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Lisa Surihani and Motherhood: “I felt so objectified as a person”

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The first three months of pregnancy are usually a secret and tranquil joy for mothers, but Lisa Surihani enjoyed no such privacy. When she was pregnant with her first child in 2015, the actress found herself hounded by the media – her every step, move and comment scrutinised and publicised.

Having suffered a miscarriage earlier, she was wary and worried about saying anything before the crucial three months were up. But a reporter had broken her trust and published news of her pregnancy anyway. A media frenzy ensued for her and her husband, artiste and director Yusry Abdul Halim.

“Within the first three-month window, reporters and others were asking us whether it was true. Because we were not cooperating, they were then calling my mother, my mother-in-law and my brothers-in-law,” she told makchic in an interview at her home.

Under pressure and feeling distressed by it all, Lisa ended up hiding her entire pregnancy throughout.

Lisa and Yusry shared very few details of their first pregnancy over social media.

“It led to me not wanting to show any pictures of the bump. I felt I was so objectified as a person, and that everything was a source for a story. So I refused to feed (the frenzy). There were two ends of the spectrum – some people were like ‘Oh just leave her alone’. There were others who went ‘Why eh mengade sangat, tak nak tunjuk perut?’ (Why do you not want to show your bump?)”

Labour Pains and Joy

The persistent attention on her first pregnancy continued even after her daughter Yahaira Leanne was born, with her baby’s time of birth even published by entertainment blogs before an official announcement.

“It was all very overwhelming. I think as a new parent, you want to embrace and appreciate a lot of these moments, rather than juggle the expectations or the exposure to those not within your close circles in life,” she said.

This sequence of events led her to become very private when it came to Yahaira’s arrival into the world, with Lisa trying to keep the meaningful times for their own family.

With Prof Dr Imelda, a Professor at the Department for Obstetric and Gynaecology in Universiti Malaya, for their upcoming talk show, “Tanya Dr Imelda.” They hope to address issues that would help women (and mothers) make informed decisions about their health.

But she remembers Yahaira’s birth with great joy and even some laughs. Having practised hypnobirthing and being fully prepared to have a natural birth, Lisa finally had to have a C-section after 28 hours of labour due to cervical dilation that did not progress.

“I did not want her to go through a traumatic birth. The doctor said she was quite stuck and I wasn’t dilating, so we thought it’d be safer for her to ‘go out the window’ in the end.

“She came out within half an hour! I heard her cry, and then I said ‘Alhamdulillah’. She was so pink, and I thought aloud could it be because of the sirap bandung I had been having,” she said with a laugh. Lisa said the birth of her second child, son Yusof Leonne, was less dramatic as she had an elective C-section.

The baby blues

For Lisa, she is grateful that breastfeeding did not prove to be a difficult experience, but she did, however, develop some symptoms of postpartum depression. She experienced horrible thoughts for both children postpartum, and she said this scared her very much.

“It was scary – I went through thoughts that were awful and scared me so much. I felt it was important for me to share it with my husband, but I did not even tell him the details of my thoughts. They were awful.

“I thought – Eesh, kenapa I fikir macam ni, tergamak aku fikir macam tu (Why am I thinking like this, how could I have the heart?) … In my case, I think I was lucky that it wasn’t a severe degree. It would come and go. But it would make me weak in the knees.”

Lisa struggled with postpartum blues and a stressful pantang after the birth of her baby, Yahaira.

The experience made Lisa think a lot and she tried to make sense of the situation in a scientific way. “The brain is such a unique organ, isn’t it? I wondered if it was because I’m an intense person when it comes to emotion, even way before pregnancy.

“Is that why you have these chemical releases in the brain, combined with hormones that are fluctuating at the time? I couldn’t help wondering whether I was crazy. But I told myself, “Your brain is sending you all these false signals which are … not you,” she said.

As time went, things became better. She had Yusry to confide in. She did breathing and affirmation exercises to help her pull through. Her family, especially her mother, helped in their daily routine with the new baby. Looking at her baby often also brought “a lightness to (the) heart”, she said.  She also put on classical music and baby-versions of popular songs every day, as well as Quranic verses every Friday.

“I’m very much a child at heart, so I also watched a lot of animations. Every little bit helped.”

Pantang problems

Lisa candidly sharing her struggles and the joys of parenting with makchic.

The actress also did not have the best start to her confinement period with Yahaira, as her confinement lady left her feeling very stressed as a new mother. The confinement lady she had booked kept wanting to change the terms of her employment. Worst of all, her manner and care often left Lisa feeling distressed.

During one occasion, she said, her confinement lady insisted on continuing her urut tungku (the Malay traditional postpartum massage) even as her baby was crying for milk.

“I was leaking milk and felt that my baby needed my milk, but the confinement lady said, ‘Let me finish my work first.’ I was shaken and confused. I said, “But, I need to feed my baby.”

Eventually, after much crying from her baby, the confinement lady finally allowed Lisa to feed her baby.

“When my baby latched, you could tell she was so hungry, it broke my heart. I broke down and cried. (The confinement lady) freaked out, saying ‘Eh janganlah, nanti meroyan’ (Don’t do that or you may get depressed).

Angry and stressed

I was angry at myself. I should have told her, that as a mother, and knowing fully well that my new baby was hungry, I should have fed her. And that the massage could wait,” she said.

Lisa said she was so stressed by the entire experience and did not like the energy in her home anymore.

Her husband was concerned and unhappy with the situation too. Yusry told Lisa: “I really feel this is not good for you, stop her (services). If you need me to say it, I will.”

Both decided to let the confinement lady go. Thanks to good friends, they managed to employ two different people for the remaining two weeks, even with such short notice. She had a Malay lady doing the urut and tungku, and a Chinese lady who cooked confinement meals for her.

“It may have gotten to a rough start but it was an experience which I learned a lot from. Technically, I only had a good routine for two weeks, but it helped me a great deal in my recovery. I believe in pantang, and I felt it made a difference – how you take care of your body and what you consume.”

Lisa embraces the challenges of motherhood.

Motherhood challenges

She may be one of the biggest stars in Malaysia and used to a wide variety of performing roles, but Lisa admits the role of motherhood has proven to be the most challenging and fascinating.

Typical motherhood challenges trouble her. “I have failed many times in my parenting journey!” she shares.

For example, Yahaira is a very picky eater – plain bread, French fries and plain rice are her preferred options. “And mihun with literally nothing in it! Very seldom will she take other food groups like protein and iron. At the moment, she gets that from her milk.”

But Lisa does not want to force meal times on her daughter.  “I try every day. Maybe it’s a phase she is going through. Hopefully, in time, her taste palates will expand. I will have to persevere.”

Explosive toddler tantrums have left her feeling helpless, and sometimes she has ‘lost it’ herself.

Lisa understands, however, that Yahaira was perhaps experiencing big emotions for the first time. “I tried asking her to do deep breaths, I showed her how. Miraculously, it seemed to have worked since. Deep breaths and a hug seem to calm her down well.”

Social Media Madness

Lisa debated about sharing too many details of her children on her social media, especially in the beginning with Yahaira.

Like any other parent, she has debated about her children’s photos on social media, but unlike most parents, she deals with a lot of unwelcome attention.

Things that she has said, as a matter of fact, are often twisted to imply she is denigrating other parents for their choices. It made Lisa concerned. “We have other celebrity friends who are also parents. And all of us are understanding enough to know everyone has their own parenting ways and principles.”

When many fake accounts with her daughter’s name appeared after Yahaira’s birth, Lisa’s comment to the media that none of these were real sparked controversy.

“All we explained when asked was that our daughter did not have her own social media account yet. We added that we would be posting pictures when it was suitable.“ That answer itself resulted in a backlash.

“Quite honestly, we were just responding to questions and not wanting to make it a big deal,” she said.

Cruel comments

And online comments can still make her livid.

“There was one time I posted up a family photo, and my son was in there. By way of comparison, I posted up Leo’s photo a lot sooner than (I did) Yahaira, and somebody said ‘No wonder anak kedua ni boleh post awal-awal, anak pertama tak pulak dulu kan? Yalah, sebab anak pertama ni tak berapa cantik (No wonder she posted a photo of this second child earlier, and not of the first child, right? Yes, it’s because the first child isn’t very beautiful).’

Lisa replied that it was up to her when she wanted to post photographs and that her daughter is and would always be beautiful to her eyes.

Lisa and Yusry with their children, during a recent pilgrimage to Mecca.

I wrote: “Saya doakan awak sembuh” (I pray you get well). And then it came out on the blogs quickly. In hindsight, however, it made me think – Wait, was this bait to provoke me? I realised I must be careful with the way I react, because sometimes it may just prolong things. So nowadays if there is anything even remotely negative or something I dislike, I will just block and delete. I negate the negative.”

Even with that stance, Lisa has found she can’t win sometimes – she faces criticism about just wanting pujian saja (only praise).

But she has learnt to become more zen and philosophical about things. “It is better if we have the positive outweigh the negative in life.”

Parental Bliss

When it comes to talking about positive things and the joys of parenting, Lisa’s eyes brighten. Her whole body moves animatedly with expression.

Lisa shares her love for reading with her children.

She loves doing oral interpretation when she reads to her children – dramatic reading that uses different voices for different characters. Lisa has read up about phonics and whole word reading. She continues to teach Yahaira about empathy and consent – her daughter knows how to say ‘No means no’. Most of all, she loves learning about her children’s personalities, and she has learnt new things about herself too.

“Motherhood is one of the best things that happened in my life. They always say, love yourself. I love myself, but I don’t fully understand that notion. Even now, I’m still trying to understand that.

“We mothers tend to put others first – our kids, our husbands – and we get things in order and manage everything. So what is ‘love yourself’ first? Is it ‘me time’? Does it mean manicures and pedicures, spas and massages? But I think it goes deeper than that. I think that is something I’m still learning about as well, trying to fully understand what loving myself means.”

You got this

Lisa said she is on a journey of discovery still, learning to be a better version of herself every day.

Lisa takes her ambassadorship with UNICEF seriously. With Choi Siwon, promoting kindness on a recent #standtogether campaign.

“Every night before I go to sleep, I ask myself ‘What did I like about today?’ I am trying to truly embrace being grateful with what I have. To truly feel syukur (grateful).”

And her message to fellow mothers out there?

“You got this. When the odds are against us, it is because we are tough. And the tough get going.”

Laych Koh is the editor-in-chief of makchic.

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