(A fictional depiction of an alarming social condition)
Finally, I could see the sheer cliff-wall give way to thunderous skies above me.
There was no doubt that I was an intruder here – the elements had made no bones about it ever since I had begun this climb. The wind had now redoubled it howling, freezing reproach, lashing at me with frost-laden whips as I dug in my gloved fingers and spiked boots to tackle the last ten meters to the top of the mountain.
How far will a parent go to find the answers that plague us every step of father/motherhood? Is the yen to be the perfect parent not a quest that beggars that of the Knights of the Round Table for the Holy Grail?
Back in my hometown on the other side of the globe, the surface of my study table had long since succumbed to the avalanche of ‘be-a-better-parent’ books. Instructional CDs on how to become the perfect dad/mom had ousted Chopin, Mozart and John Lennon from their rightful places of honor on our music rack, relegating them to dusty lower shelves.
Linda, always a die-hard seeker for new self-improvement avenues, had blown the budget for our Mauritius vacation on parenting workshops (bringing home more even printed research material) and long, rambling telephonic discussions with the other confounded parents she met there.
My bachelor friends had marked off my home on their weekend-visit maps in red Gothic letters that read ‘Here There Be Dragons’. This was definitely no place to drop in on if you wanted to discuss anything but advanced diaper management, the fine art of bonding with your kid and parent-induced trauma syndromes.
Unsuspecting visitors to 10/4, Mapleville Drive were subjected to inquisitional inquiries into their parenting styles, berated for their lack of awareness of the latest techniques of wholesome child-rearing, and forced to look at every single photo in a three-foot stack of baby albums (with a running commentary on genesis and circumstantial background).
We had lost a lot of friends since little Brian had arrived four months ago.
However, there were some positive outcomes too. Watching Linda and me tackle our new roles as parents the way that Oxford toppers tackle their final exams, my parents had disengaged their stranglehold on our affairs, removed themselves from the landscape and begun serious work on their own marriage. They seemed to be having a lot of fun for the first time in thirty years…
x x x
“How’s little Brian?” asked my boss on that fateful day last week. Little had I suspected that this seemingly innocuous question would have me clinging to the sleet-covered side of a mountain three hundred and fifty feet above the Tibetan plains five days later.
My boss was one of the few people who could ask me the above question without endangering the next two hours of his life with a new father’s agonized monologue on the pitfalls of effective parenting. After all, he had asked it while I was on company time – and company (which he heads) takes a jaundiced view of employees frittering away potentially productive hours on such stuff.
“Fine, sir,” I replied, stifling the usual avalanche of angsty moaning about how I’m certain my uninformed Daddying approach is turning the four-month old blighter into a mass murderer or, even worse, condemning him to a call centre career.
“And how are you and Linda managing?” he asked. I was getting worried about this unprecedented level of interest. Had word gone round in the office about how ineptly we were bringing up our kid?
“Uh… we’re on top of it, sir,” I answered with an egg-sucking grin. My faux confidence wouldn’t have fooled a retarded donkey with Alzheimer’s.
He nodded good-naturedly, indicating that he had either not heard me, or that he had but was not swallowing it.
“You know, I met up with my brother the other day – he’d just returned from Tibet. He told me of a wise man who sits on some godforsaken mountaintop over there.”
I wondered what this had to do with Dr. Zeuss, parenting-oriented rational emotive therapy or the ‘quality time’ school of thought.
“This wise man has apparently got the Ultimate handle on parenting,” he said. “My brother was a physical, emotional and mental wreck after his daughter was born… you know, he wanted to get everything right on the parenting front. He says that this wise dude had to say to him pulled him back from the brink of suicide.”
“I see you’ve lost about twenty pounds since Brian was born. Your efficiency levels have also dropped – I attribute this to loss of sleep and appetite.”
My heart sank – here came the pink slip.
“I’ve also heard that you and Linda are buying every parenting book and DVD in sight at the local bookstore. I want to you to go see this wise man in Tibet and see what he has to say. The company will pay for this. I hate to see a good employee kill himself this young.”
x x x
At last I reached the top of the mountain. The wind screamed its protest and tried to yank me over the edge again, but I was here to ask The Question and get The Answer and wasn’t about to let it do that.
I looked around, wondering how anyone could survive the numbing cold up here. At last I spotted him.
He was a shriveled, ancient and extremely weathered specimen, sitting cross-legged on a tacky prayer mat under a sturdy bamboo-thatch roof that did nothing to keep the elements out. The old party was bundled up in one of those fancy Nepali coats that they try to sell to you at every street-corner in Khatmandu. He was about eighty years old and maybe five feet in height, with a few stray wisps of hair still sticking to his otherwise wind-bleached scalp. He was reading something and paid no attention at all to me.
I stumbled across to where he sat and fell to my knees on the cold mountain rock before him.
“Master! I have come to seek The Answer,” I cried abjectly.
He looked up from what I was startled to see was a fairly dated copy of Playboy.
“Another one,” he said, sounding quite disgruntled. “What’s wrong with you people anyway?”
“Master, I am the father of a four-month-old boy,” I continued. “He’s…”
“… the sweetest, smartest, most promising child in the whole, wide world,” he finished for me. I was amazed. This man was truly gifted – he had read my mind!!
“Yes!!” I said, “Yes!! And I…”
“… want to be the perfect father to him, and your wife wants to be the perfect mother. You do not want to take a single wrong step, because you will get only one chance at bringing him up right and you don’t want to goof up. Goofing up will mean traumatizing him, and that would mean a warped child, and it would all be your fault,” he finished for me, perusing the Playboy’s centerfold with a gleam of approval in his eyes. “So, we go on to The Question that haunts every new father and mother – How Can I Be The Perfect Parent?”
I fell silent. There was nothing more to be said. Playboy or not, this dried-up relic had just said it all.
He put the magazine aside and looked at me through the weary eyes of aged wisdom. It was a compassionate look, but there was also impatience in it.
“Here’s the answer, son,” he said. “Get a life and LEAVE YOUR KID ALONE.”
x x x
“WHAT?!?” I gasped. “Leave… leave him alone? But he depends on us for nurturing, for guidance, for the right values in life. We have to show him how much we love him by….”
“… giving him what he really needs, not what your guilt makes you BELIEVE he needs,” he finished for me. “What he needs from you is the basic requirements of life – food, shelter, education and undemanding affection. Damn it, every animal knows better than to follow their offspring around, catering to every imagined need and being a pain in the neck. Why can’t humans learn to do the same?”
“Because… because humans are DEEP!” I said. “We are intelligent. Our offspring has a broader spectrum of needs, and…”
“You, my dear misguided friend, are just another victim of so-called progressive thought,” he said disdainfully. “You can’t leave good enough alone. You HAVE to fix what isn’t broken. No – you have to BREAK what isn’t broken and then try to put it together in a way that your insane feelings of inadequacy tell you is the RIGHT way! Your son is doomed.”
I was beginning to have enough of his primitive outlook on life’s realities.
“Listen, Monk Man – children aren’t animals. They are extremely sensitive beings,” I said.
“You mean animals aren’t?” he spat at me. “Fellow, beasts don’t write book on parenting, have all-night discussion sessions on the subject or tear themselves up over a wrong move here or there – but they do a really fine job of bringing up their offspring. They are there for their little ones when they are needed – not when they need to be there. They feed them, protect them from predators, house them till they’re old enough to strike out on their own, and let them go. It works!! Have you ever heard of a yak, cockatoo or antelope traumatized by anything other than human mischief?”
I shut up.
“Have you ever heard of an Australian aborigine child who felt he didn’t get enough approval from Dad? Or of a maladjusted Sioux papoose turned juvenile delinquent because Mommy didn’t spend enough quality time with him?” he asked me, a bit more kindly now. “Have you ever heard of an Eskimo child who can’t take the peer pressure? Fellow – in Nature, everything finds its own perfect level. It is when you screw around with the natural order of things that you have problems.”
He got up and handed me the Playboy. I accepted it with cold-numbed hands, not really knowing what I was doing.
“Go home,” he said. “You and your wife must have fun in your lives, and you must let your son have it too. There are only so many years each of us has to experience the gift of life. How many of them do you want to waste on trying to find some mythical Right Equation? The Right Equation is whatever existed before humans decided they are smarter, more compassionate or more innovative than the very Nature according to whose rules they were born in the first place.”
Resentfully, I realized that I had nothing further to ask him. In less than ten minutes, this man had reduced the whole issue from exquisite complexity to grassroots simplicity. If what he said was true, then Linda and I had to excuse left for twisting ourselves into worried, frustrated wrecks. There would be no further expeditions to the Non Fiction section of the local bookstore to get our next fix of parenting acumen.
Then I realized I had one last ace in the hole to play! One last question that would surely flummox him and cause him to dissolve into a helpless pile of confused grey cells – just like it did everybody else on earth!!
x x x
“Before I go, please answer one last question,” I said with forced humility.
He grunted dustily, rummaged under his prayer mat and produced a fairly recent issue of Penthouse.
“Ask your question,” he said, going straight for the centerfold.
I drew in a trembling breath, stunned as always by the magnitude and sheer magnificence of The Final Parenting Question as I geared up to utter it.
“What is Quality Time?” I asked, my eyes filling up with tears of awed reverence. Never mind dumb animals – only intelligent humans were capable of asking such a profound question. In fact, our ability to ask it literally PROVED the existence of God…
He guffawed toothlessly. “Quality time, you dolt, is the time you spend with your child in which you:
- DON’T tweak your own or your child’s sensibilities
- DON’T try to find meaning in every nuance of body language
- DON’T adjust to the moment while nevertheless praying that you’ll somehow get it right
- DON’T anticipate favorable or unfavorable present or future reactions
- DON’T either compensate for or further build on your own or your own parents’ inadequacies
Quality time is time you spend with your child without any kind of agenda, forgetting that you’re a parent. You throw away the rule book. You become human, not superhuman. You let your hair down, relax and let your child do the same. Quality time is whenever you don’t try to be the Perfect Parent.”
He pointed to the edge of the cliff and waved me to it.
“Now get out of here,” he said. “I have more interesting stuff than this to occupy myself with. Mind your step on the way down – there’s sleet on the slope at this time of the day….”
“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” – Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)