In all my growing-up years, I had lived under the influence of an education system and social expectations that wired girls for a particular life, and a home-based vocation was nowhere in the mix.
Ideas of homemaking and hands-on mothering were furthest from my mind in my 10 to 12-hour days in an office in Kuala Lumpur, sometimes travelling to immigration detention centres around the country. From the rigours and complexities of an exciting and somewhat unusual job, I had transitioned to a time-out to study, to what now seemed like an endless repetition of feeding kids, playing with them, cleaning up, supervising naps, and feeding everyone all over again. If there was anything that threatened to vanquish me, it was the monotony.
Chores beckoned daily: sweeping up shed leaves that littered our driveway; hanging clothing, bedding or other washable items out to dry; cooking; wiping crumbs left on dining chairs and under the kitchen table; mopping floors that had the full run of a toddler’s messy play; and full nappy buckets to deal with.
Speaking of nappies, I was a hard-core fan of cloth diapers. I liked the way they went so naturally on a baby’s skin and were a one-off spend besides minimising our contribution to the landfill. Obviously though, they required cleaning.
(My husband) Seng and I would take turns to empty the buckets and stuff the contents into the washing machine. Between us, we agreed it was the worst household job ever. The pungent odour would waft past our nostrils and lodge itself at the back of our throats. After a while we learnt never to speak to each other if one was in the middle of the task, simply because the person doing it had to hold his or her breath.
The best time to tackle this chore was at night after the kids got to bed because then there wouldn’t be a chance of someone pulling on our leg to ask for a snack or presenting us with a drawing midway. I would dip my hands into the stinking mess and somehow images of gorgeous and carefree women would flash through my mind – their neat hairstyles and manicured nails. Especially their manicured nails.
Such imaginings were fleeting and easily soothed by a cup of hot tea. Not so transient, however, was my longing for the intricacies of work I’d trained for, the camaraderie of student friends and former colleagues, and the enlightening aspect of study that had enriched my early parenting life at home, even if it cost a few desperate years of sleep.
One morning I found myself staring blankly at the wall of our living room, feeling the weight of the habitual grind and utterly disheartened with the lack of intellectual and social stimulation in my life. Rabbit* was playing with her animal puzzles for the seventh time, Lamb* had passed out on a milk high, and the only thing I had been thinking of in the past few weeks was what I’d lost.
Former US Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, John W. Gardner, hit the nail on the head when he said, “Self-pity is easily the most destructive of non-pharmaceutical narcotics.”
I knew my mourning had to come to an end. It needed a deadline. I needed a renewed perspective on work, homemaking and mothering, but I didn’t have a clue as to where to begin. I didn’t know how to translate all this into words for friends who seemed to embrace their full-time maternal destiny with complete, unquestioning fervour, so I suffered in silence. At the time, getting part-time domestic help was out of the question.
The extremely specialised nature of my previous job and the new possibilities I felt inclined to explore did not accommodate work-from-home options. And so, I had to wait. I waited and thought through different things. Meanwhile, I ploughed through my roles of mama and reluctant domestic goddess because the sun always rises and sets, the family needs to eat, and housekeeping never lets up.
Ironically, it was in the relentless rinse and repeat of the routine that I gradually found the silver thread running through our days. It was not an immediate answer to the questions I was asking, but it was a crucial foretaste of a fresh beginning. When I couldn’t see an end to the exhaustion, a veil would sometimes flutter and I would catch a glimpse of the transcendent joy that is part of hands-on motherhood. Like the gleanings of a new harvest, it would happen at the most unexpected moments, in the various pockets of our shared living, and I was there to reap it all.
Every day, after the breakfast dishes were done, I’d open the front door to let the morning in. Rabbit would streak suddenly through my neat stack of dirt and dried leaves, and I’d sigh with broom in hand before catching the delight of a three-year-old child’s discovery and sweep it all up again. On other occasions a stranger might stride past and witness the same sweeping scene, but there would also be Lamb lounging nearby in his infant seat, absorbing the view and babbling the one syllable he could manage for his favourite new word, “app”, for “apple”.
On yet another morning I’d turn from fitting the clean washing over hangers, just in time to witness Rabbit manage a wobbly but independent course on her new bicycle with the trainers off, and you wouldn’t be able to tell who was the more ecstatic: the child or the mother in a plain top and a pair of grubby shorts.
Gradually, I came to see that even boring tasks had their place in the larger scheme of things to build this big life of love – this life of togetherness that rewarded me with simple but precious observations of our own children. A life that was uncontrived, earthy and homely. And it never was just about us.
Day by day, Rabbit and I would wave Seng off to work while my high heels collected dust among the slip-ons. But I joined the ranks of elderly neighbours who tended their front yards, found time to chat with them over the laundry, and continued uncovering the otherworldliness in our own lives in the midst of the slow, dull and ordinary.
I began noticing the regulars who walked up and down the street each morning. There was a weathered lady with a big beige sunshade hat and her Golden Retriever who always looked as if he was smiling. A mature couple would stride past briskly; they had a habit of looking down as they walked, deep in thought. Then there was the neighbour who lived opposite, who kept his lawn neat and the hedge well-trimmed, rain or shine.
I started seeing all this for the first time after years of rushing to beat the morning traffic at dawn, followed by a prolonged season of burying my head in books and trying to be a mama at the same time.
One morning, I was standing as usual just outside the gate, sweeping the dried brown leaves into the dustpan. Suddenly, I heard a voice in Cantonese. I looked up, surprised. It was the kind-looking gentleman with a slight fuzz on his face that was the same colour as the silver hairs on his head. Judging from the furrow on his forehead, he must have been at least in his mid-60s. He came by from somewhere up the road, and he always carried a walking stick and a worn, khaki bag slung over one hunched shoulder.
“Miss, you should not sweep the place out here by yourself,” he chided in a serious tone, startling me.
“You know, there are lots of bad people around nowadays,” he continued, shaking his head sadly. “Better sweep just inside.”
I smiled politely. “Yes, Uncle,” I said in my best broken dialect. “I will keep a good look out.” I paused with my broom in mid-air and waited for him to continue on his way.
He didn’t. “Better go in now,” he said, standing there rather obstinately.
I had no choice. I turned and went in and shut the gate with a loud click. Satisfied, the elderly man went off. I peered over the gate and watched him trot past the orange hibiscus bush on the corner and turn left towards the shops at the bottom of the hill.
It was the first conversation I had with another person who lived in the surrounding area, apart from our two immediate neighbours. And it felt rather intense, this exchange with a complete stranger who made it his personal business to give a piece of caring advice to an uninitiated housewife. For a few weeks after that, I had the odd sensation of being watched by passers-by, and was a bit alarmed at the prospect of bad hats lurking around the bend. Yet I could not bear the little mounds of brown leaves that swirled along with the wind and wedged themselves stubbornly under the bottom of the gate.
Eventually, however, I developed a more cautious eye of our surroundings when doing chores out front. And the old gentleman became a familiar neighbour whom we always greeted on trips out to the playground. He was a fervent tai chi practitioner and did at least an hour of solitary exercises under a towering tree next to the walking path. He seemed to live a rather quiet life. We never did enter into any further conversations, but there would be exchanges of smiles and nods, particularly in favour of Rabbit prancing along by my side and Lamb nestled on one arm against my left shoulder.
I began getting acquainted with more people, most of them elderly. Two themes appeared to stand out among the topics of conversation: a particular honour in being industrious and independent, and the value of investing time and energy to attend personally to one’s family.
Between the two sides of the fence, I was usually the quieter for the difference in age and my limited Chinese speaking ability, but I interpreted quite clearly their interest in the queer fact that I was the one taking care of our children, not a maid. My willingness to play the role of listener more than speaker must have been more than apparent, for I gathered a decent number of stories and viewpoints about life in general, housekeeping, health, and the education and management of children.
The thought that some people might find my situation peculiar was not bothersome in the least, but it piqued my own curiosity as I had seldom encountered the views of older folk in matters like these. And I began to be more thankful, instead of embarrassed, for the encouragement that frequently came at the moments of parting, from the plain “Very good!” to thumbs-ups and smiles of approval.
For some reason, these neighbourly people seemed to think I needed it, and looking back, they were right.
It’s when you’re down in the doldrums about your vocation and struggles as a mama that you need someone to help you up, cheer you on and remind you of all the reasons you’re doing what you’re doing.
When did we begin to lose our sense of play? I don’t know. But when you purposefully blend the busyness of homemaking with a more intentional kind of mothering – welcoming a child who wants to participate in the mundane tasks of the day, you can start to see things differently all over again.
Watching my hands full of cotton wipes and baby legs, Rabbit would sometimes dash to fetch a nappy for her brother. She’d tenderly wipe a stray crumb off his face.
I would reach for the rice box and she’d be right there up on the stool next to the sink, begging to measure and scoop, pour and stir. We would talk about how the water dribbles and splashes, the grainy feeling of rice, and the froth that rises when it cooks.
When Lamb awoke from his nap we’d leave the play dough or the paints, grab a book to read aloud at his mid-morning feed, and marvel at the tremendous satisfaction that always registered on his face post-milk.
In moments like these, I discovered that there is nothing too run-of-the-mill for a child who finds pleasure in simple things and delights in the comfort of being near one’s mother. As Italian educational psychologist Loris Malaguzzi writes so beautifully, she has “always a hundred ways of listening, of marvelling, of loving; a hundred joys for singing and understanding, a hundred worlds to discover, a hundred worlds to invent, and a hundred worlds to dream.”
I lived my somewhat cloistered, seemingly nondescript daily life with Rabbit and Lamb and slowly absorbed into my own spirit their truth that reason and dreams, the sky and the earth, and work and play are things that belong together.
I also began to see through their eyes the comfortable beds we always had to make up every morning, the convenient bathrooms complete with splattered mirrors, and the nice clothes that inevitably produced the hampers of dirty washing. I saw the refrigerator laden with good food and finger smudges on the door, the overgrown backyard with the two towering trees that provided a resting place for the Eurasian tree sparrows and yellow-vented bulbuls who always shared their music with us as we began winding down for the day.
It takes time and a certain deliberate consciousness to get out of the old ways of seeing. In the sheltered, unassuming corner of our place in the neighbourhood, it took aching muscles and tears to hack through the hard, fallow ground of our hearts. Hearts that had thrived unawares on a shallow feeding of self-importance, the superficial allure of appearances, and a hidden lust for ultimate convenience.
But we endured and, in the process, we uncovered a quiet joy, an age-old satisfaction of putting our own hands to the plough in the privacy of our home, and the freedom of this independence.
Early in the night, after the silence had descended upon the house like a familiar companion, I’d pick up toys, clean the floors with Seng and fold nappies that were still crisp from being dried in the blazing afternoon sun. We’d get through the pile with songs playing in the background.
As flat cottony squares transformed into functional baby diapers, I’d think of God who cares about every detail of our lives including the nitty-gritty, who makes everything beautiful in His time, and who invites us to grow in joy by being thankful.
Even on the day of small things.
– This is an excerpt from the book Joy Amidst Diapers by Chan Jin Ai, published by MPH. Chin Ai qualified as a lawyer and worked at an international refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur before becoming a mother of four. She blogs at http://mamahearmeroar.com/. The book is available at MPH and other major bookstores, and available online at www.mphonline.com.
* Children’s names changed to Rabbit and Lamb to protect their identities.