In what seems to be the distant past and another world, yet in reality is not so long ago, in the world of real people on the streets and open shops, and institutions that functioned with real routines and real tasks which had to be managed with clockwork precision, I would often come across many a new-age mother in my son’s PTMs (parent-teacher meetings). Each mother would be smiling widely as they greet one another amicably, yet look clearly on the edge, hoping that their child had outperformed their best friend’s child or the child on the third floor of the building in which they lived. I can’t say that I was not part of this bandwagon – ambitious for my child, eager to hear that he was the best, the smartest, the most active, the most outgoing – every imaginable superlative attached to him.
Every year as we attended his sports day we dreaded the embarrassment as he would lag behind while the other children ran like their tails were on fire and later, would receive sympathetic smiles from understanding and secretly jubilant mothers.
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I can’t say my son disappointed me in the assessments though. He does reasonably well. Last time he stood second in his class. I winked at him and said, “Next time my baby will stand first in class, right?” What came next left me speechless and led to what I’d understate into a reflective mode.
“I am happy coming second. I think I’ll stick to coming second. Besides I don’t see any point in coming first.”
No craving, no ambition, no desire to excel and surpass? It suddenly dawned on me that I was trying to live my dreams like every other mother, through him. And not just that – trying to prove I was the smartest, the coolest, the best by virtue of being the mother and thereby the sole possessor of the smartest, the coolest and the best child in the grade. Every new-age mother in that ring had the exact same thought and the exact same ambition.
And it led me to realise that the new-age mother is under constant pressure to perform since the burden and responsibility of raising the child and monitoring their progress falls entirely on her with the transition from the joint family to the nuclear family structure and certain lifestyle changes that come along with it.
More than in any age, today’s mother lives for her child, breathes for her child and even when the world is undergoing extraordinarily frightening times like the pandemic, she is driven by a desire to show how her child is smarter than the rest. Just recently, one of the moms uploaded a video of her eight-year-old cycling on an empty street in the dead of the night at an alarming speed, expressing pride in how her son could achieve this feat in a lockdown.
But what my son said to me made me realise that the new-age mothers are going more and more in the direction of a western construct of the ‘supermom’ who is somehow incredibly energetic, patient, empathetic, understanding, almost always apologetic, guilt-ridden and miraculously manages the work and the home front without uttering a word of complaint, even if she is a single mom.
One striking example of this iconic figure who is glorified to almost mythic proportions for doing the impossible is Meredith Grey, the protagonist in Grey’s Anatomy who is a widow, manages to handle her children, run a hospital, perform incredible surgeries, negotiate with her staff, mentor juniors and yet remain calm and composed only by taking deep breaths. Deep breaths! That’s the secret? Wow! These kind of projections put a huge pressure on new-age mothers and categorically and gradually leads to a denial of the individual in the mother. And I wouldn’t say Indian popular culture is far behind in internalising these depictions, magnifying the mother as care-giver to unimaginable proportions.
New-age mothers have had to unfortunately internalise this unattainable, idealised archetype which is toxic to her well-being and leaves her with a sense of lack and dissatisfaction, since she is constantly feeding herself on the supermom myth and telling herself that nothing matters, except for her child’s success. She is like the obsessed Horlicks mother who will go to any extent to make her children ‘taller, sharper and stronger’. You see it everywhere: in reality shows, in PTMs, on Instagram, on Facebook – it is stifling.
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A new-age mother would have almost severed her individual needs from those of her role as a mother. Is it because she feels a compulsion to prove to the ever absent father who is overwhelmed at work to give an even better standard of living to his family, that she is doing a good job? Both running ad infinitum? What is however worth noting is that most of the qualities that the supermom embodies and passes on are what are known as conventionally masculine qualities, such as competition, workaholism, aggression and an uncompromising superhero attitude in her children, which even though important for material success and gains, can’t be too good for the child, especially if they do not want to participate in this grandiose myth.
We are in the middle of a pandemic. We have got somewhat of a breather. This is the time when we could be inculcating perhaps something else: qualities and values that if nurtured and watered might lead this generation making a better planet for themselves out of the mess we have created. A healthy example of mental and emotional well-being, for instance, could be of a mother who displays qualities of nurturer and nourisher of good values of collaboration and caregiving and not just competition and outsmarting. Maybe, a new-age mother who shows her children how to take care of plants or of the house, asking them to look after the elders in the house, administer medicines, chop vegetables, manage the fridge, take stock of the provisions, make a list of things needed, even learn to cook, clean and wash, thus emphasising on the importance of homemaking and caregiving and giving these chores, indispensable for survival, as much importance as those required to be a go-getter, an achiever or those needed to beat the feats of the neighbour’s child.
Taller, stronger, sharper, fiercer glorifies and reinforces those very qualities, the manifestations of which we see all around us, which did not allow us to hear the earth’s shallow breathing and its pain-stricken cries, and the unquestioning submission to and adoption of these qualities by mothers implies as if this is all that is required for the success and progress of our children. Well sure…maybe success and progress, but perhaps not well-being, which is another idea altogether.
For a change, the focus can be on simply raising a good person who knows how to be happy regardless of where they are, instead of putting them on top of the Mount Everest and blindly following Caeser who came, saw and conquered.
Featured Image Source: Shreya Tingal/Feminism In India
Lovely write up. The shift from absolute competitiveness to good survival was reemphasized by the Covid Pandemic in 2020. We, as mothers have now understood that it’s imperative for us to train our children to do household work happily ( not an unnecessary burden ).