Trigger warning: This story contains references and descriptions of domestic violence.
I remember the moment I found out about my mom’s previous marriage before my biological father.
I had just been cheated on by my boyfriend at the time, and she sat me down on our couch and told me about her first arranged marriage at the age of 18. He had a successful job, lived in America, and came from a good family. In the culture she was raised in, these were the three qualities any parent would swoon over for their daughter.
My jaw started clenching as I stubbornly tried to ignore her, and brush over her life lesson. I figured the big “life lesson” she’d tell me was that she divorced a good man that her parents liked, threw away her future, and then she met my biological father and quickly got married to a man who wasn’t ready to be serious, blah blah blah. “If only she had listened to her parents” was going to be the moral of the story.
Never have I been more wrong.
My mom proceeded to tell me that when she moved to America with this man, everything changed. He turned from Jekyll to Hyde within days. His routine was to come home reeking of alcohol, as he let Hyde come out to play and hit my mom for no reason. He gave her zero money, and never let her out of their tiny apartment in NYC.
My mom, however, was curious and brave, and would sneak out while he was at work to explore the city on her own. One morning, before he left for work, he told my mom he’d kill her when he returned that evening. She’d heard that threat before, but this time it seemed real. She called her brother, who was in Los Angeles at the time, from a pay phone, told him everything, and got on a plane to California later that day.
Many of you are probably thinking, why wouldn’t my mom tell anyone about what she was going through before that day? Why let it get this far? The answer is simple. It was instilled in her, and the generations before her, that women were to do everything to keep a marriage going, no matter what.
Being a divorced woman in Pakistan was like wearing the metaphoric Scarlet Letter on your chest, and knowing that marrying again would be a difficult task. No one would care that you were beaten, battered, or emotionally bruised. All they would see was the capital “D” for divorced, figuratively branded and burned on your face. I’m sure a part of her felt this guilt, knowing that her parents would carry the weight of realizing that they had been tricked by a con artist, and allowed their daughter to go halfway across the world with a monster.
When my mom found out that I had been cheated on, I think that was the moment she swore that she’d never let me endure the emotional and physical pain that she did in her marriages. All I wanted was to forgive my boyfriend and continue to see him, knowing that his heart was half with me and half with someone else. All my mom wanted was to shake me, and open my eyes to see that being loved by half a heart is never going to be what I deserve. She wanted me to see that commitment is a big deal, and being blind to people’s real colors was a dangerous slope.
Looking back, I think that’s the moment she decided to take things into her own hands and find someone for me, just like generations before her had for their kids. She resorted to what she knew and thought was best for me, which is what most of our parents do — try to get us to avoid pain at any cost, even if that means making some big life decisions for us. I remember sneakily checking my mom’s internet history and finding my photos on this marriage service website called shaadi.com, which translates directly to wedding.com.
My heart sunk as I realized I was at the “prime marrying age” when most traditional Pakistani/Indian parents start eyeing you, and wondering if you are spoken for, or not. Once you reach that age, attending weddings or cultural functions becomes somewhat like speed-dating, where the guys don’t come up to you; their moms do. And let me tell you, they have no shame in opening the conversation with, “Are you single? I have a son, and he’s a doctor!!!”
As I stared at my mother’s internet history, rage was my immediate emotion as I cursed under my breath. How could this happen to me? I had dreams of being a celebrated model, an actress, and choosing who I wanted to be with, even if my mom didn’t approve.
But over time, a realization dawned on me. Carrying the pressure of being a twice-divorced Pakistani woman on her back whilst trying to raise a Pakistani-born girl in America, and delicately balancing her culture’s ways with American ways wasn’t what she signed up for.
To compound matters, I was stubborn at times, and knew I wanted a career in Hollywood over just getting married because society says so, and because my ovaries start wilting with worry. She had to merge the cultural pressure to marry her daughter with the reality that this was not my dream.
Over time, my mom and I started wearing each other’s shoes, both physically and metaphorically. We became friends, and I saw her for who she truly was — this resilient woman who keeps reinventing herself, and not letting life’s struggles bring her or her daughter down. She has repeatedly dodged mean comments about me being both single, and a model, from people in our community; yet her motherly armor never got scuffed.
Weirdly enough, I think that first marriage prepared her for being able to handle absolutely anything. She’s the type of woman to take the nastiest lemons life gives you, and make a damn good lemonade out of them.
I’ve come to understand that my mom, and our parents in general, are only doing what they think is right based on their upbringing and the cultural norms that have become long ingrained in their being. I wish my younger self realized that at the time, and didn’t get angry with her.
Mama, thank you for raising me in a world that was so foreign to you, and for trying to secure my future in the only way your culture taught you to. Mama, when you later understood that I wanted a different future, thank you for agreeing to that.
Thank you for seeing me, understanding me, and trusting me with my life decisions. It has been beautiful watching you evolve, seek your happiness and inner truth, and create a happy, balanced, East-meets-West lifestyle for me and you.
Follow Nida on Instagram to keep up with her adventures!