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!”

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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.

How children learn to eat

Aravinda Amma has written in some detail about children developing healthy food habits

Ask Amma

How often do we hear that children won’t eat?  No one loves this message more than the food industry, which is ready to jump in with factory-tested flavours and bliss points, adding salt, fat and sugar, flavor, color and stabilizer in indsutrially calibrated quantities to design foods that hold mass appeal.  “Kids today don’t eat food!” declares an advertisement for a popular packaged meal.   On the screen we see a child pushing away a plate of vegetables, dal and roti and brightening up considerably when the packaged bliss comes forth in steaming digitally enhanced ringlets.

How often have we seen parents or grandparents run behind a child with a bowl of food or hire someone to perform this task?  

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Life learning

Even before we had a child, back in summer of 2008 I met a child who was like most of her peers, but yet different. Confident, expressive, loud and free are the adjectives that come to my mind. It was fascinating for me to watch her and somehow she made me feel very happy.

When we gathered at a friend’s home, I spotted her with her mother in a corner. I was just drawn to the pair of them. I don’t remember how, but sometime during our conversation, her mother mentioned that the child did not attend school.

My mind was suddenly abuzz. There were a thousand questions, but also feelings of respect, awe at the courage to be ‘different’. I asked her amma, so how do you do it? You have lessons which you take at home? So is the school replicated at home? For which I received a rather simplistic answer- ” I just answer any questions that she has”. We stopped talking about it then, because her amma went to talk to someone else in the room. It took me a while to digest the answer.

That was my first introduction to home schooling. I remember having heard about it vaguely but had never come across anyone actually doing it. I was back again with more questions for which I got patient answers. Through this I made two dear friends and for me there was no looking back.

After Disha, I found more answers by reading and later interacting with other home schoolers. Askamma’s newsletter, John Holt’s books on How Children Learn and How Children Fail, Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn are most of what I read. The journey has only convinced us that we can trust our instincts and children’s innate ability to learn on their own terms. As parents we can only facilitate, encourage and stand back. 

The ever growing home schooling community throughout India, more and more alternative education movements is proof enough that change is inevitable.

We are unlearning and growing along with our child. Rediscovering what we are passionate about. Many parents have said that home schooling is not about the children, its about us as adults, reflecting on our lives and what we can do to make this planet a better place for the future generations. The children do not need to be taught, they’ll learn anyway. One step at a time.

Watching Disha grow is cementing our belief in this choice. We don’t have all the answers, let alone know the all questions. And yet, I, feel peaceful and grateful.

Hungry kya?

I recently posted on facebook about how I just keep food accessible to Disha and she eats when she is hungry.  Fruits, grated carrots and beetroot, dry fruits, boiled groundnuts or corn or sweet potato, our favorite vegan ice cream, vegan whole wheat cake and ragi porridge are typically there at home. At meal times various combinations of brown rice, dal, chappati, pasta, dosas, veggie and salad. For most part, she knows where, what snack is kept. The food is kept at her level, so that she need not ask us to give it to her every time.

On weekdays, we go to the park almost every evening. Mornings are typically spent riding her cycle.    At times, we end up having tender coconut or a couple of bananas during our time outside if we get hungry. At other times, when we get back home, she is hungry with a big H. Much to my (hidden) delight she helps herself to food and before I can even realize, she is munching away and asking me for water.

 Now-a-days, after her afternoon naps, she wakes up demanding mangoes or custard apple. Or a carrot will do.

Of course there are days when she isn’t very interested in food or eating. And that’s ok. Because there are many other days when she wakes in the morning ravenously hungry or is wanting food all day long, that I run out of ideas.

Then there are days when she likes to pretend that she is unable to eat by herself and wants either Karthik or me to feed her. We oblige although we tell her that we prefer if she ate on her own.

When she turned 2 years, she would wake me up at around 2:00 am on most nights saying she was hungry. Karthik and I took turns to fight our sleep, get up and give her food. And this went on for about 2 months. We were quite glad when it was over and she was happy just nursing back to sleep if she woke up. Yesterday, she got up at 2:00 am asking for water. After drinking, I tried to nurse her back to sleep. Two minutes later, she said she was hungry. I suggested that since we are all very sleepy we could just try going back to sleep and then get up in morning to have a heavy meal. Well, it did not work. She said- “Amma, when I say I am hungry, I really am. Give me a custard apple and some cake.” So I roused myself and we trudged into the kitchen, got what she wanted and sat at the dining table. A couple of minutes later, she said, “Amma you look very sleepy, you go sleep, I will eat”. That was a first and made my sleep disappear completely. But I still went into our bedroom. After 5 minutes of Disha talking to her imaginary friends and feeding them (and herself), she called out-“Amma, hand wash”. After we washed hands, she was quite content, came back to bed and was fast asleep in the next few minutes. Hugging her, I too drifted back to sleep, thinking about her free spiritedness.