Not Without a Shadow

Women are prey to their own set of misconceptions when it comes to maternal health.

New Media Fellows 2013

By Anindita Sengupta

September 29, 2013

Also published by Bangalore Mirror

At the launch of a new maternity hospital last week, women paraded down a ramp. It was a fashion show "with a difference" as they like to put it—one in which the sashaying was bolstered by pregnant bellies and in one or two cases, babies in arms. As I sat in the darkened auditorium, I experienced the sort of conflict that besets us at the most innocuous moments. Was it really fair, I wondered, to subject women to the expectations of beauty even when they were uncomfortable and heavy? On the other hand, there was the subversion that the show was attempting, one that urged us to rethink what we define as beauty. I held my peace.

It is not okay to put kaajal or any foreign substances inside or near your baby’s eyes.

I was there to participate in a panel discussion on maternal health, organised for the young couples present. There were three doctors on the panel and several questions raised in an urban, middle class context. It was interesting to look at the different concerns among this group, as compared to those in a rural setting. For example, it was taken for granted that the women present would be opting for institutional delivery, something that has to be stressed repeatedly in a rural setting. Awareness about basic nutrition and access to facilities was also a given. The doctors spoke about natural birth versus Caesarean sections and emphasised that mothers need to work for the former. According to them, many middle class women do not exercise enough during their pregnancy and this makes it hard for them to deliver normally.

The other factor that came up repeatedly was advice or interference. In our close-knit social structures, the advice—and sometimes, interference—of extended families, in-laws, relatives and even colleagues make it difficult for doctors to advise women. Women tend to compare pregnancy stories, the doctors said, and they don't listen to instructions because of the half-knowledge they have gathered. Increasing awareness of technology has also come with its perils. "Dr Google has made our lives more difficult in some ways," said one doctor, speaking of our tendency to trawl the Internet with health-related queries.

During the Q&A session, some of the stickiest myths rose to the surface. "Is it okay to put kaajal on the baby?" was one of the first questions. The answer, of course, is no. It is not okay to put foreign substances inside or near your baby's eyes. Eyes are sensitive. Baby skin is sensitive. It would seem simple. But the persistence of traditional habits can be formidable.

Other questions: "Is it okay to bathe the baby at night?" asked another woman. No, because the baby may aspirate and medical care will be hard to reach at night, said a doctor. Is it okay to jog during pregnancy? Yes, they said, on the treadmill and not on a rough road so that there is no danger of falls and injuries.

Doctors also talked about the importance of breastfeeding. Many women in middle class families still believe that first milk is "witch's milk", they said. This dangerous belief deprives the baby of colostrum or first milk, which highly nutritious and important for building immunity.

"What are the reasons for post-partum depression and how will I know if I have it" was a chilling, anonymous question. The doctors elaborated on lack of sleep, exhaustion, dehydration and lack of nutrients as some of the more obvious reasons for post-partum depression. "What happens often is that as soon as the baby is born, everyone forgets about the mother's need for nutrients," said one doctor. "Everybody stops fussing over her and shifts all their attention to the baby."

While such a panel was necessary and welcome, it was short and perhaps, too broad to allow for more in-depth discussion. Issues like breastfeeding, lactation and post-partum depression are very real problems that affect thousands of mothers—and their babies—even among the middle class. We need more spaces where women can talk about these things, and more specific sessions devoted to each topic. This would allow for the sort of time, mood and honesty required to penetrate the darkness around these issues.

Anindita Sengupta is reporting on reproductive and maternal health in India as a new media fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).