Saturday, 30 November 2013

The first of fifty two weeks

Shabdita turned a year old this month. As I look back on the incredible year that this has been, I can divide it into two big learning curves: the first week and the first year, i.e. the other fifty one weeks. This blog post is the story of that first week.

I don't know about others, but when I was pregnant, even then, it never seemed real, that I would be a parent at the end of that process. I did feel certain physical sensations once in a while, but was mostly all right. I was intent on my work, and interestingly, was procrastinating far less than usual, driven by a need to "do" as much as possible before the baby was born. I was categorically not feeling attracted to pictures of babies, sweet things, sour things, buying things for baby and so on. A colleague of mine would often asked me if I had started shopping for the baby and I started saying 'yes' towards the end only because I did not want to disappoint her. Incidentally, I bought most of Shabdita's things after she was born. I realised that a lot of the ideas surrounding pregnancy (that you will feel x or y or z) are narratives, and one can play into it as much, or as little, as one wants. In retrospect, I should have taken to my bed more often! But otherwise, no matter how little or how much one prepares, the idea of a child is totally different from actually having a living, breathing physical baby in your hands. It 'gets real' in an instant.

It is difficult to capture the first couple of days in words. For one, the emotions that one feels are all jumbled up. You would think that one would be either happy or unhappy. How about both at the same time? How about beyond both, feeling shock, awe, fear, tenderness, guilt (including for all the things you didn't buy!), impatience, patience, love, protection, wonder, worry, exhaustion, exhilaration, an aderanalin rush like no other that will just not let you rest, suspicion, self doubt, competence and a million other emotions that you cannot even comprehend, let alone name. The boundaries of what I thought of as 'my self' had changed and that self would not be the same again.

I am adding to the myth-making, am I not? I struggle with explaining this without it coming across as myth making. I am not a big fan of myths, so let me revisit that last line. 'My self will not be the same again' is not the same as saying 'oh this is wonderful and grand and everyone should do it'. I have lived through one particular experience and I cannot 'un-live' it, no matter what else happens, unless I get conveniently hit on a head with a log and lose my memory, a la Bollywood films. In that sense, I am setting up becoming a parent as an experience that is precious to me, that I choose as meaningful to my life. It need not be so in every case.

To return to the story, all of that was what I was feeling inside. What was happening outside? For one, the nice hospital were Shabdita was born did not allow overnight stay by any one, including the father. Like most babies, Shabdita slept happily through the day and was up all night. It was like being thrown into the deep end of the ocean. Moreover, the hospital was trying to put us on a schedule. Every four hours, I was supposed to feed her, change her, cuddle her, then put her to sleep, express breast milk for the next feed, eat something and go to sleep, that is, get my rest. Alongside this midwives or doctors would come in regularly to check my blood pressure, to see if I required pain medication, to see if I was suffering any after effects of the epidural and so on. As Shabdita was a low birth weight baby, some days they wanted to change the four hour routine to three hours, so that she would get fed eight times a day instead of six. Why am I sharing this in such detail? To highlight its absurdity, I suppose. The first few days, getting her to breastfeed took so much time that it was time for the next feed before I had finished this one. My eating and sleeping were haphazard, but I was carried on by exhilaration and hardly noticed. I was also very tense and high strung because I felt that I knew nothing, was entirely unprepared and was being judged by the midwives. I shed bitter tears the first few days as I regretted not 'reading up' more, not knowing more, unable to accept that nothing would quite have prepared me for that first one week.

Most of the midwives at the hospital were wonderful - supportive, patient and cheering me on. A few were not. There were subtle elements of racism, not direct or deliberate. It manifested itself in underlying assumptions that my choices would be less informed, my practices suspect. My being ill-informed was not just a trait of my personality but an aspect of my nationality. For instance, the importance of keeping the baby in the cot was over emphasised to me because Indians tend to let their babies sleep in bed with them. A white person doing the same thing would be following attachment parenting and 'co-sleeping' whereas the same decision by me would be an unthought acceptance of my native customs.

Once, around midnight, I called Vipul, crying. The midwife on duty that night had told me "If you cannot manage after four days, what will you do when you take her home?" Most of the midwives were overworked, so I cannot blame them for being tired or crotchety. But at that moment I was devastated. If was as if this woman knew the truth, that I wasn't fit to be a mother. I hung up the phone and kept crying. After some time, I heard a whispered 'hi'. It wasn't Shabdita or the woman next door. It was Vipul. He had driven to the hospital and convinced (charmed in his own words!) the other midwife on duty outside to let him see me just once. As I said, most of them were nice. He could not stay long, but his coming made all the difference.

Why am I sharing all these memories here on this post today? Partly because, as I said in an earlier post, we need to voice some of the silences around motherhood. I also want the personal story to make a political point. That moment, which represents the lowest moment of that week to my mind, came about because of a certain institutional environment and certain circumstances. For me, it was that place, that woman, that moment. For someone else, it would be something else. Women give birth under a variety of circumstances. Some get respect, some don't. Some have family around, some don't. Some do it in their own countries, following customs and practices that they may not want to. Some do it as immigrants, ill at ease or happily welcoming new ways of doing things. Some do it naturally, some use pain relief and some have caesareans. Some are deliriously happy afterwards, some are calm, some are still in shock and some are unable to cope. For each and every first time mother, the learning curve is steep. Some situations are perceived to be 'easier' than others, and there is no doubt that giving birth to a child in a hospital with pain relief options is not as difficult as doing it where doctors are scarce. Each story, however, charts one growth on that learning curve, each story deserves to be voiced, shared and heard.