A penny for two thoughts?

A couple of thoughts that got processed over the past few days, interestingly both related to books in a way –

I was reading a book review (this one) and it made me realize that motherhood has made me weak-hearted in some ways. It’s another matter that I’ve become brave on certain other fronts, but let’s leave that for another day. So this book –  from the review, I could imagine it would be a nightmarish read. The kind that would twist your insides and make you want to curl up in a corner and die. And I’m almost sure it wouldn’t have been so if it weren’t for the mother part in me. Because, and I’ve been noticing this very often, every time there’s a person in pain, I end up seeing my son’s face.

Those child beggars at the traffic stop that we’re so used to seeing that it’s part of the scenery now? I notice them more. And I can’t bear it. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. The closest description would be someone holding your heart and squeezing it till you feel nothing but an emptiness there. Slowly, that emptiness travels to your gut and there are some moments of weightlessness, like just before a fall. You’re this close to breaking down and then the light turns green, you drive off and remember to breathe.

I don’t recollect being like this before my son was born. It’s a bit like the character May in Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The secret life of bees’ – she takes empathy to an extreme level wherein she starts to feel sad as if she herself were enduring the pain, even if it was actually happening to somebody else.

So, yeah, to quote what I had written as a comment on the book review, my tolerance for pain or sadness has gone down a lot. It’s probably because of this feeling of helplessness that after that moment when he came out of the birth canal, my son is on his own. Yes, I’m here for him but I can no longer shield his body with my body. I can no longer nourish him with mine. He’s another person – OUTSIDE of me. And he can be in pain, all on his lonesome. And THAT, by far, is the most scariest thing ever for me.

Sentimental, much? Ok, I’m stopping.

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The other one is on this article, about those weirdo children’s books we reading-parents come across all the time. I say ‘weirdo’ because, even though the language is fine, the books themselves are an empty read – there’s nothing to remember or learn, other than the actual act of reading to the little person in your lap. I could identify so much with what’s written in the article! Like this bit –

The problem is that young children have terrible taste and enjoy garbage. Another problem, which compounds the first problem, is that they want to hear the same books hundreds of times in a row. So for all the joys that storytime can offer, it frequently entails a kind of dismal self-abnegation that’s too excruciating even to describe as tedium—an actively painful sense of my precious time on earth being torn from my chest and tossed into a furnace.

It’s so so true. And I also agree with the part that we tend to buy books that we remember from our childhood – but the thing is we’ve forgotten what the book is about and we only have the nostalgia of seeing that book when we were kids. And, honestly, when we come across the stories now, my first response is usually ‘What the heck?!’. Like the one about the goat kids and the wolf – the wolf eats up the kids but the Mother Goat then goes and cuts up the wolf’s belly, takes out the kids and sews it back up, with stones inside. Say what?! I had to change that entire bit to say the wolf stole the kids in a bag and the Mother Goat saved them by tearing open the bag. Why couldn’t the story have used bag instead of belly? Which kindergartner needs that kind of gore?! And how am I to explain to him later that you can’t just cut open stomachs and sew them back up with stones stuffed inside? As if I don’t have enough tough questions to answer as it is.

That said, I feel we shouldn’t THINK too much about the content, as long as it is written in a coherent manner, with tasteful illustrations and without any general bias or prejudice. Just like those umpteen nursery rhymes about old men being thrown down the stairs or little boys indulging in eve teasing (yep, those are rhymes. See this.). The article refers to ‘The little engine that could’ as one of those ‘terrible’ books – I don’t agree! 🙂 It’s a story about how an engine breaks down and the toys in the train try to hail some other engine to pull them up the hill. Most engines give some reason or the other and go away without helping. And along comes a little engine which hasn’t really pulled a big train but is willing to help and try! It’s a bit adorable, actually. I’ve read it many times to my son and recently, in a different context about helping me with chores, he just said, “Like the little engine helps, Amma. I help.”. What more do you want of a children’s book, eh? So, yeah. Let’s just screen the books for language and child-friendly content and let the kids have some fun without worrying about morals and lessons and what not. They have their entire life ahead to deal with that!

A dream coming true!

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My son loves books. He loves his books and he loves mine too. Yes, even the boring ones with no pictures – he just likes to riffle through the pages, turn it this side and that side and I even caught him smelling the pages once. If you know me, you’ll know that that moment was probably one of the most happiest moments of my life. See, I could never be sure he’ll take to books. Half of his genes vehemently detest books of any kind and there’s nothing I can do about it. But looks like the better half of his genes (yes, mine!) prevailed.

I’ve been asked how he does this. How is he so interested in books, at 2.5 years of age. Simple – he’s always been surrounded by books, right from the time he could crawl. Not before, though. I was not one of those women who read or sang to their unborn child. I wanted to, but I couldn’t afford to become attached to the baby before he/she was born and have my heart broken yet again. And I also had a distinct indifference to books when I was pregnant and during the first few months of motherhood – I’m going to blame the hormones and move on. So yeah, if you didn’t read to your pregnant belly, it’s ok dude – they can still like books, don’t worry! 😉

Right. So, when he was around a year old, he got his first picture books. Ironically, we didn’t buy it for him – it was a gift from my friend when we dropped by to visit her! It was a board book with no sharp edges (very important, when giving books to little children) and a touch and feel theme – the images were laid out in patterned paper/cloth/fur so the child can touch and learn. I lose count of the number of meals I have gotten him to eat with the help of these board books. Oh, that’s a great time to get them to see books, btw – when they are tied and bibbed up in their high chair, with a table in front of them.

The next few months he was getting more and more picture books (alphabets, numbers, animals, birds, vegetables, fruits, vehicles, etc.) thanks to his super-enthu Dad who couldn’t stop buying them for some reason. At some point, I might have actually asked him to stop buying so many books. So even though there was no active reading per se, books became as familiar to him as toys, if not more. He could sit by himself and run through all the books, sounding out the words he knew.

Then came nursery rhymes. First the audio and then the books. Nursery rhymes are a fun way to get a child to learn a language and introduce new words and actions into their vocabulary. Only thing is we need to try not to complicate things by looking at the inner meaning of some of these rhymes because, dude, they are downright mean! 😀 Just sing the damn rhyme and get it over with – don’t go around explaining the meaning to the child please! They have some time before reality hits them on their butt, before swinging a punch on their face.

We then gradually moved to stories – simple ones, with every day terms and themes. It need not be the actual classics, but a heavily watered down version is good. He has a version of Alice in Wonderland that’s about 8 pages, with 2 or 3 lines per page – THAT simple. The language lacks nuance and quality, of course, but I make it up when reading it to him (I correct the grammar before I read it aloud! Heh heh, old habits die hard mate!). In hindsight, check the language before buying the book – some of them are very badly written and it’s a pain (literally!) to read them.

When he was almost 1.5, I got him his first Dr.Seuss book – A wocket in my pocket. It is gold, trust me. The Blue Back series is for toddlers, so I just blindly bought a couple of them – result, he was already finished with the slightly complex ones before seeing the simpler ones! 😀 Example, The Foot Book is probably a good one to start with, instead of ABC or One Fish Two Fish. No harm done, just that they enjoy the simpler book a tad less than the others.

The latest additions in his library (yep, he has an ever-growing one!) are The Lion King, The Jungle Book and T.S.Eliot’s Old Possum’s book of practical cats. The last one was a gamble, but hey, he did like the poems and has some favorites too! These books are for me to read to him – they have comparatively less illustrations than his earlier story books and I was wondering if he would like them or not, but he did. It all comes down to how we read, btw – a monotonous reading will not help in getting the child interested, trust me. They need to feel the drama and the excitement! So I had to brush up on MY reading skills before picking up the books. And the other thing I do (rather, ended up doing without realizing) is to read each story the same way every time – the same cadence, pausing/stressing at the same place, etc. so now he’s able to complete the sentences in the book after reading it 3 or 4 times. This, I find, is a good way to improve their speech and vocabulary. I’ve heard him repeat those phrases to himself when he’s pretend-playing with his toys!

So, there. Even though I’m running out of space in the cupboard for all his books and even though there are times when I don’t really feel like reading but I HAVE to because he’s being all whiny and cranky, I’m completely thrilled that my boy loves books almost as much as me! I’ll never have to worry about him being bored or lonely as long as he has books around him. I can’t wait for him to grow up and discover the infinite pleasure that is reading, all those wondrous journeys to far away magical places, to let his imagination run riot at the mere sight of words.

His first Eric Carle is in the mail. And I’m buying him his first Enid Blyton shortly. That’s a milestone. The next would be when I thrust a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone into his hands and see him vanish into his room for a day and a half. All the Ruskin Bond. Calvin and Hobbes. I can’t wait to roll my eyes at him when he invariably tries out some of the Young-Adult junk and hates it just like I do. I can’t wait to see him inhale his food down so he can go back to the Jonathan Stroud or Neil Gaiman book, unmindful of my exasperation at yet another uneaten meal. And before you know it, he’ll be old enough to read Ayn Rand. And Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Murakami, David Mitchell and all my other favorite authors. And all the contemporary fiction of his time, 20 years from now.

I can’t wait for him to recommend a book to me, maybe even buy me one with the first bit of money he earns. And then we will have come full circle.

I can’t wait for him to read, even without food or water or sleep, as if his life depended on it.

The Amazing Race

“You know X? His 1 year old son can eat almost 1.5 idlis, that too just dipped in water without any sambar or chutney!”

“You know what Y gave her barely year old daughter during that function? One big bowl of rasam rice and she ate it in no time.”

“Why is your son not eating well? He’s not putting on any weight.”

“You’re not giving him any fruits. Z’s son loves fruits, it seems. Can eat an entire apple in one go. When he came here last time, he ate an apple, some pieces of orange, 4 or 5 strawberries and even some papaya! Why doesn’t your son eat all that?”

Got tired just reading this? Imagine having to listen to this, not once, but every time you’re feeding the kid and he/she is already pissing you off by not eating properly. For every 15 fussy eaters out there, apparently there’s a superhero kid who will inhale his food, that too only the healthy type. Yeah, such children exist it seems. My mom never fails to tell me.

The proverbial rat race doesn’t begin at school (or pre-school), people. It begins when the child is conceived. “Does your baby kick a lot? Mine does somersaults already and it makes me so nauseous.” – what I heard when I was pregnant. If I were a naive recently-married girl who was pregnant, I would have freaked out and run to the Ob-gyn saying my baby is not kicking. But one is not. Thankfully. And then when the baby is born? Oh dear Lord. Color, hair, eyes open or not, smiling or not, drinking enough milk or not, sleeping well or not, colicky or not..the list is endless. The only comparison I haven’t heard yet is the APGAR score – probably because hospitals in India don’t make a big deal of this to the parents (even though its noted in the file), so the parents are probably not that aware of it.

If the baby is very quiet, the comparison is with another baby who’s like a 5 year old in Disneyland, on a sugar rush. If the baby IS like a 5 year old in Disneyland, on a sugar rush, then the comparison will be with one who’s Buddha’s long lost cousin, deep in meditation. I’m not kidding. Your baby can’t catch a break, is what it is. Of course, none of this is meant to be hurtful – everyone knows that all babies are not alike but that when did that mean there should be no comparisons, eh? :-\

Most of the time, I’m ok with the comments. The in-through-one-ear-out-through-the-other mechanism works beautifully in most cases. But there are days when I wish people would just let me and my son be. Yes, he’s not a great eater and no, he’s not putting on as much weight as I would have wanted him to. But you know what? He’s doing just fine. He’s active. He’s learning new things everyday. He’s social. He outgrows his pjs and shirts every 2 months. He’s not going to be 6’2″ when he grows up, but that’s not his fault – blame his genes. He’s learning to use his potty. He’s slightly obsessive-compulsive about things being clean and tidy, but hey, it’s cute and I’m not about to teach him to be ok with wallowing in filth.

So there. Let him be. Let ME be. We don’t want to be part of this amazing race. We’ll get there in our own sweet time. And you know what? It’s ok even if we don’t get there. We’re in this for the journey, not the destination. We’re doing just fine, him and me.

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