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Trust is a habit we can cultivate

We were judged harshly and mistrusted as adolescents and we project that mistrust on to our children subconsciously

Why do mothers seem harsh and distant with their daughters? Photo: Natasha Badhwar
Why do mothers seem harsh and distant with their daughters? Photo: Natasha Badhwar

When I scold my children, and there’s no point adding here that I am an enlightened parent and I don’t really scold my children very often, because my children will disagree and tell you that it is not true—I do actually scold them far more than necessary, and if anyone is really enlightened in the family, it is them. This is how my sentences lose track and get derailed when I scold my children.

I detest raising my voice and scolding my children. I detest myself when I scold them. Scolding comes very naturally to me.

There are many more paragraphs already typed on this page but I am going to delete them and insert this here. I am really avoiding coming to the point today because the point is that I have a trust problem as a parent.

I have a recurring trust problem with my first-born child. She is 13 years old. In some ways I have been treating her like she is all grown-up since she was 5. Sometimes I treat her like she is already 21. This feels great when we are sitting in a coffee shop and she is telling me about the conflicts and denouement in the life of her favourite fictional characters. It doesn’t feel good at all when I find myself stalking and nagging her to make sure she isn’t neglecting the details of her life outside books and movies. I repeatedly catch myself wrongly attributing motives to her. When she looks upset, my default reaction is being defensive instead of moving forward to comfort her.

“Don’t behave like a teenager with me," her father shouted at her one afternoon, as she stomped out of a conversation with him.

“I am a teenager, Papa," she said, tearing up. “How else am I supposed to behave?"

I am constantly surprised at how forgiving she is. I note her patience and determination to stick it out till I sort out this particular knot in my relationship with her.

One of my closest friends is a father of twin children, a boy and a girl. When his son was still an infant, he confided in me that sometimes he looks at the baby he is holding and already feels angry with him about all the bad things he will think and do as a child.

“I feel absolutely sure that he will do all the things I did secretly, and it already bothers me," said my friend, as he tried to make sense of his irrational thoughts.

Somewhere in there is a clue. Why do mothers seem harsh and distant with their daughters? Why do fathers find themselves overreacting to their children’s child-like behaviours?

We are still carrying the burden of shame and judgement that we internalized in our own growing-up years. We were judged harshly and mistrusted as adolescents and we project that mistrust on to our children subconsciously. There is a special quota of this reserved for our first-born, who find themselves on the frontline, having to endure our rantings till we wisen up or eventually mellow down.

I am exposing this trust deficit in me by writing about it here. Father Os, my teacher, would often say that it doesn’t matter so much why we behave in ways that don’t seem to work for us. What matters is that we stop, and we do whatever makes it stop. Trust is a habit that we can cultivate.

In a rare moment between us, our middle child spoke to me about a family dynamic that she finds very hurtful. She is usually straightforward and blunt in her expression, but like all siblings, our children too have a secret code to protect each other steadily.

“Mamma, sometimes when we are alone, my older sister is very bossy with me. She is like a tyrant."

“I know," I said. “It is a side effect of being the eldest in a group. When one has unchecked authority, it can make us very mean."

“Yes, Mamma," she said.

“It’s hard when you are a parent also. Sometimes I am really harsh when I am alone with you children."

“Yes, you are," she said. “It happens when we become class monitor also."

“Oh God, yes! I remember when I was class monitor in class III. I was really out of control. I used to terrorize my classmates."

I described my authoritarian behaviour to her as a child. She told me how children in her class behave sometimes when a teacher asks them to “mind the class" and leaves the room. We agreed that it takes maturity and wisdom to not lose it when we are powerful and others are weaker or smaller than us.

“There are ways to speak back to those in authority and reclaim our power," I said to her. “You are good at it."

“Sometimes I laugh it off," she said. “Or I just go off on my own."

Just now, I went up to my eldest child at her desk and told her that I was trying to write about the difficult parts of my relationship with her. “Write what is in your heart, Mamma," she said. “I will read it."

Later at night, I will sneak into her warm and enormous quilt and hold her hand as she sleeps. She and I wear the same-sized shoes now, but her hands feel small and soft in mine—just like a baby’s.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar. Read Natasha’s Mint Lounge columns here

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