Are you like your mum? Do you bring up your kids the same way you were brought up, or strive to make it different?
I know what my mum would say. She would waggle her finger and claim “History repeats itself.” She believed turning into your mother was inescapable but she, god bless her, was full of prophesies about the circle of life – karma and reincarnation being among her favourites.
Sadly I never had the chance to talk to her about our shared experience of motherhood as she was killed in a car accident just months after the birth of my first child. But as I sit down to write this for Mothering Sunday, I am struck by the fact that we faced similar struggles although for completely different reasons. Maybe she was right after all.
Mum’s story is of a whirlwind romance which led her to defy her family and marry a man deemed unsuitable. Born in Kenya in West Africa, her parents were Indian immigrants and devout Sikhs. They enjoyed a life of relative luxury managing a sugar plantation until political unrest made the country increasingly unstable and the family decided to leave for the motherland, England. Mum would have been 17 years old, a naive beauty with huge dark eyes and hair in a thick black plait down her back. As was the tradition, she was already betrothed in an arranged marriage.
But not long after coming to this country she met my dad, an Englishman with flaming red hair, and they fell in love.
Quite how an obedient little Indian girl came to challenge her parents and runaway to marry a man she had just met is a testament to the power of love and the recklessness of youth. The consequences were difficult to bear. Shunned by her family who felt she had brought shame upon them, mum was culturally isolated and alone. She told me how she scoured cookbooks for recipes like poached egg on toast and omelette. She trained as a nurse and found work in local hospitals, where she was often the only dark face on the ward.
Soon after they were married I was born and then my sister just 11 months later. (My boys are just 15 months apart so maybe that’s another way I take after her.) Thankfully and testament to the deep affection of her parents, bridges were built and communication between mum and her family gradually improved.
But she still brought us up largely alone. Dad worked long hours and mum didn’t feel able to call on her family when things were tough I think because confessing to any problem would mean admitting that life wasn’t perfect and she had to maintain this impossible veneer after causing her parents so much pain.
Anyway the large and close knit Indian side of the family lived quite far away, in a riotous collection of immaculate homes just streets apart from each other. As a child I remember visiting the confusing crowd of aunties, uncles and cousins, a blur of cheek pinching and spicy curries and to-ing and fro-ing between houses.
But back home there wasn’t this support network available for my mum and that was the price she paid for defying her family and customs and marrying a white man. The isolation was more than geographical.
Fast forward a few decades and I found myself in a somewhat similar position. Mum had died and we moved to this remote house in the woods.
Renovating a rundown stone cottage on a tight budget with two children in tow was obviously not without its challenges. We lived for two years without electricity while we saved up to buy the generator that now produces power for us.
The children were just three and four-years-old when we moved here. I would put them to bed by candle light and pretend everything was fun and exciting but there were times when I didn’t think i could cope for another minute.
Sometimes I felt so lonely and isolated I would go into the woods and have a good cry. Did my mum cry I wonder and want to call her mum? She never let us see it but I think it unlikely that she did not.
Bringing up kids without your own mum around is tough. You struggle for babysitting and for a shoulder to cry on. You try to re-create her in stories for your children to understand and it breaks your heart when they point to a picture of her and ask ‘who’s that?”
Both my sister and I take after my mum’s mothering style in that we are full-on, committed, dedicated mums who lavish our kids with time and affection. As my boys get older I also try to give them freedom. They run in the woods, make dens, build fires and get time to just hang about with their friends. I try to be lenient and let them make their own mistakes.
With an Indian mum from a strict religious background my teenage years were marred by stifling strictness and thunderous rows over what I was allowed to wear and where I was allowed to go.
But it’s important for me that my blue-eyed, red-headed boys understand their Asian roots, it’s part of who they are despite their outward appearance.
So this Mothering Sunday I will cook a pheasant curry – using turmeric, garam masala and chillies, the exotic spices of my childhood. It’s the perfect blend of the two worlds I straddle – and somehow it makes my mum seem closer.
Happy Mother’s Day to everyone celebrating today.
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