Short Story

The Perfectionist

Sheila had just returned from her son’s graduation ceremony. Samir had graduated out of his engineering college with flying colors. He had a job from Google in his pocket. Sheila was weeping, weeping for joy. Her eldest son had arrived at the doorstep of his dream!

“May he live through it! May he flourish! May every good thing I have done in my life pile up to add to his blessings and that of his younger brother! ” she prayed.

Sheila still recalled how 25 years ago, on her husband’s birthday, the doctor had confirmed her pregnancy. She recalled how excited and happy she had been. They had waited five years for this baby to happen. Samir was a happy baby… The only issue was feeding. He was a poor eater. He had too many important things on his mind. He was the cutest baby ever, thought Sheila.

Sheila was a high school teacher but it didnot take her more than a minute to decide to quit her job  once her baby was confirmed and the doctor suggested bed rest. Lot of her colleagues found it strange that she was willing  to throw up her career for a baby. ” You can take a year of maternity leave. After that, a maid could look after the baby. And with your salary keeping a maid would be a cakewalk,” said the head of school. ” Why do you really want to leave?”

“I want to take care of my own baby myself,” said Sheila.

The head let her go but found it hard to believe.

At home, her husband, Nikhil, said, ” A baby brought up by a maid becomes a maid’s baby.”

Sheila heartily agreed. That was why she was opting to stay at home and look after her baby. Nikhil worked as a general manager in an American multinational. His salary was more than enough to live comfortably and save.

Sheila became a housewife.

Many of her colleagues visited her out of curiosity. Then, they stopped.

Most people, including her own in-laws and parents, found her behavior inexplicable. They couldnot understand why she threw up a flourishing career for a baby. Most professional women looked down on housewives as in their opinion the stay-at-homes had no identity outside their own homes.Being a daughter, mother or sister was not deemed glamorous enough by women with brilliant careers. It went against the intrinsic values of fame and wealth. No one was awarded for being a good mother or wife but being an outstanding scientist or actress could earn anyone fame, accolades and money.

Sheila’s parents were both doctors and still practicing when she threw up her job. Her mother-in-law worked in a bank. Her father-in-law had died when Nikhil was only twelve. His mother’s passion for her work at the bank and her excellent career had ensured her son’s childhood was free of financial difficulties. Only Nikhil had grown up with maids. He found a wide breach between the way he thought and the way his mother thought. He left home while in university and went to visit his mother on special occasions. He had studied engineering and management and had risen fast, professionally. He lived separately as his mother and he did not see eye to eye on many issues, including Sheila throwing up her career.

Nikhil’s mother said ,” It is an unnecessary sacrifice on Sheila’s part. Why does she want to throw away her education?” Sheila felt it  was not a sacrifice but a choice that she made.

Sheila and Nikhil had their second baby five years after the birth of Samir, another bouncing boy, who they called Surya. Surya was also doing well. He had finished high school two years ago. Now, he was studying medicine.

Sheila believed that children were a gift from God and needed to be cherished and brought up with love. She had dedicated twenty five years of her life to bringing up her boys. It had been tough but also a great deal of fun. She enjoyed the boys’ childhood. Nikhil had missed large parts of the fun of bringing up the boys as he had to earn for the whole family. But, he had no regrets as he did get to see some of the fun and he enjoyed his work. Sheila encouraged the boys to understand that without Nikhil’s input, they wouldnot have the education and the life they had.

With Nikhil as their role model, both the boys picked up habits from him. They were very happy if people said they were like their father! Both the boys, like their much adored Baba, didnot smoke,drink or go clubbing. They had no girlfriends and were very focussed on their studies.

Sheila hoped now that Samir had a job, he would find himself a girl. He had said earlier,” I will look at a girl only after I get a good job. I do not want to take out a girl on Baba’s money.”

As the boys grew older and more independent, Sheila like to recall incidents from the boys’ childhood. Some had been an education for Sheila and some were just sources of pleasure. There were times when the boys fought with each other. Samir pulled Surya’s hair and Surya punched him back. Sheila would send them to corners, distressed. Nikhil would laugh,” They are boys. You cannot mollycoddle them.” There were times when Nikhil would ask Sheila not to step in when the boys made mistakes. He would tell her,” Let them learn themselves. Let them be independent.” Sheila had a tendency to tell the boys how to plan their schedule. Again Nikhil stepped in.” Let them decide what to do . You cannot guide them all their lives.” If they had issues with friends or school, Nikhil would insist they sort it out themselves unless the teachers asked for parental interference. Sheila found it difficult not to step in when the boys were hurt. But, as she knew Nikhil was right, she complied.

Sheila still recalled the day five-year-old Surya had come home from his school and had asked her, ” Have you ever been to university?” They were located in China then. Nikhil’s company had posted him there for four years. They went with three-year-old Surya and eight-year-old Samir. Both the boys had been enrolled in an international school. They had to learn Chinese as a part of their curriculum. The Chinese teacher was teaching names of professions in class. When few of the expatriate children expressed that their mothers were stay at home moms, the teacher said that was probably because they had not studied or been to university. All qualified women worked in her opinion. Sheila was appalled when Surya explained to her why he asked the question. Sheila told him that she had three degrees from two universities. Two in chemistry and one in teaching. She told him,” I used to teach eleventh and twelvth graders in an international school in Singapore before your brother was born. I gave up my job to look after both of you. Would you rather have me work and come home to a maid?”

Curly haired and chubby baby Surya rushed to his mother’s arm and said,” No mama. I want to be with you.” And Sheila showered kisses on the little upturned face. Sheila could never understand why some women thought it was a comedown to be a mother and home maker.

Surya adored his mother as did Samir. For both the boys, the day started with their mother waking them up and the day ended with her tucking them into bed. Their father had to work and go on tours and the maid did the housework. Sheila took care of all her children’s needs. She felt it was a privilege to be a mother. She felt valued at home.

Nikhil said,” Bringing up your children well with the right values and principles and setting them up in life is tougher than running a trillion dollar company.”

On the other hand, there were many,especially women, who were very critical of Sheila. They needed their identity from the people outside the home. Some pleaded financial constrains. One of her cousins said,” I do not want to do housework. Therefore, I prefer working.” A career was an escape from housework or bringing up kids.

With her convictions, many regarded Sheila as eccentric and strange. Sheila spent her life bringing up her sons to be good human beings.

” Getting very high marks and doing bad things is not a sign of success,”  Sheila would rebuke her sons if they behaved badly. If they did badly in exams and were sad, she was compassionate.” You will do well next time. One test means nothing in life.”

She was always there for them.

Bringing up the two boys had also been a pleasurable experience for her! Sheila loved having the boys’ friends over and partying with the youngsters. She loved the expression of wonder on Surya and his best friend’s faces as they experimented with dry ice and she loved the way sixteen-year-old Samir’s friends appreciated her cooking. Ten boys could finish up five kilos of lamb and chicken cooked by her! Her biggest awards were when her sons praised her. When eleven-year-old Surya told her, her cake was the biggest hit in the school party or Samir told her that he truly appreciated the fact that she was there for them, Sheila’s heart swelled with pride. The lovely flowers and card Samir bought her with his first internship money were priceless to her.

Nikhil said,” What can we ever do without you?” And Sheila felt happy and needed.

She enjoyed talking to youngsters. At fifty, she still felt sixteen in her heart…still, she felt her heart beat fast when she thought of Nikhil.

On the contrary, her friend, Lydia, who had a passion for teaching and had become the principal of the biggest school in Singapore, spoke of separating from her husband after twenty years of marriage

” You are so lucky, Sheila.You have two good boys and a wonderful husband. Your sons are so undemanding. You just stay at home and relax and they do all the work themselves. You never have to chase them up for anything and they do not want branded things. Look at my sons. They never want to study, want branded things and always try to go clubbing. I am really unlucky. I work so hard but no one appreciates me at home. See, I got an award from the government for teaching but my husband says I am a lousy teacher because I taught the boys nothing. Where have I got the time? I need to focus on my career to earn more money to meet their growing needs. And my husband…he is too much. He is always picking on me ,even if the maid makes a mistake. Everything is my fault. One of these days, I will leave him. I have already spoken to a lawyer friend… Oh my burdens are great! You are so lucky Sheila.”

For Lydia, her pride and achievement was the national award that she had received for teaching.

For Sheila, her biggest pleasure was seeing her family flourish and the boys do well. Her biggest trial was facing the criticism she faced from some housewives and women careerists without showing it hurt. They had no time for her. Some of them were rude to her.

Some of the outspoken housewives in her compound, told her,”You know nothing of latest fashions or trends, you do not party…what do you do all the time? Sleep? You even have a full time maid! Don’t you ever get bored?” The housewives loved to meet for parties, leaving the children and home with maids. What they didnot know was that unlike them, Sheila was a perfectionist and she ran her home to the best of her ability. At home, she cooked new dishes, read, thought and spent time discussing issues with her sons to help formulate their thought process. She also tried to ensure the boys read the right books so that they would have good values.

The critical careerists said,” You have wasted your education and lazed away your life as a corporate housewife.” As they gathered kudos from outsiders and flak from their own family, they felt Sheila had taken the easy way out.

Had Sheila really done that? If the purpose of degrees was only to impart knowledge, perhaps her critics would be partially right as she did use her knowledge to run the house efficiently. However, Sheila used the discipline and dedication she had gained from her university experiences to bring up her children. For her, it was important that while the children achieved their dreams, they still respected and valued less fortunate individuals than themselves. For her, it was important how they achieved their dreams. For her, it was important that her sons contributed to mankind’s progress towards a better future. It was not enough that the boys did well by coaching and cheating and then dedicated themselves to becoming rich and redundant.

Money was very important but it was a man made thing meant to make human life easier. It was supposed to be a tool for mankind ,not the God of mankind…

Samir came into Sheila’s room and gave her the degree. ” Can you put this away in the safe till I find the time to get it laminated mama?” He asked. Sheila smiled, wiped her eyes and stretched out her hand.

“Have you been crying mama?”asked Samir.

” These are tears of joy. My heart is full today. I am truly proud of you. I am so happy you achieved your dream. Now has come the time to dream bigger and materialise those ones on your own for the future, ” replied Sheila as she put the degree under lock and key. She gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek.

Sheila and Nikhil watched with happiness as Samir launched into the world, an independent player in the game of life.

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