HT Brunch Mother’s Day Cover Story: Mum is not the right word!
Neerja Birla delivered her first child in 1994 and experienced her first bout of postpartum depression. She was happy to be a mother, yet, she felt strangely depressed and weighed down. “Why am I feeling this way?” she wondered, and it took her a great amount of resilience, self-belief and a spiritual connect to snap out of it.
Neerja is the wife of industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla and belongs to one of India’s most prominent business families. She is mother to three grown up children: Ananya, 25, Aryaman, 22 and Advaitesha, 16, two of whom are now young adults making choices of life and career with strong, independent thinking, just as their mother taught them to. But that’s a story for the latter half of this piece.
“My postpartum depression hit me hard,” Neerja reminisces. “It made me read up and realise that I wasn’t the first mother to have experienced it, nor would I be the last. Postpartum depression is a physiological, hormonal thing; it’s a neurotransmitter imbalance, which causes anxiety. I was able to overcome it because I was strong, but I realised I would have been able to deal with it more easily had I got better help.”
Today, Neerja Birla runs Mpower, an organisation that champions the cause of mental health across geographies and classes, providing a listen and giving advice to anyone who needs to talk, placing the health of the mind on par with physical health, and wiping off the stigma that comes attached to it.
But it wasn’t her own experience with depression that got her to start Mpower. “I became a mother years ago. It was more recently in the schools I work with that I noticed the need for mental health awareness,” she says. “Historically, traditionally and culturally, one has never given importance to mental health. It is always taken for granted. Anything to do with ‘personal feelings’ doesn’t matter. If you are not strong, it exposes you to vulnerabilities, and you don’t know how to cope. Generally, the advice is, ‘Shove your feelings under the carpet. Push them away. You feel if you don’tpay attention to them, they’ll just go away.”
That, Neerja warns, is the biggest mistake.“We may not want to go to the dentist because we are scared of going to a dentist,” she says, offering an analogy. “But the truth is, if we do not go, our toothache will not go away either!”
The biggest problem is that a mental health issue is considered a stigma. “It is a taboo topic of sorts. Even if people are aware of it, the feeling is ‘What are people going to say?’ I want mental health to be an issue that’s comfortable to discuss over the family dinner table,” says Neerja. “We must ease it into being a normal problem, encouraging discussions that’ll eventually get rid of the stigma. ‘Therapist’ no longer needs to be a bad word. What do people do when they have diabetes? They treat it, right? Not hide it!”
Some people believe that mental health is a rich man’s problem. That the poor deal with poor nutrition and food, while the privileged contend with matters of the mind. Neerja says an emphatic no to this idea. “Just because you have money, doesn’t mean you have happiness. Mental health does not discriminate. Your economic situation, your gender, age, none of those things matter. In fact, our Foundation sees people from economically challenged backgrounds come in higher numbers than those at the Centre.”
When Neerja talks about her relationship with her children, she uses an unusual word for herself: Caretaker.
“As parents, we need to be caretakers and nurture our children. We need to mould them, guide them, give them age-appropriate advice, and help them take age-appropriate decisions that they are able to stand up for themselves,” she says, presenting a new perspective to the traditional bond often ridden with emotions and expectations. “Most of all, we need to teach our kids to be independent. They have to learn to make their own decisions and then face the consequences.”
Remind yourself of the traditional Marwari business family that Neerja Birla represents, and you know this is a truly exceptional approach to parenting.And two of her three kids, old enough to pave their own way, have already put Neerja’s belief to the test.
After founding a fairly successful microfinancing company in her teens, Ananya Birla decided to quit studying at Oxford University and pursue her dreams of becoming a pop singer. An unusual, unpredictable profession by many standards. Was Neerja worried?
“Kumar and I were visiting Ananya in Oxford when she told us she wanted to give up studies and become a pop singer,” Neerja says. “She told us that day that ‘I enjoy this and this is what I want to do,’ and we both took it quite well. Maybe we already knew what her true calling was. We told her to give it her best.
“The toughest part of parenting for me is the dichotomy it presents,” adds Neerja. “You spend time making your kids independent, then cut the umbilical cord and watch them make mistakes.”
Between Neerja and Kumar Mangalam, who’s the braver parent / caretaker? Pat comes the reply, “Me!”
Is Kumar Mangalam not as brave? “He’s more traditional,” Neerja says. “During the kids’ growing up years, he was busy with work, so by default, the responsibility of bringing up the kids landed in my lap.”
Then, she adds, “We all know people from our generation who could not pursue their dreams and regret that to date. I didn’t want my children to ever feel that way.”
Neerja Birla’s strength shines through just as bright through her second-born, Aryaman Vikram.
A budding cricketer who played for the Rajasthan Royals in the IPL and also Madhya Pradesh Cricket Team, decided to “take an undefined sabbatical” from the game because it was causing him severe anxiety. He posted his decision on Instagram last December, saying, “I feel the need to put my mental health and well-being above all else. We all have our own journeys, and I want to take this time to understand myself better.”
You don’t have to point out to Neerja that Aryaman seems to be a chip off the old block for her eyes to light up instantly. “I’m very proud of Aryaman. It takes a lot of guts to do what he did,” says Neerja. “As a mother, I took him through the process: I told him people will ask you questions; was he ready for the consequences? Had he thought of the responses he’d have to give and the pressures that came with it?
“Aryaman told me, ‘Mum, putting this out there will inspire people to do the right thing.’ I was scared for him as a mother, but also very proud. It was a very large-hearted thing for him to do!”
As the world strives to fight an unexpected pandemic, the need for resilience and mental strength gets all the more important. “At Mpower, we have created a helpline with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the government of Maharashtra. We are putting out content on social media and video chats and online counselling is busier than ever.
“My advice to people in quarantine would be to maintain a routine, look at the positive side of things, and keep in touch via technology,” says Neerja. “These are difficult times; understanding our emotions will help us put the right coping mechanism in place. Remember: it’s okay to not be okay, but it’s not okay to not be okay and not seek help.”
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From HT Brunch, May 10, 2020
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