Mother of all moods

Apr 07, 2013, 10:28 IST | Kareena N Gianani

What do deep and complex feelings of motherhood have to do with a spoonful of boiled cauliflower? Is it natural or can it be learnt? Is motherhood also a sharp reminder of one's own mortality? Kareena N Gianani speaks to four women who contributed to the newly-released book, Of Mothers And Others, and finds out what makes motherhood the potpourri of emotions that it is

A mouthful of love
Anita Roy’s essay, Eating Baby, tells you what two teaspoons of mashed, greyish-white cauliflower have to do with a new mother’s worst existential crisis.

The essay urges you to see the unseen (and taste it, too) by delving into the most obvious, yet the most crucial aspect of motherhood — being responsible for an infant’s nutrition. What more could be there to breast milk, gooey baby food and a soggy mess of boiled carrots? Well, a lot, according to Roy. Hours of boiling apparatus, warding colic off and the responsibility of nourishing a person’s digestive system doesn’t even begin to describe it. The essay could seem humourous in parts, but Roy soon explains how there’s nothing funny about a woman’s spinach-stained, pumpkin-strained world.

Roy is a writer, critic and editor of Young Zubaan.

Of all the aspects of motherhood—some nuanced, others ineffable—why did you choose to write on nutrition?
People assume food is one of those things which come naturally to all mothers and what could be so emotional or complicated about it? I chose the topic to share my own bewilderment at the prospect of having to feed another human being from scratch. At some point, we’ve all looked at pregnant women and new mothers and thought their hysteria is rather funny. Honestly, I did too, but when I was caught in the same turbine, it was overwhelming.

Your essay clearly reflects how much literature you went through before feeding your baby his first solid food, and you were mostly right. Tell us about the times you went horribly wrong.
Actually, I fared worst while tending to my own nutritional needs. There’s quite a bit of propaganda about how breastfeeding is the best for your child, and rightly so. I think all children must have that. But no one really tells a new mother that she needs to eat not double the amount, but definitely doubly nutritious food because your child will siphon the nutrients from your food. I was malnourished after breastfeeding, and I wouldn’t wish that sort of a wake-up call on any mother.

You write about “the mess your life was in while other Indian women seemed to be able to juggle the whole business of feeding and raising their offspring”. You relate it to feminist values— how was motherhood ‘at odds’ with that?
I’ve been brought up as a liberal feminist. The whole ‘empowered feminist’ discourse is centred around the belief that you should be able to cope with anything. However, when I became a mother, I didn’t get a sense of understanding from women who were not mothers. The fact that motherhood is an all-consuming process was lost on many. I felt like spending more time with my baby, being more ‘domestic’ if I could call it that, and it felt like I was letting the side down or I was giving in to patriarchal ideas. When I wasn’t.

And where did solace eventually come from?
From my own, better understanding of events, I guess. I began reading novelist Rachel Cusk, and found that the second wave of feminism was much more understanding of my dilemmas.

It is true, and inevitable, that motherhood takes away a lot of choices. Motherhood is an irrevocable decision. Some schools of feminism find that hard to accept, because feminism is about having a choice. But what I gradually understood is that, in some places, having control taken away is not such a bad thing. Being a mother made me have the spiritual realisation that I am not the boss of my own destiny and will have to leave my formulae behind.

Motherhood invites surrender, and your ego dissolves on so many occasions. It poses philosophical challenges which may be at odds with erstwhile beliefs. This understanding liberated me.

Has motherhood shaped your career as a writer in any way? Or is that too sentimental and clichéd a connection?
Not at all. It surely has, and not just in my case but for many mothers out there.

Practically, I noticed that my writing was crisper. I had narrow windows to get work done and a hungry baby is worse than a writing deadline any day.

But a deeper impact on writing came from the fact that a new-born really shows you your place in the world. We know we’ll all die, but there was nothing like the realisation of my own mortality after my son’s birth. It works both ways—the sheer physical trauma of giving birth is a sharp reminder that our time is, after all, limited. And as a new mother, you’re responsible about your baby not dying. It changes you for life, and it shows in your writing.

The second sex?
Smriti Lamech’s essay, Determination, takes the idea of longing for a child of a specific sex to another level. Lamech, who wears feminism on her sleeve, writes about how her longing for a daughter was so fierce that she felt almost nothing when her son was born. Time, however, changed and matured Lamech’s feelings towards her son.

Lamech is a Gurgaon-based freelance writer.

After all that vehemence about not thinking you’d be able to accept a baby boy, your essay ends with you melting one morning when the rays of the sun came in through the window. Was it honestly that simple?
I was very distant from my son for the first few weeks. But now, people tell me it was natural to not feel any emotion towards your child—irrespective of the sex. So I am going to go with that instead of thinking I felt so negative because he was a boy!

But yes, with time, I did find myself melting because he was such a calm, joyful bundle to raise. We were forced to spend a lot of time together, of course, and I did fall in love with him.

How do you think your son will feel when he finds out about your thoughts back then?
My son has enough proof to see that I have grown out of those youthful ideas and love him for who he is. I think I was just painting all the men with the same brush then. I left a full-time job because I sensed he was not a person of many words and needed my presence to be able to articulate himself. I had even thought of a girl’s name, Alia, before I had my son. In fact, because we hadn’t thought of a name for him, we called him Ali (short of Alia) for a long time. He knows about it, and laughs it off.

Questions and answers
Urvashi Butalia’s essay, Childless, Naturally, sketches the many shades of motherhood with a detached but not indifferent brush. Butalia admits to sometimes questioning her own contented life because it is so ‘despite’ marriage and motherhood —something people around her label an impossible feat. She echoes mothers’ and society’s unyielding questions and asks some of her own—is loneliness a good enough reason to bear a child? Can a dream career not be your life’s mission? Is motherhood really that ‘natural’? If it is so unconditional, what’s with the notion of paybacks in many mother-offspring relationships? Butalia says volumes even without having all the answers.

Butalia is editor of the publishing house, Zubaan.

You chose a rather personal topic to write on—a single status and childlessness. It is something not everybody has experienced but has a take on, and even causes consternation to many. Why? You also choose to tell so many different stories of motherhood in one…
Well, I was the last person to hand in my essay because I really didn’t know how I could possibly contribute to a book on motherhood. 

The only thing I could write about honestly was the story of my hijra friend, Mona, her adopted daughter, and what it was like to be raised in an eager, loving hijra home. When she grew up, she’d often come to me because she had questions about herself, her body, for which she had no one to go to. But as I sat down to write about motherhood (or the absence of it, in my case), I found myself going back to many conversations and experiences I had which deconstructed motherhood in so many ways.

For instance, I think the notion that motherhood is selfless is rather questionable. It depends who you’re speaking with. Of course, that is not to take away everything our mothers do for us—I couldn’t possibly ever ‘repay’ my own mother, for instance. But, as some of the stories go in the essay, I think we all like to be recognised for our efforts.

You admit to sometimes being suspicious of your own thoughts when society tells everyone that marriage and children are the (only) pillars of happiness. What conclusion have you reached after having faced those ‘reminders’?
Being single or childless was not a choice, my life just panned out that way. But with all the work I have done, which includes founding a publishing house, I really don’t think I’ve missed out on something crucial.

I think most of the negative feelings come not from your own choices but from how much you respond to societal pressures. I always had a lot of support from my family and at workplace. And I think all our parents want is for us to be ‘settled’. Had I not been in a happy place with my work and life, my parents may have been concerned and insisted I marry. But they saw me leading a fulfilled life and didn’t demand that I bow down to the society’s questions.

You did consider adoption, though. What happened then?
My mother began feeling concerned about what would happen once I was old and frail, and that I would ‘need’ a child then. But I argued on how even that was merely a notional security—modern, nuclear families don’t really have parents moving in with their kids.

Yet, something from that conversation stayed with me and I even looked up adoption options after that day. But I lost steam soon. I think that happened because I wasn’t motivated enough, otherwise I would have probably gone through the process, met children and eventually adopted one. But I didn’.

Motherhood of love and loss
Shalini Sinha’s essay, Amma and Her Beta, is a candid attempt to condense 17 years of motherhood laced with much self-doubt, unexpected support and the charm which comes with raising a Down’s Syndrome child. The essay is steeped in emotion yet never borders on the maudlin. It reveals Sinha’s mixed feelings as she deals with the death of her own mother, who happens to be her son’s primary carer. Amma and Her Beta reveals much about the intertwined lives of the two most important people in Sinha’s life.

Sinha works as an independent consultant on gender and developmental issues and is based in New Delhi. She is also affiliated with Muskaan, a support group of parents with children with special needs.

Your essay is full of numerous instances of how it was your mother who took charge of caring for your son because you were rather numb then. Was it fitting, then, that it was your mother who taught you to be a mother?
I understood my mother better only after my son was born. As I mention in my essay, my first memory of him is my mother, holding him in her arms and grinning ear to ear. And my last memory of her is my son. She passed away last July, when he was 17 years old, and he looked around at the people who came for her prayer meeting.

When you’re a mother of a child with special needs, you realise the importance of support that is not synonymous with stifling you with advice. When I grieved, my mother let me be, and took charge. If she was grieved, she turned to spirituality, and did her own bit to deal with it. For instance, she’d actively seek shops run by differently-abled persons and buy things only from there.

What new dimensions did your son add to the mother-daughter relationship?
I am still coming to terms with the many dimensions he has added, even after my mother’s death. Almost all mothers are unselfish, but I hadn’t realised how much that applied to my mother until my son was born. She sought no payback, no appreciation for the efforts she took with him. It was she who encouraged him to travel, who made sure I extend my aspirations for him and not keep him ‘safe’. She had been a homemaker all her life, but she understood my need to go out and work. In fact, my activism with parents of children with special needs was born from there. My son’s disability became a point of contact between us—I’d look at the macro picture while she would look at his micro world. Even when she stopped supervising the goings-on after my son grew up, she was the one who’d understand that just sitting with him while he had his meals was important.

How did your son react to your mother’s absence?
After my mother passed away, I assumed that my son’s reactions would be different from those of any other teenager in the same situation. But he proved me wrong. His emotional intelligence was like any other teenager’s. His grieving patterns have been the same and extremely age-appropriate. He wants to be treated like an adult, not a child.  

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