"Darling, I have to tell you something."
These are the words you never want to hear from a parent.
It was Australia Day, 2016. I remember the moment clearly. I was walking home from work when I received a phone call from Mum. This wasn't unusual since I lived in Melbourne and she was in Sydney.
But, once I heard those dreaded words in her unusually serious tone, I knew this was one of those moments when my life was about to take a jarring turn. I just didn't know how.
With my parents aged in their late 60s, my mind quickly raced to the worse and the morbid. Cancer. A bad fall. Car accident. Hospital. Dying.
To say my mum's response surprised me would be an understatement.
"Dad and I are getting a divorce."
Growing up in Sydney in the 90s, my experience was much like many Asian Australians at that time. My parents moved from Singapore when I was 2 years old and struggled in the early years to settle into a new environment. But once my dad’s business gained traction and we became acculturated with the Australian way, the focus for us kids was to study hard, get good marks, go to university and secure that respectable job.
My parents moved from Singapore when I was 2 years old and struggled in the early years to settle into a new environment.
And like any Asian Australian, I grappled with finding that balance between the Asian values of familial obligations and equating monetary success with success in life, and the more Western values of independence and notion of chasing one’s ‘passion’.
For my parents - like many parents with young kids - their focus was on us, either directly or indirectly through working hard and sacrificing. However, it wasn’t only us kids who would feel the shock to their cultural values.
I would describe my parents’ relationship as reflecting the traditional Confucian stereotype: the submissive wife and nurturing mother and the breadwinner husband and family head who made the decisions. And like any relationship, this could’ve persisted smoothly for years without incident if both parties accepted their roles.
I would describe my parents’ relationship as reflecting the traditional Confucian stereotype: the submissive wife and nurturing mother and the breadwinner husband and family head who made the decisions.
In Singapore, things were smooth and their roles were clear: Mum took full responsibility for the kids, did the cooking (three meals a day) and cleaning, while my dad went to work, stayed out with friends and came home when he pleased.
“That’s just how things were”, Mum would say with a shrug. I always bristled at her casualness of course, having grown up with Buffy, the Spice Girls and sold on the idea of ‘girl power’.
However, when we moved to Australia, the dynamics began to change.
However, when we moved to Australia, the dynamics began to change. My mum had to work in the family business (in addition to her usual duties) which gave her some “value”, and she also began to see that such lopsided power dynamics were not altogether widespread. When she saw husbands changing kids’ nappies and picking stuff up after themselves, my mum was amazed. Husbands can do that? She was so used to my dad, who would - for example - peel an orange and leave the peel on the carpet for her to pick up. He wasn’t a bad man, but just a product of an intensely patriarchal upbringing (with a sprinkle of narcissism).
I recall one time on a family holiday, my parents were in one room fighting while teenage me was crying in the room next door, with my brothers there consoling me. I wasn’t crying because they were fighting. I cried because all I could hear was my dad’s voice lecturing my mum, and I couldn’t hear a peep from her. My mum’s distinct lack of voice in the relationship deeply upset me throughout my formative years.
A year before the divorce was announced, my mum and 30-something me were at a café in Melbourne where I asked her why she hadn’t divorced my dad yet (it wasn’t the first time I asked). But Mum was adamant: they were old now, they’d been through so much, and she just had to live with her choices.
So that Australia Day afternoon when Mum called me and told me they were getting a divorce, I was shocked because I didn’t think she would actually do it. And I was right.
My dad initiated it.
My parents’ relationship deteriorated sharply in later years, not in small part because my mum began to find a small voice of her own and didn’t allow herself to be bullied anymore.
My parents’ relationship deteriorated sharply in later years, not in small part because my mum began to find a small voice of her own and didn’t allow herself to be bullied anymore. Submissive yes, but not lectured for hours on end for example. And my dad couldn’t handle that. Indeed, he would often be nostalgic about those years living in Singapore - and it wasn’t because he missed the food.
My dad’s back living in Asia now - enjoying the familiar power dynamic in his new relationship I’m sure. And my mum’s still in Sydney, excited about moving to her new place. My dad made the final decision for their 37-year relationship but in the end, it was a blessing because my mum ultimately wouldn’t have. And I’m grateful - because to me, my mum’s now free, she’s independent, and she finally has her well-deserved voice.