By Sharan Saikumar May. 14, 2017
Have I failed as a mother if my son is not acing every single life experience just because I chose chor-police over chess mastery?
Iwalked in slightly late and mildly hung-over for my son’s first day at school.
My son was two and it was parent orientation day. I slunk in shamefacedly into the backbenches and tried earnestly to understand “the benefits of structured play in activating hand/eye co-ordination and enhancing motor skill development”, even as my head throbbed. I looked around at the electrically charged brigade of motherhood (and fatherhood) around me and felt like scum. Pencils poised for notes, big bags perched on tiny baby chairs, they listened with a raptor’s attention for tips on how they could “create conducive learning and disciplinary environments at home to ensure that the child’s passive acceptance doesn’t overpower his developmental need for independence and create lasting inadequacy issues”.
What the actual fuck, I wondered. The kids had barely lost their milk teeth. Shuffling through my orientation kit, I saw a list of extra-curricular activities that the playschool was offering: Environment Sensitisation, Spanish for Toddlers, Science Whizkids, and Baby Yoga (Boga?). Alongside most of them, “batch full” was stamped authoritatively, mocking lesser parents who hadn’t had the foresight to anticipate on birth that their child would be in dire need of Spanish lessons before he turned two.
A few non-competitive and essentially redundant classes like Dance Movements and Summer Fun were still open for enrolment and I wondered if this is where the duds went. My kid was two and he was already hanging out with the losers. The winners would be kids with the frontbench, fundamentalist mothers. The ones with all the questions and pens. These women weren’t kidding around. They were raising an army of gifted and talented all-rounders, who would play the violin while simultaneously playing polo and solving world hunger. I sat, frozen, with a sinking realisation that I was going to be an epic failure at this motherhood thing.
Somewhere in the last two decades, we’ve gone from being a people fairly interested in our children to being wholly invested in them.
A friend recently took her elderly father on a nostalgia trip to the place where he started his job as a young, government employee with a young family. As they walked through the heartland UP town, miles away from the nearest internet cafe, my friend looked aghast at the kacha roads, distant jungle boundaries, and stray dogs sunning themselves in the school courtyard and asked her father how could he possibly raise his young children here. What kind of life were you giving us? What kind of opportunity? Her father looked at her quizzically and said, “But we weren’t thinking about you. We were building our lives.” In his mind, as long as children had good parents, a decent school, and hot food on the table, they’d grow up just fine. And they did. My friend went on to have a successful career as a senior journalist in a major television network, and grew up into a fine, substantial human being – with a sea-view flat to boot.
Somewhere in the last two decades, we’ve gone from being a people fairly interested in our children to being wholly invested in them. My hyperactive (and now muted) Mommy WhatsApp group pings all the time, with videos of their child’s violin recitals, swimming championships, abstract drawings, and ability to sing to pitch. It’s not a First World thing. All of us, including middle-class India, have gone after our children, all guns blazing. Nearly 60 per cent of parents spend considerably outside routine school expenditure and nearly 50 per cent want to send their child abroad for studies when they don’t have a refrigerator at home. Upper-, lower-, or middle-class India, everyone is parenting the hell out of their kids.
It’s a confounding phenomenon. Arguably, we have less time than we ever did. Ergo, it should make for an appropriate reduction in energy devoted to parenting. My mother certainly spent more time with me than I do with my child and she had three kids. I, on the other hand, have very little time with my only son, but I go into parenting him with a vengeance. I parent his schoolwork, his activities, his friends, his relationship with the outside world, his empathy levels, his knowledge, his exposure, his growth in independence, and his consumption of fibre. And to think that my father asked me at dinner one day, “So, what class are you in?”
I’m not saying my parents were perfect (hell yes, they were!) but my childhood involved long hours of contemplating how much cheese I could get onto a slice of bread without it running over in the oven. I remember hours of night-time ludo, more hours of chor-police, deathly long relative visits, and constantly being sent across the road to buy bread. All of this did absolutely nothing in terms of contributing to my “development” and less than nothing in making me smarter. But all the nothings added up to something. I had an indolent and non-skill developing childhood, even if I really didn’t go on to shake the world.
My child isn’t getting one of those childhoods. He has more packed in one year than I did in a decade, in terms of languages, skills, abilities, holidays, new experiences (he went for an overnight star-gazing trip and a cycling trip), even though he’s not taking any of the classes that modern motherhood demands he signs up for. There’s no chess, robotics, horse riding, guitar, capoeira, and still no Spanish, but he will have done more in the first 15 years of his life than I had done in the first 30. And that’s enough.
Now, eight years after that panicky kindergarten moment, I know that I’m not an “epic failure at this motherhood thing”, but I am what I’d call a “backbencher mom”. Today, when I sit through an orientation day, I try vaguely to summon the initiative to ask questions that cover every contingency and take notes that mothers do. But when a mother asks if the nature campsite has been swabbed with antiseptic, I do what I should have done back then. I walk out.