…while there may have been a many-shaped gulf between Julio and me on the parenting experience, the chasm separating male and female writers was of another order altogether. From the day that Ishaan was born to the day I am writing these words, I have worked in open-doored chaos, stealing sentences in between settling sibling spats, sneaking in edits while supervising homework, and forcing my mind to seek silence within my head, as a maelstorm of toddler tantrums and playful shrieking engulfed my body.
Award-winning foreign correspondent Pallavi Aiyar’s Babies and Bylines is a memoir about maintaining the tricky balance being a mother and having a professional identity. Babies and Bylines is an insightful account of what it means to bring up children while striving for some me-time too. Irrespective of how much of a feminist the parents are there is no escaping the hard fact that babies require their mothers more than their fathers especially when they are infants. It is simply not a gendered comment. But by living your feminism the family learns to give spaces to the mother. For instance when Pallavi lost her job and had to look after two children, her husband Julio, supported and encouraged her travel to research her fabulous book Punjabi Parmesan about the economic collapse across Europe.
It was Julio who encouraged me to feel liberated by the lay-off and go travelling on book research instead of lamenting my joblessness. Once again he proved that although he might not always have lived up to my parenting ideals, my husband was the best thing that had ever happened to my career. ( p.137)
Babies and Bylines is a personal story about parenting with Pallavi Aiyar and her globetrotting family. They have lived in Beijing, Brussels, Jakarta and are now en route to Tokyo. They are a blueblooded example of a mixed family since Julio is Spanish and Pallavi is Indian. It leads to some interesting experiences in the languages the children learn at home to the food they are used to eating.
We simply didn’t seem capable of ‘pure’. We were linguistic muggles. Nico’s first word was in Chinese, ge ge or older brother. We used a random mix of Hindi and Spanish terms thrown into English sentences. Pajama drawstrings were always ‘nada’, rinsing the mouth after brushing one’s teeth was ‘kulla’. But we often used Spanish for body parts. Cheeks, especially before they were about to be kissed, were mofletes. … breasts were tetas. We used the Indonesian macet for traffic jam.
More importantly the exposure to diverse cultures allows for Pallavi to learn and adapt rapidly to local parenting styles. It also makes spaces for Pallavi to compare and imbibe parenting advice but ultimately choosing what is suitable for her. Whether it is striking a balance between play dates and extra classes for the children to learn skills or being a hands-on mother ensuring the children eat well and observe hygienic practices for their own good but also for her own sanity and self-preservation. Nursing a sick child can take away many hours from a mother working from home. She also learned that having a nanny is immensely useful since it allows for the mother to have some time to herself yet as the children grow and begin to ask questions it is abundantly clear that a nanny is not optimal company for a four-year old. As Pallavi observes, “My four-year-old was beyond the stage when someone without multiple advanced university degrees could meet his needs.” His questions ranged from — “Why don’t numbers end?”, “What is beyond Pluto?”and “When shall I pass away?”
In Babies and Bylines Pallavi Aiyar effectively brings together various schools of thought on parenting starting from baby book Bibles such as What to Expect to American paediatrician Harvey Karp, online discussion forums to thought-provoking commentaries by Judith Shulevitz, Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter. Mixed into this were huge dollops of “wisdom” Pallavi Aiyar picked up from her extended circle of nannies, family and friends.
Micromanagement of family life is a full-time job. If a woman can find the space in it to create her own identity it stems from a passion for your work, desire to have an identity distinct from being a mummy and comes with a great deal of determination. Time takes on a different meaning once the children arrive. Every task is imbued with a sense of urgency so as to gather the few opportunities the day provides to find time for yourself. Having said that this compelling need for the mother to have her own space does not in any way undermine her overwhelming love for the brats. It is these constant tugs of war between being a mother and a professional which make life rich. At times it may be very taxing and physically exhausting to have it all. It means being pulled in different directions but it is also so satisfying that many women like Pallavi Aiyar would not want it any other way.
Babies and Bylines is a fantastically empowering modern-day Bible on parenting for both mothers and fathers.
A must read.
Pallavi Aiyar Babies and Bylines: Parenting on the Move HarperCollins Publishers India, Noida, 2016. Pb. pp. 222 Rs350
19 June 2016