Note to readers: My Family and Other Globalizers is a weekly parenting column on bringing up global citizens.
Of all the irrational things that humans do – eating aloo parathas with diet coke, wearing face masks around their chins, waging war – birthing and raising children deserves pride of foolish place. Kids invade our homes and minds, and we pay them for it. They monopolise our resources – temporal and material – and are rude to us in the doing.
They groan at the piano classes we shell out for. They refuse to wear the sweaters we buy for them and then come down with a cold and then complain about the tonics the doctor prescribes for them to get better. Their friends’ parents are always more generous than us. They take. We give. And then they grow up and move away and, if we’re lucky, call us on occasion.
In her book, Pricing the Priceless Child, Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer traces the change in how society has gone from expecting children to be “useful”, to demanding that they be “useless”. Children today, she says, are economically useless but emotionally priceless.
From being little people who contributed to family income and eased parental labour, the modern child is like a vacuum cleaner with divine rights, sucking up parental income and labour while being worshipped for it. Kids are the new religion. As Zelizer puts it, “the new sacred child occupies a separate world, regulated by affection and education, not work or profit.”
So, what exactly is the value of the modern child? Why do we bother having them? The contemporary justification is the notion that kids provide parents with so much joy just by being their bratty selves that their existence vindicates their cost – in terms of time, career, opportunities forgone, and hard cash.
Also read: My Family and Other Globalizers | The joyous misery of parenting
OK, so I’ll admit there is something – ineffable maybe, but real nonetheless – in the joy justification. Inhaling the scent of one’s baby is sensory intoxication. It makes your skin sing. You want to eat your toddler’s sweet puffy cheeks because they are so delicious. You want to glue their soft, sleeping bodies to yours with fevicol.
As they grow, your kids’ jokes feel more hilarious than those of others. Their poems show greater promise. Their sporting prowess is more impressive. There is an outsized happiness that their achievements engender in you.
This may appear unreasonable at first, but when you realise that these feelings are the primary justification today, for having kids at all, the joy becomes intensely rational – biologically so. There would be no more human race, without the “irrational” happiness our children bring us.
And yet, there is something of the 19th century in me. I remain unsatisfied with just the joy, which is a capricious sentiment at the best of times, liable to turn into exasperation without effort or warning. And so, I refuse to let my progeny be useless. Child labour is demanded by our household – and performed, if not always enthusiastically.
My younger son, Nico, gives me foot massages. He brews me a cup of chamomile tea and uses the music on the meditation app on my phone to create a suitably spa-like atmosphere before beginning the massage. Every month, he issues me coupons that I can use to claim these massages. I will not lie, there are times that he reneges on these promissory notes, but he honours them often enough.
My older boy, Ishaan, cooks. During the pandemic when we were all in lockdown, he whipped up a three-course meal for my husband and I to celebrate our home-bound wedding anniversary. He can make soufflés that inflate. Like, wow!
My husband sometimes hollers for one of them when they are in another room, to come and pass him his phone, even if it’s lying only a couple of feet away. “What? It’s good for the kids to do some work,” he says when I tut in disapproval at his laziness.
We have failed, thus far, in getting the children to vacuum the car or to wash the dishes with even a modicum of felicity. Worst of all: both boys are epically sassy to their parents.
When Ishaan was about four years old, I caught him gnawing on a shoe (yes, I know, gross). “Stop eating your shoe!” I exclaimed. “I’m not eating my shoe,” he replied, pouty in his denial. “Then what are you doing?” I asked, hands on my hip. “Just looking at the shoe with my mouth,” he replied, hands on his hip.
Oh, how I long for the 19th century sometimes! When kids were seen, not heard, and worked, rather than being worshipped. But then I scoop them into my lap and smother them with kisses and drown in the joy of their cheeks. I am also 21st century, like that.