A few months ago, my brother’s wife visited my parents looking a little forlorn. Her friend, a dedicated Catholic who had suffered multiple miscarriages, had given birth to a stillborn baby at 38 weeks. She’d known for some time that her child wouldn’t live, but as long as it was alive within her, she was going to continue to refuse to abort it and let it go when it was ready.
My mother, as is often the case, was sweeping her floor when my sister-in-law arrived. When she looked up, I knew the story had hit a nerve. She put down the broom – a stout Arab-style one, with fine, long bristles that shed on the floor one is cleaning, but that reminds her of home – and leaned against her sink, shaking her head.
I knew she was remembering. When my sister-in-law looked at her, perplexed, my mother began explaining. She too had suffered multiple miscarriages. Her last one had been the most devastating, the most traumatic. I had known this, but the circumstances had been sketchy, and my mother had kept silent as she did with all things that had to do with her person. Two decades later, as the floor was being swept and the mjadra was cooking on the stove and my son and my nephew were rough-playing on her Persian rug with bottles of milk in their hands and I couldn’t concentrate, she was talking.
And I realised in that moment, how little I knew about my mother.
I knew that my mother left the small Lebanese village that she had known all her life when she was twenty. It was 1985, her country had been in war for ten years, and she had just married my father, a local boy who had emigrated with his family to Australia a decade prior, and who had returned to the old country in search of a bride. She wasn’t particularly well-educated – like many others of her time, place and circumstance she had finished high school and that’s about it – but she worked hard and loved to learn. She came out here and worked with my father, she learned how to drive, she went to language school, and she bought me stories that she also read from to better grasp the language of her new home.
For the most part, she assimilated, but she never stopped being Lebanese. Our home was warm and loving, and if anything, a little too rigid, built on the strong foundations of faith, culture and gendered expectations. My father sold his store and went out to work – long hours on job sites where he was a foreman, and later, in the hardware store that he ran and she helped manage – and she ruled the roost. She was the ideal housewife – a home-cooked meal every day, constantly revolving piles of laundry, surfaces that were free of dust and dirt and grime. On some occasions, she’d mow the lawn or paint the walls or rearrange the furniture, and when she’d complain about her sore shoulders and bad knees her children – sprawled in front of the television watching only the shows that she approved – would think ‘serves you right’.
My mother was strong and strict. That was how she had been raised. She commanded respect and attention and was firm in her discipline. She could silence us with a look that still has the power to halt me, but her love – and her effort to show it – was unwavering. When I entered my teens and wanted to go to parties and movie nights with my friends I was usually reprimanded and told to stay at home. If I was given permission to go, it was with such a long list of rules and expectations – and a curfew – that the outing seemed pointless. ‘I couldn’t even go out to the fields for Tabouli picnics with my girlfriends,’ or ‘My father sent me home from a wedding early because a boy smiled at me,’ she’d say. I didn’t get why she was so concerned, because when I was 16, no boys wanted to smile at me anyway.
Now, I see it was all a part of the process.
The process, if I speak truthfully, reminds me a lot of pickling vegetables. Lebanese girls are preserved, lovingly and dutifully watched over by their families and inner circles, guarded and guided and protected to ensure the outside world, which is unkind to women in more ways than one, couldn’t taint them. I gathered from a young age that girls who went out too much, dressed inappropriately or spoke out of turn weren’t marriage material. In a culture that prized marriage, this was a warning.
Ours was a community that was solid, with bonds that remained strong even after years of migration and generations of change. We were there for each other at weddings and baptisms and funerals, when someone was sick or someone else was moving house or when someone else left the motherland and was seeking a house or a job here in the ghurbi – but we were also prone to judgement. And women, I eventually figured out, were judged a lot more harshly than men.
My mother was a by-product of this sort of thinking: that girls were preserved for their husbands and their families, that this protected them from the ways of the more modern west but also from the tongues that wagged when a woman did or said something out of turn. She had internalised these ideas and now she was passing them on to her daughter. Her environment helped, of course. My parents had chosen to settle in Bankstown, where they were surrounded by family and friends who had also trekked out from Lebanon over the years, where their Lebanese Maronite Catholic Church stood proudly, and where the monks could be counted on for all manner of things – blessing engagements and new houses, hosting prayer nights and settling marriage disputes and, most joyously, attending social occasions that were held in the salons (forbidden rooms, my friends and I would call them) of Lebanese homes that were reserved for only the most respectable visitors. They sent us to a Lebanese Maronite Catholic school run by said monks, its ethos and population reinforcing what we got at home. We saw no other way of life but ours.
But her daughter, perhaps due to the voracious reading that she had encouraged, or her opportunity to go to university, saw through it a lot sooner. When I realised that I lived under a separate set of rules to my younger brother, I rebelled by writing my frustrations down.
My faith and culture were still paramount to my identity – but so was my femininity. I grappled with my desire for equality and my quest to assert myself. I had no one to share my struggles with: my friends, who had less strict parents, stopped inviting me out because my curfews made things difficult. In time, I found solace in the friends I made at work, including a white boy who would later become my first boyfriend, because I only saw them under specific, more permissible circumstances.
My mother noticed our spark as soon as she’d met him, but she hoped it was nothing. I was a good Lebanese girl – obedient, traditional, religious and shy. I would marry a Lebanese boy and wow my mother-in-law with my good manners and religious devotion and cultural capital. But eventually, her suspicions were confirmed. Her daughter had fallen in love with a white boy, his feelings were reciprocated, and suddenly, she had undone the efforts of her preservation. If I was a pickled vegetable, then I had, by these standards, spoiled.
I realise now that falling in love with a white boy was the first in a long line of acts that could be considered selfish, compared to my parents at least. To say they have loved me unconditionally through it all would be an understatement. They are the people I love most in this whole world – solid, intelligent and reliable, with humble hearts and warm conversation and a generosity of spirit. But as I sit here, in an empty artist’s studio in the suburb in which they chose to live, alongside other migrants and shopfronts selling food and wares that remind them of the old country, the more I realise, next to them at least, how much I have been given and how much I have taken.
This artist’s studio, once a women’s health clinic, is now bare, and when I walk into the shopping mall across the road, I know that what I see will vastly differ to what my mother, a young mum navigating marriage, motherhood and a new nation, saw all those years ago.
My favourite story of hers takes place at the bus stop outside Bankstown Square. The year is 1989 and she’s a mother to two children, one strapped to her chest and the other in a pram. The plastic bags filled with groceries are searing red rings into her wrists, but the last part of the journey is about to start, and then, then she will be home. She will prepare dinner for her husband and tend to the children and the house, driven by the cultural expectations that moulded her mother, and her mother, and her mother before her.
The bus pulls over and as the doors spring open the driver looks at her, at once impressed and bemused. He can tell that the groceries are heavy, but he’s more concerned with the children she’s got with her.
‘Can you even pull your wallet out to pay me?’ he asks her, smiling. My mother smiles back, because he doesn’t know what she’s capable of. Even now, decades later, when she carries an entire trestle table on her head after the completion of a dinner party, she still surprises men, because there’s a lot more to the Lebanese women of her day. The Lebanese women of mine – Amal Clooney excepted – fall short in comparison.
Today, Bankstown Central, as it is now known, has changed. The Square has given way to a mall: the parking lot is bigger, the stores are pushing fast fashion and gadgets, and individual boutiques and bakeries have given way to franchises that have a chance to compete with their online counterparts.
The mothers have changed too, which probably explains why the women’s health clinic is no longer in operation. Many mothers – girls of my generation whose mothers told stories like mine – choose the private system over the public one, pay a paediatrician instead of visiting the clinic. They push expensive prams with fancy baby bags dangling off their handles, they drive Range Rovers and Mercedes SUVs and Porsche Cayennes. They wear Cartier love bracelets and Gucci bags and Chanel espadrilles. Their hair is long and lush, falling over their backs or tucked up into hijabs that are arranged in perfect styles that complement their trendy clothes. Their eyebrows are perfect – symmetrical and full, their lips and noses enhanced by surgical procedures and injections that cost more than their mothers would have spent on their appearance in an entire year. Some might have a regular cleaner, or an old Lebanese lady they pay to hollow out their zucchini marrows and make their shish barak and roll their vine leaves, because their nails can’t handle the workload.
Our mothers’ hands didn’t know such limits. Worn with time and workload, their hands pressed olives and pickled turnips, they pressed meat into kibbe and rolled out maamoul pastry, they brushed hair into braids and scrubbed paint stains out of school uniform with handmade olive soaps. They smacked us when we answered back and pressed us to their chests when we were sad or unwell, and those hands have memorised our joys and our sorrows, our favourite recipes and hairstyles, our needs and our wants.
And now, the hands that never grasped Bugaboo prams or the armrests of the chair at the nail salon, the hands that marked years of selflessness and sacrifice, are moulding an entire new generation, because their selflessness has made us selfish.
I realise, every time she bathes my children or turns up unannounced to collect my laundry or sweep my floor, that she was the last of them. The last of those Lebanese mothers who did it all, silently and humbly, born and bred for a duty to birth and breed. We talk about this, friends and I, over social media posts and real-life coffees.
‘How did they do it?’ we wonder. ‘They had double and triple the number of kids and no outlets and they didn’t know what self-care was.’
‘We are indulged,’ we declare, and yet nothing about us changes.
Two nights ago, I put the kids to bed at their usual bedtime, loaded the dishwasher, vacuumed the floor and underneath the couch, and went upstairs to soak in an Epsom salt bath while reading Lisa Taddeos’ Three Women. I had a pile of washing to do, but I figured it could wait. Sunday night baths were part of my self-care routine, and lately, I had become adamant about not compromising on them.
The next morning, my mother turned up at my house at 8:15. She changed my son’s nappy while I made my daughter’s lunch, she brushed and braided my daughter’s hair while I unpacked the dishwasher, she swept my floor (and underneath the couches, which says a lot about our differing standards) and took out the recycling and offered to drive my son to daycare while I took my daughter to school so that I would have more time to write. I didn’t tell her I was writing an essay about her. And that writing about her would be hard. How could I do this woman justice? I only knew her as Mum. But she was more.
The reality of how her sacrifices have privileged me has hit me harder since I too became a wife, and then a mother. But my experiences cannot compare to hers. Motherhood was supposed to make me selfless but it had the opposite effect. I became determined to carve out time for myself, projects and hobbies and outings that were solely my own. I justified my choices with explanations that I was doing this for my daughter.
‘I want her to know that she is not bound by her gender,’ I’d find myself saying if it ever came up. ‘I want her to know that she can be a wife and mother but she can do other things too. Those don’t have to be the things that define her.’
But inside, I wonder. What was it that determined the difference in our generations? When I think back to my childhood, and the things she had for herself, I’m pressed to find anything that matters. I don’t remember her having nights out with her girlfriends. I don’t remember her making herself up in a pretty bathroom. I think of her one good jacket, her gold necklace with the medallion of the Madonna and infant Jesus on it, and one lipstick, one nail polish and one bottle of perfume.
I pursued an education, a career, travel. I bought myself luxury designer items and had staycations in nice hotels and made trips to the hairdresser and the beautician. I had long conversations with friends about my place in the world – first as a young woman, then as a wife, and finally, as a mother. Who did she talk to when she was growing into herself?
I still don’t know my mother. One day, I follow her to the children’s cemetery, where she visits the grave of the child she lost due to a medical bungle. I had wondered about where this child was buried for 18 years, but now, I realise, I had only thought of the physical. But what did she bury, emotionally? How did she cope? Did she, like I sometimes do, realise that the intersections of her race and gender, determined how she fit into this world, and that the fit wasn’t always fair or pleasant?
I try to find traces of her in pictures of Lebanon, imagining her childhood picking olives off trees in expansive groves and tending to the tobacco her store-owning parents grew in their large yard. I look at the pictures of her beautiful waist-length long hair that her father-in-law begged her not to cut but that children got in the way of taking care of. I think about how she felt when she was in labour and when she was miscarrying, if her experiences mirrored my own. But I don’t know what she dreamed of, if she ever had a crush, what she was like in school. I start to drink Lebanese coffee so that she would sit with me and chat like she does with her friends. I watch Lebanese soap operas so that we have things to talk about.
But she still makes it all about me. Te’Ebrini, she says. Bury me. The words that Lebanese mothers utter to their children to let them know that they would take all their suffering until death if they could. It’s her response to everything that comes out of my mouth. I could be sick, going into the city for work, mopping the floor, taking my daughter to the dentist, going to a children’s birthday party and she always says the same thing. Te’Ebrini. As if she hasn’t already buried herself and all that she is for the sake of her children.
As if after everything she is and I am not, I could stomach the thought.
Sarah Ayoub is a recipient of a Mother Tongues Residency offered by the Bankstown Arts Centre and Sydney Review of Books. This essay was written in the Incubate Artists Studios in Bankstown.