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When life makes you Dad and Mom

By Sunil Chugh Email By Sunil Chugh
December 2009
When life makes you Dad and Mom We were living the American dream—successful dual careers, a sprawling house in suburban Virginia, and two lovely daughters.

And then tragedy struck. My wife passed away, leaving behind our 1-year-old and 7-year-old daughters. She was a CPA with a large organization. While I traveled internationally on business trips, she took care of the home and the girls—while working full time.

Her sudden and unnatural death was not only traumatic, but also turned my world upside down. The weight of two little lives totally dependent on my care and affection was something I was unequipped for. Their incessant cries, looking to get their mom back, were heartbreaking. The only thing that kept me going, accepting the challenge of being Dad and Mom to them, was that I had no choice!

I had to make some crucial decisions — fast. In the immediacy of the event, there were funeral arrangements to be made on the one hand, and on the other, the comfort, care and feeding of both girls, without too much upheaval of their routine of school, daycare and activities.

I couldn’t have a traveling job anymore. And I didn’t want to live in the same place with painful memories of the loss. That led to the selling of the house, probate court and official matters, even as I was getting used to the bottle feedings, diaper changes and doctor visits. There was no one to share the grief and load of my new responsibilities. In India, friends, neighbors and the extended family would have pitched in to share the load, at least temporarily. But here, things are not structured like that, no matter what the best intentions of those around you are.

The seemingly non-stop sobs of the 7-year-old were draining me of all the emotional strength I could muster. At times I just felt like shutting my eyes to the whole thing. But the more I focused on my children, the more I realized that breaking down physically, mentally or spiritually was simply not an option.

I suddenly realized that the singular pursuit of academic and career ambitions had left me totally alone and ill-equipped to handle such a tragedy. My life journey from here on was going to be on a single leg. I had better learn to make the best of the limp.

It took all the strength and will I could muster to make some drastic changes. I moved to Atlanta to take a job that would not require travel. Instead of the 6 a.m. flights on Mondays, my routine now involved a 6 a.m. wake up call to get the children ready for school and day care. Instead of early morning conferences, I was now cleaning the bottom of the 1-year-old, feeding her, preparing lunches, and dropping the girls at day care.

The evenings were equally intense, with the daily pressure of reaching the day care in time, bringing the girls home, giving them baths, cooking (a typical Indian meal of lentils, chapattis, and vegetables), and putting them to bed. The ground realities had changed dramatically for me, and with it my priorities and perspectives, too. Social interactions and personal freedom were now alien to me.

I have now been on this journey for four years. The girls are 5 and 12. Life has fallen into a routine, but the pressures and challenges are only different, not gone. I may not be dealing with diapers and milk bottles, but now it is checking on homework and providing emotional support to the growing needs of the girls.

The whole experience has been humbling, but I have also gained some insights that I feel are valuable for other young Indian families chasing the dream life. As someone who was so driven, I was engrossed in academic excellence and was proud of my IIT and US institutional education. Later, the focus shifted to career advancement. In the whole process, I didn’t always recognize or appreciate the effort that my wife had to put in to handle it all—the home, the kids and a full time job in the corporate world.

I realized that our roles as husbands and wives are so insular. Our Indian culture doesn’t cross-train us to be whole and independent. Traditionally, boys are not encouraged to learn household chores and cooking. That can be a handicap! I was lucky, because growing up, my older sisters would make me do everything they did. I learnt to clean, sew, knead the dough, make chapattis, cook, and so on. These skills were lifesavers during my ordeal. Most Indian men who are not equipped with such a skill-set would find themselves entirely at the mercy of the outside world if they were, God forbid, widowed.

On the flip side, so many Indian women never bother to manage finances, learn driving, or even pump gas in the car. They would be equally helpless if they found themselves in such a situation. I expose my girls to all the knowledge and abilities that may need to handle situations both inside and outside the home.

Being a single parent, I have seen that it is very difficult for one person to play the role of both mother and father. I have to flip-flop between the masculine strength and discipline of a dad to the feminine love and forgiveness that comes naturally to a mom. Children look for consistency, forgiveness and love. My little daughter sometimes tells me (when she gets mad at me), “Dad, you are mean. Moms are gentle and I miss my mom.” That breaks my heart, but I try my best to play both roles as I realize that it is her way of giving me some loving grief.

I also struggle to have a social life. It is hard to forge new connections when you don’t even have time to relax. I also feel that other families aren’t as willing to relate to a single parent (especially a male) as they were to the complete family we had when my wife was alive.

My experience has made me more humble and tolerant, and allowed me to see life from a very different perspective. My journey is not over yet, and I know I have a long way to go. I may still have a limp, but I am sure I will reach the destination one day.

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