A well-loved thespian, writer and acting coach – Fatimah Abu Bakar wears many hats to many people. But to four young women she’s known first and foremost as “mama”. She tells makchic what it’s like raising four vocal, vivacious girls while juggling a full-time career.
Q: What was your experience when you first became a mum? How did you prepare for motherhood?
A: I was excited, takut – like all first-time mums – because you really don’t know what to expect. I learned from reading and listening. Apart from listening to all the orang tua – my mother, mother-in-law, aunties, semua-semua–lah – who gave their two cents, I read. I read whatever I could get my hands on — Dr Spock, Miriam Stoppard, you name it I read it! The thing is, though, the more you read you either get more informed or more alarmed.
There was one bit I remember very clearly: how you shouldn’t let the baby sleep with you, and that the baby should sleep in their own room from young. For an Asian mum, that already raised some hackles, so to speak.
Around that time, I also happened to be at a hotel for some function when I overheard a conversation in the ladies washroom. It was between two very well-groomed mat salleh ladies, one of whom was expecting. The one who was expecting was talking about some advice she read, saying that if a baby cries, you should let it be. The other lady responded, “don’t listen to whoever it is, my darling! If you feel like you want to pick up your baby, you pick up the baby — because that’s your baby — and nobody else should tell you otherwise!” Immediately I knew, yes, I was on the right track.
So I would baca, baca, baca and listen, listen, listen, but in the end you have to follow your instincts. In the end I did what I’ve always done, which is to pick whatever I think would benefit me or which I could use.
Q: So, did (Sharifah) Aleya (Fatimah’s first daughter) end up sleeping with you guys?
A: Oh yah, ALL of them! Even when they were much older and had their own bedroom, Leya and Nani (Sharifah Amani) would commando crawl into our bed in the middle of the night, being very careful not to wake the dad as he would’ve told them to go back to their own beds! But I would tell them to quickly get under the covers and we’d have a giggle about it. That was something that my husband and I disagreed on. He’d insist that they were big enough to sleep in their own room. But I kept telling him that there would come a time when they wouldn’t want to sleep with us anymore, so for as long as they still did, we should just let them.
Q: Who, among your daughters, was the easiest to raise and who was the naughtiest?
A: Hah! They all have their idiosyncrasies. It was a learning period for me when I had Leya and Nani. Then there was a huge gap of about seven to eight years before Leysha (Sharifah Aleysha) and Yana (Sharifah Aryana) came along, by which time I think we were calmer. I wouldn’t say we were more prepared because you’re never really prepared as no two children are the same.
I remember rushing Leya back to the clinic one week after we brought her home, convinced that she had a very high fever. We had one of those strips that you put on the forehead, which would change colour to indicate a fever or otherwise. In the end, the nurses and doctor said she was okay. We felt so silly! The look that they gave us was like ‘new parents!’, you know, so it’s things like that, where you learn a little bit.
I don’t know if it’s because we were calmer or because of our experience with Leya and Nani but Leysha was overall a calmer baby. There’s a three-year gap between Leya and Nani then the seven-eight-year gap between Nani and Leysha and a one-and-a-half-year gap between Leysha and Yana. So till today Leysha will always say she was the most robbed as she only had one-and-a-half years being with mama. And because Nani had the longest time, they all say she’s the most spoilt!
Although the four of them are close, you can see that the first two gravitate towards each other and other two would band together. So if there’s any argument, or whatever, you would see the younger two back each other up against the older two. And it can be pretty noisy because they’re very vocal. So if there’s anything they don’t agree on, there would maybe be five minutes of rational discussion and then 30 minutes of screaming and shouting!
Q: Who’s the more garang parent and who’s the more lenient one?
A: They all say that I manja-kan the girls more, that I’m the more lenient one. But there are certain things that the girls know they cannot get away with. There are not many things I get angry about but I’m very particular when it comes to things like manners and being respectful to others. Overall, the dad is more garang, maybe because he sees me as being lenient, so he has to compensate for that. But I think we take turns because I can be pretty garang too.
For girls – not just my own but all girls – I would say we have to stick together and stand up for each other, because it’s so difficult being a woman, now more than ever.
Q: What is your favourite thing about parenthood?
A: I consider my daughters my friends. I know some people who say you cannot make them your friends, but that’s the truth for me. In my girls, I know people who will always be there. They listen without judging, and I am so comfortable being myself. If I have achieved nothing else in life, I can say at least I have these four girls! And while they are their own people, I see bits of me here and there in them.
Another aspect of parenthood that I enjoy is sharing with them lessons I’ve learned, with the hopes that they impart these to their children and so on. To be kind and respectful and open to others, to be honest, hardworking and to be as colourful as possible in their thoughts, words and action.
The world is harsh, especially to women. I always tell my daughters to carry on and not let the negativity matter too much. It’s not easy and I know it’s an ongoing struggle for them being outspoken and vocal. But that’s what they have to overcome. For girls – not just my own but all girls – I would say we have to stick together and stand up for each other, because it’s so difficult being a woman, now more than ever.
Q: How did you feel about your girls going into the entertainment business?
A: I think it’s fine. I never pushed them into doing what they’re doing. All of them are into the performing arts. Aleya is in radio and Amani is an actress and the younger two are going to Cardiff to study entertainment as well — one is doing theatre and media and the other filmmaking.
I never insisted or pushed them towards that. I think it’s something they grew up liking and felt like they wanted to do. They would go with me for my rehearsals and they’d see me on television. We watch a lot of movies together, and we’ve brought them to plays and dances from the time they were little, as long as they didn’t disrupt the performances. So I think they grew up liking the arts and naturally gravitated towards that.
So I just told them, whatever it is, once you’ve decided to do whatever it is you want to do, make sure you do it well, don’t do it half-heartedly. Whatever it is you want to do, make sure you enjoy doing it and do it with a lot of respect. I don’t want to hear that you’ve accepted a role and then people say you’ve come unprepared. It comes down to work ethics.
Q: How did you feel when Aleya became pregnant with the twins?
A: We were very excited and emotional when we found out she was carrying twins as my family doesn’t have a history of twins. I remember being there when she delivered them. Leya had wanted a normal birth but the labour just took too many days, with many false alarms, so by the time she was ready to deliver she was just too weak so she ended up having a caesarean.
Leya was a calmer new mother than me, she was amazing! I remember struggling with just one baby — I had trouble breastfeeding, I was impatient, I was in pain, there were all kinds of things.
But Leya took to motherhood so well with two babies. She would breastfeed the twins at the same time and we were thinking, “Wah! Not bad these modern mums!” I would have campak these two already! She stayed with us so there was a support system here for her when she needed it. But she took to motherhood very well, like a duck to water. She’s now also got a boy, who is 2-plus, and has another boy due towards the end of October.
Q: What would your advice be for young mothers, who tend to compare themselves to other mothers?
Till today I sometimes look back and think, “Wah, so-and-so did that and look at their children now!” or wonder what I could have done differently. Then I remind myself I’m not being fair to my children. If I compare and say that a particular family’s children are doing so well, am I saying that my own children are failures? No, they’re not.
You can’t make those types of comparison. Even if you use the same methods those parents used, the outcomes wouldn’t be the same — the children are different, temperaments are different and situations are different.
So that is when I go on my guilt trips, I pull myself back and say I didn’t do too bad. It’s about managing the guilt trip, because everybody will go through it. For me I am just so thankful that whatever it is, as long as the children are happy and healthy, and they don’t menyusahkan orang, I did okay.
Q: Is there anything you would have done differently when you were a new parent?
A: My one regret until today was that I didn’t spend enough time with my children, especially the first two. I was working a lot. If I could do it all over again, I don’t know if I could have done it differently. Because we still had to juggle our responsibilities at work and raise our girls.
There was one time I remember – during my NST days – when I was working without an off day for about a year because of all these change-overs and whatnot. I was not good at letting go and delegating. So this was the time I wasn’t spending very much time with the girls. I had very few pictures of the elder two. After that, when I had Leysha and Yana, I became a trigger-happy mama, wanting to take pictures of everything because I lost out a lot on the first two.
Q: What are your top tips for new mothers/mothers-to-be?
A: With the technology today, it is so easy to get information but you have to be very discerning when you go on the internet for information. During my time, we just depended on books. Even then after a while, they ended up giving me a lot of anxiety. “Oh my God, I’m not doing all these things, I’m not going to be a good mum!”.
In the end I decided I was just going to enjoy motherhood. So I would say: get the information that you need, rather than the information that you think you need. Of course, you could always fall back on your mums, your grandmas, dads and granddads and all that. But really, it is up to you. This is easier said than done, I know. But try to enjoy it as much as you can. Because they grow up so fast!
Also don’t be too hard on yourself. Be strict when you feel you have to, but keep an open mind. Children will be children and will break rules. And always let them know that whatever happens you have their backs. That they are loved no matter what and that they are never alone.
By Nura Bee
Nura Bee battles the corporate jungle on a daily basis. When she’s home she faces a tougher challenge in raising and entertaining her precocious 3-year-old — she’s adept in performing ‘The Wheel on the Bus’ and other baby songs.
Pictures courtesy of Fatimah Abu Bakar