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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Mothers, Thy Name is Worry

By OOI KEE BENG

Penang Monthly Editorial for May 2019.

Women may not all have been born multitaskers, but mothers, whether working mums or not, definitely are.

In fact, it may not be possible to define motherhood any other way, which is why we react with such deep shock when we hear of mothers neglecting their children. We assume in such cases, and almost always rightly, that something is forcing her into an unnatural situation – be it social pressure, family honour, religious doctrine and such like.

First of all, let’s put the horse before the cart. Being a mother is to worry, and the main reason she does not break down from all the worrying is that she is too busy making sure the endless needs of her child are met, minute after minute, day after day.

My mother is a worrier. She is 95 this year, and her mode of thought even to this day, is to worry. It was only in recent times that I began to wonder if that is how she has always been, and that the worrying did not begin with old age and diminished mobility. And of course being a parent myself, I do realise that I worry about my children all the time; but not in the much more active and immediate way that my wife worries about our kids.

What is obvious to me now is that while fathers worry in a more long-term fashion, mothers are all-encompassing in their worry about their children. Is the child hungry? Is she warm? Is she cold? Is she comfy? Why does she wake up so often? Can I trust her doctor?

That’s all in the early months. The worries change character as the years go by, but always, they will be comprehensive and endless.

To my later self-consciousness, my mother’s worries began with my birth. (Of course, while in the womb, I would have been an endless cause for worry already: was I growing according to schedule? Was she eating well enough so I wouldn’t be stunted as a foetus? Will I get along with the older siblings, etc.?) I dropped out of her womb when she was going down the stairs on her way to Penang General Hospital across the road. I bungee-jumped into the world, as it were.

Since then, my memories of my early relation with her revolves around her dragging me – being a troublesome middle child too young to be left at home and old enough to be taken around – on weekdays to Chung San Primary School in Bayan Lepas where she taught in Standard One, and to early church sermon on Sundays at the Lady of Seven Sorrows on Macalister Road.

Lacking the means to arrange childcare for me in a kindergarten, I was brought along to class while she taught. She worried over the fact that I was left-handed, and so took it upon herself to normalise me to right-handed writing. Though clearly not a believer, having converted only because the Catholic Church demanded that of her on her marriage to my Catholic father, she would wake me up early on Sundays and the both of us would trudge off to take the morning bus to church – from Rifle Range Road in Ayer Itam to Macalister Road in town – so that the family would at least be represented in the congregation and in the eyes of the priest (if not God), albeit sleepily slouched in the pews.

On evenings, I would be dragged off to Ayer Itam to a school whose name I don’t remember, to study Malay and Mandarin. In essence, her whole day began with getting us four boys out of bed, getting us fed, getting to work, making sure we got to school; and continued in the afternoon with cleaning the house, getting the laundry done, doing her own school preparations, getting us dinner and ended with getting to bed in time to function the next day.

Needless to say, her worrying continues today. Whenever I visit, she wants to know if I have locked the house door, if I have left anything important unattended in the car, if I rest enough, if my kids are alright. Worries, worries, worries. This must have been how she has always been.

But then, I really don’t need to tell you all about this. You all have mothers. You know what they are like. Supreme multitaskers. Super worriers. Selfless sacrificers.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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