Rohini was big. She was carrying twins and approaching the end of her rather uncomfortable pregnancy. A cesarean section had been planned. Her trustworthy nanny had requested for a short leave to visit her village before the babies arrived; her travel was scheduled for 22 March, while Rohini’s mother was to fly down and stay with her from the 25th onwards.
Everything was planned for the arrival of her babies. But then 2020 did its thing. The lockdown got declared starting on 24 March. We as a nation had barely few hours to gather our wits before we were all locked up inside our homes. Call it bad luck, testing times or just 2020, Rohini was left to fend for herself with twins, a lockdown and a working-from-home husband who was more occupied than ever by his job.
The pandemic has been a particularly trying time for first-time mothers, with little to no guidance, too much of conflicting free advice and too little support. I have seen Covid-positive pregnant women being made to undergo multiple tests and driven into fear and helplessness as hospitals turned them away due to lack of beds. For the lack of any medical guidelines, mothers who tested positive were separated from their newborns and their ability to feed, bond and nurture their little ones was compromised.
But even before Covid gripped the world, there has been a silent smoldering health problem going on: The unprepared postpartum period. I speak for the millions of mothers out there when I say that we are not happy nurturers oozing ‘mamta’ from every pore. We are pissed off, sleep-deprived, under-helped and overworked for the most part. Some women suffer way more than others. But the common thread that unites them all is how no one had warned them about the inglorious life of a mother.
We were reigning queens during our pregnancy. Husbands feared our mood swings and our families and society catered to our cravings. We were respected and regarded. But then one fine day, the baby pops and we are reduced to the holy cow, being milked for our milk, blood, sweat and definitely tears (in solitude of course. Not for people to see! A woman is supposed to be happy and an epitome of love after she is “completed” by the birth of her child). But trust me when I say this, we are more out of a zombie apocalypse movie than a Karan Johar drama.
My first pregnancy was as smooth as could be. I was a happy chubby expecting woman with no sign of nausea. But alas life wouldn’t be as generous to me after my delivery. Pretty much every issue under the sun that could torment me, did so. As a doctor, I knew all my diagnoses (nothing major, just a whole lot of infections, latch issues, baby jaundice, the works). As a doctor, I knew the treatment. But as a mother, I could not handle any of it. A month and half of struggle later, I had a healthier child (he recovered from his long-standing jaundice and had gained weight) but as a defeated mother who felt lost in motherhood.
So when I joined back my practice after my first child, I had a new kind of medical training. I was trained by the hardships of being a new mother. Every new mother who came to me with a medical problem, I would ask her about her emotional wellbeing. And it takes very little to open that floodgate. It is humbling to hear their struggles and get a glimpse of the pain behind their smiles. It is heartbreaking to see how many women with mental health issues go undiagnosed after the birth of their child. We all have heard about postpartum depression. But then there is the not-so-popular postpartum rage and postpartum anxiety, which really are not seen as mental health disturbances but rather as difficult behavior. Or worse, not seen at all by anyone except the mother who is drowning in her own anger and worry with little control over how she feels.
Aside from this, the other problem particularly faced by us is Google. Google is every new mother’s frenemy. Your 2 am friend you want to share your doubts with. But who will always leave you more worried than relieved. Quite a toxic relationship, if you ask me. Our generation is more educated and aware, which is something of a curse.
Let me explain. Your mother who has come to look after you post-delivery has asked you to not eat a certain food (say soyabean). Now if you Google this, you will get many answers supporting eating soyabean because of its amazing protein and fat content. But who will tell you about the estrogen content of soy reducing your milk output?
Our traditional care is replete with valuable methods to care for the new mother. But unfortunately, Western blogs, unaware of our wealth of indigenous practices, shrug them off as old wives' tales. And this is where one of the main problems the urban Indian woman faces arises from. We want science in our practices and it is this science that is leading us away from following our instincts (don’t sleep with your baby!), holding them in our arms (don’t spoil the baby!), rocking them in jholis (long live the nursery and cot) and they feed us an imbalanced diet (made of only protein and no love). Be it belly binding, home confinement for the first 6 weeks, what to eat, what to avoid while breastfeeding, moms find themselves at the cross roads of traditional wisdom, doctor’s advice and the western practices we read about online.
Women are more in control than they used to be, but this becomes a setback when it comes to motherhood. A new person is in the picture and most decisions are dictated by the baby’s wishes. Things will spiral out of control and messes will be made. Now is the time to let go of the illusion of the multitasking superwoman and accept living in the moment (you are quite the superhero to have given birth. Now hang the cape and rest, mama). The mantra for sailing through motherhood is to take one hour at a time. Your life will not run as per schedule now that you have a baby in your life. Nor can you draw patterns from current behaviour and plan for the future. If your baby has slept in the afternoon today, he most likely will not tomorrow, so don’t plan a soak in the tub for tomorrow just yet. Then again, if he bawled all night and you couldn’t catch a wink, it doesn’t mean there will be a repeat telecast today and you lose sleep dreading that! Most importantly, don’t, just don’t count the number of hours you haven’t got shut-eye and fuss over that. Be mindful of the present and try to get things done on priority rather than spiral out of control trying to multitask and manage every single thing simultaneously.
New parents are a frazzled lot, and biological mothers more so because of all the changes their bodies have gone through within a short period of time. So the next time you see a new mother, ask her how she is like you mean it.
Dr. Farah Adam Mukadam is a Benglauru-based family physician and author of the book Newborns and New Moms. She vlogs on Instagram and YouTube as Dr. Farah_Momstein