Review: Unparenting by Reema Ahmad

In the age of dating apps, sexting scandals and an apparent reduced commitment to marriage, the two-parent family is no longer considered unalterable. The experience of marriage, breakups and the subsequent single parenting has been the subject of a few fiercely honest fictional and non-fictional chronicles. Theo Pauline Nestor’s How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed is a profoundly moving and layered account of separation told with candour and wit. Nestor presents the romantic, erotic, and heart-wrenching episodes of a short-lived marriage. Oscillating between the couple, the children and other individuals, she shows how the caving in of the two-parent family structure renders the experience of parenting — usually fulfilling and replete with self discovery — an uphill task.

For parenting is not the simple act of raising a child; it is a delicate and bewildering process situated in the flow of human relationships. Parents need to know what kind of parenting produces the best effect so that children do not crumble under the weight of parental expectations. They can raise a confident and considerate child if they themselves learn to calibrate their expectations. Author of five books on parenting, Dr Kenneth Ginsburg exhorted parents to be authoritative rather than authoritarian. Children listen, respect and trust rather than fear their parents, he said. Authoritative parenting does not follow any single rigid authority.

The currently fashionable idea of parenting denounces the hovering or snowplough approach and draws its sustenance from lighthouse parenting that insists on providing many opportunities to grow with a reduced sense of control. For author, psychologist and single mother Reema Ahmad, parenting is a polyphonic dialogue that draws heavily on “unmentionable” topics. Juxtaposing insightful inputs from her growing son and her own meaningful personal experiences, Ahmad spells out the contours of her favoured new parenting model in Unparenting: Sharing Awkward Truths with Curious Kids.

This is not a self-pitying volume that focuses on the mother’s frustration at raising a child in a fatherless setting. At the outset, the author puts forward her model of raising a child: “Through the reactions, responses and questions of a growing boy, I have attempted to explore my role as a parent trying to raise a self-aware and respectful child. Together, we seek to comprehend and value questioning as an important tool for discovery. In doing so, we attempt to change the dynamics of what is acceptable or unacceptable, what is shameful or worthy of respect, what is wrong or right and most importantly, what is needed for healthy growth-and not just physically, but also emotionally and sexually”.

288pp, ₹299; Penguin
288pp, ₹299; Penguin

Far from relying too much on the internet and imposing any authority, Ahmad helps her child grow up without losing herself. This is a good thing considering that anxiety and apprehension-filled parenting, especially by single mothers, puts too much attention on the child and eventually produces overprotected and entitled individuals.

Parenting is not usually a solitary or unshared activity. Multiple interventions shape it. Before discussing bodily curiosity, puberty, sexed reproduction, bullying, relationships, love and dating, single parents, separation, divorce, loss, grief, emotions and mental health, the author reminds us of what parenting is all about: “Mothers, and fathers, families, schools, media culture, neighbours, and neighbourhoods – all these together make our children what they are. To have the children we deserve, we must empower mothers, not intimidate them, and offer help and support, not censure and blame.” The author has a point here but it seems simplistic to suggest that empowering mothers is the panacea as it does not necessarily produce a self-reliant child.

This intense book that runs to well over 200 pages, is sustained by Ahmad’s personal experiences and her retelling of her uninhibited conversations with her child. Unsettling questions about sex, dating, puberty and using the body as a site for drawing self-pleasure are answered nonchalantly. The author exhorts the reader not to evade direct answers. Since we are setting the standards for how our kids will perceive self-pleasuring for the rest of their lives, it is sensible not to fill them with shame or ignorance.

Unparenting is an illuminating read. It offers readers a new parenting model based on intimate dialogue and adds a new dimension to the idea of “lighthouse parenting”.

Shafey Kidwai is a bilingual critic and professor of Mass communication at Aligarh Muslim university.