They called her Mother and worshipped her. She bore babies and pain, cleaned up, shopped, soothed, read out bedtime tales and upheld tradition. Until one day, she found the pedestal too cramped. And Mother felt a scream rising in her throat.
Restless, depressed, anxious and irritable mothers are increasingly the order of the day. Side-stepped by the corporate world, and taken for granted by families, it is stress and conflict that mothers experience far more than the 'maternal bliss' that grandmas and parenting manuals promise.
Due to the impossible load of child bearing and rearing placed exclusively on the mother - even by parenting 'experts' (usually male doctors) - women feel ill-equipped to deal with motherhood. They are also worried about what motherhood could do for their careers. Pitched against idealized stereotypes while trying to realize their potential as human beings and workers, a whole generation of mothers is feeling confused and guilty.
"For 14 years, I tried to play my husband and mother-in-law's image of an 'ideal mother'," says Bhairavi Cheluguri, 38, mother of two sons. "It was impossible. When I quit being a full-time mom and took to sculpting and trekking, I felt more at ease with my role as a mother - because of which the quality of my mothering improved. I needed to establish to my family that there is a 'me' somewhere. Loving them doesn't mean I will pick up after them," she says.
"This is the time to remember that a child has two parents," says Dr Rathna Isaac, a clinical psychologist based in Bangalore. "It's time for the father's role to change. Earlier research conducted by social and clinical psychologists found that fathers play with and entertain children, while mothers feed, bathe and change them. Current research shows that fathers are getting more involved, but it's clearly not enough."
Isaac points out that women are now cautious while considering motherhood. "Women are in demanding, competitive careers. One wonders what will become of the career when the baby comes. Also, while divorce is a strong option to end a marriage, parenthood is forever."
Kavitha R*, ***age, a banking professional from Bangalore in her fourth job, says, "I'm not a 'kid person' at all and if I ever have a child it will be brought up by a maid or grandmother. My priority is work. I have goals I want to achieve by a certain age. Luckily, my family has little expectations of me. Even then, I am occasionally reminded that I'm past 30. But there are so many options, like IVF and adoption, if I want to become a mother later in life." Society disapproves of women who shun motherhood, she says. "They think you must have problems conceiving. It used to bother me."
Experts point out that mothers who stay home, giving up promising careers, do not always mother happily ever after. "When you are unhappy with your marriage or yourself or your career, you vent your frustrations on the children. At least one-third of the women coming in for family therapy with their husbands are in this condition," says Isaac.
Many women are miserable about the harm done to the mother-child relationship before they realize the problem. They are also not satisfied with their children's perceptions of them. Neeta L, 41, a stay-at-home mother from Mumbai, says, "I used to beat my children. I was expressing the anger and helplessness I felt because of my in-laws and husband. I would agonize over the beating and bullying after the children slept."
Mona, 33, a jewellery designer based in Mumbai, explains, "I think we beat our children because there's no one else around to show our anger to. We need emotional guidance when we are newly wed and when we become mothers." But, since these are considered 'natural' roles, guidance is rarely forthcoming.
In their book, 'Motherhood: Meanings, Practices and Ideologies' (1991), Ann Phoenix, Anne Woollett and Eva Lloyd point out that most parenting guides ignore the ground realities of motherhood as women experience it. The 'experts' write for 'normal' mothers - women, who consider motherhood the 'ultimate fulfillment' and are 'bursting with love' for their offspring. They establish mothers with ambiguous feelings or negative associations as 'abnormal' or 'ill'. They fail to acknowledge factors like "the dissatisfaction with treatment received in hospital, difficulties with employment prospects, financial situation and the extent to which a woman's partner (or other members of her social network) are able to offer support and get involved in childcare."
The corporate world constantly attempts to insulate its profits from the demands of motherhood. Even at the job interview stage, motherhood is established as the enemy of women with professional goals. Summiya Khan, 23, studying business management in Hyderabad, says: "At campus interviews, we are often asked when we will marry and whether we will have children soon after. We are supposed to say 'never' if we want the job."
Asking a young male candidate about his reproductive goals, however, is as unheard of as asking a male employee how he's balancing his long-term professional goals with his role as a father. Childcare facilities are not available in the workplace, in the manner that food, beverages, transport and other facilities needed to make for a smoother work environment are. Clearly, if the corporate world had seriously considered their male employees' role as fathers, motherhood would not be the juggling act that it is now. Benefits like paternity leave, if offered, number between two days and two weeks.
While early feminism was accused of depicting motherhood as a hindrance to self-actualization, second-wave feminism urged women to follow their true desire. In her 1981 book, noted feminist Betty Friedan wrote that feminism should also recognize the emotional needs of women as potential mothers or as people who wanted to have a strong home life as well. She said the women's movement should focus on working with men to remake private and public arrangements that work against full lives with children for both women and men.
"Have a child only when you want one badly enough to deal with everything that comes after. Share your fears with your partner to ease out things. A child-friendly environment will improve the experience of becoming a mother," says Isaac, strongly recommending that fathers should step into the process of "loving and nurturing".
The contemporary woman is largely unaware that her perceptions of motherhood have been tampered with at many levels. She's torn between wanting to be and not wanting to be a mother, while trying to realize her other goals. She makes a lonely, angst-ridden mother who often thinks, "It's all my fault if my children don't turn out well."
(*Some names have been changed to protect identity)