“Motherhood is the most exciting and beautiful phase of a woman’s life.” A phrase that we come across very often, especially in a country like India where motherhood is considered an absolute compulsion for a woman. But rarely is the word challenging or life-altering used to describe motherhood, when the truth is these are adjectives that honestly describe motherhood. While I do not dispute the beautiful bond that a mother forms with her child, the start is not often as rosy as it is portrayed. Motherhood more than often can be an overwhelming experience. This can be attributed to the hormonal changes that a woman’s body undergoes in the postpartum period and social and cultural environment also have an important role to play here.
Postpartum depression has been described as the depression that would inflict a person post-childbirth1. A Survey by WHO in 2018 stated that 22% of mothers in India suffer from postpartum depression2. The most basic form of psychiatric ailment that can afflict a new mother is postpartum blues and sadly even that is not given importance, so it should not come as a shock that postpartum depression is spoken about in hushed tones and a vast majority of our country’s population does not even want to accept its existence. A couple of years ago a friend told me that in the country where she resides screening for postpartum depression is a must and based on the results counselling is provided to the patient. I was left wondering if only it happened in India, so many women could have a less agonising start to their motherhood journeys. I have no expertise in psychology neither do I have any training on treating mental health issues but from my own experience, I could confidently say that social factors contribute to a great extent in India towards postpartum mental health issues.
Sadly, even in 2021, the women in the country do not have much agency towards choosing motherhood. If a woman were to be even doubtful about her intent to embrace motherhood or go through a pregnancy, the backlash she would face socially is scary to even fathom. When it is the woman whose body has to undergo change, when it is her who will be assigned the role of the primary caregiver to the child, it seems plainly unfair that except her everyone one around her has a say on when she must procreate. Often the lady who wants to give time to her professional goal before embracing motherhood is certified the vamp of the family, labelled as the bad example for other girls. But the journey does not become any easier even if the woman were to get pregnant.
Women in modern times are educated and have access to and exposure to information. Like every other aspect concerning their life, they want to be heard and their decisions counted, but sadly in most Indian homes that hardly happens. A woman choosing to read up on health issues during pregnancy and wanting to handle the physical and other changes that pregnancy brings with it in her own way would be chided and belittled. She would be chided for speaking too much and dare if she were to disagree with the elderly folks in the house, all hell would break loose. This seems like a lesser problem when a lot of pregnant women are not even provided basic rest and nutrition during their pregnancy. The most worrisome aspect here is most times the husband keeps away from the turmoil his wife could be facing. While efforts are being taken to make pre-pregnancy classes a norm for the pregnant couple, but there is still a long way to go. For in this country, women are told even to this day how lucky they are if their husband waits outside the labour room at the time of delivery.
Post the delivery the mother gets accorded little to no attention. It is expected that the mother would have a spurt of emotions immediately on seeing the little human they have birthed. Any expression of a feeling of being overwhelmed, confused or afraid is scorned upon. There is little to no empathy, leave alone sympathy given to a postpartum woman. She is expected to handle the baby perfectly from day one. If only a woman was given the time to learn the ropes of the new phase in her life and bond with her offspring at her own pace, rather than being told how important it is to be a perfect mother. But alas nobody is willing to understand there is nothing like a perfect mother, it only gets better with experience and the journey is different for everyone. While all the work and responsibility are handled by the mother little to no heed is paid to her suggestions or opinions concerning the baby or herself. The mother is often not even given the right to name her baby. An environment where one is constantly judged, belittled and only one’s shortcomings highlighted can only be detrimental for the mental health of the person concerned and the same is the case with women in the postpartum phase. Often women receive no support form their spouses, all they receive is more judgement from them as well. A new father volunteering to change the soiled diapers or event lifting the infant is praised sky high, while the mother’s sleepless eyes also draw only criticism.
Staying with the theme of Women’s Day this year let us challenge the narrative of motherhood that is being passed down through generations of women in the country. Let us encourage women to have a say in deciding if they wish to choose motherhood and when they wish to do it. Let us make the message clear to society that how a woman chooses to handle her pregnancy and motherhood journey should be entirely her prerogative. Let us stand by a woman when we see them suffering from postpartum depression, make them seek help. Let us normalise the discussion around postpartum depression, only then will change follow. Let us work towards abolishing the term “perfect mother”.