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Once a mother, forever a mother. You can never be free again: Nabaneeta Dev Sen

An exclusive excerpt from Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s chapter on motherhood from ‘The Oldest Love Story’

Nabaneeta Dev Sen | Published 07.05.22, 04:03 PM

Popular culture the world over refers to motherhood as the ultimate destination for women. What does this word mean to people who have gone through the experience? Is motherhood really the gold standard for women it is assumed to be? Apart from being the most glorified and celebrated word in our cultural history, is mother also the most abused?

The Oldest Love Story, a collection of essays, addresses motherhood through the prism of personal experiences. Some of India’s celebrated writers – Kamala Das, Shashi Deshpande, C.S. Lakshmi, Vaidehi and a rare gem by Mannu Bhandari – star in this extraordinary collage. These writers introspect with admirable honesty their experience of mothering and the price demanded by years of giving. Many others – including Shabana Azmi, Chitra Palekar and Saeed Mirza – explore their relationship with their mothers to provide a holistic understanding of the complex phenomenon of motherhood.

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In this excerpt from The Oldest Love Story, published by Om Books International, Nabaneeta Dev Sen shares her experiences of the first flush of motherhood.

*****

No, motherhood is not a joke. Not when you are trying to take care of scared little girls by yourself in a foreign land, job hunting at the same time.

No, it is not a joke once you return home, secure with a job, sending your daughters to a reputed school, tagging them for swimming, music, dancing classes, the doctor’s chambers, or birthday parties in between university lectures. A single mother on Earth requires more arms than the ten arms of the divine mother. Nor is it easy to be the daughter of a mother who is a genius! Even though physically challenged she is mentally smarter than you, able to take care of you and the children by providing emotional support from her wheelchair. No matter how hard you try, she remains the larger figure in your daughters’ eyes despite your back-breaking work. No, motherhood is no easy matter.

The Story of My Motherhood

That January at Cambridge, I turned twenty-five. And suddenly woke up realizing that I have been on this planet for a quarter century! It’s time you took stock of your life, I told myself firmly.

I complained to my husband: “Now the generation gap will be more than a quarter century between my daughter and me.” Yes, whenever I thought of a child, it was of a daughter. Clearly, I would have been surprised and clueless what to do if my first-born had been a boy!

Getting pregnant was easy. And the moment I knew, I began to organize myself.

….

We studied a pile of books on pregnancy and natural childbirth (everything I do needs academic support, a weakness I shamefully admit to) with great interest. I asked my doctor about it. Dr Petrie sent me to Addenbrookes hospital to take natural childbirth exercises. It was a newly introduced course that few women attended. That was the time of the Flower-children, peace parades, Dr Spock, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I learnt that the pain syndrome could be overcome if your mind and muscles were relaxed, accepting childbirth was not a fearsome but a joyous moment in your life. If you were unafraid, eagerly looking forward to the experience of motherhood, you would feel no pain, rather, it will be easy for you to bear it. I enjoyed the natural childbirth lessons and decided to go for it.

As a matter of fact, learning to overcome the fear of pain proved a useful lesson. It helped me to overcome severe stress and pain of a completely different nature later in life. It was, in fact, a lesson in courage, in positive thinking.

….

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When my doctor made me listen to the heartbeats in my body, I shared the excitement of these mysterious activities in my womb with my husband. I forced poor Amartya to put his ear to my belly. He listened attentively, was apparently amused, but displayed little surprise. The books said it was time for the baby to move and it was moving. Amartya was however relieved things were going as they should, but not half as excited as me. I guess that is the main difference between fatherhood and motherhood. A father can never imagine the excitement of carrying a life within his body. True the child was his, but not growing in his body.

And yet, all of a sudden, I felt trapped. My freedom as an individual was lost forever! Motherhood was imminent, with its glorious responsibilities. I had become the woman who bears the burden of carrying on the species, generations behind me and generations following me have their expectations pinned on me. Once a mother, forever a mother. You are duty-bound for all time. You can never be free again.

I felt trepidations… in fact, was anxious. Wondering was I good or kind enough. Could I make sacrifices? A mother must be all these. No, I was unfit for the role of motherhood. I was not mature enough, nor patient enough, not even was I confident. How would I guide another human being about life? How would I ever answer all her questions when I did not know the answers? How can I, a confused individual, make a child feel secure? I happened to have the wisest mother under the sun, no one could be like her. Surely not me… motherhood was too glorious a role to be played properly by me. But the die was cast.

The Earth Mother

Antara 1

Antara rising from primordial waters
As the first sun, forever new, forever old,
You made me the universe.
History and prehistory filed through me hand in hand
In gradual evolution.
Antara, because of you
I have earned the right to enter
The tenfold halls of my foremothers.
Clutching your baby hands in my fist,
I have made the future a debtor to me
Antara, in an instant you have filled all time
By your grace I am coeval with the Earth today.

In October, our first child was born in Calcutta. I had rushed home to give birth, so that she could write, filling her forms, Born in India. And when D-day arrived I truly did not suffer the pain in the excitement of giving birth. I did not scream, nor did I howl. What a wonderful moment it was, my baby coming out at last! Natural childbirth worked, I enjoyed the birthing process and when the nurse held up the beautiful baby for me to see I felt on top of the world, literally. I was learning to nurse my baby at my breast (she looked absolutely perfect, like a doll, not with red and wrinkled skin of a new-born). Ah! Here I have a mammal, a tiny little mammal suckling at my breast, who started off as a fish swimming in the amniotic fluid in my womb. Isn’t that how the Earth grew? Isn’t that the story of the evolution of the species? Mother Earth took millions of years to achieve this change from the fish to the mammal, and just look at me! I have taken only nine months to go through the same process, the very same experience! I was an equal of Mother Earth, only smarter. My pride was boundless. Pleased with my achievement, I wrote a poem, ‘Antara 1’.

Antara is my first born. In Sanskrit, antara means ‘in-between’. It also relates to the Bengali word antar, meaning ‘within’ or ‘heart’.

En route to India, we had a stopover in Greece. At the Temple of Delphi, a group of Italian tourists were confused by my shape, wondering if all Indian women looked like that in a sari, or was it because I had a baby inside me? A woman gently touched my belly to ask, “Piccolo?”, meaning ‘little one’. For me that was the Oracle of Delphi. Antara was nicknamed  Piccolo.

….

Tiyasa Das

When Antara was ten months old and learning to stand against the wall, I was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, where Amartya had an associate professorship. We had to leave Antara behind. I wanted to take her but my in-laws decided she would be neglected left to babysitters. They asserted their parental power to convince their son that it was better for the child to be left with caring grandparents whose total attention would be on her, than be tagged along with busy parents who would leave her with hired help. In the tug of war between possessive grandparents and a possessive mother, the grandparents won. Far away in Berkeley, I suffered unspeakably. Missed witnessing my baby’s growth, her first steps, her first words.

….

I missed my child every minute. Staying away from her felt like being exiled. In hindsight, I know I was in a state of depression. I had seriously contemplated suicide at that time, by romantically jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. As was common amongst the depressed youth of California.

Unable to participate in the magical unfurling of my baby’s consciousness, I felt deprived. I wrote a ten-page apology letter to my child explaining my mental state, to be opened after she was sixteen along with a decent suicide note for the police. Eventually I changed my mind – and tore the letter. That was the first time in my life I had experienced serious depression, caused and cured by the mysteries of motherhood.

Both sets of doting grandparents kept us informed of new developments, but I felt cheated and was jealous of all those who were lucky to witness the day-to-day progress in my child’s life. They had written to me that she was talking now. And how! She was chirping incessantly all day like a little bird.

The Twittering Machine

Antara 2 

I have a picture postcard
Stuck on my kitchen wall
Spreading out slender wire branches
Across a bright blue sky
And setting four tiny wire birds upon them
Mr Paul Klee has created a funny little machine
With a great big lever attached to it
As if
The moment you turn it on
The tiny wire birds will start twittering
Wielding their thin wire tongues
He has called it
The Twittering Machine.
Whenever I see the picture I think of you
Four little wire birds
Are hidden within your tiny body
And the lever is held in your small fist
Before you could start talking
You have become a chatterbox
Our very own little Twittering Machine
The one we have made
Filling the bright blue sky.

Last updated on 07.05.22, 04:03 PM
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