Midway through an extra challenging day - I can’t even tell you what happened, exactly - I felt defeated. So I lay down. “What’s wrong, Mama?” my eldest asked me. I couldn’t speak with my face planted on her alphabet play-mat, so she added helpfully, “Do you miss your mama?”
I wanted to cry. It was a good enough explanation. I was sleep-deprived.
I missed having a life outside my home. I missed my brothers and sisters. I missed my closest girlfriends. I missed Balmoral Beach. I missed my mother. It always came back to missing my mother. So I said, “Yes, I miss my mama.”
I missed buying kefta rolls with extra garlic sauce from Jasmin, my favourite Arab restaurant in Lakemba, where I grew up. I missed walking through the peaceful, dappled sunlit paths in Lane Cove, where my husband and I lived as newlyweds.
“Don’t worry Mama,” she said, with the unshakable confidence of a preschooler. “Nenek is coming soon.” Then she patted my head. I had to smile.
My Singaporean-born mother migrated to Sydney as a young mother with six children in 1996, and has stayed there.
I reversed her journey of migration from Asia to the west by moving to Kuala Lumpur in 2014 after marrying my Malaysian-born husband, who I met in an Arabic class.
We moved to Malaysia for many different reasons, starting with better job opportunities, and ending with keeping his elderly and widowed mother company.
We live in the house my husband grew up in, with our two young daughters, my mother-in-law, and her live-in maid. We have a full house, and there is never a dull moment. There are a lot of big feelings, every day.
Before my mother’s most recent visit, I was having yet another difficult patch. I have a one year old and a 3.5 year old, so I basically lurch from one rough patch to the next.
My mother isn’t much of a talker. So when she does arrive, she is instantly hands on. She possesses the efficiency that comes with decades of caring for six children, and there is something new about her - her playfulness. She dances with my eldest and plays with my youngest. This is a side of my mother that is still new to me. This is the side of my mother that came back, after she divorced my father ten years ago.
Because of that, there is so much that goes unsaid between us. I know the hardest years of her motherhood journey were her first 12 years as a mother, in Singapore.
For the first time in my life, I am part of the racial majority, and I enjoy the uncomfortable privilege that come with that.
My parents had six children in those turbulent years, and I am the oldest. It got better, and harder in different ways, when we migrated to Sydney, and I started my first year of high school. My father stayed behind in Singapore, worked hard, and sent money to my mother to fund our lives and our education. It wasn’t until many years later that I realised how regular families don’t work that way. Connected dads are hands-on and present. I see the ramifications of that disconnection, decades later, in how it is always so much easier to reach out to my mother, compared to my father. And yet, both my parents did the best they did, with what they knew.
Sometimes, I ask my mum what it was like, in those early years of motherhood. She tells me that she cannot remember. I don’t blame her - I can’t imagine very much she would want to remember, from those trying times. I still grieve that loss.
I don’t know how she kept all six of us washed, fed, cared for, driven around - I took that all for granted. I remember being frustrated at how different she was to me, and how much I wished we could talk about my struggles, growing up Muslim in the west.
I understand my mother so much more, now that I am a mother too and I am raising my daughters as a migrant in Malaysia. As challenging as it was for me to adjust to the different pace of life here - speaking in my rusty, accented Malay, driving on Kuala Lumpur roads during torrential rain, accepting the mosquitos and tropical humidity - I cannot imagine how much harder it was for my mother to adjust to life in Sydney.
For the first time in my life, I am part of the racial majority, and I enjoy the uncomfortable privilege that come with that. My mother moved to Sydney with small children, far away from her own support networks of friends and family, and found herself part of a misunderstood and stigmatised minority.
Now I realise how impossible my expectations were of her. She was only one woman, there were six of us, and there was the stress of her living in a foreign land, so far away from everything and everyone she knew and loved.
Love and connection, however, keep us honest, because it is safe to be ourselves.
Twenty-three years later, Australia is now a land she calls home. When I ask her if she’d ever come back to this part of the world, she shakes her head vehemently. Australia has become very much part of her. She has formed a close-knit network of friends from South East Asia, all of them tied together through their own diaspora experiences. I call them the ‘aunty gang’, and they may not speak directly about their challenges, but they support each other nonetheless. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t just talk about what they and their children were going through - then I moved to Malaysia and finally understood.
Here in Malaysia, there is a strong culture of collectivism, keeping family ties, and sacrificing individual desire for the greater good. There is strong familial love, but many difficult things are left unsaid and hidden away, for the sake of ‘saving face’. There is often very little vocabulary to tackle the difficulties that come with taking the path less trodden and parenting is done differently. I know that punishment and threats lose effectiveness once kids grow up and can start living double lives. Love and connection, however, keep us honest, because it is safe to be ourselves.
Being a mother is the hardest work I have ever done. Part of me just thinks: if only Mak were here. Then everything would be better. What she offers me is love, unconditional support, and her unwavering belief in me. She has seen me through so much, and she is still my biggest fan.
Each time I say goodbye after my mother visits, I miss her all over again, and wait for her return.
She is far away, but always in my heart, and I draw strength from that. When I look at my own daughters, so young and so trusting, I hope that they can forgive me too, for the mistakes I will inevitably make. All I can offer them is love, and happier memories of their childhood.
Raidah Shah Idil is a mother of two, poet, writer, and dreamer. You can find Raidah hunting for patches of green in the city, playing puppets with her young daughters, and writing when she really should be sleeping. Follow her on her twitter @raidahshahidil.