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Mother’s Love Tough or Toxic?


I stared helplessly at the white shrug that was now a rosy hue. My dear daughter had thoughtlessly shoved her new shirt into the washing machine, and her shrug was ruined. “Let her handle it now,” I told myself and walked off

I cannot remember the last time I turned out pockets of my children’s clothes. It was not that I was a ‘working mother’ (sounds like a distinction between functional and non-functional!) in a blur of chores. It is just that I firmly believe a stage comes in life when kids must own responsibility. After a point, the onus is on them: if the clothes are in the machine, it is assumed insides have been cleaned out and washing instructions verified. My system of responsibility and expectations was graded, increasing in complexity with age.

Love with Boundaries

I arrived at my own versions of ‘tough love’ and ‘toxic love’ as a parent, in some ways at variation from the senses these terms are often used today. Now the reckoning begins; whether my system has worked or not will unfold. If my children can tour a new city or make a life for themselves away from home, independently and sensibly; if they can pick up skills, professional and financial, and give a good account of themselves; if they can navigate executing simple meals, reading – with comprehension – a complete document, making reservations, returning phone calls, and a host of seemingly innocuous things that are beyond the capacities of a surprisingly high number of individuals, I can breathe. I can forgive myself for holding back my hands on the verge of ‘let me’ when beds were being made with the counterpanes hanging lopsidedly at the ends, or toasts were being burnt before they came out just right, or an English project had the tenses haywire at the start of a learning phase.

If my children are careful, yet not afraid of making mistakes and – importantly enough – owning up to them to set them right; if they have the spine to take an ethical stand at the cost of ruffling family and friends’ feathers; if they do not shirk once they take on a job, without being policed; if they respect strength and shortcomings in others, and balance courtesy, aloofness and priority in relations, I can breathe. I can comfort myself for masking in a stone face the heart going out to a child confessing to breaking a vase despite the fear of scolding, or to an adolescent trying to figure out differences of opinions with friends and family. In today’s age of collapsing personal and institutional finances, if my children can live within their means and remain self-sufficient, I can put behind me all those moments of stoically standing by while treats had to be foregone because pocket money had been overspent, while a young pair of hands was struggling with a pay in slip at the bank, while an agonising decision was being made to break the piggy bank and use its contents for A or B, or not to break it at all.

What if that does not happen?

What if grandiose coats are cut beyond the cloth available? Does it mean that my effort to provide material possessions in the name of security and status turned out to be toxic? That it was taken for granted that there is a treasure trove somewhere with the birth right to pick it and that personal financial planning is unnecessary? If my children evade their bit in their various roles as adults, happy to let me or someone else take it on, does it mean that my stepping in to pick up after them and get their jobs done was toxic care? If my children carry on as if they are faultless and the mistake is always elsewhere, did I cover up for them, even make someone else the scapegoat, to save them from consequences of their actions to prove maternal protection?

When does the main hoon na go so far as to being the toxic acid that corrodes the backbone? How far can you stretch tough love? After 25 years of motherhood, I still have no formula – except it’s a tightrope you learn to balance on as you go along. It is said a mother’s love is powerful: the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. I just hope my children can look back and say that this non-existent formula of their mother’s made – or at least did not mar – their respective worlds …

This opinion piece was first published in the print version of SUBURB December 2019 issue.

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