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Home Alone

...The Inside Story

By Sabrina F Ahmad and Sayeed Mahmud Nizam

When he comes back from home, there's no Mummy waiting for him with a hug and a hot spread. Lunch for this independent young man is a microwaved meal, which he heats up for himself. Meet Asif, a latchkey child.

What is a 'latchkey child'? The phrase originated in the early 1800's, when youngsters who were responsible for their own care wore the key to their home tied on a string around their necks. Back then, well before the women's lib revolution took place, this kind of lifestyle for children was not very common. Fast-forward to the 21st century where a larger percentage of women are pursuing full-time careers, right along with their men, and you have a sudden boom in the number of children who are left to fend for themselves. Bangladesh is not left out of this picture either.

The concept of a nuclear family (a family solely comprised of two parents and their children) is now entrenched in our society. Consequently, relying on a family member to take care of children is no longer an option. Although now there are day-care centres in Dhaka, they are few and far between and not really a viable option for most parents. "There is not a single day-care centre near my house and therefore I am compelled to make my son a latchkey child", says Dr. Ishrat Zareen. On the other hand, those who have day-care centres near their houses cannot always afford to avail their services. "I am a civil servant and so I do not get paid much. With my income I cannot afford to pay the exorbitant charges of a day-care centre. Reluctantly, I have made my daughter a latchkey child", informs Mrs. Jahanara Imam.

The safety of their children is a cause for sleepless nights amongst working parents. "I constantly remain anxious about my daughter as nowadays young children are kidnapped on a regular basis. For this reason I have told her to return home with a friend and also to take the same route every day from school", says Mrs. Rokeya Monsur. "My son is very accident-prone and so I wish I did not have to leave him alone at home. But without my income it would be difficult for my husband to maintain our expenses. I feel as if I am in a Catch-22 situation. To somewhat counter the problem, I have taught my son about how to make use of a First Aid kit. Also, I have provided him with my office phone number so that he can contact me in case of an emergency," tells Mrs. Fahmida Sultana.

So what do the daddies have to say on the matter? The vast majority of fathers that we spoke to regretted the fact that they could not spend too much time with their children. "I really miss my son at office. After I return home I feel extremely tired and so I cannot have a decent conversation with him," says Mr. Asghar Ali. "My son regularly requests me to help him out with his homework, but I cannot always do so as I have to take care of my patients," says Dr Anupam Ghosh. So it remains, that a father's role in his child's life hasn't changed all that much over the past couple of decades. Only today's children are doubly deprived as their mothers also go missing from their daily schedules.

The latchkey children themselves have many different attitudes towards their lifestyles. The responses that we received from the children on how they felt about their parents working were mixed. "It is not as if they both work intentionally. The fact of the matter is that they have to work to provide for all of our expenses," says Dipa. On the other hand, Asif informs: "I think my parents value their careers more than me."

Before you hit the panic button, though, consider the pros of the latchkey lifestyle. During our research we found that most of these children made good use of the community resources available to them while their parents were at work. In other words, they regularly participate in sports, debate competitions, or have after-school lessons. These enable them to develop social skills, which come in handy when applying for employment. Also being compelled to look after themselves from a young age, these children are also more street-smart than those living in conventional households.

However one feels about this lifestyle, one has to face the fact that with changing times, latchkey children are becoming the norm. At the end of the day, the decision to adopt this lifestyle must come from the whole family in question.

Mama and me ...

Sabrina F Ahmad

She used to be my only enemy and never let me be free,
Catching me in places that I knew I shouldn't be
Every other day I'd cross the line
I didn't mean to be so bad
Never knew she'd become the friend I never had.
~ Spice Girls ~

Yes, yes, I did the 'uncool' thing and quoted the Spice Girls. Love them (not that you'd admit it if you did), or hate them, you have to admit: their song 'Mama' beautifully captures the bittersweet bonds that bind a mother and her teenage child. May 9 is Mother's Day, a day we devote to celebrating those special people who play important roles in every aspect of our lives. They are the difference between a house and a home. They are the ones towards whom our thoughts turn whenever we're depressed and lonely. They are our mothers.

In the first few months of a person's life, a mother is literally the centre of the universe. The baby recognises her as the caregiver, the provider of food, comforter and protection. Those guys who marketed the 'Mum' mineral water really knew what they were doing when they made the slogan "Mum it comes naturally." Just so, from the day that we learn to voice our thoughts, no matter how old we get, whenever we're down and out, or in need of assistance, the first person that pops to mind is Mum. The very thought of our mothers is enough to encouragement. I'm sure you've seen the ad where Indian batsman Sehwag finds himself in a do-or-die situation, and then suddenly he receives an SMS from his mother, which inspires him to hit a six that leads his team to victory. It might look cheesy on TV, but it really works that way for a lot of people.

Especially complex and beautiful is the relationship between mothers and daughters. At the beginning of mother- daughter relationships, the child thinks her mother is a goddess. She smudges her face with her mother's lipstick and wears her jewellery and high heels, desiring to be just like her mum. Then she turns thirteen, and Mum abruptly becomes the most uninformed, irrelevant, off-the-planet dragon around. In the rough and tough teen years of mother daughter relationships, the main form of communication for the next five years or so will be a few words, "No way mum!" Then, somewhere amidst the twenties and thirties, if the girl is fortunate, Mum becomes her greatest buddy.

For boys it's a little different, sociologists say. They spend their lives competing with their fathers for their mothers' attention, something that is called the Oedipus complex. The intensity of this competition varies within families, and of course, depends a lot on the son's relationship with his father, and his closeness to his mother, as well as the relationship between the parents. In any case, the competition peaks during the teen years, as the son begins to assert himself, trying to prove he's a man, and the father wants to hold his ground as the head male of the family. The mothers are often caught in between, as they have to act as a buffer between the two opposing fronts. The mother-son relationship will also cool off a little during this stage, as the boys find other women in their lives…
yes, their girlfriends. Then they find wives, and start their own families, and how close they remain to their mothers really depends on their relationship with their wives and vice versa. In most cases, there is no significant 'emotional reunion with Mum' that girls experience. However, interestingly enough, the men seek to fill the gap with their wives. According to studies, the care, the nurturing that they received as children from their mothers, is what they seek from their wives once they get married. The wives find themselves in the awkward position of trying to fulfil those needs without morphing into their mothers-in-law, but that's a different story altogether.

I see my friends with their mothers, and each relationship is unique and beautiful in its own way. The girls fight viciously with their mothers, and are equally fierce in their defence of them. The boys try to pretend they are 'cool' and independent, but most of them would take a bullet for their mothers. Each of their stories would make a novel in itself.

My own relationship with my mother has had its hills and valleys. When we were kids, my sister and I fought relentlessly for her attention, staging elaborate "This Mum ain't big enough for the both of us" scenarios. I honestly think we both had the Oedipus Complex. Then suddenly, I hit the teen years, and the best way to annoy me was to tell me that I looked just like my mother. Just like that outdated, unfashionable, Hitler-woman? I didn't think so… Yet, despite my most desperate attempts to avoid it, I'd invariably find myself dressing the way my mother does, choosing a hairstyle similar to hers, speaking her lingo.

We've come a long way from that phase, but it's still a roller coaster ride being her daughter. On good days, we'll be each other's perfect twin, and she'll share all her thoughts with me, and I'd confide in her. On bad days, we'll be at daggers drawn, and hell hath no fury like Sabrina and her mother at odds. For the most part, I recognise the huge impact she's had on my life, and the person I am today, the principles and values in me, are the products of the love and energy she has invested in me. I am grateful to her for all she's done for me, the times she's stood by my side, the times she has taken the heat for me, and yes, even for the times when she made me toe the line. I am not ashamed to admit that as bitter as those episodes have been, I am stronger and more capable because of them.

On Mother's Day, let's all take a few moments to take these incredible women by the hand and tell them that they are good and beautiful, and that life is worth living because they are in it. The debt that we owe our mothers simply for bringing us into the world cannot be repaid, but at least one can try. Go on, buy your mother some flowers. Bring her breakfast in bed. Take her out on a special date and treat her like royalty for a day. Don't forget to tell her you love her. Happy Mother's Day!



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