Natasha Badhwar on being a parent: “Growing up with my kids”

This is such a beautiful article by Natasha Badhwar on letting yourself learn and grow when your kids (read, students) do, it just had to be archived in The Peace Blog. The link is in the citation, but I am copy-pasting the article here as well, with a nod to both the Indian Express and Natasha (@natashabadhwar)

Natasha Badhwar, “Growing up with my kids,” Indian Express, November 14, 2010.

They throw tantrums, spout wisdom and make for the cutest pictures. But most of all, they remind us of what we were when we started out. Natasha Badhwar, mother of three children, on what she learnt from Sahar, Aliza and Naseem.

Sorry, mamma, sorry,” Aliza came running to me one day, holding her ears. “I’m sorry for all the wrongs I have done so far.” In one clean sweep, our four-year-old cleared out a year full of tantrums, the year her little sister had been born.

We’ve been growing up with our kids.

It’s been eight years and we have three children. So right away, you can stop to wonder what kind of people we are. Fairly unthinking in our actions, somewhat inspired in our decision-making but generally quite foolish.

Our friends have written us off, my aunts have accepted me in their fold. Of course, I put up a big fight in the beginning as one does when the contractions first start. But if you resist the flow, you start drowning. Let go, let go. The baby knows her way out, cooperate with her. 

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I don’t worry much about my fancy peers anymore. We have faulty memories and short attention spans. My pals are forgiving by nature and some of them, they never change. So I know I can take eight years off and still find some of my dear friends sipping the same chocolate drink in the same cafe, talking about similar things. I could take 16 years off, and they’d welcome me back as if it had been 16 days.

We are parents of three children, but don’t let the number distract you. The more they are, the better pictures they make. The more they are, the more time off a parent gets. The higher the sense of achievement when one gets anything done at all. Like being on time for the school bus. Noticing that one has forgotten one’s phone within 10 minutes of leaving home.

Like everyone else around me, I embarked on parenthood with my own set of delusions. Eight years into the game, I’ve lost a lot of the wisdom that had seemed a natural gift. I feel lighter. My learning is inconclusive and contradictory and doesn’t work all the time. Quite like the children I learnt them from. After all, it’s still early years.

I call it a game, because that inspires us to play. Play demands creativity, one gets better with practice and if one keeps up the spirit, then laughter and fun comes along. Play can get difficult; it requires fitness and training.

We used to stay up nights sometimes, well into our twenties, playing carrom or Bluff Master, a group of cousins and friends. Partners would devise elaborate codes to communicate, we’d scrutinise adversaries, looking for clues in their every expression and move. Endless jokes designed to distract others, that was the real game. Every night, the same jokes would entertain us.

The same formula works with raising kids. Listen to them. They tell. We may need to learn their language and codes. Sahar has mostly spoken to us in words, except when she was drawing black flowers and playing with imaginary mice. Aliza has less patience, she will lie down on the floor and flap her arms much sooner. Naseem is only two, but she’s got her own agenda. As if she looked at them and thought, “Never mind your head start, girls. I’ll catch up soon.”

When they figure something out, children will often let us know. “When Mamma is sad, she looks upset, but when Papa is sad, he gets angry,” Sahar informed her father one day. This pleased Papa so much, he quoted her to all his friends, making some of them a bit angry.

At about the same time, Aliza invented a happiness key. She would jump behind me and wind up an imaginary key in my back. “There, I’ve wound your key, now be happy,” she would command. Off with whatever mask I might have been wearing.

Parenting demands that we have to be more present, rather than absent. It’s easier to be away at work, far easier to be stuck in traffic every day. Parents love Mondays. If you work at home, you get to send the kids away, if you work outside, you get to send yourself away. Monday is parents’ secret Saturday. But eventually, our children will give each other what they get from us.

A couple of years ago, I had two lovely kids and a television job I loved. The kids and job loved me back. Yet, it didn’t feel so good. I suffered from separation anxiety and felt like a fool for it. Confusion descended like a fog. I had no idea where the controls were.

I had never really felt lonely in life before. But loneliness was not the whole truth. It was more like I had had to stop drinking abruptly, and a lot of bad stuff came up.

Our life had been full of noise. Fun noise, work noise, traffic noise, and then when I was with the toddlers, the soundtrack would change in my head. I had spread myself too thin and it was no longer effective. The urban myth of the supermom had trapped me, as if in a hot air balloon. I looked good, but no one could hear me. It was supposed to be great, but it felt terrible.

Parenting proved to be a test of my loyalty. Was I willing to be loyal to myself? I didn’t have much practice. It had always been easier to be loyal to friends, trends, TV shows and gadgets. I knew how to be cool and with it. But cool wasn’t so hot anymore.

I came down with a thud and learnt to spell out my own set of grand truths. We would be able to raise our kids well only if we first raised ourselves well. The same rules applied to adults and kids. Sleep on time, eat well, don’t make it a habit to get stuck in peak-hour traffic. 

Pamper the child in you. Love her, appreciate her, make her happy. When the parents are happy kids, the kids are happy. And vice versa. I discovered that if a child is not okay, I can be sure that I’m not okay. It’s a terrible thing to hear or accept when one has to run through the day meeting deadlines and appearing at meetings on time. But when the tantrum is behind you, pay attention to yourself. To myself. 

So I make a game out of this too. We are all crew and cast on a film set. Sometimes I am allowed to raise my voice because I am the Director. I always make up for it with my crew and actors afterwards, because you know, I need them on the sets tomorrow. This film depends on their motivation, I couldn’t pay anyone to act in this one. 

I smile sweetly at the Producer, sometimes I crib behind his back. Recently, I put away the camera’s battery charger somewhere safe. I can’t remember which safe, but never mind. I don’t need gadgets in my hand. I want, but I don’t need. 

I do what I am good at. Well-balanced meals bore me, but I can take photos. So I do. We regularly hang out at the dosa corner in the market, but the photos I make myself, with my own loving hands. Those are as much a magic box of moments and memories as the meals might have been. “I love Nani’s rajma, Kanta Mausi’s roti and Mamma’s Maggi,” says Sahar.  

I learn to receive. Compliments and love. Adulation and gratitude. I start to believe.

I give myself permission to be important. You are important, you matter, I say to myself. That’s the only way I can make them believe that they are important.

I listen to myself, I listen to the kids. I let the phone ring. We negotiate. They are fair.

They remind us of what we were like when we started out. What we can be like, what can be reclaimed. Babies, toddlers, children. As Aliza once put it gently, “I know everything already, but you have forgotten some things, Mamma.”

(The writer is an independent filmmaker and media trainer based in Delhi)

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