5 Lessons From My Mother That I Never Learned (and 1 that I did)
Though bound by immense love, my mother and I are not best friends. Because she doesn’t like talking about “unpleasant things,” we’ve never discussed this elephant in the room. So I arrived at this epiphany through things most brown families pretend aren’t real: children transitioning to adulthood, transparent conversations, misaligned expectations, and therapy.
That our ideologies aren’t synchronized, is a recent revelation. I was initially mind blown. We look so alike! How could such a wide delta of thought have passed through the narrow umbilical cord? We’re conditioned to believe that our mothers are “perfect” — they should be the living creature closest to us, have all the right answers at all the right times, and we should always get along. But we’re not taught how wildly implausible that scenario is. Mama and I are not the picture-perfect mother-daughter pair, which has been difficult to accept. Even though my mother is the parent, I have been her uplifter and protector. It has taken 42 years (and therapy) to finally understand the dichotomy of our relationship.
For many years, I felt justified in wanting my mother to be empowered. After all, despite a stiflingly patriarchal Indian society, Mama has a Masters’s degree, worked since she was 21 and ran a side-hustle, drove since she was 18, traveled worldwide, chose who she wanted to marry (arranged marriages are still an Indian norm), and made unconventional fashion choices. But in my lifelong haze of expectation, I forgot that she came from conventional parents, who loved her but never truly championed her.
Once I got past my misaligned expectations, I could see her in the totality of who she was — an imperfect human being, like me. Just because we were different didn’t make me better. I could appreciate struggles that she had to face, that I never will. I could be grateful for the choice and voice I had cultivated because she didn’t have either. I recognized that I had been standing on her shoulders to reach higher. We are products of our environment unless we decide not to be.
Here are 5 lessons I couldn’t learn from my mother. And 1 that I’m grateful I did.
- The man is the captain of the ship: I grew up in India, where the national epidemic of patriarchy is still alive, thanks to men put on pedestals by their adoring mothers. Mama grew up in the same environment, but 30 years before me. She didn’t see many role models shattering glass ceilings. She didn’t have social media as a window to look outside her universe. So she chose a man who was conditioned to undermine her (many Indian husbands do). But that same man, my father, championed me (many Indian fathers don’t). While dealing with the everyday inequities of her life, it was probably easier for her to accept gender norms than to fight them. I didn’t have her daily struggles so I expended all my energy standing for myself, and her. My life goal has been to be independent of a man and it emerged from wanting to counteract my mother’s deference to my father.
- Log Kya Kahenge: Translation: “What will people say.” AKA India’s fading social anthem. My mother and I live on the opposite ends of this philosophy, which has kept her confined to social norms but set me free. It has kept her outwardly compliant even when she feels conflicted. After a lifetime of compliance, she even makes it look effortless. Watching her constantly adhere to rules made by invisible people and look outward for validation gave me resolve to step back from people’s opinions. Not giving a fuck is a subtle, learned art.
- Don’t show your anger: Says my mother, and almost all Indian women, to their daughters but not to their sons. Rage is a core human emotion. Left suppressed, it can eat you up alive. But anger that is positively channeled can drive change. In fact, it’s how every social revolution began. Here’s the kicker — my mother is angry. She’s just been trained not to admit or display it because she’s a woman. She’s even absorbed my father’s rage, also because she believes that’s what women do. I’ve sadly watched her lifetime of simmering angst morph into cancer that will never leave her body. So I’ve learned to acknowledge my rage and then let flow out of me through concrete actions. Feeling angry is OK, staying angry is not.
- Never say NO: Boundaries are an unimaginable concept for many (Indian) women who are taught to live their lives in service and sacrifice. Yes, it’s changing but not fast enough. To some extent, my mother also has a personality that aims to please, even though it’s often at her own expense. One of the reasons it was so hard for me to understand and routinize self-care is because my mother never role-modeled it. Sometimes the lessons you learn from other people’s mistakes are the clearest. Teaching myself how to say no to people, situations and environments has been hard yet lifesaving. It gets easier with time.
- I don’t need therapy: As a coping mechanism, Mama rarely expresses opposition or negative emotion. How can she possibly believe she needs support when she can’t accept, even to herself, that things are not always rosy. She has battled hurt, disappointment, lack of support from her parents, professional struggle, minimal emotional support from my father, and now the undeniable weight of cancer — all by herself. For years, I was her sounding board, until I realized how it weighed me down. She has held back from therapy because she fears judgment and cannot justify “talking to a stranger.” So she has denied herself the sheer relief of talking out loud, unburdening, and re-setting her energy. Watching my mother’s unhappiness infest her life made me determined to not repeat the cycle. The act of seeking therapy and not being judged by a stranger has changed my perspective.
- Be kind: Stepping back from my mother definitely gave me an opportunity to reflect on our differences and all that I did not learn from her. But I also understood, that from her I have learned life’s most valuable lesson — random acts of kindness. Her greatest strength has become mine too. Recognizing that has somehow receded much of the hurt and disappointment I harbored about the picture-perfect relationship we don’t have. In this lifetime, our shared spirit of kindness is enough.