You know how in the old war movies a man would take a photograph out of his wallet and show the hero a picture of his girlfriend or his kids, and in the next scene he would be killed, thus giving the hero the emotional coherence and rage he didn’t have until then? Of late, I have been wondering what the modern equivalent is. “Here is my Instagram page,” and then you die?
I have two children and their pictures are not online. For reasons of privacy, of course. And because I suspected early on that there would be no end to the moments that I thought were cute. And also because I had queasy feelings about being a public parent, forget an Extremely Online Parent.
One time I was asked to contribute a short story to an anthology about motherhood and my protagonist was a mother who saw her children rather too clearly for comfort, saw everything down to the murderous intent of one of them. I didn’t want to be sentimental and noir-ish stories are fun to write. Some years down the line, I have changed my mind and adhere to what I heard a writer say—that sentimentality is emotion written by someone who doesn’t know how to write it.
All this to say that thanks to my not very clearly thought through personal resolution and the pandemic, a significant part of my young children’s lives has been highly documented—but shared only with their grandparents (and two friends who very loudly demand photographs, more photographs, more). To the extent that a significant part of my social circle continues to be uncertain about my children’s existence.
This month I had one of those streetside interactions with an old acquaintance who exclaimed, “You are married? You have children?”, with higher and higher notes of incredulity. I thought to myself that when I was 23, I would have been rattled enough to engage—if only to say, “Yes, I have children and you are still juvenile.” Now, I just smile and let the silence linger uncomfortably.
Being an older parent has other advantages. You have had seven lives before they were born and they will have seven lives after you die. This allows you to treat the cohabitation with children as a source of entertainment. Even when you are sleep-deprived and seeing too clearly that one of your children is probably going to turn out to be a giant whiner, you can laugh with the friend whose 90-year-old father has always been a giant whiner. Even when he was 30. Because to be a sincere caretaker always involves rigorously asking yourself who is whining more, you or your ward.
At other times, the entertainment is much more straightforward. They talk funny. Or they astonish you by suddenly talking in a full sentence that makes you feel like you are having an out-of-body experience. Or suddenly address their toy elephant by your long-forgotten, ex-boyfriend’s name and there’s no one else in the playground, so you know this is the climax of a haunted-child horror movie. Sometimes, they entertain by telling the truth. Or when they try their hand at lying. They demand you stop singing. Or start humming to themselves while having private thoughts as if they are real people, not the toys you thought they are.
They walk around reminding their grandmother of a dead sibling. Or you of your own younger brother when he was not so sober and used to sit on the wall with a broken skipping rope dangling into the empty plot next door—because he was fishing. A friend assures me that when she was a baby her parents used to frighten her, just for the pleasure of watching her crawl across the room at lightning speed, her round buttocks shaking. I am trying to remember whether they took pictures of her departures. Probably not.
Unwilling and uncertain as I am about sharing my children’s pictures, I partake of other people’s bounty quite a bit. I followed Serena Williams’ daughter’s Instagram page for the joy of shaking my head. The poise. The style. The balance. The G.O.A.T. has an amazing kid (I will not be apologising). I have an acquaintance whose kindergartener daughter is an equally amazing virtuoso of style and wit. Every photograph of her frocks is a delight, every lisped line a spear. I follow the blog of a woman in small-town America with four boys under 12. A friend sends me voice notes of her son’s 30-second stories, each in a genre of its own. I have never met any of these children and Serena has not met mine.
Like that Netflix show about Japanese toddlers, I feel “old enough”. Old enough to know that I may not love my friends’ children. That people with children are not necessarily my friends (“They are your colleagues,” a thoughtful older woman once told me). But the clucking over the pictures of all our children is a hobby I am old enough for. My college friend recently had a baby. In the last 20 years, we have met a couple times in passing, always fondly, always giggling. But with her pregnancy came the regular WhatsApp updates of her Bond movie marathon and with childbirth came updates of a baby who apparently started grinning widely as soon as he was born. She sends them regularly—with a joy and confidence I envy. I still feel like I am doing something mildly contraband, which, of course, adds to the pleasure. Looking at the latest picture of her wide grin mirrored on her child’s face, I asked on impulse to see pictures of her sisters. She sent me a photograph of herself as a baby with her two older sisters. I know nothing, of course, but to see those confident little girls holding her is to feel that her happiness and huge professional success was inevitable. It was like a stray chapter in an Ann Patchett novel you haven’t read yet—A State of Wonder in Lingarajapuram or The Commonwealth of Cox Town.
This month, as I have wandered in and out of Montessoris, I have seen many tiny children in the blissful state of participants at an Ayahuasca ceremony. They had found their true selves with the wielding of a miniature rolling pin and chapati dough or an equally miniature broom. At 23, I would have felt greater greed and wondered whether I should have become a Montessori teacher to get a hit of this drug every day. But now I am happy for this transient pleasure of children—mine and others. Commonwealth. That is what I am old enough for.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.