My grandmother was 13 or 14 when she rode on the back of a camel from her small village to the small village that would become her home for the rest of her time. She was to see her husband there for the first time, because during the wedding they had draped her sari so low down her face there was nothing to see, even sneakily, except perhaps an outline against the bright red cloth.
“I knew he was tall,” she would tell us when we asked what it was like.
By 30, she had given birth to six children (including my father), lost her eldest, and was perhaps pregnant with my youngest uncle, or maybe had already had him and was shouting at his two-year-old behind as he ran around, causing mischief.
“I don’t know how old I was!” she would always retort when we implored.
30 for my grandmother was a silver away from being old. She would be welcoming her first grandchild soon enough, and that would almost be, for her, a lifetime of completeness.
“But it wasn’t until your aunt was married off that I was truly free,” she’d sigh happily.
My mother’s story isn’t so different. She was raised as a city girl, and was just starting college when her first proposal came. It was from a young man whose aunt was married into my grandfather’s (mother’s dad) village. She had never seen him before he walked into the door with two friends, confusing my then seventeen-year-old mother as to WHO was the man asking for her hand.
“I remember my mother pointing to your father, sitting to the side, and I couldn’t believe how dumb I was… of course it was him! He was sitting ALONE,” she bashfully recounted.
By 19, she had married my father, and joined him in running a small household filled with my father’s younger siblings and cousins who had come to the city to study.
“I cooked, cleaned, entertained and cared for 5 young boys aged 7 to 20 and your father. Not to mention, I also finished my bachelors degree, taking my final exam while I was pregnant with you,” she nodded at me with a distant glimmer in her eyes. “Those were some of my favorite years, though…”
I can understand why. By 23 she had left behind everything and everyone she knew and come with her husband 7,590 miles away to the country that is still her home. She was shocked that February meant bitter winter weather, and that milk came in gallons. She nervously sent her first daughter to preschool, worrying all day on the verge of tears because she thought she hadn’t taught her 4-year-old enough English to survive for a day. She learned how to drive, how to deal with difficult Indian recipes with limited resources, how to maintain a balance of cultures in her daughters.
At 30, she was a mother of three, was fluent in a language she hated learning as a child, and knew exactly how to handle any crisis that befell her or her family.
“By the time I was your age…” she would taunt when I was in my early twenties.
Because it’s true: I have always felt inadequate compared to my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents when it came to age. Every year, I find myself setting goals, trying to find some sense of satisfaction in my actions as I scrambled to match myself with the struggles of the generations that came before me. I have always fell short. At 21, I was still in college, finishing up my English degree after 4 years of pursuing Biology, refusing to become the doctor my parents always dreamed (and knew I had the potential) of being. At 24, I had shamed my family by breaking off an arranged engagement to a young man who was rather perfect for everyone but me. At 28, I was the suspiciously unmarried older sibling at my sister’s wedding, everyone trying to hide their hunger for gossip behind false smiles.
And today, at the big 3-0, I feel no more glorifying self-love than before. Here I am, married (to the relief of my parents), in a new place, with no work, and my first child curled inside of me, occasionally kicking against the walls of my stomach. And while being the wife of a talented, resilient and amazing person is the best thing that could have happened to me, I am hardly the mother my mother and grandmother were, hardly the teacher I know I can be, hardly, even, the writer who had promised herself to have a novel out by now. I woke up feeling, all things considered, quite a failure.
But as I reflect and judge, perhaps this is exactly how it needs to be. Perhaps it’s exactly how I need to feel on day one of being 30, so that the rest of 364 days can be spent doing and becoming exactly what I aimed to do and be.
And maybe one day, I’ll get to smile and share, “You know, when I was 30…”