This question – that has been asked by children since time immemorial – was recently asked of me by a sweet little eight-year-old. I am not facing it for the first time; I have myself wondered the same, and yet, when her innocent question hit me, I was rendered speechless. After a few seconds of ‘er…I think…you know…’ etc., I finally admitted to her that I did not have any insight on the problem. I wasn’t exactly relieved when her mother informed me later that some of the child’s astute queries often leave the universe itself fumbling for answers.
One morning, in the hustle and bustle of getting my son ready for school, he asked me, “Why does my Dad help me get dressed more quietly than you?” Yes, he used the word ‘quietly’. As opposed to his mother making all the noise – ‘get dressed!’ ‘fast!’ ‘your bus is coming!’ ‘my God, didn’t you eat anything yet?’ ‘you are going to be hungry and sick and under-nourished and ill all the time!’.
My reply wasn’t quite dignified, I’m afraid. I muttered under my breath something like ‘Okay, so get your dad to help you’ and walked away. In my defence, no mother in her right mind can bear a comparison like that, especially when she herself feels guilty for every single thing she does and doesn’t do, every single hour of every single day.
At a recent get-together with friends (all mothers), we, naturally, began talking of parenting (how do we always wind up in that topic?), and we had quite a laugh arguing between ourselves about who amongst us was the loudest when it comes to disciplining our children. Some of the comments went like this:
‘When I begin to shout, my neighbours escape to their hometowns. Did you ever wonder why the houses next to mine are always unoccupied?’
‘I suspect my parents-in-law returned to Kerala cutting their vacation short, because of my constant yelling at their grandchildren.’
‘Surely your voice is nothing compared to mine. When I help my son with his homework, the very foundation of this building trembles.’
‘Oh, was that the earthquake scare last week? As for me, I begin with, ‘Dear, please don’t drop your uniform on the floor, throw them in the laundry basket.’ After a few minutes I progress to ‘I told you to put your uniform in the laundry basket!’ and ‘Didn’t you hear what I said?’ Half an hour later, I thunder, ‘For the last time! PUT YOUR FILTHY CLOTHES IN THE STUPID BASKET!’ and all the kids in the colony would have thrown their clothes into their baskets, without knowing what had actually hit them. I mean, we aren’t asking them to wash their darn clothes, are we?’
(Dads who firmly believe that their wives are the only mothers who yell at the kids should be allowed to secretly listen in on this conversation.)
Frankly, hearing from other mothers that we all fall into the same tribe of beasts is very, very comforting and does wonders to salvage our self-worth.
So this little eight-year-old’s mother assured me that she does ask point-blank questions all the time, and that there was nothing to worry about being at a loss to answer. I face it every day, she said. That didn’t console me one bit. She’s only an eight-year-old. She hasn’t begun to question Newton’s third law yet. I can handle eight-year-olds. I probably should have told her that mothers are more responsible for their children – to show them right from wrong, to guide them to be good men and women, to teach them to be kind and behave with courtesy and compassion, and to respect others. I should have told her that it was easy to say ‘teach your child good manners’ but it took constant monitoring and correcting. I should have told her that mothers felt guilty for the slightest lapse from their child, as though she alone were responsible. I should have told her that our society blames the mother for every wrong thing the child does, and that the mother agonises whether she’s spoiling the child with too much attention or ruining the child with too little. This constant pressure – added to anxieties from her own career and aspirations and finances and other daily tensions of life – stresses her out and, unfortunately and unconsciously, she takes it out on her child, even while knowing she shouldn’t. It is a clichéd statement (but true, like all clichés) that mothers are never appreciated for what they do. Everything a mother does for her family is ‘after all, her job.’ No one even bothers to see what she is doing, how hard she is managing, how she is shuffling between her varied roles, and whether she is a little sad about the sacrifices she is making. No one realises how much she would love to be told, once in a while, that she is doing a good job. But why don’t Dads react the same way as Moms? Of course they are responsible for raising the child too. I do not know the answer. Maybe it is a Mommy hormone. Or maybe, Dads have Moms to fall back on, but Moms have no one to.
On second thoughts, probably it is good that I did not say all this to her. She would have understood nothing, and she would have thought, ‘Why in the world did I ask this question to Auntie?’ and she might have stopped asking questions.
But I rather hope that twenty or twenty-five years down the line, I will meet her somewhere and I would remind her of her question, and then we will have a good laugh about it – because by then, God willing, she would have found out the painful answer herself. (If the world hasn’t changed all that much by then.) I hope, when that day comes, I can hold her hand and reassure her that we’ve all been there, and there is no need to feel guilty, because she is not the only mother who feels every day that she is a total failure.
Because she isn’t. No mother ever is.
Read – Scenes from Mother’s Day 2014