One of the first things my very traditional sister-in-law said to me when I was newly married and squashed next to her in a car with many inter-generational relatives was this: “Now don’t have children in a hurry. Let a few years pass."
We were driving on a bridge over the Yamuna river, crossing over from Noida to Delhi. I was so astonished by this outstanding piece of advice coming from an unexpected source that it has stayed with me after all these years. It was a moment of clean honesty at a time when everything else seemed to be about appearances and timid new connections between people from diverse cultures.
I didn’t heed my sister-in-law’s advice because my future children and I had other plans. But over the years, like my sister-in-law, I have also developed the desire to whisper life advice into the ears of unsuspecting people. I know I will lose more inhibitions as I get older, but for now I am thankful for this column that saves me the frustration of keeping my hard-learnt lessons to myself.
There is no teaching anyone. We learn from watching each other with empathy. We can offer solidarity to stay with the questions and remain curious till answers begin to emerge. My sister-in-law was merely trying to tell me to not feel compelled to live according to a predetermined script. She was reminding me to take life decisions consciously, when I was best prepared for them.
Parenting is so much about getting in touch with one’s intuitive self. With being able to restore the calm in which one can separate the inner voice that guides from the other noise in our head that is an expression of all our learnt fears and embedded anxieties. The fears will return constantly to haunt but with determination one learns to ask them to calm down and get in line.
One of the earliest incongruences I noticed was in the everyday language we use around babies. “Kitna tang karta hain?" is an oft-repeated question asked to express sympathy with the new parents. This translates loosely as, “How much does the baby trouble you?" It is meant to sound caring but is actually an utterly callous expression designed to make one snap out of the magical connection one feels with one’s child. An infant’s crying or restlessness is an expression of an urgent need. It is a language parents learn to decipher with compassion, not dismiss as an interruption or assault on the adult’s right to comfort.
“The baby doesn’t bother us, it is we who bother her," I would often reply. I find that this response continues to hold true even when the babies have become teenagers. Our culture marks the crossing over of the child towards adolescence with the same loaded language. And then we wonder why young adults are alienated and seem apathetic towards a world that treats them with suspicion and distrust in the first place.
In my own early years as a parent, I discovered that despite our best intentions, I did not know how to create a home that would be a safe space for everyone in the family. It was easy to take big lifestyle decisions that helped to create a pocket of peace and privacy for us. It took years to understand how resistant social structures are towards an individual’s right to be unique and how toxic that can be. Before I knew it, I had begun to allow others to come in and assault our own sense of normalcy. I would feel obliged to behave in ways that were destructive for our children and us. I did not begin to see the pattern till one of us fell ill, demonstrating how alarming the stressors were.
Recently, a friend shared an interview with Gabor Maté, an expert on addiction and childhood development, and I have been reading his words for weeks in small doses.
“When I talk about being connected to ourselves, “ says Dr Maté, “I’m talking about actually knowing what we feel and experience in a given moment, and being able to interpret that appropriately. Without that capacity, we’re lost. We were born with that capacity—you’ve never met an infant who’s not connected with its gut feelings.
“By the time you talk to adults, you find many people who even if they have their gut feelings, they ignore them. Something happens between infancy and adulthood that disconnects us. What that is, is our need for acceptance by our environment."
The long-term conflict between how we are supposed to behave in order to belong and fit in and what our true emotions and needs are leads most of us to seek relief in the contrasting states of feeling numb or hyper-stimulated. Either way, we become alienated from ourselves for the sake of staying connected to a fickle environment.
“Mamma, I read somewhere," our 14-year-old daughter said to me, “everyone says don’t succumb to peer pressure. But no one says, don’t put pressure on your peers."
She was struck by how this framing shifted the burden of responsibility from the individual to society. We may not be able to immediately influence the rest of the world, but at least one can stop internalizing guilt and failure when one’s gut instinct is to resist rather than succumb to a collective dumbing down.
Reading Dr Maté words, I smiled at how much resonance I felt when he says, “In a certain sense I’m an absolute imposter, because I write all these different books and I speak in many different countries and talk about addiction, child development, stress, health and parenting…and I’m only saying one thing. When you treat children well, they’re going to be OK, and if you don’t treat them well, they’re not going to be OK. It’s a very simple message that anybody’s great grandmother could have told them. The fact that this message is even necessary is a sign of the times."
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.