To become a mother is to tumble into contradictions.
I held my baby, newly birthed. Not long ago, we were of one piece, his every hiccup joggling my belly, his nighttime perambulations a gentle seesaw in my gut. Now, he was apart, separate. Flesh of my flesh. Yet unknowable.
In a mirror across the room, I watched my own body. Face, shoulders, calves, more or less the same, with dips I was accustomed to. But the rest of me, it belonged to another, feet puffy, a stomach that would not deflate.
Most of all, there was a kind of stillness I couldn’t make sense of. There was activity all around, the shuffling of shoes, the distant tremor of a phone, a voice, high-pitched, cheery. Close, my child was negotiating his first meal at my breast, a doula expertly guiding him. In the midst of such momentous busyness, I felt my body slowing down, my heartbeat audible to my ear, a giant pause between each contraction; my newborn’s hungry suckling, all at once unhurried, each flutter of his tongue a bud furling-unfurling.
This, then, is my most pronounced memory of motherhood’s early months. Of the hours being packed; of the hours stretching, holding space, more space.
Given time’s new labile quality, I ought to have been able to read every day, while my baby slept, while he dined.
Here’s the truth – the early months of motherhood saw me reading shockingly little. I try identifying the reason – the overwhelming newness of the experience, perhaps; or sleep deprivation; or lassitude. But no, these are surface justifications.
One must dig deep to answer whys.
Motherhood is altering. It changes the body, pushes against it – the hips widening, the breasts turning into full moons. It lays siege to the mind, so thoughts shift in quality – no longer lone strands, proud in their isolation; rather, each impression is now a messy braid, burps and reflux crisscrossing, interrupting.
Most of all, it changes one’s association with language. Between the moment my son pushed against the womb walls, ready to tear into the world, and the moment I held him, wet and wrinkled, words – those living beings I had had the most profound association with – folded into themselves. It was as though they were graciously making way for another. It was also as though they recognised their own limitations, that they were inadequate to the task they would likely be asked to perform – of freezing the time of birth in sentences.
In the weeks to come, words, loyal things, slunk back, but it took me a while to locate them. They had started thrumming at a different frequency, low, like saturniid moths, so to know them I had to shut out the comments of friends and strangers, the honk of a passing lorry, the rumble of aircrafts in the sky. To know them, I had to find midnight silence, hold my sleeping baby in one arm, and clutch syllables, so quiet, with my free hand.
It took work. It took patience. And it was when I reacquainted myself with words (towards the end of the fourth trimester) that I could reclaim a reading habit.
Yet, even once the habit resumed, something seemed to have irrevocably shifted – my understanding of words. So many came with added layers of significance, so many with fresh subtexts. I could no longer, for instance, read the word “orphan” without a tremor running down my spine. I could no longer approach the books I once did – Wave, for example, by Sonali Deraniyagala, in which the author loses her sons to a tsunami.
Now, the story feels intensely personal.
I see my baby by the raging sea –
I suspect, had my son been born in 2020, words would have reasserted themselves in my life in quick, early explosions –
For, this year, the world, manic world, otherwise brimming over with sound, seems to have turned reticent. Vehicles have subsided into silence; people have become wavebands, their voices erupting, if at all, in vague, choppy bursts.
Yes, in such a world, a world that holds its breath in the presence of a pandemic, I would have recovered my relationship with the English language faster, by day as much as by night. I would have, consequently, read the books I read too late just a little earlier. Yes.
How does a pandemic impact a new mother’s reading self? Perhaps that self is granted the option to emerge. When an hour starts holding more than sixty minutes, when visitors absent themselves, and partners or those close stay home, a slim possibility emerges – that of being able to sink into a book, if only a paragraph a day.
In my own instance, the pandemic – a stark reminder of the fragility of all existence; now doubly stark as I watch a little person wrapping his arms around my waist – has made literature a calming presence. Books, no matter how grim, tell us, with the turn of a page, that this, too, will pass.
My proclivities as a mother are firmly in line with the world we now witness. I am at ease bringing up my child, being brought up by my child, in a planet that spins slowly-softly-in-seclusion.
Not for me the urgent socialising, the busy play dates, that define city-life. Not for me the playpens and cribs that seclude our children from our bodies at work or at rest. Not for me.
The pandemic, then, has altered little for my child and me. If anything, it has reaffirmed our commitment to remaining outside the fray, to shielding ourselves from the social whirl once it returns (and it will return), to letting life unravel gradually, never in haste, and allowing it to brush against us.
My reading list for a new mother in times of a pandemic must, therefore, reflect my own inclinations as a new mother making sense of a pandemic. It must span the genres that have anchored me: parenting – because I’ve come to see that mothering is a learned skill, not a biological inheritance; children’s literature – because while mothers and children communicate in innumerable ways, both choate and inchoate, books offer a wild new language; and essays, fiction, and poetry – for they chisel our relationship with our selves and, therefore, with our offspring.
I choose one book representative of each genre – a minuscule fragment of all there is, of all that I have come to rely on, to steady myself as a parent and (hopefully) set my son free.
The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff
The Continuum Concept is my parenting polestar.
I approached it not just because the author’s life captivated me – here was a New Yorker who, in the middle of the twentieth century, abandoned her diamond-hunting expedition through the rainforests of Venezuela to start living with the indigenous Yequana – but also because, as a new mother, it allowed me to come close to something that, at first, seemed altogether distant – maternal contentment, infant joy.
Liedloff, as she studied Yequana babies (for the most part at ease, rarely inconsolable) and their mothers (neither fretting nor distraught) found her closely held views on Western child-rearing practices, geared to segregate mother and child, shattering. In their place, she saw a new theory take root, one she refers to as the Continuum Concept.
Leidloff asserts that our babies burst into the world with a set of inherent expectations, hardwired into their beings during the long process of evolution – to be held in arms, to receive nourishment on demand from a mother’s body, to know her warmth during sleep – most of which get repeatedly frustrated in the industrialised world. A new mother, too, finds herself, in the urban landscape, “being deprived of a precious part of her own expected life experience”.
The impact is devastating. The human continuum – “the sequence of experiences” which ought to correspond to “the expectations of the human species” – falls apart. What is left is a debris of despair and rage; of babies who, unable to comprehend why their desperate cries for fulfilment go unanswered, sink into a state of perennial want; and of mothers who, denied the freedom to follow their bodies’ signals, hurtle towards lonely frustration.
Liedloff, using the Yequanas’ practices as a blueprint, offers a parenting model, one that is gentle, responsive, and respectful of self and offspring, and one that addresses the immense (and, in some ways, irreparable) damage done to the human continuum in the modern world.
The book holds appeal for so many reasons – because it acknowledges that babies are beings with needs, not wild creatures to be trained into submission; because it is aware that the independence we demand of children can only ever spring from secure dependence; and because, especially because it grants agency to mothers – mothers who have, without their full knowledge, been systematically disempowered by the twin forces of patriarchy and capitalism.
On the cover of the edition of the book I own, author and unschooling advocate John Holt writes: “I don’t know whether the world can be saved by a book, but if it could be, this might just be the book.” The pandemic has spurred something – a realisation that we need to reassess the way we are. Maybe, at last, the time is ripe for The Continuum Concept to show us the way.
The Bed Book, Sylvia Plath
In the early months of motherhood, when I was struggling to make sense of a new relationship with sleep, memories of The Bed Book brought cheer. During a pandemic, it has reminded me that I am geographically bound on those days I fail to imagine.
The Bed Book is a poem that lopes. With each imaginative leap, it breaks the confines of a staid bedroom, of an ordinary bed – “white little / tucked-in-tight little / nighty-night little / turn-out-the-light little Bed” – and hurtles into a dreamworld, rich in possibility.
To read the poem is to know a “Jet-Propelled Bed” with “mosquito nets / for the shooting stars”; or a “Snack Bed” with a soft “pillow of bread”; or a ginormous “Elephant Bed”, so “When it’s too hot / For the Hottentot / A trunk-spray shower’s / There on the spot”.
The Bed Book escapes categorisation. It’s as much for grown-ups as for toddlers, as much for the sleep-deprived mum as for the work-weary executive.
What makes it even more surprising is that it is authored by Sylvia Plath – poet of the seething-with-rage “Daddy” and the deeply melancholic “The Moon and the Yew Tree”. In The Bed Book, Plath is another person, a mum-of-two, buoyant on a Bounceable Bed.
The Lion and the Bird, Marianne Dubuc
One of the bequests of the pandemic has been aloneness – or what, at times, morphs into abject loneliness. The Lion and the Bird was written in a pre-pandemic era, but it opens with something of the solitude of our times. A lion walks on his own.
Here is a story about friendship – about the lion, one autumn, unexpectedly finding solace in a little bird who has lost her flock. Even as the lion and the bird come to live together, their association gets defined not so much by words but by shared experience – the lion and the bird observe snowflakes from a common window; the bird watches the lion ski from a porthole in the woolly cap he wears.
So, here is a tale about letting silences pass through the body. The Lion and the Bird is startlingly quiet – the text is sparse, barely a whisper, and the pages are often empty, sheets of unending white or pastel hues. To read this book is to stop fearing stillness; to let it slink in.
Equally, this is a book that speaks of time, of how it is destined to move on. Even as seasons change, autumn to winter, the lion’s life shifts from a place of heartbreaking isolation to one of joyful companionship. Embedded in the words and images is an awareness that this, too, is transient –
“And so it goes. Sometimes life is like that,” Dubuc says.
I pause at the sentence – when I read the book aloud to my son, when I read it softly to myself. For it tells me not only that the pandemic we so fear will ebb, but also that what I now have – my little boy, poring over an image, roaring as he runs his fingers through Lion’s mane – will escape all too soon.
I hold the book close. There’s time.
My Daughters’ Mum, Natasha Badhwar
Several years ago, when I first read Natasha Badhwar’s column in Mint Lounge, I was fascinated by its guilelessness.
Today, as a new mother, when I reapproach her columns, now collated into a book (full disclosure: that I had had the privilege of commissioning), I am not just an admirer of her style; I seek to borrow the lightness of touch that defines her relationship with her children.
Natasha’s essays circle her experiences as a mother, but they’re far from being prescriptive. Rather, they carry a rare kind of humility, a keen awareness of the fallibility of a parent. Equally, they’re committed to tiptoeing inwards, to constantly recalibrating the self so as to remain a compass to three children – “We’ve been growing up with our kids,” Natasha confesses.
As a new, oftentimes bewildered parent, I have felt at ease each time I’ve dipped into Natasha’s book. Something about the narrative voice – its whimsy – makes me feel comforted, protected.
And maybe it’s this quality – this whimsy; the ability to contemplate life’s big questions without letting them weigh the spirit down; the willingness to inject banter into musings of deep consequence – that makes this book relevant to not just mothers but also those grappling with the “new normal” the pandemic has brought.
“Gunjarmala-popo,” the author says in the book’s first section break, hinting at all that is to come. “What kind of language is this?” her daughter asks.
I can’t help but laugh.
Wise Children, Angela Carter
Angela Carter’s last novel is not just her funniest but also her most layered. Wise Children tells the story of Dora and Nora (as recalled by the rambunctious seventy-five-year-old Dora), identical twins who are illegitimate twice over: by birth – because their father, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time, who “bestrode the British theatre like a colossus”, denies any relationship with them; and by profession – because they’ve acted as extras and strippers, tarnishing what little remains of their family name. The novel is a hat-tip to the Bard, a carnivalesque celebration of disorder. It is also an interrogation of motherhood.
In Carter’s fictional world, there is a joyful subversion of gender roles and maternal functions – so motherhood ceases being a simple biological fact but turns into “a metaphorical act, a social position, available to any and all who choose to do maternal work” (Andrea O’Reilly).
Nora and Dora, we learn, have been brought up by Grandma Chance, a woman who invented a family “out of whatever came to hand” and became, for all practical purposes, the twins’ “air-raid shelter”, “entertainment”, “breast”.
Nora and Dora, in turn, become godmothers to a young girl. And much, much later, surrogate mothers to twins, as they watch a man draw out two babies from his pockets – symbolic of the womb – and adopt them, declaring, “We’re both of us mothers and both of us fathers.” Denied a clear patriarchal lineage, Nora and Dora’s babies are destined to grow up as “wise children”, in a universe where gender roles and strict definitions of maternity (and paternity) are overturned.
It takes someone with the talent of Carter to let such weighty themes soar with giddy frivolity. It also takes someone with her vision to use fiction as the medium of choice for questioning the biological essentialism of motherhood.
But then, perhaps fiction is the most potent medium for the tackling subjects of great complexity – a plot offering form to a series of unwieldy propositions.
What we understand of motherhood springs not just from the wealth of anthropological data we have access to, but also (and especially) from the novels of Kate Atkinson, Angela Carter, and, dare I say, Doris Lessing, all of whom articulate aspects of maternity we rarely give voice to.
Motherhood, Sylvia Plath tells us, is a “riddle in nine syllables”. Maybe it takes a pandemic to get us to unravel a few of its mysteries.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.