“Am I a monster,” is a question asked by countless mothers countless times, “for wanting to wring the necks of my demanding brats at the end of a terrible day? Am I being inexcusably selfish in wanting to leave them behind, go out to work, hang out with friends and feel like a normal human being for a few hours, in short, get myself a life?”
The most productive and reproductive years in a woman’s life happen to be the same. A man may sire an offspring and go out and carry on with his professional life as usual. Not a woman. She first carries the child in her womb for nine long months, and then rears it through infancy mostly by herself. This marks and changes her perceptions of marriage and parenthood radically. Yet, while reams have been written on male rites of passage, and father-son bonding (once he is safely out of diapers and can feed himself, that is), there is a strange lack of material on maternity, on how the far more intense physical and psychic rite of passage through which a woman turns into a mother, brands her for life and impacts both her self-image and her relationship with her children.
If you think back about family history handed down to girls, it is as if all women are born to fulfil a god-given role and become wives and mothers. It is unacceptable by and large to Indian families that many young women, like many men, may feel that they need time to think and pre-negotiate a sharing of conjugal and parental duties with men they are going to marry and sleep with for the rest of their lives. When handed down, all ‘either/ors’ for women are carefully censored out of family lore about marriage and birth.
That despite their obvious physical attachment to their progeny, all new mothers (both homebodies and working ones) are petrified and exhausted by turns and may undergo periods of depression and murderous rages as a result, is one of the most under-reported facts of human history. And even though most of us remember how we were routinely yelled at, slapped, pinched or punched by hassled mothers when we drove them insane with our childhood antics and public tantrums, a host of unexamined myths about mothers’ great powers of forbearance and motherhood being its own reward continue to be circulated and nursed by families.
It is true that many husbands are sensitive and affectionate, love their children deeply and are even willing to “help out”. But families make it very clear that such an offer of help is an act of generosity and the woman must be grateful for it, because his real job is his professional work, not raising children. In contrast, if the mother of young children goes back to work, she is suspect in all eyes, most of all in her own. Is she being selfish? Is she going against nature and denying her children their natural rights?
All women, working or not, have graphic memories of being roused from sleep to soothe over a nightmare or help with a toilet need and then going back to bed wide awake and bristling with fatigue and anger, knowing that next day this sleep deprivation is going to play havoc with her nerves and her job. In family photos, however, mothers may look a trifle dishevelled, but they take care to smile at the camera. They want future generations to see them as “normal”, read happy and utterly and fulfillingly preoccupied with maternal duties.
Once upon a time (some 20 years ago), I remember sitting in the staff room of a women’s college in Delhi with colleagues. The newspapers had reported a Delhi woman who had murdered her baby, a third or fourth daughter, in the hospital where she gave birth, and had tried to pass it off as death caused by unknown factors. I remember clearly we all sided instinctively with the harried woman. Then we began to swap our own memories that the episode had unleashed: memories of suddenly venting our frustrations on our uncomprehending young ones, because they alone were close by at a time when we were feeling totally low and marginalized and abandoned. We were bitter, witty, funny by turns as we recited our pieces. But one after another we all confessed to having nursed a gut churning rage at one time or another for having become just another faceless, taken-for-granted and perennially exhausted custodian of young children.
Once in a while, people ask why so few women have written joyfully about maternity, or about bonding with their mothers and other special prerogatives they have enjoyed as women. Look at Sylvia Plath, they say, or Virginia Woolf or Adrienne Rich, forever blue and cribbing. Compare them to male writers, who have written brilliantly about their fathers and their unconditional love for their sons.
Why is it so? Well, male writers can recollect their fabled emotions in tranquility because most of them have insulated private dens where they can sit and write in grand isolation, listening to their children’s prattle, if at all, from a safe distance. But for writer mothers (including my own), such grand and supervised isolation is a luxury most of them could never afford. Yet, that so many of them can carry on writing, hunched over dining tables and under staircases, regardless of sleep deprivation and a cacophony of sounds all around, is nothing short of a miracle.
Ever wondered, like me, why three of the most powerful goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kali, chose to not bear children?
(Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)