The Parent BPO

The Indian Express - October 14, 2012

Power shifts in new-age parenting

One day, the same person who sent me off to Balsekar, took my daughter and me to meet Gregory David Roberts, the author of the spellbinding book Shantaram. While there was a debate on how autobiographical the novel was, we knew that Roberts was once a drug addict, sentenced to 19 years imprisonment in Australia for robberies. Two years later, he escaped from a maximum-security prison in broad daylight, and was on the run for the next 10 years. He was eventually captured in Germany, extradited to Australia and served out the rest of his rigorous prison sentence. He said that he almost escaped prison again but decided to finish his sentence. Thinking about his "then" and "now" amazing life journey — now a best-selling author, comfortably living in a swish south Mumbai apartment, about to make a movie with Johnny Depp, being paid an arm and a leg for talks - I asked him whether he believed in destiny. He said he believed in the power of the human spirit. I told Balsekar the story, and asked him what he thought of it. He flattened me with his one-liner, "Ask him in which shop did he buy the strength of his human spirit."

So I agreed on royalty. She decides the price, depending on how guilty she can make me feel. The last article cost me a lot, as in, "It's not enough that you abandoned me for the first year of my life, but now you have told the whole world that I was an abandoned child," followed by "Oh, I bought myself a new handbag," to which I gamely replied, "take the money from me as royalty". This royalty policy is being implemented unilaterally with retrospective effect. I now apparently owe a lot for something I wrote several years ago on bringing up children, which made her friends say, "You poor thing, at least my mother lectures me in the privacy of our home; yours does it from the pages of a newspaper."

But I now think that I should offset royalty against fees for increasing amounts of work that is being outsourced to me. "Discipline my maid, but don't scare her off", "go shopping for this (detailed specifications of items and shops) but don't buy anything. Just take pictures, check prices and BBM them to me. It's really urgent but please don't worry if you are busy". I have done my research to know that I am not the only sucker in parentdom, and that outsourcing is becoming an epidemic. An older friend of mine told me that the trouble was that women these days were obsessing too much over their children and their marriages. In her generation, everyone knew that the best results came from benign neglect.

Because parents are more responsible and can be held more accountable than any alarm service, and because telecom is cheap, children who don't live at home outsource wake-up calls for exams, job interviews, flights and more. A friend called early one morning in panic and wanted to use my internet. I thought it was urgent office work, but it turned out that she had been outsourced the editing of her daughter's much-delayed term paper. Taking advantage of the time difference of five hours, her daughter would mail her the draft before she went to sleep. The mother had to trim down the text, and paraphrase what she had understood of the argument "because if you get it, it means, it is clear and simple", and send it back before the daughter's day began. The terms of reference of this outsourcing job were explicit, "Don't put any of your ideas into it, just fix the grammar and the word count, don't touch the tone, you don't understand these things".

I know many parents who are nervous wrecks, lining up prospective spouses for their children who are too busy making money to be social, to "meet people". They have to deliver to exacting specifications, justify some inclusions in the shortlist, and do the tricky job of making all the regret phone calls; or worse still do the "keep-on-hold" calls, when it's neither a "no" or an "yes". How is this different from parents earlier? Well, earlier, as a parent, you got to do the slave labour, but you also got voting rights, maybe even veto rights in all the big decisions in their lives. But now, parents are more democratic, and there is little danger of forcing decisions on children. Here's the new axiom of parenting: the quantum of outsourcing work to parents increases in direct proportion to how liberal the parents are.

I have feeling-bad-about-bad experiences outsourced to me - once mom has been told, then daughter gets to forget about it and move on, knowing that the situation will get the angst it truly merits. Last week, I was called, given the "need to know" details of a bothersome situation and asked what I would do in such a situation. "Agonise" I said. Pat came the reply, "So will you please agonise over it and let me know tomorrow morning what you came up with? I can't do it because I have to go out tonight."