An amusing advertisement for Fiat features a blonde mother rapping about “the mother hood”—the lyrics include the lines “this is the mother hood/ I’d try to welcome you/ But now you’re here for good.” Punning on “hood” as gangsta-speak for neighbourhood, the song is a funny take on the trials of being a mother—the mess, the endless organization of everything, the descent into puree and diapers and wearing maternity clothes far beyond birth. It also implies an underlying toughness about a mother. There is only one kind of mother we encounter in our mainstream media though—the cow-eyed, melting kind of smiling mother who is never angry, irritated or ill. She lovingly serves up three kinds of breakfast in the morning and always gets your shirts really, really white and the soap that kills all the germs so nobody ever sniggers at you for being grey or smelly.
Mother’s Day recently mooned past, wafting in its wake heaps of syrupy good cheer and mama-love, lots of hearts and macaroons and “I love my Mummy” and sales on things mummies like. The kids at my daughter’s school made a poster with things they thought their mothers were, and the attribute that took first place was “pretty”, followed closely by “nice”. Only one child offered “intelligent” (impressive; too bad it wasn’t mine). An advertisement on the radio featured several self-conscious voices saying they loved their mother because she was always there for them. Nobody said they loved their mother because she was brave, or unconventional, or sang loudly regardless of who was listening. Nobody said so because we need our mothers to be pretty and nice to us because if they weren’t, we would be cast adrift in a mean and frightening world. Mothers are meant to understand us and be kind regardless, to smell good and not have strange compulsions and sulks and a secret life of their own. It’s enough to drive a mother insane, and in many cases, that is exactly what happens.
I’ve been reading in the paper about a young woman who recently poisoned her three children. They didn’t survive. She said her husband had abandoned her for another woman, leaving her and her children destitute. She threatened to do something drastic if he didn’t come back to her. He obviously thought she was full of hot air. She killed their children, and from the newsprint emerged the tortured, raging spectre of Medea in her chariot, the corpses of her sons at her feet. Abandoned by her husband in a foreign land, she too was driven to infanticide and remains one of the most enigmatic and tragic figures of Greek drama. She too kept trying to be heard, but nobody would listen, and in the end the only status she had, much like this mother of the newspapers, was that afforded by motherhood . What disturbs me most is the extent of a woman’s desperation. The one in the paper, Samina, said she couldn’t bear to see her children slowly starving to death. You can say she was exaggerating, that she had an ulterior motive, why couldn’t she just get a job? Maybe she was driven insane by her circumstances, maybe she was weak. But she did something that should chill us to our bones, and seriously reconsider our foolish rose-tinted vision of what it means to be a mother.
For all the clichés about mother-love, carrying and giving birth to a child is an experience that changes you forever. I don’t think for a minute that the women who abandon newborns in Edhi cradles and dumpsters are never haunted by what they had to do, or that women who lose their children don’t think of them every day, or stop loving them. Mothers without their children, whatever the cause of their separation, are branded. One’s psyche is never, ever the same, and if there are mothers amongst us who have it in them to harm their children in such a grievous manner then we need to pay serious, immediate attention.
Fathers frequently kill their families, but fatherhood has no real narrative in our society other than gruff or jolly provider who will buy you a pen or a mattress. The problem is idealization; when we put anything on an untouchable, practically moral pedestal, we effectively quash all conversation, let alone debate, about said thing. In our ideal construct mothers are instinctively protective and nurturing, they are unfailingly patient and gentle, they care for everyone all the time. We know that none of this is true. It probably isn’t even true half the time. Combine this with the pressure our society relentlessly puts on women to become mothers, and you have a recipe for disaster. We don’t educate our girls properly—we let them study things like home economics and marry before they finish their degrees. If they have the bad luck of a dangerous or rotten marriage, they have nowhere to go except back to their parents’, and not everyone has that luxury. We never talk about birth control, about choices, about waiting. We throw our girls at marriage as if it were their salvation and then pressurize them into motherhood as soon as humanly possible. Instead of giving them the skills and exposure they need to make a life for themselves, we cripple our girls before their lives have even really begun. Our girls are not only future wives and mothers; they are individuals who deserve the chance to make their own place in the world, and when we let mothers like Samina reach the point of no return, we have failed all our girls. When a mother has no skills to use for work, there is no support system to look after her children and the state is utterly absent, then it is small wonder that children die.
We need to stop heaping naïve, daft expectations on mothers, glossing over the drudgery, hardship and suffering too many mothers experience daily, across class and economic background. Mother’s Day is a foolish waste of time when there are mothers who, even in this day and age, die in childbirth. Where there are mothers who have no real education and no means to support themselves or children born of bad marriages, who suffer crippling post-partum depression for years. We need to help our mothers in substantial ways—by providing shelters where they can escape abusive partners, encouraging our young women to finish meaningful degrees before they marry, opening up dialogue about marriage, divorce and women’s health—mental, physical and economic. We don’t need pretty, nice mothers. We need fierce, brave, intelligent, independent ones who we can respect and look up to, for in their strength lies ours.

The writer is based in Lahore.

Email:m.malikhussain@gmail.com