Pragya Agarwal Masala Podcast - Soul Sutras

Pragya Agarwal Masala Podcast

Are women pressured into motherhood?

Pragya Agarwal is on Masala Podcast, the top feminist podcast and favourite podcast for women

I’m so delighted to have Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast. Pragya is a behavioural and data scientist, is a two-time TEDx speaker and has appeared on many media platforms. She is the author of three high-acclaimed non-fiction books. I particularly love her book ‘(M)otherhood – which is the theme I wanted to explore.

I’ve read some of Pragya’s writing & she has that rare honesty while talking about motherhood. The beautiful bits and the complicated bits of being a mother. Together, Pragya and I explore some interesting nuances around motherhood. We talk about society’s obsession with all women being mothers & also what motherhood looks like in the world today.


Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast: Transcript

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala podcast. The Spotify original, an award-winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, sex, sexuality periods, mental health, menopause, shame and many more taboos. Join me around my virtual kitchen table as I talk with some inspiring women from around the world, exploring what it means to be a South Asian feminist today. I’m talking to Pragya Agarwal on this episode. Pragya is a behavioural and data scientist, a two-time TEDx speaker and has appeared on many media platforms. Pragya is the author of three highly acclaimed nonfiction books. I’ve particularly loved her book Motherhood, which is the theme I’m discussing with her. I’ve read some of Pragya’s writing, and she has said rare honesty while talking about motherhood, the beautiful bits, and the complicated things. Together, Pragya and I explore some interesting nuances around being a mother. We talk about society’s obsession with all women being mothers, and also what motherhood looks like in the world today.

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
I grew up in India, so I was born there in the foothills of Himalayas. My father moved around quite a lot. I’m the eldest of three sisters. And we moved around mostly in the North of India. I grew up there I went to school. I changed schools every three years, so I don’t have very clear memories of schools or school friendships that much. And then I came here to do a master’s and a PhD is quite a young person. I had my first daughter very, very young. And I’ve written a little bit about that in my book, Motherhood and needless to say, it came as a surprise. It wasn’t something I’d planned or anticipated, and I’ve also talked about in the book, how I kind of rebelled against this idea of being the mother and in fact, a few of my school friends, we had a bet going that I would never have a child. That was seen as such a kind of a revolutionary thing, saying I don’t want to ever have children. And so then I had a child and then I fell in love with her completely and then I became a mother. So yeah, things don’t always happen. But sometimes things happen and they’re quite nice. Really lovely.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
What are the kinds of mothers you saw when you were growing up around you?

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
I saw my mother of course, that is the model of motherhood I saw, and I idolised. She was the mother who was always available. She was not working outside the home. So she was there for every need. We were really spoiled by her at times, because even if in the middle of the night, I remember if I needed a glass of water, I would just call out to my mom, and she would bring a glass of water. She was always there, constantly. We were three of us. So I don’t know, she had her hands full, really. I saw that mode as kind of a self-sacrificing mode. A person who sacrifices everything about herself to be a mother, to embody this role, to be for her children, or whom her family, her husband comes first. She was quite subservient in a lot of ways. I knew she was strong, but she didn’t say much, and she didn’t express a lot of emotions. She didn’t get angry. And I think that was the notion of womanhood that I was also given that you don’t raise your voice, you don’t get angry. Women are supposed to be tolerant and patient and sacrifice and that’s what we do. And that’s what you do.
And I saw that, and I think most of the role models around me were like that. The mothers, their identity was to be a mother. And that’s what I saw growing up. I also saw as I grew up, not when I was growing up but later on. I saw mothers who were working for other people, obviously, but had left their children behind the village to work in a place so that they could earn money and send back to them. And that really didn’t sit right with me. I also saw mothers who were sending their girls to work for other people in their homes because girls weren’t supposed to go to school, and they prioritize their boys’ education in the family and the girls were taken out to school quite young and they were working in other people’s home with them, and they came with them. And I was really upset about that, and I think it was really strange for me to see from a young age how a girl’s education wasn’t given enough priority.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
So similar to my ideas of motherhood as well when I was growing up. I grew up in India. So a lot of the things you said really resonate, so it’s the mother who’s always available. It’s the mother whose role is to fulfil the needs of her husband and her children. And almost like she didn’t exist as an identity of her own. She was a figure that kind of started into that idea of motherhood, I think.

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
Absolutely. And I think that all the Bollywood films we saw growing up were like this mom who was always there. Mother India who was patient and tolerant and hardworking and didn’t complain and didn’t mourn or didn’t winge.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
In fact, in those movies, the mother was the ultimate kind of self-sacrifice, like her whole role in that film was to just sacrifice for other people and be in pain and cry and wail. And I don’t remember ever seeing when I was growing up, certainly I’m sure it’s changed now; that she was ever excited or happy or doing anything for herself. Like her whole purpose of existence was for the children. Right?

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
Yeah. And also you saw some things bad mothers, and I say that in code. And there were these bad women who were going out shopping or who weren’t always available to the children and who weren’t sacrificing themselves and who were putting their needs and who were doing makeup or wearing nice clothes. So they were seen as bad women.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
Absolutely. And I think it’s so interesting that you say that. And I guess this stuff we don’t even think about it’s so internal, like growing up, and that’s kind of like the template of how to be a woman, isn’t it? Like it was for me growing up and I’m sure it was similar for you. And you’re like, this is a good woman, and this is a bad woman. A good woman is a good mother. A bad woman is a bad mother. And that’s so binary, right?

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
It is very binary. I know that I was given more opportunities, especially by my mom because my mother thought she hadn’t had those opportunities. And she always realized that being financially independent was kind of a way forward because she didn’t have that luxury or the privilege. She was dependent on my father. So she wanted to make sure that her daughters were educated, had a career, and were financially independent. That was all she could think of so that at least we wouldn’t be dependent on a man. But it also conflicted with the other ideas of how to be a good girl and that you’re also good girl and that you’re also supposed to fit into this model of how you’re going to be a good wife and a good mother. But you still have to work, have an independent mind and opinions and all those as well. And I think that conflict is a good way for her to think of us. But I think it created problems for me because I didn’t know what I was and where I sat and how much I was allowed to express my opinions, or how much I was allowed to be independent because there were always these boundaries that were holding me back, these limits that society, or her, or people, or families were imposing; what will people say? Those kinds of things.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
I’m really interested Pragya in how you went from there because I think we have similar backgrounds, to thinking of motherhood like you do now like what was that internal journey?

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
Yeah. It’s an interesting question. I suppose. It doesn’t happen overnight, of course. There are all these internalized beliefs, these stereotypes that we internalize as well, and we start believing in them. And even though we at some level, I knew these are not right. This is not how I want to be; you also feel ashamed for thinking like that because you think this is not the right way to be. Everybody’s like that. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I fit into this mould? There must be something wrong with me that I want more than this. Right? And I think wanting more is not a good thing for a woman because you shouldn’t want so much more. You have everything. Why aren’t you happy with what you have?
So I suppose it was a gradual journey of learning, baking these internalized beliefs, finding myself. It sounds like such a cliche, but I had to unlearn a lot of trauma and pain as well. And I suppose there were times when I didn’t realize that I had undergone all these things because you normalize them, they normalize them as well. We think this is what it is, and this is how it’s supposed to happen. We don’t realize the impact it has on you as a person and how you can pass on some of those internalized pain and trauma to your children as well. I suppose over time, I’ve had to really dig deep and reflect on them and sit with that discomfort at times because it’s so uncomfortable to think of ourselves, like I made this mistake because this happened to me but it’s still my responsibility to not be like this and to not pass it on. So reading a lot, trying to always question and challenge what I’m told, I suppose that’s always been there since I was a child. And one day you realize it’s okay to do that. It’s okay to question and challenge. It’s actually a good thing. And you also realize these are the kinds of things I want my children, my daughters to have. Why am I not modelling those behaviours in myself, you know, that also happens at one stage. So it’s a journey.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
It is. I agree 100%.

I made the decision many years ago that I didn’t want children. I decided that I liked my life just the way it was minus kids. But to a lot of people, my decision was a difficult one to understand. Mothers are worshipped in my culture, in historic tales, and in folklore. Ma is a rallying cry in many Bollywood films, with heroes battling the world for the love of mum. So in that culture, to say that I didn’t have kids, didn’t want to have kids was often a tough thing to say. Over the years, I’ve grown tired of explaining why motherhood just wasn’t the right choice for me. The first reaction from people was usually one of pity. Because they assumed I couldn’t have kids. When I’d correct that assumption, it was usually horror at the fact that I hadn’t used my body for its intended purpose. And they assured me that I would change my mind. Well, I didn’t change my mind.

This is a big question, but I guess if we start thinking about it, maybe we might get the answer. Why are we as women still defined by motherhood in 2022? Why is it such a big deal?

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
It’s a good question, Sangeeta. But, I think we have to look back to where we come from. How these roles of men and women, these kinds of gender norms have been defined through history, through scriptures, through ancient philosophy and theories and I’ve done a lot of that research for my next book. Looking at a lot of data about why we are here, what has defined these kinds of norms or stereotypes for us, these behaviours, so if you look back, they were always these kinds of masculine or feminine stereotypes, right? That women are supposed to be a certain way and men are supposed to be a certain way.
We also have to acknowledge and realize that men have held power for a very long time. And so the norm becomes the maleness or the man. They also had the power and the privilege to write things, to define things, to propagate the theories and philosophy. Those are the ones who were outside in the domain talking about these things. There were also these divide setups that women were defined by the domestic domain. Men were defined by their political domain or professional domain because men were more rational and logical.
They were governed by their brains, but women were governed by their biology or women were governed by their emotions and emotions were not as reliable. And so women were confined to these domestic domains. And also there is a hint of a benevolent sexism in his because once you say the woman is ruling the domestic domain, you make them feel really empowered that they have control a power of something that you’ve got the whole domestic domain to look after. Why are you complaining? There is that kind of benevolent, there’s still sexism and misogyny in it underlying really because women are not free to choose. And there are also the stereotypes that have been imposed, that women are more nurturing and maternal, and they are more organized, and all those kinds of things and men don’t have that maternal instinct thing that we hear about again and again. That women have this maternal instinct that every woman’s destiny is to be a mother. Every woman’s choice is to be a mother, every woman can only be fulfilled if they become a mother because that’s what our inherent desire is to be. We’re told that.
So again, we internalize that belief but also if we don’t internalize that, or if we don’t conform to it, we feel ashamed and we feel there must be something wrong with me or there must be something broken with me because I don’t conform to this. So this carries on, this persists and even as we go into what we think is a very gender equal world, which is not really, we are still governed by these stereotypes and tropes. We are still governed by these beliefs that women have this inherent maternal desire. That all women’s desire and destiny, obviously it’s linked to evolutionary thing that says women should give birth so they will carry on the line and the legacy and have progenies in the blood and line and all that, and that’s how we survive. So that is their value. That is their contribution. That’s why we stigmatize menopause so much as well because once they don’t have this value, then they have no purpose in life, so I think we still carry on with that. And I think even when we think we are really gender equal, there is always this push back to push women back into those roles.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
And I think obviously, within our culture within South Asian culture, it’s a lot more intense. So obviously, you’re talking about this in the world like this is the world we’ve grown up in and this is why we are here, but South Asian societies even more so, I think. And some of the things you already touched upon, the people we see growing up around us, the kind of films that we’ve been surrounded by. Why is it so much more intense in our culture?

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
Maybe it’s a patriarchal thing. That patriarchy is so deeply rooted. I’ve also been really interested in whether we were always like this or whether there’s a Victorian influence on our culture in some ways because we were colonized and they brought these values to us or whether if society was always so much like this because I do think that gender norms were more fluid in India, these gender roles were more fluid. We also had the third gender. We also had all those kinds of things. We were working operating outside these binary divides, and they were empowered, women who were ruling and women were in the political domain.
So what happened was it because of colonization, that the Victorians brought these influences and set these patriarchal rules into our society, and they became deeply embedded because obviously, we still had the hangover of that, and we still believe that what happened was often people believed that it was for the good. And although you know what colourism and all those things, yes, hierarchy existed, but I think it was caste-based hierarchy. If you look very, very in the past in India and Indian scriptures, saying that yes, if you look at Indian scriptures, there is misogyny in quite deeply invented. There is misogyny in terms of how menstruation was dirty. And if a man came in contact with a woman who was bleeding, they would be ostracized or whatever, this kind of stigmatized and that’s really bad for him and all those kinds of things. So women’s bodies were always seen as something that unsightly and they to hide away. So I think it is a very deeply patriarchal society. Things have changed quite a lot. And if you’ve watched the films on Netflix, I’m sometimes amazed by like, wow, in India, but it’s still until very recently, or even in some parts of India boys are desired a boy child, and girl children are not desired. And there’s celebrations when you have a boy, there’s no celebration. And even mourning, some people mourn when they have a girl child. So from the moment a child is born, or even before they’re born, these things come into play and a girl is born knowing that they are the second choice.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
And I guess even if no one says that to us, we know that from the way people around us react to us and whether that’s things like menstruation, whether when you’re told you’ve got to hide away in certain households as we know you know, even now girls aren’t allowed to enter the kitchen or come into contact with the men in their family when they’re menstruating. And even in some families, like you said, in maybe in smaller towns or other parts of South Asia where when a girl is born that’s like a sad thing. Oh my God, we’ve got this burden now. How are we going to find money for her dowry, etc. Whereas a boy is considered or he’s going to bring in money versus a girl is going to take away money, I think from us. So I suppose that is quite deeply entrenched in a lot of parts of our culture.

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
It is. I mean, there’s also these roles that men are supposed to look after the women, that men are stronger. We know violence against women happens and we know that women are more vulnerable, women and girls are more vulnerable in that way. So parents worry about them. So you always feel you’re always told if there’s a boy or a man, they have more freedom because they are not as vulnerable and so they are going to look after you. I know growing up as three sisters.
People would look at us with pity. It’s like oh, you don’t have a brother, what has happened, who’s going to look after you, who’s going to marry you off? Who’s going to look after your parents when they’re older? And I used to get so angry. I used to tell my dad; I am your son. I didn’t have to be a son, I can just be his daughter but still be the same, you know? But there were these very strong rules against son and daughters, what they were supposed to do.
Yes, daughters are married off. They go to other people’s house. So from a very young age, they know you belong to somebody, you’re not your own person. You belong to your father; you belong to your husband’s family. Who are you as a person? I think those kinds of things are changing. Yes, of course changing, but those things matter about how a person sees themselves as well.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
And even I guess, South Asian men’s attitudes because I read this in one of the articles you were quoted, and I think about that kind of sense of patriarchy, that kind of sense of men being better than women carries on. I think it starts in childhood where maybe our parents or neighbours or relatives pass on those messages and then men internalize them, and they carry that on that somehow we as South Asian women are lesser than. The men have a slightly higher social hierarchy. And that continues as well, I think.

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
This sense of entitlement. I think a boy is born knowing they were wanted and desired. And that carries a sense of entitlement. So it is the same thing here. When we talk about racism, or we talk about whiteness being the norm is the same as somebody knowing that they are the majority, that they are the norm, that they’re desired and wanted. And so that privilege, that entitlement gives us a sense of self-assurance and confidence. The way they’re treated, the way I still see in lots of families. Boys are not supposed to do any work or chores around the house, and they are treated like almost put on a pedestal and they see the women and even the sisters running around and being treated differently.
Unless we educate boys and men in a way that they understand that they have a responsibility because of that privilege, that this entitlement they have they can leverage it to actually create a more equal world rather than just sit with their entitlement. Things are not going to change, and I think some men are doing that but still it takes time to get over that sense of that. And that once men also learn that they are stronger, and they have to look after their sisters or other women. They also get the message that they can harm other women as well that they’re stronger, they can overpower them. They can inflict violence, they can suppress them, they can get their own way.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
I see this as well even with my own kind of extended family cousins from Kerala, which is supposed to be matrilineal society, but I don’t quite know what happened to it. But you know what the expectation is that if there’s if there are sort of young boys in the room, and there are women that the boys don’t get up and do anything, it’s like they expect the women to bring them things. And this carries on. These are educated, you know, liberal, young men, but I think this kind of conditioning runs so deep that they don’t even realize it doing it. They just do that. They just think that’s the norm without ever questioning it.

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
Yeah, that’s true. And sometimes they feel oh, I can’t be the only one doing it or baking this because I am supposed to be manly, and I’m supposed to be the man and so they have to conform to the manly stereotypes as well. But sometimes they don’t realize it.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
Something I want to talk about personal to me, so I chose not to have children. So early on in my 30s or late 20s. I decided that that’s not what I wanted to do. I am still explaining to people why I chose that, what 20 something years later, this assumption that as women, we are all supposed to have children. It’s so deeply ingrained. It doesn’t matter how liberal somebody is it doesn’t matter whether they’re from India or grew up in the West. The assumption is you are a woman; therefore you will have a child it used to really annoy me and that I stopped getting annoyed because how many times you’re going to get annoyed. This idea that we must have children in order to be women to fully be a woman. This idea that otherwise we’re not really fulfilling our purpose in the world is so deep. It always makes me question like no one asks a man that no one goes up to a man and says, Oh, have you had a child, if you haven’t had a child, why did you not have a child? Where does this come from?

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
I’m so sorry you get that Sangeeta because it annoys me so much. It annoys me because even with children, my birth and my value is not associated to just being a mother. Yes, I talked about being a mother. And yes, motherhood is a big part of my life. But I’m not just a mother and I’m not being defined by just my children. The only thing that people talk to me about is my children. I get annoyed about that as well. And I’m sorry that people are still doing this, asking questions because I think there are a few things as I said before, the notion that all women have this inherent desire to have children and so they think that if you’re not doing that, then maybe you don’t know your mind, that you would change your mind, that give it time you will come around it.
There’s also this notion that women don’t know their mind sometimes. Let me tell you what you think, and you want. You want what you want. So, that’s also the perception that she doesn’t really know when she’s too young or you’re just young you don’t know it yet. Or you will want them one day and maybe it will be too late by then and then this creates this panic inside women. Oh gosh, what if it’s too late? And then what am I going to do? And so let me start thinking about it. So even if women don’t want children or are ambivalent about it, they’re not given space to have this ambivalence or this uncertainty even, because they have to make up their mind.
Either they want it or not want it very quickly, because they have to convince not just themselves, but everybody else about what they want and that we know our minds. It’s not like, oh, I’m not sure you can’t say that. You can’t say I’m not sure because that’s just like, oh, yeah, of course, you’re not sure you’re a woman. So yes, I think it’s linked to those kinds of feminine roles that we are expected to play. If you look at any culture, in their historical documents, if you look at any literature, it’s all about women having child, being fulfilled by having children, fulfilling their duty as being mothers and good wives. That’s why infertility was so stigmatized.
That’s why women who had not given birth or didn’t have children were labelled as like an outsider, ostracized, or stigmatized a lot in many cultures. And we see that in the literature that comes from these cultures as well. So yes, I think it’s still a shame that we are in 2022 and we’re still fixed in these ideas of what a man and woman is. What a man wants. What a man should do and can do and what a woman wants and what they can do. And yet most people don’t ask men because their value or their worth or their identity is not linked to fatherhood. Nobody really talks to my husband about his children that much.
They talk about his professional career. What are you doing? How’s your job going? While I’m always just asked about the children, what are they doing at the moment? Even if as I’m a professional, I have a busy professional life. Nobody pays me sometimes. So I think it harms men as well because some men who desire children can’t express that desire. Some men who are really committed to having a family can feel like oh, maybe I can’t talk about it openly or maybe I can’t talk to people about my children because that’s not how I should be or how I’m supposed to be. That’s why stay at home fathers are still seen as anomaly sometimes. I think these gender roles harm women a lot because obviously we are the minority we are we don’t have equality; gender pay gap still exist, all those kinds of things. But I think anything like this and if these binary divides harm men as much because men are pushed into certain roles and stereotypes as well, it turns everybody I think this happens. But it’s a shame we’re still talking about whether a woman has children or not. And you saw the Office of National Statistics that put out the data recently the headlines, the panic around falling birth-rate and the fact that the birth rate in the last 50 years, women less than 30 are having even less children now than 50 years ago. I mean, lots of change in 50 years. And then I went and looked at all the datasets there was nothing about men and their reproductive choices. So why aren’t you collecting data about men and their choices and whether they are choosing to have children or not?

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
Exactly. The data is set up to make us feel kind of less than and I think the idea that somehow by not having children we are a not women, really, we’re not fulfilling our roles. And the other extreme that I always get is you must hate kids. And I’m like, no, I don’t hate kids. I actually think they’re really sweet. It’s just that that’s not what I want to do with my life. You know, I’m not saying you shouldn’t, and I think it’s wonderful, but it’s this assumption. There’s no grey area between motherhood and non-motherhood. Mothers all love their kids, live for the kids. People who are not mothers hate children, anti-anything nice and soft.

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
Yeah, society find it so easy to do binary and as you say, the grey area, the nuances are forgotten and ignored because just our brains can’t deal with it sometimes. There can be other choices. There can be other permutations and combinations. So it also enforces this as you say, this perception that mothers love their children. Yes, we love our children, but we don’t enjoy being mothers all the time. There are times when you think oh my gosh, what have I done?
This is not the life I wanted because you’re exhausted and you just want to work, and you just have no headspace. And then lots of other reasons why you think oh my gosh, I’m just so tired of this. I wish I could escape the thought that goes to so many people all the time. And then the next moment you feel guilty and then the next moment you love them really. I mean I know during the lockdown it became more normalized for people to talk a little bit about how hard it is because we were all in the same boat. We were all home-schooling and fainting, all caring, everybody. So I think people who had children or didn’t have children and other caring responsibilities.
So everybody was juggling a little bit. So it became more normal to talk about, yes, it is hard. We don’t enjoy it. And people were talking about it on social media. Before that, I think even when I started writing material, there was almost always this thing that you had to qualify the statement by saying, but I love them even say it’s hard , but I love them. And you can see I couldn’t say to anybody, I’m finding it really hard. I couldn’t say it because people would say oh look at them, but they’re so adorable. Aren’t you lucky? Yes, I know that, but it should be okay to say it is a hard thing. It is a hard thing that I’m going through at the moment.
And the same with if you don’t have children, people have to justify in their heads that there must be a reason why this woman doesn’t want children because what could be the reason? It’s not because she’s an independent person and has opinions that can make life choices, because that’s not what you’re allowed to do. But it’s because she doesn’t love children. She doesn’t have any maternal instinct. And so they have to justify it or reason it in their head somehow.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what family means to me over the past two years. The pandemic forced me to acknowledge that my family didn’t exist. No mother, no father. So when everyone was talking about not being able to see family, I had to acknowledge that I didn’t have a family. It made me really sad. But it also got me thinking that surely we’ve all got to redefine the idea of family. It’s no longer that image of the 2.5 kids, the massive car, and the white picket fence vision that we’d been sold. Family could be the pets we adore. Family could be the nephews and nieces that we love to spoil. Family could even be the friends who have become our family. It feels like we need to go away from the narrow vision of families that we’ve had so far. And embrace the big, beautiful world waiting for us to love.
Talking about other aspects of motherhood, so women who say cannot have kids and want to have kids, the stigma behind that. I remember growing up in South Asia, somebody would talk about x woman and she’s barren and these even the words was so harsh. The language around that was awful. Can you talk a little bit about that? Yeah,

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
I think as you said the word barren means that you as a woman, as I said, because you’re supposed to give birth easily. You’re supposed to be flooding soil, you’re mother earth, you’re supposed to reproduce easily, and that should happen naturally and without any effort. And so when that doesn’t happen, you are stigmatized, and again, things are changing a little bit, but I still remember even as a child, certain women who were either not married or who didn’t have children who were seen as barren, were not allowed to be part of religious ceremonies or to stand as part of like when we used to have this happen and all those things because they were considered in auspicious, and I remember feeling really shocked by that thinking how can you label somebody in auspicious? Why is it that that person is sitting in the other room? I felt awful about that.
And I remember seeing that so much and if you read through the scriptures, even Egyptian salvation culture, other societies as well. Yeah, infertility is in Bible as well. Infertility is stigmatized because you’re not being a real woman. There’s something wrong with you. And I think that’s when you see these messages, and I know there’s been some TV programs recently which have dealt with this issue. But the grief of not being able to do what your body does is a very unspoken grief, that space in between where you’re not a mother, you want to be a mother, but you cannot be a mother and you go through these infertility treatments and IVF rounds and every time there is hope. And every time there is this ray of light and then it goes away again.
This grief is very unspoken, you can’t really talk to anybody about it because you think it there is a lot of shame. I mean, I carried a lot of shame. And I carried a lot of this burden on myself that I’m not being able to do what I’m supposed to, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just work the way I’m supposed to work? I think again that we internalize this shame and stigma and silences are created around this shame, which means that people don’t tell their stories, don’t talk about it. I know that now we are hearing more stories from South Asian people about fertility, about desire to not have children, about all the issues that used to be taboo in the past, but there’s still a lot of silence around it and that affects people’s mental health and mental health is again something we don’t really talk about openly.

How are we still measuring a woman’s value around her fertility? In traditional South Asian societies like the one that I grew up in, women were called barren if they couldn’t have children, such an awful word. So harsh. Women who couldn’t have kids were sometimes banned from attending religious ceremonies, weddings, how cruel can a society be? And what happens here in the West, when we grow older, going past our so-called fertile years? The world definitely tells us that younger is better when you’re a woman. A man grows more distinguished as he ages. A woman just grows old as she ages. Isn’t this a dreadful double standard? I know of many women who feel invisible after a certain age. And as I approach my older years, I wonder, will the world value me less as I age? Will I be made to feel invisible too?
Women are infantilized quite a lot as well. So they are treated as girls, or they don’t know their mind or they’re really young and seen as that and not to be taken seriously. So younger women are not taken seriously often. In some circles they’re kind of idolized a little bit as well. So we know in publishing the younger the writer the like, oh, it’s such a young writer debut and all that stuff happens under 30 awards. It’s a big discussion there. But then they’re seen as old quite quickly as well. And as we’re talking about after a certain age, they are not, again taken seriously. And we see in films and media. There’s very few representations from older women and older they mean like over the age of 40 and that is not old. So over the age of 40 I know some actor friends who start getting like mother roles. And like of mother of like adult men who are older than them. I would be confused like he’s older than me and he’s saying I could possibly have given birth to him. So yes, it’s very narrow window because that’s the fertility window, I suppose.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
If we’re being told that our value is our kind of fertile years, so after those years, goodbye, you know, is the message really whether however, we look at it, like we dress it up, and we say, oh, this that or the other, whether it’s your actor, friends, whether it’s creative people, whether it’s, I don’t know, models, whatever. We’re told that past a certain age, you’re in your, prime is a good word, I don’t even know what the word is, but basically go away. You know, we don’t want to hear. Is the message right?

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
We have these terms like, I was confused when I was going through fertility cycle. I was called a geriatric mother and I was like, I’m not even actually over the age of 35.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
Stop it, is what I want to say. So I guess the bigger point is that society is always trying to monitor control, manage women’s bodies. And this whole conversation, whether that’s menopause, whether that’s motherhood, whether that’s whatever our kind of values attached to our bodies, via fertility, and a society can find a way to manage and monitor that and they keep hold of us. Really, if we’re constantly worrying about whether we’re too old, whether we should have babies, not have babies. What do you think?

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
It’s a really good interpretation because it’s the way the patriarchy wins. It’s a misogynist way of keeping us in our place. Really, the more we struggle against these things. The more we worry about these things, the more we discriminate or get biased against other women, the more conflict is created between them in itself. So that’s how patriarchy wins.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
I think you’re probably one of the few women that I know that are having these nuanced conversations. It’s not like oh my god, everything’s amazing or everything’s awful. You know, you’re having an in between COVID is what life is like. It’s complex. Could you talk about your own journey of motherhood and how does it feel, the emotions of it?

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
Gosh, it’s such a roller coaster. So I became as I said, I was married before and I was quite young. I had a child. She was a very complicated pregnancy. I was very young. I didn’t really know what I was really, and I was really trapped in this kind of very toxic relationship, coercive kind of family situation dynamic. I was really struggling, and I had a child, a girl child, where realized wasn’t desired. Even in such a rich family. They had very strong views about it, and I almost died. I came back from that I lost five minutes of blood haemorrhaged all that happened.
Then I realized, I don’t know it was really at that time. You don’t process these emotions. You just think I’m alive, and I’m okay. And I’ve got a child and she’s alive who could have died. During that very complicated, four months, bedrest before then. And so you kind of just get through and then I came here to do a master’s on a scholarship. And I think that’s the first time I kind of stepped when you step away from a harmful, toxic situation, sometimes you can see it more clearly. And you realize, actually, this is not what I want in my life.
This is not how I really want my child to be raised in such a situation. She deserves better, she deserves more. So that first time I think I felt really empowered to it. I have talked about it in my book that I think motherhood that that first experience was very liberating, but also kind of an act of rebellion because it gave me it made me feel empowered, not just for myself, and for her as well that I’m responsible for this person. I want to raise her outside these kinds of traps of patriarchy and misogyny she deserves better.
So we were here, and I was an academic. I was single parent for a while and then I got married again. And we tried to have children again. I was kind of ambivalent about it because people kept saying, Oh, you almost died the first time. But I suppose there’s always as I said, the ambivalence is hard to manage and talk about because you think time’s running out, so I need to make this decision rather quickly. And I didn’t realize how much time has already run out because five cycles, nothing happened. It was quite painful, traumatic. We had to make a decision. We had children through surrogacy they suggest station surrogacy and so they’re now going to be six years old this year, twin girls. That was also very complicated.
There was a lot going on in my life illnesses and other things, chronic illnesses. So I suppose I was still kind of grappling with this idea of how do I become a mother again, when I’m in a different context and would I love my children the same way like I loved my older daughter, and now she was becoming an older teen and almost an adult and I was having these little children so I was a mother to an adult and a mother to small children and I was in between trying to juggle those two roles. Because you’re a very different mother in different life stages.
And then my relationship with be very close with my we’re very close people are very close with my older daughter, but we had some hiccups and, and I think I had to step back and reflect on my behaviours, things that I can unlearn my words my actions, things I might have done to harm her or things I might have done unintentionally, because I didn’t know any better things that she saw differently than how I saw the story. And I realized there’s a situation and there’s a story and people see the situation differently in different ways.
So I think our relationship also had to evolve from how it used to be, and I think it was good for us. It’s really good for us. And I also feel really proud of her that she and also our relationship that she was able to say I’m going to set these boundaries because I think I couldn’t have done that with my mother to say I want to set these boundaries with you. And I think that honesty is something I really desire with my children as a mother, that they can tell me honestly about how they’re feeling, what they want to do that I can be there to facilitate things but not impose my desires and wishes on them that I can show them the path but ultimately, it’s their path to choose.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
That’s really profound. And I suppose at the end of the day, that’s what a mother does. Right? Thank you for sharing that. What projects have you got coming up?

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
Actually, I’m taking it slow. I felt like I was really exhausted and facing burnout. And I did acknowledge that as well. I think that’s something that I’ve also realized that with my neurodivergence, I sometimes get so hyper focused that I don’t realize the impact it is having on my mental and physical health and that this period has been really hard for all of us and it’s okay to take it slow sometimes. I have a book coming out of the first of September, which is almost finished, the proofs are ready now. So it is quite exciting. It’s called Hysterical. So it looks into this myth of gender demotions? Yeah, look forward to the next year and see how it shapes up.

Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
I’m excited to hear about your new book as well. I’m sure it’s going to be as amazing as the others have been. Thank you so much for being on the Masala podcast. It’s been an absolute joy speaking to you.

Pragya Agarwal on Masala Podcast
Thank you so much, Sangeeta for having me. It’s such a pleasure to speak with you.


Sangeeta Pillai on Masala Podcast
Thank you for listening to the Masala Podcast, a Spotify original. Masala Podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras. What’s that all about? Soul Sutras is a network for South Asian women. A safe space to tell our story, to hear inspiring South Asian women challenging patriarchy, a space to be exactly the people we want to be and still feel like we belong in our culture, and our community. And ultimately, a space where we feel less alone. I’d love to hear from you. So do get in touch via email at soulsutras.co.uk or go to my website, soulsutras.co.uk. I’m also on Twitter, and Instagram. Just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me Sangeeta Pillai produced, by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.

LISTEN TO PRAGYA AGARWAL EXPLORE MOTHERHOOD FURTHER ON MASALA PODCAST:
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