Enough of ‘bad mothers’. Anyone talking about ‘bad fathers’?

bad mother bad father So Marissa Mayer announces her micro maternity leave of two weeks. The world explodes:

“What kind of a mother is she? Does she even know what it takes to raise a child, leave alone twins! What kind of message is she sending out to other mothers?”

Indrani Mukerjea (allegedly) murders her daughter Sheena:

“What kind of mother would kill her own child?”

Bad mothers are always in vogue. And it doesn’t always take murder.

I have heard this far too many times. A woman does something that puts her interest before that of her children. She is instantly labeled a bad mother and several discussions ensue on good mothers and bad mothers and the effect they have on their kids.

No one ever talks about bad fathers.

Women are constantly blamed for not being ‘good’ enough.They are either ‘too emotionally involved’ with their children, or ‘not present enough’.  Meanwhile, the men in their lives quietly slink under the radar. Mamma’s boys get bad names, while daddy’s girls are cool.

Post Indrani’s arrest, I saw this query on a popular social media forum: Do cunning and selfish women make good mothers? Are mothers selfish when it comes to providing for their own children? Are there any scientific theories that talk if a woman would make a good mother or not? Can you site some instances from real life where a mother’s conduct was distasteful? Are there cases where a mother harms her child because she’s jealous of her child?

I was first amused and then angry. Just like I was when I read articles talking about what kind of mother would raise a rapist. Just like I was when I defended Marissa Mayer here.

Motherhood is constantly beset by feelings of failure, often corroding you in the process. If you have a career, you are neglectful; if you don’t, you are smothering. If you discipline, you are controlling; if you don’t, you are weird. If you are present, you are too involved, if you are not, you don’t care enough. It’s like you can never win. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Ayelet Waldman in her book Bad Mother explores this guilt and ambiguity and says she wrote the book because so many women she knows are in real pain. “They are so crippled by their guilt, by their unreasonable expectations, that they can’t even allow themselves to celebrate the true joys of being a mom.”

Mothers are expected to be all things to all people. A good mother is expected to sacrifice of herself and her happiness for her child. She should be there when her child wakes in the night; she should be there in the morning when they wake up, she should be there for tucking them in with stories at bed time. She should always put her child’s needs before her own. If she does have needs, they should be invisible.

The only requirement of a father is showing up. Being in the same room. All it takes to be a good father is to do photo-opp things. Like wearing your baby or pulling a stroller .

Mothers are often asked, “Do you think you are good mother?” If not by others, by themselves, by the self-doubt that is an intrinsic part of motherhood.

I wonder if one ever asks this question of fathers.

Why is ‘good’ part of a mother’s default setting? Perhaps nurturing and caring is a byproduct of giving birth, but the whole ambivalence of parenting stems from the fact that mothers are always expected to be good, and almost nothing is expected of fathers. It speaks a lot about us if we always blame mothers for things like say, ‘bad upbringing’ or any kind of deviant behavior in the child. Before they are mothers, they are also human beings, and are all human beings good? No.

Motherhood is a state of continuous conflict, negotiation and renegotiations for a woman. Fatherhood, on the other hand is just a side effect of being men. Parenting is a state of ambivalence for both parents. The difference is: women are spoken of as being mothers before they are women. And men are always men who are ‘also’ fathers. In this complex playout of emotions that ensues, if the onus is always on the mother to be good, while the father is deemed good unless proven bad, is just unfair.

We really need to up the ante for our men. They can’t just play Kinect with their children or watch television together and check the “daddy time” box. Many men (mine included) refer to time spent with their own children as “babysitting’. I have burst enough capillaries screaming out loud that you DO NOT babysit your own children.

I wonder if anyone asked if Steve Jobs was a good father. Or Bill Gates. Or Narayan Murthy. Or Peter Mukerjea for that matter.

(A version of this post appeared as my Pune Mirror column on 14th September 2015)

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On single parenting and how two is not always better than one

So, why haven’t you written about single parenting yet, asked a reader. I didn’t really have an answer to that, except the fact that I write mostly about what I know, and I don’t think I know entirely what single parenting is all about. Because technically, I am not a single parent. This means that I have a spouse on paper, and he does pitch into the financial aspects of parenting, but for the most part, I feel like I’m parenting solo.

I once wrote that I was practically a single parent in one of my columns, and got a rather acerbic email from someone who was one and who told me I had no right to accord myself that status until I was actually one. She was right. But that got me thinking. What made me different? Just a technicality?

We all know what a tedium collaborative parenting can be, although I do know a few people who are winging it. But they are still exceptions. We have seen our parents at cross-wires when raising us. We don’t have to do the same thing to our children. Very often, two-parent households are a sham, a window display for what actually is single parenting.

Okay, pull back those daggers.

Of course raising children alone is tough, but sometimes it may be psychologically tougher in a two-parent household. I often see couples with children at malls, brunches, movie halls and holiday resorts, resentfully going through the motions of parenting while staring at their screens or avoiding eye contact with each other. And I wonder: how exactly do children benefit from this? When I see couples arguing at airports, restaurants, fitting rooms, toy and bookshops over trivial things escalating to big things, I wonder: is it worth it to stay together ‘for the sake of the children’?. When I look at my own friend circle and see robotic marriages and equally robotic kids, I know the togetherness is plastic, because even their shiny happy selfies look unreal. Because life is not Instagram.

It’s better for the children, they say, and stick around, silently killing each other and their children, every single day. When they talk to single parents, they are often looking for stories of behaviour disorders, psychological breakdowns and other lurid details in the subtext, trying to console themselves they are glad they ‘stuck it out”. But they are often disappointed to find out that the kids are alright.

Children need to see you as whole, and not just a part of a dysfunctional parental unit, which is what happens in most ‘normal’ households, and that’s perhaps why single parenting is more harmonious. Once freed of the ‘spouse’ tag, fathers and mothers have more room to be themselves and hence, better parents. Being married often comes in the way of being a good parent, because the person you married is also the person who questions and contests every parenting decision, big or small. Or whose point of view (however polar it is to yours) has to be factored in, because that makes for a good partnership. Sometimes, being a single parent might just be the thing that makes you like the person you married a wee bit more. I find that once you get past the financial implications of it, single parenting may actually be more efficient. I also know the D word is not to be taken lightly, but in today’s world where single parenting is more the norm than the exception, it might just help to say some things out loud:

  1. That doing something alone may actually be easier than constantly arguing about who does what, and then making sure the said person does it.
  2. That making the rules without having to go through the charade of having someone “on the same page” can be liberating.
  3. That unilateral choices do more good than harm in the long run.
  4. That having someone always undermining your authority is neither good for you, nor the children, in the long run.
  5. That divorce may actually be the thing that sets you free to parent solo and bring back the focus on what is important.
  6. That there is a certain distilled quality to the way single parents bring up their kids, and it comes from being able to pick your battles.
  7. That most mothers are single. They just don’t know it.

A few years ago, I read an article in Slate that said, among other things, that single mothers raise better children. While I am not qualified to comment on that, I can say without generalizing that more often than not, whenever I have met a child who is empathetic, observant, willing to take responsibility, is kind or generous— it is from a single parent household. I am sure these qualities come from a place of consciousness that frugality or a lack of abundance seems to initiate. They also seem to have come from learning to appreciate what they have and realising that not all that is a ‘must-have’ needs to be had.

While a lot has been said and researched on children from ‘broken homes’ or the rising ‘single mother syndrome” , there are almost no reports or studies that quantify the damage of ‘staying together for the children’. That perhaps explains the hypocrisy of a society which believes that dual family units (read marriage) are the platinum standard for parenting. Yes, we have all been raised to believe that two is better than one, but it might be worthwhile to ask some relevant questions.

If I have to explain it in mathematical terms, let me redefine the clichéd, “Two is better than one” by saying, “Single is more than half of a parenting pair”. Because coupledom always comes with a huge dose of parental compromise at every stage. ‘Your’ way and ‘my’ way sometimes takes a lifetime to be ‘our’ way and not everyone has a lifetime.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 10th August, 2015)

Kneading. Proving. Waiting. Proving: Of raising loaves and children

My first loaf of bread

I’m the kind of person who will seldom say no to any kind of new experience. I have, in the past, tried several things which may have seemed scary on the surface, but turned out to be fun nevertheless. However I consciously stayed away from baking bread. I’d done my share of cakes, cookies, loaves, cupcakes, muffins, biscuits, pies and crumbles, but always stopped short of bread.

Bread intimidated me. It was too precise, too scientific, too complicated a way of consuming something really simple. There was too much measuring and waiting, kneading and waiting, proving and waiting, thumping and waiting, more proving and waiting. It was too confusing, too much to remember, too long a way to the end of the tunnel. The worst thing was, it was unfixable for the most part if things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to.

I mean, I could get a cake together from start to finish in half hour. And it was cake at the end of the day! I always got points for it. But bread? It was at best a carrier for something else. Forget it, I thought.

But each time I saw pictures of freshly baked bread on Instagram, it took me to a warm and fuzzy place that cake and cookies couldn’t. It took me home.

But end of last year, I told myself I was too chicken not to try bread and that I had to overcome my bread virginity. I had recipes from friends, but they took too much for granted, I thought. This was a big deal for me. I just buried my head in websites and blogs all day. I typed “bread making for people who are scared of bread” in my search field. I was careful to find really precise instructions. Like sprinkling the yeast on the water as opposed to adding the water to the yeast. I found Aunt B on a budget, a blog that doesn’t make beginners feel left out.

I learnt that yeast is a big deal, and it’s moody, quite unlike baking powder that always does its job. Yeast requires a little thought, a little finesse. After all, it is a living organism; it demands some sensitivity. It has a lot of power, though, causing things to rise and multiply and making all those yummy holes that breathe and look so heavenly in pictures of bread.

But yeast is also powerless without sugar. It can take a while for yeast to wake up and get going, and it’s the sugar that helps the yeast proliferate. If you feed the yeast sugar directly, it can become more active, more quickly.

And just when I thought I learnt a deep truth, I found out that the French have been baking bread without sugar.

I also felt quite clumsy while kneading. There was too much volume, too little hands, I was flustered, sweaty, there was flour on my hair and face, and I wasn’t even in a movie and there was no hunk ringing my doorbell! Finally, after a few hair-splitting minutes which seemed like hours, the dough came together nicely. It sprang back when I made a dent, just as she said it would. I left it to prove. It rose to twice its size, just as she said it would. I punched it and it collapsed. Just as she said it would. Then I made a few slits, sprinkled some water, proved it again, and then shoved it into the oven.

It came out looking like the most divine thing on earth.

I shouted from the rooftop. I took a picture. I shared it. Hell, I can do bread I thought. It was a moment. I mentally ticked off a block that I had in my head and felt lighter, headier.

Now I wanted to raise the bar. I didn’t want to be the harried woman who had flour in her hair. I wanted to look elegant, like my friend Maria always does while baking. I wanted clean hands, an unruffled face. I wanted poise and Zen. I wanted it all.

Make a hole in the flour. Pour the yeast mixture and a tablespoonful of oil and mix it all with a fork, she said. No hands. She looked so effortless doing it. And her hair was all in place.

Next, I wanted to try cinnamon rolls.

Everything that had to go wrong went wrong. As I kneaded, the dough kept multiplying like some demon on drugs and flying in all directions. I began to wonder if it would ever come together. At some point, I wanted to fling the dough into the garbage. I thought of all the yummy, buttery, cinnamon sugary goodness that went into it, and the best King Arthur’s bread flour and Fleishman’s yeast I had carted all the way from the U.S on my last trip. Finally, in disgust, I just rolled the dough into four balls and dunked it in the oven. I gave it some brutal slits. Half an hour later, it smelt divine. An hour later, I opened the oven with much trepidation. It looked good to me. It was edible. I just had to call it something else.

Re rejected it. “How can it be a bun when it tastes like biscuit?” he said.

Okay, call it a bread biscuit, I said.

The next day, I had some students over. I put my Cinnamon Rocks in front of them. They polished it, no questions asked.

That’s the thing about parenting. You know a little each time, but you never know enough. And sometimes, things don’t rise, or come together. And just when you think you’ve cracked it, you have to go back to the drawing board.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 26th January, 2015. If you see more connections between bread and raising kids, email me on mommygolightly@gmail.com)

365 days of being raised by my child

365 days is a long time when you are a parent. It’s a long time anyway, but hell, when you are a parent, you can’t have much unaccounted-for time, like time when you pass out in the delirium of youth, time when you sleep through the alarm, or the child’s nocturnal pee break or hear him grinding his teeth, or moaning in the middle of sleep due to a bad dream or sometimes, even hear him talk or laugh and decode what he is saying.

They told me one year is all the sleep I would lose when I became a mother. It is now five going on six, and I haven’t slept straight eight hours on any given night. Except the few nights that I have been away and I am grateful for those. I have now come to accept that parenting is a journey that is as long as you want to be. I also know I have signed an open-ended contract, so I have no use-before date.

This year, I have, for the most part, been practically a single parent, as I decided to move to teach in a school and live on campus with Re. I realised if I didn’t do it, I would always wonder what stopped me and I didn’t want to be in that place. And it is not necessarily this stint that has taught me a few things, but here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Having children does not necessarily make you understand them better. Some really apathetic people have kids and it doesn’t seem to change anything.
  2. Not having children does not necessarily make you less aware of them. Most of the people I would implicitly trust Re with do not have kids.
  3. People are always happier when children fit in, when they “love” going to school or to activity class or playgroup. It just means less work for the parent.
  4. Parents have really short term memory when it comes to children – why they cry, how often they whine, why they have separation anxiety, and so on.
  5. It is always easy to over simplify another’s child. But there always seem to be layers of explanation for the simplest things when it comes to your own.
  6. Everything seems easier when you can speak about it in the past tense.
  7. It is rare for children to only be seen and not heard, unless you are really intimidating or there is something really wrong with what you are doing.
  8. We are all secretly gratified when our children take after us, even if it is something about us that we are trying really hard to fix.
  9. Whenever we see a really happy child, we get more deeply connected to our own void and realise it is our own doing.
  10. If each one of us was more in touch with the child within us, we would probably be happier adults.
  11. We often underestimate tears and overestimate bravery. Not crying is not being brave. If more adults could cry in the free spirit of children, we would be able to untie the knots within, perhaps be a little more happy or a little less bitter.
  12. In our over-emphasis of children saying and doing the right thing, displaying overt signs of politeness that often doesn’t have its roots anywhere, what we are actually doing is rendering our children into clones of ourselves.
  13. We often choose the wrong means to get our children to do the right thing.
  14. Sometimes all you need to do for a child is just be there.
  15. We all need to learn how to truly lose ourselves from children.
  16. Sometimes, it is important to break the rules to just know how meaningless it was to blindly follow them without questioning.
  17. It is important for a child to celebrate every scar, every wound. Every scar is a story, an accomplishment. What growing up does to us is make us hide our wounds and scars, pretend to be brave when we are not.
  18. Every day is a new world. You don’t need to wait for 31st December to bring in newness. The year is filled with pockets of newness every single day.
  19. It’s never too late to start over. If you weren’t happy with yesterday, try something different today. Or tomorrow. Or the day after.
  20. It is important to scream. And shout. And let it all out.

Happy new year all! It has been so lovely connecting with so many lovely people all over the world and I have learnt so much from you and your children.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 29th December, 2014)