I am delighted to be sharing this interview series with you, where I will be talking to a different woman every fortnight about parenting, motherhood, their daily rhythm and what makes a beautiful childhood. So without further ado, let’s meet the mother…
This week, I’d like to welcome writer, entrepreneur, speaker, educator, and mama of three Dr Pragya Agarwal to Frida be Mighty. Pragya is a woman who inspires me hugely, both personally and professionally, and I’ve also had the joy of meeting her in “real life” – I hope not for the last time! Pragya has so much wisdom to share, so I was delighted when she agreed to be interviewed!
Can you introduce yourself and your family?
I was born in India and came over to the UK about 20 years ago to study for my Masters and PhD. I now live in the north-west with my husband, my two year old twin girls, and our eldest has just graduated and is now working in London. We also have a dog and a cat, both rescued 10 and 5 years respectively, and an integral part of our family. I was an Academic Professor in US and UK Universities for around 12 years, and now I am the Director of a research think-tank ’50 Percent Project’ looking at status and role of women around the world, addressing gender bias and running unconscious bias training workshops and talks for organisations, and sexism workshops in schools. I am also the CEO of a creative studio and a social enterprise The Art Tiffin, and a freelance writer.
Do you have a daily rhythm? What do your days look like?
We have been trying to enforce some kind of a daily rhythm in our lives, but it has been unpredictable because of the twins, who have not settled into a routine yet. On weekdays. they have started going to a Montessori nursery for three days a week, so the morning starts early. My husband drops them off on the way to his work, and I then settle in with my work and meetings. I walk the dog during the day which gives me some time to reflect and think, and have as many mentoring sessions with my business mentees as possible. The evenings are then similarly chaotic as they return tired, and hungry. Mealtimes are a constant struggle at the moment as they are incredibly fussy eaters and have numerous allergies. But then bath, bedtime reading, and hot milk before bed. Who knew it would be so challenging with twins!
I try and do some work after they have gone to bed, although most days I have to lie down on the floor next to their cots until they fall fast asleep. I try and speak/chat with my eldest for a little while, cook dinner, and then watch some television with my husband or work while he watches some sport. And, then do some writing as I am a freelancer and also writing a book at the moment, with my cat snuggled up next to me. They are still waking up several times during the night so sleep is in short supply. Weekends are lovely as we try and go to the natural reserve where girls like to look at the flamingo colony, or to the TATE Liverpool. They also play football on Sunday morning. Our days are mostly filled with painting, reading, doing puzzles, baking together, and as they are growing older, they are enjoying more imaginative play.
Are there any philosophies or books which have influenced your approach to parenting?
I always reflected on what a good parent is even as I was growing up, and never had any intentions of having children one day! Kindness, empathy and love are the cornerstones of parenting that I learnt from my mother. She taught me how to love selflessly and unconditionally, although I haven’t mastered that yet! I would call my parenting style instinctive and authoritative (although I don’t claim to always have the balance right), I believe in child-led parenting as every child is unique and different. I believe in setting boundaries, but I do not believe in disciplining such as time-out or smacking. Some may call it permissive but I would like to think that I am firm but flexible. The cornerstone of my parenting has always been to spend lots of time with my children, be as honest as I can, develop strong emotional bonds, share as many experiences together as possible, and have fun and plenty of laughs along the way.
You have so many amazing strings to your bow, something I find hugely inspiring. One of the things you have spoken about compellingly is creativity and how to develop and maintain a creative habit (I’ll add a link to your TEDx talk here too). What does creativity mean to you, and how do you keep up your own creative habit?
Thank you! I talk in a lot of detail about what creativity is in my TEDx talk, and how we can develop a creative habit. And, I have several articles on The Art Tiffin website, in Forbes, on Medium, and elsewhere. For me creativity is taking risks, thinking imaginatively, trying out things outside our comfort zone, and finding a medium of expression, be it writing, cooking, painting, sketching, knitting to challenge us while having fun, without fear of criticism and judgment. Creativity has to be a way of life, and I firmly believe that everyone is creative. For me, it is often just finding a different innovative and unusual way of doing normal everyday things. I try and do some sketching or painting most days. I run a creative studio and occasional linocut printmaking workshops. On other days, I can do this via my writing (I write short stories and am also writing a non-fiction popular science book. I also write for various publications as a freelance writer). Sometimes we are so set in the way we think, and the way we look at the world around us, and just finding 5-10 mins to look at everyday mundane things with fresh pair of eyes can be useful.
What would you say to parents who want to encourage creativity in their children, but aren’t sure where to start?
The best way is to be good role models. We can inspire our children through actions more than words. If they see us being comfortable with making mistakes and being creative, then they are more likely to do the same. I have also written blog posts about this here and here. Taking them to art galleries from a young age, talking to them about what they see in pictures around them, and showing them that creativity can take many forms and shapes, and is not confined to a narrow definition. Let them have fun and explore different mediums, and support them in expanding their imaginations and challenge them to think outside the narrow boundaries.
You and I share a passion for feminist parenting. As a mother of three daughters, can you talk to me a bit about what feminist parenting means to you on a day to day basis?
It means challenging the status quo, questioning any gender bias that I see around me, and raising my girls in the most gender-neutral way as possible. Girls can be made to feel that they are not as good or important, or even strong as boys through messages that have been shaped by implicit gender bias, a result of the centuries of patriarchy. It is important to inspire confidence and courage in my girls through words and actions that they are not less than anyone, and their abilities are not constrained or determined by their gender. This means that as they grow older, they can start standing up and speaking up for themselves but also for other women around the world who do not have the same opportunities. My feminism is also intersectional and it is very important to me that my children are aware of the diversity in this world and understand that everyone is equal irrespective of race and ethnicity, but they all bring their own unique life experience and privilege to the discussion.
I introduce age-appropriate books about diversity and inclusivity, and books with strong female role models from around the world. I also hope that through my own work in tackling gender bias through my writings and talks, and organising feminist events such as a TEDxWomen conference, I am inspiring them. Also, they see that ambition is not solely a male prerogative, and neither is housework and childcare solely a woman’s responsibility from how my husband and I work around our careers and family responsibilities.
What do you think has been the biggest difference between parenting your older daughter and your twins? Do you think your parenting has changed?
Yes, I think it has although the basic ethos remains the same. The context and circumstances have changed, and every child is different. I feel less pressure to prove myself this time around. The first time I also felt an acute sense of responsibility as I brought her up as a single parent for most of her early years. I carried all the mental and physical load while also working in a highly demanding academic career. And, it felt like the two of us against the world. This time, my husband is there to share. I also feel that I am more relaxed as I’ve grown more confident of my own value and my own capabilities. The ethos, however, remains the same. I believe firmly in equality, and that girls can do anything they set their mind to. I believe in inspiring and encouraging curiosity and an active engagement with the world around them, fairness and social responsibility, and an opportunity to develop as open-minded, creative individuals with a broad range of interests. I still believe in giving my children the best opportunities, and encouraging them to do their very best.
Which aspects of parenting bring you the most joy?
I love seeing the spark of curiosity in my children’s eyes, and as they find their voice, forming and expressing their views and opinions. They are constantly discovering new things, and they are so open and honest. I love to see my eldest making strides and being a socially responsible young adult, and it gives me so much joy to see my child having a positive impact on the world around her. This gives me so much joy and so much hope. I love helping my children discover what they are interested in, what fascinates them and gives them most joy, and helping them nurture it.
Which parts of motherhood do you find challenging?
Motherhood can be challenging. It is like losing a part of ourselves, our own identity sometimes as we try and forge our children’s identity. It is so easy to get completely consumed by motherhood, because it comes as a wave and takes you completely by surprise. Before I had children, I never realised how much I needed some space for myself and for my thoughts everyday and the constant need for attention, especially from two very active toddlers can be exhausting and overwhelming.
How do you make time for self-care, and what does that look like for you?
I didn’t think of self-care much as I was bringing up my eldest daughter. For me, spending time with her was always self-care, as that is what made me most happy. I have increasingly become more aware of how important it is for me to sometimes step away from family and my work and do something just for myself. But, I don’t particularly like the narrow definition of self-care as bubble baths, spa days, etc., and self-care could differ from day to day. Sometimes, just going to a cafe or taking a walk could be self-care. On other days, binge watching something on Netflix is all that is needed. And, some other times, just facetiming my eldest or playing hide and seek with my toddlers is all that I need to make me feel happy. I feel that as the self-care revolution has happened, there is somehow guilt associated with this word. We can define whatever self-care looks like for us, but it is incredibly important to carve out a chunk of time needed to regain the equilibrium in our lives.
What do you think makes for a beautiful childhood?
Ah such a lovely question. It is full of warmth, trust, lots of cuddles and hugs, and the knowledge that they are always loved and cherished. A childhood that is filled with fun and exploration, travel, imagination, adventures and connecting with nature and the world around them is beautiful.
If you could share one insight or piece of advice with other mothers, what would it be?
Trust your instincts. Always. Every child is different and every parenting experience is different. We cannot compare to what others have gone through, and we cannot second-guess our own parenting decisions. No one is perfect, whatever their social media profile might suggest, and so let’s not be too hard on yourself. You are always doing your best.
Finally, what is your favourite children’s book?
This is an incredibly tough question. There are so many for different age groups, and there are so many with lovely personal memories associated with them. Our house is chock-a-block with books and I am trying to find one that I love most. I remember reading the ‘Scarecrow and the Servant‘ by Philip Pullman with my eldest when she was little. It was a lovely book, with much humour but also a message that what we see is not always the whole truth, and we can’t judge people by their appearances. ‘Goodnight Moon‘ is an evergreen and ‘A Squash and a Squeeze‘ is a recent favourite with my twins.
Thank you so much for your generous and inspiring answers Pragya. You can find Pragya on Instagram here, follow her on Twitter here, join her Facebook group here, and find out more about her upcoming course on feminist parenting here.