In conjunction with Mother’s Day 2017, Sarah-Ann and Priscilla decided to dabble in a mini passion project to interview and feature the stories of seven mothers in Malaysia. Their strength, courage and dedication towards their children, family and society serve as beacons of inspiration for all of us.
The immaculate house was decorated tastefully with flowers and paintings which harmoniously complemented the elegance and grace of its owner, who sat poised and upright, her hair pinned up in a youthful style, legs crossed neatly at the ankles. Her eyes held a steady gaze as she spoke in a candid manner.
This is her story as a mother.
When her son was born, she could tell something was not right with him, but she didn’t know what it was. Autism was not as recognized 20 years ago as it is today. After pouring through many parenting books and magazines, she and her then husband were prepared to treat him as autistic, particularly in their approach to his education right from an early age.
Initially, she felt very depressed and blamed herself. Why was he different? Was it something she didn’t do right? Was it because she had the baby too late?
It was an emotional period for her, but it made her stronger. True to the way she consistently meets any challenge by facing it head on, she wasted no time in denial or doubt about her son’s condition. Instead, she immediately started the intervention programs before the age of 2 despite doctors saying there was nothing wrong with him. She personally taught him numbers and words with flashcards, and brought in a speech therapist to help with his speech and a physiotherapist to further develop his motor skills in addition to other intensive intervention programmes.
She had employed the help of a ‘shadow aide’, who accompanied him to school and guided him when necessary on his behaviour and social interactions. She had also communicated with the school regularly to monitor his progress; she was involved every step of the way.
These tireless efforts were driven by the steely determination of a mother’s love.
As it turns out, it was mother’s intuition that trumped the doctors’ skills when they finally diagnosed him with autism at age 4. Thanks to her ‘mother’s intuition’, her son had the advantage of early intervention.
One of the toughest decision that she had to make as a mother was to send her son overseas when he reached the age of 16. Initially, her relatives criticised and queried her decision, raising concerns about his ability to cope in a strange environment on his own without the family’s presence and support.
“They thought I was being heartless by letting him go… but they didn’t understand my son as well as me”, she explained. “I believe, like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon, you need to let the butterfly slowly break through the cocoon so that it can develop the strength required to be able to fly. If you help too much by cutting the cocoon and you allow the butterfly to come out without going through this process, you are actually crippling it.”
She was convinced that this was in his best interests, so that he could learn to live independently in the long run without being constrained by his condition. After all, being able to live as normally as possible was crucial for his own sake as he tethered upon the edge of adulthood.
Now, her relatives acknowledge that she has made the right decision after all. “Now, he is very independent,” she proudly described. “He has learned to love, to care for others, and to consider other people’s feelings. No doubt, he had to deal with problems at times with unfriendly and nasty people, like all others do. But he has been given the opportunity to stand up and walk again.”
On the other hand, her daughter was diagnosed with serious scoliosis when she was 12. They went through many years of seeing doctors. Every week, it was 3 or 4 therapists and chiropractors. Between her son and daughter, the family had spent a lot of time in the hospital and various facilities for therapies. She felt sad for her children, who did not have an easy childhood because of their medical problems. And it certainly wasn’t easy to see her children suffer.
That was the past. Now, her daughter and son will graduate with a Medicine and Accounting degree, respectively, with bright futures ahead with the full support of their mother in whatever careers they ultimately pursue.
Through it all, her greatest support has been her close-knit family. In particular, her parents, especially her mother and her siblings are her pillars of strength and support. She strives to emulate her mother by placing her children’s needs before her own.
When the topic of her siblings came up, a pressing shadow of regret and pain lingered in her voice as she recalled how she was unable to be by her brother’s side to celebrate his 39th birthday at the hospital. She knew he was sick, but she didn’t realize just how sick he was.
Brother Kim Hor passed away just two days after.
Choked with sudden emotions, she faltered as she spoke of her late brother’s death. The few lines of her face softened, and she wiped away the tears that had fallen as she gazed unseeingly into memories that affect her till this day. It is clear that she still grieved for the loss of a loved one whose time had come too soon.
Having learned the harsh way not to take loved ones for granted, from then on, she dedicated even more time for her family. She used to bring her work home so that she could sit beside her children as they studied and help them with homework. Every weekend, she gathers with her parents and siblings for meals and- more recently- the occasional mah-jong. She has even learned to practice a habit atypical to most Asian tradition – by hugging and pouring affection on her parents with frequent reminders of ‘I love you’s.
Both career and motherhood have moulded her to be resilient, a person who does not accept defeat. She has had to work hard at everything, having to fight hard to prove her worth amidst chauvinism and discrimination at her male-dominated workplace. Her life – career, marriage and motherhood – has never been smooth sailing, but she believes that everything happens for a reason. Even if it seems bad, she always has hope that something positive will come out of it.
“When one door closes, another will open. I think sometimes in life, you have problems because you need to become stronger. If you have a nice, smooth sailing life all the time, your character and perspectives will never grow.”
This is the true story of Datuk Tan Pei Ing’s motherhood. Pei Ing, otherwise known as the ‘Iron Lady of Architect’ was the first female President of the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) and Architects Regional Council Asia (ARCAsia). She is widely recognised and admired for her award-winning projects and socially responsible architecture. She is also active in promoting gender equity in her male-dominated profession.