How I Embraced Disruptive Parenting Without Losing My Mind
My household, like all households, is a bee-hive. Constantly buzzing with activity, a couple of pots are always boiling on the stove, and three people are in various corners speaking into their phones over the din of the television.
And, at any given point in time, there are at least three different people trying to make sure my son is doing what they think is best.
This could mean herding him toward an oil massage, heating water for a warm sponge bath, or encouraging him to play with mud and plants. Everyone has a good reason – and conflict is inevitable: “I thought it would be fun to play! He doesn’t need an oil massage today and he has a cold, anyway.” “But I already warmed the water twice….”
“I’m the mom!” I think. “I should get to decide!”
Unfortunately, I don’t get to decide. At least, not always.
It took me an entire year to realize in India, like in hunter-gatherer societies, parenting is a group project, particularly if the child is young. (My son is almost 2.) You remember the group project from school, right? Everyone does it together – and in the end it becomes a mess. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, when it comes to raising a child, but there’s some truth there. Fathers are just as important as mothers, of course, but it just becomes too much when grandmothers are just as important, and nephews and nieces, and all seven aunts and uncles, the neighbours and the nanny.
As a mother, it is natural to feel that all decisions for your child need to be taken by you, because you know best. Unfortunately, this is both a stressful and unfeasible way to think. I discovered this a year ago, when, after attempting to plan and control every small detail of my son’s daily routine – I began to feel a little like Alice and her six impossible things before breakfast. I started to wake-up earlier and earlier. 7 a.m. became 6, then 5 and then 4. I was trying to cook breakfast, lunch and prep for dinner along with getting ready for work, getting my son out of the door. And yet, my family became progressively unhappier. Sure, there were more ready-made meals, but also more tempers flaring and a mom so busy she wasn’t fun. So, I stopped. I stepped back. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. I’m a researcher; I even cook with scientific precision. So, not being able to execute my much-researched parenting approach to a T bothered me.
It still bothers me, but here’s how I convinced myself to let go. I asked myself: What do I want for my son? That he be happy, free-spirited, kind, generous, responsible, creative, intelligent and, above all, a ‘do-er.’ I thought my parenting approach had incorporated everything needed to bring about these qualities – structured play-time, rhyme-time, fun-time, circle-time, cartoon-time, music play, free play, strict timings for food, milk, bathing and bed. A planned, wholesome day, for a planned, wholesome baby. But what I learned is this: dad ruining my carefully timed 15 minutes of play-with-colors by demoing a car crash, walking in the park becoming puddle-stomping time, eating ketchup and rice crispies instead of baked beans and rice – none of these things would keep my son from becoming the person I envision. That my mom would introduce chips instead of baked goodies, that my nephew would introduce him to loud Indian rappers was annoying, but it wasn’t dangerous. It wasn’t even detrimental.
Life doesn’t always have one successful routine. Don’t get me wrong — I love routines and I think they do wonders for children. My son has a great routine, still, and I enforce it as best as I can. But it’s not the routine I set out to have when he was born. It’s a flexi-routine, which means both parents and therefore my son, broadly know all the things we need to happen in a day. For example, we know a bath has to happen before heading to day-care. We know clothes have to be changed once home, and we know socks are mandatory at home and outside in the winter. But we also know that mummy doesn’t get upset anymore if a grandparent gives him yoghurt instead of a banana in the morning, or if dad takes him for a walk when storytelling hasn’t been done.
This shift is easier said than done. If I had people who criticized my parenting style all of the time, then it would have been difficult to adopt the ‘disruption is a positive thing’ mindset. In such cases, I would have tried to be objective, asking: What is the reason for the critique? Is there any merit at all in what is being said? If there was, I would try to be flexible and try to incorporate suggestions, especially if it came from someone who had raised children before. But if someone’s advice is medically problematic – like, say, to give your child water before he or she is 6 months old – I put my foot down. Ultimately, even as a group project, my child is my responsibility. I listen, nod, say “hmmm” — and then I just do what I want.
I can’t control my child’s life and the way the world – made up of all these people – interacts with my child. The list that I made, stating all of the things I want for my son, are happening anyway, despite the disruptions — and, in some cases, because of them. Disruption teaches kids to value routine and to accept that different people run an ordinary day differently. Disruption also brings magic to the everyday. And sometimes, you need a bit of magic to be a do-er.