Sumiko Tan: Marriage changed relationship with mum


On a 'likeability' scale of one to 10, my mum and H each rate the other a six - a good score in my book

I met a friend in the office loo the other day and her eyes were red and puffy.

Are you okay? I asked her.

She looked at me tearfully and said she was.

What's wrong? I asked again. Is it to do with work?

She said it wasn't and that she was all right.

I didn't pry further.

Later that day, she told me that she had been feeling stressed out earlier.

Her youngest daughter had some problems breathing that morning, but because my friend had an important meeting to attend in the office, she didn't feel she should take the day off.

Her husband took the girl to the doctor, who said she might have pneumonia. My friend was wracked with worry.

By late afternoon, though, the girl seemed more like her usual self and was running around at home. My friend was relieved to hear that, but was still concerned.

What if she has asthma, she said, I really wouldn't know what to do.

I looked at her face - and thanked my lucky stars I'm childless.

It must be tough being a mum.

I don't mean to trivialise the issue, but the closest I am to being a mother is to my dogs.

I take great satisfaction in seeing them eat, but once in a while, they go on strike and won't touch their food. I fret when this happens and will ring home to check if they've started eating yet. When they finally do, I want to cheer.

If I have such feelings for my pets, I can only imagine how mothers feel when their children are unwell.

In fact, that's what my mother always remarks whenever she sees me sitting in front of my dogs begging them to eat, just a little bit, please.

Now you know why mothers worry when their children don't eat, she says.

The age of the child is apparently no barrier to a mother's worry.

Although I'm way, way past the age when my mother should care if I eat or not, she always notices if I skip a meal and will urge me to eat.

It irritates me to be told what to do, but I understand why she nags.

I've lived with my mother all my life - in the same house, eating at the same table, using the same bathroom. We know each other's likes and dislikes to a T.

After my sister got married and my father died, it was just the two of us, and we used to go on holiday together, sharing a room.

We're not a touchy-feely family - I can hug my friends and even strangers but not my family - but we were close. I confided all my relationship woes in her.

No one expected me to get married and when I finally did, it came as much as a shock to me as to her. She was happy for me but she knew - and I knew - that things between us would change.

I wanted to continue living in the family home as it was cheaper and less disruptive and I was too lazy to move out.

She was fine with that although it must have been a shock to be in your 70s and widowed for 10 years and suddenly finding a bald, tanned, hairy-legged man living in your midst and sharing your bathroom.

Similarly for H, who had been living independently since he was in his 20s. He found himself sharing a house with an elderly Japanese woman who would look at him with beady eyes and who can't always understand what he's saying.

Four years on, we've reached a stage where things are fine. The three of us have gone on several holidays and occasionally, we set off for the supermarket and for meals.

Daily, though, there isn't much contact. He leaves the house before we wake up and comes home at about 7.30pm, by which time she would have gone to her room. I return a bit later and on most work days see her for only an hour in the morning.

A marriage invariably shifts the focus of relationships. Where I used to share my thoughts and feelings with her, I now share them with H.

If she minds, she doesn't show it, although he has asked me if it is normal for my mum to spend so much time in her room (oh yes, I tell him airily, don't worry about it, she's happily watching TV inside.)

Couples in the first flush of marriage can be irritatingly lovey-dovey and I try to keep the yuck factor down by not being too physical with him in front of her.

In many ways, he's a better son-in-law than I'm a daughter. He's always telling me to involve her in what we do.

Let's start planning for her 80th birthday next year, he's been nagging me. You need to book the hotel this year and inform people. No need, I tell him, we'll just wing it, she won't mind (she probably would, though).

And this year, it was he who reminded me that Mother's Day was around the corner and organised us to go out for dinner last Saturday.

It hasn't been a bed of roses. For example, because we still live with her, it's been hard for H and me to forge our own traditions independent of what she and I have been used to (like leaving town during Chinese New Year), and this has led to some friction.

I asked him what it has been like living with my mum.

I try to stay out of her way, he said. Sometimes I try to make conversation and end up being scolded, he added. But he doesn't take it personally because "she's not my mother".

The best thing about living with her? He likes coming home to a big bowl of salad in the fridge which she'd prepared for him. When she's in a good mood, she can be quite funny and witty, he added.

The worst? Being asked to do things like gardening.

On a scale of one to 10 on likeability? He gave her a six.

I asked my mother what she feels about him. He's okay, she said. He doesn't cause trouble. But she doesn't like how he doesn't help in the garden and she thinks he likes to procrastinate.

Like how? I asked. She muttered something about how he had promised to reprint some old photographs of her father but she has yet to see them. (When I asked him about it, he said he was merely waiting for more things to print before opening the new ink cartridge or it'll evaporate. Something like that.)

On a scale of one to 10 on likeability, how would you rate H, I asked her.

She gave him a six.

All things considered, it's a good enough score on both counts, so on that note, and on his behalf, Happy Mother-in-law's Day to my mum.

Twitter @STsumikotan