Distance between Indian fathers and kids

As a rule, Indian fathers are not terribly close to their kids (my father was a major exception to this rule), and I lay the blame on a “traditional practice” in Indian families.

This is the concept of “baaNantana” (don’t know words in other Indian languages) where the woman goes to her parents’ house for childbirth, and stays there till the child is a few months old, before returning to her own house. And this contributes to several reasons which contribute to distance between fathers and children.

For starters, the woman’s house and her parents’ house may not be in the same city or region, putting a physical distance between the father and the baby. Thus, for the first few months of the baby, there is little contact between them, and when the baby finally goes to live with its father, he is already a distant figure. And unless the father makes special efforts to bond with his child, this distance is only bound to grow.

Secondly, in India, childbirth and associated activities are generally seen as a primarily female pursuit. It is the mother’s parents (primarily mother’s mother) who accompany her to the hospital, and be there with her until childbirth. The father generally only makes a guest appearance where he appears, carries the baby for a bit, hands it back and disappears.

And then every subsequent activity of the mother is directed by her own female relatives, and the father has little to do in the process. Even if he is physically proximate to the baby (by virtue of living not too far from his in-laws), the “culture” of baby-related activities being female pursuits means that he is not a primary actor any more, and he generally prefers to hand over the baby to a “female elder” when it cries, rather than to learn to pacify it himself.

Given this background, I’m really impressed with the efforts of CloudNine, the hospital where my daughter was born, in involving the father in the delivery process and beyond. For starters, the hospital insists that the father be present at the time of delivery, and cut the baby’s cord. While this was always known, what I was pleasantly surprised was the process afterwards.

A couple of hours after my wife and daughter came to their room, a nurse materialised, offering to teach her how to breastfeed. I readied myself to be sent out for the process, but there was no such attempt. In fact, the nurse seemed encouraging of me watching on – the hospital has perhaps realised (maybe belatedly in the Indian context) that the wife’s boobs are unlikely to be a novelty to a man, and so there is absolutely no reason to send him out!

On the other hand, the joy in watching your child feed directly from your wife is totally unmitigated!

Then later in the evening on Thursday, another nurse materialised, to take my wife for bath. That time, both my motherinlaw and I were there in the room with her. The nurse presently put my motherinlaw in charge of looking after the baby, and asked me to accompany her to help give my wife a bath. When my motherinlaw gestured that she could help out with the bath, the nurse firmly said that she wants me to come.

Apart from the hospital’s efforts I’ve been doing my own efforts to make sure I bond with the baby. Rather than sending off my wife to her parents’ place for baaNantana, I’ve instead convinced them to come live with us for a month, to help us deal with the new baby. I’ve learnt to carry the baby in different ways and change diapers, and I’m trying to learn to calm the baby when she cries (lack of boobs is a big impediment in this process).

And I’ve found that the more involved I am with the baby, the more responsible I feel in taking care of her and looking after her. The more I’m sent to “do my thing” while others take care of the baby, the more I feel like handing her off to someone else when she cries, rather than pacifying her myself!

Thinking back, perhaps one reason my father was able to bond with me was that he lived fairly close to my maternal grandfather’s place when I was born, and even though my mother was away on “baaNantana”, he made sure to come see us for a few hours every day, and carry me. Hopefully I can propagate this process with my daughter!

Pregnancy, childbirth, correlation, causation and small samples

When you’re pregnant, or just given birth, people think it’s pertinent to give you unsolicited advice. Most of this advice is couches in the garb ob “traditional wisdom” and as you might expect, the older the advisor the higher the likelihood of them proffering such advice. 

The interesting thing about this advice is the use of fear. “If you don’t do this you’ll forever remain fat”, some will say. Others will forbid you from eating some thing else because it can “chill the body”. 

If you politely listen to such advice the advice will stop. But if you make a counter argument, these “elders” (for the lack of a better word) make what I call the long-term argument. “Now you might think this might all be fine, but don’t tell me I didn’t advice you when you get osteoporosis at the age of 50”, they say. 

While most of this advice is well intentioned, the problem with most such advice is that it’s based on evidence from fairly small samples, and are prone to the error of mistaking correlation for causation. 

 While it is true that it was fairly common to have dozens of children even two generations ago in india, the problem is that most of the advisors would have seen only a small number of babies based on which they form their theories – even with a dozen it’s not large enough to confirm the theory to any decent level of statistical significance. 

The other problem is that we haven’t had the culture of scientific temperament and reasoning for long enough in india for people to trust scientific methods and results – people a generation or two older are highly likely to dismiss results that don’t confirm their priors. 

And add to this confirmation bias – where cases of people violating “traditional wisdom” and then having some kind of problem are more likely to be noticed rather than those that had issues despite following “traditional wisdom” and you can imagine the level of non-science that can creep into so-called conventional wisdom. 
We’re at a hospital that explicitly tries to reverse these pre existing biases (I’m told that at a lactation class yesterday they firmly reinforced why traditional ways of holding babies while breastfeeding are incorrect) and that, in the face of “elders”‘ advice, can lead to potential conflict. 

On the one hand we have scientific evidence given by people who you aren’t likely to encounter too many more times in life. On the other you have unscientific “traditional” wisdom that comes with all kinds of logical inconsistencies given by people you encounter on a daily basis. 

Given this (im)balance, is there a surprise at all that scientific evidence gets abandoned in favour of adoption and propagation of all the logical inconsistencies? 

PS: recently I was cleaning out some old shelves and found a copy of this book called “science, non science and the paranormal”. The book belonged to my father, and it makes me realise now that he was a so-called “rationalist”. 

At every opportunity he would encourage me to question things, and not take them at face value. And ever so often he’d say “you are a science student. So how can you accept this without questioning”. This would annoy some of my other relatives to no end (since they would end up having to answer lots of questions by me) but this might also explain why I’m less trusting of “traditional wisdom” than others of my generation. 

Half life of pain

Last evening, the obstetrician came over to check on the wife, following the afternoon’s Caesarean section operation. Upon being asked how she was, the wife replied that she’s feeling good, except that she was still in a lot of pain. “In how many days can I expect this pain to subside?”, she asked.

The doctor replied that it was a really hard question to answer, since there was no definite time frame. “All I can tell you is that the pain will go down gradually, so it’s hard to say whether it lasts 5 days or 10 days. Think of this – if you hurt your foot and there’s a blood clot, isn’t the recovery gradual? It’s the same in this case”.

While she was saying this, I was reminded of exponential decay, and started wondering whether post-operative pain (irrespective of the kind of surgery) follows exponential decay, decreasing by a certain percentage each day; and when someone says pain “disappears” after a certain number of days, it means that pain goes below a particular  threshold in that time period – and this particular threshold can vary from person to person.

So in that sense, rather than simply telling my wife that the pain will “decrease gradually”, the obstetrician could have been more helpful by saying “the pain will decrease gradually, and will reduce to half in about N days”, and then based on the value of N, my wife could determine, based on her threshold, when her pain would “go”.

Nevertheless, the doctor’s logic (that pain never “disappears discretely”) had me impressed, and I’ve mentioned before on this blog about how I get really impressed with doctors who are logically aware.

Oh, and I must mention that the same obstetrician who operated on my wife yesterday impressed me with her logical reasoning a week ago. My then unborn daughter wasn’t moving too well that day, because of which we were in hospital. My wife was given steroidal injections, and the baby started moving an hour later.

So when we mentioned to the obstetrician that “after you gave the steroids the baby started moving”, she curtly replied “the baby moving has nothing to do with the steroidal injections. The baby moves because the baby moves. It is just a coincidence that it happened after I gave the steroids”.

Callousness of the callus

When my wife went to the University of Michigan as an exchange student, she embarked on a “social experiment” that I later termed “Lord of the ringless” (I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned here already  that she’s a big fan of social experiments).

The hypothesis, based on advice from a senior in her own college, was that a married exchange student was unlikely to win too many friends, and find too many people to hang out with. With a number of potentially interesting conversations and friendships at her “home school” IESE having ground to a halt the moment the counterparty noticed the ring on her finger, she decided to leave her ring behind at home when she travelled to Ann Arbor.

The social experiment worked, for a while at least. She managed to find herself a solid assignment group, and a bunch of friends to hang out with, before she got “outed“.

Back home in Bangalore last December, she wore back her ring, and promised she would never take it off again. Simultaneously, she made me promise that I would never take off my wedding ring, either. I accepted conditionally. “Most of the time I’ll wear the ring”, I said, “but I need to take it off when I’m deadlifting. Else it will give me calluses”.

“Oh, but I love picking your calluses! Don’t deny me that opportunity!”, she shot back.

I may not have mentioned on this blog that she’s always been a big fan of picking out scabs and calluses, right from the time she was a kid. For a long time, this was restricted to picking out her own, but then once she found me, she has ensured that no scab or callus of mine has gone unattended.

And so, thanks to this arrangement, I continue to wear my ring while lifting, and that gives a big callus at the base of my right ring finger. And my wife enjoys picking out these calluses, and now she has her own incentive to make sure I remain fit and go to the gym regularly!

Though I’m considering buying a pair of weightlifting gloves now!

Nomenclature

One of the fundamental methods in which we humans understand the world around us is by means of classification, and one of the fundamental steps in classification is nomenclature. When we give an object (animate or inanimate) a name, we take a massive step towards understanding it and appreciating it. An entity without a name is extremely hard to fathom, and it can be argued that the lack of a name can turn something into a non-entity.

It is thus standard practice that when something is created, it be given a name. And this applies to fellow human beings as well – until a name is applied, a newborn Homo sapiens remains an “it” – almost a non-entity. With the application of a name, “it” becomes a person, and gets an identity of its own.

As we have been discovering over the last few months, finding a name for a t0-be-born baby is a non-trivial process. The number of considerations that must be taken into consideration is humongous, for this set of words is going to fundamentally determine how this to-be-born will be viewed by the world for the duration of its lifetime.

For starters, the name should sound pleasant, and should be reasonably easy to pronounce for most of the people the to-be-born will encounter during the course of its life. Second, the name in entirety should seem cohesive – think of all those names where some part of character is lost because first and last names somehow don’t “match”.

Then, while there might be an argument that the name is simply an identifier for the said entity, we should also take into consideration the meaning of the said collection of syllables. This meaning should be something aesthetically pleasing to both the parents, and (hopefully) to the to-be-born.

Some people go so far as to name their kids after certain qualities, either physical or otherwise, and then it becomes a lifelong (and sometimes futile) adventure of the said kids to simply live up to their names!

And then there is a separate set of factors that many might find trivial, but can nonetheless be important. One must consider, for example, the possible nicknames and diminutives that might stem from the name, and these (apart from the name itself) need to be palatable. Next, the name should be “contemporary”, so that the to-be-born’s name doesn’t look misplaced in terms of era.

Then, this is a possibly recent phenomenon, but there is the uniqueness factor. As one hostel T-shirt at IIT Madras in the early 2000s put it, “na bhUtO, na bhavishyati” – there should never have been one, and there should never be one other with the same name. And so people try to find names that are unique – but not so unique that it (the name) becomes a point of ridicule.

And then there are constraints on the language of origin of the name – in case it means something. And some people like to name their kids based on where they expect it to stand in class – this is one reason for the profusion of “Aa*”s in recent times.

Given that we know the gender of our child already, there is added pressure on us to come up with a name quickly – at least by the time she is born. With a name by the time of birth, she can start her life of an independently living Homo sapiens as a “person”, and won’t have to be an “it” for too long.

A friend with a two-year-old daughter recently remarked that “naming a girl shouldn’t be hard. So many abstract nouns in Sanskrit denoting qualities are female”. Another friend with a much younger daughter supplied us with “rejects” – names he had considered but ultimately didn’t use. Yet, it is of no avail, as we continue to be clueless in our nomenclature.

And it’s not just the first name that’s up for grabs – we need to decide what our daughter’s last name will be as well. The “default option” is to continue the patronymic (using father’s first name as last name), but the wife thinks “Karthik” makes for a lousy last name, so there is some debate on that front as well. Another option is to use my father’s given name (which is my last name) as my kid’s last name, but I find that simply weird.

Then there is the option of reviving the name of my ancestral village (which was part of my father’s name, but is not part of mine), but it sounds “too country” (translates to “village of cowherds”). Another option is to use the gotra (which is what the wife, or rather her parents, has used), but that will lend a casteist element to the name, which we’re not particularly comfortable with.

Yet another option is to dig into my paternal ancestry to look for suffixes that can be used as last names (this supplies “Rao”, “Shastri” and “Bhat” – and I know this because this is necessary information for performing death ceremonies), but that somehow that sounds too manufactured. Another common option is to use the place of birth, but “Bangalore” (where we expect our daughter to be born) just doesn’t sound right.

And all this is for the last name, which you might think must be straightforward! Imagine the amount of effort involved in coming up with the first name!

Whoever said nomenclature is an easy process!

Pregnancy and deadlifting

The so-called Sympathetic Pregnancy Belly, which is caused due to something known as the Couvade Syndrome, is not a myth. As the expectant mother’s abdomen swells, to make room for the baby growing within, her partner’s belly starts swelling up as well.

Having personally experienced this, I can think of several reasons due to which this happens. Firstly, the expectant mother (“mother” for short) is encouraged to eat nutritious fattening food during pregnancy, which is sometimes too tempting for the expectant father (“father”) to let go of.

So as the baby grows within the mother’s belly, the father becomes fatter as well, ingesting the same nutritious food his partner has been instructed to ingest.

Then, it is a custom that when you are pregnant, people call you home to feed you lunch/dinner (sometimes you go out of your way to solicit such invitations). It is also custom that these invitations are extended to the father as well, and with rich foods and desserts being staples at such meals, it further contributes to the sympathetic  belly.

And then there is the lack of exercise. With your partner experiencing pains all day, and not being able to walk too much, you prefer to spend time with her doing nothing rather than going out on those romantic long walks of the yesteryear. You take pity on the partner and start taking your car out for even the shortest distances. Even when you travel, you limit your activity so that the partner doesn’t get stressed. And your tummy grows.

Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have minded growth of my tummy along with my wife’s, but the problem in this case is that my triglyceride levels have shot up as well (thanks to all that eating and little exercise). With the nutritious foods the partner consumes being too tempting to let go of, dieting is not an answer. And hence I’ve decided to resume deadlifting.

Among all the different kinds of exercise I’ve done in the past, the deadlift stands out because of the sheer volume of mass you move in the course of the exercise, and the extent of your body that gets exercised in the process. It is an utterly tiring exercise (you need to make sure you’ve eaten well enough before you embark on it), and if you are deadlifting regularly, no amount of dessert eating can have any impact on your triglycerides (last October, when I was deadlifting sporadically and eating without restraint, I recorded my lowest ever triglyceride numbers since I started testing that thing).

And there is one other major advantage to deadlifting as well – you can continue lifting your partner well into the pregnancy. While both the father and mother put on weight during the pregnancy (as documented above), under normal circumstances there is no addition to the father’s muscle mass. Consequently, it becomes progressively harder to lift the mother through the course of the pregnancy, a task that would have been trivial in ground (non-pregnant) state!

And what better way to be able to lift the partner, than practicing to lift heavy weights? And where else can you lift the kind of weights you can lift when you are deadlifting?

Unfortunately I had given up deadlifting for the first part of the pregnancy, and hence I’ve fallen well behind the curve. I find it extremely hard nowadays to lift my wife, and I’m not proud to say that. Hopefully, having resumed deadlifting, I should be able to make up for this in a few days now! Watch this space!

One final question for those who deadlift – deadlifting what weight (as a function of N) can prepare you to lift a human weighing N kgs off the floor and cradle her in your arms?

Ends, beginnings and furniture rearrangement

Back when I was a student at IIT Madras, I would get the feeling from time to time that I needed to “resurrect my life”. The motivation for this would typically be trivial, though at times it might have been an examination or an assignment gone wrong.

And these resurrections followed a pattern – I would begin by cleaning my room, throwing out all the unnecessary papers, and getting things around me in order. Whether my life would be “resurrected” after this is questionable, but I would definitely feel better, and get on with life.

Given this background, it came as a pleasant surprise when I found that the person I had married also had a similar philosophy with respect to life resurrection. In fact, since she had never lived in a hostel room, and had access to larger quarters, her resurrection would mean rearranging furniture, and throwing out clutter from her parents’ house.

And so this became our new paradigm of resurrection. Whenever we felt we needed a new start, we would rearrange the furniture in our house. Most of the time it would be minor, but it was rare for us to go too long without any rearrangement. Along the process, we would also clean and declutter the house (my resurrection formula). Again, whether our life would thus be “resurrected” is in question, but we would feel better and get on with life.

Except when we rearranged the furniture last week. It was the first time we were rearranging the furniture in our present house since we bought it two years ago. This was mainly a function of the wife being away for most of this time, doing an MBA. Living alone, I would simply clean my desk to resurrect my life. The furniture would be left alone.

Given that we were rearranging furniture after such a long time, it was a major exercise. We called Tata Sky and got our TV shifted from our shared study to the living room. A lot of other furniture also got moved around. And the house started looking very different! We found new warmth at home, and our desire to live here for a very long time got reinforced.

While most “resurrections” have been nondescript and I’ve gotten back to living life the normal way after rearranging my desk/furniture, these resurrections are usually a time for introspection, and some rearrangements have actually led to major life changes. And as it happened, this one too has spurred what I think is going to be a major change.

Back in late 2011, after I had just quit my last full-time job, I embarked on “Project Thirty“, where I gave myself a year to do everything I’d wanted to do but had never done. I had no revenue targets for that year (2012), but had some plans. More reading. More writing. More travelling. Maybe some teaching. Maybe to set up a business.

By the end of the year, my career as a freelance consultant had taken off. Six months afterward, I got a contract with Mint to write a column for them. Meanwhile, I got associated with the Takshashila Institution, a public policy think tank. In 2014-15 I taught a full term MBA course at IIMB. And earlier this year I completed the manuscript of a book. In other words, over the last five years I’ve led a full-blown “portfolio life”.

As I ruminated in my newly decluttered study following the rearrangement (the TV and a couch had moved out), I realised that I’ve pretty much achieved most of what I set to achieve when I wanted a portfolio life. And when you have achieved a lot of what you’ve wanted to achieve, it is hard to remain motivated. And when you’re not motivated, Parkinson’s Law takes over, and you become inefficient. Work expands to fill the time available.

So I’ve decided it’s time to rebalance the portfolio, and possibly reduce the number of components. Most importantly, I’m looking to get back to the corporate world, and find a job in Bangalore. I expect this job to take the place of my freelance consulting business in my portfolio. My associations with Mint and Takshashila will remain. The book, having been written, doesn’t need so much attention now. And for reasons you’ll see soon, travel will become significantly tougher.

In moving from freelance consulting to a job, I’ll be losing volatility and uncertainty, and its associated excitement. I’ll be losing significant option value in terms of additional things I can take up. Compensation, of course, will come in the form of a steady paycheck.

And as my current portfolio comes to an end, it is also time for a new beginning. One of the reasons I’m willing to forego excitement in my professional life is that there is a new source of excitement coming up shortly. Gene propagation is happening in September (more on that in a separate post)!

While we did want to resurrect our lives (and my portfolio rebalancing decision does justify that end) when we rearranged the furniture last week, the main motivation behind the exercise was to prepare the house for the expansion in human population. Things are sometimes more interconnected than we tend to think!