Category Archives: Family

The Empath’s Refuge

One of my favorite songs is “Listen with your heart” from the film Pocahontas. Years after  I watched the film, the imagery is still stuck in my mind – of a young and confused Pocahontas fleeing to the woods, rowing her boat deeper and deeper into the waters of a river to seek refuge in a tree that she calls Grandmother Willow. The tree with its soft sighing breezes, offers comfort in the form of this song.

Sometimes that is all it takes. Whether it is handling an intransigent child, a student who may not be opening up to their difficulty in a subject, whether it is facing challenging circumstances – if we can find that wood, that clear water, and preferably have a Grandmother Willow waiting with infinite patience and wisdom – there can be a small personal oasis of peace, far from the madding crowd.

Those of us who are Empaths need that solace. I seek mine in long hikes – just thinking of a walk in the woods energizes me. Today as I waited in a doctor’s office with a family member who was ill, I chanced upon a hiking magazine. Was so engrossed reading it that I finally asked the front desk if they will let me take it – seeing as it was at least a 3 month old edition. They let me, and I walked out with a smile, feeling like I had won a prize.

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The Empaths among us are the classic rescuers, who can sense distress and pain in others, and immediately reach out to help. The distress is sensed without having to speak a word.

People are good at different things – some naturally good with their hands, who can build structures without even thinking….these are the people who can solve a complex 1000-piece puzzle with relative ease leaving the rest of us in the dust; some are artists with a photographic memory who can translate their mental images to canvas deftly and beautifully; some have exceptional athletic abilities that defy the laws of Physics. Sensing trouble and reaching out to help is the Empath’s special gift.

Regardless of whether they are good with speech, Empaths are oriented towards healing and bringing comfort to others. They feel like natural harbors to people in an uncertain world, and elicit confessions from people that they would normally not share with anyone else. Some even attract troubled or sick animals and give comfort. Their intuition is so finely tuned that they are able to help those who cannot express themselves in words. Someone I know has a special connection with children with mental and cognitive problems and a way to calm them down – she had this ability even as a very young child! Those around the Empath see them as someone to lean on, and come to them when they need solace from the problems of the world.

The Empaths  immediately jump in to take on the role of Grandmother Willow, but without her wisdom and without the ability to stay rooted to the spot, observing the changing currents in the river, gently bending to the harsh winds and bowing to the breezes but staying essentially unchanged even if slightly ruffled. Grandmother Willow is a true gnani … A lot can be learned by observation and detachment, but alas! such is not the way of most humans.

The currents push the Empath into a river of constant action and they lose themselves in it. They get into a problem-solving mode, drawing from the strength of their intuition that has helped them through the years, and try to tackle whatever problem there is to the best of their ability. Their focus is on finding a solution and all else blurs into the background. They own the feelings of the person they are trying to help, and help navigate them through these turbulent feelings. They become shock-absorbers and do all they can to protect those they are trying to help and do not stop until they find a solution. Once the problem is resolved, and the person with the problem goes away happy, the Empath’s job is done and they feel a sense of accomplishment. Now they can sit back with a happy smile and take a deep breath. Solving a problem is a win for both the Empath and those they choose to help. It serves their natural purpose in the world.

In time, more problems come their way and they drop everything and try to solve them again, forgetting their own needs. The last bit is the Empath’s undoing – because these healers and comforters rarely pause to find healing and comfort for themselves. They are absolutely terrible about asking for help, fearing that needing or asking for help will unnecessarily put others through trouble – which is the last thing they want to do! They hate to cause the slightest inconvenience to others while taking a lot of pummeling themselves. The reality is that, they need time and space to recharge before they go into problem-solving mode.

If this re-energizing happens on a regular basis, then they function quite well as they can find their intuition rather easily and they can navigate through some very involved situations. But if this doesn’t happen, more and more energy gets depleted, and the once smiling-face starts to snap at people. The sincerity of action and the desire to help is still there, but there is no more joy in it. There is also guilt associated with the irritability they have been feeling in their depleted state, and the anger turns inward; stress builds to unbearable levels and it starts to result in breathlessness, anxiety, fatigue and some odd aches and pains.  Extreme Empaths who also repress negative feelings to present a cool front and protect others, get afflicted by stress-induced illnesses including high blood pressure, heart issues, and even cancer.

The Empaths being the carers of others ironically often do not get care from others….the worse irony is that these creatures of feeling and intuition, who can pick up others’ needs and feelings wordlessly – get treated as if they were robots who have no feelings, needs or desires of their own! Those who function as boats for others to navigate some very choppy waters can get left behind with nary a look after one is done with the navigation. The world can be a very insensitive place indeed.

So, what is the way forward for an Empath? Tough to answer… Perhaps it is not just listening with their heart, it maybe listening to their heart and tending to themselves any way they could. Sometimes, it can be pretending ignorance of something: for, capability comes with a price…..people think you are capable, so you can handle it. They throw you more, you handle more. They throw you still more, and you try to fit it all in. At one point all of this swallows one whole and one has to find a way to burrow out of this pile and find oneself. Perhaps feigning ignorance is a way to prevent oneself from getting drained by users! But a true Empath cannot stay in this mode for long. Sooner or later, their desire to rescue will get in the way.

Another solution maybe to seek out other Empaths and get some self-care that way…. Having a steady and rock-solid network of friends who can serve as sounding boards to bounce off ideas and to keep one’s sanity. A kind word here, some appreciation there – with one taking the role of Grandmother Willow while the other talks, and then switching roles after a while.

I have been told that Pranayama and Yoga help a lot in restoring one’s balance. I have tried this, and it helps for a while – but my spirit is too restless for it. What helps is surrounding oneself with nature, and silence. Hiking in the woods on uneven terrain, focusing only on the next step one has to take so that one can – literally – keep one’s balance, allowing the gentle breezes to caress one’s body and soothe the mind feels like meditation to me. A single hike can give comfort for an entire week.

I have read that even spending a few hours in nature can spur one’s creativity, as the mind stills. Truly, there is very little a human being needs. Rishis knew something the average human doesn’t: that peace can be found in silence, and in the woods. In silence, the mind rests and recovers.

Perhaps Grandmother Willow was once a seedling that drifted along a river, being dashed against rocks and bouncing along the waves before finding firm ground to anchor herself in. To grow and branch out….and in time, flourish into an old growth tree sheltering several forms of life, providing respite and refuge to all who seek such, while standing firm in the face of wind, hail, and rain. Minimizing one’s wants, having the Earth fulfill all one’s needs, bending and swaying gently to the changing winds yet staying grounded and observing everything.

Is this even possible? The thought does feel comforting however, that such a state can be aimed for…..perhaps a start in this journey is to listen with your heart, and to your heart.

The Pedders of Platitudes…..and the Sellers of Stereotypes – Conclusion

My previous two articles on this theme are here and here

The Evil Mother-in-Law

In our Hindu tradition, some of us perform a puja (prayer ritual) called Varalakshmi Vratham. This puja is performed by married women and young girls – it is a prayer for peace, prosperity and well being of the whole family. In some places, the belief is that the women doing this prayer will be granted the same husband in the next seven births, and their couple status will transcend birth and death.

Varalakshmi Vratham this time comes on August 12th, and there is a topical joke going around in social media, on this theme of the same spouse in multiple births. Chitragupta, the divine accountant of good and bad karma performed in a person’s lifetime, tells Brahma the Creator that this Varalakshmi Vratham scheme of the praying women wanting the same husband for the next seven births needs to stop….Because while the women wanted the same husband, their husbands wanted a different wife in each birth!!

“How should we solve this dilemma?”, asks Chitragupta.

Neither of them is able to solve this puzzle. Just then Narada, the divine sage, comes along, and says they should ask a wise man named Chanakya for advice, as he was known for his ability to solve complex problems. So Chitragupta goes to meet Chanakya, and explains the problem to him. Chanakya listens carefully, thinks for a while and says there is a solution.

“Tell the praying women that if they want the same husband for the next seven births,  they will also get the same Mother-in-Law”

The problem was now solved!! 🙂

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Mother-in-law generally is the most hated-figure, coming a close second to only one other role that I will come to in a bit.

Indian television shows are replete with mothers-in-law who scheme and collude with the rest of the family to treat the poor daughter-in-law as an outcast in the family, try to separate her from her husband, treat her like an unpaid servant, expect her to put up with all sorts of abuse, and in general lord it over the poor newcomer. The TV shows feature daughters-in-law who suffered this treatment for a while and shed copious tears before finding themselves, developing their potential talents and breaking free.

The scene in urban India is a far cry from this. In my hometown of Chennai, I hear many stories of demands from prospective brides – that the prospective groom needs to have his own house and car; ideally he should not have any sisters or the sisters should be married and settled abroad. Preferably, he should be an only son who will eventually inherit all his parents’ property. The bride’s parents will live close to the bride, with the understanding that she will be a dutiful daughter and take care of them in their old age. The woman’s parents might even move in with the couple once they have children….The groom’s parents on the other hand should not live with him, and should preferably be in a different city or a whole different country.

This is the scenario of prospective urban brides of India, in 2016. If this is the demand before the wedding even starts, one can imagine how things will be once the wedding is over.

Women are the kin-keepers in any family. They keep in touch with loved ones, invite them over for celebrations, keep track of birthdays, anniversaries – and are the communicators in the family. Few men keep track of all this, leaving it to the women to handle extended family relationships. With the women being naturally close to their own families of birth, the man’s side typically gets lesser attention, and if the woman decides that the husband’s family is not important to them, sooner or later they lose their connection with the son and grandchildren. Radhika Sarathkumar says this poignantly in the film “Theri” when her son (played by Vijay) introduces his fiancee to her. She expresses her worry thus: “I fear you may not like me……And if you don’t like me, you will cut my son out of my life….Then you will cut my grandchildren out of my life”

Sad is the state of the mother-in-law who has been a homemaker all her life, who becomes widowed and starts to rely on her son for support. If there are many sons, she gets shuttled between their homes, an unwanted visitor and poor relation. If there is only one son, the daughter-in-law can feel threatened and either treat her as a marginal member of the family, or treat her like an outcast and outright demand that her husband put her in an old age home, and she is no longer welcome at theirs. With rising divorce rates, many men are afraid to stand up for their own side of the family, and many of them toe the line of the wife.

I have seen instances where an aged mother is left to fend for herself after her husband’s death – with the son initially promising to take care of his mother and taking over all her assets. Once all assets are transferred, the mother-in-law is increasingly marginalized by the daughter-in-law and finally cast out. Modern day mothers-in-law especially in urban areas are more sinned against than sinning!

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And the Most Evil of Them All

The award for The Most Reviled Figure in all of literature goes to…..(drumroll, please) The Stepmother! She wins this award hands down, across the world!

Nearly all western fairy tales feature a stepmother who mistreats, abuses and makes an unpaid servant out of her stepchild(ren) as in the case of Cinderella. Some stepmothers are outright witches as in the case of Hansel and Gretel and Snow White. These stepmothers are not just wicked and mean, they are murderers who try to poison the poor children!

In Indian puranas, we see Queen Suruchi, a stepmother who prevents young prince Dhruva, a child of about five from sitting on his father’s lap. Dhruva goes to the forest, does severe penance, and becomes the pole star. The Ramayana has Kaikeyi, Lord Rama’s stepmother – who is instrumental in banishing Him to a forest, so that her son Bharata can become crown prince.  The Mahabharata has Satyavati, who marries King Shantanu under the condition that their future son will become the crown prince and after him his descendants will rule the kingdom, passing over prince Devavrata who is Shantanu’s son from a previous marriage. Devavrata renounces his claim to the throne, and even takes a vow of celibacy so that he has no descendants – sacrificing his happiness for his father’s.

There are innumerable movies along this theme in nearly every country. “The Parent Trap” is one in the US, where twin daughters scheme to kick the gold-digging stepmother out of the home. All ends well with the stepmother being shown the door and the children getting their parents to reunite. The stepmother is widely understood to be a figure who will mistreat her stepchildren, alienate them from their father, and stake claim to all of his assets and emotions.

Few understand how toxic this type of stereotyping can be…..and how hard on the woman involved. In previous generations, men worked outside the home while women stayed home to take care of the family. Marriage was considered a necessity at the time, for women to be financially supported and for men to have a partner to run their home.

These days with women gaining financial independence, and having more choice in their lives, marriage is increasingly regarded as an option. When something becomes an option, it is a conscious choice – made out of love, and a need for companionship. Why else would someone who is otherwise independent, marry a person with child(ren)?

In many families, both husband and wife work outside the home. There are numerous demands on one’s time, and much juggling to balance all of one’s roles and responsibilities. Some days, tempers flare because there is just so much to do! If one partner in a marriage comes branded as Evil by social stereotyping, imagine the added pressure on her…..She isn’t allowed to be human with human frailties, lest she be branded as Evil! She has to put on a pleasing front all the time, suppressing her natural feelings, to “prove” that she is not evil.

Sometimes people who have a bad day at work can be moody at home. Not the stepmother, because she is not allowed to have or express such feelings. If she corrects her stepchild, she is not being maternal enough and is treating him/her in a step-motherly manner. If she does not correct the child, then she is not invested enough in the child’s well-being the way a real mother would be! An uncle or aunt can correct a child, or give advice – but stepmothers have no such privileges.

In a typical step or blended family, a stepmother is allowed to love but not discipline. She is given responsibility but no real authority. Unconditional love for the child is demanded from her, without any reciprocal expectation of love or respect from the child. Many children resent the presence of a stepmother, because to them she has replaced their own mother in their family unit! They naturally resent this change, and show this resentment in many ways….Young children act out, clinging to the father and being rebellious towards the stepmom.

“You are NOT my mother!” is a common refrain.

Teenagers act sullen and passive aggressive, or become destructive/disrespectful of both parental figures in the home as a way of expressing displeasure at the change in family unit. Many children hold on to fantasies of their natural parents reuniting, and try to break up the relationship between their father and the stepmother.

In all this, pressure from the couple’s immediate circle can be unrelenting. If the child resents the stepmother and acts out, it is seen as stepmom’s fault – because she is not good enough and hasn’t made enough of an effort to win the child’s love. If the stepmother expresses frustration at the lack of acceptance from the child and in many cases lack of support from her spouse, she is unfit to be parent, and it was a mistake for the father to have married her. If the child reports anything negative against the stepmother, typically the child’s words are believed over anything the stepmother has to stay. It is a very challenging role, with a high incidence of depression and anxiety

For those who believe stepmothers are inherently evil, imagine yourself in the following scenario: Your best friend  wants you to take care of their child for a year.

Will you take on this responsibility? Why or why not? If you answered ‘yes’ out of love for your best friend, pause and think carefully about each of the questions below:

  1. Do you expect to love the child as much as your own from the get-go, or do you expect a relationship that evolves and deepens over time…..?
  2. Given that you – instead of their parent – is parenting them for a whole year, do you expect the child to be happy about this situation that they didn’t choose?
  3. If you scold the child for a mistake and the child calls and complains to their parent, what types of reactions do you expect from the parent? If the parent were to automatically believe anything the child says, and not even hear what you have to say, what will your feelings be?
  4. What if the child rejects you because they resent the change in their life, or they miss their parent?
  5. What if the child feels (and is given the subliminal message) that that they are not required to love or respect you, while you are required to show love, affection and patience regardless, while juggling your other responsibilities such as work, home care, and family responsibilities?
  6. What if the child has grown up with fairy tales stating that surrogate caregivers are inherently evil, and is suspicious of your intentions? What if society is suspicious of your intentions and actions, simply because you have taken on the role of caregiver for the child?

Tough, isn’t it?

Adoptive parents are not branded in this manner. They are allowed to parent the child according to their values and principles, and lauded for taking on the care and responsibility of a child that sorely needed a parent and didn’t have one in their life. Adoptive parents are treated as angels, and respected as much as biological parents. Stepfathers don’t have a negative societal label – conservative societies applaud a man for stepping in to parent his spouse’s children. But stepmothers somehow are viewed with extreme suspicion and have to deal with negative labeling, simply for trying to do their best in the face of rejection from nearly everyone!

Many libraries ban books that use derogatory and discriminatory statements against a group of people or a race. Books with the n* word to depict Black Americans are banned in some libraries.

We are required to be politically correct and not brand a group of people with a broad brush on the basis of religion, race, or region. Yet, Grimms Fairy Tales continue to be popular and the myth of the Evil Stepmother is fed to people over and over again, starting from childhood. Is this fair?

(Concluded)