Tee Hun Ching
Four days before Mother’s Day, my sister welcomed her second daughter.
I visited them at the hospital with my two excited kids, who peppered me with questions about their own births as they scrutinised their little cousin.
“What’s that white stuff on her nose? Did I have that too when I was born?” my son, who turns nine next month, wanted to know.
My six-year-old daughter was struck by the baby’s size. “Was I that small too?” she asked, incredulous.
The inquisition continued on our way home: What time was I born? Was I wrapped up all the time too? Was I a good baby? Was it painful for you?
Then came a toughie: Why did you have us?
I had the answer. There was no particular reason. They didn’t exactly figure in my plans. Things just, well, happened.
But delivered straight, this pragmatic reply would have hurt them. All children, be they five or 50, yearn to know they are wanted, treasured and special to their parents.
Eventually, I managed an answer that was as honest as I hoped it was reassuring. “You guys were a gift from God. How could I say no?”
Of course, I can’t imagine life without them now. But I was once ambivalent about starting a family and would probably have had no regrets if the stork had snubbed me for good.
It’s safe to say I am not a bad mother. I might even be quite a good one. But I am truly bad at many things that mothers are supposed to be good at – cooking, sewing and braiding hair, for starters.
Then there are those traits of mine that are hardly child-friendly: My patience is severely limited, my threshold for noise and mess notoriously low and I crave time alone like I need oxygen.
Some friends flirt with the idea of trying for another child whenever they get up close with bouncy babies and are reminded of the cute, cuddly phase.
Me, I look at my sister, now juggling two kids under three, and am consumed with relief. Those dark days – no, years – marked by sleepless nights, endless cow duties and hopeless pining for my once unshackled life are mercifully over.
There are new hurdles and headaches at every stage but, for now, I’m in a good place.
Perhaps my own maternal shortcomings have coloured my perceptions. Rather than bask in the Mother’s Day tributes being pinged around last Sunday, I baulked at how society has deified motherhood.
The stock image of a mum – this wise, gentle near-saint who personifies love, fortitude and forbearance – is more an ideal than the norm. At least, it is for me.
Romanticising the notion of motherhood places undue stress on women, who wrestle with guilt when they struggle to live up to social expectations.
We tend to fall for the soft-selling: It’s a joyful privilege, a noble vocation and a rewarding experience that completes us.
It can be all these things. But who knew it would also be this darn hard?
It is unthinkable, a taboo, maybe a crime to some, yet mothers do grapple with resentment, even regret.
Given all that I now know and have gone through, I would still choose to have kids if I could turn back time.
But on those long, trying days, I can see why some wouldn’t.
And those who dare rue their decision to have kids invariably become targets of vitriolic abuse.
A Facebook group set up in 2012, baldly named I Regret Having Children, has been repeatedly attacked and spammed, one of its moderators told Vice magazine in a recent article.
It has more than 2,000 members and offers an anonymous platform for those who want a safe outlet to share their parental struggles, including suicidal thoughts.
Last year, Israeli sociologist Orna Donath set off a fierce debate when she published a study – and later a book – based on interviews with 23 mothers who say they regret having kids.
The thing worth noting, though, is that all those who regret giving birth almost always stress that they love their children.
And that is what counts, isn’t it?
We might not enjoy being a mother, but still love our kids to bits.
We might be horrified by the toil and trouble required to nurture a life and yet still slog at it.
We might be fearful and selfish creatures, but still manage to summon courage and deny ourselves, time and again, when our kids’ well-being is at stake.
Above all, we think nothing of what we’ve done, scoffing at the fuss others make of our role and the pedestal on which they insist on placing us.
Struck by the beauty of a unique floral arrangement sent by a newsmaker to our editorial team a few years ago, I asked for the florist’s contact and ordered the same for my mum for Mother’s Day.
But she was visibly and genuinely annoyed when I went home for dinner that night. “Why waste money?” she admonished. “You know I don’t care for this Mother’s Day business.”
Since then, I’ve kept it simple. Last Sunday, I rang to wish her a happy Mother’s Day, but was again caught off-guard.
Sounding harassed, perhaps interrupted by my call while tending to my sister’s older daughter, she replied: “Oh, I forgot it’s today.”
Maybe this is why we celebrate mums – and dads. Not so much for what they give and give up for us, but for their touching conviction that whatever they do for us, it’s all in a day’s work.
A version of this story first appeared in The Straits Times.