My children need me differently and I’m learning to listen to both
Beti is talking — a lot. Unfortunately, we mostly don’t understand a word she’s saying. We pretty much tune out given how occupied we are in listening to Beta, who has also recently made great strides in the art of conversation. So, we’ll be driving along somewhere and a little four-year-old boy-voice will pipe up from the back seat, “The traffic light is red. We have to stop.” Now, I realise for most four-year-olds that’s a pretty run-of-the-mill statement but for us, since Beta has come late to the talking game, it’s a cause for celebration. With that one little sentence, delivered in his clear, high, dear little voice, Beta will reduce us to mush. “Why, yes, it IS red. We WILL have to stop!” I will exclaim joyfully. “He’s my boy genius!” Hums will declare proudly and we will laugh and revel in the moment, almost missing little Beti who is now singing, “Genius! Genius! Gee-NUSH! GEEensh! Gish!”
At home, Beti will be in her highchair, flailing her arms and insisting, “Buh, buh, buh!” Only, I’ll be extremely busy doing Very Important Grown Up Work like, you know, working my way through someone’s Facebook pictures, not really listening, so I’ll just say it back to her like a chant — “Are you saying, buh, buh, buh?!” — until she eventually gets frustrated and yells, “BUH!” And then I will look over to see that she is trying to wrench something out from under her chair, “Oh! You want the ball!” It’s not out of any less love, certainly, and things will surely change as she grows, but that conversation right there defines our current relationship with Beti: she is gamely tagging along for the ride.
When she was about to be born — and I suspect this phenomenon is common among about-to-be second-time parents — I watched Beta more closely, trying harder to remember every single detail about his three-year-old self and burn it into my brain. I was so sure that my poor boy would be neglected or ignored once a sibling arrived. And now? “What’s Beti upto?” some of my friends have asked and I find it funny, because there are insinuations of too much focus on my firstborn, the complete opposite of what I thought would happen. It’s true that I end up thinking more and subsequently writing more about Beta, and I think it’s because my relationship with him is so complex. Not crazily complex, but just a little complicated because of the normal challenges of his growing independence and the special challenges of his temperament and abilities.
Which is, of course, the same way I’d describe Beti: she’s all for the growing independence and the temperament. Beti is prone to flinging herself flat on the ground in weeping agony if I suggest she not do something. But then Beta still does that, so maybe this propensity for tantrums is a genetic thing with my children. <Glance accusingly at the husband>. So, yes, I will pay her attention during a meltdown but the truth is, I don’t think about Beti all that much — and I mean that in the best possible way. Because, most of the time, she crawls everywhere on her happy baby knees. She laughs for no reason and makes funny faces. She plays tenderly with dolls and animals. She holds the marker in her fist and scribbles a complicated tangle on the whiteboard, reciting “H, I, J, K.” She follows her big Bhai Jan like a little puppy, watching eagerly to see what offering of grace he may casually throw her way. As soon as Hums holds her, she buries her face into that space of neck between his shoulder and ear and gives a little purr of satisfaction.
When I think about the kids, I find that with Beta I analyse and agonise over this or that, but Beti? I just want to tell you about her crinkled nose. Of course, I don’t mean to say that there’s not plenty going on in her own life, but for now, she is, in a classic Urdu/English-ism, set. Her only struggle right now is being misunderstood. She is trying as hard as her 14-month-old brain and mouth will allow, to communicate exactly what she wants. And I feel for her, but I know that in some fundamental way, that her frustration’s okay. Sab set hai. But when I watch Beta struggling the same way sometimes, trying to say things that aren’t coming out right, and being unable to figure out how to fix them, I really feel for him.
In any case, we can always count on the kids to invalidate any of our grand ideas. Even as I am vowing to listen more carefully to both the kids and be more helpful in their attempts to communicate, they, on the other hand, seem to be suffering from bouts of deafness. If Mickey Mouse is on or if the Play-Doh is out, I can call their names till I’m hoarse, to no avail. Or, at other times, I could tell Beta to drink his milk and he will say blankly, “What?” And I will say, “Drink your milk.” And he will say, “What, Mumma?” And I will say with gritted teeth, “Drink. Your. Milk.” There will be no end to this conversation that doesn’t involve me losing it.
Naturally, just to keep me on my toes, the children’s selective deafness can often morph into astonishing bionic hearing. I can no longer hum anything, anywhere in the house. “Who’s doing the singing?” Beta will yell from the living room before bursting into a rendition of the national anthem. And, no matter how much I try, I can’t unwrap a KitKat surreptitiously. “What are you doing, Mumma? What sounds like that? Is that a chocolate?” Beta will call. “Cha, cha, cha, CHA!” Beti will chant. And they will both race towards me.
They are so different, Beta and Beti. And yet the same. They’re my gee-nush bachchay and whenever they do start talking properly, I’ll be glad to listen.
Hiba Masood is a stay-at-home mother to four-year-old Beta and one-year-old Beti. Writing about parenting affords her time away from actually doing it
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, February 3rd, 2013.
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