Conversations I Had After Giving Birth
The first month of being a new parent is almost complete, and it isn’t what I expected. That I would have the time to think, let alone write, was completely unexpected. That I would yearn to do more, but not find the will to actually do more because of guilt or whatever else, is also surprising. That my health problems would continue endlessly has been depressing. The baby, of course, is expectedly fun when he eats, sleeps and plays — and expectedly not fun when he is cranky. There is a lot of work to do, but a lot people to help. Which means there have been a lot of people to weigh in on my life and my experience as a new parent. Equal parts interesting and exasperating, here are the things that have managed to penetrate my after-giving-birth haze and leave a rather strong impression.
“Here, feed him.”
Before my baby was born, I heard that newborns need to be fed every two hours. But the matter, I realized after giving birth, is quite different. Left to the millions of people who came and continue to come to visit him, I would be feeding him every waking and sleeping minute of each day. They pick up my son, pass him around like a picnic basket, and, when he starts howling, they hand him to me for the 100th unnecessary feed. Because there can be no other reason for his crying.
“Congratulations — now move aside.”
As long as I was pregnant, I was the toast of the town, fed like a pig to be slaughtered, protected like the Star of Africa diamond in the Tower of London. It took an excruciatingly painful two hours of my life for this to change. I am now persona non grata in my own house. I stand duty at the door, collecting the baby gifts. (The silver lining is that I get to roll up the cash and stash it in my wallet; much alcohol to be bought after the aforementioned 24/7 feeding cycle is finished.) But otherwise, it is almost like I don’t exist.
“U-ki- … What now?”
All right, we have given him a hard name. No, not hard, just never-heard-of. The Punjabi neighbours love it; they get the uniqueness of the name. So get with the program, grandparents. In a desperate bid to win the approval of their peers, the grandparents have respectively dubbed my son Sriram (what self-respecting baby born on Ram Navami is not named for the god, after all) and Harsh (“H” being the numerological/alphabetical mandate). That my husband and I both like the name Ukiah because it means something to us doesn’t matter.
“Don’t let the dogs out!”
The most our two dogs have done is smell him. No nose-to-skin, or paw-to-clothes contact. I didn’t even have to tell them no. While the baby sleeps, they rest on their respective spots in the same room. But somehow I feel I need to guard against the threat of their germs and the warning of their attack — while people embrace my son with clothes worn all day, touching their sweaty necks to his baby body. In spite of this, I hand over my baby with pleasure because the dogs and their germs have made me tolerant of people and their germs.
“40 days, 11 days … forever!”
The physiotherapist at the hospital crammed almost 10 exercises in the 10-minute period of my second day at the hospital. She was on a schedule, but I was in pain — and clearly not on the same schedule. Somehow, I caught up and started a little outdoor walking only a week later. But this was too quick for some; I had stepped out before 40 days, or 11 days, or whatever the post-birth quarantine is (depending on who I spoke to). They were always courteous, first congratulating me … and then lecturing me. One old lady was so upset by my emancipation that I swear she has not looked at me since.
“Scalding hot water, the all purpose solution for losing the pregnancy tummy!”
My 95-year-old grandmother, a mother of seven, tells me everyday to oil my belly and pour scalding hot water on it. In her defence, my grandmother only said hot. “Scalding” is my cousin’s word and she would know — my grandmother went to care for her when she had her baby. A version of this solution was proposed to me by my old maid — just replace oil and hot water with ajwain, that is, caraway seed-infused boiling water on the belly. Whatever happened to crunches and burning calories?
Yes, we fell for it: the lure of parenthood. And now we are trapped. That is how it seems when people, particularly a new parent, talk to us. “Oh it will get so much worse in the 4th, 5th, 6th month,” “Wait till the terrible 2s.” They say it all with glee! Yes, we are chumps. Now tell us something useful. Throw us a line, please.
“Where are the grandparents?”
Now you see them … lo behold … and now you don’t! This was not supposed to be the 24-hour-6 month-NRI-baby care commitment. It was supposed to be all-hands-on-deck-plus-some in the beginning and, over time, it was to become more structured and scheduled. All we were looking for was some consistency. But the grandparents’ involvement has been whimsical. “Call us when he is awake and is not feeding and not crying.” Five minutes here and 10 minutes there, on their way to work, temple and sundry social engagements. Never long enough for anything substantial. It is a good thing we anticipated this and planned for adequate help at home.
There is no glory in being permanently exhausted and frustrated. Health and sanity should not have to be sacrificed at the Altar of Motherhood. You need to have energy even to love your baby. Trained help is better than one you have to train. As a new parent, I sure as hell cannot train anyone. I learn how to care for my baby every day. Someday, I may even get good at it, but god knows I am grateful that I have someone to help until then.
“This is the new normal.”
The pregnancy is done; wallowing in the pain of childbirth is also done. Now, the parenting starts. Everyone tells me that life as I know it is finished. But what are the rules of this new normal? Who decides them, who judges them? Would it be wrong to leave the baby in what I believe to be very capable hands to go to the salon for a few hours? Does being a mother have to subsume everything? Or is it just the filter through which you now process every action and decision of your life? Is Week 1 too soon to start looking at your business’ accounts? While I am no Marisa Mayer, I can understand her. How does she do it without guilt, self-doubt, and others’ judgment? Or does she?