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When pain becomes a metric to rank motherhood
Lesser Mothers and Other Mothers
Two weeks after the birth of my child, I was back at the hospital for a regular checkup. As I waded around in a classic post-baby what-did-I-do-to-my-life mental fog, I saw a familiar face. A friend was there for a routine check-up too, accompanied by her mother.
The mother took one look at my baby and said those three magic words:
"Normal delivery na?"
I replied, "C-section."
She tut-tutted and said, "Oho. Chalo koi baat nahi." (Oh. It's all right, no problem.)
Now, I might have been a sleep-deprived zombie at this point, but I was still a healthy mother with a healthy child in my arms.
So I was not sure why I was being given a consolation prize here.
But, thanks to the weeks of mental fog and a lifetime of social conditioning, I could only manage a sad smile in response.
This has happened to me several times since. People saunter up to me, feel free to ask what kind of delivery I had, and then judge me as a lesser mother for not having had the glorious experience of pushing a watermelon through a rubber band.
In India, they say that the birth of your child is like a second birth for the mother. I used to brush this aside as usual Indian filminess but I realized how true it was when I had a child of my own. There is almost a BC/AD timeline that gets drawn across your life pre and post having a baby.
BC/AD stands, of course, for Before Child and Anarchic Dystopia.
Becoming a mom is the hardest thing most women ever do in their lives - no matter what route the baby takes to come into the world. So why is it that even this life-altering event can sometimes fail to live up to the standards of the world?
What the hell is a 'normal' delivery anyway?
The notion of ‘normal’ birth is, first and foremost, a pejorative term used to make women feel excluded and less-than at their most vulnerable.
If you had a C-section, then you are the most "abnormal" mother there is.
But even if you had a vaginal delivery, there are questions around it that help society rank how good a Mother India you were on D-day.
Did you take pain medication?
Did your water break, or did labour have to be induced?
Did you - gasp - get an epidural?
Of course, if you are one of those Lalita Pawars (no disrespect to the glorious OG) who went for an elective C-section then you might as well have a sex-change operation now because 'What woman worth her salt would ever want to opt-out of optional pain?'
Pain - that seems to the underlying metric of normality here.
And so, that is the question we are exploring this week - does wanting to reduce the pain of childbirth, or going for any mode of delivery other than 'this is how it was done for centuries' make you a lesser mother?
Reserved for women
Kavya questions the viability of the 'this is how it was done for centuries' logic.
"My grandmother - who had six children - told me that her mother and husband accompanied her to the hospital only for the first two deliveries. For the remaining four children, she went to the hospital alone, gave birth, and came back home with the baby by herself. She told me this story to establish that a woman does not need much support to give birth, but I found it heart-breaking that she had to go through this experience."
Kavya thinks that these stories from the past are shocking and should not be used to glorify women's suffering.
"These stories are told to us with the intention of minimizing the pain we are feeling. We are supposed to feel guilt and shame for wanting pain relief. But I have never heard anyone ask a man, 'Your grandpa used to ride a cycle to work, so why do you want to drive a car?' These double standards are reserved only for women."
Motherhood is not a Pain Tolerance Competition.
When Shweta was pregnant, her doctor shared her record of patients with ‘normal’ deliveries as a selling point. She assured Shweta that she will have a ‘normal’ delivery too.
"However, when my water broke, I did not experience any labour pains, even after inducing through various means. After 8 hours and with most of my water gone, the doctor had to put the option of a Caesarean delivery on the table. But she was also willing to wait for another day if I desperately wanted a vaginal birth, never explaining to me the risks associated with a dry birth. Thankfully, I chose the option of a C-section."
Since then, Shweta has experienced a sometimes-subtle-sometimes-obvious denigration of her delivery as an inferior one.
"Aunties would come to visit and tell me the story of their vaginal birth with an air of great superiority. Someone actually told me that I have not experienced ‘actual motherhood’ since I have not given birth vaginally."
Shweta believes that the very fact that rank strangers feel like it is okay to ask a woman about her delivery is proof of society's obsession with vaginal birth.
"When I was pregnant, random co-passengers in metro trains would give me unsolicited gyaan on what to do and not to do. Many people offered free advice that I should do jhadoo pochha (sweeping and mopping floors) during pregnancy to ensure I had a 'normal' delivery. Once, I was traveling in an auto during my third trimester, and told the driver to avoid potholes. The autowallah berated me for being a delicate flower, and told me to do household chores to avoid having a cheera-operation wala baccha (a C-section baby)."
Shweta describes how this collective obsession for vaginal birth is harming both mothers and children.
"Many women have told me their vaginal birth stories with great pride. The tone of self-admiration in these stories is unbelievable - especially because many of them opted for it in circumstances which put their and their kids’ lives at great risk. How is that something to be celebrated?"
The root of this obsession, Shweta believes, lies in how women's pain is viewed.
"Both society and medical practitioners give little importance to the pain suffered by women. This is applicable to any sort of pain - be it period pains, an injury pain, or the pain of pregnancy and childbirth. Putting a woman on a pedestal for bearing the maximum pain is meant to dehumanize her physically, mentally, and emotionally. That is why you will hear pregnancy and delivery struggles of women being glorified as badges of honour."
Shweta says that every pregnancy comes with its own challenges, and it is imperative that a woman feels free to choose whichever option suits her context the best.
"The point of pregnancy is for a healthy mother to give birth to a healthy child. Stop judging a woman's strength and character based on how much pain she put her body through. Motherhood is not a Pain Tolerance Competition."
A dad’s perspective
Pranav's child was born 5 years ago and he says he still cannot forget the harrowing experience his wife went through during delivery.
"My wife's water broke at home around midnight and we had to rush to the hospital. We were at my in-laws' place so the entire family was with us. I was unnerved by the late night rush, but expected it all to be over in a few hours, since her water had already broken."
24 hours later, his wife was still in agonizing pain.
"I could not bear to see her screaming in pain anymore. I begged the doctor to perform a C-section, but was told that they are injecting her with further pain-inducing drugs to speed up the delivery and that I should wait."
The family agreed with the doctor and Pranav felt like he had no choice in the matter.
"I should have seen it then - the doctor was trying to keep up her track record of delivering babies ‘naturally’. I should have asked her, 'What is natural about injecting a woman with pain-inducing drugs, and possibly performing an episiotomy later, just to satisfy your ego?' My relatives also just wanted this 'natural' delivery because of the social stigma associated with a C-section. I felt very angry but helpless. They kept telling me to 'calm down' which only made me more frustrated."
A few more hours passed. Pranav begged his wife to consider a C-section.
"The toughest part was that she agreed with the relatives. She was more scared of 'log kya kahenge' (What will people say?) if she was not able to have a vaginal delivery than she was of the pain. Even though she had not slept and been in agony for over 24 hours now, she still chose to prioritize societal approval over her own health. It is her body, after all, so I could do nothing but to wait and watch."
Ultimately, Pranav's wife ended up bearing extreme labour pains for 48 hours. And then, she fainted.
"This was a very scary sign. The prolonged pain and exhaustion had led to a point where mother and child were both in danger. The doctors finally rushed her into emergency C-section - after putting my wife and our baby’s life at risk for 48 hours."
Five years later, Pranav says that the memory haunts him to this day.
"The entire experience made me wonder why we consider doctors as gods, and what is this fear of social backlash for which we are willing to risk our loved ones' lives for!"
"I could not do anything even though it was clear to me that my wife was being kept in pain to protect a social façade."
Down the drain, where it belongs.
Priya, a healthcare practitioner, has seen several cases like Pranav's wife in maternity wards.
"In government healthcare facilities of India, there are absolutely no pain management options offered to women in labour. A handful of large private hospitals have only now started offering epidurals, IV pain medication, or gas for pain relief - but those are rare cases."
This lack of options further bolsters a societal pressure to go through labour ‘as God intended it’.
"Somehow, the more pain a mother goes through, the higher the pedestal of sacrifice society puts her on. Most of the time, the logic is given is 'Women have given birth like this for centuries.' Well, we ask for anaesthesia for a tooth extraction at the dentist's, don't we? No one questions that because men experience that pain too. But since child birth is a woman-specific experience, we are expected to go through this mind-numbing pain without any pain management.”
“Labour pains are equivalent to the pain of amputation. Would we ever expect someone to go through that without pain relief?"
Priya says that women who go through a C-section or deliver vaginally with an epidural are judged for 'taking the easy way out'.
"As if any 'easy way out' exists when it comes to childbirth! This mentality links a mother's self-worth with the amount of pain she went through. More the pain you underwent, better the mother you are supposed to be. It is an insane standard."
Incidentally, Priya herself is pregnant right now and is clear about her birth plan.
"Personally, I believe there is no glory in putting your body through avoidable pain. I really appreciate women who can go all natural. But I also appreciate women who understand their body and have the courage to choose what works for them, irrespective of what society says."
Priya's advice to fellow pregnant women is to do their homework well before making a choice in this regard.
“Medicated, unmedicated, hypno-birthing, water birth - there are many options available today. Learn everything and decide what you feel comfortable with. But the decision should be your own. The father should support the mother in researching and discussing the options, but ultimately respect her choice because it is her body after all.”
“As for society's opinion, that should be flushed down the drain where it belongs.”
A due disclaimer
This is not an anti-natural birth post, and my apologies for any feelings that are hurt by such an interpretation of it. There are some decided benefits to natural birth - in some circumstances. I have not mentioned them here because it is not my intention to counter any of those benefits.
All that I intend to advocate through this post is that a woman's birth plan is a deeply personal (and medical) decision. And so, 'log kya kahenge' needs to not be an added consideration that a woman feels forced to factor into it.
Doctors who glorify any form of delivery at all costs need to be given the boot for not factoring in their patient’s unique situation first.
And while nothing in your life remains normal after a child makes an appearance, all the ways of bringing said child into your life - medicated birth, unmedicated birth, c-section, adoption - are normal.
Y’all, I was featured on this awesome podcast called Puliyabaazi this week. I started off speaking about Womaning in India, why I started this newsletter, what I hope to accomplish with it - and ended up doing some pretty detailed defamation of the husband’s mental load-sharing skills.
You could also just say “Ok Google/Alexa, play podcast Puliyabaazi” to your local self-spying device and it’ll play the thing.
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