Learn­ing to par­ent through a pan­demic

The con­tours of par­ent­ing have changed: fam­ily time is back, but amid height­ened anx­i­ety and un­cer­tainty, es­pe­cially for low-in­come par­ents and those hav­ing chil­dren with spe­cial needs

Hindustan Times (Jalandhar) - - 100 DAYS OF PARENTING COVID 19 - (With in­put from Vanessa Vie­gas) Zara Mu­rao letters@hin­dus­tan­times.com

More al­co­hol’. That was the most suc­cinct re­sponse we got to the ques­tion, how have you changed as a par­ent in the lock­down. It was a joke. But hu­mour’s been one of the things that have helped fam­i­lies stay sane through the past 100 days.

Much of the hu­mour is dark and / or rooted in the on­go­ing tragedy. Like the vi­ral tweet about the lit­tle boy who wouldn’t stop cry­ing be­cause he’d been promised a treat that hadn’t ma­te­ri­alised. When did we prom­ise this, his dad asked. Try­ing to say ‘in the morn­ing’, but con­fused by his now-gar­bled sense of time, all he could man­age was ‘A long time ago today’.

In Mum­bai, the par­ents of sixyear-old Lyra re­cently asked what she was build­ing with her Lego blocks and were told, very se­ri­ously, that they were hos­pi­tals. It’s all she builds now.

“That’s when we re­alised what a toll this was tak­ing,” says her mother. To try and help take her mind off things, they’ve been letting her go to the pet store in their build­ing, to pet the dogs.

In­no­va­tion, em­pa­thy and pa­tience are key tools par­ents have been de­ploy­ing in the lock­down, to make it work for the fam­ily, amid con­straints of space, money, pri­vacy and peer com­pany.

“Liv­ing the idea that par­ent­ing is not just expecting your kids to step up, but also walk­ing a mile in their shoes… that’s been a les­son for me,” says Dhanashri Bhos­ale, 43, an ar­chi­tect and mother of two teens. “I’ve also re­alised that I need to up­grade my­self if I want to un­der­stand their world. So I’m spend­ing a bit more time on­line. I have let my guard down a lot more. I want them to know they can com­mu­ni­cate with me.”

As a byprod­uct of the lock­down, the per­for­ma­tive el­e­ment of par­ent­ing in mid­dle- and up­per-mid­dle-class ur­ban In­dia has de­clined. There’s less pres­sure on chil­dren, be­cause there are just fewer goals avail­able. This means par­ents are see­ing their chil­dren dif­fer­ently; see­ing them for who they are, as one put it, rather than as an amal­gam of the var­i­ous chil­dren they’ve been.

“At this point, I feel I need not fo­cus only on ca­reer and achieve­ments. The hu­man­i­tar­ian as­pects have taken prece­dence,” adds Bhos­ale. “For in­stance, I was pleas­antly sur­prised when I was wor­ry­ing about my son’s school not yet start­ing on­line classes, and he said, ‘Not ev­ery­one might have the fa­cil­ity at home. It’s okay to wait, ma’.”

There’s a back-to-the-ba­sics clar­ity about the role of the par­ent. Keep the child safe, keep them fed, keep them oc­cu­pied and calm, and talk, talk, talk. In most cases, par­ents have seen chil­dren re­cip­ro­cate in kind, whether they’re 6 or 16.

“We’ve dis­cov­ered a ca­pac­ity for work­ing as a team and manag­ing with lim­ited re­sources — whether for recre­ation or recipes or com­pany,” says Ekta Pil­lai, 41, home­maker and mother of Aahiel, 12.

Fam­ily time has made a roar­ing come­back. All meals are eaten to­gether; chores are done to­gether. In some cases the TV and lap­top are shared. This has placed a cer­tain amount of pres­sure on sib­ling re­la­tion­ships, but even more on the mar­riage — as one mother put it, it’s hard to par­ent, and es­pe­cially hard to dis­ci­pline, un­der the con­stant watch of some­one who would typ­i­cally take a dif­fer­ent ap­proach (and was usu­ally away at work for this bit).

“Jug­gling par­ent­ing styles while also hav­ing to jug­gle the roles of teacher, guide, coun­sel­lor, friend and par­ent, plus work and house­work, has been a com­mon pain point,” says Kamna Ch­hib­ber, head of men­tal health and be­havioural sci­ences at For­tis Health­care, Gu­ru­gram, which has been of­fer­ing coun­selling through the lock­down via voice and video calls.

It’s been a dou­ble adap­ta­tion for some. The gen­er­a­tion gap was large to be­gin with, be­tween some of today’s par­ents and chil­dren. “The way so­ci­ety and com­mu­nity were chang­ing, con­ver­sa­tions around gen­der and sex­u­al­ity, re­li­gion, tech, pol­i­tics, all of it had been a chal­lenge. There was near-con­stant adapt­ing. Covid-19 has made this even more daunt­ing,” Ch­hib­ber says.

The lock­down has also been par­tic­u­larly hard on par­ents of chil­dren with spe­cial needs, and par­ents of tod­dlers. Vac­cine cy­cles have been dis­rupted, rou­tine checks have be­come nervewrack­ing, and there’s the added bur­den of child­care with no help.

The loss of the off­line so­cial net­work has been very keenly felt. “These par­ents are hav­ing to work dou­bly hard in the ab­sence of their net­work,” says de­vel­op­men­tal pae­di­a­tri­cian Samir Dal­wai, founder of the New Hori­zons Health and Re­search Foun­da­tion. “For cer­tain kinds of spe­cial-needs chil­dren, on­line learn­ing can also be harder. For some, out­door ac­tiv­ity is al­most a pre­scrip­tion. Here, par­ents have been re­sort­ing to stair­case space, a ther­apy ball, even an old truck tyre. And all these are good ideas, and have been work­ing.”

In ad­di­tion to age — teens tend to get rest­less more easily; younger chil­dren are more able to en­ter­tain them­selves for longer pe­ri­ods, and suf­fer less anx­i­ety about what comes next — type of school­ing has proved piv­otal.

The more rigidly struc­tured cour­ses have in­sti­tuted vir­tual at­ten­dance, tests and work­sheets. One dad had to rush around try­ing to buy a printer, the day the lock­down was en­forced. Jug­gling work, house­work, classes and home­work has pushed oth­ers to the brink.

One mom was so ex­hausted by the sheets and sheets of al­ge­bra frac­tions that she said she felt like pulling her hair out, at which point her daugh­ter re­sponded curtly, ‘Keep your hair on, mom’ — which has since be­come the lock­down an­them in their home.

“Younger chil­dren are typ­i­cally more re­silient by de­sign. Their lack of knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing of the scale of things, helps,” Ch­hib­ber says.

What hap­pens next is a ques­tion that’s plagu­ing chil­dren, and par­ents too — not just with re­gard to the cour­ses / ex­ams / jobs sit­u­a­tion, but also, what is the likely long-term im­pact of this lock­down on my child?

Coun­sel­lors say they can’t an­swer that one; it’s too soon to know. But the fact that ev­ery­one has been stuck in the same sit­u­a­tion should al­le­vi­ate some of the long-term ef­fects.

In terms of be­ing stuck in the same sit­u­a­tion, par­ents say it’s also been help­ful to dis­cover that there is no cor­rect num­ber of chil­dren for a lock­down. One is too few; any more is an end­less round­about of cook­ing, wash­ing up, ar­gu­ing over space / toys / rules / chores, and elab­o­rate dis­putes re­dres­sal sys­tems.

For some chil­dren, this has been the first time in their lives that they’ve gone this long with noth­ing new, no spe­cial out­ings, par­ties or va­ca­tions.

“Par­ents are learn­ing to spend less money. What was, for many, a cy­cle of heed­less con­sumerism has been bro­ken. There is no han­ker­ing for the next big thing,” says fam­ily coun­sel­lor Gouri Dange. “Chil­dren are be­ing taught to man­age with what they have.”

In­stead of things, in­no­va­tion and ef­fort have re­claimed their place at the heart of spe­cial oc­ca­sions. Like the ‘flight ex­pe­ri­ence’ that Rachana Adalja cre­ated for her six-year-old daugh­ter and a friend, in their liv­ing room. She put lug­gage tags on two suit­cases, fixed screens to the backs of chairs and of­fered an ‘in-flight’ meal of Maggi and soup.

Pallavi Singh, 38, a home­maker from In­dore, cel­e­brated her daugh­ter Ki­maya’s fifth birth­day by trans­form­ing part of their liv­ing room into a ‘fairy­land’, with the help of some toys, Bar­bie props and bal­loons. “She had a Zoom party with friends and cousins. They played games and laughed a lot,” Pallavi says.

Rec time and cel­e­bra­tions have also en­com­passed joint cook­ing or bak­ing projects, ques­tion hour and quiz games, dress-up and dance par­ties.

So, will lock­down change how we par­ent for good? How much of the old styles of par­ent­ing will re­turn — less democ­racy, less con­ver­sa­tion, less qual­ity time, fewer fam­ily meals?

“The abil­ity to have more con­ver­sa­tions will re­main, I hope,” says Ch­hib­ber.

“In the long term, par­ents will learn to de­pend on them­selves,” Dal­wai adds. “They will have greater trust in their child’s abil­ity to cope. And will re­alise, hope­fully, that chil­dren don’t need that many things and lists. Some­times all they need is time and pa­tience and a say in how things are done.”

GETTY IM­AGES / IS­TOCK

As ev­ery­one pitches in to take on new chores, chil­dren have ben­e­fited from see­ing gen­der roles ease in the house­hold.

Par­ents say the lock­down has taught them to give their chil­dren space. When her day is done, for in­stance, Rhi­anna Ma­jumder, 12, from Kolkata re­treats to the se­cret world of her di­ary. ‘I pour out all my thoughts and feel­ings there,’ she says. SHORMI ROYCHOUDHU­RY

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