wash our respective uniforms, polish our shoes, and keep our designated cupboards clean. But everytime my mother asked me for help around the house, I would protest. 

“You are asking me to do this because I am a girl,” I would pout.

“I am asking you because you are better at it,” she would patiently reply. 

“In life, you will find that the person who does a better job will be assigned more work, even in an office.” 

A part of me agreed with her. But I would have none of her rational explanations. Despite her college education, my mother was a housewife by choice. What did she know about work and career? 

I was academically oriented, bold, and outspoken. Unlike my mother who was content to stay home, I planned to study, get a job, and make my own money. I did not consider my mother a feminist, because feminism to me meant independence, financial security and power. Little did I know then that the seeds to my conviction about equality of the sexes were actually planted and nurtured by my mother’s parenting style.

*****

So much about the world has changed since my childhood. With women becoming astronauts and scientists, doctors and bus drivers, I wondered if Adichie’s suggestions were even necessary. But reading this simply-written, heartfelt manifesto brought forth many self-limiting biases and belief-systems that are coded into our DNA through social conditioning and serve as barriers to women’s’ achievements even to this day.  

In time for International Women’s Day, I thought of using Adichie’s list as an appraisal tool to evaluate myself. I was undoubtedly a feminist, but had I done enough to raise my girls to be feminists?

Of the fifteen suggestions, I scored well in 9. I am particularly proud of encouraging my girls to read. Regarding marriage – they know that marriage may be a part of their life but it is not to be counted as their greatest achievement. Through my own career choices, independence, and pursuit of interests outside prescribed gender roles, they have seen a working model of some of Adichie’s suggestions. 

But I have to admit that I have failed in a few areas. Even though we talk about boys and romance, open conversations about sex have been difficult; attributed more to my own cultural conditioning than to the oft-repeated excuse that such information is easily available these days. 

And there are suggestions about appearance, identity, likeability – important points that I am unable to assess at this point. Much of how my daughters find their way through the maze of conflicting messages and peer pressure depends on their ability to think for themselves, something only time will tell.

I think back to my mother’s unerring sense of fairness and transparent style of parenting. Unaware that the dictionary defines ‘feminist’ as a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, she had instilled in me the core belief that my life is valuable and my choices are valid, even if they veered away from socially accepted constructs.

Parenting is a uniquely personal journey. We undertake it with optimism and a combination of tools – some that we come equipped with, some we borrow from our own parents, and others we learn – from books, from society, from our own experiences.  

The thing that makes this journey incredibly interesting, if not always rewarding, is what Adichie says in the initial pages of her book, “You might do all the things I suggest, and she will still turn out to be different from what you hoped, because sometimes life just does its thing. What matters is that you try. And always trust your instincts above all else, because you will be guided by your love for your child.”

The best we can do is try. I know my mother did. So do I. My hope is that my daughters do the same when they have children. It doesn’t matter if they are raising girls or boys, I know without doubt that their journey will be interesting, and they will be richer for the experience.

Ranjani Rao, a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and former resident of USA, now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir.  Connect with her on Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog


Artwork by Feminist Sravya Atalluri.