I’ve stopped arguing with my mum this year. I’ve been trying to get her to see my side for more than two decades. Almost every conversation we used to have would end with my insides twisted up like a pretzel. We would argue about everything, from religion to patriarchy and family. No conversation was safe.
I’ve never had cause to doubt my mother’s love. Maybe that’s why it got so bad, and why Mum bore the brunt of my frustrations; I knew she wasn’t going to leave me. But now in her 70s, weak from having battled cancer, and left with hearing loss, I’m acutely aware that we’re running out of time. We’ve been standing at the opposite sides of a bridge, our arms outstretched, not knowing how to get to each other for too long.
Growing up, I trusted my parents. But the way I saw the world changed after my second arranged marriage ended in divorce. I felt betrayed by the choices they had made for me, especially my mum. I began to see injustices around me that I’d never noticed before. Small things, such as the men eating first at dinner parties, boys in the living room, girls in the kitchen. The men never offering to help. The advantages taken by extended family, and how these were only ever one-way.
I began calling things out. While Dad seemed to understand, this wasn’t received well by Mum. She and I are both Muslim, but I found myself having different interpretations of what that meant. We look at texts, scripture, and theological stories through the lens of the culture we are raised in. My mum grew up in Pakistan and in Iran. I was born and raised in England. Urdu is her first language, English is mine. As we navigated the knotty problems of life, a lot of our adult relationship became lost in translation. We would argue about women’s rights, about how men should be treated – and I felt she wanted me to accept the status quo too often. Mum believed the demise of my marriage was due to bad luck, I saw it as the symptom of something far bigger.
One day, halfway through a family visit, my eight-year-old son, exhausted with our arguments, said to me: “Mama, don’t argue with Nani.” I looked into his eyes. He was pleading with me. I had to find a way to stop.
So I did.
At the age of 47, I finally scratched the CD that Mum and I had been playing on a loop for years. I began ending conversations early to prevent rows, I stopped filling silences, and I didn’t ask questions that I knew I wouldn’t like the answer to. As the dynamic between us shifted, so did my understanding of the woman who is my mother.
I did the painful work of looking at myself, and I began to see my mother as a person separate to me. Mum came to England from Karachi in 1973 when she was 23 years old. At the time, homes in Bradford still had outside toilets; in Karachi, my mum had lived in a sprawling house with several washrooms, and staff to clean them. She had arrived in a country where racism was rife, with a first-class degree that was not accepted here. I see now how frightening that must have been for her – and how much time must have been spent simply trying to survive here. She did not have energy to be angry like me.
This year, I have come to understand that my rage was not for her, but grief for the people and experiences that I feel I have lost, for having had to fight alone, for having had to fight at all. But my mum had also had her battles, and she’d done her best. We love each other, and love requires acceptance.
We’re not fully there yet. I’m still raw, and I get the sense my mum is still nervous, but we are edging towards each other, and hopefully our hands will meet in the centre of that bridge.