I’ve just spent my fourteenth holiday without my mother. In the years since I packed up two suitcases and moved from the States to Japan, a defining event in our relationship, we have been a long distance family, missing milestones and special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and the birth of her only grandchild.
There have always been reasons: the distance (even now that I’ve moved back to the States), her health, my work. I try to see her once a year and when I do I realize how much I miss her… how for so many years we knew the daily rhythms of each others’ lives, and now that’s no longer the case.
For many years I had been the dutiful daughter. I acted as my immigrant parents’ interpreter from the age of seven when they moved from Peru to New England, and I helped them to navigate life in America. I attended college ten miles away from where they lived, and I moved back home after graduation. It was a shameful admission to my American friends that I was choosing to live with my parents, and a slap in my mother’s face that I was wishing I had chosen otherwise.
In the traditions of Chinese culture, generations live together. This was the future that my mother expected and the future that she was robbed of when she chose America in which to raise her children. I was expected to give back once I became an adult, not to take their sacrifices to build a life based on my individual wants.
Yet after thirty years, that is exactly what I did. I decided to go to Japan on a traveling fellowship. For the first time I went for something wildly different from what my mother wanted. I had checked college, graduate school, and a stable career off the list. Now I hoped for a different kind of life.
I lived in Japan for nearly a decade, a situation that saddened my mother for many years. She once told me that I’d made a mess of my life, because I chose a path that she wouldn’t have. So often I felt wrong simply by being who I was. But in Japan, finally, I felt free.
* * *
I have a vivid memory from childhood. I think I was six or seven.
We had just finished dinner, and something prompted me to perform for my mother. I made up a song and dance, and she sat on a chair across from me, looking on. When I finished, I curtsied and said, “Thank you for watching my show.”
My mother responded quietly, “Thank you for making me so happy.”
I remember the mild churning in my stomach, the sudden discomfort. It was the simplicity of her statement, something in her eyes, her throat that threatened to choke with tears. It was caving in around me – the love, the intensity.
Maybe it was our early life as immigrants that sealed the bubble airtight around us. We were undocumented at the time, and consequently, living in self-imposed isolation. It was an emotional space that was claustrophobic, even without the force of my mother’s love and her heightened need to protect.
When she looked at me the way she did that evening, it was as if there was no more air for me to breathe.
At that moment I made a decision. I wouldn’t be so sweet ever again, because I didn’t want to see my mother like that ever again. I didn’t want to be the source of so much emotion. I didn’t want her to love me so much that it could hurt. I didn’t want to hold so much power – and I sensed that I did, even as a small child.
And so with the falling of that first domino we spent the next three decades dancing – no, battling – in a duel over emotional territory. The more distance I tried to eke out of our narrow space, the more I instigated my mother’s responses, until I made her into a controlling and needy woman, as she turned me into a rejecting, ungrateful daughter. Why couldn’t it be simple, the way it was with my father? He expected nothing, he was disappointed by nothing, and he was happy simply to be loved.
The relationship with my mother seemed to bring out the worst and best in both of us. I came to see love as protective, safe, unconditional, and layered, but also as confusing, suffocating, manipulative, and overwhelming.
Is it possible to be loved too much? How does one complain of a mother who never fails to be there for her?
And I did complain, but rarely if ever to sympathetic ears. I grew up wanting my mother to choose her girlfriends over me, just sometimes. I wanted her to say, “Hey, you’re sixteen, go make your own breakfast.” I wanted her to slap me or leave me to show me that she didn’t deserve my disrespect.
I wanted my mother to understand that different was not bad, and that I was not bad.
I heard the words “I don’t expect you to be perfect” but I wanted her actions to convince me so.
I wanted to know where she ended, and I began; I wanted to know that such a line was possible.
During some of our greatest conflicts she used to say, “You will understand when you become a mother.” And she was right. I do now; I understand better.
I have recently experienced similar conflicts play out in my relationship with my son, though the incidents may be less intense. Some nights I have lain down next to him as he got ready for sleep and if I was not pleased with something – maybe he’d taken too long to get into bed – I’d find myself stiff, unable to separate my disapproval from my affections.
When this happens, my son looks at me hesitatingly before finally propping himself up on his elbow to kiss me. He repeats the words that he’s been saying to me every day for the last three years: “I love you too, too much.” He doesn’t reach for my hand as he normally does, and turns away on his side to sleep. And I continue lying next to him, tears falling, hating what I see in myself.
Maybe this is what my mother went through, and maybe her mother before her, as well.
I understand it now, I do. And I understand my mother better. The truth is that I, too, had held her to an impossible ideal for most of my life. I wanted her to be more westernized, more cosmopolitan, more outgoing and more confident. I couldn’t accept her as she was.
It’s taken me years to see my mother as human, to understand that she is the product of her own set of very difficult experiences and upbringing. She is a woman who braved three countries on three continents to find the safest home for her children. She suffered enormous losses, having never laid eyes on her father and then losing her mother before she became one herself. Nor has she set foot in her home country in sixty years. She did the absolute best she knew how given the cards that she was dealt, and her feats have been herculean.
Most recently she has been reflecting and thinking aloud, “I didn’t know how to be a mother. No one ever teaches you how.” She still weeps when she thinks back on her mistakes. I’m not used to the intimate language, and I wave her comments off casually, telling her not to worry about bygones. But inside there is so much that I want to say – that she did so many things right, that because of her I’ve lived life knowing what it feels to be so important and so loved. And I want to tell her that I love her, too much.
© Cecilia at Only You
Cecilia is an award-winning educator and business owner. She has contributed to various publications in the past and writes a personal blog called “Only You.” She holds degrees from Wellesley College and Harvard University.
Part 9 in a series on mother-daughter relationships.
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