Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mothering Today - Changes and Challenges.

Written for the 4th Annual International  Women's Day Contest.

A mother.  Oh, that glorified being! She's called an angel, a goddess, the paragon of love – but being a mother is hard. Yes, I am speaking of this section of urban middle-class mothers, who have it much better than their rural counterparts, who, in many cases, are still trying to keep their children alive. We, in contrast, can afford to keep our children well-fed, healthy and comfortable, and we cannot compare our problems with them, and we will not.

Our issues are different, and unique to this generation.

The last couple of decades have seen an explosion of information, and this information overload has been both a boon and a curse to today's mother.  That has been the biggest change, and it is, I think, the greatest challenge she faces.

I'll split it into three parts.

Awareness and choice. The mother of today is so much more aware of the world around her and the choices available to her, that she is.... confused. There are choices to be made in everything. Health (Conventional medicine? Alternative medicine?) Schooling. (Mainstream schools? Alternative schools? A mix of both?) Food. (Organic? Supplements? Health Drinks?) Parenting styles (Attachment? Helicopter? Permissive? Authoritative?) Lifestyle (Modern? Traditional? A mix?) Work. (Work out of home? Work from home? Work partly from home? Stay at home? Stay at home and work once a week?) Childcare. (Nanny? Daycare? Full-time maid? Part-time maid? Grandparents?) You name it, and she has multiple choices. Which is a good thing, but only if she is clear about what she wants. If she is not, then making a choice is very difficult. Yes, there is enough material about the pros and cons of every choice available to her. And it can help her make up her mind – or become more confused.

And this is just one aspect. Remember, her child is also exposed to the same kind of information overload, and is more aware of the world around her than children of yesterday. And we all know that today's child has a mind of her own – and is not afraid to speak it. So, when you pit these two individuals against each other, the possibilities of conflict are endless.

One more negative aspect of too much information - not only are you informed of the positive things happening out there, you know as much about all that is going wrong in the world. Ask any mother and she will tell you that after she had a child, the violence and perversion of the world scares her much more than it did before. At every point, she is aware that she is sending her child out into a world that is probably very unsafe – and that is something that mothers of yesterday didn't have to contend with to this extent.

The shrinking world. Earlier, a mother just compared herself to her neighbour. Now, she compares notes with a blogger half way around the globe, who isn't even aware of her existence, and feels miserably inadequate. And then there is Facebook, where people put up pictures of themselves and their perfectly turned-out children going on exotic vacations and posing for photographs in beautifully decorated living rooms, and then this mother sees these pictures right after snapping at Kid 1 while cleaning up the sheets over which Kid 2 just threw up, and she feels like the worst mother in the world.

Earlier, a mother was bombarded with advice only from her mother-in-law and the neighbourhood nosy parker. But now, she is flooded with suggestions, often contradictory, from people of all nationalities all across the globe (and they all cite the best sources.) Come to think of it, it is a terrible state for a mother to be in.

The "Me" Factor. The majority of mothers earlier just gave up their own lives after marriage and kids, and lived "for the family." Today's mother is an educated, aware (that word again) and confident person who knows what she wants in her life. She loves her kids, make no mistake, but is not ready to let her own dreams go down the drain. She isn't happy being "Chintu's mother." She wants her own identity.

And this is one of the most beautiful things about today's mother. That she knows that she deserves her own place under the sun, and that she is ready to work for it. But it is also very hard. Because immediately,  that tired phrase pops up – "work-life balance." How much work and how much life is the right balance for her? (And why is work not life? And why isn't this used as much for men? But we won't go there.) Can she really not have it all? And the moment she chooses one over the other, out comes the Guilt. Yes, with a Capital G.

When you think of it, parenting is all about Balance. How much of work, and how much of being with the child? Balance. How much of mollycoddling and how much of discipline? Balance. Too much freedom, and the child will go wild. Too strict and the child will rebel. What to do? Balance.

And the thing is – this Balance? It is different for each person. It varies with the mother's lifestyle and life choices, and setting. And nobody can tell her what she "must" do. Because there is nothing like "must." This is what every mother of today needs to know. And she has to throw out the Guilt. Because she is doing the best she can. She is processing information and she is making the choices she believes is the best. Yes, she goes wrong often, but then that's how she learns. Contrary to popular opinion, mothers are not goddesses, nor angels, nor saints. Mothers are people with opinions and dreams, fears and failings – and we are learning every day.

But there is one thing. In spite of all our shortcomings, all the wavering and confusion, all the snapping and impatience, we love our children to bits.

And that, my friends, is neither a challenge, nor will it ever change.

Edited to add:  In my rush to write this, I overlooked the basic condition that the post has to be less than 500 words to qualify for the contest. :) Anyway, I had fun writing this.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Science and young minds.

The beautiful thing about getting children interested in science is that one doesn't even have to try.  All you have to do is introduce a tiny seed of wonder in an already inquisitive mind, and the child will take it and run with it.  The key element is that you have to seize the opportune moment when the child is open to receiving ideas.

Last year, during spring, Puttachi and I took many walks in the park, and my curiosity about trees rubbed off on her.  Soon, she was picking up any leaf or flower or fruit on the road and trying to identify it.  When she found a flying seed, I told her about seed dispersal, and she spent an entire evening looking for other seeds like that.  Though we haven't spoken much about tree identification for a year, when she saw the green bursting forth around her this spring, she brought up the subject herself, saying, "Spring is here!  Let's look out for the flowers!"  And now I know that this love and curiosity about the trees around her is going to stay with her.

Similarly, we built a 3D puzzle of a dinosaur skeleton, and that triggered off an interesting conversation that I have blogged about before.  And then there was one day when we spent an entire hour watching a group of monkeys from the window.  I pointed out the alpha male to her, and told her all I knew about monkey behaviour as and when it happened.  And she still remembers it, and brings up these concepts during conversations about other animals too, asking which the alpha male is.   Or she tells me about something she saw in a nature book months ago at her grandparents' house, and about which one of the grandparents talked to her.  Sometimes it stuns me when she remembers clearly, conversations that happened even two years ago.

The common element in all these conversations is that when she showed interest and curiosity, I made sure I immediately gave her whatever it was that she wanted.  If I had waited until a more comfortable time, she would have been engrossed in something else, and might not have been as receptive.

That is why, just last week, when I was arm-deep in cooking, and the kitchen platform was a mess, Puttachi insisted that she simple had to try out the jaltarang by herself.  "Later," I said, looking at the messy counter, but then, I shrugged.  So what if there is chapati flour on the counter?  I just set out the glasses and gave her water and a spoon, and she stood right there, and spent an hour experimenting with sounds and different levels of water.  Right after this, she wanted to try out what sinks and what doesn't in water, and I gave her various objects to try.  Then I demonstrated how a needle sinks in water, but when placed on a paper which is placed on water, the paper gets wet and sinks, and the needle stays afloat.   She was so fascinated that she spent another hour with it, and when she tired of it, she played with all the mushy paper that resulted from the experiment, and that set off a discussion on paper making.....

You get the idea.  there is never "one right time" to teach a child something.  But you really have to be ready to give the child what she needs at that moment.

And offhand conversations can have such a deep impact.  Years ago, when I was studying Energy Engineering, my then 5-year-old cousin and I had had a conversation about the subjects I study. I don't even remember this conversation too well, but a few days later, my aunt was surprised to see a drawing he had made.  He had drawn a volcano, with lava flowing out of it.  He had drawn a wire, one end of which was connected to the lava, and the other end to a glowing bulb.  My aunt asked him where he got the idea, and he told her that Shruthi Akka told him.  My guess is that this was his interpretation of what I told him about geothermal energy!

It is very exciting, actually.  To see sharp minds understand concepts far beyond what we think is possible for their age - just by one conversation, one activity, one book.  The potentials are endless.

(Written for Tulika Books' Science Blogfest for National Science Day)

Updated to add: This blog was judged one of the three best entries in the contest.  Will get a book as prize! :)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Freelancing with The Hindu

I've started freelancing with the City and Neighbourhood section of The Hindu.  My first article appeared last Thursday, on a North Karnataka-style home restaurant.  

The online version doesn't have a picture, and some people expressed a wish to see what it looked like, so here is a pic of the paper - the photograph was taken by the staff photographer. 

It was truly interesting to go as an interviewer and talk to the owners, the customers - and to sift through the information overload, and put it all down in 400-500 words.  The delight of people who have been told they will be featured in a newspaper is so wonderful.  And they transferred that joy to me - They forced me to have a meal there, and didn't accept money for it.  And after the paper came out, the proprietor called me again and thanked me profusely (even though I was just the messenger - I had been asked to write about this place, I didn't select it myself.)  The whole experience was fun!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

When your child wants you to behave silly in public.

Like many children, Puttachi is not very self-conscious.  If it pleases her, she'll break into a jig in the middle of the road, or behave silly in public.  Which is a joy to watch, of course.

But the problem arises when she expects me to join her.  "Come on, Amma," she says in the park.  "Let's dance.  I'll sing, and both of us will dance."

The thing is, if it were at home, I would have joined her immediately.  Now, out here, with people watching, I don't want to.

"No, Puttachu," I say, squirming as she takes my arms and starts swinging them around.

"Oh, come onnnn Amma!" she says, and then the inevitable question.  "Why not?"

"People are watching," I say.  "I'll dance at home."

"So what, I am dancing too, and people are watching me."

"But you're a kid."

"So should I stop dancing in the park when I grow up?"

Now what on earth do I say to this?  I've already made the mistake of saying "People are watching," and conveyed to her that she should care what people think of her.

"That's your wish, Puttachi," I say, finally.  "If you feel like dancing in the park when you grow up, you can.  I don't feel too comfortable, so I won't."

Ugh, I tell myself.  Whatever happened to teaching by example?  If I am so self-conscious, won't that attitude rub off on her?  Or is that a good thing?  How would I view an adult dancing in public for no apparent reason at all?

Ok, forget dancing.  What about behaving silly in general?  For example, if I'm telling her a story while walking on the road or in the park, I sometimes make exaggerated expressions and expansive gestures with my hands.  Another person might not be comfortable with that, and indeed, I have received strange looks sometimes.  But I haven't minded.  But that is my limit.  Dancing on the road - no, I wouldn't do that.  But another parent might not mind that too.  But in the end, what message should you convey to your child?

But for the moment, Puttachi is satisfied by my answer.  "Okay.  All people are different, right?  No problem, we'll dance at home," she says, ever the understanding child.

But I still am not sure how to handle this.  Any ideas?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Losing their way...

I attended an Indian classical music concert after ages.  An all-night one at that (and we lasted the night.)

The concert boasted of big names, and there were some pleasant surprises, but on the whole, I was very disappointed and depressed after the concert.

Many of these artistes, in an effort to display their expertise in music, indulged in what I can only call musical acrobatics.  As a result, the melody and the quality of music was compromised.  At the end, it was more of noise and cacophony than anything else.

I have a similar grouse against literary writers.  They are so eager to show what great command they have over the language that they use flowery writing and grandiose words and the result is that it distracts one from the flow of the story.  While I am reading a book, if I stop to think, "Wow, how did he think up such a  turn of phrase?"  or worse, "Just a sec, what exactly did she mean to say with that complicated combination of words?" - then that book is a failure to me.  There are many writers out there who insert brilliant phrases and descriptions without breaking the flow of the story, or without making you stop to wonder what that was all about.  Oh yes, some writers do make me stop and catch my breath sometimes, but only to say, "How beautifully she said that! I totally understand and relate to that."  That - That is what makes a book a success.  Blend your cleverness into the story.

I recently came across some discussions of some latest movies too - someone said that the technology and the computer graphics is the star of the movie, and it doesn't have much going for it in terms of a story.

Why are we losing sight of the main intention?  When did the tools that was supposed to be just aiding you, become more important than what you set out to do in the first place?

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