Universally, mothers are praised for unconditional love, unflinching sacrifice, and prioritising the needs of the child over everything else. These traits are worshipped, written, and spoken about extensively. There are innumerable stories about heroic mothers who have gone above and beyond for the needs of their children. This narrative, as harmlessly uplifting as it seems, puts an incredible amount of pressure on mothers. It requires mothers to live for their children, a task that is far from glorious as it is sacrificial to the extent of being self-destructive. In most instances, there is not even a whisper of gratitude – mothers are simply expected to put their families before themselves.
The concept of ‘mother nature’ stems from exactly this perception of abiding motherhood – thankless and unwavering nurturing in the face of constant indifference or abuse; playing a vital role while being relegated to the background and made invisible. Mothers are expected to be devoted to their children at all times with no respite. There is absolutely no comparison to the pressures men face to be attending fathers in their children’s lives. There is scrutiny from all sides and at all times, watchful of a woman’s performance as a mother.
The situation is compounded in the Indian context. While the pressure is not as starkly visible in cities, it creeps up in insidious ways. Frequently, women tend to take up jobs that are less demanding, sacrificing their careers to balance the needs of the child. They have to combat the narrative of stay-at-home mothers being ideal, and working mothers being neglectful. The shame surrounding working mothers is still very much present.
In the rural context, the expectations are much greater and the acknowledgment of effort is practically non-existent. Women are expected to birth children, rear and care for them, and manage the entire household. They dine last at all meals, contributing to high levels of anaemia and malnutrition. Despite the backbreaking labour, women continue to be second-class citizens in their own homes. Childbirth is considered a beautiful miracle, giving women little room to voice the physical and emotional pains of enduring pregnancy.
The challenges of motherhood are infinite and they begin even before conception. Women are coaxed into bearing children before a certain age and are shamed when they are unable to conceive. Child-bearing continues to be an unquestionable expectation and a God-given gift, and not fulfilling it is perceived as an unforgivable flaw. Pregnancy comes with its own challenges as it is fraught with health risks including miscarriage, preeclampsia, and still birth. Pregnancy and childbirth alter a woman’s body, causing weight gain, stretch marks, sweeping hormonal changes, and a weak pelvic floor. Delivery of children through c-section causes long-lasting pain with lengthy recovery times. This aspect of women’s health is barely addressed as child bearing is irrevocably a woman’s role, making all the risk associated with it, ‘part of the process’.
Post-partum depression or maternity blues is a common and debilitating condition that lasts for a year subsequent to child birth. Very few instances of post-partum depression among Indian women are recognised and addressed medically. Emerging studies suggest that post-partum depression has long-tern repercussions; 38% of women that experience it develop chronic depression which they carry with them throughout their lives.
Even after childbirth, motherhood consists of the exhausting tasks of feeding and changing day and night for several months. Then, the mother has to ensure that the nutrition and intellectual stimulation the baby receives are suitable and adequate. This is coupled with the constant vigilance that needs to be exercised around infants that have become mobile. Motherhood is never-ending, and continues to be a pressing duty through infancy, adolescence, and adulthood. Mothers remain the first port of call, and are expected to be perpetually available to address the needs of their children. While several men assume this role as well, it is a voluntary sharing of duties as opposed to a natural expectation.
When children fly the coop, mothers are left with a sense of emptiness, as the duty that occupied them for the past two decades has suddenly ceased, leaving behind an incomprehensible amount of time and a gaping hole in their identities. This is contrasted with men who have the space to develop careers and interests as their children grow, which they can then pursue through retirement.
There is no one solution that can address all of these issues. However, respecting women’s agency in making decisions about having children, recognising the difficulties and providing them with safe spaces to discuss these, providing greater emotional support and therapy, and increasing the role of men in child-rearing can prove to be significant steps towards ensuring that women have a more balanced and wholesome life as mothers.
(Edited by Varsha Roysam)