I have made many mistakes in life that have caused hurt to others and now that I am a parent of teenagers, the possibility of making many more mistakes is alarmingly high, but there are also some spontaneous and very inspired things that I have done and today I am going to celebrate one such moment. Last week was the 16th anniversary of that moment. It came back to me and asked to be expanded, explored and relished.
One of the first things I did after our first child was born and I was still lying on the birthing table—flushed with happy hormones and relieved to no longer be in labour—was sing to my newborn daughter.
I didn’t have a name for her, except for the one I had been using when I texted my brother about her progress in my womb—Baby Popo. After nearly 40 hours of being in labour, Baby Popo had been born and we were alone in the delivery room in the hospital, she swaddled in one corner after her initial tests had been done and me left to rest on the table, while the entire staff of doctors and nurses went off on a lunch break. There was only one other woman in the room and she was sweeping the floor.
“Give me that baby," I said to her. She looked at me hesitantly and told me it was not her role to do that. “She is my baby," I said calmly, but with authority. “Please bring her to me."
She picked up the baby and gave her to me. The baby began to make crying sounds. I held her to my chest and began to sing to her. I hummed a tune I had been singing to her for the last few weeks. She became quiet. She opened her eyes. Baby was listening to me.
It was my moment! Baby Popo had heard my voice and she knew she was with me.
On her way out of the hospital ward, the gynaecologist who had assisted the delivery stopped to speak to my husband and told him the baby looked just like him. As she grows up to look more and more like me in my childhood photographs, her father continues to use that line to reassure himself that she once looked like him.
It took us weeks to arrive at the perfect name for her, one that would sound familiar to both sides of our Hindu and Muslim families and also felt personal to both of us. We named her Sahar, choosing an Urdu word for early morning, as a tribute to my best friend, Dawn.
Sahar made me a very competent person. I also became loquacious, talking to her all the time. I learnt to breastfeed her wherever we were, take photographs of her many moods and expressions, eat large portions very quickly, ignore the news, travel with her and keep calm if and when she cried in public.
As I am wont to do, in the early days I made a list. Five reasons why a healthy baby may be crying—is hungry, needs to burp, is sleepy, wants to excrete, needs to be cleaned. Is hungry again. Reason 6—her nose may be blocked. I took charge of feeding her and putting her to sleep. Her father and my mother handled most of the rest of the baby chores. I learnt to wear her on my body in a baby carrier and visit museums. It was pretty close to nirvana for me.
Over the years, the firstborn became a barometer of how we were doing as a family. If Sahar was centred and calm, we must be doing fine. If she was irritable and ill, we needed to relook at the design of our life.
Last week, the same baby turned 16. It has been a while since I have hummed a tune for her. She even baked her birthday brownies and cupcakes all by herself. But then she surprised us with what she wanted to do for her birthday.
She asked to go to Lodhi Garden in the heart of Delhi and play frisbee and football with cousins and family, just like we used to when she and her siblings were little and their lives were simpler.
Over the years, I have made all the classic mistakes parents make with their first-borns. I heaped the child with expectations of perfection. I took all her angelic qualities for granted. I allowed popular parenting culture to taint how I perceive her as she grows up. I have had to remind myself again and again to slow down, slow down.
Our children are not our assistants. They are not here to prove us right. They are not here to validate us. They may do it anyway, and we can thank them for it. All the plans we make for their lives—if it’s not joyous, it’s not worth the sweat.
As we took off our shoes and ran around barefoot in the park, I realized that our 16-year-old wants to slow down her growing-up years as much as we do.
The best gift we can give her is acceptance. Trust and confidence. Space to express her various selves. She won’t rebel if we don’t try to tell her how to be. She won’t be in a hurry to leave if we give her exactly what she seeks—freedom to be.
“By the power of the woman who gave birth to Sahar, I shall finish writing this most difficult essay today," I said at the breakfast table to inspire myself to finish a piece of writing I had been struggling with for months. “The power of the woman who raised such a fine child…"
After a pause, I rephrased myself. “I mean the woman who has stepped aside enough to allow Sahar to raise herself on her own."
She smiled at me. She approved.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar