Alok Vaid-Menon Photograph: Anthea Wills
Halesowen was quiet for me when I was growing up. It was the British Midlands, where the world’s worst power cuts still happen. My father, who had arrived from India in the early 60s, had big plans for a new life in Britain. He had a wife and four beautiful, bright children who he and I watched with pride as they navigated their way through the uncertain sea of chance and opportunity that England held out to them. His dreams were never fulfilled. After 40 years, my father was unable to bring my brother and sister up alone. They were working in a tailoring factory and renting out the family home, waiting for my father to come to his senses and manage to pull himself together and become a good father. My brother and sister are now in their 50s and, with their children in their 30s, they have accepted that they will never see the day that they will live at their own home with my father, fulfilling his dream of being a father. Like him, my sister struggled with her feelings about whether her own children would feel the same way she did growing up. Growing up I kept my thoughts to myself and I failed to address my emotions in a meaningful way. I was uncomfortable with my parents’ feelings and, particularly my father’s, so I retreated into myself and hid away in my shell. I was ashamed of the idea that I had any emotional baggage or that I had the potential to feel real pain. I had little or no empathy with anyone who had suffered personal loss.
At my husband’s workplace I started volunteering in their bereavement group. I would talk about what I was going through to someone who had gone through exactly the same thing as me. Some other women in the group had lost brothers and sisters. It became clear to me that my experience was not unique. I now knew that the pain and suffering that I had been feeling was not to be passed on by my own family to those around me. I remember being overcome by gratitude and joy at the fact that I had finally realised that something was more important than just being a man. I held my tears back. I wanted to be there for my husband and children, not just on the occasions when I needed help, but when my husband needed me. I wanted to build my life and not just bury it in dust. I began to rediscover my faith. I knew now that God was in control. All that was going on in my life had a purpose. God knew that I had depth.
I knew that if I wanted a happy future for myself, my children and the person I was in love with, I had to give my heart to the journey.
That’s why when you’ve just had a baby, when you are grieving a partner and are in a relationship that hasn’t progressed, you find your way out of what’s holding you back. I have become wiser and more capable as a woman, grown a new set of emotional muscles and a year on, I’ve not only found a loving partner, I have found a way through what I thought was impenetrable.
One of the things that I discovered from all of this was that it’s not possible to live a fulfilling life without supporting others. To be a loving and supportive person means to look out for those who have less. It’s the thing that all people want, to feel that they are worth something. The good news is that we are! That’s why in my work as a social entrepreneur, the thing that I have learnt is that nothing is more important than not just being a man, but being a good person.