Walking a fine line

Was reading this article about a Harvard psychologist talking about raising nice kids and it triggered a memory of  an incident, years ago when my parents were visiting and we took them out to dinner.

The Brat (he must have been about 2.5 years old) wanted to go to the toilet and the OA and G’Pa took him to the toilet where he kept up a constant chatter. Basically he was reiterating all that I told him when I was toilet training him.

Wait your turn. Don’t open up your pants until you reach the toilet. Make sure you aim into the toilet – don’t want to leave it dirty for the next person using. Be careful when you zip your jeans so that you don’t get any important bits caught in it. Wash your hands nicely. With soap. Again. Dry them.

This had his father and grandfather in splits and they didn’t notice that they had an audience. Then he thanked his father and grandfather for helping him to use the toilet. When they were done, the gentleman (a foreigner) walked up to my son and gravely shook hands and introduced himself, as though he was talking to a grown up. And then he gave him some money (I forget – probably Rs 50 or something) and said he had never seen such a well mannered child, so to please buy him some candy with it.

The OA and G’Pa of course protested and said money was not required, the praise was enough. The gentleman must have been worried that he was giving offence in a foreign land and the OA and my dad didn’t want him to think he’d breached some form of etiquette when the poor man was trying to do something nice. They kept refusing it and then he made a winning argument. He said there are very few well behaved kids these days. And good behaviour, even among adults, rarely gets rewarded. In fact, most often, your good manners, your civility, they are your undoing. They are the reason someone pushes ahead of you in a queue, someone cuts you off on the road and so on. So he’d like my son to know, that once in a while, people do notice and good behaviour doesn’t go unnoticed.

They let the Brat accept the money.

One of the issues with letting kids accept money/ gifts from strangers is that it goes directly against our teachings of not accepting candy from smiling strangers. And I keep telling them kids day in and day out, not to take sweets from strangers. Not to follow someone who says Mama is calling them. And so on.

This also bothers me because it means we’re bringing up our kids to be inherently distrustful. That the default setting is that a stranger is untrustworthy, dangerous. This goes against my grain because I’m a rather trusting person myself. I’ve let all sorts of people into my home, readers who don’t blog and so on. I’ve had good experiences and bad, but I wouldn’t change that for the world.

I realise this is yet another reason I hang around working from home when my babies are soon to be 7 and 9. Because I want them to be independent and I want to watch them make decisions, while I watch from afar.

They know that they’re not to open the door if Mama is in the toilet. Not to answer the phone and say that Mama is not home. But if I am home, they answer the door while I stand a few feet away and watch them engage with strangers. I watch them cross the road. I let them buy groceries from the neighbourhood store and bring home correct change. And I know I can only do this because I am watching them with a hawk’s eye. Ready to swoop in, in case of danger.

Had I left them at a daycare, they’d not be allowed this engaging with strangers. Had I left them home with a maid I’d give very strict instructions that they’re not to answer the door, mess around in the kitchen, or do anything that required the maid’s judgment and quick thinking. I just would not be able to trust anyone else to make that judgment call.

As the years go by and examine by choices and parenting, the layers peel away and I realise things that I haven’t been able to articulate earlier. For now, this small simple act of letting them trust others while their mother watches on, is an important one for me.

A week or two ago the Bean accepted and signed for a courier for me. I watched her run her finger down the sheet, find my name and sign carefully.  The delivery guy looked at me in puzzlement, wondering why I hadn’t bothered to do anything, leaving the child to painstakingly drag a chair to the door, ask who he was, open the latch, climb down and sign and then climb up to lock up again.

I think teaching them nuance was important. You can talk to people, you can get to know them, as long as Mama or Dada is close by. We’re such a generation of harried, helicopter parents, hovering around and not giving our kids room to grow and build their  own equations with the world around them. It’s a delicate balance and I can’t claim to have found it, but for now, this works for me.

The swing

I have a secret. Every night after the kids are tucked into bed, I tell the OA that I am going for a walk and I slip out into the dark. And after a few minutes of walking I hit the park and swing. I listen to music on my phone or I call up a friend who doesn’t mind being called that late, and I swing.

It’s not that the swings are off limits to adults (they’ve sturdy and take kids who are heavier than me and also parents who swing with their kids in their laps). It’s just that the swings are busy in the evenings and I am busy in the morning.

Oh what the hell… I guess I just feel foolish swinging at this age, which is why I wait until night falls. The darkness frees me from social constructs of what is age appropriate. As I fly high into the air I find myself free from everything earthly, everything that binds me. The simple motion of bending my legs, kicking, holding tight, bending backwards, moving forward… it calls for you to be conscious of your body. And maybe as adults we forget how to do that.  To put our thoughts away for a while and to be in the here and the now and in the physical body.

On the swing I am taken back to my childhood. To the tyre on the mango tree, the huge swing that seats five, the little wooden planks on chains… My childhood was spent leaping from one to the other.

A few days ago I read a piece on free play, outdoor play and unstructured time. Funny. When I was growing up, we just called it play. When did it take on so many labels? What have we done to our kids with the piano classes and the tennis lessons that makes it necessary for the qualifier – ‘free’ play?

People complain about kids these days. Hell, have we taken the time off to see what kind of parents we are? Our parents were more relaxed, less obsessed with buying a flat before thirty, less stressed about making CEO, less concerned with being the first to say it on twitter and so on.

More and more adults have taken to running, cycling, trekking and so on. We need to get away from our lives precisely because our daily lives are so awful. Our parents could afford to unwind at home because home was a relaxing place. Now with the endless screens and connectivity, and hectic social lives and long work hours it’s no longer a relaxing place.

I got off the swing last night and went for a quick walk around the complex. As I took the corner I saw another mother on the swing. Head thrown back, long hair flying in the breeze, cares thrown to the wind. She saw me coming and slipped off in one quick motion and walked away guiltily. I wanted to tell her I was in on the secret. That I shared her addiction. But the moment passed and I headed home.

What it takes

I was rushing down the footpath to the local market. The kids would soon come in from play and I needed groceries before I locked down for the night. I’d worked late and was off my schedule. If I didn’t hurry it up, they’d come home to a locked door.

And then I got stuck behind a mother and a child. She had an annoyingly shrill voice and I mention this only because I was already hot, tired and cranky and this was the last straw above the cacophony of horns. Except that the annoying voice was patiently answering baby questions – Mama, why are there more white cars than black?

They didn’t know I was behind them, or maybe they didn’t realise I was in a rush. They were walking abreast, taking up all of the path and I couldn’t get past them. I slowed down and listened to the baby lilt – Mama, woh police uncle kya kar raha hai?

Finally I realised I was beyond late and hopped off the path, on to the road and oncoming traffic and then back on again. Only to get stuck behind yet another mother and child. I can’t recall what her voice sounded like but as she held the little baby hand and walked along, slowing down to keep pace with the baby steps.

Mama, catty kahan gaya?

Mama, catty mera friend hai?

I was hurrying to the shops to get groceries for the kids’ tiffin, and I had to get home in time to let them in. Hurry, hurry, hurry.

That’s the stage we’ve reached now – where everything needs to run on some sort of a schedule. And most of it rushes by in a blur.

I’ve forgotten what it was like when everything was in slow motion. Walking slowly to keep up with unsteady feet. Holding back as small fingers fumbled with shoelaces. Practically sitting on my hands as a baby fist grasped a small teaspoon and brought rice to its mouth, spilling 90% before it reached its destination.

And a reminder of what parenthood really entails. All these endless acts of patience. You don’t go braindead doing this, as most people suspect. You learn patience, compassion and you appreciate what it takes for a muscle to move in a certain way, for a mind to comprehend a certain concept.

And as dusk fell, I went home appreciating the time I’ve spent with them. Ready to enjoy the bustle that lay ahead. Looking forward to what tomorrow brings.

And oh – I did get home before them. Phew!

Speaking for myself

A few days ago I was standing at the bus stop and waiting for the kids when one of the mothers showed up with her toddler in a stroller. All of us cooed and fussed over the baby (heck, this is the last year the Brat is in single digits!) and she rolled her eyes. ‘I haven’t slept in days..’ she sighed. And she had an older one in school, so she had early mornings whether she liked it or not.

The other mothers all had one child only.

They turned to me with the usual – how did you manage with two kids and such a small gap?

Honestly, if I had not blogged in those days, I’d have no memory of it. The days and nights are a blur. Off the top of my head I can’t recall when one walked, when the other potty trained. Who started solids happily and who hated them.

I was tired, at times I was frustrated, at times I was sleep deprived, at times I was uncertain. But those were few. Most of the time I was happy, I was content, I was absorbed, I was fascinated, I was proud, I was learning – and that holds true for every single day even now. Be it the Bean creating a beautiful piece of art or the Brat telling me that there are more than 20,000 people over the age of 100 in Japan, everyday they give me something to be thrilled about, something to marvel at.

I look back on how I managed them and I realise that I managed because its what I expected. We all know that babies will cry when hungry or sleepy or wet. We all know they will sleep for short periods of time and eat ever so often. We all know they are curious little mites who pull down low hanging table cloths and put their hand in the toilet bowl. We can laugh, we can cry, we can roll with the punches. But we can’t say it’s not what we expected. Not if we’ve seen even one child grow up among close friends and family. And not even if we haven’t.

On the other hand, there are those who constantly whine about how parenthood has sucked the joy out of their lives, the adventure, the ability to get up and go, the ambition. Who is to deny that adding something to your life will naturally reduce space for other things? And who is to decide which is more important? Only you.

I read this post in the Hindu today, about the lies regarding parenting and while five years ago I would have been enraged at being called a liar, I felt only sorrow for the writer. She’s stating the obvious when she talks of there being good and bad – but I think she is wrong in choosing to speak for all of us and calling it a lie. That parenthood is a joy, a pleasure, a privilege, is the truth for many of us. We also speak only for ourselves.

I understand that a lot of parents (here I speak of both fathers as well as mothers) made their choice under social as well as parental pressure. But of them, a lot of enjoyed the choice. On the other hand, there are so many of us for whom parenthood was a happy and natural choice. I don’t judge those who choose not to have kids, and hope they do us the same courtesy. Many of us have had not just one kid, but gone on to have another and some even a third or a fourth, because of the sheer joy it brings us.

So when I see something of this sort, a rant that many of us might have been guilty of at 1 am, I am a little saddened to see it make its way out of the annoyance of a sleep deprived night into the clear light of day and into print. If anything, these last few lines reeked of a sort of bitterness that made me feel very sad for her and for any kids of hers that might have read the piece.

“At the end of the day, parenting is merely foisting the responsibility of finding your life’s meaning on to someone else. It’s the reason why parents — especially mothers — have to continue with the narrative of “this is the best thing I’ve ever done.” Besides giving them an excuse to do nothing else with their lives, it also gives them a lofty platform from which to preach.”

Is parenthood a cakewalk? No. Is anything a cakewalk? No! Not planting a garden, not climbing a mountain, not building a business empire.

Jobs, relationships, friendships, they all take a lot of work. Somedays they are good, somedays they are bad. I’m in a happy marriage and that takes a lot of work too. But if you ask me what marriage is like, I’d say its the second best thing to have happened to me – the kids would be first!

None of this is a lie. It’s just that the good overwhelms the bad. And if anyone is foolish enough to believe that it’s entirely angels kissing spring and strawberries and summer wine, well then, they’re just fools.

If anything, the last bit seemed like a bit of a desperate attempt to justify one’s own negativity towards parenthood (although I don’t know if she’s a parent). In this day and age of live and let live, when you see such ire against people who are happy with their choices and make no bones about it, you can only wonder – why this kolaveri di?

By the by, we’re planning our annual vacation and my parents as well as inlaws suggested for a number of reasons, that we leave the kids behind with them as we did for our trip to the US in 2012. I was inclined to agree with them because we have a lot of work to do on the trip. But the OA, note, not me, the OA – refuses to go without them. After years of taking an annual two-three day trip without them, we’re down to the father cleaving unto his kids and refusing to let go. It’s quite funny, because its usually the mothers who feel that way. Of course once he put his foot down with a firm hand (I love this mixed metaphor!) I was sure I didn’t want to leave them behind at all. I love watching their eyes widen at the shiny newness and chrome of the airport (they’re poor Gurgaon kids who are never taken to the mall), the gasp of breath as the flight lifts off, the excitement of the new and the different.

I read this other article in the Guardian and it made me want to cry. I’ve been hugging the Brat, squishing the Bean… aware that my days as mother to carry-able babies are numbered.  So putting aside that woman’s silly rant that I couldn’t relate to at all, I turned to this one and felt it speak to me. I leave you with the first bit of the article. Do read.
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There is one song I simply cannot listen to because it upsets me too much – Turn Around by Nanci Griffiths. It is a song about the ephemerality of childhood – the velocity with which you will lose your children to time and growth. Recorded first by Harry Belafonte it begins with this stanza:

“Where are you goin’ my little one, little one? / Where are you goin’ my baby my own? / Turn around and you’re two / Turn around and you’re four / Turn around and you’re a young girl / Going out of the door.”

Even without the tune it brings a lump to my throat. I have watched two of my children “go out of the door” – one is 18 and one 20 – and although my pride in their independence and achievements is overwhelming, knowing that the children they were can never return is sometimes sharper than a serpent’s tooth.

 

The night in the emergency ward

Sitting in the emergency room at 2 am is every parent’s nightmare and we spent one night last week doing just that. The OA and I were out for dinner and got back to see the Bean wide awake and refusing to settle in to bed. The maid had tried everything in her power and was at her wit’s end.

We took over and the OA took her back to bed. He came back looking rather pleased with himself but that smirk got wiped off his face the moment the door creaked open and a little head peeped in. I groaned, got out of bed and walked her back to sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat.

And with each trip she got progressively worked up and soon was in tears. Eventually we got to the heart of the matter – The aliens were coming to get her. Telling ourselves that we wouldn’t be reading anymore bedtime stories about aliens and monsters we tucked her in between us and gave up the quarter-hourly trot to the nursery.

But it didn’t end and she kept tossing, turning, fidgeting.  We began to panic and she finally said she had a throat ache. Sips of saline water, honey and what not later, we were back to square one. Tossing, turning, fidgeting.

Finally she admitted to an ear ache. The OA and I frantically ran around medicating and ear-dropping. No joy there either. By this time she was in fine fettle, throwing herself from one side of the bed to the other, climbing on one prone parent and then the other. I rocked her in the rocking chair, walked her around the room and loudly begged the Good Lord to have mercy on her and as a result, us.

Finally it seemed like the medication wasn’t taking effect and we bundled her into the car and headed to the hospital. It was a stormy night and the roads were deserted. We reached the hospital and were surprised to find no staff at the door to guide patients, a lazy security guy who vaguely pointed the direction we should be heading in and empty corridors with none of the bustle you see in other hospitals at all hours. We were also rather unimpressed with the reaction time in the emergency ward. Yes, a child’s ear ache is small change compared to those dying of a heart attack and brought in off an accident scene, but they had none of those that night. Nurses stood around chatting in Malayalam while the OA and I desperately asked someone to give us a hearing. A doctor who seemed in charge smiled apologetically and said – I’m a cardiologist, I can’t help you.

Yes, well then who can?

The OA was drooping with sleep, the Bean was wriggling around mercilessly and I was close to sticking a scalpel into a nurse just to get some attention. Watching your child suffer is not easy. Watching your child suffer while others chit chat about the weather is simply frustrating.

Finally I pushed the OA awake and sent him to get someone. No joy there. Then I played the exhausted mother card and walked out of the Emergency Unit, found another doctor and got someone to page the ENT Specialist on call. She came after 45 minutes by which time the medication we gave the Bean had naturally taken effect and she was fast asleep. We were even considering going home with her when we decided that it would be better to wait and get it examined in case she woke up screaming again. Of course the doctor examining her woke her up again but she was now out of pain and manageable. The doctor was rather sweet and kind and nothing like our last experience here with the Brat.

We’d brought the Brat in on an emergency  too – his throat began to swell to alarming proportions one winter morning and suddenly he could neither swallow nor talk. Again, we had taken him to the emergency where after a long wait we got an appointment with the Head of one of the Pediatric departments.  Dressed in a short tight skirt and jacket the lady looked really out of place in a hospital and more off the off the sets of Santa Barbara. Fifty plus, heavily made up face and stiffly blow dried hair, long painted talons and massive diamonds twinkling on all her fingers. The wall behind her was decorated with testimonies of how great she was – awards, certificates, photographs with dignitaries.  She was talking to a number of people while looking questioningly at us. A certain impatience making us wonder if we as patients, were intruders in the doctor’s chambers.  Slightly mindful of manners and loathe to interrupt the OA and I finally explained what was wrong with the Brat.

Perhaps we should have walked out the moment she looked blankly at the Brat and said ‘What swelling?’ The huge lump under his chin wouldn’t be missed by a blind man and here the expert needed us to guide her. We kept pointing, she kept asking, and digging her talons into the child and dragging him closer while he baulked at this treatment and pulled away. Finally she told the OA to hold him and when the OA failed to do it to her satisfaction she yelled at him and made him make bands of his arms and literally strap the Brat down. It was unnecessary when all it would have taken is some warmth – he’s not unnecessarily intractable. I wondered how she fared in the pediatric department with no bedside manner, no way with children.

Finally one of the acolytes pointed out where the Brat’s neck was swollen. The fine lady just nodded and said okay, but I don’t know what it is. Could be tuberculosis. The acolyte politely mentioned that this infection of the gland was doing the rounds in schools. I deliberately pulled the Brat away from the high priestess and focussed on the acolyte. No mother wants her children being manhandled by someone who doesn’t know their job.

This hospital is one founded by a famous cardiologist and the entire point, I was told, was to get good affordable healthcare to the general public. But two emergency situations with poor turnaround times and terrible service and I’m not convinced that his vision is working out the way he planned.

And so that night too, we left with the Bean, feeling rather dispirited. At one level glad that we’d had the knowledge to deal with her pain and given her something that worked even before the doctor got to her. At another, feeling disappointed that as parents we couldn’t provide her with better medical care. The skies were pouring forth by now and as we got into the car, tired, sleepy, exhausted, pissed off and grumpy, the wide awake by now Bean pointed up to the sky – Look ma, lightning scribbles.

It reminded me of this book that is doing the rounds – Go the Fuck to Sleep.  You can read about it here and here and here. I have the pdf copy so mail me at themadmomma@gmail.com if you’d like to read it too.

Love moves mountains

The Mad Sibling, aka Tambi can’t stand the sight of blood. No one else gives it much thought but I joined the dots and I seem to remember a childhood incident triggering it.

My uncle (Chhote Nana) was about 18 and Tambi was probably all of 4. So uncle was in a bike accident and he was carried into our house by some men who found him on the road. His foot was dripping blood all over the wooden floor and I have a very vivid memory of it. He was on the right side of my vision and on the far left, Tambi walked in, took one look at him and began puking all over the floor. It was a scary sight for a 4 year old particularly since it involved a loved one. Me? Apparently I’ve always been hard as nails.

So anyway, while it wasn’t severe enough to prevent him from watching chickens being slaughtered for dinner and running around headless, it was enough to ensure that he never again got involved in anything that required him to see human blood. Years later a cousin came to us for some weeks. He was in our town for college and had a foot injury. Part of the ragging rules required him to be in formals and his foot had festered within the closed shoes to an extent where he needed to take medical leave and leave it open. Everyday I would sit and clean his foot in a basin of warm water, press out the pus, and dress the wound for him. Tambi ran around and did his errands but refused to even be in the same room when I cleaned the wound.

Tambi was dating my SIL when I had the Bean. The OA was with me right through tests, examinations, injections, everything and of course finally even sat through my C-sec and watched the doctors carve me open, put in their hands and pull out a plum, Bean. The OA was held up by the SIL as a shining example of everything a man, husband and father should be (I am wondering how he deals with the pressure)  – although if anyone had bothered to ask me, in true wife style I’d have described to them in great detail, every one of his flaws. He is in fact held up as a shining example all the time, very often by this man’s wife when she wants the curtains changed or the fans cleaned.

Anyhow, Tambi shrugged and told the SIL that he’d do anything that didn’t involve being in hospital. And to be fair, he did – from romantic proposal, to stunning ring engraved with a verse, to surprise romantic getaways. I figured the SIL was running out of luck because you can’t have all the luck on earth you know. And if you can, then where the hell was my romantic proposal and diamond ring, I ask you?!

Now if I’d been the SIL I’d have given him a kick in the pants and told him he had another think coming and he’d jolly well be in the labour room having his fingers crushed to a pulp. But the SIL is a wiser, gentler girl who accepted his failing and moved on. Or perhaps she wisely realised it  wasn’t yet the time or place for that conversation.

Now this might be time for a full disclosure. The SIL too, has a terribly low pain tolerance level and the last time she was in town, she fell ill and needed an injection. The sibling went in with her but was looking so grey that she chased him out and called Ma and me in to be hold her hands.  At that time I remember teasing her and asking her how she’d go through labour pain. She wanted kids and there is no way around that. She paled at the thought and admitted to being absolutely terrified.

By the grace of God when they did plan kids, she had a smooth pregnancy and as the due date neared I was beginning to feel bad for her. To have a husband who is not comfortable in the labour room is not the ideal situation. Being a rather intrepid sort myself, I am usually very dismissive of people who have any sort of fear or phobia. And yet, as his sister and one who has for years seen him react badly to blood and hospital situations, I couldn’t help but want to pat him on the head and say, ‘There, there, baby, I understand.’ Thankfully her parents were going to be there for the delivery and I was very proud of her. I know I’d have not bothered with the OA’s fears or phobias and would have insisted on him coming in with me, dead, comatose or alive and kicking.

So anyway, Tambi was with her through a number of injections and tests but we were all still wondering about labour. When he called to say that she had gone into labour I spent the night praying for her to have the strength to deal with the pain, sending her messages and crying at the thought of how terrifying it must be for her. When it was over I mentally doffed my hat to her and wrote her a note and told her on the phone how proud I was of her. More so because I remembered the terrified girl who only some months ago had asked me to hold her hand through a mere injection.

I am sorry to say, I forgot all about my brother and his phobia of blood. Until this morning. Ma casually mentioned that he cut the baby’s cord. And then it all came back to me. Him rubbing a ball on her back through labour. Holding her hand while she laboured and finally witnessing his son being born. Perhaps I am just a fond sister, but I was so proud of him for putting his own fears aside and going right in there and being with his wife when she needed him.

That long night, both of them conquered their fears. And as they became parents, they also grew just that little bit stronger. Something that will hold them in good stead as parents. I see pictures of the two of them smiling into the camera, protectively holding their son between them and I see two very very strong people. Two young people who are finally worthy of being parents to my beautiful,  bright eyed, alert little nephew. Who, I might tell you, I have fallen deeply in love with. I think he is the most beautiful child on earth and I am considering auctioning off my two children just to buy a one way ticket to see him.

Allow me to present the child we’ve awaited so eagerly …. our little prince. *applause*

Taking a little too literally

the hindi phrase – Sar pe chadha ke rakhna. The literal translation would be sitting on your head and it means allowing someone to walk all over you. That would pretty much define the Bean’s relationship with her father. She does just as she pleases and this is him trying to work from home one Sunday. She not only sat on his shoulders while he worked, she eventually spread a snotty (ugh!) handkerchief over his head. That is the final straw, I said to myself, and now he’s going to read her the riot act. But then she leaned over, hugged his snotty-handkerchief-covered-face and said, “I love you, daddy. You’re my favourite boy.”

Man, but she plays him like a violin.