Mamta: selfless love or love for the self?

Nandita Chaudhary and Pooja Bhargava

In the year 2006, we published a journal article in Contributions to Indian Sociology with the title: Mamta: The transformation of meaning in everyday usage. Here is the link to the original article In this Kadak Chai Essay, we provide excerpts from the interviews we conducted around the topic. Another post on Masla Chai is also related to the topic and you may like to revisit that using this link

Motherhood is an important role in Indian society. The eventuality of becoming a mother is of vital consequence, especially for Indian women, and much cultural content revolves around this issue. Consequently, the language of motherhood is also highlighted in everyday usage, in particular through the notion of mamta. In this article we present an everyday understanding of twenty men and women living in Delhi regarding the term that displays important space and attention to the notion of motherhood in general and mamta in particular. Predominantly, mamta was understood as ‘mother’s love’ for her offspring—generated quite ‘naturally’ through bearing a child—that is heightened in situations of vulnerability and need.

II The study of Mamta

The Hindi dictionary lists several synonyms for mamta, a noun with a feminine marking. It is also fairly popular as a woman’s given name. In the dictionary, the word is preceded by a linked word mam (mine— masculine or feminine). Mamta has an elaborate list of meanings: starting with ‘Yeh mera hai’, is prakar ka bhav (this is mine, this kind of feeling), mamatva, apnapan (self-feeling), lobh (greed), moh (love), abhimaan (pride), garv (pride), sneh and prem (both meaning love); and lastly we find mata ka apni santan ke prati sneh (a mother’s love for her child). The Sanskrit root word from which mamta derives is mamatva, meaning ‘love for the self’ and pride.

This study of the cultural understanding of mamta is based on in-depth interviews with total of twenty adults. Each person was interviewed about their understanding of the meaning of mamta, beliefs about the situations in which it is encountered, the relationships involved, and gender differences. Additionally, on the assumption that a biological connection is central to the construction of mamta, our informants were also questioned about their opinions regarding feelings of mamta in cases of adoption and step-parenting. Of the twenty respondents, nine were married (four women and five men), and one woman was widowed; ten, an equal number of men and women, were unmarried. Only one married woman had no children. The occupational profile of the respondents was as follows: two people were retired and at home (one man, one woman); three women were homemakers; two men were soldiers in the army; three men were in other services; five women were research scholars; three were students (two men, one woman); one man was a librarian, and one woman an insurance agent. All of them lived in Delhi. Fourteen were in their twenties, one in the thirties, three in the forties and one each in the fifties and seventies. The variation in educational status was as follows: two respondents had school-leaving certificates (Class 12), one was a student in college, and all others had graduate or post-graduate degrees. The interviews were conducted in both Hindi and English, sometimes mixing the languages, as is common in everyday talk in Delhi. Thus the responses, too, were often in both languages, although three interviews took place exclusively in Hindi, as desired by the respondents. The conversations have been presented in the language/s in which they were spoken, Hindi, English or both, with English translations in parentheses where required. These conversations form the main body of the text. In the following presentations, the names of the respondents have been changed.

The opening discussions: The elusive and complex nature of mamta

The first noticeable feature of the responses was the initial loosening up of the concept by the interviewees. At the outset, there was a tendency to say things like:
I really … it’s difficult … what … what feeling do I get? I really can’t say … it’s something that is within you … no, you just cannot express it … it’s difficult to express it in words. I just can’t do it.
Notwithstanding this qualification, Usha went on to answer subsequent questions, her responses filling up several pages of transcription. At least ten other people described a similar unease or inability to put their thoughts into words. In the same vein, Birbal said,
I am not able to explain … like … exactly. I have understood mamta. Explaining it is a bit … (Main explain nahin kar sakta … waise, exactly. Mamta mujhe samajh a gayi hai … explain karna thoda mere liye ….)
Another example was of Parneet who declared,
The feeling is nice … but it cannot be described. (Feeling acchi hoti hai … par usko describe nahin kar sakte.)
One unmarried young man attributed his uncertainty to the lack of familiarity—‘I can’t tell … till one experiences such a thing’. On the other hand Kiran, an elderly woman said gently,
Child … [addressing the researcher affectionately], mamta is a feeling, it cannot be described too well. (Mamta ke ehsas ka to, beta, koi varnan kiya hi nahin ja sakta bahut zyada.)
In fact, Kiran was so enthusiastic in her responses, she asked for an audio recording so that she could preserve the discussion for her grandchildren. Deepali launched into a description of what mamta meant for her:
unconditional love, boundless kind of love, an attachment, a bonding, love, pyaar, concern. I can’t describe it. I am not a mother but ya … I guess … what I can understand is something for which mother doesn’t ask (for) anything … (in return for her love).

The inability to define mamta was expressed both by men and women, and married as well as unmarried respondents. Although unmarried persons tended to attribute their hesitation to inexperience, married people were inclined to say that the concept itself was nebulous and hard to describe. For instance, Karnav said that ‘It’ll probably be very tough to word it … mamta … for a woman …?’ and stopped at that. Another young man, Rahil, conceded his inability to provide a sufficient explanation and said simply,
I don’t think I can describe the feeling of mamta in words. It can just be felt, but still I can say that mamta is the feeling of love for the child.
The second opening theme that emerged was of mamta being a complex notion. Many respondents volunteered that the construct was intricate and multi-faceted. Then they would quickly attempt to narrow down the meanings, perhaps to reduce the confusion that their own statements had created. It seemed as if the clarification was in progress as they spoke, similar to the depiction of ‘verbal mediation’ introduced by Vygotsky (1962[1934]).(2)

Similarly, Deepali cautions the researchers against a simple understanding of the word,
I told you that mamta has faces to it. It’s not just one face … it has expressions to it, it may not always be the holding, cuddling.
Mamta, what it is (and what it is not)
In the case of complex constructions, people sometimes use an argument to describe a thing by identifying what (in their opinion) it is not, rather than what it is. In dealing with uncertainty and complexity, this process of negation sometimes becomes a useful tool to present the counterdefinition. As Birbal put it,
It is not like in the films … over-reacting. (It is not like in the films … over-react karna.)
Shivika said that although mamta is a natural feeling that comes from being with a child, ‘it’s not like the feeling that you can see’, implying that this emotion is subliminal. According to Usha, the feeling of mamta does not include ‘protectiveness’. From these examples one may observe that when an abstract notion is under scrutiny, it is from within the cluster of associated meanings that an informant makes selection (e.g., Usha who says it is not ‘protectiveness’, or Birbal, ‘It is not like in the films’). People were thus using the interview session to bring up and toy with several meanings from which some were chosen and others discarded. One of the most consistent features of the data is the belief that mamta is an automatic, natural and spontaneous link between a parent, mostly the mother, and a child. Such positive feelings of attachment were usually described as ‘happening’ rather than ‘shown’, ‘felt’ rather than ‘cultivated’. The verb forms used in association with the descriptions thus indicate spontaneity rather than deliberation on the part of the person who feels the emotion. As Shivika described it in her answer,
It’s … kind of … emotion that you have for your baby and you can feel only when you … aaa … I mean … when you have a baby … when you become a mother. And it’s not like the feeling that you can see. I mean … It’s not only when you are a mother even when you are with a small child … you just want to pamper a child to be with the child. It’s … it’s a kind of feeling that comes naturally when you are with the child.

Feelings of sacrifice, devotion and love are common in the responses. In the words of Rahil, mamta is affection, feeling of love for the child … dil se dua dete hain … sensitive. Ma ki mamta (mother’s mamta) is superior to all other feelings of affection, emotion created by God, bond of love, unconditional love … support. I think there is no rule that it is related only with women and motherhood. It is human nature that comes within a person irrespective of sex.

Here, there is some evidence that Rahil was still formulating his opinion as he spoke. Although, according to him, mother’s love is the purest form of love, he added that this does not imply that men cannot feel love. For Sahil, there is similarity between devotion, prayer and mamta: the love of God is also mamta. Indeed, for some of the respondents, there is some spiritual quality to the feelings that arise with mamta.

Some qualities of mamta

Continuity and permanence are qualities commonly attributed to mamta. Manu elaborated by saying that:
A mother’s mamta will never die. This has been carrying on forever, and will carry on. Mamta as a word also, never finishes. Things might increase or decrease, that will always carry on. Like some things reduce and some increase, this remains the same … the way it used to feel good in the start (when the child is young), that is the way it will remain … however much a son or daughter may grow old, the mother’s love will always remain, whatever you received earlier, the same (amount) (you will) continue to receive. Mamta will remain the same, for one’s son or daughter, it will never finish. (Ma ki mamta jo hai woh kabhi marti nahin hai. Yeh to hamesha chalti aayi hai, aur chalti aayegi. Mamta shabd hi yeh hai, khatam nahin hota yeh kabhi. Jaise ki kam hai, zyada hai, woh barabar hi rahega jo … pehle jitna accha lagta tha utna hi lagega, chahe kitna bhi beta ya beti boodha ho jaaye, ma ka to woh pyaar hamesha hi rahega … pehle jitni mamta mili hai usko utni hi mamta milti jaye. Mamta to waisi key waisi, apne putr ya putri ke liye khatam hone waali nahin hai.)
Shikha remarked that, when guided by mamta, all feelings of anger and irritation are temporary and situational. In her opinion, mamta is neverending. Ranjeet also said something similar, adding that
I think it’s always there, but it’s prominent in certain situations and in certain surroundings, like probably the child is going through a bad time, she’ll be there for you all the time. She’s generally there. I mean … your mother would love you all the time.

Special feeling

Many respondents invoke emotions like love, kindness, understanding, and pride. Kumar described it as a feeling of becoming complete in oneself … sacrifice. That is sacrifice, a mother fulfils all the needs of her child by going through a lot of sacrifice and giving up [sacrifice]. (Apne poorna hone ka ehsaas …. Sacrifice. That sacrifice, a mother fulfils all the needs of her child by going through a lot of tyag, balidan.)
The element of ‘incompleteness’ is also introduced by Kiran, by far the most extensive account of mamta that we collected. She goes so far as to say that: From inside she does not feel complete. For this reason, God has given her assistance by giving her the ability to feed. Milk has also been given to her by God, any mother who does not get mamta, who did not want to give birth to a child, they also don’t secrete milk … (Andar se voh khud ko pura mehsoos karti hai. Ussi ke liye prabhu bhagwan bhi uski madad karta hai uske liye use feed bhi de deta hai. Doodh bhi deta hai koi ma jisko mamta nahin aati ya voh nahin chahti thi abhi bacche ko janam dena unka doodh bhi nahin utarta.)
Parneet indicates that unconditionality is an important dimension of mamta: The love that is unselfish, there is happiness, there is sadness, one gets angry also …. (Niswarth jo pyar hota hai, khushi hoti hai, dukh bhi hota hai, gussa bhi aata hai.)
Interestingly, this response actually seems to contradict the original dictionary meaning of mamta, that is, that the love for the child is actually like love for the self and therefore deeply self-oriented, for Parneet believes unselfishness to be an essential ingredient of mamta. Similarly, for Nita, the relationship of a mother to her child is believed to be highly empathetic:
Mother is something [sic] that every … meaning … [someone who] will take all your sorrows upon herself and will never let you feel sad. (Ma is something ki jo har … matlab … apne upar dukh le legi par tumhare upar kabhi dukh nahin aane degi.)
This element of the mother was often discussed and sometimes contrasted with the features of the father who is attached to and fond of the child, but who may not have this quality. Echoing the feelings of sacrifice, Neena said,
that kind of feeling like … whatever the trouble, she will first try … that my child remains alright, and after that whatever happens … even if the blame comes on [her] later, she does not care about that … that kind of feeling like … (koi bhi pareshani hogi she will first try … ki mera baccha theek rahe uske baad jo hoga uske uper koi blame bhi aa jaye ya koi pareshani bhi aaya to usko koi parwah nahin hoti uski.)
Birbal clarified that both his children were older, thereby implying that feeling (or at least the intensity of its expression) would have diminished. Rajat also agreed that variations in feeling are more to do with age than with gender, for instance. Neena, Nita, Deepali, Shivika and Vasuvi (interestingly, all women) contended that feelings arise on encountering a young child, although Nita includes other people and especially children under difficult circumstances as well, suggesting the added dimension of sympathy and a feeling of doing something for another person, even if he/she is not related. In her own words, feeling can arise over time, seeing the child. It can develop when one sees his uncomfortable position or the tragic past that he has gone through. Seeing less privileged people, beggars, and people in poverty, animals being mistreated by humans for their own selfish needs, when children are left on streets …. When an innocent person is accused for the crime and sent to jail. When racing horses are put to rest just because they are old and no longer run, when animals are separated from their families….
Rahil argued that mamta is enhanced when a person is in a situation that demands performance, for instance, before a competitive examination when all the elders give their blessings and good wishes.

Mothers’ instinct and father’s love

Another significant theme in the responses was the attribution of mamta to a biological bond between mother and child, and sometimes between parents and their child. Of course, this belief is put to test in the question about adoption (see below). Only a few people (Vasuvi, Tapan, Neena and Karnav) said that volition is important, and that people may be different in their expression. In Neena’s words,
This is not there for adoption. Adoption is done of one’s own wish. They will give the same amount of love, if they don’t have a child of
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their own. (Adoption ke liye yeh nahin hai [difference between own and the other child] adoption to apni marzi se kar rahe hain. Utna hi pyar denge agar khud ka baccha nahin hai to.)
However, indicating a belief in linkages between childhood experience and the subsequent expression of mamta, Vasuvi goes on to say that,
maybe that person has herself or himself … not received it from their parents so it is possible that they may not be able to give it.
Although Birbal had called it a place in the heart, he also argued later in the interview that we can ‘bring’ mamta into our hearts, that it can be cultivated. Mani Ram, too, declared that mamta is a feeling over which the mother has little volitional control.
There are many other manifestations that can come out … but mamta is linked with a mother and her son–daughter. It manifests on its own, that feeling. (Baaki iske bhav to anek nikalte hain … lekin mamta apney putr-putri ke liye ek ma sey hi judi hui hai. Apne aap ma ko prakat ho jata hai voh bhav. Aausoo ke roop main aur hasi ke roop main bhi.)
Usha asserted that mamta is the feeling that every mother gets, a view elaborated by Kiran when she said:
This is a quality of being a mother, in my opinion, that is there from her birth. Ever since she is a small child, even with a doll who is lifeless, that is also loved. (Yeh jo gun hai ek aurat mein, mere hisab se yeh to usko janam se hi mil jata hai. Jab voh bilkul chhoti si bacchi hoti hai to apni gudiya jo bejan hoti hai usko bhi voh itna pyar deti hai.)
However, Vasuvi, whose views somewhat marked her apart from others, argued exactly the opposite, saying,
I don’t think it is something to do only with motherhood, even if you don’t give birth to the child but once you say that … OK, this is my child, then you become responsible and you start caring for that child. I don’t think it is necessary to give birth to the child. It’s not necessary that you have given birth to the child, and only then you care. And mamta … ya … you know you are right, is not necessarily related with motherhood. You feel for other kids also … See there are kids who are there with Vandita [her daughter] … play with her you know … you see those children everyday so you feel for them also [emphases in original].
Although most respondents (19) conceded the existence of fathers’ love, many insisted that fathers express themselves differently, inadequately, or not at all. The differences were attributed either to the ‘nature’ of men, their active engagement at work or their lower participation in the home and in the lives of the children. Usually the initial statements in the interviews would be something like Parneet’s response, ‘The mother’s love that is given to the child’ (Bacche ko ma ka pyar jo dete hain). When asked whether a man or father can feel the same love, the responses were usually:
No, there is nothing like that [that only mothers can feel mamta], father also has it fully. Actually, father is not able to express it, but the feeling is full. They also feel a lot, if the [child] does something good or something bad. They [fathers] also feel bad. (Nahin, aisa kuchh nahin, father ko bhi poora hota hai. Actually, father express nahin karte but feeling unko bhi bahut jyada hoti hai, kyunki baccha jo bhi kare, accha karta to bhi or kharaab karta to bhi. Dukh unko bhi hota hai.)
This pattern was very common, namely, that the first answer to the question on the meaning of mamta was almost invariably an association with the mother, while reference to the father was made only after asking the subsequent question, ‘Is it only mother’s love, or do men also feel mamta?’ Even Kiran, whose association of mamta with motherhood is probably the strongest in our sample, claimed that:
Yes, yes! Men also have the feeling. The way of showing it is different. To show love, they provide whatever the child asks for, depending on how much the ‘pocket’ will allow. He is unable to give time, and he also has to earn a living. (Haan, haan! Admi mein bhi ehsaas to hota hi hai. Sirf, uske pyar dikhane ka dhang alag hota hai. Woh pyar dikhane ke liye bacche ne maange jitne woh pyar jataane ke liye utne de deta hai kyunki uski pocket allow kar rahi hai. Woh time to de nahin pata aur phir kamata bhi hai.) Here Kiran invokes a common theme, also expressed by four other respondents. Fathers are conceived of mainly as ‘providers’ and, for that reason, express their love differently.

Vasuvi said, Men also feel, but express less. Mamta is there equally for the father as much as for mother. Men are … you know … they are not so … expressive in their overt behaviour. They’ll not … you know … physically touch their children and kiss them and hug them but … they feel the same for their children … you know.
Shikha believed that the mother ‘loves’, and the father ‘supports’. That is, the mother is always present to sort out small issues, but the father is there when support is needed, especially when there is some difficulty. Eight respondents were of the opinion that (especially nowadays) the differences in the patterns of showing love between mother and father have decreased due to the fact that the parents are now taking on similar roles. Usha, Vasuvi, Shikha, Deepali, Shivika, Nita, Kumar and Rahil are the main proponents of this view. Nita asserted that mother and father expressed love equally:
I don’t agree [with the idea that men and women express love differently]. I feel both mother and father can equally show love, support, affection, care, concern for their children.
Sameer, on the other hand, felt that women are more expressive, despite the fact that both men and women feel emotion.
Mothers feel happiness, so do fathers. Mothers become emotional more easily. The father will not be able to show it in front of everybody, but he also has feelings. Meaning, his way of showing his feelings is different. Yes, yes, it is different. (Ma mein khushi hoti hai, fathers mein bhi hoti hai. Ma jaldi bhavuk ho jati hai. Father usko … sabke samne show nahin karta hai lekin hote to usme bhi hain woh feelings. Matlab express karne ka tareeka alag hota hai. Haan, haan, tareeka alag hai.)
Karnav said that mamta ‘comes naturally’ and
for a woman it would probably be, my child, sweet child of mine. And for a dad, my strong son, he’s going carry my family name ahead … something like that. Pride for the father and love for a mother … something like that support, love … Mamta I would say, for me would usually arise from my mom’s side.

Other relationships

Respondents also observed that mamta can be felt even in other relationships, apart from the relations with the mother and father, and towards other living beings. For instance, Sahil, a soldier in the army who lives away from his family, identified the care that his wife receives from his own mother as an instance of mamta:
My mother is there and I am here … so my family [i.e., wife] is looked at with positive attitude, like towards [one’s] own daughter. I say that is also mamta. (Meri maa hai aur main banda bahar hoon … to meri family ki taraf dekhne ka jo nazaria hai woh accha hai, apni beti ki tarah dekhna, us nazariye sey. Main bolta hoon ki yeh mamta ho sakti hai.)
Sahil and a number of other respondents (Sanya and Neena) also include love for animals as a form of mamta, while Ranjeet remarked that his maternal grandmother had demonstrated mamta, for it was she who had cared for him:
[My grandmother] also has the same feelings for me, she’s raised my mother, she had the same feelings towards my mother, she will also have the same feelings towards me because she’s raised me also … when I was young.
Voicing a somewhat unconventional opinion, Tapan identified mamta as the reciprocal feeling between parents and children. Karnav, too, felt that it referred to ‘the inner feeling towards your parents’ while Tapan included others as well: ‘any of the relations, not only parents. Family members, brother, sister, son, whatever….’ According to Sahil, the feelings one has towards God are mamta— ‘Jo ham bhakti karte hain, woh bhi to mamta hoti hai’, adding that the love for animals would also be included. Shivika spoke of her feelings for her niece and nephew, saying that when a child is crying or in pain:
You feel like cuddling the child and giving him a hug. I mean … this is what I feel with my niece and nephew.
Rajat included relationships with friends as well, while Ranjeet added that, ‘My mother’s sisters, mausis. They have the same feelings … but it would not be that close.’

Feeling and receiving mamta

In the preceding sections we have seen that, notwithstanding its primary dictionary definition of love for the self, our informants construed mamta as predominantly love for another, another who is close (or vulnerable if not close), and mostly a child: the greater the dependence and vulnerability, the more the feeling of mamta. It is also unconditional:
mamta … you don’t have any give and take … it’s just that you give unconditionally … that’s what I feel (Sanya).
Mamta is discussed mostly as it arises within and emerges from an adult, and the experience of mamta as a receiver is largely disregarded (except by Vasuvi, Karnav and Tapan). Indeed, Parneet suggested that children would realise the worth of mamta only when they have left home:
Right now they [children] do not understand the value of mamta. (Abhi mamta ki value nahin samajhte hain.)
Vasuvi is one of the few people who noted that,
Just because I am grown up, does not mean that my mother loves me less. I am 46 and my mother still feels for me and I can … feel it now that I am a mother too.
Similarly, when Parneet was asked whether the feelings of mamta would be different for her (in comparison with someone else, the researchers for instance), she said:
That will definitely be the case. Because that … when it [child] is born, that feeling becomes somewhat different. Because someone who is not doing it [having a child] cannot even feel this. Yes, even towards another child, who has not been conceived, even then. Because that feeling becomes different from the time a child starts growing in your body … yes, this [baby] is mine’. (Haan haan woh to hai, definitely hoga. Kyunki woh …. jab paida hota hai to woh feeling alag si ho jaati hai, woh to conception se hi feeling alag ho jaati hai. Kyunki woh jo nahin kar raha hai woh feel hi nahin kar sakta. Haan bacche pe pyaar aayega matlab jo nahin conceive kiya hai, fir bhi. Kyunki woh different feeling ho jaati hai jab aapke sharir mein palne lagta hai baccha, tab se different feeling aane lagti hai ki haan yeh hamara hai kuch.)
On the other hand, Karnav insisted that mamta involves both give and take. Ranjeet added:
See, if you look at mamta as being love and affection … then it might be [love from children to parents]. It is dual sided but giving some … Some people think of mamta differently. I see it as love and affection. So it’s both ways. It should be from both sides actually.

The functions of mamta

Although not a direct question in the interview, discussion often moved towards the function that mamta serves for people. Noting the tremendous power that mamta has for the growing child, Kiran asserted that mamta serves the purpose of instilling sanskar in children, in effect, socialising the child in a way that is critical to the development of moral, social and personal values. According to Kiran, a mother has the power to prevent a child from taking wrong decisions, and also to steer the child towards greater success in life. Sahil echoed this opinion, saying:
Yes, wanting to make the children into better and more successful people [than we are], making a name in the world. Mamta is the one thing that can keep a family together. (Haan apne se badhkar apne bacche ko bada aur ooncha banane ke liye ya duniya mein naam kamane ke liye. Mamta hi poore parivar ko jodh ke rakhti hai.)
Vasuvi spoke in a similar vein:
It’s your responsibility also to see that the child gets … you think what is possible within … what like … care, more attention, the guidance … because all these needs have to be first handled in a proper direction.
The difference between the indulgence of the mother, who understands and cares, and the father, who is firm, Sanya believed, was functional. The strictness of the father, according to her, was the force that pushes the child towards self-improvement, by ‘far-sightedness’ and not protecting the child too much. Karnav, on the other hand, saw his relationship with his own father slightly differently, and the function of mamta as that of softening relationships in the home:
Whenever I am having a conflict with my dad, my mom would be the one, you know … who … kind of … steps in and fetches me out and stuff, but the same thing does not happen, you know … when I am having a fight with my mom, my dad will not, definitely, try and butt into this. For some reason … mmmmm … my mom’s mindset and mine would be close as compared to my dad’s, he’s probably 120 (years old) by now (laughs).
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Ranjeet reflected a similar notion in discussing his mother’s affection:
[S]he [mother] might be getting all weak in the knees (laughs). Probably, but yeah I think she will be more … uhhh … protective of you, more, she wants you to be more secure and have secure surroundings. She will look at … problems in life and she will bring you up in a way, to tell you … that you know life’s like this. I think it’s always there but it’s prominent in certain situations and in certain surroundings, like probably the child is going through a bad time, she’ll be there for you all the time. She’s generally there. I mean your mother would love you all the time.
Interestingly, despite its positive functions, Rahil pointed out that mamta leaves adults vulnerable, for ‘children do sometimes take advantage of this undying love of their parents’. In her interview, Shikha declared that the bond of affection was not always positive in its expression. Mostly, though, the anger and annoyance that a mother might feel and express towards her child was actually very useful since its main function is to instill good values in the child.

Adoption and step-parenting

The situations of adoption and step-parenting were broached through hypothetical questions, and some new issues were discernible in informants’ responses. First, there was greater discussion of potential variation, depending on family circumstances, values, individual experience and temperament. Many of the answers began with ‘It depends…’. For example, Kumar argued that:
This depends on the person who is adopting. On his/her thinking … I cannot say. (Yeh uspe depend karta hai, jo god le raha hai. Uski soch pe … Keh nahin sakta mein.)
Sameer suggested that the answer might depend on who came first, the biological child or the adopted one. Karnav had a different opinion, saying that: ‘I would probably end up loving the adopted child more than my own child.’ As for step-children, Karnav (who is not yet married) said that it might depend upon the circumstances:
Would be very, very tough I guess (laughs). It actually depends on my wife as well, how comfortable she would be, I mean … how comfortable she would be with my step-child for that matter. Is she willing to accept him or her?
The factor of volition and individual choice was also emphasised. In a majority of instances, it was argued that as adoption was a voluntary act requiring determination, conviction and a commitment towards accepting the child as your own, there would also be commitment to showing mamta. Usha, for instance, said that although she was very eager and willing to adopt a child (a matter on which they have not yet decided), she was concerned that she would not be able to scold an adopted child, because ‘it is not my own’. (Regarding a step-child, she was quick to say that this is a situation that does not apply to her and to which she is therefore unable to relate.) Kiran was vehement in her opinion that people who have their own children should not adopt, because even the possibility of a bias would be very sad for a child. She also anticipated difficulties if the parents adopted a child with a pre-determined picture in mind, and the child was unable to fit that picture. Particularly if there are children of one’s own, there may be disappointments:
Sometimes an adopted child doesn’t listen to you … you care for and raise [the child], but at one point, if the child doesn’t listen to you, then you may feel that this is not my blood. (Kabhi god liya hua baccha kehna nahin manta hai … itna pala posa sab kuch kiya, lekin ek point pe baccha aapki baat nahin mane to aapko yeh ehsas ho sakta hai ki yeh mera khoon nahin hai.)
In the case of step-children, she argued that although a woman might accept her husband’s child by a former marriage, men mostly would not accept the wife’s child.
Step-fathers will not accept step-children … this I will tell you … oh yes … if the wife has had a child from the first marriage and she gets married, that father will accept the step-child only in rare instances. (Sautele baap ko sautela baccha sehan nahin hai … yeh main aapko bata doon … accha haan … agar wife ka pehla baccha hai aur shadi usne kari hai to woh father to sautele bacche ko bahut rare milenge jo pyar denge.)

Deepali attributed differences between own children and adopted children to the fact that, even before the child is born, the mother and child develop a kind of bond or attachment; this is lacking with an adopted or step-child. The pain that the mother goes through helps her develop a strong bond with her unborn child, and this increases exponentially when the child is actually born. Although Nita did not advocate treating children differently on that account, she believed that feelings cannot be similar ‘for your own child as well as step-child because your own child is blood-related [and] you obviously feel a little more for that child’. Karnav and Tapan believed that adoption required a greater commitment from the parent and that one should love an adopted child as much as one’s own, perhaps even more. As Karnav put it:
I would probably end up loving the adopted child more than my own child. The reason would be that he’s not mine, so I would rather give him that additional bit of support, love … so that both of them feel at par.
Likewise, Vasuvi agreed that:
It’s not necessary that you have given birth to the child … only then you care. And mamta … ya … is not necessarily related with motherhood; you feel for other kids also.
Women are capable of loving all children and would not discriminate between any children, Shikha said, but a certain bias is possible nonetheless:
That being a child, you will feel mamta towards it. But, yes … it is possible that some bias may happen. That can happen. (That being a child … tumhare ko mamta aa hi jayegi us par. But, yes … thoda sa ho sakta hai biased, that can happen.)
While unfairness in the treatment of adopted and step-children was expected, it was not recommended, and most respondents advocated equal treatment for all children. Neena, Tapan, Rajat, Rahil and Birbal all insisted that, since adoption is voluntary, there should be no discrimination; adoption should be undertaken only after serious contemplation. In the case of step-children, Manu was quite clear that there would be differences between a step-child and one’s own, but in the case of adoption by a childless woman, she would very likely be accepting of another person’s
child in her life. Sahil argued that such discrimination should not occur, though in practice (like most other respondents) he recognised that adoptive and step-children may be treated differently from biological children. Although Shivika did not know of anyone who had adopted a child, she was confident that she herself would not make any distinction between her own child and an adopted one. The warmth of feeling might depend on the child’s age, she believed, since an older child is more capable of mutual attachment, while younger children can be more trying. A lot might also depend on the child’s temperament and friendliness as well, she noted. Neena cited the case of a family in which the step-mother’s treatment of her step-children was so bad that the children almost detested her and ‘refused to call her mummy’. Such unfair things happen, she concluded, though she herself would not do so. On the other hand, Sanya had a positive image of the acceptance of step-children in a family she knew. A woman who had no children of her own doted on her two stepchildren, literally treating them like babies, and she now has the same feeling towards her grandchildren. All the same, Sanya was unsure how this woman would have treated her step-children had she had children of her own; perhaps she would have favoured her own. In sum, while the majority of respondents believed that equality between biological children and adopted or step-children was correct, they gave numerous examples to illustrate that such differences were socially almost inevitable. There was a clear separation here between individual views, and respondents’ opinions about collective social practices.

IV Conclusion

In the course of our interviews we observed that each respondent went through an alternating process of expanding and contracting the space within which the discussion progressed, negotiating with the concept, redefining it, sometimes agreeing with it and at other times contesting it, sometimes attending to the core word, sometimes ‘abducting’(3) the meaning for their own purposes. At no point were the respondents unwilling to expound their views. On the contrary, most people were not only willing but eager to speak about mamta, perhaps because this provided them with an opportunity to reconfigure and re-evaluate ways of understanding relationships, a critical domain of Indian personal–social reality. We therefore reaffirm that the notion of motherhood is a crucial dimension of social and psychological reality, as evidenced by the responses of the participants of this study. In the course of their responses to questions about their understanding of mamta, many of the respondents expressed their initial ‘inability to put the meaning into words’, and soon afterwards embarked on fairly detailed and elaborate discussions. As many as five respondents requested a copy of the study results to extend their understanding of the connotations of mamta. In many instances it appeared that the clarification of the notion of mamta emerged as the person was speaking. Perhaps this lends support to the dynamic negotiation of meaning in everyday life. Meanings, especially of social constructs, are not found in readymade packages, but are actively recreated in the process of the interview. Although the dictionary meaning of the Hindi word mamta includes love for the self, pride, greed, ownership, in addition to a mother’s love for her offspring, the first four meanings were not evidenced in our interviews. On the contrary, mamta was reduced and specialised to a single notion, mother’s love, extended sometimes to cover both parents’ affection for a child. The notion of ‘love for the self’ was completely effaced by ideas of unconditionality, sacrifice and long-lasting commitment to the child, a collective ‘abduction of meaning’ that possibly relates to the Indian preference for other-oriented existence over and above the self. By such a transformation in meaning, mamta becomes a key term for the function of parenting among users of the Hindi language, an instance of the formation of a ‘cultural model’ (Keller et al. 2004) from the existing lexicon. While mamta was primarily identified as the love of a mother for her own child, when clarifications were sought, our respondents began to argue for or against a father’s having the capacity for the same kind of love and/or expression as the mother. All respondents agreed that men also have special feelings towards children and can also ‘feel’ mamta at some level, but there were differences in the degree to which men were seen as capable of recognising and expressing this. It is also interesting to note that the reference to the father came only after the specific question was posed, and not in the respondents’ spontaneous listing of the properties of mamta. Only four respondents mentioned (in their first response) that mamta was a feature of parental love in general.

Significantly, when confronted with a question about adoption and step-parenting, the responses were more diverse, with more concession to individual, familial and experience-related differences. Respondents sometimes forcefully contested social practices and traditions that discriminated against children on account of their parentage.(4) For the most part, respondents asserted the ‘natural’ quality of mamta.(5) Frequent references were made to the uncontrollable, unfailing and unselfish qualities of a mother’s love for her children. However, as the interview proceeded, and situations of fatherhood, other relationships, and situational differences were addressed, the responses became increasingly varied, attributing more importance to the element of difference among people or families. Interestingly, no references were made to cultural differences.(6) Perhaps some of the dynamics surfacing in the interviews could be linked to the complex relationship between ‘experienced reality’ and ‘explained reality’ (Luckmann 2002), implying that one cannot assume the explanations that people give in situations such as these to form a simple mirror image of the scenes that they experience. Initial hesitation was followed by reasonably well-formed ideas, about which there seemed significant agreement among the respondents. In the first section of the interview, seeking to define the meaning of mamta, people did not distance their own views from those of the collective. This was the domain of explained or ‘transcendent’ reality. However, when specific applications of beliefs were solicited, the respondents resorted often to the qualification of ‘It depends…’. Perhaps, at this point, they were reflecting on their experienced reality. Answers to these questions included more examples and illustrations as points (or counterpoints) in an argument. Certainly the discussion of situational differences in mamta seemed to move within a contrast between the way things ‘are’, as against the way the respondent thought they ‘should be’. In this context of disagreement with social norms one sees a leap from experienced to transcendent reality, whether in consonance with traditional notions, or in many instances, as the assertion of a personal sense of the ‘right’ way to do things. To mistake people’s explanations to be a simple reconfiguration of second-hand ideas would be a misrepresentation of the dynamics of social reality and personal understanding.

1 Although this term is non-standard, it is appropriate to describe the method that most researchers in India use to solicit participants through people whom they know.

2 Vygotsky explains that verbal mediation is a strategy that is used often to simplify a difficult task by speaking it out aloud.

3 Borrowing from Charles Peirce’s notion of the ‘abduction of meaning’ (see Peirce 1935)

4 Interestingly, the discussion of Indian society and tradition came up only when the respondent wanted to contest, rather than conform to, assumed social patterns, as for instance in the differential treatment often meted out to step-children.

5 One is reminded of Shweder’s work on conventions and moral action in India and the US (Shweder et al. 1988). The Oriya adults in that study thought that moral order was natural rather than conventional, thereby reducing the pressure for ‘training’ their children.

6 Perhaps there should have been a question regarding this in the interview.

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