Period Dramas: calling out menstruation discrimination

I was chatting with a friend recently and as I often do, I innocuously asked “so what’s on the menu tonight, you cooking or date night?” with a cheeky glint in my eye. “Looks like a takeaway in the living room for me tonight” she replied with a degree of resignation in her voice and releasing an all-too-telling sigh. My senses were tweaked, I knew something was up so I asked “oh, how come?”. “You know, time of the month and all that” she said rolling her eyes.

And then I remembered. For the last 10 years of knowing my friend, I’ve also known her monthly period. Reason being, she lives in a household where her menstrual cycle is a monthly update for everyone. It tells her mother and father in law that progeny has not yet been conceived; it alerts her mother in law that she’s responsible for the family meals for the next week and gives notice to her four brothers in law that they can organise a mid-week lads night out with her husband since he’s not sharing a bed with his wife so not a lot else will be going on.

being untouchable

You may be wondering how on earth anyone would be alerted to my friend’s menstrual cycle but she lives in a household where periods are considered ‘dirty’ and so when mother nature pays her a visit, she’s not allowed to go in the kitchen, use the waste bins in her house whether it’s to dispose of a sweet wrapper or yesterday’s contact lenses (yes, even in the dead of winter), touch anyone or share a bed with her husband (there’s a double mattress permanently propped up against the bedroom wall ready for it’s monthly seven day usage).

She’s been married for so long and this situation has played itself out so many times that I can see her initial anger and resentment towards it all has now boiled down to forlorn acceptance of her situation. We’ve talked about her moving to her own place where her periods can become less of a public event but her husband is the eldest son and maintains that it’s his responsibility to look after his ageing parents. And but for the whole period publicity, she actually has a very happy relationship with her rather strict in-laws which is significant because she came from a liberal family where no one knew (or asked) about her periods and life was free and easy – from what she studied, to whom she hung out with – so the transition to this household required concerted adjustment.

reflections

Our chat caused me to reflect on how periods were treated in my own household when I was growing up and for other girls I knew at the time. I remembered one girl whom I went to Gujarati classes with (generally the only exciting activity on the weekends when I was a teenager) who had to leave home every month when she got her period and stay with her aunty. It never made sense to me that if periods were dirty, why would it be ok to sully someone else’s home but not your own?

In my own example, as a family we used to pray together everyday and so when I was on my period, I wasn’t allowed to enter the mandir* for five days after which I’d have to wash my hair and then my access would be reinstated. I was never told what the significance of the hair washing was but I assume it was symbolic of cleansing.

And no-one ever explained to me what the cleansing of hair on my head had to do with what was going on in my uterus.

religion vs. culture

From my experience, I can see a conflict between religion and cultural practices which we just seem to have accepted without question. I say this because in the Hindu religion the feminine aspect is considered holy; Shiva (part of the Trinity) is said to be completed by Shakti; the female aspect. During Navaratri, the three female energies of Laxmi, Saraswati and Durga are worshipped.There are female deities and these are worshipped with the same degree of reverence as the male representations.

In the Asian community a fertile woman is considered to be a blessing because after all, periods reflect the potential to conceive a child. But our present treatment of menstruating women doesn’t reflect this same reverence and respect – and we don’t seem to question this.

old practices, outdated thinking

In an article by Mythri Speaks [mythrispeaks.wordpress.com], the author talks about the ancient reasons why women were secluded from their homes and avoided cooking and eating with others at this time. She says that the reasons were all generally positive and spiritually enhancing but these scientifically Vedic based reasons aren’t the ones we hear today in our community. Instead the words associated with periods are “dirty” and “impure” and serve only to cast out the afflicted female enduring a process created by nature and into which, she didn’t have any input.

o great man!

We really need to question what message about our culture we’re delivering to our children; in many cases, are we even providing a culture based explanation for this treatment or are we just telling our daughters that they’re dirty? Whilst it may be rooted in ancient culture or historical practices, we need to consider the wider impact of this treatment on the self-esteem of our girls, in today’s society. By blindly following anachronistic practices, it seems to me that we’re inadvertently reinforcing gender inequality because men don’t suffer the same ‘dirtiness’ warranting segregation and by default, are the more superior.

shame

We have a duty to empower our daughters but also to educate our sons, fathers in law and other male figures around us not to malign the image and respect they give to women because of a sense of impurity associated with periods. If we don’t correct this, then periods will continue to be synonymous with shame and don’t we already have enough battles with shame without adding more to the pile?

Dr Brene Brown** defines shame as: “the intensely painful feeling that we’re unworthy of love and belonging”. Ultimately, by maintaining practices which reinforce this ‘shame’ feeling in our girls, we’re reinforcing an inner dialogue in them that they are not enough; that they must subscribe to these rituals to maintain their worthiness and place in society and the Asian community.

Brene Brown says if you were to put shame in a petri dish and “douse it with a little secrecy, silence and judgement then it will grow exponentially”. She describes shame as “lethal” and that we’re often “swimming in it” however, she also says that shame cannot survive being spoken about. Therefore, in western society where hygiene is no longer a problem, I think it’s time for us girls to openly question why we’re following these practices and be brave enough to make choices based on what reinforces our self-worth; not choosing to follow something because we’re afraid of the consequences but positively electing to do something because we want to do it.

nurturing the inner, not just the outer

As parents we do a grand job of nurturing our children physically – preparing fresh food, ferrying them to extra curricular classes, clothing and accessorising them and more, but we need to put as much focus and attention on how we’re nurturing the self worth of our girls.

We could take the perspective that we’ll continue with these familiar, age old customs and then allow our girls to choose what they want to follow once they’re married and independent. But this seemingly liberal stance serves only to condition our girls to do things a certain way whilst growing up and then feel guilty or conflicted when the opportunity presents itself to make choices for themselves, i.e. once they’re in their own marital homes.

This leaves women feeling guilty if they don’t follow what their mothers have taught them and quick to assume the blame should anything unforeseen happen in the family as bad luck brought on by their violation of the cultural ‘rules’.

Shame, shame and a dollop of more shame.

choosing authenticity

As parents and carers we get to choose how we parent our children – and it’s ok to change track midway if after we look inwards and ask questions of our behaviour we realise something feels counter intuitive.

Another friend’s mother in law knows when she’s on her period because after marriage she lived with her for a while. Now in her marital home, she does as she pleases and has left all period discrimination and related practices behind. However, every month she’s on guard and ensures during that time that no pans with freshly prepared food are left on the stove and the spare room is made up and looking to be ‘in use’ just in case mother-in-law come over. It’s a monthly charade that’s kept up because like a sentinel, she wanders around the house for a general nose about. I can’t imagine anything more stressful than having to prepare to enact a scene on a monthly basis and my concern is the effect of this wearing of different personas for different audiences leading to us losing sight of our own identity [more about this in “Did you hear about her son?” – Shattering the Stigma around Autism in the Asian Community].

Authenticity is so paramount to our own well being and our self-nourishment – by just being whom we are regardless of the audience – we don’t just value ourselves, we give permission to others to do the same.

beetroots

In another case, a London friend was recently invited to a cousin’s baby shower in Ahemdabad. A week ahead of the event, her dad received a call to ask whether she was likely to be on her period at the time of the event lest she should have to sit outside of the main religious proceedings. Her dad’s cheeks reportedly went an interesting shade of beetroot as he digested what he’d been asked to do – to enquire of his 40 year old daughter for the first time in his life whether she was on her period. So he approached her sister to undertake the reconnaissance and then feed back the reply for him to deliver to said relatives in India. I found the whole episode superficially comical but at it’s core, fundamentally degrading.

I’ve been able to easily relegate my period experiences to the past and not carry them forward into my married life because I’ve married into a family where period discrimination simply isn’t a thing. For a long time, I assumed this was a thing of the past  but from the conversations I’m having with friends and wider, I’ve learnt that this is far from the truth.

Historically, Asian women would have shouldered these rituals and accepted them as a symptom of their gender, but today women are outwardly conforming but feeling inwardly divided about why they’re still subjected to such archaic rituals; they’re afraid to stand up and disagree or even to bring it up as a topic of conversation because of the perception that they’re abandoning their culture and inviting bad luck upon the family.

baaaa!

We need to stop the sheep-like mentality of just doing things because they’ve always been done like that. We also need to stop thinking that whether we do something or not won’t make a difference in the grander scheme of things. In the words of Anita Roddick: “If you don’t believe one person can make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito”.

Each one of us has the power to influence and role model and by following period discrimination practices we don’t believe in, we’re not serving anyone wholeheartedly; at best we’re just poor excuses for actors enacting a charade for a non-fee paying, judgement doling audience. Essentially, accessories to a crime against women’s self-worth.

If you don’t believe in it, then it’s time to stop. And the choice is entirely in our hands.

Period.

photo credit: http://www.sbs.com.au

*mandir = shrine room where deities are kept

**Brene Brown talks to Ophrah Winfrey on Super Soul Sundays, the podcast

 

Mummy Doesn’t Always Know Best; the Benefit of Coaching in Parenting

Being a mum of an autistic child I’ve learnt to flexibly adapt my plans to suit my eldest’s mood – often it works but sometimes I end up with slapped-palm-to-forehead woe when I’ve missed something blindingly obvious (like taking him to a fancy restaurant sans iPad, toys or any other variation of distraction so his attention becomes naturally focused on the dainty glassware and heavy cutlery).

having a plan for your plan

Over the years, I’ve learnt to make a plan A, B and even a C for most things; from sandwich fillings to activities. For example, my eldest loves climbing (walls, trees, rocks, furniture – if it can carry his weight, he’s climbing it). So, if I’ve agreed to a trip to the local climbing centre, and this can’t take place, it can only be replaced by a trip which achieves the same aim so, perhaps to one of the local parks which has a climbing wall (this still requires significant explanation and evidenced based rationale as to why said plan needs to be amended but if undertaken sensitively can still lead to a positive outcome).

Ultimately, climbing has to happen because that was the verbally binding contract I entered into and there are no exclusion clauses; I’m well and truly committed. Any retraction of my agreement would be a betrayal in his world of the gravest kind and lead to mistrust, anger and heightened anxiety because the ‘plan’ has been changed so critically.

boo!

In practice, this means that spontaneity doesn’t really have much of a place in my home.  An example is when I’ve forgotten an ingredient I need to cook a particular meal and need my eldest to come with me quickly to the supermarket to pick it up. If I am to traverse this path, I need to be prepared for intense questioning as to what exactly I need to buy; how – when knowing I was making this dish – I managed to miss a vital ingredient and why an alternative dish can’t be prepared; accompanied by the qualification that I need to wait for whatever activity he’s engaged in to reach an appropriate point when it can be left (this can be anything from five minutes to twenty) or for the episode of whatever is on Disney Junior or CBBBC to have ended.

One of the classic manifestations of his autism is that there has to be an explanation for everything; nothing just ‘happens’. And trying to fob him off with a half hashed explanation is a false economy; if you omit detail you can bet your last penny that he’ll find the loopholes and put your own argument back to you, creating further explanations (or hole digging in my experience) and inevitable delay.

Not unlike a chief prosecutor intelligently unhinging an unreliable witness.

It goes without saying that the old Indian way of parenting (the one I certainly grew up with) of “just get in the car or else” is a huge no-no because it stokes the fires of anxiety, creates stubbornness, foot stomping/door slamming rage and lots of tears – if we’re in this zone, no-one’s going anywhere and nothing’s going to get cooked anytime soon.

All this for some basil to make a basic pesto. I could probably have ordered and have had my food delivered to me on Uber Eats in the time taken from the initial request to accompany me, to our actual exit from the house.

tipping the scales

One thing that puts my son on high alert emotionally is the prospect of being in an unfamiliar environment with people he doesn’t know. He thrives in familiarity – with everything. He has a visual timetable at school so he knows every activity he’s doing and when his breaks are. He likes knowing the rota for his teacher helpers and when one’s off unexpectedly, it can cause him anxiety and derail his day as his insecurity manifests through outbursts of frustration and anger.

He needs to know any changes to the usual schedule (at home and school) in advance so he feels ready for them; he needs to feel like he’s part of the planning process, not like events are being done to him. Through his beautiful eyes there is no discrimination or hierarchy; everyone’s equal. But this means that he wants to be involved in any decision affecting him; from what he eats to where we holiday.

no surprises

Whereas many neurotypical children love the excitement and anticipation of surprises, for my eldest this is akin to hell. You couldn’t say you’re taking him somewhere but keeping it a surprise without him stressing the whole time as to where he’s going. And until he arrives he’ll guess relentlessly and ask inumerable questions in his quest to know what’s going on.

Knowing things gives him security. It enables him to feel in control and minimises the anxiety that comes with anything unexpected.

His preference for familiarity pervades everything. He loves all foods and will try new varieties of cuisine but if you’re going to change something he likes, you need to tell him beforehand. I once blended spinach into a quiche mix and it turned the whole filling green – he wasn’t impressed and instead of digging in, he spent at least 20 minutes asking for an (adequate) explanation as to why I altered the recipe whilst poking it from various angles to ensure a nether beast wasn’t hiding in the pastry waiting to make an impromptu appearance. Well intended variations from the usual, generally, quickly lead to me being apprehended for my divergence.

So with experience – this is a new journey for me as well as him – I’ve learnt how to make him feel involved and encourage more peer level type coaching discussions rather than trying to flex my parental obedience muscle.

the plan that put all other plans to shame

Recently, feeling smug and content that for once I was ahead of the parenting curve (a rare occurrence), I told him he’d be spending the Easter break at a gymnastics club. I thought this was a foolproof holiday plan. He’d love it because:

  • he went to the gymnastics holiday club last year and loved it;
  • it was the same gymnastics club he frequents every week and he already knows the teachers;
  • his gymnastics training is massively boosting his confidence, flexibility and balance and he’s regularly chosen for demonstrations – which appeals to the showman in him.

However, instead of the awaited ‘thank you’, I was met with a look of pained disappointment and the statement “but I don’t want to go mummy”.

what?!

This was plan A; there was no alternative – I was so sure of plan A’s success that I had flippantly discarded the requirement for a plan B let alone C.

Alarms started going off in my head; I was thinking “but he has to go, there’s no alternative” whilst knowing that there is nothing I can make him do. My part time work means that my annual leave is pro rata’d and quickly consumed by half term holidays, a bit in summer, Christmas and inexorable medical appointments.

I felt that my unpreparedness had completely exposed me as a failed autism mum. If I couldn’t predict what my son wants and likes then no-one could.

I started rapidly scanning options in my head. All the holiday clubs locally would have been booked months ago and the choice of going to just any one isn’t a luxury we can avail ourselves of; I need somewhere that can accommodate his needs and where I can spend at least the first day settling him in and ensuring he’s getting enough one to one attention and is comfortable.

cross examination

But why didn’t he want to go? Like a barrister mentally trying to work out all the possible answers to the question before completing my sentence whilst simultaneously tiptoeing the line between aloofness and incredulity, I asked: “what’s wrong? why don’t you want to go?”. He replied “the place is different, it’s a girl’s school and I won’t know anyone”.

Oh heck – he was right (cue slapped-palm-to-forehead woe again).

Yes, it was the same gymnastics club and teachers but they relocated the holiday club this year to another school ten minutes away. This was a change in his world and I’d not prepared him for it at all. Damage control was needed for sure, but this was still a concern I felt I could reassure him about. I explained that the place was different and on the first day he’d need to learn where the toilets and lunch rooms are but after this, it would all be familiar. He was contemplative – a good sign.

With point two, I explained that usually it was a girls’ school but in the holidays it was for everyone; this explanation created no extreme reactions – another positive.

who’s going?

I explained he’d know other children from the club. “Who?” he asked, his interest peaked and wide eyes expectantly awaiting my reply. I was stumped. I couldn’t say for sure who’d be there; I don’t know any of the children’s names because there’s so little interaction with the parents at the class.

Generally when the children are reunited with their parents, it’s akin to a swarm of ants being released, each running to their respective carers who bustle them up and usher them out of the door whilst their arm is still half way through their jackets. (I’m as guilty of this as anyone, steering him to the car whilst he practices gymnastics moves in the car park, so I can get back to my tired toddler and avoid the looming 10 minute catnap which will recharge him and make sleep elusive for everyone).

To add to my ignorance, some parents elected for the odd gymnastics day and others (like me) put their children in for the whole Easter break. I expected that on a balance of probability someone either from his school or the gymnastics club would be there but I couldn’t specifically say whom or on what days.

‘Probably’ is not an answer my eldest can understand; it’s too uncertain. In his world things are black and white – it’s either happening or it isn’t, it’s guaranteed to be fun or it’ll be as boring as sin.

the failed oracle

In this case his gym buddies would either be there or not and why, as the mummy, do I not have this critical data? In his world, I know everything; I’m the supreme oracle, knower of everything with mental arithmetic abilities akin to Gauss, artistic abilities in the region of Van Gogh and the singing skills of Ava Max (he totally loves her). So on top of being fairly mediocre in these categories at the best of times, today, I didn’t have the answers to his concerns either.

“I don’t want to go” he said. “I’m scared that I won’t know anyone”.

Now what? It was Friday and the Easter break had started. My racing mind (and heart) flitted between “I need a back up plan” to “what other clubs did I know?” to “if I ignore it and wait until Monday, what if he plainly refuses to get ready?” to “I’m expected to be in training at work, how can I negotiate this when I’m perpetually self-conscious about working part-time?”.

In that moment I had a choice about how I was going to react to this situation. I could create a frenzy around me (and within me) or I could see it for what it was – my autistic child who looks to his mummy for security was telling me he was scared and supporting him was my priority.

chop chop

So I cut the negative self talk and told myself “If he goes happily on Monday, great – that’s plan A. If not, we’ll work it out whether that means I stay with him at the club or at home – and everything else will be dealt with once I know he’s ok”. I needed to say this to myself to (a) be ok with the absence of planning involved in this ‘plan’ and (b) acknowledge that I succeed as a mum everyday and not to allow negative self-talk to unhinge me when things haven’t gone the way I’d intended.

With this clarity of mind I told my son I had a proposition. He could counter it if he disagreed with any part of it (as if he needed permission) but he needed to hear it first; this was the peer level coaching in effect.

I had his attention.

I acknowledged that his feelings of nervousness were valid but unless he tried a day he wouldn’t know if he liked it or not. I proposed that he attempt one day – I’d stay with him until he felt comfortable – and if he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t need to go to any more; no questions asked.

It was a successful negotiation which ultimately resulted in him completing two weeks there and even obtaining two grade promotions. But even if it hadn’t played out that way, he’d have still had a happy time with a quickly cobbled scheme essentially consisting of being ferried between my husband and I, his doting grandparents and someone else I could rope in (that he likes) to exhaust the local climbing, soft play, cinema and trampolining facilities.

life’s lessons

I learnt two things from this situation:

(1) my son’s autism makes him so hypersensitive to change that as much as I’d love to plan for every eventuality, this is plain unrealistic. I need to get comfortable with this knowledge because it’s so counter intuitive to my highlighting-Post-it noting-mind mapping-diary managing self;

(2) whenever something purportedly goes wrong with my son, I turn to myself to ask what I did to cause it. And yet when it goes well I don’t credit myself with equivalent speed. Listening to my inner dialogue, cutting it as soon as the ‘blame’ conversation starts and replacing it with the question of what I can learn from the situation has literally saved me from self destruction.

Steve Chandler insightfully says “Only two things can result from having expectations. One: the other person will not meet your expectation and you’ll be disappointed (or even betrayed). Or, two: they will meet your expectation, and because you expected it, you won’t feel anything, because, after all, it was what you expected. So your states of feeling will either be Disappointed or Nothing” – Crazy Good.

So the me of today is planning not to over plan and not to hold expectations of others – including my son.

I should probably do a quick mind map to make sure I’ve explored the remit and ramifications of my new plan…

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

How my autistic child made me a better communicator

We were over the moon when our son was born five years ago. After my earlier miscarriage – see Don’t say the ‘M’ word – I was in a heightened state of stress wondering if I’d get pregnant again or be able to carry a child to term.

When he was born I was still in a state of shock that he’d actually arrived (the 22 hour labour did make me wonder if he ever intended to appear) until he was physically given to me naked and scrawny and I enveloped him in my arms in a way that told him he was the new love of my life and into whom I’d pour every aspect of myself to nurture him. Like a mere 2% of the population, he was born on his due date which just made him more special (I value punctuality in everybody) but little did we know how special.

something’s not right

We suspected something wasn’t quite right when at every parent’s evening we were told that he’d met or exceeded all his EYFS goals except one – social and personal development. He struggled with sharing and could be dominating and loud, sometimes hitting out but I just put this down to being an active little boy.

Another parent’s evening came and went and then another. Two years passed; the feedback was the same. Jay* was different – and displaying increasingly challenging behaviour. One day the nursery sent me a video of him throwing books and chairs around the classroom; the rest of the children had to be evacuated whilst the staff tried to calm him down. As a parent I’d constantly ask myself if I’d spoiled him because he was our only child; maybe we missed the cues when we ought to have been firmer setting boundaries. Maybe we’d created a child who was totally out of control and would never conform to an educational establishment; the guilt and anxiety seemed to pile on exponentially with each nursery report.

They told me that in its 15 year history, they’d never seen a child like him before – that was a stab in the heart if ever I’d had one.

searching for answers

For two years I knocked on the doors of every relevant medical professional; clinical psychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and paediatricians. In my outwardly ordered life, I’d plan our family meals and weekend events, ferry Jay between singing, dancing, martial arts and music classes, but inwardly I was in a state of complete uncertainty. Something was happening to my son but I had no idea what, or why, or how to fix it.

Every out-of-the-ordinary tantrum would be calmed with distractions such as YouTube nursery rhymes or biscuits and lots of reminders of how much we loved him. He was our only child and his behaviour is all that we knew. I’d use other kids’ behaviour as a comparator and rationalise Jay’s behaviour against this, always keeping that inner monologue going that he was just an active, clever and exuberant little boy and explaining any seemingly irrational behaviour away.

Finally we obtained a diagnosis of autism in 2018; Jay was aged 4.

the prodigal son

For most of his life, Jay was the only child. Between his parents and grandparents not to mention his aunties and uncles, Jay was doted upon as if he were the first child born in the world – ever.

And then I had another son.

This one (at least so far, although he has his moments) is neurotypical. This is just the science-y way of saying he’s not autistic and what in base, common language would be called “normal”.

realisation

It was only after the birth of Ash* and over the past three years that I’ve learnt and understood what “normal” child behaviour actually is (though there are days when I think he’s auditioning for a devil child movie role; he’d get the equivalent of an Oscar for a three year old).

I’ve also seen how Jay’s autism has influenced his brother’s behaviour. As the big brother, Jay is idolised. But with that comes the need to play with the same things Jay plays with, draw with the felt tips that Jay uses and copy the behaviour which Jay displays when he’s frustrated. The latter is extremely tricky; how can you explain to a three year old that the reason you’ve given Jay more latitude to let off steam when he’s kicking and screaming is because he’s neurologically different but that it’s totally unacceptable when he does the same and will initiate the warnings – timeouts – repent process?

what’s normal?

Up until Ash was born I didn’t realise I was an autism parent – I thought I was just a parent going through the usual motions of having a child who didn’t listen, would test me with his behaviour and drive me to every parenting resource on the market to do with establishing good feeding habits or a sleep routine. Ash’s arrival showed me how different my parenting experience was from those with neurotypical children.

Here are just a few examples of their differences and how they manifest:

feelings

Jay has an extraordinary vocabulary way beyond his years; he can tell you the rules of English grammar with the parlance of a prim and proper school teacher. But he can’t label his feelings beyond happy, sad, angry and more recently, bored (is it a rite of passage for kids to learn this word and use it at every possible opportunity?)

So when he came home and said he felt ‘devastated’ I thought “that’s it, we’ve cracked it – he’s mastered how to express himself!” (I had parked asking about the actual cause of the devastation momentarily) for this was a momentous occasion. Except it wasn’t and he’d heard the story of Romeo and Juliet at the Year 5 assembly and the word ‘devastated’ was used to express the feelings of the Capulet and Montague families at this union. [Note to self: (i) emotional labelling won’t just hit him like a meteor and (ii) remember that he has a razor sharp memory which can often mislead people to think he actually knows what he’s talking about…].

In contrast all Ash ever talks about are his feelings, like a Hollywood diva that’s overacting and to whom I have to offer a lens of realism, i.e. you’re not starving; you ate your lunch 30 minutes ago.

literal translations

The other week I said to Jay “you’re the apple of my eye” and he looked at me with the  most confused expression. “What are you talking about mummy?” he said. I replied “it’s just an expression, it’s a way of telling somebody that you really mean a lot to them”. “Oh” he said and looked up and away in thought as he often does. “In that case mummy” he said with a beaming smile, “you’re the cucumber of my eyebrows”.

I often fall into the trap of using abstract language or terms when I’m talking to Jay and which his brain struggles to compute because he takes things so literally; for example, if I say I’m coming in a minute, he’ll start counting to 60. The use of expressions or common phrases is particularly unhelpful and can make a standoff situation worse but on this occasion, I’m glad I tripped up. Jay found a new way to express love for me. And it was the first time ever I’d been called a cucumber.

Ash on the other hand chooses to express his love by parping on my lap. Go figure.

domination

Sharing doesn’t come naturally to Jay. I’ll tell him to share, he’ll acknowledge my request, tell me he’s sharing (and believes he is) but he’s really not. Jay has an innate need to control proceedings. If it’s a tea party he’s in charge of the setup, menu and guests. You’re welcome to come with your teddies and toy characters but you don’t get a say in what you’re eating or where you’ll sit. Kind of like a tea-party-throwing-child -dictator; and this applies to everything. For example, he loves to play Articulate but the sand timer empties at 30 seconds. Because this simply isn’t acceptable to him, whilst everyone gets 30 seconds to answer as many questions as they can, Jay gets 1 minute 30 seconds. He’ll unabashedly (remember the emotions thing, he doesn’t feel embarrassment) turn the timer over until he’s completed 1 minute 30 seconds.

Invariably due to a combination of his intelligence and his cheating, he wins the game. And this is the result he expects every time because in his mind everything is polarised; win or lose; black or white – grey just isn’t a thing.

Ash however doesn’t care who wins Articulate (we simplify the questions for him). He loves the end of the game because it means he can put the triangular playing pieces on his fingers and pretend to be a witch.

contrasts

Oh the paradoxes, I could rattle off new ones everyday. Jay loves a loaded cheese toastie but doesn’t like melted cheese on his pasta; he insists on wiping every bit of food from his fingers when he eats so they’re immaculately clean but will happily pick up all sorts of unknown rubbish from the streets or dig soil with his hands. His room must be clean and tidy right down to the positioning of his favourite Lemur toy but his activity shelf downstairs is permanently at risk of collapse because of what he hoards there; one day the slight shift of a pencil is going to cause a paper hurricane complete with tumbling yo-yos, plastic medals and paraphenalia from the CBeebies magazines.

Ash’s just permanently messy.

broken record syndrome

At one point I wondered if I’d mastered invisibility because it seemed everything I’d say to Jay just wasn’t heard. I’d repeatedly say he needed to get ready for school (translation: put your shoes and coat on and wait by the front door) and even after the tenth request – nothing. The little one however, upon the first request, completes this and is now swinging from the bannisters trying to entertain himself whilst he’s waiting for his older brother. So I’m getting more stressed, we need to have left for school and I’m worried my morning plans will be thwarted by a hospital visit courtesy of the bannister swinging child attempting a trapeze act.

Many versions of this going wrong later and me generating red mist, I now have a better understanding of how the autistic mind works; I’ll split my generic request into three specific ones and only deliver one at a time. First shoes, then coat then door. Job done, well for the purposes of exiting the house. This manner of communication needs to be applied to every interaction with Jay, whether it’s a request to come to eat at the dining table, do his homework or get ready for bed.

Intense, hey?

But actually I’ve come to learn that this isn’t about dumbing down communication with an autistic child or heightening communication with a ‘normal’ child. It’s about clear communication – and everyone benefits from that, children and adults alike.

Don’t we all like to be told what’s required of us, why, the objective and then be acknowledged when we’ve executed something well? That doesn’t mean we’re  autistic.

my take-away

I believe that being more mindful in my communication has made me a better parent to both children. I take my time to explain what needs to happen, why it’s happening, coach them through the consequences of not doing so and acknowledging them positively when they do what’s required, especially if it’s off their own backs.

In doing so, I’m showing them that I respect them as people within their own right; they may be little but their voices are as valid as anyone else’s. I don’t adopt the role of a parent-dictator whose orders must be obeyed; just as this wouldn’t empower or elicit engagement with my team at work nor would it do so at home.

Having to pale back the language I use and be really clear on my intention when I’m trying to communicate something has benefitted me in all my roles as a parent, manager, friend, wife, daughter and sibling. This method has helped me to go inward and understand if I’m asking for something because it’s comfortable and the way it’s always been done or because there’s a necessary value in doing so. And it’s enriched my relationships as a result because there’s purpose and rationale in what I’m communicating.

Yes it’s stressful and sometimes overwhelming being in a high octane household coping with the din of light sabre fighting with intermittent stopping to make armoury out of construction bricks or do an impromptu dance to Rita Ora – all before 8am. But I’m so grateful for the challenges I face as an autism parent; it’s forced me to tap into my inner reserves of strength, to question and to adapt how I communicate and gain a better understanding of how people like to receive information. It’s made me a better parent, a kinder person and an empathetic team leader.

And adopt the existential persona of a cucumber.

There’s not many that can boast of that.

 

Photo by Harshal S. Hirve on Unsplash

*names changed

How I’m turning yesterday’s pain into tomorrow’s promise

I’m the eldest of three children who grew up in a traditional Indian Gujarati household where the gender roles were squarely defined. This meant that from the age of eight, I’d stand on a brown plastic chair and wash the dishes because I was too short to reach the taps. By the age of 11, I was folding clothes, vacuuming, polishing and generally keeping house as well as being chief chopper of vegetables. I wasn’t unlike an Indian entry level kitchen porter who’d wash each spinach leaf in cold water to get rid of the mud (no one likes mud in their bhaji*) but never had the opportunity to do the cool stuff mum did like putting the array of spices in the dishes (freehand of course, no measuring).

low necklines, short hemlines

Being the eldest put a lot of implicit and explicit pressure on me. I had to be the academic role model and also the epitome of ideal behaviour (no boyfriends, alcohol, bad language, backchat, low necklines, short hemlines to name a few) because if I wasn’t our family reputation could be tarnished and no-one would marry me or my sister (cue dramatic music). At least that’s what I was told.

Looking back, I don’t mind that I was expected to do well at school and beyond; it made me aim high and push myself and if my parents didn’t keep reminding me of how hard they were working to enable us to have an education, perhaps I wouldn’t have such a sense of gratitude and value for their sacrifice now.

doors

But I never felt good enough; I never had a sense of worthiness. Praise was directly connected to academic achievement but even then, every accomplishment was met with a “good – make sure you keep doing it”. I formed the connection that as long as I did well academically I’d be worthy of attention from my parents otherwise that attention – however momentary – was inaccessible to me. I believed that my academic achievements were the key which unlocked the door to my self worth but the problem with this was that behind each door I opened, after the immediate high, I was faced with another door to unlock – so self fulfilment was always just out of reach.

My parents weren’t the touchy-feely type; I think post adolescence the most physical contact I had (and still have) with my dad is when I touch his feet in reverence at the beginning of each new year. I’d get birthday ‘pats’ from my mum but no bear hugs or kisses – that’s not to say they never happened when I was a child, they probably did but it just wasn’t the done thing in our house certainly from around age 11 onwards.

and?

So what, you might ask? What difference did it make because ultimately they fought all odds to provide for us, working seven days a week running a grocery shop and scraping by financially such that physical, let alone emotional, nourishment probably never even crossed their minds.

The difference is that if you don’t instil a sense of self worth in your children, they’ll seek validation from others. And if they’re not getting emotional validation from home, then they’ll look for it outside – and that’s risky.

I did just that.

searching

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had all the usual insecurities that come with being an adolescent Indian girl  – my dark upper lip hair was growing, what was I supposed to do about that? Why was I so plump compared to my tall, elegant White British best friend? How did I navigate the world of fashion when all I knew how to wear were matching tracksuits my parents bought from the cash and carry? And so much more.

My mum and I never talked about girly things like this or feelings generally so I looked outside to learn about the world. I learnt from friends to cake my face with makeup which hid my insecurities about my appearance and to wear fashionable, attractive clothes which hid the parts I didn’t want to draw attention to. The dolled up Reena was more outwardly attractive and drew the attention of the opposite sex – finally, some validation that I was beautiful, clever, funny and worth spending time with.

This all could have gone so horribly wrong. In the wrong company, I could have had my self-esteem eroded to dust or taken a completely self destructive path in my pursuit of worthiness. Luckily, my story didn’t travel that way but I was dangerously close.

And for many young people, this is how their story might play out – regardless of gender.

nourishment

As a culture, we have to make a conscious shift to nourish the emotional and mental health of our young people. I know that it’s harder because historically our ancestors didn’t do this and so it doesn’t come naturally to many Indian parents (my father was beaten daily by his dad and my mother never had positive affirmation from her mother) – but that doesn’t mean that we can’t change.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve nailed the ‘stiff embrace and patting’ technique – you know the one we give to friends we bump into in the street or relatives we meet at weddings. The type of contact which acknowledges someone without needing to put any feeling into it.

I’m not saying we should dispense physical contact to everyone we meet like chocolates to Trick or Treaters. It’s much more complicated than that and it starts with how we treat ourselves before we think about how we treat our children.

who’s thirsty?

You’ve heard the saying you can’t pour from an empty cup – well for me this certainly rings true. I’ve reconciled with myself not to resent what I didn’t have emotionally whilst growing up and instead to be grateful for the experiences I’ve had which make me who I am today. I’ve learnt to square up to my past without feeling shame or regret and to use my experiences as the foundation to influence positive change in me, my family and wider.

Something which the author Elizabeth Gilbert** said sums this up perfectly:

The things that have shaped me most are the failures, mistakes and the disasters but here’s a very important thing to recognise… failure, disaster, shame, suffering and pain do not necessarily make you a better person unless you participate in turning it into something good…

Never waste your suffering; suffering without catharsis is nothing but wasted pain… If you don’t transform from your pain then it was for nothing, you just suffered for no reason whatsoever… when bad things happen I think “how can I grow from this?”

We’ve all suffered some trauma in our lives – be it actual harm or the absence of something – but we’re all empowered to use what we’ve learnt from it to transform our lives for the better.

what I’m saying to my children

I’ve made a deliberate and conscious commitment to myself to raise my children in an environment of love and positive affirmation. I praise their efforts – not the result – when they draw (even if I don’t know what on earth I’m looking at); I tell them they can accomplish anything they put their minds to; I hug and kiss them everyday not in response to a good report but just because (this sometimes irritates them); I tell them I’m so proud to be their mother; I don’t label them, only their behaviour (i.e. instead of saying “you’re really annoying me”, I’ll explain “the longer you take to put your shoes on, we’ll have less time to play in the park” (don’t be mistaken, I get this wrong daily but at least I’m able to pull myself up on it and correct it).

drops creating wells

Will it make a difference? I think so. The drip effect of showing them everyday that they’re valued as people within their own right – not because of something they’ve said or done – I’m convinced will lead to an inner well of self worth where they won’t need external validation that they’re good enough; they’ll know that they just are.

We are all humans whose primary nourishment comes from love; love of oneself and love to others. And we’re each empowered with how we want our culture to be carried forward for generations to come. Do we want a culture where academic achievements define our children’s self worth? Or where their sense of worthiness is entirely dependent on pleasing others? Do we want to raise our children thinking they need to earn affection like a trader in the market place where self worth is traded on the size of the accomplishment, so the more you do the bigger pat on your back you get?

This is the way to go if we want society to be filled with children who are materially fulfilled at the body level but are emotionally empty at a soul level.

pouring nectar

Love can’t be assumed; it’s not translated through university fees being paid or items being bought. Pure, nourishing love which reaches your soul is felt from one heart to another.

So let’s make a commitment to ourselves to acknowledge our own past hardships and use the strength those experiences have given to us to affirm our own self worth. Once our cup is full we can pour into our children’s through our language and action; remembering that each child is a spark of divine human creation whose deepest need and soul nourishment is simply to be loved.

Without qualification.

Just as they are.

 

some notes:

*bhaji – a dry spinach curry

** taken from a podcast with Oprah Winfrey named Super Soul Conversations; Elizabeth wrote the hit Eat, Pray, Love

Photo by Hossam M. Omar on Unsplash

Don’t cut your nails on a Saturday

To understand the context of this statement let me tell you a bit about me. I’m a Hindu Gujarati. My father was born in the Indian state of Gujarat and was one of six children whilst my mother was from Kenya and one of seven children. Both grew up with every imaginable hardship – financial, hard discipline, emotional starvation – and their marriage was arranged via elders. There was no dating; they simply saw a photo of each other. Hinduism and Gujarati customs were an everyday part of theirs (and my) childhood; certain days were observed as ‘vegetarian’ or ‘semi vegetarian’ (fish but no meat), certain foods were prepared on particular days and I was completely accustomed to hearing what not to do to avoid bad luck.

The language of Gujarati is my mother tongue but I confess that whilst I can speak it, understand it and read a little, unless I’m speaking to someone (usually) elderly, I default to speaking English even when I’m being spoken to in Gujarati.

My parents brought me up to follow many things (including the nail thing on a Saturday   which effectively reduced my weekend opportunity to get my nails done by more than 50% when you take Sunday trading hours into account). It’s only later in life and especially after I’ve had my own children and am more spiritually inquisitive and aware, that I’ve started to question why we say and do certain things in our culture.

walking the tightrope of luck

The beliefs I was taught were a mix of what I would loosely call religious and cultural. Religious practices included praying, going on pilgrimages and observing key festivals whereas cultural practices would include things like:

  • Not putting the household rubbish out after dark because good fortune would leave through the open door
  • Never leaving a shoe or slipper upturned because it attracted bad luck
  • Not washing your hair for the entire nine months of your pregnancy to protect mother and child from infections (dreadlocks anyone?!)
  • Not tapping/waggling your foot because it invited bad luck
  • Eating a tablespoon of natural yoghurt before an exam for optimum performance

And hundreds more practices like this. To this day, I’ve never found a universally accepted reason for the ones I was taught – or even a rational reason at that.

do as you’re told

I was also taught obedience and that parents are the personification of God so you do as you’re told and don’t challenge – which limited the possibility of conversation around why. Add to that the difficulty of reverence to parents who sometimes behaved in ways that were morally questionable and you get a flavour of the emotionally conflicting and stifling aspect of my childhood which was probably an unwitting resemblance of their own.

I’m forever grateful to my parents for the material sacrifices that they made. Like many parents of their generation, they slogged night and day to create a life for their children which would be far enhanced materially and educationally than their own. This was the dream; this is what they lived for. But, being a parent is about so much more than this too.

parenting through fear vs. love

I don’t believe that being a parent in itself qualifies you for reverence and even if you do achieve this from your children, if it’s motivated by fear then the depth of loving feeling won’t necessarily accompany it.

Respect and admiration from your children is earned; it’s not owed.

For me being a parent is an opportunity to demonstrate those qualities which you value and want to see in your own children – truth in speech and action, acceptance, compassion towards others, manners, promotion of self-worth, tolerance – and so much more.

why?

I’ve come to realise that relatability is everything. Unlike my younger self, I encourage my children to enquire and be inquisitive whether it’s about our culture, the world and everything in between.

I want to leave my children the legacy of my culture in such a way that they treasure it and pass it on for generations to come. But I know the way I was taught to follow things won’t fly with them.

Immersive appreciation – not blind obedience – is the only way forward.

For example, I observe the Sheetala Satam ritual. On this day, we don’t use the cooker (so usually eat cold food) and light a diya (sacred lamp) offering prayers to Goddess Sheetala. There are many stories about why this day is observed; some say it’s about protecting children from chickenpox, others say it’s because back in the day, people only had a basic earthen stove and it was an opportunity to thank God for the resources He’d provided for us to survive. I’m not sure which version is correct but the reason I observe it – and tell my children about it – is because it teaches me humility. In not using the cooker all day I’m reminded how fortunate we are to have the food and resources we do and to be thankful for them.

For me, this is the take home message; it’s relatable and whatever the future brings when I’m no longer around, the message of gratitude and humility is everlasting.

my banned womb

I’m also happy to observe this custom because I’m not harming anyone by practising it.

By comparison, I was recently told that I wasn’t allowed to participate in a traditional  Shrimanth ceremony* (baby shower) because seven years ago I’d suffered a miscarriage (more in my blog Don’t say the ‘M’ word). I couldn’t believe that the same people who comforted me with assurances that my unborn child was actually a gift from God fulfilling their last karma** were now using my miscarriage as a reason to exclude me from being present and joining my family on such a happy occasion – and citing our culture as the reason for this. Apparently, even though I’d successfully delivered two healthy children my earlier miscarriage meant I wasn’t considered whole.

This experience made me question what messages and legacies we want to define our culture for generations to come.

To take someone’s past unfortunate experiences and use them against them isn’t just a sure fire way for future generations to reject our culture, it’s an affront to humanity at its core.

I’m not prepared to subscribe to any aspect of my culture which alienates or denigrates people. To me culture means inclusivity, celebration of heritage and strengthening bonds based on the foundations of mutal love, promotion and pride.

I don’t want to shed my culture, I want to celebrate it but I want to define my culture positively and set practices and beliefs which enhance and promote people and their wellbeing – not use it as a tool to divide.

To me, culture is captured by togetherness and servitude. It’s sharing meals and resources, celebrating each other’s successes, offering a hand when life gets tough and observing customs which tighten this thread of humanity between us.

looking ahead

Future generations won’t accept legendary tales or customs which shun members of the community. We live in an age where children want answers backed up by reasoning or the satisfaction of their innate sense of justice fulfilled. My humble advice? Be prepared to be asked questions and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know but you’ll find out. And when you do get an answer to your question about why you do certain things, pause and ask yourself if you agree with the message you’re conveying to your children.

We are the beholders of how we define our culture to our children – we’re not slaves to following things we don’t want to or don’t agree with just because that’s the way it’s always been done.

When we’re at the crossroads we can choose the ignorant path of fear or the illuminated path of education and enquiry.

In Sanskrit the teacher is known as Guru which translates as the remover of darkness/ignorance – we are the primary teachers of our children so let’s use this empowerment to shed practices which harm others and redefine our culture so that it’s exclusively rich in love, acceptance and service to all.

some explanations:

*also popularly known as Godh bharai/Khodo Bharavo which essentially translates as “filling the lap” of the mother-to-be with abundant good wishes for a safe and healthy delivery.

**In Hinduism it’s believed that the cycle of birth and death continues until all past misdeeds have been compensated for through good action thereby enabling a person to merge with God and be truly free of this world.

Photo from post.jagran.com – image shows seven chillies and a lemon often placed outside homes and businesses and believed to ward off evil