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.