- Surrinder Johal
A Mother’s Guilt: On Mother’s Day
Mother's Day is a time to celebrate and honor the wonderful women who brought us into this world, but for many mothers, it can also be a time of guilt and self-doubt as they question how well they have adapted or coped with motherhood. Motherhood is a challenging and rewarding experience, but it can also be overwhelming and emotionally tough, for a multitude of reasons. .
Mother's guilt is a real and common phenomenon that affects mothers of all ages, cultures and backgrounds. It is a feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt that stems from the belief that we are not doing enough for our children. Mothers often feel guilty for not spending enough time with their children, for not being patient enough, or for not being able to provide everything their children need.
And this is how I felt, only my story is entrenched in generational trauma, cultural misogyny and sadly, a variety of abuse.
When my daughter was just six months old, I made the decision to leave my husband and take a train back to my parents' house.
Why did I want to leave?
My husband, my daughter and I lived with my in-laws and my father-in-law was an alcoholic. He had threatened me and my mother-in-law said that I couldn't tell my husband because he would exhaust his anger out on the family. However, I knew that my mother-in-law needed my husband to protect her, but I thought I could support myself and my daughter, so I decided to return to my parents' home, and attempt to restart my life.
Unfortunately, when my father found out, he was distraught, telling me I couldn't not retreat there and so I had no choice but to return. I was shocked and felt alone.
No one asked why I had left, nobody questioned my dad's decision. I felt I had no power over my life or my daughter's, and my voice did not matter.
There I stayed for a further 25 years. For the rest of our marriage, my husband blamed me for leaving him. He was narcissistic, very critical, and constantly belittled me. He controlled where I could go and with whom, and financially and sexually abused me. But, I stayed.
I did this for my children. I thought I could take the abuse if that meant they had parents who were together. I didn't want to let my family down.
Being South Asian, I was always told that you are not to talk about your problems outside the family home; these cultural beliefs were ingrained in me from a young age. I came from a good family, and it was expected of me that I should not disgrace them by leaving my husband. Even my own mother could tell from my voice that I was unhappy, but she never asked me about it. I didn't know any other way, and I didn't believe I could go against them.
Throughout this period in my life I worked hard, looked after the house, cleaned, cooked, and cared for everyone. I was always putting myself last, having no time or energy for myself, and not knowing what I needed to care for myself. But, I always thought I was doing right by my children.
It was all I knew, and I had no other tools to fall back on. I knew that I had no support if I wanted to choose a different path. The odds were stacked against me, and I knew that my family would not have stood by me; and worse disowned me. I accepted my fate.
I felt invisible, had no voice or power, and just kept trying to keep the peace by pleasing people. I was constantly in survival mode.
Everything I did was for my children. I started to believe that once they grew older and became independent, they wouldn't need me anymore, and I wouldn't matter in this world. My survival plan and only coping mechanism were to just keep going and not think or feel until my children grew up. I wouldn't see a life after this.
Finally, after 27 painful years of marriage later, l left him. It was a split second decision. He went to hit my daughter and that was it. As a mother, I knew this was the final straw. They were telling me to leave and promised to support me.
Fast forward to 3 months after I left, with nothing to my name and no external support, my ex-husband committed suicide.
Each of us had to confront our own trauma and grief in our unique ways from this situation; my children included - and our extended family blamed all of us for his death. I lacked the necessary coping mechanisms, except for providing financial support to my family, and had to navigate the situation without any guidance.
Gradually, I came to realize the extent of the emotional trauma I had caused my children by staying in an abusive marriage for so long; it was the greatest source of guilt in my life. I had tried my best to keep everyone else happy, convinced that it was the right thing to do at the time. However, my decision to stay had significant consequences for my children's self-worth, as they witnessed years of an abusive relationship that left them feeling anxious, unsafe, depressed, and struggling with addiction and codependency.
Only later did I learn about these issues.
We may believe that we are acting in accordance with cultural norms, but this is not always the case, or the right way to act, and I had to acknowledge my own culpability in contributing to my children's difficulties growing up, and the subsequent effects on their lives.
Here are the key lessons I’ve learnt:
I needed to let go of the guilt to become a better person.
To embrace my healing journey, I embarked on a path of self-discovery and learning to acknowledge and make amends for my past errors. I broke the cycle of dependence and evolved into a better parent by allowing my adult children to make their own choices and find their own truths. Transforming from my former self was not a simple task, as I had always sought validation from external sources, including my family, culture, and society. I had been conditioned to believe that I was incomplete without outside validation.
Though it was challenging, it was easier than what I had endured in my married life. To reach this stage of personal growth, I had to undergo my own journey of self-love and forgiveness, shedding my past identity to become someone I am proud to be and a source of inspiration for my children.
Changing patterns of behavior.
We often replicate our parents' behavior patterns, and learning about my parents' journey from India to England and the struggles they faced upon arrival allowed me to understand certain tendencies I had while raising my own children.
Reflecting on my relationships with my parents and children, I can see these repeated patterns: feeling voiceless as a woman, seeking happiness from my children, struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, feeling inadequate, giving my children the silent treatment when angry, expecting them to conform to cultural norms that were not effective, and relying on my daughter as my confidante.
These patterns, which I inherited from my mother and passed down to my daughter, are not innate and can be altered. By recognizing my parents' survival patterns, I gained insight into their behavior and was able to consciously change how I interacted with my own children. It is never too late to take responsibility for our actions and mature into responsible adults, even if we have been shaped by our upbringing.
Take responsibility for my part.
The most significant lesson I learned during my healing journey was to acknowledge my own mistakes and take responsibility as an adult, rather than taking the easier route of blaming others such as my husband, family, or cultural background and playing the victim. If we do not take responsibility, we will remain trapped in a cycle of blame. As part of my healing process, I needed to own up to my actions of not keeping my children safe and staying in the marriage.
Looking back, I realize I should have left earlier. However, the younger version of myself who married at 23 was very naive and believed others knew what was best for her. Throughout my marriage, I was merely in survival mode and kept pushing forward. When I initially recognized the long-lasting effects my actions had on my children, I experienced intense feelings of guilt, shame, and anger. My inner critic was especially harsh, but over time and with the aid of healing, I have been able to show myself self-compassion and appreciate the courage and perseverance of my younger self during those challenging times.
Learning to put myself first.
I have learned the importance of self-validation and prioritizing myself over seeking validation from others. Taking care of ourselves is crucial because no one else will do it for us. To implement this, I have started practicing self-love and self-care through daily morning rituals, such as meditation, expressing gratitude, and grounding myself through walks in the countryside.
I also realised the need to take responsibility for my beliefs and accept that adopting other people's projections of myself led to a negative self-perception. It was necessary to shift my perspective and regard myself positively. By acknowledging my part in this, I freed myself from guilt and reclaimed my power. I have since re-evaluated my negative beliefs about myself and replaced them with positive ones that align with my authentic self.
At the age of 65, I have established my own life on my own terms without feeling any regret or guilt. I currently reside in a picturesque house located in the countryside, overlooking a serene lake, and I have become an inspiration to my children.
I have acquired several qualifications including that of a counselor, hypnotherapist, and mentor. Utilizing my knowledge, experience, and various tools, and I now support South Asian women on their healing journey.
If you can relate to my story in any way and you are ready to start your healing journey, discover your voice, what you value, break from generational trauma and become an inspiration to your children, book in a consultation today to talk about how I can support you.