This article is a comprehensive overview and analysis of the book “Unparenting,” authored by Reema Ahmad. It delves into the book’s themes, structure, and key messages, highlighting the author’s perspective on parenting and the unique approach presented in the book.
With what expectations does a reader pick up a book on parenting? As a parent-reader, I would confess that the choice is filled with considerable exhilaration and a certain amount of dread. Exhilaration arrives at the prospect of finding a book that might just turn out to be the one we have been waiting for — a friend who will understand our journey, loyally accompany us through it, and gently wash away the perplexities in our heart filling it with the promise of assurance. There is, however, also and equally, a lurking sense of dread. What if the book and I do not pass each other’s test? What if we do not get on well? What if the book turns out to be a harsh critic cancelling out all my past experiences and demanding that I start anew?
In case of a subject like parenting, such dreads can only be an understatement for this is a terrifying field and no less for the fact that it abounds in advice. Here, as every parent realizes, is scope for anyone to step in, pronounce judgement, and offer a piece of their mind on whether the children that they see around them are being well brought up or not, whether someone is an efficient parent or not, and how children and parameters of discipline have changed for the worse from what they used to be till a few years ago.
In parks, playgrounds, airport lounges, trains, buses, shops, schools, hospitals, restaurants and virtually everywhere, kids are judged for their behaviour and performance by virtually every watching eye and their parents, whether absent or present, are sternly evaluated on the basis of the acceptability or otherwise of such behaviour. Advice on child-rearing comes from all sorts of ideological camps – gender, race, age, class, religion, culture, sexuality, ableism and so on. However, such advice rather than being normalized, should be called out for its prejudices for raising a child is no ordinary business and as Reema Ahmad points out, “Mothers and fathers, families, schools, media, culture, neighbours and neighbourhoods – all these together make our children what they are.”
In the context of all this, what would the act of unparenting mean? As a parenting guide, Unparenting talks of parenting albeit with a difference. The difference lies in its elimination of the essential hierarchy that empowers the parent in the traditional parent-child relationship. As in the case of the divine right of kings, in many cultural discourses round the world and in India particularly, the parents as progenitors are vested with unquestionable authority. Unparenting seeks to disturb this authority and to reveal it for what it is – a power that is vacuous, unneeded and mostly destructive.
As a parenting manual, Unparenting is valuably different. Compared to a host of other books that tackle the subject, here the conversation around parenting is deeply personal and showers as much attention and concern on the parent as it does on the child, thus calling for a more humane understanding of parents, parenting, and parenthood. It is as much a book about parents needing to grow into full responsible individuals in order to handle the pitfalls and complexities of parenthood as it is about the effective emotional growth of children. Importantly, it also underlines the circularity of roles – today’s children will be tomorrow’s parents and need to be brought up responsibly because “what we have imbibed in our own younger years has the power to shape how we demonstrate relationships as parents”.
Authored by a single-mother who is also a trained psychologist and an experienced relationship coach, the book offers a very nuanced perspective on parenting ideas, amply emphasizing that a parent is always an act of becoming and one that deeply unites the disparate locations of our experience and behaviour. Parenting is not simply a role that we take up and fit into. Nor is it a task that can be placed in isolation from the rest of what we do the day through. Parenting is a process that is determined by our personal reactions as individuals to the world around us and to perform this act better, we might need to re-negotiate our relationship with the world:
To help us heal, we need to forgive both ourselves and others and rewire some of the unhealthy ways of being in relationships we may have learned as children. In consciously desisting from bequeathing dependence and rancour, we can model graceful ‘relationshipping’ for our children.
Parenting is, most often, bewildering, highly chaotic, confusing, anxiety-ridden, and contingent, and yet, its everyday performance is reflective of the way in which we make peace with ourselves and a difficult world. It is an expression of our deepest selves, of who we are, how we perceive life, and of the larger social role that we envisage for ourselves and our children. While there is a whole myth around parenthood structured by religion, culture and capitalism that makes it appear fulfilling to be a parent, the reality is mostly far from appearance.
In Unparenting, Reema does not hesitate to make a statement for the unlikeable or the odious, to call a spade a spade, or to discuss grey, unaddressed areas within the parent-child relationship. Many of our parenting dilemmas and failures stem from cultural misconceptions and prejudices that run almost in our blood — a complete disavowal of boundaries, the non-recognition of children’s entitlement to space, freedom and decision-making, and the insistence on taboos that shoves subjects like romance, intimacy, sex and divorce under the carpet. This model of parenting that most of us have inherited from society needs to be unlearned for “…when we understand and practise parental love as the freedom to punish and care at whim and without control, we pass on only our fractured sense of belonging to our children. And these children then pass on this generational trauma, anger and grief to their children; a devastating legacy of parental love that is confusing at best and violent at its worst.”
The book begins with an insightful introduction and is neatly structured into ten chapters that introduce ideas which are vital but scarcely discussed with children in a healthy way – Body Safety and Abuse Awareness, Bodily Curiosity and Discovery, Puberty, Sex and Reproduction, Bullying, Relationships, Love and Dating, Single Parents and Dating, Separation and Divorce, Loss and Grief, and Emotions and Mental Health. Not all of these, it can be argued, apply equally to every child but at some point or other in their lives, most children will confront these issues and their responses will be influenced by their childhood understanding of them as transmitted by their parents.
We live in an age that sickens us with easy access to information on almost everything. To ensure that all this jumbled information, much of which is fallacious and unauthentic, is effectively sifted and processed by children requires parental intervention. Reema rightly points out that children process information floating randomly around them with far greater attention than they let on and that we bother to acknowledge, but given the absence of effective guidance, there is the risk of their taking the wrong kind of cues from it. However, it is the intervention of the right kind that is important and this involves the acceptance of the inevitability of children’s access to information and their fathomless curiosity about it. Authoritative interventions like the suppression of information or the imposition of false knowledge or the sheer dismissal of inquiry can only lead to disturbing results in a world where much of our children’s safety depends upon the fact of their being well-informed and aware about its course. Besides, it is our mature response to such curious questions that goes a long way in determining the amount of trust that our children invest in us as parents.
The book begins with some harsh introspections –Why do we bring children into the world? Is it a voluntary act or simply something that we are culturally programmed to do? Reema rightly argues that for a whole lot of people in the world, giving birth to children is a biological obligation rather than a personal choice:
I feel that in this rush to propagate our species, to achieve fulfilment and immortality, to feel whole and happy, we have forgotten something crucial to the survival of the very thing we need – the clarity to want to reproduce not because we feel we need children, but because we want them.
She points out:
There are too many babies born to those who have not progressed beyond the assumption that having a baby is the next inevitable stage of life’s journey after leaving school, getting a job and getting married. We need to question this assumption if we are to progress towards achieving the children we deserve and giving them the love, life and attention that is their indisputable birth right.
What is remarkable about Unparenting is its uncompromising honesty. It is not easy to make the clumsiness, failures, trials and errors, and the covert pleasures of one’s own life a lesson or tutorial for others. And yet, Reema Ahmad accomplishes this feat with candour, courage, generosity, and infinite grace. In tracing her parenting journey with her son Imaad through childhood and adolescence, she also charts her own growth as a responsible single-mother, and a mature individual, evincing great depth and clarity of thought. Mark, for instance, her thoughts on pornography, something that attracts every adolescent’s curiosity and which, if entirely unregulated, can have disastrous impacts:
Pornography is not real. It is a performance much like other forms of visual media. It’s an act devoid of the warmth and love that constitutes real relationships and more often than not, it functions from a place of male power over the female body. if I wanted my son to understand porn is unhealthy, I had to explain it in these terms. Not in terms of sin and fear that had been handed out to me. And those edicts invoking divine wrath could neither curb my curiosity, nor could they limit the sneaky desires of all my friends. I trust that is how youth will continue to function.
An accomplished poet, Reema’s sensitive understanding of the most subtle issues around relationships, and her propensity to find an apposite language to put forward each of these ideas firmly but empathetically, makes this book far more than a self-help book. By insisting on “openness of the communication lines” between parent and child, being “as upfront as possible about one’s own experiences’, supporting kids “in a way that they choose out of want and not lack”, Reema ensures that honest thinking and living operates at all levels. The urge to judge our children, she points out, on the basis of how our world perceives them, should be curbed:
What children express are just signs of how they experience their inner and outer reality and not necessarily something that can be called ‘a personality trait’… The sea washes up flotsam and jetsam on to the beach and none of those things define the sea. It remains vast, beautiful and mysterious. Our children’s moods do not define who they are or who they will be. moods are just what the sea washed ashore. Collect them like treasures or listen to them like we do with eggshells. It is likely you will hear a different song each time.
Reema, thus, asks us to parent both ourselves and our children — to remove inhibitions and obstacles to our understanding and lack of faith even as we turn to our children to assist them in their journey into the world. Parenting, as the book insists, does not come from omniscience or omnipotence but from the courage to relinquish the urge to know and govern our children and their growing world. It is alright, as Reema repeatedly points out, for parents to not know, to not be able to handle a situation or to fail and break down. What matters is to be able to rise again and to not lose faith in the essential humanity and precious fragility of the parent-child bond.
Sagacious, resilient, humorous, and lyrically surcharged in its best passages with an aching poetic vision for freer individuals in a more egalitarian and mindful world, Unparenting makes for a very sober, illuminating and memorable read and is prescribed for the shelves of every library in order to help each of us know ourselves and our confusing physical and emotional worlds a little better.
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Basudhara Roy is a poet, academic and faculty of English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Her latest work is featured in Madras Courier, Lucy Writers Platform, Berfrois, Gitanjali and Beyond, The Aleph Review and Yearbook of Indian English Poetry 2020-21, among others.