I remember when I got my first period. I was about 12-and-a-half-years-old in India. It was a random weekend afternoon, and we had extended family visiting. I went to the bathroom and let out a startled loud scream when I saw blood — a scream that had everyone come running to find out what was wrong. I had no idea what was happening to me; I legitimately thought I was dying. (Thankfully, I wasn’t.) In that moment, I was caught up in the sheer embarrassment of having to articulate something that was truly incomprehensible to me. And, here’s the kicker. There were zero well-intentioned aunties hovering around me to explain adolescence, puberty, hormonal rampages and emotional rollercoasters.
After everyone calmed down and talked in hushed tones, I got told about the operational procedures of my “monthly visitor” and what I would be expected to do during that time. I was given the option of a grand function to announce my womanhood to the world (I declined quite vocally and probably impolitely). Yet, I got no real conversations about the changes that were happening in my body, or about the consequences of these changes. There was definitely no conversation about sexual reproduction and my role in it, or about the maddening adventure my hormones would take my body and mind on. It took me the next 5 years, a migration to the United States, where puberty processes were taught in classrooms, and an advanced anatomy and physiology class for me to realize what had happened to me when I was 12 years old; what menstruation truly meant. Still, there were no well-intentioned aunties with their best tips on navigating adolescence, giving me what would have been welcome advice at the time. There was nothing but a blanket of silence.
Our Indian heritage treats discussions about puberty, menstruation, bodily changes, hormonal impulses, and sexual reproduction as taboo topics. To some extent, this is true of our communities here in America. But childbirth is somehow magically everyone’s business, one open to all for advice, critique and judgment, as long as “good intentions” are declared.
We don’t have conversations with our teenagers about what adolescence truly entails. We expect them to focus on studies, to refrain from dating and definitely from any sort of sexual experiments. Yet from the moment a couple gets married, they are constantly peppered with blessings, questions, advice and best practices on “family planning.” This starts right at the wedding altar, leading to the overdramatized “first night” business. Every subsequent family function after that inevitably includes conversations around when the couple is going to have babies; always multiple. If a couple doesn’t “produce” within the first couple of years of their marriage, people start questioning their childbearing capabilities. Usually, the brunt of this falls on the woman.
When a couple finally does have a child, they don’t even receive the courtesy of a recovery period before being bombarded with more family expansion questions. Nobody seems interested in allowing them the privacy that is warranted in the matter. But why is this anybody’s else’s business? And why aren’t people realizing how utterly gross and invasive this whole line of thought is? It’s as if people have conveniently forgotten that asking someone about their reproductive activities is really asking them, “How is your sex life?”
I wonder whether we’ve repressed ourselves on the matters of human sexuality and development so much that being able to talk about someone’s sex life in such an obtusely roundabout, public, and invasive way gives us some kind of perverse satisfaction. We aren’t open about the reproductive problems and issues we should be talking about. Women are prone to reproductive difficulties due to PCOS, uterine fibroids, endometriosis, amenorrhea and other conditions, but I don’t see group discussions about those in social settings. In fact, most of us diagnosed with these conditions find out only after our diagnoses that reproductive complications run in our families. Nobody bothers to warn us about these conditions, their reality, or about the emotional toll they take on us.
Asian-American women are nearly twice as likely to die from pregnancy related complications. Where is the well-intentioned advice about the possibility of embolisms and hypertension? Up to a quarter of women who experience pregnancy will also experience the brutal pain of a miscarriage, with about 1 percent experiencing multiple consecutive ones. Where are those conversations?
How many of us who do have children don’t even want to think about subsequent reproduction and childbirth because of the emotional and internal hell we experience because of a systemic, cultural lack of obstetric support in recovery, the silent sufferings of postpartum depression, and the legitimate concern that having more children might destroy us mentally and physically?
And this is only on the women’s side. What about infertility and other sexual health problems among Indian American men? I imagine people’s heads might literally explode if this topic were brought up in a conversation. Getting Indian-American men to open up about their sexual health might be less likely than a NASA probe to Pluto at this point in time. Somehow, though, glorifying childbirth and pressuring people into making difficult decisions — while not having substantive conversations about any of this — seems to be a perfectly acceptable sociocultural norm.
After I was married, the entire value of my existence seemed to revolve around how quickly I could produce a child out of this brand-new marriage, into which I hadn’t even fully transitioned. Every puja or Indian family function required me to dodge pointed questions about when I was going to get pregnant. When I had a devastating miscarriage that completely derailed my life, I was politely and lovingly urged to get over it and keep trying. That was the extent of the emotional support I got on that matter. Then I had a child, and conversations about she needed a sibling started when she was just four or five hours old. I hadn’t yet come out of the drug-induced haze of painkillers, and I was fielding questions about when I was going to have another one.
As I chuckled outwardly, and answered the questions with a grimace, the only thought in my mind was that I needed more morphine. Even now, after a severe and silent journey through postpartum depression, and two more miscarriages, as I teeter (quite gracefully, in my opinion) on the brink of the daily insanity that comes with having a precocious 4-year-old, I deal with questions about why I am waiting to give my child the gift of a sibling.
And here is my elegantly crafted answer to that: Ew! Go away.