Motherhood is thankless and exhausting. We should normalise this, says Gul Panag

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When people with small kids plan vacations, they book a direct flight to a destination that does not involve too much hectic sight-seeing. When Gul Panag takes a holiday with her six-year-old son, she drives an SUV to the mountains and sets up camp amidst pine trees. In 2022, the former Miss India, actor and adventure junkie undertook an eight-day cycling expedition to Ladakh.

Nihal, then four, followed in a car as she peddled up the steep slopes. The actor, who uses the display name Tiger Kaur on WhatsApp, spoke to Neha Bhayana about her parenting mantras

Nihal is six years old now. Does he still keep you on your toes?
Yes and no. I think some things get better as the child grows up and some things become challenging. I find that Nihal vocalises and articulates better now. He is also open to reasoning so much more than he was when he was a toddler. Toddlers tend to be very temperamental, and you don’t know why. In some ways, he does keep me on my toes but he is also very self-sufficient. That’s how I used to be as a kid too. I remember very clearly… I had my own ecosystem. While it was great to play with friends, if I was at some place where there were no friends, I was completely happy to entertain myself.

Most kids constantly need someone to keep them engaged. How did you encourage your son to be independent at an early stage?
I think part of it is nature and part of it is nurture. There is a certain disposition that comes as a result of what we inherit in our DNA. When I was just four or five years old, I lived at a farm in Punjab with my septuagenarian grandparents while my parents were in Russia. So, for two years, when I used to come home from school, there was no company because our farm was a kilometre away from the village. I used to just hang out with dogs, goats and chickens. I was always good at entertaining myself and I think that’s something that is either inherent in Nihal or he’s probably picked it up.

What do you and Nihal like to do when you are together?
I believe in quality over quantity when it comes to spending time with Nihal. There’s no point in me just sitting next to him and staring at my phone. So, the first rule is I leave my phone behind. I try to involve Nihal in whatever I am doing but I don’t perform for him. That’s how our parents brought us up. One doesn’t always have to make puzzles or play with Lego; he does that with my husband (pilot Rishi Attari). The thing we do together is what I am anyway doing as part of my chore list. I ask him if he would like to help me load the laundry or bathe the dogs or pack my bag. If he is busy playing, I may have to ask twice. He then stops what he is doing and comes and hangs out with me. We chat and do the chore together. He asks about the washing machine’s spin cycle or something else. I think that is a very valuable time because we are engaged and we are doing something productive. I also love travelling with him. We always reach the airport early. But when we are there, he is not sitting with me saying “mamma mamma”. He would be doing his own thing, looking at planes or something, within my range of vision. And, he can make a toy out of anything. We have a rule. We never take toys along when we travel.

Which is the opposite of what most parents do….
But then how is the child learning something new from the environment? Like last week when we were in Kazakhstan, he was using a tea bag as a plane and kept ‘flying’ it. On another trip, he took the hotel slippers, put his hand inside them and pretended he was flying a jet. He devises his own entertainment.

Most parents pack their children’s schedule with classes and play dates. What’s your take?
We’ve all made those mistakes. I think free play is really important. Nihal also reads a lot of books. He has been reading independently for some time now. We started reading to him when he was a year and a half, even if it didn’t make sense to him at that age, so books are a big part of his life. When we were at a café-cum-bookshop in Mumbai recently, Nihal went and found himself a book that was relevant to him. It was a collectible book on the story of Star Wars and he just read it the whole time. He has watched the Lego Star Wars which is a super funny and an interesting animated TV show based on the Star Wars universe.

What are your rules about the three big S’s — screens, sugar and sleep?
I am very militant. I have not introduced sugar in Nihal’s diet because we have banned sugar at home. It was a bit of a tough battle because I had friends and family who would point out that we all have had sugar as children. But my argument is that I have spent my life fighting an addiction to sugar. I have to eat one bite of brownie and then I can’t stop myself because it’s dopamine and it’s completely addictive. My husband and I are on the same page on this, and we have been very particular. From the time Nihal stopped formula milk, he was given plain milk with no additives. We carry small tetra packs while travelling, so I can easily give milk to him anywhere. If Nihal goes to a party and somebody offers him cake, he sometimes has a little or sometimes he does not, depending on his wish. We don’t keep sugar or sugary foods at home but we have left it up to him when he is out. In fact, some of my cousins would secretly feed him sweets. But he isn’t a kid who asks for sweets because he hasn’t developed a taste for it.

Screen time is limited to when we have a long flight or long car drive. When we are not travelling, the only screen he sees with us is the big screen at cinemas. Delhi has some lovely kids’ cinemas now. We try to watch a film with him at least once a month. But at home, we don’t watch TV, so he doesn’t either. I think ultimately kids will do what you do.

What about sleep?
Our goal is to sleep 11 hours. Nihal is in bed by 7.30pm come what may and he wakes up at 6.30am. On weekends and holidays, it may go up till 8.30pm but never later than that. When someone tells me that their kid slept at 10 or 11, I am speechless. Sleep is so important for children. The growth hormone is released only in deep sleep. Unfortunately, Indian kids are among the most sleep deprived as per a research discussed in Kerry Bajaj’s book ‘Sleep, baby, sleep’. And, kids usually stay up late because they wait for their father to come home.

In fact, we are very strict about a fourth S too which is a seat belt. Nihal has never travelled without a car seat. I think most people don’t realise how dangerous it is for a small child to be in a car crash without a seat belt or a car seat. The highest fatality and risk of serious injury is to children who are not belted.

Are you a strict parent?
I don’t know if I’m strict, but I just feel that it’s important to be regimented. My mother was very particular. Even now, when she comes to stay with Nihal when I am travelling, his schedule runs like clockwork. The lights are out by 7.25pm and he is up perfectly on time. He is so happy and chirpy when we leave for school.

Is there any parenting mantra that you follow?
I think the best way to teach our children is by being good role models. We are anyway by default the first role models of our children and we should aim to be the best possible ones in the manner in which we conduct ourselves. I think my strongest habits, including my commitment to fitness, are the ones that I imbibed from my parents. My father wasn’t this overweight man sitting on a chair and asking me to go work out. He was a fit person who exercised every day. When I was around 15, he told me to exercise daily. When I resisted, he issued a parental diktat. Then it became a part of my life, just like it is part of my father’s life. He is 75 now and still cycles daily. Nihal also does what I do. He goes cycling and running with me. He has been cycling without training wheels since before his third birthday. He was with me (watching from a car) when I cycled to Ladakh two years ago.

I also consider it important to be level-headed all the time as children are very observant. I’m aware that he’s watching me at all times so I am conscious of how I react when I have been triggered by someone or something. I know that my son will do what I do, not what I tell him to do.

You are a sustainability advocate and have also co-founded a company that provides seamless charging for electric vehicles across India. These days most children come to school in their personal cars. Do you think schools should make carpools and buses mandatory?
Schools should certainly do that for three reasons. One, it is more affordable and more environment-friendly. Two, it is better for the neighbourhood because people who live near schools can’t even go in and out of their homes because of traffic jams during school pick and drop timings. Three, I think children become exposed to a certain elitism when they see somebody coming in a particular car. I have heard of instances where children going to fancy schools want to be dropped at a distance so that no one can see which car they are coming out of. So, apart from sustainability and traffic management, I think uniformity is extremely important or some will be more equal than others.

Indian parents tend to have this obsession with studies and marks. As a fitness enthusiast, do you think parents should prioritise sports too?
Fitness has indeed been a very big part of my life, but it was not that I only had to be a good athlete. Being in the top two percent in my class was non-negotiable at the same time. It’s not one thing or the other. And, I did manage. I changed 14 schools and I have never not been in the top three of my class, including college, master’s and law school (she obtained a law degree three years ago). So, the desire to excel has to be ingrained. One can’t be casual about grades and then complain when the child reaches Class 10. One has to ingrain a desire to excel and then hopefully everything will happen on its own. But the desire will not get ingrained automatically.

You openly spoke about having difficulty conceiving. Other celebrities too have not shied away from sharing that they had babies via in-vitro fertilisation, surrogacy or adoption. But the aam janta is still very reluctant to discuss fertility issues. They consider it a matter of shame..
Shame is typically associated with the fact that it is always considered the woman’s fault though scientific evidence tells us that the causes of infertility are equally divided between male and female issues. The shame often stems from the fact that at some point you are trying to cover up the infertility in the male. Fertility is a loaded gun against women. I have been very open about the fact that my son was an IVF child. Sometimes, couples suffer from unexplained infertility despite all tests being clear. These things can happen to anyone and for a variety of reasons so why be all secretive about it. I think we as a society spend too much time hiding things that are irrelevant in the big picture. Having a child is all that matters. Kaise hua, kya farak padta hai (how it happened, who cares).

Is Nihal also adventurous like you?
He goes camping. He does what we do. For him, it is not a choice. It is part of his life.

Describe motherhood in one word.
Overwhelming, thankless, exhausting and in small parts, rewarding every now and then.

What’s the most rewarding part?
When the child occasionally says “Mamma, you smell like roses” and “Mamma I love u” — he has been doing that a lot lately — that’s very rewarding. What’s also rewarding is getting to hang out with moms and discussing that we are all in it together; we are not alone. I wish more women would talk about how challenging motherhood is. It shouldn’t be this big lie that it is all going to be amazing and beautiful. It is very challenging. It is very overwhelming and it’s very exhausting and you constantly are plagued with feelings of inadequacy. Ultimately, we are all struggling.

Moms often hesitate to say they are struggling because they feel they will be judged and considered ‘bad mothers’…. Why? They shouldn’t. We should normalise saying that it is challenging; it is difficult and frustrating. This is why a support group of moms is super important. You need moms who tell you “we are dying as well” and then you feel less dead. I have a gang of mom friends. We meet every week. Three of us are working moms. Homemakers have unique challenges and so do working moms. We should normalise talking about the troubles we face.

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