The ocean sunfish, a creature at one extreme of nature’s vast spectrum of fecundity, pumps out an estimated 300 million eggs during a single spawning season. At the other end of that spectrum are elephants, pandas, and the great apes, slowest of all creatures to breed. The ocean sunfish mother does not know how many of her offspring survive, but the chimpanzee mother, who has one baby every five or six years, does. She carries that baby everywhere for its first five months. For two years it does not leave her side; it stays close for eight more. We know this to be true of animals: the larger the brood, the more expendable each juvenile. The larger the brood, the less parental involvement. Think of the emperor penguin father guarding that one egg with his whole body, trusting the mother to return before he starves; think of the father seahorse spraying his 2,000 newly hatched babies into the water, sink or swim, sink or swim, what does he care? It’s late spring in France, and the beetles that hatch by the thousands at this time of year are out at night, flinging their hard bodies against the windowpanes like hail, driving my cats mad. In the mornings we find dead beetles scattered under the streetlights and windows, thirty, fifty, nobody’s counting, three or four or five on the kitchen floor, brought in by the cats to toy with for those few minutes before they’re too weak to be any fun.
Abundance and danger: each is supposed to hold the other in check. This knowledge does not feel complicated or dangerous to us; it does not make us uncomfortable. This is a simple scientific truth. The beetle mothers carry this arithmetic in their bodies, how many eggs must be laid to overcome the parasites, the birds, the glass, the cats, and all of it—the arithmetic, the input, the loss, the rate of survival—is unconscious. None of it requires the beetle mother’s hope or regret. But how much is unconscious for the chimpanzee mother and the penguin father? Their bodies must understand the probability of failure, the great hopes they invest in that one baby, that one egg. Think of mediaeval peasants or Victorian slums and the notion of blissful ignorance further shifts and slips. We pore over the testaments they have left us: could child exposure in Ancient Rome have meant they loved their many children less, even if today we believe that you multiply, not divide, your love with each new baby? Or is the ability to tear yourself away from your child to end its suffering—while yours will continue—evidence of a greater love? What did it feel like to be that mother walking away from the baby abandoned in the marketplace? Trudging home through the forest, what did Hansel and Gretel’s father tell himself?
Once, in an airport, I watched a family with three children lose the youngest. She’d been lagging behind the others for a while, distracted, tired. When she knew she’d never catch up, she found an empty seat where she was. She didn’t cry; I didn’t speak to her. We both knew they’d come back. But I did think, What if they’d had seven or eight? Would it have taken them longer to notice one was missing? Is there an equation? How many minutes of not noticing does one add for each extra child? Or is the graph exponential? My grandmother’s sister had sixteen children. Sixteen who survived; no one remembers how many didn’t, if we ever knew. My grandmother herself gave birth to two who died, one after another, nameless entries in my grandfather’s black book: boy child, girl child, the dates of their births and deaths a scant year apart. The elders and midwives told her not to cut the umbilical cord of the next baby, and so, when he finally arrived, this third child who was to be my oldest uncle, she put his placenta in a clay pot and waited for the cord to fall off him, signalling his sure footing in this world. After him, she fell pregnant another six times, but bore only five children. The fourth died in her womb when, in her eighth month of pregnancy, the third rolled off his bed onto her belly as she lay sleeping on the floor.
We have long acknowledged the bequeathing of sorrow from one generation to the next. The cautionary tales spun in hostile environments, the protective gift of fear: this is what we’ve often thought of as collective memory. We know now that stress and trauma alter our genes, modifying protein production at the very beginning of embryonic development. Even controlling for acquired behaviour that might affect parenting, researchers have found that mice pass on the effects of trauma—the fear of particular stimuli, the tendency to give up more quickly when presented with a challenge— to as many as six generations of their descendants.
My grandmother and her sisters had the worst of both worlds: little choice in the number of their offspring, but none of the indifference of nature’s prolific breeders. “Even if you have to herd goats for a living, it is better to herd the government’s goats,” my grandmother would tell me when I was little and she was old enough to have known three generations’ suffering. The sure thing, the steady job that lasted your whole life, the government job that gave you a monthly salary and a pension: this was the only sufficient recompense for the great chance her father had taken in leaving the Indian homeland to seek his fortune in Malaysia.
Raising her children at a time when the future of Malaysian Tamils was uncertain, knowing she could not put them on a boat and take them back to a land she’d never known, she wondered who they would be in the new nation, how they would find their place. She would not have had the words or the time to articulate these anxieties, but she could not have escaped them—they were in the soil and the water. In Malay, the word for homeland is tanahair, a compound word: tanah, soil; air, water. Would the soil welcome her children, would the water quench their various thirsts?
As the Malay majority struck its bargain with the departing British colonisers, agreeing not to repatriate immigrants if Malay supremacy could be guaranteed, my grandmother would have been imagining her children’s futures: marriage for the girls, and for the boys, jobs that would put food on the table. Nothing more. Unlike the beetle mothers laying their million eggs in the central French countryside, she was aware of that thing parents in the affluent West now love to discuss: risk. She had trusted the British, believed her people to be safer under them than they would be after independence. In her words and in her behaviour, she passed on to her children her unease, her impression of being abandoned to the mercy of the Malays. But was that the extent of it, or is my own abiding distrust a genetic inheritance? “Thann kai thannaku sadham,” goes the Tamil saying I’m told was a favourite of my grandfather’s. You can only be sure of the rice from your own hand.
The general consensus in Western progressive parenting circles is that measured risk is good for children. Risky play builds physical and emotional confidence and prepares children for life. Social risks—like being allowed to ride the New York City subway alone at the age of nine—foster the independence and resourcefulness so rare in today’s oversupervised, overscheduled generation. But in my Malaysian Indian childhood, risk, except when absolutely necessary, was something to be avoided. In the soil, in the water, there was the hostility of the nation-state that did not want us, that erased us from its national narratives, that gave the prizes and the scholarships and the most coveted university places to children of the majority race even when we had better grades. Even four generations into our lives on that soil, we remained pendatang, a word less friendly than its customary translation: immigrants. Immigrant is neutral; an immigrant may be welcome or unwelcome. In Malaysia, pendatang means only that you do not belong. “There is nothing for you in this country,” my mother told us as soon as we were old enough to understand. “You will have to leave, but we have no money. Therefore you must be three times as good as anyone else, because first there are the Malays, and then there are the Chinese, and only then, you.”
In the zero-sum game of Malaysian racial politics, the overriding lesson of our childhoods was to trust no one. Not the Malays, who held the power of the state and whose loudest representatives reminded you, whenever you caused trouble or seemed ungrateful, that you did not belong, even if your ancestors had come to the peninsula a hundred years before your birth, even if you had never set foot in your supposed homeland. “Balik India!” Go back to India if you don’t like it here. I think of the number of times my parents must have heard those words, the cumulative effects of the threat; I think of the mouse parents in the study—confined in tubes, dropped in water, terrorised by bright lights and fox odours—and of how, eventually, they became unable to assess risk accurately. For many Malaysian Indian parents, the Chinese, too, were to be approached with circumspection: weren’t they lurking in the shadows, waiting to snatch even our meagre scraps of the pie? “Don’t believe the Chinese kids when they tell you they’re not studying,” our parents would say. “Of course they’re all studying. Don’t tell them how much you’re studying. Don’t tell them you’re applying for that scholarship. Don’t show anybody your results.” Don’t show, don’t share, don’t tell: there was always an urgency to this advice, a desperation to convey the precariousness of our position. Study hard, study hard. Concentrate on the practical subjects, choose the career that will pay the bills. Medicine or law or engineering; art and music may set you apart from the other scholarship applicants, but those are not careers for people like us. A nd along with relentless work and pragmatism: keep your eyes open, never expect others to be on your side. Constant vigilance, purportedly the only thing that would save us, often wore us out, but how could we unlearn lessons that might be inscribed in our cells?
The least anxious parents I’ve ever observed are Northern Europeans: the Scandinavians, the Dutch, the Germans never hover at the playground; they leave their children to negotiate every challenge and resolve every conflict on their own. It took me years to connect this parenting philosophy with the strong and egalitarian social welfare networks those parents had been able to take for granted growing up. New to motherhood, I admired them and their happy, filthy, feral children; I didn’t think about what they had that I could never have. I wanted my children to be that unselfconscious, that free of the adult gaze. I imagined them scaling literal and metaphorical heights I’d never scaled, free to imagine and invent and innovate, tiny masters of their own sovereign bodies.
“My daughter,” one free-spirited mother told me, “would scream if we tried to wash her hair, so we didn’t wash it for four years. We just brushed it. It wasn’t dirty anyway.”
I listened, in awe only of her restraint—I knew I could not have gone that far—until I found myself thinking, You never had to worry, did you? You were never accused of having lice when you didn’t. No one ever shied away from you on the bus, telling all the other kids, “Eee, don’t sit next to her, Indian girls are smelly.” Now you get to gift your child the social risk of unwashed hair.
Our mothers, knowing what the risks were, sent us to school in scrupulously ironed uniforms, our hair plaited tight, our white canvas shoes spotless. In my first year of primary school, I was the first child the teacher checked for head lice, but the only one who never caught them that year. No mother’s punctiliousness could completely obviate the disadvantages of dark skin in my hometown in the 1980s; what would six-year-old me have said if I’d been offered a glimpse of privilege so great that it could outweigh actual grime? I don’t know, and I still don’t trust the possibility that my lightskinned daughters could have inherited only their father’s privilege and not my burdens. I carefully inspect the clothes they choose for school, looking for tiny stains their eyes might have missed, frayed cuffs, the merest hint of a hole in the knees of their leggings. “Not this one, not this one,” I tell them, though when they demand to know why, I say, “People will judge me, not you”—thinking there must be truth in that, hoping it’s most of the truth, wondering what their lives will be like if by some miracle they don’t inherit the fear of this small, anodyne risk.
On holiday in Berlin one summer, we visited the city’s famed playgrounds, their uneven, uncushioned surfaces mimicking nature’s unpredictability. At the adventure playgrounds, children had at their disposal power tools and hardware supplies with which they built their own cabins and play structures under minimal supervision. I watched one boy climb a tree and throw himself from its highest branches onto the roof of a shed six feet away. This he did half a dozen times before a young woman came out of one of the buildings and mildly told him to stop.
I thought of how, when my mother saw a picture of one of her grandchildren walking sedately along a low brick wall, she gasped and exclaimed, “Is she on a roof ? Is it safe?”
Is it safe? is the question my mother most frequently asks when we tell her what we’re up to: if I take a solo trip, if my children swim in a lake, if they build a treehouse with their father, if they whittle with a penknife. Is it safe? And I hear, behind her words, all the dangers that remain within living memory—unsafe mining ponds, disease, infection—but also the underlying warning: no one will take care of us if anything happens. But they will, they will, I want to reassure her—only my body does not believe this.
“Tell him not to run!” my mother cried one day while visiting us, seeing my husband sprint down the road with our dog. “He’ll fall! Why, why is he running for no reason?”
“Because it’s fun,” I said, shrugging, picturing his feet sliding on loose pebbles, blood on his knees.
Like my mother, I don’t understand risk for the sake of pleasure alone. “Skiing?” my mother says incredulously, when I tell her how someone in my white husband’s family sustained an injury. Then she asks, as though they broke their leg by hurling themselves off a tall building, “But why?” “Because it’s fun,” I tell her. “Because they enjoy it. They think it’s worth it.” I recite this the way I used to recite physics equations in secondary school, not knowing who came up with it and how, or what it really means. With the memorised explanation, I perform a dismissal of her irrational fears, drawing a fragile boundary between her world and mine. You’re over there, I’m telling her, and I’m over here now, in a place where I know how to say these words. Whether or not she believes I’ve left those fears behind, the words feel necessary, as though they might be the first step in breaking the cycle. If, indeed, the cycle can be broken—if my daughters have not already inherited from me the conviction that danger is something you use your wits to avoid rather than court. Will they be people who invent challenges for themselves for the sheer joy of it, or will they spend their lives trying to reach higher ground, wondering how far they can make it before the elements conspire to drown them?
My daughters are growing up with contradictory messages about cost, benefit, and risk: mine, warning them that the pavement is slippery because it’s drizzling, that the cardboard box won’t bear their weight, that the pile of rocks is not stable, and their father’s, telling them that they might get hurt but they’ll probably heal, that the only way to figure out if something works is to try it. He invokes the scientific method: try, fail, adjust, adapt, try, fail, adjust, adapt. But what if you only get one chance, I think. When we first met, he could not believe I’d never broken a bone: unimaginable, to him, a childhood in which you were not in and out of emergency rooms. Children, you know! white parents will say with their rueful, knowing chuckles. My brother did break his arm once, and so did a boy we knew, the son of a family friend. To this day, we still talk about those two injuries, the way a white family might recall a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a distant country.
This week, my husband took our daughters for a walk. The forecast was for rain; clouds already darkened the sky when they were leaving. “Are you sure you should go?” I said. But the girls were restless from all our long days at home. They went farther than I would have taken them under those clouds, and sure enough, it began to pour as they were on their way back. They tumbled in through the front door, drenched. “They’re fine,” my husband said. “They’re not even cold.” In my stomach, that unease: But what if they get sick? I held it up to the light of logic, trying to tease apart the threads of my terror, to determine where reasonable worry ended and unfounded nightmares began. Where to place my visions of the whole family falling sick, neither adult lucid enough to battle medical racism, no one we could rely on in the entire country?
“You can only be sure of the rice from your own hand.” Get them into a scalding bath, part of me wanted to scream. Put them in bed with hot water bottles! But even as the words rose within me I recognised that my fear was older, vestigial: the preciousness of the few babies in whom you have invested all your time and love and hope, feeding them from your breasts, keeping them close in a world against you. The fierce need to protect them because no one else will; the fear that they will miss out on some crucial opportunity or information. For my mother, it would have been a day of school, a test, things her children would never know they’d missed. Sickness and fragility meant being left behind—and there it was, the risk you could not take when you had to be three times as good as anyone else. What has trickled down to me is concentrated but nebulous, an instinct to defend and shelter, to wrap my children in blankets and keep them safe from everything: the malicious, the indifferent, the very forces of nature. In these moments, I have to tamp down what the body remembers and listen to what my mind interjects: Your children will not have to leave unless they want to.
By the time I was my older daughter’s age—eleven—I had known for eight years that I would one day have to leave. “Go, and find a way to stay where you are,” my mother said. “Don’t come back if you can help it.” Then she would produce for me her list of other people’s children who had managed to get away and stay away. My mother had only three children; she was no ocean sunfish. Some days, I look at my daughters and imagine what it means for a mother to bring children into a country that has no place for them—itself a risk beside which skiing and lake swimming pale—and then prepare those children and herself for a life they must build elsewhere. She must lead them by the hand to that marketplace, having pinned onto them every medal and endorsement she could think of—the extra languages learned, the writing and art competitions entered and won, the Mensa membership—and there she will leave them to their own devices, turning from them, walking away.
“They did not have the same understanding of childhood that we do today,” my college mediaeval history professor said of the Ancient Romans. No, they did not. They could not afford to. Knowing what would happen to their babies, they did not bother with notes or instructions, or even names: boy child, girl child, my grandfather wrote, purely for record-keeping purposes, and that fourth baby, crushed beneath the weight of his or her older brother, did not even merit an entry. If there were ashes to scatter, graves to mark or not mark, anniversaries to remember, we never knew; my grandparents focused their energies on their living children. The dead ones, the ones you could not save—there was no point wasting your fears and dreams on them. But my mother, trudging home through the airport after sending me off to America for the first time, would have felt, mingled with her relief at having done what she had to do for her last child, hope. Please take care of my baby. May the witch in the gingerbread house be a good one. May that country be kinder than this. That was how they sent us out, not knowing if that kinder world was fantasy or reality, all the risk avoided in their children’s lifetimes saved up and splurged on that one enormous, unavoidable gambit. Now, adding it all up—the input, the loss, the rate of survival—I remember the white American mother who heard my story and said, “I could never have let my children go so far away so young,” and suddenly I know the answer: it is more love, not less.