Hillhacks – unmaking myself as a parent and as an individual

It’s been a really long time since I wrote here. In fact, I thought it best to punish myself by not writing. The greatest punishment is not allowing yourself to do what helps you best express yourself. That’s all a story for another day. Let’s talk about now.

I delivered a baby girl in March this year, and boy, life has changed in many significant ways. For once, I have started realizing the importance of sleep. Allowing myself to sleep for 45 minutes this afternoon was absolutely refreshing. I suddenly woke up with a different perspective on life and the rest of my evening. Each day, I discover new significance of sleep and what wonderful things it can do to a person. And I keep telling my daughter every now and then, “hey, get some sleep. You’ll really miss it as you grow.”

The other thing I have realized is that culturally, and somewhere biologically, as a mother you are wired to keep wanting to be there for your kid – mentally, emotionally and physically – even when your kid don’t really need you all the time. I have been trying to watch myself on this one, and become a little more discrete in figuring out when I can afford to detach mentally and physically. After all, I am pretty sure Amal will reach a stage where she will not want me around all the time. And, I’d also like to have some space to myself from now onward so that I don’t have to keep asking myself permission to be by myself. It all sounds nice in words. I find this one tough to act on.

And the last thing that keeps getting reinforced to me, either by the world or by the accumulation of my experiences and perceptions of the world, is that motherhood is extremely invisible labour. It’s mentally taxing because you are really on your toes (with your mind keeping you on your toes) with respect to nursing, diaper changing, bathing, helping your child eat, and doing a series of tasks which have very little socio-economic value and which, many sections of society, will consider non-productive.

So here I am. I have a bundle of joy, and I have my bundle of gripe, anger against this bloody world, and this war against myself to stay away from people and participating in little happinesses.

No wonder, when I got to Hillhacks – that event in Dharamsala where there were many people with many talents, all there to be part of creating something and contributing something – I was terribly negative. I thought to myself – shucks, another event that I have to be at. Can’t Kiran just have a vacation where we don’t have to be with other people?

I’ll admit I hate being among people these days. For one, I already find it taxing to be around my daughter for most part of the day where she needs me for one thing or the other. For another, I have lost a lot of confidence in myself to be among people and just be myself. I don’t know, anymore, who I am and what my needs and desires are.

So Hillhacks day 1 and I was already hiding inside the room of our lodge, saying I have to attend to sponsorship phone calls and emails. On the other hand, I was really happy for Amal because she has these vast patches of grass where she could sit on and enjoy herself to no end. What little pleasures in life!

There were also a bunch of other children around and that was so exciting for her because she has much to draw from their energies and activities. I was suddenly feeling relieved about not having to be there emotionally and physically for Amal.

By the evening of day 1, I was so petrified of people that I just didn’t want to get out. I didn’t even want to smile at any of the participants. I just wanted all of them to disappear and I wanted to be in some land where I was all by myself. Ah, I so wish!

That evening, Kiran comes up to me and says “why are you hiding? What’s causing you to be so upset?” I just burst out saying I hate being in another event. I hate being among techies because this is not my community. In fact, I don’t have any community to belong to anymore and I feel you are subjecting me to this bunch of geeks who are ‘effing opinionated and so very male. In fact, I even hated that sticker (which everyone else loved) which said something to the effect of a clean household is a waste of life. It had the picture of a woman who was beaming as she had cleaned up her place. I felt like such a wasted person because it reminded me that my busy body was all the time cleaning up the house and my energies were all spent on keep Amal clean and healthy. What an ‘effing sexist environment had I landed into and why the heck does this keep happening to me?

‘Eff you world!

I don’t know what changed the next morning. Maybe it was the night’s sleep (after two nights of traveling with one night of a bus journey where Amal was sleeping on me and I was trying to ensure that she had a comfortable warm body to be on).

I woke up the next day, went down with Amal to get breakfast, as usual gave her her bit of food to play with and put a little in her tiny mouth based on her consent. Two other kids came down and she played with them. I got into the routine of giving her a bath and Kiran put her into the sling and went off. I took my own time to get down and be among people. (I wish I didn’t have to.)

There was some group discussion going on about something downstairs. In the brief bit that I attended it, there was blabber going on about multi-tasking. Someone said, “women are better at multi-tasking than men, so says research.” I wanted to wring that person’s neck and fry him alive. A good deal of my burnout these days is owing to the fact that I have to constantly divide my attention between looking after Amal and dealing with people at work (or with ticket buyers or sponsors). This multi-tasking is no longer enjoyable, especially when it’s happening in my sleep deprived state and in a situation where I want to be wholly focussing on my daughter and not on anyone else. Yet, I have no choice but to simultaneously attend to others. It’s a horrid state to be in, or so I feel.

By the time that discussion got over, someone came up to me and said, “she (my daughter) is lovely” and I gave a wry smile thinking, “well, for you, I am only her caretaker. I am not some creator or maker here.” I really don’t know if this level of bitterness is not the hitting the bottom of the pit (or whether there can be worse forms and I am only experiencing something lesser than the worst).

It’s my negative attitude towards myself and the rest of the world that makes me very hesitant to participate in many situations. Again, that’s another story for another day.

So I make my way through day 2. The big game changer of day 2 was when Arun Ganesh came up and started talking to me. And we got into a really engaged conversation about his life, his experiences, the village, children in the village, technology and what not. The conversation was very stimulating. But I think the key to the conversation was the honesty and genuineness about Arun. There’s something so warm and nice about him, something that helps establish a fairly instant connection. I think that made a huge difference to my perceptions. Suddenly, the world did not feel like such a bad place to be in. And people, well, I could actually tolerate them a little more now.

In the middle of this conversation, someone from Air Jaldi started talking and I felt excited about hosting an event on net neutrality.

Kiran had been insisting that I participate in making a lamp like many others had done, and make the circuit board which many others were making by soldering the parts, courtesy a man named Akiba (or Aqiba). Really, everyone was hooked to that soldering gun and the equipment. In the beginning, I was super nervous, thinking how the heck am I am going to do this without burning my hands. After all, I am so damn clumsy. But once I got on to it, I really got hooked. I never realized how easy it was (at least in this case), to melt metal and ensure that it traveled through enough to help the bits stick together. I was focussed on doing a neat job.

Post-lunch, some of the folks decided to go to McLeodganj. I felt a bit hesitant again. Did I really want to go with this group? Maybe I didn’t. I felt happier being by myself. But then, I could also visit my cousin and his family if I went up there. Just at the beginning of the trip, as folks were trying to find transport to get to McLeod (because of Diwali festivities and lack of buses and cabs), I started to chicken out. I didn’t want to go with this group. I am such a slow coach, and I’d be left out alone trying to keep up with them if I went with them. And no one would care.

Again, Kiran insisted I go. But when we reached there, I gave up and threw a fit. “I don’t want to be with a group,” I said angrily. We negotiated through un-negotiated emotions and decided that Amal, Kiran and I would go over to visit my cousin while the rest of the gang did what they wanted to. That was indeed a great decision because being alone with my family and my cousin was really nice. I felt re-energized once again. And that was good because what followed was really an adventure. We never got transport to get back to Dharamsala and the only option was to walk all the way down. The path was steep. I was managing somehow. At one point, Cindy, my colleague at HasGeek and co-participant at Hillhacks, figured that Amal was getting cranky and something had to be done. She managed to get a cab and the a gentlemanly gentleman (really!) said ladies with babies go first. The cab took in exactly three of us women and two of our kids. Rest of the gang walked all the way to the lodge.

We made it through that night. Rather, I made it through the day and night. Awright, that wasn’t so bad.

So next day, we did this trek to a point before Triund. Getting to the trek was a trek. I mean gathering all the folks and their consent to be on the trip was the first trek. I stayed off this effort. I hate organizing people especially because this is what I do when running conferences. So I won’t do it outside conferences. I sat down to listen to the first keynote of the day. It was super interesting because this person, an activist Tibetan and a poet, started talking about how activists get overwhelmed by structures to the extent that they disempower themselves by thinking about structures. Gosh, just that morning I was thinking about the World Social Forum that happened in Mumbai many years ago and how activists were visibly constrained by their person emotional baggage. This speaker wanted to talk about hacking by referring to subversions of the structure and points of hope. By the time the talk got interesting, the instruction of our sub-group was to get up and move to the cab. Ouch! I missed something interesting here.

But what followed from then was an interesting trek up to Magic View point. I had heard so many perspectives about this trek to Triund that I wondered if it was a really big deal. Actually, the trek is not. It is just a little steep and the path gets narrow as you go up. While people say it is faster to get down (after climbing the peak), walking down is tricky for the knees. Kiran was doing the trek because he really wanted Amal and me to go there. He carried Amal up and down in the sling, and everyone saluted him for being such a brave father. 🙂 Well, Amal surely has one heck of a dad, and some day, she’ll thank her stars for having him there for her (as much as some days when she’ll hate him for being her dad).

Evenings are just terrible with Amal because she has such a difficult time going to sleep. I still don’t understand why she gets so agitated just before getting to sleep. What happens to her mentally and biologically? That evening was one such. I was aching in my knees and legs + I hadn’t stretched enough, and here this little munchkin was wailing because she was sleepy but wasn’t able to get to sleep. Finally she did sleep, but that was after a lot of tricks and efforts to calm her. It is such times that I have very little patience as a person to help her, and that I wish I just had more strength and patience.

The next day was even better. I really liked Tink’s stretching session (even though it was for geeks), and I really liked Tod’s keynote which was really his journey of how he got to where he is now. These keynotes where people talk about their life stories, especially their journeys, and the milestones they achieved, are wonderful to listen to. Oh wait, sorry, the keynote that morning was Kiran’s (and Tink did the session on stretching which was great)!

Anyway, even if the chronology ain’t right, by that morning, Amal was clearly the darling of Hillhacks. Everyone said she is such a happy kid (which she indeed is), and there were enough people holding her, being with her, playing and what not. By that day, I had made one of the first mental switches in my head. Community events such as Hillhacks are actually liberating because they can teach the value of energies you can draw from other people. By now, I knew that Amal would be taken care of. I was still around among people who were complete strangers and who held her (just to ensure that they knew who she had to get back to in case they missed out on noting whose kid she was). 🙂

The mental switch was that my kid can be happy among other people when she is comfortable and that being a parent does not mean 24/7 slavishness (because of my conditioning and wiring) to my daughter.

The second switch was that community events are actually good. It’s most likely that Amal will grow up among people who aren’t her relatives (always) and who she will have a lot of bonding with them, and lots to draw from. The greatest skill that I could enable her to have is by letting her be with people and she’ll learn because she is already an individual. There are parameters and there is some caution that she’ll learn through experience and some imparting from Kiran and me. That’s as she grows. For now, people are good for her, as are cats and dogs and other kids.

The chief highlight of Hillhacks was that this was one event where apart from talks, there were lots of activities which involved ‘making’. You had soldering, making lamps, screen printing, segregating garbage, making things from trash, setting up WiFi, 3-d printing, and what not. At any given point in time, you had every opportunity to engage your mind with your hands or by talking to people or just basking in the sun. This aspect of the event made it an extremely spirited enterprise. There is no doubt that the people who were part of the event were there in the right spirit (including my good and ugly self). And Hillhacks was made up of all of us.

During the event I also thought Scott Peck’s somewhat unknown but profound book “The Different Drum”. The Different Drum is a book about community building. Peck talks about emotions, conflicts and things uncomfortable which take place in the process of community building. I was wondering how an event such as Hillhacks will handle these, if they were to arise, because everyone was in spirit of celebration and giving and there wasn’t that much of room for emotions and conflicts (at least visibly). I wonder about this aspect of community in the events we organize. Coincidentally, two folks did try to raise a discussion about sexual harassment and how communities deal with this. I don’t know what responses they got one-on-one. I thought it was interesting that this came up, although briefly, in Hillhacks. I don’t know if any issues of class, race or any other form of discrimination did arise and if it did, how was it dealt it. This aspect of community is something I’d like to work with if I were to organize a community event such as Hillhacks.

I also spoke briefly about child care and community events, and asked we could do at HasGeek to enable more women with children to attend events. I was feeling a little bashful about speaking about this, but realized later that someone had to do this. 🙂

Alright, so cutting to the close of the event, I really liked being there, after all. In fact, I have even expressed an interest in organizing the 2015 edition. Organizing something like this is like Masanobu Fukuoka’s do-nothing philosophy. Many things come together and fall apart when organizing an event and when dealing with people. You really have to do nothing to do something in this case – discretion may be one tactic. Observation will be another. And acting without reacting will an important strategy.

The Hillhacks experience has unmade me as a parent. It has also helped me shed open some of the layers that I have developed as an individual – anger, resentment, despise, negativity, exhaustion. I don’t know where all this will go from here. I just have to take one day at a time.

I look forward to the 2015 edition and what I can do further to undo myself.

– Dedicated to Leslie Nazareth, Vinod Sreedhar, Kiran Jonnalagadda, Cindy, Bernie, Arun Ganesh.


About writerruns

I am lost in life. I now run to lose myself and to lose the handles I have been holding on to.
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1 Response to Hillhacks – unmaking myself as a parent and as an individual

  1. sky says:

    Thanks for writing this! I really appreciate when parents (and especially mothers) are willing to talk about the difficult parts of parenting, as well as the pleasurable bits, and about how they negotiate those difficulties.

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