Our Mothers Before They Became ‘Mothers’

Our mothers are always mothers first. Not an individual, or a woman with her own identity, thoughts, interests, dreams, travails and pain. Who were our mothers before they became our mothers? As children, we rarely think of our mothers as individuals or question the person our mothers might have been, before they became our mothers. In all likelihood, our mother was a carefree and spirited young woman with dreams in her eyes, a woman who enjoyed life, or who loved to travel, write poetry, paint, meet people. But then she became a mother and we saw her as we see mothers.

As children, and also as we grow up, it’s hard to believe mothers had lives before they had us. Over the years, our conversations and dealings with her are mostly within the familial relationship boundary of mother, daughter, siblings, parents, and everything around it.

We often feel entitled as children, especially in our spoken and unspoken demands from our mothers. The attention and care showered on us as babies and young children shapes this demand and we feel justified in being mothered throughout our lives. From meals, illness, studies, we need our mothers for our overall upkeep and wellbeing as children and feel nothing should come between this important role that they play. If the school tiffin is not as tasty as our friends, we crib to our mothers; If we do not perform well in the exam or the annual function, it’s our mother who did not prepare us well; If the birthday party was not fun, again it is our mothers who are reproached.

Our expectations of our mothers are all-encompassing, unending and absolute. Who was, or is this woman who nurtured us nine months within her body and continues/d to do throughout her and our lives?

Perhaps, as we turn into adults and step into the complexities and challenges of our lives, fathoming the intricacies of adulthood and parenthood, we start empathising with our parents. And daughters more so with our mothers when we ourselves embrace womanhood and motherhood. But ironically, even after becoming mothers ourselves, we still need our mothers. We still expect and need them to meet our expectations and demand. We may empathise with our mothers but still never stop imagining them as anyone else other than our mothers.

Even for a Feminist like me, my first instinctive reaction to my mother as a daughter over the years has been typically as a child. As I grew up, I consciously tried to treat and fight for my mother as a fellow woman. I identified with my mother more when I became a mother myself. And now when I am crossing one age milestones after another, I imagine my mother as a girl, as a young woman and the age I am at now.

I realise that even though I am my mother’s daughter, we are different individuals. Our life trajectories are different along with the times we have lived in. But at the same time, I can’t help wondering about the universal emotions we experience as individuals and as women. Did my mother at that age feel as I had felt, or feeling now? Was I mature, perceptive or sensitive enough to notice and empathise with my mother then? Sadly, I don’t have any definitive answers.

Often, our experience of our mother’s love and our perceived right over her as a child can eclipse our understanding of her identity. As children, the first thing we understand about our mothers is what it feels like to be loved by them, or for that love to be absent. So much so that children grow up embittered resenting their mothers for not being ‘mother enough.” I remember a school friend who would always get bread and jam in her tiffin box as she had to pack it herself due to her mother’s prolonged mental illness. She was often resentful of her mother for ‘not caring’ for her and her brother.

We most often talk about our mothers or judge her in the context of what they have or haven’t done as it’s the only lens through which we see and perceive her. But in fact, our mothers had led lives and had histories, dreams and setbacks, follies and prudence  – before we came into their lives. Perhaps also when we have had entered into their lives but fail to recognise them.

Women after becoming mothers have to be a certain way with the children –  forever caring, responsible, in charge, dependable – and cannot afford to be carefree, relaxed or on their own.  They have to look a certain way, even be apologetic when they are not up to the mark. I remember a friend telling me that her teenaged son was embarrassed having a smart and younger looking mother and asked her to be modestly dressed when visiting his school!

When we had our school reunion, the children of some of my friends were stunned seeing their mothers in an entirely new light. They had never seen their mothers letting their hair down, singing full throttle and dancing way beyond midnight.    

Children remain mostly unaware about their mothers non-motherly traits beyond the realm of family, oblivious to their mothers’ true personalities, passions and work and know them primarily as their mothers. So much so that some of them feel neglected and feel it’s a dereliction of motherly duties and love when women start paying more attention to their work and passion more than their children.

Many mothers profess to have different images in front of their kids and families and with friends or at work. It’s sad, but rarely do women unapologetically integrate and embody their identity as a mother and as an individual. 

For many children, the time and stories before their Mother became a Mother continue to remain hidden. Sometimes, old photos, letters and diaries or old companions shine on the light on who their mother used to be. What do we feel when we see the images of our mother before they became our mothers? Are we drawn to these images and moved by them? Do we find them beautiful, free and spirited? Does becoming a mother divest a woman of such qualities? Do we ever wish for the past versions of our moms to embody them?

In the compilation ‘Mothers Before,” novelist Edan Lepucki gathers essays and favourite photographs to explore this question. In this book, writers and poets, artists and teachers who are daughters share images and stories of their mothers before. Started as a popular Instagram account called ‘Mothers Before,’ Lupecki started by asking people to submit photographs of their mothers before they became mothers, and to write a short paragraph on what the image invoked now. The photos included wedding portraits, candid party shots, clinical passport photos of new immigrants; A collection of young women who looked hopeful, daring, dreaming, defiant – or so their children tended to imagine.

Each photo had a narrative – the bygones past, the style of whatever the woman’s wearing, what they did in their lives before they were mothers, and what still remains. And then the caption often had another layer of the daughter looking at the mother and what that feels like. While studying these photos and the daughters’ interpretation, the writer wonders what traits we allow our mothers to have, and which ones we view as temporary, expiring with age and the beginning of motherhood.

How much of the non-mother traits do we know of our mothers? Some of us find an endearing frivolity, a breezy toughness and a sassy attitude in the bygone versions of our mothers, and we marvel at it. Before a kid or two tied her down, mother used to sing in competitions, or she was playing badminton with guys, or was a promising reporter. However, we often do not recognise or admire our mother’s spirit, her joie de vivre, sex appeal, vivacity, creativity.

It also raises another question about how we perceive our mothers as maternal beings. Mothers are either eulogised as paragons of selflessness, or they are reduced to and reproached for not being motherly enough. We hardly see them in all their complexity.

We women have been daughters for our whole lives and mothers for some years. Our identity too changes after becoming a mother and we tend feel a new connection with our mothers. As adults with children of our own we see mothers as one of us.

For most women, motherhood and the larger responsibilities of having a family entails a change in circumstances, aspirations, career goals and many other things. Before there was a Mother, there was a woman. A woman with her own personality, individuality and passions. Let us celebrate our mothers for the women they are and have been. We all must do better to support the individuals who became our mothers. I hope to celebrate my mother, and all the other mothers, as the person they are, despite of being a mother.

Mothers have different stories about them and there are different kinds of mothers as well. Let’s accept and create space for all such mothers to live lives outside their motherhood. And to never lose sight of that person on the never ending journey of motherhood.

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