“[The fetus] is composed of five elements; he has everything he needs. His buddhi (consciousness) is fivefold and because he is conscious, he has knowledge of perfumes and flavors… Then, due to what he has become, because of what he has eaten and drunk, fed by his mother through the body’s canals and [umbilical] cord, his breath takes on vigor.” — Garbha-Upanisad (Upanisad of the Embryo), transl. Lakshmi Kapani
Five minutes after my baby was born, he was nestled against my breast, suckling. It seemed the least I could do to help ease the traumatic passage from inner to outer world. It was a way of saying: “Don’t worry. We may be separated, but you’re not alone”. This, before the milk even starts to kick in, must be the first ever instance of ‘comfort food’. I immediately empathized with him: “The world may be big and weird and loud and overwhelming, but at least there are Mars bars.” (Or, in his case, ma’s bras).
Later, as I watched the grey dawn slowly lighten the clean square of hospital window, it occurred to me that the only people who need ‘nursing’ when they’re not ill, are babies. It’s a word that encompasses care and food, as though gestation is a period of illness which they need help to get over, that their early days and months of life are spent recuperating. The faint whiff of hospital beds, linoleum floors, and disinfectant clings to even the healthiest baby. I watched a new mother in the bed across the corridor pick up her tiny baby from her clear plastic tub, holding her as gingerly as an unexploded grenade. Extreme youth and extreme age are potent reminders of the closeness of death; the wall between life and its opposite is so permeable – as thin as a membrane, as quiet as a heartbeat. Babies, like the very sick, or the very old, precipitate a protective terror in their carers – a kind of constant vigilance to ward off the spectre of unbeing. And our chief weapon in that war (us mothers, that is) is food.
It’s no coincidence that the root of the word ‘nurse’ is the Latin nutrire, to nourish – the same as that for ‘nurture’. After all, “cake,” as a friend once announced to me, shoving some my way, “ = love”. And is there any more basic expression of love than the desire to nourish someone – either physically, by piling another helping to their plate, or emotionally or spiritually, tending them so that they may flourish?
Nursing the baby, it was impossible to not to somehow enact or embody an idea. A mother feeding a baby means love. The image is one of the principle icons of the Christian faith. The ‘milk of human kindness’ is the kind that I was producing, not what’s left on your doorstep every morning. Apart from all the metaphorical resonances, it was a brilliant system: no sterilizing, no cups and spoons and spillage, no mess, no equipment, no heating up, no cooling down – and just the right amount every time. It seemed as though God were trying to make up for the serious design flaws in the earlier, ‘giving birth’ part of the process (didn’t anyone tell him to make this thing wider?).
The digestive system of a newborn baby is very much a work in progress. Able to cope only with breastmilk – or its man-made equivalent – at first, the baby’s stomach and intestines slowly develop the capacity to process more complex foods. This sounds like a smooth and untroubled process, but anyone who has heard the screaming agony of a baby with colic knows it isn’t so. At this stage in life, the workings of the digestive system are epic and all-consuming: there is no greater trial than getting a reluctant baby to suckle, no greater triumph than the production of burp.
Over the months, the baby and I settled into the cosy yin-yang of breastfeeding. Rooted to the spot, cradling his head, stranded on the island of Mamababy, self-sufficient yet utterly dependent, I tried my best to avoid thinking about weaning. I’ve never been much of a cook, and the idea that I would have to prepare and feed this child for days and weeks and years to come filled me with alarm. Maybe, I thought to myself, I can go on breastfeeding him until he’s ready to go to restaurants and order for himself.
I put off the fateful day, taking grim comfort in babycare guru Gina Ford’s warnings that introducing solids too early can not only “put pressure on [the baby’s] liver and kidneys and impair his digestive system,” but may also increase the risk of asthma, eczema and hay fever. Persistent coughing is more common in babies who have been given solids early, and if that wasn’t enough to put the fear of god into you, she concludes with the cheery thought that “early weaning can lead to overfeeding, making the baby too fat, which… can lead to obesity in later life and increase the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc.”
I had initially decided that we’d start him on solids after exactly four months. But was that too soon? By being too hasty, would I condemn my precious bundle to a tragic early death after a short life spent scratching, sneezing, and wheezing? There again, if I left it too late, then he might not get the vital nutrients he needs at this stage. He might – God forbid! – get hungry. In motherhood, as in comedy, timing was everything.
And what about hygiene? Would his first lovin’ spoonful be an introduction to the wonderful world of food or a dreadful bout of botulism? Into our Garden of Eden, a snake was about to enter – and the forbidden fruit, in this case, would have to be boiled and mashed.
* * *
Finally, I could put it off no longer. If this were a film, this is where the screen would fill with pages of a calendar being ripped off by a rushing wind, slowing to a halt around early November, and dissolving to a shot of a hazy Delhi dawn.
As I keeled onto my side towards the baby, I realised how it was these pauses in the days’ hectic rush, lying down as he suckled, that had given a structure to our time, had given my days a grammar and shape; my bracket curved around his apostrophe. Although I was determined to keep on breastfeeding him for a while at least, that particular morning felt valedictory. When I was pregnant, he was what I ate; until today, I was what he ate. From now on, he would slowly be made up of something else…
I cannot remember why I decided on cauliflower as his first ever taste sensation, but cauliflower it was: a perfect white floret, a cumulus nimbus of nutrients just waiting to be ingested. But before it could be boiled, the saucepan needed to be thoroughly scrubbed. But before it could be scrubbed, the scrubber had to be boiled. Which, of course, meant boiling and scrubbing the second saucepan that the scrubber would be sterilized in. I looked at the knife, the chopping board, the teaspoon, the bowl. They were lined up like cannon fodder for in a particularly nasty biological war. The cauliflower receded further and further into the distance as the things that needed to be cleaned stretched away on all sides like a hall of mirrors.
If you go by Annabel Karmel’s Feeding Your Baby and Toddler book, tackling this next stage of your child’s life requires a staggering amount of equipment, from processors and blenders to steamers and weaning bowls with heat-sensitive plastic spoons. Where she had a stainless steel, German-engineered, ergonomically designed, eco-friendly moulis-blender, I had an old tea-strainer. As I was detoxifying the tea-strainer, I managed to burn the cauliflower. I threw away the smoking saucepan and started again.
Two hours of hard work later, I had managed to produced two teaspoons of grey-white pulp. It looked as appetizing as papier-maché.
Manoeuvring the baby into a feeding position was like cuddling mercury. By this time, I was so stressed and anxious, I could hardly tell which way was up. My heart was in my mouth as I put a tiny glop of pureé on the spoon and held it to his lips. Would he reject it? Would lap it up? My whole fate seemed to hang in the balance. He loves me. He loves me not. His father, ever-more practical than I, shoved in the spoon. The baby slurped up the purée. I burst into tears.
I was ecstatic that he’d eaten something I’d cooked, crucifyingly embarrassed that I’d fallen into the tender trap (cake = love) that any sensible feminist could have seen coming; and aghast that starting from now I’d have to do a repeat performance the next day, and the next, and the next…
Days followed days like fairground horses, each similar to the last, galloping, galloping and never catching up. There was no getting off the merry-go-round of shopping, washing, cooking, pulping, feeding and cleaning. As gardeners know as well as mothers, you can’t grow a rose without shovelling shit, and as the solids grew more solid at one end, so they did at the other.
The kid never opened his mouth wide and happily. If his lips parted sufficiently to let out a sigh, I would slip in a spoon of gloop, scraping off the excess and reapplying it, like grouting a fiddly mosaic. And then hold my breath as he decided whether to swallow or spit. The mess was incredible. The amount of food around at the end of the meal seemed so much more than I’d started with, as though it had morphed and replicated like some alien life-form. As I beat back the rising tide of gunk, I send up a silent prayer of thanks to the God of Small half-Indian Things who had the foresight to arrange at least this part of our lives in a land without carpets.
Our attempts to get the baby to eat ranged from the gentle to the desperate. We would set out a bewildering variety of things before him: colourful things, stacking things, things with wheels and lights, things that jiggled and played tunes, anything to keep him from noticing us trying to get some food in to his mouth. If sufficiently entranced, the part of his brain that regulated food intake would switch to auto-pilot and all would be well. Each mouthful swallowed made me giddy with delight. Each morsel rejected sent my spirits plummeting.
There is nothing quite so terrible as the cry of a hungry baby. It is the sound of the world unmaking itself. In the days following birth, women often feel as raw and tender as newborn beings themselves (I was prone to sit at bus stops sobbing copiously at the unfeeling speed of cars). A mew of hunger from your baby sounded like a piece of your own soul crying out in distress. The feeling of those post-partum days was not unlike religious conversion or surviving a natural disaster. I was head-over-heels in love, of course – but more than that, overwhelmed by a kind of world-encompassing, almost intergalactic, compassion. The thought that there existed at that very moment other babies who were hungry, was almost too much to bear. I believe this is not uncommon. But slowly, as I returned to ‘normal’ after the radical, human openness of birth, the psychological defenses came up, narrowing the love down somehow, focussing it like a beam, until I was again able to tolerate the intolerable, until other people’s hungry children seemed merely irritating, inevitable and nothing to do with me.
His father and I would try to figure out some pattern to the baby’s rudimentary tastes – he doesn’t like carrot, it’s too dry, it’s too wet, mash it with dahi – but as far as I could see there was no logic to his preferences. One day he would love dal, the next spit it out. Dahi would be the in-thing for weeks, and then suddenly fall from favour. We were trapped in a labyrinth of shifting walls.
Witnessing our puny attempts to work our way out of the maze one day, a friend remarked, “Oh, I’m sure he’ll eat if he’s hungry”. He might have been speaking Mandarin. The Mothership, of which I seemed to have become captain, was not powered by such logic. Our steering was set by a new constellation, our navigational tools intuition, hope, and great, blind leaps of faith. Our fleet was innumerable, our experience almost nil, and our mission – to boldly go where hundreds and thousands of women have gone since time immemorial – seemed like the first such journey ever taken.
* * *
As my life seemed to spin further and further out of control in a mad whirl of baby-centric duties, I turned to Gina Ford’s Contented Little Baby Book for help. Like so many of the other baby books I’d seen, with their pristine tots and colour-coordinated cutlery, Ford’s book bore little resemblance to my daily reality. There was, however, something oddly soothing about reading her meticulous instructions: “He should be given the first breast at 5.30pm, followed by the baby rice, then the second breast at 6.45pm after the bath.” It was like spying on a laboratory experiment involving white mice and tunnels.
Annabel Karmel’s Complete Cookbook for Babies and Toddlers is equally other-worldly. Filled with recipes to make your mouth water, your pulse race and your heart sink, her menus are not only nutritious and delicious, but even look like miniature art-works. For a six-month old baby, she suggests an evening dinner of fillet of cod with a trio of vegetables. One cannot help but wonder if the baby sent the wine back.
Looking at her perfectly-coiffed hair her shiny-clean children, I realised that Annabel was a creature from a different dimension, where sculpting mashed potato into garden snails or trimming cheese into heart-shapes are considered perfectly normal activities for a busy young mum. As we Earthlings all know, babies – like animals and other simple organisms – ‘feed’ rather than eat. Look at a baby closely and you can see that its toothless mouth is better described as a ‘mouthpart’ or ‘sucker’. Look at him playing with his hands – those are more ‘feelers’ than ‘fingers’. For a newborn child, the world is a kaleidoscopic sensorium where touch and sound, taste and smell and vision overlap. Gradually, as the different parts of the body learn their specialization, the senses move apart, becoming distinct, refined, and focussed. Apart from all the practical issues, to introduce concepts like ‘starters’, ‘puddings’ and ‘side-dishes’ into this poor mite’s hitherto milky universe seemed misguided to the point of perversity.
Surely there was some middle ground between Ford’s white-coated Übernanny on the one hand and Karmel’s professional food stylist on the other? A small voice inside me said: look East, young woman – look around you. And sure enough, there were Indian women all around me, seeming to juggle the whole business of feeding and raising their offspring with consummate ease. I found it even embarrassing to talk about what a mess my life was in. It struck me that whilst the joint family system was flawed in many respects, it was pretty much perfect for bringing up children.
All my friends in England were either struggling to hold down jobs that would pay them enough to be able to afford childcare to be able to hold down the job or, alternatively, experiencing the sudden trauma of isolation, trapped at home looking after the baby while their partner worked. In India, similar bright, professional young women, got on with their bright professional lives while a whole stage crew of cleaners, cooks, helpers, servants, not to mention grandparents, uncles, aunts, and siblings took care of things at home. It seemed ideal – from the outside anyway – and their babies always seemed, well, if not happier then certainly plumper than mine. But I had seen enough of joint family life to know the turmoil and power struggles that are its very heartbeat, and although the palak paneer was almost certainly greener on that side of the fence, I wasn’t ready to jump it yet.
* * *
In the meantime, I was dashing to and from office, struggling to hold it all together, while everything seemed perilously close to unravelling. I was constantly aware that my right to have a professional career and not just be ‘a wife and mother’, was a relatively recent phenomenon. Even one generation back, such a choice was seen not as a right but a privilege – and in the social strata below mine, not even that, not even today. It’s hardly surprising that many women are reluctant to ‘give up the day job’ once they’ve had a child. Looking after children, after all, is a low-status job. It is ‘woman’s work’ in the traditional sense of the phrase, and to say that it’s never done, is a vast understatement.
But what most people (and by that I mean ‘non-mothers’ – male and female) don’t realise is that the answer to the problem is not more affordable childcare. Until you’re in it, until you are it, you cannot comprehend the fundamental dilemma upon which motherhood is founded. Novelist Rachel Cusk writes that “birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed… When she is with [her children] she is not herself; when she is without them, she is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them. To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some mythic snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle.”
A key part of feminist struggle has been to liberate women from their household duties. A woman’s place, I had grown up to believe, is not in the kitchen. And yet, as more and more of my waking hours revolved around exactly that room, I realised that a straightforwardly feminist agenda, articulated with what Cusk calls the “blithe unsentimentality of the childless,” was no longer even available to me as an option. But how much more interesting, how much truer, how much more human to mumble through chaos rather than articulate with clarity, to acknowledge the contraditions, the pushmepullyou that powers the inner turbine of our lives. It seems that this is what ‘second wave’ feminism is so good at – not reducing the complexity, but opening to embrace it. Suddenly the condition of motherhood does not seem constraining and pitiable, a biological trap into which all but the stoutest-hearted feminists fall. It feels more like the embodiment of Derrida’s notion of différance – the twin ruling gods of my life are deferral and repetition, after all. The divided, perpetually ensnared identity that Rachel Cusk describes seems to not just the post-partum but the post-modern human condition.
* * *
Eighteen months after the baby was born, I had achieved a slimline body that years of aerobics had failed to deliver. Despite the fact that my life seemed to revolve almost entirely around the issue of food, eating it myself never seemed to rank higher than 3 or 4 on my list of Things to Do. Then one day, I had to steady myself on the sink and fight off a bout of giddiness. Diagnosis – borderline malnutrition. Any nutrients that I’d managed to get into my body during the day were being syphoned off at night, as the baby breastfed his way through the dark hours. As the baby grew, I shrank. I had become a parable; a living cliché about women and their self-abnegation.
It was time to get a grip.
If giving birth was the first degree of separation, and introducing solids was the second, stopping breastfeeding was the third. It felt as though I were constructing a wall between us. I was terrified of holding the baby because then I would have to withhold myself from him. Desperate to comfort him with my presence, yet unable to come close to his flailing form for fear of driving him further into pitiable abstraction, searching for that which would not come. He cried as though the world were falling to pieces.
* * *
The world didn’t fall to pieces. The centre held. And the beauty born was not terrible. It was rather sweet. With peachy cheeks.
Now, at two, I watch him drink from a cup; slurp up cereal with a spoon; nibble a rice-cake; chomp on a cob of sweetcorn – and I feel like I’ve conquered the world. We’ve made it, baby.
I’m no longer malnourished.
Well, you never were, my honeypot, my delectable morsel. Come here, so I can take a bite….
Published in Of Mothers and Others, Jaishree Mishra (ed), Zubaan, 2013