Why ‘community’ experiences are good for parents, besides our children …

Amal Zaiki in Nongrihaat Village

I am parent to a two-and-a-half-year old girl. We named our daughter Amal.

Biologically, I am Amal’s mother.

Socially and culturally I could be — provider, her girlfriend, an authority figure, her dad, her role model, her nemesis — or any other roles and labels that we chose for our relationships with each other from time to time.

I run a business where we build communities among software developers. We run conferences round the year. When my daughter was born, it was only natural that I take her with me to the conferences that I organize since I did not know of any other way of parenting.

As a breastfeeding mother, she went with me everywhere I went — my workplace, sales and business meetings, events and gatherings, and wherever I traveled in the first eighteen months of her and my life.

When she turned 9 months old, my husband and I decided to take her to a hacker / community event called hillhacks. Hillhacks takes place in Dharamshala, in North India. Attendees at the event include individuals with varied experiences — social circus, hooping, DevOps, mapping, art, technology, science, energy and electricity — you name it. Individuals, and the activities they create during the ten days of the event, is magical. It creates an interesting experience of togetherness and awareness of differences in work styles and thought processes. The culture of volunteerism, which is the source of this event, is the core enabler (and disabler) of this event.

At the first edition in November 2014, I found it very refreshing to take my 9-month old to the event. This was the time when she had begun crawling. She was also eating foods along with feeding on breast milk. The world was opening up to her in various sensorial ways. For the first time in the nine months – a duration which seemed like an eternity — I was out among adults which was both unnerving and welcome. The exhaustion and sleepless nights coupled with the stress of running a fast-paced business meant that I had to learn what it was like to be among adults who don’t have to be potential work relationships only.

To start with, simply the availability of open space for her to crawl on was extremely invigorating to both of us. She had a lot of open space as far as she was concerned. I had her in ‘enough’ open space where I could watch over her comfortably — as far as I was concerned.

Besides the space, there were a whole lot of people around her — her first interaction with so many people over an extended period time. I am not sure what so many people and their affections and attentions meant for her. For me, it was encouraging that she was coming in contact with so many adults. Interactions with adults presented many opportunities for Amal and me to explore (potential) relationships with them. Jothi Sarath, who’s daycare facility ‘Baby’s Day In’ Amal attends, once said to me:

“When my children interacted with kids and other adults, I started to take steps to make friends with them. This opened my world.”

It is through Amal that I have made a new set of acquaintances and friends. Being a parent and primary caretaker is a very exhausting role — emotionally and physiologically. However, on the occasions that I have stepped out of the confines of home and workplace with Amal, I have found the experiences refreshing even though the first steps are highly uncertain and unknown.

Since her first Hillhacks experience, Amal and I have attended the following conferences and gatherings (besides HasGeek events):

  1. FOSS Asia March 2015 — Amal’s first international travel! And she got introduced to our wonderful friends Sayanee and Chinmay.
  2. Hillhacks in May 2015 — this time around, we experimented with sleeping in a tent with her. She also firmed her walking practice at this event, now that she had found her feet.
  3. Ant Hillhacks at Devrayanadurga in August 2015 — better walking, more camping practice, and first friendship with T B Dinesh.
  4. Chaos Communication Camp (CCC) in August 2015 — Amal’s first visit to Europe as we moved through Berlin to be at one of the most renowned hacker events.
  5. Hackbeach in November 2015 in Kovalam — first visit to the beach. Kerala comes before Goa!

As a parent, it is very difficult to conceive undertaking such diverse journeys with a child — not only through different modes of transport, but also different phases in her physical and mental (+social, +emotional) development. A child is a different person each day. Not only are her needs different, she has different routines and demands for physical and emotional comfort.

I have been fortunate to parent my child with my spouse who has been very attentive to Amal’s requirements and routines. When we had long-distance travels driving by car, he has taken the initiative to drive through the night so that Amal sleeps and is not stressed by the journey. Similarly, when we have been on treks and trips that demand intense physical activity, he procured gear — be it walking sticks, baby carriers, right kind of camping equipment — to ensure that our travel is smoothened out as much as possible.

It has also helped us that our daughter is accustomed to eating all kinds of foods, and that she drinks tap and bottled water based on the situation.

Last week, we returned from a six-day trip to Meghalaya, one of our first experiences of a place without an event. She was the only kid on this trip. It helped us immensely that we traveled with her along with two of our colleagues at work who initially planned the trip. Her relationships with them at the workplace meant she had more than her dad and me to interact with. Of course, there were many other beings to interact with during the trip — cats, butterflies, other mothers, kids in Nongrihaat village, other travellers and caterpillars.

I was amazed at how hardy Amal was on this trip. It wasn’t an easy trip, given that we were traveling each day – whether on foot, by car, by airplanes. Not only was she most accommodative and vivacious throughout the trip, I had the most wonderful time traveling with her, talking to her during various times at the trip, and at one point even being put to sleep by her.

I can’t speak much for Amal and what these experiences have meant to her. I have learned the following from the accumulated experiences:

  1. Children are far more hardy than we imagine them to be. They can rough it and tough it when the people they are with are open-minded and light-hearted. In this respect, I must commend my spouse for being the cool-headed person that he is, and for his love to take our daughter out with us for as many experiences as possible.
  2. Amal’s hardiness has clearly had an effect on me. I find I am more fearless now in exploring situations. When I experience uncertainty, I tread bit by bit until I am able to cover enough ground and my fears.
  3. From the accumulated experiences, I realize that children need more exposure to adults and the adult world. They will come in contact with children at daycare, school, play and other places. I believe that how children interact with adults shapes their own responses to different situations and to the relationships they have developed. Amal has interacted with individuals of different creeds, credentials and personalities — from people named Tink, Tod and Trouble, to some of my dearest friends. She has learned how to talk to them, get her demands met from them, and explore games and diverse skills with them.
  4. As she has, and continues to, build relationships with adults, I find that I have freed Amal and myself of the demons of cannibalising my space (and in future, hers). While I was growing up, my mother was the centre of my life — she protected me and she was always there for me. I somehow failed to develop skills of protection and socializing beyond her. When I grew up, she was effectively my spouse. Till date, I have troubles decoupling some of my anxieties and reactions from her’s. 
    When my child was born, I resolved that I’d be a facilitator for her — that my goal and role in life is to enable situations for her which will help her grow (beyond me) and build relationships of love and care that didn’t have to involve me. 
    I am glad that some of these community experiences have helped both Amal and me recognize that as much as there is a lot out there in the world, there is a lot between both of us to discover in terms of relationships and experiences. For the moment, I feel we have both warded off that ghost which haunted my growing-up days.
  5. Last, but not the least, during my pregnancy, someone once told me:
“The world is very kind to pregnant women. The world is kinder when you have a baby.”

I really think there is a lot of truth to this statement. I have found people more forthcoming and loving with Amal around. Overall, there has been less of inhibition. There is certainly something magical about children and their energies. What’s required is to harness these energies by facilitating — where facilitating also means having faith and belief in our children to decide for themselves.

I am also very clear that not everyone is allowed to touch my daughter, and that Amal has the final say on who she wants to be held by and which stranger she is ok interacting with. Where she isn’t comfortable, or where I am not, one of us clearly tells the person off.

On board to Chandigarh, May 2015

I am parent to a two-and-a-half-year old girl. We named our daughter Amal.

Biologically, I am Amal’s mother.

Socially and culturally, we are only discovering each other as we discover the world around us through each other — one day at a time, one experience at a time.

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