Our mothers’ often undervalued sacrifices

Kamla Persad-Bissessar -
Kamla Persad-Bissessar -


"A mother's sacrifice is not just in what she provides, but also in what she withholds to protect her children."

ON MAY 12 we celebrated Mother’s Day. Every year on that day we all pay tribute to our mothers and espouse our great love for them. Do we do these tributes to make ourselves feel good, or do we do them genuinely for our mothers? Sometimes the line between both purposes is blurred.

In our tributes we never honestly reflect on the pain or hurt we sometimes caused our mothers because of our selfish desires. We never speak of the indifferent, dismissive, negligent attitude we sometimes showed them because, in our entitled minds as children, we egoistically take it for granted that they would always be there for us, forever, no matter how badly or selfishly we behaved.

My beloved, dearly departed Ma, Rita Persad, was born into severe poverty in colonial Trinidad. Her father died when she was small and she was raised by a widowed, single mother. By age ten, Ma was doing laborious garden work and menial jobs to help support her family.

In the Indian caste system, Ma would have been categorised in the lowest caste. In the Western class system, she would also have been categorised in the lowest class, the underclass.

While working as a maid, and doing menial tasks at a shop, she met my father. They began a relationship and married some time after I was born as I vaguely remember the occasion. His family was opposed to any relationship with my mother and he was cast out from his home, so we were always on the move renting house to house.

While renting in Siparia she ran a roti shop; eventually that folded and she began making pholourie which she sold from a glass case at the roadside. I remember my birthday came around and I invited my friends from Siparia. I clearly remember that absolutely no one came to my birthday except for one girl, Janice Singh; the parents of the other children did not allow them to attend.

It was on that birthday that I first understood how my Ma was viewed and that I was viewed the same as her. Ma was seen socially as a poor, uneducated, menial task worker, low-caste underclass woman from a single-parent home.

In that time, women like Ma were objects of derision, ridicule, scorn, viewed as lower than the white line on the road who could barely read or write, destined for an existence of marginalisation, humiliation and nothingness. Not everyone can have a storybook life, life is imperfect.

Being a child and not knowing any better, feeling ashamed of how we were seen socially and naively wanting to fit in, one day we harassed our mother, broke her glass case and coerced her to stop selling pholourie at the roadside. Unknowing to us at that time, every cent she earned from that pholourie went to her children’s upkeep. On that day my mother’s sacrifice and love were betrayed by her ignorant shallow children who were chasing superficial social acceptance. To this day I regret my actions.

When my father’s family opposed my move to further my studies in England at age 16, Ma battled against centuries of tradition and saved my dream. She believed in me and did not want me to suffer the same experiences as her, so she fought for me. I remember that she sewed a yellow outfit for me to travel and sent me off with the little she had.

While working as a waitress in England at 16, I finally began to appreciate Ma’s sacrifices. Ma sent me money whenever she could to help me. This is why whenever I go to events I always notice the people who sweep the floors, serve the meals, pack the chairs, clear the tables, and clean the washrooms. I notice them because I see Ma and me in their faces. I remember myself as a waitress and my mother as a maid when I see them working, striving to earn a living so I try to make sure to let them know that they are seen and valued.

A few years later when I returned home, I found out that Ma got jewellery on consignment and used to travel to San Fernando and walk around selling it to earn money to send for me and my siblings. I remember crying when I found this out, but I don’t know if the tears were of gratitude for her sacrifice, guilt for leaving her to go to abroad, or both. After, I remember travelling with her to San Fernando and the both of us walking the streets together, house to house, trying to sell the little bits of jewellery.

When I got older and decided to pursue law, Ma again selflessly and unquestioningly supported me when I went to Barbados to study. She would look after my newborn son and ensure that the family was well cared for. Because of her efforts to allow me to concentrate on my studies, I was able to graduate at the top of my law class at Hugh Wooding Law School and was valedictory speaker.

Every single day I see Ma’s picture on the wall in my office, her very hard life reflected in the harsh, dark beauty of her imperfect and blemished face, and I grieve for her. Inside I cry for her, and I think of all the things that I could have done for her and give to her to make her life comfortable if she were still alive. In my younger years, without the experience that only comes with age to truly understand the intricate complexities of life, I don’t think I ever really valued Ma’s sacrifices.

Unfortunately, she died in 1995 from Alzheimer's disease. I wish she could have been alive so those who scorned and ridiculed her as nothing could have seen her by my side when I became prime minister and know, finally, that she was something. But I know those thoughts are really to assuage my hurt feelings, as the narrative that I tell myself is that I would have used those years had she remained alive to dote on her to make up for her years of undervalued sacrifice.

Even so many years after her death, she’s the only person whose validation I ever craved. I wish I could ask her: How did I do?

Motherhood can be a most satisfying experience if a woman truly desires it for herself and if she is committed to it out of love. However, if a woman is unprepared for motherhood, it can break her mentally into a million pieces. That is the unvarnished truth.

I chose to share these selected moments of my life because they reflect Ma’s steadfastness, selflessness and commitment to being a mother to me throughout my life, from childhood to adulthood, without ever wanting anything in return. My Ma truly desired to be a mother, and despite all the trials and tribulations she faced, she never once broke.

As a cautionary message for all the people who still have their mothers with them, I implore you to focus on your mother, understand her value, and look at situations from her perspective before being dismissive towards her.

Because one day she would be gone, and you would be sitting in a room looking at her picture on the wall, remembering the feeling of the warmth and comfort of her hugs whenever life was feeling overwhelming and grieving to hug her again and speak to her one more time to say: Ma, thank you, I miss you and I love you.

I should have told my Ma how much I valued her while she was alive. I don’t recall doing so because I took it for granted that she knew. Regretfully, I will never ever have that opportunity again.

I am Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the proud daughter of Rita Persad, a socially ostracised lowest caste and lowest class garden worker, housemaid, shop cleaner, roti seller, roadside pholourie vendor, jewellery street seller, and part-time seamstress who also created and moulded the first female attorney general, first female leader of the opposition and first female prime minister of TT.

I appeal to everyone who still has a mother in their life to always be proud of their mother, never betray her love, appreciate her sacrifices, learn from her tribulations, and draw strength from her successes, and you will surely achieve much success and happiness in life.


"Our mothers’ often undervalued sacrifices"

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