BENGALURU: One of my favourite Birbal stories involves this polyglot who is so fluent in so many different languages that it is hard for even professors of each of those languages to tell that this person is not a native speaker of the language. The polyglot goes to Akbar’s court and showcases the proficiency over all these languages to everyone’s amazement, and is so good that after all the demonstrations, Akbar gets a challenge from the polyglot to see if anyone can determine his native tongue. A lot of people try to guess but fail. Akbar looks to Birbal, and Birbal asks for the night to get the answer.
Late at night, when everyone is deep asleep, Birbal goes to the guest’s room and upends a bucket of ice-cold water on the bed, startling the person awake who screams out for his mother and father in, you guessed it, their native tongue and Birbal saves the day again. At times of major stress, we typically reach out to calling for our earliest caregivers and usually in the language we used as a kid. When in pain, or at moments of shock, we call out for them, or maybe a divine figure. This is generally true no matter how old one gets. One might be a nonagenarian in an old-age home or a three-year old who stubbed their toe in the playground, and it is still very much the same. We call out for the first caregiver we knew. It is the rare person who does something different.
Yet, there is a moment of transition when the person taking immediate care becomes the partner or someone in a romantic relationship, and not the parent or the earlier caregiver. Families bond over care, especially care at critical times of illnesses and support needed at such times. If one has had a consistently caring family situation, that moment of transition can be quite traumatic in itself and is a major source of conflicts in many families. Imagine a person is getting admitted to a hospital for a surgery. It requires them to stay at the hospital for say, three to four nights, and they need an attendant to stay with them through the whole period who can take care of them. Who gets to stay with them through it all? Is it the parent, or would it be the new intimate partner they have in their life? When does one start choosing the partner over the parent? Or, does one continue to choose parental support at times like this?
Occasionally, one might have some logistical reason, like perhaps knowing the local language or if there are questions of accessibility, for choosing one person over the other, but under most other circumstances, the choice of who you take with you into hospital rooms and other such exceptional circumstances do indicate that pecking order as it were, in terms of intimacy. Who you choose to be with you says a lot.
And yes, you might still cry out for a parent when in pain.
The author is a counsellor with InnerSight