‘It felt like I was being pulled apart, bone by bone’ - Kanya D’Almeida
Exploring the darker side of becoming a mother with Kanya D’Almeida
Becoming a mother is a blessing. A sentiment ardently affirmed and celebrated in society, and especially in Sri Lankan culture.
What if there is another story? A more painful, dark, and sometimes hidden story?
When Kanya D’Almeida made headlines, after being selected as the Regional Winner for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her story titled I Cleaned The—, and we sat down for a hour-long chat across from each other, with our laptop screens serving as appropriate social distancing, the conversation took on a life of its own. Kanya wasn’t allowed to divulge too much about the prize-winning submission until it is officially released by the Commonwealth (which will happen on 1 June), but this didn’t seem to pose a problem. We spent our time exploring lesser-talked-about aspects of motherhood instead, a topic very close to Kanya’s heart.
Kanya is a writer whose fiction has appeared in Jaggery and The Bangalore Review. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
A means of escape
The regional winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize were announced on 12 May, and the overall winner will be announced at an online awards ceremony on 30 June.
What we do know about Kanya’s short story is that it is a fictional tale about a woman who spent 20 years cleaning human waste, who describes her life to a spinster in a home for “forsaken women”. The story itself was born out of Kanya’s own experience with domestic help, living in Sri Lanka, something she relied on a lot as a new mother. Caught between a husband who didn’t understand this aspect of a privileged Sri Lankan life and a family for whom domestic help was a very normal and unremarkable part of life, Kanya delved into her short story, finding a means of escape, and evidently a prize-winning submission.
“I didn't write the story thinking I was going to submit it to the Commonwealth,” shared Kanya. “I just wanted to get through the piece.” She was shocked by early motherhood. “The reason I was so shocked was because I had not been told the right stories. I had known my mother's story, and she loved every minute of motherhood, especially in the early stages, and I never thought to ask anybody else. I'd seen so many aunts, cousins, and friends go through this and they all seemed fine.”
Kanya’s experience of becoming a mother was a difficult one, to put it simply. She felt alone in it. When it was her time, the stories she’d been told didn’t quite make sense. She wasn’t given the autonomy she desired – a vaginal birth without medical interventions or pain relief – at the private hospital she chose for her delivery. She felt like she was a mere product being sent through a process filled with a lack of sensitivity to her particular request to keep things as natural as possible with respect for her own body’s instincts.
Just like all healthcare consumers, pregnant women have the right to make autonomous decisions about their medical care, save for instances when there is a risk to the foetus or the mother. “To this day, I'm not convinced that there was any medical necessity for me to induce my labour,” shared Kanya in the podcast episode titled “Smiling While Pushing”, in which she converses with own mother about her vastly different (and pleasant) experience of childbirth.
An authentic space for storytelling
“Birth trauma” is distress experienced by a mother during or after childbirth. While trauma can be physical, it is often emotional and psychological as well. Birth trauma is not just about what happened during labour and the birth. It can also refer to how a mother is left feeling afterwards.
After her trauma endured during childbirth, Kanya was thrown into a different kind of challenge. “I landed in this pit of depression, confusion, and anxiety; really not knowing what to do with myself and with this newborn child, and I was so angry about that,” said Kanya, adding that her anger was fuelled by the fact that the more traumatic stories pertaining to childbirth and motherhood hadn’t been shared with her, and also angry that she hadn’t sought them out.
Once she started her podcast right after childbirth, Kanya realised that she wasn’t alone in this particular experience. Her podcast features other Sri Lankan women telling their stories in the most candid way, something else that is close to Kanya’s heart. When working as a journalist in the US for two reputed media organisations – Inter Press Service news agency and Rewire News, the latter at which she was brought in as a race and justice reporter, Kanya, while enjoying the immense scope of practical and useful knowledge she gained, became aware of the limitations of storytelling in journalism, owing mainly to word count, time, and marketing concerns. With her podcast, she has found a space to really tell stories the way she wants to; raw and from the voice of the storytellers themselves.
“I think as storytellers or artists – whatever you want to call us – there’s a responsibility to create space for people to tell their own stories in their own words,” Kanya elaborated, adding that this was one of the reasons she chose the form of a podcast; an audio format where people can literally speak in their own voices. She didn’t want her own perceptions and her way of seeing the world to cloud anything. “I feel very strongly about that. I feel that that is one of the big boundaries of class and privilege that we need to shatter.”
The stories she shared while conversing with and connecting with the women in the podcast, are not the stories we typically hear of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. These are the stories women aren’t encouraged to share. “They’re out there, floating around in scraps and whispers. This podcast is an attempt to gather the pieces,” Kanya said in her podcast.
Kanya’s currently working on a book of short stories about what she calls “mad women” – women who are “not sitting nicely and neatly inside the box”.
What makes a good mother?
Kanya was honest enough to admit that perhaps there is no such term, only people who are “striving to” be good moms, and better versions of themselves each day. “I think the only way to do that really is by looking at generational trauma. We are who we are because of what we have experienced in life.”
She added: “I also want to say that I think we’re living in a society that is not well. Capitalism has, in a lot of ways, made us unwell. We are completely alienated from anything that allows us to live in a truly healthy manner. We’re cut off from nature, we’re cut off from feeling a sense of joy in work because most people are having to work for a living, and we’re cut off from larger family structures that existed before. As a result, we’re all unwell, in many ways. So, I think the burden on a mother becomes amplified by that, because that is the purest form of a human relationship – the one with a newborn child. Children don’t know what world they have been born into.” Kanya feels that this pressure and responsibility is greater on mothers who have to ask themselves the all important questions that others may not have to ask.
“I personally advocate for a massive and radical transformation of our entire society as the only way to support mothers, because the system is rotten at a very fundamental level,” said Kanya.
At the very least, according to her, there has to be much greater support for women in their first year of pregnancy, and in the first three years after they have given birth. “I'm talking about paid family support for parents and caregivers who are at home with their children if that's what they choose to do.” She also thinks that a revaluing of the work mothers do is important. Likening a mother’s role to be as important as the role of a CEO of a company, she shared: “Part of the problem is that we do not value this work of raising a child. I feel like this should be highly paid work because it's highly skilled work. I have to be so creative as a mom. I have to have so much energy, running behind my child every day, I have to come up with so many different ways to keep this child fed and entertained and healthy.”
Kanya finds moments of delight and laughter in motherhood and raising her son, who is now two years old. “More than enjoying it, I appreciate this challenge of re-thinking myself every day,” she detailed, adding that interacting with a child is predominantly about being with a small human who hasn’t been socialised to the world in the way we have, so there’s absolute honesty in all of their emotions. When there’s laughter, there’s pure laughter, but when there’s sadness, there’s pure sadness. “So you're on this roller coaster, and you have to find ways to keep an equilibrium which I never put a lot of thought or effort into. I never put effort into meditation and into self-care in the truest sense of the word – which is trying to sit quietly with yourself and keep your own ego and your own emotions at bay, long enough to get through the day with this person who has neither of those things. I appreciate that. He forces me to try to find some sense of stability and put my ego aside.”
You can find The Darkest Light on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Buzzsprout, and Stitcher.
Originally published in The Morning