A well-rested woman is a myth
Issue #82: Rest and recuperation are privileges most women don't have.
Have you seen any new baby announcements on social media lately?
You know those posts with the little baby feet in a basket of parsley or dhania? Or those photos of a happy smiling couple cradling their peacefully asleep ‘bundle of joy’? You know the bliss those photos radiate? That absolute sense of pure joy and unadulterated delight?
Yeah, all that is a lie.
Or, at the very least, far from the whole truth.
Pure joy comprises maybe 10minutes in a new mother’s average day.
It was only when I was smack in the middle of my postpartum phase that I realized what a lie I had been sold by the bonny baby pics.
Here’s the harsh truth: When you give birth - whether it is a vaginal birth or a c-section - your body undergoes a massive trauma.
Even if you set aside the mental and emotional part of this trauma (which is huge, mind you), just the physical shock your body goes through during childbirth needs months of recovery, postpartum treatments, and a ton of rest.
Instead, what new mothers get is an unceremonious shove into the most physically demanding phase of their lives.
Think of anyone who has just been through a major surgery.
You would imagine that their family would make every effort to help get them the best possible post-surgical care, rest, and support while they recuperated at home.
And yet, a C-section is a major abdominal surgery after which women are expected not only to start immediately taking care of themselves but also to care for a new, helpless, tiny life they are now suddenly in charge of.
A life that needs to be fed, changed, and cradled in an endless loop at all hours of the day and night.
A life that usually does not believe in sleeping at night.
Ask any new mother what she wants most from her new life, and 9 out of 10 might say “Sleep”.
I noticed this anomaly almost as soon as I became a mother, and added it to my list of “things I hate the world for not telling me about new motherhood”.
What I did not know at the time was that this was not just unique to new motherhood.
Becoming a mother is just your orientation into your new life - a life where you will never get enough rest, enough sleep, and enough chance to recuperate from an illness again.
I should not have been surprised.
My mother has not had a good night’s sleep in about four decades.
“Will we call my mom every time I am ill?”
Renu and her husband are newlyweds who both work at tech firms. Renu is asthmatic. Last week, she had her first attack since they got married.
“Last Monday, a usual cough I had turned into wheezing. I couldn’t sleep all night. By 8 am on Tuesday, I told him we were going to have to find a hospital.”
While he searched for medical care, Renu’s mind raced over household responsibilities.
“We were heading to the hospital, I couldn’t breathe, and literally could not speak anymore. Yet my mind was fixated on ‘kal khaana kaise banega (how will the food be made tomorrow)?’ My cook is out of town. My husband can’t cook. So I had to make an SOS call to my Mum. She lives in a different city. Between struggling for breaths, I requested her to take a flight and come stay with us for a few days.”
Renu’s mother came immediately to help her daughter. But, Renu says, it was not her health that she needed help with. It was running the house.
“I knew that I could manage my health, but she was needed if food and house duties were to be taken care of. So now, she has been here a week and taken all the cooking and cleaning on herself. Obviously, I am very grateful that she came and that we have the resources for such last-minute flights.
But the experience has exposed to me how deep-rooted and one-sided the responsibilities of running a house are on the woman. We are a young, educated couple with no kids. I can’t stop wondering what our recourse will be in the future.
Will we call my mom to run our house every time I am ill?”
“This has gotten me thinking (again) that if I want a more equal marriage I need to work on building some capability in my raja beta husband. Otherwise mushkil hoga (it will be tough).”
“Men and women experience the same Covid symptoms differently”
Kusha is an entrepreneur. Last year, she, her husband, and their two-year-old came down with Covid together.
“We were all isolating on the first floor of our house, while our covid-negative domestic help was sending us food and supplies from the ground floor. My husband was the first to recover from his symptoms.”
Just as he started feeling better, Kusha’s husband told his office that he was fine and resumed working from the isolation itself.
“This meant that he would lock himself up in a room and attend meetings, etc. for hours. I was still unwell, suffering from debilitating covid-induced fatigue, and now - thanks to his decision - also the sole caregiver of our child.
He made this call with no consideration for how I would handle the baby alone, isolated from all forms of support I usually had - let alone any consideration for the fact that I may also have some critical work to attend to with my business.
Covid might not discriminate between who it infects and how. But men and women certainly end up experiencing the same symptoms quite differently, even under the same roof.”
In sickness and in health… she will suffer more
Latha and her six-month-old also caught covid together.
“I was taking care of the baby even while I had all the covid symptoms. My husband was well, and continued to work from home. He did not help me with the baby while I was unwell. I did not protest because I thought I was protecting him from the infection.”
Despite her best efforts, Latha’s husband did come down with Covid a week later.
“When he tested positive, he declared that he would isolate in one room. God knows what the logic of this isolation was - we all had antibodies at this point. But I did not want to argue with him while he was sick.
And so, there I was - stuck managing the baby and the house by myself once again, while my husband watched TV in a room all day. I was on maternity leave at the time. I shudder to think what would have happened if I was working too.
It seems that the ‘new normal’ of the pandemic in our house was that I had to shoulder all responsibilities no matter which one of us fell ill.”
Admitted for sleep
When Jean was pregnant with her second child, she fell seriously ill.
“My BP started fluctuating to extremes in the seventh month of my pregnancy. My gyane told me that I was extremely sleep-deprived and needed to get enough sleep otherwise the BP issue could become dangerous.”
Jean told her doctor that, as a mother of a three-year-old child, it was difficult for her to get much sleep at night. Her husband was not a big help around the house, so all the caregiving responsibilities were on Jean.
“She prescribed me sleeping pills for three days so that I would have no option but to sleep. I took the pills, and guess how much sleep I got? Not even one night.
My daughter had high fever and her father could not be bothered to stay up sponging her, giving her medicines on time, and keeping a check on her temperature. As my daughter recovered, my condition worsened. I finally had to be admitted for four days. All because I could not get some desperately needed (and medically mandated!) sleep in my own home.”
“Kam se kam taboot ke andar koi pareshan nahi karega”
Sumaiya is a mother of a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old. She happened to be sick this week, just as I put out a call for this piece.
She forwarded me some texts she had just sent to her best friend.
Here they are verbatim:
“I am sick for the past two days, down with high fever. But I haven't slept more than five combined hours in these two days, because one kid has a fever too, and the other one has so many school activities.
I am also cooking breakfast and dinner for six people every day.
And, of course, on driver duty for pick and drop off for the school-going kid.
Hum to aaram karne ke liye soch rahe hain kabar kiraye pe le lein. Kam se kam taboot ke andar koi pareshan nahi karega. Kabhi kabhi mar jana achha hota hai zinda rahne se ☹
(I am thinking of renting a grave just to get some rest. At least no one will disturb me when I am in a coffin. Somedays it feels like it might be better to be dead than alive.)”
“I stood in debilitating pain in the hot sun on an empty stomach for three hours”
(Trigger warning: Abuse)
Ever since Ayesha was a child, she has suffered from asthma and several allergies (food, skin, respiratory).
Today, in her forties, she is the sole caregiver for family members with mental health issues.
“This means I do not have the luxury to fall sick or be out of commission for too long. As a priority, I keep myself fit with exercise and a balanced diet. I also get periodically tested and follow my doctors’ advice rigorously. Even the slightest lapse in this routine triggers off breathing difficulties, anxiety attacks, and respiratory and gastro issues.”
About a decade ago, Ayesha was in a relationship with Ajay. The couple decided to live in before they got married.
“Before I moved in, he had always been reluctant to have me visit his apartment. I had seen it a few times but seldom too closely. When I moved in, I found the house in a filthy condition. There were inches of dust in corners, insects flying out of the microwave, and dirty clothes lying in piles in rooms.”
“He actually owned hundreds of pairs of underwear because instead of washing each day, he’d just buy new packs. His office shirts and trousers just got repeated through the week despite the stink and filth of sweaty Chennai weather, where we lived.”
Ajay also had no house help and was against hiring any. Ayesha told him that she would not be able to live with the dirt because of her medical conditions.
“His response was, ‘If you have a problem with it, you clean it.’ So I spent days washing curtains, bedsheets, and clothes by hand, and scrubbing the floors clean. Not only would he not help, but he would invite his friends over and ask them to wear dirty shoes in the house just to see me suffer and clean them all over again.”
A few months later, after a particularly difficult week, Ayesha fell ill due to sheer exhaustion.
“The doctor advised bed rest for a week and I spent that week at my parents’ home.
I returned a week later to find the house in disarray with dirty clothes lying about, and him busy playing video games in the middle of the mess. The garbage was overflowing since he had been ordering from outside and not bothering to dispose of the garbage. Everything had gathered a layer of dust - which he knew would cause me respiratory issues again.
I spent the next two weeks thoroughly cleaning the house and hand-washing all our clothes all over again.”
Over months, the relationship began to include verbal abuse, public humiliation, and finally, physical abuse.
“He would call me stupid for things like my choice of books and songs. He broke many of my devices. During altercations, he would throw me across the room, injuring me seriously. One time he literally pushed me out of bed in the middle of the night when I was asleep.
I would usually tend to my injuries at home by myself. Since my parents were not fans of us living together, I did not want to tell them my problems.
One time, he broke my nose, and I had to visit the doctor. I lied that I had run into the door.”
Let alone tending to her existing health conditions, being Ajay’s partner started creating new physical and mental health issues for Ayesha.
“My body started reacting to the abuse in different ways. A big change was in my menstrual cycle. Every period started coming with extreme pain, dizziness, and nausea. Once he threw me out of the house while I was on my period, and shut the door. Fearing his rage, I decided to stay out, participating in a street wall painting project I knew was happening in our lane.
I stood in debilitating pain in the hot sun on an empty stomach for three hours, pretending to the world that I was participating in a community activity. When it ended and I finally went home, he screamed abuse at me for not taking the garbage out of the house.
Apparently, its smell was distracting him from his video game.”
I asked Ayesha how she would deal with Ajay’s illnesses during their relationship (which has now, thankfully, ended).
“I had been told most bachelors were messy so I did not have the perspective to realize that this was abnormal. He was unable to take care of himself - from basic hygiene to medical care. I regularised his diet, tried to get him into an exercise routine as I worried he would inherit his family’s health issues, and tried to make him get counseling. This caregiving burden multiplied manifold when I moved in with him. Ajay and his family considered serving him my duty.”
While Ajay abused Ayesha and objectively made her health worsen, how did Ayesha react when he was ailing or hurt?
“I remember a time he insisted on eating dubious meat on a hot day, after refusing to drink water. He was doubled up in bed for three days after that. This was before we lived together, and I brought him food every day while he was unwell. I also insisted he see a doctor. On the doctor’s advice, he finally had to get an enema - which I had to administer to him.
Another time I remember my instinct to prioritize his health and safety before my own was literally in the middle of an episode of physical abuse. One day, in one of his fits of rage, he threw me across the room. I hit the door, missing a glass shelf by two inches. After I fell down to the ground and could not get up, he started punching the walls to show his anger towards me.
I remember dragging myself up off the floor, and stopping him to make sure he didn’t break his bones.”
When the women you love are suffering, what do you do?
You may not be the sort of person who throws them against walls, but does that mean you are doing enough for the women who care for you when they need you most?
I don’t mean just driving them to a doctor, but really taking care of them - do you feed them, track their medicines, give them enough time to rest and recuperate?
Do they at least get time off from feeding you and taking care of you or are they serving you round chapatis and dosas while popping pills themselves?
Ask the women in your home when was the last time they had a restful sleep.
They might have become reprogrammed after years or decades of always putting others before their own.
But can you be the person who does something to change this pattern, at least within your own home and family?
Can you help them get some rest before they start wistfully thinking of coffins and graves?