I celebrated my mother’s 64th birthday on April 10 this year. Looking at her that night during family dinner, my mind was transported back to the past when I was a kid and a teenager:
Before the ongoing, nasty backlashes regarding housewives/stay-at-home moms versus career moms on social media here, Ma had been through all the same criticisms regarding her (and thankfully Dad’s) choice to keep her then job while raising the three of us – my two siblings and me. I don’t have to specify who they are, because that’s not the point. They had problems with why she didn’t just become a stay-at-home mom instead and Dad was okay with that.
The criticisms worsened when my sister and I were teenagers. I was mostly the chubby, nerdy girl who often stayed home at the weekend – either reading books, watching my favourite TV shows, and writing stories. My sister was the complete opposite. She was always the more outgoing type, hanging out at the malls, having tons of friends and admirers, wearing make-up and dating…stuff normal teenage girls do. She cared about the latest trends and the hippiest spots in the city.
Ma was heavily criticised for letting the two of us go out a lot, especially at night. Befriending boys, hanging out with them while you were the only girl. Ma had told me what those people had said to her:
“Jeung, mbok ya anak perempuan jangan diumbar gitu. Keluar malam, pergi sama laki-laki. Ndak takut nanti ada ‘apa-apa’?” (Sis, don’t let your daughters display themselves like that. Going out at night, hanging out with boys. What if ‘something’ happens to them?)
I hated how they’d treated Ma, as if she was no good as a mother. I hated how they’d looked at my sister and me – well, my sister mostly, since she’d hung out a lot more – as if we’d been badly raised and it was all Ma’s fault. I didn’t tell anyone this back, then, not even Ma. I didn’t think anyone would listen or take me seriously. I bet they’d have dismissed me because I was just a kid to their eyes.
One of the many great things about Ma is that she chooses her battles wisely. I, on the other hand, still believe in speaking out and standing up for yourself when being looked down upon. Call this a generation gap or different personalities as you wish.
My old anger always flares up every time someone makes nasty comments about career moms, generalising them as these evil, overly ambitious, and money-hungry women who forget their (socially-constructed?) roles in the family. They are always accused of not caring about their own children so much. Just like those who had bullied Ma in the past, they wonder aloud if kids can still remember their mother’s face if she’s not home that much. One local public figure (I’d rather not name names) once tweeted about how children were more like staff members to their career mom, only seen and tended once in a while.
I know that Ma would tell me not to bother with these nosy, judgmental people. However, they remind me of those who had harshly judged her in the past. She’s right, but sorry…these narrow-minded mysogynists still have to know. Words have consequences. Their vile tongues can cut much deeper than any sharp blades anyone has ever made. Watch it. There are people who just don’t easily forget how you’ve made them feel.
Ma’s office-work days are over long ago, but I still remember all the hard work she’s done – and still does – as our mother. Thankfully, the traffic wasn’t as bad as it is these days. It’s true that she and Dad went to work all day since morning, but they still had time to drive the three of us to school first. (Our parents had worked in the same company while the three of us went to the same grade school.) They still taught us discipline. There weren’t any smartphones back then. If I forgot my homework or left my textbook home, Dad would say: “No way. I’m not driving you back there to fetch that. We’re gonna be late. It’s your fault.”
It’s true that the three of us had been tended by hired nannies as we grew up, while our parents were at work. It’s true that sometimes we had to wait for them after school at our grandparents’ house (Ma’s parents), having lunch and doing homework there. Once they finished work and picked us up, they still checked our homework and helped us with it. Ma still cooked for us at the weekend and stayed up at night when one of us was sick. She’d leave her office to pick us up at school when one of us got an accident or into trouble, like when my brother fell off the school steps and had to have his scalp stitched at hospital.
There are a lot of wonderful things about Ma. She’d taught us about self-decision making, self-responsibility, and gaining independence. She said: “Good grades in school are for you, not for me or your Dad. Not even for your teachers. Aren’t you happy when you know you can study well?”
Ma wanted her three kids – her two daughters and son, no gender exceptions – to be independent and able to take care of themselves well. She never told my sister and me: “Don’t get pregnant before marriage or you’ll shame Dad and me.” She only said: “Whatever you do, even without my knowledge or Dad’s – God knows everything. Don’t do it if you’re not ready for the consequences.”
To people who had harshly judged her and the way she was raising us, Ma simply told them this:
“We can’t always keep our children safe, even by locking them up at home at night. We have to teach them how to identify danger out there, assess the situation, and protect themselves from harm.”
Of course, not all would accept her arguments easily, even after certain proofs. Tragedy had struck two of the critics. One had a daughter who was addicted to drugs, treated at a rehab, and instead got pregnant with her mentor’s baby. Then she’d run off with him and their baby – and still aren’t heard from again. Another also had a daughter who had often snuck out at night (when her mother thought she was always ‘a stay-at-home good girl’), got herself in trouble a lot at school, and sadly…met the same fate: dealing with pregnancy she was never ready for. Both girls had stay-at-home moms who once told Ma that ‘something’ might have happened to my sister or me if we went out, especially with boys and at night, a lot.
Then it hit me:
If a child makes a mistake, it is not because their mother isn’t at home or taking care of them well. It doesn’t matter if the mother is a housewife or an office staff, but it’s always easier to blame everything on the mom, eh? The child, especially old enough to know ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, could copy Dad’s bad habits and behaviour or from someone else’s they know. Even if they have already got the most attentive stay-at-home mom in the world, anything can still happen. A child can still make their own mistakes and THAT has nothing to do with their mother’s choice of career. It’s the kid’s bad decisions. Be fair and responsible for once!
By the way, being a housewife or a stay-at-home mom is also a career choice, so why do you still need to exclude it this way?
I’m not saying that one is better than the other and vice versa. It’s their personal choice and hopefully they embrace it happily and not because others expect them to do so or because they want to prove a point. As for this, Ma also told me:
“The day you no longer feel the need to explain everything you do to anybody out there is the day you set yourself free.”
It’s true, but I still have a word or two for the out-of-home, career-mom haters out there:
You don’t have to like everything you see in this world, just like I don’t have to put up with your nasty comments about women who choose the same things Ma did. If you’re a happy housewife, good. If you’re a man who have a wife who doesn’t need to help you to earn money, then good for you both. If you don’t know these women and the story behind the choices they make, then please shut up. Enough with such hatred you spread. Mind your own business. Find something better to do than just bullying people online, making them feel awful for the choices they make. What makes you think that they owe you an explanation or a validation in the first place anyway? Get a life and good luck.
Perhaps someday I can be as patient as Ma…or more. All I know i that she rocks.
(Jakarta, 11/4/2016 – 9:00 am)

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