Shougat Dasgupta reflects on the politics of parenthood. And loving your children
When I was going to become a father, being prone to self-aggrandisement, I thought of Philip Larkin’s famous lines. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, he wrote in “This Be the Verse”, allowing that our mums and dads had had the same done to them by their parents, “Who half the time were soppy-stern/And half at one another’s throats.” Man, Larkin concludes in a final verse that combines profound pessimism with demotic jokiness, “hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf./Get out as early as you can,/And don’t have any kids yourself.”
Soppy-stern and at one another’s throats described my parents. But I didn’t feel their marriage—strange and dysfunctional as it appears to me now (even in middle age, a childish censoriousness marks my judgements about my parents’ normal lives, their normal mistakes)—had much effect on me. I didn’t feel they had much effect on me. My mother will tell a different story. And my father isn’t around to defend himself. But I don’t remember being ‘parented’ so much as being left to get on with it myself. Were values and family histories passed down at the dinner table? Not that I remember. Were there any meaningful or revelatory chats with either mater or pater? Not that I remember. Did they take much interest in what I was interested in or did I care much what they did or thought? Not that I remember.
What I do remember is obscuring myself behind books, behind the English language, behind a cultural education I was in the process of inventing. My parents had their own lives—jobs, friends, and amateur theatre—and were diligent about providing me with opportunity: private schooling, tennis and piano lessons. I remember almost nothing about my early childhood beyond kicking a ball around the dusty, grit-filled playing ‘fields’ of Kuwait, or the charmless concrete common areas of apartment complexes, sites of fiercely contested five-a-sides.
I am, in my private mythology, entirely a creature of my own creation. My childhood was proof of the near-total dispensability of parents. What, after all, do we owe our children? Food, shelter, an education? And what do our children owe us? Surely, nothing.
There is though the question of love. Larkin finishes a poem even better known than ‘This Be the Verse’ with these lines: “…to prove/Our almost-instinct almost true:/What will survive of us is love.” He wasn’t talking about children. But as a father-to-be it’s what I imagined as the best-case scenario, the antidote to the bleak prospect Larkin unveiled in “This Be the Verse”. Did it matter if we were damaged and did damage if what remained of us was, in the person of our children, love? Was my detachment from my parents anything more than a demonstration of their love, their recognition that I had to make my own way?
CS Lewis, borrowing from the Greeks, writes about the four types of love, including the uncomplicated, ‘natural’ love parents have for their children. The Greek term is “storge”, an instinctive affection, animal-like in that it is unbidden, uninfluenced by human reason. Lewis, concerned with Christian theology, with divine love, is suspicious of excesses in human love, in love that usurps or apes the divine, that “tends to sound as if it were the will of God Himself”, that “demands of us a total commitment,” that “attempts to over-ride all other claims and insinuates that any action which is sincerely done ‘for love’s sake’ is thereby lawful and even meritorious.” Consider, for instance, the ‘love’ that enables the children of the powerful in India, politicians mostly, to believe they can get away with anything. Consider, too, male entitlement in our culture and where it receives its initial impetus—in families that celebrate and indulge male offspring as they never would their girls.
What Lewis calls affection is an undiscriminating love. A newborn’s ‘love’ is a product of its need for you, not a selfish love, perhaps, but self-preserving. We do not choose our parents or our children. And we love them because they are ours, not because they have done anything to win that love. The Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about the shock he felt when he broke down in tears after the death of his father, a mean, abusive drunk. “I had long wished him dead,” Knausgaard confesses. We are, whatever we tell ourselves, imbued by our parents. Love is unconscious, a byproduct of familiarity. It’s love that is indistinguishable from dependence, from an ingrained need for our parents. Of course, such love, based as it is on familiarity, can be taken for granted, can curdle into ambivalence (vide my churlish, self-conscious detachment from my parents). And if a child’s love for its parents is a kind of compulsion, parental love can be suffocating. This “terrible need to be needed,” as Lewis characterises it. King Lear, that most insufferable of literary fathers, is consumed by this need, unable to distinguish between filial love and insincerity. Between a daughter’s genuine feeling for her father and flattery that disguises contempt, even hatred
The columnist Tim Lott, in the course of an argument against the existence of true love, once pointed out that of course true love “unquestionably exists—between parent and child.” He goes on to explain that “behaviour and loving are unlinked in the child-parent relationship. Both parties have no choice but to love one another. In that sense, the bond resembles the ideal of romantic love. You love your children whatever they do, and they love you back.” But do they love you back whatever you do? And is the elemental love all parents presumably feel for their children enough? When my daughter was born, I had, because of surreal circumstances not germane to this discussion, been forced to look for and accept a new job. It was at the business daily Mint and the hours—regular, entirely reasonable but inflexible—meant that my daughter was asleep when I left the flat in the morning and asleep again when I got back.
My wife made more money than I did and it made sense for me, if I wanted to be more present in my daughter’s life, to quit my job and freelance from home. In terms of productivity, my work suffered. But, for about 18 months, apart from the odd assignment that required travel, I spent every day with my daughter. Spared from cooking, cleaning, or even driving (this being India), it was easy for me to take on the bulk of childcare, to attend playgroups and baby yoga and Music Together sessions, usually the only male among groups of young mothers and nannies. It was an experience of fatherhood entirely different from that of my own father. Could I say I loved my child more than he did me? My bond with my daughter must have been stronger than his with me. Correspondingly, was my need for her affection greater? Though my wife worked mostly from home and breastfed, did I want my daughter to behave towards me as a child might traditionally behave towards her mother? Did I want her to seek me out when she was in pain, to see me as the parent she could come to for solace and comfort? Would it have been recompense for the job I gave up, for my diminished status?
All of a sudden that uncomplicated, natural parental love seemed freighted with anxiety; my love for her sitting uneasily alongside a too-fierce amour propre. Much of the work in the early years of child-rearing is thankless. Your child will not remember your efforts. And the bonds you forge are contingent upon the efforts you continue to make. Rachel Cusk, in her 2001 memoir of motherhood A Life’s Work, observed that looking after children “is isolating, frequently boring, relentlessly demanding… It erodes your self-esteem and your membership of the adult world.” Breast-feeding aside, why should fathers not take on the burden? For fathers to behave more like mothers is not about parental love but about simple fairness. I have no doubt that my father loved me, after a fashion, but he was a ‘father’—remote, if not necessarily forbidding. His job was providing (only in part, because my mother worked too) for the family, and that provision was a manifestation of love, was all the evidence I needed of paternal love. In this still common family structure, a father’s love is akin to duty, to his willingness to assume responsibility, to not flee. I had become a mother. Or rather my wife and I had become androgynous, our fluidity a privilege afforded us by our educations and our askew, uncertain place in broader Indian society.
In the United States, where women are increasingly more educated than men and, at levels below the glass ceiling, often make more money, the father at the playground and the school gate, while still the object of some derision and suspicion, is not uncommon. In some Scandinavian countries with enforced paternity leave policies it is the norm. In India, Maneka Gandhi, a cabinet minister and architect of the enlightened new maternity leave legislation, felt justified in saying last year that she would “be happy to give [paternity leave], but for a man it will be just a holiday, he won’t do anything.” She is not saying that Indian men love their children any less than men in the US or Sweden love theirs but that our culture doesn’t yet value that love as expressed in engagement with the inanities of childcare. The Indian father, for all the trendiness, the saccharine puffery in TV advertisements of a more involved brand of fathering, is valued chiefly for his authority. He may not always be the sole breadwinner but is nearly always the last word in discipline—his love for his child expressed in larger concerns about the child’s future and moral and personal character rather than in the picayune domestic concerns that is his wife’s domain.
A 2014 survey by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that while Indian women spent 6 or so unpaid hours on domestic chores, Indian men spent only 53 minutes on those chores and more time on personal care, including eating, sleeping, and drinking, than their counterparts in any of the 29 other countries surveyed. It is easy to imagine an Indian father writing a poem about watching his son sleep, like Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”—”My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart/With tender gladness, thus to look at thee”. But would an Indian father write like poet Chris Martin, whose 2015 collection The Falling Down Dance took on the quotidian physicality of caring for babies, hitherto a feminine concern: “It’s late, it’s early, it’s less/crying than screaming, word-barren/banshee at 12.30, 1.15, 2.50, 5.00/6.15 and we’re up, saggy/bags of face, throbbing relief/and content just/to flop on the carpet”.
Fatherly love here is indistinguishable from the motherly variety, marked by exhaustion, tedium, ambivalence but, above all, by presence. This poetry is not about power and authority but its opposite, a willingness to cede control, a subversion of traditional structures. But if fathers can do what mothers once exclusively did, connect physically with their infants, they cannot replicate the experience of carrying a baby inside them. Adrienne Rich, the American poet and feminist, wrote that, “The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body.” Mothers, as the anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “are a biological necessity; fathers are a social invention.”
Biology has long been the argument in favour of perpetuating the pattern of wage-packet-earning father and stay-at-home mother. If two wages are necessary, it is the woman who fits her schedule around childcare, reduces her hours, goes part-time, takes the hit to her career prospects. A woman’s capacity to nurture is the excuse for paying her less to do the same job as men. It is the excuse for why women are underrepresented at the higher echelons of most professions—they’re not as willing to put their families on the back burner, to put in the hours. It is the excuse for why men, even when their wives are working full time, do less housework and childcare. If women were volunteering to take on the bulk of childcare, this might be as good an arrangement as any. And in larger families where the grunt work of raising children is shared perhaps both parents can lead successful professional lives. But urban people have smaller families, live in discrete households of three or four people. If women naturally prefer child care to continuing to work in the world, then why do so many educated women in developed countries choose not to have children? If we agree that women should be educated, should work, have something to contribute outside of the domestic, then men perforce have to be different fathers.
When I used to wave my wife off to work and brace myself for another day looking after my six-month-old—days of pleasure and laughter alloyed with frustration and boredom; days at the end of which you’d wonder how so many hours could have passed with you having seemed to have done so much and yet done so little—I would wonder if mothers loved children differently from fathers, more patiently, more tenderly. Presumably there are as many differences in how one parent expresses love versus the other, what one parent values versus the other, as there are individual parents. I am convinced that storge, the ‘natural’ love parents feel for their children counts for little when put up against the hard, committed business of getting to know children, of trying to learn who they are.
Our jobs as parents—or so we are told—is to prepare our children to succeed at life by the standards set by our class, by society. Anything less would be doing our children a disservice. So we scramble to enroll them in the best possible school, in the requisite number of fashionable extracurriculars, to reinforce the advantages they were already born with, and pat ourselves on the back for our efforts. But we should not confuse this frenetic activity and ambition with love for our children. Parental love, by definition, should be unconditional, shorn of any obligation for our children to reciprocate. Perhaps this means accepting that my daughter is not mine, that she belongs to no one but herself. That my effect on her is limited. That I am unlikely to be the most important relationship in her life.
Perhaps then I can let go of expectation. Or at least accept that my expectations, whatever pride and disappointment I might in the future feel, are irrelevant.
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.