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A mother isn’t automatically bestowed with answers to every question, or ‘motherly’ abilities, the moment they become one. Mothers with disability are just as valid.
I wonder how many pieces of literature or art have been dedicated to someone’s mother. So many of us laugh about becoming like our mothers – how we end up getting worked up about ‘nothing’ the way they used to when we were children. But I also wonder, have we ever defined who a mother is?
We know what is expected out of a ‘good’ mother’.
According to this, a mother must be a biological woman, who has borne a child, preferably a son, to a husband, preferably chosen by her family. She must raise the child with the right values, must dedicate herself wholly to the child without compromising her duties to the larger family, and yet, she must know her boundaries.
Important decisions of the child must be left to the man. She must have the strength to take all the blame for anything that may go wrong, and must have the foresight to face all problems. She must be the repository of all solutions. She cannot get tired and the only reward she should ever expect is that she got to be a mother in the first place.
With feminism questioning accepted notions, we have come to debate certain terms. Words like women, gender, sex etc., have been expanded in their definitions. We are more keenly aware of the differences and avoid generalities. But when it comes to motherhood, we do not have such an expanded definition. We still carry on with the term ‘Supermom’. We still attach to the word ‘mother’ romantic ideas of endless sacrifice.
In all these expectations, many mothers are left out of the picture entirely, forever doubted for their efficiency, especially mothers with disability.
On the 13th of May, 2021, an online event was hosted by a not-for-profit organisation, Rising Flame. The event was a panel discussion on being a mother with disability. The panel included Anu Elizabeth Roche, a poet, Jeeja Ghosh, a disability and gender rights activist, and Anandhi Viswanathan, an author and communications coach. They shared their experiences of motherhood, which challenged the typical understanding of what a mother should be like.
Anu Roche presented her beautiful poetry, Avocado Baby, which was on how her pregnancy impacted her relationship with her body. Roche shares that she had issues of self-hate towards her body. Certain lines struck a chord, ‘I’ve called it (her body) lazy, weak’, ‘ I’ve pushed my body to suffer’. But with her pregnancy, Roche learnt how to be grateful to her body, ‘You have made me make peace with the one thing that I will carry to my grave when I die’.
But despite how beautiful a pregnancy may be, or how ‘easy’ a delivery may be, one cannot automatically assume that the mother will be perfectly happy.
Inability to bond
Roche shares that she found it difficult to bond with her daughter. She felt ashamed. While her husband asked her to put herself first, her parents were of the opinion that she must put her feelings on the backburner, for she had a healthy baby.
Mothers are expected to forego their individual selves for the family. The ‘gift of motherhood’ that they have received must mean that they shouldn’t have any problems, or that they are worth bearing. Mothers are often shut down when they try to open up and so, loneliness takes hold.
Mothers are bombarded with traditional methods that they are instructed to follow to keep their babies healthy and safe. But so many are unaware of postpartum depression, something that is so common! This can last several weeks or even months following birth and includes symptoms such as crying more than usual, feeling angry, numb, or disconnected from one’s baby, or feeling guilty about not being a good mom.
Maternal mental health is rarely an issue that is addressed in birthing plans. Any conversation about it is usually along the lines of, ‘don’t stress, it’s bad for the baby’.
Few mothers have started to open up publicly about their postpartum depression, such as actress Sameera Reddy. Her caption on her post for mother’s day echoes what Anu Roche shared, “After I was discharged from the hospital, I came home and cried my eyes out. There was also this guilt that I wasn’t being there for my son.”
It took Anu Roche years, by her own admission, to get to a point where she could make sense of what had happened, and bond with her baby.
From ‘unconventional’ experiences of motherhood, the panel moved on to discuss ‘unconventional’ mothers.
Jeeja Ghosh shared that her capabilities were questioned when she approached an adoption agency. They were unsure if a child could communicate with her, for all that they saw in the person in front of them was cerebral palsy. Ghosh shares that despite these doubts she persevered and adopted a “happy and active baby”. Ghosh went on to share that her daughter always understood her every word, right from the beginning.
Though she didn’t like it, she did ask for help when needed, but while she constantly mentioned having support around her, Ghosh also shared that some people, including relatives, made her feel less than. Often when children are presented with gifts, they are usually given to the mother. However, one relative would never hand the gift to Ghosh but always to a caregiver, while Ghosh held her tongue, for a mother is ‘expected’ to always maintain peace.
Being a mother will never be unproblematic, regardless of who the mother is. One isn’t automatically bestowed with answers to every question the moment they become a mother. This is exactly what the third panelist, Anandhi Viswanathan, kept stressing on.
As someone who is visually impaired, she is used to being doubted. She knew that when she decided to be a mother, the same would happen. Some would also lament for her, “You might feel left out because you can’t see your baby smile, do you want to go through this sadness?” When people have such a narrow lens to view life, it isn’t a surprise that their idea of motherhood is so limited.
Anandhi accepted the work that lay ahead of her and chose to face it with her husband. “There were practical issues and she was active. We put payals on her feet. In my house each object has a space so I know what’s around her when she’s in a certain part of the house. I would talk to her as I worked and she developed the habit of talking to me. I would keep an ear out for a change in case something is going into her mouth.”
A large part of being a mother involves being innovative; motherhood is a learning curve. In response to a question from the audience on how one decides to be a mother, Jeeja said, “You have to make peace and negotiate with yourself and (you) have to become comfortable with the decision”.
Everyone feels that they are entitled to have a say when it comes to a child. And while it does take a village in some instances, mothers are overwhelmingly surveilled. A mother with a disability is instantly cast off as the lesser parent. It is assumed that their partner must be putting in more effort. They are valorised for having ‘taken on more’.
“People think that because I’m blind I don’t do much at home and my husband is doing all the work. I have tried my best to tell people that this is not so,” Anandhi said, as she spoke about having to prove herself.
All three of the panelists were sure of their abilities as mothers. Such an acceptance of oneself often means going against the grain.
If we know that no one is all knowing and incapable of faltering, then why are mothers with disability cast aside as specially incapable? Does having a disability automatically mean that one has wrecked their child’s life? No, just as it cannot be assumed that a mother who is ‘socially accepted’ will raise a perfect human being. The pressure of perfectly raising the perfect child must be discarded.
It has increasingly been accepted in the medical community that postpartum depression is common and isn’t a failure of the mother. But then in society, why are mothers not given the right care for it? The idea of the invincible and infallible mother must be broken down. It weighs them down, rather than enabling them, by creating anxieties and harsh standards of judgement.
Mothers must share their experiences and open up. While the onus for change shouldn’t be on them, sharing might inspire hope in other mothers and may propel them towards self-acceptance. Mothers may learn to forgive themselves. Such experiences must be amplified to force people to re-examine who a mother is. And perhaps in this re-examination, we may broaden the definition and bring more mothers, especially mothers with disability, in.
Image source: twitter
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