Umema Aimen and her mother, Abida Asif, 54, at their home in Sialkot, Pakistan earlier this year. (Family photo.)
Umema Aimen and her mother, Abida Asif, 54, at their home in Sialkot, Pakistan earlier this year. (Family photo.)

SIALKOT, PAKISTAN — As a child and a teenager, I was always told, “You’re just like your mom,” and it was never meant as a compliment.

My mother was never just a mom. She was, and continues to be, many things: a social worker, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, an activist and so much more. You’d think she’d be considered a model of inspiration for all, but I’ve lost count of the times when family members and my mother’s friends have sat me down and lectured me on how not to be like her.

My mother is always busy and sometimes she is gone for days at a stretch, if not weeks – and that’s all that people see. For them, she is a woman who neglects her house and kids. To her critics, her charitable endeavors held no value; she was doing it all wrong.

This disapproval made me defensive of my mother. The moment someone mentioned her name, my mind would automatically start spitting out excuses and examples of how much she loved us. How I actually felt about her absence was something I never had the time or space to ponder upon. When thinking of the future and all the ways I wanted to change the world, I felt I had an additional responsibility to be the perfect woman, the ideal wife and the best mom to show,  “Look, I turned out pretty well.”

The weight of expectations I felt on my shoulders was so immense that I figured why even try. Instead, I distanced myself from my family and focused more on my academics, extracurricular activities and community work. When everyone found out I was going to college in the United States for four years, the picture they saw was of an ambitious daughter of an ambitious mother. What they didn’t see was a girl desperate to get away from their censures.

At college, I was glad to finally find some much needed space and peace to find out who I really was and what I wanted for myself. Then, at the end of freshman year I flew to Pakistan for the summer. The perks of being home on a vacation were zero academic or professional commitments to keep me occupied, so I tagged alongside my mother on countless road trips. For the first time in my life, I saw firsthand how her time away from home was actually improving the lives of many – and that made me so proud of her!

I kept going back home every summer to be closer to my mother. Gradually, with time and some professional help, I learned to grow indifferent to what everyone else said and focus solely on healing the emotional void I’d felt.

After graduation, I decided to move back to Pakistan. One of the reasons was that simply being home with my mother not only would strengthen our relationship, it would also put me on a path of empowerment and self realization as I try to navigate my way through this crossroad of life. I am learning to accept her with all her flaws and strengths. In the process, I have begun to see her as the best role model for me because of the similarities in challenges we face.

My mother recognized the privilege and power in her life and used it for the greater good of society despite colossal pressure not to do so. As I listen to a myriad of eager opinions about my future, I empathize with her, and find her compassion and determination inspirational.

I consider myself lucky to have it easier because I have her for guidance and support. I also realize that there is barely any choice– grad school, job or marriage – I will make which will not gather criticism. Liberated by this realization, “You’re just like your mother” sounds like an honor.

Women told us about how their lives differed from their mothers’, particularly in the professional space. Read about how expectations, choices and opportunities changed across generations: Not my mother’s world.