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Stuck in the middle – Anywhere between 35 & 55? Midlife Crisis Warning!

If you are anywhere between 35 to 55 years old and suddenly you find yourself looking back at years gone by, recalling obsessively your youth, doubt yourself and the person you have become, have this burning desire to feel or look younger, feel you haven’t achieved your life’s goals, find yourself doing things you haven’t done in years, making impulsive and irrational choices, then this article is precisely what you need to be reading.


How often have you come across someone who suddenly does something completely out of character? Like unpredictably deciding to embark on an affair while happily married. Like suddenly starting to dress in a flashy manner which is not their usual style.

Like impulsively making wrong financial decisions. Faced with the sudden desire to live life to the fullest, a man may decide that a new BMW makes perfect sense (despite it being well outside the family’s finances). He may decide that he absolutely must leave the job he was quite satisfied with just a few months before.

Everyone changes in life but during a midlife crisis these changes can be extreme and seemingly come out of nowhere. The Midlife Crisis is more common than we like to think……it happens all around us, to us, but we fail to recognize, accept and deal with it. Which is why what could be simply a time of reflection and growth becomes a traumatic phase that can have disastrous consequences.

The concept of Midlife Crisis was first presented by Carl Jung who says that it is a Time of crisis, of self doubt and inner questioning;

•           What exactly have I achieved with my life?

•           What am I to do with the rest of it?

•           What is there to look forward to but old age, infirmity, and death?

Instead of looking forward one looks backwards… begins to take stock, to see how one’s life has developed up to this point.”

Is Midlife Crisis a Western concept, or is it as prevalent in Pakistan, but is simply taboo? Asma Pal, Counselor and MD HRI and Guidance Counseling Centre, says,

”Midlife crisis has always been around Pakistan, but our culture has locked people in an ‘expectation grid’, they are tied to the roles they must play and are unable to fully discover their own identity or assert it. This brings about a state of ‘lockdown’ where one can’t express how one feels or be who they are.”

Asma feels that, “Midlife crisis is not gender or culture specific. It is more of a change in behavior brought about by Biological and Hormonal changes.  A midlife crisis is directly related to ageing, Menopause in women and Andropause in men, a time when libido goes down and irritability goes up. It is a period of raised rates of depression, divorce, suicide and extreme behaviours. Many symptoms are an effort to delay or indeed deny the aging process. This behavior not only has a negative effect on a person’s life but also that of his/her family. Intensity, however, differs in individuals.”

This experience is a combination of feelings, events and body changes that indicate a transformation is at hand. A person experiencing this could have a few or most of these symptoms: Unexplained bouts of depression when doing tasks that used to make you happy, changing or investigating new religious ideology, unable to concentrate or complete tasks, a sudden desire to get into physical shape, irritability, unexpected anger, excessive reminiscing about youth and previous loves, desire for physical –Free Flowing– movement (Running, Biking, Dance, Fast red sports cars, Sky diving, etc), exploring new musical tastes, obsessively listening to music you listened to in your youth and sudden interest in new hobbies.

People going through this phase may start questioning everything in one’s life, feeling trapped or tied down by economic or family responsibilities. Changes in tastes and habits are common. So is taking more time to look good, paying unusual attention to your hair or clothes, and hanging out with a different generation as their energy and ideas stimulate you.

Physical changes could include a change in allergies, shifting sleep patterns, loss of appetite, and general malaise.

People who are emotionally unstable are more prone to Midlife Transformation. Most of us go through it but those who cannot mitigate it have extreme reactions. Stress can trigger it, like Changing Jobs, Divorce, Death of someone close and experiencing a major illness.

One hears clichéd comments like how after a man hits the big 40, it is time to watch out, as he may indulge in erratic behaviour and romantic escapades. Do men experience Midlife Crisis more commonly than women do? Arguable, as Asma opines.” Men react more strongly to it. The reason for that is that men don’t experience any major changes in their physical or hormonal state as compared to women. Men only experience Puberty and Andropause, whereas women after puberty go through PMS (premenstrual syndrome), Child birth, post natal depression and Menopause.” Therefore, debatably, women handle change better.

The worthwhile question would be how can one handle this traumatic phase in ones life? “Recognition, understanding and acceptance,” answers Asma.

As Carl Jung said, “Midlife crisis, though traumatic, is also an opportunity to become more conscious and to grow. The crisis of mid-life can serve to wake up an undiscovered self and the rest of the life can provide the opportunity for its development.”

One needs to put more energy into the marital relationship, focus on strengths instead of regrets, look forward instead of backwards, get fit (Sleep, rest, exercise and eat right), and get counseling if things get out of hand.

A midlife crisis is a natural biological and psychological process of a person maturing. While some of the symptoms might indicate a process opposite of maturing, at times a person needs to step backwards in order to move forward. Everyone changes to evolve within their life as they get older. The truest resolution is learning to embrace the change.

This article was originally published in Dawn’s Sunday Magazine

Who gets the job? The fairest of them all!

Published: January 26, 2013

Good looks do make life simpler and popularity easier. PHOTO: FILE

Good looks do make life simpler and popularity easier. PHOTO: FILEThe writer works as a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi
KARACHI: If you are good-looking, chances are that this write-up will not make a whole lot of sense to you. Even if you get it, it won’t really stay in your system for too long, because you’ve got it easy in many ways.

Think about this: at the workplace, do people open doors for you more than your other counterparts who are plainer Janes? Does your boss make you stay in his room a wee bit longer for a work-related tete-a-tete, not because he or she is necessarily lecherous, but because you just bring a certain light to the room? More importantly, did you being a looker have a little bit to do with you getting the job more easily?

Good looks do make life simpler and popularity easier. Undeniably, cricketer Shahid Afridi and cricketer-politician Imran Khan have more than good looks to their credit. However, the fact remains that Afridi’s TV endorsements and Khan’s female vote bank do have something to do with their looks. Our hearts went out to Princess Diana but never Duchess Camilla Parker Bowles. Is that just because Diana was (undoubtedly) a good human being, or did Diana’s being stunning have something to do with being the people’s princess? Why do women who, at the hands of some callous remark of a man in their lives, feel less than beautiful and struggle with self-esteem issues decades later?

Good looks come in handy especially in the service industry, and by that I don’t just mean models or airhostesses, but even bankers and other professions pertaining to public relations. Even the girl who collects parking fees at Jinnah International Airport should be presentable, as should my maid. My point, however, is: where, then, do the non-lookers go and what do they go through?

Move over, racism. The latest kind of discrimination is here; it has always existed, but now they actually have a term for it — lookism.

Our inherent adoration of beauty is not a problem that should be blamed on society; it is our problem as a species. Some of us are, by no merit of our own, what American educator and activist Warren Farrell describes as “genetic celebrities”. This preferential treatment was once limited to the rishta bazaar, but with more women venturing into the workplace realm, this “body fascism” enters the work place too. Beautiful people have one less barrier at the workplace when it comes to success.

This does translate into a discrimination of sorts and many of us end up being discriminatory without even realising it. People guilty of this kind of discrimination may generally be socially aware and ethically correct. Yet, they end up doing things that may dampen someone’s prospects and shatter someone’s confidence — someone who falls short of the typical social notions of beauty.

How many times have you whispered “poor her, she’s ugly as hell” or “I don’t really blame her husband for his infidelity. I mean firstly, she’s tacky and secondly, she has horrible skin and bad teeth” to your attractive colleague as someone leaves the room. This doesn’t just stay limited to gossip. The ugly truth is that a better looking candidate may have secured a job instead of an equally or more qualified candidate with weight issues or severe acne.

In a so-called civilised society, even people who always stand up for the underdog and detest marginalisation on the basis of race or creed, end up discriminating on the basis of physical appearances. It is common that an obese person or a woman with unkempt hair may not get an opportunity in which her work involves socialising and networking. The discrimination, while mostly women-centric, can at times affect men too. Not only did Snow White have to be the fairest, the prince also had to be unarguably handsome.

It is natural to be attracted to all things beautiful. But at the workplace, in particular, partiality is not a favour; it is a responsibility.

The writer works as a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi

Published in The Express Tribune, January 27th, 2013.

“Hey, how old are you?” Is Age Just A Number?

The younger we are, the older we want to appear. And it is vice versa as we grow older. At the age of 12, one loves being considered 13. At the age of 37, it is wonderful to be seen as 32. At this stage in life, with my daughter Mashallah almost my height, I have gotten over wanting to be seen as older, or younger than what I truly am.

If one is lucky, a time comes when one becomes totally comfortable with announcing one’s age to the world. But a friend on the condition of anonymity shared, “The journey from being called baby to baji to aunty to khala by shop keepers has not been easy.” What’s more, it is not just the women who suffer from this hang up. It is also uncles and chachas. But yes, women suffer from age discrimination, and consequently, the “age defying” complex much more than men.

The age factor or the complex to appear younger is something that we are conditioned into. For evolutionary reasons, it makes sense that nature programmed men into gravitating towards younger women. But the cosmetic industry, plastic surgeons and botox proponents, all promise one thing and one thing alone…you can defy age, or at least appear to look younger. Add to it the unrelenting efforts of the advertisement industry and voila! We have humanity scrambling to appear younger than they are. But the insecurity about looking older already existed in society…sellers of the “cheat about your age” just used it to their optimum advantage.

We are made to believe that the prime of a person begins at twenty and ends at forty. Stories about showbiz people simply refusing to age beyond twenty-five are legendary. Up until NADRA came into picture, people would conveniently hide five to 10 years off their date of birth. You must know a few couples who will leave their 20 year old eldest at home and let the eight-year-old youngest child tag along everywhere so that people assume that they are a young couple.

Many are actually known to report identity cards missing and remove several years off their age. Grey hair is considered a sin, and any man who sports salt ‘n pepper hair, has to hear a lot of comments from old friends who say “what happened to you man?” as they smugly run their fingers through their oh-so-obviously dyed hair.

Why do women lie about their age? Or are they coming of age and gaining courage to say it out loud? Shai Venkataraman, a health reporter at NDTV India and a mom of two, says, “I am open about my age. Although in my profession women are getting younger and younger, I refuse to be fazed! I really don’t know why women would want to hide it. I also don’t think age difference between spouses matters. I have friends married to younger men and they are very happy. It’s finally about how you connect mentally.”

But what about the age difference between a couple? Hamid Saleem, 31, a marketing manager and a bachelor, says, “If she is attractive, makes intelligent conversation, adds value to my life, I have no problems with her being older. However there’s a problem if women have a been-there-done-that attitude. A man needs playfulness in his life. Men at 40 wanna act like they are in the 20s. If he doesn’t get the playfulness at home, he looks for it outside his home.”

Sarah Ather, an HR consultant and mother of three, feels comfortable sharing her true age, but understands why women generally hesitate sharing their true age. “Living in a patriarchal society and being women, we are bound by cultural traditions and mentality. Announcing your age has become taboo. On top of it, advertisement commercials lead us to believe that age is the factor determining how we are to act.” Athar has hit the nail on the head here, as even the choice of colours we wear and our personal attitude towards life is expected to change once we hit the middle ages.

Mahgul Fatima, an artist and a mother of three seems to have analysed this hang up to some extent. “I guess people hide their age as they usually think they look a lot younger than they actually are. We can usually hide the wrinkles and aging signs with makeup, but the candles on our birthday cake remind us of every passing year, so now everyone has stopped putting candles on birthday cakes! Fibbing about our age by a few years helps us feel younger …it’s all in our head.” Why do women prefer men older to them? Mahgul feels the reason is that “older men are more emotionally settled, mature and financially stable.”

An edited version of this article was published in Dawn’s Sunday Images in March 2011

Living In Fear

More than a decade has passed since that summer morning when I woke up to the sound of unfamiliar male voices in my bedroom. To the sight of four men staring at me with me in my night dress. To the fear of them harming my family with the weapons they carried. The memories of me handing over, in panic, every piece of jewellery I had in the house, lest they do something unthinkable. The memories of how, after they left when they had looted my home and had us at gunpoint for a good four hours, I sat quivering in disbelief that this had happened.

The memory of me begging them to hand me my dupatta, which they fortunately did. Memories of how strangely humiliated I felt when I went downstairs, hours after they had gone, to find out that they had broken in the night before, had eaten from my fridge and had stubbed out cigarettes on my living room carpet. But perhaps the weirdest thing was how I developed a fear of the huge window in my bedroom from where they had made me answer the neighbours who had sensed something fishy and so had arrived at my gate.

At that point, standing by that window, exchanging pleasantries with the neighbours and falsely reassuring them that all was well, I was breaking into cold sweats as two men with guns were by my side. For more than a year, I could not get myself to go near that window without shivers running down my spine. None of this is an exaggeration. I have been through this.

Sadly, many readers will relate to this story, particularly in Pakistan. In a random group at any social event, nearly everyone has a traumatic story to share in which they have stared fear in the eye and have experienced real threat to their safety, up close and personal.

Most of us have stories in our back pockets about how at a signal our watches or cell phones were taken away at gun point. Or how someone we know was kidnapped. Or how robbers broke into our house. Or how, as an ex-pat, we were robbed on our way back from the money exchange. Or how our child’s school had had three bomb threats in one year. The injury in some extreme cases may also have been physical. But mostly, it is an emotional affliction. Those moments of panic. Of fear. Of uncertainty. Of the very real possibility of injury or violation of death. And long after those incidents have passed by and blurred away into the past tense, the memories stay painfully vivid.
Clear. Recurrent.

Unconsciously, unknowingly, so many of us might be victims of what is called “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” or PTSD. Any situation in which you have had a real threat of injury or death can result in this. Something as internal to a family as domestic abuse and something that affects the whole society like terrorism — this can all result in PTSD. The results can live on in your system for a long time, till you get proper support, counselling or simply time that heals. The extent to which you are being affected by PTSD will depend on psychological, genetic, physical and social factors. PTSD not only results in flashbacks and psychological scarring but alters the body’s response to stress.

Stress hormones and chemicals that carry information between the nerves (neurotransmitters) are impacted by trauma.

“I was traumatised after I experienced an armed robbery at my parents’ house when I was 13 years old,” recalls Mehtab Danish, years later, still visibly shaken at the recollection. “I was in the washroom when I first heard the dacoits arguing with my sister. What followed after was all the more scary and horrifying with my father being hit on the head with the butt of the gun numerous times resulting in multiple stitches. I got my fingers twisted resulting in permanently crooked fingers. All this left such a deep impact that I could not go to the washroom that whole day! Years passed on and I still used to experience audio hallucinations whenever I was inside the washroom; I would be convinced that someone is right outside. Even today, it is difficult to relive those moments without feeling a jolt of terror.”

Asker Husain, a resident of UK, was in London when 7/7 (the July 7, 2005 London bombings which targeted civilians using the public transport system) happened. “One of my lawyers was in the underground carriage next to the one that blew up. He was severely traumatised and had to receive psychiatric help for over a year. He no longer travels by the tube. My main concern was how people would react to me. I obviously look Asian, just like the bombers. I had my back pack, just like the attackers. I thought that given the circumstances, I would get an adverse reaction from the general public as I made my way home.” Husain was lucky as he did not get the adverse reaction he was apprehensive of. He was also fortunate he did not face trauma at close quarters, unlike his friend.

Complications resulting from PTSD are not limited to just nightmares and flashbacks; it can result in anxiety, panic attacks, depression as well as substance abuse and alcoholism. PTSD can, if left untreated, potentially destroy a person’s life.

Forms of treatment vary but for that the first step would have to be recognition. The attitude of “khud hee theek ho jayega” (the problem will get solved itself) does not work. The earlier the detection, the better the chances of solving the problem. A strong support system works, as does talking about the incident with people who have undergone similar experiences.

A form of treatment called “desensitisation” may also be used, where the victim is encouraged to talk about it and vent pent up emotions and memories of the incident. Over time, the memories, because of being relived repeatedly, become less frightful. Thus, the phenomenon we see in Pakistan and often criticise, of people becoming numb to things happening around them, might actually be a natural defence mechanism of the human system. When traumatic situations occur so repeatedly in a community, after a while numbness sets in. While apathy and indifference is unhealthy, zoning out may be the only way of dealing with it. A prettier word, of course, would be resilience.

Loving Your Man To Death?

The day starts by observing his mood. The night falls by making sure that he has a smug and satisfied look on his face. His bout of sneezing is more important than her osteoporosis. The daily menu revolves around his and the children’s likes and dislikes.

He is the centre of her universe. She circumambulates around him. And to keep him happy and satisfied, she will not only do what it takes but she will grossly overdo it. She makes herself the last priority, in every way. And, strangely, in all of this, she gets a sense of being wanted, and perverse pleasure when she says, “he can’t do without me.”

This is every other woman’s story. And this seems almost universal, albeit a bit more in certain parts of the world like ours. We live in a society where a woman making herself a priority almost translates into selfishness. Women let their goals and ambitions take a back seat and lose their sense of self. By ambition or goal, I do not necessarily mean being ruthlessly career-oriented. The goal could simply be weight loss, raising a targeted amount of money for a charity, reading a new book, or, more simply, to be happy. But when compared to HIS goals and ambitions, a woman’s seem inconsequential and secondary.

Are the men to be blamed for that? Not always, I believe, for we, the women, allow for this to happen. Men are not always patriarchal, selfish and chauvinistic. They have to be taught and reminded of both their rights and duties in a relationship, just like women. Then why do women allow this to happen, when they also simultaneously crib about it?

Psychotherapist Anees Fatima Hakeem, analysing this phenomenon from a psychological viewpoint, calls it “co-dependence.

It’s a blind spot for many women, even confident and successful ones. It happens when one partner feeds off the needs of the other. It’s really just a huge manipulation or game with payoffs for both partners. The payoff could be negative or positive.”

Sometimes, the payoff is the joy of self-pity we get out of being walked all over and over doing it. Or it simply becomes a habit. It is similar to how we sometimes keep peeling the skin of our lips or the sides of our nails. It’s cruel. It’s painful. But it becomes a habit.

“An example of standing on her head to please him could be that she spends hours making dinner but at the last minute he tells her that he is eating out with friends. The wife feels resentful and goes into her victim mode. Becoming a victim is a payoff for her in order to manage her anger and resentment. This could become a pattern for her,” says Hakeem, explaining how being a victim and indulging in self-pity becomes a habit.

What, then, ends up happening as a result of this behaviour? “The woman doesn’t know what her feelings are any more. She loses her ‘self’. She doesn’t know where ‘he’ ends and ‘she’ begins. You can notice a change in her choice of words. Instead of saying, ‘I like biryani’, she’ll say ‘it’s great to eat biryani’. Instead of saying, ‘I feel angry’, she’ll say ‘you make me feel angry’ or ‘I have PMS and that is why I am angry’. Worse yet, she’ll even stop being angry because she is too busy cooking, and will take a sleeping pill to handle her insomnia,” says Hakeem, sharing her observations about how, in the victim mode, we stop taking responsibility for our actions.

Naghmana Khan, an economist, feels that religious misinformation and cultural bias force women to overdo and go out of their way to the point of losing their self-esteem in the process. Men are kept on a high pedestal, which conditions women to start believing that their purpose of life is to please him. “Suppose her husband is stressed out about work. Wrongfully conditioned to believe that she is the antagonist, she bends over backwards to please him,” says Khan, pointing out that any and everything that may go wrong with the man, from his health to his career, is supposed to be the wife’s fault. A typical scenario, then, is when the mother-in-law finds out that the son has high cholesterol, and instead of talking to the son about how he can have a healthier lifestyle, she will inquire why the daughter-in-law is not taking care of his diet.

Educationist Afshan Zahoor Jahania feels that realistically “The woman has to be the one to compromise and make a house a home. The man can create a balance by appreciating and helping the woman do this, but he cannot do the balancing act as fairly as a woman does.” In Jahania’s opinion, the solution lies here: “The conservative lot has to identify limits of ‘giving’ and ‘compromising’ , whereas the modern educated liberal woman has to jog her memories and appreciate what her mother did to make the house a home.”

Zoha Anees, finance professional, shares how she used to “go out of my way. Then he chose to step away all together, and I didn’t follow. Now, I have learnt to keep myself happy with or without him. I am the centre of my universe, as are the people I love.”

In essence, someone will treat you the way you allow them and train them to treat you. If you play victim, the person in front of you will play the persecutor. The answer, then lies in balance. Love him, but not to death. Do what you have to do to keep your man happy, but not at the cost of stifling your own soul, or else the hidden resentment will come out in the form of a woman becoming exploitative and manipulating. Love him, but also love yourself. Therein lies the key to a happy partnership.

Published in Dawn:

Seeing Children Off – What Happens When Your Kids Go Away To Study

Seeing children off

How do parents, especially mothers, cope with the situation when their children leave home for studies or work

By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam

We have grown up seeing dramatic clips in movies where the mere thought of a daughter leaving home after marriage makes an otherwise brave mom sniffle, and a father turn away to hide his moist eyes. Today, there is something other than marriage that takes them away from us and way too soon. What’s more, it is us as parents who facilitate this separation. That, of course, is our children leaving home for better education – abroad or to another city.

The mass exodus of youth phenomenon that our country is witnessing today has its plus points no doubt. Exposure, confidence, better education, promise of better lives for our children than we had – we know it’s worth it for the good of our children. But everything comes with a price. It is not easy for a parent to let go.

Saima Rauf, an artist and a mother of two, recently experienced this as her son left home for higher education. “It is very tough,” says Rauf, obviously grappling with the sense of missing her son. “You feel empty inside knowing that now they have left home and would only come for a few days as guests. But you have to let them go for their own good and have to deal with the emptiness. For that you must remain busy, like I have again started giving my drawing more time.”

The first time is the worst, as are the initial days and months, shares Tazeen Ahmed, home-maker and mother. “When they go for the first time you feel lonely, depressed and stressed out because you are not sure whether they will achieve the goal or the purpose they are being sent for, but then with the lapse of time you get used to it,” says Ahmed’s voice of experience.

It is not just emotionally difficult, but parents have very real fears about their children once they are away. Sadia Agha, a philanthropist, describes how she felt when her children left home for greener pastures. “As a mother, I am scared everyday of so many things. What if the kids get on to a bad track; I trust them and have taught them the basic values, but it’s a big bad world out there. Youth is a time when emotions are running high; girls and boys being together unattended, western influence, the threat of alcohol, them all alone out there,” says Agha, sharing her fears – fears which every parent faces but does not always voice.

This is doubly difficult as, today, many of us are prone to over-parenting. We have become “helicopter parents” hovering closely overhead, rarely out of reach, whether our children need us or not. Parents try to resolve their child’s problems, and try to stop them from coming to harm by keeping them out of dangerous situations.

Hina Ansari, mother of three boys, is a self-proclaimed “reformed helicopter parent”. “Now if my son is unable to call for a week or two, I do not have the urge to die like I used to! It is a matter of adjusting to a new lifestyle. And the earlier you let go of the apron string the better for both. It is easier said than done though. But you have to accept that you have trained them well, and you have to leave them in God’s care. If you don’t have faith in your children, how will they have faith in themselves?” Ansari is now using the time she has on hand well by going back to school and pursuing a degree.

Thus, even after they have left home, many parents know of every activity of their child, or think they do. Dr Tarannum Ahmed, mother of two, has both her children studying abroad. Thanks to information technology and phone packages, Ahmed talks to her children several times a day. They still have to ask her when they decide to go to a friend’s for a day-spend. But this constant long-distance monitoring has taken its toll on her. She has to go and live with her children every time they move to a new dormitory, and shuttles between home and the US. Her son recently had a minor car accident. “It was the worst day for me; sitting thousands of miles away, helpless, not being able to be there. It’s not easy…That is all I can say,” says Ahmed, moved to tears by simply re-living that day.

Re-thinking, this monitoring is worth it, as the kids may have left the nest but the sense of belonging continues. And so it goes….their rooms remain intact, as they left them. The parents are always there for them in times of dire need. They come home for vacations and homes, once again albeit temporarily, are filled with laughter and chaos. Moms busily cook their children’s favourite meals. Dads come home early from work. Children have the best of both worlds – they get a taste of independent living and gain confidence needed to face the world, but always have a place to come back to.

Published in The News:

The New Breed Of Not-So-Evil Stepmoms And Step-Dads

The stern, manipulative, commanding step-mothers of yesterday.

“Once upon a time, in a far away land, lived a sweet and pretty girl named Cinderella. She made her home with her evil stepmother and her two stepsisters, and they made her do all the work in the house.” These initial words of the world’s favourite fairytale have stuck with me. Somewhere, the impact of the story of Cinderella, Snow White and other such stories has stayed with most of us. Real life incidences of battering, abuse and prejudice of step-parents compounded this idea that a step-parent can never be sincere. Period.

Yet, in an ever-evolving world, every decade and every year brings change. We today are living in a time where the family unit is more fragile than before. For various reasons divorce rates have escalated, even in conservative societies like Pakistan where marriage was once the most fiercely guarded institution. The realities are staring us in the face. Moreover, the idea that parents “have a life too” has caught on. Whether separated from a spouse at the hands of death or divorce, the thought that a parent can remarry and thus bring into the lives of his/her children a stepparent is a more real notion.

The recent Bollywood flick which was a remake of the Hollywood movie Stepmom reignited many a debate over dinners and luncheons — can a step-mom be a good influence over her step-kids and actually become a family member over time, as the movie proposed? Asking around to feel the pulse of people revealed mixed feelings on the subject.

The step-mom of today is more like Julia Roberts in this movie – more like a friend or an elder sis, and definitely part of the family

Nadia Wasi, a doctor, shared, “I do know people who live with stepfathers and the situation has worked out very well for the children. I do feel the image of the step-mom is changing as well. With the number of marriages not working out and both women and men remarrying, I think women are more open to marrying men with children and are more accepting towards them.”

However, others, like 37-year-old Zara Shah, confesses that although she is married and settled, she and her siblings have, to date, not been able to accept their father’s remarriage after their mother’s death. “I have to give credit to my dad. He waited a full five years after my mother passed away, and I understand that after we all got busy with our own lives, he needed companionship. Having said that, honestly, I still cannot accept my stepmother living in my mother’s bedroom, cooking in my mother’s kitchen and taking her place in society. My relationship with my father had become numb and cold, but over the years it has thawed a bit and is better.”

Even if the Cinderella effect, as it is called, is not there, there is no doubt that the dynamics of a family undergo change once a parent remarries. The problems can be exacerbated if the family becomes a blended family, with half-siblings belonging to the step-parent in the picture as well. Younger children often adapt to such change more easily compared to adolescent or even adult children who face severe inner strife and identity issues. Often, movies and stories depict the second-time married parent choosing not to have a baby, which seems unfair on the stepmother/father who might not be a parent yet.

The problem perhaps lies in the notion that the step-parent has traditionally been expected to and tried to take the position of a biological parent, which is an impossible task. The new, reinvented and more accepted step-moms or step-fathers perhaps owe their popularity to the fact that, although they are in the position of a guardian, they do not attempt to steal away the memory of the step-children’s biological mother or father.

Also, in a world which is more aware of human emotions and psychology, in all likelihood the step mother or step father understand and can empathize to what that child is going through. They have accepted their spouse, the parent of that child, with this child as part of the package, and are more mature about it, taking the adjustments in their stride.

The step mom of today does not attempt to remove the memoirs and photographs of their mother from their bedside, or shirk at the mere mention of her name. This is a more fun and ‘chilled’ person, as she is in a supervisory position but is not wholly and solely responsible for the child, and the biological parent continues to play an important role. Such a step-parent has hopes of finding a place not only in the home but also the hearts of her newfound family.

A few more tips would be in order for the step-parent. For beginners, one has to remember that a newly found relationship with step-children in the loop will take time to grow, so patience is the key. Pushing for intimacy prematurely is a bad idea. Doing fun things together is excellent for bonding. But too much leniency can be counterproductive, as can be being overly stern. This is a balancing act. In the end, if you intend to make it work, never ever give up. Slowly, you will carve a place in the child’s heart for sure, and prove Cinderella wrong to live happily ever after.

This write-up was published in Dawn with editions:

Are You A Non-Conformist? An Oddball? Eccentric?

Quirky, unusual and offbeat. Excessively interested in a certain occupation. Eating, dressing or acting differently from the average person. Indifferent to what people think of them. Innovative and gifted with strokes of genius, but also called names like weird or wacky. How many people in your life have you met who display these traits on a regular basis?

Or, better still, how many times have you looked at the man (or woman) in the mirror and realised that you are mostly thinking and doing stuff “outside the box”? In short, have you met those or are one of those who may be fit to be called “eccentric”? And is it ok to be one?

I have met so many of them in my life, and confess to realising in retrospect that some of the things I have done in my life had shades of eccentricity. I naturally gravitate towards the not-so-run-of-the-mill kind, and often relate to them. Artist Sakina Hussain says, “I am eccentric and I feel great being quirky. Quirky people are interesting, provided their eccentricity is not studied.” Fact is, as a friend says, that “Each one of us is eccentric at times.”

Even the most pragmatic and boringly practical ones, in moments of nostalgia, confess to having done crazy things on a whim. Ironically, the realistic kind of people often romanticise about those moments in their lives where they followed their hearts and did things in the name of a craze, love or passion which they wouldn’t dream of doing now. Things like bungee jumping, waiting for hours in freezing winter evenings to catch a glimpse of the beloved as she stepped out of her home for that after-dinner stroll, or staying indoors for six straight days working on a science experiment that was a passion.

But an eccentric person, in the true sense of the word, is not one who follows his heart and does unusual stuff once in a while. Definition of the word is someone who deviates from an established or usual pattern or style and from conventional or accepted usage or conduct especially in odd or whimsical ways. Edith Sitwell says that geniuses and aristocrats are called eccentric because “they are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.” – cite_note-3

English Utilitarian thinker John Stuart Mill wrote that “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained.” Mill also felt that a lack of eccentricity is “the chief danger of the time”.

Psychological studies point towards certain signs of eccentricity. Some of these could be: a non-conforming attitude, idealistic, intense curiosity, happy obsession with hobbies, knowing very early in his or her childhood they are different from others, highly intelligent, opinionated and outspoken, unusual living or eating habits, not interested in the opinions or company of others, naughty sense of humour and being usually the eldest, or an only child.

Eccentricity is often associated with being unusually gifted. This could mean genius, intellectual giftedness, or creativity. The unsual behaviour could be an outward reflection of extraordinary intelligence, talent or passion. The minds of eccentrics are so original that they cannot conform to societal norms. Eccentricity is also believed to be associated with great wealth. Stories of wealthy business tycoons or celebrities with peculiar idiosyncrasies are legendary.

Michael Jackson’s obsession with Peter Pan and childhood fables is a typical example of our times. Certain professions seem to be fertile growing grounds for eccentrics. The oddities of discoverers and scientists are perhaps a reflection of minds so unique, that they are often not understood by the common man. Einstein’s unusual hairstyle defied all standards of conformity and was symbolic of eccentricity. Designers, painters, actors, writers and poets – all these professions require the traits of unusual sensitivity, observation and creativity. It is then not difficult to understand why do we find people in these fields of work who dress, talk or lead lives in a manner that is anything but usual. Come to think of it, how often do we find an accountant or a banker displaying strokes of unusual creativity and coming to work with hair dyed blue or talking to the stars?

Saima Rauf, an artist and art teacher, says, “Creative people often deviate from the normal principles of doing things. If you study the lives of many artists, you come to know that they did not lead lives we call normal. Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Van Gogh, Sadeqain, Bashir Mirza and many more creative people did not lead what we call normal lives.” Deeply creative people also have a different way of looking at ordinary things. I always marvel the imagery when I read Faiz’s masterpiece Dasht-i-tanhai mein or poetry by Gulzar in a singer’s lilting voice saying Peeli dhoop pehen ke tum dekho baagh mein mat jana. Rauf cites examples too. “Picasso thought of a cycle seat as a painting and put the handles on it as horn, and Sadeqain started to think of cacti as human beings.”

When asked would she like to follow the path of the greats that have inspired her, Rauf says, “All these artists had great a impact on my life and I want to be like them, but as I have many responsibilities I cannot do that. I may be eccentric but only to an extent.” Perhaps Rauf has nailed it on the head. While we may make fun of the eccentrics for their oddities, a part of us yearns to be as creative as them.

We wish we had their courage and originality to be able to live life on our own terms. Many a time, we may have creativity, but responsibilities and the fear of the consequences of non-conformity make us suppress that. But those who dare to be different must be given their due share of admiration, for swimming against the tide is never easy.

Published in Dawn, 20th Feb, 2011:

Good Mannered When Abroad. Bad Mannered in Pakistan

Manners: Out of courtesy

By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam

Years ago, I began noticing as a frequent traveller from New York to Karachi the transatlantic transformation of my fellow countrymen and countrywomen as we flew over the Atlantic Ocean. At JFK airport, desis like myself are cheerful and polite, queue up patiently, wait to be checked in with smiles galore and coochie-coo wailing babies of other passengers.

Landing back home, not more than a few minutes will pass and it is like an electrifying moment of realisation has hit them that we are Pakistanis, hence there is no need for courtesy, specially with other Pakistanis!

The concept of queuing up outside washrooms, letting your neighbour get a choice of the last choice of the chicken or mutton meal, saying ‘excuse me’ and politely taking out baggage from the overhead compartment…all become distant past. Flying over Dubai on the way back home, as the oh-so-familiar sights and sounds of good old Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad started appearing in the imagination of everyone on board, things begin to deteriorate. The airhostess, too, becomes impatient, irritated and throws hospitality down the garbage shoot.

When the cabin crew frantically requests the passengers to stay seated till the aircraft comes to a complete stop, instantly a push, shove and get-ahead-of-each-other starts and everyone wants to be the first one to get out of the plane. As soon as we step on the turf of the Jinnah International, everything changes. We simply lose our civil and polite attitude in the blink of an eye.

Why is it so? It’s heartening when people from your own land will give you a warm smile, say “Have a nice day”, and offer you a seat on the subway in NYC. But the same person in Karachi will not care whether you fell off the door of a public bus, or got strangled with the strap of your handbag in the revolving entrance of a supermarket but will push and shove you aside to get in fast and first.

On a trip to Singapore, I was with a relative who is a smoker. He has this irritating habit of smoking in the car and throwing the cigarette butt or cigarette box wrapper outside the car window. Miraculously, the same person in Singapore obediently smoked only where it was allowed, and the wrappers dared not go anywhere except the dustbin. And if there was no dustbin in sight, the wrapper would stay safe in his pocket till he reached back home, walked straight to his kitchen bin and threw it there.

A colleague at work was addicted to paan chewing and would decorate the office stairs with legendary spurts of red gook and no hints or direct requests made any difference to him. Yet, the same colleague confessed after he returned from a trip to London that while he was there, he avoided chewing paan in public places, and if at all he had to, he carried around a stack of tissues to spit in.

Interestingly, similar things happen on the home front. Hubby dearest who takes the trash out to the bins, rakes leaves during fall and does the dinner dishes regularly will refuse to get up and have a glass of water himself, once he is back in Pakistan, even if the wife has a full time job and no help at home.

Speeding on the road, talking on the cell (while the headphone rests idly in the glove compartment) and texting while driving are also things we do back home. Once abroad, our civic sense and obeying the law instinctly come to life. It may be the fear of the consequences of breaking the law or perhaps the courtesy and the general culture of being polite rubs off on us. Also, we may be a teeny weeny bit conscious about the fact that we are Asians from a Muslim country and have to go the extra mile to prove that we are civilised people, not gun-toting militants.

But in reality, this is how our sad mentality works. Once back in Pakistan, we are home. We don’t have to pretend to be someone else. We belong here, and no one can stop us from doing anything. It is a reminder of how people are generally very polite to strangers but throw tantrums and are impatient and annoying with their immediate family because their family has no choice but to bear with them in spite of all.

On a heavier note, it would be wonderful if we brought back social ethics, polite attitude and a civic sense as a gift to our homeland, to make us a more civilised nation than we pretend to be by travelling abroad and carrying branded luggage.

Published in Dawn: 12-12-2010:


Why Good Girls Fall For Bad Boys

Back in student life, I had a friend – a demure, polite, soft-spoken, pretty girl from a good family with good values. The proverbial “marriage material” girl. A girl every aunty would have loved to have as a daughter-in-law. Back in my days, the blasphemous “C” word which is “Commitment” was not so formidable. And so for every boy and girl who felt those chemical vibes for each other which are nature’s way of making sure that the human race continues to procreate, the next step would be to think of the ultimate “M” word – “Marriage”.

So this friend of mine had the most eligible bachelors in her family, family friends as well as class-mates pining for her attention. Many guys offered to send their mom to her place. Nobody thought she would even hear about “going out”, leave alone do it. We always pictured her with a “marriage material” guy as a husband – stable, predictable, kind, sober, back home just in time for that evening cup of tea, a match made in heaven with the blessings of the parents. We were so wrong! Our friend fell for the proverbial “bad guy” for whom all the girls used the “A” word – “Avoid”. He would get into fights and either had given someone a black eye that week, or had a black eye himself. He liked guns, dangerous car racing and bringing the car to screeching halts, trying the one-wheel “wheelies” on bikes, and was simultaneously a part of a gang, a tribe and a political party. And he loved her like crazy, as did she. They complemented and completed each other in a weird, twisted way.

The Good Girl falling for the Bad Boy is a universal phenomenon. Many girls confess to being drawn to the wrong boys, the word “wrong” debatable in this context. Saima Irshad (name changed) is one such girl. “I have a history of getting bored with good boys and loving it with bad boys,” she confesses. “I love guys who are dangerous, own guns, have badmaash looks, have been through dangerous accidents and firings, know martial arts, the phadday-baaz type, who have this air of danger around them. Like Salman Khan’s character in Dabangg. It’s kind of thrilling. And somehow they find me attractive too.”

Does the “Yin Yang” theory have anything to do with this? The ancient Chinese subscribe to a concept called Yin and Yang – a belief that says that there exist two complementary forces in the universe. While they are both opposites, one is not better than the other. Instead, a balance of both is desirable. This thinking is different from the concept of duality where one state overcomes the other e.g. good over evil. In Yin Yang, too much of either one is bad. Soft versus hard, stillness versus movement, intuitive versus logical. The sun is Yang while the moon is Yin. Female is Yin while Man is Yang. Winter is Yin while Summer is Yang. Opposites attract and complement each other. However, in the Yin Yang concept, Yang represents everything positive or masculine and Yin is characterized as negative or feminine. But in our Bad Boy-Good Girl scenario, it is the Yin or the feminine which is the positive force. At the end, if they complement each other, it doesn’t really matter.

Shahana Abbas (name changed), however, did not have such a good experience with her Bad Boy. The crazily-in-love Romeo who would shoot on sight if any other guy so much as talked to her, forced her to marry him in a clandestine way. Months later, it ended in an abrupt and bitter divorce. The insanely passionate personality type brings with it unpredictability, impulsiveness and possibly violent streaks. “From my experience I do think that the violent and crazy types are more passionate but are also deceitful and dishonest. It is definitely a mistake to take such guys seriously. Such men are not able to handle a serious relationship,” says Abbas remorsefully.

Knowing the possible risks involved, why do then completely sane and level-headed girls gravitate towards this kind of men? Asking around, we found out one common edge women feel the dangerous, emotionally high-strung men seem to have on the predictable, dependable types – they are passionate and expressive about their emotions. In addition, they seem in control, and somewhere deep inside a woman needs someone who is stronger than her, who is possessive and protective about her. Unpredictability also brings with it an aura of fun. Life with the bad boys is far less mundane. Every day is a new day. The daily squabbles and relentless arguments can lead to unpleasantness. Flip side of the coin, as many women in relationships with such men share, is that this saves a relationship from being dead and boring, and making up after a fight keeps the spark alive. Sense and sensibility must prevail, and one must keep consequences in mind when making the ultimate decision of who you want to settle down with. Nevertheless, the debate between whether to choose good boys or bad boys boils down to the ultimate tug of war inside each one of us – whether to follow the heart or the mind.

Published in Dawn Magazine, 26th Dec. 2010: