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Thursday May 8, 2008

A mother knows best

To commemorate Mother’s Day this weekend, women talk about the phases of motherhood.


A FEW generations ago, most mothers just hoped that their daughters could be married off. Now that the daughter is all grown up and a mother herself, she has to think about making informed choices, safety issues, the Internet, education and female empowerment, on top of the usual maternal woes.

Obviously, the game plan for motherhood has changed as women these days seem open to more criticism since so much more is expected of them.

Is it easier then to be a mother to young children whom you can mould (or so you hope), or a grandmother, who can sit back and enjoy the “fruits of her labour”?

Ultimately, it’s not about which turns out to be the best stage of motherhood, but how you approach each phase and enjoy the entire journey.

StarTwo speaks to four mothers as they embark on each new phase of motherhood.

Children under five

Director and producer Low Ngai Yuen, 31, is a mother of three toddlers, aged two, three and four. She says, “I salute stay-at-home mums as they are under so much stress. If I didn’t work, I don’t think I could take the constant need to be needed. When I wasn’t working for about six months recently, I was horrible – there were many times I lost control and my patience.”

Low Ngai Yuen says her parenting style for her three children differs from that of her mother and if she has any problems, she turns to books or her friends.

What’s different: If I have parenting problems, I consult books or my friends, not my mother. I don’t want to handle my kids the same way she brought me up. My parents never explained things to me, as their word was the golden rule.

They didn’t believe in giving praise and sometimes made (unfair) comparisons with other siblings or friends. I believe children need to be encouraged so I make it a point to explain my actions instead of just saying, “No.”

I also feel mothers used to make a lot more sacrifices. For example, when I was sick, my mum would stay up all night – I don’t do that. (And not because I don’t care but it’s because I know my children will be fine.)

I never hugged my mother unless I was told to, say, for a photograph – it was just not done. But I’m a lot more expressive with my kids. But I’m grateful to my mother and her help – there’s no need for me to be “superwoman”.

The challenges: Time management is the toughest, especially when all three are fighting for my attention. Modern women are multi-tasking and doing so many things with their lives, but it’s tough on the children because you’re not there for them.

I try to empower my daughter but society has so many boundaries and rules. Boys are already empowered by the environment – TV programmes like Ultraman, for instance, project the macho male model. It’s also hard to explain gender awareness. How do you explain why it’s cute when my sons run out naked but it’s not acceptable for my daughter?

The fears: I only hope the “damage” I’ve done to my kids can be repaired. As children, we thought our parents were never wrong but now, as a mother, I’m never quite sure if I’m doing the right thing.

There is the issue of safety, especially for my daughter. I do role-playing with her to teach her how to react in case someone touches her, strangers approach her, etc.

The expectations: I try to help them excel and hope they are better off than I was. All three are brought up differently, for example, they go to different kindergartens and I do different things with each child (it’s also a sort of experiment!) to see how differently they grow.

The future: I already foresee conflict with my daughter as we are so similar. I want to be able to help my kids make informed choices. I can’t stop the exposure to the Internet and all the other modern influences so I can only guide them. I’m already planning for their teenage years in the sense that I’m keeping communication channels open.

Motherhood is ... cuteness times three! There’s no better pill (for unhappiness) than to come home to three wonderful kids!

Bringing up a teenager

Cynthia Lim, 44, is managing director of Chanel (Malaysia) and mother to a 15-year-old. Mothering a teenager, she says, is loads of fun as she gets to be “sister” and “best friend” at the same time.

“Each phase (of motherhood) is different. It’s about adjusting to each one when it starts to happen. It’s also about knowing when you need to stand firm and when to give in. Trouble is, mothers today tend to give in too much,” she says.

Cynthia Lim dining with her daughter Bianca, 15. Lim says mothering a teenager is loads of fun as her role has evolved to become ‘sister’ and ‘best friend’ to her daughter.

What’s different: My mother was a stay-at-home mum so she was always there for me. There’s a big difference for us working mothers. Time management and extended family support is so important.

I never questioned my mother and usually did as I was told. But we’re very close. When we were teenagers, my sisters and I would stay up till the wee hours of the morning chatting with Mum. My parents were also very generous with the freedom they accorded me. I had my fair share of dates and parties, but there were also rules and boundaries, and the world was a much safer place then.

The challenges: Today’s teenagers are a lot more exposed so they have strong opinions about most things. The challenge is learning and accepting this fact, and treating Bianca as an individual. There’s no such thing as “typical” teenage behaviour.

It’s more emotional rather than physical at this stage – I also have to be more sensitive and aware of her feelings, and find the right balance whether it be for space, independence or support. It’s not much different from bringing up a little girl except that the phrase, “Because I’m your mother,” doesn’t quite work anymore!

The fears: The world has become much bigger and more intimidating. I’m always worried about her well-being, safety and future. For me, it would be whether I have provided her the best I can and being there when she needs me the most.

The future: I hope she builds on our best experiences and learns from the not-so-pleasant ones. I hope that she grows to be a happy, confident, conscientious, well-rounded person, and gets to do the things she’s passionate about.

Motherhood is ... like getting a Chanel handbag. Whether you’re ready to admit it or not, you’re always ready for one!

Mum to young working adults

Saleha Hashim, 59, is a gritty woman, having worked for organisations like the World Bank and Antah Holdings Bhd as well as running her own property management company. She has seven children ranging in age from 18 to 36, including celebrity TV host Azura (her fourth child). She has been confined to a wheelchair for the past five years due to acute rheumatoid arthritis and a car accident.

“When they were growing up, I worked on a tight budget and it was a matter of juggling ‘one lid between five pots’. But I’m very proud of all my children and even now, I’m still excited when I see Azura on TV!” she says.

Saleha Hashim being taken on an evening stroll by her daughters Azura (left) and Zarina.

What’s different: My mother also had seven children and she was very strict. When I went out, I had to be home by Maghrib (evening prayers, about 7pm). My father passed away when I was very young and she single-handedly nurtured us even though she couldn’t read or write. She was one tough woman.

Like her, I brought mine up military style. If one person misbehaves, all of them would get it. My children were also trained from very young to do chores and from the age of five, they arranged their shoes and made their beds.

But I also tried to strike a good balance, and we went to karaoke, dancing and played games together. Some of our best family times were our “Friday horror movie night”!

The challenges: In the early years, making ends meet was the toughest. I had agreed with my husband very early on that he would stay in the civil service while I went out to work to make the money. The most telling difference of having working children now is that they can contribute financially.

At this stage of motherhood, there are no real challenges for me. I used to be very active and scuba dive, go boating and do other activities. I’m an outdoor kind of person and my physical limitations are my personal challenges. My family support has been vital in keeping things together.

The fears: Malaysia has become very unsafe and I hear all sorts of stories. I became particularly jittery after the Canny Ong case. When Zarina (my oldest) goes for parties, she would be escorted by her brother. If she doesn’t come back by the stipulated time, I would lock her out! Even now, Azura has a curfew of 11.30pm (and she has to inform me if there are changes.) Astro also has contributed to the negative influences by having channels like MTV and airing other suggestive shows.

The expectations: At this stage, I’ve got everything so I don’t have expectations. My children were taught to adhere to the “circle of love” and that if any single link falls out, then the circle would be broken. They are taught to stand by each other and we’re a very close family.

The future: If I can be so vain as to say this without sounding proud – I brought up my children well and in these problematic times, I am not worried as I know they’ll handle themselves well.

Being a grandmother is hip

Ex-journalist Ayesha Harben, 62, runs a public relations firm, and is mother of four and grandmother to two. She admits to doing “crazy things” with Alisha, three, like running around the house pretending she’s Red Riding Hood.

Ayesha Harben, a mother of four and grandmother, says she's learnt to let go and to let her children learn through their own mistakes.

“I was so excited when my first grandchild arrived. It was like having a child myself, minus the physical pain and I get to give her back when she cries! I love to spoil them. In the past, I disciplined my children but now, I won’t allow my children to smack my grandchildren!” she says.

What’s different: Grandmothers today are more hip and young people can relate to them more. My mother (who was a teacher, now 92) only saw her role as nurturer but now, mothers are so different.

My daughter asks for my advice but she’s not as dependent as I was on my mother. She wants to do things her own way. She reads up and checks the Internet. So does my son (who has a one-month-old son), who’s a lot more involved in the family than men of my generation.

I’ve learnt to let go, and let my children make their own mistakes. We have our squabbles about baby issues but my daughter is doing much better (as a mother) than I did.

The challenges: Women today face more challenges, at work and at home. There is a lot more pressure to perform and society has become a lot more materialistic. There’s a lot more stress on education and there are so many choices available today.

When I was working, I had a local maid to help me out and she stayed for 14 years. Now, my daughter has a foreign maid but you can’t rely on them. Mothers need more choices such as flexi-hours and being able to work from home.

The fears: There is so much exposure to the Internet, pornography, the MTV culture. I only hope as a grandmother I can be of use and provide some guidance.

What’s critical is having a safe environment for our children to grow up in. Family life is disintegrating and our neighbourhoods are different. Even when my twin girls (29 now) go out now, I’m still worried.

The future: I just want the grandchildren to be safe, happy and healthy. Children today have a much richer future but they have to be carefully nurtured.

I hope to be able to go on a holiday with my grandchildren, probably something that was unheard of in the old days.