Kya kar rahi ho? Stand up. Sit down. Sleep. Get up. Walk. Lie down. Run. Walk slowly. Stop.
Finish your food, it’s good for you. You are not listening to me, you don’t ever listen to me, what’s wrong with you? You’re making so much noise, you’re always loud. I’m so tired of running after you, can’t you be still for a minute? Look at your brother, he finishes everything on his plate. Learn something from your sister, she never gives me a hard time. I love you so much, but you don’t listen to me. You’re too skinny, eat more. I wonder where you got your big nose from, must be from your father’s side. Good children bathe every day, brush their teeth before sleeping, wake up for school without a fuss, and you? I know you are my sweetheart, but it is so hard to get you to do your homework. God, what a pain it is to make you do anything. I’m so tired, there is never a moment of peace in my life. I have devoted my entire life to you since the day you were born. You make me so sad.
Boys don’t cry. Girls don’t sit like that. Stop shouting. How many times have I told you to greet your grandfather? Stop irritating your aunt, she is our guest. Make sure your grades don’t slip any further, I don’t pay your huge school fee just to see you be an average student. I’m so proud you got a medal in swimming, but bronze? Come on, kid. Look at your cousin how well she is doing at basketball, and you just want to draw pictures. You are too fat, eat less. You’re so dark, must be from your mother’s side. Have you thought about what you want to do when you finish school? Yes, yes, you’re only in grade six, but I need you to understand that I expect you to go to the college I went to. What is wrong with children these days? Don’t you have any respect for money? You think it grows on trees. Buy me this, buy me that, your demands are endless, and never a sign of gratitude. I’m so tired of earning money for such an ungrateful family. I do so much for you, tell me what you have ever done for me. You make me so angry.
The voices overlap, somersault, run parallel, juxtapose, superimpose on one another, contradict, and jostle before taking the form of background music that does not have a stop button. The voices move in a never-ending loop, bouncing along, changing a tune here and there, going off rhythm unobtrusively, sticking to the original theme in a cyclical eternity.
Time passes, faces change, scenarios are replaced with the rapidity of a special effects app working on a green screen, and rules are tweaked once in a while, but the fundamental plot remains untouched. How to raise “good”, “sweet”, “perfectly behaved”, “intelligent” children. How to ensure teenagers are “solid”, “smart”, “focused”, “decent”, “good looking”, “perfectly sized”. How to turn young people in their early twenties into neat replicas of their parents who live in their self-created utopias of self-righteousness, self-fabulousness, self-pity, and self-love. The world of upper middle and elite class of Pakistani parents and their children—of all ages, types, sizes, shapes, sensibilities, personalities, characters, value systems, minds, souls, and those unimportant little things: hearts.
It is not about love and care and devotion and sacrifice. A love-care-devotion-sacrifice-less parent is an anomaly in a world where relationships define and delineate the laws of humanity. It is about attaching a price tag with the most profound of human emotions—parental love. Without a second thought, children become the blank canvas on which parents do everything in their power to draw the perfect picture of an “ideal” being. Showering their children with everything their material statuses allow, telling them how much they mean to them, doing everything to make them feel safe and comfortable, and checking the boxes of good education, a home in the right place, fun holidays, lavish gifts, fancy birthday parties, an endless supply of clothes, toys and high-tech gadgets, and “quality” time with their precious little darlings, they seldom see the truth. Of what they are doing to their children. Unknowingly. Consciously. Reluctantly. Constantly. Sheepishly. Unabashedly. Without changing their ways.
They do it all in the name of love. The constant—often subliminal, mostly it-is-my-duty-as-a-parent-to-teach-my-child-the-right-thing—negativity permeates everything they do. They don’t see it as negativity, as anything they shouldn’t be doing. Their narcissism is thinly masked in only-I-know-what-is-best-for-you jibes. When children—from the time they have the capability to have their own thoughts enunciated in their unique ways to when they are young adults—speak, their parents seldom hear them beyond the superficial effect of their words. Children are hugged but not understood. Children are pampered but not encouraged to be what they want to be. Children are gifted costly things but are rarely supported for their real passions. The gaslighting. There is always something to prove. You are never good enough. The endless need to have a “perfect” child supersedes the essentiality to love a child for what they truly are.
The mental abuse, the emotional battering, that is seldom discussed, painstakingly cloaked. The constancy of “no” looms over the existence of even the most-loved children, teenagers, young adults. Don’t eat this. Don’t shout. Don’t slouch. Don’t stay up late. Don’t listen to that song. Don’t play this game. Don’t hang out with that child. Don’t miss your prayers. Don’t stay out late. Don’t be outdoors too much. Don’t be in your room all the time. Don’t study creative writing. Don’t wear this shirt. Don’t keep your hair long. Don’t get your hair dyed. Don’t eat so much. Don’t eat so little. Don’t eat so much pizza. Don’t eat paratha. Don’t play football. Don’t read all the time. Don’t be glued to your PlayStation. Don’t waste your smartness to pursue the subject you may think you love but is totally worthless in terms of a future career. Don’t waste hours working out. Don’t even think of becoming a writer. Don’t apply to that college. Don’t think that way. Don’t share your secrets with anyone. Don’t support that ideology. Don’t be with that girl. Don’t marry that man. Don’t love the person we don’t approve of. Don’t live the way you want to. Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.
Carefully wrapped in never-ending love and concern, the no—for the good or the bad, for the right or the wrong, for the important or the trivial—makes a million little cuts in the soul of a child, a teenager, a young adult.
The cuts, unseen, untreated, fester into anger, feelings of inadequacy, of never being good enough, eating disorders, anxiety, substance abuse, self-doubt, fear of abandonment, body image issues, alienation, insensitivity to others’ pain, desire to fit in and always fearful of failure, cruelty, verbal and physical abuse, depression, and deep tendencies of self-harm.
Loving your children and teaching them to be good human beings is an indispensable part of being a parent. What is it that distinguishes a parent devoted to the inner strengthening of their child’s character while validating their most important traits and ensuring that they are heard and paid attention to from a parent whose entire existence is focused on raising an “ideal” minnie-me version of themselves? The line is blurred, but the sparkle in the eyes of the child who without the constant background beats of “no” is loved and respected and is taught the beautiful values of honesty, sensitivity, empathy, inclusivity, responsibility, and decency, and is allowed to follow their heart is the biggest gift for a parent who didn’t impose their incomplete dreams, unfulfilled wishes, and broken selves on their child.
Your child is not an “extension” of you. Your child is your love shaped in its own unique, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable, priceless specialness. Loving a “perfect” child is a parental trope. Loving your imperfect child in their full humanness—flawed, fabulous, real, warm, kind, excelling at what they love, occasionally flailing and failing, honest, constantly learning, generous, sensitive, responsive, making mistakes, making wrong choices, introspective, figuring out life if as it happens—is your best gift to yourself.
To my son Musa.
To every imperfectly beautiful child, teenager, young adult.