How two Muslim women reconciled their relationships with difficult mothers
For many people, Mother’s Day is an occasion for mimosa-soaked brunches and blue Tiffany boxes. For me, growing up in a family that didn’t celebrate Mother’s Day with any kind of faithfulness, it’s become an occasion for reflection on my notions of motherhood and the relationship I have with my own mother—which is fraught with a number of first-generation anxieties. I love my mother deeply, but our relationship has never been easy, and in recent years I’ve had to divest from it completely at some points.
I met Fariha Róisín on Twitter a few years ago, and from there we began a frank and tender email correspondence. As two Muslim, first-generation daughters, we bonded over our shared experiences. Fariha has written extensively about her own relationship with her mom, and how her mother’s mental illness has complicated their already difficult relationship. For Mother’s Day, we had a conversation about how we resolve and maintain our contentious relationships with our mothers.
Tasbeeh: What’s your relationship with your mother like?
Fariha: My relationship with my mother is the most difficult relationship I’ve ever had in my life, and potentially will ever have. I feel like there’s this understanding in Islam, and in any spiritual tradition, that emphasizes any kind of hardship as being an important signifier of learning and, if worked through appropriately, can help you transcend to a deeper place of spiritual peace and enlightenment.
Over the years, I’ve tried to meditate on that idea because sometimes it’s been my only solace. But, other times, that’s not enough. My mother is also mentally ill (she suffers from a blend of schizophrenia, bipolar and borderline personality disorder), so on top of all the cultural barriers we’re constantly navigating, I also have to manage my life within the parameters of her illness—which has been very stifling for me both mentally and emotionally. This year, when I went to visit her in Australia, she attempted suicide two days after my birthday. I’m still reeling from it. I don’t know if there’s ever a reconciliation. There’s definitely an attempt at one, or an understanding, too. But, more than anything, I think there’s a resignation of letting things be the way they are inevitably going to be.
Within Islam and within Western culture, there is this deification of the mother—even our language reinforces it: “motherland,” “mother tongue.” This past election season, Hillary Clinton famously referred to herself as someone’s “abuelita” and her PR team certainly tried to spin her status as a mother/grandmother as a pure, benevolent alternative to Trumpism. Most women-centric plotlines of films and literature revolve around the mother in some capacity—”cross-generational” and “coming-of-age” stories always revolve around some kind of mother-daughter scenario, like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood or every young adult novel ever written.
In Islam, there is a popular saying by the prophet Muhammed that “Heaven is at a mother’s feet,” which essentially means that if we are in our mother’s good graces we are granted entry into paradise. There’s a part of me that conceptualizes this as a feminist tradition. In many ways our mothers battled patriarchal conditions to survive and raise us, but in my own life, my mother has imposed her own patriarchal conditions to hinder my personal growth. I feel like I have to balance these two ideas: One, that my mother is imperfect in many ways, and being around her has been unhealthy for me, but also that I believe very deeply in this tradition, and understand why, within Islam, these kinds of edicts took precedence. How do you apply these kinds of concepts to your own life, with your own difficult mother?
When I was a kid, I’d think of this statement and be so mad at God for giving me such a terrible situation. When I was younger, it was impossible to love my mother, she was a tyrant, and so for many years, I didn’t. Truthfully, for most of my life I haven’t. She was a burden for me. I’ve been frank about her violence, so it’s not an easy thing … but in recent years I see the value in teaching such a concept, especially in Islam which has been marred by male jurists and their interpretations, so in that sense I think it’s rightly subversive, and as you said, feminist. With respect to my own mother, I just try and focus on the fact that she has tried to love me in the ways that she can, and that’s something. For that I am indebted to her. It could have been worse, and, in fact, my healing lies in forgiving her.
For me, too, it’s been a struggle to understand the difference between conceding to my mother at the expense of my own prosperity and being able to treat her with the tenderness her circumstances demand. A lot of the issues within our own relationship have to do with lack of understanding. What she demands of me (a complete reversal of who I am) is so much more than what I need from her (her attention, her willingness to understand me). Mother’s Day, for me, is often a somber occasion. I don’t know how to acknowledge this holiday, because I want to honor my mother—for her own sacrifices and knowing her circumstances have made her who she is—but I also don’t want to put myself in a position to be vulnerable to her. Do you feel, in any part, that impulse?
Oh, it’s such a difficult juggling act. A few years ago I went to our family kinesiologist, Rick, and asked him why I had been born into my family—which is kind of dramatic and funny in retrospect—and he said something that I’ll never forget: “I think there’s something really important that you’re here to teach to your family.” Both you and I have experienced intense loneliness and fear of disappointing them. But, I do know that, despite my family’s disappointment on some level, they hope I do succeed. I think the best that we can do, and you and I have talked about this before, is to be good to yourself, to follow your own gut. I learned that the hardest way, but that’s why I’m so vocal about this now to young Muslim or South Asian girls, listening to your parents—as much as you love and respect them—won’t protect you. Now that I live my own life, for myself, I find it easier to forgive her, too.
Do you think you’ve forgiven your mother?
My own politics demand I forgive her. I think a lot about what she sacrificed to make me, and raise me, and I can’t help but feel indebted, even if that journey came with a lot of pain. And I hope she can forgive me too, because I know that I can be a difficult daughter sometimes, and that I often begrudge making compromises I could easily make. I want to bring her into my own world so she can see, from my perspective, what it looks like from here. But that’s going to take some time.
Understanding that our parents have sacrificed so much for us always leaves me gutted. I found The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (and the movie by Mira Nair, too) so exceptional in articulating that guilt, or even the “Parents” episode on Master of None last season, which I’ve watched like five times and still cry when watching it.
How do you reconcile that shame and guilt?
I loved The Namesake—I read it while I was in Libya a few summers back and it really resonated with me. I find myself thinking about Gogol, the main character, a lot and his struggles to please his mother while maintaining his own personhood.
That shame comes from wanting things our parents could have never imagined wanting, and knowing that their struggles enabled me to pursue those things. I have to remind myself that our desires and ambitions are relative. For my parents, survival was the only ambition it was acceptable to have. But survival, for me, living in America as a member of the middle class, is granted. So I understand why, for my mother, it’s difficult to understand why I might want certain signifiers of prosperity, which seem superfluous to her.
I used to resent my parents because I thought that they were stifling me in some ways, that I couldn’t succeed in the way my white peers were succeeding because I had this extra hurdle to get over. Some of that resentment lingers, particularly toward my mother, because she was often the one who took the lead in raising me and my siblings.
It’s also hard to acknowledge that these women in our lives also enforced many patriarchal ideologies that really stunted me. The way my mother used to talk about my body has transmuted into my own intense body dysmorphia that I’m still trying to unlearn years later. Or the way she used to sexually taunt me (by calling me a slut, or telling me that I was ‘asking for it’ if I wore, like, anything remotely revealing) left me walking around with my back hunched, wearing baggy, unflattering clothes because I was terrified of being seen, or of being wanted. I internalized her own sexual shame and sincerely felt that if someone attacked me, or hurt me, sexually, it was my own fault. It’s how I perpetuated certain rape narratives to myself, and even my friends. This completely ruined me when my first adult relationship was with a man who was incredibly emotionally and mentally abusive and left me pregnant. But, I made those mistakes—and now 10 years later, I’m here.
I think we just wish that we could share these parts of our lives with them, and a big regret that I have is that I don’t think I can. That still hurts. I’ve always resented people with good relationships with their mothers. There’s nothing that sedates or fills that deep well, that cavern of longing that you have when you yearn for a mother, one who understands you. You know?
Oh, yeah. I grew up watching Gilmore Girls and always identified more with Lane than with Rory—but I still really wanted the relationship Rory had with her mother. I knew that was, in a lot of ways, impossible, but time and growth have shown me that Rory’s relationship with her mother isn’t as endearing to me as I once thought it was.
Still, there are parts of my life I do wish I could divulge to my mother, to share with her, and know that I can’t—because I know I will be subject to her judgment, and worse, her disappointment and sadness. The best thing I can do is keep my distance, but close that distance whenever I can, on days she’s feeling more forgiving, or I am. I resent Mother’s Day, too, for imposing this contact as a rule, and for perpetuating these narratives of mother-daughter bliss.
I think I always looked at those relationships through a veil of longing. The most intense mother/daughter story that still floors me is Jean Marc Valleé’s film Wild. It doesn’t mirror my own relationship, but I understand the tragedy of losing one’s mother, because, in a way, I feel like my mother disappeared many years ago, and that I’ve never, fully recovered her. So, I’m always mourning her. There’s a sort of empty vessel in place of where my mother exists, a weird nebulous vampire, which I know sounds harsh. But she’s full with so much expectation, and yet what she offers me, it hurts to say, is very little. I think when she attempted suicide again this year, I felt so exhausted because I’m her constant caretaker, and so maybe I’m also mourning myself when watching stories like these unfold. When I see something as life-altering as Wild was for me—and, evidently, losing her mother was for Cheryl Strayed—despite the lack of parallels, I apply my own sense of sadness from an unfulfilled life on to that narrative. It provides me with a weird kind of solace, like I’m being understood by a larger maternal rhetoric, I’ve just swapped the roles around.
In a lot of mother-daughter narratives, the daughter eventually does become the caretaker. Why do you think that is?
I think because our mothers haven’t learnt to heal their own pasts. So many of our family histories are deeply entrenched in so much trauma, and if you don’t actively work on yourself, and heal the deep wounds of both yourself and your ancestors, you pass that down to your children, and therein can’t really be much of a mother. There’s this great article called “The Mother Wound”, and it’s about that generational, messy shit that gets passed down and has a good explanation as to why so many of us end up mothering our own mothers.
How are you acknowledging Mother’s Day this year?
I’ll probably call her. I recently taught myself how to make ghee, which is really exciting because I miss her in those moments, but relive her through something like food, or cooking. I’m really into turmeric, and my mother has a big garden, so she planted some and got her first turmeric root. So, we’ll probably just gush about those things. It’s important to find things we relate on so we can connect. All I’ve ever wanted was to connect with my mother.