Unpacking Motherhood in the times of Bharat Mata and Gaumata

“They would say she roams around like some aawara (tramp), does not take care of her child.” – Gayatri Ambedkar, Community Correspondent, Uttar Pradesh

This mother’s day, as pink corporate advertisements flood our billboards and newsfeeds, it is time to go beyond paying lip service to mothers. What does it mean to be a working mother? Mothers from Video Volunteers rural Community Correspondents network weigh in.

I watched, as she held her own in group discussions, raised pertinent questions during training sessions, and fraternized with her colleagues through lunch and tea breaks, while simultaneously looking after her then four-and-a-half month old daughter. The first time I met (or rather observed) Sarita was at the annual state coordinator meet held 6 weeks ago.

I could not help but feel inspired in equal measure by the 31 year old Orissa state coordinator and the work environment that enabled her to work comfortably with an infant. I felt a sense of contentment when I noticed her breastfeeding openly, without shame, in the middle of meetings if required. It reminded me of my own mum who managed to balance her career as a surgeon with being a young mother bringing up two daughters, along with doing an array of other things that she was great at. But while I swelled with pride, the perspective that conveniently eluded me was the difficulty that comes with having to be this ‘supermom’.  A colleague casually mentioned this and it brought back all the memories of my mum being highly stressed out and beginning to have blood pressure problems as she multitasked her way through life.

Sarita with her daughter Preet and Video Volunteers’ Director Stalin at the annual State Coordinators’ Meet

So this mother’s day, retrospective respect and commercially directed showers of affection won’t suffice. It’s time to work towards more fair and equal parenting that does not disregard a mother’s labour as unquantifiable personal sacrifice accompanying the magical maternal instinct. Perhaps we need to unpack motherhood to understand what being a mother entails and means to women, instead of glorifying ‘sacrifices’ that our mothers make.  

The persistent myth of instinctive maternal feelings and celebration of it has a dark side though: vilifying women as ‘bad mothers’ when they do not conform exactly to normative expectations of how a mother, and a woman, should behave. In fact, so normalised is the association of women with motherhood and reproduction that eyebrows are raised when anyone questions it. It is important to remember that for a lot of women, marriage and motherhood  are not paths that they voluntarily tread, but are a result of decisions that parents, husbands and other ‘stakeholders’ take on their behalf.

“I was married when I was in class 7. My husband must have been in his late twenties,” recounts Asha Kumari, who reports for Video Volunteers from Jehanabad district in Bihar. She has 5 children of whom the youngest is three years old while the oldest is 13, none of whom were planned.

38 year old Nesatun Khatun who recently produced a video on a child marriage in her community that she was unable to stop, too was married as a teenager. “I was married at sixteen. I was lucky to have a supportive  husband who helped me continue studies after marriage,” she says.  Though they had their first child seven years after marriage, it was still something she was not prepared for. “I was studying at the time, and it was difficult to juggle academics with an unexpected pregnancy,” she added.

Nesatun getting introduced to working with the camera at a training session in West Bengal

“I was 16 when I got married and had a child when I was 17,” says Gayatri Devi Ambedkar, a 35 year old community correspondent who reports from Uttar Pradesh. “I had no idea how children are born. I did not even realize that I was pregnant till I was five months along. I could not understand what was happening to my body. It felt like a disease. I didn’t even know how to take care of him. It was my father-in-law who taught me how to look after the baby.”

Gayatri Devi learnt the extent of societal pressure on women to bear children when she decided not to have another child after birthing a son at 17. “I started working for an NGO in 2001 and only then did I realize that I had rights over my body. I knew that I would not be able to take care of a second child. My husband supported this decision, but there was so much pressure from people around,” she says. “They would say things like a woman is not a true mother till she has a daughter, so I should have another child. But I wanted to fight these stereotypes.”

What is common to all these women is that they are working mothers. Sadly, the corollary to that seems to be an overwhelming lack of community support.

“I face discrimination both at home and outside,” says Asha. “It is difficult to work. People in my village say a lot of things. There is no support from the community and I am often forced to stay at home through the day to take care of my children.” She recalls a harrowing incident about which she feels guilty. “I came back home at around six in the evening and found my son bleeding on the floor,” she says. “A child from the neighbourhood had beaten him up and no one came to help. He recuperated quickly after medical attention. But I always wonder, what if I had come home a little later?”

Gayatri’s story when she started out was similar. “I started working with an NGO when my child was one-and-a-half years old. Luckily, my sister lived near and was very supportive. She took care of my son while I was away,” she says. “But villagers around made it very difficult. They would say things like she roams around like some tramp, does not take care of her child. They would cast aspersions on my character. Riding on my way to work, I would face a lot of street sexual harassment.”

But slowly Gayatri gained everyone’s respect as she managed to help out with the villagers’ problems over the years. “Today there is a sea change in the attitudes of the same people. A man who used to harass me on the streets falls at my feet and asks how he can help,” she says. “The attitude in my family has also changed. I helped my niece with family planning when she decided she did not want more kids.”

Gayatri Ambedkar addressing the gathering at the all India Video Volunteers meet held in 2015

In Nesatun’s case, her community did not have a problem with her being a working mother but questioned her decision to study after marriage. “People used to criticize me for studying after marriage. My husband was very supportive, and he faced criticism as well,” she says. “Even the religious leaders said that this was not against Islam but that didn’t stop tongues from wagging.”

Sarita, the Orissa state co-ordinator for Video Volunteers, has achieved a lot as a working woman. Yet, she too faced obstacles when it came to gaining community support. “I worked till the eighth month of my pregnancy and a lot of people could not understand my decision,” she says. “They also felt that I should not work till my child was a year old. I had a huge fight with my in-laws. They wanted me to be a stay-at-home wife. But I did not want that for myself. I also think the combined income is important for my child’s future. I want her to have a good life and ample opportunities.”

Attached to this criticism from the community is the guilt that comes with being a working mother, which people around them constantly reinforce. “There are different ways in which people make you feel guilty,” says Sarita. “An elderly acquaintance in my neighbourhood recently told me that my 6 month old daughter is unable to straighten her neck and that is my fault because I take her to work! There is nothing wrong with my daughter, but this is how people talk! When I was travelling with her to Goa for the State Coordinators’ Meet, people raised similar questions about my ability to take care of her.”

All these women feel that there is a lack of equality between mothers and fathers’ responsibilities when it comes to parenting and that causes an imbalance which results in working mothers having to bear the double burden of work within and outside the home.

“My husband comes back from work late at night,” says Asha. “By that time the children are already asleep and all the chores are done for the day.”

“My husband is very understanding. But he thought that there was nothing wrong with me doing all the work for the child,” says Sarita. “I had to explain to him that the child is his responsibility equally. He would even hesitate to hold her initially. Now he contributes as much as he can.”

“Parents should work together,” says Asha. “But if there are problems in their relationship, it will be difficult. My relationship with my husband is not without problems. Doctors tell me that my health is poor because I had so many children at a young age. It’s hard work looking after five children. Not only does my husband not help in chores, he also does not spend time with his family. I am not an animal who can go on working like this.”

Asha Kumari (in centre) poses for a picture with fellow community correspondents from Bihar and Video Volunteers ambassador Abhay Deol

Gayatri Devi feels that the solution to ending this inequality in parenting is having such conversations with more people. “Like we are talking,” says Gayatri, “We should talk to our sisters and their husbands. Mothers are supposed to know what to do because of some innate maternal instinct, but fathers are not expected to know what being a father entails. Men need to understand their responsibilities too.”

Adrienne Rich, in her landmark 1976 work, Of Woman Born wrote that though motherhood as an institution is a male-defined site of oppression, women’s own experiences of motherhood can nonetheless be empowering for them. “My son is 18 years old now and he does all his work on his own from washing his own clothes to cooking,” says Gayatri. “When he would put clothes out to dry, he would hide my underwear. But I would tell him that this is nothing to be ashamed of–just like he wears underclothes, so do I. He is proud of me today. He sees my videos and gets inspired to do similar work. It makes me happy.”

Sarita is captured shooting an interview for a video she shot in 2013

“My in-laws wanted me to come live with them in their village after my daughter was born,” says Sarita. “I did not want to go there. The facilities are not adequate. I think it is good that I travel everywhere for work with my daughter. I want her to have a good future. I hope her surroundings inspire her to be a good person.”

We need to talk about and dismantle the pernicious myth of the all-sacrificing motherhood that women are somehow born into. Patriarchy dictates that women be confined to domestic roles and reduced to their reproductive functions. We have embellished and fetishised this through our cultural practices, reinforced it through maudlin Bollywood portrayal of the woman whose identity begins and ends with motherhood. The logical extreme of that is what we are seeing today: the unquestioning conflation of that ideal with the nation state and mute animals which is unleashing so much violence across the country. Today more than ever women are venturing outside the narrowly constrained roles assigned by patriarchy and there are over 74 million single women in India. The time to wrest the discourse of motherhood from corporate profit-makers and cynical politicians and redefine it, is now.

This blog was co-published with Feminism in India. The article was written by Shrishti Malhotra as part of #KhelBadal, Video Volunteers campaign to dismantle patriarchy one video, one conversation at a time. #KhelBadal is partly supported by UNFPA India.

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