A post by writer Gwen Bellinger. Gwen is the daughter of my good friend Susan. I asked her to write us a piece about living away from her mom, far away, and the challenges, insights, and joys it brings:
You’ll be fine,” my mom says over the phone. Or maybe it was on Skype, or Facechat, or in person during one of my visits to the United States. I can’t remember because she’s said it to me so many times over the last few years.
I don’t live in the same country as my mom, nor do we talk everyday, so sometimes I feel guilty dominating our conversations with self-doubt or rambles about boys. She never seems to mind being used as an emotional crutch. In fact, I believe our relationship has grown stronger in the last years, maybe not despite the distance, but because of it.
Having lived abroad (or at least in another time zone) for six years now, I’ve navigated the majority of my twenties with a lot of physical distance from my mother. My current location is Vietnam.
Last year I lived in South America, and before that, India. As a “digital nomad,” someone who makes a living by working online, I can literally be anywhere as long as I have access to a computer and internet. It’s a brave new working world, one my mom still doesn’t understand, but at least she stopped calling me unemployed. I haven’t lived at home for ten years now, and for the majority of that time I was not within driving distance (or even the same continent).
So what does that mean for my relationship with my mom?
Well, there are definitely times the distance bothers me. Sometimes this is due to nostalgia. I teared up in public last month when a friend left me a voice recording and I could hear the overwhelmingly chirp of cicadas in the background. It made me think of my unexpected visited to North Carolina a year ago in the thick humidity of July, the last time I saw my grandmother. Sometimes I crave banana pudding and BBQ sandwiches and going to the gym with my mom.
Other times I miss my mom taking care of me. Once, I got brutal food poisoning in India and spent a week moaning on my hard mattress, in so much pain I couldn’t even watch TV, and running to the bathroom to expel liquids so vile I’m ashamed (and shocked) my body was able to produce them. I was miserable. There was nothing I wanted more than to have my mom dote on me.
Often I miss her emotional support. As I have transitioned from my early 20s to my late 20s, the decisions I need to make have become bigger and weightier. Part of that is just having more options and needing to think more seriously about the future. In college, my “big” decisions were if I would live in the dorms or in an apartment and where to go for spring break. Now I need to decide if I should give up my freelance writing career for a lucrative position in China. “Big decisions” involve moving in with boys and career paths.
Mothers have invaluable life experience, are devoted to your best interest, and know you better than anyone. They can slip into roles of life coaches or therapists but are better because they don’t charge by the hour.
It’s times like these I miss my mom most of all, if nothing else, just to have her tell me, “you’ll be fine.”
And yet, the independence of living abroad has made me a much stronger adult. While I usually call to talk out difficult decisions with my mom, the consequences of my choices are ones I must bear alone. While a good Skype cry once or twice when I first moved to India were great cathartic releases, ultimately I was the one who took on those challenges without much handholding. When things got hard, I couldn’t retreat home for a weekend. I had to get resourceful.
Likewise, family time has become something sacred. There isn’t much of it, so it means really taking advantage of it while I have it. My parents have an excuse to travel to odd places. They’ve visited me in Chicago, Budapest, Prague, India, and Buenos Aires. These trips mean being able to share something a little outside the usual with my family and show them different sides of myself. In Argentina, I served as the translator. In India, I became a traffic controller to get them across the crazy streets. In every country, I have to find the best bakery for my mom.
As much as I miss the “routine” of going to the gym or lunch with my mom, or chatting in the living room, I still think the distance has helped, rather than hindered, our relationship. We value the time we have, and we make our conversations and communication count. She’s given me the emotional (and physical) distance to experiment with adulthood, and find the best path for myself. It’s nice though, that technology has given me the possibility to always pick up the phone, and have someone at the other end tell me I’ll be fine.
Gwendolyn Bellinger is a freelance writer, editor, and English teacher, currently working abroad while exploring the world. Originally from Hillsborough, North Carolina, she has worked and written her away across 60 countries. She currently lives in Beijing and works as a college counselor at Due West Education while continuing to offer some writing and editing services on the side.
A post by writer, teacher, traveler, and friend Gwen Bellinger:
Last year while visiting my parents, my mother invited me for a lunch with some of her friends. It was here that Barbara first told me she had started a painting class. About six months later, Barbara had a whole collection of paintings. The lively colors and imaginative subjects give her paintings a playful and quixotic feel. My favorite is a bright purple hippopotamus drinking coffee in front of the Burwell School, a famous historical building in Hillsborough. I have many memories sledding down that hill at the school on snow days.
As much as I love this painting for its vibrancy, its quirkiness, and the nostalgia it brings me for childhood, Barbara’s paintings represent something so much more important for me. In the United States, and around the world, there is a stereotype that “empty nesters,” women whose children grow up and move away, are lonely and bored. I have friends who tell me they can’t move away from their home city because it will destroy their mothers. I don’t know their mothers, but it seems slightly offensive they think their mothers have nothing but their children.
In my experience, women have much more to offer. I think my mom was sad when I went to college, and I know she wasn’t thrilled when I moved to India, but I never got the sense that she suffered serious emotional distress when my sister and I left home. In fact, I think she really blossomed in her creative endeavors. She started making jewelry which she sells at the Art’s Council downtown. She, like Barbara, was a great mother, but also had many individual goals and hobbies.
Currently I am working as a freelancer. Sometimes I refer to this as “my business” (after all, I am registered as an LLC) and sometimes as “my hustle.” “Hustle” is an apt descriptor as generally I am completing various editing projects for a number of clients, writing, teaching children English in China from midnight until eight in the morning, and then working with adults across the world to help improve their English conversation.
I have one long-time student, Loay, a man in his thirties originally from Syria and currently living in Saudi Arabia. I consider Loay more as a friend than a student and look forward to our twice weekly conversations. Loay is the type of person I wish everyone could meet. He’s incredibly friendly and open-minded and we’ve had conversations about romantic relationships, the future of online learning, and gender relations in the workplace. He can talk about anything.
We recently discussed women and education in the Middle East. Loay is a huge supporter of gender equality. He told me that when he gets married he will work very hard to make sure he can provide for his wife and make her feel like a princess. At the same time, he wants to be very supportive of her and her career goals. “I don’t want to force my wife to be a housewife,” he told me. He wants his wife to be able to chase her dreams and have a sense of purpose in life.
“Arab culture focuses on the success of the domestic life, the family life. Business life comes second,” he told me. Unfortunately, this means many women who are working have a double responsibility. Their primary charge is the home, then their business. Loay believes men have a responsibility to help their partners achieve success in the working world. Some of his friends in Saudi Arabia have helped their wives establish their own businesses.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is reforming the country. This year, women will finally be able to drive.
In a country where women need permission to travel, work, marry, and study, the independence of movement is a huge gain for women’s rights. In January, women were finally allowed to attend soccer matches. The country’s Ministry of Labor and Social Development concluded that the number of women working in the private sector has increased 130 percent between 2012-2016.  They now represent 30 percent of the private sector and the government has spearheaded many initiatives to support working women.
Loay often reminds me that Saudi Arabia is not Syria. In other parts of the Middle East women enjoy many more freedoms than in Saudi Arabia. I’ve seen this from personal experience. In Lebanon, many women were driving, working, completing their Master’s degrees, and living alone. Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries in the Middle East. Loay has also reminded me many times that this conservatism and view of women is not inherently Arab or Muslim. It’s the culture of Saudi Arabia, not the entire region.
He concedes though, for all the ways that Saudi Arabia is progressing, it will take a long time to change mentalities. “Businesses prefer men,” he said. “The perception of the society is that business woman are not strong enough to have a great business.” He reminded me this was not his personal view. But due to this mentality, he said, it will only be with government support and much time that things can change. Many still believe a woman’s place is in the domestic space.
These cross-cultural conversations are important for a number of reasons. For one, it helps break down stereotypes and reminds us that the world is a dynamic, changing place. Women are fighting for their rights globally and their male allies can come from many walks of life. It also makes me appreciate my mother and her friends. I told Loay about how these “empty nesters” are so involved in their communities. They are creating art, participating in plays, helping the elderly, running local organizations, writing blogs, volunteering with their churches, tutoring students in French, and helping out with the grandkids.
Women of all ages contribute to society and have so much potential. I’m grateful for the opportunity to know my mother’s inspirational friends, breaking the stereotype that “empty nesters” have empty lives. I’m also grateful for Loay and my other students from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East who can help break the stereotype about gender equality and male mentalities in the Arab World.
Gwendolyn Bellinger is a freelance writer, editor, and English teacher, currently working remotely while exploring the world. Originally from Hillsborough, North Carolina, she has worked and written her away across 50 countries. She currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. You can read more about her adventures at gwengetsglobal.com or inquire about her services at gwendolynbellinger.com
A post by writer Gwen Bellinger, an American woman living in India. The story is based on the experiences of friends she’s made there. Gwen took the photos, but is not identifying the women in order to preserve their privacy, quite important in the Indian culture.
Raveena desperately did not want to get caught. Each evening, after her son returned home from playing cricket with the neighborhood children, the two of them would take a walk. They frequently stopped in the market to share a Coke, and then she’d indulge in not just one, but two plates of pani puri, a popular Indian street snack. Although the entire affair cost less than $1 USD, she warned her son not to mention their evening snack to his grandmother, lest she get upset at Raveena’s frivolous spending on herself and on the boy. The last thing Raveena needed was more criticism from her mother-in-law.
After her arranged marriage, Raveena did as most new Indian brides do: she left her parents and moved into an apartment in Jaipur, fully furnished with husband and mother-in-law. The harassment began immediately. When relatives visited, Raveena acted as their servant while the mother-in-law blatantly ignored her. When Raveena’s husband said he wasn’t hungry, her mother-in-law criticized her for not insisting he eat anyway. Any problems Raveena’s children had in school? Her fault.
The ‘”Indian mother-in-law” is a phenomenon prevalent in soap operas, films, and talk shows. Stereotypically, she openly criticizes her daughter-in-law while coddling her own children. She’s typically seen as over-involved with enormously high expectations. The United States has its own equivalent of the mother-in-law phenomenon. Anyone who watched the television 1996 series Everybody Loves Raymond is familiar with Marie’s ruthless attacks of Deborah’s cooking. Articles like 8 Ways to Deal with Your In-Laws this Holiday Season decorate my Facebook.
Traditionally after marriage, the bride becomes part of the groom’s family and moves into their house. It’s not uncommon for a bride to cry on her wedding day because her family physically leaves her with the groom and his relatives, symbolizing that she is a part of a new family. Before 1990, most middle class homes did not have a phone. Calling was expensive, so Raveena only spoke to her family a few times a year. One woman I know only spoke to her family once in five years, the day her son was born. While this kind of isolation is less common today, it was very real for Raveena’s generation.
While I’ve read horror stories from rural, conservative villages of in-laws treating their daughter-in-law as a servant, changing her first name, even beating her or killing her, the familial problems of the urban class appear to be mostly passive aggressive. The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law gossip and bad-mouth each other. The mother-in-law criticizes the daughter-in-law’s cooking. She is overbearing about how to raise the children. The daughter-in-law comes off as ungrateful. Some people credit this to a competition between the women over the man. One of my friends rationalized that it was the society her grandmother grew up in, and she didn’t want to change her ways.
Of course, the cycle can be broken. Some young brides I know love their mother-in-law. Raveena? She gets along great with her daughter-in-law, and they’ve become fast friends. She and Priya quickly bonded over how much Raveena’s mother-in-law dislikes both of them. Priya doesn’t live in Jaipur with Raveena. She and her husband work together and have their own apartment in Delhi. The couple visits Priya’s family weekly.
India is still a patriarchal society, yet the sub-continent appears to be changing overnight. The rise of feminism in India is apparent in major cities. Women are no longer the keepers of the house. They are in universities and becoming lawyers, doctors, and politicians. People are moving abroad. Cheap calls and internet mean families remain digitally connected. As women move out of the “domestic sphere” and begin to take on traditionally male roles, it will be curious to see how the relationships between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-laws morph in the years to come. Clearly, as Priya found of Raveena, not all Indian mothers-in-law are to feared.
Gwen Bellinger is a freelance writer and editor originally hailing from North Carolina. She moved to Chandigarh, India in August 2015 to work with the Haryana government on a one-year education implementation project. You can follow her travels and adventures abroad atwww.gwengetsglobal.com or visit her official website at www.gwendolynbellinger.com.
A post by education consultant and writer Gwen Bellinger:
In early September, 2015, I found myself standing in front of a group of adolescent girls while my colleague held up colorful pamphlets about menstruation and sanitation. I tried to read the room to determine if the girls felt embarrassed, bored, scared…At the time, I knew taboos against menstruating existed in India but, even after living here nearly a year, the subtleties and complexities of the issues are something beyond anything I can truly grasp as an outsider.
“The girls miss school when they are menstruating,” my work colleague told me. An intern in the Haryana Government, she works with “beti bachao beti padhao,” a new initiative launched by the Prime Minister to generate awareness of gender inequality while empowering and educating the young girls of the nation. “Sometimes they miss entire weeks of school or exams because they think they are unclean.”
According to an article in The Times of India from 2011, 30% of girls in Northern India drop out of school once they start menstruating. This article explains that 70% of women can’t afford sanitary napkins and 88% are using alternatives such as cloth, ashes, and husk sand.
Sinu Joseph, a menstrual hygiene educator, claims these widely cited statistics have been created using bad data and that reusable clothes do not necessarily need to be replaced by sanitary napkins. In fairness, reusable clothes can be a hygienic alternative, with the proper education, which many women lack. Since women are ashamed to allow the cloths to dry in the sun, many times the cloths never properly dry or become disinfected. According to an article in BBC, 70% of reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.
Women of rural India, realistically speaking, can’t afford sanitary napkins. My same colleague who works with this issue told me the story of an NGO that began distributing sanitary napkins to girls in villages. After a few years, the funding stopped flowing in, but the periods did not. The girls were then deprived of the sanitary napkins they had become accustomed to. While a few dollars to someone in the US does not seem like much of an economic burden, to a rural farmer who can make as little as $1.30 USD/day, purchasing sanitary napkins isn’t a priority. And the issue with reusable clothes is that not every village woman has been fortunate enough to receive education in feminine hygiene. This is exactly what my colleague was attempting to do during our school visits. Unfortunately, she said the girls remained largely disinterested.
Recently, a South Indian man named Arunachalam Muruganantham is being applauded for inventing a cost-effective sanitary napkin. After asking his wife why she resorted to an unsanitary rag each month (which she hid secretly from her husband due to the taboo), she replied that purchasing sanitary napkins would cut into their monthly milk budget. He spent over four years researching how to create a cost-effective product and lost his family, money, and the support of his community in the process. Not only did he succeed in his quest, creating a sanitary napkin which can sell for 2.5 rupees each (nearly $0.27), he also is employing millions of women and girls around the country to make them. It’s a touching story, I highly encourage everyone to read about it hereor watch the Ted talk below.
Unfortunately, the taboo still negatively impacts millions of women in India. In villages across the country, young girls receive very little information about what is happening to their bodies. The subject is so taboo, they feel as though they cannot ask questions. Sometimes women are forbidden from entering the kitchen while menstruating, even to simply have a drink of water. Some believe a menstruating woman will spoil the food. They must eat separately from the rest of the family and cannot enter the ‘Puja’ room, a room for prayer.
In some parts of rural Maharashtra, women are even banished to outside of the village to live in a gaokor, a special hut for menstruating women. These huts have no kitchen since women are “too impure” to cook, meaning they must rely on family members to bring them food. One NGO visited 223 gaokors and found that 98% lack a proper bed, electricity, and another amenities. Wild animals are common around the remotely located gaokors, putting the safety of the women at risk. Women are unable to play or work, and simply must sit and talk to kill time, unless they must spend their five days in the gaokor alone.
The conditions of menstruating women in India vary greatly. By no means does everyone in India believe menstruating women are unclean or practice shunning women. In the rural areas, some beliefs are extreme, such as those who shun women to the gaokors. In other circumstances, some simply a lack of education, which can create unhygienic practices or unhealthy body-image issues. Of course, as in any society, and especially India, the divide between rural and urban populations, or between those denied proper education and those who have received one, can be staggering.
I live in a decently “progressive” city in India. It’s wealthy and many of the residents are very well educated. The majority are interested in Western culture, some have family living in the US, others simply really like to watch ‘Friends.’ Everyone I spend my free time with is young and well aware of the world around them. One of my American friends feels comfortable talking casually about her period with her male Indian roommates and no one bats an eye at the topic. It’s a different world than that of the rural schoolhouse I visited with my colleague. While still facing discrimination, urban women are in a better position to speak out than their rural counterparts. Better educated at home and in school, these women understand the science of menstruation and are able to recognize misogyny in the patriarchal society. These are the women who are changing social norms and crushing taboos in India.
My friend aside, not all women feel comfortable talking about menstruation in the urban environment. Sanitary pads are available in the markets, but they often appear quite large and bulky. I’ve seen tampons in the large supermarket in the mall, but I don’t believe there are any tampons with applicators in India. People buy and own these items, they talk about the subject in the classroom, but there are still issues with women feeling ashamed of the natural process of their bodies.
The biggest taboo I see for urban women with menstruation is the prevalent idea that menstruating women cannot enter the mundir, or Hindu temple, due to the impurity. Recently, an Indian temple chief said women should only be allowed to enter a temple once a machine can detect whether or not they are “pure” (not menstruating) or “impure” (menstruating).
Women quickly launched a social media campaign in protest. The #happytobleed campaign attracted thousands of followers and news agencies world-wide. Women posted photos of signs, often written on sanitary napkins, with the #happytobleed. Others tweeted the viral hashtag with uplifting words about the female body and the beauty of giving life.
After researching this campaign online, I began looking at other youtube videos and articles about menstruation and taboos in India. In one youtube video, the interviewer asks university-educated women on the street in Delhi about their experiences. Picking through the English and the small amount of Hindi I understand, the conversation didn’t seem that much different than the US. Some said people didn’t want to talk about menstruating because it’s “gross,” while one girl openly admitted that her boyfriend didn’t even mind having sex while she was menstruating (which, honestly, after living here for so long, I am surprised to hear her say. Pre-material sex is something that happens but is also not spoken about publicly).
Likewise, I asked one of my male friends here in Chandigarh his thoughts on the subject. He told me that women in rural areas can’t afford sanitary napkins and pointed me in the direction of Mr. Muruganantham’s invention. He said that everyone learns about it in school now. “We know it as part of biology,” he said casually. I kept pressing him about the taboo, and he told me his ex-girlfriend didn’t want to enter a temple during her cycle. He encouraged her to enter, telling her the taboo is an archaic belief and that God doesn’t care if she is menstruating. As for everyone who cares: how will they ever come to know?
While I haven’t announced my period to any dinner parties yet, I am happy that women in India are standing up for their right to bleed, that uneducated men can see the importance in low-cost sanitary napkins, and that both sexes can and will cast aside old taboos and encourage women to do the same.
Gwen Bellinger currently works in Panchkula, India with the Department of Education to increase the quality of Indian schools. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling; trying to learn new languages; and pursuing her hobbies of reading, writing, photography, and videography. You can visit her travel blog at Gwengetsglobal.com