Recently I’ve begun to question the bond my mother and I share. We are poles apart, by personality and experience. She married at 20, and a year later, I “forced myself out” (her words, not mine.) My only focus at that age was to try everything – good or bad – that life could offer. By 25, she was saddled with two colicky children; the 25-year-old me was living alone, working as a bartender, getting sick on Patron shots, psychedelics, and backpacking across Europe. Despite these differences, we’ve always maintained a wholesome, jocular relationship.

A close member of the family physically assaulted me recently. When my mother found out, her first words were: sounds like someone finally gave it back to you. I stood in front of her with bruises across my body, and scratches on my neck, still gasping for air from my attacker’s petrifying chokehold and my own rage at being physically attacked.

In that moment this woman – whom I’d shared countless jokes with and supported every day of my life without question – suddenly became a stranger. Her failure to stand by me will forever hurt harder than my assailant’s punches. Yet, eventually, I will let her back in –– she’s my mother, after all.
Serendipitously, What We Carry, Maya Shanbhag Lang’s memoir about her relationship with her psychiatrist mother came to me at the same time.

Choices for a mother

The memoir begins pleasantly, as most relationships that eventually sour. The book starts with Lang – daughter of Indian immigrants to the US – having just given birth to her baby girl Zoe. She’s recently moved to Seattle, a new city and far away from her family and all that is familiar. With a mostly absentee husband, Lang, suffering from postpartum depression, is left to her own devices with not a friendly face in sight. Desperate for a connection and a supportive ear, she calls for her mother, who lives across the country to visit.

The book begins with a conversation between mother and daughter. “Mayudi, I want to tell you a story,” says Lang’s mother. She proceeds to tell her depressed daughter a story of a woman crossing a river with a toddler in tow – a son. This woman is holding the baby in her arms, desperate to keep her head above water. Eventually, the mother is faced with a choice any parent would consider a nightmare: either she can save her baby boy or her own life.

This is a parable for motherhood – a lifelong struggle between a woman’s wellbeing and desires, and the safety and security of her child(ren). As a beginning, this is beautiful in its simplicity, and, for the same reason, immensely moving.

And then comes the twist. I know what you’re thinking: obviously, the woman saves her child. That crossed my mind and is said so by Lang in the memoir. But answers are not so readily forthcoming, and are not the same for everyone.

We live in a society where mothers are regularly shamed for not doing enough for their offspring. Mothers, not fathers, are expected to give up worldly pleasures for an unborn baby’s health. Becoming pregnant is almost always the beginning of the end of a woman’s career. Abortion is considered shameful – even in India, where it has been legal for decades.

The game is rigged, and mothers cannot win. Too much care and they’re spoiling the child; pursue careers, passions and desires with baby in tow, and people will brand you the “bad mom.”

Lang’s mother does not reveal what the woman in the story ultimately chooses. All she says is that, whatever the decision, “We must not judge…We cannot know the weight of other women’s burdens.” Amidst the constant pressure on women to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their child or face society’s wrath, Lang’s mother’s answer was refreshing. It was, however, not the emotional support that her daughter wanted.

Expectations and reality

Feeling let down by a mother whom she’s idolised for as long as she can remember, Lang does what all daughters do at such times. She begins to dig deeper, to question their relationship and the very meaning of female identity and bonds. Much of the memoir is also dedicated to the power of generational story-telling, and the lessons we learn from age-old narratives handed down from parent to child.

The drowning woman’s impossible choice foreshadows the theme of this memoir and serves as a warning. This is not a wholesome hallmark mother-daughter story we have come to expect from popular culture. Lang’s biography digs deep to unearth the angst, anger, and disconnections that are often buried under the rosy stories of love and female bonding.

There is a palatable division in Lang’s memoir. How she is supposed to feel and think based on society’s expectations of mothers and daughters, and the thoughts that actually go through her mind are poles apart. This is deeply pronounced in the scene where Lang’s delivery nurse tells her that Zoe’s was an easy birth, which means she, the mother, doesn’t really need to rest.

Other incidents, such as people checking her husband’s feelings about having a baby – “Are you nervous you’re having a girl?”; “You’re dealing so well with the pregnancy!” – are familiar and relatable to all women. Even one like myself, whose only babies were Cabbage Patch dolls all of 30 years ago. It’s long been society’s way to congratulate fathers for the smallest of actions or sacrifices for their children. On the other hand, women are expected to give up everything and receive little or no acknowledgement for it.

Lang’s mother does not help matters by adding pressure on her daughter to behave in a socially acceptable manner even as the new mom is in the throes of depression. Throughout the book, the reader can almost detest the mother. The latter as an immigrant of the ’70-’80s, expects a perfect daughter for her troubles.

“Delivery did not hurt.”

Lang and her brother were magical babies who “slept through the night”.

These, and other such sly arrows are regularly thrown at the author by her mother. Lang’s own memories of her childhood and mother are riddled with stories that would make any person feel inadequate. The woman was never been seen fighting PMS or cramps, nor, says Lang, has she ever passed wind publicly by accident. The reader is left with the image of a cold, impossibly perfect and emotionally distant mother. And it is hard not to judge.

This is where the parable comes into play. This is why is it important throughout the book. Later Lang finds out that her mother is not an embodiment of the new image she presents to her daughter and the world. That she, like the drowning woman, has waded into dark waters herself and borne the brunt of impossible choices. And that she does not wish to be judged for them. Just like Lang does not want to be judged because of postpartum depression and her developing skills as a new mom.

Glimmer of hope

Lang’s memoir is written in the present tense, with precise sentences. It is the writing style of a journalist. A memoir, is at its core, an investigation into one’s life. Lang’s book seeks to look beyond the stereotype of a benevolent and sacrificing mother figure.

The book itself is an easy read: some chapters are not more than a couple of pages long. One can finish it in a day – a couple of hours of relentless reading. At times, the author becomes unfocused, and these times are more apparent because of the terse prose that prevails through most of What We Carry.

When Lang talks about depression, for example, the journalistic, analytical style of writing gives way to something akin to Dale Carnegie’s books. Those pages are skippable, if only because they’re filled with predictable and rather useless self-help style prose.

Towards the end of the book, there is an inkling of hope for the mother-daughter relationship. Learning her mother’s secrets allows Lang to see her less as an idol and more as a human being – flawed and trying to hide, just like everybody else. The end hints at a new kinship between the two. One born of understanding and not judgement.

When I finished reading What We Carry – and it really only took a few hours – I was left with two salient afterthoughts. Sometimes there are no right choices, especially for women fighting to keep themselves intact under the pressure of societal expectations. And, the extremely relevant idea that judgment is never ours to dole out. Circumstances change with time, choices made at the moment often lead to regret with which we must live.

On the whole, barring the portions about depression, this is a graceful journal that explores the darker, more problematic sides of being a daughter and a mother with refreshing honesty. It provides a welcome respite from impossible expectations under which most women are submerged.

What We Carry: A Memoir, Maya Shanbag Lang, The Dial Press.