Monthly Archives: June 2009

What’s In A School, Anyway?

Before we started doing the rounds of the schools trying to get the twins in, I wasn’t very concerned about school. I didn’t believe it was necessary to get them into the “best” school. As far as I was concerned, any school that was middle of the range would do. What did “best” mean, anyway?

To me, when it comes to schools, “best” would probably mean a large school, with enormous grounds, good sports facilities, and generally excellent infrastructure. That means clean toilets, well-equipped science labs, plenty of extra-curricular activities which are given sufficient priority. And, very importantly, well-paid staff. I’d expect teachers to like their subjects, enjoy teaching, and to encourage curiosity and questioning in students. In my experience as a student, it is difficult, but not impossible, to find teachers like that.

I didn’t aspire, necessarily, to the “best” school for my children. I don’t quite know why. Perhaps because these schools tend to be expensive, and hence elitist. I would want my kids to know and mix with people from different economic and cultural backgrounds, to realize that every birthday doesn’t have to be celebrated at McDonald’s, or, worse, TGIF.

Perhaps because I don’t really believe that it is important to always get the “best” for your children; rather it’s important to get them what is good enough, so that they are not brought up in an altogether exalted environment. They should be able to deal with everyday realities like things breaking – literally or figuratively.

I also felt that, even if they weren’t in the “best” school, they’d learn enough at school to be going on with. Whatever they didn’t learn in school, in terms of values, communication skills, social graces and the like, I was willing to risk betting that we could teach them at home. And in terms of just academics, I wasn’t too concerned. As long as I can teach them to be regular, disciplined, conscientious, and, hopefully, interested, the rest would follow. Besides, I’m not worried about them coming first or second in class – as long as they genuinely learn and have fun. What I’d rather see them doing in school, is making friends, learning to interact, learning to play, learning to question and find answers, learning to win and lose and laugh and cry. In other words, learning to live.

For that, I figured, a good enough school would be good enough.

But then we got caught up in the usual rat race of admission and hearing from others about how great this, that, or the other school was. And suddenly “best” became whatever everyone else was talking about. In fact, from what I could make out, “best” came to mean “most difficult to get in to”.

By that definition, our kids have gotten into one of the “best” schools. This school is so “best” that people either swoon over it, or have never heard of it. You know the type – like the restaurants you can only go to by invitation: you’re either dying to get in there (because it is so damn difficult to actually get invited), or you’ve never heard of it. Only a privileged handful have ever actually been inside.

On the inside, though, I’m not sure that it’s really very different. It’s a school, it has classrooms, teachers, students. This school does not have the facilities that would make it rate as “best” by my definition. The main playground, for instance, is a public playground shared with another school and, in theory, open for strangers to walk in to.

All the same, I have no real complaints with their new school right now. I liked the interaction, as I mentioned earlier, and I vehemently disliked the interaction at another school which had the most impressive facilities. (For the record, no, the twins didn’t actually get in there. But, also for the record, I was railing against their admission process right at the time it happened, and we didn’t find out until much later that they hadn’t gotten in, so it wasn’t a matter of sour grapes.) I like the Montessori set up here, to whatever extent I’ve seen so far, and the kids’ teachers seem to be nice. I’ve watched the older kids at Assembly when I go to drop the kids in the morning, and I really like the way they do Assembly too. But, judging by the number of kids at Assembly, this really is a small school. So no – by my definition, this school would rate as decent, pretty good, but not in the “best” category. Probably not worth paying over-the-top fees for, nor commuting 40 minutes each way for. I’d want to keep those burdens for one of the more stereotypical convent schools in the heart of town, where acres of playground and a swimming pool are included in the school premises.

Not that I’d even dream of changing their school now that they’ve started. But what I’m really wondering about is, what differentiates ok, from good, from best? Is it one’s own priorities and expectations of a school, or is it just what everyone else says about a school? And is it worth the effort of huge fees and long distances just to get your kids into a school that is on other people’s “best” list?

I Can’t Even Blame This On The Flu

I hate this feeling.

The twins have completed two weeks at school. They seem to be ok. Their role reversal is complete now, I think, with Mrini taking off her shoes and going happily into class, while Tara clings to my legs and wails. I think she’s ok the moment I leave, so I leave promptly, with a smile and a wave. The teacher reports that they are fine. Yesterday, apparently, at break, Tara went and grabbed some chips (wafers) from another kid, then ran and gave half to Mrini. They both sat and ate them together, then Tara went off and stole some more. Gosh, I have to tell them not to steal food! The teacher was thoroughly amused and said it’s ok and that the other girl didn’t even notice. But still.

This week, they’ve been staying for the full session – 8.30-12 noon. They don’t seem to get exceptionally tired or anything. It’s a different story for their mother and chauffeur, though. I’ve only done half of the ten drop-and-pick-up trips per week this week, and I’ve already clocked up 100 km. We’ve been discussing buying a new car, but at this rate, what I need is a new me. Or, at least, I need to get them on to that school bus.

What age is the right age for a school bus? Is below three too soon? Probably, but it depends on who’s doing the driving. Ask the driver, and even two-and-a-half is none too soon. It’s not just about the actual driving – it’s about spending close to three totally non-productive hours every day sitting in a car, stuck in traffic, keeping up an inane flow of conversation with the kids half the time (the other half, even they aren’t there) while fretting about whatever else you could be doing if you weren’t doing this.

On the other hand, it’s difficult for the mother in me to accept that the twins will be just fine in a school bus. I worry that they won’t know where they’re going and what they will find when they get there. I worry that they’ll cry, or want to go to the toilet, and there’ll be nobody to help them. I worry that they’ll feel lost and scared and alone.

But, will I ever really get used to this drop-and-pick-up-ten-times-every-week routine? Will I ever be able to manage it easily?

Yesterday, for instance, was just crazy. I had to go for a meeting for some potential documentation work that I might get (or have got, actually). It was pretty much on the way to their school, but what with tennis before that, and walking home with a carton of 10 litres of milk after that… well, I was really tired by lunch time. Then I didn’t sleep well last night, and was awake by 5 a.m. this morning (though my alarm is set only for 5.45, so I wasted a good 45 minutes of sleep), feeling, if possible, even more tired than when I went to sleep last night.

Yeah, I know… I’m a mother now, this is what I signed up for.

But then things suddenly got worse.

See, I dressed the girls and sent them off to school with their clips in their hair, shoes on their feet, school bags with spare clothes and water bottles packed… and I forgot to pack their tiffin boxes! I mean, I had the damn tiffin boxes ready to go, but I left them lying on the kitchen counter. And I saw them as soon as I got home.

What are my poor girls going to do at break??? I feel terrible. Only two weeks and I’ve already come to this! What’s even worse is that I’m sitting here and stuffing my face with breakfast while I type. What kind of a mother am I? I’m a monster mother. I should actually have driven straight back to their school with the blasted tiffin boxes, but I’m just too tired to even seriously consider the idea. I’ll take them when I go to pick the girls up, and they can eat it then, but what are they going to do when all the other kids are eating? Steal food, again? They’ll be hungry by then, too, because of course they don’t eat much breakfast at 6.30 a.m.

So I’m feeling totally lousy – sorry-for-myself, tired, and guilty, all at once.

Sigh. If I’m not the world’s worst mother yet, I’m working my way up the ladder pretty quickly I think.

The Secluded Crib

The twins had a bunch of clothes that they’d outgrown, and I wanted to give them away (the clothes, not the twins – do I have to clarify that?). I phoned around to various NGOs (that means charitable organizations), starting with the Red Cross. Guess what? Nobody wants old clothes. Not even if they are in decent condition. And these clothes are ok-ish. My kids would still be wearing them if they hadn’t grown out of them.

I would have thought that we, in India, surely have enough people who live in conditions of such abject poverty that used clothes in good condition given away free would not be spurned. If we don’t, if our poor people are well-clothed enough to be able to turn up their noses at cast-off clothing, it would be a good thing. It would indicate, surely, that all our people are well fed – because only after they had spent whatever they could on getting sufficient food, would they spend on new clothes and only then would they spurn used clothes. Or only after all the charitable organizations had ensured that the people they looked after had enough to eat, would they spend money buying them new clothes. Surely? Or do we have well-dressed people in this country who are poor and starving? One meal a day, but wearing new clothes, not rags?

What about victims of natural disasters who have lost everything? Those who were not particularly well-off to begin with, who had no bank accounts? Do they also not need or want somebody else’s clothes? Not even for their children, who are hardly likely to fuss, or even know the difference? Or do they have good clothes for their children already? Are there so many people and organizations sponsoring new clothes for the needy that old clothes are really just not needed?

Or, what I think is more likely, are these NGOs not even reaching the really needy people? Are they providing for the haves, not for the have-nots? I’ve seen slum kids in the cities dressed in rags. Haven’t you? Ok, let’s not talk about beggar kids – we know it’s a racket and they’re made to dress in rags, and who’d want to give money to well-dressed kids. But slum kids are those who have parents, families, food, perhaps, but not clothes – at least, not much. At any rate, what they do wear falls far short of the kind of stuff I’m looking to give away. Does nobody want to take the clothes that more fortunate kids have outgrown and pass them on to these unfortunate kids?

I don’t really understand it.

But, after some phoning around, I did find an orphanage willing – not overly eager, mind you, but willing, almost as though they were doing me a favour – to take the clothes. So off I went to deliver them.

As I was leaving, I noticed a small, secluded crib hanging near the gate. It had a built-on roof. There was a bell attached to the roof. Suddenly, I realized that it was there for parents – mothers mostly, I suppose – to put their “unwanted” babies and disappear.

The realization gave me goosebumps.

Whether it is ever really used like that any more, or whether it’s largely symbolic, I don’t know. But the fact remains that mothers do leave their babies, it happens all the time. I can’t bring myself to believe that they throw them in the gutter in a completely callous manner. Surely they tuck them up carefully, whisper goodbye, pray that their child will survive, somehow, maybe even flourish. I thought of someone leaving her child in the crib, ringing the bell, scurrying out before anyone saw her, hiding, watching, crying. Oh, very Hindi-film-ish, but suddenly it just touched a raw nerve in me.

Our girls were left like that. Not in a crib at an orphanage, they were left at the hospital where they were born. That’s just as bad, or worse. I’ve known this since we got them, but it suddenly became too real to me. I found myself crying as I walked away from there.

It’s stupid, of course. I, of all people, should be happy there are mothers who leave their children. That’s how childless people like us get ours. But I look at my girls with their cheeky smiles and their bright eyes and I think of them left there, symbolically in that secluded crib… and I have no words for what I feel.

One Week At School

Gawwwwd.

It’s only been a week since the kids started school… and I don’t know about them, but I’m tired. TIRED, actually, is more like it. No wonder many moms who do this make a full-time job out of it. And as for those who have full-time jobs as well, I think they have something in their genes that I just wasn’t born with.

All these days, we used to moan when the kids woke us up between 6.30 and 7.00. Now, I get to wake them up at 6.00. Is this fun for me? No! I don’t want to wake up at 6.00 either, unless it’s for tennis. And getting two sleepy kids to get out of bed, show some signs of life, and drink their milk is clearly not tennis. Not even close.

So we manage to somehow leave the house a little after 8.00 (and from next week, we’ll have to make that 7.30!). We reach their school around 8.40, which is just in time for class at 9.00. Well, it takes that much time to get their hair combed and clipped neatly (well, passably, at least), to get their shoes on, and to get them both to use the toilet. So at 9.00 I leave them to it and rush off – either home, or to waste time and run errands. Having done two hours of wasting time/driving/running errands, I’m back to pick them up at 11.00. By 12-ish we’re home, and I get them changed and get their lunch ready. By 1.30 or so, I can breathe… but not for long. I’m tired already, but I can’t stop now. This is supposed to be ‘my’ time – the time I get to get some of my own stuff done. Reading, writing, studying, or even a bit of work, if I happen to have some. So I grab my lunch and sit down in front of my computer and hardly even notice what I’m eating (which is just as well because usually it’s quite foul anyway). An hour or so later, just as I’m getting into the thick of things, one of the two bedroom doors creaks or groans open and there she is, all bright and smiling. She wants to talk, to sing, to play, to do mischief. But most of all, she wants me – whichever “she” it might be.

So I shut down the computer with half-formed thoughts in half-saved files and devote myself to the two devils and the next thing I know, it’s 8 p.m. The twins are in bed, the cook has come, cooked, and hopefully gone, and it’s time for me to eat dinner and watch some TV or read a book. Work? Violin? Exercise?

Naaaaaah… too tired, too hungry, can’t concentrate now.

Ok, I’m not entirely complaining. Parts of me want to go back to work, but mostly I’ve put that on hold for at least a year or so. Because, if I have to rush around like mad all day even without the work, how could I possibly fit that in? And some parts of what I’m doing now are – really – precious. Like, driving them to and from school and having to sing to them ALL the way – it’s tiring, it’s boring, it’s maddening, but… it’s good, too.

And like watching them for a few moments in school, when they can’t see me and they don’t know I’m there. Seeing the clips on their small heads bobbing around as they sit engrossed in some task or activity. Having them come running, smiling, to me and hug my legs when they see me. Amit hasn’t seen that yet, he hasn’t been there, so only I know what he’s missing. He’s globe-trotting, and making a great career for himself, but look what he’s missing.

There is some frustration in seeing time fly past and seeing how little I manage to achieve out of it. But, on the whole, I think the frustration of struggling to do justice to your work (and I’d want to do at least that, if not more, if I had a job) and seeing your kids’ growing-up years flashing past without being able to properly be a part of it, and probably the stress of just trying always to be in two places at the same time, physically or otherwise… I think those frustrations and the regrets that go with them would be much worse for me. I admire other moms who do this and retain their balance, but I don’t think I can be one of them right now. For me, the challenge is simpler – or at least smaller. How can I still be me? How can I keep some time and space for me? How can I avoid the other trap of being all mother and no person at all? How can I still be a person I’d find interesting to meet and talk to?

I feel like I’m already not that person any more.

Next week, their school timings will be extended to 8.30-12 noon, so that should give me a good chunk of morning hours to accomplish stuff. I also have to be more firm with myself about not doing errands ALL the TIME. I want to devote one morning a week to errands and spend the other mornings doing things that I really want to be doing. So maybe next week things will get better.

Or maybe things will never get better unless I decide to make them better.

Perhaps the first thing is not to give up wanting to be a person, not to slide into being just a mother. Sometimes, it’s so tiring that it’s easier to just let go of the other stuff.

Then again, maybe that’s the influenza speaking.

I Wish I Could Stop Breathing…

Oh, not for good… I am feeling a bit sorry for myself, but I’m not that far gone… yet…

It’s just this stupid cold (I mean flu) which Sup33 & Co didn’t give me.

I discovered only today that a cold is not the same as the flu (I always thought cold = flu = viral, but I am only partly right, it seems), and that what I have right now is the flu. Flu, says Wikipedia, is more severe than a cold, comes with fever on the side (not onion rings or fries), and is marked by a sudden onset, while a cold builds up gradually. Apparently both are viral though. So why the doctor has put me on antibiotics, I don’t know, but I suppose that’s what doctors do best.

On Thursday, when I took the girls to school, they seemed ok, so I decided to wait outside the class. For about 20 minutes, all was fine. Then Tara started to cry and the rest of the one-hour session was chaos. She refused to sit in class at all and would only be pacified by being allowed to play in the sandpit, which, apparently, was ok with the teachers. I was impressed with that. (Naturally, Mrini wouldn’t stay in class for more than 2 minutes without her beloved twin – no matter what enticements were offered.) So the rest of the session was spent somewhat sulkily in the sandpit, with only the last few minutes being spent back in the classroom.

On Friday morning, I was already coming down with the flu, and what’s more, I had to spend the entire school session in class with the kids, to prevent a fresh outburst of tears and dramatics.

Saturday passed in a haze, with Amit struggling to manage all the household tasks and prepare for an official trip abroad, while I whined and snoozed.

And now he’s gone. It’s Sunday, my household help (the paid ones) are off, and the kids are home all day. So I have to single-handedly bathe them, feed them, play with them, cook for them… All that fun stuff, you know.

And tomorrow is Monday and I have to drive them to school bright and early in the morning – apparently they have been shifted to 9-11 a.m. instead of 11-12 noon as it was so far. And I’m not to be allowed into the classroom “even if they cry”.

In case you think, by now, that this whole post is about how I’ve got the flu and how lousy that is, let me tell you, that isn’t what this is about at all. No, really. It’s about how I want to stop breathing for a while, and why.

See, what with my better half at the other end of the globe and the twins still trying to get used to school all over again, what I really don’t need right now is for either of them to come down with what I’ve got. Can’t I just imagine it: driving to school to deposit one wailing kid all alone in class while the other kid, sick, accompanies me on the drive both ways but doesn’t get to actually go anywhere. Not to mention all the fever, body ache and all that stuff that they will have to suffer. Not to mention that just as soon as one gets well the other will certainly fall ill.

So, I really, really don’t want them to get it. To the extent that I’m actually washing my hands with soap about 25 times a day, in the hope that that will help.

Actually, I don’t want to pass it on to anyone else in my inner circle either – not 8-month pregnant Shaba-aunty, not park friends (of either generation), not the twins’ school mates and teachers, not even, retrospectively, the traveling spouse who, if he gets fever, will probably be immediately isolated on suspicion of swine flu. None of this would be nice.

Which is why, while I don’t want to stop breathing for good or anything – it would be great if I could stop for just a few days till I get this virus out of my system. Oh and, while the breathing is suspended, please god, could you hold off on all that coughing, sneezing, and snuffling business too? Not too much to ask, is it? Thank you so much.

School, At Last

So, off they went to school again. It was pretty smooth on the whole. We reached early (the given time was 11), and found their class without any trouble. It was in a state of utter chaos, occasionally reduced to momentary silence by the tinkling of a small handheld bell. There were, at a rough count, 25 moving bodies in the room, not counting adults. Adults consisted of three teachers and another mother apart from yours truly.

While the twins gradually found their feet (and hands), I watched the other kids. There were separate short sessions for reading books, singing songs, a circle game (rolling the mat), picture cards, a prayer (in Sanskrit!), and individual activity. Some interaction between kids was tolerated, but not when it became disruptive.

The facilitators (in the Montessori system, you don’t call them teachers) were quite patient and firm with the kids, but also allowed a great deal of latitude. Mrini and Tara both wanted to sit on a sort of low table, which, evidently, was not intended to be sat on. The facilitator, S-aunty, told them both not to, and tried to persuade them to sit on the mat on the ground, but didn’t force the issue.

At any rate, the twins seemed quite comfortable. They watched the other kids, picked some toys themselves, and joined in the picture card group activity. They even used the toilet twice, without incident. (To my relief, it was spanking clean, at least at that particular point in time.) When I stepped out of the room towards the later part of the session, they weren’t in the least bit put out. And, on the way back in the car, they expressed every desire to go back tomorrow. I suppose that’s the most one can hope for.

For my part, I’m eagerly waiting for their school timings to get extended to the full session: 8.30-12.30. That way, I’ll probably have to do the drive twice, drop and pick up, and come all the way home in-between, to spend two whole hours in an empty house. But this way, though only half as much driving, means that I wind up spending practically the whole morning on this school expedition, which is already highly frustrating.

The Six Degrees Of Separation

I’ve read about how parents of multiples need to spend significant 1:1 time with each of their kids. And about how multiples, if not carefully monitored and directed, tend to develop an unhealthy degree of togetherness and dependence on each other; that they don’t develop fully as individuals; that, in order for them to be healthy, happy, independent adults, they have to be given opportunities to be apart; and that one way of giving them this ‘opportunity’ is to separate them in school. I’ve written before of how I feel on that matter, but I’ve been wondering, of late, just how much separation is enough.

I’ve somewhat arbitrarily allocated six separate degrees of separation, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the usual connotation of the terms “Six Degrees of Separation”.

1: Multiples who spend a few minutes spent apart from each other, everyday or a few times a week. This separation is likely to be largely unplanned and inevitable. Example: one kid wakes up before the other, or one kid has to go to the doctor, or both parents are engaged in some activity, one with each child.

2: Multiples who routinely sleep separately: which means, falling asleep, sleeping, and waking up in separate rooms (not simply separate cribs or beds in the same room).

3: Multiples who spend significant time apart, everyday or most days. This could just be time spent in different areas of the house, or could be time spent on separate activities that take them out of the house, such as sports or music lessons. To differentiate it from the first degree of separation, it would have to be at least an hour or so spent apart everyday. It’s difficult to visualize this as an unplanned separation, specially if it is a regular occurrence.

4: Multiples who have separate schedules; or, no schedule. Multiples have few overlap in their daily schedules and activities on most or all days. This could include any or all activities in the house, such as sleeping, eating, bathing, playing etc, and maybe even separate activities outside the house, such as sports sessions, playgroups etc. (Personally, I can’t imagine how parents survive this; I’d go crazy in a week.)

5: Multiples who are in separate sections in school, or, worse still, separate schools. This, of course, could be initiated by the multiples themselves, or by their parents; or it might be mandatory due to external regulations or laws.

6: Multiples who live in separate homes. This is the saddest of all. Adoption laws in India prohibit siblings from being separated. But I don’t know if divorce laws do, too. In any case, this might happen if parents live separately, for any reason, or if multiples are sent to separate (for instance, boy/girl) boarding schools.

Out of these six degrees, in my opinion, the first is inevitable and harmless, perhaps even useful; and the sixth is tragic. Most of the in-between levels are functions of preference and convenience (parental, usually), and also a function of the age of the kids. My twins, now almost three, are comfortable with the first degree of separation and a bit of the second degree. They sleep separately in the afternoon, though nights apart are rare.

My girls might opt for – or indicate readiness for – the third and fifth degree of separation, as they grow older and discover different interests. At the right age and stage of development, I don’t think there’s any harm in that, and it is even to be encouraged. What I would not be happy about, is if that choice were to be made for them, without considering their opinion. (And if you’re thinking that, at 3, they can hardly have an opinion in the matter… well, you’d have to meet my kids to know.)

For my part, I hope they never opt for completely out-of-sync food and sleep schedules, as indicated in the fourth degree of separation. I’ll certainly do my best to keep them on largely ‘normal’ (and in-sync) schedules, but if they do ultimately want to adopt completely different schedules, I’ll have to give in with good grace, I suppose. I only hope they’re teenagers by then.

As for the sixth degree of separation: naturally, multiples have to learn to live away from each other in their adult lives. The question is when and how they learn this. If it comes naturally, in the course of their education and career choices, and if they themselves have a say in the decision, then it is a positive development. But, if the separation comes about as a result of external causes and is not a decision in which the multiples have any say at all… that’s sad.