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The Great Parenting Debate

By Amritha Alladi Joseph Email By Amritha Alladi Joseph
May 2024
The Great Parenting Debate

Young Indian American parents, especially those raised in the U.S., would prefer to have some independence and space in the all-important role of caring for their newborn and then raising them through childhood. Their boomer immigrant parents, though, are often aghast at some of their new-age parenting techniques and are not shy of intervening—having themselves come from a time and culture where children were raised by extended families and even perhaps the proverbial village.

“I felt a loss of control, a feeling like this wasn’t my space anymore,” says Nazish Ahmed of Marietta, Georgia, recalling the time of the birth of her first child. Her home was teeming with family members, each of whom had some advice or another for the firsttime mother. She felt crowded. She succumbed to the ghee parathas fed to her by her well-meaning mother- in-law. According to desi folk wisdom, a good intake of ghee helps new moms nourish the baby better, so Ahmed obliged, despite feeling queasy.

For all the discomfort that the parathas may have caused her, that is the least of the challenges that Ahmed and many other young Indian American parents go through with their own parents, in-laws, aunts, uncles, grandmas, and grandpas, all of whom feel the need to step in andCoverstory_3_05_24.jpg advise the new parents. Tensions first flare up when the precious cargo is brought home from the hospital. As is customary in the culture, extended family and friends descend upon the household with home-cooked food that is usually bland but rich in fats.

[Right] Nazish Ahmed learned to strike a balance between her need for independence and her extended family’s eager overtures to help out with the newborn. This is a recent picture of her nuclear family.

The bloated and hormonal mother waddles around irritably. She is often sleep-deprived, medicated, learning to nurse, and trying to steal a few private conversations with her husband while family members buzz around, eager to pry the newborn from her arms. According to the traditional beliefs, the mom’s sole role should be to serve as the baby’s all-you-can-eat buffet. The rest of her time should be spent reclining, so she can heal while others tend to the little one.

Sadly, this is exactly the opposite of what many new millennial parents would prefer. Guided by a flood of published information and scientific studies, they trust the latest, cutting-edge parenting techniques and would like nothing more than to assume control and independence. They are eager to apply their newly acquired wealth of information on postpartum healing, newborn care, and child-rearing decisions, which often contradict traditional Eastern methods that are handed down informally through the generations.

 Coverstory_4_05_24.jpgCoverstory_5_05_24.jpg[Left] Millennial parents gravitate towards data-driven Cribsheet or observation-based Bringing Up Bébé books that often clash with their parents traditional ways of raising a newborn.

According to a study published in January by the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, today, less than one out of five millennial parents are choosing to follow the parenting style of their parents. The same study also states that almost three out of four millennials believe they are doing a better job at parenting than generations past.

Meanwhile, their boomer parents, especially the first-generation immigrants, are frequently perturbed by contemporary techniques like paced feeding, baby-led weaning, and cry-it-out (CIO) sleep training. As young couples relying on the data-driven Cribsheet or observation-based Bringing Up Bébé books navigate their new roles with an emphasis on gender equality, self-sufficiency, and empirical research, their predecessors are rolling their eyes and intervening, causing frustration for everyone involved.

Coverstory_2_05_24.jpgNazish Ahmed wanted privacy to bond with her little one, freedom to eat what she craved, and time to figure out the new family dynamic with her husband, as parenthood was new to him too. “You want it to be your nuclear family, but the desi family doesn’t get it,” she said, citing that grandmothers often step in to give the young mom a break when Ahmed would have preferred to give her husband an opportunity to bond with the child. “What about the baby and the dad and establishing their long-term relationship?” she wondered.

Ahmed learned to become more assertive in communicating with her extended family at the time of her second child's birth. She was more vocal about how her family could get involved in her son’s postpartum care. She stocked her fridge ahead of time with the foods that were comforting to her and arranged for childcare for her first son. “I told my mother-in-law, ‘I love you, but I want you to come [to help] when I am out of maternity leave and will have to go back to work.’ I needed the first few days to get a grip on things, so I controlled the number of people in the household.”

Dads take an active role

For several years in the West now, new fathers have been more involved in prenatal support, delivery, and newborn care. If anything, they want a piece of the action. “My wife chose natural birth and I wanted to be a part of it,” said 37-year-old Jay Patel, an Orlando-based father of two. He and his wife, Vanessa, used a doula and a natural birthing facility. “I did not want to miss the birth process. You only get a chance to experience that perhaps a couple of times in your life.”

Coverstory_7_05_24.jpgCoverstory_6_05_24.jpg

 [Left] “This was my chance to feel this human being who is 50 percent my DNA,” says Jay Patel.

Men are participating more in bottle feeding and changing diapers and, in some cases, have become more sleep-deprived than new moms. In 2016, a U.K. study by Mintel found that, for the first time, dads were waking up more to change diapers: 70 percent of new fathers woke up for these tasks compared to less than two-thirds of moms. Millennial dads welcome the opportunity to bond with the baby as a caregiver, especially since research has suggested that dads can use this time to interact with the baby and cater to the little one’s needs.

According to an article published in the Seattle Times by Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, a child’s attachment to their dad is correlated to the number of diapers he changes. The more diapers he changes, the more the child is likely to turn to him to be comforted; the fewer diapers he changes, the less likely is the child to seek him out for consolation. “The child sees the person’s face, hears their voice, smells their scents, and feels their touch. It’s an intimate social time that familiarizes the child with the person conducting the task and builds trust. It’s definitely a ‘getting to know you’ time,” Faull wrote.

Boomer grandparents may be startled to see the young dads taking a front-row seat in the delivery room to witness the birth of their child or removing their shirts to engage in skin-to-skin contact at the hospital, just like mom. However, Patel values such intimate involvement. He was in the room for both of his children’s deliveries. Immediately after their birth, he held the babies on his bare chest. He explains, “I did not carry this child. This was my chance to feel this human being who is 50 percent my DNA.”

Coverstory_8_05_24.jpgNow, as he raises his five-year-old daughter and his two-year-old son, Patel said his parents have been supportive of the parenting choices that he and his wife have made. Often, they even admit that the young couple has cultivated a better environment for raising their children. They admire how involved he and Vanessa are, and the respect goes both ways: Patel welcomes the advice of his family because he has already worked throughout his youth and adulthood to set boundaries respectfully. When Patel’s parents recommend rubbing a certain oil on the baby or feeding the child a concoction as part of an ayurvedic treatment, he figures it’s worth a try, though he conducts additional research into the ingredients to ensure their safety.

[Right] “A child’s attachment to their dad is correlated to the number of diapers he changes,” says Jan Faull, a child development expert who wrote a weekly parenting column in the Seattle Times for ten years.

The generational gap in postpartum care

Priyanka Sundar, like Ahmed and the Patels, wanted her husband to share in the responsibilities of new parenthood. “I think sharing those things is healthy, and hopefully it helps women feel supported as they go through this,” said Sundar, who is a pediatric allergist. To her 63-year-old mother, Vijaya Seshadri, this emphasis on having the dad partake in typical maternal responsibilities post-delivery felt ridiculous. She cringed as she witnessed the scene unfold at home. Why did Sundar’s husband have to get up in the middle of the night to watch his wife nurse if he wasn’t bottle-feeding the baby himself? Seshadri felt that’s where grandmothers can play a role by providing companionship to the new mom when she’s feeling isolated during late-night feedings. On the other hand, she feels that young dads should get a restful night’s sleep to be alert for work in the morning. New parents may think that taking on tasks together demonstrates strength, but Seshadri thinks it’s a fast track to burnout.

One would think that when the child's mother and grandmother both are board-certified pediatricians, they would concur on best practices surrounding raising the child. But here too we find that the differences of opinions arising from the generation gap persist. Both Sundar and her mother, Seshadri, are pediatricians, but that hasn't stopped them from butting heads on perennial issues of postpartum care and Coverstory_9_05_24.jpgupbringing. Sundar dismissed her mother's advice of mixing colostrum with a few drops of water to help the baby feel full—because it wasn't in the baby research! Meanwhile, Seshadri didn't understand why her daughter would pay an outside lactation consultant when Seshadri had firsthand experience caring for Sundar.

[Left] Roshan Aziz Ruhani is a postpartum and newborn masseuse whose [C-Section] scar mobilization treatment has worked wonders for many moms.

 

Generational clashes go beyond the desi community. Boomers are questioning why young parents follow the unsubstantiated advice of social media influencers without fact-checking the claims made. The Lurie Children’s Hospital study noted social media as the fifth top source of child-rearing information for young parents (behind family, other parents, friends, and books), but a quarter of millennial respondents admitted they didn’t verify the information provided. Why, then, do these millennial parents question the applied methods that boomer parents can offer from years of experience raising multiple kids, Seshadri wonders.

Unlike Sundar, Ahmed finally gave in to her mother’s advice when no other treatments worked to treat her baby’s colic. She was initially reluctant to give fennel water to her baby because pediatricians advise giving only milk to a newborn. To her surprise, the fennel water worked. When it came time to train her baby for solid foods, Ahmed deferred to her mom's guidance on the matter instead. “It is tried and true,” Ahmed said.

The happy combination of the modern and the traditional, of empirical science and innate experience

According to Roshan Aziz Ruhani, a postpartum and newborn masseuse specializing in traditional Eastern methods, the experience and wisdom that previous generations of mothers have relied upon are valid. Not all of it can be explained by Western medicine, she says, remembering one client whose baby was advised surgery because of stiff limbs. Ruhani massaged the baby’s rigid limbs over the course of a few sessions, and it worked! The baby’s limbs loosened to normalcy. The doctor took back his initial recommendation, she said.

Coverstory_10_05_24.jpgWestern practitioners also recommend avoiding massaging mothers around the C-section scar within the first few weeks, but Ruhani does precisely that with her scar mobilization treatment that is rooted in physiotherapy. “It was so relaxing. It helped me feel better in my newly changed body,” agrees Apoorva Salimath of Roswell, one of Ruhani’s clients. Ruhani learned massage by shadowing daais (traditional midwives) in India and refined her techniques through practice. This has gained her a steady clientele mainly through referrals: boomer grandmothers encouraging their millennial children to try Eastern therapies.

It was Salimath’s mother, Dr. Uma Kalasuramath, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist from Karnataka, who encouraged Salimath to try postpartum massage for faster recovery. Salimath was not in a condition to tend to her little one after her C-section birth. Groggy and in pain, she entrusted her mother, who was visiting from India, to take the night shifts to help care for her newborn, so that she could focus on recovery.

[Right] “Modern science often rejects traditional sciences like Ayurveda, either out of ignorance or plain arrogance,” says Dr. Uma Kalasuramath, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist from Karnataka.

“The so-called non-scientific methods of childcare were also scientific,” notes Dr. Kalasuramath. “It is just that modern science often rejects traditional sciences like Ayurveda, either out of ignorance or plain arrogance. The methods followed by our grandparents, from bathing the newborns to feeding them, were scientific. Unfortunately, they were [not certified by] randomized controlled studies.”

Bridging the gap to make the most of what the “village" has to offer

Millennial mothers, fueled by social pressures, are eager to soak up all duties of motherhood themselves and would prefer relatives handle other tasks around the house. When Ahmed welcomed her second child, now five, she and her husband took on most of the newborn care while Ahmed leaned on her mother and mother-in-law to help with housework. Her sister's kids provided company to her older son. She found this to be a tremendous help.

Coverstory_11_05_24.jpgWashington Post columnist Sahaj Kohli, a licensed therapist and author, highlights the importance of communication in establishing boundaries with family members in cases where they're willing and available to help the new parents. After receiving a letter from a frustrated daughter-in-law last October, Kohli told the conflicted new mom that she and her husband first needed to get on the same page about their parenting style before setting boundaries with family members. The daughter-in-law, a second-generation Indian American, said her mother-in-law disregarded her wishes. “She hates that the baby sleeps alone in his room and stands vigil outside his door in case he cries, which stresses me out. And she hates baby-led weaning. She prefers to put the baby on her hip and spoon-feed him or to give him little bites from her hand. I have seen her try to force food down his throat when he is clearly full, which is not how I want my baby to be fed,” the daughter-in-law wrote.

[Left] Apoorva Salimath was encouraged to try postpartum massage for faster recovery by her mother, Dr. Uma Kalasuramath.

Feeding and sleep training are among the most contentious topics across the two generations. Seshadri couldn’t stand it when her daughter and son-in-law started sleep training. Her heart melted when she heard the baby scream and cry to the point that his voice became hoarse. “This is not disciplining,” Seshadri said of letting a child self-soothe to bed. “You discipline a two-year-old, not a newborn. A baby wants love and affection.”

There’s also conflicting advice about co-sleeping and the proper position in which to put a baby down for sleep. Having been a board-certified pediatrician for decades, Seshadri knows that even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) often changes its stance on issues such as letting a child sleep on its tummy or co-sleeping with an infant.

To avoid criticism from grandparents, Ahmed started sleep training her son when the grandparents were not around. Then, after the routine had become a bit more established, whenever she had her parents or in-laws over, she would host them in the downstairs in-law suite, so they didn’t have to hear the child crying. “I could sense it was stressing them out, then it stresses you out. It’s another layer of explanations,” Ahmed explains.

Coverstory_12_05_24.jpgKohli advises young parents to create a sense of allyship and preface a family member’s visit with an explanation of the approach to be taken. For instance, let them know you are excited about their visit and how you want them to be a part of sleep training and maintaining the baby’s schedule. “You could also practice being more vulnerable, especially when your mother-in-law reverts to making passive-aggressive comments, by reaching for connection rather than bottling up your feelings. This may sound like, ‘I am doing my best, and I would love for you to be supportive even if you do not completely agree,” Kohli recommends.

Part of the frustration also stems from the pressure that young parents feel to get it right, based on the many rules set by doctors and other experts. And in this age of social media, there is often the additional pressure of meeting the expectations of the perception of perfection displayed on social media. Nearly half (46 percent) of millennial parents feel burned out with 85 percent believing social media creates unrealistic parenting expectations. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in the nitty gritty, all of these rules that the AAP puts out,” Sundar said.

[Right] Washington Post columnist Sahaj Kohli, a licensed therapist and author, highlights the importance of communication in establishing boundaries with family members in cases where they're willing and available to help the new parents.

It’s thanks to her mother that Sundar now takes some of that AAP guidance with a grain of salt, or two. Sundar was disappointed that her son was not eating the bland food she made but was eating Seshadri’s cuisine without complaint. The difference? Salt. She realized her mother had clearly got some things right and that moderation in place of rigidity was a better way to go.

To keep family members in the baby’s life, give them other tasks that still make them feel useful and active in helping raise the child. This could include doing the child’s laundry, reading them books, or playing with them—instead of feeding or sleep training. “Reflect on where you are willing to have flexibility versus what is non-negotiable.”

In the end, Sundar said desi millennial parents are not criticizing the techniques of their boomer parents; rather, they request their parents give them room to apply improved strategies and experience the joys and challenges of parenthood in their own way to address today’s scenarios.


Amritha Alladi Joseph, a former reporter for Gannett newspapers, The Hindu, The Gainesville Sun, Gainesville Magazine, and CNN-IBN, is now a customer success strategist at Salesforce. She lives in Sandy Springs, Georgia, with her husband and two children.

 

Tips from a mom, grandma, and pediatrician, all rolled into one

Coverstory_1_05_24.jpgDr. Vijaya Seshadri has both the professional expertise and the entrenched experience of being a mother and grandmother. She understands that differences of opinion between generations are bound to be, especially when it comes to something as precious as raising a child. Here are a couple of her tips to make the process smoother.

Millennials, mind this:

Boomers, beware:


 


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