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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.

midlife

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…..one 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.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/499057/who-gets-the-job-the-fairest-of-them-all/

“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

http://dawn.com/2012/07/22/trauma-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: 

http://dawn.com/2012/05/27/analysis-loving-your-man-to-death/

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:

http://jang.com.pk/thenews/oct2010-weekly/nos-10-10-2010/dia.htm#3

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:

http://dawn.com/2010/12/05/point-here-comes-the-stepmom/

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