Tuesday, November 10, 2020

A Letter to my Daughters on their Sixth Birthday

This is probably going to be the shortest birthday letter to my twins and the last one (I know I hinted at that last year as well but this time I really mean it 😄). 

I know I term them "birthday letters" but to me they feel more like love letters when I re-read each one of them. If I'm being perfectly honest, I can't claim this endeavor to have been an entirely altruistic one. The day I became a mother is one I can seldom recount without tearing up. It brings up a tsunami of emotions for me even to this day. There have been moments in motherhood that have taken my breath away, that have shaken me to my core, that have prompted me to rediscover my sense of self, that have brought intangible happiness and that have triggered a kind of fear I never knew before. The most intense and heartfelt emotions that I have ever experienced in my life are tied to motherhood and going through these letters helps me relive (mostly) the good ones. 

On a lighter note, the girls start looking forward to their birthday months in advance (fairly typical eh?!) and their excitement is infectious so I get completely swept up in it. And since they have come to expect some effort from me, slacking off is not an option! 

This year's birthday celebrations have been quieter and slightly unconventional (for obvious reasons). Since the girls love going to the beach so much, we decided to do a staycation at Sentosa island for four days before their birthday. It was just us spending quality time together as a family. We went to an outdoor playground, a floating aqua park and two beaches where the girls played to their heart's content. We relaxed in the lovely resort pool at every given opportunity, watched tv till midnight, gorged on amazing (and way too much!) food, went peacock watching everyday and in general had a super lazy and relaxed few days. It was a much-needed change of scene for all of us. 

Today, on their actual birthday, both I and their Daddy took the day off from work. Clad in their new unicorn-themed dresses (so predictable 😆), the girls were full of beans on the way to school. They were eagerly looking forward to distributing goody bags that they had helped put together for their classmates. For the edible gifts, the girls had shot down my recommendation of homemade chocolate chip cookies because we had done that last year. I presumed they wanted to be more involved in the process and so it was their favourite sugar cookies with royal icing that made the cut this year. Last night, they helped me bake and decorate a giant batch of cookies which we then carefully packed. It was a messy but productive collaboration indeed! 

Homemade birthday cake has also become somewhat of a tradition (with fluctuating degrees of success!). This year, I suggested a simple lotus biscoff cake which was fortunately met with enthusiasm. The birthday cake was cut at home this afternoon with no audience but the girls shared the cake in the evening with their playground friends. They had specified their birthday lunch and dinner menu weeks ago which I and hubby mutually split between us. The day has almost come to an end and they have been occupied for the past few hours with their birthday loot (courtesy: mom-dad, helper and family from India). All things considered, I think it is safe to say they have had a pretty fabulous birthday week 😊

With this birthday letter, I'm finally wrapping up what has been a eventful and joyous week. Deepavali is around the corner so the girls are looking forward to a sparkling celebration! 

Dear Anvitha & Navitha,
Even before you were born, I promised myself that I would write you birthday letters for at least the first five years of your life. And I have kept that promise. After last year’s birthday letter, I thought I had wrapped up this little tradition. Having said that, don't think even for a second that I'm going to stop sharing with you my emotional ramblings, embarrassing anecdotes and unsolicited advice. They will merely move to e-mail until you are old enough to tell me to give it a rest 😁

I have documented a big part of your early childhood in these long-winded letters in the hope that as you grow older, the precious memories they contain will give you joy and comfort. I guess I didn’t have to write this one but I changed my mind and you will soon know why. This letter is not going to follow the format of the previous ones. I’m going to stick to the important stuff I need to say and add in a few pictures from this year as I go along.

It is November 2020 and as I write this letter, we are in the midst of a rapidly evolving global pandemic. What lies ahead....no one knows. The world has changed beyond recognition within the span of a year. These are unprecedented times and I’ll be honest with you - it is unnerving to say the least.
Years down the line when you leaf through pages of history books, the year 2020 will stand out. This year has been marred by many unpleasant incidents, chaos and suffering around the world ranging from devastating bushfires in Australia, violence in India over the controversial CAA Bill, earthquake in Turkey & the Caribbean, locust swarm outbreak in East Africa, stock market crash, social unrest in USA during Black Lives Matter protests, wildfires in California, chemical explosion in Lebanon, death of several famous personalities and most recently, the contentious US Presidential election among others. But what is most striking about this year is that a virus that originated in China at the end of 2019, wreaked havoc across the globe within a matter of months. This year will gain infamy due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over fifty million people were infected and continue to be every day, a million (and counting) died, scores of people lost their livelihood, frontline healthcare workers across the world were overworked with healthcare systems on the brink of collapsing, entire countries went into complete lockdown with schools closed and working from home turning into the "new normal".
I think it is important to chronicle this year because hard times teaches us valuable lessons, changes our perspective and reminds us to count our blessings.
Until the coronavirus reached the sunny shores of Singapore in late January, you had a set routine. You would leave to school in the morning, come back home in the afternoon, take a long nap and then go to the playground for about two hours after which you would return home around the same time as us. Weekends were usually spent going to parks, outdoor playgrounds or waterparks, dining out at restaurants or visiting family and friends. You had swimming classes and phonics classes on Sundays which you looked forward to. You also frequently received birthday party invitations. So, a considerable part of your day was spent outdoors/outside home.

Initially, Singapore was handling the pandemic well by early detection and aggressive contact tracing until cases started rising sharply in April. The group that was most affected were the migrant workers living in cramped dormitories. The country soon adopted a social isolation/ lockdown (aka "Circuit Breaker") that lasted from April 7th 2020 to June 1st 2020 to contain the pandemic. 

Our lives changed significantly during those 3 weeks and 4 days. This is what happened during that time,
  • Schools were closed since the official announcement and they made the switch to home-based learning online. You being in kindergarten, had nothing much to do! We finished the worksheets from school within the first couple of days and occasionally checked out the online resources that were suggested but outside of that, anything you learnt was courtesy of your dear mother 😏
  • Only people in "essential services" were allowed to go to work while the others had to work from home. Your daddy managed to get his usual share of work done. I, on the other hand, was only about 50% productive!
  • Recording our temperature daily became a habit. We washed our hands a lot, disinfected stuff a lot and cleaned a lot. 
  • All playgrounds, gyms, barbecue areas and pools within condominiums were cordoned off
  • Parks, beaches and walk-in places were not accessible to the public
  • Travelling for leisure came to a screeching halt. Airports looked empty. Tourism suffered the worst crisis in history
  • In mid-April, wearing of face masks became compulsory when not at home with fines and prosecution for offenders who refused to do so. In every household, masks (disposable or reusable) became an irksome albeit essential garment
  • People were allowed to go out to buy provisions and exercise but we were required to maintain physical distancing. Supermarkets had priority shopping hours for the elderly
  • Restaurants operated only for home delivery & pick-up
  • Dry goods like rice, pasta and canned goods were in high demand, dairy products were in limited supply, toilet paper availability had become a crisis!
  • Hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and anything Lysol or Clorox was in short supply and limited per person....IF you could even find them!
  • There were taped lines/boxes/circles at ATMs and inside elevators, stores and food courts to keep people 6 feet apart
  • Seats and benches in public places were marked with an ominous red 'X' to keep people away from each other
  • Online grocery deliveries were available but getting a slot proved to be challenging and the delivery folks would scurry away after dumping the groceries on our doorstep
  • All sports competitions were cancelled
  • All festivals and entertainment events were banned
  • Weddings, family celebrations and birthdays had to be cancelled. Funerals were limited to immediate cohabitants
  • All meetings/ seminars/ lectures/workshops were conducted online (via Zoom/Skype/Hangouts/MS Teams). “Can you hear me?” went on to become the most-used phrase of the year
  • People were also celebrating birthdays and other special events via Zoom or FaceTime. Young kids couldn’t understand why they could only see their family and friends on a screen
  • Places of worship were closed. God took on the form of doctors, nurses and paramedics tirelessly working round the clock to save lives
  • There was a concern for shortage of masks and gloves in hospitals and a growing fear that there are fewer ventilators than there should be
  • There were more cases of family violence reported during the time and the long-term effects on mental health and stress sparked International concern 

Girls, I just want you to know that during this strange time, we were very fortunate indeed. We happened to be living in a small country with a stable and efficient government and an excellent healthcare system. I and your Daddy still had our jobs and incomes not affected. We were still able to get whatever groceries we need to not just eat to survive but eat well. We had the comfort of full-time domestic help who took care of all the house chores so that we didn’t need to do them. The silver lining that came out of this phase was that as a family, we spent more time with each other than we probably ever have so far (and fortunately, we didn’t get on each other’s nerves!).

But the best thing for me in all this uncertainty and panic, was the realization that you will always have each other in both the good times and bad. The social isolation reminded me just how blessed we are to have twins (especially of the same gender….similar interests and all!). I thought that not being able to go out would get to you in a big way but it didn't! Cooped up indoors, you would play with each other from morning to night (with the weirdly-accented chipmunk voices that you reserve solely for playing heard often!). You developed an insatiable love for board games. We even made our own Frozen-themed board (which is pretty good if I do say so myself). You would sit in the tub with bubbles and your toys for an hour each day. You did a lot of Zumba. Your drawing, coloring and painting skills took off. We did plenty of fun art and craft projects. And we rustled up a whole bunch of goodies (sugar cookies, chocolate cupcakes, cheesy garlic bread, chocolate rice crispy balls and panna cotta are some I can recall). And while on the subject of food, I must mention that you ate more mangoes this summer than the previous four years of your life combined! (that could have contributed to the significant weight gain this year from 14kg to >17kg!). I was able to take you out for a couple of evening walks but those were few and far between. But we talked a lot during those walks and I secretly enjoyed those candid conversations 😊

As June rolled by, some restrictions were relaxed progressively in stages to prepare for the end of the circuit breaker. The best news came when schools reopened and you were reunited with your teachers and friends. Shortly after that, some of us (including me) were allowed to go back to work full-time. Your Daddy is still working from home and that could continue for several months longer even though he does have the flexibility of returning to the office when he needs to. I know how much you have loved having your Daddy at home these past months so enjoy the extra cuddles, snuggles, kisses and delicious hot lunches cooked by him while they last! 

Subsequently, we were allowed to meet family members and dine-in at restaurants (with some restrictions of course). Since September, the situation has improved remarkably and we have begun looking forward to the year end holidays. In literal "phases", our lifestyle has returned to some semblance of normality. But we are not out of the woods yet so we remain pragmatic. With a shaky economy, job security is a fear many of us still harbor along with anxiety regarding the wellbeing of our elders back home, who are at higher risk of suffering complications of Covid-19.

On a more positive note, you have learned some useful skills this year. You know how to tell time. You can swim and bicycle quite well now. Much to my delight, you have been doing a lot of self-initiated reading since the past few months (current favourites include Sulwe and Dory Fantasmagory). You started learning Hindi since August and I am impressed at how rapidly you have picked up basic words and writing of alphabets. In February, you won prizes for drawing during Chinese New Year and last month for creative costumes on Children’s Day (Little Red Riding Hood and Tinkerbell). I know I jumped the gun and bought Halloween costumes for you at earlier this year which, in hindsight, was pretty dumb. But even though our usual haunt Woodgrove cancelled their Halloween physical trick or treat, it turned out that many of your friends were interested in dressing up so you were able to enjoy a reasonably safely-distanced Halloween within the condo dressed up as Princess Jasmine and Ariel. More recently, you had your preschool graduation (or as you call it, "gradulation" 😆) concert and photoshoot. You will be starting Primary school from January and we have started putting together everything that you will need in your new school. It is exciting but also slightly nerve-wracking (mostly for me!). I’m sure you two will be just fine 😊

You know girls, the plans we had made for the immediate future have been disrupted. Yet, as I mull over this year, I only feel a sense of overwhelming gratitude. 

Even now, many children around the world are unable to go back to school and meet their friends. For many working adults, going back to their workplaces seems like a distant dream. Countries are being struck by second and third waves of infection resulting in stifling lockdowns being enforced again. Those who have had to go through the illness themselves or who have witnessed loved ones suffering through them, will not forget it in a hurry. Many families have had to dip into their life savings to stay afloat during this troubled time. It hasn’t been like that for us and so we must acknowledge that we have it better than many. 

As of today, there are hardly any coronavirus cases in the community in Singapore. There is buzz of a Covid-19 vaccine in the International press. If indeed a vaccine is released in the near future, we believe that it will be made available to us going by the usual efficient and orderly manner in which things are done here. 

For several months now, we have had the freedom to do the little things that bring us happiness without fear of an invisible enemy. Be it going out to restaurants, the mall, visiting loved ones, going to for cycling, swimming or just going to the beach or park. And although we have not had any overseas guests this year (very atypical for us!) and have had to cancel three much anticipated holidays including our customary year-end trip to India, it is a small price to pay for our safety and well-being.

I can't say if the worst is over (it sure does feel like it for us at least) but I do know that the global virus situation will resolve eventually. I can't predict if it will take a few months or a few years! The aftershocks will probably last much longer. The world is already heading towards a recession so we need to brace ourselves for the likelihood of tough times ahead. With all that has been happening, it is justifiable for us to view the world through the lens of negativity bias but we must always try to hold on to hope and optimism. We are where we are with what we have. I guess the main message I want to pass to you in this letter is that life is precious and that nothing should be taken for granted because the world can change on a dime. Let us try to make the best of every situation.

It is natural to wish this time away but if anything, this challenging year has taught us the importance of being prepared when life isn’t all unicorns and rainbows. I ho
pe you realize that no matter our circumstances, I and your Daddy will do absolutely everything in our power to keep you safe. That is a promise and you must know by now that I never break my promises.

As any parent would, I aspire to give you the best possible childhood. And when I say "best", I don’t mean it in any kind of materialistic sense. I mean a childhood full of rich experiences and one worth remembering. At the end of the day, I know I will breathe easy in the knowledge that you have had that so far.

Happy sixth birthday sweethearts! 💕

Love now and forever,

P.S - You are turning into Potterheads just like I secretly hoped you would! 

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