A tale of two identities: how I became a single mom

DESI- of, or belonging to, a specific land; slang for Southeast Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis) living outside of their own or their parents’ homelands.

In Boston’s Tufts Hospital at 7:48 p.m. on November 13, 2009 I finally met the baby girl I’d been carrying for 41 weeks. All of the movies and television shows around the world depict a woman suddenly glowing with pride and awe and love as she gazes at her fragile newborn and cries. It is an image universally portrayed, but in our case, it was my husband who sobbed as Zahara entered the world. I heard his half gasp, half sob, “My baby!” and then I saw her hair, her face, her body for an instant, before the nurses took her to the other side of the room. I didn’t cry. I was amazed by her and got caught up in trying to wrap my head around the fact that she was really finally here. This was my little girl and I had been waiting for what seemed like forever just to hold her in my arms. I know I’m a bit biased as her mother, but honestly, my daughter arrived as this curious little genius with an innate strength I marveled at, grabbing a nurse’s stethoscope as she tried to measure her. Then I was holding her, and I kept telling myself again and again so it would truly sink in, “I am a mother.”

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I had been staying with my parents since November 25th in New York where I was born and raised. Desi women go to their mothers for the first 6 weeks after delivery to recover and learn how to be mommies themselves. And in my case, my husband’s parents had decided to hold their daughter’s wedding in New York exactly 3 weeks after my due date, which ended up being when my baby was only 2 weeks old. I was upset that they hadn’t chosen to have it in December, when the groom’s family wanted and when I would have been able to really participate and enjoy myself, too. December would have been perfect for my baby, too since a big gathering like a wedding is really not recommended for newborns.

In desi soap operas, there is always one saintly female character who sacrifices everything for her husband, his family, her children, because by loving, respecting, and caring for them she will eventually win them over and they will appreciate and love her, too. I’m no saint, but I was as close to this as humanly possible, with room for errors in judgment and unintentional mistakes, of course. Even though I was recovering from painful emergency surgery that I had to have a few days after Zahara was born, I was so happy for my sister-in-law and the rest of my husband’s family that I felt it was my duty to get us to that wedding no matter how much my doctor advised rest.

I continued to be the best daughter-in-law I could while dealing with a new baby and taking Percoset for the post-surgery pain. And when my in-laws expressed doubt for my love for them, I thought if I wasn’t able to help out with the wedding than at least my husband could. I told him he had to go be with his family 40 minutes away from me and Zahara, because once his sister left that house a married woman his relationship with her would change forever. I insisted he spend every waking moment with his family, because at the time, I believed in sacrificing for the family I felt was my own. Whether he ran around finishing wedding preparations or just sat on the sofa and talked with his parents and siblings, that was where he should be, I said. All I asked was that he come sleep with me and the baby, even if that was only an hour a night. I wanted him and Zahara to bond, and honestly, I craved that little bit of time when I could just fall asleep in his arms, exhausted but peaceful because I knew Zahara was in good hands. My in-laws erupted. My husband erupted. I told him to stay with his family until everyone went to bed and then to come be with me and our daughter when there was nothing going on there except sleep. I didn’t want him or his family to miss any special pre-wedding moments together, but I also wanted him with us, even if only for one hour out of every 24.

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Cut to New Year’s Eve.

Zahara’s father was supposed to spend New Year’s Eve with us at a party my parents were having at home, but since we’d been arguing a lot recently he told me he wanted to be alone. He’s a pilot, and was in and out of New York with temporary duty in random states around America since Zahara had been born. Until I had the baby, I had moved around like crazy with him to support his career however he needed. But this New Year’s he was in St. Louis and I was on Long Island, and all evening I kept trying to call him because as mad as I was at him, I still loved him and thought it was my job to somehow appease him and make it all better.

As much as my “American” independent streak made me expect certain behavior and voice my demands quite loudly one minute, my desi upbringing including the need to pacify my husband made my voice soften, my words tinged with the calming notes of forgiveness and moving on. The two sides of my personality fought hard as they had done increasingly since I got married, but eventually I decided I had given the man enough of a cold shoulder and being together at midnight on New Year’s, even over cell phones, was more important than my anger. So I called and texted and became more and more uneasy.

And when midnight came and went, and my daughter slept with her head on my shoulder, unaware of anything but me, I got angry again. How could he not call? Not call me, not call his daughter, not be there as a last minute surprise? Didn’t he want to wish our baby girl her first happy new year? We had always said that whatever you’re doing at midnight is what you’ll be doing all year. Like if you’re on the tiny island of Jost Van Dyke in the Caribbean with friends (as we were 2 years in a row…oh yeah, there were some out of this world experiences), if you were laughing as the clocks hit 12, then your year ahead would be full of laughter and good times with great friends. So this, Zahara’s first ever New Year’s and what was supposed to be the end of my 6 weeks recovery at my parents’ house, what was this?

I fell asleep, troubled and sad as a wife, but genuinely pissed off as a mother for my child who was ignored so easily. I was more than disappointed in him. I was mad as hell, and although I didn’t know it then, the mother in me was turning out to have a backbone I hadn’t noticed before. There was a core strength in me as a woman, desi and American combined, to become exactly what I needed to be for myself and my sweet baby girl. That night will forever remain a turning point in my life as it was the end of my marriage, although I didn’t know that yet either.

On January 1st, 2010 I woke up so early it was still dark out. Some instinct was telling me something major was happening and I took out my IPhone to check if Zahara’s father had at last called. Seeing no missed calls, texts, or voicemails, I quickly started checking my email with a nervous, focused energy I have come to rely on. One email caught my eye, a notice from my bank for recent suspicious activity. Even as I opened it I knew. Even though I had never seen any evidence of it before, I knew. Even though in the desi community it is still the most scandalous thing, and no one knows anyone who it has happened to, I knew. There, in that innocent little email at some random hour of the early morning on the first day of the new year was a charge for a roundtrip ticket to St. Louis from New York on Southwest Airlines for a woman staying with my in-laws as a wedding guest. I hardly knew anything about her back then, but the one thing I knew, from somewhere deep inside me that was unwilling to flinch from the truth, was that this woman represented the end of my marriage.

Just like when I gave birth, I didn’t cry but was amazed at how life had changed so suddenly again. I reread that email so many times, and then something took over and I investigated in as many ways as I could online to see what other facts and information I could gather. There was something raw and choking somewhere in me, but I closed that off and found myself able to function. Even now as I write this, I don’t know what exactly kept me from falling apart right then and there. But I just couldn’t, I wouldn’t give in to the emotion that threatened to devastate me. Whether it was that American pride or the desi definition of a woman’s duty to her children, I’ll never know, but I found out what I needed to and I kept breathing. With my baby girl asleep in her bassinet beside me, I repeated to myself again and again until it would sink in “I am a mother.”