MEET THE WRITER

‘Who am I to tell you how to bring up your child?’ Nupur D Paiva has not written a book on parenting

An interview with the author of ‘Love & Rage: The Inner Worlds of Children’, the book that puts the child, and not the parents, at the centre.

Love & Rage: The Inner Worlds of Children is that rare book on the lives of parents and children that works hard to not tell you what to do. What it does do is nosedive into a pool of perplexing questions all of us have asked ourselves at some point – and it does this with remarkable flair, turning into an absorbing, reassuring companion without once slipping into instruction manual mode. That is because it is not a parenting book, insists author and psychotherapist Nupur D Paiva.

Whether it is going-to-school anxiety, dealing with divorce, the presence of both the parents in a child’s life, or post natal depression, anger, siblings and the air at home, the book covers a wide variety of modern-day situations. In her honest, anecdotal style, Paiva isn’t out to sugarcoat anything: “We are all damaged to some extent; we are all somewhat dysfunctional; self-sabotaging, self-punishing, depressed, anxious, defensive, isolating ourselves or intruding on others or somewhere in between,” she acknowledges plainly, while tracing the link between our childhood experiences and the way we are with our own children, and how and when therapy can stem the damage.

Woven into the book is Paiva’s varied experience in helping children and their parents cope with difficult, often violent situations in non-judgemental ways. In an interview with Scroll.in, she spoke about how a fascinating graphic novel influenced the way she wanted readers to dip into Love & Rage, how rage is, in fact, the fuel for all change in adults as well as children, and why years of writing for academic journals made her write this book in quite the opposite of that mode. Excerpts from the interview:

How did you come to write this book, and how long did it take you to write it?
In a way this book was many years in the making, because from very early in my career I have worked with parents of small children and worked hard to help adults understand the ordinary difficulties of growing up. After some years of returning to Delhi and working here, I realised I just had to write down all these things that bothered me because they were rattling around inside of me, pushing and shoving to get out. It began with a question to myself. What would it be like if more people knew about what actually takes place in a psychotherapy consulting room? How would that change things in families? How would that affect how parents and children talk to each other?

I began writing pieces for the Hindu Business Line Blink – I actually got in touch with one of the features editors there pitching them my first piece on the “First Day at School”. I did a few of these but the word limit felt restrictive – there was a lot more I felt needed to be put out there.

It took me over a year to write it, I think. Some in fits and starts. Most of it marinated in my mind for a while, drafts were written and re-written. Some were written in one sitting and needed virtually no editing.

You mention in a note to the reader that this book has no order – the reader is free to read it the way they see fit.
The note to the reader was influenced by two things. One was that I became aware that we never really tell our own stories or recall personal stories in chronological order. We do it by memory and association, which tend to be linked together by threads of emotion. There is a graphic novel that I once read which came in a box with different pieces of paper in it rather than being bound together as a book, and the reader could choose where they wanted to start the story. I found that fascinating.

The second thing that influenced that decision was that I wrote the chapters as they came to me, even though I am fully aware that for good writing you should have an outline first. I couldn’t work that way. They have all been fuelled by emotion. I wrote the most compelling chapters first, such as the one on fathers, school anxiety, divorce, breastfeeding and permission to cry. “Bedtime” was written between patient appointments one afternoon, scribbled by hand on my notepad. “Childhood desires” was written last, seven months after the book had been in copyediting. I always knew I had to address this topic it but I had refused to force it. It eventually got written when it was ready.

It was after a lot of this kind of emotional-digging-fuelled-writing that I realised I needed some kind of an overarching structure. Tthat is when the others began to get filled in, so that the book could create something of an integrated story. So every chapter is a whole in itself, yet they link up together.

Your book has an easy, anecdotal, engaging style. Have you always enjoyed writing?
I have always enjoyed writing, but most of what you call an easy anecdotal style had been beaten out of me – by years of writing for academic journals, which as you know, are anything but easy and anecdotal. So this book is really truly me, free from journal-writing-tyranny.

Would you call Love & Rage a parenting book?
Never. In fact, I was very clear with my publisher that if that word was anywhere in the blurb or the title, I would not publish the book. In 76,000 words I do not use the word “parenting” (which is not a verb to begin with and not an elegant one when we force verb-hood on it). The book works hard (I hope it succeeds in this) to not tell you what to do. The streak of teenage rebellion in me finds it difficult to stomach “good advice” myself and besides, who am I to tell you how to raise your children? You are the expert on your situation, and you would hate me anyway if I told you I knew you / your life better than you. The aim is for you to reflect on your own emotions, actions, treatment of your inner child, your offspring – and feel your way through it. Not be given instructions for this very emotional and difficult, highly specialised role of being a parent.

Our everyday lives could do with a bit of psychotherapy, you point out in the book, we needn’t wait for something traumatic to happen. What are the early signs that should send a parent seeking the help of a therapist?
That is a very long list because children are very creative and can come up with all kinds of ways of communicating their distress, from being extra-quiet to extra-aggressive. Basic rule of thumb is that if there is any sustained distress, be it physical or emotional, in your child, or in you when interacting with your child, it should move you to talk to someone – grandparent, friends, paediatrician, the collected wisdom of the internet or a book. Take it from there. It usually takes parents years to wind their way to a psychotherapist because they have spent years denying a problem or just wishing it will go away with time.

Rage is often dismissed as a weakness. You give it normalcy. How can parents deal constructively with their own rage, and their children’s?
Ever felt like throwing things? Ripping paper? Biting something hard? Punching something/someone? Saying, “I was so mad at XYZ I could have MURDERED him/her!”

All that is rage and it is in each of us. It exists whether we acknowledge it or not, express it or not. Anger is not the expression. It is a physical sensation inside of us. It is just another human emotion, part of the rich range of what we are all capable of, and it is possible to be absolutely furious without anyone even knowing about it. But you will know because you experience it inside of you.

That is how we can help ourselves and especially our children. First, acknowledge anger, even if your children are angry with you. They have a right to their own emotional experience and there is no “you should not feel this”. We feel what we feel, that is a given. Help your children to notice that they feel anger inside them and that they have a choice about what comes out – it is what comes out that has consequences. The actions we choose have consequences. We can choose to express anger in words, through our hands and feet by biting, swearing or not express it at all. Each will have a different effect. Anger/rage is the fuel for all change. We want to help our children be assertive but not aggressive, but we do not notice it has the same root. This is why to deny anger is very damaging because it kills off the power a person has to feel effective in this world. And we need that, or we will be completely flattened by external pressures and have no sense of agency.
How we relate to our children is deeply linked to our own childhood experiences, and you go back to this particular thought time and again. Many adults struggle with difficult memories of childhood. How can one break the pattern to limit its impact on our children? Is therapy always necessary?
Non-judgemental self-reflection is what is necessary to break the pattern of passing on difficult experiences from one generation to the next. Many different experiences can encourage self-reflection – extensive reading, theatre, art, music, etcetera. However, psychotherapy does more because it also works to bring those things to our awareness which we may have worked hard to not be conscious of – in other words, things that we have suppressed in our memories or awareness. We avoid these memories / feelings / realisations because they are painful. Psychotherapy helps because it provides a safe space for this non-judgemental self-reflection.

You address loneliness. Are children more lonely today? Is there a gap we must fill?
I can’t comment on whether children are more or less lonely today. There are lonely children in every generation. What we do have today is a systemic collusion from many institutions in society (including the education system) which alienates younger and younger people from themselves. That is what causes the loneliness – a distance from our own internal experience. The one-size-fits-all assembly line approach emphasises the construction of a compliant adult who will fit into a capitalist enterprise, which encourages individual achievement and competition. Our schools focus on giving instructions, there is no emphasis on self-awareness, on emotional self-regulation, on working in teams, on compassion, on using the resources of the Earth in a sustainable way. Our urban children are so distanced from the natural world – nature, forests, animals – that they have no idea how they are connected to the Earth and are part of the cycle of dust-to-dust. Children think milk comes from the supermarket, not from cows.

We’re often told we are overthinking parenting, particularly by the older generation, while many have come to believe that perhaps we are not
thinking enough about them. What do you make of this discourse?
We confuse being thoughtful with being anxious or over-involved. Being thoughtful about your child’s experience is always helpful to them because inevitably it will mean you are looking at your child; their specific temperament or personality, strengths and struggles. Being anxious about your child is never helpful, because it usually means you are consumed by your own perspective and not that of your child.

“How do you make out the difference?” you might ask. Look at a parent-child couple in a playground, say a three-year-old wanting to climb a rope ladder. The thoughtful parent approach will be to speak to their child about their desire to climb the rope ladder, help where it gets difficult, let them try it out and decide for themselves whether it is a good idea or not – all the while keeping a safety net of arms below. The anxious parent will be actively discouraging, usually by the look on their face and the tone of panic in their voice. “No! Don’t do that! It’s too high, you’ll fall!” Words to that effect.

The first reaction is about the child’s experience. The second is about the parent. It is easy to tell the difference.

As I read your book, I realised how many nuances of the parent-child relationship are often ignored, where you overturn the widespread notion of “Bachche to aisi hi pal jaatein hain”. Which, to your mind, are the most urgent?
This is difficult to answer because the nuances vary with developmental stages – which means that children at different ages have different emotional needs and what is useful at three months is no longer necessary at six years and may in fact be actively detrimental at age 10. So perhaps the most urgent is to just pay attention to the child you have in front of you at that particular moment – that life stage, that personality and that day. Not some ideal desired child, not the child you had two years ago. Be the parent your child needs at that moment. If we keep that in mind then we are no longer doing a “Bacche to aise hi pal jaate hain”.

Mothering, you point out, is the hardest, unseen, most ordinary, ubiquitous work of all.And mixed feelings about motherhood are barely acknowledged. Mothers are beginning to talk about it, and yet, there is so much pressure to make it all look effortless. How does one break this cycle?
Where does this pressure to make it look effortless come from? It is something we do to ourselves when we lose sight of our own experience and reality and fall for the one sold to us by the media – the smooth, glitzy, happy looking woman on the television telling you how a particular disposable diaper makes her and her (always topless) baby sleep through the night; or the equally happy woman in the magazine selling you food for your baby that comes out of a box that was made in a factory and smells of cardboard but her baby loves it.

Anything worth doing well takes effort and that includes raising a decent human being. So if it is effortless, some element is missing.

We are still uncomfortable acknowledging post-natal depression and it’s even more rare to consider the impact on the babies at the receiving end of it, which you do in your book. Could you elaborate?
That the mother’s emotional experience deeply affects her baby, even in utero, is something that we both know and refuse to acknowledge. Many traditional child-birthing practices actually take this into account including how the mother is treated, how she is encouraged to be surrounded by a pleasant, stress-free environment and what she is fed. Between the stresses and loneliness created for women by patriarchy and modern living, this is dying. Women are growing babies in very emotionally isolated contexts – with no one looking after them. It is inconvenient for us to acknowledge that when we don’t look after the mothers of small children, we are in fact creating an intergenerational mental health crisis because maternal depression is linked to lifelong emotional and learning difficulties for the developing child.

If we are raising a generation of children who dont know how to be by themselves, who are easily bored and are not encouraged to have free play, how is all this likely to manifest in adult life?
The same way actually. Exactly the same way. Now add permission to do things you did not have in childhood – thrill-seeking, sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, gambling, pornography, addictions of all kinds. You get the picture.

Psychotherapy is still largely considered an indulgence. Is affordability a barrier, or is it just the mindset?
This is true: psychotherapy can be expensive depending on where you are located and who you go to see and how long you are engaged in it. There are many practitioners who do pro bono work or who have a sliding scale of payment though, so it is always worth asking.

However, the issue of psychotherapy being an indulgence is not just about the money. Plenty of people who can well afford it, who would spend lakhs on a holiday, would still consider psychotherapy an indulgence. That is how little we attend to our emotional pain.

If it was a physical ailment, we would run to a private medical outfit, regardless of the costs. That is not considered an indulgence. We have no clue about how emotional neglect actually feeds our physical ailments – from allergies to cardiovascular health. There is also the aspect that psychotherapy is often not a one-time consultation, it can be a few hours or it can take years of repeated visits because the aim is to engage the person in their own mental health, unlike most medical intervention where we are passive recipients of something.

How challenging is it being a psychotherapist in India, having practised in the UK?
There is never a dull moment and I have never been short of work. That is the sort of challenge one does not mind. As a psychotherapist, working in private practice is easier than working in an institution. I chose to work for myself because – found it extremely difficult / slow work to encourage people who have been schooled in working with the concrete, observable and measurable to consider the powerful intangible realities of the mind and emotions. What psychotherapists talk about, or bring your attention to, is often just too inconvenient for institutions to want to consider.

The pull of devices in children (and adults!) is real, and perhaps unavoidable after a certain age. What is a reasonable age / frequency for children to be allowed some use of screens?
The screens are there and we have access to them, just the way drugs are there, as we have access to them. If we realise what we are using the screens for, what purpose they serve for us, it may make it easier to regulate ourselves. Mostly, we use screens to avoid thinking about or feeling what is going on in our lives. It is like a tranquiliser, or anaesthesia, it dulls the pain of what actually troubles us and we use screens to to get away from it. Children sitting and eating in front of YouTube, filling up sadness, loneliness or empty time with an iPad. That is the part we have to watch out for. Other than that, screens for children are both inevitable, fun, a relief and still not comparable to human interaction. But we all need a break from human interaction at times.

Fathers need to be more involved in parenting. This is one of the important issues you raise, and you link the absence of the male parent to violence against women. In doing this, you choose to focus on the importance of a healthy father-son relationship. Tell us more.
In psychotherapy, literature and research it is well documented that the presence of a strong, available father figure helps a boy regulate his aggressive impulses and learn to modulate his anger (which otherwise, can turn out toward his mother or in toward himself) and use it constructively to grow in the world. The relationship with an older man, who takes the trouble to interact with the boy, an older man who is firm but affectionate – that combination is the nugget of gold, rare in many contexts, because we see how much child-rearing ends up being women’s work. Please note that I use the phrase father figure – not only father. This can be an uncle, a grandfather, a teacher, an elder brother. The important part is someone, a man, cares enough to take some responsibility for this boy’s emotional development and how he fits into his community.

What about fathers and daughters? Is that an easier relationship?
Fathers and daughters are a very neglected area which we know very little about, even in psychological literature and especially in India. From the little work there is, plus what I see in my consulting room, it is an extremely complex relationship, actually not simpler or easier than the father-son relationship at all. Certainly more subtle, really influencing the little girl’s view of herself as having agency in the world, as being worthy of love, as being strong, beautiful. And again, as is true for any parent-child relationship, when it works well, it is so seamless that you can’t tell why exactly. When it works well, it is unobtrusive. It is only when there is a rupture – a loss, a divorce, an estrangement, neglect, abuse – that we see the ill effects.

When you were a new parent, did parenting books / books about children help you? If so, which ones? Are there any you would recommend to readers?
I only read one book in the early days of my first child – the days when she was in the neonatal ICU and breastfeeding her was a struggle. I was a complete wreck, in a flood of tears all the time, unable to string a sentence together without bursting into tears. The book is a series of BBC radio talks by a psychoanalyst, DW Winnicott, which I refer to in Love & Rage as well (“The Child, The Family and The Outside World”). He basically said “follow your gut, you are best placed to respond to your child, don’t let anxiety overtake you”, and that helped me to stop crying and trust myself.

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