When shame and judgement follow motherhood

As hard as it is to keep your child alive, it's hard for mothers to stay alive too.  (iStockphoto)
As hard as it is to keep your child alive, it's hard for mothers to stay alive too. (iStockphoto)


Motherhood is a public institution in India, with everyone doling out advice

In the last week of April, a video of a hair-raising rescue in Chennai went viral. A seven-month-old baby dangling from a precarious sunshade on the first floor of an apartment building was rescued by neighbours, one of whom climbed up to the baby while others held a bedsheet as a safety net. The story had a happy ending—the baby was pronounced fit and fine by doctors.

If you saw the video, you too would have asked how did that baby get there? Apparently, its home was on the fourth floor and it slipped from the grasp of its mother. A terrifying thought. However, the baby’s fall is not as uncommon as one would think. An acquaintance of mine, a woman in her 40s, a software engineer in Bengaluru has this story. As a one-year-old she somehow leaped over the first-floor balcony and landed on the footpath. The banana-seller on the street, saw it happen, and brought her upstairs to her family who hadn’t noticed yet that she was missing. It had happened that quickly. A six-year-old was brought to my father’s clinic after he fell from the second floor. He too was fine. An acquaintance was putting socks on one of her twin pre-schoolers when he heard his school bus. He wriggled out of her grasp to look out of the window, fell and died. The primary task of parenting is keeping your child alive and it’s never, ever easy.

This week the story of the Chennai baby acquired a tragic turn—the mother of the baby has died by suicide. News reports say that the family felt she was pushed to it after strangers online called her a negligent mother. A couple of news reports indicate crucial information—that the young woman, a techie, had been depressed since the birth of her second child. She was getting “online counselling", says one report and had come to her parents’ home in Coimbatore after the almost-tragedy in April. She died when her parents were not at home.

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As hard as it is to keep your child alive, it is hard for mothers to stay alive too. When I was diagnosed, I asked my shrink, “Postpartum? So many months after childbirth?" My shrink pointed out kindly that I had spent those many months trying to get my Horlicks bottle-sized pre-term baby to a human form. I had enormous amounts of help. I cannot stress enough how much help I had. I was affluent. I had complete control over my finances. I had very unsentimental and helpful parents in the same city, a powerhouse visiting mother-in-law, a husband who was equally unsentimental and helpful. I had an ultra-organised nanny. I had also had IVF, a high-risk pregnancy and too much time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). When it was clear that the baby was fine, that was when my mind decided to go ta-ta-bye-bye.

Postpartum depression (PPD) can take many forms and mine took the form of wanting to lie in bed and do absolutely nothing, not even fold clothes—an activity I probably will be doing even on my actual deathbed. I worried a lot about dropping the baby. I was prescribed drugs which I took with some scepticism. I lay about again—only now feeling like a bit of a fraud. This feeling, I didn’t know then, is the hallmark of parenthood. A month later, I found myself wanting to clean the bedroom and that was the end of PPD for me.

When I think back about those early months after my first baby, what I remember most is the shock of no longer being under the radar. As a mother, I was public property but property that the public didn’t want. I think of how much I resented the invasiveness of the medical institutions. In the excellent hospital where I and my baby were kept alive, I also had to pretend to listen to patent nonsense about weight loss and breast-feeding. When I got out of hospital, opinions followed me around. I have never had trouble ignoring people yarning on but motherhood ushered me to blatant insincerity.

One day, I went to the park and sat on the swing with my baby and a man from the neighbourhood harassed me. I remember listening to his strange comments with disbelief. I thought to myself, “This hasn’t happened to me since I was 25 and it’s because he knows I am weighed down by this baby." It reminded me of the first few months after being married and feeling that I no longer frightened people enough.

Perhaps the news reports are right that it was the online shaming that pushed the unfortunate young woman to her decision. We may never know. She joins the thousands of women who die every year by suicide in India. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the second highest category of suicides occur among housewives (after daily wage workers). (The young woman who died has been described as a techie but it is unclear to me from the news reports whether she was working at the time of her death.) The Million Death Study (MDS) on premature mortality, which ran from 1998 to 2014, points out that in India, women in the 15- to 29-year-old age group make up 56% of female suicides. Analysing the MDS findings, researcher Siddhesh Zadey concluded that the probability of death due to suicide increases by over 200 hundred-fold “for an Indian woman solely by virtue of being a housewife". For a woman in India, being married or having ever been married increased chances of death by suicide.

Perhaps the online trolling forced that tragic decision but it may not have been. Under any circumstances, your baby slipping out of your grasp and nearly dying would be shattering. For women with PPD whose sadness and anxiety centre on the fragile life they have to keep alive, it would be a thousand nightmares playing out in the noonday sun. Even without postpartum depression, it is so incredibly hard for mothers in India to want to stay alive. Shame and judgement are your evil handmaidens as soon as you enter the public institution of motherhood in India. Everyone votes and unlike on Bigg Boss, they insist you stay in the house.

Nisha Susan is the author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories. She posts @chasingiamb.

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