After my first child was born, my mother-in-law painstakingly powdered, ground, and bottled five different combinations of herbs, roots, and spices and then mailed them to me. She instructed me to mix each combination separately with rice and to consume them on a particular schedule — all of this would help me post-pregnancy, she promised.
I followed the instructions as well as I could for a week or two, but then my compliance plummeted. Exhausted and alone most of the day, I could not plan my own meals while also feeding an infant who was reluctant to eat. Given that I'd not been told exactly why the combinations were beneficial, it was easy to stop and dismiss the whole endeavor.
I eventually emerged from my postpartum days well and healthy, but looking back, I regret my failure to follow this old Indian custom for maternal care. Years later, I learned that those spice combinations would have provided a range of benefits, from smoothing digestion to healing internal wounds.
Traditionally in India, an expectant mother's diet is managed carefully by an older woman in the household — generally her mother or grandmother — to support her health as well as that of the baby. For example, certain combinations of lentils and vegetables are added to meals and cooked in a way to lessen digestive discomfort.
And this care extends far beyond food preparation. Whenever possible, a woman travels to her own mother's home (or that of an older female relative) for the final months of pregnancy as well as the birth. In addition to providing rest and bolstering her mental and emotional state, regimens of pre- and post-natal massage, with certain mixtures of herbs and oils, are followed. And for forty days after birth, mother and baby are kept in isolation in order to prevent infection — and to continue the care protocols for both.
These customs might seem a bit overprotective, even over-the-top — and they certainly aren't available to everyone. While my female relatives in India did receive this extensive support, none of my relatives in the U.S. did. Here, extended time off for a pregnancy and birth is rarely practicable, and family members are often located far away, assuming they are available to help at all.
My mother immigrated to the U.S. at age 21 and gave birth about a year later, without the presence of her mother or any elder females who shared her cultural background. And given that international long-distance telephone calls were prohibitively expensive for an immigrant family just starting out, she had little access to her family.
My mother doesn't talk about that time very often, and I can only imagine the shock of an international relocation, a New York winter, and a newborn — with no one for her to consult but Dr. Spock via his famous book.
By contrast, I was able to call my mother often during my pregnancy. But I, too, lived far from family and without a keeper of the old customs of which my mother herself could not partake.
From a physical point of view, I remember treating my pregnancy as a medical condition, to be guided exclusively by physicians and their recommendations. From an intellectual point of view, I thought pregnancy was a limitation to be endured, and that motherhood was something to be managed in a way that would minimize disruption to my identity and my routine.
I suspect the old caretaking customs would have provided the point of view I clearly missed.
First and foremost, those customs recognize the cataclysmic physical impact of pregnancy and childbirth by supporting maternal health and providing a measure of calm. But equally importantly, they are conducive to a more realistic transition to motherhood.
Of course, I don't know whether the consumption of my mother-in-law's powders alone would have led me there — perhaps not, in the absence of other types of care and attention. But abandoning the powders and that proffered means of care symbolized my failure to pause and consider adequately and accurately the milestone I’d reached.
Embedded within that formal structure of support is an ancient knowingness — that the raising and launching of another human being is an awe-inspiring act and responsibility. With time, space, and guidance, I might have been able to see my pregnancy and motherhood as more than medical or social conditions to be endured and managed.
Instead of grappling with my identity, instead of perseverating on how to integrate the baby into Real Life, I might have comprehended sooner that Real Life was that baby.
And perhaps I would have understood sooner that, rather than a role, motherhood was a fusion with my primary identity, that it would weave through every aspect of my life and consciousness. Forevermore, regardless of my child's age or my circumstances, I would always be a mother.
Honoring Motherhood Itself
By honoring a pregnant mother and a new mother with considerable attention and support, these traditional customs also honor the institution of motherhood itself.
Indeed, when I abandoned my mother-in-law’s powders, I not only lost their health benefits, but I also turned away from an age-old system. This system not only nurtures the next generation, but also acknowledges those who do that nurturing.
Of course, many of us find a sisterhood of friends and advisors to support our individual journeys toward parenthood, but a larger cultural mechanism can transmit a more universal viewpoint and sentiment about how to treat those who birth, maintain, and launch the next generation.
I do wonder if such a cultural mechanism could sufficiently counteract current perceptions of motherhood at home and work in the U.S., where that primary identity can be ignored, unrecognized, and perceived as a liability. And I wonder if, by extension, it could counteract how we regard our planet — the ultimate mother, the quintessential supporter and nurturer of humanity.
In India, some recite a mantra first thing in the morning — one that expresses an apology before allowing their feet to step upon the ground. As they recite it, they remind themselves to treat Mother Earth with the gentleness and gratitude that she deserves in return for all she has given.
As I remember my mother-in-law's powders now, that bounty of earthly roots and seeds and herbs, I want retroactively to embrace her gift and all that it represents. I want to honor all those who have nurtured me in my life and helped me to understand the larger meaning and implications of motherhood — not only my mother and mother-in-law, but also culture, tradition, women, Earth.