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Learning the ropes.
BEING MOM

Car seats and sleep training: An Indian mother’s battles with American parenting

By Anahita Mukherji

“So when you’re at the wheel, driving your car, is it OK if your baby is alone at the back, strapped to a car seat?” I asked.

“That’s how you’re supposed to do it,” said my friend. Our conversation was over the phone, else I’m sure I’d have seen her suppress a smile. When it came to parenting in America, I was more ignorant than my friend. She’d lived in the US for a decade and had a son a few years older than the four-month-old in my arms. She and I were college-mates in Mumbai, the city I had lived most of my life in; the city where I had a baby, months before moving to Silicon Valley.

And so here I was, with very little knowledge of parenting—or the US—attempting to learn driving and grappling with the idea of a car seat, a contraption I didn’t take too seriously in my early days in America. While hitching a ride with friends, I remember the look of horror I received when I suggested skipping the car seat and holding my son in my arms instead.

It was soon drilled into my head that every time I took my baby out in a car, he had to be strapped to a car seat. I learned that even new mothers leaving the hospital after childbirth were accompanied by a nurse up to their cars, only to ensure that the babies were strapped to car seats.

You can’t blame me for not knowing that!

You can’t blame me for not knowing that! I held my baby in my arms in a Mumbai taxi that drove me home from the hospital days after I gave birth. When my son was two months old, I travelled with him in an auto-rickshaw, a three-wheeler with no doors, over Mumbai’s potholed roads.

Baby steps

At first, I wondered whether car seats were a product of first-world paranoia.

At first, I wondered whether car seats were a product of first-world paranoia; after all, I survived my childhood without one. However, I learned to respect them while driving at a 100 km/hour, about four times the speed of a Mumbai taxi.

I felt a mixture of shock and awe when I saw a woman drive her five-day-old to a coffee shop. She belonged to a mothers’ group I joined in my early days in the US, comprising strong, confident women. Those were the days I’d walk long distances with a stroller, distances so long that I was eventually forced to learn driving.

What I admired most about American mothers was not their driving skills, but the ease with which they breastfed their babies in public. Some covered-themselves with bibs; others simply popped out a breast whenever necessary. I gradually become more comfortable nursing my son in public, not something I’d ever done with such ease in India.

What I also envied most about mothers in America was that they were allowed to know their child’s gender while pregnant, a luxury denied to Indian women. Sickeningly high rates of sex-selective abortion in India gave birth to a law preventing prenatal sex determination. The sonography clinic I’d visit in Mumbai while pregnant had signs warning of how sex-determination was illegal.

Every time a pregnant mother in America tells me the gender of her baby, an alarm bell still goes off in my head.

The women in the mothers’ group all looked so worldly-wise. They seemed to know exactly what they were up to, and their confidence intimidated me. I couldn’t ask them silly questions such as how to give my son a bath.

I knew how to bathe my son in Indian bathrooms.

I knew how to bathe my son in Indian bathrooms. I’d learnt from our nanny, who’d lay the baby straight on her outstretched legs, give him a vigorous oil massage and repeat the performance with soap and water. But then, bathrooms in India aren’t usually enclosed in concrete bathtubs like in the US. What was I to do?

That was the sort of question best reserved for my Indian college friend, who explained the logistics of kneeling outside the bathtub and bathing baby, who’d be in a tiny plastic tub inside the large concrete one.

Though fresh off the boat from India, there was one area in which I occasionally trumped my college friend; sleep-training. I had never heard the term before I moved to the US.

The little wins

My mother-in-law once mentioned a documentary she had seen of three-month-olds in America being put to sleep in a room by themselves. I was horrified at the idea.

In India, when you want to put a child to sleep, you bounce her and rock her and walk her up and down, or swing her in a cradle. You certainly do not put your baby to sleep alone all night.

Stories of American parents allowing babies to cry alone in a crib until they put themselves to sleep sounded cruel. I wondered whether this was what made American children more independent and less attached to their parents than Indian children. Would my son love me less if I did so? Is this why American children leave home at 16? All my life I’d shunned cultural stereotypes about India and the West. Now, all of a sudden, I was clinging to them while navigating life in a country so alien to mine.

A friend who had successfully sleep-trained her daughter recommended a book on the subject, but it lay untouched on our shelves till my son turned one.

After a year of sleepless nights, I had no option but to read it.

Sometime that year, I figured the only reason middle-class India did not sleep-train children with the rigour followed in western countries was the support system they are privileged to have, like grannies and day-and-night nannies who ensure parents don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night every time their babies do.

Our success in sleep training was intermittent.

Our experiment with sleep-training was a non-starter initially. My husband couldn’t bear to hear the baby cry, and would pick him up minutes after we’d lay him down to sleep alone.

We finally decided we’d go by the book.

Our success in sleep training was intermittent. There were times he slept the entire night by himself, and those when he didn’t. When he woke up crying, sometimes we allowed him to put himself to sleep; often we’d relent and put him to sleep with us.

Overall, we were a little more successful at sleep-training than many of our Indian friends, and a little less than many Americans we know.

Soon after our son turned two, we threw the experiment out of the window. Several months of sleepless nights later, we’re back trying again.

As with most things in life, when it comes to sleep-training, my husband and I are somewhere between India and the US, inhabitants of a time and space called not-quite-here-and-not-quite-there. And we’ve figured it’s not such a bad place to be in.