A journalist and ‘reluctant mother’ on the icky parts of Indian parenting no one talks about

Journalist Zehra Naqvi’s debut book 'The Reluctant Mother' chronicles her personal struggles of motherhood in a world that constantly tries to define her and who she should be.

By Neha Kirpal

“Society forces you to choose. It forces you to declare that you are one thing above all others. And mostly, it expects you to declare that above everything else you are a mother. Well, I am not.”

Journalist Zehra Naqvi’s debut book The Reluctant Mother (Hay House India) chronicles her personal struggles of motherhood in a world that constantly tries to define her and who she should be. A quadruple gold medalist in journalism from Aligarh Muslim University, Zehra has written on literature, gender and socio-political issues for various national and international publications for over a decade. This candid memoir presents the personal side of her journey, the woman behind the words.

A naïve girl full of dreams, passion and romance, and largely unaware of life’s harsh realities, Zehra became a young mother in her 20s. Having been married for just a year, she broke into tears of shock, dread, dismay and wrath when she found out that she was pregnant – and not joy as is typically glorified in depictions of motherhood in pop culture. As nausea, dizziness, headaches and fatigue marked the majority of her pregnancy, her travel assignments came to an abrupt halt, and she missed going to work.

“Whoever said that pregnancy was a beautiful, wonderful, ethereal experience should definitely get their head examined,” she writes. Despite all the brainwashing that Indian couples are subject to at the beginning of their married life, she asserts that the purpose of marriage is so much more than simply having children.

Zehra Naqvi

In her own case, she went onto have a ‘normal’ delivery, she says, everything about which seemed highly abnormal to her. “Mother Nature has indeed chosen this horrendous, ghastly, third-degree torture of a path to bring babies into this world,” she comically describes.

Though filled with emotions of care, concern and protectiveness for her baby boy, Zehra did not feel love; instead, she found herself grappling with sleeplessness and exhaustion – a situation countless new mothers find themselves in, but none of whom dare to admit to their families since it goes against the ‘mother’ prototype in most cultures. In that sense, Zehra’s confessions authentically reflect the anti-climax of childbirth for millions of first-time moms.

A month after her son’s birth, her husband, Salman, moves to Delhi for work while she stays on with family in Aligarh. This makes her further feel alienated from her ideal dream consisting of a man, house and job.

Read also: Making motherhood synonymous with sacrifice is unfair to women – ‘Shakuntala Devi’ co-writer

“Being reduced to a bonded labourer without any life of my own, unable to do anything that I want to, unable to have a social life, unable to be with the man I love, unable to spare a moment for my own self,” she laments. Nevertheless, she decides to take on her new role more as a duty towards God.

After 10 months of living apart from her husband, she finds that he has procured a much coveted visa to work in Oman. While initially the plan is for Zehra and her son to follow soon, weeks grow into months and three whole years, and they continue to live apart. This becomes a cause of much friction, conflict and disillusionment in her marital life. She ends up having a kind of mental meltdown through this all, and even begins to harbour thoughts of divorce and suicide.

Meeting a psychologist makes the author realise that her situation is connected to the lack of a father figure in her own childhood. Zehra, who had lost her father at the tender age of nine, constantly seeks him out – and had subconsciously replaced him in her mind with Salman –her best friend, confidante and lover all rolled into one. Understanding this helps her sort out her relationship issues.  

Soon, things begin to look up for them. After an unsuccessful year-long stint in Oman, Salman returns to India and gets a new job with a major American multinational company. All of their shared struggles and agony finally culminate in a home – a two-bedroom flat in a high-rise building within an NCR township. Zehra also lands herself a work-from-home position at a luxury magazine, finds friends and creates a new life for herself in her new abode.

Most of all, she reconnects with her husband, and they manage to repair their somewhat estranged relationship – taking time to heal and forgive themselves and one other. She realises that real love goes through ups and downs, and doesn’t always come attached with diamond studs and gold bands; that real-life heroes handle responsibilities such as jobs, families, credit cards and parenting; and that real-life heroines don’t have fairy godmothers and magic wands.

“Real lovers rescue each other. And real love stories don’t end with a kiss and a happily ever after. They begin at ‘ever after’ and you have to keep putting the ‘happily’ back in them. Again and again,” she reasons.

Needless to say, a lot of mothers and non-mothers will connect with the book, and relate to its many situations. Even though much of the book reads like an endless though justified rant, it has several happy, light moments too. For instance, the author takes some memorable vacations with her little one – including a wildlife adventure involving an elephant ride and a speedboat ride at a beach resort. Some parts humour and most parts rage, the book is also, ultimately, about reconciliation.

Read also: ‘The most necessary stories are the ones that feel scariest to tell’ – Maya Shanbhag Lang

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