In-your-face. Outspoken. Endearingly different. That’s Sushmita Sen, the Cinderella who turned Miss Universe® and subsequently Fairy Godmother to Renee. Sushmita speaks about her inherited parenting values, the process of acceptance as a single mother in the public domain – and the incredible joy of it all.
Your father is an Indian Air Force officer and your mother was a fashion artist and jewelry designer. Did this somehow influence your own outlook and choices in life?
My parents were an exceptional blend of spiritual and practical. As such, they complemented each other perfectly. Their approach to parenting was – make your own choices, and follow through on them.
This meant that there was, from an early age, an onus of great responsibility on my brother and me. I won’t say it was easy in the beginning… but yes, this approach helped both of us to believe in our own instincts, and to be accountable for our decisions in life.
Many describe you as a maverick that often refuses to pay even rudimentary lip service to popular opinion.
I have faced a lot of rejection for what I believe myself to be – and for what I believe is right for me. But I have also discovered that acceptance always follows rejection. The problem is simply that many of us lack the resilience to wait for that acceptance… we give up halfway.
I guess there’s a people-pleaser hidden in every one of us, and sometimes we’re weak enough to let him reign our lives. I firmly believe that life is too short to sacrifice our dreams on the altar of popular opinion, and I live mine accordingly.
By adopting Renee, you have put a serious dent in the taboo usually attached to single motherhood in India.
Adopting Renee was a personal decision, based on a long-cherished dream of motherhood. Raising social consciousness on the subject of single parenthood was never my intention. If it had been, it would have seriously diluted my focus… and believe me, I needed a LOT of focus to see the process through.
You are in the public eye. Your personal life is subject to public scrutiny. Was adopting Renee was a gamble in this respect, or were you certain of a favorable reaction?
I am frankly amazed at how supportive everyone has been – but as I said, pandering to popular opinion was not part of the landscape. I always meant to fulfill my dream of motherhood, but I also knew that it would be unfair to expect others to share my dream.
It was very clear to me that the context would define the level of acceptance. In all honesty, I can’t say whether being in the public eye was an advantage of a drawback in the whole process… all I know is that everyone has been extremely compassionate and helpful.
Did you encounter any serious opposition?
Not from my parents – and that is where it would have hurt the most. Their concerns were for my ability to handle being a mother to a child with significant infantile health problems – not the social acceptability angle. There were also problems on the legal side.
If you assume that the fact that I’m a public figure made the adoption processes easier – the contrary was true. The adoption authorities were understandably worried about whether this was just some kind of publicity stunt, and they made things incredibly tough for me. I put in my application when I was eighteen – it was approved when I was twenty-four!
Do you feel their caution was justified?
Absolutely. They cannot be too careful – after all, there is a human life at stake. There may be a bureaucratic component to the whole thing, but the process basically serves to check out the woman’s strength.
I do not grudge the fact that it was drawn out in my case. In fact, I like to believe that the persistence I showed despite the added stumbling blocks served to underline by sincerity. I do know that adopting single fathers have it even tougher – again, understandably.
How does it feel to be a single mother? Do you imagine it would have been different if your motherhood had happened in the usual context of marriage?
The last is a hypothetical question, since I’ve never been a biological mother. But love does not have to be biological… in fact, it CANNOT be. Every child is a unique individual, and I fell that true love embraces that fact.
Being Renee’s mother is the most amazing and fulfilling experience of my life. I know how clichéd that sounds, but it’s true. I have evolved as a person, and Renee has evolved in tandem with me.
Have you ever felt that Renee might miss the presence of a father?
A child cannot miss what she has never known. We should all wake up to this liberating fact … it would rid us of so much of the guilt baggage some of us drag through parenthood. But yes, a child also needs exposure to the other gender. It is a fact that each of us carries both male and female components within us, and we need an opportunity to relate to the other side.
It is the beauty of men and women that they exist in each other! Thankfully, Renee receives so much of male attention that I never had to bother about any ‘deficit’ on that score. It seems that almost every man around her is either a surrogate father or brother.
Come on, now – never so much as a HINT of an indication?
Well… Renee came home one day and stated that they were celebrating Father’s Day at school the following day. I’ll admit I had a bad moment then, fully expecting a “so where’s MY daddy?” question next.
Instead, Renee asked me matter-of-factly “So are you coming?” I went, all right – in a male-as-you-like-it business suit and tie. The PTA loved it, and I know that the admiration we got had nothing to do with a Miss Universe crown.
You are visibly confident in your role as a single mother, but you apparently monitor Renee’s exposure to the media carefully.
(Laughs) Yes, I did to some extent, but I’ve chilled out more on that front now. I realized that I must not shield Renee from reality… and my public life IS a reality.
I guess I just wanted her to mature enough to be able to develop her own take on it. And she has! She takes to the media like a fish to water. No artifice, no misgivings. And I think that’s so healthy! I wish I had her confidence when I was her age…
You are counted among Bollywood’s ‘thinking’ actresses. Does choosing to be a single mother call for above-average intelligence in the Indian context?
(Laughs self-consciously) I don’t know about THAT, but it certainly calls for an above-average ability to weigh the odds and make an informed decision.
There is an unspoken opinion that parenting skills are catalyzed only in marriage and subsequent child-begetting.
As I’ve already said, the desire and ability to love a child is not biologically derived. I believe I’m a child of God (sometimes I even think I’m his favorite child). Whoever believes the same has to accept that God loves us beyond measure, despite the fact that he’s not our biological father.
He has given us the ability to love beyond physical boundaries. Whether we use that ability or allow it to atrophy within our own human preconceptions is up to each of us individually.
Would you encourage other Indian women to adopt children if marriage is, for any reason, not a feasible option?
If you want a child badly enough and having one biologically is not feasible – yes. Be ready for a struggle, though. There are 27 different criteria to be fulfilled to adopt a child, and your personal life will come under scrutiny as it never has before. But it’s worth it… believe me, it is.
Do you see India moving towards a universally progressive outlook to concepts such as single parenthood, or will there always be traditionalist detractors?
We’re not there yet, but we MUST. We have to have something more substantial to show in terms of progress than a booming economy. Moreover, this economic boom supports the demands of single parenthood.
Still, the Indian mindset is evolving beyond the traditional, and many see single parenthood as a viable and compassionate option. As for traditionalists – every country will always have those. What’s the big deal about Indian ones?
You had the choice to adopt a child and chose a girl. This is indeed very noble. What was your decision based on?
Noble??? The only criteria I had when I set out to adopt were that the child be happy, healthy, between six to eight months of age, and female. I never attached any particular significance to the ‘female’ part, except that I wanted a girl.
I guess you’re referring to the fact that the majority of children in Indian orphanages are girls… that is a sad and telling fact, but it wasn’t one of my motives.
How do you balance parenting with your professional and social life? Have you ever found yourself overcompensating?
(Thoughtfully) I guess I may have overcompensated for the physical distance often created by my profession in the past. But I raised Renee to be very individualistic, and as a result she’s not easy to hurt. Renee never cries when I have to go traveling – instead, she simply accepts it and plans her own schedule accordingly.
And even though she has learned to enjoy her own company, she rarely is. There are so many loving people around her. I know that, when all is said and done, she has only me – but I take comfort from that rather than feel guilty about it.
With hectic city living, many mothers find their kids and husbands quality time difficult. Can you give our readers a few tips on spending quality time with kids despite pressing schedules?
I can’t advise other parents on this, because every scenario is unique. What I do is tell Renee about the pockets of time we have available for togetherness – and allow her to decide how she wants to spend them. And guess what? Sometimes she would rather spend time with friends or alone! That’s such a trip for me!
Then again, an hour together before bedtime is non-negotiable when I’m in town. That’s our ‘honesty hour’, where we tell each other everything that’s on our minds – no holds barred. We just let it all hang out, and nothing is judged as good, bad or ugly. The quality of such moments does a lot more than mere volume of time could.
As a parent, what advice would you give fathers so that they can bond with their kids as effectively as mothers do?
There is no comparison between the two kinds of bonding. A father bonds with his child in a very different way than a mother. A daughter bonds with her masculine side with her father, and a son picks up his male values from him. Both these roles carry a lot of responsibility with them, but they happen best when they happen naturally.
The only way to bond with one’s child is to spend relaxed and happy time together, and to be there when you’re needed. According to me, some of the best examples of father-child bonding are seen in rural India. Have you ever watched the simple splendor of a farmer teaching his child how to work the land?
Did the name Renee have a special meaning to you earlier?
It was the yardstick I used to make my final choice. I was so gun-ho on it that my mother named her jewelry store after it! I first believed that Renee means ‘Goddess of Love’… can you imagine a more befitting criterion?
Anyway, I checked how the girls I met responded to the name. Some started at me blankly, others yawned (laughs). Then finally, there was this rather sickly girl who reacted with a wide-open mouthed smile when she heard the name – and I told the authorities “That’s her!”
So what does Renee really mean then?
It derives from the word ‘renaissance’, which means ‘rebirth’. That’s so appropriate it still makes me cry…
Does Renee have any hobby preferences? How do you offer the necessary encouragement?
She shares my love for music, and attends special classes to groom her in it. What more could I ask for? I do everything I can to support her there, without going overboard and allowing it to become an obsession.
What would be your first reaction if Renee were to win the Ms. World title in the future?
(Laughs aloud) What do you think? “Go for Miss Universe!” of course!!
Do you have a message to Indian adopting mothers and fathers in particular?
I guess so. It’s simply this – follow your heart, and believe that acceptance always follows rejection. You’re doing the right thing. Don’t deny yourself or a child the unique joy of loving and being loved for love’s sake alone.
What in your opinion are the fundamental doctrines Indian parents must inculcate in the kids in early childhood?
Independence, honesty, trust in those who love them and a curious mind. Needless to say, we can’t pass on what we don’t have ourselves, right?
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