“Why aren’t babies born with their own unique manuals?!” used to be my constant refrain during the growing-up years of Abhishek, my science-loving, planet-conscious geeky son. As infancy, toddlerhood, childhood and the pre-teens of this bursting-with-energy boy, gave way to the tumultuous teenage years, I kept marvelling at the continual learning involved in being a parent – no sooner did I master a technique, Abhishek’s next stage of growth arrived!
Parenting over long distances, when Abhi left for his four years of undergraduate engineering studies for another city, became even more challenging – the added dimensions of missing one’s child, maternal anxiety, and little ‘gaps’ in communication, made parenting seem suddenly more complex. And, as if these were not tough enough, the pandemic has added an extra dimension of complication to the simplest of interactions and decisions.
“Have things really changed greatly?” I found myself wondering recently, after finishing a 15-minute video call with my son, who is currently studying for his Masters’ degree in the Netherlands. I live in Mumbai, India. Google helpfully informs me that the distance between his city and mine is 4276 miles or 6882 kilometres. My head may not quite grasp those numbers, but my heart recognizes the challenge of every little bit of millimetre. As it remembers every day since August 24, 2020, when, mask and gloves in place, this lanky boy-man, weighed down with heavy suitcases, waved goodbye to his father and me at Mumbai airport, to leave for the next phase of his learning.
This, then, is a little “slice of life” glimpse of my parenting story, about the changing equations of long-distance parenting in the pandemic…
Me to Abhi (WhatsApp): Abhi dear, we need to discuss the schedule for payment of your fees. What’s a good time to talk for 15 minutes? I can work with either 7 pm IST or 9 pm IST. Alternatively, let me know your preferred time-slots.
Abhi: *silence for 2 days*
Me: Abhi, hope all is well. I tried reaching you but didn’t get through.
Abhi: *silence for another 3 days*
Me: (Wondering what to do) Abhi, we are beginning to get worried. Please message or call back.
Abhi: (out of nowhere, on Whatsapp) I am fine, don’t worry. The phone was on silent for long durations / I was resting when you had called / I was out when you had called / There was a group meeting when you had called…*insert sheepish and semi-apologetic emoji*
Me: (a bit annoyed – now on a call) You still need to send a message you’re doing OK. After all, there is a pandemic going on. Are you eating and exercising properly? Are you using a face-mask in crowded places in public?
Abhi: Relax Ma, I am almost 23, not 3!
Me: Can we switch to a video call? Haven’t seen you for such a long while! (Mothers, please note – your child may baulk at any expression of sentimentality. Mine does. Any statement of “I am missing you, and it’s been a year since we met” is met with a truly bewildered response of “But I am fine and we are regularly interacting on the phone and over WhatsApp!”)
Abhi: (reluctantly) O.K. if you insist
Me: (after talking for 5 minutes, suspiciously) Abhi, why aren’t you moving the phone to a more comfortable position? Why do I only see a close-up of your face?
Abhi: (grinning, tilts the phone around – the room is in happy chaos and he’s only partially clothed) I didn’t want to scare you!
Me: Abhiiii! Are you 23 or 3 years of age?! Haven’t I succeeded in teaching you anything?! (In high-context cultures like India, parents, particularly moms, are held accountable by society for their children’s quirks, tastes and anything the child does that might be even a little different from the norm. Yes, I know – it’s peculiar.)
Abhi: (laughing) I am 3, I am 3! Who said I was 23?
Me: On a more serious note, won’t it help you to organise your things? And maybe you could wear a vest or a light T-shirt even though it is hot…
Abhi: (sighing) Ma, I need my own space. Don’t worry, I’ll manage. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?
(Undeniably strong cue for me to drop my current line of conversation – I quickly switch tacks.)
Me: No worries. How have you been enjoying your Teaching Assistant work? Are you learning interesting things?
Abhi: (in a more interested tone of voice) Yes! It’s good and I am reading up on sustainability, in order to answer the questions of other students in the online teaching forum…
As Abhi continued this conversation, I found myself quickly mentally switching from the “classical mother” role to the “friendly parent / peers exchanging updates / teacher learning from a ‘student’” mode. I’ve realised that the classical motherhood tropes that my generation grew up with in India (“Did you eat your food?” “Why are looking so thin?” “Are you studying hard and scoring good grades?”) are almost completely redundant. Our children would rather discuss an interesting video they saw, a meme they chuckled over (Abhi and I regularly swap laugh-out-loud memes on Instagram), or why they think we need to conserve our resources on a war footing. Pandemic or not, daily reminders for careful living will boomerang. And yes, we cannot presume to claim their time, only on account of being their parent – we approach them for a slice of their day with the same courtesy we have for a non-familial, professional interaction – something that amazes the grandparents of our family!
Generation-Z shrugs off the use of labels of age and hierarchy, is unapologetically individualistic, unflinching in its gaze towards the truth of the planet in which we live, and more than willing to take a collaborative stance towards solutions. But provided the older generations are willing to speak in a peer-to-peer voice. With ample space for individual quirks and choices, and mutual respect for all, irrespective of the presence or absence of maternal or filial ties.
I chuckled when my ruminations made me realise there’s just one alphabet differentiating “mother” from “smother”! So now, I simply send a “Are you healthy and happy?” message, whenever there is silence for a while. And he replies with a “Yes” and a smiley emoji. And we both try not to think about when we will meet in person.
Perhaps, the secret to successful parenting over long distances, especially in this global pandemic, is to recognize our shared as well as distinct journeys, laugh over what we don’t control, build our tomorrows on hope, and allow sweet spaces to be interwoven through our conversations and hence, our lives. We live in trust, faith and hope and the acknowledgement of a shared vulnerability. And yes, sometimes, the far-away child will be “3” and sometimes “23” 😊
This was an original post for World Mom by contributor, Piya Mukherjee(India). Photo credit to the Author.
What has your parenting experience been during the pandemic?
Flipping through my travel diary of some years ago, brought me to this entry. Dear reader, I, as a mother, if you have ever come face-to-face with logic-defying moments, while preparing for travel, do read on…
Others have “aha” moments. I make do with “What on earth am I doing?!” ones. Such a moment happened to me last evening, as I filled a clear plastic bag with salt and put it into my handbag.
No, dear reader, I haven’t completely lost it. Salt hasn’t become the new currency. Nor am I on some kind of strange detox that calls for the everyday kitchen ingredient. The salt owes its presence to the leeches. “Which leeches?” you ask. The ones that inhabit the roads from Bagdogra, West Bengal, to Darjeeling, and further to Kalimpong, and Gangtok in Sikkim.
It happened like this…
I called up a well-read and senior neighbor who is rumored to be the inspiration for the Lonely Planet series. Her expertise in all things related to travel, is legendary. So I thought of requesting for her travel-tips before setting off on a 19-day vacation to the afore-mentioned places. And our pleasant talk stopped to a halt upon hearing of the leeches that live in these regions. “No stepping on the grass during breaks in the long car journeys” she said, “And wear your footwear when you need to respond to nature’s call”, she added.
I repeated this to my family. Abhishek, my cautious 10 year old, knows all about salt and leeches. He was convinced that hordes of these blood-sucking fellows were eagerly waiting his visit to their home, ready to pop out of the grass at the first onset of rains, which is once every day or so. He would imagine them falling upon unwary tourists (us!), with maniacal shouts of laughter (o.k. so I made up the last part!).
He looked at me with a knowing look. Turning to his father, he said, “Mamma will carry salt in her hand-bag”. Not asked. Not requested. Simply declared. After all, past experience has shown that Mamma does indeed carry a mini universe in her hand-bag, all for the express purpose of being able to keep him healthy, happy, comfortable, safe, cut-free, and non-bored.
Is there a term like the last one? There ought to be; parents know all about how much it takes to not have a child say those dreaded words, “I’m bored!”
Why not follow the “Prevention is better than cure” dictum and simply avoid presenting one’s blood to leeches? “Sure” responded Abhi, “I’ll wear my shoes at all times. But you will carry the salt too, won’t you?” Yes I will. Is there any doubt? And so the evening found me trying to fit in a bewildered guest of my kitchen into an equally bewildered handbag.
“Just look at me, I’m already bursting at the seams” declared the harried handbag.
I looked. My money pouch stared back at me. Next to it was my cell-phone, a handkerchief, a comb, my address book (yes I still have one of those antiquities), the house keys, a tiny box of cloves and cardamom, two pens, some sticky-paper and my “usual travel-bag” containing credit cards, the airline tickets, Abhi’s passport, frequent flyer airline cards, photographs of family members, photos of my gurus, my driving license (which is a handy identification document but otherwise completely useless as I don’t drive), some hygiene essentials, a taxi and rickshaw tariff card, some “carry at all times” pain killers, band-aids, an emergency “looks-fixer” kit with a mirror, bindis, safety-pins, 2 tiny vials of perfume, a lipstick, a pair of earrings, a tube of lip balm, hair clips and hair-bands, and finally, the little tag that was tied around Abhi’s neck at the nursing home where he was born (I know, I know! But am sentimentally attached to it).
Next to this nestled the vacation-specific mini-bag that had a torch, a scarf, some anti-nausea medicines for Abhi, some tissues and plastic bags (to wipe up the mess if and when the above-mentioned medicines failed, which they usually do), a tiny box of pepper powder (helps digest oily food, I swear!), some soothing ointment for the skin (mosquitoes and assorted insects like to make a beeline for Abhi and greet him like a long-lost friend.)
“Where’s the calendula”? The irritated boy rubbing his red arms will invariably ask, within twelve minutes of venturing outdoors. And last, a bundle of assorted toffees and chewing gum for the family.
I looked at the handbag in one hand and the bag of salt held in the other. Time to say goodbye to something…
Out came a bigger handbag from the cupboard. And the residents got transferred into a larger home. My husband saw the activity and admitted that he was relieved; he had plans to make me carry the digital camera in the handbag. “And the hotel allotment papers too”, he added smiling sheepishly.
I picked up the new handbag and sighed. “Oh well, my shoulders and arms will look more defined by the end of the trip” I muttered.
At dinner, Abhi asked, “Did you take enough salt?”. “Enough for an army of leeches”, I smiled. Watch out jungles, the Mukherjee handbag is here!
Imagine putting your eyes to a kaleidoscope and marveling at the beauty of the image. Now, just a tiny flick of the wrist and the image shifts and coalesces into something completely new. Beautiful, but new. That is the feeling I have each time I get off the phone after talking to my rapidly-growing teenage son, studying 1800 kms away…
Image 1: Abhi at 6 – Ma, I can’t read this book. What lovely pictures! Will you read out one story?…One more, please?…One last story, Ma, promise!
Image 2: Abhi at 19 – Ma, did you read the book I recommended to you?
Me: (sheepishly) Nope, been too busy. But will soon begin.
Abhi: (a trifle exasperated) Ma, promise me you’ll read a chapter today – it’s excellent! I’ve been telling you for ages!
Me: I promise…
Image 3: Abhi at 7 – Ma, I forgot to wear the hoodie jacket. I was having so much fun at the winter carnival! I won’t catch a cold, hopefully.
Image 4: Abhi at 19 – Ma, when will you begin to take your own advice on health? Why are you working so hard? And the next time you are unwell, you are not accepting a new assignment!
Mom with sonny boy with their favourite stray at Gokarna beach, summer of 2017
And so on it goes…My heart turns into a happy mush with equal parts of pride and nostalgia, each time I listen to the oh-so-mature and earnest young man. Wasn’t it just yesterday that the voice by my side chattered excitedly about a hundred random things? Today, the deep voice travelling through all the distance between two cities, tells me the little chick has turned into a bird that can fly on its own.
Motherhood seems like an enchanting journey with twists and bends that are unpredictable and inevitable. No one tells you that one fine day the roles of parenting will get neatly reversed. Or that the constant flow of questions and words of the little one will one day taper down and that the ever-burgeoning timetable of your young one will need you to schedule calls. That you will watch and marvel from a distance while your teen will deal deftly with the demands of life, surprising you with his or her decision-making abilities.
Enjoying the kaleidoscope:
The temptation to step in, to answer the question directly, to supply the ready solution, is still there. But these days, I have learnt to wait. To answer a question with a counter-question. Notwithstanding the vagaries of distance and time. To be patient as he figures out the right solution.
A few weeks ago, I found myself rubbing a strained back, while contemplating a few dozen cardboard boxes, spilling with myriad possessions. My family and I had just shifted residence and while the bigger home was welcome, the sense of being uprooted, was downright disturbing. Over the days and weeks, while I got back to arranging cupboards, emptying out the boxes, and deciding what went where, there was an almost palpable sense of shaping and creating a living space imbued with warmth. A feeling that this apartment was slowly but surely turning into “home”.
That got me thinking. What is it that binds the woman so closely to the sense of “being home”? Why are bachelor pads the butt of jokes, almost as if they can’t be anything more than functional places of stay? And what is it with mothers, that transforms a space with walls and ceiling, from house to home?
Keepers of memories:
“You can’t possibly throw my old soft toys” was the plaintive wail over the phone, from my now grown-up teenager, studying engineering, hundreds of miles away. The tall, bearded young man can dismiss tech troubles and maths equations with ease, but will turn into a 7-year old when confronted with the threat of parting with his precious old buddies of childhood. While I laughed and assured him his dear Spiderman figurine and other assorted ‘friends’ would continue to live with us, part of my mind wondered about how easily mothers slip into the role of “memory-keepers”. In my family, I get to be the person who decides about the keeping of old birthday cards, letters (yes, we still have those!), hand-written notes and little reminders of days gone by. And so there are three burgeoning bags labeled “Sentimental keepsakes”, holding varied treasures such as a favorite insect-print shirt of the sonny-boy when he was a toddler, a teddy-bear with a missing eye, painstakingly created art projects and more. I guess being the protector of the little tangible reminders of precious reminders comes with the territory of being a mom.
Strands of love:
Bidding goodbye to the previous apartment was very difficult due to the myriad of experiences and special moments that had enriched our lives for 16 long years. Would this new home hold a special place in our hearts too? I sighed and realized that when a family lives in various places in succession, no two homes can ever hold the same position in the heart. Each place is linked to a distinct palette of memories. Children are born and they grow up, moving through the years with frightening speed. Our parents leave us, moving from the earthly plane to a higher and better place. We shed our hair and gain some pounds and our faces reflect the battles lost and won in the arena of the world. And our children leave their homes, to find their own wings. Amidst these milestones, big and little, the home remains our sanctuary, the shelter where we return to find ourselves. And so, woven in our homes are strands of love and laughter. Of care and sacrifice. Of sleepless nights and faith-filled days. And again, mothers seem to gravitate towards this process of “weaving love” almost effortlessly.
Mothers are often, thus, the binding factor, transforming houses into homes. It does not matter whether the mother is the caretaker of a child with special health-needs or the mother of a potential Olympian athlete, or the mother of a daughter in a country where females are routinely treated as second-class citizens, or the mother of a little child, living in a refugee camp, trying valiantly to use lullabies and a rag doll to create the illusion of a home for her little one. Home isn’t a space alone – it is a physical space that is imbued with the most sublime of human feelings and emotions. It is the sparkling magical reaction between a safe dwelling place and a mother’s love.
The happy story of motherhood invariably begins with one little discordant note. Amidst the congratulations from friends and family and the heady feeling of having reached a life-transforming milestone, one thing that invariably goes unmentioned to new mothers is that sleep will become the most precious thing in their lives, second only to the newborn squalling in their arms! Recently, I stumbled upon some old pages from my diary, written when my progeny was all of 40 days old.
From the Diary:
Motherhood. One little word with so very many nuances of color and meaning! I knew about the nappies, the feeding, the burping, the rocking-to-sleep thing. I didn’t know about the sheer sense of awe and wonder I would feel each time I looked at or held my little one. But all that awe threatens to disappear in a puff of smoke – this baby just won’t sleep! He seems to run on adrenaline. Even now as I write, my left hand is patting him, hoping he will shut his eyes (and I will shut mine too) but he seems fascinated by the wall-clock! J But the real battle of wills happens after dinner. The situation runs like this:
Mother (that’s me): Abhi, finish your feed and then sleep; don’t doze off now.
Abhi (if he could talk, this is what he might say): Huh? I am not too hungry…zzzz…or am I?…zzz…
Mother tickles Abhi’s ears in a vain attempt to get him to finish his feed. The doctor had advised her this was the best way to awaken a sleeping baby. Abhi obviously didn’t get the memo! She wonders how he manages to become drowsy at feeding times and valiantly resists sleep at other times.
Mother: One moment, let me hold you properly…
Abhi: Waaaanh! (mother quickly soothes him; he seems to finish his feed, all seems well)
Mother: Good boy! Now I will help you sit up and burp.
Abhi: Not the least bit interested! (Helpfully brings up some curdled milk instead. Mother quickly wipes him clean and starts worrying – is this normal? Does he need more feeding?)
Mother: Are you hungry?
Abhi responds by hiccuping, putting a stop to all further feeding plans.
Mother: O.K. Sleep-time. “Aye ghoom aye. Shona ghoomaye” (Bengali for “Come, sleep, come. The little darling sleeps.”)
Abhi opens his eyes wider and starts counting the squares of the mosquito-mesh at the window.
Mother: “Aamaar shone cheley. Please ghoomiye poro”. (“My darling boy, please go to sleep)
Abhi: Mom, there are 672 panels in this part of the mesh!
Mother: Aargh! What are you staring at? Shut your eyes, please!
Abhi: What a lovely little lampshade we have! Say, the curtains look a different colour at night. Interesting…
Mother is ready to collapse. She looks at the clock and decides there is no point in collapsing – the next feeding time is just minutes away! As a last-ditch effort, she decides to walk around with him, tired body notwithstanding. And he snoozes off. Victory! Mother wonders how a 40-day old infant can differentiate between the bed, the crib and her arms…Mother declares herself to be a student of “Bachelor of Child Care Management” taught by the University of Life and Experience!
Reflecting on the journey:
If anyone had told me that I would survive for months on end with barely four hours of sleep a day, I would have thought that to be impossible. And yet, motherhood seems to confer Superwoman-like powers on the humblest of us. Exhaustion battled with a supreme sense of hard-won patience. The latter won. Every time. The sheer force of unconditional love and an increasing sense of clarity about what the little one needed, were enough to deal with perpetual sleeplessness. The almost zombie-like days and nights segued into each other. And soon the infant grew to be a mischievous toddler, then a curious, inquisitive child, and is now, a strapping teen. Was I a patient person to begin with? Far from it! The first weeks and months of motherhood were therefore a “baptism by fire” for me. Over the years, there have been many, MANY more occasions for me to grow my “patience-muscle”. But this one was by far the sweetest and most definitive way to learn patience; truly claimed by the sheer persistence of a mother’s love.