Unparenting: Sharing awkward truths with curious kids
Through her own awkward journey as a confused single parent, Reema Ahmad explores what it means to explore newer ways of bringing up children-ways that nurture their sense of innocence and curiosity while giving them the freedom to choose their own truths. Reema invites you to hop along as she and her son, Imaad, learn to laugh and make up stories about why penises shape-shift, the mysteries of pubic hair, the magic of adolescent crushes and the confounding maze of dating and sex. Join them as they explore these mysteries and other serious topics like abuse, adult relationships, divorce and dying-issues that adults often forget to wonder at and seldom question.
More than anything else, Unparenting is a vibrant, whacky testimony to a parent-child relationship where the child leads and the parent follows. Written in the form of deeply personal, engaging and often humorous essays, the book is a powerful reminder of what it feels like to be lost and misunderstood as a child, and how important it is to challenge what we think we know as parents.
Reema Ahmad is a neurolinguistic programming-based life coach. She is also a mental space psychologist and she works in the area of healing from trauma, abuse, violence and relationship issues.
Reema co-edited an anthology of women’s work called Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts with Semeen Ali. It was published by Red River Press in 2022. She is a poet and has also written articles for online publications like Scroll, Vice, Daily O and Live Mint. She is also a two-time TEDx and Josh Talks speaker.
Reema began her career as a child sexual abuse awareness educator and went on to specialize as a sexuality educator. She then co-founded Candidly, a forum to explore issues of gender, sexuality and media with her longtime friend Amita Malhotra in 2017.
Reema graduated from Lady Sri Ram College, Delhi University. Her schooling and early years were spent in Agra where she now lives with her parents, her son, two dogs and three cats.
In a world filled with noise and contradictory influences, how do you honestly discuss the awkward parts of growing up with your child?
“Unparenting” is not a typical memoir. It is a hard-to-classify much needed book that sheds light on a subject that Indians hesitate to acknowledge and avoid discussing altogether. Although everyone goes through adolescence, it is made out to be a maze that each teen has to figure out on their own.
In a rapidly changing world where information attacks you from all directions, children are even more confused. Therefore this book comes at the right time for all worried parents wondering how to interact, influence and raise their kids to be kind, considerate and responsible on a foundation built on transparency, honesty and mutual trust.
Through anecdotes of her growing up years, her professional training and her interactions with clients, Reema discusses the most uncomfortable topics ranging from body curiosity and discovery to abuse awareness and boundaries. Even though my children are now adults, I squirmed with discomfort at many places recollecting my own experiences during puberty as the only girl child between two brothers. I also wondered if I had been as open as I could have been when raising my own children given the fact that they are growing up in a world very different from the one I grew up in.
The hardest and most admirable part of Reema’s parenting journey is her brave decision to raise her son as a single parent specially when her views and approaches diverged greatly from the ones her parents held. It’s one thing to claim that one will answer a child’s question genuinely and without judgment and another to calmly discuss the most embarrassing topics at the most inopportune moments, specially if there are others watching.
Through a combination of gentle storytelling and compassionate observation, Reema manages to treat softly but confidently into those awkward areas in a parent-child relationship without being preachy. There is much to learn from this wise book, even if it feels a bit uneasy in parts because it deals not just with the physical aspects of growing up but also the emotional ones. There are chapters on bullying, dating as well as dealing with loss and grief that shed light on how we can all be better parents for our children of all ages.
I must commend Reema for boldly stepping into a difficult and often disregarded area of human relationships and clearing a path for all parents because we are responsible for the comfort and wellbeing of our children who will one day lead the world.
As Reema says about the importance of always keeping the door open to conversation with your children – “Talk to them (your children). Even if it’s just out of care for your own child, because you wouldn’t want anyone to judge them or be nasty to them because of how they look, walk, talk and what they wear, who they like, what they worship or eat.”
My opinion: Highly recommended for parents and families of all configurations. It is never too early to learn how to have uncomfortable conversations so that we can uncover our own biases and fears and help our children become comfortable and confident adults. I fully endorse Reema’s philosophy that “the best way to teach children anything is to do it, to be it.”
Question 1: Do you have a formal background in writing?
I don’t have a formal background in writing in the sense that I have never taken up a formal course on writing. However, I have an honors and masters degree in English literature and have always enjoyed reading. Writing prose and poetry came easily to me in school and college but I gave it up for almost a decade after graduation. I can’t say that any of that school work was spectacular in any way but my teachers appreciated it a lot and encouraged me to study literature.
Question 2: What came first? The idea for the book or the material?
The material for the book definitely came first. I became a mom when I was 25 and I was tremendously underprepared like most parents are. The only thing that helped was keeping conversations real and frank with my son. Anything he would ask me, I would try and answer with humor as much as possible. But I was well aware of the seriousness of some of the things he’d point to. Those conversations were the material for the book and also my past, my own childhood where I had greatly suffered for lack of awareness. I felt that it was important to pay attention to those dark spaces so I could move on. I didn’t know then that it would become a book!
Question 3: Did you come up with the idea to write this book or was it someone else?
After I became a single parent, that closeness between us became more intentional as I was aware that he depended entirely on me, especially when he reached adolescence and started asking all sorts of questions. It was my friends in real life and on Facebook where I’d share some of the funny conversations we had who first suggested I should write a book. That’s when the idea began forming in my head. I didn’t take it seriously at first but when enough people told me to consider it, I warmed up to the idea.
Question 4: Who/what were your primary motivations for writing this book?
My book is not entirely a memoir. It has a lot of my lived experience and a lot of insight gleaned from research and mental health courses I have undertaken. I think it falls into the parenting section of the self help category of books but it is not entirely didactic or instructional either. Rather confusing category!
To be very honest, my primary motivation for writing this book was to help ease the pain and trauma that exists in parent child relationships or is created because of the cultural silence around taboo issues. My past as an abuse survivor and my work experience as a sexuality educator and counselor has shown me the worst of what such silence can do. After my friends suggested I write a book talking about issues that are hushed up and how to communicate them to children, I felt that maybe writing a book for parents who shy away from awkward conversations will help create much needed awareness. I also wanted to undertake this heavy dialogue with lightness and humor so that parents feel at home and welcome, not intimidated.
Question 5: Did you write parts of this book in parallel as events transpired or much later?
The first half of the book was written from memory and most of the events mentioned had already transpired. The second half, which was very difficult to write post pandemic, was written in parallel. But there is a lot of back and forth between past and present throughout the book. I have tried to connect every event with something larger and systemic for it to be topical for readers.
Question 6: How long did it take from start to finish for the book?
It took about four years in all where I think I wrote for not more than four to five months in total. There were long periods of just not writing at all.
Question 7: How did you arrive at this form for narrating your experiences?
I broke up the chapters into issues and they were connected chronologically to what children need as they grow up. For example, the first chapter is about body safety that has to be taught early on and then we move on to adolescence, puberty, sexuality etc.
Question 8: Were you inspired by other similar books before choosing this narrative style?
I did not refer to any other books for writing style while writing. My style of communication has always been personal and informal and I chose that tone. In fact, I chose to purposely deviate from the instructional formal ‘to do’ tone of most parenting books.
Question 9: How did you decide what goes in and what stays out?
That was difficult. I took out parts which I felt would affect my child if he were to read the book later. In hindsight I feel that I should have taken out more but the book itself is personal. So I kept in what was essential to the themes while trimming out very personal details.
Question 10: What was the easy part?
Creating the structure of the book was very easy for me.
Question 11: What was the difficult part?
Reliving and remembering some of the things that happened in my past that I included in the book was difficult. Also feeling very inadequate as a parent while writing a book on the topic made me want to give up a lot. It really tested me.
Question 12: What was your path to publication? Did you have an agent?
My agent, Kanishka Gupta, was recommended to me by a family friend. I wrote to him very informally on social media with a short pitch of my book. Luckily, he loved the idea and asked for a book synopsis and one sample chapter. After that was approved, he pitched the book to some publishing houses and we got offers from all the big ones. We went with the offer that seemed most suitable to us and chose Penguin. To be honest, the part that is most difficult for most writers was luckily easy for me but the writing itself was hard.
Question 13: Did you learn any lessons – during writing and after publication of your book – any surprising or unusual takeaways?
The whole journey of writing and publishing has been full of learnings, some painful, some pleasant. The biggest lesson I have learned is that it takes a marketing mindset that everybody may not have to keep plugging your book. Publishing and post publishing is taxing for people who are not socially connected or are not influencers in some way. I was neither and selling a niche book became very overwhelming after a point. My publishers pulled all stops and that helped tremendously but at the end of the day writing can be reduced to a numbers game. For someone who insists and works very hard on authenticity and quality, that can be hard to swallow. The other lesson I have learned is to keep focusing on what it is that one gains personally from writing; the connection with readers, a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Looking at how much a book sells is an exercise in self torture that is hard to escape given how our world is setup now.
Question 14: What is the one thing you want the reader to remember from the book?
I want the reader to remember the stories and warmth I have shared in my book. I want them to remember that I shared those in the hope that they might find hope, strength and strategy through them, that they might feel like someone understands.
Question 15: Any words of advice to aspiring writers?
Keep your focus on your craft and your message. The rest is all glitter which is good if you get it but it is the connections that happen through your voice that really matter.
Question 16: Would you recommend any similar books by Indian authors?
I wouldn’t say there are any similar books by Indian authors because there just aren’t. But two books on parenting I really like are Shelja Sen’s Love Is All You Need and Zehra Naqvi’s The Reluctant Mother.
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