Wednesday, 23 March 2011

On Mothers

Indonesians often says that paradise lies beneath the sole of a Mother's foot, a metaphor that I still don't quite grasp or an image easy to imagine, but I suppose the idea is that a mother's position is so elevated as to be quite divine and cursed is anyone that shows disrespect to her or treat her with less than complete deference and adoration.

The fact is, as the saying goes, 'a man's work is from sun to sun, but a mother's work is never done.' Mothers, far from enjoying life's bounty and bask in the sunshine of her offsprings's affection and spouse's devotion, often end up taking on life's many trials and tribulations, with more work, more responsibilities and more blames heaped upon her when things go wrong, whether it be her ne'er do well children or her philandering husband. A mother is not only the source of never-ending and boundless love. She is also the repository of all the worries, anxieties and miseries of life.

The burden of responsibility is heavier still if she feels she has to live up to certain expectations, whether her own, the society's, her husband's or even her in laws' - and if she has them, her children's. Paradise may lie at the base of her feet but she herself inhabit a universe that only a being capable of bearing another human being could dwell in. An esoteric universe full of secrets and mysteries that a mother could only pass on to her daughters, the would-be mothers of the world.

Or so I would imagine. Despite being a daughter I felt and in many ways still feel, that I was never privy to those secrets and mysteries that mothers and daughters share. And for this I readily lay the blame on my dear late mother, who never had neither the interest nor the inclination to share with her daughters the joys of motherhood and the bliss of a harmonious domestic life devoted to keeping the fires in the hearth going until dad comes home to bring the bacon.

Far from instructing her daughters on the sorts of married life they should aim for and the kind of mothers they should be, she was more concerned with pointing out the various downsides of a wedded existence, often using her friends as sorry examples. Once while still in elementary school, I broached the subject of childbearing. I remembered at that impressionable age I rather fancied the idea of having eleven children and even conjured up names for them. Her answer was curt but the message was clear.

'Imagine being cut to bits with a saw,' she said. 'It was painful.' I tried to imagine and I was horrified. I wondered what made her go through the torture three times, but concluded that she was made of a tougher material than me. The image however, stuck in my mind. There was no romance, no description of the beauty and joy of producing a life and nurturing an infant.

No, my mother was never really into the role of the motherhood thing. She used to think that Mother's Day was an insult. A day in which children make their mums breakfast in bed and spoil her? My mother would never stoop to prepare tea for her children, pack their lunch, make our beds and ensure that we're well wrapped up before going to school. Those things were for me to do as the child of the house and therefore the lowest in the pecking order. My mother was not there to serve anybody. Because her role was not a mother, but a matriarch.

My mother might not have taught me a thing about motherhood, housekeeping and domesticity, but throughout the years as I grew up, she taught me something that I find equally if not more valuable in life. That is how to be a capable and independent human being. To be sure she had her own expectations of me, but they were based on her desire to see her daughter make the most of her life with as minimal limitations as possible, including those imposed by gender and social stereotypes.

Because she herself refused the constraints of stereotypes typical of the times that she was brought up in. In an era when most women defined their lives in terms of their role as wife, mother, daughter and woman, my mother was none of these. She was working even well before the word career woman was coined. At home she was the handyman, who could fix anything broken from a leaky tap to a noisy carburettor. She was a whizz at whitewashing the walls and designing the house extension. She was too busy socialising and organising events to spend her time and energy to make sure the children did their homework.

Once, as I grew up, I talked about love and relationships. Again, here answer was short, but forever etched in my brain. She didn't think I would be the type to enjoy washing somebody else's socks or spend a good part of my life carrying a screaming baby. Certainly she wouldn't expect me to waste my good education just so that I would sit around at home without a career.

Love is all very nice, she said, but it wouldn't guarantee a roof over your head. Go out in the world, make something of yourself, be independent, was her message. Don't rely on somebody else for your happiness. I berated her for her cynicism. She gave me that look as if she knew what was best. My Mother's idea of motherhood was to make sure that her happiness and fulfilment came first before that of anybody else's.

Looking back, my mother was right. The gift that she gave me was the gift of what an ordinary human being should have, regardless whether one is male or female. The freedom to purse one's happiness in one's own unique way.

For you could only make other people happy when you yourself are happy and fulfilled.

(Desi Anwar: First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

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