I used to be really afraid of calling my mum.
Nervous. Anxious. Uneasy.
Rarely excited. Often jaded. But mostly obligated.
I hate obligation.
But hate isn’t an emotion I wanted to associate with my mum. So something had to change.
I used to take days to phone her.
I’d put a reminder in my calendar that said: Call mum.
It would be in my calendar for Monday at 7pm. I’d glance at it, ignore it, then reset it for the next day.
Before I knew it, Friday would arrive and that reminder, Call mum, would rear its head again at 7pm.
I’d pause, think back to the week that’s passed, feel like a coward, and then reset the reminder for Sunday.
Sunday’s a good day to call. She’ll be rested, or something.
So Sunday, 7pm, I’d make the call.
The conversation was always the same.
She’d answer. I’d ask how she was. She’d mumble a response and we’d make small talk about the weather before I asked to speak to one of the kids.
Like a divorced couple.
And the second my niece or nephews starting talking, I’d forget the anxiousness that preceded dialling her number.
Unlike most routines, there wasn’t any comfort associated with this one. There was a lot of stress.
And stress causes ulcers. So I set to avoid the ulcers.
I called my mum last week. The conversation went very differently
Me: Salaam Ammi. How’re you?
Mum: I’m fine (<– this is the fine that means: I’m pissed. I’m keeping myself from saying what I really feel. I’m escaping the truth. I’m angry with you. I’m feeling everything but fine, young lady.
Me: It’s 5pm over there. Are you having tea?
Mum: I’ve had my tea. I made it myself. It’s not like you’re going to come here and make it for me.
** Let’s pause for a second and I’ll explain what didn’t make this conversation different **
When she’s unhappy, she prefers to take it out on someone.
Like most people who avoid facing up to their feelings, she lashes out because she wants to be noticed. Instead of saying how she feels, she’s more comfortable with hurling abuse. Because it gets attention.
It’s unhealthy. I get it. And I can handle it.
She’s getting better at just voicing what she’s feeling. With some help from me. So let’s see what made this conversation different.
Previous Razwana would have remained silent while her mother went into all the pointless reasons why I make her unhappy, why her life’s so difficult and what I can do to change everything. She would have then interrupted, mentioned something random about how dark the clouds are, and then asked to talk to her niece.
But this version of Razwana committed to changing the dialogue.
** Back to the call **
Me: OK, we both know I’m not going to take a flight to make you tea. And we also know that, despite how English we are, tea isn’t the issue here. Why don’t you tell me what’s really going on?
Mum: Where were you this weekend?
Me: I was in Madrid with my friend.
I felt the tension lift a little. She’d expected me to lie. Like I was still 17.
The truth had caught her off guard. Just a little, though:
Mum: Why do you do this? Why are you still adamant to travel? Do you know what’s happening out there? Do you know the number of sleepless nights I have when I hear you’re travelling? Didn’t you travel enough with your job? Just stay in one place …
(I moved the phone away from my ear at this point. I’d heard this before. She had to let it out)
… your niece told me where you were. She didn’t volunteer the information. But she did answer me truthfully when I asked her why you weren’t going to have your weekly call on Sunday.
It was like she was trying to explain that my niece did the right thing. Which she did. But my next action wasn’t the right thing …
After I explained to her why we have different beliefs about safety and travel, I started talking to my niece.
I asked her if she was alone. And if my mum was within hearing distance. When all was safe, I told her:
Look, Grandma has a tendency to worry for nothing. She can’t help it. And then she gets angry when she’s concerned and it takes too much energy to deal with it. So next time she asks where I am, just tell her you don’t know, OK? It’ll make it easier for all of us.
And it felt very wrong.
My words echoed in the back of my mind for the next 12 hours. Was this what I wanted to teach the next generation? That lying is better than the truth? That little white lies don’t hurt anyone?
I wanted to teach them the opposite.
So I sent her a message saying she should ignore what I’d told her. If Grandma asks you anything, tell the truth. I don’t want to teach you to lie.
I immediately felt better.
We lie to protect ourselves
It’s easier to lie than to face what’s real.
When we lie, we avoid conflict. We dodge difficult conversations. We maintain our safety.
We choose flight over fight.
We resist being judged.
We succumb to the notion that masking what we really want is better than asking for it.
We do what we’ve always done. We take comfort in what we know. It works. Let’s not mess with it.
We convince ourselves that we’re keeping them from harming themselves. Why make them worry? It’s easier for them, and us, if we just lie our way through it. What they don’t know doesn’t hurt them, right?
We accept that those we lie to are incapable of change. We ignore all the times they’ve proven us wrong. We expect less of them.
In the same breath, we don’t believe we can change, either.
We simply don’t believe that change is possible. We do everything to avoid it. We stop evolving.
When we teach the next generation to lie like we did, we don’t change anything
We may have convinced ourselves that little white lies are helping us, but in truth – they’re not.
It’s difficult to listen while your dad tells you how much of a disappointment you are.
When you were meant to be at school, you ended up going to the park with your friends.
What will people think of you? What kind of a father will they think I am?
It’s more than challenging to hear your mum tell you she can’t show her face to the community because of what you did. Whatever you did. That everything that’s wrong with her life is your fault. That you’re to blame.
And the toughest of them all? Is understanding the emotions behind the words. And having the patience to change the dialogue.
It’s realising that helping your parents to evolve so that they really see you isn’t an overnight thing.
And knowing that they may never get there.
It’s teaching your children that it’s OK to be different. And for others to have different opinions. To live with integrity.
That when someone you respect looks down on you, know that they’re saying more about themselves than about you.
It’s forgiving them for it because they’ve had a past, and experiences, and challenges. They’re working through it, just like you.
And even if they’re not working through it, it’s their decision to make. Not yours.
It’s showing them that family, and bonds, are made when you stay.
When you fight, not take flight.
It’s explaining that they have the freedom to choose whether they stay or go. Staying isn’t for everyone. Going isn’t either.
It’s leading by example. And being honest about why the white lies you told worked for a time. And why you won’t lie anymore.
It’s creating that moment in your life when you dial your mum’s number because you want to hear her voice.
You want to tell her what happened in your day and you want to hear all about hers.
It’s listening to her talk about anything but the weather.
Because that moment? Means progress.