10 July 2012

On crossing the generational great divide

Something I wrote about children and reading, being a child and being a parent, reading and being read, learning and teaching, elicited a response from a reader who believes that the generation gap can be bridged only by compromising and understanding each other’s desire to experience something new.  Wise words.
He also quoted from the feature article published by BBC Inside Out on September 8, 2003:  "Growing up is never easy and the teenage years are always particularly fraught. Puberty, pimples and parents are a source of constant embarrassment whilst life for enthusiastic gardening grandparents seems like a breeze......But step over to the other side of the fence and you get a whole new perspective"

It brought to mind another ‘reader-write’, Renton De Alwis’ comment on some reflections I had penned on roads and traveling.  I asked a question: ‘Do you remember the trees that were cut to make way for the road that takes you from here to there to everywhere and nowhere?’  Renton observed that roads look very different when you walk in the direction opposite to that you took.

It also reminded me of a piece of Native American wisdom, where it is recommended that one does not stop to judge another until one has walked in that person’s shoes for 7 miles; ‘shoe’ and ‘distance’ being of course metaphors.  It is never easy though.  In the case of ‘figuring out’ a parent or a child, histories get in the way, role-requirements inhibit us and proximity can deny us perspective. 

Reading the observation that was forwarded to me, I remembered a conversation I had with my father many years ago.  This was when I told him I wanted to get married.  He didn’t say ‘no’ straightaway.  He said ‘you are too young’.  I had a refutation: ‘You were 26 when you got married, so was Ammi.  Aiya was also 26 when he got married and so was Nangi. I am 28. I am old.’  Years later I figured that this was his way of saying that he didn’t think it would work. It did not, but that’s another story.  Even later I came to the conclusion that he would be hard pressed to be ‘yessing’ about any potential marriage partner for any of his children. 

There was a time when I think he was so worried that I would not get into campus (I had got 3 B’s and an F in my second shy) that he tried to get me to sign up for various other courses (computer programming, ICMA – the previous avatar of CIMA, and the Law Entrance).  I was confident about having scored more than 25 for my ‘F’ and had resolved to sit the A/Ls a third time if I didn’t get selected. He didn’t understand me.  I didn’t understand him.  There was a time when I would go to bed the moment I heard him walking into the house and pretend to be asleep and get up only when I was sure he had gone to bed. I didn’t particularly enjoy conversations with him. 

There are periods like that.  We talk past each other.  Our children don’t understand us and we don’t know what they are talking about.  It’s all very awkward from beginning to end, although ‘awkwardness’ can take different forms.  Things we can’t talk about at certain points become easy later on, but there are new no-no things.  There is role-reversing as well, as parents grow older and more dependent.  I don’t know how it is for a parent to be dependent on a son, what kind of thoughts go through mind, what feelings through heart.  I know I am dependent on my daughters, 9 and 7, but that’s a different kind of dependency.  All I know is that looking back some of my ‘demands’ from my parents were unreasonable and that some of the excuses they trotted out for not meeting them were illogical but this did not mean that the denials were unjustified. It was all coming from love and a need to protect and knowing more, having lived more and therefore being more aware of danger. 

The other side of the fence is not inaccessible, but sometimes we forget where the entrance is and sometimes we see ‘fence’ as an insurmountable wall. Sometimes we make the dividing lines harsh, not because we want to but out of arrogance and ignorance.  And, one might add, ironically, out of love.  We build walls with words. We build walls with silence. We build them by being absent and by being present.  There’s no comprehensive handbook for parenting.  It’s 90% on-the-job training, I feel.  Each child is different and the eldest usually suffer from the reality that their parents are doing it for the first time.  It’s ‘new’ the moment they are conceived, ‘new’ when they are birthed, when they are one year old, when they go to school, when they reach puberty and the difficult teenage years, when they get into university, get lost in the intersections of philosophical conditions and heart-needs, when they get married, when they have their first child, when they retire (if the particular parents are still around when this happens).  Subsequent progeny have the slight benefit over the first-borns because throughout their growing and becoming their parents are in been-there-seen-this mode. 

So we blunder along as did our parents.  They were not perfect and neither will we be.  We can prescribe better for someone else’s child, some other fellow parent than we can for our own children and ourselves, respectively.  But what was shared with me gives me hope.  Crawling into a child’s mind and heart is never easy, but it is not impossible because we were all children at one time and there is, as is often pointed out, a child that died and one that lives on within all of us.  We can listen, if we want to. We won’t hear it all and will not hear it right, but hearing something is better than being oblivious to a child’s voice, his/her complaint, demand and rant.  We might not have the right words, we might not know the right way to show love and concern, i.e. in ways that are appreciated and not taken the wrong way, but we can try and hope that the heart’s honesty will take word and silence to heart and mind in a language that our children can make sense of, even if they do not understand fully.

That day, when we were having this conversation about the right age to get married, I remember blurting out: ‘I want to get married so I can have children; I want to have children so that I can figure you out!’ 

It was a debating point. Harsh. As a parent now, I know it was unnecessary.  I know too that my father’s silence then was not necessarily admission of defeat, but a knowing and indulgent silence. One made of love. 

We can’t cross all fences, especially since we sometimes don’t even recognize them, are unaware that we’ve crossed them and even when we do so, we sometimes don’t have the eyes to see what’s on the other side.  We can try. We can hope.  And nothing can stop us from loving our children.  And appreciating our parents.  Except ourselves.



Ramzeen Azeez said...

Methinks that the eldest gets the best deal because the parents being new to the experience will ask and take a lot of advice from every available source. When the second comes along the novelty has worn off and No.2 perhaps senses this and becomes more demanding but ultimately soldiers on by him'herself. They usually become tough-nuts, know exactly what they want and go out for it and get it! Whilst the eldest remains a "baba" the other is the opposite.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

I am a 'second'. :)