I must have been around four or five at the time, and as usual, was spending the limbo of an afternoon combing the backyard for anything interesting. I had just struck gold in the form of a piece of glass bangle when I noticed a pale pink feather – so pale that it was almost white – floating down from the tamarind tree under which I was standing. I hurriedly shoved the piece of bangle into the waistband of my frock, and reached out for the feather. Just as it was about to land on my open palms, an errant breeze blew it a little to my right. I ran towards it, but it rolled further away…
Now, more than 35 years later, as I sit in front of my PC trying to write something on parenting, that feather floats unbidden into my mind.
The ideal parent. Does such a thing exist? Atticus Finch has seemed an ideal parent to me from the day I put down Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ decades back. He gave his children the foundation of sound values. He told them the facts of life as much as he thought they needed to know – in plain, no-nonsense terms. He read out stories to them, allowed them to climb trees. He was there for them when they needed him, and then he left them pretty much to themselves. What more could one ask for…?
Being born as an only child in a family that defined the word ‘dysfunctional’ certainly does not give you a head-start in life, especially when it comes to parenting skills. However, it does have its positives – you do not start your family with many preconceived notions on how it ‘ought to be’. You take it as it comes.
So, you were not born with it – nor did it come to you as legacy from a dying great-aunt. By it, I mean the required parenting skill. Then what do you do? You pick it up from wherever you can find it – from friends and relatives, from strangers, from books and newspapers, even from thin air. It’s trial and error all the way. You introspect, you retrospect, you strike out the errors, and you continue with your trials. All the while, you make a ‘To Do’ list and a ‘Do Not Do’ list in your head for future reference.
At the top of my ‘Do Not Do’ list is one simple sentence – do not make your child choose between his/her parents. When I was a kid, one of the most amusing pastimes when adults got together was to gather a barely-able-to-speak two-year-old tenderly, lift her tiny chin, look her deep in the eyes and ask lovingly, “So, whose child are you? Your Mom’s or your Dad’s?”
It starts there. Before long, the parents themselves take over – and the questions become more subtle, the choices more difficult and stressful. It might just be an occasional drop of verbal acid on one partner by the other to their best friend within the earshot of the child. Or it might be full blown courtroom dramas with the child as the witness. What starts out as bewilderment in the amorphous mind of the adult-in-the-making, eventually leads way to conflict. Conflict that, in her adulthood, sprouts tentacles that are strong and vile enough to suck her into an abyss.
There’s a word in my parental dictionary that is circled in red and comes under the heading ‘Taboo’ – SACRIFICE. This is the way I think of it: when I dole out to my son the list of sacrifices I had to make in order to bring him up, I am cornering him. There are only two ways out – either he turns around, lifts up his chin, glares down at me and says: “I didn’t ask to be born – you made me. Why are you complaining now?” Or he grows up with a massive guilt complex that will plague him for the rest of his life.
I feel that it would be happier all around if you do only as much as you can, but do it happily. Believe me: your teenager does understand if you tell her, “Sorry, not this month. This month I have to buy a watch for myself – my old one is falling apart.” You don’t have to buy her, on a war footing, the MP4 she wants. Only to remind her later, at a very opportune moment, how you had to sacrifice your watch so she could have her gadget. I’m sure she’d prefer to wait another month.
These are some of the things, I am proud to say, that I learned on my own.
My friend has only one child – and he is autistic. Her life, for the past fourteen years, has been an endless cycle of anxiety, hope, despair and hope, with an occasional respite in the form of a small success or a moment of wary happiness. From half a world away, I watch with admiration as she moves metaphorical mountains every day of her life in her determination to give her son the best she can.
And I understand that when it comes to your kids, there is no giving up. Even when they misbehave, even when they drive you up the wall with their tantrums, even when they make you wish you could just take them back into your womb and keep them there until you regain your sanity. You just keep trying. Hoping that one day the rough edges will smoothen themselves out. Hoping that one day your under-achieving, tantrum-throwing adolescent will be the apple of the world’s eye, and a happy billionaire at that…
“She cooks so well, you know. You should taste her – what’s that thing – yes, pasta!” It was my aunt, telling me about her daughter, my cousin, who is a confident and reliable person, and has been so for as long as I can remember. The longing I had felt as I listened to my aunt was just an echo of the longing I had felt over the years for validation from my parents. I realized, and not too soon, that self-confidence is a tiny seed that is planted in the child by its parents. It needs to be regularly watered and nurtured carefully. And occasionally, it has to be pruned so that there are no parasitic growths, nor any dead wood.
Today, I don’t hesitate to tell either of my sons, “Wow! That’s excellent! You’ve done a great job.” I feel that it is as important to do that as it is to tell him, “No I don’t think your teacher has a personal vendetta against you – you got less marks because your work is not good enough. Next time, take your assignment a little more seriously.”
Having been born before the time when some wise people found out that sparing the rod is the ultimate sign of good parenting, I belong to the era when mothers – and fathers – had lethal weapons in the place of hands. Anything from wearing a dress that was not parent-approved, to barging in on an adult conversation warranted a tight whack back then. When my own turn came, I too instinctively fell back on this primitive method of disciplining.
Then one day, in one of my sit-and-brood moments, I realized that when I look back on my childhood, a lot of good memories are tainted by the sharp pain of the corporal punishment that had followed. One thought led to another, and I wondered how my own kids would look at their childhood in a few years’ time. I wondered if they too would see the same taint in their memories. That was when I decided to lay down my weapons. I started seeking alternate methods of getting my point across, and surprisingly, I found out that there were quite a few, some admittedly unpleasant and others a whole lot easier to digest.
I discussed all this at length recently with my elder son, who had been at the receiving end of the treatment much more than the second, and he dismissed it with “I’ll include that in my autobiography, in the chapter on childhood trauma I was subjected to.” With great relief, I understood that ‘I’m sorry I did that’ constitutes a much better apology than ‘I did it for your own good’ and that my kids are more forthcoming with their forgiveness than I had dared to hope for.
There was a time in my idealistic youth when all the answers I was looking for came from books. The Prophet was one of the books that I referred to then as religiously as my son now does Wikipedia. What it said about children, I remember, had made a deep impression on me at the time.
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.”
Now decades later, I have learned that it’s humanly impossible to weed out selfishness from parenting. There are times when I break all my self-imposed rules, when I mess up the things in my lists. There are times when I become the parent I had never wanted to be, and end up feeling guilty and miserable.
Mea maxima culpa.
I don’t give up though. I don’t give up on my kids, I don’t give up on their father, and I don’t give up on me. We assess the damage, pick up the pieces and patch them up to the best of our abilities. And then we start all over.
As I remember now, the almost-white feather had, after teasing me for a good five minutes, landed on the lowest branch of the nearby guava tree, just out of my reach. I never did manage to get my hands on it. It just lay there, so beautiful, so inviting, yet eternally elusive…