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Mom Knows Best? or Does She?

December 2003
Mom Knows Best? or Does She?

One thing I've realized is that Indian mothers have a hard time letting go of their American-born daughters. They want to protect us from everything?even when they realize that we often have to go out there and fail in order to learn for ourselves what we might have done wrong. As much as our mothers might want to deny it, the world they grew up in is not the world we're in now. Things are different. Opportunities are endless. And we have the right to embrace these opportunities and see where they may take us.

My mother and I have a considerably solid relationship now, although it still has its touchy moments. But it was not always that way. Like most mothers and daughters, we have had our share of problems, especially when my lifestyle choices didn't necessarily agree with hers. It's the conflict that occurs when it comes to wearing that gaudy, extra-starched pink shalwar-kameez that your aunt got for you. And then being dragged by your parents to a community gathering on a Friday night when all you really want to do is get all ?glammed up' and go to the new club with the rest of your friends. It's also when you have to learn to make chapatti and bhaji when you know you can get by just fine on Ramen noodles and Easy Mac for the rest of your life.

Growing up is never easy. On top of boys, acne, and extracurricular activities, desi daughters are also forced to deal with ridiculous double standards ? such as trying to balance a social life while constrained to an outrageous 11 p.m. curfew. Of course, all the while, you have to keep up with your grades because you've been told that your life will be over if you don't stay ahead in class.

Looking back, I realize that in my mother's eyes, no matter how much I may have accomplished or how many candles are on my birthday cake, she will always look upon me as a child. And to this day, no matter what I do, I know that at the back of my mind will always be the thought, "What will my mother think?" Having her approval still means the world to me, and making her proud is something I cherish. But I realize now that I am my own person. My mother raised me to be who I am. She instilled these morals and values into me and because of that I know that she will be proud of who I become ? even if it's not the ideal desi daughter she once envisioned.

For girls raised here in America, a social life is vital. Whether it's going to the mall every Saturday with your clique or that popular hangout spot at night, girls thrive on this type of socializing. However, a common issue in most desi households is the fact that mothers want their daughters to be at home. They want them to make chai and spend time with the family because that is what they used to do back home when they were young. Now they expect the same from their daughters.

When I was in high school and went to the football games on Friday nights, a huge part of me felt guilty for going out and having a good time. Perhaps because of my heavy conscience, instilled by a sense of obligation, I always tried to stay at home the following night. My friends never quite understood why I did this, and to this day I don't know if I could explain it to them, but it seemed like the right thing to do as a dutiful daughter. It was all a matter of balance, which at times frustrated me to no end. But it wasn't worth the fight, so I compromised and tried to get the best of both worlds.

My mother could never comprehend the notion of having friends of the opposite sex. In her eyes, there were no such people as male friends; just ?boyfriends'. For a long time, I feared having guys even call the house because I didn't want them to have to deal with her third degree ? via telephone. I remember when I finally got the courage to ask her if I could go to my senior prom with one of my good friends. She had to meet him, find out his future plans, and his family history. She practically did a full background check on him before she granted me permission to go with him.

Now, as I look back, I understand that she was just trying to keep me safe. But what I also realize is that she had never dealt with these types of scenarios herself. Because of her inexperience with many common traditions of the American culture, all she had to go by was the media's pseudo-depiction of the infamous ?prom night', focusing primarily on drinking and sex. One way others can avoid this misunderstanding is to get their mothers involved in such an occasion so that they can see firsthand what it entails. This will make them more aware of what's going on, and in turn, make them feel more at ease about the reality of the situation.

I remember when I came home my junior year of high school and excitedly told my mother that I had just been elected student body president. She was proud of me, she truly was. But I think she was more proud of me that following evening when I mastered making a perfect dish of chicken curry. That was something that always bothered me. My mother was a very successful professional woman. Yet, paradoxically, she seemed happiest with me not when I succeeded outside in the real world, but when I did so at home. I realized that my mother was proud of me in both realms of my life. But because she perceived raising me in terms of instilling cultural values and traditions in me, it was when I excelled in those ways that she was proud of me the most.

When I got into what I'd like to call my ?experimental stage', I dyed my hair electric red. Now the majority of mothers would have had a fit, so it was no surprise when my shocked mother threatened to disown me if I did not dye it back. A similar scenario occurred whenever I went shopping and bought something a little out of the ordinary, or the time I wanted so badly to get my eyebrow pierced. My mother's biggest concern was always, "What will people think?" Or perhaps the comment I heard most often, "I did not raise my daughter like this." I used to get so irritated with her for always caring what others thought. But I now realize that it wasn't necessarily what others thought that made my mother so adamant about my ?experimental stage'. Mostly, it was her telling me in her ever-so-subtle way to embrace my authentic roots.

According to Dr. Debra Kawahara, a professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University and member of the Asian American Psychological Association, one of the biggest struggles in growing up is the result of the huge generational gap that exists between Indian mothers and their American-born daughters. The mother-daughter relationship in any culture is emotionally intense and complex. Yet, as frustrating as the relationship between a mother and daughter can get, it's recognized to be the most influential relationship between any humans.

Women are natural teachers of values and the interpreters of the emotional life that surrounds us. As Dr. Kawahara asserts, "Females are believed to be the cultural carriers of their Indian culture, so it is important for daughters to learn what they can from their mothers." Additionally, retaining one's culture is important to one's identity and has been found to promote mental health. Sometimes in our struggles to find ourselves, we forget who we are. As much as we might think otherwise, our mothers are truly full of wisdom. They have a lifetime of advice and experience to share with us, and if we listen, without passing judgment, we can become enlightened from their experiences. At the same time, mothers should be supportive and acknowledge the fact that "it is important for the daughters to learn how to successfully live and work in the United States and to figure out how to integrate this into their identity."

Acceptance is a key element to improving all types of relationships and avoiding crises. Even if they see faults in each other, the level of concern and love for one another should overpower these problems by realizing that mothers only want what's best for their daughters, and conversely, daughters want to make their mothers proud. But keep in mind that this must be done in a nonjudgmental manner. "You shouldn't try to change your mother because you're not going to be able to change her," notes Dr. Kawahara. "Try to focus on the positive side of your relationship and accept one another with all faults."

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