My Marriage Healed Me From Toxic Parenting

by Sya Taha
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When people ask me how I got married, I say, half-laughing, that my father proposed to the man that is now my husband. I hide behind humour because it is sinister and painful to know that my father is not equal parts benevolently patriarchal and protective (as people would interpret his actions to be), but a man who feels the need to choose his daughter’s partner because she’s too smart/dumb/frivolous to do it herself.

My father, thinking of his reputation and social standing, wanted me married off as soon as it was possible. Being the middle child with an older sister with a disability (who was thus exempt from many heteronormative norms) and a younger brother, I was the only child that seemed to have any chance of getting married (“before they die” being a psychological tactic they often passed off as an argument).

In this case, seven years ago, they wanted me to get married, at the age of 25, to the first man I was interested enough to bring home to meet them. My previous relationship with a wonderful, smart, funny, family-oriented Muslim only added urgency to see me married, because the person in question happened to be a woman.

In comparison, my husband seemed the perfect catch. Not only was he the first man my parents knew of, his Whiteness seemed like an unbelievable bonus that trumped other factors. My father had spoken to me before, with high esteem, of a friend’s daughter who married a White European Convert, and how having their wedding at a mosque proved how Islamic the White European Convert could be. My father would have been pickier with a Malay Muslim man: he would have to be moderately rich, work a professional job, be highly educated (at least the same or more than me), no previous sexual partners or spouses, and deeply and visibly religious.

Deeply awash with relief upon meeting my husband who had not even completed his legal conversion to Islam, my father uncharacteristically decided to throw the religious factor out the window. One deeply uncomfortable evening when my husband was visiting Singapore on vacation, my father sat us all down and proposed “something small, like the exchanging of rings”. Never mind that ring exchange is a highly charged social ritual symbolising commitment. The point was that he needed total control over my life decisions.

As a young woman who did not understand then that my father was a narcissist and that our relationship had been toxic for decades, I gave in. Which daughter, indoctrinated with strongly Confucian and Islamic values of filial piety and obedience to parents, wouldn’t want to make her parents happy? Since their love was conditional, I would try my hardest to meet those conditions. If they wanted me to marry someone I had known for only 10 months, I would.

I was not forced. I could still choose (putting aside debates about agency for now). I thought that engagement would not have much social benefit, as I would still be morally policed from my parents and extended family. I chose marriage instead. I knew my husband would never force me to do anything, and yet I could still conveniently say “My husband says I should ___”.

A few years later, my brother told me that my father thought I had been co-habiting with my husband while overseas. My father forgot the countless Skype calls from my own apartment, which I shared with an Indonesian girl. The urgency to see me married made even more sense as I remembered one of his ‘parables’.

I dread car rides with my father because over the years these have been moments for him to impart his wisdom through long monologues which include stories of other people, refashioned as modern-day parables. Once he recounted to me, with much sympathy, the story of his cousin who lived with his Malay-New Zealander children in Australia. Furious upon finding out that his daughter was co-habiting with her White boyfriend, the cousin said, “If I find out where they’re living, I’ll burn the house down.” I assumed my father felt the same way.

Looking back, I’m not proud of the reasons why I got married. I wanted to make my parents happy without thinking of the costs to me. I didn’t have a regular income, so I depended on my husband for income, a resident’s visa and a work permit to stay in his country. I don’t know if I would have managed to stay in his country for the five years I eventually did, on my own merit. I wanted to have sex with a man, without that very real Muslim sex guilt. He was my first male sexual partner, and while I discovered many things about my sexuality with him, monogamy doesn’t work for everybody. Looking back, I don’t know if I would have even decided that marriage was the right thing for me at 25.

Nevertheless, now that we have children, I appreciate the legal benefits of marriage the most. I see it as an institution with certain benefits that I have the privilege of enjoying. As a legal family unit with ‘powerful’ passports, we are mobile and can have the choice of living in different countries. I also get to enjoy the social standing of being married: I use my husband’s surname strategically or get him to speak on my behalf in certain situations, and I see a major difference in how the situation is resolved sometimes. Opportunistic? Certainly.

But these benefits are secondary. The best thing about my marriage is the self-awareness and clarity that I have obtained about how my parents see me, my relationship with my parents, and their relationship with each other. My mother sees the married me as an extension of herself, encouraging me to behave the submissive Stepford way that she did: she advises me to make coffee for my husband, cook what he likes, iron his clothes. “Ugh. It should never even be like this! You make coffee for me, I make coffee for you, because marriage is like that,” was his reaction. My husband finds it ridiculous, abhorrent and wants that I do none of these things out of obligation.

My father once said to him, “If Sya starts to nag at you, just take a break.” He saw the married me as also an extension of his wife, my mother. He doesn’t know the consequences of his own advice but I do. I was four years old, and I saw my father with a packed duffel bag and a fishing rod. “I’m going out,” he said to me. I walked into the kitchen and there was my mother. “Bapak kau selalu macam gini! Asyik hilang [Your father is always like this. Always running away],” she said, wiping tears away. My sister and I were left behind to mother our mother, something we would keep doing for decades.

My husband taught me how to communicate healthily. In the first year of our relationship, I used to write him e-mails when I was upset. As my parents punished us for expressing negative feelings, I had never learned to communicate anger, disappointment or jealousy growing up. In situations of conflict, I shut down completely. My parents had never modelled healthy communication to us, so the hardest things for me were expressing my negative feelings, showing empathy for someone feeling sad or angry, and apologising.

For my husband, these things come naturally and by making a huge effort to change the way I react to these situations, I am also rewiring my brain and changing how I parent my son. It becomes easier each time to express my own fear or sorrow, help my son identify and show empathy for his negative emotions, and apologise when I make a mistake or when I have a bad day.

I asked my husband what kind of Malay man he thinks I could have married. He had no answer, saying that there was no way of knowing how our lives can turn out if we change just one variable. (Though I think most likely I would be single or single again.) But this I am sure of: if I had married someone who grew up in a similar environment as me, I would have unthinkingly passed on my parenting wounds to my children.

That is what I am most grateful for: choosing to be and stay with someone who helps me break the cycle of toxic parenting I received as a child. I want to continue parenting my son in different and better ways. Because my husband loves me, I am healed from my childhood wounds. Because my husband loves me, I am challenged to be better for my children.

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Sya Taha is a feminist writer exploring the media representation of Muslim women through race, disability and other intersectionalities. She has an MA in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies, specialising in Women, Gender and Development. She co-runs Crit Talk, a discussion space of taboos for Muslims.

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu

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