New Generation, a journal of the NCT, London
How do different societies treat new mothers? In this article we look at the experience of mothering in India
Nutan Pandit, who works as an antenatal teacher in Association with the NCT in New Delhi, traces some traditions within India.
In India, birth is generally a family affair. In the Punjab, in northern India, a woman moves back to her mother’s home for the delivery of all her babies. In Tamil Nadu, southern India, a woman moves back to her mother’s house for her first two deliveries only. In Uttar Pradesh, northern India, a woman of the Marwari Community stays with her in-laws for the first delivery and it is her mother-in-law who takes care of her.
As traditional practices have eroded with time, these customs are less strictly adhered to, and nowadays it is not uncommon instead for a mother, mother-in-law or aunt to go to stay at the home of the new mother.
In Mahatrshtra, in western India, there is the excellent tradition of ‘bais’ which translates as ‘maids’. A bai visits the house daily when the mother and baby returns from hospital and she continues to visit until 40 days after the birth. Her tasks are to wash the baby’s nappies and to massage both the mother and the baby. She massages the baby with coconut oil, bathes it in warm water, then dresses the baby and wraps it in a sheet. Then the mother is given a massage with coconut oil and a bath in hot water. At the end of the 40 days, the bai teaches the mother how to massage and bathe her baby.
Sometimes, the bai does a ritual cleansing of the mother’s perineal area. To do this, she asks for some lighted coals, and gets the mother to sit some way above the coals. If the coals are at floor level, the mother sits at chair level. Then ajwain, a spice rather like oregano, is put on the coals, and the perineum is bathed in the fumes and the smoke. The bai might also bind the mother’s abdomen with a sheet or saree a long cloth, in order to flatten the tummy.
However, most of these traditions are slowly dying out. The joint family unit is breaking up and women often avoid massage as the doctors advise against it. Obstetricians fear that the mother’s abdomen might be massaged too vigorously, leading to heavy bleeding. The women themselves may not want the massage, thinking it is part of a primitive and unscientific tradition. However, in most cities one can still find women who perform these traditional services for the new mother.
Another tradition that is still practiced is the preparation of particular foods for the new mother. One recipe contains rich ingredients such as cream of wheat, nuts, raisins, lotus seeds, edible gums, herbs, spices and ghee. It is made and stored ready for the new mother to eat over the 40-day period. In some parts of southern India, for instance among Marwari community, a new-delivered mother may be given a liquid diet of soups and concoctions made with herbs and spices.
It is also accepted throughout India that a newly delivered woman should not eat or drink anything cold or sour—yogurt, orange juice and cold water are avoided. Instead, she will drink water with spices boiled in it. In northern India this might be ajwain or cardamom. In one region of southern India, an iron rod is sometimes boiled in the water
Women who live far away from their own families may have none of this support, and may hire full-or part-time help. For these women, who have no older female relative to come and help them, birth can be a trying period. If such women are also working, they may have to leave their baby in a crèche when they resume work.
Some mothers suffer from postnatal depression. The sheer responsibility of being on-call for 24 hours of the day can be overwhelming. The transition from pampered pregnant woman to responsible mother is not easy. Sometimes emotions are complicated by the predictions of astrologers. One woman who had made an inter-caste marriage was told by astrologers that her first born would be a son. She looked forward to the birth, as a son would increase her acceptance with her in-laws. She gave birth to a daughter, and went into depression as a result.
By and large, the mother image is highly respected in Indian society. A pregnant woman will receive special treatment in the community and within the family. Children are considered precious and are looked upon indulgently.
When I had my babies, a bai used to come and massage me, and after the massage I would always sleep soundly for one or two hours, which was marvelous after a night of disturbed sleep. I also enjoyed the traditional foods given after the birth, and felt they gave me back my strength.
THE SUNDAY OBSERVER
JANUARY 7, 1996
Natural Childbirth Center
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