Child, uninterrupted: why you must never let go of the child in you

A few days ago, I overheard a remark at a supermarket which went something like, “Come on now, don’t be a child!” It was meant — as most references towards child and animal behaviour are intended — to be condescending. As if the said person, if he ever got over his “childishness”, would be just that perfect human being the world would like to do business with.

It bothered me, that remark, particularly at a time when I was beginning to feel that adulthood and its related baggage is, to a large extent, our undoing.

We have too much time to be grown-up, too little to be children. We have forgotten how to laugh, cry, jump in abandon, sing and dance at whim, eat, play, love without an agenda. We are all hiding behind our adult masks, pretending to be all grown-up. It’s exhausting, this grownupness. Etiquette, protocol, political correctness — they are all collectively conspiring to render us clones of each other.

Children ask questions, don’t take no for an answer, don’t say “yes” too easily and almost say nothing to please. Spending time with a child keeps your dissent alive. It makes you question authority, it makes you wonder why you do what you do, it makes you happy, sad, angry, curious. Some of us hold on to the child in us, others let go. But in the end, it is the child in us that sets us free, no matter what we choose to do.

So let’s not rush it for our children. Let’s not admonish them for being “childlike”. Let’s not make adulthood this hugely exciting place they have to get to. Or, as American quotation anthologist Terri Guillemets sums it up: “Always jump in the puddles! Always skip alongside the flowers. The only fights worth fighting are the pillow and food varieties.”

My mother, minutes before she went into her second open heart surgery a few months ago, said, “Oh no! Now I have to tear open my rib cage like Hanuman and will end up looking like an open cockroach!” Her biggest peeve about the hospital stay was not the pain or the needles. It was her hospital gown, which she thought was most unbecoming for her petite self. She called it her misshapen backless choli, laughing feebly to bring out the cough that was necessary to decongest her chest, help her lungs clear and her heart stabilise post her valve replacement. She is the best child I have ever had.

The husband, on most days, is spank-worthy. His jaunts to the building landing (his allotted smoking area) are now getting increasingly longer thanks to Pocket Planes and Tiny Towers, his current hot picks on the iPhone. I find it harder to get him off his Xbox than Re off his toys and into bed. Why do you allow him to game, friends ask me. Because you can never not allow someone to be a child, I say.

One of the sideeffects of having Re is that he has brought me closer to my inner child. And so I feel grateful to him for teaching me these little things:

To laugh. Always. With abandon. Like you really mean it. As loud as you can. It’s good for your lungs. And it really makes your face come alive. Know anyone who doesn’t look good laughing?

To sing. Loudly. Or even softly. Whistle. Sway along. Sing like the world belongs to you. It will.

To dance. Anywhere, to anything. Dance like you know no fear, no inhibitions. Like your body is your best friend. Dance when no one expects you to.

To hug. Because no matter how big or small you are, you always feel happier after a hug.

To clap. Because it makes a nice sound. And when you are happy and you know it, you must clap your hands. The song says so.

To cuddle and kiss. Because everyone has to know they are loved.

To ask questions. Because it is important to know. Everything.

To cry. Because sometimes it is important to let people know that you are upset. Also, it always guarantees a cuddle.

They keep me going, these children in my life. One who gave birth to me. One I married. One I birthed.

(This post first appeared as my column in the Indian Express Sunday Eye on 28th Oct 2012)


Children of no lesser God

In a politically correct world that is duly celebrating the girl child, in a world where it is almost in vogue to wish for a girl or adopt one, I begat a boy.

It was a time when most of my friends were dealing with troubled teens at home or, at the very least, had graduated to baby number two. I found myself telling the husband within a few months of our marriage that we should adopt a baby girl in two years if we don’t have a child of our own. I had, at that point, underestimated our ability to procreate.

Exactly a year after this talk, Re arrived. I, who was proud of my womanhood and had bashed men for the longest time in my gender column, had finally given birth to a man. I felt nothing except mild shock. Poetic justice, I thought. “At least he has curly hair, and my cleft,” I consoled myself. I was ready for another man.

Something told me that this project would not work on auto-pilot. I had no clue about how to raise a man: how to understand his layered complexities, how to let him be, yet let him grow and what to expect of him. Plus, the world around me displayed a kind of reverse snobbery about the boy child. In it, boys are best underplayed, or not played at all. Mothers of boys are constantly scrutinised for subtext. Consider this: Boy throws a tantrum and he is shrugged off as “boys will be boys”. Girl throws a tantrum and she is said to have a mind of her own. Boy climbs on to the table in a restaurant and he is “not brought up well”. Girl does the same and she is slated to be the next gymnast. It’s as though in the race to celebrate our girls, we are trying to pretend our boys don’t exist.

As soon as Re’s hormones surfaced (and they show up intensely close to age two), I was at sea. I think a lot of the confusion arose because of my own expectations from men. We want our men to be sensitive but robust, quiet but communicative, accomplished but understated, generous but thrifty, leaders but followers. We want them to be independent and successful, yet we like it when they can’t do without us.

Boys have to prove they can make good friends, good boyfriends, good husbands, good sons, good brothers and good fathers. The men in my life, whether it was my father, my brother, the boyfriends and the husband, constantly had to prove that they were “men enough”. They still do. We are constantly raising the bar for our men. There seems to be this daunting task of making a good man out of a boy, but it is somewhat assumed that all girls grow up to be good women. And for some reason, mamma’s boy is not as cool as daddy’s girl.

I found myself extrapolating every tantrum of Re, every sign of defiance, and wondering, alpha-male, bad boy or just age? By some twist of fate, Re is surrounded by mostly girl children, whether it is in our apartment building or my circle of friends. The ratio is skewed in favour of girls, at least in our world, whatever the statistics might say. He is usually the aggressee and never the aggressor, and I still don’t know whether I should ask him to fight back or let go. I don’t know what would make him a real man. But I will always be okay with him crying. After all, vulnerability is a valuable thing. It’s what the world looks for, I am told.

I looked. I got sensitivity with bravado (“Don’t hold my hand, mamma. I want to hold your hand”), free-spiritedness with extreme attachment (“I don’t want to go to school, mamma. I want to be with you”), defiance with understanding, noise with silence, aggression with empathy and “I” with “you”. Re hurts easily, he loves animals to a fault, he gives me a foot massage on my wretched days, he puts my cup of tea away, he brings me my slippers, wherever they are, he bakes me mud cakes. He likes cars and kitchens and I don’t care which way he goes. He is often mistaken for a girl, because of his locks. I am asked why I don’t cut his hair and I just try and fix a beatific look on my face and shrug. The real reason is, his locks remind me that he is still me.

So there you are. He is me. I am him.

I realised we can never be enough woman without the man in us and they can never be enough man without the woman in them.

Yes, it’s important to celebrate our girls and boys. But it’s more important to celebrate our children.

Pic by Rahul De Cunha of Treestock


This piece first appeared in my column in the Eye section of the Indian Express on 29th July, 2012