The new family
Lhendup G Bhutia | 22 May, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
I listen under the shower at the voices outside. It is my neighbours from upstairs. All I have heard from them for the last two months is the constant sound of the two-and-a-half-year-old boy running, his feet falling upon my ceiling like rain. He’s only recently learnt to run, I can tell.
Today, from the shower I hear, the mother. She’s gathered the courage to take her son outside, to finally let loose those limbs outside even if it is just the housing society’s premises. But the outing, I can tell, is turning out to be a failure. A series of ‘don’ts’ issue forth. “Don’t touch that car,” she says. “No, don’t sit there. No don’t not there.”
It goes on like this way, until I can’t hear anymore. I turn the knob off and step outside. A few minutes later, above me, footsteps fall again like rain.
The two haven’t stepped out since. I can understand. I haven’t let my child out either.
Later, as I stand with my son, his feet over the ledge of the balcony, looking at the hill outside overrun with trees, trying to spot butterflies amidst them, I realise how central the outside world is to a toddler’s experience. How his eyes would grow large, as we walked back from the play-school, at the sight of something as plain as a goat. How he would overturn every fallen leaf, as we walked over slippery pavements in the rain, vehicles threatening to splash puddles over us, to search for something as commonplace as a snail. And how he would count every step on staircases in the numbers of my mother-tongue.
Now all of us are trapped indoors, anxious that any leeway could lead them to contract an infection, and yet worried that this severity will so dim them that they will return to their classrooms one day, their IQs severely depleted. As the days go on, every new day a repetition of the last, we worry what tomorrow could bring, what will the future of classroom education be like, and whether this fear of the contagion won’t leave an imprint upon our and our children’s impressionable minds long after this disease itself has disappeared.
The discovery that germs cause disease is known to have had a profound impact on parenting at the end of the 19th century. Parents became aloof. They stopped cuddling and touching their children and showing such signs of intimacy in the fear that they could pass on bacteria. According to a Washington Post article examining this phenomenon in the US, while these measures drastically reduced infant mortality, they produced damaging consequences for the children.
This changed when psychologists began learning of the traumatic side effects such a style of parenting had on children, and I suspect with the wider availability of antibiotics. Is it possible that the paranoia over this contagion could engender such a cruel form of parenting again?
Anita Aikara, a media professional in Mumbai, delivered her son before schedule during the first phase of the lockdown. Her son’s delivery had been pencilled in for April 14, the day the first phase of the lockdown was scheduled to be lifted, but he was born nine days before. For two whole days, she withstood her contractions and resisted going to the hospital in the fear that she may be risking infection with an unnecessary visit to a hospital while the city was in the grip of a pandemic. On April 5, she couldn’t hold on any longer.
She describes the fear she felt as she lay on the cold delivery table – her anxiety compounded because her mother was not going to be allowed to stay with her in the hospital and her husband hadn’t been allowed into the delivery room – how despite being groggy under anaesthesia and uncomfortable under a mask, she observed the hands and faces of every new individual entering the room to see if they were gloved and masked. “They say, you should take deep breaths (during the delivery, and before at the examination table). But with a mask on, it was so difficult to even breathe,” she says.
If she had any hopes that the lockdown would be lifted after its first phase and she could seek help in childcare, those shattered soon enough. The manual of a newborn’s care has now changed. The hospital’s staff – certain that the lockdown would continue and no help would be readily available – spent the next few days training the two inexperienced parents on how to care for a newborn. When they left the hospital, for the first few days, they lived in her mother’s house. But the fear of neighbours and friends flouting the lockdown and dropping in and the strain this was all putting on her mother, led Aikara and her husband Jezreel Pannikot to return to their own home.
The three of them now live by themselves. They have neither the assistance of household help nor the experience of a grandmother to aid them in childcare. The two are now perennially exhausted and sleepless. Aikara is on maternal leave from her office, but Pannikot has to work for his office from home. They turn to YouTube tutorials to learn things like the correct method of swaddling an infant or holding the baby while giving it a bath. And they consult the paediatrician over video calls, moving the phone’s camera over the baby’s body, so that the doctor can make her observations.
Pannikot also maintains that essential element in a newborn’s life: the infant’s growth chart. He uses a tape to measure the baby’s height and the circumference of his head. And every few weeks, he carries the baby and steps on a weighing scale. He then passes the baby to Aikara, steps on the weighing scale by himself, and subtracts his weight from the earlier measurement to arrive at the baby’s weight.
The suddenness of the lockdown also caught the two unprepared. They haven’t been able to source a cradle, essential baby products or even clothes (they are currently making do with onesies that are ill-suited for summers and cloth improvised into langots). “It’s been a bit crazy but slowly, we have gotten a hang of it,” Aikara says. Their big fear now, she says, starts later this month, as they begin to step out for the start of their son’s vaccination programmes.
If the lockdown has upended the traditional routine of caring for a newborn, at the other end of the spectrum, it has started giving sleepless nights to the parents of teenagers. Lopamudra Achuthan, the mother of two boys – one 11 years old, the other 17 – describes how at one point, her elder son sat in front of his laptop from early in the morning to late in the evening taking lessons. Half of the day went in attending his Standard 11 classes, the remaining in coaching classes for Joint Entrance Examination. Any free time, he spent in playing video games. At one point, Lopamudra says, her son began to feel ill. “We realised it was because he wasn’t going out at all. He was in front of a screen all day long,” she says. So now, for about an hour everyday, she ensures that he steps out of the building and goes for walks.
Lopamudra’s sons go to one of the best schools in the Mumbai region. They were able to transition from an offline-based model of education to an online one with fair ease, she says. Not all schools however can do that. I know of government schools in some remote areas in India who have also tried to bridge this gap. But online classes here mean teachers recording their lessons as an audio file and sending them over WhatsApp.
In all likelihood, when the lockdown begins to ease, schools will be among the last places that will be allowed to open. While present studies show that mortality rates in children who contract the virus is negligible, they could be carriers who transmit – especially considering Indian homes where children live with their grandparents – the disease to the more vulnerable. What then could the future of classroom education look like? Will some part of it – a study from home – remain a permanent fixture? Will the number of students allowed in a single classroom come down drastically? Some have suggested that when classes resume, in the short term, some form of odd-even be applied, where only half of the students in a classroom be allowed in at a time. But this would mean teachers will have to teach the same lesson twice, and will put an immense burden over the completion of a year’s worth of curriculum. Two weeks ago, when an elementary school (Yangzheng Elementary School) reopened in Hangzhou, a city located in China’s Zhejiang province, first graders were made to wear social distancing hats, which had two long wing-like flaps about 1 meter (or 3.2 feet) long that ensure no two child come in close proximity with one another. In their shape, as some scholars pointed out, these hats resembled those worn by officials during the Song Dynasty that ruled China between the 10th and 13th century. Those hats too had been designed as a form of enforced social distancing, so officials could not whisper and conspire with one another. Could this be the future of our classrooms too? Our children now craning their necks to see the blackboard over such social distancing hats?
This anxiety over classroom education is now leading many parents to consider giving schools a miss at least for this year or more altogether and instead homeschooling them. Online platforms are now inundated with queries over how homeschooling can be done.
Supriya Narang, a popular figure in the homeschooling community who documents her experiences of homeschooling her seven year old son online, points that much of this new interest is misplaced. What they are looking for, she says, isn’t homeschooling a child, but a way of replicating inside the house, a classroom environment.
“Homeschooling doesn’t work that way,” she says. It, she points out, is a form of experiential learning that is not driven by a curriculum but by the interests of the student. “The parent isn’t a teacher here. We are, I like to say, more like a co-learner,” she says. There are no typical days, but learning here can mean carrying out small home experiments or baking one day to reading books or painting the next day.
The lockdown, she admits, has also hit homeschoolers quite badly. A lot of a homeschooling child’s routine involves the outdoors, like visits to parks, museums and exhibitions, borrowing books from the library or meeting friends. Parents who homeschool their children tend to belong to small but enthusiastic communities of homeschoolers often. They visit each other often; their children play with one another; and they also sometimes travel to distant places for homeschooler meets.
The routine of her son has now been tweaked to one that takes place entirely indoors. He reads ebooks and listens to audio books, bakes cupcakes or cooks with his parents, or conduct small home experiments like testing the pH levels of household items like lemon juice and baking soda. She has set up a small space in the balcony where he can play under sunlight.
But not all parents have had such a smooth transition. Ritu Gorai, the founder of a popular online mommies’ group, says within urban households, the impact of the lockdown has fallen most harshly upon mothers. “There is no household help. The children and husband are now home all day long. Some of them also have in-laws to take care of. And god bless them if they are also working moms,” Gorai says. It has gotten so bad for some mothers, Gorai says, that for the last two weeks, she claims to be getting at least three calls every day asking for the reference of divorce lawyers.
Gorai, a single mother herself to a nine-year old, runs the mommy group JAMM (Journey About Mast Moms). Online mommy groups are what perhaps kitty parties were to a generation of mothers in an earlier age. They serve as a means to connect and network, to seek out information that can range from the best neighbourhood paediatrician to the correct measurements of ingredients while baking a cake, to finding a sympathetic ear or sometimes just to gossip and indulge in some fun. But unlike the kitty party of old, these groups are much larger. Gorai estimates there are at least around 50,000 members cumulatively across JAMM’s Facebook and over 100 WhatsApp groups (each group created on the basis of a mother’s location or interest, which can range from mother’s interest in books, or mothers who are single or whose children have special needs). She started the group when she returned to Mumbai from Delhi a few years ago with about 20 friends and colleagues on a WhatsApp group for mothers. This kept ballooning until Gorai came up with the idea of JAMM.
These online mommy groups also serve as excellent networks for business activity. As mothers find what they want here – sympathy, information, fun and gossip, and some business (the group also contains entrepreneur moms) – outside brands also find a ready and captive audience of mothers to tap into. Gorai has been organising various events to enliven the lives of mothers during this lockdown. Every night or so she conducts a game of Housie (or Bingo) on WhatsApp; other times she has conducted online sessions by standup comics or Bollywood dance nights. Later this year, her daughter was supposed to enrol into a residential school. “But when I think of it, I think it is going to be so hard (when she goes), because I have spent so much time with her,” she says.
Parenting is constantly changing. We do not quite always notice this. But our ideas – from something as basic as what age a young child should begin sleeping on his own, or if he or she should even sleep alone at all, to how firm or acquiescent a parent must be to how much precedence the raising of a child must take to the needs of every other adult in the house – is always changing.
Like other relationships, the lockdown is a jolt to the routine of parenting. There is – in most cases – no household help; schools, day care centres and creches will remain shut for quite some time; and parents and children will spend more time with one another than they would have ever done in recent memory. Much of the prosperity of the middle class and the march of women at workplaces has been made possible because we have outsourced a lot our household chores to an army of domestic workers, from nannies and cooks to dhobis and maids. Now – for most of us – these services have been taken away.
Won’t Covid 19 put a shock into the system of being a householder, a parent? Among other things what will probably change in parenting is the role of the father. Can he remain as aloof and distant as he once did? Or won’t he have to step up, shirtsleeves rolled up into the kitchen sink or the child’s room?
We do not quite admit it, but the idea of fatherhood has been undergoing changes for some time. We are perhaps – understandably – frustrated by the slow pace of this change. But a change is there. Just a simple task of making and meeting friends is perhaps an illustration. When the parents of the previous generation visited their family friends, it invariably meant visits to the father’s friends. The fathers sprawled in the living room, the mother slotted into the next room, quite often the kitchen, with her counterpart. The children were expected to become friends with those in the house, irrespective of age or inclination. How often have we seen, in our lives, in our film and TV shows, the fathers in the living room struggling to remember the age or grade of their child.
Yet I have joined so many fathers now in playgrounds, each one of us standing shyly behind our wards. The ritual of friendship has now changed. It is only once the child strikes a friendship, that the fathers then approach each other, hands extended (relief on their faces, or a smile disguising distaste).
With the Covid-19 outbreak coming at a time when several women in urban households work as professionals, with work from home now becoming a permanent fixture for at least some time, and men finding with difficulty a resource to hide the free time they possess, the changes in the involvement of fathers will probably become accelerated. Parenting roles are being renegotiated, fathers are getting a crash course in work-family life balance.
An interesting paper that examines this phenomenon in the US – published in the National Bureau of Economic Research by a group of economists – argues that the lockdown will have a lasting impact on the involvement of fathers. It compares this to the last such shock seen to the cultural and economic system during World War II. Millions of women then entered the labor force for the first time to replace men in factories and other workplaces. Many of them continued to work after the war. These changed the cultural norms. ‘…Boys who grow up in a family where the mother is working are later on more likely to be married to women who also work… This observation is suggestive of an impact on social norms: these boys observed a more equal sharing of duties at home and in the labor market between their parents compared to single-earner families, which had repercussions for which they desired in their own families,’ says the paper.
Covid-19, the paper argues, will accelerate changing social norms and expectations from fathers through at least two channels. Businesses will continue to become more aware of the childcare needs of their employees and respond by rapidly adopting more flexible work schedules resulting in both mothers and fathers designing ways in which to meet the combined demands of having a career and running a family. The paper also points out that in this lockdown, many of the professions deemed essential and which cannot be performed remotely are those that see a high number of female employment. Medical doctors, nursing, grocery stores and pharmacies all employ a lot of women. ‘A sizeable fraction of women working in such areas are married to men who will either lose employment during the crisis or will be able to work from home (e.g., many office workers). In such families, many men will inevitably turn into the main providers of child care,’ the paper argues. ‘…The crisis is likely to generate a large, if temporary, upward shift in men’s participation in child care, with a sizeable fraction of married men taking the main responsibility, in most cases for the first time.’
Nadir Kanthawala and Peter Kotikalapudi, two fathers in Mumbai, did not need Covid-19 to push them towards becoming more involved fathers. The two have always shared household chores with their partners and been involved fathers. The two also host a delightful podcast, Pops in a Pod, that attempts to look at parenting from a fathers perspective. “When we became fathers we realised that there was nothing for us. Every parenting content was predominantly from a mom’s perspective,” Kotikalapudi says. “Anything for dads was always advice-based: like 5 tips on how to change a diaper. There was nothing for guys like us – full time fathers involved in everything, not the occasional weekend dad,” Kanthawala says. The two first met when they were working at a digital agency (Kanthawala had recently had a daughter, while Kotikalapudi’s wife was expecting her first baby). Their podcast began earlier this year, although they had been working on the idea since the end of 2018. They record late in the night – after household chores and office work have been completed and the babies have been turned to bed.
The lockdown hit them hard. In the early part of the lockdown, Kotikalapudi became particularly anxious. The news of deaths and contagion across the globe made him nervous, he couldn’t sleep beyond a few hours, and became exceptionally moody at home. “It was all this stress,” he says. It has now become better because he has stopped searching for grim news, muted WhatsApp groups that forwarded such content, and also a routine around the lockdown slowly developed.
His three-year-old son’s play-school has been conducting online classes over Zoom. “My son hated it. And I was worried why he was reacting like that. But it turns out, other children have been feeling the same way too,” Kotikalapudi says.
Kanthawala’s four-year-old daughter is scheduled to start junior kindergarten when school resumes. But with two elderly parents at home, he is fearful of allowing his child to school. “I’m on the fence right now. I don’t want to risk my parents’ health by allowing my kids to go out. But homeschooling will be so difficult with all of us working,” he says.
I have been experiencing some of these fears too, although they are lodged somewhere remote in my memory currently. Last month, two of my five aunts living in different parts of the globe contracted the virus. One of them passed it on to her two teenaged children. A week ago, a third aunt – this one the youngest of them, with two children, a four-year-old and six-year-old – turned positive. A couple of days later, her husband turned positive too.
All these aunts suffered the infection differently. Everyone lost their sense of taste and smell; some had terrible backaches; one found it like a regular flu. Two of my aunts and their families have now recovered.
I got on the phone with my youngest aunt some days ago to find how she was managing her children. Turns out at least one of the children briefly showed symptoms of the virus a week ago and has now recovered. I asked the children what they were doing. The young boy showed me a puzzle he was building. And his elder sister, the one who probably fell ill, showed me the letter she was composing to her classmates, her big toothless smile filling up my phone screen.