Category Archives: parenting

The variety of their walking

My friend Lloyd Nebres is Pono’s father. They live in Hawaii.
Lloyd wrote these words about watching Pono go. He said it for me.

I have this ritual, something I’ve done since Pono was in elementary school. Whenever I drop him off at school, I always stay and watch him walk off, until he’s out of sight. Disappearing through an archway, or into a school building, or around a corner, or into a clutch of friends (almost always girls). 
Most parents dropping their kids off just… drop them off and drive off. Yes, there are the farewell rituals, fond or perfunctory, and everything in between. But… they drive off.
Me, I stay and watch the kid walk off, or drift off, or slouch off, or skip off. The variety of his walking, through the years, seared into my memory now, like ineradicable chemicals on indestructible photographic film.

This morning, I saw him pause and wait for friends (yes, girls) just alighting from the schoolbus. His hug and arm around them so distinctively him, so “aloha boy,” he has been that way since forever.
I note this now because this is coming to an end soon. And will be, for all time remaining afterwards, only in memory. But for now, for this morning, I repeat this ritual once again which, in its own way, is a meditation.”

I stay and watch the kid walk off, or drift off, or slouch off, or skip off. The variety of his walking, through the years, seared into my memory now, like ineradicable chemicals on indestructible photographic film.


I burnt the onions lastnight.


There they were, cut really small, dancing and sizzling in hot oil. Two omelettes had already been received at the dining table with whoops of delight.
I was whipping eggs witha fork for the third, and I started to write this column in my head.
Words rushed inanxiously. But the onions in the pan burnt themselves.
Our first born, Sahar,will be 9 this year. As I type here,she is on her way to Amritsar in a train. In a Shatabdi, which is the best kindof train in Sahar’s imagination. It’s even better than aeroplanes, Mamma, shesays, fantasizing about the tetra packjuice, ketchup sachets, bread sticks and butter ‘chiplets’. You cannot even imagine what all else. Ice cream too.
Five teachers and 60 children on a school trip, our daughterone of the youngest in the group. WhenSahar first came home with the details of the trip, the decision cameinstantly to me. Of course, you can go, darling. You must go.
We are travellers by nature.Born to explore. Till it was time to pack. Suddenly, I remember that Sahar isonly 9 years old.
Is 9 old enough? I mean she’s really eight and a half. I wish I had known there would be noturning back, I thought. How could I not have known?
Just then, Afzal calledout to say that tea was ready.
“I’m going to have apanic attack,” I said to him.
He looked at me.
I closed my eyes. Tears rolled. I thought of my Mum.
I can see that Afzal isstruggling with something but he is not going to talk about it. The tea isgood. I wipe my cheeks and dipbiscuits.
I have given my bestbackpack to Sahar. I have emptied out my own toilet bag to keep her clips andher inhaler. I notice how together we are as we pack. She isn’t asking for Doraor Barbie stamped accessories. She has loads of them to choose from, butfashion is not on her mind right now. I am surprised. And impressed.
At school, the childrenhave been shown video clips of the change of guard at Wagah border. Sahar isshowing Aliza how high the soldiersraise their legs. Little Naseem laughs at their performance.
I remember the first daywe had sent Sahar to playschool.
One part of me had beenso wound up about it that I had taken a whole week off from work. The schoolwas 2 minutes from home and an hour’s drive from my office.
I had reached school 40 minutes in advance to pickher up. Drawn like a magnet, I sat in the lobby, clutching my unsuccessfulSudoku and pen.
Then the children started walking out one by one,being led to the school bus waiting for them. The teacher saw me and indicated that she would bring Sahar out soon. I was chattingwith other children near me, being funny in a way that caused some of them towrap themselves around their parent’s legs. Some to come out for a better look.
After 10 minutes of allthis, Sahar appeared.
My 3 year old daughter’s face in the doorway in a group of other children. She lookedat me. We yelled with joy. We hugged, and laughed and slapped each otherhappily.
Unnecessary happiness.That’s the term that had come to my intellectual, literary head. Why are you sohappy?
Shut up, brain! my heart had replied, rather inarticulately.
Half a decade later, I have a better answer. I am happy because I am ready to let her go. Iam happy because she will be back. We are ready to separate, because we belongtogether.
I think of our childnapping in her inclined seat on the train right now. Sunny fields outside herwindow. A little bit of me has gone with her. That bit which keeps her safe andkeeps me reassured.
Amritsar is my mother’s hometown. My grandmotherused to start her day with a visit to the Harmandir Sahab. By the time you read this, Sahar will havevisited her own history. Imagine her at homeright now, holding this paper and reading this aloud, slowly like anine-year-old.
This is how we grow up, the children and thegrown-ups.

(This was my column in Mint Lounge last week.  )

>An Uncertain Lullaby


@font-face { font-family: “Times”;}@font-face { font-family: “Cambria”;}p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0cm 0cm 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }
This article by me was published in the Express Eye on 20 february, 2011. 

When I was a kid, I used to lie, cheat and steal. Now I have found out that I was imaginative, innovative and appreciative.

It is a useful perspective to hold onto as a parent. There’s not very much my daughters can do that I have not already done, I reassure myself. Their adventure-hunting father has covered the rest of the possibilities. I bite into some fruit and nut chocolate for added comfort, just in case.

Then came the time, when I began to find things in my daughter’s pockets. Crayons from school. Some money. A packet of biscuits in the drawer of her study desk.
I stay calm. It’s all right, all kids steal. I recount to my husband that I once got home a whole classmate with me from school, just to check the outer limits of my power as a 6 year old. It’s no big deal.
‘It is normal for a very young child to take something which excites his or her interest.’ Google coughed it up in .27 seconds.   

Yet, there is the unmistakable soundtrack of panic galloping towards me. Despite my highfalutin decisions to rewrite the family script, I must be doing something exactly like my parents, for my child to be behaving exactly like we did at her age. I walk out into park next door to breathe out the silent screams that are beginning to choke me.

A few weeks ago, I read the first excerpt from Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where she explains the how Chinese parents produce successful kids. Her bluntness and clarity was a hook, but I was also amused by the self-parody and the wry humour. I shared the article online. That is when I began to realize the enormity of what this piece was doing to its readers. It was dredging out anger, fear, self-doubt, judgements and passionate counter-arguments.

‘I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic,’ writes Amy Chua, describing how she pushed her 7 year old Lulu to master a piano piece.
Amy Chua clarifies that her book is a memoir, the story of her own eventual transformation as a mother. She says on the cover of the book that she has been humbled by Lulu, who became cold and angry towards her.

Tiger Mom. At first glance, it may appear that the parent in the trenches with her kid is doing all the hard work, and lenient parents are just plain lazy.  It may seem that her kids are soaring, while others are still playing in the mud, their potential unrealized. The truth is though, that it is easy to be a tiger.  It is so easy to be a tiger. You are the boss, you set the rules, you roar. The little ones get in line. But not for long.

It is the Mother part that demands courage, as Chua is discovering as well. Parents make mistakes, they are vulnerable. They learn to back off and secede territory. They face up to their own baggage of hurts and seek healing. Parents need the courage to fail without feeling like a failure. 

It is an intricate web, this parenting. We source the design from deep subconscious wells, from our memory and experience. We repeat patterns from our own childhood. We are the agents of our culture. Chua decided early that her daughters would play the violin and piano and excel academically. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, in single-minded pursuit of praise and admiration in America. She is not sacrificing fun and games, she has no idea of their value.

Most Indians will recognize the type of tiger mom Chua is. The word love was never used in Chua’s childhood home. That sounds familiar too. It is no wonder then that she does not know her gentle side. Tiger parenting is a desperate model, perhaps it works in desperate times. When Chua asked her 15 year old to suggest a book title, Lulu said, ‘The Perfect Child and the Flesh-Eating Devil.’ Sometimes, it is not so complex after all. Ask a simple question and you might get an answer that will reveal a lot.

Think of it as an extra-large jigsaw puzzle. The only way to begin to see the big picture is by focusing on the small details. Yet, everything one knows with absolute certainty can come apart in minutes. It hurts. So what? Happiness is not always fun. Sadness, not always unwelcome.

Self-esteem is another destination that Amy Chua prescribes the route to. After being abusive, angry and pushy for hours, she snuggles up with Lulu after the child has delivered the results her mother demanded. The same Lulu has now given up playing music and plays tennis instead. Don’t ruin tennis for me, she asked of Chua. ‘Mine is a cautionary tale and I am the mad woman in it,’ Chua has said in an interview.

My brothers and I were high achieving children of strict parents too. When I was 12, I pasted an article in my diary. It was titled, ‘The greatest gift you can give your child: Self Esteem.’ I don’t think I knew what self-esteem was, but I must have wanted it badly, because we were not allowed to cut up Reader’s Digest.

As an adult and a professional coach, I know that self-confidence is not something anyone can give you to keep forever. It is like a lake in the mountains, a valley of flowers that must be discovered again and again. Take the beaten path or make your own way, it is there for each one of us to find. There will always be fresh challenges on the way.

With 3 young children, we get enough opportunities to move gently, to stride fiercely, to trip and fall, to wipe tears and snot. Sometimes the chaos, the din and disappointments cross the threshold quite unexpectedly. One evening, at my parent’s place, I raised my voice and delivered some cutting edge dialogues to achieve a stunned silence from my kids. My father was watching. He will be proud of me, I thought. I’ll show him who is in control here.

Mum called me the next day. ‘Your father was saying, talk to Neeru. Tell her not to be so harsh, these hurts are not easy to heal. Relax, calm down. Why repeat our mistakes?’

The voice of Gabbar Singh whispered in my ear, ‘Socha tha sardaar khush hoga? Shabaashi dega?’
So you thought the Don would be pleased, did you? He’d applaud for you. You scumbag!

I believed my father was the real thing, as far as tiger parents go. He was telling me differently. He spoke through my Mum, yet something inside me healed. My father was giving me permission to be the change. 

Sometimes the scenic route is the only way. This is one of those journeys.

Does it always work? Of course it doesn’t.

I wrote this article for Express Eye, the Indian Express sunday supplement published on 2nd Jan 2011.

@font-face { font-family: “Cambria”;}p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0cm 0cm 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }
I spent a good part of the last decade getting into the role of a parent. 8 years on I can confidently label myself as an earnest novice.
I had imagined I would raise my kids on the side, like an intense hobby that I’d be really good at and really involved in.  When I found out that this was a hobby that clung to my knees on the days that I wanted off, I became confused. The camel had entered the tent, woken me up and demanded to be patted to sleep.
Delusions have their uses too. Today we have 3 kids. We could say, 3 kids have us.
We are a generation of very self-conscious parents. We read, we research, we buy, we collect. Later we stand amidst the clutter and realize that it is just that: Clutter.
Finding one’s balance as parents is a unique journey for each person. I look around at my friends’ lives and see very contrasting choices.
Pooja’s job as a cameraperson requires her to travel frequently without her child. Geet is single, has a fulltime career and has adopted two daughters. Between Geetika and Haider, he was the one who took a year off from work when their kids were younger. Rajnish and Harnit had crossed 40 by the time they adopted their first child. Sushmita and Shilpa quit work when their babies came. My husband and I work in relay, juggling our assignments so that his work starts when mine finishes. I miss him, but we chug along.
At a fundamental level almost everyone is trying to work out a system that allows them to preserve their own sense of self, nurture their family and forge their relationship with the wider world.
Does it always work? Of course it doesn’t. It needs constant hammering and negotiating. Partners turn adversaries, friends wander off and beloved jobs become oppressive. Or vice versa.
Yet, historically, we have never been better placed to confront the cultural baggage and aggressive consumerism that surrounds us.
Somehow, we still seem to fritter away our advantages. In casual analysis, we often treat choices as something that can only be traded. If you have a demanding career, you must be a neglectful parent. Not having kids is selfish. Single parents can never get it right. A non-earning parent is alternately noble or lazy or enslaved. Mommy blogger is the new self-obsessed gossiping housewife.
What a waste of energy directing our anger towards our own! In my journey, after a few initial crashes, I figured that the onus to create a cohesive identity for myself had to be my own project.
When I refuse to accept judgements, I defuse them. When I hold on to my power, it grows. It influences and it creates change.
The global consumerist culture is relentlessly marching into family spaces seeking to diminish the power of the parent, to define our desires and needs. Yet, as adults, it is for us to define boundaries. To defy standardization with our own imagination.
Just like that, the earnest novice gains confidence. And she spells out a few mantras for the next decade.
Let’s not be passive consumers, let us be disruptive. Feel the dissonance, ask questions.
Let’s climb out of the pressure cooker and be medium-range parents. It is OK. Remember how resourceful we were as kids; we can give our kids a chance too. 
Let us light up our relationships with renewed energy to love, care, protect and nurture. Be overenthusiastic, inappropriate and foolish. Laugh too much. Be a happy kid. That will be the spring of our wellness.

Conversation: fighting like children

We are building a home. We are raising three little children.
Its exhausting, exhilirating, tiresome, mind-numbing……it’s what WE have chosen to do. We like trouble, we take risks…..they just don’t appear to us to be either trouble or risks when we jump into them.
Who knows, maybe they aren’t!
Maybe it is all fun and beautiful like we first thought it would be. (Plus we never do our maths in time)

A: People fight like such small children at work…. the plumber, painter, carpenter, mason
N: :Hmmm
A: Well, even we fight like small children over the house, don’t we?
N: :(she smiles)
A: You don’t take enough interest in the house
N: You spend one hour with the kids everyday, being all lovey-dovey. I spend one hour with the house everyday, pretending to care about the tiles and stone
A: What!
N: My project is the kids, your project is the house. We treat each other’s project the same way…..little contribution, full interference (she smiles widely)
A: ha ha ha!

Karela is good for Health

Sahar’s tearful confession.
And mine too as I record this. (Confession, yes. Tearful, no)

It happened a few days ago on a Saturday morning. Three kids awake and active as well as Afzal at home.
I snapped at Sahar over something, nothing big. Just too much stimuli and I raised my voice to shut down the noise.

How could she not take it personally?

I left the room. After a while, she came to me with a tearful confession.
“Mama, sometimes when you scold me, in my head I say to you, ‘Sadi hui karela wali Mamma!”
And she cried and cried.
“I get angry with you but I don’t say this to you, because once when I had said something bad to you, you went in the bathroom and cried. I don’t want to hurt you.
I feel so bad later….. after I have thought about you as a Sadi hui karele wali Mama!”
She cried.

“Its, OK, baby….. its okay to be angry with Mama. I’m sorry”

(rough translation: ‘Rotten Karela of a Mama.’ Karela is a bitter tasting vegetable. Not popular at all in most households, but very good for health. I’ve inherited the habit of karela for lunch from my parents.)

Sahar is 6.5 years old.