Call her a tiger mum or helicopter mum, but Shabnam Arashan stands tall in being the mother who tries her very best. From giving up her legal career to learning to let go, she tells Annabel Tan about the joys and struggles of motherhood.
Dressed in activewear and toting a gym bag almost half the size of her petite frame, Shabnam Arashan arrives at our interview a little flustered but chipper. “Sorry, it’s been crazy. I had an event this morning and was rushing out of the house after arranging for a parent-teacher meeting with my son’s school,” the mother of one explains, “and please excuse my attire. I have a BodyPump class right after this.” It is just another day in the life of the ex-lawyer, who gave up her legal career almost 10 years ago to focus on being a mother to her son, Raoul.
Leaving the workforce back then was a decision Shabnam felt she needed to make when Raoul was in Primary 2 and she realised she was not as present as she wanted to be in his life because of work. “I missed out on many events back then and was always silent in the parents’ group chats,” she recalls.
“I wanted to be involved, I wanted to be the mum that knows what is happening with her child and I wanted to be the person my son always reaches out to. I realised that in order to have that bond with my son, I have to put in the time, which the nature of my profession did not allow.” She adds: “There are working mothers who can’t afford to do this and I salute them. But because I am privileged enough to, I consider this a joy and not a sacrifice.”
Making the grade
In the years after, Shabnam has been very hands-on with Raoul’s education, especially when he was younger. Now that he is 14, she has taken a step back but admits she was quite the tiger mum when Raoul was taking the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in 2019. “It was the toughest period and I think I wanted it more than him; I wanted him to do the best of the best and there was no room for negotiation.”
She dedicated her time to sitting by his side guiding him through his work and intensive revision. That year, Shabnam missed the annual Prestige Ball to help Raoul prepare for the PSLE. “Every moment that I was away from that table with all the books, I felt guilty,” she recounts. “I felt like I was not doing my job.”
In the final two weeks before the exam, they had a routine that started at 8.30am in the morning and ended at 6pm, when they would focus on two subjects a day with a two-hour break in between. On top of that, Raoul would also work on his Mandarin every night.
“Looking back, it was fun and I actually miss it although I don’t think Raoul does,” she says with a chuckle. She recalls occasions when the duo would visit their regular cafe in Valley Point, where Raoul would have his favourite chicken wings while they ran through the study notes she made for him. “It was time spent together and it formed a bond between us.”
Having scored a distinction for Higher Chinese in the PSLE, Raoul was eligible to take Mandarin as a first language in the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme later on. Now in Grade 8, he is the only non-Chinese boy in his class studying the language. “I’m very proud of him and I’m not boasting, but I never want to downplay that because I think that’s an achievement,” says Shabnam, who also speaks Mandarin and is now picking up French.
Raoul has questioned his mother about why he needs to study Mandarin and protested against it on occasion. Rather than simply exercise her authority, Shabnam chooses reason. “I tell him, ‘You are so blessed to be able to do this. You come from a background where there is minimal interaction with anyone who speaks Mandarin so this is wonderful – it shows your ability to learn a language.’ I think that made him feel proud, rather than me saying, ‘no, you must’. It’s like a feather in his cap,” she explains.
“I won’t lie. I do want Raoul to have that level of excellence to be in the top range academically and, so far, I feel that he is. But more importantly, he’s doing it because he wants to. With mental health issues so rampant nowadays, we need to be mindful of our children’s limitations before we go charging ahead. It’s about understanding your child in order to motivate them. That’s why it’s important to spend time with them to get to know them.”
Understanding the child is a parenting philosophy Shabnam lives by. “Each child is an individual and we have to take the time to get to know them, recognise their potential, limitations and strengths. There is no book that can teach you that,” she adds. To Shabnam, this is also what makes the role of a mother different from that of a parent. She defines the latter as someone who provides the child with basic needs like a roof over their head. A mother’s job, on the other hand, is to be more attentive to the child’s emotional needs and wants, and to help them navigate life’s challenges and guide them onto the right path.
Shabnam shares instances where she has lost her patience with Raoul while teaching him and walked out of the house in frustration. When she had calmed down and returned, she would often find handwritten letters from Raoul. “He would say sorry and ‘Can you please teach me?’. That makes me feel like I’m doing it right. He wants to do this and I’m not overbearing because he knows that his mum is putting in so much effort.”
These days, Shabnam describes herself as more of a helicopter mum than a tiger mum. Instead of closely supervising his schoolwork, she tends to just check in on him daily. “I just keep a lookout. I’m hovering around and just making sure that he’s on the right track,” she says. “I feel that as your child progresses, you should progress together with him in your techniques, mannerisms and ways of teaching.”
Still, she does struggle with letting go of Raoul as he gets older. “I think something which I should be doing better is to be less protective,” she acknowledges. “I’m very protective of him.” There are certain things she has relented to, like allowing Raoul to go out with his friends, which she previously forbade. “I need him to grow up and it’s not fair for me to keep him at home. I’m being selfish. So I let go, but at the same time I’m around if he needs me.”
It is all part and parcel of the learning process of being a mother, she points out. “There will be moments where you will fail. There will be moments where you will cry. There will be moments where you ask yourself, ‘Why is this happening and why am I doing this?’ But I promise you there will be silver linings, like that smile, that laughter, that card that he writes you – the moments where you realise it’s all worth it.”
Fashion Direction: Johnny Khoo | Art Direction: Audrey Chan | Photography: Cher Him | Fashion Styling: Jacquie Ang | Hair: Edward Chong, using Anti Collective | Make-up: Keith Bryant Lee, using Tom Ford Beauty | Photography Assistance: Yang Shihui | Fashion Assistance: Chin Hin | Videography: Hylman Suwandi | Video producers: Nafeesa Saini and Crystal Lee
(Main and featured image: Dress, Bottega Veneta; Magic Alhambra earring in white gold with diamonds, Snowflake ring in platinum and white gold with diamonds, and Perlée clovers ring in white gold with diamonds, all Van Cleef & Arpels)
This story is published in the May 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.