The highs and lows (and everything in between) of being a parent
By Mila Tuli
Several years ago, when I was writing up my doctoral thesis on Ethnotheories of Parenting young children in India, I was struck by the findings that despite the popular reference to the idea of parenting as something unique that parents do, parenting as a collective activity is rarely visible in most families. It is more accurately mothering and fathering (and care by extended kin including siblings) since both usually play vastly different roles. And that whatever one might want to call the activity of adults caring for their children, it is seldom consistent over time, domain/area of behaviour or being or space being addressed. The fact that parents respond in ways both predictable and unpredictable to different needs and aspects of their children’s everyday lives and experiences is something that I have shared repeatedly. Does that mean that parents are inconsistent creatures? (I would like to state here that this need for consistency is a Western idea, expounded by a model of Psychology that values neat, easy to research categories which has readily found a place in the ideas and minds of several westward looking, internet dependent Indian parents) Yes and no. Does that mean that the response of parents to their children is fairly regular? Again, yes and no. The fact of the matter here being that despite having all these ideas in our head about how we would like to raise our children, what is acceptable or not, the trajectory of their lives that we would like to draw, the heights we would imagine them to scale and the pitfalls that we are certain we would never slide into, it is usually the actual moment, at the precise intersection of time, place and person, in which we have to respond that all else fails us and we end up saying or doing something completely contrary to our beliefs and that we regret later. The fact is that while there is an unlimited supply of ‘how to’ books about babies and toddlers and even older children, they focus on the physical aspect of raising a child. How to hold, feed, change, clean, bathe. There is no manual that comes when you become a parent. There is little useful advice on how to negotiate the moments of self-doubt, anger, frustration, indulgence, love, exasperation and sheer exhaustion that every parent feels almost every day. There is no manual because there is no right way to do this. What we do have is a melange of complex and contradictory ideas, several confusing messages, and a relentless need to do what is best. As parents we feel overwhelmed and unsure of our decisions even when our children are all grown up. We doubt ourselves and our actions. We worry about the consequences of decisions made today and the impact these will have soon after or several years down the line. We make ourselves so central to the lives of our children that we completely forget that they have their own journeys and their own paths to follow, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Of course, our choices matter, especially when they are little and so completely intertwined with our existence. And yet every parent knows that there is a little person there in that tiny body, who is already directing the course of her own life. The problem with making ourselves responsible for every good, bad, indifferent experience our children have is that we make ourselves too important, too critical, and too indispensable. And with that comes the heightened sense of glory, pride, guilt, and anger when we don’t live up to our own expectations.
Watching a British drama series, Breeders on Hotstar (Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard) sent me back to that space in my head where I still fight the demons of things, I imagine I could have done differently as a mother. The series tells the story of a middle-class London couple (Paul and Ally) with two children, a boy, Luke aged 7 years and a girl Ava aged 4 years. The episodes follow the everyday lives of the family, laying bare their many ‘weak’ areas as parents and their clear love for their children. The first episode took me by surprise with the anger outbursts and the free use of the F*** word in the presence of young children as did the opening line of the series, “I would die for those kids but sometimes I also want to kill them”. Rather extreme and fairly shocking to my mind. But if you can look past these initial shockers, as I did, you will soon be drawn into the lives of this family as they pull themselves through the ups and downs and all the small and big challenges that parents, and children must face. The young boy’s fear of a fire breaking out in the house after a visit by a fireman to their school, Ava’s quiet wisdom and logic that defies her age; the balancing act of work, home, kids. The very real situation of coming to terms with aging parents or the return of a parent who was never there when Ally, the mother, was growing up but now has nowhere else to go. Paul’s struggle with his uncontrollable anger towards his kids, especially Luke and his effort to manage the children when his wife relocates for a couple of weeks to Germany on a work assignment provides a glimpse into the slowly altering roles and structure of families today. Paul’s apologetic plea to Ally over the telephone, ‘it takes all week for the kids to settle down and then when you arrive for a few hours over the weekend, their lives are disrupted all over again. Could you just not come this week-end?” is illustrative of the attempt to find a balance. The instinct to protect and preserve the family unit kicks in when Paul and Ally are seen tutoring their children about what to say when a social service worker visits because the hospital has reported too many accidents with the kids. The desperate need to come across as good parents is not in the least bit discordant. The small attempts to have the teacher say that the son is special and reads better than other kids his age; the protective anger when another parent points out that their child has a lead role in the class performance are all so recognisable and relatable. And the hardest part is the bargaining with a higher power (David Bowie for some strange reason) to make sure Luke survives a near fatal attack of encephalitis. The sorrow, the blame (“it’s my fault, I wanted him out of the way”) the bargaining (“if he recovers, I am going to be the best dad in history; I won’t rage, I won’t swear, I mean it”) the sheer helplessness of parents who can do nothing while their son is put into a medically induced coma. And it is here, in the hospital and sometimes at the pub, that some nuggets of wisdom and insights on life are shared most casually and unintentionally by the grandparents. Gently slipping into the narrative, as Jim the grandfather says, “parents are always to blame…you blamed us…because it’s good to have somebody to blame who isn’t you. They f**k you up, your mum and dad, but you can also use them as an excuse for your own failures”. And despite what appear as a series of terrible choices, the underlying need to love and care for and keep children safe comes through so strongly. The grandfather sharing with his 4-year-old grand-daughter (“I have never told your dad that I loved him, or ever kissed him or offered a hug That’s strange. But it’s because of my background. All men were buttoned up like that in the old days. Being a dad was the same for decades and now suddenly you’ve got to be open, emotionally intelligent and hug and kiss”).
As the story moves from the present back in time, Paul’s realisation when they bring their new-born son home really sums up the essence of being a parent. “This is it. Never properly at peace ever again. Its magical and it’s wonderful. You are handed this gift and at the same time it’s a curse because suddenly you have the possibility that the worst thing in the world could happen to you”. And Ally promises to keep their baby alive.
As parents we rely almost entirely on our instincts, our experiences from when we were growing up and some help from our parents and families and other ‘experts’ as we navigate the deep waters of raising our children. There is no correct way to do this and for most parts we just learn on the job. Where there is family to fall back on, one may feel more supported. But again, once you move beyond the physical care giving, it’s a wide, open canvas. Being a mother or a father puts you in a space that is delightful, anxious, loving and exasperating all the same time. It creates opportunities for you to re-examine your life goals, your beliefs and evolve as a person. It also has all the potential to make you paranoid, impatient and unreasonable. In all probability we experience all of these and more. But there is nothing that can ever come even close to the sheer joy of watching your child grow and evolve and develop and learn. I am, truly grateful for being a mother.