The kids are okay. The parents need some happiness shots.

I see them, sulking into the distance, or staring vacantly at the heap of energy that is their child in the pool. Sometimes I see them not even looking up once from their smartphones while the child is at play. Once in a while, I see them peering into a book, catching up on their reading, as their child builds sand castles, skates or free-plays in the park. They have this look of ‘why me?” that I cannot understand.

I used to see this at the Montessori when I went to drop Re. It was touch and go at the gate for some of them, while the child still wanted to wave a slow good bye, be held for just a little longer, be kissed just one more time. But no. They were in a rush to get to their offices and gyms and accomplish nobler tasks.

Why do parents look so grumpy? Why does it always appear that they want to fast-forward childhood? After all, they are young as long as the kids are young, aren’t they? How does growing up make anything easier? I know every child is work on loop, some more than the others, but then it’s not the neighbour’s child. It’s yours. And then one day you will say they shouldn’t have grown up so soon.

I have been a stay-at-home mother for four of Re’s almost six years and I know it’s hard. I know it’s several tasks on autopilot. I know that even if you have help, it doesn’t make it easier. I know that even if you have your mother around, there are still negotiations on a daily basis. I know that outsourcing is easier said than done. But still. When my child is out there, having fun, the least I can do is not look like I have been punished.

The strange part is, these are activities that the parent has clearly chosen for their child, whether it is a summer camp, or an activity class or a hobby class or whatever they call it these days. So why do parents look so miserable and bored when they accompany their children to these things, whether it’s swimming, dancing, skating, music or tennis? In all these years, I have rarely seen a parent who is there, in the moment (I go back to the power of now, I know) while their child is indulging in something he/she is having fun with. I see them taking photos, yes, but I rarely see undiluted joy or eagerness or even mild curiosity. And when I do, it is the most heartwarming sight.

Some look like they have been hit by a thundercloud. Some look like, “Let me just strike this off my list and get on to more, real stuff.” Some look like ‘Well, if I didn’t bring him here, I would have to figure out what to do with him.” Most look like they’d rather be some place else.

I know it’s that time of the year when school, the primary outsourcing model for all parents is closed or on the verge of closing (can’t factor in all the boards, so sorry, you IB fellows). Some of you may have planned your holidays or summer camps or ‘activities’, but most of you may be saddled with ‘what to do with the kids?” Every day, at the pool, I see mothers exchanging notes on where they want to ‘send their kids’. They look at me vacantly. It helps that they don’t know I’m going to write about them.

Of course you can take a vacation, but holidays are easier said than done, given that summers are often a bad time for travelling in India and how far ‘up north’ can you go really? And for how long? And not every one can afford foreign vacations.Two months is a long time (and that’s the average summer break a child gets in India, some get even more) And besides, when you work at an office, ‘privilege leave’ of a grand 21 days hardly seems like a privilege, given that most people have to break it up (for other, important causes like weddings, funerals) and spread it across the year. That means the best it can get is roughly two weeks. Parents who plan their lives better usually have longer holidays together. I didn’t realize my father was investing in us when he was taking us to all those far-out, obscure places every year. Now it all makes sense.

But this summer, I am going to try my hand at some magic. I am going to ask Re to make me a potion (by now, he has mastered the art of making potions from all the witches and dragons that are a part of his universe). The only difference is, it will be a potion of joy and happiness and will have no evil hidden inside. Then I am going to offer it to all the parents that accompany their kids to various activities in summer and say, “Drink up, and smile!”

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A summer camp called life

It’s that time of the year where the only place I am legitimately allowed to take my child to is a summer camp. Or a manicured holiday destination.

Instead, I have taken a train to a new city, spending the last two weeks in a new home, eating new food, listening to new sounds, running on new grass, chatting with new voices, looking out of a new window, and breathing a new air with Re. It helps that two baby pigeons and their mommy inhabiting a flower pot in the balcony provide for the animal life Re is used to back home in the form of two felines. It also helps that he is in high testosterone zone (the friend I’m staying with has two boys) and able to give vent to his maleness — a thing much needed when you are a boy on the verge of three.

This is my summer camp. Okay, part of it. Sure, we are not learning origami or flower making, finger-painting, puppet-making, breathing or ballet like all his friends back in Mumbai. But we are smelling new smells and breathing new life and it is working like a tonic, to say the least.

Cut to a few weeks ago. “So where are you sending him?”, asked dour-faced Mommy X in the park. She meant, “Which summer camp have you enrolled him in?”

“Nowhere. We will just travel, visit places, meet people, hang out.”

“You mean you are going on a holiday?”

“Kind of.”

Summer is the time for extrapolation. When parents are set to find cues in every subtle move of their child and allow their exaggerated interpretations to take over by enrolling the child in a camp. Pretending it’s all fun and games. And that it’s the only way to keep the child “busy”. You see a little girl shimmying to Chikni Chameli (what choice does she have? It’s in every birthday party) and she is slated to be the next Katrina Kaif. Or at the very least, the next stick insect who wins the Miss World pageant. Off she goes for Bollywood dance lessons. You see a child climbing chairs and tables in the house and her mother will beam, “I think she will be a gymnast one day”. Baby gyms boom. You see a child fascinated by the somersaults of Parkour boys in the park and his mother will say “He is really kinesthetically inclined. I want to put him somewhere.” You see a child picking sticks, twigs and leaves and she will be slotted into a nature camp. A girl dressing up Barbies is a fashion designer. A child dabbling with a home video is slated to be the next Fellini. An iPad junkie is the next Steve Jobs. A splatter painter is the next Warhol. For parents who don’t have the time or the attention for detail, their children are all of the aforementioned. So, in the quest for generalisation, it’s Jack of all. And so, the creation of more dull, monochromatic versions of themselves in their children begins.

Meanwhile, Mommy Y, who is a kind of ebay mommy (a mommy who compares prices and comes up with the best value-for-money deal) soon computes that camp A charges less money for more activity and more hours than class B or C. It took me a while to figure that play was not “activity.”

I don’t know what Re is good at. Yes, he loves “shaking it all about” to “Mikeel Jackshun” or play-cooking pasta with crayons or playing “aminal aminal” with his hand puppets and line-up of rubber wildlife. Or shaking his curls and tossing them about. Or mixing and matching bangles.

“Have you got his portfolio done? He should be in ads,” says someone.

“Isn’t your husband in advertising? Why doesn’t he cast him?” says another.

“Is that your son in the Aviva commercial?,” asks a third.

“You must get him auditioned. Imagine, if he gets a break!” says another.

I think he is too young for talent. But not for texture. It might mean that I have to work harder. Also, I have enough time before I want him to be productive. Maybe, I don’t have it in me to be a tiger mommy. Maybe, what I really am is a lamb mommy — a mommy who grazes, who spends her time on reflection, who doesn’t really want to fill her child’s life with “productive activity”.

So here is the thing. What do I want him to love? Sometimes, I want it to be something I didn’t quite dabble in. So I get to live vicariously through him. Like art. Or music. But camps make me queasy. Camps make me claustrophobic. Camps are a school away from school. And how much school does a child need, really?

The last time someone saw Re shaking his wild curls to a song, he said, “That is the next Rahman. You should really get him into music.”

We will see. Until then, I am allowing him childhood.

(This piece first appeared as my parenting column in the Sunday Eye of the Indian Express on 22nd April 2012)