Reflections of a New Mother

By Radhika R. Yeddanapudi

I received a birthday card from my father yesterday. In his familiar, right-leaning hand, he had written, “I believe this is your best birthday yet.” I imagined this card landing in the future in a stranger’s hand, perhaps in an old curiosity shop. What will the stranger make of my father’s allusion? A job, a promotion, an achievement of some sort? I wanted to ask my father to what he referred but decided against it. He may not have wanted to, or even been able to, articulate exactly why the birth of my son represented the best that my life could offer, only that he felt it.  I remained silent out of a mixed sense of inadequacy, propriety and maternal pride: a new living being can inspire and effect change in a way that no achievement can.

My son Himadri was not real to me until we brought him home from the hospital. The involuntary nature of pregnancy, labor and childbirth left me feeling like there was nothing I could control, and hence the child of this natural set of events seemed quite unreal. At home, for the first three weeks, he was mostly represented by agonized crying, dirty cloth diapers that needed washing, continuous acquaintance with his by-products, arguments with my mother about child-rearing practices and sleeplessness. After my son’s birth, my husband was home for two weeks and woke up unfailingly at night, but he could not erase the angst and disorientation I felt when alone with Himadri. Motherhood seemed as vast and lacking in signposts as the Thar desert, and I, like that beast of burden, the camel, had to be the ship that carried its tiny passenger to a safe shore. My first lesson, therefore, was that the stay-at-home mother is “on” all the time. I was reminded of a word of advice from a colleague at my last job – when one is a manager one is on all the time: there are no weekends, time off or other reprieves from that role.

I cannot say that this realization sat well with me; perhaps as a modern, educated woman, I find it hard to say that it could possibly sit well with me. Motherhood I had viewed as a “sexy” phase where women looked great, were confident, and did a million things successfully while still having great careers and producing well-behaved, obedient children. What I couldn’t have known is that while the mother-to-be is revered in all cultures, the mother herself is ignored postpartum or, worse, she is told “Your child, you are the expert,” or “For my child, I would do anything. Wouldn’t you?”! While pregnancy maybe unexpected, being a mother is expected. As the closest and sole companion of the child, the mother is to know him and decode his communication for others to enjoy. Society sends the unspoken message that being a mother is part intuition and part logic, but for the most part I have experienced it as a confidence game. I make decisions for the child and by making decisions exude a faux confidence both to society and to the child. If this is parenthood, small wonder then that since time immemorial adolescents have been disillusioned! I was surprised to learn that even though I was childless till my early forties, I had managed to convince society of my ability to rear a child.

While society was convinced of my ability to rear a child, I was not convinced of society’s desire to support me in raising this child. Since I have been living in North America for the past 17 years, even the experience of being foreign has been internalized into my daily existence, until it seemed the “normal” North American life and my life were the same. Having a child has renewed my sense of isolation – more food for poetry but scarily prosaic in reality! How am I to explain to this child, who surely belongs here, that I still feel alien, that he may experience discrimination despite having one native parent?  Other South Asian mothers tell me of the moment when they decide to hide their disenchantment with their adopted countries so as not to alienate and terrify their children. Will that happen to me too?

A few weeks ago Himadri subjected me to the first of his curiously grown-up gazes – curious, experimental with new found expressiveness against my loving yet guarded one. In the afternoon light, he lay with eyes wide open, while nearby I sat stealthily working on the computer, almost cowering from fear of his demands. After an hour of silence, he burst into a single, frustrated cry – lonely and uncomprehending! Here lay a sentient being, just too small and helpless in this new, alien environment, where two months previous, he had been master of his amniotic sea. He too, like me, had desires, hunger and the need for human company. It was the first time in my life that I felt guilt for putting my needs before another’s.

Being a mother is a political act. For years I watched film and TV mothers: actresses who convinced us that mothers protest, strike, and even kill to protect and advance their young, sometimes even killing one of their young for their convictions, a la Nargis in Mother India. Men could be dismissed or scorned, but mothers were a different animal. Motherhood seemed to confer an authority and dignity even on the youngest of them.

I longed for that authority without recognizing the centrality of motherhood and thus for 41 years my politics remained impersonal and somehow theoretical. I never felt authentic enough – always in either the wrong place or in the wrong time – South Indian in Delhi, an Air Force brat with no regional affiliation, a non-immigrant in America, working in international development while wanting to write: I lived in a world of ideas.

Having a child, however, is a fact. Every decision regarding Himadri, who is only three months old to date – spending, eating, using cloth or disposable diapers, buying toys, getting shots, reading stories, speaking in different languages – forces me to examine nationalism, internationalism, environmentalism, education, self-worth and culture. The self-imposed fog of inauthenticity has momentarily cleared and I have glimpsed how ideas shaped me and how they will shape Himadri. The option for detachment is fading, bringing a strange and new sense of relief.

I would be dishonest if I did not admit that I sometimes view Himadri as a rival with whom there is a primal struggle for time. While Himadri may continue me in a genetic sense, he is not me, not a clone. Himadri needs me to fulfill his most basic needs, and likely even when older he will not care how I find the time to fulfill myself. Amidst the early mornings, the late nights, the exhaustion, the headaches and the emotional moments, I have to do and live. Here is a time of practice, ambition not as a step up, but a long and winding road – no glory, no spotlight in the future, only a continuous refining and defining of meaning through the daily grind. Where previously my desires and ambitions were always a thing separate and removed from my existence, now my existence and continuation is the road of ambition. As surely as the wind that breaks down rocks, my little boy is whittling away excess!

Perhaps in pregnancy I had a premonition of how this little boy would change and shape my life. The two names I chose for him were Himadri and Orestes – Himadri being the snow-capped mountain; Orestes the mountain-dweller or mountain conqueror. These names are to be taken together to signify one who conquers himself, but I also chose Orestes to recognize the child’s role in fulfilling the mother’s destiny. In Greek mythology, Orestes kills his mother; in my case, I assumed – correctly – that he would kill my ego.

Radhika’s last contribution to The South Asian Idea was Delhi – The City Remembered.

 

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23 Responses to “Reflections of a New Mother”

  1. Vikram Says:

    People have migrated and moved for centuries. It has been part and parcel of the human story. But somehow, modern day culture (esp. in America) comes packaged with set notions and interpretations of identity that can be overbearing, as you have experienced in your life.

    But ultimately a human being is singular in many ways, and if you teach your son to focus on his capacity to do good in the world, alienness and nativeness wont matter.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    a beautiful post! how i wish i could understand the world of mothers better.

  3. Vinod Says:

    forces me to examine nationalism, internationalism, environmentalism, education, self-worth and culture

    You are a deeply intuitive and thinking person and you are trying to think through the tsunami of emotions you are experiencing now. I know that is very hard. Try suspending thinking too far into the future and taking things moment by moment – something very hard to do for people like you.

    Have an unexamined faith that you’ll do well.

    Pls ignore what I said if it is preposterous. I am after all an ignorant single guy!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: There could be a contrary perspective on this issue. We spend most our allotted time drifting on the river of life without thinking. It is only certain inflection points (graduation, marriage, divorce, birth, death, retrenchment, accident, arrest, retirement) that break the routine and force us into reflection (why am I here, what is the purpose of life, what am I doing, what did I do wrong, what should I be doing). It would be a pity if we would let these rare opportunities go to waste.

      Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

  4. Radhika Says:

    Vinod and South Asian,

    both of your points are valid. Life without examination is really impossible but paradoxically at the moment of action too much thought can actually interfere. Is it possible to have an examined faith? I am pondering that question now.

    btw, Vinod, being a single guy is not a disqualification – in fact, I am pleasantly surprised that men have responded to this post!

    Radhika

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Radhika: How would you describe ‘too much thought’ and what would it interfere with? On the possibility of examined faith, you might find this book review both interesting and amusing.

    • Vinod Says:

      Radhika, you’re the only one contributing to girl power on this blog. We could use more of that here.

      How would you describe ‘too much thought’ and what would it interfere with?

      thought needs the feed of emotions to nourish it and emotions needs the guidance of thought. Too much of either will lead to an isolated life or emotional riots.

  5. Arun Pillai Says:

    Supposedly, a student of Socrates also said: “The unlived life is not worth examining.”

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I like these contrarian propositions. One person conveyed to another the conventional wisdom that “it is the early bird that gets the worm” only to be told that “it is the early worm that gets got by the bird.”

  6. Anil Kala Says:

    Loved the fluid poetry in prose, Radhika. Thanks for presenting detached perspective on motherhood. Not easy to write on motherhood without sounding clichéd.

    Few thoughts though!

    Himadri is merely what you were to your mother.

    And the moment you look for meaning in a name you are throwing chains on your child. Accept the name for its phonetic aesthetics.

    • Vinod Says:

      Gee Anil, I wish you would elaborate on your thoughts!

      • Anil Kala Says:

        Vinod, you might want to disagree with me.

        I have never come across this kind of perspective on motherhood, though I don’t read much. It appears that Radhika detached from her body and soul and wrote it as an uninterested observer therefore the clinical observations. Normally we come across cloying over emphasis on intensity of bond between mother and child, I just wished there was some of it here therefore the first thought occurred to me.

        When we search for meaning in a name, we are subconsciously placing expectation from it therefore attempt will be to give direction to the drift of child. You might say what is wrong in it.

      • Vinod Says:

        Anil, thanks for the elucidation. I don’t have an opinion on your thoughts yet.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Anil: My thoughts on your thoughts:

      Births are strange phenomena – they are same in so many ways and yet different in so many others. It is true that Himadri is to Radhika what Radhika was to her mother but there is no way that the thoughts occurring in the minds of the two mothers could have been the same. Just think of the contexts – how different they must be. Every birth is unique because of its context and therefore gives rise to a unique constellation of thoughts. I am glad Radhika shared her feelings with others.

      I agree that looking for meaning in a name inevitably places a burden on the one carrying the name. I recall a washerman in our neighborhood who had named his two sons Shehanshah and Judge – they had a hard time living them down. Some wise cultures have anticipated this human tendency and worked to neutralize it. In some, the name is picked by randomly opening a holy book and choosing the first name on which the eye falls; in some African ones, the child is simply named after the day on which he or she is born.

  7. Radhika Says:

    Anil: thanks for the compliments and the warning – I do love the phonetic aesthetics so happily that might work…

  8. Radhika Says:

    Anil,

    I guess I am happy that my article is provoking so much thought. You are unique in describing me as having detached body and soul – every single female friend (mothers all) responded saying they heavily identified with my article. these friends include south asians and others.

    cheers.
    Radhika

  9. Radhika Says:

    Dear Anil and South Asian,

    both of you make interesting points about not using names to label or imprison. I was wondering what you think of last names then. Isn’t the last name itself trying to give meaning to one’s life by tying one to clan, village and family? I think Vinod hit on something more fundamental – why rationalize emotions?

    Himadri Orestes may well prove an explorer rather than a conqueror and probably will have a good laugh at his mother!

    best.
    Radhika

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Radhika: In earlier times, even last names had a functional or identification objective. Thus the English had common last names indicating professions – Tailor, Smith, Carpenter, Butcher, Baker, etc. Many Indian caste identifiers had a similar purpose. This notion of using a name to signal your aspirations for the child is quite modern – it is hard to say ahead of time whether the grown up child would have the maturity to laugh it away or allow it to cramp the personality.

      I suppose we need to rationalize emotions because they have consequences and we can’t avoid the consequences because we live in the real world in which we can’t sever connections with others. Those who have had children go through middle school would know that.

  10. Radhika Says:

    South Asian:

    I agree that last names were used to signify profession but that itself is a label isn’t it? People being locked into professions because of their last name doesn’t sound agreeable from a modern perspective!! I know someone from an untouchable caste in India who had to give himself a last name in order to fill out a student application for Harvard – ironically he chose an extremely Brahminical name!

    Using a name to signal aspiration is not new or unique. Many African Americans, who did not have the grace of a last name during the time of slavery, gave themselves last names that ironically might have been their masters’ names! In India many people give their children shorter names now so that they can be easily accessible for people around the world (and we know that is aspirational because Indians want to impress the world-no offence meant to anybody here!)!! Among older names, take my father’s name – Vishwanatham – meaning lord of the world!!! Himadri’ s name begins to pale in comparison. Or how about the South American convention of calling kids Jesus – is that too burdensome to name your kids after god!!!!

    Himadri Orestes certainly got himself a good icebreaker of a name!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Radhika: We are now talking of two different things. Every person, place and thing has to have an identification that is conferred by a name. So one issue is whether identifications based on professions are agreeable or not. The other issue is of parents using the name to reflect their aspirations for the child. The question here is whether this is good for the child or not.

      I don’t feel you will have a problem because 99 percent of the people won’t know what either Himadri or Orestes means. But some names can be real outliers with unpredictable consequences. Do you recall Piscine Molitor Patel from The Life of Pi or Gogol from The Namesake?

  11. Radhika Says:

    South Asian:

    those are two very amusing references – Gogol actually inspired me to read Gogol for the first time so that was one more unpredictable consequence!!

    My original motivation was to ensure my kid’s interest in both India and Greece that are close to my heart! Naming is a powerful way to ensure connection and interest – I am also studying modern Greek. In my article I didn’t mention this but meaning was not the exclusive consideration.

    Himadri is a very popular Bengali and Assamese name and there are literally thousands of Greek boys named Orestes. Few with both though.

  12. Preeti Says:

    thanks for posting radhika. will be sharing it with a few mothers with whom i know it will totally resonate! and yes motherhood, as i have discovered, and continue to discover, can be both exhilarating and frustrating! I do find it hard to own up only the joys of motherhood without acknowledging the battle with the self that a “modern” mother has to undertake with herself on a sustained basis! thanks once again for the well written honest post.

  13. james buckley Says:

    “And now the purple dusk of twilight time, steals across the meadows of my heart. High in the sky the stars climb, always reminding me that we’re apart. You wander down the lane and far away, leaving me a song that will not die. Love is now the star dust of yesterday, the music of the years gone by.” Stardust.

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