Column | When Phuphee became a ‘village’

With the birth of a baby you gain something precious, but you also lose something of yourself. This is when support and a sisterhood become essential

March 28, 2024 11:47 am | Updated March 29, 2024 04:25 pm IST

‘Becoming a mother is the only role in the world where you are annihilated and yet you are expected to rejoice in the annihilation’

‘Becoming a mother is the only role in the world where you are annihilated and yet you are expected to rejoice in the annihilation’ | Photo Credit: Illustration: Zainab Tambawalla

Six weeks after the birth of my second baby, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. Even now, after having recovered to a large extent, I can’t think about it without feeling sad and overwhelmed. One of the earliest things that I remember is feeling anxious, and not the low-key ‘I-can-set-it-aside-if-I-want-to’ anxiety but the kind that feels like someone has thrust a large knife deep into your gut and periodically decides to twist it.

Towards the end of the fourth week this crippling anxiety turned into feelings of hopelessness. I would look at my beautiful baby waiting for the feelings of joy and happiness to surround me but they wouldn’t come and this in turn would lead to feelings of guilt. Maybe I didn’t deserve my bundle of joy, I thought. How awful a mother must I be, I thought, to feel no joy on seeing my baby? And on the days that I didn’t feel sad or hopeless, I felt rage — like I had never known before.

Like a pendulum, I got caught between these two extremes and each day became an exhausting exercise in trying to exist. One day when my husband came back from work, he found me sitting on the floor weeping. He picked me up and said, ‘I think we need some help.’ And he called Phuphee.

Dappsaa mae soarie [tell me everything],” she said. I heard her light her cigarettes and inhale deeply.

‘You will see a doctor first thing tomorrow,’ she said, ‘and I will book my tickets and I will be with you as soon as I can.’

Over the next few weeks I saw a doctor, started medication and prayed for Phuphee to arrive. The day she reached was the first time in weeks that I slept longer than three hours. The relief I felt at having her in the house made me feel so at ease that for the next few days I felt slightly sleepy every time I sat with her. Phuphee would make me go for a short walk every day while she watched over the children. At first I was anxious to leave them, even for a short while, but each time at the door, she would wink at me and say, ‘I have raised three successfully. I promise to guard these two with my life.’

Every morning, she would make a large breakfast. The comforting smell of ghee would waft through the whole house as she made rotis and parathas and eggs and nun chai (salt tea). She would make dodh kahwe (milk kahwa, a hot drink with cardamom, cinnamon, green tea and milk) in a large stockpot and leave it on simmer for the rest of the day, doling out the concoction every so often. Sometimes, she would add a few strands of saffron to it or crushed almonds and dates. Each cup was a balm for every single hurt or ache I felt and with each sip the hurt receded. When I felt a little more confident in myself, I started walking to school with my elder one. The sadness, the hopelessness and the rage started to ebb away. I started to feel like myself again.

‘I feel like I am the weakest person alive right now,’ I said to Phuphee one day, while she was oiling my hair.

‘I know you do,’ she said, ‘but you are not weak. You are vulnerable, and vulnerability is not the same as weakness. Becoming a mother is a terribly hard thing. You have just spent nine months growing another human being. Then you have had to cut that human being out of your body and now you are expected to keep that human being alive with food from your body. It’s not just a baby who was born, a mother was born, too. Who you were before the birth has been completely destroyed, decimated.

‘The odd thing is that this is probably the only role in the world where you are annihilated and yet you are expected to rejoice in the annihilation. I think sometimes after we give birth, our bodies go into mourning for the women we used to be. Maybe that is why we become so sad and angry. Accept your sadness and anger, and in the same way you would not judge another for their grief, don’t judge yourself for yours. With the birth of every baby we gain something precious, but we also lose something of ourselves.’

She talked about how in her time she hadn’t had to even boil water for the first six months after the birth of her children because she had an army of women surrounding her, a sisterhood, a village.

I sat there thinking about why I didn’t have a village. I lived a privileged life and yet I was expected, like many women I knew, to do this on my own. Where were these villages? What would happen when my daughter or nieces would decide to have babies? Who would they have?

‘What can I do? How do I help my little girl when it is her turn?’ I asked, overwhelmed by these thoughts.

‘By passing on what you know and by simply being there, by being present,’ she replied.

It is the first time I understood her wisdom immediately and not in some distant future. What had saved me was simply her presence. Her reassuring presence had allowed me to have a small but life-saving pause, much in the same way a marathon runner slows down at the drinking stop, where you can replenish yourself for the next part of the marathon. And though Phuphee was just one person, in that moment she amounted to a village, at least for me.

Saba Mahjoor, a Kashmiri living in England, spends her scant free time contemplating life’s vagaries.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.