A few observations, mine and those of others, triggered this one. Recently, we travelled long distances by train. In one leg of our journey, we had two students and a young couple with a baby for our travel companions. For about 3 hours after the train started, we ignored each other and were engrossed in settling down for a 19 hour haul. Just as the train attendants started bustling around with pre-dinner arrangements, the baby started demanding his dinner. The mother looked around, tried to divert the child, brought out a milk bottle which the baby rejected. It was clear the baby needed to be breast-fed. The mother started getting distinctly uncomfortable at the idea of feeding her child sans privacy. All this while, the father was engrossed with the travails of the three losers in Five Point Someone. When she saw that there was no way out, the mother turned towards the window, her back to her co-travellers and went about feeding her baby. Now, our other co-travellers, the two students, got uncomfortable. They self-consciously looked away, started exchanging inanities with each other and began making poor jokes at each others' expense. Their discomfort reminded me of an episode of Friends, in which Ross tries, with little success, to make Joey and Chandler realise that Carol feeding Ben was the most natural thing in the world and that they need not get embarassed. It also reminded me of another such incident I had witnessed during an earlier journey. In the latter case, the husband had taken out a large bedsheet and, with some ingenuity, created a tent around his wife and child each time the mother had to feed the baby. As the tent-making scene unfolded in front of me, my mind dwelt on the significant change in perceptions over the years. Throughout my childhood and adolscence I had seen countless instances of women breast-feeding their babies in public places without getting self-conscious. And I had never witnessed any discomfort among the 'onlookers' in such situations. The only real onlooker would be the odd curious child.
Obviously, the general perception towards breast feeding has changed. As a public activity, it generates discomfort. Whereas it is being continuously promoted by medical professionals, maternity literature, health-workers and activists. The message to new mothers is that babies ought to be breast-fed. Breast-feeding enhances the physical development of the child considerably; at the same time it nourishes the budding filial bond. Well, if mothers are to feed their children, then one of two things needs to be addressed quite urgently. Either there should be well-organised campaigns to curb the new-fangled discomfort towards this activity, or there should be comfortable private spaces within public spaces that mothers can retire to when they need to feed their babies. While the need for the former suggestion has not been felt acutely enough by the various bodies that run public campaigns, the latter is not a new concept. Feeding rooms have been around, at least in theory. I have never seen one. And I'd heard of only one in our country, until recently. I am told that there is a very comfortable feeding room at Goa airport. Last week, I saw another being as one of the USPs of the latest shopping mall in our area. Well, if feeding mothers are being offered this facility at a shopping mall, then our railway authorities should definitely think of sparing some space in long-distance trains.
I know I am being unrealistic in my hopes. Historically, we have celebrated matrutva and ma-ki-mamta through popular media and literature. In such fora, the demigod-mother is glorying in her matrutva and indulging in her mamta within the confines of her household. When mothers started joining the workforce, in significant numbers, they brought their babies and motherhood along with them into the public sphere. These women multi-tasked between their maternal and professional duties. Somewhere down the line, women started identifying more with their professional rather than their biological selves. While it is beyond the scope of a blog post to discuss the pros and cons of this change, it has definitely made women more conscious of their bodies. Motherhood has become more complex. Complex, and a lot more uncomfortable, despite the increase in the overall comfort levels of a large chunk of human population. If you are tempted to contest this, recollect your reaction when you saw a pregnant woman in a local train compartment or bus. I remember one of my students exclaimed in awe, "How brave! She travels in these crowded trains!" when a woman in her final trimester made her way into a crowded ladies first class. In true Mumbaiyya style, I deadpanned, "What choice does she have?"
Here are some of the alternatives to crowded trains that Mumbai offers pregnant professionals:
1. Take as much maternity leave as possible. If none is sanctioned, quit your job.
2. Fork out half your salary to commute by cab.
3. Start for work a few hours before your usual time and take only less crowded public transport.
4. Negotiate work timings to avoid rush hour traffic.
5. Find work-from-home jobs.
6. Quit your current job and find one nearer home.
I must admit, I spent the last 30 mins listing these half a dozen ‘alternatives’. Do they sound feasible? Frankly, these are not real options for most women. So, here is another aspect of mothering in urban India that requires urgent attention.