An entire book can be written on the number of reasons Indians feel constantly deprived of resources. The approach to parenting in India has been severely affected by this, with parents hoping that their children will make up for what they lack, in terms of the evolution of social and/or economic status. We ask ourselves as parents: How can I ensure that my child has what I do not have? Can my child improve my own condition?
While the first question seems altruistic, the second question is considered selfish and unspeakable. A parent who sacrifices many years of his life to further the career of their child, and does not work hard enough towards their own, is regarded as morally superior to the parent who works at achieving his own personal ambition. This is odd, because by this logic, an industrialist who toils to produce a fortune and a man who robs a bank can be regarded as equally immoral, since they both have sought wealth for their selfish benefit. There is a demonisation of selfishness that has created double standards and contradictions in relationships, including that between a parent and a child.
Working mothers suffer from the guilt and social stigma of being too selfish to not be with their children all day. In India the forces that make them feel so are at work even before a child is born.
Around the time I began writing this essay, I discovered I was pregnant. Elated at the news, I immediately went to a gynaecologist at a well-known clinic in the posh Khan Market area of central Delhi. The doctor was a pleasant, middle-aged woman dressed in a pastel cotton salwar kameez. Swinging out of her chair behind the desk, she briskly walked over to her ultrasound machine and asked me to lie down on the bed next to it. A quick check later, it was confirmed that a child was indeed in the making. Thereafter, she was chatty, obviously accustomed to naive first-time mothers-to-be like myself, and was ready to offer ample advice.
“You must now restrict yourself to the bed. Just lie still and avoid movement,” she said.
“Lie in bed for the next seven months?!” I asked, aghast. “What about travel? I have to be in Dubai and Paris for work next month!” “No, no, avoid air travel. No exercise. No sex. Eat bland food,” she admonished. “Make these sacrifices for your baby.”
I sat there staring at her, devastated at the pronouncement and the prospect of the next few months. A few moments later, I felt even worse, guilty that I was thinking about lifestyle and work commitments instead of the well-being of my unborn child. But I had erroneously presumed that an experienced doctor’s advice must be based on scientific facts.
“Do not eat papaya and pineapple,” the doctor continued with her advice.
A few months later, at a jazz bar in one of Delhi’s luxury boutique hotels, I was stopped by a bouncer at the door.
“Madam, no. You cannot enter,” he said.
“You are pregnant.”
“Yes, so?” I asked, surprised. “I have a few months to go before I deliver!”
“Sorry, we can’t let you in – hotel policy,” he said, holding me by my elbow and taking me aside.
“Which law is this hotel policy based on?” I asked. By now, the man had been joined by his colleague, both dressed in black pant suits with walkie-talkies in hand.
“No, no policy, there is just loud music and a lot of movement inside. People are walking around, it is not safe for pregnant women,” the second man said.
“And who are you to decide what is safe for me?” I asked. “A pregnant woman is capable of using her own judgement about what is best for her.”
“I have heard pregnant women should not go to bars,” said the first man. “You cannot enter, madam.”
Another two months later, in the last trimester of my pregnancy, I began to wonder and plan how I could best manage all the changes that would come with the baby. I decided to work till the end of my pregnancy, until the delivery, and thereafter take about three months of maternity leave. The Government of India had recently and generously extended the duration of paid maternity leave from three months to six. I wanted to be active, productive and financially secure as well as a good mother, and give my utmost to my firstborn. In all the previous organisations I worked at – none of them in India – I came across women who were pregnant, yet living a healthy, active and efficient work and social life until the last day of their pregnancy. That was how I had always aspired to be. Moreover, since age seventeen, I had earned my living and I wanted to continue doing that to fend for myself and ensure my baby’s comfort. I had checked that I was medically healthy enough to do so.
“You must keep your priorities straight,” a top human resources executive once told me.
“And which are?”
“Your priority is your baby. In the last two months before your delivery, you should stop working. There is nothing much to do at work anyway. Budgets have been squeezed as well.”
“Of course not. I am in good health, and I will work till the end of my pregnancy.”
“No, it will not be possible for us to allow that. I have consulted all our colleagues and we think it is best for you to rest and return only after six months or so.”
“Six months! That is for me to decide, isn’t it?” I asked, rolling my eyes at this judgement passed by the company’s all-male top management. “What about maternity? Will these six months be paid?”
“No. You can avail the medical insurance provided by the company. We have a very good insurance package that will cover a lot of the medical costs,” he said.
The beginning of the journey of parenthood is often scarred by stereotypes based on the personal beliefs of doctors, entertainment providers and employers, who would usually be expected to abide by science, fact and law. But in India, this is not always the case. For example, I later discovered that my gynaecologist had mixed old granny tales of abstinence from papaya and pineapple into her medical beliefs. Regular exercise and a healthy sex life, I later learnt, are beneficial during pregnancy. My unborn baby and I travelled to six countries and there was no problem. All this makes me wonder how many pregnant women in India are grounded by the agents of society, their health ruined by lack of activity, spirits dampened by clichés, and their careers written off by narrow-minded employers who wrongly undermine their capabilities. If they do not give in to these pressures, they are made to feel terribly guilty about being bad parents.
The demonisation of selfishness continues to be inflicted on parents even after their baby is born. Parents who cannot afford to provide the best material facilities for their child are made to feel that they have been egoistic and not sacrificed enough.
On the other hand, young couples who are both working hard to earn a livelihood in the 24/7 corporate work culture in India are shamed for being “absent parents”.
Divorced parents face the social stigma of choosing their own happiness over that of their children, who are assumed to derive a benefit from the presence of quarrelling parents. In contrast, as I pointed out earlier, parents who make great sacrifices of their own happiness, for the education or careers or well-being of their children, are considered by society to be morally superior to those who have not done so. Often, this is despite the tendency of the sacrificing parent to suffer a deep sense of resentment. Such a parent might hope that the child would make sacrifices for the parent’s benefit as well, making it akin to a burden.
Excerpted with permission from Indian Instincts: Essays on Freedom and Equality in India, Miniya Chatterji, Penguin Random House India.