For most of my childhood and nearly all of my brother’s, my mum was a single mum. Not a primary caregiver who shared custody. Nor a parent who received maintenance payments from an absent father. No, she was a 100%, full-time single mum who raised two children on her own. She was the mother, the father, the disciplinarian, the breadwinner, the cleaner, the good cop, the bad cop, the cook and the nurturer. It wasn’t an easy life. For her or for us. But it certainly wasn’t a terrible life either. We endured that life together and now, as adults can look back with an almost fondness in our hearts.
“Remember how poor we were Tan?” Mum would ask, smiling. And I smile too when I answer “Yes! How could I forget?” Because there’s something about shared struggle that really binds people and hearts.
We were a small, tight and happy family. The simpleness of our lives, borne out of the inherent lack of money and financial security bred intense gratitude for the smallest things. Fillet steak for dinner on my birthday and my brother’s first ever designer sneakers come to mind. But conversely it also developed a desire for a greater life and a hunger for security – both emotional and financial.
I talk about my mum being a single parent a lot. I do it because I’m proud. Because I understand just how incredibly strong and capable a person needs to be to fulfill that role with any level of success and competence. And I’m proud that MY mum is one of those people. I do it also because I wholeheartedly believe that being raised in a single parent family has shaped me as a woman, as a wife and as a mother. Some of it in my favour and some of it to my detriment.
As a woman I am empowered. I know, without any doubt, that if the shit hit the fan and our lives went to hell that I would be able to pull us through. I believe in me and I believe in women. My mum didn’t mean to raise me as a feminist, it was just the by-product of having such an incredibly non-reliant, kick-arse, can-do female role model. I value women. I value my girl friends. I value me. Seeing my mum unapologetically take on the world lit a fire in my belly. But the flipside is I don’t value men as much. I have a distrust of them. Though that is changing. With every year and with every test I subconsciously set for the men in my life, but it is still there. It’s a hard feeling to shake. Having sons helps. Watching and helping them grow into loving, respectful and reliable young men restores my lost faith.
As a wife I am mostly pragmatic and demanding. On the one hand I believe I don’t need my husband and I can do everything without him. On the other hand, I’m terrified that he will leave and I have high expectations of him to be an active partner and father. Perhaps testing him. Perhaps trying to convince myself that he’s a good man. Growing up I always knew I had to ‘find a good man’. And now that I’ve got one I almost dare him to prove me wrong. He hasn’t and the largest part of my heart knows he won’t, but the smallest part still waits. I am heavily involved with my in-law family, grateful for them and what they bring to our lives. I only had my mum’s side of the family when I was growing up and though I never missed my dad’s side I am profoundly aware of how fortunate I am to have two extended families to call my own these days.
I am far too emotionally invested in my home. We moved quite a few times when I was a kid. There’s no family home for me to go back to. My mum hasn’t converted my childhood bedroom into a gym. There aren’t any marks on any walls that show how tall my brother and I grew over the years. We were long-term renters so my dream was always to buy a big house, fill it with kids and stay forever. I am in my forever house. Even though it’s not sensible or affordable or even manageable at the moment. I am in love with my house and have an unhealthy and intense feeling of security there. Even the thought of selling it makes my stomach turn.
As a mother I am tough. But mostly on myself. I want to be all things to my boys. I want to be strong and capable like my mum. I want to teach them gratefulness by not giving them everything but I don’t want them to ever feel hungry. I want them to learn independence and resilience but I never want to not be there for them. I never want my work to be more important or necessary to me than being there for them. As the only income earner in our household, my mother’s numerous jobs were necessary to our survival as a family. It meant she was away from us a lot. Even as kids we understood that but we shouldn’t have had to and I don’t want that for my boys. I expect them to appreciate the privileged life they live, though they know no other life. I struggle with my absolute maternal need to give them the life I didn’t have and my fear that I am robbing them of ever understanding the value of disadvantage. So I am tough and contradictory. I sacrifice overseas holidays, designer clothes and new cars to send them to a private school but refuse to succumb to spoiling them with the latest technology, gadgets and toys. I tell them that our family and our home are the most important things in the world. I tell them that my main job as their mum is to help them get through life with their health and their heart and their happiness. I tell them these things in words because I’m not confident that they will work it out themselves and I need them to know these things. I tell them they’re lucky and I tell them I’m lucky too. Because if you hear it enough times, you begin to believe it. I tell them what a good man their dad is and I show them that I love him and he shows them that he loves me. We don’t hide our arguments from them. We tell them that it is ok to argue with someone you love. It is safe. Family can disagree and still be family. Together. I want my boys to always know the feeling of security. Emotional, spiritual and financial.
I love the woman I am today. It took many years to love her and to understand her but all my resilience and insecurity and contradiction combined makes sense to me now. And it all fell into place when I realised that I had it wrong. Coming from a single parent family was not something bad that happened to me. It was a gift and a life-long lesson in family, love, strength, self, vulnerability, courage and choice.
Being raised by my single mum was the best thing that ever happened to me.