Contrary to the popular belief that daughters are closer to their fathers, I always found myself in a different category. I clung to my mom all the time. I hated school as a primary school kid because it meant being separated for seven-eight hours from her. The degree and nature of this love was such that every night I used to ask her to sleep facing me.
These over-the-top ‘mommy’s girl’ habits partly stemmed from my infinite love for her, and partly from a subconscious fear of losing her that has gripped me from the early years of my life. And this fear was not unfounded. Unlike other kids who visited amusement parks and movie halls with their parents during their primary school years, I started paying frequent visits to the ICU of the cardiology section of our city hospital.
My mother had been suffering from diabetes since 1992. She had a first heart attack when I was eight. After that, I was just a mute spectator as her health continued to deteriorate. I finally lost her at the age of 15 after her third heart attack which was followed by multiple organ failure, a 24-day coma and another cardiac arrest on March 19, 2015.
Till that day, my interactions with my father had been fairly limited. His work always kept him occupied. He used to drop me to school, and would come back home on most weekdays only after we had slept off. He used to work overtime on weekends as well. The on several of the few times we did plan an outing for a Sunday, I remember waiting for him to come back home only for the plan to be cancelled as he was busy.
Also read: A Letter to My Father
Due to these limited interactions with dad, I conflated parenthood with motherhood. After my mom passed away, I continued to hold on to my belief, which was grounded in gender stereotypes that fathers could not be caregivers – that they were supposed to be strong, that their main job was to earn and rear the family, that they could never cry and that they could never understand.
If a 15-year-old thought that way, it was not farfetched for her 57-year-old dad to have similar ideas. Thus, my mom’s demise did not only leave us grief stricken beyond repair, but it also landed us in a state of utter confusion. Apart from dealing with the loss of my perennial source of maternal love, I also had to re-work a relationship with my dad. I assume that he was also gripped by a similar dilemma.
In the beginning, talking about problems at school and things like periods was difficult. Things got even worse when I became 100% visually impaired exactly a year after mom’s demise due to a vision problem that has been there since I was born due to some complications during mom’s pregnancy.
But while I was undergoing unsuccessful surgeries to save my eyesight, I experienced another side of my Papa. He helped me eat, bathe, dress, take medicines and almost everything that I thought he could, and would never, do. He took time out during the weekdays and on the weekends, to take me out, to help me study, to deal with my recently acquired blindness, to spend time with me and to do everything that mom would have done.
Now, five years into this new chapter of our relationship, which was initially founded on our common grief, our relationship has matured a lot. He understands period cramps and sometimes cries into my shoulder when he misses mom. I share all my college stories with him and he tells me about problems he faces at work.
When I connect the dots in retrospect, I realise that he always had the potential to do everything that we would conventionally expect a mother to do. Maybe I never noticed that side of him, when mom was alive, due to the stereotypes I held. And maybe he did not show that side of him when mom was alive due to the stereotypes he held. My dad certainly debunked gender stereotypes, but maybe he did so out of necessity to rebuild our relationship.
Over the years to come, I hope to see the gradual birth of a society which is devoid of such binaries and gender roles, where parental love is not a function of gender labels and gender roles, where barriers are broken and there are clear lines of communication and affection. A society, where men and everyone else across the gender spectrum can be ‘motherly’ out of choice and not necessity.
Anchal Bhatheja is a third-year law student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.