How do you define the perfect family? One mommy, one daddy, a boy and a girl? One mommy and a son? Two daddies and two daughters? A man and a woman with no babies? It’s good to see that definition is increasingly fluid. There may not be a definition at all – after all, ties are not always of blood. At least not for some of us. For the rest, there is always a nosy parker commenting on your life.
Surabhi wrote this post on the kind of statements she is subjected to, Sanah being an only child. As many pointed out in the comments, the world will always have something to say to your situation. In our case, the OA and I and the kids are a traditional, picture perfect family. Banker father, work from home mother (look, she works but she is also home with the kids, how perfect!), a boy and a girl bunched into two years. But dig deeper and we face other questions – How can a Hindu and a Christian get married? What are your kids going to be brought up as? How do you worship? I realise that these are all huge issues that keep many people up nights even even though it is not their business. But bug our bedroom and you will discover that the biggest fight is what temperature the AC needs to be kept on ( if you want the answer - we settle at 22 degrees) and who gets to sleep on the cooler side of the bed (I, in case you care).
Hum do, hamare do is what the government suggested and we don’t take them any less than seriously. Two it has to be. Why exactly is two considered the perfect number? Cousin J who is studying psychology mentions that the ideal family is meant to have three children. The OA almost threw her off the balcony that evening when he saw the glint in my eye. But I speak for myself. I wanted two because my childhood without Tambi would have been incomplete. We had a joint family and people of every age lived in it, each one with more than a few minutes to spare for a child. A huge rambling old house with a pond and mango, jackfruit, lychee, guava and orange trees to climb, pick fruit, read under and hang hammocks and tyres from. My grandmother was the principal of two schools and the best person to rear children as educators usually are. It could have been the perfect existence for a single child and I’d never have needed a companion. And yet, YET, the best part of my growing years, was my brother – everything just shone that much brighter because of him.
The perfect playmate – I didn’t have to wait for play dates to be organised. No one needed to come down to a child’s level literally or otherwise. We hung sheets and made castles, we floated boats in the monsoons and ran around the wide verandahs that encircled the house, following their route. We set up a bird watching club, built a treehouse and and climbed up there at the crack of dawn with binoculars. I sat atop the dhobi’s cart with cousin K and J on a cushion while Tambi pushed us around the house on our “boat” - until the day we dropped the 4 month old Cousin J off the cart. *shudder*. We went for early morning walks and flattened coins on the railway tracks. We escaped from our hotel room one night in Lucknow and found a phone booth and called up friends at midnight. We had the same friends and held big dance parties where both sexes could meet – a big deal in a small town. We went cycling around the house and then his bike arrived and we were free as birds, shooting off for ice cream when the need arose.
As we grew older and more secretive about our lives, my parents took comfort in the fact that we’d never get too deep into shit because the other one always knew. So when I lay whispering on the phone all night and couldn’t wake up for school in the morning, my mother would panic that I was sick, but Tambi would roll his eyes and say, she’s fine. When he crashed up his bike, we painted the scratch on the bike with my nail polish and I ensured that he went to a doc and got the wound dressed. When I dated someone he quietly checked him out and kept an eye from a distance. When he dated anyone, I promptly said I hated her and thought she was unsuitable, hence confirming his suspicion that she was perfect for him. And most of all, for children like me and my brother and now my children, we don’t come from typical traditional families with communities and languages and histories of our own. In our own muddled up way, we have only our own little traditions and community. And years from now when my oldies are no more (I don’t want to think about it) I will be happy to have someone to say, “Tambi, remember the time we … “
But what if the siblings hate each other? asks a friend. I shrug. No relationship comes with guarantees. What if you hate the man you marry? What if you and your best friend fall out? What if you and your only child don’t see eye to eye? I was always sure I wanted two kids. And no, not because I feel the second one is a requirement for the first one to be entertained by the second. Nor because I wanted an heir and a spare. But because I love kids. I want my house to always be full of the sound of childish voices and clutter and noise and laughter. I don’t think I’d have stopped at two if I could afford it, if the country could afford the population explosion and if my battered body could take it. For me, three, four, five, would be the perfect number.
But yes, now that I have two, I can’t imagine having it any other way. When I see parents with one child I sometimes wistfully think they have it better. They ended their diaper routine with one child, they only had to potty train one, they spend less on fees and clothes and birthday parties, they have to put away one less college fund and the big one – ONE CHILD CAN’T GANG UP ON THEM!! My two on the other hand learnt early to gang up and the house resounds with war whoops at all times. I scream at one who is launching himself off the back of the sofa only to realise that the other one just came sliding down the stairs on a cushion. They feed off each other’s exuberance and they inspire each other to great heights of mischief. I scold one, the other takes up for her. I give one a time out, the other sits down next to him so that he isn’t bored. And even as I feel like taking their heads and banging them together, there is a part of me that smiles at the fun they’re having. Glad that they are what kids should be – imaginative, spirited, happy, compassionate.
But for every calm, well settled only child that I see, I see one who isn’t. The key I think, lies in being content with your choice. Some people I feel, just aren’t content with their decision. I know of at least eight couples who have stopped at one child, not because they wanted only one, but because they have some hereditary illness which surfaced with the first and they don’t want to risk a second one. Or because they are unable to finance the second child. Or because they have no childcare options and cannot afford for the mother to stay home. Sometimes they are undecided and just end up waiting too long after the first and then feel too exhausted to get into the diaper routine again and worry about too huge an age gap. Sometimes they make their peace with this choice enforced on them, sometimes they pass that discomfort on to the child as well as to others, in things they say and do.
I have come across many siblings who fuss and can’t sleep if the other has a reading light on, who throw tantrums for special time with the parents and so on. I am often told that my two children don’t get enough adult time because they are so close in age and also because they are two instead of one. I can think of at least 5 single kids who are quite neglected by their parents and raised entirely through daycares/nannies. So that argument similarly falls flat because how much time a child gets depends on the amount of time you are willing to give them. I’ve also had people tell me that the Brat needed more time before I had the Bean (she was born when he was 22 months). Which tempted me to ask them to check with the Brat – he loves his sister who is his best friend and he’d have had a different life if he’d not had her – if anything, she’s responsible for him coming out of his shell and being more of an extrovert. As for attention – I was home full time, I was their primary caregiver and we all had a blast. And I am glad I picked what I thought was the right time for them, because they are such great company for each other and I don’t have to juggle two entirely different sets of needs. They fill my home, my heart, my life and each other’s lives too. And the last one is a bonus because I didn’t really produce them as two parts of a whole. It was merely that what I wanted out of my life and God was good enough to give me what I desired.
But the last two holidays gave me lots to think (and blog!) about. When the OA and I were exhausted and wanted to catch forty winks, we’d lock our hotel door and sleep, leaving the kids playing around us (the only rule being that they don’t push pencils up our nostrils) knowing very well that each one was the other’s safety valve. But there were days when another harried mother would beg us to leave the kids playing in her room because her child was bored and driving her nuts. The mother of a 13 year old watches him head to the TV room to watch a cricket match and tells me that for the first time in so many years she’s had a peaceful holiday because she has to be her son’s constant companion since he has no siblings, playing cricket, watching TV with him, everything. Another watches her screaming kid grab the Brat’s toys and then refuse to share his own, telling me (as though that is a good reason) that he has no one to share with and so doesn’t know how to. A terribly violent young boy we’re acquainted with begs his parents for a sibling everyday. His parents are really old (I accidentally called his mother ‘aunty’ the first time I met her in a store) and I watch them limp slowly as older people do, walking behind as he zips across the lawns. “We adopted him so late, how do we explain to him that we’re too old to raise any more children?” the mother asks helplessly. Another child cries every time we leave her home after a playdate and begs her mother for a sibling who will stay and not go away like other children. I don’t know about the parents and why they have made the choices that they have, but I do see that the children aren’t completely comfortable. They aren’t the kind of self sufficient children that Sanah or the Brat are. Who would be happy as one or one of two or three. I also think they need to be taught the skills to deal with their lot in life, just like siblings are taught to share and adjust regardless of their temperament and nature.
I don’t buy any of the arguments that single children are by definition selfish, unable to share, unable to adjust, or any of those silly statement. I think that is all the result of a personality type as well as their nurture. I see plenty of siblings who can’t share with each other – what is their excuse? Neither do I believe that children who have siblings aren’t self sufficient. The summer holidays have begun and while the Bean naps during the hot North Indian afternoons, the Brat crawls around the floor with a plastic pencil box, talking to himself and organising a grand prix. He is perfectly content and very calm. And that again, is an individual characteristic, nothing to do with being one or one of two.
And that is where I’d wind this up. How many kids you have depends on what you want, not what society dictates. Reminds me of a friend who recently said to me (after much societal pressure to have a second) – When I look at my daughter I feel like I need nothing more.
And that is all there is to it. In fact if you look at your husband and believe that there is no more you need in your life, then that is also a perfectly perfect place to draw the line.