It isn’t the first Mother’s Day without my mother, but it feels almost like it is. Because I’ve relegated the obsolete human practice of ‘remembering’ to social media algorithms, I turned to Facebook Memories to learn what I did last Mother’s Day, the first one I had after my mother died.
Zero results. A gaping timeline hole between 22 February and 9 July. This is unusual behaviour for me (since age 13, most of my emotional and mental processing has taken place on an internet platform) but this particular social media silence is loud and brimming with the kind of melodramatic grief reserved for the immediate aftermath of a parent’s death.
A missed opportunity. If Mother’s Day is a day to uncritically glorify mothers and motherhood, a motherless Mother’s Day demands 10,000 times the idolisation.
I participate in this problematic exercise in my own quiet way; the memory of my mother is like what I imagine unwavering faith in a god feels like. Saint-like, beautiful and kind-hearted, my mother was a survivor of violence, depression and a debilitating disease that eventually took her life at 62.
She was lovely and victimised and patient and silenced and oh so super. The longer this lullaby of her life, or her life as I knew it, sings in my head, the hazier and more one-dimensional my mother becomes.
But Mother’s Day season banks on this superficial idea of motherhood. A slew of advertisements, articles and public announcements declare it, yearly: mothers are simply super. Listicles tell you the best ways to ‘pamper’ your mother after all she’s done. Singapore Motherhood magazine reminds us that it is a time to “honour the miracle of mothers and motherhood”, give your “super mama” a yummy treat that she doesn’t have to cook herself. Off-season, The Straits Times ran a piece on the “rise of the super mums”: women who, despite difficulties, juggle full-time jobs and their family responsibilities.
When we revere mothers for their ability (an ability that is sometimes refined through having no other options) to “successfully” manage the domestic chores we expect them to take on, soothe their kids’ tantrums, care for their ageing parents, and also remind their husbands to pick up some taukwa at Sheng Siong — but the firm kind, not the soft-soft kind, why did you get the wrong one, oh sorry I should have told you where, my fault — we do all mothers a major disservice. We measure their success against an ever-growing, unattainable list of tasks and achievements that we require them to commit to. Anything less is a moral failing.
This Mother’s Day, let’s remind ourselves that mothers are not superhuman. They’re just human.
And they’re overworked, exhausted, sometimes poor, flawed as any other, and often faced with limited resources and support from family, society and state.
Mother’s Day should be a time to take stock of how we, as a society, have failed mothers, and how we can do better.
All mothers are mothers
In Singapore, not all mothers are equal.
Unmarried mothers, for one, are treated differently. They face the stigma of their children being labelled under the law as “illegitimate” — a consequence of a state that puts the nuclear family on a pedestal, and ties access to basic necessities, like housing, to it — which means their children have no entitlement under inheritance law. An unmarried mother is also not able to purchase her own HDB flat if she is under 35 because the state doesn’t recognise her and her child as a “family nucleus”.
Since gender equality group AWARE’s study of single parents’ access to housing was released in 2017, streams of stories have been published about how without housing stability, parenting becomes ever more brutal, and children’s development and education often suffer as a result of an environment in flux.
“(HDB) told me…‘What you can do is stop working first. Stop working and apply for Public Rental and then you go back to work again.’ What? I have been working in this company for so long, I have got benefits. You want me to quit my job? What would happen to my benefits if I were to quit?”— Siti (pseudonym) a single mother respondent of AWARE’s study shares about the barriers she came up against when attempting to rent from the state.
Economic security shields some mothers from the material restrictions that poorer mothers have to think about. Author and academic Teo You Yenn has also raised, through her bestselling book This Is What Inequality Looks Like, how low-income mothers are constantly challenged when it comes to finding their financial footing: our workplaces are hostile to their demanding caregiving responsibilities, informal work does not pay them enough, and family support is hard to come by in an environment that is already stretched thin of resources.
If they are migrant mothers of citizen husbands, they had better be wealthy. Visas, healthcare, housing and work are not made particularly easy for low-income transnational families, with mothers even facing the risk of separation from citizen children should they be divorced or widowed.
“I don’t want to be unemployed forever, but I am not allowed to work! How about our monthly expenses, my son’s school fees and allowance? Who’s going to bear all this?” — Migrant mother June (pseudonym), in an interview with AWARE
This is on top of the regularly scheduled programme of gender roles, where 52% of respondents to a local survey still expect care and domestic work to be performed by women. Our attitudes mean that a whopping 78% of prime working aged women who were out of the workforce cited it was because of “family responsibilities”. In contrast, 9.3% of men said the same.
We fail mothers when we recognise them only in relation to their (male) spouses. We fail mothers when we pile obstacles in their path and expect that they burst through with tenacity, resilience and the Mjolnir-like hammer of meritocracy. The challenges of motherhood — of being the only parent at their child’s beck and call, of financial stress, of being unable to turn to others for long-term support—don’t tell us about “super mums”, as much as they tell us about the crumbling infrastructures and social systems that keep women and mothers down.
A trophy for overcoming adversity
But perhaps it is no coincidence that the rhetoric of super mums echoes that of the “heartwarming success stories” Singapore society is addicted to. We all know them: stories of tokenised individuals who, despite the odds stacked against them, are able to emerge from the rubble — of poverty, lack of higher education, disability, or abuse — smelling like a rose.
Absurdly, The Straits Times has an entire awards programme dedicated to it: The Generation Grit Awards — a disturbing and frankly dystopian game of celebrating vulnerable people’s ability to withstand pain and suffering, without any acknowledgment of society and the state’s role in engineering their struggles.
It places the responsibility of “overcoming”, of being super, on individuals who to begin with may not enjoy many social privileges (like money, time, ability, education, and social capital) that would typically allow them to beat adversities.
We pull out the few who made it, point to them and say, See? If they can do it….
We give them $5,000 and a trophy. We give mothers cupcakes, flowers and a spa day.
We call them super.
My mother was not super. She was human. She was kind and flawed and under-appreciated. She told me to “cover up” often. When I couldn’t land a job for months after graduating from school because no employer I met wanted to take in a tudung-wearing 21-year-old, she was impatient with my progress.
She also worked shifts at Singtel for over two decades until she became physically and mentally exhausted, and eventually sick. She didn’t get enough support for her deteriorating health, her hidden mental health struggles, nor did she have a chance to truly heal from trauma. It was only in the last three years of her life, when she was bedridden and unable to speak and eating through a tube, was she able to take a cruel, painful, uncomfortable “break” from motherhood.
Motherhood should not be so ruthless. Mothers should not be made to ‘earn’ our respect with struggle. They should not have to be super. In a better world, on a better Mother’s Day, we can celebrate mothers by getting rid of the obstacle course we put them through.
Let’s give gifts by rewarding unpaid labour. By seeing all kinds of mothers. The ones who have to leave the office early to pick up their sick kids. The ones who are in the kitchen cooking when you pay a visit at Raya. Let’s demand that our MPs speak out to make sure single mothers are not discriminated against. Let’s press them until all mothers are able to have their basic needs met. Let’s lift equal weight in our own households. Let’s do better by domestic workers, many of whom are mothers doing undervalued labour caring for other people’s mothers and kids in foreign countries.
Let’s celebrate mothers — all mothers, not just ours, not just the super ones, and not just the ones that pristinely reflect our warped idea of motherhood — through gifts that would actually help them thrive.
Here’s my short listicle for Mother’s Day gift ideas:
- Make a tribute donation to AWARE to honour your mum, other mums, or women in general.
- Support domestic workers via HOME. If they’re not mothers themselves, they’re probably caring for your mums.
- Many sex workers are also mums. Give Project X money.
- It’s Ramadan, so if you’re a woman, tell your mum about Penawar, a support group for ex/Muslim women.
- Many mums could do with some financial support. Beyond Social Services works to support their children.
- Transgender mothers are mothers too. The T Project is a shelter for trans women.
- LBTQ mothers are also mothers! So many mothers! Brave Spaces does work with LBTQ women.
- If you’re a manager or employer, adopt a flexible work policy for caregivers.
- Do you know a mother in your family who isn’t working and not in a good place financially? Make sure her Raya green packet this year is thick af.