Who would have imagined that mothering would be like starring in a show on reality television? Everyone is watching your every move, strangers think they know you well enough to comment, and all of them would’ve handled that last emotional scene at the playground better. You can never do enough.
Yes, you can try to be Zen about it. You might even go ahead and tell yourself that the only ratings that really matter, are the ones your child gives you. Imagine my horror, then, when my 8-year-old son shared something really important this summer vacation, mere hours after I took the iPad away: “Mom, I’m bored,” he said. “I’m really, really bored.” I let the words sink in. Sirens went off in my head.
In a post-liberalised era, what excuse does an Indian mother have for allowing her child to be bored? It was different when we were children, contemplating bugs on the sidewalk and sitting around watching beans sprout on cotton. We got bored all the time. I remembering being so bored one summer that I gave the owner of the local library a complimentary shelf-cleaning service. It wasn’t Disneyland but I ended up satisfied.
Summer vacation today is unrecognisable, compared to those times. It has come to mean foreign vacations, one-on-one enrichment activities, a schedule of play dates, and vying for a spot at various theatre, art, dance, coding, and robotics workshops in the city. To an extent, there is some urban malaise at work: we live in tiny flats in ever-shrinking neighbourhoods where kids don’t play together like they used to. Imperious cars and the crush of foot traffic mean children rarely take a stroll outside alone.
The one place they do stroll alone is online. There is no surer 24/7 babysitting service than the internet. Children become like Homer’s lotus eaters in the Odyssey, all they want is to stay where they are, to browse on the iPad, and forget all thoughts of return. When you unplug iPad or gaming station, then all of a sudden they’re bored.
How was I supposed to respond to my son’s boredom? We had already watched the latest animated movie. We had visited a mall and the video arcade. His play date friend was out of town. Out of ideas, I spoke with the enigmatic stiffness of Master Shifu in Kung Fu Panda and said, “It’s okay to be bored but it’s not okay to be boring. Find something to do.”
I could see the whites of his eyes. “You don’t understand!” he said, walking off in a huff. A few hours later, I found him trying to make an origami gun. Were its bullets intended for me? I’ll never know – the gun never fully materialised. In tears, he tried again. Then, he cried again. It went on like this for a while, until he finally gave up and sprawled out on the carpet, staring up at the ceiling. By the time, I dared to go out again, he had disappeared under a fortress made of cushions, umbrellas, and spread-eagled copies of The Economist.
When I went to check on him an hour later, he wasn’t there. I heard his thin voice outside the window as he dragged a stick through the mud. A few hours later he returned muddy, sweaty, and staggering under a gigantic jackfruit.
The tuck-in ritual that night was brief: “You did a lot of stuff today,” I said. “It was super boring,” he yawned and turned over to his side, fast asleep in seconds. By the time I woke up next morning, he’d managed to create some version of a paper gun. By afternoon, he was giving the sofa a complimentary scrub with a bit of sponge and soap. He was still huffy in the evening, when he polished down the cabinets with a satisfied grunt.
I guess the more things change the more they stay the same.
I don’t know when I bought into the notion that being a good parent is about taking away all suffering, that I should be a sort of curator that stage-produces a bright, perfectly happy childhood that will give me solid ratings all the way, to the sound of thundering audience applause. This summer I did less and gave myself a great rating anyway. If parenting has to feel like a reality show it’s time to bring a dose of reality to it.
Karishma Attari is author of I See You and Don’t Look Down. She is currently writing The Want Diaries and runs a workshop series called Shakespeare for Dummies.