In defense of hysterical mothers | Pakistan Today

In defense of hysterical mothers

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” This is worth bearing in mind when we diagnose seemingly ‘overprotective’ mothers as hysterical beings.

Let’s begin with our patriarchal allergies to unfiltered expression of emotion. Although recent social campaigns have shown some promise (#BoysDoCry comes to mind), emotional expressivity is still largely regarded as impermissible except for very specific circumstances like funerals. If you’re on a bus with your earphones on, listening to music that makes you teary, you’re expected to turn your head to the window and not let anyone see you. This is a culture that has transformed public spaces into neutral-grey dystopias that hear neither sobbing nor singing.

The term ‘hysteria’ itself is derived from the Greek word for uterus.  Those with the fewest micro-aggressions to deal with, are quickest to pass judgment on those who have the most to lose to oppressive gender roles and outdated cultural practices.  Women are commonly maligned in mass media as emotionally labile, high-pitched, needy, ‘hysterical’ beings who – by their very nature – lack the calm collectedness of men who fare far better in high-pressure situations.

This slander isn’t unexpected, given that most drama serials on TV are written and directed by men, based on what their male minds think goes on in Pakistani or Indian homes while men are away at work. The patriarch walks out of the home at 8:00 in the morning, followed by spontaneous estrogen combustion that allegedly engulfs mothers and daughters, saas and bahu, for no apparent reason. When reason is apparent, it is usually petty.

Among mard hazraat, this phenomenon is lazily attributed to pseudo-scientific ideas of male brains and female brains. The environment that the woman is exposed to at home is not taken into consideration. This omission is deliberate, because it should it be discovered that the woman’s supposed ‘emotional instability’ is a consequence of a different environment, how then would the men be able to congratulate themselves for being inherently more rational?

Consider the strained relationship between a mother and her daughter. Quite often, the father is expected to return home from work in the evening and grudgingly mediate an angry discussion among the ladies. What a headache, grumbles the poor man.
It does not occur to the poor man that while he’s been away, his wife had been left to boil and tenderize in a social pressure cooker with a lazy teenage son and a spiteful daughter. It’s simple enough for you to approach a social quandary in a calm and collected manner when you only have to deal with it in a twenty-minute gap between TV-dinner and bedtime. But for women left cloistered in a house – by virtue of our patriarchal culture – the constant exposure to social irritants, however minor, is bound to create an emotionally-charged situation by sunset.

The father who has happily shirked most of his domestic responsibility (because managing kids is purportedly a woman’s job) has the luxury of approaching the domestic conflict with a clear mind. The mother arrives at the family discussion table with her sanity already eroded by  an entire day’s struggle with her misbehaving son or an unruly daughter. When instructing your daughter to study harder, it’s easy to manage your tone the first time you have that conversation. When you’re having the same conversation for the ninth time in one day, you may be excused for not being as cool and levelheaded as a parent is ideally expected to be. Minor annoyances add up during the day to present a major challenge to our composure.

It gets worse when the mother is auto-nominated the ‘primary’ parent. Parenting is a thankless, full-time job; a major part of which involves disciplinarian action. Mother, who shoulders most of that responsibility, inevitably becomes the ‘bad cop’ of the family; while the socially distant father becomes the default ‘good cop’ as far as the children are concerned.

This is a perverse and harrowingly common outcome of heteronormative relationships where the woman is handed the larger chunk of domestic responsibilities. She doesn’t get to be the ‘cool’ adult in the house, who is more friend than parent. You cannot be a friend and a parent at the same time; the former is a horizontal relationship, and the latter is invariably vertical. Parenting is about daring to be disliked by your child; and “fun dads” often miss out on the “dad” part of their jobs.

A mother is a person that is both dearly loved and mercilessly disrespected in a patriarchal system.  A mother is both lionized in our culture for handling the sacred task of child-bearing, while also snickered at for having an easy life with nothing more than petty social issues to worry about.

Domestic work is ‘work’, and parenting is quite possibly the most stressful part of it. And if men cannot be bothered with shouldering enough responsibility, they do not get to come home and ask their wives why they are being ‘overdramatic’ about minor things.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.