Once you’ve borne children, you can never go back to feeling perfunctorily sorry for something terrible that happens to children. The kind of sadness you feel on hearing some child somewhere has had to suffer something terrible when you don’t have children of your own lasts perhaps a few days, or maybe a few weeks if you’re deeply empathetic. But then it goes away. Not because you are mean or don’t feel deeply but simple because your life gets in the way and these things that don’t directly affect you tend to gradually hide in recesses that keep safe the things you can’t explain or do anything about.
But once you’ve had children, no matter how un-maternal you may feel or consider yourself to be, every child’s misfortune is dramatically superimposed upon your own child, albeit momentarily. Every mother’s pain becomes your own. I might sound like Captain Obvious right now but it’s the truth. Just like you’ll find a whole bunch of heads turning in a roomful of mothers if a there’s a loud “Mama”. A hopelessly ill child, stories of infanticide, of mothers who have just discovered their perfectly beautiful children are not entirely “normal” and don’t know how to deal with it, abandoned children, orphans: the list is long as it is excruciating. I’ve lain awake at nights after hearing of two women having killed their own daughters in infanthood wondering if I could have helped them in anyway; if anyone could have done something; wondering how those mothers live with themselves for the rest of their lives, understanding that the children got lucky and it is the mothers who are the victims of lifelong hellfire.
I read a piece by Shobha Narayan, a journalist who refers to herself as a story tellers (as opposed to demographer) who wrote women from cripplingly poor backgrounds have lived such hard lives that they have no maternal instinct. That they believe and understand the lives of their daughters and themselves will be unadulterated misery if these babies are allowed to live. And so they suffocate their little bodies a few hours after they are born, or lace milk with poisonous extracts that kills the little things in an hour (Narayan mentions this in a heart-breaking way in her piece where she says women in Usilampetti in TN feed their children milk laced with an extract of a plant and the infant “sucks on it greedily”.) If you’ve fed your child, or watched a baby being fed you’ll know how intensely dear that whole picture is – of a child sucking hungrily and greedily at whatever it is being fed, trusting its caregiver to appease hunger. It broke my heart completely to imagine these women doing that within few hours of giving birth. And living with it the rest of their lives.
A dead child in a washing machine, an orphan baby left in a dustbin, fetuses stuffed in a bag, children sold to prostitution, hundreds of dead baby girls: I have heard all this and more this past week. I have had no peace of mind. Largely because I can’t do a thing about it but talk or write or cry. Also because, at the risk of sounding dramatic, my heart bleeds for the mothers. I see my beautiful babies laughing, growing, thriving; I see my husband and I struggling to give them the best, I see my parents helping us out in wonderful ways to make them comfortable and it humbles me. What is a greater struggle? To live with the knowledge that you child is better off dead, or to live every day cosseted in your little world believing everything is well?