At 29, I Finally Opened Up To My Immigrant Mom About Dating

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
I was 29 when I got the sex talk for the first time. My mom sat at one end of the couch looking at her phone while I sat in the opposite corner scrolling through mine, a shared blanket between us. Suddenly she interrogated me, glasses perched at the tip of her nose. “Is Anil* coming to Saugatuck with you?”
It was the week before Valentine’s Day and I planned a getaway to the west side of Michigan with my new boyfriend, whom I started dating just four months prior after I moved back to my hometown during the COVID pandemic. Anil and I met on Hinge and took it slow for the entirety of our courtship, both of us living at home with our parents. This weekend away would be the first time we spent this much time together. 
Of course, I lied to my parents about it, saying I was going away with my friends. But somehow my mother knew, as she always does, and she was bold enough to ask me outright. 
I nodded feebly, unsure of why I unnecessarily lied, and braced myself for the impending scolding. I was ready to defend this as something people in relationships do, ready to convince her that it wasn’t improper or too soon. Instead, she gave me some outright rules for the trip: “No hanky-panky business!” 
Three decades into my existence, Anil is the first and only boy I’ve ever told my parents about. As a child of Indian immigrants, my schoolgirl crushes weren’t discussed at the dinner table, let alone details around people I was casually dating as I got older. And my parents never asked, content with our tacit agreement: I’d broach the topic when there was someone meaningful to share. 
This carried on even after I graduated and moved away to New York City. On phone calls I’d give very little information, saying things were “good” and “not much” was new, without elaborating further. I used to envy my friends who would tell their moms every detail of their dating life; I knew she loved me but that type of closeness was foreign to me.
We avoided the topic altogether until I was of marrying age (at least, according to my mom). At 22, she reminded me, she was already married, and when I turned 26 she pointed out she had been pregnant with my brother at the same age. There were WhatsApp messages with biodatas of foreign men, filled with details about their grandparents and a list of their impressive degrees. One week after my 28th birthday my mom forwarded me a marriage proposal, which I declined without inquiring further. As I inched closer to 30, the reminders turned into questions. Do you want to get married? Aren’t you scared of ending up alone? 
Heavy, intrusive questions. (By the way, my answers are yes and yes.) But with the added pressure of her marriage talk, I stayed mum about my personal life — I still hadn’t dated anyone I considered a long-term prospect and I felt there was no use in discussing dead-end dates with someone who wanted me to speed up the entire process. 
When I moved home in September 2020, I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying. I gave up my Upper East Side apartment, put my things in storage, and drove ten hours back to Michigan without a return date in mind. Before this, I never thought I’d live with my parents again. But I wanted to save money while I dealt with a quarter-life crisis, and the pandemic provided an easy escape hatch, even if it meant giving up part of my independence. Soon, my Hinge location was set to Michigan.
Anil was one of the first people I matched with and before I knew it, we were sitting across from one another at a local restaurant for four hours. I was taken with his beard and his gentle voice, and how easily conversation flowed. At the end of the date, he asked me something that none of the New York boys had ever brought up so early. “What are you looking for?”
Dinner dates were followed by trips to cider mills and corn mazes, and night outings to the drive-in theater or local jazz club. On some dates we’d simply meet in the Meijer parking lot, me sliding into his passenger seat or hopping on the back of his motorcycle to carpool to a restaurant. I had my first Chik-fil-a sandwich with him, and we both agreed that the Wendy's spicy chicken sandwich was superior. It was simple and easy, and in a pandemic world, we didn’t think too hard about the future.
I told my friends far and wide about the luck I was having dating in the suburbs, but for some reason I had butterflies about telling my parents. The unchartered territory scared me: living under their roof again made me feel like a teenager hoarding secrets. 
Then one day I took the plunge. As my mom stood at the stove heating up chapatis for dinner, I crept up behind her. I took a deep breath before saying, “I won’t be here for dinner tomorrow night.” Pause. “I’m going on a date.”
She looked at me, her eyebrow arched. “Have you met him before?” was all she asked. I nodded yes quickly before returning to the table, a huge weight lifted. When I stole a glance at her later while helping myself to seconds, a soft, subtle smile had formed at the corners of her lips.
As Anil and I journeyed deeper into our relationship, my mom asked questions surprisingly sparingly. She was patient. It took me months to tell her his name and when I did, an avalanche of follow-up questions emerged. “He’s Indian? Where is his family from? Was he born and raised here?” 
I suppose in a way, I was a surrogate for my mom’s understanding of modern-day dating. She had an arranged marriage in India, married to the first man deemed suitable. Luckily it’s a successful and loving marriage, but her experience exists in a different universe than mine. My answers fueled her curiosity in more ways than one, and she was learning the rhythms and rules of dating in 21st century America through me. As things progressed, I became more comfortable talking to her about Anil. I sent her pictures of us — visual proof he was real — and when we planned a trip to Chicago, I didn’t feel compelled to lie again.
Unfortunately, the scale had tipped on my relationship. Anil and I were growing apart. In Chicago, it became abundantly clear that our futures were spiraling in opposite directions: I didn’t plan to stay in Michigan forever, while he never wanted to leave. He wanted his future wife to live at home with his parents, while I fiercely valued my independence. When we got back, he stopped making plans with me.
After sulking around the house for an entire day, my mother summoned me upstairs. We sat on the edge of my bed and I recounted how the relationship was crumbling. “He hasn’t texted me all week,” I said. “I don’t know what happened.” I felt like a teenager finally getting to cry on my mom’s shoulder, getting a do-over for all of the missed opportunities of my youth. Her arm around me as I convulsed, she didn’t offer niceties or white lies to make me feel better. If my mother is one thing, it is brutally honest. 
“It seems,” she began, “that you and Anil are very different. He is not the one for you. Do you think he has someone else?” The question was a knife. Then she softened. “You’re independent and adventurous and can stand on your own two feet. You can move anywhere you want. You don’t need a man like I did.” 
When I thought back to my mom’s life and all the opportunities her marriage and subsequent immigration had given me, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed with both gratitude and sadness. She raised me to embrace the independence she was never allowed to have, and that certainly shaped how I approached relationships: I never, ever want to settle, often choosing myself over a relationship that doesn’t feel 100% right. But despite not needing anyone, I still eventually want a partner to share my life with.  
“For some people it takes longer,” she assured me, reading my mind as always. “Dating is really hard, huh?” she added softly. She didn’t chide me for being single again at 29, nor did she offer to start looking for prospects in India. I’m stubborn but I will find someone myself, even if it takes a long time, and it was a relief to know she understood. I just had to let her in.  
Living at home for a year and a half as an adult was not something I’d planned, but in a way it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. For the first time, I saw my parents as more than just authority figures, and I think they also finally saw me as an adult, too. Anil and I didn’t last more than nine months but I don’t regret any of it: it was the door to seeing my mom as someone I can trust with the matters of my heart instead of holding her at a distance.
While I’m still not running to tell her about every casual date I go on — I’m saving the next boy-centric conversation for whomever my next Anil is — it’s nice to know that I can. She visited me when I moved to Los Angeles and casually asked if I had met anyone. The answer is still “no” for now, but I know that when the day comes she’ll be there waiting with open arms and ears to hear all about it. And knowing her, she’ll take any opportunity to warn me against hanky-panky business.
*Name has been changed to protect identity. 

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