Motherhood is as much a joyful experience as it is hard work. With the onset of COVID-19 and lockdown, physical isolation and anxiety of the unknown virus that cast its net on all of us, mothers seemed to have been one group of people hit the most by it. Dr Ketoki Mazumdar, an assistant professor at the School of Human Ecology (SHE) at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and a perinatal mental health expert from Postpartum Support International, studied urban mothers' lived experiences during the pandemic. This study stemmed from Dr Mazumdar's personal experience of being a mother as well as professional experiences of seeing clients who are mothers who had exacerbated challenges thrown their way to navigate during the last two years of the pandemic.
We chatted with her about observations and findings of the study and maternal mental health. Edited extracts
What prompted you to study mothering experiences during covid-19?
Mothers, anyways, have been putting more than their due towards the processes of mothering before the pandemic engulfed the world. Covid crystallised these preexisting rifts and disparities within our societies all the more. Around the world, women perform two to 10 times as much unpaid work - including childcare – compared to men, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). According to the OECD (2020) data, women in India spend up to 352 minutes per day on domestic work, 577% more than men (52 minutes) and at least 40% more than women in South Africa and China. The clear division of unpaid care work performed by a mother along with their paid work often leads them to have very little time for their personal and leisure time, which might have implications for their mental well-being, especially during the pandemic where the care load was exceptionally high without one's usual support system in place.
Being a mother myself, I had my own share of lived experiences, which led me to have a deeper appreciation for all the mothers who laboured wearing a mask, attended to her child's requests while being on constant Zoom calls, or donned the hat of a teacher while her child attended virtual school or come up with yet another quarantine-approved activity to engage her child(ren) meaningfully. All of these have been disproportionately shouldered by mothers without any respite, which made me curious to explore the mothering experiences of urban Indian mothers during the pandemic.
What have been your observations during the study?
The study was one of the first to be conducted in India, where the mothers' psychological well-being, parenting stress, self-compassion and psychological flexibility were assessed along with engaging them in deeper conversations to explore their lived experiences of mothering during the pandemic. Because of its unique nature, the study provided the mothers with an opportunity to delve deeper into their personal experiences, dilemmas, fears, anxieties and stories of triumph over their distresses using their personal strengths and resources, especially when reaching out for external help was limited. Instances of the mothers using elements of self-compassion, mindful parenting practices and gratitude were also observed, which helped them tide over the challenges of mothering during the pandemic.
My small research team consisted of trained mental health professionals, which allowed the mothers to share their personal anecdotes in a safe space. They reported feeling heard and understood after the interviews. They shared how no one had asked them before this study about their personal experiences of being a mother. Thus it was pertinent to explore the relentless nature of being a mother, the impact of the process on their mental well-being and take that journey with them and document their voices. So much of the work that we as mothers do gets lost because we just do it; it is so normalised at the same time, invisibilised. This study helped put the person back in the centre and the need to bring personal voices to the forefront.
There needs to be a change in the narratives of care; the unpaid care work and childcare have to be acknowledged, valued, and shared. Also, the gender inequality driven by external factors was/is so strong that it overwrote a mother's personal beliefs and values about a gender-equal society. However, some mothers did not let that deter them from adopting a more gender-neutral approach towards how they were mothering their child(ren), thus breaking the prescribed norms of our traditional heteropatriarchal societies.
Can you broadly throw light on the findings from the study? What conclusions have you drawn?
The study highlighted certain unique challenges as experienced by the mothers, where they reported feeling high levels of parenting stress which impacted their well-being. However, the study also found that self-compassion practices of being kind to oneself and being mindful, despite going through extremely challenging and unprecedented times, and drawing boundaries for themselves, had helped them in their mothering journeys during the pandemic. This also led the mothers to prioritise their own needs and gain a sense of agency too. The study threw light on the gender inequalities persisting in our societies because of which their mental load and unpaid care work soared, leading to a role overload. Since the study was conducted in urban Indian cities, there were clear voices of Indian women who found themselves located simultaneously in seemingly contradictory discourses of traditional practices and modern, self-dependent consciousness.
With younger children at home, it became very difficult for mothers, whether they were engaged in paid labour or not, to strike a balance between their mothering duties and other personal chores during the outbreak. This study also helped to portray what mothers are going through, individually and contextually. I believe there is a pertinent need to bring in changes in policy and systemic levels, develop psychological interventions to address their concerns and alleviate their distress, and create safe spaces to support their voices and mental well-being needs. Change needs to happen at every level and rope in the community, professionals, government, and policies.
How is culture influencing the mental health of Indian mothers?
Indian women are expected to blend seamlessly into the multiple roles they play, dovetailing traditional practices with those of modernity typical of the urban Indian set-up. It is imperative to keep in mind that women's roles and performance daily are relatively permanent and deeply entrenched within a gendered division of labour and gendered perspectives on parenting practices.
These patriarchal packages need to be unpacked and help offered to women and mothers towards building communities of care. Their sense of agency gets established, and decision-making powers get strengthened. Women, in general, are made to deprioritise their mental health needs and problems, which impacts their help-seeking patterns too.
The sociocultural contexts that women function in on a daily basis are pushed under the carpet, and thus it becomes imperative to understand how mothers and women conceptualise mental health, what they need and what will be helpful. I also feel that our culture would benefit from engaging with a woman's and mother's internal, external and material realities and their personal and political realities. Women do not exist in a vacuum and have several intersections to themselves, making their identities anything but monolithic. Our experiences happen within context, and context actually shapes our experiences.
What steps do Indian mothers need to take to manage their emotional and mental well-being? How can society and family support the same?
To be good mothers or be successful at mothering, we're asked to be selfless, focus our resources on our child(ren) and home, and be economically productive. However, what we are doing as mothers is not even valued, acknowledged, and considered productive. We are also navigating mothering guilt and penalty and constantly trying to manoeuvre the maternal walls, sticky floors, and glass ceilings at play while meeting the of others, completely disregarding our own needs.
Mothers should be allowed and encouraged to recognise their authentic voices and seek help unapologetically because help is available. The stigma associated with seeking help will take years to shake off, but someone needs to set the wheels of change in motion.
As I mentioned earlier, the shift in narrative has to be brought where the work done by mothers relentlessly has to be valued, acknowledged and distributed amongst members of the family because for us, mothers, even though we are starting at the same line, our paths are strewn with micro and macro obstacles to overcome while moving ahead. Mental health should be everyone's issue and not just a gendered one. Response to a mother's mental health and well-being needs to be community-driven, and men and other stakeholders should be involved while addressing them.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist