My parents raised four daughters in a culture that didn’t celebrate them. They taught four little girls that they are just as powerful as boys. They built us into strong women who had the freedom to live their lives however they wished. They gave me the name Kaur, but they raised me like a Singh. They gave me the spirit of a lion. I believe all of this began with my mom, her strength, and her perseverance.
Life brought my mom to Canada at a young age and opened up her mind to possibilities. She was fun-loving, intelligent, true to herself, and already stronger than anyone I know. My dad lived his whole life in a small village in Punjab. He barely had any education and had never left India. He had no idea what he was marrying. She was unconventional, free-thinking, and a force that simply can not be stopped. She often tells me about how the way she carried herself and her free-thinking was frowned upon. Sometimes, I wonder how they made it work, but I like to think their fun-loving spirits and love for their children had something to do with it.
My parents began their lives together in Canada and soon had their first daughter that would be followed by three more. My dad had been raised in a world that taught him that a son always reigns supreme, but he was married to a woman who refused to accept these ideals. They raised us in a way that made us oblivious to the sexism that ran rampant in our culture. I still remember one of the first times it hit me. I overheard a friend’s mother arguing with a relative and these words are still in my head:
“It’s because I don’t have a son, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t understand what that meant, but for some reason, her words made me feel small. They made me feel guilty for being a girl.
So I went to my mom and asked her, “Are you happy that you have daughters?”
She didn’t hesitate to answer that she was, but I wasn’t satisfied, so I asked her if she had been happy even when my youngest sister was born. She laughed at me and said of course she was. I pressed on and asked her if she had been as happy when my sister was born as when my brother was born. She laughed at me again and told me she was equally as happy every time all her children were born.
Years later, we would be sitting in a room with a stranger who was crying after the birth of her second daughter. I’ll never forget my mom turning to her and telling her, “I have four daughters and I have no dukh in my life.”
I didn’t know it then, but her beliefs would lay the foundation for my whole life.
I never knew how important it was for my dad to have a son because he never treated my brother any differently than my sisters and me. In fact, he had a tendency to favor me, his little girl who followed him everywhere. My dad’s friends still love to tell me all the stories about everything they used to do with me tagging along because my dad rarely went anywhere without me.
I told him once that I wanted to be a police officer when I grew up. He could have told me I couldn’t be one because I was a girl, instead, he spent years buying me handcuffs, cap guns, and police hats. He taught me how to ride a bike and mow the lawn. He showed me how to build things and helped me paint the basement red and then how to cover the red years later. He would surprise me by showing up to watch my soccer games after a long day working at a lumber mill. He loved to see my sister and me standing in the kitchen door when he got home, the way we would call him dadu. I loved the way the smell of sawdust would fill our house and still stop to savor it whenever I smell it. It never even occurred to me back then that not everyone has such a positive association with their dad walking in the door.
As we got older, I became aware that the freedom my sisters and I were raised with wasn’t accepted by everyone. I overheard others saying my mom wasn’t strict enough with us, that we were spoiled. Words that made it clear that nobody thought we would amount to much because we were given too much freedom. Those same people still struggle to build the relationship with their children that my parents have with us. Those same people have told me how proud they are of me and everything I’ve become.
My parents continued to raise us as they did despite the critics, but the biggest challenge came when I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. My parents fought day and night for my life, they cried more tears than anyone will ever know, and sadly, even in the most trying moments of their lives, they still had to battle naysayers.
My dad, the man who was once taught not to celebrate the birth of a girl, would come into my room at night to make sure I was breathing, he would take pictures of me all day, and he did everything in his power to make me laugh. He cried while telling me about how he had prayed that God would take him instead of me as he watched me being loaded into an ambulance. My mom fought that battle harder than perhaps even me. She refused to leave my side, she held me as I literally screamed and cried from pain, and she carried me through the darkest days of my life.
A week before I was scheduled for brain surgery, my parents held a prayer at the temple. Everyone around me talked about how tirelessly my dad had worked that weekend. I didn’t know yet what else was being said. My mom told me later that people tried to discourage them from holding the prayer. She told me how surprised people were that they would do everything they did for me because I was “only a girl.” She told me that they had been told not to have the prayer, to keep my illness a secret because I was a girl. Because, you know, who would ever want to marry a girl that once had a brain tumor? *Insert eye roll here* But my parents didn’t care what anybody said. Their daughter’s life was more valuable to them than what people had to say. And their love for me gave me life for the second time.
Over the years, I have seen my parents support my siblings and me in every path we have chosen. They didn’t discourage me when I decided to go back to school and live on my own — even though others told them not to let me because I “would get sick again.” They were my greatest supporters when I began my unconventional job on the radio. They didn’t push me to get married when I told them about Gagan and let us do things our way when we did get married. We held our breath as my dad walked out to meet my sister’s white boyfriend for the first time, but he didn’t bat an eye and embraced him the same way he did Gagan. My parents threw a big Indian wedding for me and just as happily celebrated my sister’s interracial marriage.
My dad became reliant on a cane after a broken femur and two knee replacements in the years leading up to my wedding. A few months before my wedding, I asked him to walk me down the aisle without the cane. He told me he couldn’t do it, but he also started walking laps around the house without the cane. The day I got married, he walked me in without it. A year later, he walked my sister into her church ceremony with just as much happiness and pride as when he walked me into the temple.
My sister told me that my dad couldn’t sleep the night I got married and left my parent’s house. He told her it was because every time he closed his eyes, he saw me. The first time I went home after moving to Portland, I didn’t tell anyone I was coming. My dad broke down in tears as he hugged when I walked into the living room. This is the same man who once believed that he needed a son to be happy.
My dad isn’t perfect. This isn’t about him being the perfect man, husband, or father. This is about his ability to grow and learn for the sake of his family, about his ability to put his family’s happiness before cultural norms. I often wonder how my dad was able to embrace everything he was taught not to, how he was able to silence the voices around him and allow his daughters to follow their hearts and dreams. I believe my mom had everything to do with it. I believe she was strong enough for the both of them, that her strength to be unapologetically true to herself taught him to do the same, that he was able to evolve because she was the one by his side.
This is less about my dad and more about what my mom created with her strength, patience, and unconditional love for all of us. She planted unshakable roots for our family long before we even existed. We all begin and end with her. Because of her, I have never felt inferior to my brother or any man. Because of her, I have the strength to fight anything life throws my way and to stand up for the things I believe in. I can only hope more women will be given what I was: the love and support to become as strong as a lion.