Motherhood: It's a whole new world (Photo: Nidhi Dutt)
Weeks into my self-imposed exile--stuck at home, living like a pampered hermit with my newborn son--the Indian practice of observing 40 days of confinement after giving birth tipped from excruciating to enlightening.
South Asia and other parts of the world have a centuries-old tradition of keeping women at home for more than a month after they give birth. The idea is to give the baby time to grow and the mother time to heal before releasing them on the world. It's a tradition from much tougher times, when mothers and newborns sometimes wouldn't survive long after childbirth. The idea is that a slow start will put both on the right track for health.
I'm having daily almond-oil massages and am forbidden from doing housework. I can only eat certain foods (think lots of dals and no salad or ice).
When I told my friends and family I planned to do the 40 days, most laughed. They would have been less sceptical if I'd said I was going to run a marathon because I'm usually so active. I have a challenging career as a journalist that takes up most of my time and has me flying around the country and the world. Lives seem to be moving faster and faster these days and mine is no exception. I, like everyone else, have to sleep less every night to fit in all the working, socializing, reading, eating and exercising I want to do.
Standing still is a foreign concept to me but inspired by Marie Kondo's book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as well as the small taste of calm I get from working on adult colouring books I wanted to try another experiment in getting more out of life by doing less.
"You won't appreciate this now but you will in years to come," said my 90-year-old grandmother (Nani) when I told her about my decision. She has done it three times--the first time 70 years ago--and has flown into New Delhi from her home in Australia to help guide me.
While the break from working, consuming and socializing has left me a bit unbalanced it has also helped me focus on my transition into motherhood.
I'm now through about 20 of the 40 days and my mum and Nani have made sure that I stick to the basics. That means no leaving the house except for doctor's appointments and a strict regimen of special post-partum foods and massages.
I'm having daily almond-oil massages and am forbidden from doing housework. I can only eat certain foods (think lots of dals and no salad or ice). I'm regularly force-fed what I have affectionately named 'power balls'--home-made bundles of dried fruits, nuts, seeds, sugar and flour.
A daily massage may sound delightful but it's more of a marinade than a relaxing deep tissue rub-down. Not doing housework is actually stressful for me as I'm a bit obsessive compulsive. Being blocked from ice has been tough as summer has arrived with a vengeance. I want to go to the salon and get my hair cut. I want to eat at a restaurant. I want to go shop for tiny clothes for my tiny son.
I have not stood in one place for as long as I can remember. A part of me feels restless and unhinged.
When I whinge, Nani reminds me this is nothing compared to what she endured 70 years ago when she became a first-time mum. Back then she wasn't allowed to eat or to bathe for the first five days. She did, however, appreciate the break from household chores.
Becoming a parent is like being deported to a new country run by a tiny despot who is yelling demands at you in a language you don't speak.
While the break from my regular chores of working, consuming and socializing has left me a bit unbalanced it has also helped me focus on my transition into motherhood.
So far, for me, confinement has been less about pampering and guarding against infection and more about completely immersing myself in my new role. Like most first-time mums I had a loosely framed idea of what motherhood would be like: sleepless nights, endless diaper changes, and hours spent cooing crib-side. But as any mum who's been through it will tell you, it's a lot more complicated.
Becoming a parent is like being deported to a new country run by a tiny despot who is yelling demands at you in a language you don't speak. You have to learn the language and your place without a teacher and without sleep.
My 40 days of exile have been unsettling but they have also helped me start to accept a new pace and new priorities. The intense focus on 'the self' that confinement has brought to bear has forced me to introspect and recalibrate, the momentary retreat from most daily activities has given me a chance to wholly embrace the challenges and joys of parenting.
This time of rest and recuperation still marks an important rite of passage and the start of a new phase of life with new learnings and new challenges.
In recent weeks, my son has taught me the power of human touch, made me more appreciative of the intimate relationship mothers share with their children, and forced me to better understand what vulnerability and dependency really mean. On the practical front, I've learned how to breast feed (not as easy as it's made out to be), decoded diapers, and tuned my ears to decipher a newborn's scream vocabulary. I am better for all of these learnings.
Where Nani needed the 40 days for her physical health, I have needed it for my mental health. We have both benefited from this experience for different reasons but 70 years apart--this time of rest and recuperation still marks an important rite of passage and the start of a new phase of life with new learnings and new challenges.
I'm documenting my first 40 days as a first-time mum supervised by my Nani. This is the third installment in a series on the evolution of motherhood in India. The first is 'The Baby Bloom Theory: Who Will come First, The Newborn Or The Nani?' and the second is 'Baby Care Wars: The Battle Between Google And My Punjabi Grandmother'.
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