Perfecting Parenting (At Least, In Theory…)
By Swati Apte
The moment he realized I was pregnant, my husband went out and brought every book he could find on parenting tips. He pored over them and, armed with his new knowledge, would hold forth to older family members (all of whom had reared children of their own).
He could speak expertly about the latest theories on childhood, from nursing to colic to crawling. When one of his uncles pointed out that parenting had been done instinctually for centuries (his exact words were, “Even monkeys can raise babies”), we pooh-poohed him as old-fashioned. Our way was going to be the path where we took measured decisions based on sound research. Buoyed by the most up-to-date thinking on child development, we felt totally confident about embarking on our new ‘careers’ as parents.
I sometimes wonder if the sole life purpose of our children is to humble their parents. From birth, they seemed to take particular glee in flouting all of the parenting theories we have read and embraced – particularly the ones we have vociferously expounded to our friends and family.
For instance, Gina Ford promised that if I followed her regimen, I could sleep-train my child within a week. I was certain I could handle listening to my baby cry for a few minutes, particularly since it was good for her. Many elders told us we couldn’t force these things, but for this sleep-deprived mother of a colicky baby, that promised land where mums got a full night’s sleep felt like a heaven worth fighting for.
So I read all of Ms. Ford’s books and followed her schedules to the T, waiting for the magic to happen. My daughter, however, bawled for four weeks straight. Even more exhausted than we were at the start, we finally gave up and let her back into our bed, where she remained until she was seven, immune to all bribes and threats. Then one day, for no explicable reason, she went to her own bed and has happily slept there ever since.
Then there are our failed attempts at teaching our children healthy eating habits. We referred – in reverence – to those books that recommend giving your toddler food without salt, sugar or anything else that may make it remotely tasty. These paediatric dietician authors promise that this way, kids will never develop the palette for ‘bad food.’
I sometimes wonder if the sole life purpose of our children is to humble their parents.
We boiled carrots and mashed up squash, turned out baby meals that admittedly I wouldn’t have put into my own mouth. My mother did suggest a few times that the reason my son was a poor eater was because I fed him such “gunk.” But I persisted with the Pretend-Yogurt-Is-Ice-Cream Diet for my children, telling myself they would grow up to choose spinach juice over Coke.
I still recall the expression on my 3-year-old daughter’s face the first time she ate real ice cream. Her eyes lit with pure delight, and she turned to my husband and me with an accusatory look that said “How could you have deprived me so for so long?!” She has not looked back since, and, for all of our discipline when they where toddlers, my children crave junk food and reject spinach.
As the mother of a daughter, I read everything there was on how social stereotyping can inhibit girls’ future careers. I was determined to expose her to a whole different set of influences so that she might choose a worthy profession. (And thus validate our success as desi parents, which is of course assessed by the profession children choose to pursue.)
So, the feminist in me ensured she never had gender-specific toys. We encouraged her to examine the creepy-crawlies in our garden and told her stories about women in sports and space. Then, on our way home from the science museum one day, I eagerly asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up; an astronaut or a zoologist?”
Then 5, my daughter thought for a minute and replied: “I want to be a purple fairy.”
Parenting gurus write tomes on how parents are children’s strongest influencers and role models, and we probably are. Yet almost all of us choose professions different from those of our parents. Our favourite foods are different. Our foibles are our own; my obsessively neat father has terribly disorganized children, and my always-punctual in-laws have raised two sons who are perpetually late wherever they go.
All our research wasn’t a waste, though. It helped us be better prepared and anticipate the child-rearing adventures. On most days, new parents are groping in the dark, figuring out how to be parents. We were figuring it out as we went, too, but the books helped us to understand the different choices possible and develop a perspective on what sort of parents we wanted to at least try to be. And on those nights when everything we did seemed to fail, our store of research gave us hope that there was always another path to try.
Yet, as our children keep turning all of the best parenting theories and research their heads, my husband and I (a bit wearily) have also come to accept that they are not a statistic – they are individuals and their journeys will be uniquely their own. I now understand why, when our first child was born, my mum said to us both: “Don’t ever make sacrifices or change your life because you think that it will make your child a particular way in the future. That’s too much pressure on them. Do it because it gives you pleasure at this moment to be doing it.”
It was too much pressure on us, too. Our children aren’t an ‘outcome’ of our actions and decisions; in fact, they’re who they are, sometimes in spite of the parenting we do. Accepting that has sort of taken the pressure off. These days, I find myself taking pleasure in each moment of simply watching them grow up from little ones into young girls and boys.