Ammu is curled up in a ball at the end of the sofa. Laddu and Pattu are tossing a balloon between them using their cheap plastic wands as bats to hit the balloon.
“We are playing royal tennis,” Laddu tells me as I pass them to reach Ammu.
I stroke Ammu’s forehead, gathering her body against mine. The story pours out from her before I can say a word.
Earlier this weekend, on our regular grocery trip, I permitted the children to pick out wands and tiaras to go with their Halloween costume. Laddu chose a blue set while Pattu reached for purple, her favorite color. Even as Ammu scouted for something, I reminded her that I bought her a Unicorn headband a few days before. She sulked but realized it was only fair that her sisters get something while she did not.
Since we got home, the tiaras and wands have been a permanent fixture. I listened in horror as Ammu sobbed. It turns out the other two had declared themselves Royals and had Ammu work as the servant fetching them water and watch them play Royal tennis with wands and balloons.
My instinct was to confiscate everything and put an end to the game. Instead, I sat on the sofa holding the sobbing child and wondering how to talk about everything that was wrong about the scenario.
By the time Ammu had done sobbing, the other two had moved on to a different game and I picked up the now stranded plastic pieces. I shouted instructions for the three to play together and cut out the royal nonsense. And I stewed.
All through the weekend, every show the kids watched on TV featured witches, fairy godmothers, princesses, and otherworldly creatures. While they stared transfixed at the main characters, I noticed the ones standing off the side, setting tables, bringing costumes, serving as sidekicks. The Invisibles.
Through my growing years, we always had help at home. Usually, a lady who would come in once or twice a day to clean, wash and help out with chores. I took pride in the fact that we treated people who helped us at home with dignity and respect, except now that I live a few thousand miles away and my rose tinted glasses are off. There are so many things problematic with the power imbalance and the entitlement of those who hire help. Each visit I make back home reinforces how things have stayed the same even as the world outside has changed.
Watching my children play has been a rude awakening. I know what happened yesterday is a teachable moment. I am still grappling with what I want to say and how I say it. Race, class, societal constructs, the circumstance of birth, there are so many things that are intertwined and overlaid. How do I teach my children while I am still unlearning a whole lot of what I imbibed and feel responsible for?
Of all the things I expected parenting to be, this certainly seems to be the hardest.