How we say babies are perfect and then roll up our sleeves to make our improvements upon them

I recently read and loved Aditi Mittal’s tweets directed towards the horrible “fairness industry” in this country. It is brilliant to see people wake up and embrace ‘dusky’, ‘wheatish’, ‘biscuit-colored’ and whatever other gorgeous browns God has gifted us with although it is still miles to go before Indians stop giving skin-color any thought at all.

This starts right at birth, maybe even during pregnancy. If both parents are ‘fair’ then everybody seems to be quite relieved as fairness seems to be guaranteed in this case. But alas, if one parent is a little higher up (or lower down!) on that ghastly shade-card range, in pours the unwarranted advice on masoor and besan-dal scrubs etc, right from Baby’s first bath.

Unfortunately, baby beauty is not just restricted to skin color. The other obsession with us is the shape of the nose. The maalishwali happily oils her fingers and tugs at the tiny perfect nose and shows you proudly how you can ensure a ‘sharp’ nose. “Tase kele nahi tar baal naktach rahil.” (I don’t even know how to translate ‘nakta’; it is the Indian euphemism for ugliness.)  The hair should be thick and dark (Mundans are generally done to ensure ‘good’ hair growth and I don’t know anyone who has been able to explain its religious significance to me), but only till puberty for girls, when that same thick and dark hair becomes unsightly and we resort to waxing, shaving and the like.

The signal that we are giving out to our children all the time is that looks matter more than anything else.  We may say a hundred times that what actually matters is inside, but then we go and slather yoghurt and turmeric on their faces. We are constantly being reminded through media around us that everything is about how you look. How you ‘present’ yourself. How you appear, not to yourself in the mirror but to everybody else out there. How your clothes ‘make or break you’. How much the first impression matters. And while there is enough evidence to back all of these things, there is too little on how to work on yourself inside out. Because nobody has the time, or inclination, to find that out.

I came across the terms ‘Character Ethic’ and ‘Personality Ethic’ in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and I think almost all the focus nowadays is on the personality ethic; how to dress right, how to ‘appear’ confident, how to make a good impression, and so on.  Even the effective use of social media entails how to project yourself right, how to sell yourself quickly etc. Are we talking enough to our kids about how to find meaning and fulfillment, how to move towards inner peace, how to master their own demons and how to be their best selves even when no one is looking?

We need to choose our words very carefully. Even when we are encouraging our kids and praising them and showering our attention on them, what are we saying? How much of “You’re looking so cute!” and “Pretty princess” are we using as opposed to “I love how kindly you spoke to her” and “You were very brave when you owned up to breaking that toy”. Kids naturally love to preen and dress-up and look good. Rumi changes her outfits at least 20 times a day. She takes my Dupatta and puts on my glasses and twirls in front of the mirror. The first question she asks is “Kashi distiye mi?” (How do I look?) Pruning her vanity now might mar her confidence for life (I remember being told “Stop admiring yourself in the mirror” so often that I still cannot look at myself in the mirror without a tiny bit of shame). So it is up to us to balance out all the compliments she receives for her looks with concrete words for all the positive, loving, empathetic actions she takes.

Rumi has also been subject to a lot of physical scrutiny. A favorite here is the hair. My husband still goes through that after 38 years of existence with his curly crop.  I cannot imagine why, because he has the most gorgeous healthiest, bounciest, mass of curls I have ever seen and I simply adore his hair. But we hear the odd remark about “Haircut nahi kela ka?” all the time! He in turn loves my brown, straight, fine strands which I have repeatedly been admonished for. (Thin hair equals weak hair: something every single person in my life has told me except for me blessed wedding hairdresser who explained to me, how fine hair does not mean thinning and that my hair was “healthy”). Rumi’s hair is a perfect juxtaposition of the two of us. Really fine, very brown (“blonde”) and curly. We cannot get over it. But the same goes for many others who constantly ask us why we haven’t shaved it off yet, so that it grows back thicker, although our awesome pediatrician laughed when he said “her genes won’t change with one haircut” (haha, he’s so cool).

My Abbu who worries about everything there is to worry in this world constantly reminds me to oil her head, although oiling hardly changed my hair. He even worries about the birthmark on her face; she has a heart-shaped red patch on her cheek which I like to think of as God’s personal stamp at work in my womb. He asks me if we can use any creams etc to lighten it. I wish I could set him at rest and tell him how Rumi is perfection already. And not because of her beautiful hair and eyes and smile. But because of her soul and what she has inside; something that is entirely hers that can never ever be like anybody else’s.

We should worry about her thumb-sucking and TV watching for reasons of health and well-being and not because of spectacles and braces. We should feel prouder of the fact that she fearlessly feeds all the strays than that her blue frock suits her to perfection. It is up to us to watch our words and actions so that we may raise our children to see themselves as well as others inside out rather than outside in.

From Mission Weight-Gain-Rumi to Mission Just-Chill

It happens to me every time we visit the pediatrician. I become a hawk. I can physically feel the transition happening, from tiny, over-smiley young woman to hawk-woman, watching any child that is plumper than Rumi with cold, calculating eyes and running my tongue over my lips (err… beak – do birds have tongues?) Then I politely turn to the mother and enquire very, very casually about the child’s age. If the baby is older than Rums by even a few days I sigh with relief (of course she’s chubbier, she had two whole days extra!) But hawk-woman quickly transforms into a panic-stricken flapping pigeon if the child in question happens to be of the same age, or in many cases even younger than my daughter. A quick pressed-lip glance at Abhi follows, who has obviously come to expect it after having known me for six years. He smiles kindly, reassuringly. At the first given opportunity, he will tell me “Trust me sweetie, the weight does not matter. Look how active she is, how happy!” “Hmmmph active!” I snort. “Active is the go-to word for every mum with a skinny or not-so-plump child.”

When Rumi is put on the weighing scale in the doctor’s office, I can feel the beads of sweat on my upper lip. As the doctor maps her progress on the growth chart I need a hanky to mop my forehead.

“Are you alright, Mrs. Purandare?” the doctor asks kindly.

“Well, her weight has only increased by 400 grams in the last three months” I blurt out desperately.

He guffaws loudly and at this moment I am convinced that we need a new pediatrician.

“When was the last time you checked your weight in grams?” he asks.

“It’s just that I can see her growth curve dropping, it was rising upward and now it has started to drop a little” I reply in what I hope is a cold and dignified voice. He smiles again.

“She’s just burning more calories, now that she’s more active.” Oh how I hate that word! “But if you worry about weight gain, try giving her some high-calorie foods. Potatoes, cheese, even ice-cream.” (I have never given Rumi sugar even once up till now). I smile weakly and we leave.

Next morning it is Mission-Weight-Gain-Rumi – Mission WGR , I say grimly – and Abhi shakes his head knowing that the time ahead is going to be difficult for him. I make Rumi’s kheer with extra jaggery and ghee in it. There it is, brown ragi, positively swimming in fatty goodness. Except that my baby won’t open her mouth. She’s clamped it tightly shut and not even her favorite Fluffy Chicks story is making her open it. I goad, make funny faces, sing “Old McDonald’s” – but nothing.” “Try Mission-Have-Fun-With-Rumi instead” remarks Abhi wryly as he leaves, ignoring my glare. “Maushi, jaude, tichi nehmichi bin-goad kheer aana” (“bring her regular non-sweet porridge”) I scream at the maid. Now my baby gobbles away happily and I fume away, letting my coffee grow cold.

This continues over the next couple of weeks. Rumi refuses to eat mashed potatoes with cheese, vanilla ice-cream or rawa suji. She’s happy to stick to her usual dal-rice, carrots and beetroots. I’m continually fretful and dejected. Abhiraj and Shobha Maushi tiptoe when they’re around me. Mealtimes stop being fun. It takes over an hour to chase Rumi all over the house to get her to eat a few spoons of high-calorie stuff as opposed to a bowl of varan-bhaat that she samples in 10 minutes. It has definitely stopped being fun.

At the next pediatrician’s visit I march into the office and grimly drop Rumi onto the weighing scale. Surprisingly she’s back on track with her weight. A very temporary fluctuation, as is common with all kids. Abhiraj’s sigh of relief is much louder than mine, the ordeal is over.

Now that I have no reason to be a worried, nervous wreck (only till something new comes by, but still!), I can stop to pause and think about it. Healthy is important, but when did fat become a priority for me? Especially since, as an adult I always want to lose it from various parts of my body?

I think all moms in India feel like this or rather, are MADE to feel like this. The words “chubby” and “healthy” are used interchangeably, as if they were synonyms. Aajis, Ajobas, Kakas, Kakus – the entire Brady Bunch of relatives wants to see a fat baby. “Kitttnnnaaa dubla hua re mera baccha, Allu kuch khilati nahi kya usko?” (“Look hoooowww thin my poor baby’s looking, Allu don’t you feed her properly?”) remarks my own Phuppi, every time we visit her. Her remarks always upset me and I fret the entire day about how my baby doesn’t gain weight. No amount of rationalizing helps, and I end up almost in tears wondering why my baby isn’t fat.

There are millions of other moms in the same boat. Some get defensive (Oh he’ s just become taller and he’ s sooo active!), others complain and fret about it (She just won’t eat, I don’t know what to do!) and I even know some mothers that hound doctors for a ‘tonic’ that will “increase appetite”!

I am about an inch away from doing the same myself when I chance upon this wonderful book called My Child Won’t Eat. Oh, if only I could squeeze Dr. Carlos González into a bear hug for his writings! All you worried mommies, just grab a copy and read it, read it, read it!

Dr. González doesn’t encourage making food into funny shapes for children or trying to hide vegetables or making plane noises. He believes in giving children healthy options and then leaving them to it: no coercion, no punishments for not eating, nothing. His basic philosophy when it comes to feeding your infant/child is to chill out, parents!  Society pressures us to feed them sooner and more than they really need or even is good for them.  A baby’s stomach is so small, it should be obvious why they might start crying halfway through their meal – they’re stuffed!  Another point he makes is that the growth charts we use today do not take into account the parent’s genetics:  I’m small (and was very small as a child), my husband is small (and was very small as a child), so how realistic is it for me to expect Rumi to be otherwise?

Funny and sensible, the book makes me weep with relief and laugh at myself. Abhiraj is delighted when I open the door with a maniacal grin instead of a worried frown. It’s Mission-Just-Chill I inform him. He laughs and peace prevails at B-301 Anurag Society, if only for the time being.

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To buy or not to buy, that is the question!

OMG, the market for little kids these days!! Gone are the days when children would dutifully hold their mom’s hand and follow her into a large everything-under-one-roof -store and stand quietly while she haggled with the salesmen and held up frock after frock till she (and not the child!) found the perfect birthday outfit. I remember getting bored whenever Mummy used to drag me along to Laxmi road; I would hate being jostled and pushed about for hours only to buy something that I didn’t really have a say in. Sonali and Strawberry were the coolest brands? / shops then, though we would occasionally foray into Pin-a-kin or Sadhana or Garima. Style for kids essentially meant matching from top-to-toe, which means that a yellow birthday frock would come with a yellow hair band, yellow clips, yellow bracelets, yellow socks and (oh no!) yellow shoes. The frillier the frocks, the higher up you were in the league of well-dressed girls. Although there were girls in my class at school who wore smart denims, dungarees and skirts from Weekender Kids, they were far and few in number and most of us today wince when we look at our childhood photographs, at the silly puff-sleeved clothes and the occasional lipstick and rouge (I solemnly swear never to subject my girl to makeup like that!). As for other products like baby carriers, rockers, car seats, or even those pretty wooden cribs and bassinets, they were non-existent in the average middle class Indian family. Our parents carried us on their hips, we sat on their laps in the car, slept in their beds (that too right in the middle!) and played bhatukali using peanuts and jaggery.

But toddlers and even babies now are just so uber-cool! They wear corduroy dresses and plaid skirts from Baby Zara. The grapeseed oil from Mothercare is used for massages (if at all), instead of Dabur Lal Tail. They are pushed about in comfortable Graco or Mclaren strollers with a sun and rain-cover, sturdy wheels, brakes and even a compartment for your coffee and cell phone. Shopping is no more a foray into the heart of the city in the scorching heat, it is a weekend spent in an air-conditioned mall complete with food courts offering global cuisine and entertainment packages for the little ones. And I am an unabashed mall rat. I get super excited about driving to Phoenix market city (it does feel like a long drive from our house in Kothrud) and I love everything once I’m there, from the shawarma at Maroosh to the little kiddies’ train.

My husband Abhi considers it a great stroke of luck that I was bedridden in the last few months of my pregnancy and thus could not be “set loose” in the baby shops then. As a result, he did all the “necessary” baby shopping, staying very true to the word and to his gender by only buying things like diapers, nappy pads and washcloths. Let’s just say I more than made up for my absence during that time by going absolutely berserk when we finally went out shopping for the baby, and came home with a truckload of beautiful things (which somehow looked less charming in our bedroom, than they had done in those bright store lights). And here I am, four months later, with a roomful of baby stuff, some of it (OK, a lot of it!) unused, waiting for another baby in the family or baby number two (I casually said to Abhi that we need to have another baby just so that all these things get used, and he gave me a look that was somehow disgusted and shocked at the same time!).

So, a post of my top buys for all the shopaholic, i-want-everything-in-the-store-right-now Mommies like me, coz be warned, this desperate urge to shop only increases manifold when it is for your baby instead of you!

Some products I recommend that will make life with the baby easier: (and none of these brands are paying me for this!)

1. The Baba sling

Yes, this is not what Mummy or my MIL call it, but the patented name of this awesome pouch sling. It is of Australian make and can be found at Shoppers Stop (in the Mothercare products section, although it is not an in-house Mothercare brand). What I loved about it was that I could use it immediately from the time of Rumi’s birth and even breastfeed her in it (no more balancing her on pillows, finding support etc.). The shoulder strap is extremely comfortable and does not eat into your skin or pinch (like the rings from ring slings can sometimes do). It is possible to use the sling in “many different positions” as they claim on the website. I myself have used four (feeding or hammock style, front-facing, hugging or me-facing and sideways with the baby on my hip) and all of them work well. The sling is size adjustable so both me and Abhi can use it and it has a safety strap / buckle. The fabric is cotton and quite thick, so with the weather here, we hardly need to wrap Rumi in something warm before we put her in it. Perfect for long evening walks or grocery shopping coz this sling truly renders us a 100% hands free.

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Check it out on www.thebabasling.com

2. Shelly, our turtle night lamp

Ever since I saw my niece’s night lamp that played soothing music and projected stars on to the walls, I knew that I wanted something like that for Rums. Since my cousin had got the lamp from the Netherlands, I was left rummaging the stores here, hunting in vain till I searched online and found the Twilight Turtle. The Twilight Turtle is a cuddly soft turtle night lamp that projects constellations on to the ceiling. I went a step further and chose the “Tranquil Turtle Aqua” model, which plays a soothing oceanic sea sound while projecting sea waves on to the surrounding walls and ceilings. Imagine how lovely it is to be surrounded by glowing ocean waves while drifting off to sleep. Shelly has really made our bedtime ritual easier and more pleasurable. The website offers bears and ladybugs apart from turtles, and also a variant with wireless Bluetooth technology where you can add tunes from your personal library.

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Check it out on www.cloudb.com

3. Matilda, our comfort blanket

Although I did read up on all things baby during pregnancy, I was quite ignorant of the comfort blanket concept till my darling friend Shwe got one for Rums from the UK. And I thought it to be a splendid innovation! A soft toy head and a blanket body, fulfilling the need for both a toy to have and name and a soft blanket to cuddle and chew the ends of. Our pretty, happy, orange and yellow and blue and green giraffe-headed blanket has been christened Matilda in honour of dear Roald Dahl and she has made sleep time so much happier and easier! Now all we need to do is put Rumi in her crib and put Matti in her hand. After that, it is all blissful cuddling and nibbling and drifting off to sleep (ON HER OWN!). I’m not sure where you can buy one in Pune coz the only comfort blanket I found here was an insipid, ill-looking white rabbit in Mothercare, so you would do well to order online or ask someone to bring you one from the States or the like. But make sure you get two, so that they can be washed regulary – we have to wait for Rumi to doze off and then sneakily pull it out of her hands, wash it and just pray it dries before her next nap!

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4. Fabric books

One thing that both my husband and I want desperately to pass on to Rumi is our love of books. Even before her birth, Abhi made a list of fantastic childrens’ books to order, hand-painted, beautifully illustrated, magical tales that had us drooling over them and just waiting for Rums to start reading. But a dear friend Gayatri introduced me to some books she had that did not need any waiting for Rumball to lose herself in the magic of words. These fabric – or rag – books are made of cloth(!) and thus washable, chewable, crumple-able and wonderfully non-tearable! They come in bright colors, introduce the baby to a variety of textures and make joyful crinkly, crackly sounds that make your baby laugh and gurgle like nothing else does. Amazon.in offers a wide choice but I would absolutely recommend the “Priddy” touch and feel books that come in titles like “Fuzzy bee and friends”, “Squishy Turtle and friends” and so on. Rumi has “Fluffy chick and friends” and it is delightful with soft textures and amazing rhymes. The book eliminates the need for us to carry any other toy when we go out. Another book I love is “Baby’s Day” by Karen Katz which has an actual cloth baby that can be moved into a high chair, swing, bath tub and so on till it is finally tucked into bed for the night (impossibly cute!)

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5. Onesie value packs

Onesies or rompers or bodysuits (I still don’t know whether there’s any difference) are to a baby’s wardrobe what an LBD is to us women (or a crisp white shirt or well-fitted blue jeans or whatever other ‘must-haves’ celebrities cite in the Sunday Times). They look super adorable and are sooo versatile. You can use them at the doctors (since babies need their thighs free for vaccines) or at home. In fact they make for the perfect night wear as they are elastic free (elastic on the waist may cause gassiness) and button up at the crotch, leaving the back smooth as babies mostly sleep on their backs (imagine the irritating sensation of crumpled up cloth on your back as you sleep!) Extremely comfy and easy to put on, they are a must have, especially in the first few months of the baby’s life where all they do is lie down, rendering any fashionable clothing useless in photos. Rumi has white ones for the night and amazing colors and prints for day wear.

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6. A car seat cum rocker

Do we really need a car seat? And what about a carry cot for restaurants and stuff? Should it serve as a chair or rock her to sleep? Abhi and I went back and forth for a long time trying to get the best value for money, since none of these things come cheap. I knew I desperately wanted a car seat coz the drives with me sitting in front with Rumi kicking and scratching and thrashing about were really becoming an ordeal. But then babies grow so fast! An infant car seat just for a few trips? The Evenflo model was a godsend! It serves as a rear-facing car seat for infants but it can be attached with or without the base. What this means is that you can initially use it in the sleeping, fetal position when the baby is too tiny to sit up and later attach it in the sitting, upright position. Even indoors, it can be rocked or adjusted into a sitting, non-mobile position. The husband usually prefers to buy one item for one functionality, claiming that multipurpose items never get used for all purposes and are jack-of-all-trades, but in this case our car seat has been well exploited and used in every way possible! Long car trips are fun coz Rumi just drifts off to sleep in it and if we are out late or do not come home for the night, she can be put to bed in it. We got ours from Mom and Me and it beat all the other models hands down. The only drawback is the partial hood cover which barely protects Rumi from the afternoon sun; I would have liked a larger hood or complete cover.

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7. Rubber sheets with Velcro

You cannot have enough of rubber sheets if you have a baby at home and care even a little about your bed linen and sofas. Even here, I stumbled upon a great buy which is ingenious in its simplicity – a plastic sheet with Velcro edges so that you can keep changing the soft fabric sheet on top and don’t need to put the whole thing for a wash. This is more hygienic than quick dry sheets which absorb all the moisture but start stinking immediately and makes more sense than the cloth sheets with rubber on one side which need to be put for a wash in their entirety rendering you rubber sheet-less. I bought mine from an acquaintance that makes them but it’s a great idea for enthusiastic and inspired DIY moms: just get a large plastic sheet and ask your tailor to stitch the piping on the sides with Velcro. Get some colorful, pretty cotton sheets of the same size and voila: you can keep using the same rubber sheet over and over again, all you need to change is the cloth on top!

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8. Eco-friendly and skin-friendly cloth diapers

There are two schools of moms I know – one that uses disposable diapers 24/7 without any rash or other problems, and the other that chooses to go with cloth langots. Our pediatrician always speaks against diapers and we’ve chosen to put our faith in the guy right from the beginning. Even then, it did not work for us to keep Rumi entirely diaper-free as she is already an extremely light sleeper and would wake up immediately because of the wetness. Plus, I noticed her inner thighs darkening and that had me worried. There are several cloth diaper brands such as Alva Baby and Charlie Banana but I found a great pal in Bumchums, cloth diapers that come with inserts and are super soft , absorbent and easy on the skin.

Check it out on www.bumchumdiapers.com

And last, but definitely not the least,

9. The Philips Avent manual breast pump

I chose to be a complete stay-at-home mom and thought there was no need to express milk since I was going to be around full time. Plus, the Medela electric pump they usually provide at hospitals costs 18k (whaaatttt?). But investing in a manual pump makes sense, if only to give you that occasional break and sleep when someone else can feed the baby. Also, it is impossible to be away from the baby for more than three hours without having painful, lumpy and occasionally leaky breasts, which is what makes the Avent pump an excellent buy, coz it is super light and portable, which means, you can carry it in your handbag and express in mall restrooms for instance. Using a pump is an excellent way of increasing breast milk supply and makes it easier to start the baby on solids as you can express and mix the milk in the rice cereal, fruit puree etc. The Philips pump is very effective and easy on the pocket at two and a half grand.

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