Grandma Knows Best

I'm not exactly traditional, but when my daughter was born, I embraced a practice Indian women have followed for centuries: I went home to my own mother.

Mother Knows Best Illustration Nathalie Dion

A glass of just-squeezed juice and a bowl of oatmeal sat waiting for me on the kitchen table in my childhood home. I finished nursing my 3-day-old, Meenakshi, in my parents' family room and sat down to eat. "Make sure you finish, beta," my mom said, using the Hindi word for child, as she took the baby. "You need to build your strength."

I've always thought of myself as a modern Indian woman who shuns the archaic rituals of my culture, such as deferring to my husband and touching the feet of elders to show respect. But when Meenakshi was born, I fully accepted a long-standing Indian tradition: that of a daughter going home to her mother after giving birth.

In India, women might be married for decades and have several kids, but they still consider the place where they grew up as home. And when they give birth, that's where they return. The belief is that no one can nurture you and understand what you're going through like your mother. When you're crying for no apparent reason, it's your mother who understands. When your breast milk is running low, it's your mother who offers Indian remedies to increase the flow. After six weeks of care, you return to your husband fully recovered.

All in the family

My husband, Mahir, took us "home" straight from the hospital. Mahir's time with Meenakshi was limited to weekend visits, but he didn't resent the arrangement. He grew up in a more traditional Indian family than mine in Mumbai, and he watched his sister and many of his female cousins go through this rite of passage.

During my pregnancy, I read books and articles that had postpartum advice like "prepare and freeze meals ahead of time," or "rest when the baby rests," or "instead of nursing all the time, consider pumping and letting your partner give the baby a bottle so you don't get overtired." The tips were practical, but reading them made me feel lonely, because they revolved around making new mothers quickly independent.
I, on the other hand, knew I'd be entering this stage of life with my mother as my confidante and crutch.

We quickly settled into a rhythm. I spent my days on the couch in our light-filled family room nursing and greeting visitors, while my mother nourished me. Every morning, she juiced carrots, ginger, celery, and apples to boost my energy. When it became apparent that my milk supply wasn't vigorous enough, she fed me pinnis, the round Indian sweets packed with ghee (clarified butter) and wheat flour that Indian women swear by to help with nursing. She prepared my favorite subzis (vegetables) and sharp fish curries for dinner.

My mother provided emotional nurturing as well. I was relieved that my labor had gone smoothly, but I felt unstable and unsure about handling this new life. I finally confessed my fears to my mom, and her words saved me then, and still keep me from falling down the "mommy guilt" hole. "Not every mother feels this gush," she said. "In fact, fewer do than you might think. The love and connection will come naturally." She told me to stop trying so hard to love Meenakshi and just accept my feelings without guilt. Her dose of pragmatism helped me see that my shameful thoughts were not only acceptable—they were also normal.

In defense of tradition

While I relished being cocooned at home with my parents, my friends reacted to my stay with both puzzlement and longing. One friend shuddered as she remembered dealing with a colicky newborn in a cramped city apartment and remarked how lucky I was. Another new mom asked, "Doesn't Mahir miss Meenakshi?" I immediately became sensitive and proceeded to explain this tradition.

I didn't stay the whole six weeks, as many women do in India. After a month, I'd gone from emotionally vulnerable and psychologically weak to fortified. I felt confident that I could take on the dual responsibilities of motherhood and running my own home. Still when I was saying goodbye in the driveway, I burst into tears. I was leaving my lifeline. "Remember, I am always with you," my mother whispered. "Feel my strength." More than four years later, that special time has shaped who I am today as a mom—confident, happy, fortunate. When I gave birth to my second daughter, Amrita, life was more complicated. My stay was only for a week, which made me treasure it more. People often ask me if I will do the same for my girls someday. I certainly hope so!

    Special Deliveries

    Readers and Facebook fans share their families' birth traditions.

    Native American: "We asked a family friend and traditional spiritual woman to lead prayers and a blessing with the burning of sage in the delivery room. We are now planning a ceremony to give my son his Lakota name, which can be done anytime after birth."

    Kelly Sherman-Conroy

    Chinese: "Our son was born in my wife's native China, and she wasn't allowed to leave the house for a month. She also couldn't eat any fruit or raw vegetables, or drink any cold beverages. And they washed the baby in tea to make sure he was clean and to protect his skin."

    Eric Gonzalez

    Lebanese: "It is traditional to make a donation to the needy to show that you are grateful for a safe delivery. When our first was born in Lebanon, we donated money to a family. With my last child, born in the United States, we donated $100 to the Red Cross."

    Allison Sour

    Mexican: "My boyfriend's family is Mexican and mine is Mexican American. I only have my dad's last name, but my boyfriend has both parents' names together, according to Mexican tradition. I thought it would be special to give my daughter two last names as well."

    Michelle Elias

          Originally published in American Baby magazine in June 2014.

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