Woman up! The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is here

Image courtesy: Amazon Prime

Somewhere in the past few years, at least in my slice of the universe, women found self-love. Brene Brown became a role model, vulnerability became an asset, and ‘I am enough’ became something to wear on one’s t-shirt. In the ensuing Instagram avalanche of personal stories, embracing our imperfections and owning our bodies became a thing.

But nothing truly prepared us for The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, currently in its second season on Amazon Prime.  On the face of it, Mrs Maisel (referred to as Midge or Miriam) is a privileged Upper West Side (New York) woman with a marriage and two kids, a manicured home and a talent for baking (she trades briskets to gain spots at a café for her husband’s unoriginal standup acts). When Midge’s husband decides to leave her for his secretary one night, her carefully curated life becomes a house of cards; she responds by venting in a drunken stupor in front of an audience at the same café and discovers something about herself: she has a flair for standup comedy.

Mrs Maisel is a lot.  She’s endearing, witty, attractive, poised, well dressed, the life of the party. She is the loud one, the funny one, the ballsy one, the weird one – and she lets all of them thrive.  Midge has the goods to do whatever she needs to do to survive in a world of patriarchy, but there is no feminism in her universe, even though she occasionally stumbles into rallies and says things like, “Women will fix it. And accessorize it!”

Yes, she is a “fix it” bomb, much as my mother and I are; much as we all are.

She wears her sexuality lightly, her motherhood even lighter. When she talks about pregnancy – “allowing another human to grow inside you till it reaches a size of 6-12 pounds and then giving it an escape route the size of a change purse,” you chuckle. When she wonders if she was meant to be a mother and maybe she picked the wrong profession, you find yourself leaning forward. Ever so slightly.

But Midge’s journey towards finding her voice is far more layered than the predictable evolution from housewife to career woman. She in that sense is Everywoman — angry and sad, inspired and hopeful, vulnerable and buoyant at the same time.

The part that I found most straightforward and progressive is that she turns her marital mishaps into material and she does this without pointing fingers. I may not have her waist, or share her fetish for hats but I could see scenes from my life playing out as comedy (even the sad ones). Everything is material.

I wasn’t perplexed that a show about a woman who is a mother does not focus on her motherhood; her children are like byproducts, props in the background, almost invisible, inaudible even. As someone who struggled balancing motherhood with a writing career (and still does), I was reminded that even with all the strollers, baby-wearing gear, and tactile toys in the world, birthing and caring for children inevitably presents a roadblock to nurturing the self. Women who write “having it all” essays obviously haven’t struggled with stifling creative freedom.

She talks to the mothers who rejoice when their children go to school than to the perpetually-joyful mothers.  Yes, she has parents in the same building (and later, in the same house when she moves in with them); yes she often leaves her kids with them, yes they were far less hands-on than she was, and yes, it was the maid who really looked after the kids – I didn’t process the logistics. Except that one time when she, midway through wheeling her kid in the park, starts addressing a rally and I wondered where the baby was. I still loved her, and at no point was in in the mood to analyze her motherhood skills, a thing I probably would have done in my early years of motherhood, perhaps still hung over from prostaglandins. Motherhood doesn’t seem an obvious challenge for her; perhaps she doesn’t overthink it, although she phones her mother while on tour and wonders if “the baby” has forgotten her.

The fact that her children seem to deliberately fade into the background is exactly why The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel worked for me. May be it shouldn’t have.

She has a day job as a sales counter girl or cloak girl at a departmental store and is demoted to working the phones, but money is never a problem for her. As a single mother with no child support, this should have jarred or made me angry – how unequal our lives were, despite having something in common. But it didn’t.

The point is: the show isn’t applauding Midge’s bravado of venturing into a standup career despite having two small children. It worked for me because it treats the two as mutually exclusive events.  The show is set in the late 50s but remains very now: the universally internalized notion that motherhood should be joyful is often in conflict with the desire to pursue joys of a different sort. We can’t pretend that deriving joy from our children does not, at some point or another, come at the expense of our own professional and creative journeys.  Because despite all the cacophony of voices we nurture and support, we can still hear our own. And that’s just fine.

(An edited version of this post appeared as an article in the Indian Express Sunday Eye on 23rd December 2018) 


Trying to be green, one hand-me-down at a time

World Environment Day

Water color by Vidya Gopal

It was World Environment Day yesterday and it’s all very confusing  – I am told being vegetarian is not so green anymore because it takes much more lettuce to make the same amount of calories than say bacon. I don’t want to start eating bacon, but that doesn’t mean I am not environmentally conscious.

Also, there is this whole straw movement and I did wonder at some point if I should buy a metallic straw, but the point is – I never did straws anyway; I always found them silly, and besides, I never had a real need for them; I never took to aerated drinks or drinking colored liquids with fancy umbrellas. Or smoothies/cold coffees. Which is why I didn’t introduce them to the child either. We are both slurpers. So that’s one less thing we were polluting the environment with and one less thing to substitute.

As for bamboo toothbrushes, I will buy them when my local chemist or grocer sells them. Ordering them online — when a tiny toothbrush comes mummified with triple layered bubble wrap which is covered by another sheath of plastic somehow doesn’t make sense to me. The same way as buying organic dals (is the plastic it comes in also organic, I feel like asking). I would rather buy whatever dal my local grocer has – less wrapping. But every single thing you buy has plastic in it. Bigger the brand, more the layers of plastic. Everything you eat has touched plastic in some way, even if you made it from scratch. Isn’t that scary?

I wish I could say that I grow my own produce (or at least herbs and cherry tomatoes) in my backyard, but my father grabbed all dibs on green thumbs in the family, and is being sustainable on a piece of land in Belgaum, where he grows enough for the family and some friends.

I wish I could say that I have got rid of all plastic in my life (where does plastic go when you get rid of it?). But no matter how consistently and consciously I say no to plastic, it always makes an appearance insidiously. I try to control it from multiplying – but everything comes in plastic, even though it all sits in my cloth bag. I also try to buy large quantities of things – giant toothpastes, shampoos and big bags of rice and giant cans of oil – but at some stage, they all have to be replenished.

I wish I could say that I have switched to cycling and have stopped using my car, but I like air conditioning, and I also use it (albeit for a few hours) at home. If we had better weather, perhaps I would be more green, I tell myself.

It was a few months post baby that I calculated that his diaper consumption must have made a little hillock in a landfill somewhere. It was also when talks of climate change and global warming had reached their peak and there was a sense of alarm. If planet earth were the stock market, it would have crashed then. Since I already had made the baby, I couldn’t be one of those people who said that I wouldn’t have children because I want to save the planet. But I decided one thing – I will use less, want less and  recycle more. I think I have stayed true to that resolution for the most part. I rarely shop (not for clothes, shoes, accessories, belts, bags – nothing). Everything I own is old or gifted or handed down. Even when I travel abroad, I end up going to thrift stores if at all. I buy most books for Re from second hand stores or garage sales. I often wish that one could recycle uniforms and books in schools too, but when I bring it up, other parents roll their eyes. I buy groceries because we have to eat; occasionally I buy treats for us, but there is always a mindfulness about it. 

Re has grown up almost entirely on recycled clothes and shoes. Most of his toys are recycled, although birthdays go a little out of control with people buying random presents that sometimes I have to find ways to recycle. I have some mindful and generous friends who keep aside old clothes, shoes, toys, board games, puzzles and raincoats etc for Re. He doesn’t know that shopping is a luxury and till today, we haven’t actually gone shopping for things – except perhaps to a garage sale for books.  This year on my birthday, I asked my friends not to buy me gifts, but give me something old, something they might have outgrown. It was beautiful, the way everyone responded. It is catching on.

A few weeks ago, my bhangarwala (local buyer of recyclable items including newspaper, bottles, cans , etc) asked me if I had old metal, since bottles had no value any more (the bottle recycling industry was shutting down). Since my mother will throw a fit if I give any of her copper bottomed heirlooms or iron griddles, I told him I had nothing. What about old toys or books of the child, he asked. I told him I donate it to the Don Bosco shelter for children and he laughed. “Ha ha , but they sell it to me, so you might as well, directly”

Now I give stuff to Goonj occasionally, but if there are things that I would like to set free (I don’t like the word donate), I make a list of people, call them, and ask them if they would like a pair of sneakers, a good swimming costume, books or floats or anything in good condition that my child or I may have outgrown physically or emotionally. It takes work, but it is infinitely more rewarding. Likewise, when I want something specific I ask for it. Like right now, I want a cycle. Anyone?

When I am tired of my stuff and want new stuff, I have no shame in asking people for hand-me-downs – ripped jeans, jackets, sarees, kurtas bags, embroidery books, knitting needles, yarn, whatnot. And people are always generous. I have a circle of friends I regularly do barters with and I will recycle anything and so will the child. This is the nice thing about making art. Everything finds a place.

The worst thing for the environment is not straws – it’s greed and random consumption –  to always want more, own more, dump more.

I had a green childhood. We grew up green. Our school satchels were made of thick canvas/cloth and we had the same one for several years, frequently stitched up. My textbooks were kept aside for my siblings as they were in pristine condition. Tiffin boxes were always steel. We drank water from taps. For notebooks, we used brown paper, home-made labels and home-made gum paste. All our clothes were stitched at home and everything we ate was made at home. Except Parle G and sliced bread (which made a guest appearance once in a while). We walked to school, we played with friends, we hardly had toys. Once in a month, my father or the domestic help would go to Pai stores with a list and groceries would be brought home in a large jute bag. Tins had to be sent for oil, ghee. Everything else came in recycled brown paper bags. Rice was bought from farmers (my dad always knew someone) in large 20 kg gunny bags. The only plastic that came into the house was the milk packets of Warana milk that Amma started buying once she found that our milkman was giving us more water than milk from his canister. She would wash and dry each packet, making a sort of accordion like arrangement on the kitchen tiles where they stood next to each other. These were sold once a month for Rs 7 a kilo to the same guy who bought our old newspapers. Empty pages of our school notebooks were collected and bound into “rough books” in the school holidays. Uniforms had hems that if unfurled, would run up to our ankles (just in case we got my father’s height)

Fruit was not a staple, but we occasionally ate guavas, bananas, oranges, watermelon or anything seasonal. Once a year, a crate of mangoes arrived and we had no upper limit on how many we could have. It was real indulgence. We had no gadgets (except a Sumeet mixer and a Phillips radio). No one spoke about global warming. It wasn’t a thing.

I am saddened by the world we are leaving for our children. And each time I look in my garbage bin, I am saddened even more. Especially when I multiply that amount by 1.2 billion people.

Two years ago, my son was picking up litter in Landour and he said something that i will never forget. “Mamma, when humans don’t want things, they throw it on mother earth. It’s like they don’t want garbage in their house, but they are okay with throwing it on Mother Earth’s garden. At this rate, all that garbage will become another planet.”

May be it will.

(If you’d like prints of the above water color, do get in touch with Vidya Gopal on her instagram @spink_bottle )

Who said parenting means entertaining your children?

I have often heard this (even among very aware parents): I don’t know how to entertain my child. Or heard them whining when the more active partner is away that they they don’t know how to keep them busy.

I don’t get this.

Why is entertaining your child even a thing?

I got into this trap for a brief while when Re was still in his crib and had a limited geography within which to entertain himself (although my cats helped hugely).

It was boring as shit: Singing. Making faces. Speaking in funny voices. Peekaboo. The hand puppet thing. Yes, Re loved it. But then I realized I am not his playmate. Why should I pretend to be? As soon as he started crawling and then walking, he was on his own. And he found plenty to amuse himself with, mostly in the kitchen. I still have a video of him trying to sort a bunch of cherry tomatoes and talking to himself. And one of him trying to roll a chapati with a rolling pin and board and proceeding to wear the chapati as a mask.

Every time the other parental unit came home laden with games/toys, I arched my eyebrow. It was excessive and unnecessary. Collaborative games which assume the parent who’s around more often is stuck with playing them with the kid get me worried.

On the few travel dates that I had with fellow parents, I always noticed that they come armed with suitcases full of toys, gadgets, books, games. I found myself saying: but it’s just two nights. Why do you need so much? And they replied: Oh, if we keep them entertained, we can get more time for ourselves.

It never made sense.

Traveling alone with Re was much more satisfying. It still is.

Why is constantly being entertained a way of living? Why is it a norm? It is as though one is teaching children that this is how life is – a series of fun-filled, action packed time capsules on loop, where there is no time for recovery, stillness or nothingness.

If you are doing this, you are in a dangerous place. It’s a slippery slope from there.

Yes, we all want our children to have a happy childhood with a variety of experiences. We just have to stop curating it for them. I have seen friends plan reading lists for their kids, populate their schedules with every activity that looks good on paper and that they can tick off an imaginary list. It’s like every hour of their waking life has to be accounted for.

I feel like telling them: It’s your life, it’s not a pinterest board.

Yes it’s important to engage in fun with them occasionally, listen to them, keep conversations going, but by not allowing their imagination and creativity to come up with something on their own, you are actually hampering play.

We have to provide for our kids, nurture them, look after their basic needs – clothing, food shelter. I signed up for these when I became a parent, not for being his entertainer. And if I do play with my kid, it will be when I am having fun doing that. Not because of some boringass article that said, “Imaginative play with your child helps nurture their soul”. And who started this anyway? I am sure they didn’t think it through. It’s not sustainable for sure. Besides life is all about a lot of mundane things on loop and our kids need to know that and be a part of that too.

For a year now, Re has been assigned the task of arranging the utensils daily after they have dried in their rack, folding and arranging his own clothes in his shelves, feeding the cats in the evening and refilling their water bowls, making his bed, and helping us put the house in order before going to bed every night.

When I was 10, my mother handed me the keys to our house. Until then, we went to school together and returned together (I studied in the school she taught in). I now had a three hour lag from the time she left. In these three hours, I had to help Appa finish the cooking, pack his lunch dabba, pack snack dabbas for me and my twin siblings, wake them up, get them ready (this involved detangling and tying my sister’s unruly hair into two tight plaits, which took the longest time), send them to school (which was an hour earlier to mine), help Appa staple his shirt sometimes, when a button was off and he had to rush for work, and finally, get ready (which involved tying own long, unruly hair into two tight plaits) and go to school myself.

We were poor, we never had help, we all had chores to do, but we never needed to be entertained.  We also didn’t have money to afford toys. Books and play were all we had. We came home from school, ate a snack, did our homework and went out to play (I usually did my homework in school so I had more time to play). Sometimes we played physical games that involved running, jumping, getting dirty in the mud. Sometimes we played “school” and “office” and “restaurant” and “home”. Our parents never asked us what we played. They never played with us. Except Appa teaching us bridge. And Amma who taught us some fun board games from when she was a child, like pallankuzhi.

I was the queen of imaginative play and Enid Blyton with her scones and ginger ale and meringue descriptions hugely helped my childhood. I always imagined myself as an only child who had a secret room in which she hosted midnight feasts. Each time one of us announced we were bored, another chore was handed to us. I learnt to cook at age 10 because I was bored on Thursdays (our convent school day off) and since I was already souz chef to Appa, I started trying things on my own, and one day, I put a meal together and surprised Amma. Vacations were full of jam, pickle, karuvadam and sun-dried fruit projects. And then we traveled.

When I remember my childhood, I remember the cooking, I remember the baking and knitting and crosstitch and embroidery that I did as my mother’s apprentice. I remember making papercuttings of things my mom learned in her sewing class and making them to scale for my only doll, Neetu (who was named after Neetu Singh)

Most afternoons, Re is engaged in active theatre with his dolls: giving them makeovers, tattoos, braiding them, making houses for them with blocks or Lego, sometimes turning them into mermaids, having car rallies with mermaids driving cars, cooking, baking in his play kitchen, making paper clothes for them (now that he can use scissors, he often asks me for fabric swatches), and more such. Or he is sketching or painting. Hours pass by.

I may not be the ‘engaged parent’ but I know when my kid is having fun.

I often get this from people when I visit them with Re or when they come over: He is really good at entertaining himself. My response to that is: well, shouldn’t we all be?

Once in a while if Re does come up to me and say he is bored, I tell him: be bored. It’s good. Boredom is fertile.

What is fertile?

It’s a place where new things can grow.

You mean things can grow in my head? he asks.

Yes, they can. Of course they can.

Dear Mattel. I know you are unpinking. But why did you leave out boys?

barbieIn the last two weeks, I received a link in my inbox from at least four different sources for the new Mattel ad for Barbies that “empowers girls to be anything they want to be”. I had, of course, seen it ample times on my Twitter and Facebook feeds by then, and smiled to myself.

The ad has been playing out in my house for a few years now. In just a few thousand forms. Except the chief protagonist is a boy. And he happens to be my child.

I did notice that the ad didn’t feature a single boy and that got me thinking more than its unpinking. Or its alleged attempt at turning Barbie into a feminist.

It is more happenstance than design, but our family of dolls now includes three Barbies, four Disney Princesses, four magiclip dolls, one mermaid and a few others (Re will be upset I don’t remember their names, but I don’t). I also learned fairly recently that Barbies and Princesses were two different breeds and mixing one for the other was sacrilege. In our home of course, they all play with dinosaurs and wear Playdoh dresses.

Together, and with a real cat thrown in every once in a while, as well as other toy animals, puppets and random toys, they have been part of several adventures that include (but are not limited to) extempore plays, concerts, various rescue operations that involve fire, building collapses, a vet’s clinic, a hospital, a warship, a shipwreck, a chef’s kitchen, a submarine, a traffic management situation, a construction site and several others.

When Re likes someone enough to want to include him/her in his universe, the first thing he tells them is that he likes playing with dolls and has ___ of them (again, I cannot be accurate about the number). This has not been choreographed by me or his father, but I guess after being mocked and ridiculed to some extent by his peers about his preferences of play, he has realized that he would rather be choosy about his friends and that they should have full information when they choose to be friends with him. We now have a select, but beautiful universe of friends that he would like to keep for life, although not all of them like playing with dolls; it’s just that they don’t judge him for doing so.

I was a little amused that people were celebrating Mattel for finally getting it right. One website actually said: “After 59 years, Mattel gets it right.” What are they getting right anyway? That girls have the power to be anything they want to be? But didn’t you already believe that? And if you didn’t, and it took a toy company to tell you that, I would worry more about you than the toy company.

All around, I see mothers frothing at the mouth when their girls go through the princess or Barbie phase, wondering what the hell went down when they had done their best to simulate conditions for this not to happen. When mothers who have been so conscious about the whole ‘no princess’ thing, yet discovered that their three-year old daughter obsessively wants everything to be pink and loves “tacky Disney Cinderella”. Mothers say it quite proudly when their daughters don’t like pink, or that they prefer green instead.

And oh, in case the ad got your hopes up, “Barbie won’t be turning into a feminist anytime soon,” warns Jessica Valenti in this Guardian piece.

Interestingly, the same mothers that are allergic to their girls veering towards girls stuff wouldn’t have minded if she had an obsession with robots for instance. Some blame it on schools and peer pressure. But why must it be the product of external pressure? Isn’t it possible that a girl might just really like princesses? Or pink?  I do get what “normative gendering” is all about; what I don’t get is pushing girls who love dolls towards building model planes or trains or some such. It seems to be some sort of denial of her female-hood.

Much like I didn’t see the point of pushing Re away from dolls either. And if you are the mother of a boy, you would know that the world is more accepting of a girl playing football than a boy playing with dolls.

Here’s the thing: What Mattel or Disney is selling you is just a structure. What you make of it is entirely your imagination. What about the immense value of role play with dolls in developing relational skills and empathy? I see those as priceless.

Removing boys from the context entirely and pretending they don’t exist is not helping at all. It is just genderization in an entirely different way. What I would be more concerned about is a child self-selecting out of anything on account of gender (whether it is toys, play, sport, ballet, science, math etc). The sooner we give up trying to control how their personalities SHOULD form, choreographing their likes and dislikes, the more fulfilling this parenting ride will be.

Not all girls who like princesses at age three grow up to be senseless bimbos, just as not all “tomboys” (although I detest that word) who love decapitating dolls grow up to be independent and strong.

The only reason there are “girl and boy toys” at all is because adults decided what girls and boys should be like, how they should act, and what they should play with. If we let the kids decide, I doubt the division would be so clear.

Perhaps it would be interesting to note the original intent of Barbie creator Ruth Handler, who wrote in her autobiography: “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

Sure, Barbies and princesses are way too skinny for my liking, but it is for you to decide if she is a role model for your body image. I don’t think any girl is unrealistic enough in today’s times to let her body image be affected by what a doll looks like. Just like it is unrealistic for us to want to date boys with six pack abs.

Toy shops and supermarkets categorize things as “boys”and “girls” so they find it easier to keep inventory. Would you find anything at all if you went shopping and the men’s and women’s stuff was all mixed up? Every girl’s parent who complains that all the interesting toys are in the boy’s section, well, who’s stopping you from shopping in the boys’ section? On the rare occasion that Re and I go shopping, we still get asked if it’s for a boy or a girl. I have learned to keep my calm and say we are just browsing thank you, and Re invariably goes to look in the girls section.

My point is, if you are constantly looking for subtext, you will always find it. As long as we let our children do their thing and keep those conversations open and going, we are fine.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 26th October, 2015)

Confessions of a I-don’t-give-a-shit mom

tiger momSo the other day, Re came back from school, sulking. I asked him what the matter was. He said he was the only child in school that day to come dressed in a uniform when the whole school was dressed in traditional clothes. I had no idea what he was talking about. “But why didn’t anyone tell me?,” I asked, pained that he felt left out, but annoyed that the Whatsapp psychos hadn’t told me.

“You are supposed to check e-campus everyday mamma! It seems it was written on it!’. He was referring to the school website of course, which totally intimidates me. Now, given the time I waste on the internet every day, you might say what’s the harm checking a school website to find out what’s going on? But I find it painfully boring, I really do.

That’s when I realized that I don’t really care; I am just happy that he goes to school every day. When people are holding forth about tiger moms and camel moms and lamb moms, I smile beatifically. Because no one is talking about the I-don’t-give-a-shit moms. So I thought I will share a list things that I don’t give a shit about:

I don’t care what he learns in school. I chose the school only because it has a good arts program and they teach the kids how to swim and songs about science. It was one thing I wouldn’t have to do. Also I look at school as an extended form of daycare, so I am happy with the basics. The more I expect from it, the more I have to do. And I won’t do THAT.

I don’t know the difference between ICSE, CBSE, IG, IB, IGCSE any new boards that may have been invented without my knowledge and frankly,  I don’t care. I don’t think learning comes prefixed with labels. I am still learning although I may have some labels.

I hate homework. Okay let me correct it. I hate that I may have to help with homework. So I pretend it doesn’t exist. My time with my kid is my time with my kid. It cannot be an extension of school time. I have enough trouble being a mother. I don’t want to be a tutor. Besides I would suck at it. Having been a teacher doesn’t help.

I hate it when other moms on Whatsapp discuss homework. I think they are all losers. I really do. I mean what kind of person would triple check what a child says is homework just in order to ascertain that it indeed is? Your kid knows what to do. It’s just that you don’t trust him/her. Losers.

I am constantly nervous that the child will come with a note in his almanac or some circular will be issued from the school that parents have to do a project/make some costume/ prop. I don’t want to be a part of it.

I am really bored of listening to people talking about their kids’ achievements. Like really really bored. Do something yourself and tell me, for Christ’s sake.

I love it when my kid plays with dolls, puts on makeup for them, paints shoes on them, does their hair, adds sequins to their clothes. If you have a problem with it, it’s your problem.

Sometimes I forget the difference between my outside voice and my inside voice. My kid calls me shouty. But then it’s okay, because he forgets it too. So we are even.

I sometimes make feeble attempts to ask him whether he would like to learn ballet, the piano, or tennis maybe, knowing fully well that I will have to sacrifice more hours of writing or doing what I want for it, but then he says no; he already knows ballet. And the piano. I don’t argue. I am relieved and let him be.

I try and redeem myself from time to time by posing as a tree for a play that the child is a part of and wants to practice at home. But that is the exception more than the rule. So don’t typecast me. It may look like I am winging motherhood, but six years down, and I still don’t know what I am doing.


( A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 19th October, 2015)


Cheek pinchers and why they are bad news

cheek pinchingIt’s a problem when you have a good-looking child. It’s a bigger problem when you have a good-looking child who has curly hair and cheeks. It’s an even bigger problem when people feel a good looking child with curly hair and cheeks has no business being a boy.

Two weeks ago, Re and I were invited to a home birthday party of a friend. Yes, he was my friend, but I like his kids and the whole family package, plus Re liked them too, and I wanted him to be a part of the plan.

As we waited for the lift in his building, we saw another family waiting: a man with two little girls and a lady who appeared to be his partner. Before I knew it, the man crept up and cupped Re’s cheeks from behind, pinching them. I was aghast. Re was startled and jumped, as any child accosted by a stranger is wont to do. He shrugged him off, rubbed his cheeks and quickly held me really tight. His cheeks have long since shrunk from the time I wrote this post, but turns out, the cheek pinchers are still at it.

Seeing him recoil, the perpetrator chuckled. I told him that Re was trained in self-defence. It was a veiled threat, because I was itching to slap him, but didn’t want to make a scene in front of Re. His wife smiled stoically and asked me if the child’s name was Re. She went on to add that she followed my columns and blogs. I saw a cake in her hand and it took me all of 10 seconds to realize we were going to the same party. This was a bad start, I thought, shuddering at the thought of spending the the rest of the evening in present company.

Once in the lift, the cheek-pincher continued to make eye contact with Re as he tried hard to look away. He was now aiming for Re’s curls, wondering aloud if he was a boy or a girl. I motioned him away sternly. His wife said boy. But he looks like a girl, said he. I stared. The ninth floor took forever to arrive. This was getting worse.

At the party, I mentioned the incident to the hostess. She was shocked too, but we went on with the motions of the party. Re’s mood had transformed seeing his friends, but mine hadn’t; I was just playing along.The rest of the evening was redeemed by a lot of dancing, and me keeping the cheek-pincher at bay by being my rudest best. I noticed that cheek pincher also proceeded to grab another (older) child and make him sit on his lap. The child’s parents didn’t bat an eyelid. May be it was just me.

As parents, we are always in the “slim-pickings” zone when it comes to making new friends post baby. We can choose our friends, but we can’t choose their spouse, the children, the rest of it.The problem with “package deal socializing” is that someone is always a bad egg. And they are already part of your circle by the time you realise it.

May be I should be protecting my friends and not be writing about this, but I really wanted to put this out there, so that said cheek pincher and the thousands of cheek-pinchers lurking around get the message.

Soon after the aforementioned incident, Re got grabbed and fondled by a grandmother of a bus-buddy while we were waiting for the school bus one morning. I was still reeling from cheek-pincher, so I lost it and gave her an earful. She was shocked; may be this was a first. She accused me of misunderstanding her pyaar. I told her there are many ways to show pyaar and intimidating a child by grabbing him is not one of them. Bus buddy’s family has now shunned us, although she had become a frequent play-date at our place. Her mother too has stopped smiling at me. Perhaps she is just being a dutiful daughter-in-law. Re is intrigued that his buddy doesn’t sit next to him on the bus anymore and is less chirpy around him.

But if you are a cheek pincher, or a child grabber, I want to know: why do you do this? Is it all children or ones with particularly juicy looking cheeks? Or curly hair? Would you be offended if the child in question shrieked and ran off? Or is that part of the fun? One person on twitter told me he does it because he had it done to him as a child. Another said but of course the kids enjoy it. I can’t imagine a more bleak world if all adults start thinking like this.

I have played aunt to several babies of friends, and I have never pinched a baby’s cheeks or picked up a baby without being asked to, and trust me, there were some really cute ones. I have never seen my parents do it either. And I have never ever touched a child I don’t know.

I am okay with being friendless for the rest of my life, but I have a problem with adults who can’t keep their hands off kids. People explain to me all the time that they are doing it out of love, that they meant no harm, that they love my kid so much, it was the only way they could react upon seeing him in person, but I don’t buy it.

Research reveals that nearly early two-thirds of humans will pinch, squeeze, grab, sometimes even bite cute little children. Most of these reactions are deemed playful and appear to be reactions to cuteness. They are definitely more common in India. On the surface, they look very much like aggression, and if I am  unable to see the difference as an adult, how can one expect a child to?

There is a term for it. Cute aggression – that strange compulsion to nibble a baby, stroke its face, or pinch its cheeks – is officially a thing. The same team of researchers who established the term have now expanded on it in a new paper in Psychological Science, explaining why humans feel such paradoxical, violent urges towards things they enjoy.

They theorise the feeling is similar to nervous laughter or tears of joy, an attempt to regulate emotion by going in the opposite direction and thus bringing ourselves back down to a normal state. “So, people who show dimorphous expressions in response to cute stimuli, like babies, tend to show them in response to other positive situations and emotions, such as crying during happy moments in movies,” the researchers wrote.

May be in the hierarchy of wrong things done to a child, cheek pinching features fairly low, but it’s the starting point for raising the bar. I don’t know when adults will truly learn to appreciate the personal space of a child. I am saying this here loud and clear so I don’t have to pinch your cheeks back in public: If you love my kid, keep your hands off him. Chances are, you have a shot at being loved back.

I think all children who have had their cheeks pinched should be allowed one good, hard kick at the pincher. Re is learning taekwondo and coming for you soon. And I will be cheering from the wings.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 12th October, 2015)

Bragging about your kids: When is it cool and when not

bragging about your kids

 There is always a certain kind of behavior that may slot parents down as unpopular or ‘unliked’. Most parents do have a tendency to spill the glory (seldom the gore) about their kids, to an extent that it can come across as unpleasant, annoying or sometimes even obnoxious to others who didn’t sign up for this when they decided to include themselves in your social media. There is a Yiddish word for it, “kvelling”. It’s when a person is bursting with pride or pleasure. For want of a better word, we call it boasting or bragging.

While there is a line people draw at bragging about themselves, there seem to be no holds barred while talking about their children. When you’re a parent, you’re bound to be fascinated with each and every achievement of your child, whether it’s eating on his own, using the pot for the first time as a toddler, or being a carrot at that fancy dress competition. Every move a child makes for the first several years of his or her life is celebrated with applause, pride and yes, updates on social media to make the achievement all the more official.

I often wished that my parents bragged a little bit about me when I was a child, given that I was an accomplished one by conventional standards, but they didn’t. Perhaps they didn’t want others to feel left out, or maybe they just didn’t think it was nice, but they didn’t. I still don’t know if it was right or wrong.

“Parenting is tough enough,” Bruce Feiler wrote a few years ago in the New York Times, “can’t you take a victory lap every now and then?”

Sure you can. It’s okay to leave your bragometer on every once in a while as long as you follow certain guidelines:

1. Make it about effort, not about accomplishment

It’s one thing to say your kid loves reading and quite another to say that she reads books meant for eight year-olds at five. Of course you can praise your child’s ability to read books and read them fast, don’t take it to the next level by quantifying it and saying he finishes reading all the library books by the time you reach home. When Re was a toddler, I used to constantly cancel out parents in my head who said their child could speak 12-word sentences. Not cool.

 2. Make it about your good fortune and not about your parenting skills

Most of the time, bragging about your child is a backhanded compliment to yourself. When parents brag, they want you to notice their amazing parenting skills and not their child’s natural abilities. “See, I made this,” they seem to say.

As if it was all your doing and the child had little to do with it. But the truth is that his/her awesomeness is sheer luck anyway and has little to do with you or your parenting skills. I have seen many nice parents with obnoxious children and several obnoxious adults with really nice kids.

  1. Do not belittle when you brag.

You may not realize this, but bragging about your child sometimes undermines the abilities of another child who is still trying but hasn’t got to that stage of accomplishment. But you are obviously too busy basking in your own gene pool to notice this.

Case in point: I told a friend how Re, at age 4 wasn’t keen to learn Tamil at all, despite my mother and I making efforts to speak in it. To which she bragged about how her child is one part A and one part B and one part C and one part D (the letters referring to the respective native languages of her grandparents) and how, as a result, she said every word in four different languages at 11 months.

Or friend A who, when I told her how Re hated writing at age five even though every other child in his class enjoyed it, said to me that her son not only wrote long word sentences but also had started reading by the time he was four. Not cool.

  1. Cancel out your brag quickly with some un-brags.

This means say something your child is struggling with soon after announcing that she won a Math Olympiad. But for some braggy parents, even the counter-negative might end up being boastful. These are the humblebrags. Like, “Her room is so messy, I might find a Calculus breakthrough in it someday”! #mygirlisamathgenius

While I do love talking about Re as well, I think I try to do it in a self-deprecatory manner or just in awe. Most of the times, Re reminds me of the things I am not, and therefore the conversations I share about him are as reflective of my conditioning than they are about his thought process. If any of those came across as bragging, I am guilty too.

  1. Get over it quickly

If you have to brag, do it quickly and get out. Don’t divide your twitter feed into 20 parts, each part holding forth on some sterling quality of your child. Or a series of Facebook posts with different trophies or milestones highlighted. Whatever you do, do not hashtag your brags.

  1. Boasting is not necessarily proclaiming love:

Your child may be extremely smart, wise beyond his years, and achingly cute. She may be as close to perfection as you can imagine. Your love for her may be greater than anything else you feel, but that doesn’t give you the license to boast about each and every milestone. Of course you can do it with your spouse or with your parents, but before you put it out there, remember that boasting is not love. It does not do for the child what unconditional love does.

  1. Time it well

When you are in a forum where everyone is talking about how much trouble they are having getting their kids to eat well, it may not be the best time to proclaim that your cherub is an ace eater and has been eating on his own since eight months. Not cool.

  1. Do not make it about report cards

Report cards are weird things, and people’s perception of them is also rather skewed and however cool a parent you may be, you would still prefer As over Cs. So avoid paper boasts, which is what I call them.

  1. Listen to the ones who don’t brag

The next time you are at a brunch and the talk turns to what your kids are doing and the bragging begins, notice that mother who is sitting quietly, not saying much about her kids. May be she is struggling with something. But she loves her son or daughter just as much as you do.

  1. Think about how would someone who is reading your outpourings (and is not necessarily in love with your child) would perceive it.

I usually follow a simple rule of asking myself three questions:

  1. Is it truly exceptional?
  2. Might it cause others to feel left out?
  3. Does it have entertainment value?

My focus is usually on no. 3 and so far, so good.


(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 5th October, 2015)