Pallavi Aiyar writes a laudable and deeply relatable account of modern-day motherhood, which is often wedged between conventional expectations and contemporary aspirations.
It was on page 60 of Babies and Bylines: Parenting on the Move (HarperCollins India, 2016) that I knew the author was a kindred soul. “No one ever taught me anything about babies,” she says, lamenting the fact that as a generation of women, we are raised with almost zero exposure to childcare and what it actually involves. The rest of the book, naturally, is about stumbling through and the lessons in humility and exhaustion that bringing up children entails.
The author, Pallavi Aiyar, is an award-winning foreign correspondent and has lived across the world. Nothing quite prepared her for the nitty-gritty of giving birth and the hellish first year of raising a baby, and she details it unflinchingly, refusing to sugar coat the often miserable anguish of being responsible for another human being who seems to have been put on Earth for the sole purpose of making one question one’s decision of reproducing.
This book is not merely a parenting memoir. It looks at motherhood through the prism of social constructs, feminism, gender roles, both expected and ingrained, as well as the gains that women have made in order to expect being able to pursue their careers unhindered even after having their babies.
Somewhat endearingly and candidly, the author accepts that mothering and maternal love do not come easily to her. Like most of us first time mothers, she struggles with the challenge of lactation, of too much information out there, of dealing with old school male gynaecologists and of managing a newborn when post-delivery one’s own body feels like it has been through a head-on collision with a truck. Plus, the complete consternation when faced with the menace of colic. She does all moms a favour by taking us off the pedestal on which the world insists on placing us and shows us for what we are – exhausted, resentful, struggling to cope and finding, in the chaos of the daily struggles, the sudden magical moments that make it all worth it.
Then she goes and has a second baby. While her first baby was born when she was in China, her second baby was born in Brussels. The different geographies bring with them the challenges of dealing with baby-raising norms that are drastically different in both cultures, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. In China, the author had access to and inputs from the in-house help ‘Aunty Mei’; on the other hand, child rearing was radically different in Brussels, where the author had to not just manage a toddler, but also her newborn, practically on her own, given that her husband had just moved into a very demanding position. In Jakarta though, the author found herself in the melting pot of the expat community and perhaps the closest to what it would feel like to raise her children in India.
Through the book, the author raises pertinent questions about how gender continues to dominate parenting, with the mother continuing to be the default caregiver, as first determined biologically and then by circumstances and lack of available childcare. “It is remarkable,” she writes, “that this scenario reads like a set-piece family comedy from circa 1950, where the plot involves ‘Father’ realising just how tough a job ‘Mother’ has when he takes over domestic responsibilities for a day, only to make a humorous hash of it.” The thread of resentment at being compelled to put her job and career on hold to juggle child rearing and work runs deep and strong throughout the book, even if somewhat apologetically, something every career woman faces and deals with, depending on circumstances, the available support system and other factors.
In a poignant yet revealing anecdote, the author speaks of meeting a celebrated male author who also has a young child but is travelling around the world and taking off on retreats to write, while she has to rearrange babysitter schedules and work through immense self-inflicted guilt to get out of home for even an hour. When asked how he does so, he says he had a good support system. Aiyar replies, somewhat scathingly, “You mean you have a wife”. At that moment, every working mother reading would likely nod in recognition of that blithe assumption that a man is never expected to be the primary caregiver.
The author references enough cult books on parenting; she draws from the bible for expecting women, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, from Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé and even Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom in a brief phase when the dormant Asian tiger mom flares up within her. Through it all, what comes across is a bittersweet memoir of parenting that is disarmingly honest about the challenges that contemporary women face in the process of child rearing, something that often manages to completely derail their careers and ambitions if they do not have adequate support or access to childcare.
In this the author, while speaking of something that every working mother faces, does acknowledge her privilege of choice that allows her to pursue a career with adequate support of nannies, caregivers and daycare where available, to handle a demanding job that involves travel and uncertain hours. She admits, and rightly so, that most women might not have this luxury of choice.
The book progresses through early childhood struggles with potty training and food jags etc., to the issues that crop up as a child grows – sibling rivalry, identity crisis, ‘good touch bad touch’ and developing a social conscience, amongst others – and the author describes her experience happily in a straightforward and non-preachy tone.
And yes, this is a book that every father could do with reading because equal parenting does need to go beyond the tokenism of nappy changing and night feeds, and evolve into shifting the focus from mums in the workplace, to working dads at home.
Kiran Manral is an author. Her nonfiction book, Karmic Kids: The Story of Parenting Nobody Told You, was named among the top five parenting books by Indian authors for 2015 by The Sunday Guardian.