After writing about loving and caring children last week, I thought that I should follow up with an article about loving, caring and responsible parents so as to do justice to them as well.It is a truism that all children have not yet had the opportunity to show their gratitude to their parents but that all parents have had to fulfill their duties towards their children. Their responsibility began even before the children came into the world, as they prepared for the big event of welcoming a newborn into their lives. But it scaled up tremendously as babyhood morphed into childhood, then adolescence with its growing pains and quickly followed by adulthood when they thought it would be over, especially after the child’s marriage. Was it?
Indeed no! As one nursing officer told me several years ago, ‘I thought my job was done when I got my daughter married, doctor! But don’t you believe that! Now that she has resumed work after her maternity leave is over, after a feed and change of nappies in the morning she leaves the little bundle with us, as we are retired, and then we have to do the rest till she picks him up in the afternoon. And you know what, her mother gives her a takeaway also on most days to help her out with dinner.’
If I go by the accounts that I have heard from many a parent, this scenario repeats daily – in our little island at least – in any number of Mauritian households.
All parents work very hard to feed, clothe and educate – to the highest level possible — their children so that they grow into healthy and mature individuals in their own turn. Those at the lower end of the social scale are prepared to do any amount of sacrifice to provide for their child’s needs. Nowadays of course in most families both parents work so as to make ends meet. If the mother is not in a position to take employment for any reason, the father will not be averse to seeking another odd job if available to cover the household expenditures which in these days keep going up and up, especially when educational expenses come into play.
Where it all began
My generation belongs to the time when only the men worked, meaning were the breadwinners, with the women contenting themselves to be housewives. In the 1950s/60s most houses were wooden structures with iron sheet roofs, and the kitchen used to be located at the back of the house. Some were outside the house, and many had a flooring of cow dung. Food was cooked on the chulha or fireplace made of three stones arranged as a U, with firewood being pushed from the open end. A piece of cloth soaked with kerosene used to be lit under the wood to start the fire, which would be kept going by blowing air through a metal phukni, something which we children loved to do as we helped Mama or Dadi who were busy stirring the iron pots or manipulating the dalgotni to churn the dal, cooking and steaming. The smoke used to smart our eyes but we would carry on nevertheless.
As a rule the menfolk used to be fed first. Then we children, after having freshened up and done our sandhya (evening prayer, lighting the diya at the Hanuman shrine outside), would be sat on the floor and be served by Mum and Dadi in the brass thalis. Only after we all were done did they sit to eat whatever was left, for we were the priority. Their day began before sunrise, and as it rolled out it was packed with the numerous chores that had no machinery or gadgets to be speeded up with or to be made easier. So it was hand washing of clothes, on the stones at home or in the river (we used to accompany them during school holidays), and cleaning utensils with coconut straw and ash from the fireplace. Pressing of clothes was by means of an iron heated up by embers filling its hollow inside.
There was not much of prêt-a-porter then, so there was sewing and stitching to be done, of the simpler items of clothing and household needs – hankies, underwear, pyjamas, pillow cases, cushion covers – as well as repair of torn socks which would be stretched over a big shell to ease the task. Cleaning rice and pulses in large vannes, grinding maize using the stone grinder which we used to rotate and then collect the ground maize from the sheet paced underneath – all these and much more made up the daily routine of our womenfolk. And they never complained as far as I remember, they just went on doing what they felt was their bounden duty day in day out, making sure that when the children came home from school there would be something ready for them to eat – maize pudding, or boiled corn, arouille or manioc (which were mostly home grown) with chutney and so on before they got on with the business of cooking the evening meal.
The menfolk’s job, once they were back home, was mainly to discipline children and supervise their schoolwork. Copybooks were inspected and homework checked, often with a ruler in hand as well as sitting with, and correcting and teaching side by side as the work progressed. Good handwriting was a high mark, with overseeing of ‘penmanship’ in double-lined copybooks. Another important feature was covering books with papier gris at the beginning of the school year, and avoiding to mark or otherwise spoil the books because they would have to be passed on to the younger siblings. Parents who themselves had never been schooled could perhaps not assist with homework, but they made sure that it was done and that the required materials were provided, even if not at one go.
The times have changed but…
Although nowadays the context may have changed, with both parents working and gadgets to facilitate chores and make life more comfortable, tending to the children’s needs still involves as much of running around and devoted attention on the part of the parents. The task has become more difficult as families have gone nuclear, with grandparents not being as near at hand to help with the child-rearing, so that the kids have to be dropped at the latter’s home or alternative arrangements made if they too are still working. And then comes the pre-primary and primary school – and the grandparents are again roped in to help, which they are only too happy to do even if that tires them out. Especially during school holidays!
I remember this young lady patient of mine who was a quality control officer in a textile factory. She would be up at 4.30 am to prepare the breakfast for her two kids and husband, pack their lunches and her own, and cook dinner before she would get ready for the pick-up van that came at 7 am. Hubby would get up a little before she left, and then get on with waking the kids, bathing and dressing them up, have breakfast, leave one kid at school and the other one at grandma’s place. The latter would pick the first one from school in the afternoon and take care of both until the father came to take them home on returning from work.
It would be six pm by the time the mother got back, and immediately busy herself with the evening routine of changing the kids before the family would sit for dinner. Afterwards she would spend some time with the kids, overseeing the homework of the school going one. Once they were in bed she would complete some chores, including ironing, watch TV for a while and be in bed by 10 so that she could be up promptly when the alarm rang in the morning to begin the day all over again.
All of us will be familiar with similar stories by the hundreds, of parents whose lives revolve around their children as it’s bound to be, for they have brought them into the world. That does not diminish the hard realities of looking after them all their lives through – for as long as the parents are alive and even if grandchildren have been added, their own children still remain ‘my little kid’: the Creole expressions ‘mo tigarcon’ and ‘mo tifi’ capture this dimension nicely. There’s always an emotional or a material need that will require their presence and support, and their ready willingness to do so with whatever sacrifice is required, to go the extra mile for their protégés and for which they expect nothing in return is the very thread of their existence. In spite of that, who among us can claim never to have heard a child saying, commonly in jest but sometimes with dead seriousness, ‘to panne faire narien pou moi!’ ? – best translated as ‘you ain’t done nothin’ for me!’
Adolescence and early adulthood bring in their own quotas of problems and issues, with peer pressures that children need guidance to steer through. And parents have an equally tough time advising and protecting their children from the many harmful temptations and social ills that prevail in the school and general environment – smoking, alcohol, drugs, violence and so on. Often children think their parents are tracking them when they go out, especially at night. They don’t realise how worried parents are until the child is safely home, and most parents stay awake until this happens. And breathe a sigh of relief! But one day, when they themselves become parents, then they will understand.
And then the time comes for the child to go abroad for studies – and another story begins…