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The Parenting Judgement Train

This morning while riding an empty train to work, I had a moment of revelation. While watching the empty train cars ahead of me turn and twist along the track, I couldn’t help but notice how my own carriage felt perfectly stationary. Despite being attached to the same train, I could only see motion in the cars ahead of me.

I couldn’t help but apply this analogy to motherhood, and how we tend to overlook our own failings but are quick to notice and judge others for theirs. What’s worse, you don’t even have to fail to be judged or criticized; you just need to be different.

I was first initiated into this world of holier than thou parenting when I was pregnant with my first child. I was sitting hunched over hugging a pillow across my bump, when I got ‘the look’ from a friend. Seeing me clueless, she went on to explain that I had adopted a bad posture and was probably ‘smothering’ my unborn child! I have since come to recognize that look, the most fertile grounds for it being supermarkets, playgrounds and airplanes.

Unbeknownst to us, when we become mothers we also birth some other undesirable things – guilt, judgment and fear among them. The lack of a village means, we constantly need others to validate our parenting views. If everyone is doing it, it must be right, parenting bandwagon effect.

There is something very communal about motherhood. Normal people who would otherwise respect social boundaries, feel compelled to that make unwanted and occasionally snide remarks and give unsolicited advice. It starts with the pregnancy when your growing belly suddenly becomes public property for all to touch and ‘pet’ when they like. These unwelcome gestures are also accompanied by constant judgement about your skills as a mother.

Forget about following your heart just follow the herd! Forget about finding your maternal instincts, find safety in numbers! Sadly, even doing all of this doesn’t guarantee you’ll be free of disapproval. It’s a bit like this situation below, with this man and woman and their donkey.

While friends, family and strangers on the road are the most common offenders, the Internet has taken these mommy battles to a completely new level. It usually starts with a controversial post by a mom on some sensitive topic. Most of it is simply clickbaiting. Once the collective gasp has died down, the rebuttals and open letters begin. Yes, #firstworldmommyproblems!

The most popular of these online face-offs was the “Dear Mom on the iPhone series” with a number of articles and rebuttals from different camps of sanctimommies; each viewpoint dripping with sarcasm and full of generalizations about other people’s lives. Interestingly, what bothered me most was how discriminatory this was to us Samsung mums! Another case in Singapore was that of a disgruntled man complaining about heavy stroller traffic in malls, and this witty response to it. This mum uses the same donkey analogy quite poignantly, along with other hilarious memes to make her point.

The TIME magazine controvercial cover and title ‘Are You Mom Enough?’ was spurned by half a dozen articles and blog posts. Ditto for the Wall Street Journal’s piece about French parents being superior. The moral high ground is getting seriously overcrowded!

The best way to vaccinate yourself from others criticisms is not to hold judgement about yourself. It would bother you less if someone were to make a remark about something you do with absolute conviction. Accepting ourselves as the perfect imperfect parents is the first step to getting off the judgement train.

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The Google Mom

While pregnant with my first one, I convinced myself that my belly rash was PEP (earlier called PUPPP). When I confronted my gynecologist with the symptoms and suggested the diagnosis, I was dismissed. “Oh, it’s just a rash” she said nonchalantly. I was indignant, how could she dismiss the hours I spent on the Internet self-diagnosing! Resolute on being vindicated, for my next consultation I took prints of research papers, pictures of symptoms and all sort of material to prove myself. Clearly my few hours on Google University were as good as her years in medical school. Faintly amused, she was still insisted that it was nothing to worry about. Of course, it was nothing but rash, but in my defense… Ah well, who am I kidding, I have no defense!

We are living in a world where there is more information than our brains are designed to process. A lot of it is just noise, but even sifting through this barrage of information to find relevant pieces takes up our bandwidth. As moms in this new digital age we have benefited immensely from our ability to connect to and feel a sense of camaraderie with an online tribe who is suffering from the same poop/puke filled days and sleepless nights. We use the Internet to get good deals on products, read reviews, get recommendations and to find humour even! But all this infobesity comes with a price. While the Internet helps in giving us new perspectives and insights, it can also concretise your biases by offering affirmations for any belief that you might hold. For some of us not gifted with a strong in-built mommy compass, this non-stop online chatter can sway our principles, make us feel inadequate and question ourselves as parents.

With my first child, I compulsively researched everything online. Starting from the weekly foetus growth photos to birth stories, baby poop, vaccinations, feeding, weaning, sleep issues, growth spurts, the list is endless! I came across a ton of material, sometimes conflicting. In this new age, it has become a trend to define your parenting style and build your Mom brand. There are extreme camps of AP/crunchy moms and the mainstream moms, and many different parenting styles in between. These days it’s common to have a Mom Statement, something you live by. Before the age of modern medicine, structured education and economic surplus, motherhood involved keeping the child healthy, providing basic learning and keeping him fed. Having moved beyond that, we are still struggling to really understand our roles. I digress.

None of us would fit exactly into any of these defined molds of 21st century parenting. We all have unique styles of navigating this maze of motherhood with the help of our friends, our family, and our village. Technology is meant to make our lives easier, not complicate it further. With so much information just a finger swipe way, we have to show as much discretion in our use of it as our contribution to it. The Internet is also responsible for giving us a false sense of having the smarts, as I learned with the experience with my Gynae. The speed at which I can source information and become an ‘expert’ is limited only to speed of my internet access. What actually gets retained is a matter open for debate. While I still enjoy a variety on online content, stepping off the information hamster wheel, for me involved a balanced diet to combat Infobesity by cutting down on the junk food equivalent of needless time spent on Twitter, Pinterest and Houzz, limiting empty calories from FB pages and parenting forum boards. I do occasionally binge, but there’s always the digital detox program to counter that!

8

Nuggets of Wisdom from my Village

Lets start this post with a very factual but seldom acknowledged statement ‘Parenting is a tough tough job!’ Despite the universality of this statement, I haven’t met a single parent who will pass on this warning to other expectant parents – “Just a heads up, you’re heading for a lifelong battle!” Of course we won’t say that, the more people suffering the merrier!

One of my favorite parenting books is Jennifer Senior’s ‘Modern Parenting: All Joy And No Fun’. It is not one of those usual books filled with pyschobabble parenting advice with little practical applicability. It’s a book for and about the parents; it describes the evolution of parenting, the modern affliction of helicopter parenting, the travails of raising our bundles of joy which seemed to have missed our parents generation, among other things. She talks about how the word “parent” came into common use as a verb only in the 1970s. Before that, parents just ‘were’, they didn’t ‘do’.

village[1]These days we just do. And mostly we are pretty lost as to what we are doing – we are guilt-ridden and we constantly second-guess our decisions. A lot of this is due to the lack of a village. The last few generations have missed out on extended family support, passing of wisdom down generations and stimulation for kids from various adult interactions and relationships with cousins, neighbors and the community in general.

Over the years, I’ve received some great parenting advice, practical advice from moms who have been there done that. I can’t thank these parents enough for these tidbits of information and passing on valuable knowledge to those of us who are a little behind the curve but on the same journey nevertheless. These awesome moms have been my village.

Recently, while discussing morning battles with a seasoned mother of three and a very dear friend, I received another nugget of gold. She suggested I wake up the kids in a very happy and excited manner, singing to them and creating a huge hullabaloo. For someone who wakes up sullen and groggy, staggering straight to the kitchen for a coffee shot in the morning, this was a challenge. I tried – every morning I woke the kids up as if it’s the happiest day of my life while every bone in my body screamed for coffee! Those 5 minutes spent cheerfully talking and giggling with the kids made the start to our day so much better.

Another mommy friend, who also happens to be a fantastic children’s book author told me about the ‘filling a bucket’ method to teach kids about empathy and caring for others. The book Have you Filled the Bucket Today? was a fantastic read even for my then 2-year old. It’s been a great tool for teaching the kids that screaming with hands flailing and body wriggling on the floor is not the only way to describe emotions!

I can’t remember who told me this, but this is something I often use with my kids – lying next to the kids when they are in their sleepy-but-can’t-sleep phase with my eyes closed and just breathing heavily and noisily. It works like magic, even for older kids. One more excellent bedtime advice, coming from a gorgeous mom who is colour consultant as well as a hypnotherapist, was to count down with the older kids, all the while softly talking to them how much you appreciate and love them after each count.

Sometimes I have learnt just by observing others. A very good friend who has since moved out of Singapore, was the perfect example of educaring – I doubt though that she was aware of the term. Magda Gerber’s educaring philosophy encourages parents to be observers and step back from active parenting. As a young first time mom, I remember in my enthusiasm I didn’t let a single teaching moment pass. I was always showing, helping, commenting and mostly just interfering. In the process I may have hindered his natural creative instincts by plastering my very adult outcome-focused manner on our activities. I stepped back a little with my second one, in some ways it was not a choice as there is only so much time you can give to an active toddler and a baby. It may just be a personality trait but my second one is much more self-directed and creative in his play.

Of course there’s always the different set of well meaning but pointless advice moms tend to receive. I appreciate it nevertheless, as what works for one may not necessarily for all.

This lovely community of moms, all in a similar boat as me – expats living away from families, a lot of them juggling work and kids and hubbies with stressful/travelling jobs – have been my lifeline. And now I’m ready to pass on the wisdom!

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What does a 5 year old boy want?

A 5-year-old wants to be hilarious, he likes to laugh and be laughed at.
A 5-year-old wants to fit in, wants to be cool, be liked by his friends, appreciated by his teachers and loved by his siblings.
A 5-year-old wants dignity, wants to be treated as a person
A 5-year-old wants power, power to be his own person, power to command respect
A 5-year-old wants to cooperate because he sees the benefit of it
A 5-year-old wants to defy and challenge because he sees the limitations of it
A 5-year-old wants to grow up and confront this seemingly complicated world
A 5-year-old wants to slow down and be little once in a while.
A 5-year-old needs control, he needs to know what’s ahead, where is the next stop
A 5-year-old wants to know what it feels like to blatantly lie
A 5-year-old wants to dig his nose without inhibitions
A 5-year-old wants adults to know, that in his world promises (even a ‘maybe’ or a ‘We’ll see’ or a ‘hmmm’ is a promise!) are never forgotten
A 5-year-old wants juice – all times of the day!
A 5-year-old wants to never be asked ‘what did you do in school today?’
A 5-year-old wants to know about his past and thinks about his future
A 5-year-old wants to fix without asking for help

2

What’s in a name?

Source: planetofquotes.com

Source: planetofquotes.com

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” quoted Shakespeare famously in his play about the star-crossed lovers. What was untold to preserve the aesthetics of this dialogue was that this dictum can only be applied to common nouns and to things, as opposed to people. For a person his name becomes him. Sometimes a name carries on a legacy long after a person is dead (think Hitler or Gandhi). A name is like DNA carrying in it information about a person’s gender, race, ethnicity, nationality and sometimes social standing.

A few of my friends are expecting and a common topic of conversation is the name of the baby. The significance of a spending a good deal of time researching the name is diluted by the weariness of the pregnancy itself. Expecting parents are the worst candidates for choosing the best possible names for their kids, but routinely bear the onus to do so. Some of my foresightful friends thought of one even before they get pregnant, only to be subject to familial plagiarism!

I remember being 10 or 11 when I first questioned my parents about my name, and whether they had any others shortlisted. Not usually the one to offer unsolicited advice, I can’t resist this one – please don’t tell your children the name they almost had! Both me and my brother had almost-names, and we often wondered what frame of mind our parents were in to choose our current names over those.

I have never met a namesake. And if the internet population is anything to go by, there is no one who shares my full maiden name. It’s a privilege I wished away. And yes, I have a fake Starbucks name.

I have hauled my name along all my life. Often it’s been unwieldy and ineffectual. It taunted me with disloyalty. I trudged it along, bearing it until the burden eased and I no longer felt its constant presence. Occasionally it prods me, but is mostly happy with my concession.

It’s not just a cosmetic problem. Numerous studies have found name bias in play, where an unusual sounding name can affect your prospects of employment, housing and even education.

When naming our kids we choose simple but unique names. I knew I would be questioned about them, what I didn’t realise is how soon it would happen. My then 4-year old asked me one day how he was named – did he come out of tummy and announce “Hi, I’m Ayaan!”, or came with a label? If only it was that easy! It troubled him greatly that choosing his name was a pretty random affair, but being 4 he couldn’t articulate it. Clearly, he inherited the ‘I-don’t-like-this-naming-business gene from me. We spoke about it again recently, just after his 5th birthday. This time he asked me if we had considered other names for him, and why did we finally decide on Ayaan – “why not Charlie or Alex?” Sigh!

The next time I may have to be ready with better answers – we put in a lot of names in the fishbowl and drew out this one! Or it was assigned by the government, specifically the Ministry of Names. Or we conducted a poll on Facebook (this is actually true for some people!)

Do you like the name given to you?

Some interesting links

Simon M. Laham, Peter Koval, Adam L. Alter. The name-pronunciation effect: Why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48 (2012)

Newman EJ, Sanson M, Miller EK, Quigley-McBride A, Foster JL, et al. (2014) People with Easier to Pronounce Names Promote Truthiness of Claims. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88671. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088671

Saku Aura & Gregory D. Hess, 2010. “What’s In A Name?,” Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 48(1), pages 214-227, 01.

Swedish study confirms foreign name CV bias

5

The Tanka of Love

I decided to take up the Daily Post’s writing challenge, my first one! Can’t say it was an easy one. I have amateurly attempted Haiku before but never Tanka. Below I write about one of those ordinary days as I head back home from work to reunite with my two boys.

A long day at work

Rain pounding on the windshield

Yet a silent heart

Silver light sieved distances

A double helix of love awaits

Traditional tanka contain five lines instead of haiku’s three, and 31 syllables instead of 17. The structure is that of a haiku followed by two additional lines of seven syllables each: 5-7-5-7-7.

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Happy 3rd Birthday Rehan!

Source: freeallimages.com

Source: freeallimages.com

Rehan, Rehan, Rehan! Happy birthday baby! What a year this has been, full of contradictions! You’ve been carefree yet so attached. Dramatic yet so calm. Loud yet so serene. Energetic yet so blasé. Difficult yet so compliant. Secure yet so vulnerable. Shy yet so cheeky. Relishing life with your contagious exuberance, you are a picture of joie de vivre, taking absolute delight in just being.

Puss in Boots cute expressionThis year you graduated from the College of Utmost Cuteness with Honors! Oh how you can charm the pants of anyone, talking so earnestly in that cute lispy baby way. You can pull of the Puss in Boots look faultlessly to your advantage, leaving us feeling warm and fuzzy but always with a nagging feeling that we are in some way being manipulated by this charm. You negotiate an extra cookie with simple but heart-warming comments like ‘but you’re my favourite girl!’, how can I say no to anything after that!

You’re allergic to taking showers, loud noises and snotty-nosed babies. You are very single-minded and willful about your notions of how things should and shouldn’t be. Pajamas should be worn precisely 5 minutes before bedtime. Toothbrush should be placed in the right holder. Broken crackers shouldn’t be handed to kids. Sometimes I wonder where you get these qualities that make you so stubborn and unyielding. Who am I kidding, of course it’s your dad’s genes! Just to detail how much effort goes into keeping you happy here is a sample of your dislikes – t-shirts with pockets, sand in shoes (interestingly sand in hair, nose and mouth is OK), other people’s towels, yellow cups, a single drop of water on your shorts, warm food, jam sandwich folded up, jam sandwich not folded up, bruised bananas, waiting for food at the restaurant, cold swimming pools, the list goes on and on.

Despite all this need of a sense of order and cleanliness, you are awfully clumsy. This clumsiness however, for reasons unknown, is solely for my benefit and I can’t say I am flattered. Playing with you means having to regularly shield myself from your unintended blows, head-butts, elbow jabs, knee rams and eye pokes. It seems being around me has a magical effect on your spine, it becomes all squidgy with your body just flopping over me. I have suspicion you think of yourself as being lighter than air. Either that or you see me as invincible, someone who has successfully birth two babies can’t possible get hurt right?

You have a favourite everything – number, letter, animal, part of the body, side of the bed, corner for pooping, planet, superhero, song, book. For the better part of the year, your favourite colour was orange. You granted yourself exclusive rights over it. Not only did we have to deal with you only wearing orange t-shirts, eating only orange-looking fruits with orange cutlery but also with random orange objects mysteriously appearing in the house. It took a long time for the understanding that the ‘if it’s my favourite it’s mine’ rule is not a socially acceptable norm, but we’re finally there!

official-age-warning-logoYou have intermittent love affairs with your toys, devoting yourself completely to one for days only to ruthlessly dump it in favour of another. With so many exciting toys, how can you be expected to stay committed to one? Like a true blue playboy (a boy who plays!) you sleep with whatever toy you fancy on any particular day. You’ve also laugh in the face of this sign here, almost exclusively choosing toys with lethal levels of choking hazards. What can I say, you are thrill seeker like that.

Occasionally, you get so involved in play that you go on an acknowledgement strike, combined with selective mutism. I would have mistaken your lack of response to assume you have mastered the Buddhist Zen state of awareness of the present moment, if you hadn’t so miserably failed the keyword test. This ingenious test involves throwing in some keywords while trying to have a conversation with your toddler – nothing fancy, just simple words like ‘ice cream’, ‘lollipop’, ‘candy’, etc. Yeah, that was no Zen state!

Self-preservation is very high on your agenda. You’re not one to get into trouble, test gravity or expend too much energy. The tiniest bruise will be a cause of much distress and also an excuse to not shower for days! If given a choice, you’d rather spend all your time at home just being silly with your brother or playing with your Legos or Octonaut toys, than go out. Is it any surprise then that you belong to the I-don’t-want-to-go-to-school club?

You don’t like the idea of growing up and vehemently deny being a ‘big boy’. I don’t like it either and sometimes find myself wishing I had the power to freeze time just for a bit. For what it’s worth, you will always be the baby of the house.

PS- Sorry about the terrible haircuts I gave you this year! And yes sweetheart, bread and chocolate bread rhymes 🙂