Trauma, Abuse, Violence – The Complexities That Bind South Asian Mothers And Daughters Together

The day your mother realises you are not a child anymore but a grown woman can be a blessing or a curse – for many of us in South Asian families, it's both.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo:Getty Images

“I was about 14 and my high school sweetheart messaged me to call it quits. I was distraught. But as I was in an ongoing conversation with him, I could hear my parents fighting.

“Eventually, my father stormed out of the house and I could hear my mother crying. That was the first time I had to ‘be a good friend’ to someone. I had to put my feelings away so I could comfort my mother as she confided in me.”

For 24-year-old British Pakistani Mina*, this night of pain and vulnerability was the first time she had to act as her mother’s friend instead of her child, despite being just a teenager.

For those of us from South Asian families, the day your mother realises you are not a child anymore but a grown woman can be a blessing or a curse.

For 25-year-old New Delhi born and Bristol-based Aayushi Sharma, it was both.

Coming from a dysfunctional family and having a rough childhood meant that Sharma ‘grew up into a mature woman much earlier’ than her physical age.

As a child, she watched her mother get abused and cheated on by her father and she quickly learnt the meaning of pain, humiliation, betrayal, and empathy.

As she grew up, her mother found a safe space in her daughter; someone to confide in, a shoulder to cry on, and a friend to talk to.

“I remember when I started college my mother started to share really intimate things with me, things that would happen between herself and my father, and that would really make me uncomfortable,” she shares.

“But then I realised that she had been keeping all of this to herself for such a long time – now she sees that her kids are grown up and she’s found friends in us.”

In South Asian families it is not uncommon for mothers in abusive households to turn to their young daughters for comfort and support.

“It can be seen as a coping mechanism to deal with the trauma and build a support system within the family,” explains Zaineb Nayyar, a clinical psychologist from Lahore, Pakistan.

According to Crime Survey for England Wales (CSEW), in March 2018 6.9% of all women between the age of 16-74 had been a victim of domestic abuse once or more in the year.

Out of those who had been on the receiving end of abuse, 3.4% belonged to a South Asian heritage. While these are the reported cases, the unreported and unheard realities could be much worse according to some experts.

Dr. Tina Mistry, a UK-trained clinical psychologist who specialises in South Asian clients says: “In South Asian culture, it is not the norm to take your issues beyond the family.

“There are many reasons as to why this happens, however, we can guess it has something to do with control over women by using shame. Therefore, many women see no way to express themselves except by confiding in their daughters.”

In South Asian families, domestic abuse often turns into a hush-hush topic – something that everyone knows about, but no one dares talk about.

When generational trauma and patriarchy comes into play, women in families like these ‘shut up, get up and move on.’ The uncomfortable yet strong, supportive female friendships between mothers and daughters come as no surprise.

“Some of things my mother shared may have made both my sister and I uncomfortable, but I understand why she needs to share those things, she was able to finally confide, in us both,” continues Sharma.

It is the foundation of any good friendship to share the realities of your world with your friends, no matter how disturbing they may be – but what happens when your friend is your mother and your gruesome reality is her husband and your father? What are the implications of this friendship?

“It absolutely altered my relationship with my father. As a teen, I had not yet grasped the concept of complexity and duality – that two people could simultaneously be in the wrong or that two people could be hurt at the same time,” says Mina.

Addressing the complex relationship and how these friendships can be potentially harmful to both parties Dr. Zaineb explains: “Daughters may feel burdened by the responsibility of supporting their mother and dealing with the emotional fallout of the abuse. Mothers, on the other hand, may inadvertently rely too heavily on their daughters for emotional support, which can create an unhealthy dynamic.”

It is a tricky space, when young daughters turn into their mother’s only support system when they lend an ear to their mothers but must keep their emotions at bay.

Mina explains: “As a child, your mother is one of the most important people in your life, so if she isn’t okay, you’d do anything to make her feel better, so I just learnt to shut off my emotions and feelings when I had to ‘be a good friend to her’ and just kind of...dealt with her problems and shut out my own.”

Reminiscing about her journey with her mother, 25-year-old Sharma shares that “the friendship had been gradual.”

She explains: “It got really cemented when I got dumped by my college sweetheart. When that breakup happened, the only person that I could think of speaking to was my mother.

“I was crying and she was like, okay, everything will be all right. I think that was the moment when I could physically feel the shift in our relationship. That was the one moment where I was like, okay, now she sees me more as a friend.”

Equality is not a common factor when it comes to South Asian relationships, while mothers are trying to bring a change there is still a long way to go.

“I think we definitely did bond for a period of time, but it wasn’t equal. My problems or feelings could never be as serious as hers, because I was a child and she was an adult,” shares Mina.

While Sharma is satisfied with how her relationship with her mother has evolved over time, she also understands that there will be fewer instances where she will enjoy an equal platform in this friendship: “She is like a drill sergeant – although she may be a friend of mine, because of society, this friend of mine has more authority over me than I have over them.”

Explaining the unequal share of power, Dr. Zaineb thinks that the culprit that is patriarchy: “The patriarchal power dynamic can also manifest within the mother-daughter relationship, with the mother holding more power due to her position as the elder and authority figure. This can lead to the daughter feeling disempowered and voiceless.”

While trauma dumping, abuse and violence might have been the foundation of these bonds, it does not mean they cannot turn into healthy friendships.

“By making an effort to communicate openly, respecting each other’s boundaries, finding common interests, celebrating each other’s successes, and seeking professional support when needed, mothers and daughters can build a strong and positive relationship that promotes healing and growth,” says Dr. Zaineb.