I Hate my Mom!
But then, I’ll be Damned!
The perils of navigating the religious context of motherhood.
I grew up in a somewhat cold, distant household. My father was, in general, a very loving man. But he was, like most immigrants who raise their families in America, busy trying to make a living and ensure that all of our needs were met. At the same time, while holding on to his very traditional held beliefs from his native Indian homeland, he felt that, as the man of the house, he was obligated to care for the family, and that my mom could not, and should not, work. So, she stayed at home with my siblings and me (two brothers and two other sisters).
In following along with that same traditional principle that my parents held sacred, the law, my mom should have been the nurturing one of the two, the one to keep us in line, manage all the affairs of the house, cook for us, just be, mom.
For us, being born in America, the concept of “mom” was associated with that soft, huggable belly, smells of delicious cookies, pearl necklaces, comforting words, smiles that warm every cell in our little bodies, feeling safe, not just physically, but emotionally.
And that image was only reinforced in our public schools (where we were the “different” ones) in storybooks and invitations for mother’s day celebrations (which my mother never came to…my teacher would always play the part of my “mom”).
But instead, as kids, my siblings and I were stuck in between conflicting cultural and religious notions of “mom.” Instead, what I got was a mom who was just never there. To clarify, she was there physically, but never quite there emotionally or mentally.
I understand that she was young when she had us: married at 19, pregnant at 20, living in a new homeland away from her other siblings and family in India, adjusting to the foreignness of life here. But aside from all of that, she seemed to collapse and just exit due to the pressures of motherhood. Mom would keep us at a distance, rarely making eye contact, never hugging, never praising and never listening. As we grew older she seemed to always criticize us whenever she had anything to say to us at all. Her social calendar was busy, focused on her fashion and friends. She would spend time learning how to cook to show off recipes at social functions. But her attention was never really focused on her children or her home. She was just not there.
Our house seemed to be always in disarray. I can’t recall any meals she made that we loved or enjoyed. There were no family moments, no “I’m so proud of you moments” or family traditions made. My siblings and I would make our own lunches from an early age. I would go to school with mismatched socks, or messy hair, resulting in being picked on or made fun of (as a six year old, though how was I supposed to know any better?). And as a girl-becoming-a-woman, I had to navigate the complexities of teenage life, finding answers on my own (from books that I checked out in the library).
My father would come home exhausted but eager to sit with us, but that quickly turned in to evening lectures and scoldings for things that we did wrong. To be fair, my father had to do this since my mother didn’t try at all. We all felt that my father had to unfairly take on the burden of serving as both parents. And for some reason, either out of oblivion or out of deep love for my mom, he let her off the hook for her neglect. And sometimes he would fall in the same trap of “you can’t have any feelings.”
As a result, my siblings and I had to grow up, and grow up fast. We tried to find comfort in each other, but even that seemed difficult to do without the proper support from a mother about how to learn to love one another. In fact, we often found that she would stand in the way of family events.
Despite all of that, we were good kids. Our teachers liked us, we did well in school, we didn’t really cause any trouble. We would go home and do our homework (on our own, without my mother’s direction). We followed by the rules that were understood in our communities: we always covered our legs, we didnt date, and we never asked to go to prom or sleepovers. We kept to ourselves and played nicely at home.
I can’t say for certain that my mom represents the typical immigrant mother. I’ve taken “informal observatory consensuses” amongst my friends, and I know that every family has its own problems, but some of their moms are quite warm. At the same time, many are in some ways like mine. Life for that generation of immigrant moms seemed to have been about cooking, social life, fashion and then a focus on an extreme criticism of their kids who always seemed to be a disappointment to them. As a kid, you just needed to get good grades, don’t-talk-back-to-your-parents and stay quiet unless spoken to. But more importantly, don’t ever express what you “feel.” As a child you don’t, you can’t, have any feelings.
Now, as a grown woman and mother, I struggle with this intensity of anger and hatred towards my mom. But then, I am interrupted with the thought in my mind that I will be damned if I do.
I grew up attending Sunday school, and over and over I would hear the sermons about the heavens being under the feet of your mother. Rarely did I openly disrespect or speak out against my mom. But in those moments that I did, I would hear her shout “Don’t you know what Islam says about mothers! Watch out, God is going to send his wrath on you!” Or, “don’t know you that a mother’s prayer is always answered! Don’t make me pray for something bad! You disrespectful-disappointment-of-a-child!”
In a strange, solemn, way I would go to my room, shut my door and just sit in utter astonishment. How was it that my feelings were not ever heard? Instead, my mom hated me, and so too did God, apparently. What happened to hugging your child and saying “I hear you. I’m sorry you are going through that,”? Or, “I’d really love to know more about why you feel the way you do.”
Although I’ve sought intensive therapy, and it’s helped me tremendously in so many ways, it’s this one piece of my life that still seems so hard to navigate. Throughout my adult life, I have been yearning for something from my childhood that I’ll never have. I feel that so much of my childhood has been lost, in this cold place that I don’t ever want to go back to. And yet, I find myself constantly longing for it. Even worse is trying to understand how to reconcile my feelings of neglect and being ignored, with the religious principles of heaven under my mother’s feet. I know that there should be expiration dates on blaming your parents, and I know that I should be very thankful for all that I have, and I need to learn and embrace forgiveness. As a human, I’m struggling through all of that. I just want to work through it without the push and pull, constantly second guessing of my self that my feelings can be legitimate and finding healing in that way to let go of the past without the echo of my mother’s words that God is displeased with me. In some ways, I felt that she used that saying to her own advantage and to let herself off the hook in just being mom. About the emotions, I am, after all, human and perhaps one of the most basic of all needs of any human is to be loved. And in my childhood house, love did not exist. Not only was I unloved, but I was also led to believe that I was damned. True, she wasn’t an alcoholic, or drug addict. I was never physically abused (well, I would get the occasional slapping, or chase around the house with the jaru, but that seems standard in this desi context), but the abuse in the emotional realm seems to be far more complex to grasp and navigate through and a lot more complex to try to explain to others. It’s a big hole in my heart that I can’t seem to show or say to anyone, let alone my mom.
I do understand the idea of the highest elevated station of motherhood in the religion. Having a daughter of my own, who just turned two, I realize the tremendous sacrifice of pregnancy and labor that my mom bore before me. But my connection to my daughter now is so sweet, very nurturing and attentive. Even at two, her tender little eyes find comfort in mine. She seems to already confide in me and trust me because I can offer to her a soft belly, warm hugs and smells of cookies.
I may never actually achieve that peace in my life that I need, and may constantly live with this fear that God is displeased with me, but for now, I’ll continue my struggles to navigate those emotions. And hope that one day they will go away.