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I Looked Everywhere For A Mother Figure, But Really I Just Missed My Mom

Almost immediately after I proudly struck out on my own in a new country, I began looking for substitute mothers.

by Purnima Mani
Originally Published: 
Mother Figures

My 6-year-old has requested I live forever, or at least for as long as he does. Sounds reasonable, if slightly optimistic. Here’s the clincher, though: He also wants me to live with him. Mother and son, joined at the literal and proverbial hip, till death parts us.

Maybe his proposal is not so ludicrous. Decades after choosing to move 8,000 miles away, I didn’t count on my mother’s physical absence becoming such a permanent presence in my life. It only got harder once I had children, like when friends casually mention having grandparents nearby (or even in the same country) and jealousy looms above me like a storm cloud. For all my individual accomplishments and happiness, and despite the family I’ve built in adulthood, the truth is I’ve never stopped looking over my shoulder for my mother. When it comes down to it, I’m still a 6-year-old at heart.

As we get older, you’d think it would be a relief to not have someone tell us a) what to do, b) what not to do, and c) the terrible things that will befall us if we don’t listen. Interestingly, it seems the opposite is true. Women need maternal figures in their lives, even more so once they become caregivers. We want advice on how to keep the herbs we bought today from wilting in the fridge tomorrow. We want our confidence restored on days when life beats it down to postage stamp dimensions. We want, ultimately, for someone to nurture us the way we do our children.

Without consciously realizing it, I began searching for substitute mothers early, almost immediately after I proudly claimed to strike out on my own. There was my grade level teaching partner at school, who reminded me to eat each time I worked straight through lunch. When I responded by reaching into my desk drawer for a wilted granola bar, she started showing up with lunch for us both, in matching boxes she’d packed at 6 a.m.

There’s my husband’s godmother, who treats us like Very Important People every time we see her, regardless of whether our last visit was two days or two months ago. And the neighbor whose couch I collapsed onto when I needed to escape my children for a while. She provided the perfect panacea: Stories of when her own children, now grown, had behaved even worse.

I was instantly drawn to each of these women but didn’t recognize, or not right away, that it was because they resembled my mother. They tended to be a generation older than me. They were opinionated and practical, relentlessly straight talkers. When I was with them, I felt the bone-deep comfort that comes from being released of expectation. They filled the desire we all have, to temporarily be 11 again. But none of them could wholly take my mother’s place, but it took me a while to see why.

When it comes to unlocking my particular cultural inheritance for my two boys, I know it’s my mother who holds the key.

The desire to preserve culture only gets stronger once you have children. This edict is emblazoned at the top of every immigrant parent instruction manual. But culture is also intensely personal. It goes beyond sharing a race, language, or spice palate. Dig into what an immigrant means when they talk about culture, and it becomes obvious that the hyper-specific lightning they’re trying to capture is actually memory. The shape and texture of the traditions each of us grew up with are unique to our family and the people in it. When it comes to unlocking my particular cultural inheritance for my two boys, I know it’s my mother who holds the key.

My South Indian childhood was nothing unusual. I spent most of it railing against archaic gender expectations. We were a large, close-knit family, full of booming voices and big personalities. But my mother was the unlucky recipient of my ill-tempered angst, and she in response froze me out for long stretches — hours, sometimes days, at a time. It was all pretty generic as adolescent mother-daughter relationships go. Just as predictably, I turned into one of those adults who didn’t appreciate their mothers until it came time to miss them. My father’s love always seemed less complicated, easier to look in the eye. By the time I realized how closely my values were tied to my mother’s foundations, there were whole continents between us.

Still, there are blessings. We have managed to build an adult relationship founded on respect and (admittedly, sometimes only partial) understanding. I’m aware this alone is a privilege. There’s also the reassurance that, despite the time difference, my mother remains only a call or WhatsApp message away, whether for advice on the best shampoo for gray hair (a blessing of our family gene pool), instructions on how to make badam kheer for 80 people (her recipe is stuff of legend), or just to hear the sound on her voice. I know this won’t always be true. So much has changed in the years since we shared a roof. The sobering shocks that register when I see proof of her aging on a 4-inch screen are only a fraction of how it feels when we finally get to hold one another. Her body in my arms is delicate, a map of slowly advancing frailties.

I’m always looking for her — in the food I cook, in my imperfectly kept home, and in the perfectly flawed ways I’m growing into motherhood.

My mother lost her own mother 15 years ago. Two of her aunts have become trusted maternal figures, but still, “I’m nobody’s child anymore,” she blurted abruptly to me on the phone one day. “There’s no one left who will think of me first.” I was too stunned to reply, but I knew what she meant. When I first left India, my mother arrived shortly after to make sure my pantry and closets were adequately stocked. Years later, she endured multiple 24-hour journeys to hand-hold me through the hell-tunnel that was fertility treatment. And both times I emerged from the delivery room holding an infant, she was there, a steady source of traditional Indian postpartum meals, fenugreek tea, and sympathy round the clock for months at a stretch. Mothering me is stitched into her inner lining. She thinks of me first, not because she can but because she can’t not.

She's right, though: Despite my love for her, my first thought on most days is usually of my children, my husband, and the trivialities of daily life. Technically, we speak often, but these days, she’s more interested in seeing the grandkids on FaceTime. Or when she does call, I’m too preoccupied with the detritus of the day to give her my full attention. But even from afar, she is the nucleus that determines the bulk of my decision-making. I’m always looking for her — in the food I cook, in my imperfectly kept home, and in the perfectly flawed ways I’m growing into motherhood.

I’m lucky to have strong, wonderful women around me to turn to when I need mothering, and I hope I never take that for granted. But give me a choice between the 20-second walk to my neighbor’s living room and a 22-hour plane ride to my parents’ apartment in Chennai? It’s not even a contest.

Purnima Mani is an impatient parent, middle school English teacher, intrepid home baker, and fledgling writer. Her skills in each of these areas tend to be eclipsed by her enthusiasm; nevertheless, she perseveres. She lives in Northern California with her husband, two children, and a very opinionated rescue dog.

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