Growing up in Australia with parents who had migrated from India many years earlier, there were so many topics that were simply “off-limits”, like one’s mental health. Having felt the impact of these “missing” conversations over the years, I committed early on in my own parenting journey to arm my daughter with knowledge. What I hadn’t anticipated was how challenging some of these conversations would be without a template or childhood memory to support me.
When I was in high school, my then best friend and I had a falling out. To date, I still don’t know why (although she has since apologised for her behaviour). I suspect I had simply become too “uncool” for her. What followed was many months of vitriol-filled messages left in my locker and taunts and dirty looks thrown my way in the school yard.
Fortunately, a group of girls took me under their wing so that I didn’t have to spend recess and lunch times alone. But despite their kindness, I still felt alone. An outsider. Hurt and broken, I dreaded those breaks from class.
I didn’t tell the teachers or my parents I was being bullied. Until a few months ago, I hadn’t even told my sister.
Now that I have my own kids, including a little girl in primary school, it scares me that I didn’t say anything at the time – that I didn’t ask for help. It’s led me to ask myself why.
What I’ve realised is that firstly, I felt intense shame – that I had somehow brought the events upon myself. I’ve also realised that I simply didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate what was happening to me at school – that no-one had ever taught me how to be vulnerable.
To be clear though, I don’t blame my parents, who love me dearly and have always wanted what is best for me. In fact, I think they would be horrified to know that I had been bullied and never told them.
The reality is that my parents and the parents of many other Indian kids like me grew up in an era with certain cultural and societal norms and expectations. It is only natural that these expectations would then inform the way they raised their children and the conversations they had with them as well as the conversations they didn’t have with them.
An awareness and understanding of sexual health and menstruation during my teen years were taboo topics among the family; gaps that were filled by friends, TV shows, magazines and movies; gaps that led to naivety, discomfort and unrealistic expectations.
Cultural norms that favoured a certain body shape and that therefore led to an internalisation of comments relating to my body and self-esteem issues that were left unresolved for a very long time.
Incomplete knowledge often resulted in a narrow view of the world where sexual orientation and gender were concerned. In fact, it was only when a few of my friends started coming out at university that I began to understand that the world was a far more diverse place than the one I had experienced until then.
Stigma that meant you just “got on with things” when you were struggling – that you had to be strong and resilient. Stigma that meant that my insides were jammed full of trauma that had never seen the light of day – trauma that eventually broke me when I suffered the heartache of pregnancy losses and secondary infertility later in life.
A reality that has resulted in a very long journey to self-realisation and internal harmony.
A reality I do not want for my children.
So, when my daughter started asking incessant “why questions” at the age of 3, I decided then and there that I would always be transparent with her and try to answer her questions as best as I could and in a manner and language that she could comprehend at her age.
Would her questions sometimes make me uncomfortable? Absolutely! Would I sometimes struggle to find the right words to explain complex issues to her? Of course. But arming her with knowledge about the world and the people in it is far more important to me than any discomfort I may face.
I want her to be prepared for the changes she will experience as a young girl and later, as a young woman, and be comfortable enough to come to me to ask me questions or for help. I don’t want her to hide things from me because of embarrassment or shame; feelings I experienced myself as a young girl.
I also decided that I wanted to try and give her a broad awareness of the different realities faced by different people in the world – that I wanted her to live the values of inclusion and empathy that I hold dear to me and that inform my own perspectives on life.
Over the years, we have discussed skin colour, the non-binary nature of gender, same-sex families, body image related issues, my pregnancy losses and the changes she will experience during puberty and the period before puberty.
As my son grows up, I’ll have the same conversations with him so that he too has an expansive awareness and understanding of the world around him and so that he feels comfortable being vulnerable and expressing emotion, something many Indian boys simply aren’t taught at home.
The thought that my children may experience what I experienced in high school worries me a lot, particularly knowing that bullying now extends beyond the playground to social media and the internet. My hope, however, is that unlike that little girl who soldiered on as if nothing was wrong while crying a well of tears inside, my children will feel that they can openly talk to me if they are ever in that situation.
As a parent, I will inevitably make mistakes. In the years to come, I’m sure my children will have their own views on things I could have done differently. My hope however is that the conversations I have with them help them to become grounded, culturally and socially aware human beings, who are capable of tapping into their emotions and who never feel that they weren’t given the vocabulary to deal with the complexities of the world we live in.
Indian by heritage and Australian by identity, Niti Nadarajah is a mother of two and a lawyer by profession. She is passionate about the need for more authentic and inclusive leadership and believes these conversations start at home.
Conversations we never had is first in the series of ‘Conversations with my Daughter’ by Niti, so do lookout for more in the coming months. Perhaps you will see yourself in them.