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Not once was I asked how I was feeling, I wasn’t seen as a human being. As a pregnant woman, I was merely an object that was carrying something so precious to the world.
I was married off in every girl’s dream…to a perfect stranger by way of the typical arranged marriage. The traditional way, well, I won’t say completely traditional, it was the techie year of 2007 after all. My parents decided to find me the perfect man through the most reliable way, an online matrimonial site.
Plus, it was extremely important for me to be ‘married away’ to someone that my parents approved. It didn’t matter that love had nothing to do with it. There seemed to be more of an urgency to get me married away, especially since I was 23 and they had discovered that I was a woman with feelings and emotions and to make matters worse, I had a boyfriend. That nonsense had to stop, and the only way that they could make sure I never had a boyfriend was to get me married.
So, getting me married to a perfect stranger seemed to be the fool proof way to put an end to my silliness.
So, I was all dolled up and whisked off to G.K. Vale to get professional photos done to make sure that I looked better than I did in real life, because how else would a random stranger want to marry me.
The most important thing, the photographer guy told me, “Madam, we need to make you look fair.” So, I nodded because we all know the saying, you catch more flies with fair skin or some bullshit like that, I don’t know.
I’ll speed this along to 2008, less than 6 months into my marriage when I realised, I was pregnant. It was the worst feeling in my life. I knew that I was supposed to be happy. I knew that was what society expected from me, so I feigned excitement.
The gifts came pouring in. The food came pouring in. I was given the best food and clothes. Of course, I had to be treated that way because I was carrying precious cargo.
Our culture heaps love on a pregnant woman, the kind of love and attention she ever only gets when she’s pregnant with a child, and sadly for some, only when she’s pregnant with the first child.
So, I ate everything that was given and more. Everyone told me that I was eating for two (an absolute load of BS), but I was young, naïve, stupid, and wanted to please everyone around me, so I ate for two. I began to gain weight and my self-esteem began to drop, privately, of course.
No one knew about the days when I would look at myself in the mirror and curse my body. I hated the baby bump because everyone only cared about the package I was carrying.
I remember when I was sick with a horrid bout of the flu and I didn’t want to eat anything and just wanted a hug from my husband, and all I got was, “How can you not eat? You’re pregnant. It’s no longer about yourself. You need to start thinking about the baby.”
I was so hurt by those comments because everything I had done until then and after that was for everyone else, including the baby.
Not once was I asked how I was feeling, I wasn’t seen as a human being. I was merely an object that was carrying something so precious to the world. I began to feel worthless and invisible. I tried to talk to the women in my life about how I hated my physical appearance and they said, “oh that’s because you’re pregnant. Don’t worry, once the baby is born, everything will be fine.”
Spoiler alert: everything was not fine.
I tried to tell them that I was feeling overwhelmed with the pressure to take care of the baby so meticulously. I was forced to eat foods that I hated because it was good for the baby. No one stood by me when I went through hyperemesis gravidarum or morning sickness for nearly my entire pregnancy. No one asked if I needed to rest, instead everyone would crowd around me ‘to feel the baby move’ or ‘to feel the baby kick’ but there was zero consideration that my personal space was being invaded.
I stopped feeling like a human being but began to feel like a DHL courier van just waiting to drop off this package.
As much as I hate to admit it now, when I had to get an emergency scan because I was bleeding, I prayed hard that it would be a miscarriage because I was struggling with the pregnancy alone.
It might sound selfish to some of you reading this, and this is in no way meant to make those struggling with fertility issues feel like I’m ungrateful or that your issues are insignificant, this reflects my own struggles with depression that roared its head after the baby was born.
Labour and delivery are highly medicalised in India and the medical intervention, to some degree, I think is unnecessary. You are made to wait in long queues for your ob/gyn, who doesn’t care about you. The lady, in my case was only concerned with how quickly I could remove my pants and undies and get on the cold metal bed so she could check whatever she needed to check, quite invasively sometimes with a cold and hard and bloody painful speculum. I had zero warning, and this detestable ritual became normal every few weeks.
I was given a date in late January, and when my body refused to follow the date that the doctor had set, I was booked into induced labour. Looking back, this was ridiculous because had they waited for a few more days, the baby would have come out naturally, but I was strapped into a bed and had all sorts of wires and gadgets taped to me.
I had a band taped to my huge ugly stomach to monitor the baby’s heartbeat, I had IV cannulas on both hands. I was given a tablet to make me go into labour. 6 hours later I began to feel contractions and everyone in my family were so excited that they were going to see the baby.
My waters were forcibly broken because no one had any time to waste. I barely knew what was going on because no medical professional really told me what they were doing to me, maybe because they’re more intelligent than me.
So, apart from lying in a very undignified position with legs spread open to the rest of the people walking by my bed, I had zero idea of how to manage the pain because there was no one familiar around me.
I had no one to hold my hand as I went into full labour. My husband came into the labour room, while I was given an enema to help clear out my bowels, because naturally how gross would it be to the doctors to see a pregnant woman take a dump while pushing out the baby. (Strangely, an extremely natural process!)
After 14 or so hours of excruciating pain and no epidural and no idea of what to expect with my first child and full of fear and panic, I felt the doctor cut something and I remember wincing in pain, not realising that she had performed an episiotomy (or to cut the vaginal opening to make the baby come out faster!)
I probably passed out from the pain after that, but when I came to, I was still in labour and somehow after a whole bunch of heavy pushing and breathing my daughter was born. Obviously, being in India, we’re not told the sex of the baby until the baby arrives.
I wasn’t given the baby and she was taken away by the paediatricians to be checked over and all I remember was feeling so alone. Everyone around me had left. My husband had run out to tell everyone that the baby was born. The nurses who were beside me were gone. The doctor’s head was buried between my legs suturing up the cut she had made.
A nurse then brought my daughter and asked me to feed her, and I was so exhausted that I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I mean, I knew what I needed to do, but how do I do it?
The nurse mumbled something and left with the baby and there I was all alone. I kept straining my neck towards the door to see my husband. I so badly wanted him beside me to just hold me and stay with me. I saw him walk past the door holding our new baby and I could hear my family members so excited about holding her.
I remember getting out of bed by myself so I could go to the toilet. At some point I was wheeled back to my room where I thought I could sleep, but I couldn’t because the baby needed a feed.
That was the point I realised that this was all I was ever going to be. I was just a machine that the family needed to spit out and feed babies. My insecurities grew. No one understood or ever saw me as a person anyone.
I was deluding myself when I thought that my husband loved me. These words kept circling through my brain and when I was discharged home from the hospital, those were the only words I heard. I was unable to lactate to feed my daughter and breast feeding was the worst feeling to me. I hated it and again, this was a secret shame of mine. I couldn’t tell anyone this and so I bore it quietly and began to feel more inadequate as a woman and a mother.
I thought things would change if I had a second child. I had my son in New Zealand in 2016 and I had much better medical treatment than I did in India. I was treated like a human being by the nurses, doctors and midwives. Everything was explained to me meticulously and yes, I had an episiotomy again, but this time I was prepared. I didn’t have an epidural or anything because after 24 hours of contractions and not dilating beyond 3cms, I went from 3cms to 9cms in less than 20 minutes and there was no time for anything.
The baby practically fell out in less than 40 minutes of unmedicated excruciating pain, grunts, and primal sounds, but he went blue and needed to be in resuscitation. Again, I was left alone as my husband who was on his phone the whole time while I was labouring away, ran away behind the doctors. My midwife held my hand and told me that I was going to be ok. She looked into my eyes and said, “I’ll be here for you. Go have a shower and I will wait for you as long as it takes.”
I’ll never forget those words; I’ll be here for you….someone was going to be there for me. I waddled like a penguin with the horrendous pain between my legs and showered. I began to cry as the hot water beat on my body because the memories of my first pregnancy came flooding back. I was in the same place, alone with no family members around me.
My husband whom I expected to hold my hand and kiss me and say that he was here for me was no where to be found. I felt miserable as I hobbled down the lonely corridors alone, still with searing pain, trying to find where my baby was.
48 hours later, I was discharged from the hospital and my baby wasn’t, because he was found with sepsis. I drove home alone and when I got into my own bed that night, it hit me. I had gone through 9 months of pregnancy, over 24 hours of pain and for what? I had nothing to show for it. I didn’t have the baby with me.
Family and friends called me continuously asking about the baby and how he was doing in the ICU. I felt like I was vanishing away from my family and friends. I had lost my identity. I was reduced to nothing more than a uterus and breasts, that carried and fed the precious member of the family.
I began to get angry. I’d look at my baby and as much as I loved him, I hated him as well. My family would at least look at me while he was inside me, now that he was out, I was practically non-existent.
How could I hate my own flesh and blood? How could I be so angry? Weren’t we as women all taught that we should fall in love with our children when they’re born? We were supposed to only be in love all the time and yet, here I was hating motherhood and everything about it. I hated that my body had failed me, and I still couldn’t feed my child, no matter how hard I tried.
I hated my mind because I couldn’t control the thoughts and emotions I had about motherhood.
I started reading about my feelings online because I felt like I couldn’t speak about my struggles with anyone without facing judgement and that’s when I discovered postpartum depression or postnatal depression.
Most women go through it, some just feel like the blues and for some others, it can last for much longer, sometimes over a year after childbirth.
I began to feel reassured, for the first time in a long time. I did not realise that so many women went through this. The more I read, the more I realised that there were several triggers, and the most common were pre-existing stressors such as finances, relationship struggles and lack of social or family support.
I then realised that Indian women were some of the least supported during and after pregnancy. Yes, we have grand ceremonies, but none of them provide emotional support for the mother. These ceremonies are more for status and to show off the baby’s arrival rather than providing a haven for the new mum.
A woman, no matter how many pregnancies she’s gone through, is always overwhelmed because her body is changing and so is her mind. This is where she needs the greatest support. A woman needs to feel like she is being heard without judgement.
We’re raised in a culture where sometimes other women are our greatest shamers. We are shamed by the matriarchs in our families for the thoughts we have, and even worse, our fears, apprehensions and thoughts are dismissed.
I remember telling my family members about how scared I was when I carrying my first child, and I remember my husband and his mother sitting across me and saying, “Why are you acting like you’re the first woman in the world to have a baby? Women around the world have children and you just want attention.”
I was humiliated and obviously refused to acknowledge my feelings after that.
Looking back, I wish the medical system provided more education on post-natal depression to expectant mothers and their families. It is not just a fleeting bad mood or ‘feeling blue’. This is a serious mental health condition which can escalate to suicidal thoughts.
There are a range of psychological changes that occur during pregnancy. One of the key factors that lead to postnatal depression is the changes in the mindset of the pregnant woman in regard to the relationships with other individuals who form part of her social support circle. This can be the husband, in-laws, parents, siblings etc.
In my case, I had a mother-in-law who believed she knew everything, and I was the grub of her family hierarchy. This was reflected by how my husband treated me, during and after the pregnancy. I had no voice around him, and my job was just to smile and look pretty. Even that went out the window when I started gaining weight. I found peace with food, so I ate all day.
The stress of not knowing what was happening during my medical check ups was another factor to increase my anxiety. Although every female member of my family had gone through it, no one told me that the ob/gyn would stick her fingers up my vagina every damn time I went for a visit. No one told me that sometimes a cold hard speculum would be used, which was pretty invasive and could be quite painful.
No one said that something called a TVS (Trans Vaginal Scan) would be performed, and sometimes by a man with a female colleague watching. The whole procedure was very professional, but no one allayed the fears or comforted the humiliation I felt when a man shoves a long plastic scan instrument, shaped like a phallus up my vagina and talks through what he is seeing on the screen.
It is important that as women, we speak to other women who are going through pregnancy. Honesty is key here. Allow pregnant women to speak their minds. Give them the safe space to speak about their fears and apprehensions.
Support them, give them options to speak to a professional counsellor if they want to or need to.
Educate yourselves as family members, especially as husbands or partners on what your pregnant partner might be going through. Don’t diminish her fears, even if you think it is silly or stupid, remember it is not to her. These are genuine concerns she has, and she needs to know that you are her safe space.
If she is put on medication for postnatal depression, don’t make her feel like she is weird or that she cannot cope with pregnancy or motherhood, let her know that it is normal.
As tempting as it is to be carried away by the excitement of the new arrival, it is also important to remove the insecurities of the new mum. Involve her in all the excitement with the baby. Remember she has gone through a lot and her body has gone through a lot. She may no longer feel attractive to her partner, so show her that she still is. Small gestures will help her feel that she is still loved and attractive and that will help ground her and become a better mother and partner.
Please understand that postnatal depression is not a sign of weak character or something that “she just needs to snap out of”. It is imperative that everyone, including the new mother educate themselves on the myths of postnatal depression.
Normalise her feelings and let her understand that every woman is unique and will go through this in different degrees, and that it is going to be ok. She is not a worse mother just because she is struggling with depression, and almost always, it has nothing to do with the baby. Every mother struggling with postnatal depression loves her baby unconditionally, but she is unable to find the actual trigger so she might take it out on the baby because she feels like everything changed after the baby’s arrival.
While that might be true, it is important to be supportive of the new mother’s feelings and talk to her right through her pregnancy and emphasise the changes that might happen and that despite all the changes, she will always be loved and will be an important member of the family.
Image source: shutterstock
Cheryl Christopher is a mum, a working professional and a writer by passion.
She was featured in a published anthology by Scholastic India, published a book in 2019 and writes for several online writing communities.
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There are many mountains I need to climb just to be, just to live my life, just to have my say... because they are mountains you've built to oppress women.
Trigger Warning: This deals with various kinds of violence against women including rape, and may be triggering for survivors.
I haven’t climbed a literal mountain yet
Was busy with the metaphorical ones – born a woman
Fighting for the air that should have come free
And I am one of the privileged ones, I realize that
Yet, if I get passionate, just like you do
I will pay for it – with burden, shame, – and possibly a life to carry
So, my mountains are the laws you overturn
My mountains are the empty shelves where there should have been pills
When people picked my dadi to place her on the floor, the sheet on why she lay tore. The caretaker came to me and said, ‘Just because you touched her, one of the men carrying her lost his balance.’
The death of my grandmother shattered me. We shared a special bond – she made me feel like I was the best in the world, perfect in every respect.
Apart from losing a person who I loved, her death was also a rude awakening for me about the discrimination women face when it comes to performing the last rites of their loved ones.
On January 23 this year, I lost my 95 year old grandmother (dadi) Nirmala Devi to cardiac arrest. She was that one person who unabashedly praised me. The evening before her death she praised the tea I had made and said that I make better tea than my brother (my brother and I are always competing about who makes the best chai).
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