Finally freed from my mom

It probably began when I made that silent vow not to be like her.

All children watch their parents. They are our first object of fascination.

She was always coming and going. There was always so much to do. I watched her with admiration and longing, and finally a dread settled over me. I wanted so much to be like her, and yet I was terrified I would.

I had a father. But it was mother who who dominated my consciousness.

Maybe it’s because I am a girl. Maybe it’s my personality. Maybe it’s my birth order. I was a dreamy child, seventh in rank, growing up in a small one bedroom apartment at the beginning end of a long corridor, with ten more apartment units. Many mothers walk past our front door, which was often left open to let in the wind and increase our sense of space.

One mother toiled over her mortar and pestle daily to churn out simple home-cooked meals. This Indian lady tired easily and had to inject insulin. One always yelled for the door to open for her as she walked past ours. Others were glum, quiet or stayed mostly indoors. I counted, saw, and heard these mothers. None of them could compare with mine.

My mother was always hard at work: washing, cooking, cleaning, feeding. I knew when she was away from home, she was hard at work too. Trying to keep nine children alive, my mother had to devise many schemes to feed us, send us to school, watch us when we got sick, and love on us.

I never once saw my mother sit down, put her legs up and rest.

One brother was sickly, and she would nurse him. Another was wild, and she could barely keep up with his antics. A sister quit school and could never hold a job for more than a few months. Yet, I hardly heard her raise her voice, complain or mutter recriminations. Hers was a steely resolve to raise her brood with sound values, make sure they all went to school (something that was denied her due to the war), and become sensible adults with families of their own.

Did she pray through all of this? Probably, but I cannot tell. Of course, there are those set dates when she would try to buy some fruits and traditional cakes, light a few joss-sticks and stick them in the urn after waving them in front of a figurine of one of the many Chinese deities who sat glum and silent on the centrepiece furniture in our small living room. The other pieces of furniture was half a set of sofa, a fridge, and a TV.

The highlight of each day was mother returning from work. It meant a hot meal, often laughter, and laying down all in a row on our papery thin mattresses to sleep after watching either a Hindi movie or a David Attenborough documentary. Sometimes, she would sing to the few of us younger ones.

While the older siblings would have things to report, chores completed, work done, income drawn; us younger ones would sometimes devise ideas to make mom laugh. We put together a concert once, using one of the wooden stools for a stage. Other times, we thought it be best to get out of the way, so we planned little excursions to explore the neighbourhood or take long bus rides with our prepaid student cards.

All the time, I wanted to report and share my adventures with her.

As I grew older and the conversations grew longer, I peeled at layer after layer of my mother’s life, and it filled me with admiration. How she was left fatherless at age three. Her resourcefulness to stay alive and keep an eye out for her older brother. Her tenuous relationship with her own mother. How she objected to marrying my father but had to obey. Her early years with her tyrannical mother-in-law. The kampong* days before she moved into a public apartment. The death of her first two children. Her skirmishes with the hospital matron, and how she learnt to stand up for her rights at work. Her enjoyment of street theatre and Chinese opera — both were available to common folk at certain times of the year — and later, her love for the cinema,when it began. She told us how she used to walk past a convent and longed to sing the songs she heard.

She told us to study, be our best, not steal, be honest, and respect our elders.

But then it happened.

My child’s sense of ‘unfair’ got applied to my mother’s life.

A combination of watching her life in contrast to my father’s aimlessness? That moment when my classmate teased me for wearing the same dress, again. My wishing that I could live like the children I see on Sesame Street, with all those adults who talked, taught and sang (with funny puppets to boot). Realising that others lived different, better. Seeing other mothers wear fancy clothes and being ‘free’.

A dread came over me. I vowed that I would never be like my mother. Her life frightened me. I could not live her life and I lacked her resourcefulness and resilience.

Most of my teen years, I exacted this anger on my father.

The blame game is easy to play.

I did not realise then that I was struggling with a deep sense of disappointment and grief over him. What I did do was alternate between ignoring him and picking on him. He never retaliated.

All the while, I continued to seek out my mother. It was as if I hoped to find someone different underneath. I hung around the kitchen when she cooked (and so am a pretty nifty cook myself, especially with meager rations). I watched her patch the clothes, soak the heavy army uniform my brother bought home. I helped hang the laundry. I cared for my baby sister. During these times, I often pepper her with questions, being a talkative child. She did not always answer, because there were things on her mind, such as, the next thing to do.

I am married now with my own children.

You know how they say you see your mother in your mothering. It is true. And the old tensions return: I want to be her, and I am afraid to be her.

I tried to pull apart the thing by listing things I will emulate and things I will eschew. But she remained my reference point, and not just in my head.

A child who has a great need for affection and had to fight for it is a deprived child. A young lady who needed a role model but found the woman she admired the most isn’t who she wants to become is a confused woman. A mother who wants the best for her children but is looking over her shoulder to see if her husband is pulling his weight is an over-burdened mother.

I may have said it before. But this week, I was brought to a place where I knew I had to say it again, “I am not my mother”.

So, perhaps, in the best way I could honour all that she lived and stood for, I have become finally, the adult.

*kampong is a Malay word which refers to a cluster of homes in an area, made up of thatched or zinc-roof houses where many families would share limited common spaces and facilities such as a well and a communal toilet. It is used endearingly to refer to a more idyllic way of life where things were shared and life was slower.

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