Recent legislation in India around maternity leave and surrogacy have generated much debate around the idea of family, and the importance of parenthood and childcare. In all of this, the role of fathers as caregivers and parents and the challenges of single parenting are issues that have particularly been on my mind.
In this context, a recent experience to interact with a group of adoptive parents offered some interesting and unusual insights. I accompanied my dearest friend Nupur, and may I add mausi (translation: mother’s sister) to my kids, to Ludhiana’s district courts to attend to formalities related to her adoption of baby Bela, now about seven months old. When we reached the lawyer’s chambers on Monday morning, we were pleasantly surprised to meet three other families who had adopted babies from the same adoption centre. To an observer, it felt like a family reunion of sorts. Baby names and eating habits plus experiences with the adoption process were the main topics of conversation. The atmosphere was charged with happiness, and gratitude. Everyone there felt like life had given them that rare chance to fulfill the dream of parenting, a dream they had obviously harbored for a long time. The years of disappointment and pain, the feeling of emptiness that preceded adoption were unspoken but nevertheless evident part of their narratives.
The couple from Rohtak, whose baby girl was a bit over six months old, told us about the ingrained prejudice against the girl child that they faced everyday. The mother was pained about the mindset around her. She described it as a wall she could not penetrate. “Our neighbours advise was to wait for a few more years till the adoption centre had a boy for us. They felt that since we were adopting, we had the luxury of the choice of gender. The obsession with sons carrying the family’s name forward is disgusting,” she told me. “We have decided our baby will carry both parents’ last name,” she added.
In all three couples, I saw the fathers completely dedicated to the child and attentive to their wives needs through the day. I wondered about how fatherhood must appear a miracle to them and how little we think about the desires of a man to have a child. That came home to me when, in a rare moment of emotion, one of the fathers shared his feelings with me about being a parent. Their adoptive child was nearly a year old when they brought her home. His wife, a teacher, had been bold and bargained for a full six months of paid maternity leave from her school (before the law came through), asserting that adoptive mums need the time to bond with their children before joining work again. The father, on the other hand, said he was back to work in a week. He was pained about the fact that being away at work all day and spending only a few hours a day with the baby meant it took him much longer to get used to the idea of being a parent. More interestingly, he spoke about his passion for his work and how he did not like compromising on that either! “If I love my work, how can I do justice to it when emotionally I feel the need to be with my family?” he said, his anguish clear as he expressed his opinion on how employers need to think about offering options for leave periods up to two years for fathers/mothers to attend to childcare needs.
The reactions and opinions of these ordinary people in the midst of an extraordinarily beautiful and emotional experiences reinforced my suspicion that we need to re-examine not just gender stereotypes but also our ideas of what constitutes an ideal family and ideal parenting. There are many ways to offer children love, care and a nurturing environment that operates around a sound value system. Why not create a policy framework that empowers parents and guardians to do so?
In a hyper-aware super connected world where paranoia is becoming the main strategy by which we live our lives, parenting has become a complex job with immense responsibility. As parents, we are constantly aware of the grave consequences of wrong decisions. We obsess over every choice we make with regards to our kids, from choosing a school to monitoring the company they keep, from the toys we buy to the places we take our kids to.
As a mother of two reasonably intelligent and talented kids, I am constantly stuck between two distinct models of parenting. The very structured and demanding ‘Tiger’ mode that Amy Chua eloquently bats for in her book[Ref: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (2011)] and a more relaxed instinctive style that allows children to experiment and set their own pace. I’ve tried both and I’ll say this: Tiger mode is seductive for parents who are ambitious for their children and need to feel in control but relaxed mode is more fun, more gratifying, more humane. I’ll also tell you why I’ve come to this conclusion.
Children are individuals, parents do not ‘own’ them
Someone recently asked me this: “Aap apne bacche ko kya banaana chahte ho?”- What will you make your child? It’s a common enough question in Indian society. “Why would I make him anything?”, was my incredulous retort. Mine wasn’t a naive statement. Questions like these imply that parents own their children or at least own rights over their future, and I do not buy that.
Children, right from the moment they are born, are individuals. They have ideas, a sense of themselves and their place in the world. These ideas are shaped in the early years by their parents and guardians, teachers, friends, caregivers, by what they see and hear. In this, a parent plays a defining role. But to extend that role to decisions about their careers, or who their partner should be, or where they should live and what they should wear is a gross mistake and a fallout of an erroneous patriarchal construct that we need to urgently challenge. For several reasons, and I will not go into those here and now, but simply because freedom is a right. No parent wants their child to live in chains. To examine our own relationship with our children and see the chains we feter them with for what they are is an important step of good parenting. A step we should not take with a sense of insecurity and trepidation, but with a sense of empowerment, knowing this is the right thing to do.
Freedom nurtures creativity, creative people drive change
By conditioning children to over-instruction and putting in place a system of rewards and brickbats, we teach them that seeking our approval is the chief objective of their lives. As adults, they continue to work towards the approval of someone or the other. A spouse, a boss, a friend.
Pushing kids through rigid structures and pressurizing them to over achieve may drive excellence and cause success in the short-term, but it severely compromises originality, believes Wharton Prof Adam Grant. “Limiting rules,” he writes, “encourages children to think for themselves.”
No one can be in doubt that we need original thinking to take us forward. We need new ideas to tackle a host of problems, from malnutrition to climate change. We need innovative technology to drive economic growth and create prosperity. We need creative people to compose music, write plays and books, make films that entertain as well as enrich us immeasurably.
Easy to say, hard to implement: ‘Letting go’ is a mindset change
Even if you buy my arguments for less structure and more freedom, how do you act upon it in an increasingly competitive world that drives you to measure success instantly (and share it on your social media feed even faster!)? For a parent, taking a step back is incredibly hard. Taking the long view seems like a risk. What if it backfires? What if my child does not get through the best colleges? What if her musical talent goes wasted? We worry about the possibility of a perceived failure in the future because we are comparing our children constantly to their peers and to the best in the world.
My main rejoinder to myself when I find myself worried is that less structure does not mean apathy. It must be accompanied by an emphasis on quality interactions between parents and children and a concerted effort to create opportunities to expose our children to multiple stimuli, experiences and information sources. So the formula changes from choosing a select set of structured activities and ensuring they are done, repeatedly, till excellence is achieved to something else. Choosing fewer of these structured routines to free up time for a wider variety of less structured ones.
To make this shift happen is requiring me to change the way I think about life, about choices, about expectations. It is pushing me to place more value on the here and now and worry less about a future that I, in any case, cannot determine. Increased conversations are creating opportunities for debates within the home, often about complex and ethically difficult issues. About sex and gender, about the drug regime and politics, about the failings of the modern parent even!
I hope this journey will make questioners of my children (and push me to question too, as I learn everyday from these two and the students I interact with on a weekly basis). Those of you who know how disturbed I’ve been over what has transpired in university campuses across India these past few months may now understand why the muffling of dissenting voices is deeply disturbing for me. While I persevere in a difficult personal journey towards hands-off parenting, I fail to understand how a political agenda that envisages a nation of minions instead of one with creative thinkers will serve a nation that professes an ambition to inclusive economic growth.
My children are now 10 and 6. They’re growing, they’re increasingly independent and very very curious. My boy is in what they call the Viking Stage- full of aggression and passion, an opportunity to direct his energies into things creative and exciting. My girl is ever enthusiastic, talented and hard working. All the ingredients are on the table for an exciting summer. The only critical piece of the puzzle is my time and energy.
This summer I’m determined to put that missing ingredient into the mix and let ourselves in for a super super roller coaster ride! Each day, while I tick off the usual stuff off my to-do list, my mind is doing its own background thinking about what activities we could plan for summer, together. I find a lot of parents asking each other and at a loss as to how to occupy their kids. So I thought it might be useful to document my ideas as well as the execution of our plans.
I have the first 2 projects germinating in my head now, and I’m already discussing the how-to’s with friends and the kids themselves.
Outdoor sketching for fun
Designed as 4 separate modules, I’m planning to take a group of kids accompanied by their parents/guardians to outdoor locations in the city (in the early mornings of course!). Armed with sketchbooks and pencils, the idea is to see and draw, just letting the mind and the hands wander over the pages. It’s a fun activity, not designed to ‘tech’ but to ‘experience’. I’m trying it out with a small group this summer and some artist friends are joining us for general guidance as well.
DIY planners for the kids
Udai is at the age when he is struggling to organize his life. Schoolwork has increased, so has social and co-curricular activity. There’s a lot on his plate. And poor mommy ends up being the planner and general nagger. So we decided to make ourselves an A3 planner for each month of the remaining school year, all the way till March 2015. We’re still thinking about how this will happen, if it will all be handmade or a combination etc etc. Aadyaa wouldn;t want to be left out, but maybe a different format might work better for her.
Here are a few absolutely awesome things we saw on pinterest that inspired us.
Cornflower Blue’s Rotating to-do list (unfortunately, her blog is private)
A Sunday morning. Children still recovering from yesterday’s long, hectic evening attending and enjoying the Diwali Mela in our apartment complex. A heavy silence around the house. The October nip in the air. For most mums this is the time we get to sip our morning tea in peace, look out of the balcony, smile at the world, breathe.
But I feel restless on such mornings and I realize that inadvertently, over the years, I have got addicted to constant activity, a schedule, targets. When did I get here and how do I get out of this trap?
And so, I open my lappie and check my mail. I go over some work I could do today if I feel so inclined. I stress about the deadlines during the week ahead. I choose a new profile pic on FB in a bid to feel better about myself. I worry about the directionlessness of my life. And I eventually open a ‘new post’ window on my blog and I write.
I write to keep my sanity, to understand myself better, to share what I feel and hope someone else feels the same way. I write to shake off a feeling of despondency that no beautiful Sunday morning should bring. I write to purge myself and bring back my smile.
Let me face it. Mukta mommy can’t handle a breather!
I can’t wait for the kids to be up and yelling for their breakfast, for the day’s appointments to begin, for the hyperactivity that is so part of my life to take over. At some point today, when life has returned to its usual madness, I will get around to laughing (and even perhaps blogging) about the crazy outfits at the Diwali Mela, the Chinese residents of Vipul Greens doing the bhangra in absolute glee, Aadyaa’s mad rounds of the rides and the wonderful job Udai and his friends did with their own games stall last night! I already feel better now!
My dad would have turned 70 today, had he still been with us. I mentioned this while eating lunch today and darling Aadyaa spontaneously cried out a heartfelt wish to him, sending her wishes out into space to him, wherever he might be! Such a simple gesture, something only a child could execute with such grace and innocence.
I spent a super relaxed day at home and at some point in the late evening, Aadyaa and me ended up playing table tennis, on the drawing room floor! She is only 5, but super interested in sports. As playing on the TT table is hard for her, I decided to experiment with sitting on the floor opposite each other and just getting used to hitting the ball at each other with the TT bat. Oh, it was so much fun! We used the tiles to carve out an imaginary table, invented new rules and even played a match of sorts!
All through, I reminisced about how daddy used to be an ace TT player and how he coached me. Evenings in the faculty club in SGPGI Lucknow, him and me, hitting away. I learnt about strategy, about when to use which serve, about assessing the opponent’s game and targeting their weaknesses. He spoke about the sportsman’s attitude (excuse the outdated gendered reference), about the need to win, about not always being ‘nice’! I don’t know how much of the lecturing got through at the time; mostly I valued the TT lessons as daddy-kiddo time! The TT tips did work and I continued to play for my college team after leaving Lucknow and even win sometimes.
Miss you, Dad. I learnt a lot about respecting young people from you and was fortunate to be the guinea pig for your parenting experiments! I hope I treat my kids with the same measured mix of leniency and discipline, with the same amount of trust and confidence and with the same sort of unconditional love!
As my closest friends will know, I’ve been having growing up pains about Udai. All of nine, he has been in a broody, sensitive, rebellious frame of mind for the past few weeks. With holiday time meaning a complete lack of structure, it has not been easy to steer him into spending small amounts of time doing things that are not always appealing- in particular, written work and music practice have been a challenge.
We have always tried to let our kids be, or that has been the intention at least. We’ve taken care to put them in a school that lets them be as well. And it’s been a rewarding experience for the most part. But as Udai moves toward middle school and I see him reluctant to rise to challenges, I do worry. I have no benchmarks for comparison; we all went to conventional schools and grew up in homes where discipline was a big part of our lives and questioning authority not acceptable. Of course we did our share of rebellion, but perhaps I have forgotten about my own experience of the confused state that entails being a pre-teen!
Anyway, the first time I began to agree with the idea of discipline and the parents-do-know-better thinking was when I read Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mom by Amy Chua a couple of years ago. Thinking back, I hated my music classes too on certain days, but my parents gave me no choice and coaxed and perhaps even badgered me into it. In time, I developed that special bond with music that I cherish today and this is the sort of example Chua uses to support her hypothesis that American parenting is mush-mush and Indian and Chinese parents are doing the right thing by deciding what’s good for their kids and being strict enough to enforce their will
The thing is: How do you explain that process of growing to love something that initially seems imposed, to a 9-yr old? I talk about my own experiences as examples, but I see in his eyes an unwillingness to engage with what I say and also a sheer inability to imagine a future that spans several decades!
Added to this is the fact that Udai has high expectations of himself, but has not yet developed a mechanism for him to be able to accept criticism in any constructive fashion. His defense for performing a task shoddily, therefore, is the I-am-not-good-enough sort of pseudo self-battering that could, if left unchecked or allowed to grow, turn into lingering low self-esteem. I do realize that even very well meaning parents can burden their children by constantly voicing their expectations and that this can make for that child growing into an adult who is constantly seeking approval and struggling to gain confidence.
In theory, I would rather Udai grows up to be an average student who is happy and follows his passions, but in reality I, like any other parent, long for him to excel and achieve what I think is his potential. The disparity between these two constructs is enormous and it isn’t practical to think one while practicing another, I know.
I am venting on my blog my sheer guilt after this morning’s battle (regular feature now), and I have encouraged Udai to vent his feelings as well. Check out what he wrote! Now we sit relatively at peace, each of one of us, Aadyaa included, on our own separate devices , immersed in our work. I know I need to back off, calm down and I will get to it. For now, we battle and lock horns and that’s how we move a few steps ahead!
We are not an extremely demonstrative family. Or at least I do not remember occasions being a huge deal in my childhood. Birthdays were celebrated with some gusto, and anniversaries as well. But the rest of the huge number of occasions entered our consciousness only when greeting card companies like Archie’s and Hallmark began to sort of throw them in our face sometime in the ’90s!
This is still the norm, mostly. So when a friend suggested we go out for a Mothers Day Brunch tomorrow, it set me thinking. Is this just an excuse for an outing that wasn’t coming together otherwise? Or are we genuinely going to celebrate motherhood in some way tomorrow? At dinner time today, the kids’ Dadi, my mother in law, urged them to make a card for me. The kids’ dad, Rahul, suggested they just let me have a fun day. Go easy on me! The kids looked pretty bewildered. And so was I! This was a first for our family. Aadyaa looked like she wanted to say she makes a card for me most days of her life, or a drawing of some kind!
The scene reminded me of Namita Bhandare’s editorial on the subject in the Hindustan Times today, which went several steps further to remind us of less fortunate mothers in the world on such a day- is it Mother’s Day or Mothers’ Day?
Personally, I wear motherhood quite lightly nowadays. It used to be stressful when the kids were very small and I was constantly judging myself as a parent. It is less so now because I refuse to make those kind of judgements. But in either situation, my mommy self was never lacking for love and respect from my kids and the rest of my family, friends, etc. Like Namita says, it isn’t about the card (and this is how I am really lucky!).
To the mums out there- There are zillion ways for your family to appreciate you and as many ways for you to read the signs of appreciation! Don’t punish yourself by waiting for stereotypical gestures that the movies and the media have made fashionable. Look into your children’s eyes, hug them and every day is Mothers Day!
To the grown-ups who are also kiddos out there (and that is advice I am going to follow as well tomorrow), don’t run all over town finding that crazy gift for mummy dear. Make that card! For mummies of that generation who never expected one, it will mean a lot!
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare
As I stared at this teeny weeny little baby…in my head, these lines from ‘Macavity’ in the ‘Old Possum Book of Practical Cats’ by TS Eliot transformed into….
His powers of negotiation would make his mater stare
Of course I was deeply impressed that the musical Cats chose to pronounce fakir as faker when I saw it way back in 199…..thus lending itself beautifully to my version of the line!
Ah well, let me get to the point.
Life is all about negotiating the best deal for yourself, isn’t it? And who practices it better than children. Even as newborn babies, the human instinct for survival is so strong that a baby would probably push away his mother if her breasts were dry and the devil were holding the bottle of milk out!
My kids do that all the time! One minute I am the best mother in the world and kisses are being bestowed, the next minute I am the worst creature on earth for trying to discipline Aadyaa. The emotional trauma that creates is not entirely something she is unaware of. That is her negotiating tool to get what she wants. She knows it, I know it, but yet more time than not, I give in!
Udai too, will always pitch his demands at a level slightly more unreasonable than what he is willing to settle for, knowing well that the adult mind is habituated to bargaining to get things moving slightly in their favour. When I say ‘yes’ to a proposal without any questions, like going for an extra half hour of play on a hot afternoon, he vamooses within a split second, lest I change my mind!
It’s a great thing, this ability to negotiate. A good negotiator gets far in life. So I’m resolving to sharpen the negotiating abilities of my kids by not giving in to anything without a little tussle, a teeny weeny back and forth, a mini turf war…..makes life so much fun!
This was a bit of the Rock Garden experience in Chandigarh that I was saving for a separate post. As usual, there was me walking around with my camera, clicking anything and everything that caught my fancy. Udai and Aadyaa decide to explore a dark cave in front of us. I pick up my camera to idly look through the viewfinder, when I see an eye slyly stare out at me from behind a pillar. Click. Then a face appears. Click. Then two faces dart out. Click. Then another naughty eye. Click. And so on….
We play the game of peek-a-boo, my camera and the kids, I and the kids. Us. All.
We have so much fun.
So today is National Girl Child Day. The ubiquitous mugshots of Sonia Gandhi and our PM stared at me from every newspaper I read this morning, along with a poorly designed full page advertorial with the colour pink all over it! Yech!
What does this mean to us ordinary folks? I thought I’d come up with the strains of thoughts and conversation I consider relevant to the theme.
In 2012, Aamir Khan’s TV show Satyamev Jayate put the spotlight on the issue of female foeticide and infanticide, getting the issue more attention than years of government sponsored advertising or content issued by health institutions. The average middle class TV viewer spent more minutes (or seconds) thinking this issue through than they did when they signed on that ominous declaration while getting pregnancy-related ultrasounds done at the radiologist’s clinic.
I found interesting that this month, there have been several articles, like this one, pointing to China’s skewed sex ratio as well. Of course, much has been written in context of the rising concern over women’s safety since the Delhi gang rape last month. This particular piece conjures a picture of frustrated unemployed men roaming city streets, a potentially hazardous situation, and too few women! In both India and China.
All of this makes us wonder about what we can do, as ‘ordinary’ people? None of us are ordinary and I believe we are enormously powerful in our own spheres of influence. As mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, role models to colleagues and students, etc. I have had many discussions with friends about how to communicate the harsh realities of the world to their children. Much of this concern stems from an urgent need to ‘protect’ our daughters, with very muted attention to how we raise our sons I must say! I’ve admired Natasha Badhwar for writing about the need to tell kids the truth. My own mother wrote an eloquent piece, a year ago, on how fathers need to set the tone for gender neutral thinking inside a home. And now, a dear friend Monolita in Kochi has started a movement to get women in her city and across the nation on an online platform to share experiences, plan strategies to bring about a radical change in attitudes. The initial discussions on the email group she started show how scared even educated middle class women from privileged homes are to speak their minds, how they would rather accept status quo. It has also shown how some of us are willing to work hard for change, to leverage each freedom that we have won or been lucky to get so that women across the world get the same. After all, as Mono puts it, “all I have ever demanded is to be equal!”. Do read our initial posts on our blog and you could follow the blog for activities that we are planning in the future.
Today, as we celebrate the girl child in India, let us not only feel ashamed for the wrongs we have done, but also remember the sheer joy that children have brought to our lives. And resolve that all the little girls we know, along with the little boys, are the seeds of our future. We owe it to them to instill in them values of equality and tolerance, to lead by example lives that are ethical and sensitive, and to see together with them the sheer beauty in our lives….even as we dream of a better world.
Pics below: Aadyaa and a little girl in the Sundernagari slum, where mHS has designed a redevelopment project. Both represent hope and the future. What are we going to do now to ensure they can both reach their potential and enjoy a safe world?