Dear Stephanie and Joanna,
Did you know that long ago, when I was still single, I told myself that I wasn’t going to have children? I thought that bringing up children would be the hardest thing in the world to do and I was right.
The thought of having the fate of small human beings in my hand, of having to keep them alive until they could fend for themselves, terrified me. You may not know this from the times I have disciplined you and demanded you follow the rules, but I have always been something of a free spirit. I never liked to be tied down, and there’s nothing like having children to tie one down.
Nevertheless, like gazillions of other people across the ages, I did get married and have children. The day I discovered I was expecting you, Stephanie, I almost exploded with a cocktail of emotions of which joy and terror were predominant.
My life as I knew it, was over. Goodbye, dancing, partying and freedom; hello nausea, tiredness and responsibility.
I had been a diligent student for the most part of secondary school and I had spent five years in university, graduating with a degree and diploma that prepared me to become a teacher.
But nowhere in any of the textbooks I read or the research I did, was there anything that prepared me for becoming a mother. You were born after almost a day of labour, not quite kicking and screaming (that was me). I was depleted at the tough job of expelling you, but the minute I set eyes on you, everything I had said and thought about not having children flew out the window.
You were the most beautiful, perfect thing I had produced in my life thus far and I felt an immense sense of accomplishment when I beheld you.
Of course, in the pethidine- and achievement-induced euphoria, I had no clue of what was in store for me but my maternal instincts kicked in and I felt ready to face the world, influenced by the vision of ideal mothers and perfect babies that only existed in my head!
Speaking of maternal instincts, I think that was built into the genetic makeup of women to make sure we stay and nurture the little beings we produce until they marry and go away. Seriously, it’s like an unseen force shield that holds us and our children together for life – mothers can never escape it. Ever.
There was no handbook, no training, nothing that prepared me for a baby. When I think of those people who created the Home Science syllabus in school, I want to smack them. I learned how to clean a fish, make perfect pound cakes, sew a skirt, clean stains on clothes and a host of other Pinterest-worthy tasks, but no one thought to teach me how to care for a baby.
Considering that the work of bathing, changing, feeding, burping and entertaining children is largely thrust upon mothers, I find our educators have been rather remiss to have omitted this.
Anyway, I muddled along with the help of my mother and a host of aunties and cousins who offered advice that veered from being scientifically advanced to old wives’ tales. Often, one had to try many different things before one found the perfect answer – it was like mining for gold in a river bed of sand until you found a shiny nugget.
As a trainer and coach today, I am a huge advocate of getting people to practise what they learn on the job. Sometimes, navigating the unknown and learning the hard way can be the best way. I know, because motherhood was my on-the-job training and I could not afford to fail, because the life of a small being lay in my hands.
I managed it by the skin of my teeth. I worked as a teacher till two every day while you were at the babysitter’s, Stephanie, and then came home to do a full day’s work cleaning, cooking, washing and looking after you.
The only part of that I loved with no complaint was the time spent with you. You became the centre of my life. To get a smile from you, to watch you take your first steps, see you in a beautiful dress became the source of my joy. Here’s a secret – your achievements and your sister’s are still a source of pride and joy to me today.
By the time you came, Joanna, I was already an old hand at bringing up children. I could put you on my legs and bathe you the traditional Indian way, and I was lots more confident about how to handle you. Your growing up years were filled with hilarity because you were such a foil for your (then) sweet, well-behaved older sister. Again, I had to adopt a hands-on approach to learning how to handle your feisty little self, so different from your sister, yet just as beautiful.
I had to wing it all the way, adopting unorthodox ways to keep you on the kiddies’ straight and narrow. I’m not sure if you remember one of them, which involved biting you to show that you should not bite and draw blood from other children, including your sister. Or sitting you down to explain patiently why you should not take the cane and beat your sister and her friends when they would not play with you, adding the postscript that if you ever did that again, you would be the one tasting the lick of the cane.
When your father and I went our separate ways, you both became my purpose. To nurture you, educate you and provide for you, and to ensure you turned into strong women with sound values became the focus of my life – I wanted to be a mother you could be proud of. I think this is what keeps many single mothers going.
I know in those years, I had to be more father than mother to you because I had to earn the means to give you a decent life. I am thus ever grateful to my own mother, who imparted values, faith and strength to me through the example of her own life, for taking on the mother role at home.
During those years when we were alone, we became a family unit of four strong-minded females who comforted each other, entertained each other and fought together. Even at a young age, you both had compassion and the strength to defend me and fight on my behalf against naysayers and critics.
And then came your dad, the man I subsequently married, who became the role model of what a husband and father should be and who added the yang to the overwhelming yin of four women (and a female dog) in the household. We had so many happy years together as he introduced us to a myriad of new experiences that we otherwise might never have had.
He taught us to take risks, to be generous, to never worry about mundane things, to aspire to be exceptional women and to live life to the fullest. I suspect, if he hadn’t come into our lives, you and I would never have evolved into the women we are now. It is the greatest tragedy of our lives that he went before his time. I want you to know that you were the ones who kept me moving forward because of your compassion and love.
I wish I had known early in life about what a mother should be like but I’d like to think I haven’t done too badly despite the lack of a handbook. We have been through so much that other families cannot even begin to imagine, and it has bound us together with even stronger cords of love.
Joanna, whenever I doubt myself as a parent, you have told me that I am the best mother in the world, but then you are delightfully biased when it comes to me. So then I look to you, Stephanie to bring me back to earth by humbly telling me that although I am a bit overbearing at times, I have been a good mother and that you are the living testimony to that. You also told me that all a mother can do is give her best. That brought me a lot of comfort as I write this.
As I evaluate my life today, I do think I have done my best as a mother while navigating career changes, divorce, death, betrayal, sustaining a business, dips in the economy, a pandemic of catastrophic proportions and other challenges.
I think every mother does the best she can with the resources she has, in the midst of the trials and tests life has thrown at her. And that’s why whether she has been perfect or less than, too rigid or too relaxed, ever-present or not always, she deserves to be celebrated for the effort in the midst of trying to make sense of her own life.
Happy Mother’s Day to all mums out there, whether you feel you have been a good one or not. Because believe me, you have been the best version of yourself that you can be.
Sheila Singam is the founder of Human Equation, a development consultancy specialising in mindset change and innovation. She has held many different roles in her life and considers motherhood her most fulfilling as she considers its results. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.