Celebrating our 'second moms'
They may not have birthed us but loved and cared for us as if they had
It takes a village to raise a child. This is especially true in India, where people happily participate in the rearing of someone else’s progeny. Joint families, neighbour chachis, summer holidays where an entire generation is handed over to their grandparents for months — we’re a land of second moms and dads.
And for many of us, it’s the domestic workers, the ammas, dais and baajis, who step in to care for the kids.
I am one of those kids. I say ‘am’ because Ammi is still a huge part of my life. When I was younger and someone asked me who she was, I wouldn’t know how to respond. I hadn’t come across the term ‘second moms’, so for a long time, I called her my life-nanny.
I think we DTR-ed when I projectile-vomited on her as a 10 year old. Something she never lets me forget — and a memory that still mortifies me.
Ammi joined our household to look after me when I was born. She was recently widowed and wasn’t on good terms with her husband’s family at the time. They wanted her to leave.
My mother was already looking after my troublesome two-year-old sister and dealing with my father’s extended family while he was in and out of the country for work. A single mom, so to speak, with two unruly kids teamed up with another woman looking for some semblance of a home.
Ammi became a surrogate parent. She made sure I ate all my veggies, readied me for school and told me stories until we fell asleep.
I’m not going to romanticise it. Childhood was hard, money was tight and we constantly moved homes. My mother was navigating a country that was foreign to her after living her entire pre-married life in the US, trying to live up to gender roles and the demands of a traditional family. Ammi was forced to leave the care of her son to her in-laws so she focused that maternal love on my sister and me.
Ammi does what every mother does. As a kid, I used to get a whack on the bum for behaving like a brat. Now, video calls feature just her forehead instead of her full face. She complains that I’m not married, smoke too much and am too lazy. She reminds me not to worry so much about weight gain and what other people may say.
But as I got older, I recognised the class and gender politics that permeated my relationship with my second mom.
As much as all of us (myself included) would like to believe that we are kind, loving, even benevolent with our “they’re part of the family” shtick, it becomes exploitative very easily. This played on my mind while reading through a very educative post by Hannah Stephen. The line between a ‘structured’ workplace and home are blurred for domestic workers, especially those in live-in situations, like Ammi. Saying someone is ‘like family’ can easily open doors for mistreatment. You cross over from professional conduct to personal.
Do we eat the same food in the same utensils? Yes, but do we all sit down at the table together, as a family does? No.
The few times I’ve talked to her about it I’ve been scolded. “Kya batameez baatein kar rehi ho? Nasha kiya hai kya, mama ko bataun?”
The distinction exists, whether she and I acknowledge it or not. It’s ingrained in all of us from a young age to different degrees, depending on where we are positioned in society.
We made sure she has health insurance, a savings account, bonuses and respect. But that doesn’t make me special. It is bare minimum decency, considering she has given a large part of her life to me.
In 2015 we boarded a flight together to Mumbai. My first trip to the city I would relocate to and her first time on a plane. We locked arms to comfort each other, as the flight took off, both thinking the engine was going to fall off.
We stood on Juhu beach with our feet in the water. She’d never seen the ocean. She held onto my shirt as the waves came in and I hoped I was wearing enough deodorant to combat the humid day, considering her face came to my armpit. We spoke about our 23 years together and had our photo taken by a stranger. The only one we have together after all this time.
I send her books, namkeen and aam ras to assuage my guilt of leaving her for a different city. She tells me to stop moaning over petty men and biting my nails. Her favourite show comes on TV at the same time I call, but she never misses the call.
As a kid, I could never fall asleep without clinging onto one of Ammi‘s dupattas that I’d use as a security blanket. When I grew quieter and more withdrawn, foreshadowing poor mental health, she was my confidante and caretaker. I’d tell her things I was too scared to tell my mother and she’d convince me to spill the beans anyway.
Sometimes I wonder how difficult it must have been for my mother to see our closeness. I could tell there were times, it would get to her, and she’d respond with a “go ask your other mother, why are you asking me?” It’s not like I didn’t want to talk to my mum. But there was already a lot on her plate. Eventually, she was just glad I spoke to someone. We appreciated the relationship for what it is. Not a replacement but an additional support system. Something she recognised in her own life in her relationship with her aunt.
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A few years ago, I asked ammi if she’d prefer to be addressed by her real name. She likes Ammi, it’s what the kids in her extended family call her too. She felt it gave her respect. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. She can’t remember if we started calling her that because her family members did, or the other way around. I trust her to speak the truth. She’s straightforward and unfiltered enough to tell me to my face that she doesn’t like something. She did so every time I got a haircut and wore dark lipstick.
As much as I complain to my partner that the universe is constantly conspiring against me, I have to admit that I lucked out in this department. I don’t just have a great mother, I have two.
Now in her mid-60s, Ammi tells me she spends most of her days reading. “There are no good movies on TV anymore. So many shirtless men, tauba.” She tattles on my dogs. They watch her while she eats and guilt-trip her into giving them the last bit of roti. I told her I’m going to be writing about her, she doesn’t mind but forbid me from putting any of the screenshots I’ve not-so-sneakily taken during our last video calls.
She started taking evening walks with a friend she made in the neighbourhood. A feat we all celebrated because she has a famous dislike for most people. I think I get that from her.
We’re planning for her to move to Mumbai for some time. She wants to see the ocean again once the pandemic has passed. We’re both too anxious as people to attempt to take a flight right now.
I’m still trying to figure out if these two aspects can coexist – the reality that this is someone that works for our family, and my personal, loving relationship with her. I don’t have an answer and my introspection, unlearning and self-checks will continue. Coming close to 29 years together, I’d like to believe we’ve grown to be more to each other. Perhaps the two can have an overlap, but never be the same or fully merge. And I need to accept that.