“Motherhood and breastfeeding come with more than their share of difficulties. There are a lot of technical issues to manoeuvre through, physical hurdles and emotional ones too.”
Many matriarchs have the tendency to rubbish the issues new moms have just because they didn’t have them. If the granny did not know what mastitis was, then the new mother does not have the problem. The issue at hand, rather than getting prompt medical attention, is just brushed off and willed to go away by denial. Who wants to spend time, money and resources on a daughter-in-law anyway?
One patient was struggling with retracted nipples. She was having a hard time getting the baby to latch and the nurses did their best to help her. Instead of being supportive and encouraging of the struggling new mother, the mother-in-law would say ‘Ye toh aadhi aurat hai’ (she is an incomplete woman). One patient who was struggling with mastitis (breast inflammation) and had a high fever and breast pain was told by her own mother ‘neeyat honi chahiye doodh pilane ki. Isliye ye sab ho raha hai’. (You should have the intention to feed your child. Then you wouldn’t have such problems). A newborn baby was openly persecuted and shunned by her own Dadi. It was because her birth was preceded a few days by the death of her son-in-law. As expected, the new mother and her newborn had to bear the blame for it and was only allowed back into the house because her husband had the brains and guts to oppose the gross injustice.
This kind of hate and victim-blaming is very rampant in Indian households. Anything that goes wrong in the house – a caesarean, an illness, a death or even something as common as a breast abscess – is blamed on the woman. It is so routine that I often see victims blaming themselves for falling sick! And you know what. They are right.
A woman’s body is so much under the control of her psyche, that by believing that she is responsible for everything wrong that happens in her sphere, she ends up bringing illness upon herself. I know a woman who had spotting and bleeding every time she would have a fight with her mother. Another mother who was doing just fine with breastfeeding her baby had to resort to milk bottles because she seemed to not make enough milk overnight. What was the cause? Her visiting co-sister, who was rather busty, passed a mean comment on her small-sized breasts. She internalized the shaming she was subjected to and her body began to believe in this lack of belief.
You can move mountains if you believe but when you are blamed for developing nipple cracks and when every second person comes to see you, comments on how you don’t seem to be cut out for motherhood, you end up believing them even when you don’t want to. And pretty soon your body catches up. Your fatigued brain and exhausted body have lower physical and emotional immunity.
“A new mother deserves the protection, care and support at par with what the baby deserves. The more support and belief a mother finds from those around her, the more likely she is to succeed in breastfeeding.”
We are not just cells and tissues. The consequences on our body’s health on our psychological well-being are more far-reaching than imagined.
Even doting husbands, loving Nanis, caring friends and concerned neighbours have a hand in victim-blaming. If she isn’t able to feed her baby for whatever reason, her intentions are questioned. One husband just shrugged his wife off and told her to start formula when she complained about her breastfeeding troubles. We expect the world from the new mother but as a society, we are less than willing to put in the investment required of us by the mother and child. If a woman gets support and care from the bureaucrat in the parliament to the know-it-all masseuse who comes to massage her baby, she is more likely to succeed in feeding her baby and sustaining it. The bureaucrat is the one who will implement laws in the healthcare system that are more conducive to feeding in public and have more relaxed and accommodating maternity benefits. And as for the highly-opinionated masseuse? She just knows just how to get under our skin, doesn’t she? One snide comment from the maalishwali can leave our fatigued brain spiralling into self-doubt for the rest of the day.
Dr. Farah Adam Mukadam
Dr. Farah is a family physician based in Bangalore. She is the author of the bestseller Newborns and New Moms, an urban woman’s guide to life after childbirth.
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