And they were good notes. The first time I held my baby in my arms, I was still on the delivery table. I began to sing to her. She had been wailing like the just-born infant she was. Her crying trailed off. I was sure she was listening. She knew my voice.
It took me a while to realize that singing wouldn’t calm her down each time. Within a fortnight, my husband, my mother and I had a handy checklist to figure out why the baby might be crying. It went like this:
1) Is she hungry?
2) Needs to be burped?
3) Has a wet nappy?
4) Needs to be rocked to sleep?
5) Nose is blocked?
6) Back to square one.
When nothing seemed to help, we would wrap our baby in my blue bandhini dupatta and go for a bike ride. And that would eventually calm us all down. I remember one eventful evening taking shelter in a roadside chai stall after a downpour interrupted our drive. We were in Port Blair. People were scandalized that the two of us newbie parents had come out with such a small baby.
Over the years, many of my dearly held myths fell away one by one as we raced along the highway with the seasons changing dutifully around us. I learned to let people stare. I practiced my vacant smile in response to comments, advice and even reprimands from random strangers. I held on to my heart as the children moved on to explore their world. Most importantly, I began to build walls to protect ourselves, to create a home where we returned to be safe, to laugh out loud and to rejuvenate ourselves.
Parenting, you know, it is not just about creation. Creation comes later. It’s about destruction first. The soundless collapse of one’s ego. Saying bye-bye to who one was before the first pregnancy. Redefining one’s sense of self. Sense of sofa. Roll up the dhurrie. Put away the flower vase. The breakdown of boundaries. The distant memory of what we used to do together before there was a baby between us.
Being a parent means having this immense sense of pride that co-exists with a sense of loss. This inability to put one’s finger on what one is missing. A reference to one’s growing up years again and again, because that’s where we find ourselves returning to look for clues that shape us. To look for hurts that are lying unhealed and neglected. To look for fears that we don’t want to pass on anymore.
What did I expect and what is it that I received, rather unexpectedly? Let me tally my notes.
For starters, I really didn’t mean to sign up for a self-improvement course in the middle of my life when I embarked on this parenting trip. I had things to teach, not learn. I knew my moral science lessons by heart. I knew manners and etiquette. I knew my websites and had a hardback book with pictures in it for ready reference.
I soon realized how easy it had been to want to be different from one’s parents and how complicated it was to be independent of one’s socio-cultural baggage. Value systems that seem so prim and proper in books and classrooms don’t seem so effective in bright sunlight. They need to be tested and engaged with constantly. Should adults always be obeyed? Are teachers always right? How much ice-cream is too much ice-cream? May I wear my crocs with my lehnga?
The most inconvenient lesson has been this business of leading by example. It is such an underhand deal! Why can’t I stay online when the children need to be offline? How come I have to sleep well and eat healthy and sit up straight, before our children will buy into it? Remember how our parents said you can do what you like when you grow up? Hello, this is cheating, I’d like to declare!
Finally, there is the most unexpected gift. The wisdom of children. It takes so much pressure off me. All I need to do is listen. Children can see through the intricate web of lies that adult conversations often are.
“Everybody loves me,” said our youngest child to me recently. “All the guests in our house love me.” She isfour years old.
“That sounds like a good thing,” I said to her. There was something in her tone that made me say this.
“I don’t like that,” she said.
“Why don’t you like that,” I asked.
“Yesterday, after my Aunt was talking very nicely to me, she was scolding her daughter a lot. I didn’t like that,” she said.
I held her close. Children have a natural sense of fairness and justice. They look out for those who matter to them. They hurt when we hurt. All I need to do as a parent is trust them, so their trust in themselves is not damaged. As usual I need to lead by example. So every now and then I pat myself on my back and say, “Good job, woman. I’m impressed with you.”
[This has been published in Femina, April 17, 2013]