Published: Mother’s World, May-August 2012

Having a baby surrounded by a big extended family is the very essence of – and much like – living in India. Baby steps into a rather overwhelming world of warmth, security and distraction. There is a babble of sounds; there is a lot of noise. There are people around; there are too many people around. People are well-meaning and helpful; people are inquisitive. People always have an opinion – including how you can do the job of mothering better. That is not to take away from the fact that a child – at a stage when she’s almost like a sponge – absorbs and learns so much from different people, and finds pleasure in the company of various family members.

Belgium born-living-in-Mumbai Rachna Doshi points out that different family members can provide levels of attention to a child who is naturally at an ego-centric stage. “I find on occasion that I am irritable with my son after a whole day of feeding and potty training…ensuring all his needs are met; and when play time arrives, I’m too tired. Grandparents, being free of all the responsibility, are all about pure fun and play!”

At the very crux of a joint family lies the support system. To have ‘me’ time, to find a balance in life, a mother is likely to be heavily dependent on immediate and extended family. Doshi recalls growing up in a nuclear set up: “I found that when living abroad my mother did everything but relied on the older child to take care of the younger one. In our early years, I doubt my parents ever had time for each other least of all for socializing. It was only when our grandparents visited that they could take a few nights off.” And as she points out, people who live on their own, for lack of choice would tend to rely on the hired help much more – almost as if they were the extended family.

In India, the joint family system has proven itself, but with women becoming more self-reliant and opinionated, this can also fall flat in the face of antiquated thinking and habits and new age parenting principles. There is a definite trade-off between cultural transmission and spoiling a child with easy-going or lax parenting often followed by a grandparent. When the child is around people who are not the primary caregivers, he may begin to act up or take liberties that stricter parents may not afford the child. And vice versa, the extended family often takes an easier parenting route for two reasons: the fact that they are not the fall guy on the disciplinary front and because they feel certain things worked when they were parents and why should things be any different now?

Parenting is all about creating a set of guidelines that work for the parent and child, and sticking by them. When a child senses mixed signals, it confuses him and allows him to take charge of the decision-making. Delhi-based Reshma Kumar (name changed) faces daily frustration with maintaining an eat-play-sleep schedule and feeding rules for her eight-month-old son, Vedant. Where she stresses on healthy foods and skipping snacking, she often returns home to find that her son won’t eat his dinner because grandma has given him sugary cookies and Bourbon biscuits to snack on in the evening, despite having been repeatedly cautioned against it.

Dubai-and-Bangalore-based Tara Kinnelan (name changed) faces another problem. Her parent’s home isn’t baby proofed and despite requests, they tend to be negligent with massive vases and glass figurines scattered around, as her one-year-old daughter, Sara, runs amok. Her uncle and aunt are easy on anything she picks up. Kinnelan has often found medicines, cream bottles and cosmetics in her daughter’s hand. “I feel suffocated – where a support system should make my life easy, it gives me more stress! I’d rather do it myself, for my peace of mind, but that leaves me at the raw end of the deal.”

Advice is another battle a thinking mother is constantly waging. On one side is a mother’s gut instinct and on the other is the wisdom of experience. When Kinnelan’s daughter, Sara, was a few months old, and colicky, the hyperventilating grandmothers would rush in with a barrage of unscientific solutions and recommendations. “It was hard enough dealing with an inconsolable child, and to add to that, constant notes on what worked in their time! They wanted to control what I ate, how I fed her, how I bathed her, had long recommendations on herbal tummy ointments…all through Sara’s shrieks.” On the other hand, Doshi feels that in a time of illness a grandparent’s presence is invaluable. “When my son or I have fallen ill, it has been a blessing to have family around. As first-time parents, a child’s illness can be nerve racking and a helping hand or some advice from an elder can really be great guidance and comfort.” Doshi admits to there being a generation gap: “But it’s an opinion. I doubt that even they expect us to follow their advice unless we think it’s correct. In many cases, their advice is spot on and in as many instances we blatantly reject it in lieu of a more modern approach. There are no hard feelings. It’s their right as grandparents to offer the advice – whether we take it or not is our choice.”

Regardless of the difficulties, the rapport a child builds with his family and what she picks up or learns from the elders is important. Kinnelan’s father, for instance, was the person who taught Sara to climb onto and off a bed and would soothe her when she was cranky. Doshi and 32-year-old Aarti Mehta (name changed) value the traditional learning grandparents can bring to an impressionable child. Says Mehta, who has spent half her life away from India: “I leave it up to the grandparents to infuse my children with Indian culture, spirituality and religion which I am not really comfortable with.”

Doshi, who lives in a house amid four generations, firmly holds: “Though it may be easier not to have to deal with the constant advice, the joint family scenario definitely instills a sense of family values in a child as well as a sense of security. Aman learns various things from each family member, and having spent his entire life with so many people in the house never feels uncomfortable or insecure in crowds or with strangers, or even when his parents aren’t around.” Mumbai-based Sejal Jain Sachdeva, the mother of one-year-old Shay, has an alternate opinion, which is seconded by the childcare community: “I believe a baby’s sense of security comes from the parents or family sense of security. Even in a larger family set up, you find insecure children. I live in a joint family and my child cannot play by himself for more than ten minutes. He needs people to entertain him and look at his antics. On the other hand, he’s not intimidated when he’s amongst a large crowd. He enjoys the company.”

Mehta found it easier bringing up her first child alone, abroad, than she did raising her second in India. Admittedly set in her ways because her first son, Ved, was raised through the difficult period of new motherhood in New York without an extended family support system, she now lives with her husband and two sons in Mumbai in a nuclear system. “I love my set up: I have my space to live my life, spend quality time with my children and husband. And yet my support is a phone call and a few minutes away. My children get the best of all worlds – a very concentrated and focused upbringing by us, following our rules, while at the same time plenty of time with their grandparents – to get spoilt rotten! My parents and in-laws offer me a lot of space and respect in my decision-making and are readily available as and when I need them. I also find that this set up lets me really focus on my kids without falling into the trap of having them raised by others or in a crowd.”

There are also those who stay with the grandparents in the early days, when the baby needs constant attention and monitoring and choose to move to a more nuclear set up when the child is ready for school. This would appear to be particularly harsh on the grandparents, who are likely to have become used to having a little rug rat scampering around. Alternatively, not to miss a scenario overheard at a South Mumbai beauty salon – “My daughter is visiting with the kids – thankfully it’s only for few weeks! The house gets out of control with everyone around.” So, it appears that on the flipside, children can cramp the grandparents’ style as well!

It does take all kinds of people to make a family and the best answer is undoubtedly the one based on your own situation. The family members you have to live with: are they easy-going, flexible, understanding? Are they willing to lend a helping hand regularly? Is there open communication and dialogue? Are you willing to take a step back and let go of the reins occasionally? It’s natural for a mother to take parenting rather seriously – especially if she is a first-time mother. But, as Kumar has learnt, letting go of the small things and keeping in mind the big picture helps. “What Vedant is gaining from being around his grandparents, and what I gain in terms of space, is far bigger than some of the practices they insist on following. I have made my peace with that.” And if you are unable to find your eight-fold-path, you may need to take pointers from Mehta’s perfect scenario.