When I told my co-worker that I hadn’t spoken to my mother in a year, she couldn’t hide her shock. Such a fact would be strange enough for anyone to hear, let alone an Indian girl in her 30s who was only too aware of how tight the parent-child relationship is in our culture. She began gushing in disbelief, urging me to call my mother and change things, as though it were something I had not tried before. I smiled at her in that awkward way I have become accustomed to doing in these situations. It is a reserved and masking smile you might recognise on someone’s face when recounting a tragic and irrefutable fact. Like death or illness; like the loss of an heirloom or a house burning down.
The last time I spoke to my mother was about two months before my wedding. Until she heard that I had set a date, she had assumed I would change my mind about the man I had chosen to be with. That her immense disapproval would have finally worn me down; that I would awaken to the ancestral and religious sin that the act of marrying outside one’s own ‘kind’ imbues upon a respectable Indian, Hindu woman. While my father called me a few days after the wedding to give me his wishes and regrets that he couldn’t change the circumstances, the last communication I had with my mother was an idle WhatsApp message about food. I have tried to reach out since then but have been told by other family members that it is useless and only causes her distress. That I should stop trying and accept it for what it is.
The last time I spoke to my mother was about two months before my wedding.
Most immigrant communities, particularly religious ones, will have their own rendition of this scenario. So much so that when I first saw a therapist to help me with the grief of estrangement, she called my situation “textbook”. It shocked me to receive such a seemingly lax response, but it also gave me comfort to know that it wasn’t all my fault that things ended up this way. There were wider forces at play.
Nevertheless, nothing can remove the everyday grief of being estranged from your own mother. I have played the scenarios a million times in my head, traced out every step of my childhood looking for the clues as to when I could have been more like ‘other Indian girls’, or been more closely aligned with my parents’ beliefs rather than questioning them. I have wallowed in guilt and self-loathing for the decisions I unwittingly made - from eating beef in a hamburger to going on exchange in Europe and coveting its culture - as though any one of these choices alone turned me into the disappointing daughter I became. In the early days of my marriage, I would spiral into anxiety and depression, missing my parents and convincing myself I ought to pack my bags and leave to their house; that I ought to leave the man I loved and submit to whatever their wishes so as not to be a bad child and to save their happiness over my own.
When I tell people about my situation, I commonly receive the response that my parents should love and accept me as I am.
When I tell people about my situation, I commonly receive the response that my parents should love and accept me as I am. Although it holds some truth, it is a simplistic rhetoric that implies that my plight is righteous in contrast to some archaic notion of traditionalism held by my parents. In reality, the level of ideological change and cultural assimilation that must be absorbed by first-generation immigrants is quantum, and sometimes, impossible. For my parents, whose mothers couldn’t even write their own name, the flagrant agency of body, politics and religion I am actualising is not a sign of my liberty but proof that their heritage is being erased. It is grief, more than anger, that now keeps them at bay.
When you become estranged from a living parent, when it becomes clear that they are so hurt by your actions that they are willing to close the door on that relationship permanently, the severing is palpable, and the grief is overwhelming. The place once filled by maternal intimacy opens up like a chasm and threatens to eat you whole, as if the tearing umbilical cord can still cause you to cease to exist. For weeks I would curl into a ball and cry on the bedroom floor, my partner unable to rouse me nor to perceive for himself what on earth was going on. But as time passed and I emptied of tears, I recovered the strength to abide by my decision, and to see it not as a dramatic personal tragedy but an unfortunate and unavoidable symptom of immigration that is all around us.
Hundreds if not thousands of immigrant women in Australia have experienced comparable stories to me, and many of them with far more dire consequences.
Hundreds if not thousands of immigrant women in Australia have experienced comparable stories to me, and many of them with far more dire consequences. In comparison, I take solace in knowing that my parents at least have their health, their home, and some grandkids. They have people that they can turn to if and when they decide to talk about all that has happened. But I respect their grieving, like my own, and their need to remain loyal to their culture in the only way they know how. After all, who would I be if I forced my beliefs on them? If I tried to disrupt their relationship to something that, as they age, is the little certainty they feel in a world that has otherwise gone mad? The truth is that we are all looking for freedom and salvation, and we all follow the stories we think will give them to us.
Being estranged from my mother is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. This Mother’s Day, I realise it will never hurt any less and I will never stop hoping that she will reopen that door. In the meantime, it is a daily act of mourning and courage to chart my own path in this world, but I try and remind myself that I am not doing it alone. That there are countless other women out there who are attempting to live of a life of their own making.
Udhara Rey (Pseudonym) is a freelance writer. She has previously been published in The Big Issue.
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