Family & Relationships

Trapped in Daughterhood:

Mother-daughter relationships can be intense. One of the deepest attachments of love — but often also other, more complicated emotions. Many mothers and their adult daughters have had to confront that head on recently when the lockdown forced grown-up children to live with their elderly parents, because they could no longer just come over for a daily visit to check in. There’s an unspoken social rule that this relationship must always be “celebrated” (except in fiction, where you can let demons loose). Our Guest Contributor Sehba Imam breaks that taboo to talk about her lockdown with mother, warts and all.

Sehba Imam: deciphering the complex mother-daughter relationship

The lockdown has trapped my mother and me both inside our home and our heads. I can’t go away on work or find other ways of living extended periods when I don’t have to be my mother’s daughter. She can’t get the space when I am not in the house and she is the efficient matriarch, with a wayward daughter.

I envy friends who have untinged devotional love for their parents. They hide their lifestyle choices from their parents, but claim that they love and respect them immensely. Unconventional relationships, drinking, less than modest dress sense all stay behind the screen of respect. There is a functionality to this equation. You can be yourself without having to challenge your parent. A mother can love you without having to judge your ways. It’s the kind of respectable sham that saves all close relationships, including marriage. Truth can corrode at the foundations of an enmeshed relationship. Because having the ability to tell the truth is no guarantee that there’s also the capacity to accept it.

Walking through true feelings is not a walk in the park. It’s like walking through a path lined with dump yards that we train ourselves to ignore. At least for me that’s what it is. I once had the ability to stretch out pretty canvases and hide the dump yards behind a screen of carefully picked ‘memories’. If someone spoke of feelings that didn’t fit into my park, I would shove them under a mountain of toxic positivity. I was like my own Facebook post – overwhelmingly gleeful about everything. 

But some spectacular falls and soul searching later, I started developing the faculty to see beyond the pretty pictures on my stretched canvas. As I started palpitating feelings and emotions covered with crispy layers of ‘happy pictures’, first a few whiffs and then gusts of stench weaved into my world of picture perfect feelings. 

Without the protection of the pretty picture, I found myself trapped by the dump yards that had unresolved feelings. Some could be retrieved, like pieces of a long forgotten object. Even if sad or angry, these were feelings that could be separated from the mass of unresolved darkness and made sense of. But there were also feelings attached to memories too messy to retrieve. They had turned putrid, casting a dark shadow over an entire childhood. The smell started following me. No matter how fast or far I would go to get away from it, I could not experience the fresh fragrance of a flower in my path. 

“She didn’t give up faith, but stopped visible practice. What did it do to her feelings?”

There must have been good times, loving times, times when my mother cared and nurtured. Times when I felt safe and valued as a little girl. But they are overshadowed by rejection, invalidation and a terribly insecure childhood. My childhood is splattered with incidents where my mother not just showed lack of care, but actually favored her sisters, nieces or other relatives over her children. There is an incident of her stealing the pretty dress that I had to wear for a wedding and passing it on to her sister. She complained about and berated me with her sisters and spoke proudly of her nieces. She was clueless about many violations in my childhood and failed dramatically to provide any form of safety, physical or emotional, through my formative years. I grew up believing that I was physically ugly, mentally unstable, emotionally attention-seeking and generally unreliable. Through various stages of life, I tried to whitewash this identity by being a rebel, an adventurer, a workaholic, an over wrought perfectionist housewife (the only role that briefly won my mother’s approval).

Invalidation can have many forms. Disapproval is the most obvious one, but worse than disapproval is unseeing. Once I grew up and grew out of the range of being affected by her active disapproval, my mother changed her mode of invalidation. I am everything my mother can’t approve of. I drink, I am irreligious, I wear clothes that can’t be defined as modest, I am twice divorced, pushing fifties but still have men in my life, I have tumbled in and out of upheavals but I haven’t given up on life. A woman like me, if not broken should at least feel apologetic and not shamelessly celebrate her life. 

Not just my strengths, but my illnesses, sorrows, grief, tiredness, low moods, helplessness… are of no value for my mother. She cannot hold them for me, because my life and personality is way beyond her. She clubs them all into laziness, drama, irresponsibility and procrastination. She judges me silently. In our initial period of living together post my father’s death and my second divorce, she was forever ready to shoot out an arrow from her arsenal of bitter sarcastic comments. After angry confrontations and bitter arguments, she doesn’t say those things anymore, but her judgment spills out when she pointedly appreciates a cousin for her silent suffering, graceful secrecy about her broken marriage, modest dress sense and her helpless misery. It comes out in her absolute silence about me when talking to her relatives. It comes out in her breezy statements with them, when she talks about how I have been too busy to attend to some need and she has made her peace with it, how she has learned to not complain about her life because ‘her God knows all’.

Pop psychology and candy spirituality is forever trying to make you believe that you don’t need approval. I say, I do. I think everyone who is deprived of validation, yearns for it and that is why they have to repeatedly assert that they don’t. Our minds are trained to seek approval, when we don’t get it, we train ourselves to seek disapproval, shock, judgment. 

I could never give up on the desire to hear my mother speak of me approvingly. Even now, as an empowered adult woman, when I hear her enumerate her many woes to her relatives, her silence in any positive reference about me stands out like a sword. When she and I moved into our current house, I wanted her to speak of how I have made her room comfortable for her, how despite having nothing to do with her Quran and Namaz, I brought a carpenter and built a fancy corner for her where she can keep her Quran, janamaz and her tattered dua books. I have always wanted her to talk about what a fine young woman my daughter has turned out to be despite the emotional upheavals she and I faced in life. I catch myself forming sentences in my head, where she is telling someone about how her medicines were flawlessly organized through the lockdown, how I went looking for the vegetables she prefers, how I made sure that halwa was made on shab-e-barat, or invited friends to celebrate a socially-distanced Eid with her. But I know she won’t. It invalidates the life she has led.

Sehba’s mother (back to camera) celebrating a socially-distanced Eid at home.

My mother is married to victimhood and deprivation. My father did all this too, but culturally. As a staunch, militant atheist he scoffed at her God and her religion. Being an egalitarian leftist, who believed in freedom of expression, he never ever stopped her from practicing, but opened debates and discussions on the subject every time he caught her praying. He was an articulate man, an award winning debater, and like most faiths, my mother’s faith didn’t stand a chance against logic. She didn’t give up her faith, but stopped visible practice under his intellectual coercion. I wonder what it did to her feelings towards her marriage, motherhood and her children growing up without any religious training. It’s hard to tell if emotional deprivation was inherent in her as a result of her own troubled childhood or came with her unequal marital relationship.  As a child she lost an eye to small pox. Her family went through harsh times during Partition, and she was a single woman till she was in her thirties.

Her well spoken, sophisticated husband gave her a reasonably good life, but undermined her beliefs and views. From where she stands, her children are all un-socialized in ways that she thought were important. They have broken marriages, unconventional relationships and meandering, incomprehensible professional journeys.  Financially they are not as well-off as other cousins who regale their parents with Haj trips and expensive gifts. She doesn’t have a houseful of grandchildren who can enrich her old age and learn about life from her. Through all her sacrifices when she was a housewife and mother, she must have expected an old-age ensconced in warmth and validation. She was bitter and angry when financial situations made it impossible for us to give her the life that she saw other old people enjoy. Her peers who had saved more, built a house or two and lived a less privileged life through their earning years and were able to afford a more pampered existence now. My father didn’t build a house and apart from his pension, saved nothing for old age. 

In the months running up to my father’s death, my mother had a series of health issues. The doctor blamed it on stress and nerves. I encouraged my mother to seek solace in whatever soothed her. The slow rhythmic tilawat of Quran early in the morning, was like a balm on her frayed nerves as she tried to battle the reality of my father’s terminal illness. I asked her, why she had stopped it, if she liked it so much. “It peeved him” and she did not want to indulge in debates, she confessed. After my father passed away, while my siblings thought it would be better to continue having discussions about rationality with her, my feminism forced me to create a space for her faith. She started with a vengeance which included, namaz five-times a day, regular reading of the Quran and other religious books. She became an ardent follower of religious television channels, nodding to their moral advice on how to be a good Muslim. She took advice from relatives on religious matters and once told me that she begs for forgiveness from her God for how her children have turned out. Her family commiserates. All this has unleashed a person I have very little in common with but is dependent on me for care. With her rediscovered religious morality high and need to approve of me at an all time low, she is freely disapproving of my ways. I have often overheard her passing judgments on my clothes and choices, with her relatives and our Muslim maids. Since she’s an old person in my care, my lack of approval for her beliefs can easily turn into an act of bullying. So, I withhold my disapproval. But I also withhold my approval. 

In this lockdown, the image my mother has of me, is like a shadow that walks along with me in every wakeful moment, invalidating me through every thought that I can conceivably have. She caricatures me and I her. We see each other way too sharply, through the act of unseeing each other. Her passive aggressive moral shaming and my intellectual bullying weigh each other edgily across the thin LOC. I battle through it, sometimes overdoing my care to earn a brownie point (which is never given), sometimes locking myself away from her in my study (with very little work, it makes me feel guilty and more bitter), and sometimes just getting irritated with her and angrily contradicting her on whatever she says about anything — from cooking, to a TV show, to an incident from the past. Trapped inside this constant quicksand of trying hard to be compassionate but failing, I judge myself for my bitterness and I can see I am unfair to her old age. She should be allowed her version of bigotry, opinions, illusions and delusions, just as I am allowed my forays into dark sides of emotions. As an old person, battling with bad vision and hearing challenges, she should also be allowed her negativity, irritability and her absolute self-centeredness. I realize that I judge her reactions for what they did to me when I was a little girl. 

“There must have been good times, loving times, times when my mother cared.”

Do I love my mother? I can’t say. Living with my mother and being the caretaker through her old age, has been a mixed bag of feelings that I do not see reflected anywhere in conversations, social media proclamations or in popular culture. I don’t relate to the love and devotion that others seem to display, where they do not get tired of taking care of their mothers and see them as perfect paragons of virtue. I see my mother as terribly flawed, I see her pain and her story, but I think I would have empathized with it way more if her pain and her story had not played havoc in my formative years. I still burn from it and fail to assess any relationship in my life, independent of how I was trained to extend myself — alternately, as a people’s pleaser and an outrageous rebel — to get some semblance of validation from my environment. 

Taking care of my mother helped me find my feet at a difficult time in my life. It grounded me and forced functionality on me, through episodes of potentially debilitating depression. I owe her that. Hurriedly discarding my role as a caretaker at a juncture where I seem to have grown wings again, will be an act of selfishness. Sacrificing, and staying put would be choosing failure and traps.

Coming back to, do I love my mother? I don’t know. I feel compassion for her as a woman. I feel protective towards her old age. I see her lost story. I want to stop my intellectual bullying and I keep working on it, catching myself mid-sentence and stopping the train of superiority before it chugs on to meanness. I also want to stem the need for validation. I try to use my mother’s weakened authority over me as a vaccine, to build antibodies against bitter disapproval or ‘unseeing’ by others. I just wish the stench of the dump yard of my childhood memories would stop overpowering me and allow me to smell the flowers for what they are every now and then.    

I have been a flawed mother myself. I can blame my childhood and my demons, but it won’t help the fact that my actions messed up some chunks of my daughter’s childhood. Motherhood is harsh and demanding from the word go. The placenta knows how to draw nourishment, but is not designed to give it back. A mother becomes anemic and deficient of calcium if she is undernourished and is not given extra supplements. Emotionally it plays out pretty much the same. Mothering, if you are already deficient in self-nurturing, can make you a carcass of yourself. But some instinct drives you on, giving your best. Despite my nurturing deficits I did that, and perhaps my mother did too. That is all she had in her under-nurtured emotional treasury… She did her best, however inadequate that might have been for the little girl who lost her childhood. As a daughter, with more awareness and resources to understand my inner workings than she ever had, that is what I need to match. Not her un-nurturing and invalidation, but my best for her best. 

Sehba Imam: in a happy place

(The writer is a Delhi-based script-writer with a number of television shows to her credit, including “Great Indian Tamasha”, “Gustakhi Maaf” and “Galli Galli, Sim Sim”. She is also co-author of “Ocean to Ocean” and a Tedx speaker. Views are personal.)

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