Sujatha Bagal

Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.

Why are the first steps the most difficult?

I carried my son, cradled in my arms, out of the house and into the garage. I had his “diaper bag” (a backpack, really, because we were “cool parents” and did not want to be seen carrying a diaper bag in public) with diapers, baby wipes, a changing pad, a change of clothes, plastic bags for soiled clothes, and milk bottles, slung over one shoulder.

I put him in his infant seat in the back of the car and his diaper bag next to the car seat. I got in the driver’s seat, started the car, put it in first gear, let it inch forward a little (old Indian habits die hard), then backed out of the garage and headed out.

We were going to the baby sitter’s house just fifteen minutes away, but my baby and I were taking our first, faltering steps in a long journey.

We knew our baby sitter’s family for years before we had our son. I had met her husband first at the bus stop when I was still a student. They were our neighbors. They had two grown daughters of their own, and my husband and I might quite easily have been their children. Just four months before my son was born, they had become grandparents. We got to know them a little bit and they had teasingly asked us when we were planning to have children, in that unabashedly familiar way that the older Indian generation seems to treat the youngsters. “Don’t worry”, they would say, “we’ll take care of your kids when you’re both at work”.

So there we were, at their doorstep, my son and I, four years after I’d first met them. I rang the doorbell, baby in my arms and diaper bag over my shoulder. She opened the door with a warm, welcoming smile. Smells of dal, chapati and curry wafted out of her kitchen and hung around the house.

I slipped my sandals off my feet and followed her through a short corridor next to the kitchen into her living room.

Toys and books were everywhere, a cradle off to the side along a wall, next to a maroon sofa. Light streamed into the room from two sliding doors that opened to a balcony overlooking a wide, empty, green space. She spread out a small blanket on the carpeted floor, inviting me to lay my son down.

His eyes were on my face which was hovering over him as I lay him down on the blanket. Then they wandered off to check out the unfamiliar sights, his neck craning so he could see where the unfamiliar voices were coming from.

I was preparing to return to work after my maternity leave. That was the first day of a week of dry runs to see how my son would do with the baby sitter, away from me for a period of time. The plan was to drop him off at the baby sitter’s just as I would if I were going to work, but then I would go back home. She would call me if he did’nt do well. The first day, I would leave him for a couple of hours. The next day for a little bit longer, and so on, until we worked up to a full working day (which, for me, as a lawyer, was long and unpredictable).

I settled down on the carpet next to my son. He had his eyes fixed now on a rattle that the baby sitter was jingling. She slowly moved the rattle away and replaced that space with her face, making gurgling sounds, talking baby talk in heavily accented English and broken Kannada (they had lived in Nanjangud for a while). A slow smile spread across my son’s face, his hands trying to find each other for a clap, his legs kicking.

I didn’t know where to look or what I was supposed to do. I looked around the room, at the sofa that was not my sofa, at the books that were not my books, at the toys that were not my son’s, at the cradle that was not my baby’s, at the kitchen that was not my kitchen, and through a film of sudden tears, at the baby sitter who was not me.

A wave of sadness washed over me. Something that started at the pit of my stomach made its way up through my chest and my throat and out my mouth. She looked at me, startled. Then reached out her hand and squeezed mine. “It’s ok. He’ll be fine here. I’m there, na? See, how he’s smiling?” she said, in the same voice she’d been talking to my son in. Her husband came down and realizing what was going on, sat down on the sofa to tell me over and over that it would be all right. The kind, gentle, understanding tone of their voices just made it worse.

I sat there and bawled. I was the baby and I was the one that needed consoling.

A while later, I stood up, made my way to the car and left. It was the longest fifteen-minute drive I could have imagined. I went back home and waited for the phone to ring. It never did.

I realized I needed that trial week more than my son did.


When you are getting ready to have a child, you discover many things.

You discover that a healthy diet during pregnancy requires that you eat at least 68 gms of protein a day. You learn about folic acid and how important it is for the baby’s spinal cord. You pay attention to the nutrition content of every single thing that enters your mouth. Did you know that even milk and yogurt contain sodium? You learn to control salt in your diet because high blood pressure during pregnancy is a no no. You learn that you need to supplement your diet with calcium because the baby takes all the calcium it needs from your food and if that’s not enough, from your bones.

You learn all you can about childbirth so you are prepared for the hours of intense, mind-bending labor your body will go through.

You discover what a miracle pregnancy and childbirth is. You develop a new-found respect for the human body when you finally wrap your mind around the fact that it is capable of nurturing and nourishing a whole another human being – one that will soon be born, one that is capable of living and breathing on its own, one that is capable of growing, laughing, crying, and loving.

You realize, quite suddenly, that your mother too, once upon a time, was pregnant, and that she too delivered children and raised them. You realize that there are a whole lot of ideas, issues and topics that you never had the need to discuss with your parents but now you can’t stop talking to them about.

You discover that marvellous invention: the breast pump. No other thing in this world can make you feel more like a cow than a breast pump, but when you have a baby, feeling like a cow is not a bad thing.

You find that there is this whole other genre of writing – magazines, how-tos, novels, essays and websites – specializing in pregnancy, childbirth, child rearing during the infant years, the toddler years, the kindergarten years, all the way up to the teenage years.

But none of this prepares you to be a mother.



This entry was posted on October 1, 2005 by in Blog, Personal Essays and tagged , , .
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