An enquiry into breasts


{This is the first part of a two-post series on how making children aware of their bodies, without guilt and shame, helps in the formation of healthy attitudes and beautiful relationships in adulthood.}

All they’re looking for are answers they can understand in uncomplicated ways and make sense of this huge confusing world

Two years and six months ago my son came up and tugged at my T-shirt and, with all the curiosity of a four year old, pointed to a certain body part and asked, “Mumma, what are these? Why do you have them and Baba doesn’t?”

I would have been caught entirely unawares if I hadn’t been reading voraciously about child psychology and concepts of body awareness, right from the time that little H was tumbling around in my womb. If I hadn’t been thinking deeply all these years about the best ways to be a communicative mother, the kind of mother whose child never has to think twice about opening up to her. Having done all this thinking much in advance, I wasn’t flustered. I was calm.

“This is a body part, honey. Like any other. Like the arms, legs, stomach, back, neck. These are breasts. Parts of the body.”

“Why doesn’t baba have them?”

“Because he’s a man, sweetheart. Men and women have some differences in body parts. Baba has a beard, but Mumma doesn’t—right? Lions have manes but lionesses don’t. Peacocks have long tails but peahens don’t. There are some body parts that are specific to males, while others are specific to females.”

He beamed at me, then. And promptly went back to his toys.

He had understood.

No shame, no embarrassment, no humming and hawing. Children are not looking for us to heap our own mental blocks upon them. All they’re looking for are answers they can understand in simple, uncomplicated ways and make sense of this huge confusing world that they’re still very new to.

One year after this incident, it so happened that my sister was visiting us at my place. I’d brought a pile of freshly dried laundry into the room and dumped it onto the bed. I had made a habit of asking little H to help me out with folding the laundry—smaller clothes like his own T-shirts or handkerchiefs or hand towels. And he used to be very happy doing it. Now while we were doing all this, little H happened to come across an undergarment of his mother’s. A brassiere.

He held it out in the most normal way, but in a split second my sister snatched it from his hand, muttering embarrassedly: “Hain, hain!” (Which is the Hindi equivalent, loosely, of a mild reprimand.) I knew exactly what had happened here.

Given the highly sexualised image of women’s undergarments in our society, leading to a whole lot of shame and taboos being associated with them, ‘boys’ and ‘men’ are not supposed to see women’s undergarments. (The same rules however, do not apply to men’s underwear. Women can even wash men’s undergarments. The sheer hypocrisy of it!)

My sister was merely doing what we had always seen around us. Preventing the boy from seeing something that would ‘pollute’ him perhaps.

I came around calmly, and picked up the brassiere.

“It’s okay, he’s only handing it to me,” I addressed my sister, while my son looked on, decidedly confused about why he’d been reprimanded. “It’s just an undergarment you know, like a baniyan—a vest.” I was addressing my sister but speaking in the tones I would use to speak to my son. My words were intended for him, of course. “Baba wears a baniyan, a vest, because he’s a man. Mumma wears a brassiere because she’s a woman. It’s just the female version of a baniyan.”

And then very normally, I folded the garment and put it away in my wardrobe. Very, very normal.

No shame, no embarrassment.

Our bodies aren’t minefields of shame. No child of mine is going to grow up with that attitude.

My sister gazed extremely proudly at me and smiled. “You’re an awesome mom!”

I laughed and hugged her gratefully.

Just about six months ago, I was discussing with another adult about mother’s milk and the difficulties of breastfeeding in certain cases. My boy who was now six years old immediately came up to me with a flurry of questions: “How, mumma? How does the mother feed her own milk to the child? What is mother’s milk? Where does it come from?”

This time I was caught unawares. I burst into nervous laughter… a bit amused by his innocence but also jittery about the right way to answer this. I was, however, also acutely aware that it was crucial for me to answer this in a normal, matter of fact way, without attaching embarrassment to it.

I pulled him into my lap and said, “When the mumma gives birth to a little baby, God sends milk into her breasts. The baby does not have teeth to chew and cannot eat with his hands. So the mumma takes him into her arms and feeds him from her breast.  That is how God provides food to the little ones.”

Rather mystified, he took a moment to digest this information while staring at my face. (While I mulled over the fact that he wouldn’t have been quite so mystified had we decided to have another baby.)

“You know it’s somewhat like our cat in Aligarh feeding her kittens,” I added helpfully. “You’ve seen that, right?” Recognition gleamed in his eyes. He understood then, I think.

Yesterday as I was changing his clothes, little H looked up curiously at me while I slipped his T-shirt on his head, and pointed to his own chest this time. “What are these called, mumma?”

I sighed inwardly. Here we go again.

“Nipples. They’re called nipples.”

“Okay… and what are the other nipples?”

I was a bit confused but soon realised he meant the silicone ones that baby feeders have.

Yup. Here we go again.

“Well, you know how God sends down milk in mothers’ breasts for little babies, right? But sometimes babies have to be fed from bottles. So the bottles have nipples to let the babies feed in the natural way.”

Understanding gleams in 6-year-old eyes again. And off he goes to play.

I allow myself to sigh loudly.

It becomes difficult, sometimes, to have an answer ready at all times for all questions in a way that is age appropriate and does not induce feelings of shame. Especially for a small town woman like me who was never explained things in this manner.

But I don’t want my son to grow up with taboos about body parts— associate shame with underwear or the parts that are covered by it. I want him, as he grows up, to slowly understand the concept of privacy, the need for certain things to be merely private, not shameful.

There are parts of our selves—not just of our body, but parts of our soul, our mind and even our heart—that we’d like to keep to ourselves or share only with some specific people whom we deeply love. We would not want to reveal them to the whole world at large. That does not, in any way, indicate that we are ashamed or embarrassed of them. There are certain acts we would prefer to indulge in privately, without the intrusion and assault of prying eyes. Acts such as breastfeeding. Or making love. That does not, in any way, indicate that the acts themselves are shameful.

Privacy needs to be delinked from shame.

Our bodies are sacred, beautiful — and normal. It is only when children learn to embrace and accept this, can they grow towards forming fulfilling and healthy relationships as adults.

(To be continued in the second part.)

Chapter 14: Three days at the hospital


Day 2: Me and Hasan

Day 2: Me and Hasan

Day One: Perhaps it was the post-partum depression (does it really kick in so soon?) or perhaps it’s just the blinding pain. But that evening, I looked at my mum sitting beside me, asking, “Why so glum, dear?” and cried. And cried and cried and cried.

“It hurts, mummy. It hurts too much. There’s too much pain…”

It was pain of the kind that steadily chokes, not the waves and spasms that you can drown in screams. Pain that everyone had promised would be long gone.

On hindsight, it wasn’t just the pain. It was the images and the memory of pain, too.

I’d seen in movies where heroines had nightmare and their eyes would open in a horrified flash. Breaking news: it happens in real life too.

Every time I tried to close my eyes and get some rest, the entire labour room complete with doctors’ faces would swim before my eyes, ending in the SNAP! of me being cut open. The intolerable, unbelievable agony of that moment. And my eyes would fly open in horror. This is not a literary description or an exaggeration. Every time I closed my eyes I would see exactly this and my eyes would snap open.

It would be weeks before I could even think—forget talk— about the entire childbirth episode without getting all panicky and horrified.

Oh, and I promised more on toilet-terrors, didn’t I? Well, here’s me keeping my word:

My usual toilet exercise begins with someone rolling up the bed so I’m in a sitting position. Why? Because I have absolutely no strength in my back and hip muscles and I cannot sit up on my own. When I am safely inclined, I slowly drag my legs to a dangling position by the bedside. Then either my mom or my husband—they were both there with me— help me stand on my feet. They then hold my weight and support me all the way to the toilet which is just about ten normal steps from my bed. And then, when I’m in the toilet, someone has to physically bear my entire weight just so I can go from standing to sitting position. Left to my own legs, I might just collapse. Afterwards, of course, I have to be completely lifted up again, to enable me to stand. All of this while I purse my lips till they turn white and threaten to bleed, just so I can contain the real pain…and the crazy, ever present terror of ripping apart at the seams…

It’s when you’re in mortal fear of your own body… ever mindful of taking a step too big and stretching your legs too far apart…

When you touch yourself and feel like bursting into tears…. “Good Lord!! What has happened to my body!!  I’m completely deformed! Am I permanently deformed? Will it always be like this?”

When you feel the stitches and get a weird sort of light-headed feeling… giddy and nauseated like a merry-go-round ride gone awry… like you’re terrified of your own body…

And on top of all this, of course, comes that little thing without which you won’t truly know you’re a parent:

Sleep Deprivation.

It’s been exactly 24 hours since I even stole a wink. And before you start pooh-poohing this, thinking, “So what, I’ve stayed up this long many times,” puh-leez consider the deathly exhausting nature of those 24 hours for any person. And then the hours turn into days… and then months…. And more months…. And there comes a stage where you’d give anything just to get more than three hours of sleep a day….

Day two: Three hours of sleep after 24 hours of torture is pitiful compensation, but beggars can’t be choosers. However, there’s one thing that brightens me up: the food! One of the great blessings of having a normal delivery is that you get to eat real food right away. I remember that vegetable sandwich right in the labour room, my first bite of anything edible post childbirth. And I remember those lip-smacking, mouth-watering breakfasts; the chocolate milk and the poha and the noodles and more sandwiches….ahhh…. Made me wanna spend some more time at the hospital !!

The pain is still there, but it’s got a blunt edge. When I have visitors I forget it. I’m chatting and laughing like my usual self, particularly when Shruti and Ankur, my gang of gals from office, enter with a smile and a hug (they were not allowed to bring the flowers in.) But whenever someone asks me “So, how was the experience?” this is my standard reply: “I DO NOT want to talk about it!”

Day three: If someone were to tell you there’ll be a day in your life when your breasts feel like chunk loads of lead, you probably won’t believe them. Well, start believing now.

I wake up in the morning with a feeling of rocks being loaded onto my chest. Discomfort does not come close to defining it; it’s sheer agony. Turns out the third day is when the “real milk” is produced, as opposed to the yellowy colostrum flowing out earlier. This is a great ‘mother’ thing, but as far the ‘person’ inside the ‘mother’ is concerned….

I am reminded of a Russian fairytale I read in childhood where the heroine is dumped into a river with a load of rocks tied to her chest.  Of course, unlike the story, you can’t be rescued. You just get used to being drowned with rocks crushing the breath out of you… I remember crying desperately a few days later, sobbing into my husband’s chest because I couldn’t get any rest…. Everytime I tried to turn on my side the solid lead bore into my flesh, causing searing pain to flash through my body.  So much for pain ending with the baby being born.

Anyway, it’s the third day and time to leave the hospital. I get dressed, bidding farewell to the green and white striped nighties I’d been donning for the past three days. Just the act of getting dressed feels like normalcy is being restored. However, walking from the room to the car erases any such ideas …

With shaking baby steps (pun unintended) I get into the car. The ride, as I was well aware, had just begun.