It took my 36 years, two kids, a job, a masters degree and years living on two coasts to realize that damn, my mom was right. She has always been right. Perhaps it’s because she’s not a woman of many “encouraging” words. America breeds you to be soft, to care and to worry about what you “say” because hegemony. Perhaps I didn’t realize the depth of her wisdom because of my callow thinking. Or it could very simply be because I didn’t believe her until now.
My mom has never given a AF.
My mom’s old adage is “DGAF.” She is right.
“Mommy, stop staring at those people!”
“Why? I was born with eyes.”
“Mommy, watch those cars. You’re going to get hurt.”
“And miss the bus?”
“I don’t like the way you cooked this.”
“Then learn how to cook.”
Growing up with my mom was like an easy trope to live up to. The immigrant mom. The reluctant 2nd generation kid. The scorn I had for my generic athletic shoes she bought me. Her indifference to my teenage years.
My mom was the one who made the clothes the pretty girls wore, the nameless seamstress to a big branded wedding dress designer and the local bohemian designer of the 80’s now coveted and vintage on Etsy. I was the poor kid in school. The one whose mom worked for all the other kids’ families.
She was bowlegged, short and painfully frugal–I wore my sisters’ hand me down underwear, homespun no less and I barely ever had clean socks to wear. My mom didn’t mind the small details–big details like food on the table, like jackets to wear on those foggy mornings and Chinese school tuition was enough to manage.
It was typical and teenaged and tyrannical of me not to believe anything she said. Both my parents worked laboriously back-breaking jobs. It was like trusting a fortune teller who said yes to all my leading questions.
Their trust in my self-navigation seemed naive to me. Their lack of interest in the details of my life emboldened my narcissism. Why care what they think if they don’t care what I think? I lived in a household where there were no time off to attend graduation ceremonies. My father skipped out on one of my sister’s because she got “Biggest Flirt.” I had learned to forge my mother’s signature since the 7th grade for most school correspondence.
Them not giving a shit about American-ness infuriated me.
My mom especially. She always said to me, “You know English. Why are you scared of anything? Don’t be scared.” Don’t give a fuck.
I didn’t believe her.
I wouldn’t believe her.
I refused to believe her.
I was angered by her conviction.
My disregard for her was willful. Willed by the narcissism of shame–I had to know more–I knew English right? If I knew more–she knew less.
My mom knew less. During my college years, my mom might as well have been the houseplant in the corner of the living room to me. It wasn’t until I moved away for grad school and resettled on the East Coast that I started to miss everybody in San Francisco. When I’d visit, I’d ask my mom to make make me my favorite dishes and she’d oblige. Eventually, I, too, became a mother and naturally, I started wondering how my mom did it.
I gave birth to my first son in the presence of my mother-in-law and my husband. I pushed and I pushed and I thought–maybe by the 4th baby, this would be easier. My mom had four of these babies–only two of which were aided by modern medicine.
Before my first milk came in, I despaired alone with my baby in a dark corner somewhere on the Upper East Side. Finally I spoke to my mother, a perfunctory and customary call to tell her I had given birth by C-section and I was afraid my milk would not come in as steadily.
With a casual air, she responded, “Well, it’ll take a few days. Your boobs will hurt. If it hurts too much, put some warm towels on it.” I had never been left with so much relief. With that she handed the phone over to my dad who I’m sure admonished me for having a C-section.
It was the first time I had believed something my mother had told me. I believed every word. She made it sound simple. I liked that. Lo and behold, my milk came in. My baby latched and I was an accomplished mom.
It would speak to my mother again about nursing four months later when I visited her on the West Coast. She would tell me that I’m overbearing because I would ask her to stash away choking hazards, that I was so American, so worried, so fussy. She would tell me that I am an older mom–that by my age, she already had three kids, reluctantly, under her belt.
Her foray into motherhood started on a Chinese commune where she became a farmer during the Chinese Revolution after she fled ethnic persecution in Burma. There she was stateless no more and fatherless no more. It was in China where she met her estranged father at 23. He had been barred from re-entering Burma at the onset of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. More importantly, she was no longer economically constrained to a failed family structure–Chinese communism was prototypically feminist and so her ability to labor, to work with her hands, made her rich.
During this time period, China’s birth control policy lined up with its economic goals–work in the damn fields until you dropped–for love of country and for love of Mao! . Every couple was entitled to free oral contraception and condoms. My mom, while on the Pill, had become pregnant with what would have been baby no. 2. Against my father’s will, my mom terminated this pregnancy.
This story resurfaced one tense afternoon when I was 10. My grandmother, who lived with us at the time, had invited a medium to help reconcile with the dead and to cleanse our home of spirits. This wasn’t the first time we had a consultation like this. Years before, my mother had spoken to a medium who had implored us to make some feng shui modifications to our home remotely from 7000 miles away in Macau. She had envisioned a black mass at our doorway and at that time, our black upright Baldwin piano encompassed that spot in our room. It was enough to convince my mom to listen to her.
This particular medium revealed to us in the dim light of our living room that my mother had three children in the afterlife. Two of them were terminated and one of them was a miscarriage. I saw my father’s face strain with emotion as he tersely spit out, “I told you not to do it.” Up until that point, my father had been sitting skeptically and quietly listening to this medium. His uncharacteristic public candor confirmed her story.
When asked why she had done it, my mother revealed that she had taken it upon herself because she was worried about the impact her contraception may have had on the fetuses growing in her. Each time she had become pregnant she had been on birth control. The risks were too much for her to bear.
That was also the day I learned what abortion was (and how to say it in Chinese.) My sisters and I never pressed the issue again. The topic of abortion would come up often in my studies as a young teenager–the compassionate conservatives were in full swing during the 90’s and you would have been living under a rock if you didn’t hear the words “abortion” and “family values” coming from the Republican pundits on TV on a nightly basis. Abortion was controversial. Abortion was murder. Abortion was a choice.
It was clear to me what side of the debate I had to be on. My mom made her own choice.
She kept me.
My mom worked outside of the home until a brain tumor befell her. After her recovery, my father was laid off for an extended period of time. All the while, my mom kept her head down and trudged on like a warrior. She didn’t know how many pairs of clean socks I had at any given moment but she knew her kids would have food on the table: rice and chicken and vegetables to eat.
She would always tell me and still does that the only thing you really need to raise a family is rice. As long as you have rice the kids will never go hungry.
She was right. She is right. I’ve never gone hungry. I’ve been a spoiled ungrateful brat, but I’ve never been hungry.
Perhaps the biggest gift my mom has given me is the luxury of giving a fuck. I have all this damn time to read and to ruminate AND all the while trying to raise my kids. For that I must thank her and more importantly, pay my penance eternally.
My mother has had very few luxuries in her life. She has no time for my shame. She’ll tell me to get over it. Talking to me about my regrets as a young foolish daughter is the last thing she would want to do with her afternoon. Her luxuries today are things like catching the bus at just the right time or slaying at a sale on evaporated milk. She wants her afternoon nap.
A luxury in her past was having the access and the choice to terminate her pregnancy–not what her husband preferred.
And she still doesn’t give AF what she puts on the table when I visit her now with my two sons in tow these days. There can be two stalks of celery and an a half eaten hard boiled egg on the table BUT there is always rice.