We can pick up our babies and console them when they are in distress, but it just seems to get harder and harder to sound apologetic as they grow older and become more capable of listening to what we say. Are we afraid of what we might hear in response? I know I am.
Recently, a young friend of mine discovered how deep-rooted parents’ fears can be when he began to see a therapist to try to unearth the source of his generalized anxiety and depression. After years of being too scared of what it might make him feel like, he has finally allowed himself to be vulnerable. Childhood memories he had suppressed have resurfaced, and for some time he has been feeling much worse than he has in years.
His parents, on the other hand, are furious with him for choosing mental health therapy. They seem more bothered by the fact that in the process of healing, he will acknowledge that he isn’t well in the first place. They would rather have one more generation suffer in denial than have the courage to acknowledge that we all need help.
Why are families so insecure? Why are we so threatened by change, even when it is positive? Why do we cling to hierarchies that hurt us at the individual level? How can we live differently without having to break away from family and lose the benefits of the love and security that it offers?
How can we disrupt without destroying?
After all, we need our families not only for what we get from them but also for what we want to offer them. We want to support those who have cared for us. We find fulfilment and closure in giving back, in being able to perform the reversed role of becoming care givers.
Yet families discourage us from analysing and healing from wounds inflicted in our growing-up years. We make lame jokes about therapy and become tongue-tied about our own role in the hurts caused to those we love. We expect the new generation to make the same emotional compromises that were thrust on us.
I’m going to use this column and your empathy to practise apologizing to my children.
I apologize for not being able to see what the children could recognize way ahead of us. Instead of trying to confuse and dull their instincts with authoritarian opinions and shushing them, I am learning to listen to them. And allowing them to listen to their own sure voices.
I apologize for not knowing how to host guests with warmth and yet maintain the candour to protect our boundaries, both as a family and as individuals. I was so ill-prepared for this dynamic that it took me years to realize how messed up our social and cultural norms around staying in each others’ homes are. I learnt that instead of training the children in how to behave with guests, there are clues in the children’s natural behaviours that guide us.
The unexpected advantage of enduring people whose fake concern, nasty jokes and clingy neediness exhausts us is that it often exposes the fault lines in our own relationships with each other. Under pressure, we have learnt to pay attention to each other better and even understand our own needs more keenly.
I apologize for all the times I was tense or nervous and tried to mask my feelings under self-righteous anger directed at the children. When we waste our energy being polite to those who deserve confrontation, we compensate later by being rude to those who cannot call us out.
I apologize for not naming my own fears and insecurities and trying to pass them off as a superior morality. Thank you for letting me see through myself as I looked into your eyes.
I apologize for insisting that it is time for you to eat when it is me who is hungry. For taking so long to believe you when you say that your Mamma looks best without any make-up on her face. For wasting my emotional energy on how much chocolate goes into your glass of milk when, in the long run, it really doesn’t matter.
I apologize for hyper-parenting. For always having a few hundred ideas for what you can do next and distracting you with those. If I focus on fulfilling my needs and responsibilities, it will create the template for you to focus on yours.
I apologize for being a frustration junkie. For wrongly believing that training you to postpone pleasure is part of good parenting. I’m sorry, please eat and drink and sing and laugh when you need to and I shall carry on with the rest of this list. It’s slightly hard to keep typing when my eyes are welling up.
I apologize for taking so long to understand how to spend money in 2019, when my own growing-up years were in the 1980s and I first began to earn money in the 1990s. All I can say is that I am trying to keep up.
“There is no try, Mamma," one of you will say, when you read this. “You either do or you don’t."
I apologize for being jealous of your friends, especially the ones who seem fashionably sullen. This is an advance apology, because I suspect my jealousy will get worse before it gets better (why do you need friends, by the way, when you can have me?).
I apologize for my occasional out-of-tune singing, my happy thumkas and jhatkas (you can call them dance moves). I should have sung louder and danced more when my knees were still cooperative. Expect innovations in this department.
Last but not least is my understanding of how to use my privilege as an adult in my role as a parent. As new parents, we naively assumed our role was to protect you from the uncertainties and injustices of the world, not realizing that we would find ourselves powerless as individuals unless we were ready to confront systems and contribute to challenging them. Since you have reminded me not to try, I guess I’ll just get down to doing what must be done.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar