Whose shame is it anyway?

An edited version of this article has been published in thealternative.in

Disha came into the house, running, completely drenched in water. She was upset that her friends were saying-” Shame, shame”. She wailed-” But I am wearing clothes!” All I could think of is – is there shame when you do not wear clothes? Shame in the nakedness of the body?

In our house we have tried to never use shame or fear to convey that something needs to be done. Yes, we all wear clothes for whatever reasons, but never to cover our bodies out of shame of exposure. No one should be ashamed of their bodies, not adults, not children.

This time, Karthik told her that there is no shame in playing with water or getting one’s clothes wet. Shame is in the way people think or talk about it. And next time, if someone were to tell you shame, shame, you can tell them that there is no shame in what you did.

By shaming children, we only reinforce the conditioning most of us are subjected to. To not trust our feelings about our bodies or ourselves. And children in turn carry on shaming themselves and others children. We do not want our children to grow up feeling disgusted about their bodies, their sizes or shapes. We should celebrate our bodies for the wonderful life they are and our minds for their capacity to expand into multiple horizons.

As parents and care givers of young humans, we of course have a responsibility to them, especially if they or others are in danger, someone is being hurt or harmed. But in most situations, it is our preconceived notions of right and wrong, of how society looks at and wants someone to behave, our conditioning about gender and sexuality, our need to conform to majority of the people around us, we end up shaming children into doing something, even if they are uncomfortable or conflicted about it.

Shame is a natural human emotion and all of us are bound to feel it at one time or another. But using shame to manipulate someone to get the ‘desired’ behavior is not acceptable and should not be tolerated.

Disha and I continue sharing our nursing bond. It has nurtured us over the years and our family is thankful that it exists even today after more than four years. It is our personal choice to continue until Disha feels ready to move on. Our society today, is generally not very accepting or supportive of nursing couples older than a year or two. Although I have tried my best to keep Disha from sensing this, it was inevitable that she got the vibes of discomfort, animosity and judgement as she grew older. Once she understood what was being said in our spoken languages by various people-family, friends and strangers, she slowly started thinking that nursing should be done behind closed doors, hidden away. It affected her the most when someone close to her ‘shamed’ her for nursing. People sometimes say-” you are a big girl now, you should eat real food” (Duh! breastmilk is as real as any wholesome food can get!), “what! you are still nursing?” or the most dreaded (by me), “shame on you! you still are stuck to your mother”.

Both Karthik and I have always countered, stood up for ourselves and especially for her at these times. We usually say the same thing- that it is our personal decision, we are not disturbing anyone, we are not disrupting anything and there is no shame in wanting to satisfy our personal needs. Shame is quite often in the eyes of the beholder and when you are doing something you so strongly think is right for you, there is no question of shame! I have had multiple nursing sessions with a hurt, bewildered, sad child, who is full of shame for continuing to feel the need to nurse. I have told her we can nurse in a closed room if either of us want some quiet time with ourselves, but it always not needed. Especially if we are in the middle of something interesting. It does not matter what other people feel or say, but what matters is what she wants to do at that moment. She has thankfully accepted my reasoning.

There have been so many other instances where Disha was judged and shamed. She likes wearing the boys’ school uniform and has been teased for it. She has been told-” shame, you are crying like a small baby”. She has been told that it is shameful to talk to someone or in a certain way. Our reactions to all of them have been similar, to reassure her that she is doing no harm or wrong, that if it works for her, it does not matter what other people say. To be happy and proud of who you are and continue being that same person.

Growing up, she may be faced with the relentless instances of shaming and being judged. We may not always be around. But we hope that setting examples for standing up for one’s self will set a cascade of building self-condifidence, love for your own body and trust in yourself.

Being around but letting them free

I think this is one of the toughest thing parents have to do. Children are born with this innate urge to do, to help, to work, to figure things out. If left to themselves they somehow figure things out. It may not be perfect, may not comply with “adult standards”, but it works and it will do.

This theory has been confirmed over and over again both with Disha and her friends. You take any project on, and all the children who live down the road are enthusiastically there. Especially when their contribution is valued. Disha’s 1 and 1/2 year old friend doesn’t talk in our languages yet, but perfectly understands when you tell her to do something. She communicates in her own amazing and endearing way, never once giving up until we understand.

Children have amazing amounts of energy, they may run around the whole day, play outdoors in the what we call the “hot summer afternoons” and still are game to do whatever work is needed to be done. And its a lot of fun when you work together. Things get done sooner than later. Be it cleaning the play ground, potting plants, setting up the dolls for the annual Dasara Navaratri, cleaning vessels, cooking, cleaning the motorbike or bicycles. Or decorating the house for birthday parties- blowing balloons, baking the cake , arranging the food. The list is quite endless, anything that you do, children are game, as long as you let them.

In fact, Disha is often indignant when she feels that her help has not been enlisted in our activity yet. Recently when we were sorting, packing our household stuff, she was playing in the ground. When she came in, and realized what was happening, she yelled on top of her voice- ” I want to help amma!”. When it was time to unpack, Disha and her friend Shankar, helped me arrange clothes in our cupboards, stack all the empty cardboard boxes in the loft, sweep and mop the floors.

Sometimes we are told, that they are just children and they should not be doing chores or helping with anything that is deemed adult work. Let them cook when they are 18, is one of the constant refrain. In my opinion, by restricting what children, should or should not do, we alienate them, we make them loose their interest, curiosity, their joy of discovery or accomplishment.

Disha almost always needs one of her parents or some one whom she trusts. There is always a balance of being around, getting involved in her play and asking her to help out with whatever you have to do. Initially I would consciously have resist the urge to help or to do whatever she seemed to be “struggling” at. But then once I realized that it was important for her to work it out, I tried to step back and sometimes step away to control that urge.

Another aspect I had to work on was to try and keep my emotions out while telling children to help in a task or to do something. It was mainly impatience, the feeling I had, that something had to be done by such and such a time (I still have this quite often). As Jean Liedloff mentioned in her book, The Continuum Concept if you talk to your child in a respectful manner without coming across as either indulgent or impatient, then it sets the environment for the child to understand what needs to be done. Of course, it helps if you explain why something needs to be done.

Being imaginative has come in handy. Fantasy role play and stories have always helped us in difficult situations when Disha wanted something which she or we could not get for her. I had once read about how pretending to be a train in a supermarket always distracts children. It has worked quite a few times. If we go shopping with Disha’s friends, then it works even better.

Working through your own emotions, especially anger, frustration, impatience and then attending to your child has made me realize that it easier and simpler to deal with any situation at hand.

Handsfree parenting while being close at hand, is the mantra.

Are there any gender, age, behavioral boundaries?

This morning I was D’s uncle. Sometimes K is D’s amma. D asks me-” Amma, am I a ‘good girl’ or a ‘bad boy’?” (Something, I gather, she has heard over and over again in school). She has asked me a few times, why she is a girl or why is her friend a boy. To which I reply, that she is born as a girl or her friend is born as a boy, but they could choose whichever way they want to identify themselves.

In her world, it seems like there are no separate genders, the feminine and masculine mix, blend, change quite often. 

Today she saw my friend’s photo on the computer, then called him, mama, but thought the better of it and was referring to him by name after that. 

She switches over calling people by their names, usually our friends become her friends and aren’t uncles and aunties but just identified by names. 

The only people she usually addresses by their relationship is her grandparents. That’s probably because she has noticed us also calling them amma or appa, never by their names. There is a certain comfort for me addressing someone by a common relationship name, but respect for a person lies in our behavior towards them, not in how we address them. By imposing on her that she calls a person a certain way, which I did try to do when she was younger, seems quite pointless, seeing the love and affection she carries in her heart for that person.

The question of bad or good has been in her mind, for as long as she could talk in our languages. She is always wondering if someone is good,what makes them good, why should they be called good, why should she be called good by other people? 

Should there be so many boundaries?

A Journey called Home

A post I wrote about what Disha usually does at and around our home was published in AskAmma newsletter- the coolest, hippest and easily the best parenting newsletter I know. In case you want to subscribe, write to askammanow@gmail.com with the subject Subscribe. The blog post follows:

I think for a long time, before D was born, I was under a misconception that staying all day at home could never ever be simulating, would be boring and it is for lazy people.

But D has shown me otherwise in more ways than one.

Read More

Disha shot Amma

Today morning as she was sitting in a bucket of water after her bath, Disha was narrating a story to her imaginary friends. I usually leave her talking to these friends and do something else. Today, I happened to be in the bathroom cleaning it. And heard the story, which I have tried to reproduce below. The story was told in Kannada and Tamil, Amma parts were in Kannada and Appa parts where in Tamil, which I have translated into English.

Disha shot Amma with a water gun. Amma was injured and was rushed to the hospital.

Appa came running to the hospital and was distressed to see injured Amma. He cried- “Amma, amma, are you all right?”

Amma woke up and asked Appa, “Where is Disha?”.

Appa was worried about Disha too as she was taken to the jail. So he went to the jail and opened it. Disha came out and hugged him.

Both of them then went to the hospital to see that Amma was ok. Disha hugged Amma and all of us were happy.

Amma, I am going to school (on my own terms)

In my previous post I mentioned how we live in a house surrounded by schools. Disha has, over the months, been peeking out of our living room window watching the day-to-day proceeding of the school in front of our house. Sometimes, she would spend long minutes looking outside, sometimes she would run outside, sit on the stone by the side of the school playground and observe.

She has friends who attend the school. Over time, she has been seeing them going everyday, in uniform to sit in classrooms with teachers. She has been pretending to be a teacher or a student and playing with friends using the black board and chalk. One morning, about a month back, Disha, announced that she is going to the school. So she packed her bag, went to the classroom where her friend was and sat next to him. She spent two hours on the first day and came back home. Soon, it became an every day thing. Each day she went on her own, stayed for longer. After 4-5 days, she took a break to hang around at home and spent sometime with me reading, drawing and playing. But was back at school the next day.

Every morning she wakes up asking if it is time to go to school and she is off. Breakfast is just something to be had in as minimal time as possible. She helps packing her lunch and school bag.

I used to take Disha along for any errands, meetings or field work. But she has been consistently refusing to come with me, so I have had to leave her at school to get all my work done. Yesterday was the first time I left her at school for 6 hours. We have friends staying over at our place, so I knew that in case she came home, she would find someone who would offer her food or anything else she needs. I also informed our neighbors and the teacher that I will not be available.

Disha, did come home and went to use the bathroom. After that she told our friend that she wanted to go back to school and went right back. She did not even look for me!

It was an organic progression for Disha to end up at school. She is there as long as she wants. If she gets bored or overwhelmed, she comes back home. At times she goes back, other times, she is content just staying with me and doing something together. On some other days, she is tired so she comes home, has her lunch and naps. Sometimes, she spends the entire day at school. She comes home singing some song, her teacher sang in school. Yesterday she came back home in 20 mins, saying that her teacher did not come today so she did not want her to go to school. One of the days, she came home and told me how a teacher yelled at her. I went, spoke to the teacher and explained how Disha expects to be treated with respect. Maybe the teacher is not used to a parent coming and telling her something like this or she understood, she was willing to change her tone to be less intimidating.

When I filled out her school admission form, I spoke to the principal and told her that Disha would go to the school on her own terms. For which the principal heartily agreed and so did the nursery teacher. I was initially apprehensive and disappointed, thinking- so much for homeschooling! But did not stop her from doing what she wanted. She clearly enjoys being at school and since our home is right across, she freely comes and goes.

I do have some reservations with the school, children are constantly yelled at and not treated with respect. Every adult in the school hold a stick to “tame” the “unruly” children. At times I see some kids holding sticks too. I am trying to engage with them and hoping to change few of the habits. One way would be to volunteer “teaching” at the school. Though I do not feel like doing it, but hoping to gather some inspiration in the next year.

Theatre of our lives

The last three weeks have turned our lives inside out, literally! We had five friends stay over with us who have be become really dear to all of us. Four of them are from Space Ensemble, a theater and art group from Goa. The fifth is a friend’s sister who has come to Bangalore for interning in a law firm.

So our house has been crowded, but in such a good way. Music playing all the time, someone humming a tune or strumming a guitar or playing drum or mouth organ. Or practicing singing voices or animal sounds.

It has helped Karthik and me open up, get more imaginative, get in touch with being willfully dramatic. It has meant long, meaningful conversations about anything and everything, we dreamed up and chatted away. And those cooking sessions were fun too. Sharing recipes, tips on sustainable living and minimalistic approach to life. They helped babysit Disha quite a few times and I ended up attending meetings without having to take her along (I did miss having her around though).

I am truly grateful that our paths cross with such amazing people, who are living largely unconventional lives, away from the hum-drum of the mainstream life of ‘study-do well-get a job’.

Disha has grown fond of all of them. During their many rehearsals, she was quite keenly and patiently watching them along with Karthik and me.  After that, she has been spending some time imitating their clown act. She enjoys doing it over and over again. Off late she has been into dancing and now after being exposed to drama has taken a penchant for it too.

Two days ago, we all went to an ice cream parlor for a send off treat. Somehow, we all got into an impromptu performance right in the parlor, with all the other customers staring and quite keenly listening in. And on the way back home, as we walked and ran, we sang loudly, spooked each other and passer-bys, played games, danced and made animal noises.

All this made me realize how good it feels to break away from our uptight -upright lives which we lead mostly in a certain, serious manner. Where we hardly express or exaggerate emotions, living only in our “comfort zones” or “bubbles”, hesitating to dance or sing, feeling judged every minute.

So, get out there, shout, dance (out of sync) and sing (even out of tune) because it does feel so good.

Being in a real neighborhood

As I was thinking about this writing blog post, I was recounting my childhood, days we spent with our neighbors, playing, sharing food, climbing compound walls, watching movies, having star-lit dinners, talking for hours on the street and what not!

But as we grew older, somehow that feeling of togetherness started to go away. Some people moved elsewhere. Some of us children grew up and went to other places for college or work. What we had taken for granted growing up, was no more a part of our day-to-day lives. We had other things to look forward to and the neighborhood was left far behind to pursue that. Our lives were so fast paced during the weekdays and weekends meant going out or meeting friends who where not necessarily your neighbors.

After Disha, that need for being in a community and knowing our neighbors became important again. We have been moving homes quite consistently, for various reasons since she was born. For the 3.5 yrs of her life, we have lived in 4 different houses.

It has been five and half months since we moved into our present house. Our house is the last one on the street at a “dead end”, is flanked by two schools and a small playground. I can happily say, we finally have a neighborhood similar to the one I had in my childhood. It is really nice to have friends to talk to, play with, eat, cook and share. And have help in times of need.

Having a playground in front of your house, does wonders. Impromptu cricket matches, lagori, kabbadi, badminton, cycling and running races are happening all the time. Some times the children are busy building ramps with waste lying around to mount their bikes or to run. Or they are playing in the mud and sand. Once they made a stone house for a family of cats since it was raining. There are days when we decide that the ground is too messy and clean together. Its is a place of endless possibilities.

Being in a place with virtually no traffic on the roads is bliss. We don’t have to worry when Disha goes to her friends’ homes down the road by herself. For the past few days, that is what she does first thing in the morning. As she wakes up, even before me, she is instantly alert, moves the curtains aside to check if there is day light. Then she wakes me up to open the door for her so that she could run down the street, into the government school opposite our house, where her four of her friends stay. And they are kind enough to welcome her even at 6:30 in the morning.

After spending sometime there, she then heads over to another friend’s place where she insists on having breakfast. All the kids sit on a mat on the floor to eat.

The next stop is back to our house, with all her friends. Rest of the day is spent playing in the ground or the park close by. Mealtimes are spent together too, so at times, we end up cooking for 4-5 kids, or they bring something over from their homes to eat. They are constantly creating art- either with paints or chalk pieces, making up rubbish songs or dancing, creating a racket using the drum at home.

During Dasara, we unpacked our collection of dolls to arrange in the traditional Kollu. All the kids in our neighborhood were at our place. One child would bring along a couple of other friends, so we had most of the children from 4-5 streets around our house come to see the dolls. They helped us unpack the dolls, arrange them, made trees and grass from waste cardboard, colored it, made a village from the available dolls. Most of them used to come everyday to check on the Kollu, sing songs and have some sundal (spiced up beans). Some of the older children have told us that next year they will come up with their own theme and arrange it all by themselves.

Last Sunday, we all got together for sowing some seeds in pots and containers we had at home. The children as usual were playing in the ground and the moment they saw what we were upto, they all came to help. They love getting involved and do it so much gusto. We had been collecting seeds from 2 months and finally found the time, for something we have been wanting to do for a long time. We mixed mud, sand and compost (from our own kitchen waste) with little water for each pot. Children are naturally attracted to mud and didn’t need to be told twice to play with it. Then we spent a good couple of hours cleaning up our front porch and school ground.

Later during the week, Disha, her friends and I went to the park. After a hour of zooming down slides and whirling in the merry-go-round, Disha was very thirsty. Off we went to have a drink of tender coconut. And ate quite a bit of yummy coconut. Disha was in no mood to get back home although we had to make dinner for the night. She saw a sign post opposite the tender coconut shop and wanted to climb it. So did her friends. Everyone took turns to try and climb, then wanted me to heave them up the pole. After I managed to get everyone to be on the way back home, they saw a tree which they wanted to climb. Then they climbed another smaller sign post. We managed to walk for a couple more minutes, when they saw a huge mound of sand in front of a construction site. No need to tell twice, they were off in a jiffy, climbing it, rolling or sliding down. The watchman came out smiling and told us to not spread the sand on rest of the road. The kids then collected some shells. It was like the beach sans water had come right to our neighborhood! Then Disha saw the sand sieving contraption which is used in all construction sites. She has used it a couple of times before, but this time with all her friends around, she was quite excited to demonstrate how to sieve sand. I was thankful to Ganapathy uncle, who was patient with the children and allowed them to use the machine. So the next half an hour or so was spent lifting sand from the mound and sieving it, with everyone taking turns. Finally, we managed to get back hom, covered with sand, tired and hungry.

During school days Disha and her friends wait for 4’o’ clock to get out and play, all evening long. With approaching winter and shorter days, the play continues indoors, sometimes ends up with a post dinner dance party or a half an hour movie session.

Reminds of the Calvin and Hobbes quote-” Our days just got booked solid!”

Learning Tamil

I was exposed to a lot of tamil during my college days. I probably followed it, but didn’t think too much about it. I learnt to speak tamil after my wedding (with a tamilian). Mainly by talking to my mother-in-law over the phone. Over the years, the more tamil I was exposed to, the more I began to follow- I started following some lyrics in songs. I started following some of the news read on TV. Then, I started looking at words in tamil and started asking anyone around me what those words said. And now I can very slowly read and write some words and small sentences in tamil. I practice writing down names of everyone and everything. I did not learn this language the conventional way- by learning the letters first, then the matras etc. I just started reading words and then proceeded to sentences. I go around reading everything around me written in tamil when I am in Chennai (driving everyone around me crazy). But its such fun, I am enjoying it. Its giving me immense satisfaction and a sense of power to know another language. This joy of spontaneous learning is what we want Disha to experience. One of the reasons why we homeschool.

Ups and downs, even upside down!

I was fast asleep. Something mushy and soft was pressing against my face. I tried to brush it away. Then realized that it was D’s stomach. Her head was on my chest, blissfully breastfeeding upside down. I then flipped her, snuggled close and went right back to sleep.

I was very confident when I was pregnant that breastfeeding would be easy breezy, one of the most natural things a mother and child could do. I found myself drifting off and being dreamy when the instructor in the Bradley childbirth class was explaining about pumps and feeding bottles. I have an aversion of any food in plastic and how could anyone feed their baby in bottles , when they have two perfect body parts designed just to do that! ( how little did I know)

Things turned upside down when I was told that my labor will be induced as D is not able to grow in my womb. Our concern for our baby took over and we agreed to everything my midwife recommended. D was born vaginally in a free standing natural birthing center. My wishes as stated in my birth plan were heeded too. So in a way D had an almost perfect birth. But she was immediately transferred to a neo natal ICU (NICU) because she could not hold on to her body temperature. And her first food was drops of formula and not the liquid gold that was waiting for her, made just for her.

I remember being very angry and feeling betrayed when I found about kangaroo care. Why wasn’t I told about our choices when D spent one week in the NICU? When I was struggling with pumping, confused when the doctor told us that the only way we could take D home was if she saw D “eating” well. This was a very vulnerable phase in our lives and it came as a shock to me that my daughter was getting formula, that too from plastic feeding bottles. But I so badly wanted to be at home with my baby that I convinced myself that her getting a few more bottles of formula is ok for the “larger good”.

One of the nurses in the NICU had even put a pacifier in D’s mouth although we had made it very clear that we did not want it. I was so angry!

A very close friend who had an older nursing daughter pumped and sent us the milk to feed D. I was grateful that D would be getting less formula and more breast milk. But due to strong opposition from my family I had to stop giving her that precious milk. I wish I had not, but I was quite exhausted, confused which led to this decision.

Once we were home, I was determined more than ever that D should breastfeed and was hoping to wean her off formula at the earliest. That was not to be without an uphill battle. I hated pumping, was quite depressed. I cried every time I gave a bottle to D. I pumped round the clock, 8 times a day, in addition to nursing D. But I was told by my lactation consultant (LC) that I wasn’t making enough milk.

Pumping memories are bitter sweet, K and I used to sit and watch movies in the night time pumping sessions while D slept. We listened to music, K used to bounce D on a big exercise ball to calm her as I went through some marathon pumping sessions. K also used to wash all the pump parts and sterilize all the bottles. His presence, during non office hours was such a blessing and lifted my spirits.

On my LC’s suggestion we visited a chiropractor who specialized with babies. She helped us realign D’s spine. During child birth, a baby’s spine can loose its alignment due to the stress he/she undergoes. The chiropractor also massaged D’s cheek muscles to loosen them up. We went for these sessions once a week, for two months. I was unable to gauge if this really helped our breastfeeding but did go along with the sessions.

I was in constant touch through phone, chat and email with a LLL (La Leche League) leader. Though she was a stranger, it was somehow more comforting to pour my heart out and express my anguish. She encouraged me to keep up the fight. She told me something that I never forgot- she said while it is very important to breastfeed, it is even more important to enjoy being with my baby. All those conversations gave the courage I so needed and made me feel better.

After 2.5 months of pumping, eating every possible herb and food to up my supply, doing everything possible, D was still having formula. I was not myself and saw it was effecting my relationship with my child and husband. I had enough of pumping, so I decided to stop. My LC told me to just breastfeed D once in the morning and once at night and continue giving her formula. I was quite resigned. Then a friend of mine suggested that I continue breastfeeding before offering formula. Which, thankfully I did.

Later as months passed by, I felt confident enough to reduce her formula slowly. Around 8 mos we had halved her formula consumption. I weaned her off formula at 11 mos. All this time we continued to breastfeed. I had also introduced her to ragi and some vegetables, fruits after 6 mos. Once we stopped the formula, it was like a burden had lifted off my shoulders.

I was very self conscious about nursing in public (NIP) even during the few times we all went out for walks in parks. I remember feeling stressed which did not help as D would sense my discomfort and cry out in protest. She wanted a happy mom.

I was very fortunate to meet an acquaintance who too had recently became a mother. We went on to become very good friends and spent a lot of time together- indoors and outdoors. Seeing her NIP and hearing her talk about her experiences was very helpful. In her own way without any pressure she showed me how easy it was.

We breastfed on treks, visits to the parks or at friend’s homes. After moving back home, to Bangalore, we nursed on moving motor bikes, on bus and train rides. Anywhere and everywhere (except the loos, of course)! It was an instant remedy for tangled overwhelmed nerves or a tired body. Breastfeeding gave me downtime too, as more often than not I would be asleep along with D.

As time passed, I had seen, heard, learned and read about child led weaning. There was enough evidence and I was convinced that this was the way forward for us. Despite repeated well meaning advice that she will not eat or gain weight if she has breast milk, that she will become very dependent on me, that extended breastfeeding is not good. Despite questions on how long I will breastfeed, if I still had milk, and how could I nurse my child in front of strangers. Despite being ushered into bedrooms in relatives homes when I started nursing her in the living room full of people. Despite stares interspersed with a few smiles, we continued.

Its been three years and four months now. Breastfeeding has helped us stay close, has helped D through some rough emotional and physical patches. Has helped her drift off to sleep- day in and day out. Has helped her recover from the trauma of her first blood test, from infections and have a source of nutritious food while nothing else was palatable. Breastfeeding has taught me to be kind, patient and compassionate. It has helped me forge ever lasting friendships and experience the kindness of strangers. Above all it has helped us grow as a family, in more ways than even fathomable. And for all of this, I am forever grateful.