In the long run, it doesn’t really matter
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Our eldest daughter woke up in her bed on the first morning of school after summer vacations and said, “Mamma, can I stay at home today? I don’t want to go to school.”
I held her and thought about what to say to her. As the firstborn, she has always been the one who has provided the learning ground for parenting to us. She has been the one for whom I first subscribed to parenting websites, read books on raising babies and endured the advice of the rest of the world.
When I was still expecting her, I was obsessed with the desire for natural childbirth. A friend in Auroville was preparing with her doula for a water birth for her baby. Another friend in Chicago had been admitted to hospital on her due date and, without waiting for labour pains to arrive, her doctors had delivered her child via a Caesarean section.
“In the long run, it really doesn’t matter which way the baby comes out,” my friend Margaret had written to me from London. Margaret had two grown-up children, in their 20s at the time.
I was irritated by these words. They had seemed callous and flippant. Nothing else mattered to me at that stage. How dare Margaret suggest that my concerns were not the most critical thing?
Margaret’s words, however, have stayed with my husband and me and we often pause in the middle of a conflict and repeat her line to ourselves.
In the long run, it really doesn’t matter how events shape up. What matters is how you deal with what is happening.
Within two months of our daughter’s birth, my cousin’s firstborn son was born prematurely, by eight weeks. She had to have emergency surgery to save the foetus, whose heartbeat could no longer be detected. All that mattered now was being able to keep the preterm neonate safe in an incubator till he gained enough immunity and weight to be taken home. Already, we were beginning to understand the hierarchy of details that really matter more than others.
Our niece had a baby recently, and when we went to meet her, she was feeding her daughter from a bottle. My immediate reaction was to be upset. I wanted to run out of the room, screaming, “Feed her from your breast, this is the best time of your life...”
As I sat outside trying to distract myself, Margaret’s words came back to me. “In the long run, it doesn’t really matter which way the baby came out.”
What matters is how safe and strong we keep our children, not just physically but also emotionally. Do we nurture their sense of independence as they grow in the world, even if it means they might stumble and fall? Do we allow their confidence to expand, even if it means they might overreach and hurt themselves? Do we stand at a safe distance when they are dealing with uncertainty and allow them to learn skills that help them deal with their anxieties? Do we show them that it takes time and effort to sift through choices? Do we learn to let them experiment so that they arrive at the crossroads of their life with their own lived experience to guide them, not just an outdated manual that we want to control them with?
We had friends visiting us last year and the 10-year-old girl in their family picked up a book with fairy princesses on the cover. She doesn’t have a lot of books in her home. Her father took the book from her and said, “How come you are always attracted to wayward girls?”
I gasped. The child left the book alone. A while later, she was nagging her younger brother and setting limits within which he had to stay if he wanted to play. I took her out for a walk in the forest park next to our home and we collected different kinds of leaves. We began talking. She shared stories from her school. I just wanted both her and me to calm down. To exchange some positive energy between us.
As I held my 14-year-old daughter in an embrace this week, I knew that it really didn’t matter whether I said yes or no about going to school. My role as a parent is not just to offer her the best opportunities as she grows up, it is also to be able to recognize her complicated relationship with what we believe are the best options for her. Whatever I say to her, I must not shake her core security that she can come home and be safe whenever and wherever she is.
I realize that we won’t be able to understand everything that is going on immediately. Reality is layered. Our emotions take time to tell their stories. Peer pressure confuses us and it isn’t possible to shake off.
In the long run, it doesn’t matter what my daughter’s or your child’s attendance rate in school is. What matters is that she has an intrinsic sense of autonomy. She has boundaries that guide her. She has a rock-solid sense of confidence that whatever she does today, she can reverse her decision, and she will still be fine. That her own sense of worth is independent of the choices she makes.
Same lessons for you and me as parents. Same lessons for our inner child too.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three.