Q I get confused between my family’s needs and my own. Only after moving to the United States did I even think of myself as having needs. As an Indian wife and mother, I naturally think of pleasing children and husband. It makes me happy to serve them. But, I am now realizing that there are interests that I have not pursued. Yet, when I don’t make husband and children my priority, I feel guilty and like a bad mother. How do I deal with this conflict?
A For a woman to see herself and be viewed by society as a separate person with her own needs, wishes, and contribution is a recent phenomenon in human history. Women have been in a subservient and supportive role, usually in the home, taking care of the family and society for centuries. This is tremendously valuable, but also limiting. Pursuing personal interests apart from such roles has been rare. Thus, you are challenging a pre-existing expectation for women. Your feeling like a “bad mother” is understandable. In the Indian culture you may have been groomed to be a good mother by learning to focus primarily on the children’s needs.
First, acknowledge that your interests are valid. As a person and a woman, your role as mother and wife is one aspect of you and your life. What are your talents, abilities, and interests? Indian Goddesses reflect the range of qualities present in women. Sarasvati, for example, is learned and creative in music, art, and scripture.
What is it like to not pursue your interests? Do you feel a loss? Are you sad, angry, or resentful? These feelings and attitudes come through in your relationship with your family. Forgetting your other needs or desires is not the answer. Balancing your life and integrating your interests will give you a fuller life and your family will also benefit from it.
Q My mother is in her mid 60s and has worked since she was 12. She had five children beginning at the age of 21. She still goes to work five days a week and makes dinner and cleans the kitchen. She will often help take care of the many grandchildren. Her feet and back often hurt, yet she won’t stop. I have to force her to even sit, put her feet up, and have a cup of tea. I am worried about her.
A This is not uncommon for mothers of this generation. They assume that their role in life is to take care of others, at the expense of their own health. This is both moving and painful, because they truly put aside a lot of their own needs.
Explaining to your mother about self-care and setting boundaries will probably not work. Her concept of herself is too tied up with the family’s needs. The children need to take over various tasks, otherwise she’ll think that if she doesn’t do it, no one else will. And, it’s easy for others to sit back when she keeps doing it all. Good of you to notice and respond.
Take her to get a massage to relieve stress and make her feel good. Hire some help to clean the house. If she is controlling, this will be difficult, but be persistent here and she will begin to appreciate it. Take her to a weekend getaway, where she can’t work. She’ll slow down and realize how tired she really is. If she has any medical problems, you’ll have to be assertive in getting her proper care. In most cases, she will deny it and keep hurting. While being respectful, trust your concerns and take care of her. Make sure that you have ample support, asking other family members to join in. Slowly, she will integrate everyone’s care and will realize her own needs as well.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (650) 325-8393.