Sleepovers for The National M magazine

I am part of a rotating group of columnists who write for The National’s M magazine. My editor, Rick Arthur has the courteousness of a Southern gentleman but having never met him, I don’t know if he is American or not.

A teenage daughter’s sleepover can fray a mother’s nerves
Shoba Narayan
Last Updated: Feb 23, 2011

My 14-year-old daughter, Ranjini, wants to go for a sleepover. This isn’t a simple proposition in my household. I am generally against sleepovers. This, I believe, is an Eastern attitude, and comes from the tradition of joint families, with all their incestuous complications.

When I grew up in India in the Seventies, the concept of sleepovers didn’t exist. During the summers, our entire family congregated at my grandparents’ ancestral home in Kerala. About 15 cousins slept under the same roof every night for about a month. We stayed up late, whispering secrets under the eaves and sharing jokes. Such enforced closeness brought us together, but also taught us about human frailty. There was the uncle who hugged the young girls for longer than was needed; there was the elderly aunt who was known to be a kleptomaniac (everything was locked when she came to visit); there was the cousin who shocked our Hindu family by eloping with a Muslim boy. Living with myriad family taught us children all the things that today’s kids glean through sleepovers, but in a much more intense, prolonged way.

On the odd occasion when my daughters attend sleepovers, they talk about staying up late and giggling under the covers, about raiding the fridge at night and about making pancakes for breakfast. My own childhood “sleepovers” taught me a lot more. I learnt that two people who were fantastic as individuals could bicker all summer in a dysfunctional marriage. I learnt that sleeping on a hard floor in a room full of women gave me the comfort of being in a womb and a sweetness of sleep that I haven’t experienced since. I learnt to look away when my grandfather belched after a delicious meal. I learnt that there were people – aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins – who would love me no matter what. I learnt that these same people were not paragons of virtue, but flawed, complicated humans who could talk about generosity but act in a manner that was anything but. Living in a large family was like being in a permanent sleepover.

Today, I have to balance my own experience with my daughter’s expectations. I come up with rules that sound arbitrary, even to my own ears. When she was young, I told her that sleepovers were not allowed at all since I didn’t know her friends’ parents. As the years passed and I got to know other families, I changed the rule. She couldn’t go to the homes of her friends who had elder brothers, I said.

“Why?” she cried.

“Because I don’t want you around hormonal teenage boys,” I blurted out.

“Ma, this is so weird. All my friends are going to be there,” she replied.

I had nothing to say. How could I tell my daughter about straying, predatory hands that touched me in the middle of the night? How could I tell this innocent creature who thought she was tough enough to handle anything about feeling vulnerable within your own family?

Ranjini did go to the sleepover at her friend Tina’s house. Turns out that other Indian parents share my mindset. Faced with the prospect of 10 teenage girls sleeping over at her home, Tina’s mother sensibly sent her 18-year-old son away for his own sleepover.

All of us mothers with daughters breathed easy. And 10 squealing teenage girls stayed up all night and had a wonderful time.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.