If your mum is anything like my mum (strong-willed, dramatic and South Asian), there are some things you should probably hide until the time is right.
Unfortunately for me this realisation has come a little late.
L and I live together now (we’re not married) and there’s no point in hiding the obvious. But back when I was still living with my parents, I could have spared both mum and I two years of feeling hurt and betrayed if I’d just told one tiny white lie. “No mum, we’ve never slept together”.
I’ve always been honest with my mum. In the early days of my relationship with L, I was keen to share, hoping my openness would warm her up to the idea of us being together (in case you’re wondering, this strategy didn’t work). Clearly there were things I would never have told her. Usually these were things that left me feeling dirty and low myself – having a one night stand, for instance.
But making love to the guy I love, and having such intense feelings for each other the whole thing felt almost sacred? That to me was something to cherish. It was certainly not something I would ever deny when asked about, as if we were naughty kids doing the wrong thing. To hide it would have felt belittling and dismissive of our love.
Which is why, when I told mum the truth, and she hit the wall and basically implied I was a whore, I came out of the battle badly badly bruised. Yes, she apologised for saying it (after I didn’t speak to her for a couple of days), and now that L and I live together the issue barely rates a mention. All mum has said is, “Make sure you don’t get pregnant”. But the memory still stings. It was after this episode that I clammed up about L…avoided mentioning his name, stopped hinting that he and mum should try to get to know one another better. All I could think about was how my friends’ mums welcomed their partners with open arms (they didn’t all do this, but I wasn’t looking out for such reality checks at the time). And how my own mother, in contrast, had not only refused to be happy about my relationship, but had actually shot down my self esteem and selfishly turned the whole special thing around to make it be about her. How could she insist that my making love to my own partner is the ultimate betrayal? How is that logical? Or loving? Or anything else a mother is supposed to be?
And it’s not just with me either. She once found a packet of empty condoms in my brother’s room and went wild at him, replaying the betrayal script once again. (My suggestion that at least it was empty and at least he’s being responsible didn’t quite go down as I had intended).
It was after the fight with me that mum became explicitly anti-L. On some warped level of reality, she obviously did recognise the seriousness of the relationship, because she realised at this point that we were in it for the long haul. But the whole thing also allowed her to crystallise her objections, to turn our relationship into – out of the all the special things that it is – a personal attack against her!
I do understand that my mum has sacrificed a lot for her children. And I do understand that it must hurt so much when your kids act in an almost alien way, completely disregarding some of your most dear values. Just as it hurts me deeply when I feel mum has betrayed some of my dearest values – like the assumption that she would be happy for me when I found my long-term partner.
But hey, at least I was honest.
I wonder how mum would’ve reacted if I had approached my relationship with L the way most of my cousins have approach their relationships: by hiding them from their parents until they’re ready to get married or move in together. And then, in the case of monocultural relationships, asking for their parent’s permission and hey pronto, turning it into the perfect (self) arranged marriage. Everyone’s happy and no one’s asking questions.
I never grew up knowing my cousins or how they interacted with their South Asian parents (maybe if I had I’d be better equipped to handle my mum). But I do wonder: doesn’t it hurt to hide your relationship from your parents? Doesn’t it feel demeaning of your love? Maybe these cousins understand better than me what their parents can and cannot handle. And maybe they know better than to feel hurt by lack of parental understanding.
I’m not so sure sharpened cultural awareness would have made me less honest (and therefore more sensitive) with mum back then. There was definitely a stubborn assumption and expectation from my part that she would react just like all the other mothers I knew. Considering all these other mums were white, this was hardly a fair expectation and I don’t think it’s entirely mum’s fault I came out of it feeling so hurt and resentful. And anyway I’ve learnt my lesson. With cultural understanding has come a much less militant attitude towards honesty.