My first experience in international development was as a Masters student at Tufts University’s Food Policy and Applied Nutrition Program. For three months, I interned in a community nutrition program in Siraha, Nepal. There, I met a Community Health Facilitator (CHF) who worked for an international NGO, leading a community-based nutrition program for women and their children. I still remember her face, but not her name. She was twenty-four years old, the same age I was at the time I was there, and a mother of two children. I had the opportunity to visit her in her home. She lived with her in-laws and her husband was working in the fields.
Ten years later, I am the mother of two children and have continued to work in international development. I think of her often. Did she have more kids? She was married at age 18. I thought she was an amazing woman. She was a mother, who also performed important work outside her home, educating other mothers, specifically new mothers, and their children. I wasn’t sure if she realized that she was making a difference, but I saw it as a valuable job.
Since becoming a mother and confronting my own challenges juggling work and motherhood in the United States, I have come to understand firsthand the following lessons of international development:
1) Numerous studies show that money in the hands of women is more likely to go toward the well being of their children. I understand exactly why now. After becoming a mother, my priorities completely shifted. My children’s needs are always met first, whether it is to buy diapers, food, clothes, and toys, or enrolling my daughter in an art or dance class. I comprehend now why income-generating activities are directed at women. It really made sense to me now why development organizations see women as important agents for economic progress. Furthermore, the positive and active role an empowered mother has in caring for her family, the better role model she is for her children, specifically young girls.
2) Maternal health is critical during the baby’s first year of life. I was aware how tiring becoming a new mother would be, but did not know how tiring breastfeeding would be. I am amazed that these women are able to breastfeed, which is so energy intensive and mentally exhausting, while doing such labor intensive work as farm work.
Articles in US magazines always highlight taking care of oneself as a new mother, but I wonder about these women in poorer households, taking care of several kids, meeting the needs of a husband, mother-in-law, extended family, and also working outside the home. How do these women manage to care for themselves and their newborns when they have so many responsibilities other than their children, and live in households where food is often inadequate? Usually these mothers eat last and there is not enough food for them.
It takes a village to raise a child. It really does. This clichéd statement has so much truth to me after becoming a mother and raising a child in another country away from the extended relatives. In the United States, my parents built communities of similar people and joined associations. Now I understand why. These friends that my parents always socialized with on weekends and who came over on weekends substituted for the extended family that we left back home in India. With constant exposure to different families and people, it was an education in itself for the new mother. There is an immediate and constant source of advice to assuage the concerns. With lots of people around, the responsibility of raising a child does not fall on one person alone. Here, being alone, we think about our life pre-baby, while at the same time thinking about concerns of the baby due to lack of experience. Yes, we have the Internet for information, but it is not a substitute for face-to-face conversation. Joint families, which may at times seem overbearing, can actually be really beneficial to a new mother in theory. A new mother may actually have the opportunity to rest while an extended family member helps to cook, clean and take care of her baby. Any new mother without a support network knows how difficult it is to get any sort of rest or break from a newborn baby. In India, new mothers spend about two months at her mother’s house before delivery and then two months after. They are kept in isolation with the belief that they should rest. Going to India when my first child was six months old, there was a steady flow of guests, all interacting with the baby and many hands holding the baby.
Ironically, being a new mother can be lonely even when you have a new baby around 24/7. Having people around prevents a mother from thinking negative thoughts. A study on postpartum depression on South Asian women in America in 2007 confirmed that several cultural factors may explain why a greater number of Indian American women experience postpartum depression. They study says, “South Asian women – particularly newer immigrants – may be at a risk for postpartum depression, because of difficulties adjusting to a new culture, loneliness, isolation, and the lack of a traditional Indian support system.” The existence of family and a social support network are key components in preventing depression.
The term “maternal and child health” for me is now based on personal experience rather than just classroom learning and observations in the field. It has made me reflect on the importance of community support, self-care, and maternal instincts in new ways. These are my thoughts after having my first child four years ago.
Deepa Shanadi (Bhat), an AIF Fellow in 2002, was placed with Karuna Trust, B.R. Hills Karnataka. She currently carries out evaluation of health and education projects at the Research and Evaluation Bureau at Kent State University. She can be contacted at email@example.com
 Sohrabji, Sunita, “Postpartum Depression: South Asian Women Suffer in Silence,” India West, March 9, 2012.