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A tale of two childhoods

Maliha Masood is an author and teacher. Born and raised in Pakistan, she moved to Seattle at the age of twelve. She lives in Kenmore.

earthMy son Azeem loves his trips to the Lake Forest Park public library. Every week, I take him to the neighborhood branch and aim his stroller straight to the children's section, an inviting space decorated with a colorful carpet, rocking chair, bean bags and a computer station with Elmo mouse pads.

This is Azeem's candy store. He cannot yet read, being only eleven months old, but already he's displaying a real fondness for books. As soon as he's released from the stroller, he crawls over to the two foot tall bookshelf stacked with baby books and proceeds to pull them out one by one, until they pile up on the floor, circling him like a fortress.

I restack the books on the shelves while Azeem leans over from a sitting position and pulls them out again. I restack and he pulls and over and over. Our game goes on for a good half an hour or so. It's not just pulling out books that he loves. Azeem also loves to flip through the thick boarded books, staring at the pictures and listening intently whenever I pronounce the words. I watch his chubby little fingers deftly turning the pages, the intense look of concentration on his face, and I wonder if he'll grow up to be a voracious reader like me.

I think back to my own childhood in Karachi, Pakistan where there was no such thing as a public library. My father had to take me to a rundown building housing the British Consul, where they had a small reading room and lent books to members. There was not much in the way of children's literature, but I made sure to find all the Enid Blyton "Secret Seven" and "Famous Five" books I could. I couldn't even imagine the concept of a public place full of books with unlimited borrowing privileges, let alone a whole separate area reserved for kids. It was the ultimate fantasy.

Though my parents did not once read to me, I developed a passion for reading and eventually became a writer. According to my father, "Your mother and I were the worst possible parents. We didn't do much for you. We just let you grow up like weeds." He's exaggerating, as usual. What my father really means to say is that he and my mom did not indulge me with all the educational and developmental accoutrement that is so stressed upon in America. They didn't have at their disposal volumes on childcare, nor did they benefit from today's digitized, media saturated information age. Even my sporadic trips to the pediatrician involved just the requisite vaccines. There were no earnest discussions about sleep schedules or stranger anxiety or the best car seats. I didn't even have a car seat.

As an infant, I must have sat on my mother's lap on the front seat of our old Fiat with the leaky radiator. Our car had no seat belts. All this is not to say that I had an underprivileged upbringing. Instead of Babies R Us, my clothes came from Mothercare in England. When I was old enough, my parents enrolled me in a Montessori, and later on, a private all-girls school, where I had to wear a uniform and memorize English poems. I doubt very much that Azeem will have to know all the stanzas of William Blake's "The Tiger" when he's in the fifth grade. Nor will he get to ride camels on the beach or chase after a mongoose. What was ordinary for me will be exotic to him -- and vice versa.

Take for instance, my breathlessness at our very first play group. Not because I was busy running around after Azeem, keeping him out of harm's way. I was simply overwhelmed by all the stimulation crammed into two hours, from the staggering toy collection to fun little arts and crafts projects to blowing soap bubbles and singing children's songs, whose lyrics were completely alien to someone who grew up outside the U.S.

In Pakistan, there was no such thing as play group classes. Before my brother and sister came along, my playmates were the servants or the servants' children. We played with pots and pans, and on good days, one of the servants would surprise me with a stash of marbles or some seashells. My fanciest toy was a talking doll that my father brought back from a business trip to Hong Kong. Because we lived in an extended family, somebody was always at hand to watch me and give my mother a break.

It's more difficult in the States. Instead of servants, I rely on "Baby Einstein." Their DVDs are a magic charm to keep Azeem occupied for half an hour while I cook and clean and do the household chores. Though my mom (now a grandmother with snow white hair and arthritis) manages to come over and play with Azeem once or twice a week, I know that I can't ask too much from her or tax her energy. My days with Azeem are never boring, but they do feel isolating at times. It is then that the difference in our childhoods become more stark. I grapple with the age-old question of nature vs. nurture. How did I end up so passionate about books when I was never read to as a child? Does Azeem's love for books stem from my constant read-aloud sessions of Dr. Seuss? Is it all inborn? Is it a factor of where we are and how we are raised?

It's hard to say. But as I experience the newness of being a first-time parent and stay-at-home mom, inundated with choices and unsure of what to do and what not to do, I try to remind myself that I grew up in a world of far fewer choices where there was a certain comfort in simplicity.

It's simplicity that I need to hold onto as I stay up half the night researching convertible car seats online. Five straight hours of reading product ratings and consumer reviews have given me one massive headache. I'm still confused and don't know what to buy. Then I recall the old Fiat and riding in my mom's lap sans seat. Azeem would take no such risks. But I'll go on fretting over every issue just the same.

How to get him off the bottle, break the binky habit, potty training, meltdowns...the hurdles loom ahead. I spend more hours on the Internet looking for advice. I ask the moms in the play group. Or I do nothing and simply wait for Azeem to guide me. Time will tell how things unfold. But with all the rigors and pressures of parenthood, it does help to keep foremost in mind a certain perspective.

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