My Mother, the Enigma

by Marie Tan



Yes, I wash my socks and underwear separately.


Yes, I use different sponges for oily vs non-oily dishes.


As an adult, I recognise my mother’s influence in the perfectionist, nitpicky, sometimes uncompromising and rigid parts of myself.


On what basis do I formulate the standards I set for myself? Are they based on values Mum inculcated and thus became rooted in me? Are they what I want to achieve for myself? OR are these standards a projection of what my adult self thinks my mother would want?


As a child, then teenager, then young adult and right until today, my mother has been an enigma to me. My greatest detractor, and supporter; my harshest critic and loudest cheerleader.


With the pithiest of sentences, she could deflate my ego and self confidence in a snap. Just as quickly, she could also make me feel as if nobody else’s opinions mattered and that I could conquer the world just as I am.


Growing up, there was always friction between us. Was it due to the both of us being too similar? Or was I chafing under my mother’s best intentions of shaping me into her best version of myself?


©Marie Tan


Her favourite fallback phrase to end any argument was, “When I’m dead and gone then you’ll understand! And then you’ll say to yourself Ah! Mummy was right! But it’ll be too late then…”. There’s just no way to win against that, and as far as emotional hits go, that one blows everything else out of the park. It took me until my early thirties to be able to resolve that one and effectively get my mother to stop using it as part of her arsenal.


Or this familiar refrain, “One day when you’re a mother yourself you’ll understand better...”. My own best repartée used to be, “Well I never want to become a mother anyway!” (Spoiler alert: I was wrong)


Entering adulthood, I constantly battled with feeling not good enough. Often I’d struggle with flashbacks to my typically Asian mother asking me “Did anyone score 98% and above? Ah yes? And why weren’t you one of them?” at a time when I had proudly flashed my 98% score on an exam. I could always do better, strive harder for greater excellence, be more disciplined… her bar was always a notch higher than where I stood.


Despite all my misgivings, I know it is thanks to Mum that I grew up aware of the unearned privilege in our lives, the need to be generous in spirit and in kind. To live in solidarity with those less fortunate.


If I had to single out one thing I truly and unequivocally admire about my mother, it would be her conscious effort to let me forge my own path in life - even when I ventured beyond her own realm of understanding of life experiences. Knowing that she would always have my back was perhaps what gave me the leeway and free spiritedness to pursue and make unorthodox life choices.


©Marie Tan


These days, as a new-ish mother to my very own two-year-old child, I have finally reached what feels like an entente with my own mother. We now have more in common – I am married (to a scarily similar French version of my dad no less!) and a mother myself. Our conversations now focus mostly on the little one, and there is a distinct shift in our mother-daughter dynamics. As if we’re more in cahoots, than her the looming mother figure.


©Marie Tan


I’ve noticed that since becoming a mother myself, I no longer have the extra cognitive or emotional capacity to mull over my hang ups and unresolved mummy issues. Perhaps they have been mentally shoved into a little box, to be forgotten or transferred into the reconciled shelf eventually, or maybe to be brought out and examined one day.


At the same time, I have become more aware of the need to mother my own adult inner child in a gentler, kinder and more forgiving way. That includes being kinder in my reflections of my mother’s perceived shortcomings and faults, and being more responsible for my own reactions towards my mother and my ruminations on our interactions.


As I reflect on what kind of mother I want to be – now that I am one, and as I revel in my child’s early life experiences, I wonder how much of my mother’s shoes I’m standing in and how much I am on my own. And the conclusion that I reach is that no mother’s love will ever be perfect. Even if we as mothers ourselves don’t repeat the mistakes our mothers made with us, we will surely make mistakes of our own. Hopefully, our children will be better versions of ourselves.


©Marie Tan


Before becoming a mother, one of the most effective retorts my husband used as his way to shut me up was “Oh, you’re exactly like your mother!”. These days, my response to him simply goes, “Well, yeah, tough! I don’t think being like my mother is such a bad thing!”


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