Urvashi Sarkar APRIL 25, 2020

Bringing a child into the world in 2020, when parenting is paranoia and the shape of the future is hard to imagine

The paediatrician’s waiting room was unusually crowded.

Parents and grandparents sat on narrow benches, cradling infants. The sounds of coughing and sniffling, mostly from adults, rang through the room. Some wore face masks — cloth, synthetic or rayon, whatever they had been able to get their hands on. Others had given it a miss. A young man stepped out of the waiting room with his toddler son twice, to cough. It was late March and fears of the novel coronavirus were spreading fast.

My own persistent cough convinced me that I needed to wear a mask — at least in the presence of my daughter, six weeks old, who had developed a mild temperature the previous night. It had passed, but was enough for her grandmother to decide that it warranted a visit to the paediatrician.

When we went inside, the paediatrician — an elderly woman — was also sniffling. She wore no mask. “I should be wearing a mask…but you know…” she trailed off.

Once I was satisfied that my daughter’s short bout of fever was not serious, I asked if I could breastfeed her, given my cough.

“You can,” she replied. “But don’t talk to her while you do.”

Masked motherhood

Not talk to my newborn? Not sing lullabies, utter gibberish, or babble words of love? That didn’t seem possible. And so, the mask stayed on my face while I sang to her, burped or changed her. Practising ‘social distancing’ or ‘physical distancing’ was anything but easy; the very idea of it went against my need to hold, cuddle and comfort my infant.

Days after our paediatrician visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the shock announcement of a national lockdown from March 25 to prevent the spread of coronavirus. My first concern was whether it would be possible to take my daughter for her vaccination, which was due the very next day.

True to my fears, the paediatrician had shut her clinic without notice. When I called her, she told me that as an elderly woman, she could not risk exposure to the virus. My husband and I panicked. Our daughter’s vaccination had already been delayed once because she was underweight. We dreaded delaying it any further. After a number of frantic calls, we found a doctor who was willing to meet us and administer the vaccine at a hospital.

Inside the hospital lobby, we were greeted with the sight of a policeman wearing a mask and a handful of patients, including a profusely coughing old man. My husband and I were instructed to sit separately. Hospital staff glanced at our heavily swaddled infant curiously. “Don’t bring your baby to the hospital if you can help it. Hospitals are one of the most infectious places for children to be, especially now,” one of them told me.

My daughter was born in a suburban Mumbai hospital in late January; her wails and cries marking her arrival in the world a few days before expected. She had just about made it to a normal birth weight. I began adjusting to the tiny little person in my life, tailoring my clock to hers, teaching myself to interpret her cries and body language. As I struggled to breastfeed her and my daughter’s weight dipped, I fretted and worked myself into a state of worry. When later, her cheeks fattened up and belly grew rounded, I laughed with relief. I was learning to be a mother.

Fearful whispers

By February, the first whispers of the novel coronavirus were being heard. As the murmurs about a seemingly remote illness grew into a din which could not be ignored, I willed myself to believe, like many others, that India would somehow escape this wild contagion.

But it was not to be. We could no longer ignore that the virus was going to hit India as badly, even as the government continued to be in denial, like most of us.

And as I watched my little girl wriggle and demand to be fed, oblivious to all else, a sense of terror descended on me.

If first-time motherhood is to learn a world of things all at once, a major realisation is that being a mother is to assume the role of primary caregiver and principal protector of your child, notwithstanding love and attention from other family members and their crucial support in child rearing. Therefore, when coronavirus struck, I became aware of a special responsibility towards securing my daughter’s health and well-being.

How was I going to protect her from this alien, wildly contagious infection for which there was no known cure?

I began to limit her interaction with the outside world, cancelling her naming ceremony and requesting family and friends to defer their visits to meet my daughter. At home, I became a gatekeeper, interrogating family members who needed to step out. If motherhood meant being protective, Corona took my protectiveness to another level, possibly of paranoia.

When my husband and I had talked about whether we wanted to be parents, we had worried that the world was a deeply violent place with hate, discrimination and intolerance on the rise everywhere.

Cities were increasingly unliveable, social and economic security were the privilege of a few, while nuclear weapons and climate change — mediums of mass destruction — presented permanent threats to humanity.

I spent the latter half of my pregnancy watching the news on television with dread, as the Indian government changed its citizenship laws, mounted brutal attacks on university students and minorities, and public discourse donned ugly colours of hate and venom.

A fraught future

Why had we decided to bring a child into the world? Was it because we were reasonably confident of providing for the needs of another human being? Had we succumbed to social expectations? Thick in the era of COVID-19, I am aware of another underlying reason: it was the idea that we could reasonably predict a certain life trajectory to our child, albeit with caveats.

But now, no previously made calculations about the future hold. We find ourselves at a loss of terms and language in which to imagine a future for her. Right now, we possess neither the understanding nor the ability to anticipate the shape of a post-corona world. If the socioeconomic and environmental inheritance of our generation stood on shaky ground, the world in which my daughter and her generation will grow up promises to be only more uncertain and fraught.

As my daughter nears the three-month mark, I am aware that her name is yet to be registered in the city’s municipal records. She is yet to see the colour of the sky or feel the fresh breeze on her face. Instead, we are closeted at home, caring for a little human being who was born in a year of raging pandemic but whose frequent wails and unexpected smiles still govern our lives even under lockdown.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.