Throughout my childhood in the US, I had a secret, something I could never tell anyone.
The secret followed me into adolescence and then my teens. Eventually, I became hushed by sheer embarrassment.
I grew up sleeping with my parents.
So what? Wait, there’s more.
Until I was 14.
Like all bad habits, it wasn’t supposed to last that long and there were periods when I was in my own room. Yet often, I traipsed right back into the king-size bed.
You have to picture the US back then. I grew up before three milestones: breastfeeding, bindis and Bhatia (as in Sabeer, the founder of Hotmail). Mine were the times when classmates, let alone teachers, could not locate India on a map. My parents feared being reported to the police if anyone learned that adults and children shared a bed in their home. The era was post women’s liberation movement, yet pre-dated so-called “attachment parenting”, which prioritizes children and emphasizes physical bonding.
My Indian mother says it’s really just an example of the Americans coming around to her way of doing things. Once, when I was 4, I woke up seconds after my mom stepped out to drop my brother at the bus stand. I sobbed, dragging a chair to the door so I could look through the peephole. That is my first memory of being without my mother—for five minutes.
Our family’s sleeping habits first formed out of necessity. We lived in a flat and slept in one room. Even after a three-bedroom house in suburban New York became home, my elder brother dragged a cot into the master bedroom, while I slept in between my parents.
These were my favourite “co-sleeping” times. I inhaled the most secure smell in the world—Ma, Nivea cream, toothpaste, hints of that night’s fish curry. When my father returned from work after 10, my brother and I would beg for the stories of his boyhood in an Assamese village on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra river. Once, he stole puppies still nursing from their mother; their cries kept the household up all night, and my grandfather gave him a terrible beating (disclaimer: attachment parenting does not advocate 1940s Indian discipline).
There were the antics Papa pulled on his younger siblings; local lore said whoever saw the bullock cart passing at dawn would ace his exams. My uncle dutifully perched on the window—only to have my father pounce to cover his brother’s eyes.
Papa’s stories grew sombre when he turned to more recent history. He described pushing a file cart in a New York City government office—just weeks after being saluted as “sir” in the mining fields of Bihar. In their rare moments of “connecting” in our presence, my parents described my father standing on the front stoop and lifting his hand up so my mother, a cashier down the block at Burger King, knew she could proceed home at 1am.
These were the pieces of family history that just tumbled out in the comfort of bed and togetherness, literally and metaphorically shaping our dreams.
The next few years saw a pattern of back and forth between my parents’ bed and my own. I retreated to theirs when my younger brother was born (jealousy, middle-child syndrome) and then each time we moved (anxiety over sitting in the canteen alone). At some point, I moved from the middle of the bed, near my brother and father, to my mother’s left side.
They never complained.
A mother myself now, I marvel at this. My daughter was born in 2004, as the US experienced another shift in motherhood and feminism. Guilt-ridden, navel-gazing working women like me chose breast pumps, “co-sleepers” to attach to bed, harnesses to “wear” our babies. Mine slept with us for just four months. I was crushed when my husband discovered that she slept more soundly and longer in her crib.
But last year, when we moved to India, she moved back into our bed. I know exactly why. So I have let it be, cherishing these few nights and times as the best we might have with each other.