A Mother is Born

A complicated, tangled relationship of blood and pain

By Shashi Deshpande Updated: Oct 11, 2018 16:09:43 IST
A Mother is Born All images courtesy Shashi Deshpande

It was from my mother that I learnt to be a woman, from her that I got my idea of a family, because my father was essentially a loner. It was from her that I got stories of women. She often spoke to us about the women in her family: an aunt, widowed early and living a hard, austere life, bringing up children whose mothers died young. Of another aunt who, when widowed, was saved from having her head shaved because her brother stood up against it. Yet another aunt, an unusually intelligent woman, who had a child each year, who hated it and who finally died in childbirth. These women came back to me when I began writing, their stories kick-starting my own, shaping me into becoming the writer I was to be.

Our ideas of motherhood come from our mothers and very often they are the standard by which we judge ourselves as mothers. But as a child I was disobedient, argumentative and rebellious, always questioning and rejecting my mother's statements and her authority. Yet some of the things she said about motherhood stayed like burrs in my mind for years, ideas that, as I grew older, I found myself weighing and judging. Ideas like a mother's love being absolute and unconditional. (And yet I saw how it could be withdrawn, how conditional it could often be.) The idea that mothers are self-sacrificing. That motherhood is instinctive, and deeply ingrained in all women.

These ideas were not just my mother's. They were all around me: Ideas masquerading as truths about mothers and motherhood. I had to become a mother to realize that there is no single truth about motherhood. There are various truths, according to the way we see it; I had to find out my own.

I realized that there were things no one spoke about. Like the pain I suffered when giving birth, or the confusion at having suddenly become responsible for a tiny, squalling human. I had been told that becoming a mother was blissful. Instead, there was bewilderment. And fear, fear which began when I felt the baby's head lolling on the frail neck, which, it seemed, might snap at any moment. Fear when I saw the dip of the fontanelle in the tiny skull, when I felt the throbbing pulse just under the thin skin; I was terrified at the vulnerability of the baby. There were other fears too-the fear of dying and leaving the baby motherless.If these fears were difficult to articulate, it was even harder to speak of the lowness of spirits. As a mother of a healthy baby, I was supposed to feel on top of the world. Why, then, did I feel this way? Was I an abnormal mother? Years later I read Sylvia Plath's words in a letter to her mother: "To be catapulted from the cow-like happiness of maternity into loneliness and grim problems is no fun." But I was not lonely and had no problems, certainly none as grim as hers. What was it then?

Looking back, what really overwhelmed me was the way my life had been taken over by the baby and his needs. There was no space left for anything else. I was chained to this little bit of humanity. The world had receded-those years are a blank. I, who had read incessantly, now had no time to read even the newspaper. Books, movies, events passed me by. Nothing had prepared me for this.

But time, as always, works its magic. And my deepest fears were banished to the dark corners of my being once the infants became toddlers and then children, who ran, laughed, played, fought, argued. Round-the-clock care was no longer required. Soon the children became aware of their own burgeoning selves.

The world came back to me and I knew that I needed to get away for at least a few hours a day. I needed to wake up my intellectual self which seemed to have got lost in endless repetitive tasks, in the constant emotional churning. Wasn't it Bernard Shaw who had said that a woman loses her intellectual capacity when she becomes a mother? It was not easy. I felt guilty, I wondered whether it was worth it.

A book which gives a bleak, and slightly alarming, picture [is Tillie Olsen's Silences]. An exaggerated picture, I think, when I read it now. But perhaps it had to be the way it was, considering it was written in the 1960s, when feminism was clamouring to be taken seriously. Olsen's book speaks of all kinds of silences, especially of writer-mothers'. Until recently, she says, all distinguished achievement has come from childless women, because it was impossible to combine motherhood with work. Olsen gives a long list of childless women writers, from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, from Iris Murdoch to Joyce Carol Oates. Yes, pregnancy and child-rearing, "the business of mothering" as Jane Austen called it, took years-no, decades-of a woman's life. It drained her.

But those were the days before contraception, a time when women went on having children until menopause, or until they died. Now, it is no longer an either/or situation; contraception makes sure that you can have as many children as you choose, and when to have them, according to your needs. But does this mean that we are better mothers? Hard to find the truth. It doesn't help that there is this idea of the perfect mother. Even more frightening is the thought that a mother makes or mars her children. It is a huge burden to carry.

Where does this idea of a perfect mother come from?

There is more cant surrounding motherhood than any other subject, except perhaps romantic love. Thankfully, good writers go past the cant and the stereotypes. And therefore, literature gives us all kinds of mothers. While men have a tendency to canonize their mothers [as reflected in Charles Dickens's writing]-the good mother picture, Sudhir Kakkar says, is a male construct: Women [such as Jane Austen] are more practical and matter-of-fact about motherhood. Motherhood as an abstraction, motherhood in general, is sanctified. It is possible that the sanctity of this relationship comes from the awe of creation.

What about individual mothers? Are all mother-child relationships beautiful, are all mothers as loving, protecting and supporting as we expect them to be? And what about unwed mothers? I think of Kunti in the Mahabharata and Hetty Sorrel in George Eliot's Adam Bede, two women, girls really, separated by time, space and cultures, frightened, who try to get rid of their babies. Does the mother who is put on a pedestal then have, necessarily, to be a married woman?

"It is in maternity," Simone de Beauvoir says, "that a woman fulfils her physiological destiny; her whole organic structure is adapted for the perpetuation of the species." But we are not entirely children of Nature: we are social, civilized beings. We are thinking, feeling creatures, differing in this from all other animals. And, so there are all kinds of mothers: loving mothers and unfeeling ones, kind mothers and cruel ones, protective mothers and possessive ones. The final truth is that we bring our selves into all our relationships. There is no such thing as The Mother-there is a woman who, at some point of time, becomes a mother. A mother is born when a woman gives birth to a child. She does not change, except for the qualities that this new relationship brings out in her, which are confined to that relationship alone.

Contradictions, ambiguities-no, motherhood is never simple. When my mother lay dying, I grieved, not for her dying, no, I prayed for a quick release. I grieved for the fact that we had so often been at loggerheads with each other, grieved that I had been unable to give her the unquestioning, unstinting love she demanded, which she thought was her right as a mother. And yet, after she died, each Sunday, which was the day when I had spent time with her, seemed blank. For months, I could do nothing during that time. And when the phone rang, at night or in the early morning, my heart still thudded in panic, thinking, "It's Aai, something has happened to her."

It is a complicated, tangled relationship born in blood and pain. But there is no doubt that for most of us motherhood is a unique experience, so deeply dyeing our beings that the colour never wholly fades. Age makes no difference. Whatever their ages, mother and child remain mother and child.

Ultimately, when we remove the frills, assumptions and social constructs, what remains is a real relationship. To love and be loved are the deepest desires of human beings. Only in this relationship, of mother and child, do we experience such a range of emotions; there is no other as long-lasting as this one. In fact, there nothing quite like it.


Bengaluru-based novelist Shashi Deshpande (b. 1938) began writing to understand why she was where she was and what it meant. After a successful writing career, she has realized that she is in a place she was meant to be, after all: in the midst of family, friends and books. Her novels include That Long Silence, The Dark Holds No Terrors, A Matter of Time, Small Remedies and In the County of Deceit. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2008. 

Excerpted with permission from Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays, Poems (2013), published by Zubaan. Zubaan is an independent feminist publishing house based in New Delhi with a strong academic and general list.

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