It’s no mere coincidence a baby features centrally in both the Christian and Hindu mythologies. Our family deity is baby Ganesha, a Hindu god universally recognized for his elephant head and human body. But the Abrahamic Bible’s Jesus and Hinduism’s Ganesha don’t only share an infant in their religious texts: their mothers have much in common as well. Parvati, like Mary, becomes pregnant by divine intervention.
Recently, I’ve had more earthly interactions with a baby, my niece. After a long journey from Switzerland, my brother and sister-in-law dropped her off with my parents home in Smithtown, New York, while they hurried off to a work project. We coordinated our travel itineraries so that I arrived a few days later. Soon after I arrived, my mom pulled me aside and whispered in a semi-conspiratorial tone, “Your father and I are having the time of our lives.” My parents said they “had never laughed so much.”
I dutifully dropped my duffle bag and kicked off my sneakers before joining what we soon started referring to as a “team.” My parents, both in their sixties, were long out of practice caring for a fifteen-month old child and my own experience was limited to high school babysitting where I learned such practical skills as how to change a diaper and feed an infant but in no way prepared me for successive days of caring for a toddler. We three would do it together.
And that we did: where one surrogate parent was, another one, if not two, lurked not far behind. Changing my niece’s diaper? The dirty work was done by one of us while the other kept her entertained. Bathing her? One would distract her with soothing words while the other drew a warm bath. Taking her to the mall? Dad packed the stroller and drove while I sat with her in the back seat holding her hand and chatting like it was completely normal to face backwards out of a moving vehicle.
Breakfast was earlier than usual: At the sound of her early-morning cry, we hopped out of bed like we still believed in Santa Claus and it was Christmas morning rather than with the slow and heavy deliberation, the blinking rousing, which more accurately characterizes grown-ups waking up after a winter night’s slumber. One would wash up while the other brewed chai and the third spilled dry Cheerios, my niece’s favorite food, on her highchair’s feeding tray. With a gentle hoist and the quick pinning of her plastic Sesame Street bib, the lady of the house happily stuffed her face with the best General Mills has to offer.
For fun we played Bollywood or Latin music so she could dance - she laughed so hard her whole body shook. Or we took the more sedentary route of reading her the adventures of Paddington Bear, books I brought from London in my attempt to indoctrinate her into English culture. She favored the slide at mall’s indoor kiddie playground and delighted at the bubbles we blew in her direction.
That’s not to say that taking care of my niece wasn’t challenging. For years, when speaking with parents, recent or experienced, about having children, their input almost universally concluded with, “but it’s a lot of work.” Caring for my niece with my parents in Long Island confirmed this truism, but it did more than tell me what dozens of family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues had already shared. What they didn’t do was describe how the experience of caring for a young child in simple ways (feeding, playing, reading, changing a soiled diaper) inspired a feeling of happiness and contentment I’d never before felt or witnessed in others.
After spending that time caring for my niece, I would more readily describe it as “joyful and a lot of work” rather than “joyful but a lot of work.” What in life is rewarding or fun that doesn’t require an element of work? Work--whether it is serving a noble cause like building a well in a poor village or increasing shareholder value by managing a company’s working capital--may be marred by navigating bureaucracy, playing politics and negotiating tight budgets. Still, it’s only when we lose sight of the larger picture that we become disenfranchised by our work.
The same can be said, I learned, of caring for a young child. No, my niece can’t articulate “thank you.” Yes, caring for a young child includes repetitive drudgery. But what isn’t discussed in the ubiquitous conversations around parenthood is how the mundane tasks are punctuated with genuine laughter, joyous smiles and unabashed expressions of love.
Even on Valentine’s Day when we are expected to express love to the person we are most intimate with, the likes of Ogilvy & Mather and other marketing titans has made most of us fools: the gentle foot massage; re-creating a first shared meal; or reading aloud an old e-mail, fished from the Yahoo Outbox, to a friend which nonchalantly describes meeting the man or woman that would one day emerge as “the one.” Instead, the gestures that are meant to illustrate our devotion and care, whether on Valentine’s Day or otherwise, are now replaced with a De Beers charm bracelet or a Charvet silk dressing gown. Mass-consumed, brand-name luxuries now dominate the Western world’s language of love.
Loving my niece is a non-verbal language; it is one made of actions, most of them mundane and a considerable amount of work but expressive nonetheless: making sure she’s comfortable and warm in her stroller, wiping the wet drool and bits of food off her chin after a particularly messy meal, brushing her half-a-dozen teeth for her. Although demonstrating our love for our partner is likewise replaced with a non-verbal language, it is not one of simple gestures of care but of consumption. “Consumption” is the new “care.”
Luckily, my husband has no desire for a biometric briefcase or Tag Heuer watch so I remain exempt from having to choose from among the myriad of pre-packaged luxury items in vogue this Valentine’s Day shopping season. Yet, after a more recent visit to see my niece I was again reminded how caring for another person is the ancient, tried-and-true language of love.
It was a typical Swiss winter morning, hours before the sun was scheduled to rise on a day when the mid-afternoon high would hover right above freezing. My little niece was awake, ready to start her day, as usual hours before the earliest-rising office workers need to ready themselves for their morning commute. I heard her daily morning cry and, opening her bedroom door, my eyes still adjusting to the dark, she stood in her crib, clutching its bars as if to hurl herself over the rim and onto the floor. I grabbed her sides and lifted her out of her crib, wrapping my arms around her and hugging her close to my chest, my face bowed towards hers. And with a look that expressed thanks and wonderment, relief and charm, my little niece looked at me and we settled into our day, two souls shaking off the last remaining remnants of sleep on a dark, cold morning when the rest of Switzerland was still ensconced in their warm comforters.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings.”