Over the weekend, I saw a much talked about film – Gehraiyaan. Irrespective of whether I liked the film or not, it did get me thinking about how incidents and experiences go a long way in shaping our personalities, particularly where insecurities and reservations are concerned.
As a product of middle-class families, you’d probably agree that our parents made sure our talents got discovered and publicised young. At family parties where they asked us to sing, dance and perform for the uncles and the aunties. Bhabhi, my beaming mother would brag about my rather average dancing skills to the moon, you know each time Kajra replays on TV, she watches Aishwarya and imitates the exact same steps. Ekdum same to same. Now come on Beta, they would nudge us, show aunty the dance – she’ll give you a chocolate. And no amount of cajoling would convince the mother, she’d be on a mission to ensure that everyone went home speaking about my dancing abilities.
While my childhood experiences convinced me that I wasn’t going on India’s Got Talent anytime soon, it had a more long-lasting effect. And a negative one. It left me with abnormal stage fright, despite my decent communication skills.
And I’d get nervous and would fall silent.
A cousin of mine said she felt the same way about body shaming. As a child, her entire khandaan would call her roly-poly, golu-motu and pinch her cheeks at the drop of a hat. In her teenage years, her entire family and their offspring would advise her parents to put her on a weight loss spree – bura mat maan na behenji, but no one wants a chubby wife. Well, this girl stepped into her twenties having lost all her puppy-fat and in perfect shape, yet she confesses to me that she still feels insecure about her body. For years, her body became a battleground around whom she waged her own personal World War. Well, blame it on her love handles being discussed at Diwali parties, when her chachi would refuse to give her an extra ladoo, in front of all her cousins.
Looking back, I wonder if Sharma uncle told his daughter the same thing that my parents told me – about becoming a good girl like ‘Sharma uncle’s daughter’. If Sonu masi also used the promise of a summer holiday to Kashmir/Goa/Thailand as a way to make her children finish the homework on time. Or, if our neighbours also rewarded their children if they won in the Society annual lemon race – pure mohalle mein naam roshan kar diya!
For the entire generation of parents that came before us, there existed a spirit of competitiveness and wanting to stick to the rulebook. And a rather straightforward system of reward and punishment. While this in all likelihood did come from good intentions, I know many of us suffered from this too. And perhaps women a little more, thanks to the entire ocean of expectations being heaped upon them right from their early years. You must look a certain way. You must behave a certain way. Because that’s what everybody wanted – right from Anita aunty in the neighbourhood apartment to the mami in Meerut. The only thing they perhaps forgot to ask was what we wanted.
Will we understand that parenting may be tough and rewarding at the same time, but in dangerous moments, it may also become slightly toxic. Especially when we allow the world and its aunt to constantly dictate and validate norms. When we try to achieve and relive life experiences – through our children. When our smallest of actions leave the deepest of impacts on our children. Toxic parenting, or in general toxic family member-ing may not be about physical hitting or verbally abusing. It may be about making comments, remarks and actions that might seem harmless, but go a long way. Especially about physical looks. About capabilities. Sometimes even about life choices. In my lifetime so far, I’ve seen families that over celebrate their members, making it seem that every small achievement is equal to climbing Mount Everest. And on the other side, I’ve seen families that are over-critical. Perhaps as a newer, informed, and more sensitive generation of parents, we will think twice before we put our children on display. Or force them to join ballet classes over hip-hop – simply because one fits our resume as parents better than the other. Or even worse, make them conscious about their physical looks instead of celebrating them.
Maybe, I hope we will learn somehow, through our own path of learning, to break the cycle – by looking at our children as snowflakes – each one as unique as the other; yet in the end – all beautiful. We will learn to celebrate what makes them stand out, not what makes them fit in. And most importantly, we will learn to be careful with our own actions and words – because in them, lie the behaviour of a future generation.