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Anita Rao
It is officially family season. Whether or not you are close to your family of origin or have made new traditions with chosen family, there are likely some group gatherings in your recent past or not too distant future. Growing up in the Rao household, this time of year was never about Grandma's apple pie or feuds with distant relatives over stuffing. In fact, I can't remember a single Diwali, Thanksgiving or Christmas spent with any members of our extended family. Some of that is because my parents are both immigrants. My mom's family was a full ocean away, and my dad's scattered everywhere. So we made our own traditions: curry-seasoned turkey with a side of biryani, eaten with our best family friends. Holiday meals with a place set at the table for anyone else whose loved ones lived far away.

It wasn't until this past decade, after my sister got married and her in-laws became besties with my own parents, that our holiday season started — for the first time — to look more like what I grew up hearing about: people coming together from various corners of the country and food that looked and tasted the same year after year. With more bodies around the table, there's room for more joy. And for more of everything else.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

We've previously shared with you some stories of estrangement. Reflections from people who often find the holiday season to be especially difficult. But this time of year can also be tricky for a whole host of other reasons. Lots of talk about food and then dieting, politics, family dynamics and so much more. With me here for a very special bonus episode of the podcast to talk about anticipating hard conversations and having them — in particular with children — is a member of my own family, my sister Priyanka. Hey Pri, welcome to Embodied.

Priyanka Rao
Thanks for having me.

Anita Rao
So you heard me, kind of, setting the scene of Rao family holidays growing up. But I'd love to step back and hear anything that comes up for you when you think of, like, family traditions or family moments around this time of year.

Priyanka Rao
I think when I'm especially thinking about Thanksgiving, one of my absolute favorite memories is when I was in medical school, and you were in college, and Nikilesh, our younger brother, was still in high school. And our parents went to India over Thanksgiving. And so they weren't here for all of us to gather together. And my, then — I can't even remember if my partner was my fiance or just my boyfriend still, I don't even know — but either way, his parents in Fayetteville were like, "Hey, we would love to host you guys for Thanksgiving." And I specifically remember asking his parents, "Is there anything you want the three of us to make or anything that we can do?" because Amit never really talked about them hosting Thanksgiving. In fact, I think this may have been the first year that they had ever actually hosted. And his parents were like, "No, no, we've got it all covered, no problem."

And then Thanksgiving morning comes and we're all coming downstairs getting ready to, like, start the cooking, plan to have some sort of turkey, or chicken or something. And I was like, "Amit, where's the turkey?" And he was like, "Oh, I don't know, let me check with my parents." We ask his parents and his dad's like, "Oh, I've got it right here. It's already ready." And that's one moment when we looked at each other and thought, "This can't be," and out comes prepared, sliced deli turkey. And the downfall of Thanksgiving began. I have to say that all the other food was very delicious. Many good sides, but it was, just, a really hilarious, kind of, cross-cultural Thanksgiving moment.

Anita Rao
He was so earnest about it though, that was the cutest part. It was like, "Oh, we got it all taken care of."

Priyanka Rao
Yeah, and we got turkey, so we're all set. But now, my in-laws bring cornbread and an Indian vegetable side. No more turkey for them.

Anita Rao
No more turkey for them. That, yes, that is an epic, epic memory. So now, yeah, as I said, we have Thanksgiving with your partner and his parents and his brother and all of the little kids around, plus two dogs. It is quite a scene. And you have now had, I guess, a number of Thanksgivings in which you've been a parent now. Navi, my nephew, is 4 and Mira is 2. So we're recording this conversation actually before Thanksgiving. And when you're looking forward to, or anticipating, next week, when all of these people are going to descend on your house and there's going to be a lot of family around, what are some of the things that you tend to feel particularly nervous or anxious about?

Priyanka Rao
Yeah, I think whenever lots of people come into your space and routines, especially when you have young children, you just have to take a breath and anticipate that there will be uncontrolled chaos. And you kind of have to accept it. I also anticipate sometimes some struggles with trying to hold some boundaries about things that are, like, still having some regular meal times and, sort of, regular plans around what the kids are eating, and trying to stick to our routines about sleep. I think well-fed and well-slept children are happier children. And that equals happier parents, and so we really try to stick by that.

Anita Rao
So when you mentioned food, and I guess that's, I mean, that's something that comes up obviously, so much around Thanksgiving, and something we got definitely some questions about. So I'd love to hear, maybe just starting, what your food philosophy is for your children, and how that is pushed or challenged this time of year?

Priyanka Rao
That's such a good question. We really try to abide by: whatever we're all eating as a family is whatever our kids are going to eat. So we really, just, make the same meals for all of us together. So if that's Indian food, it's Indian food, if that's pizza, it's pizza. We also really do offer a main course, and then usually like two sides — usually like fruits and veggies — but sometimes, a dessert or something like that. And we try really hard to have dessert just be part of the meal. So offered on the same plate as the other food. Because I've seen over time that that creates the idea for our kids that dessert is not like a treat or a reward, or not something that they get if they finish their other food. It's really just like part of our meal and part of something that we all have every day and all have access to. And I think it's created a lot of easier behaviors around the food, we're not having a lot of battles about, like, "I really want that, I really want that." The kids just kind of know that, like, what's there and what's served is what they get.

And if they want more of something, we always do allow a second serving. But if they want the second serving of whatever the favorite thing is, they can totally have it before trying something else, but there won't be another one after that. And that's just helped take away a lot of the stress around meals for us. When it comes to holidays, I sort of abide by like the 80/20 rule, which means that for 80% of our life, we, like, try to follow these routines, try to follow this pattern around what we eat. And then 20% of the time, everything, like, goes by the wayside. And that's because there is some joy in having flexibility around eating around the holidays, I think. You know, Thanksgiving meal is something really different. We don't have that every day. And I want the kids to be able to, like, sample so many different things and try different stuff, knowing that maybe they'll just eat pie for lunch on Thanksgiving. And that's okay. We'll work to, like, have more balance at other times of the day. Mostly because if they just eat pie, then they'll totally crash later. And I know they need something else to, kind of, like, sustain them to enjoy hanging out with everyone else.

Anita Rao
That's great. And that, I guess, I mean, there's definitely a lot of intuitive eating principles that I hear in that. If you don't know what intuitive eating is, check many other episodes of Embodied, especially our diet culture series. Okay, let's move away from food to another tricky thing that comes up around the holidays, which is family dynamics. And you mentioned, kind of, struggling at times to set boundaries. And obviously there are, you know, there's so many ways in which people think about how you have parents or grandparents with differing philosophies around, and how do you set those boundaries in real time? I know my partner's parents, before they became grandparents, they took this grandparenting class, which I thought was so cute. And the TLDR of the class was, like, just don't try to tell your kids what to do. Just listen to what they say and just do it. But our parents did not take a grandparenting class, neither did your in-laws. So how do you all navigate, I guess, boundaries with them? And maybe we can talk about specifically, like, things that you're trying to do that maybe they are not necessarily in their primary value system, or different from how they raised us?

Priyanka Rao
Yeah, a big thing that we try to do is model the words and behaviors and philosophies that we really want them to also, kind of, take on when they're the ones taking care of our kids or hanging out with our kids — with the caveat that I'm so so grateful to have their help and support and the kids really love getting to spend time with them, and it's very cherished. And I don't want to interfere in that dynamic all the time, and I think constantly interfering would mess with the natural evolution of that. And I even think about, like, relationships — our grandparents lived very far away. So we don't have — we didn't have the same relationships. But I do have some very deep-seated memories of our Nana and Granddad and things that would happen at their house and in their space that were not things that happened at our house and in our space. And I want that natural evolution of that relationship and memories to be.

So like, if they're gonna offer different foods, or if they're gonna do activities that normally I'm like, "This is crazy, I would never offer to do this with my child," I kind of want to let some of that natural ability flow with the idea that we do have some very set rules that are, like, these are rules of our house, and we're not going to let you do that no matter what. And the grandparents have been really good about hearing that and understanding those boundaries. And I think because they really cherish their time with the grandkids, they're willing to think more flexibly about how they think about spending time with the kids. And being more respectful of some of the, like, rules that we have. Some of the areas that we, like, are having, or will continue to have challenges in are — my partner and I are working really, really hard on embodying the idea that there are not specific gender roles in our parenting relationship, and that, like, we both can do all of the things related to the kids. Maybe one of us naturally deviates to do some things more than the other, but I don't want the kids to have the idea that like, "Mom only does these things, and Dad always does these things." I really want it to be, like, we share in all of these tasks together. And I think that's really challenging for our grandparents, too. And that one, we haven't figured out exactly. And it's little things that people will say that I'm like, "Ah, no, like, no," you know. Like, these are just, like, such stereotypical examples, but they are playing out in our real life. Like, why should you be just offering Mira to have dresses when my son Navi has been very interested in having dresses and dressing up. And it's been really cool, actually, because my mom has been super open, getting dresses for him from, like, the consignment store for him to play dress up or wear to school — whatever he wants. But that's taken some transition. And I'll be curious to see how it, kind of, plays out with the other parts of the grandparenting team, because I think they feel very uncomfortable about that idea.

Anita Rao
And it's also that challenge of, like, doing it, and also not making it a huge deal. Like it's not, like, "Okay everyone, Navi is wearing a dress, let's all notice." It's like, "No, he's wearing a dress. We're moving on. Like, that's what he's choosing to wear." And I think that part is a challenge.

Priyanka Rao
Exactly.

Anita Rao
Yeah.

Priyanka Rao
And you know, he's at the age where he just has so many interesting questions and curiosities. And you, just, you never know what's going to come out of that little mouth and that little mind at any time. And I do worry that he's going to ask those questions while his grandparents are the ones around, and neither me, nor Amit, nor you or someone else who might, like, mediate, or say things differently. And that is not to say that we are perfect at this, I promise. We literally stumble and fail on a daily basis, because it's really hard. But we have more practice, because we do it every single day. And I wonder, how would they respond to that? And our son in particular, he just has this, like, sharp memory and, like, he will remember everything that everyone says. And he's totally, like, processing it and taking in the new information, but I think he makes some associations from whatever someone has told him.

Anita Rao
Yeah, totally. He has a little sharp mind. So obviously, now he's in an age where, like, his mind is changing really fast, and things are coming up that are unexpected all the time. I was around you all this weekend, and there were so many, like — he was really trying to understand the concept of marriage. And it was so — oh my god, it was so funny. He was like, "Well, marriage is between two people who love each other. So, like, I'm gonna marry Mira." And you're like, "Well, usually — Mira is already part of your family, so, like, you can marry someone who's, like, not part of your family." And then he's like, "Oh, I'll marry Liz and Paul," who are two of your good friends. And you're like, "Well, they're actually already married to each other. So, like, you'd have to find someone else." And yeah, so in real time, like, obviously, all of these things are coming up, and he does remember things really well. So like, who, I guess, where do you turn for advice about this kind of stuff? Especially when it's, like, impressionable things around like, how you think about gender or your body or, like, things that really matter for him to grow up with the kind of openness and philosophies that you want him to grow up with?

Priyanka Rao
Honestly, I think we're still learning where to turn. One big resource is a few friends who, like, have similar philosophies, who have children who are just slightly older than Navi and Mira. I often find myself texting, especially a few of my friends from my residency training. They're also pediatricians and then have young kids who are just a little bit older. And I feel like they've navigated some of these conversations before, so I asked them for resources. Honestly, there's quite a few, like, Instagram accounts that we follow that talk about, like, toddlers with variable emotional states and how to talk them through certain things. And sometimes just reading those and, like, picking up on different verbiage is so helpful, then in the moment, you could be like, oh, maybe I could try to, like, say something like that. And it never totally comes out exactly that way, but at least you have, like, something in your mind.

Anita Rao
Totally. So there's been a lot of loss in our family in this past calendar year. About a year ago, our Nana passed away. And then, earlier this year, Amit's — your partner's — grandmother passed away. And in the past year also, my parents' beloved dog Simba passed away — who listeners of this pod know, because they talked about him on the pet loss show. And I think around this time of year, when people are gathering, you know, there's, like, a prayer or let's remember this person as we're eating this meal, or like, let's think about this memory of someone. And especially in our family, there's like a, if one person starts crying — if like, between me, you and Mom, like, then immediately the rest of us are. So I just am imagining that there might be some tears, and some sadness and some memories. And so I'd love to just hear a little bit about talking with kids about death and what it's been like for you to navigate that this past year.

Priyanka Rao
It's been really interesting, because I've seen a, like, big change and evolution — one, in how comfortable we feel on talking about it, because we now have had multiple opportunities to talk about it. And also just, the evolution is, as your kid gets a little bit older, you're able to have different conversations about it. So last fall, when our Nana passed away, that was more challenging because Mira never got to meet her. And Navi was a tiny baby when he met her and only met her one time. And he's seen pictures, but he does not have his own clear memories of her. And he definitely, he's a very empathetic kid. So he definitely recognizes when people feel upset and sad. And so I think he understood that there was sadness around it. But he didn't have any concept, because she wasn't a regular part of his life, that he was missing something or that something was gone.

And that was a big difference between when Big Nani, as we called her, or my partner's grandmother, passed away. We had spent a lot of time with her, especially over the last couple years, which I'm so grateful for. And the kids really, like, had more established relationships, especially Navi. So in anticipation of knowing that she was likely to pass, we started to have much more conversations about Big Nani's body, or Big Nani's person, was not going to be there anymore, and she was going to go to another space. And the really interesting thing is that the first thing that Navi said is, "You mean she's going to be with Simba?" Because he had that association, because we must have been having, kind of, a similar talk or discussion about that. And so, it's been really, like, kind of interesting to see that evolution. Whereas like a year ago, I don't think he ever would have made that association. He also has a very funny association — my mom does tend to have some tears, especially when she departs from our home every time. And so now, the last few times we've left her, Navi said, "Nana, I want you to cry." And it's just, kind of — it's like, more amusing than anything, because, you know, you don't just cry on cue. You cry because of that emotion. And so, I don't think he's fully made that connection yet. But I think it's going to be a lot of continuing to have open conversations and knowing that the holidays can be a time to relish some of those memories, but also may have some moments of, like, harder times or sadness. And we, just, are really open about trying to talk about it and name our own emotions, because we're trying to help him do that same thing.

Anita Rao
So what do you say? I mean, I don't really believe in heaven. Sorry, Mom. But like, I will — I don't know what I would say to a kid around that. So what do you ... ?

Priyanka Rao
I don't know that Amit or I know what we believe in in terms of some sort of after space, if there is one. I think we do believe that people pass and that whatever it is, I hope that they are, like, peaceful and happy. Especially for Big Nani, he was able to see that she was more unwell. She wasn't able to get out of her bed as much. He has a big association with her doing a lot of things on her iPad, and she wasn't doing that. So there are some concrete examples of, like, transition. And then we just talk about that we think that they're all together somewhere, and that they're just in a place where they're enjoying things that they like to do. It was our Nana's one year death anniversary a couple of weeks ago, and in honor of her, Navi and I baked scones together because that was something that she really loved. And it was really nice during that time to, kind of, talk about things that she enjoyed. And then, he was like, "Is Nana making scones where she is?" And I like the idea that she is. I don't know, but that she is and enjoying them. And so I think that was a cool, kind of, like, a real life connection for him.

Anita Rao
Okay. Let's end with, what is — oh no, I'm gonna do a really self-serving question to end. Okay, is there anything that you've learned from Embodied that has helped you as a parent, especially with having hard conversations?

Priyanka Rao
Oh man, so much that I've learned from Embodied. I gotta tell you though, Anita, it's, like, hard for me to separate, what did I learn from Embodied versus what did I just learn from getting to have you — the host of Embodied — as part of my life all the time? I feel like a really big thing is thinking about how we talk about gender and everything that comes along with that, and how we're going to navigate that in a space that feels open and safe and affirming with our kids. I think, actually, we could probably say we had negative conversations about this growing up. I think part of that is cultural, I think part of that is, like, time in society. But I'm grateful to have the opportunity and challenge to have that as part of my parenting journey.

Anita Rao
Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me and joining me in the studio. This is my first time having someone physically in the studio with me since, like, 2019. So it was so nice.

Priyanka Rao
It was so fun to be here.

Anita Rao
We'll have you back soon.

Priyanka Rao
Thank you. See you, bye.

Anita Rao
It was such a pleasure to bring my sister Priyanka into the studio. If you want to hear more from the Rao family, well, you're in luck, because they show up in a lot of the Embodied podcasts. You'll find my parents most recently in an episode about pet grief, as well as my dad in our episode about coffee. You can also meet my little brother in our episode about video games.

Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now.
Embodied producers are Kaia Findlay and Audrey Smith. Amanda Magnus is our editor, Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Quilla wrote our theme music.

If you enjoyed this episode, take two seconds and go to Apple Podcasts and write us a review or give us a star rating. It really helps new people find our show and grow this community.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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