Mother load

J Devika | Updated on October 19, 2018 Published on October 19, 2018

Keep calm and carry on: The trauma one may suffer upon the entry into motherhood is usually hushed up and either trivialised or mocked when expressed   -  H VIBHU

Unlike other stages of life, motherhood has become a state into which all women who give birth are expected to enter — and never leave

Despite decades of careful research that reveals motherhood to be a social construct, despite many accounts of the experience of motherhood that reflect closely on its pains and pleasures, powers and powerlessness, the litanies to the glories of motherhood continue to echo around the world. The rightward shift of politics globally has made this more acute, but one wonders if they had ever declined in the first place. Motherhood has been held up as an essential, unchanging fulcrum upon which society turns, and the argument has been that if essential maternal nature does not exist, it is necessary to create it. In India, the agency that social and community reformers of the 19th and 20th centuries conferred on women was more often than not pivoted on motherhood and its putative capacity for infinite giving. Early feminists, such as the Malayali author Lalitambika Antarjanam, sought to reimagine the very order of gender from the maternal vantage point. Development discourse reinforces it, for entirely different reasons.

No wonder, motherhood has become a permanent state into which women who give birth are expected to enter — and never leave. There is no prospect of growing out of or beyond motherhood; one can perhaps extend it to the community through public altruism, but never exit it unscathed. This is quite unlike other stages in life — say, childhood, teenage, even wifehood.

The trauma one may suffer in the entry into motherhood is usually hushed up, and either trivialised or mocked when expressed. The woman’s body, it seems, is for motherhood and nothing else. I remember how as a young woman of 24, I burst into tears at the shock of seeing my belly looking like a dirty, crumpled cheap plastic bag after a Caesarean section, and was promptly chided for worrying about how my body looked. Why did she sew me up so clumsily, I cried. How does it matter, countered the nurse, you are a mother now, and mothers should not care how they look. Luckily for me, breastfeeding was an immensely pleasurable experience; and I have always enjoyed being with children. Even though some women may be fortunate to experience such pleasures, being the mother of young children is generally a state of deep disempowerment.

In the matrilineal tradition that was once common in Kerala, mothers, however young, were primarily authority figures and not merely founts of affection. Therefore motherhood was indeed a path towards recognition and power within family and community. It appears to have changed in present-day Kerala. On the one hand, among the poor and the lower middle-classes, the responsibilities borne by mothers have increased dramatically. Mothers now bear the burden of helping their children up the ladder of higher education and even raising dowries for their daughters’ marriages. Childhood is extended now, and mothers continue to labour over their children sometimes well into their 20s. For many women, this is the slim lifeline they hold on to for fear of the social isolation that looms ahead as they turn senior.

On the other, greater individuation of the young means that young adults tend to resist, or at least resent, their parents trying to hold on to domestic routines and hierarchies (and a significant number of Malayali families are single-parent families in women-led households). Mothers bear the larger brunt of this — men in Kerala live between homosocial public spaces and the heterosexual domestic, and their spaces of intimacy were never necessarily in the domestic. For mothers, this often means the loss of both intimacy and power, even as the emotional labour they perform and the mental load of domestic responsibility they bear remain unchanged. Often, these mothers seek out spaces where the mother-child intimacy may still be available.

Unfortunately, even empathetic children — including feminist daughters — have little perception of the mental burden their mothers carry, or are rarely mindful of how their mothers perceive the domestic spaces they have fostered. I have seen adult children treat their mothers’ home as just a place to use, with no obligation to share their mothers’ responsibilities, while remaining acutely alert to any breach of boundaries that mothers may attempt.




It is true that mothers do bid for power; but that does not justify indifference to the toll that motherhood takes. It is also true that the caring labour that mothers perform today in Kerala is deeply implicated in the dynamics of migration-led globalisation and capitalism. Yet mothers suffer as faceless instruments of this deeply patriarchal process. Ultimately, power in intimate spaces is highly mobile and ambiguous. Not just feminist theory, but feminist practice needs to be alive to this.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

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Published on October 19, 2018
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