SINGAPORE: I remember my first Mother’s Day.
My oldest stepdaughter sent me a flower with an accompanying note that brought tears to my eyes. It meant the world to me and changed my view of motherhood forever.
The day hadn’t begun well. It was a cold spring morning and I could barely get out bed. My heart was broken and my mind clouded with grief.
My firstborn son had died just two months before. I spent the day tormenting myself with the question: Was Mother’s Day even meant for the likes of me? I was only a stepmother. My only biological child had just died in infancy. I had almost convinced myself that I was not worthy.
Then my stepdaughter’s Mother’s Day flower and note arrived and that changed everything.
It helped me make peace with the idea that motherhood comes in all shapes and sizes and not all of them are recognisable.
MY JOURNEY TO MOTHERHOOD TOOK AN UNCONVENTIONAL PATH
When my husband and I married, my vows included my four stepchildren. It was clear to me then as it is today that I did not just marry the man. I married the man and a father of four. His children were now an inextricable part of my life. From that day, my four stepchildren became my children. In fact, they will always be my children, but I am not their mother and that is my reality as a stepmother.
More than once, I’ve been told that my stepchildren “don’t count” because they are not my biological children. I usually smile and walk away. Anyone who chooses to dismiss my family is not usually worth my time. Single parents and parents whose children have died experience this most intensely. I feel their pain.
I think it’s safe to say that my journey to motherhood most certainly did not take a traditional path. Certainly nothing that fairy tales prepared me for.
Since that first traumatic Mother’s Day more than eight years ago, another son was born to us. As you can imagine, the joy at his birth was indescribable. Our already big family had gotten a little bigger as we welcomed this child into our lives.
By the time our youngest came along, I no longer had an idealised picture of motherhood. The process of grieving for my dead son had brought me peace and perspective that I had lacked before. The result was rather unexpected for someone with my Type A personality: I was ready to be an imperfect mother.
NO ONE IS DOING IT BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE
Women often ask me how and sometimes even why I do it. I have a demanding career, I have two volunteer board roles, I am the wife of a senior diplomat and I am a mother and stepmother to five children. This question is often accompanied by a tally of their inadequacies and how they can barely manage with a fraction of my responsibilities.
I tell them what I wish I could tell every mother: Motherhood is not a competitive sport.
No one is winning. No one is doing it better than anyone else. Every mother I know is doing her best, getting some things right and some things wrong, feeling joy and guilt in almost equal measure. So pat yourself on the back every day. You are doing an imperfect but great job!
MOTHERHOOD IS A SERIES OF CHOICES
Perhaps because I came to motherhood late in life, with my youngest was born just before my 40th birthday, I see motherhood a little differently than most. I have never described motherhood as a sacrifice. I have always seen it as a series of choices, not sacrifices.
This is not just about semantics. Our words become our reality. Seeing choices instead of sacrifices means that I feel in control of the many difficult decisions our very international family has to make on an almost daily basis.
This year, my youngest stepson turned 18 and will graduate from high school in the US. We cannot be there for either occasion. His brother, sister and aunt will be there with him instead. It breaks our hearts that we cannot always be there for all our children but this is the reality of our lives.
NOTHING IN OUR FAMILY RUNS LIKE CLOCKWORK
Our five children live in five cities in four countries on three continents. They range in age from seven to 27. We make choices all the time. We miss birthdays, graduations and all manner of milestones in each other’s’ lives. Our youngest grows up as an only child with four siblings.
We also meet in the summer in Berlin and for Christmas in Singapore whenever we can. We WhatsApp each other daily and share snapshots of our lives with each other. We know when someone gets locked out of their apartment or when there is snow in spring or when someone has a breakthrough at work.
Going through immigration is usually quite a production. Every immigration official looks at the stack of passports of different nationalities and looks at our faces of different colours and invariably asks: “One family?”
Nothing in our family runs like clockwork. There is constant chaos in one form or another. There is also great joy in all of us accepting this as our own unique reality.
Does that make us less of a family? Does that mean we love each other less? We know it doesn’t.
There is no one picture of motherhood. And whatever your picture looks like, it’s okay if it’s not perfect. There are no perfect mothers just as there are no perfect people anywhere. We are all doing our best for the children we love.
Lavinia Thanapathy is President of PrimeTime Business and Professional Women’s Association and a board member of the Singapore Council for Women’s Organisations. She is also Associate Director (Communications) at NUS Law.