Mothers Love, Babies Live
Sitting cross-legged in the dust and the dirt of a small, isolated village in rural India, a woman is surrounded by a group of mothers each holding a baby. She encourages the women to make eye contact with their children. She tells them to speak to their children, to sing to them. She instructs them to gently massage their little ones, on their hands and feet and bellies. She reminds them to nurture. She has travelled long distances to teach these women the necessities of caregiving. Everyday these mothers cope with the grinding poverty that suppresses normal maternal instincts. So often the basic principles of motherhood are lost in such harsh environments. The conditions in which they live, the lack of hygiene and clean, drinkable water, malnutrition and the absence of education, can prevent the very survival of children. But this woman comes. She transforms them. She teaches that making eye contact, speaking, touching and nurturing are crucial to the development and health of every child. She empowers mothers to learn how to care for their babies. Where proper sanitation is lacking, as it almost always is, she instructs them to boil feeding bottles, cover food from flies, bathe children more often and with soap and to keep themselves cleaner. She teaches these mothers how to take pride in mothering, and in themselves. She is Sujatha Balaje, and, because of her, in the dust and dirt of a small village in India, mothers learn to love and babies are able to live.
Eighty-five kilometers away from the nearest city in the Theni District of South India is the distant village of Moorthynayakanpatti. Its occupants do not own cars, and only a few buses travel anywhere near it. When travel is required, one must walk one kilometer to the main road, where a bus will pass at an unspecified time during the day. Hopefully. The isolation of Moorthynayakanpatti makes it no small feat for Sujatha to reach this village to teach thirty-two mothers how to nurture and best care for their infants. Her work has become well known throughout this distant region, despite news traveling exclusively by word of mouth among its people.
In Moorthynayakanpatti, women lack formal education and become mothers at a very young age. Though these women lack the opportunity for education, they are eager to learn, and Sujatha’s arrival is exciting. She begins by explaining how important the early years of childhood development are for a lifetime of health, relationships and learning. The women quickly embrace the concepts and begin to make eye contact with their children more often, hold their babies more gently, sing to them and play with them. The mothers enjoy Sujatha’s trainings because she makes the lessons and teachings simple and applicable to their lifestyle. She encourages them to use the resources they already have – their songs, their games, their stories and their love. These mothers are soon able to build stronger bonds with their children and to better nurture their well-being.
It is soon time for Sujatah to leave Moorthynayakanpatti and continue on. In the remote tribal areas of Kathirvelpuram and Periyakulam, she meets with mothers and grandmothers from the gypsy community. In this community of 150 gypsies, the mothers are all very young and few have had any education, though they obviously love their children. In order to participate in Sujatha’s classes, these mothers sacrifice two days worth of the wages they earn in the fields. Sujatha teaches them how, through nurturing, communicating and physical contact, they can improve their babies’ brain development. Though the training site may only be a dirt patch with no books and few resources, the women are proud to be learning. During this training, an unprecedented moment occurs: the gypsy men, fathers and grandfathers, decide to join in. Though always welcome, men do not often participate in these meetings, and their attendance is a testament to the importance of Sujatha’s work.
In the village of Koduvillarpatti, Sujatha is led to a small community room with the capacity for instructing about five women. Gathered with her, however, are over thirty mothers, all of whom have babies and children along with them, anxious to hear her teachings. As she gazes among them and looks at the training space, it is clear that this is not going to work. Rather than turning women away, Sujatha consults with the village leaders, and it is decided that she will hold class in the middle of the street. No one will be left out. And so, as the village vendors pull their carts along the road, they find that the street is full of mothers and children conducting puppet shows, singing songs and dancing. Men, women and children walking, biking or driving through the village come upon the same scene and often sit and become a part of the training, themselves.
The mothers that Sujatha teaches are not always literal mothers. Many are not the biological parents of these children, but act as sole caregivers. In many cases, the role of mother is played by older children, grandmothers or other women in the villages. Additionally, Sujatha’s teachings extend to many orphanages throughout the state of Tamil Nadu, in Southern India. In these orphanages, conditions are poor, to say the least. There are rarely enough caregivers to provide for the many seeking eyes and deprived hands of all the children, many of whom have severe medical conditions or physical disabilities. In one orphanage, there are three caregivers for fifty-three infants. Contact with the general public is limited, and the orphanage staff often live in mistrust and apprehension. But Sujatha reaches them. She gains their trust and their respect. The caregivers who have previously been instructed by Sujatha greet her with smiles on their faces and babies in their arms, excited to tell her stories of how the health of their babies has improved. The women sing and dance with the children, give baby massage and make eye contact. The women learn that they matter, in the lives of these children, and they revel in the validation of their natural maternal instincts.
Within the orphanages that Sujatha visits, the results of her teachings are astounding. Orphanage directors report that since her trainings, child death and illness rates have decreased. Babies gain weight, recover from illness more quickly and are easier to soothe. General hygiene and living conditions in the orphanages are also improved. The caregivers take great pride and demonstrate more confidence in their work. They are more nurturing and responsive to their babies and call them by their names for the first time. The children appear happier, and, in many cases, the older ones have improved learning. In one report, Sujatha mentions that while she was leading a training for caregivers at an orphanage, the children there watched her explain how to give baby massage. Moments later the children all filed into the room with their dolls and asked her to stop teaching the women so that she could teach them. She included the children in her training, and they began giving massage to their dolls. Engaging in play activities helps to nurture cognitive, social, physical and language skills. Many of these children miss out on such activities, as they are expected to take care of the smaller children. Through her teachings, Sujatha is not only helping mothers and caregivers to promote the health and development of their children, she is directly helping the children learn to be children.
The number of people that Sujatha reaches continues to grow. The positive results seen among the women she trains spreads through the villages, and more women are eager to learn. Sujatha is now known throughout many villages in South India and has become something of a local celebrity. Women flock to find her on buses and want to sit with her, talk with her, tell her their stories of how they are using their knowledge and how their babies are learning so quickly. The mothers are so proud, and they are eager to share and to learn more. Sujatha is the Master Trainer of Hands to Hearts International (HHI), a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide women in the most impoverished communities with the knowledge and skills to properly care for their children, and she has taught over 1,000 women in the importance of early childhood development and has reached more than 4,000 children. Sujatha’s work exemplifies the importance of nurturing and promoting health during early childhood development. Children who lack emotional bonds in development often grow up fearful and have a difficult time relating to peers. In the critical first years of life, children establish a sense of trust and belonging, acquire language skills, develop curiosity and experience neural development. In order for this development to be successful, babies need to be loved and nurtured. Sujatha recognizes the importance of this critical period.
At a very young age, Sujatha has become a mother for mothers, and she has given the gift of maternal love to countless numbers of children in the neediest of circumstances. As a child, she experienced her own mother’s enduring love for parenting, as she watched her run a home for orphaned and run-away children. Being impressed with her mother’s service to children and women, Sujatha decided she, too, would dedicate her life to the cause of motherhood. Sujatha, who is the mother of her own two beautiful children, believes that her firsthand experiences have taught her how very important it is to express care and love for them. In her words, “To give this kind of assurance to the child is very important to have physical and mental attachment to the child. And I have personally felt this attachment with both my kids.” Sujatha also believes strongly that women are powerful and have the strength and ability to have a great impact in the world. She believes that as a woman she has the responsibility to educate, not only impoverished and illiterate women, but every woman who is willing to learn the best ways to nurture their children through bonding and attachment. The gift she provides allows mothers to love, and in return, babies to live.
Written by: Linda Ruggiero, PhD