Mothering and parenting: The superwoman myth

Mothering and parenting: The superwoman myth
An old photo of Dr Lai Ah Eng with her two children.

The "good mother" must be one of the strongest, and toughest-to-live-up- to ideals in any society.

In Singapore, there have been and are many definitions, expectations and claims of what the role of the good mother is from various quarters, ranging from government to spouse, children, in-laws, neighbours, friends, groups, organisations and each individual mother herself.

But the common underlying theme is the same: good mothering to produce good children.

The family wants the good mother to bear and raise good children for the family and, well, for almost anything and everything good from looks to reputation; the state wants good mothers (with "good" genes too, at one time in the mid-1980s) to produce and raise smart citizens; neighbours and fellow citizens want good mothers to raise well-behaved children, some institutions want good mothers to raise clever children and productive workers, etc. And which good mother herself does not want to be good at raising happy and successful children?

After a fairly long period of mothering since 1992, I have come to the conclusion that there are many good reasons to reject motherhood (and also marriage) altogether.

There are immense expectations to live up to, responsibilities to take up and even more sacrifices to make, while numerous opportunities are missed. It is like a trap. No wonder many women do not want to be mothers or stop at zero, one or two, starting with those in my generation that was the first to receive mass education and opportunities outside traditional homemaking undreamt of in my mother's time.

For those who are mothers whether by choice or accident, mothering is one huge life-long and life-changing human endeavour which, once embarked upon, cannot be reversed or escaped from.

A mother who tries to be a good one inevitably finds this journey filled with everyday mundane chores and incessant minor decisions, and fraught with tussles and tensions. But for her hard work, endurance and sacrifice, she receives in return sweet fruitful rewards, enduring delights and a life status of extraordinary significance and worth.

Mother's Day may have morphed into compulsory and commercial consumption, but it continues to express the valorisation and emotional essences of this journey of love and life.

The difference between my mother's generation and mine: The 'E's

One meaningful way to appreciate how things have changed for mothers and mothering is for each woman to compare herself and her mother as mothers.

Equality made THE difference. Both gender equality and social equality, as ideals and foundational principles, came with post-war decolonisation and nation-building.

My mother's time was already a tumultuous period of social and political awakening and the imminent collapse of the Chinese patriarchal system in China. But caught in the throes of war, post-war displacement and emigration, she, the war widow and illiterate immigrant to Malaya, could only hope for equality and a better life in a vague way for herself and more for her children in the 1950s and early 1960s.

By the time I became a mother in the 1990s, the principles of social and gender equality were already enshrined in the nation's Constitution or embedded in our heads and hearts, taken for granted as an unquestionable right and something to be pursued where still lacking or unfulfilled. I had equal rights as a human being and as a woman, and the three main social divisions of race, class and gender that worked against my mother and women of her time could, in my time, be challenged legally, socially and morally.

Education made THE difference. My illiterate mother said that if she had education, she would have been really smart, which I do not doubt at all.

She was, for sure, very street- smart to have survived, and on my first day of school, she was really smart to say to me: "Remember, they built this school just for you!"

While she coped with life through her smarts (and taught me some such skills, like how to avoid being kidnapped for prostitution), I went from humble school to top university.

The poor of my mother's generation missed the boat; I had a right to education and to pursue it as far as I could go.

Of course, I still had to struggle. If one was poor, attended a "near-bottom-of-the-pile" school and did not already speak English, possess a set of the great Encyclopaedia Britannica at home or knew Oxbridge and Harvard existed, one had to work extra hard and took longer to succeed. But it remains true that education provided me with opportunities, skills and ideas that expanded my world and horizon beyond the slum and the poverty that trapped many smart people like my mother.

Economic empowerment made THE difference. In my mother's time, work for poor women meant either homemaking for a huge, sometimes extended, family or factory work or domestic service.

One outcome of the difference in education and the opportunities that came with economic development is that, compared with my mother who reared chickens, ironed clothes and cleaned homes (plus gambling and tontine to earn extra money), I held secure paid jobs at teaching, writing and research, and developed a work career over time (even though it was not smooth or straightforward).

Both of us were economically active and earned incomes, but I had the clear advantage to earn, access, explore and excel much more.

Everything else (almost) made THE difference. Economic and social improvements meant almost everything else was different for my mother and me in our mothering roles.

Just take births and birthing, that "hallmark" of mothering. My generation saw birth control and family planning, with fathers joining birth preparation classes and witnessing their babies being born.

In short, social enlightenment made THE difference. Enlightenment through values, principles and ideas that opened up and provided conditions, choices, opportunities and possibilities that made mothering in my mother's and my time so different - few and difficult for her and plentiful and advantageous for me.

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