By Mary Anne Williams
At thirty weeks pregnant, my daughter’s rhythm against my drumtight belly is strong enough to wake me now. Usually, I drift back to sleep. Tonight, however, I hear the heavy footsteps of my Indian mother-in-law above me; I am in the basement of her home in Portland, Oregon. My sons call her Dadima.
I hear water boiling and can picture how Dadima slits cardamom pods with her fingernail, crushes cloves, and adds the spices to Red Rose teabags before pouring in the steaming water. She will sit in her home office, drinking her late-night cup of tea, working until her eyes begin to close.
Dadima has worked like this her whole life—she used to wake at 4:00 a.m. to make tea for her father before starting her homework. Her work ethic led her from Mumbai to New York. But it was grief that drove her even further West; after she was widowed she left the East Coast, where she had obtained three graduate degrees. She moved to Portland and started her life over.
Her home in Portland is a place of new beginnings. At nineteen, my husband and I fell in love here, in the romance of a sudden snowstorm. I had been intoxicated with the unnamed spices I smelled in his hair, his exotic middle name, my understanding of his culture.
Five years later, there was another beginning in this basement. It was the first place I stayed after my eldest son was born. Tonight it looks the same as it did then: there’s the pale blue patterned arm chair where I learned to nurse. Moonlight spills through the window the way it did the first night back from the hospital.
Inside me, my daughter nudges again. I want her to know the story of those first few weeks with my first baby, Jesse, her oldest brother. She is the only one of my children who may give birth to a child someday. And if she chooses this glorious burden, she too will have to swim amidst the judgment and support of other women, the expectations of her cultures.
Someday, when I tell my daughter the story, I will reassure her. Even though the tension from my difficult labor and postpartum period nearly tore Dadima and me apart, the darkest times can be overcome. If they try, people can heal and learn to understand each other. I will tell my daughter about a recent time when Dadima stayed with us, in our home in California:
Dadima and I were sitting in the playroom rocking chairs, side by side. The room was encircled by windows, and that evening the sun was setting, leaving pink wisps of cloud in a purple sky. My second son, Boman, was screaming while my husband put him to bed.
“Why does he scream like that?” Dadima asked me. “What’s wrong?” For a moment, I felt the familiar tension in my neck—I remembered how she used to ask me so many questions after Jesse was born, questions I couldn’t begin to answer. But I have more confidence now, so I took a breath and told her the truth: there is always something else Boman wants before bed—more milk, another book, one more chance to pee—and when it is denied and bedtime is final, he screams. At last, he collapses, snuggles up to the offender and his long-lashed eyes flutter closed.
I expected a lecture about how we should stop Boman from screaming, but instead Dadima just laughed. “KK was just like that!” she said, speaking of her youngest brother. “There was always some drama. He was always screaming about something. And just imagine in India—the neighbors would come to the door, giving advice. Not that anything they said made one diddle of a difference!”
I started laughing, too; I could picture the scene so well.
I love the sound of our laughter together.
* * *
When my husband and I found out we were expecting our first baby, I couldn’t have pictured how Dadima’s neighbors would line up to give advice about a wayward child. I didn’t understand Indian culture or even American culture and did not follow the typical approach of either culture to a new baby’s birth. According to the oldest relative in my husband’s family, an Indian daughter traditionally returns to her mother’s home for the final weeks of pregnancy and the postpartum period. Her mother gives her all of the guidance necessary in the early weeks of the baby’s life.
Meanwhile, in my experience of American culture, the woman is isolated in her own home. She receives short visits from friends and family, and occasional meal deliveries. No one wants to disrupt her bonding time with her baby, or give too much advice. It’s assumed—sometimes falsely—that she wants space. I was guilty of this assumption. When a close friend had a baby before I did, I didn’t call for weeks after the initial congratulations, worried I would disrupt her. Later, she told me the isolation made her depressed.
My husband and I were both graduate students that summer our eldest was due. Although we were settled in California during the school year, we chose to return to Portland, Oregon, our hometown, for Jesse’s arrival. We hoped to be surrounded by old friends and family who would care for us. My own parents had moved from Portland several years before, so we stayed with Dadima. No grandmother was more thrilled to have her first grandchild under her own roof. She even offered to host my parents after the baby was born, so all the grandparents could enjoy their first grandchild together.
In the first several years my husband and I had dated, I tried to impress Dadima. During the summer, I returned to Portland and worked in her massive garden. Surrounding her house on all sides, Dadima’s garden is magical: filled with berries for neighborhood children, unique flowers, vegetables and rose bushes planted in memory of her husband. During those same early years in our relationship, Dadima remodeled her basement, perhaps as a way of gaining a roommate after her son left home. She created a small apartment there, complete with its own bathroom, kitchenette, and an enormous window that filled the dark basement with sunlight. That summer, I spackled walls by Dadima’s side, squished paint-filled sponges into the cement floor and rolled light gold paint on the walls of the new bedroom.
Despite my attempts to please her, I didn’t feel Dadima fully approved of me. It was subtle, mostly in the form of rumors. I heard she thought my clothes were too tight, that I lacked the ambition of her family. Still, Dadima was friendly to my face, even telling me I should live in the basement apartment during the following summer. When trying to decide about this offer, I opened the curtain of the basement window. Dadima had planted pansies that climbed down the window-well. It felt like you were living in a hill of purple flowers. I stayed—not just that first summer, but several more. She refused to take any payment from me. The basement became my home within her home. It was the space I wanted for Jesse’s arrival.
I assumed we would stay in the basement apartment throughout my pregnancy and postpartum period. But Dadima had another plan. “In India, we don’t let pregnant women go up and down the stairs,” she said. “I want to give you my own room.” Dadima had a sunny bedroom on the main floor, next to a bathroom, but the bathroom would be shared with anyone else who stayed in the home, including her and my parents that summer. I assured Dadima that I could use the railing when climbing and descending the stairs and that I would be much more comfortable in the basement apartment with my own bathroom, but it seemed she had an unwritten list of reasons we shouldn’t stay there. “There are spiders down there,” she said. “What if a spider bites the baby?”
I was puzzled at her sudden resistance—I had stayed in the basement many times in the five years prior. I couldn’t understand why it was no longer acceptable. Once, when I was first dating my husband, one of his friends had given me a piece of advice about Dadima: “Choose your battles, but remember if she pushes you and you don’t agree, push back harder,” he said. “She just wants to see how much you really want it.” So I pushed back—I wanted that basement apartment. Dadima promised me everything I asked for. When we drove up to Oregon I was confident in my success.
* * *
Dadima’s late husband Robi was orphaned when he was sixteen. When Dadima and Robi married they were isolated in upstate New York. After my husband was born, Dadima spent long hours working on her dissertation while Robi watched the baby—there were no trusted elders around to help them. Because Dadima had no experience with in-laws herself, she was guided by the powerful hand of culture to determine the appropriate approach to a new grandchild and a foreign daughter-in-law.
I still don’t know how long it took Dadima to prepare for our arrival that summer—countless hours in the garden, gathering strawberries to make jam, pruning so every flower blossomed to its full potential. When we arrived, we entered her house through the front door. A jasmine vine climbed around it and whenever anyone passed through the doorway, Dadima would breathe in and say, “Oh, it smells like heaven!”
Inside the house, the smell of jasmine was overpowered by the scent of cooked food—Dadima must have been cooking for hours before we arrived. Cinnamon and cardamom-flavored rice, dal, greens cooked with ginger and garlic, and coconut flavored curry with tomatoes from the garden. The pale wood floors shone, the dishes were all washed, drying on thin towels on the reddish-pink granite counters. I felt a warm glow of love and appreciation for this woman who had done so much for us. But when I walked by her room, I saw the sign on Dadima’s bedroom door. Written with her beautiful cursive hand- writing, the sign welcomed my husband, the baby and me to her bedroom.
My heart started pounding. I slipped into the kitchen again and opened the door that led to the basement. I held onto the railing, trembling as I descended. My fear was confirmed: the basement apartment was filled with boxes.
* * *
My mother likes to tell a story about me as a two-year-old. In her brief absence from the kitchen I opened the fridge, climbed to the top shelf, and brought down the pale plastic pitcher of juice all by myself. But when I tried to pour it into my cup, the juice rushed to the lid, popped it off, and spilled all over the floor. I’m sure my mother scolded me, but she was also clearly delighted with my independent spirit—something valued in American culture.
Perhaps because of my parents’ respectfulness toward my desires, I was shocked when Dadima ignored my specific requests, favoring her own beliefs about my needs instead. At first, we moved into her room as she had clearly wanted. But my cheeks flamed every time she burst into the room to try to feed me more berries from her garden or another piece of toast. I felt like a child again, my “right” to make my own decisions stolen on the eve of my entrance into adulthood.
Perhaps my lack of control during that period was my introduction to motherhood. My midwife tried to warn me about my controlling tendencies. “You can’t prepare for labor,” she said. “You have to live in the moment.” She told me to stop making lists. But even she was upset when she realized I was not staying where I’d wanted to nest. “I just hope your hormones can overcome that,” she said.
Dadima’s eyes were shiny when my husband told her I wanted to stay in the basement instead of her room. “I was just trying to do the best thing for you,” Dadima said, addressing me and not him. “You can stay wherever you’d like in my home.”
I cleared out the boxes in the basement, scrubbed the shower and arranged the baby clothes on a shelf by myself—Dadima was teaching classes that week. But I was relieved to nest alone. When she was there, Dadima hovered over me when I walked down the stairs, and clucked her tongue in disapproval when I hung laundry to dry on the line.
* * *
I didn’t understand Dadima’s behavior during my first pregnancy until I was pregnant with my daughter, five years later. The revelation came when I was drinking tea with an Indian friend in her living room. The sun glared down at us through her West-facing windows while Jesse, Boman and her son played together on the tan carpet. She served my tea spiced with black pepper and my daughter kicked, perhaps tasting the flavor in her own way. Somehow my friend and I began talking about our sons’ births and it all came out—the silent battle with Dadima over where we should stay in her home. My friend burst out laughing when I told her. “Of course she didn’t want you going up and down the stairs,” she said. “In India, we don’t move at all that last month. My cousin was shocked that you were swimming in your state, but I told her that is just how you do it here.”
In the end, my daughter came out easily—all of that swimming, living in my own home, and giving birth two previous times helped my third labor proceed smoothly.
But the summer I stayed at Dadima’s house, when I was in labor with Jesse, I learned the horrible truth that so many mothers face: babies don’t always come out when they should. Instead of the homebirth I’d envisioned for Jesse, we ended up at the hospital, my husband slumped in sleep in the chair next to me. Pitocin dripped into my arm, augmenting my labor. When I cried out my husband jumped to help me. But the pain swallowed me before I could feel the comfort of his hand on my back.
Thirty-seven hours after my water broke, the doctor pulled Jesse from my body, unwrapping the cord from around his neck during the final pushes. She placed him on my chest as I requested. There are pictures of that moment, but I have no memory of it. I can only remember the emptiness—my once-hard stomach suddenly soft, the absence of Jesse’s little body inside, the deeper shock of labor that left me too tired for joy.
My first memory is seeing my husband and Jesse gazing at each other—by this time Jesse was already swaddled and quiet. Suddenly, Dadima strode in, looking younger than her sixty years, her hair jet black, skin glowing. I later learned she had sat in the waiting room all night.
I tried to protest her entrance—the doctor was still stitching between my legs.
“No one is looking at you,” Dadima said, reaching for her grandson.
At the hospital, I was the annoying patient, the one who called in the nurse at 2:00 a.m. because of a mild rash on Jesse’s chin. The nurse assured me it was nothing to worry about. I heard her chatting with another nurse outside my door afterward. “New mom,” she said. The other nurse laughed.
I couldn’t sleep that night, despite the nurse’s reassurance. Instead, I listened to Jesse breathe. He made a sound like the cooing of a dove. He never made that sound again. The second night in the hospital, he screamed. I was ready for sleep, but too terrified to let him out of my sight. When we arrived at Dadima’s house the next day, I finally fell asleep in the coolness and comfort of her familiar basement, my fingers touching the edge of Jesse’s thin cotton blanket as though the slightest connection would protect us.
When I woke, it was dark. Moonlight spilled through the window. The rest of the room was veiled in shadow. I looked into the co-sleeper next to me. My two-day-old baby was lying in a pool of black blood. I didn’t even know I could make a sound like that. It was more than a scream. The room was flooded in light—my parents and Dadima flew into the room. Dadima forced a pinch of salt under my tongue. I heard Jesse crying and suddenly I realized that what I had seen was no longer there; instead of blood in the co-sleeper, there were clean white sheets. Jesse was in my arms, crying. I was naked.
That’s when I thought I was going crazy. And deep down, I blamed Dadima.
Now I look back and wonder if the hallucination was a way of warning me that Jesse was in distress. He nursed a little bit, then slept again. I stayed awake, listening to him breathe. In the gray light of morning, he was still sleeping. I couldn’t wake him, even when I squirted creamy-gold colostrum on his full, beautiful lips. When I checked, Jesse’s diaper was dry, and it had been 12 hours since it was wet. I called the doctor, hoping for assurances, even the condescending ones of the hospital nurses. Instead, I was told to bring him in right away. I later learned that because of the massive heat wave that was sweeping the city, dehydration had been a problem for many babies.
I was one of many, but when I came to the doctor, I felt alone in my failure. Jesse was losing weight—already at the lowest he should be before he started gaining it back. I suddenly saw how sunken his dark eyes were, the pale yellow tinge of his skin, the way it didn’t spring back when pinched. The doctor recommended formula and a lactation consultant’s guidance. After failing to experience a homebirth, I didn’t want to fail at breastfeeding, too. My husband drove me to a friend’s house, a lactation consultant. My friend held Jesse under an A/C window unit until he screamed. My throat felt full listening to him wail, but this time, when he latched on I felt the tingling sensation of milk rushing to his lips. Her diagnosis was that Jesse was too hot to stay awake. Dadima’s house had no air conditioning and every time I’d nursed him there, he slept within minutes of sucking and could not get enough milk or trigger my supply to increase.
When we came back to her home, Dadima sprang into action. She called hardware stores to buy a window air conditioning unit, but all were sold out. So she started calling friends, trying to find an air-conditioned home where we could stay when the temperature climbed above 100. At last, she secured a house that belonged to a Nepali friend of hers.
In the way of many thriving communities in India, friends, nieces and nephews were constantly in and out of the house. Although I craved time alone with Jesse, it was more important that we stay in a place that was cool enough for him to learn to nurse. I tried to set myself up in a quiet bedroom at the back of the house and was poised for nursing, about to stuff my nipple into Jesse’s small mouth, when Dadima burst through the door. She was dragging one of her friend’s 20- something male nephews behind her.
“Don’t worry!” she said to me, perhaps seeing the blood that rushed to my cheeks. “He sees the neighbor nursing all the time.” I tucked my breast back into my shirt. “Come closer!” she said to the young man. “Isn’t my grandson beautiful?”
By the end of the week, Dadima had secured an air conditioner that she bought from a neighbor for double the price. But even the relief of the cool air hissing from the window unit and Jesse’s resumed excitement for nursing couldn’t make me feel better. It felt like every time Dadima gave Jesse to me, he was crying. I waited for relief from Jesse’s constant demands for milk, for my husband’s summer job to end, and for the ceaseless advice and questions from Dadima to subside. Instead, each day felt darker. The only moments I felt like myself were during my daily walks with Jesse. He snored in his carrier and I rubbed his bare feet while we drifted among the leafy elm trees near Dadima’s house. Once, when he was almost six weeks old, Jesse looked up at the elms’ green leaves as they whispered to each other. He smiled. I thought I might be happy again someday.
Dadima confronted me shortly after. She called my name, but didn’t acknowledge when I entered the kitchen from the basement stairwell. Instead, she washed dishes for a while, fluorescent lights overhead casting their jarring light into the porcelain sink. Her elbows shook when she scrubbed. I knew her fingers were cracked from the dish soap—ever since my parents left a few weeks before, she had cooked all the food and washed almost all the dishes. Each time she finished a pot, she banged it into the dish rack.
I stood behind her for a moment, Jesse sleeping in my arms. At last, she turned to face me. Her eyes were dark. “We need to talk,” she said.
When I’d tried to confront her once, she’d asked me if I wanted tea in a high voice. This time, her voice was low.
“I would never have let her hold Jesse by herself,” Dadima said.
Earlier that day, I had come upstairs to find that the same neighbors who had sold us the air conditioning unit were crowded around Jesse. Under Dadima’s supervision, it looked like the neighbors’ two-year-old daughter was preparing to hold Jesse. I had erupted and snatched Jesse from Dadima’s arms.
“How could you think that of me?” Dadima said. “I would have let her pretend, but kept Jesse in my own arms.”
“How am I supposed to know that?” I snapped. I felt the blood rush to my cheeks. I began to jiggle Jesse gently—maternal instinct or rage.
“But how could you think that of me?” she said again.
I took a deep breath, trying to calm my voice. “You don’t do what you say!” I said. “Before we came to your house this summer, you told me we could stay in your basement.” I paced across the hardwood floor. “But you cleared out your room instead. Then you said you would give us time alone with the baby. We’ve had almost none. You even promised me your nephew wouldn’t be staying here this summer. Now he is living upstairs.” Mention of him reminded me to lower my voice. But my whisper sounded harsher. “You never asked me about any of that.”
“Why would I ask you?” she sounded genuinely surprised. “I didn’t want to trouble you. I just wanted to do the best thing for you.”
* * *
By the time my second son, Boman, was born, I had become a different person. I had made it through sleepless nights, illnesses, ER visits, nineteen months of nursing and another labor. I had gained confidence as a mother, and loved to see Dadima play with both of her grandsons. There was a part of me that accepted the period surrounding Jesse’s birth had been a clash of hormones and culture; the emotional American’s desire for space and freedom battling the more supportive, but occasionally suffocating love of Indian family.
Still, it was when Boman was eight months old and Dadima picked me up from a minor cyst removal surgery that I began to truly understand Dadima’s perspective. As always, it was Dadima who was there to support me through the transition; she insisted on being there throughout my surgery and recovery period. She asked how I felt when I got in the car. I admitted it was worse than I expected.
Back when I had tried to impress Dadima, I had dreamed that someday she would open up to me. She would tell me stories of her past—her childhood in India, her romance with Robi, her struggles as a single mother after he died when my husband was only four. But as the years ticked by, she was silent. If I asked her about these early years, it would appear she didn’t hear me. Suddenly, on this drive home from my surgery, Dadima began to talk.
She told me about the scar on my husband’s stomach, a long horizontal line that I have run my finger over countless times. Their pediatrician had claimed my husband had pyloric stenosis. In these cases, the pyloric sphincter doesn’t close properly, so the baby vomits up any consumed milk. Dadima didn’t remember those symptoms, but she remembered how stupid the doctors made them feel. When my husband was two weeks old, the doctors promised her there would be no scar and took him for surgery. In the end, the surgeons cut him open, leaving a scar so intimidating on an adult that I can’t even imagine how it looked on a two-week old baby. The trauma of leaving a newborn in NICU was not the end of their ordeal; Dadima and Robi didn’t have the money to pay for this surgery.
In that moment, I suddenly understood why Dadima seemed so unfamiliar with newborns, why she hovered over me, wrote us generous checks, came and stayed with us during these times of transition no matter what we said. Her own postpartum experiences had been even worse than mine—she must have blocked many of the memories. But she could remember her needs. She was trying to give me everything she did not have—a loving support network, financial help, and most of all, a wise elder woman who could coddle, cook, and teach during these challenging moments.
* * *
This time, when I am pregnant with my daughter, we arrive at Dadima’s home to visit. Jesse and Boman run into the garden, picking blueberries from the bushes, laughing with delight. As usual, Dadima has cleared out the basement, and washed every set of sheets in the house.
I hug her, feeling a rush of love for her extraordinary generosity, for never holding a grudge against me even when she has seen my worst side.
“Thank you,” I say. “Everything looks beautiful.” I don’t respond to her unspoken offer of her room. She knows I will choose the basement. My sons know, too. They come in from the gardens, and Jesse, now four, opens the door to the basement stairway.
Dadima tells my husband to carry the bags; she wants to make sure my hands are free so I can hold onto the rail.
“Watch out for the spiders!” she says from the top of the stairwell. I look up to Dadima, and even from the basement I can see the laughter in her eyes, and in the background is the faint hissing sound of water boiling for tea.
Author’s Note: When I found out this piece had been accepted, I sent it to Dadima to see if she felt comfortable. She was incredibly supportive, and it brought us even closer together. It helped us talk even more openly about the cultural issues we still have. As for my daughter, she is now a joyful, walking ten-month-old, and while I am enjoying her babyhood, I look forward to the day when I can share this story with her.
Mary Anne Williams is a recent graduate of Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program. She lives with her husband and three young children in the Bay Area and writes about intercultural relationships and family.
Art by Elizabeth Rosen