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Self-Denial and Desi Motherhood



Over the holidays, my mother and I, like everyone else and their mother, caught the Omicron variant of COVID-19. As we were both vaccinated and had received booster shots, neither of us were bedridden. We decided to shake off our COVID-malaise and cook dinner together. As we were preparing vegetables for malai kofta, I hooked up my Spotify to our kitchen speaker and began playing music. Billy Joel’s “My Life” (what can I say, I love an 80’s power ballad) began to play;


I don't care what you say anymore this is my life

Go ahead with your own life, leave me alone…

I still belong (still belong)

Don't get me wrong (don't get me wrong)

You can speak your mind but not on my time…


As the song played, my mother looked at me and laughed. “If only!” she said. Her small remark struck me. My mother rarely puts herself or her needs first in any situation. She likely feels that she cannot afford to think of her life in the terms of Billy Joel’s song.


Self-denial is common in motherhood, especially for mothers of small children. But, both my sister and I are adults who live several states away from our parents. As a homemaker, my mother not only tends to the responsibilities of housework and cooking but also maintains a number of family obligations. She babysits my cousins, even when they arrive at her home without notice. She takes care of both of my grandparents' (who speak little English) medical appointments and medications in addition to reading their mail and ensuring their Social Security arrives. She attends family events she is uninterested in to maintain relationships.


This brand of self-sacrifice will be familiar to children of South Asian mothers. It is glorified as the ideal of motherly love; she who puts the needs of her husband, children, in-laws, and extended family members first is the epitome of selfless, pure motherhood. And though self care and boundary setting have begun to pervade mainstream culture, Mother’s Day, especially among South Asian communities, continues to celebrate the aforementioned qualities of motherhood: self-denial, self-sacrifice, and altruism.


I have encountered countless social media posts and Mother’s Day cards thanking mothers for their sacrifices and applauding their roles as carers. They include phrases like “Super-mummy”, or “No one can make chapati like you!”, or even “Thank you for all you do!” None of these characteristics or declarations are negative, however, by glorifying self-denial, they reinforce the status quo. Growing up, my mother would return to the same routine of housework, cooking, and child care, immediately after Mother’s Day ended. A bouquet of flowers every year in exchange for a lifetime of caregiving seems like a raw deal.


Moreover, the continuous embodiment of these qualities is detrimental to mothers’ idea of their own personhood and self-worth. If she lives her entire life for others, she loses her sense of freedom, her own needs, and her ability to grow. My own mother has been unable to fully pursue her own interests, like reading, art, and accounting, since her marriage. When she does engage in these activities, it is in the service of others, from settling the books for my father’s business, to sewing adjustments to my and my sisters’ Indian outfits. Similarly, rarely buys anything for herself, saying that the money might be better spent on someone else. Forgoing one’s own interests and desires can lead to isolation, loneliness, and repressed anger. When Desi communities place mothers’ self-denial on a pedestal, they encourage these emotions to fester.


Budding feminist that I was, I loudly questioned my mother’s self-denial throughout my childhood. However, at the same time, I often remained complicit in her altruism. As a teenager, I never complained when, unasked, she would do my laundry, cook my meals, or do other chores of which I was perfectly capable. I rarely spoke up when she was putting me before herself. It is now my responsibility not only to question the status quo, but to tear it down. This means playing an active role in my mother’s journey toward self-love. It means enrolling her in that sewing class and taking her on that road trip. It means encouraging her to say no and set boundaries. Although the decision to love herself is ultimately her own, I can remind her that this is “her life” and support her along every step of the way.


Mum and I at Washington, DC Botanical Gardens

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