How a writer (and mother) found the keys to happiness from her daughters

Natasha Badhwar’s ‘My Daughters’ Mum’ is a memoir by a mother of three daughters.

“Sorry, Mamma, sorry,” Aliza came running to me one day, holding her ears. “I’m sorry for all the wrongs I have done so far.” In one clean sweep, our four-year-old cancelled out a year full of tantrums after the birth of her little sister.

We’ve been growing up with our kids.

I call child-rearing a game because it inspires us to play. Play demands creativity, one gets better with practice and if one maintains the right spirit, there’s laughter and fun. Play can also get difficult, it requires fitness and training.

We used to stay up nights sometimes, well into our twenties, playing Carrom or Bluffmaster – a group of cousins and friends. Partners would devise elaborate codes to communicate, scrutinise adversaries, look for clues in their every expression and make a move.

The same formula works with raising kids. Sahar has mostly spoken to us in words, except when she is drawing black flowers and playing with imaginary mice. Naseem, the youngest, comes with an agenda – “Never mind,” she seems to tell her sisters, “you may have had a head start but I’ll catch up soon.” Aliza has little patience; she will lie down on the floor and flap her arms.

One day, she invented a happiness key. She jumped behind me and wound an imaginary key on my back. “There, I have wound you, now be happy,” she commanded – enough of whatever I was moping over!

Yes, I had been miserable. I had lovely kids and a television job I loved. The kids and job loved me back. Yet, it didn’t feel so good. I suffered from separation anxiety and felt like a fool for it.

Confusion descended like a fog. I had no idea where the controls were. I had never really felt so lonely. Clearly, I had spread myself too thin; the urban myth of the supermom had trapped me. I looked good, but I felt terrible.

All at once, parenting proved to be a test of loyalty. Was I willing to be loyal to myself? I didn’t have much practice in this area. It had always been easier to be loyal to friends, trends and gadgets.

I had to come to terms with a few grand truths. For one, I would be able to raise our kids well only if I first raised myself well. The same rules applied to adults and kids – sleep on time, eat well, don’t make it a habit to get stuck in peak-hour traffic.

I also had to learn to pamper the child in me – love her, appreciate her, make her happy. When the parents are calm, the kids are happy. And vice versa. If my child is not okay, I can be sure that I’m not okay. It’s a terrible thing to hear or accept when one has to run through the day chasing deadlines and appearing at meetings on time.

Over time, I learnt to do what I was good at, instead of compelling myself to do everything. Well-balanced meals bore me, but I can take photos. So I did. We hung out at the dosa corner in the market when we were hungry – but the photos, I shot them myself, with my very own loving hands. Those were as much a magic box of moments and memories as home-cooked nutritious meals might have been.

“I love Nani’s rajma, Kanta Mausi’s roti and Mamma’s Maggi,” said Sahar. I learnt to receive compliments. When I was ready to pause, I noticed I was surrounded by love, adulation and gratitude. It was real.

Naseem, the youngest, all magical real

“Take a photo of me eating butter,” she said to me. I obediently took a photo. The wide angle of the iPhone made the plate look larger than Ms six-year-old.

Naseem likes to lick us on our cheeks and arms in fits of affection. The rest of the family is disgusted by this act. I don’t mind it very much. Actually, I love it! Although I must pretend to discourage her. Sometimes when I am holding her in the darkness, she quietly licks my hand once. It is a secret touch.

Naseem has a faux fur jacket shaped like a cape. It is a gift from my sister-in-law in Karachi. It has a “Made in China” label. The first time Naseem wore it, she was three years old. She looked at herself in the mirror and exclaimed, “Wow. I’m looking just like a dog!” She was very pleased. A friend of ours made an illustration of this happy moment of transformation.

Naseem says the darndest things. She wraps herself around our bodies. Sometimes she calls her father when he has been away for far too long and gives him a sound yelling. “Come back quickly. You will not go to office on the day you are back. And I will hide your phone!” He is compelled to return a day early. True to her word, she hides his phone for a few hours so he cannot hear it ring. I look at her authoritativeness and attempt to unlearn my inhibitions.

She is innocent. I have never experienced guilelessness and trust like this. After a difficult pregnancy together, the miracle of her birth was the pinnacle of achievement for me. Time slowed down around us. We had no expectations except to just be. We were healthy. We were alive.

Naseem likes raw tomatoes. She often eats cucumbers as the main course of her meal. She loves grapes and berries. She collects dry leaves and stones and brings them to us as presents. We admire their textures, colours and shapes, their magical reality.

On a weekend morning walk, when we have nowhere particular to reach, she tells me that she really wants to have a pet animal. “I want a small dog and a cat,” she says, cupping her palms together to hold an imaginary baby animal. “In the beginning, the puppy will be small and I will hold it in my arms. Then, it will grow up and run around beside me.”

I imagine the puppy with her. She is my puppy for now. It is our shared joke. She often wags her imaginary tail at me. I wag mine back.

I call her all kinds of names. Namnam, Nanoo, Nanakuttu, Nonex. With her I have become more me. I have done what I want to do with her body stuck to mine. We edit images together – Naseem perched on my lap, giving me feedback. She chooses filters. She watches me struggle with PowerPoint presentations as she puts together a jigsaw puzzle by my side.

Naseem hasn’t wrapped her head around the physical or political idea of a nation yet. She knows that India is home. We are Indians. She doesn’t get how big or far-out India is. Every time she hears the name of a new place, she asks us, “Is Bombay in India? Is Adilabad in India? Is Lucknow in India?”

“Yes,” we say.

“Oh,” she replies, trying to make a map in her head. She doesn’t get artificial boundaries yet.

In the year 2014, it was vote-counting day after the general elections in this country. It was all very dramatic; the results came in early, and it was clear that Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party had been voted in to form a new government at the centre.

When the children came home from school, we sat together at the dining table eating fruits.

“Ab ki baar, Naseem ki sarkar,” I said as I passed a bowl of cherries to her.

“Who won, Mamma?” asked Aliza.

“Modi,” I said. “Narendra Modi. The Congress party has been routed.”

“India,” asked Naseem, “Mamma, did India win?”

Excerpted with permission from My Daughters’ Mum: Essays, by Natasha Badhwar, Simon & Schuster India.

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