One thing led to another and soon we were making a list of creepy uncles in our extended family. She’s 15 and I’m her mother, and yet this late-night conversation in our living room is reminiscent of many such moments of bonding in friendships with girlfriends. We are simultaneously outraged and entertained as we discover that there are common names in this list of people who make us uncomfortable. For once, I am not leading the conversation. I have nothing to teach. We are just sharing notes. Validating each other’s feelings.
“Mamma, sometimes it feels like I haven’t really done anything in this past month or two," says my daughter as we leave home to walk two blocks away for an evening snack a couple of days later. “But then I realize that lots of things happen when I don’t do anything."
I nod calmly at her, but in my mind I am performing happy cartwheels. You see, I’ve been sticking to my New Year resolution of letting the children be. Not creating options, not making suggestions, not offering feedback unless they ask for it and generally keeping out of their way. The house belongs to them and so does their world.
It’s taking its own time for us to get used to not doing what we are conditioned to believe is the essential work of parenting. This year started with our older daughters turning 13 and 15. As parents, both my husband and I realize that we need to relax rules and boundaries that have become redundant. Children need vast swathes of unstructured time and space in which they can get in step with their own inner rhythm. They need practice and experimentation to discover their own fearlessness and vulnerabilities. So do the parents.
As we settle into another long Delhi summer, I find that for the first time I am ready for the holidays. I have no expectations from myself. As I get used to leaving the children to themselves, I also get comfortable letting myself be. I am surprised at the joy of finding myself becoming available for so much else.
Like listening. Sleeping. Reading. Hanging around at workplaces longer to just be with other people. Haranguing friends. Visiting long-lost relatives. Folding my sari respectfully as I change at the end of a day, instead of abandoning it in a shapeless puddle. Remembering to drink as much water as summer demands.
“Welcome to the house of boredom," I said to my 10-year-old niece and nephew when they arrived to spend a few days of summer holidays with us. “Everyone is free to get bored here."
Soon my nephew had caught on. “I like it when there is a power cut in this house," he said. “Everyone comes out of their room and sits together." He floats around on a skateboard from one corner of the house to another, often lying on his stomach and steering with his palms on the floor. Sometimes he is a lizard, sometimes a superhero. His twin sister is busy bettering her own record at swinging the hoopla ring around her waist. All the children try periodically to inspire me to watch a film they love or read a book that they are sure will improve my life considerably.
Yesterday, my 13-year-old trapped me at the lunch table to bring me up to date with the origins of all the Infinity Stones.
“So Mamma," she said, “Thanos killed Loki and took the space stone from him."
“Don’t you think they should have googled Loki before choosing this name for him?" I interrupt.
“Yes, it sounds like lauki (bottle gourd), I know, but Mamma, Loki is an ancient Norse god."
I raise an eyebrow.
“Loki pre-dates lauki," she says. “Wait, I don’t know...I’m not sure. But Loki is amazingggg, Mamma. Everyone loves this Loki."
I ask her for time out so I can write down this interaction between her and me. I don’t remember anything unless I make notes immediately. I show it to her for her approval.
“Wait, Mamma, you can’t put this on social media. It has spoilers in it. You can’t tell everyone that Loki dies!"
“Okay then give me something else to write."
She resumes her story but she can’t remember the colour of the soul stone. She is shocked at herself. “How can I forget this?" She runs to her room. Half an hour later, she is back with notes scrawled on both palms as well as the back of her hands. She resumes the storytelling.
“Can I take photos of your palms and put it on Instagram?" I ask her, distracted all over again.
“No mamma, it is full of spoilers!" She looks at them carefully. “Okay, you can," she says. “Only I can understand what is written here."
The conversations aren’t always so light or urgent. Out of the blue, they ask about alcoholism and self-harm. They tell me about friends they wish they could rescue. They draw lessons from stories that have moved them. They cannot understand why the adult world doesn’t see obvious solutions, leave alone embrace them. I let their dissonance simmer. I’m looking for answers too. They will chart a path from their frustration towards their own creativity all by themselves.
Right now, I am the only adult at home and there are five children in different states of wakefulness, peace and friendliness towards each other. A small round of the house reveals that the three youngest children are at the dining table, with two large mangoes and two sharp knives between them. “Oh good," I think to myself, meandering back to my office. “I can be at my desk for some more time before I heat lunch for all of them." I take a photograph of them before leaving, mindful to not share it on the family WhatsApp group and alarm other parent figures.
In another room, a child presses play on a song she loves. It took me months to remember that this soulful piece isn’t called Jupiter or Mercury or Uranus. It is Saturn by Sleeping At Last. One by one, the children begin to sing along.
You taught me the courage of stars before you left
How light carried on endlessly even after death
With shortness of breath you explained the infinite
How rare and beautiful it is to even exist...
I have a feeling that I am in the middle of the best summer of my life.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar