From a First Time Mum… [Stories of Motherhood and Culture – Guest Blog]

I am a 29-year old Indian woman, born and raised in Africa, and 38 weeks pregnant with my first child.

When I found out that I was pregnant, I was ecstatic. I have been lucky enough to not have experienced many of the pregnancy woes such as morning sickness, swelling, lower back pain etc. I went the gym 3 times a week, traveled and continue to remain pretty active.

Physically I was acing this pregnancy – emotionally not so much.

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Pregnancy is a trying time for any woman – no matter how smooth your pregnancy is going. Your body is changing in so many ways to accommodate the little miracle you are growing, and you are never more vulnerable. As a first-time mum you are already questioning yourself a hundred times – which is especially why it is not helpful when those around you begin to question you as well.

There are no fixed guidelines on pregnancy and how to raise your child. Every pregnancy is different and every child is different, and listening to your instincts becomes crucial. I do believe that sharing pregnancy experiences can be beneficial. It wasn’t until I fell pregnant that I realized there was so much I had no clue about regardless of how well read I thought I was. I am constantly asking my mum friends hundreds of questions when I am unsure. Getting advice from others can be valuable –when it’s offered in a respectful way, and when no offense is taken if the advice is not taken.

My pregnancy has been an emotional roller coaster. From the day we revealed that I was pregnant, I felt like it opened the flood gates for everyone and anyone to give me their two cents on how I needed to act and be during my pregnancy. My constant anxiety stems from having to navigate everyone else’s feelings and sense of entitlement instead of concentrating on what I need to do for myself.

I am no longer that independent, responsible, and capable 29-year-old. I have never experienced such a torrent of unsolicited advice. When I posed the question “is it worse when it comes from family or is it worse when it comes from strangers?” to a group of mum friends, one very rightly responded “family should know better and strangers have no right”.

Over the past few months my husband and I have had countless arguments about my ability to stand up for myself and put my needs first. I feel it is just as important for your support system to cultivate an environment that allows you to do so. I tried to ensure that everyone received what they needed from me to feel like they were a part of this pregnancy, rather than what I needed from them. What does my husband need from me? What do my parents need from me? What do my in-laws need from me? They needed constant updates and communication; they needed to feel needed by me; they needed me to fulfill their expectations during this pregnancy (e.g. prayers, eat what they make etc.); they needed to be involved in all the decision making. When these expectations were not met, they felt offended and hurt. As an independent and private person, I struggle with this and the times I have prioritized myself, I feel it only created more friction.  It made me want to distance myself and not reach out for help because I didn’t want to give anyone the sense of entitlement that seems to accompany it.

Currently, a lot of my energy is spent on thinking about who I am going to offend with the decisions I make and play the situations out in my head before they even happen so I can try to come up with ways to curb them. Ridiculous? Indeed.

Culture plays an important role here. As a woman, as a daughter, and as a daughter-in-law, there are different expectations of me. I feel as though I am expected to adhere to all the advice that is given to me, and when I have expressed my disagreement or questioned the logic behind it, I am being careless and disobedient. All the responsibility is usually placed on mothers; a father’s responsibility traditionally begins after the birth of the baby and is usually in the form of financial contributions. As a result of this framing, the impactful contributions men can have during pregnancy are greatly overlooked. They can provide emotional support to their spouses by being their voice when they are not heard, and by standing up for their needs when they are not being met.

The reality is that my husband can get away with saying and doing things that I can’t, and I unashamedly use him to get my way, not just during this pregnancy, but throughout our marriage.

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Some of the ways that we were able to deal with these expectations was by starting a dialogue early on about how we, as a couple, would handle it. I am lucky that my husband believes that I should have the final say on all decisions when it comes to the baby, and he will help ensure that my wishes are not compromised due to pressure from others. Our understanding is that if there was something he does not agree with, that we would discuss it in private and hold a united front in public. This is easier said than done of course, but setting that boundary as a couple was a very important first step.

This sounds like the ideal scenario but it has also put a lot of pressure on me because I didn’t always know what I needed – I have never been pregnant before. Often times I was the reason my husband couldn’t help me, because accommodating others was so much easier than accommodating my own needs. I was more concerned about how he would handle it, about how his bluntness might upset others – this unjustly put him in a precarious position. Slowly, I am also learning to be more vocal about what I need and letting him handle the rest.

What has been difficult for me to understand is that these cultural expectations are perpetuated by women across generations; women who have been through similar experiences themselves – if not worse.

Women who did not have much say in how their kids should be raised because of a lot of familial interference. Many that I know have had to fight harder battles than the ones I am fighting. I always thought they would be my biggest supporters, but they have ended up being my strongest critics. I guess in a way I felt a little betrayed by this. Have they rationalized these experiences as a necessary and natural progression, and so believe it should be continued? Whatever the reasons, I don’t think it is a justification and this perpetual cycle needs to end – for some it may have already ended, some may be the generation to end it, and unfortunately for some, this may still continue for some generations to come.

Sometimes advice intended to be helpful can instead be detrimental. I believe the best way to support someone is to respect their space, their choices and their boundaries – let new mothers trust their instincts when it comes to their bodies and their babies and create an environment which allows them to reach out when they need help.

“In a world where you can be anything – Be Kind.”

Dhrutika became a mother to a beautiful little boy on November 7th 2018, born on Diwali Day.

“The light at the threshold of the home of the night of Diwali is there to remind us that our awakening to the light of God in our hearts is incomplete if it does not radiate from within us to the darkness of the world outside”.

She named her son Ayaan, translating to ray of the rising sun in Hindu.

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