When I was a kid, the mater had a well-thumbed yellowing book, fraying precariously at the edges that she fished out at periodic intervals, read, sigh, and then put away. When I could read full words, I remember climbing onto a stool placed on a chair to reach the bookshelf and pulling it out, risking life, limb and cranium to figure out what it was that had the mater so enthralled that she needed to refer to it constantly. A whapping on the butt for having attempted circus acrobatics ensured that I never developed the desire to read the book once I had it down, and it went back to its safe spot, unsullied by my hands. It had no pictures, and so it obviously wasn't interesting. Never mind that the author's surname had something in common with the emotionless, pointy-eared Vulcan from a series on space adventures.
When I had The Brat, the mater went to the bookshelf and brought out the book, Dr. Benjamin Spock's Book of Baby and Child Care. A yellowing copy, with the pages falling out of the spine, stuck together carefully with glue and sellotape, the fraying cover held together with brown paper, tears and love. "Here," she said, "This is what I used when I brought you up. Read it." That then, was as much of the passing down of wisdom from generation to generation as I was going to get. The mater, as is obvious, isn't big on long conversations. I didn't get that talk on sex too, when I hit adolescence and suddenly discovered that the long four page kisses in Mills and Boon books eventually led to more, which in turn led to the book Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask, handed to me circa age 13. This saved another toe-curling talk about birds and bees, which, back in the day, was not really the norm between parent and child. I must say, my mother was ahead of the curve, considering I mugged up that book with the kind of fervour that would have helped ace examinations, had I reserved it for school texts.
Of course, she should have known that the first few days of new mommydom didn't leave one with enough time to run a comb through one's hair, forget reading a book; so the tattered copy lay by my bedside, neglected under the wet wipes, thermos of warm water, Dettol, diapers and wraps, until one fine long night, when I finally figured out that newborns were hardy little creatures and pretty fuss-free as long as they were fed and clean and warm, that I picked up the book. Suffice it to say that The Brat received most of his day feeds in the next few weeks with me going through the book, and when it began falling apart in my hands, I went online and ordered myself the updated version, called Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, which included tips for modern-day parenting, notes for gay and lesbian parenting and international adoption-prospects that the good doctor might have not even thought about when he wrote the first edition way back in 1946.
Being a first-time parent is rough, especially if you've never held, touched or handled a newborn. You're terrified you're going to do something clumsy and cause terrible damage. You can hear voices around you go "There goes a klutz mom who will drop the kid on his head before the fontanel closes." You spend hours agonising over whether the baby has burped and if you're a bad mom if you put him down to sleep without waiting for the burp, just because your eyelids were gluing themselves together in exhaustion. Dr Spock told me I was doing fine, and I knew best, and for all it was worth, as a young (ah well, not-so-young to be honest) mom, it reassured me. Use your common sense, he said in a straightforward manner, and trust your instincts. I kept reading. When all my friends were going the Ferberising route and getting their kids onto a strict schedule, Dr Spock told me that while it was important to have a routine, it was alright if I occasionally broke from it. He encouraged me to take cues from the baby, which to me meant feeding the baby on demand, rather than waiting for the clock to tick towards the exact hour to feed on routine, even if the baby was squalling his head off from hunger, irritation, or worse, both. This completely suited my natural laidback-ness, and I could always blame it on Dr Spock if The Brat grew up wild and ran around setting fire to things and pulling wings off insects.
Most importantly, Dr Spock taught me that my baby needed physical contact with me, he needed to be held, to be cuddled, to be cherished and that you could never hug a child too much. That a child needed parents to set down rules and limits, that parents needed to be loving but firm, that a child without parental boundaries was a typhoon that would exhaust all three of us. Over the years, there have been the critics and the naysayers, and much to my shock, I read that Dr Spock wasn't quite the parent he encouraged others to be with his own sons. But then this isn't about Dr Spock, the person. This is about the book, the book my mother brought me up with the help of, and the book I turned to in order to help me bring up my boy. It made sense to me. It made me confident about my ability to parent my child. My takeaway from his book was simply this: hug your child often, tell him he's loved, make sure you feed him when he's hungry, don't spank him, and, most importantly, be the parent-be in charge. I've stuck to these tenets for 10 long years and they've stood me in good stead, even at times when I've been faced with behaviour so bad that I completely get why some animals eat their young. I've been raised well. I have my mother to thank. And Dr Spock. I hope I'm doing a good job with The Brat. I have a tough act to follow, and I need all the help I can get. Even if it comes from a book that was first published in the previous century.