Lessons I learnt from my mother

Lessons I learnt from my mother

My mother and I had a complicated relationship, which in and of itself is not surprising since we were both very strong-minded women. Since childhood, I remember trying to make sense of this woman I called mother. She was so much her own person, which without her realising it, also gave me permission to be who I am. The lessons I learnt from my mother allowed me to be me to be who I am, freely and without shame. I was an intense child, living in a world I created in my mind mostly. I was very comfortable playing in this world that I created, and would often try to bring that world into my lived reality, but that proved to be too much for the adults around me.

My mother struggled with a situation of her own making. On the one hand, she herself was tired of a particular kind of mothering, having provided that kind of nurturing to her 8 siblings since a young age. This meant that her mothering style was one where from earliest possible moment, she taught us to do things for ourselves. She made us aware of what the bare minimum of being a mother was, meaning we had to figure out how to do the rest for ourselves. Growing up, I struggled a bit with her hands-off approach – yearning for her to be a bit more involved, but over time, I realized that this was probably her biggest gift to me. Already as a child, I had my own ideas of what I wanted and how I wanted it.  It always struck me as ironic that she encouraged the independent mindedness and autonomy that was very much a part of me, and yet she struggled the most with it because at times she felt that I completely disregarded her authority. Not surprisingly, I had a complicated relationship with authority (and I blame her for it). Like her, I hated it when people told me what to do rather than ask what I wanted to do.  Her and I discovered this in the first two and a half decades our journey together.
Looking back at it now, I am aware how we both failed to see that the things causing conflict between us were in fact the areas of greatest similarity between us. We are both feisty, strong-minded with very clear ideas of ourselves and our worlds. We did get to a beautiful place of accepting each other’s differences eventually, but it took some time. In the end, we landed in a sweet spot of deep acknowledgement and appreciation for each other – devoid of expectation of how the other should be or show up in our relationship. It is now almost 3 years since her passing, and in this blog, I want to reflect on her greatest gifts to me. My sister and I always joked that my parents would not leave us any material inheritance – and now I am deeply grateful that the inheritance my parents left is in fact priceless.

#1 Defiance

My mother was a great teacher of defiance. As a child, I watched how others would comment about her mothering style, her role as a wife and nurturer, and other general comments about what she was supposed to do and what she refused to do. She would always listen to these comments, smile, and then just continue doing things the way she was doing them.

I think that some of those comments might have hurt her at first, but she preferred defiance to these standards that others were imposing on her. She preferred to simply be herself. In a community where our dense living conditions meant that all of our lives were under a microscope, and the general trend was gossiping among neighbours, she preferred to keep to herself. She would either read, or just watch TV as she felt she was better off that way since people would talk about her anyway.
Even in her family, she was her own person, refusing to bow to the pressures that others tried to impose – instead just choosing to be who she was. My mother’s defiance confused me, at times agitated me, as I was growing up. I could not understand why she would not try to be more like others – why she would not try to fit in more. I eventually began to appreciate her defiance, as I too embraced this as a quality – and learnt to be me as I am rather than what others say I am.

# 2 Street smarts

My mother was someone that was pretty much self-taught. She had to drop out of school during primary school to care for her many younger siblings, as her parents were both fruit and vegetable vendors at the time. Her level of literacy was not as high as everyone else in the family, and sometimes people would joke about it. She was unperturbed. She read a lot and watched a lot of television, and that is how she even learnt how to speak English.

I always marveled at my mother’s ability to assess a situation, and figure out what she needed to do. Without hesitation, she would just get on and do it. She was never afraid to ask for help, and to admit that she did not know. She was always willing to learn. This was a quality I admired about her. Because she was not educated, she made sure that we realized that education was not optional, but a given for us. She would not entertain any ideas from us that we would drop out of school or anything like that – which was common in the community we lived in.

Through this my mother taught me was that even if I have the greatest academic achievement in the world, it meant nothing if I was not able to apply it in the various situations I encountered in my life. That, in fact, what would set me apart from others would be my ability to combine my book smarts with my street smarts. I was never worried about her in that regard, and would always joke that my mother is the kind of person that one could transport into any situation (even where she did not know the language) – and she would have learned to survive and ultimately thrive. I am deeply thankful for her teachings on this from early on in my life.

#3 Subversion

My mother was the queen of subversion. You would be fooled to believe that what you see is what you get with her. She had so many layers, and only if she allowed you closer, would you be able to appreciate her many depths. She learned to read a situation, and figure out what her best strategy was. Some might call it dishonest, but I think some of it was quite smart.

She was tired of the hustle of her life. Both her and my father were factory workers, which she hated more than anything. In fact, she would have preferred never to work, contrary to my father who loved it. Her tiredness of the hustle meant that she quite enjoyed it when others would think she is less than capable and resourceful, and offer to do things for her. It meant that she could sit back and just enjoy the process.

I did not understand that this was her agency in action, because through subversion she allowed others to believe something to get an outcome she really wanted. Over the course of her relationship with my father, as I got older, I would catch her in acts of subversion very often – and at times would use it against her and ask her to buy my silence for what she was actually doing.

She remained unapologetic about this strategy of hers – and in some ways it helped me to understand her better. Strangely enough, her modeling of subversion for me was the very training ground for my latter activism, and also my analysis of the complex ways in which people hold power. Subversion continues to be a favourite strategy of mine, but I must be honest that I use it only as and when needed, unlike my mother.

#4 Radical self-acceptance

Last but not least, my mother taught me about radical self-acceptance. With her defiant personality – and her continuous modeling of doing what she wanted in the face of a sea of voices that dared to define her – she was great at modeling radical self acceptance. Her self-acceptance included her being able to hear about her flaws and shrug it off if she felt it was not a good reflection of how she was experiencing herself at the time.

Up until she died, she showed me that she was completely ok with herself and that she would continue to do life on her terms. I believe that she died on her own terms too. She refused to see doctors (we suspect she may have been ill for a while), because she knew that they would tell her to stop smoking. She was unapologetic in saying that smoking was her thing, it gave her peace and joy – and no one better take it from her.

She would dress the way she chose, and felt very pleased with her  fashion sense. I am grateful to her for showing me that I am okay just the way I am and that even though I might be flawed, that’s ok because it is still me. She taught me that radical self acceptance actually comes from within – in the face of the many narratives that are floating around you.


I am immensely grateful to this human for journeying with me as my mother. She was the best person to ground me, and teach me what I needed in my journey of becoming. I continue to see the many ways she taught and modeled to me what it means to walk through this earthly experience as fully me!

Learn more about my journey through my blog.