Coming Last

Saba Karim reflects on how she rediscovered her mother’s love

Coming Last
The number three represents something sacred, mystical, universal and divine. If a myth is to be momentarily indulged, all-powerful beings known as the Three Fates control the destiny of humans and gods. The issue, of course, is personal. Despite so many assurances to go by, it is not easy to explain why it took me so long to get here, to acknowledge that “coming third” doesn’t inevitably correspond with “coming last.”

Think of standing patiently in a queue on a hill, waiting for your turn. You keep imagining the rewards that lie once you move ahead and reach closer to the hill top. But as time passes, you notice that the line is moving much more slowly. The tightly concealed, multi-coloured bounties that were promised are gradually diminishing. You know there may be none left by the time you reach the top but you decide to keep waiting and try your luck any way. That is what coming last (or third in my case) feels like: it produces a permanent “child-in-waiting” and through your growing years, occupies your mind with bitterness and regret for not standing at the beginning of the line.

I was born less than a year after my older brother, leaving eleven months and substantial mayhem between our birth order – Irish twins is what my mother called us. And so, news that I was on the way, see-sawed between disbelief and panic. For a while, I was “flavour of the month” but it was a flavour that had been sampled on a couple of counts earlier, the diminishing returns of which had begun to kick in. It was vaguely reminiscent of the guest who shows up at your doorstep, just as you’ve locked the gates and turned on the ignition to leave, except the guest has nowhere else to go and so you must collectively plough through the awkwardness.

If truth be told, I’ve scathingly experienced the stereotype of the indulged youngest child but the gifts of coming last haven’t escaped me either: the guinea pig syndrome was preserved for my sister - a mixed-methods experiment - compared to whom I was also granted substantially more liberty (I could attend “mixed parties,” invite boys to the house, even have a Shia boyfriend at college and declare it at the dining table!), I fought my way to go to a university outside my hometown and generally, began spreading my wings early on. But slowly, amidst the burden of our burgeoning extended family, a widening financial chasm, and the daily strife of navigating a 20-million people city, I found myself struggling to snatch as much attention from my parents as my other two siblings. It felt injurious, damaging, leaving me wanting, so as life moved on, I wondered what I could do to mix things up and rebalance the scales.

At first, I began exploring the world on my own terms, without any conscious endeavour or purpose attached to it. As I ventured into the thrilling realm of discovery, fear escaping my spirit, I soon donned the reputation of a dare-devil. At the nursery school admission, when I climbed up the monkey bars with uncanny speed, the headmistress felt compelled to ask my parents, “How are you raising her differently from your older two children?” Her question, I imagine, must have evoked a combination of flattery and guilt in my mother who decided to hand her honesty: “We haven’t crowded her out, we have just let her be.”

The web I was spinning around myself – of ambition, pluckiness and large doses of self-pity - offered a plausible alternative to grabbing family share of mind. I began to protect it with fierce independence and for a while, it seemed like I might be on to something. But as the years passed and my memory of neglect crystallised, it had to be said: prizes are rarely given for “coming last” and this was no exception. Growing up and well into adulthood, my overwhelming emotion was “craving,” a deep-seated hunger for so many things - time, love, attention, adulation - first from my family but beyond that, from everyone else. When I realised mine was the only photo missing in the family album from my first day of school, the sadness felt grave, as if someone had let me down. If there was proof for everyone else, why had no one remembered to evidence my entry into formal schooling? The question lingered and gradually I became suspicious, much like the unearthing of betrayal: it must have something to do with “coming last.”

Closely allied to this was vaulting ambition, as if there was something to prove and time might run out if I didn’t prove it quickly enough. I was in the biggest rush you’d seen, on a mental treadmill with a pause button which was permanently out of order. When my brother and I drove home in the new Honda Civic that my first job gave me, the moment felt surreal. Ambition mostly isn’t a bad thing, to have dreams, set benchmarks and then work towards achieving them, but this was a mission motivated by years long gone by. It was as though “coming last” had coloured me in ways that felt impossible to shed off and it was depleting to keep up with its demands.

During my childhood years, I had found my biggest ally in my father – he seemed to understand, more than the others, what my dilemma was and sought hard to mitigate the anguish. My mother, on the other hand – due to the practical demands on her time – at some point had to close the borders to sympathy. With three children and only 24 hours in a day, she didn’t have the luxury to focus on my emotional fallout.

A couple of years ago, we became parents to two baby girls; post their birth, our lives altered dramatically as is often the case with the initiation of parenthood. This year, as I reflected upon Mother’s Day. As I responded to the messages and odes and memes celebrating this miracle that springs new life into the world, I arrived at an unexpected place: a road to rediscovering my own mother. She was the disciplinarian, the indisputable bad cop with a fledgling threshold for low grades, squanderers of hard-earned money and above all, untidiness. But more than three decades and two children later, the payoffs of her distinct kind of motherhood made themselves evident to me: our mother offered unconditional love wrapped in barbed wire.

At ten or eleven, I saw her beckon a scraggy looking man pushing a cart with weighing scales, to sell him some hoary newspapers; fresh earnings in tow, she marched off to purchase potatoes so we didn’t witness empty lunch times.

Growing up, multiple times a year, I’d ride a rickshaw with her, arrive at our family jeweller and witness the efficient transaction of gold bangles, ending their journey from her wrist to land in their expensive-looking velvet boxes – the school fee would be promptly paid and we could stay another term without worrying.

I’d watch her type ferociously on an ancient typewriter in our flat, staying up through the night, to finalise papers that my father would read at conferences in fascinating cities across the world. She appeared angry and threatening and as a child, it made me wonder why she didn’t simply refuse to do it? What forced her to remain such a stalwart – it was as if she couldn’t help herself. Later, I stood with my leg against an old cupboard in my parents’ bedroom one night, as they wrestled over my academic future. Yet educational compromise was a non-starter for my mother. We had always seen her display strong-headedness and she didn’t plan on disappointing this time. I eventually finished schooling at the same place where all of us siblings had started our journey. Post graduation, when I dreamt of donning the corporate attire, working in a Manhattan skyscraper and feeling important - after rounds of ferocious negotiations - she agreed to mostly quit her life in the only hometown she knew, to accompany me so I could start a new life in alien territory.

She wasn’t thrilled with my decision to take off but despite her unhappiness, she was willing to pave the way for my dreams. And finally, it was my mother who explained to me how motherhood and professional workmanship can co-exist so I didn’t completely reject the idea of having children. Life didn’t give our mother the luxury to romanticise about unconditional love; instead, it turned her into a pragmatist but the most content one I’d seen. In ways less apparent and less conventional, she knit our family together, to demonstrate what sacrifice and unconditional love looks like, in a format that made sense to me only once I became a mother myself.

The writer is an instructor in the Social Sciences Division at New York University (Abu Dhabi campus) and writes for The Guardian and Huff Post. She tweets @SabaKarim