Soulful Conversations between Parents and Children

A retired women sitting with another woment

About the Author :
Shoba Narayan is the author of five books. As a journalist and columnist, she writes about health, relationships, travel, food and culture for global publications, winning a James Beard award and Pulitzer Fellowship. She has taught and lectured at universities in India (IIM-B and IISc) and abroad. She is the host and anchor of Bird Podcast: about birds and nature. She enjoys wine, studies Jung and is a gadget geek. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.

Shoba Narayan - photo on WisdomCircle

My brother calls me from Shirdi. He has taken my mother for a temple visit, and they are sitting in the hotel room after the darshan. “We just wanted to chat,” he says.

I could relate to the seemingly casual phone call. Both my brother and I are at a stage of life where we both know that time with our mother is finite. There is an unspoken longing that we feel– to get close to her, to understand her in a deeper way than our usual conversations about the internet not working, or which cousin called that morning, or what she had for breakfast that day. I have many questions for my Mom and perhaps you do too—for your parents.

Think back to the closest relationships in your life, whether it is a parent, sibling, or grandparent. For me, my grandmother was an incredible influence. She told me stories, not from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, but from her own life. She didn’t talk down to me, but instead shared her life and thoughts.  She talked about money troubles, and how her father—whom she adored—would “slink out” every evening to meet a “Fair lady,” because you know “Ma was tired and sweaty managing 11 children, and that lady was neat and well-dressed.” She told me this when I was 16 and I never forgot it because I was so shocked that my great-grandfather had an affair.  She also talked about how distraught she was when her husband didn’t stand up for her, and how she wished she had an education beyond high school. “I would have conquered the world and maybe I wouldn’t have married your grandfather,” she said. This, too, shocked me. I mean, these were adult conversations. They had a deep impact on my thinking. Perhaps that is why I write about people and their complex relationships.

My mother talks about her life with my kids, but not nearly enough. Part of it is because she is not a natural storyteller like her mother (my grandmother). But part of it is perhaps nobody asks her deep questions. During one walk, I attempted to change that. I asked her how she had decided to marry my Dad. To my pleasant surprise, along came some delightful stories about her childhood crushes, and my parents’ courtship. Before my eyes, she became a young girl. Encouraged, I came home and made a list of questions that I wanted to ask my Mom, who is now in her eighties.

I want to know how she held her marriage together, whether she contemplated divorce at any time, and whether she was sexually harassed as a girl. I want to know if she is content with her life or has regrets. If so, what are those regrets? I want to know where she was during partition, or when Indira Gandhi was assassinated.  How has her relationship with her siblings changed? Were there times when they fought and how did they repair the relationship? Did she feel let down by her parents or siblings (or for that matter, her children) at any point? What were the toughest phases of her life and how did she get through them? Does she have any remaining dreams or fantasies that we could fulfil? Does she like my brother more than me? Is she worried about dying? What does she want us to do at that time? Should we be aggressive with medical care or not?

Perhaps you too have parents who don’t talk about “deep” stuff. But consider drawing them out with questions.  Of course, you have to figure out how to do this. It depends on the parent, time, place and family dynamics. During his 70th birthday, I asked an uncle what his best birthday was. I was expecting a story about an unusual childhood birthday present.  Instead, he said, “Oh, I didn’t know I would have to work for my cake.” While I was genuinely interested in his answer, I realised that I couldn’t pop a question like that out of the blue and in front of guests. I had to slowly work my way from the day-to-day to the deep questions, not jump into them. I had to choose the time and do it one-on-one, not in a group.

My Mom is direct and has no fear of deep conversations.  She doesn’t initiate them because her own life, her thoughts and stories are uninteresting to her. She doesn’t know that I am dying to hear them.

During one walk, I brought up the idea of a living will. In the US, I said, elders decide on how aggressively they want to be treated if they have a terminal illness.  For example, they write down “DNR” or “Do Not Resuscitate” when it comes to being put on a ventilator to keep the heart going.  My Mom got it immediately. “I have lived a long happy life,” she said immediately. “You should let me go peacefully. Not take me to the hospital or anything.  Put me in the puja room and let me go.” 

If you are older, give your children the gift of conversation. They may not have time for you. But when they come to visit, you have a choice. You can talk about inane stuff, or you can choose to tell them things that are important—about life and death, fears and hopes, love and hate, relationships, and learning. Similarly, if you are a son or daughter, you can ask questions when you visit your parents. Both of you will be better for it. Asking these questions in front of your children (their grandchildren) is even better because it will give them a template for how to foster closeness.  

There are two gifts we can give our loved ones: the gift of time and the gift of stories.

In the picture: Rekha Kochhar, Founder at Boutique Bites of Health with her daughter-in-law Natasha.

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Photo Credits: Saonli Sen Choudhury of WisdomCircle

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