The saying goes that being a mother is the hardest job in the world – there are no sick days, no rest and no pay. Penang Monthly takes a look at three inspiring mothers and tell their stories.
Ong Bee Kim, 71
Ong Bee Kim was at work when her husband suffered a fatal heart attack at home in 1994. He was only 52. Her husband had complained of severe chest pains to their eldest daughter who immediately took him out of the house. Unfortunately, he collapsed on the way to the clinic and was pronounced dead.
And so began Ong’s journey into widowhood at 46. She did not have the luxury to grief – there were bills to be paid and four daughters to feed. “It was a very challenging time because we were not well off to begin with. My husband did not have any savings or any insurance to claim.”
(From right) Ong Bee Kim with her daughter and son-in-law.
Ong was only earning RM1,200 a month, so she had to be smart with her earnings. When asked if the money was enough, she replies, “Of course not. I had to count every sen and ringgit. I could not afford any extra things. I remember one night, my twins had two friends over. They wanted me to take them out for char koay teow at a warung across the road, but I asked them to eat at home instead. My twins were upset, of course, but I did not even have the money to pay for their friends’ char koay teow. Can you imagine? I could not even spend RM5 unplanned.”
But through budgeting and the help of her eldest daughter, she managed to pay the bills on time and eventually finished paying for the house they were all living in. “My eldest was already working in a factory when my husband passed away. She was the only daughter who actually looked forward to working immediately after finishing secondary school. She wasn’t doing well in her studies anyway,” Ong says with a laugh, “so she helped to pay some of the bills. In a way, she helped raise her sisters.”
The other three daughters went on to further their studies, and Ong is a proud mother to three graduates.
Ong’s immediate family assisted her as much as they could. “When my eldest got married, my brothers and sisters paid for the wedding reception. Throughout the years, they made sure my girls were looked after, in one way or another, while I was at work. They made sure my girls had new dresses to wear during festive seasons, too.”
Today, at 71, Ong spends her days watching Netflix and listening to Spotify while connecting with her friends and family on Facebook. “It has been 25 years since my husband passed away. My daughter asked me yesterday if I still miss their father. I don’t anymore,” she says with a smile.
Era Dutta Gupta, 67
Era Dutta Gupta’s daughter, who was a doctor in a hospital, had told her about a child she saw earlier with whom she felt a strong connection. “The boy was not placed in a ward with other toddlers his age. Instead, he was placed on a bed in the walkway, near the nurses’ station, because his parents had run away after admitting him to the hospital,” Era says.
The boy, Vimal, was born with spastic quadriplegia, also referred to as spastic quad or spastic quad CP. It is the most severe form of spastic cerebral palsy, marked by the inability to control and use the legs, arms, and body. For most people with cerebral palsy, the cause is unknown, and there is no known cure for cerebral palsy.1
"Vimal is always on my mind, and I will always be there for him for as long as I live. Because he is my son. If you can ever afford to protect an abandoned child and give them a life, please do it."
Era Dutta Gupta and Vimal circa 2013, seen here celebrating Vimal’s birthday. Vimal enjoys celebrations and often squeals in delight when he hears laughter, music and the clapping of hands.
“He was six years old but weighed only six kg at that time – like a two-month-old baby. My heart was very heavy when my daughter told me his parents had abandoned him. I quickly called my husband,” she says.
Era’s husband, Prem Kumar, was at work when he received her call, asking him to come by the hospital. He initially thought a family member had gotten sick. “I asked her who was sick, to which she replied no one, but insisted I come by the hospital. When I arrived, she introduced me to Vimal. We decided to take him back to our home because there was no one there for him at the hospital,” Prem says.
His condition means he is unable to swallow his food, so he needs to be fed extremely soft diet through a bottle held at specific angles. He is also unable to use any of his limbs, which means Vimal is unable to bathe or clean himself. Vimal also needs to be carried since he is unable to walk.
In short, Vimal requires 24-hour care, and caring for him was challenging at first.
But with love and support, Vimal has blossomed into a happy child. “Initially he was a very angry child, but with lots of love and care, changes prevailed in him. Sleep is not consistent due to problems with his brain waves, but Vimal enjoys sleeping nonetheless. He is blind but has an extremely sharp sense of hearing. He enjoys music, so our house is filled with music.
“Vimal turned 17 last December. Over the years there have been numerous hospital stays and sleepless nights. As he gets older, I do need more help to care for his ever-changing needs, so I have hired a helper since I need the extra hand to bathe him and do other things for him.
“But he is a source of inspiration for all of us in the family. For me, especially, Vimal is always on my mind, and I will always be there for him for as long as I live. Because he is my son. If you can ever afford to protect an abandoned child and give them a life, please do it,” Era says.
Dr Atikah Abdul Rahman, 35
Dr Atikah Abdul Rahman (in purple headscarf) credits her family for supporting her decision to study while being a mother.
The stress from taking care of her newborn baby while focusing on completing her Master of Arts in Communication almost drove Dr Atikah Abdul Rahman to quit her studies. “I went through confinement mostly alone as most of my family members were working. Although they came by to see me during confinement, I was still struggling between caring for myself, my baby and focusing on my thesis writing. It almost seemed impossible to be a mother and a student at the same time,” she says.
"I would not be where I am today without the help of so many people. Without their understanding and moral and physical support, I would not have survived. My deepest gratitude is for them."
Since young, Atikah had always known that she wanted to be a lecturer, following in her parents’ footsteps, both of whom are academicians. Her father is currently a dean in a local college while her mother was a high school headmistress.
While most would feel accomplished with a master’s degree, Atikah had her mind set on pursuing her doctorate. Her struggles of caring for her baby while pursuing her studies did not dampen her spirit. “Soon after graduation, I enrolled myself in Universiti Putra Malaysia for the PhD in Mass Communication course. I moved from Penang to KL without my husband as he could not get a transfer. So, with my one-year-old in tow, I went to the Klang Valley.
“I was emotionally and physically drained getting my son adjusted to the new environment and having to go to classes during the first semester. One of the classes was at night, and I did not have anyone to look after my son.”
So, once a week, her husband flew in from Penang after work to babysit their toddler, enabling Atikah to attend her night class. The next morning, he would fly back to Penang for work. “This routine went on for a few months. We were financially burdened by this because tickets were not cheap. Thankfully, he finally received a job offer in the Klang Valley,” she says.
Today, Atikah is a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and is a proud mother of two. She had her youngest son while she was pursuing her PhD.
When asked about how she managed to overcome these challenges, Atikah credits her family members for their endless support. “I would not be where I am today without the help of so many people. To be specific, my husband, family, in-laws and friends were the main reasons that I got to achieve my goal. Without their understanding and moral and physical support – sometimes even monetarily – I would not have survived. My deepest gratitude is for them.
“To me, we cannot see all of these as burdens. It is just part and parcel of what you go through to achieve certain things in life. At the end of the day, I want to provide the best for my family and set good examples to my sons,” she says.
Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer who has a love-hate relationship with the weighing scale.