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Parenting: Letting Go or Letting Grow?

By Nandita Godbole Email By Nandita Godbole
February 2022
Parenting: Letting Go or Letting Grow?

Most parents raise their children to become the best versions of themselves, says NANDITA GODBOLE in an essay that captures a rite of passage familiar to all families: Leaving home. Having experienced discrimination as an immigrant, she has encouraged her American-born daughter to explore possibilities where none existed, to dream big, and above all, to remember that nothing is impossible.

It was the end of summer. The garden was tired from the Georgia humidity, our absence and our preoccupation with life. It had been changing, softly fading into fall. The orange ginger lilies had burst into bloom while we were away settling our daughter into her college dorm in Northern California. But everything else seemed to be heaving through the changes. We were too. Our daughter had come home for 32 hours, to be home, to pick up some sweaters and jackets. Her campus was cold already. It was still September, but that was her excuse. I was not complaining.

Since she started college last year, my heart has grown heavy and tired from all the background nattering about letting go versus letting grow. For 18 years, “letting grow” had been my mantra. We had done our best. I had shielded her from social expectations. With her determination, she reached the first of her many milestones. We knew it was her time to dream and shine.

But no one saw how she got there. The silence in our house became a reminder of all the voices I had allowed in, the ones that could not see how we had built what we had. I found it difficult to not take advantage of the silence and cry. I began to fill up my hours so that tiredness would replace worry. I was exhausted that morning from a marathon of filling in the gaps of what our young adult had needed, items with price tags: housing, credit cards, travel arrangements, fall clothes, a missing prescription, better shoes. We barely chatted, jumping from one task to another. Our time together was brief.

Before we knew it, it was time to return to the airport. Would we eat breakfast before we left? Although I did not have an appetite, the ritual remained: the expectant and perfunctory act of caregiving. Desi or not, the contradiction, an irony of expectations from fully functioning independent adults, who did not want to be told what to do, was not lost on me. I reminded myself: one does it out of love, care, not as an act of ownership, control or the latest parenting misstep.

Breakfast is a meal of contrasts for us. Between divergent preferences of savory over sweet and Indian versus Western, we may be the “fussiest” non-fussy trio who love to eat. When our daughter was little, we would call her a fruit bat because of her love for fresh fruits. But that morning, fresh organic strawberries seemed unappetizing. My husband was angling for a hot, savory desi breakfast. I poked around the fridge as though it was the Magic-8 ball and would give me answers to satisfy three divergent palettes. But it had a sense of humor that comes with Murphy’s law. Our daughter had used up all but two eggs for a large batch of muffins for her dorm mates. There was no more white flour, and our dietary restrictions had trimmed down our pantry staples. It was going to be an omelet. Seeing the father-daughter duo engrossed in money talk, I busied myself with expected tasks. I made my husband his breakfast, but as a mother to a freshman, I expected her to fix her own. I had allowed him to be a man-child but had expected our daughter to be an independent adult. I hated myself more than I could express.

Thirty minutes later, my husband had eaten, our daughter had not. I could not force her. She was traveling on an empty stomach, not my favorite way to travel. Her father, a seasoned traveler, said nothing. I could not teach him how to parent his own child. Both father and daughter are adults. I was not supposed to try or care.

It would be another month before I saw my daughter again. And yet, thanks to the peer pressure and tough-love rhetoric, we remained unsure if she wanted us to visit. But no research paper or degree can quantify, explain or hypothesize how a mothers’ eyes can see what she does or how even a lightly grazed touch can sense the storms within. My daughter’s hands were still as soft as I remembered but had become dry and warm; they were not as cool as when she lived at home. Her eyes were sunken in, deeply inset, smaller than a few weeks before. Her beautiful latte-colored skin showed signs of stress of eating foods cooked uncaringly in large vats even by food-safety standards. It was not plump, glowing or lustrous like when she was eating at home. She had lost weight; I sensed she was very stressed. They were not offering enough fresh fruits or healthier meals even though her university promoted nutrition. Despite choosing the best meal plans, the meals had been horrifyingly problematic. Other parents were worried as well.

I held her hand but was holding so much back: anger at bad food, worry about her diet, advice about eating better, resting, staying emotionally healthy, things that could not be purchased in a store. Emotions I was expected to magically relinquish when she became 18 and went to college. It was as though living alone would give a young person what they needed to thrive. I had seen my mother spiral into depression when my brother went away to college. He was only in the next town; mine was living several thousand miles away! I was choking within, stifling a multitude of emotions, my brain trying to reason with me. We all just wanted it to be okay—to be okay to miss each other, to be sad, to know that we would find our way back to be near each other again, to say out loud that this was torturous for both of us. At that moment, I understood how a caged lioness felt when all she wanted was to teach her cub to roar.

As the airport loomed on the horizon, our daughter asked how she would figure out her lunch. I knew it would be hours until she would be at her dorm. She was hand-carrying 3+ dozen homemade chocolate-cherry muffins. She had the opportunity to eat at home but had not been hungry. She had an opportunity to make a meal but did not. She could have planned for herself, but the pressures to instantly morph into a grown-up collided with practical or common-sense suggestions from a parent. So, for her sake, I hoped she would figure it out. After all, who am I to tell another adult what to do, even if I am her mother.

Many moons have passed since we first became empty nesters. I have half-heartedly connected with other parents from across the country in WhatsApp and Facebook groups finding commonalities of dorms, discipline or regions of domicile. All separated from our young adults, we commiserate in the misery of seeing them navigate campus living—both sides helpless. We worry about everything from earthquakes to air quality, from campus safety and public transport to simply coming home, or as they seek care packages and remedies for minor aches or illnesses. We share our pandemic fears and anxieties. We try to galvanize against discrimination and bullying without hovering or making it awkward. Our parenting is constantly clouded in hesitation, even if it is an attempt to reduce their loneliness or their feeling of not belonging just yet, and immeasurable guilt when we remain surrounded by comforts of home.

University campuses have many mechanisms to help young people: licensed nutritionists, trained healthcare professionals, and even walking buddies for late-night walks from the library to the dorm, services that are part of the hefty student loans. Parents are expected to trust the judgment of nameless, faceless campus bureaucracy implicitly, unquestioningly. No one recognizes that much of a university student community is peer-pressured into not asking for help as a mark of growing up. While we carefully stake a tomato plant to help it bear fruit and let a pumpkin vine trail because its vine is too delicate, we expect young people to magically become adults without the right emotional tools or support. It is frustrating.

Sadly, our culture routinely conditions adults (particularly women) to tolerate inadequacies in everything from marital bliss to healthcare concerns, and subconsciously perpetuates the same in young people. Some perpetuate false assumptions that immigrants, and thus their children, must stay within the prescribed lanes of age, gender, social and financial hierarchy. And others allow it. Many hold onto antiquated notions of what patriarchy and matriarchy truly mean in this age. Unspoken cultural pressures force all of us to make hard choices, but we lack community support. Instead, community involvement is a disguised scepter of assumptions and judgment, of one-upping each other, rather than offering empathy, practical help or even kindness.

Thank you, parenting opinion writers, couch therapists, and promoters of memes who believe that South Asian mothers can only mollycoddle their children, hover, are bulldozer moms or helicopter parents. Or that they do not have self-worth, careers and responsibilities towards themselves. Or that they have not grown from the discrimination they experienced themselves—and chose to rise above it. Thank you to those who assume that mothers are incapable of inspiring their children, particularly their daughters, or believe that mothers cannot lead by example and instead are passing on their own emotional and cultural burdens. I wish you the joys of several and bountifully recurring ingrown white chin hair while on vacation, with no epilator in sight. And then, just when you have lost all abilities to utter curses, I hope someone extends to you unconditional and bottomless kindness.

Nandita Godbole, an Atlanta-based author, is working on her seventh cookbook, Masaley-daar: Classic Indian Spice Blends. In addition to Khabar, her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Whetstone Magazine, Healthline, Epicurious and other publications. Find her on social media @currycravings

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