I was a paranoid mum when my daughter was growing up. Raising her in a city/country/continent far removed from where I was raised made me paranoid. My daughter always knew which two people in the world she could trust implicitly, no matter what. One of them was me. I went through every scenario in my mind that could potentially harm her and told her how to save herself if that happened. This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. As a woman of colour living in Perth in the 80s and 90s during the ascent of Pauline Hanson, I needed my daughter to be prepared for the day someone would tell her to ‘go back where she came from’ as this happened to me on a reasonably regular basis. I also needed to warn her about the effects of drugs, alcohol and under-age sex, (this was the 90s after all). I attempted to enrol her in judo, karate and ju-jitsu classes but she drew the line at that. Once, I became hysterical because she was five minutes later than she said she’d be. She learned early to tell me things I don’t remember ever telling my own mother. Only people who had been through a stringent vetting process were considered safe to be around her. One of them was me.
I worried so much about the effects this policing of her young body would have on her. But what choice did I have? How could I raise her as I had been raised? In a country and a time so far removed I may as well have grown up on a distant planet. My mother had a relaxed parenting style. (I was her third and whatever paranoia she may have had was well and truly over by the time I arrived). And we were good girls, by and large, with no concept of drugs, sex and rock n roll. Our rebellion consisted of sneaking out for a movie when we were supposed to be at school. Or stealing loose change so we could buy berries from the old woman who wasn’t allowed inside the school. But we were never warned about what a tricky world it is to negotiate when you are young, brown and female. We were never instructed on how to protect ourselves when we were fondled and touched by people considered ‘safe.’ We did not know that our words would be automatically discounted because we were girls so we chose not to say anything. We had no idea that girl bodies were fair game to every male in the vicinity. We only learned about these things when we went to college and acquired a vocabulary for that which we felt but could not describe.
Yes, I became a paranoid mum because I had a name for all those things I did not want my daughter to know. Patriarchy mostly, and all that it covers, hides, discounts, allows, promotes.
And now, as a young woman, my daughter tells me that she knows how fiercely loved she was. How protected. How cherished. ‘You raised me without burdening me with gendered expectations’ she said to me once and my heart stilled at that. Of course she slashed at restraints. Of course we clashed. Of course she tested those boundaries. But she knew how to fight back. She knew how to prevent people from burdening her with their expectations. Sometimes she stopped me. That’s how I knew I could stop policing her body.
When we were seventeen we knew everything. We knew our lives were complicated. We knew our parents would never understand our darkest thoughts. We knew how much hearts hurt when they break. And in between listening to moody romantic music and flicking our long hair back over our shoulders we pretended we didn’t care about anything. On wet windy mornings we loitered by the stone arches of our old college, reluctant to climb the stairs to our education. Never again in my adult life would I know things with that certainty.
Reproval from adults, including teachers was swift and stinging. And we minded that. We really did. Some of us had just been unlocked from the high walls of our all girls convent school and needed to negotiate this new world in which strange boys looked at us and our hearts felt those looks. Our brothers had not prepared us for this. Our fathers were planning our marriages and the careers of our brothers. Our mothers massaged our hair with coconut oil and adjusted our scarves over our shoulders in an attempt to make us look androgynous. They told us honour was more important than a degree in English or Economics. Our aunties told us to stop riding bicycles because we would grow muscles in our legs like boys, and who would marry a girl with tough thighs?
So we formed gangs because there was safety in numbers. Gangs of girls looked at gangs of boys across stone arches, culverts, corridors and peepul trees. Occasionally a boy and a girl would saunter across, towards each other and away from us, and we marvelled at their boldness and envied them. On the threshold of a future we couldn’t predict, we held on to the present and felt the pang of every moment that denied us our inarticulate feelings. Especially when those renegade boys and girls, sparkling with fresh knowledge, told us not to let our schooling interfere with our education and we sighed with discontent.
Our parents thought we were getting an education. We indulged them by masquerading as their obedient children and hiding from them the things that really mattered to us. Like our future. Our souls. Illicit conversations. Invincible convictions. And how we were going to sneak away to see a movie at Empire Talkies without them finding out. Even then Empire Talkies was derelict, mouldy and crumbling but it had wide chairs and screened smart English movies some evenings.
And now my daughter is older than I was then. I have raised her many thousands of miles, languages and associations away from where I was raised. To her, my hometown is a distant, exotic place with eccentric characters who speak many languages simultaneously and English with an accent. She grew up in a fiercely bright coastal city with the sun in her eyes and sea water in her hair. Here the ocean is blue and cold and familiar and she shows no fear when she treads water after a summer swim. I grew up landlocked, watching in dread and fascination as a muddy river rose and burst its banks in the monsoon. She doesn’t have to worry about being whistled at when she walks to school or avoid brothers and cousins lurking outside Coffee House, asking awkward questions. She will not be told off by the college peon for sitting on the culvert like an orphan when everyone else has gone to class. But she will always be told that the best food in the world is served in a dark hut with wooden benches, where we queued patiently, day after day, pooling our money; where, really, our education was completed.