Negotiating culture, motherhood and my own identity in a Western country is blinking hard work. I have lived in Britain for 35 years and there are days when I still struggle to reconcile my own selfhood and culture let alone attempt to solve the cultural conflicts between my 17 year old half white daughter and myself.
Just the other day she asked me, “Why can’t our fridge be full of food like the English do?” I opened the fridge and it contained all the ingredients I need to cook a curry like onions and tomatoes. No one stores their curry powders and condiments in a fridge. My meat is in the freezer.
I closely questioned my daughter on what it was that she was hoping to find in the fridge and she reeled off a list of things that I just wouldn’t consider eating. Would you want to eat Beetroot and Artichokes? Do you think Cheddar cheese goes well with curries?
Herein lies the problem. Despite being half Tamil (and half White) my daughter does not have a love of curries. I, on the other hand, cannot live without my daily dose of curry unless, that is, I am on holiday in a country where curry is not available. I am someone who goes on holiday to another Western country and, wait for it, loses weight.
There was an occasion when my daughter, who was 5 years old at that time, went to an English friend’s home for dinner. The mother had specially cooked a curry. This mother and her husband and five children were happy to eat curry. Instead, a pizza had to be defrosted from their freezer for my daughter’s dinner. Eventhough I was not there I still talk about this incident for the embarrassment that it caused me.
Here is the serious bit. As an Indian mother I felt as if I had failed. Feeding one’s child is an act of mothering and forms a large part of an Indian mother’s life. My own mother at the age of 73 years old still feels as if her days are not complete without rustling up morsels for her children.
I also sometimes feel as if my curries have become a metaphor for something bigger and deeper between my daughter who doesn’t look anything like me but was born of my body.
“Motherhood without the mother’s selfhood is not complete“, said Jasodhara Bagchi who was a leading Indian feminist and activist. It is a perennial challenge for me to express my selfhood while appreciating that my daughter lives in a country where the cultural norms and rules are sometimes incompatible with mine.
The role of the mother in a Western country is defined through the lens of White motherhood. There is very little space to incorporate mothers of other races and our selfhoods is constantly in a tussle for recognition.
As an example, Western culture has an expectation that teenagers will move away from their mothers in order to exert their independence on their path to adulthood. As a feminist mother I see this as a negative social construct because it determines that a time limit must be set on the mother’s role as a nurturer. This time limit is arbitrary and reeks of patriarchal constraints.
As an Indian feminist mother I alternate between fighting this Western construct while trying to accept it too because my daughter constantly tells me that this expectation is part of Western culture and “English mothers don’t have a problem with it.”
I don’t remember ever from my childhood being told that a time would come when I would have to leave the family home and, that, in the run up to the moment I would have to withdraw from my mother to make the break up more acceptable.
In Western culture the refusal to let one’s daughter ‘go’ is seen as maternal selfishness. On the other hand, my own mother constantly berates me for leaving ‘home’ and living abroad away from her because she says she needs me to look after her in her old age.
Friday nights are a stressful time for me. My daughter always gets invited to a party being held by a school friend. I worry because these parties are held in the friend’s home and the regular practice is for the parents to leave the house thereby giving the youngsters the space to have their fun. Alcohol is served and it is expected that the children will get drunk as part of their fun evening. My Indian sensibilities recoil at the thought of my daughter hanging out with drunken boys.
As a feminist mother I do think that the girls have a right to wear what they want to these parties without fearing for their safety. However, when I see my daughter dressed in a short dress I balk. Drunken teenage boys cannot be trusted. This is what I tell my daughter but she resists my worries. She is right but, again, I remember all too well in a negative manner the subject of female honour in the Indian culture that places blame on the girls. So I hold my thoughts and do not voice them to her because my thoughts are my relics from having a strict Indian upbringing. I spend all night worrying about her safety till she returns but still I say nothing.
I oscillate between being an Indian mother who is overly protective and worries too much and the feminist mother living in a Western country who throws away the shackles of her culture. Sometimes I am successful in reconciling the two selfhoods. It is in these sweet moments that I treasure the fact that I am able to mother in an authentic manner.