A week without Rumi: when the child does NOT want to come home

It is just another usual, routine, Sunday evening scenario: Abhi and I are standing at the door with shoes on and our arms loaded with bags, saying goodbye to my in-laws, and Rumi is refusing to come with us; she wants to stay there. This happens every weekend. Whether she visits my in-laws or my Mum’s, Sunday evenings call for a temper tantrum and a bucketful of tears as Rumi begs and begs to not go home. You would think that waving bye to her and pretending to leave would do the trick but she bids farewell to us very happily. Ever since that trick has backfired, we generally have to take Rumi out to a restaurant and bribe her with ice-cream before bringing her home. However, lately she has become smarter than us and slyly enjoys her sinful French fries and a small glass of Pepsi, after which she begins her whining and screaming about missing Ayayah (Rumi calls her paternal grandma ‘Ayayah’ as a word derived from ‘Aai’)  and Nanu. So this time, we decided to try something new and let her stay on, thinking that letting her have another night of indulgence would satiate her and that she would be happy to return home to us and her toys and books the next day.

How foolish and wrong we were! Abhi dropped by at the bungalow after work to pick her up. He came back two hours later sans Rumi. I looked at him in surprise. “She refused to come and cried her eyes out.” We figured that another day would do the trick. The next day dawned without any such luck. Abhi came back exasperated and cross. He had tried everything he could, but Rumi had refused to budge. “Anurag nahi avdat” (I don’t like Anurag society, where we live) was her new mantra. She had also picked up some lovely Marathi jibes such as “Vahun jaa tu Baba”(Baba, just fly away!) which Abhi did not take kindly to and he did not have the heart to pick her up and just strap her in her car seat against her will.

We spoke at length about this strange situation of the child not wanting to come home. A quick Google search revealed that this was not so unusual after all, but most articles I found referred to working parents whose children did not like to be picked up from the daycare. These kids were usually acting out because they had actually missed their parents during the day.

My tendency to take everything personally went on an overdrive. “Why doesn’t she like us? What are we doing wrong? Why does she hate home?” I lamented. “Stop being dramatic” said the husband. “She does not ‘hate’ us, she’s just having fun there”. He also suggested letting her be for a while. After all, the bungalow was just a stone’s throw away. Everybody there was more than happy to have Rumi for a while. “Let us enjoy this time” he said and I reluctantly agreed, though I secretly waited for Rumi to miss me and be back home (It is one thing to voluntarily drop your child off and gleefully plan your free hours and quite another to have your child not want you).

The next few days were quite strange. I had completely forgotten how it had been in the days before Rumi, when I had all the hours in the day to myself! The house looked like it had never done before: every surface gleamed and was free of Playdoh chunks and food morsels and a treasure trove of long-lost objects was discovered between the sofa cushions. I ate peacefully without tiny fingers poking away at things on my plate. I could put on the TV and read. And nap. But it felt too quiet. Even after writing and planning blog posts, and cooking dinner, and digging out the flower pots, I had too much time left.

Meanwhile, the news from Ayayah’s was that Rumi was having the time of her life. New rituals had been established: teeth were brushed with Sushant Kaka in the morning, after which Kaka and Rumi lovingly anointed each other with liberal amounts of powder and Smita Kaku’s expensive creams. Bathing was Smita Kaku’s domain and meals were eaten with Ayayah while watching the dogs play in the dirt. Bedtime had been pushed to past midnight. Our daughter was in Toddler Paradise.

I woke up, however, to an empty, silent house with that glorious, indescribable, milky, sweet, heart-tugging baby smell that permeated the bedroom. I saw her two milk cups in the kitchen, the blue elephant cup and the pink Minnie Mouse cup and I remembered her funny perverse behavior, where whichever cup I poured her morning milk in, she asked for the other one. I had never, ever thought I would ever cry like this, but cry I did when I thought of Rumi’s sweet smile as soon as her eyes open and the way she throws her little arms around my neck. Teary eyes gave way to sobs that soon paved the way for irrational behavior; the kind that makes you think of senseless solutions such as fetching her back immediately (I would have had to carry her in my arms, uphill, as the husband takes the car to work) and then an absolutely baseless, unjustified irritation towards the husband (why does he always take the car??)

But many, many years of irrationality and spontaneous, regrettable decisions have prompted me to keep a list of calming actions handy so I consulted it and took the best possible step; I went for a long, hot bath, the kind that is impossible to enjoy with Rumi staring at me with wide-eyes from a bucket. When I felt calmer and better, I called Aai to speak with Rumi. She sounded so cheerful and happy on the phone that I had to smile, despite myself. I spent the day talking to supportive friends, asking for insights but nobody had been in a similar situation. Each of them, however, expressed envy that my child lived away from me so happily and asked me if I would rather have it the other way round, with a child clinging to me 24/7? None of them viewed it as unhealthy, they only understood it as Rumi wanting to constantly be in a space filled with people who indulged her. Thus calmed, I made it through the next couple of days in a hum of positivity and did some long-forgotten fun things such as getting drunk and watching a late-night movie.

Since Rumi wasn’t intending to come home anytime soon, the time had come to bring in plan B. Enter my determined mother who said “I’ll pick her up and see to it that she comes home.” Frankly, this was a ‘from the frying pan into the fire’ situation, because Rumi was now just going from one beloved grandparent to another. However, becoming a mother has given me a blind, mad, faith in my own mother’s superwoman abilities so I gave in. And I don’t know whether it was because of my mother’s words to her or a heart filled with longing for her Mumma or our bribery of fine-dining complete with French fries and Pepsi, Rumi was back home with us, a week after I had last seen her.

While writing this blog post, I could feel a sense of shame at my own inadequacy as a Mom and hypocrisy at writing a blog on parenting, when my own child prefers to be away from me. A nasty voice in my head kept saying to me “Ha. So much for this blog on parenting that you write. Your own daughter doesn’t want to come home to you. What’s the use of writing about activities and resources and a fancy-pants playroom, if Rumi would rather be away from it?” I felt deeply embarrassed.

But then I realized that no matter what I do, that voice that says “it’s not enough” is always going to be there. You just have to do things, in spite of that nasty voice, till it learns that nobody’s paying any attention to its whining. Yes, I write on parenting. I have had some insights and ‘Aha’ moments with Rumi that I enjoy writing about. But I certainly do not have all the answers. And that is OK. It is ok to write about the times that I fail, about the mistakes that I make. This writing helps me to think out loud. This way, pen to paper (fingers to keyboard) is how I search for answers, every time.

Paying attention: An important parenting lesson from my two-year old

Rumi has recently turned two and I do not know how to describe the phase she is in right now because “the Terrible Twos” does not even begin to cover it. Yesterday, she threw a temper tantrum because her stuffed animal would not shut its stitched felt eyes. This morning, an hour of wailing followed a ear-piercing shriek, because she wanted the exact same lemon juice that she had just finished drinking (no, not more juice but the very same juice that was in her tummy).  She is constantly whining and clinging to my clothes like a monkey, crying and screaming for grandparents and various members of the extended family. She seems very happy with kaka, kaku, nanu and mamu and does not like to come home after visiting them. This, my husband and I normally manage to take in our stride although on the bad days we do wonder why she gets so bored with us and whether we are doing something wrong (don’t we parents just LOVE this question?)

Her boredom and irritation rises over the next couple of weeks, and we go around in circles trying to decipher why a happy and easy-going baby has suddenly become so sullen and cranky. Is it the weather?  Surely it must be all this sun and heat. Is it her diet? She eats too little. Is it the lack of other kids? (“Mulanna mula lagtat, children need other children to play with” my mother asserts in a firm, know-it-all tone, and then even goes so far as to suggest random and completely irrelevant solutions like ‘de-worming’). We talk of sending her to a preschool or day-care for at least two hours a day, for some company and constructive play.  One hot afternoon however, I stumble upon the astonishingly simple answer and it is my little girl who leads me to it. I am sitting amidst a huge pile of toys, clothes, peanuts strewn over the floor and other miscellaneous  articles with my Smartphone just inches away from my nose, reading various articles on parenting ideas and tips and tricks and do’s and dont’s. Suddenly Rumi stamps her feet. “Nako” she cries. Don’t.  “Don’t what Guddu?” I ask without taking my eyes off my phone. “Nako na” she cries again, clenching her fists and banging them on the coffee table. Her skin is flushed and she is starting to tear up – a full-blown tantrum is on its way. “Kay pahije Rumi? Kashala radte ugach? Khaun zhalay, zhopun zhalay….” (“What is wrong with you? You’ve eaten and had a nap..’) I start, my own voice taking on a plaintive tone with more than a tinge of annoyance at being interrupted while reading. I see the strain in her face as she screams with the last bit of momentous effort  “Nako phoooonnnneee.” And then it strikes me, she wants me to put down my phone. She wants me to look at her and talk to her without being interrupted by constant WhatsApp messages. Such a simple thing.

It makes me think back on all the days that I have spent with Rumi as a SAHM. How many hours of full and undivided attention have I given her? And how many more useless futile hours have I spent on my phone, on Facebook and Whatsapp? If I am just sitting next to her while she is playing, is she really reaping any benefit from my decision to be at home with her full-time, a decision that has come at the heavy cost of being a single-income family in a very expensive city?

I don’t want to get into any kind of debate of the SAHM vs. the Working Mom. I have long since learnt that there is no “correct” or “right” parenting. Breastfed or formula-fed, attachment-led or sleep trained, with or without TV, most babies turn out fine with a good dose of love, attention and nurturing. And happy moms make happy babies so every mother needs to decide for herself – working full-time or part-time or staying at home is a decision that should solely be based on your comfort and that of your immediate family’s.

We felt that it would work best for us for me to be at home with Rumi full-time and it has been, for the most part, a good decision. I don’t want to go back to work yet, I don’t feel the pull, the need. And Rumi does not go to any preschool or day care yet, so it is me and her for a good 14 hours every day. Some days, I can be an innovative, creative playmate. But on most days, I have a long list of things to do and I feel restless and listless when I am sitting down with her. Some days I am busy texting a friend for some delicious gossip to spice up my stay-at-home life. On others, I am scouring the web for interesting posts and articles. On really bad days I am a Facebook stalker, drooling over the amazing lives of other people, feeling discontent and envious. But I spend so much time of my stay-at-home time on my phone that I might as well have been at work! In fact a recent chat with my yoga buddies revealed that they spent better, more qualitative time with their children in spite of and in fact because of being out working all day!

What an eye-opener this is! Despite being at home almost all the time, I am depriving my child of something vital to her well-being and growth:  total, unshared, wholehearted attention. For all my mother’s intuition and two years of experience, I almost cannot believe that I have overlooked such a tiny, basic thing! But then it is usually the tiny, basic things that get overlooked most of the times, isn’t it? That more than the time I spend with her, it is the quality of the time that matters? That even if I play with her for a few minutes, she needs me to pretend to eat the cake she made, say how yummy it is, ask her how she made it. As an adult, I hate it when I get the feeling that somebody’s not listening; I nag my husband all the time about not looking at his phone when we’re talking. But with my two-year old, I have taken the liberty of forgetting this courtesy.

I am so glad that Rumi has brought this to my notice. The minute I start putting my phone away while playing with her, I sense her happiness. I am rewarded with constant chatter, delicious clay food and lots of cuddles and loving strokes. After a tiring play session, she is only too happy to be put down for her nap which gives me enough time to read and stalk and gossip away to glory. Now I try to limit Smartphone and Laptop time to afternoons when she sleeps. We go to the park without our phones and come back sweaty and covered with sand (I wouldn’t go into the sandpit earlier, so as to not spoil my phone!)

Of late, I have been trying my best to give her my undivided attention whenever I can and I want to continue to do so for as long as I can, before she grows up all too soon and stops asking for it altogether.