I cannot imagine what went through her mind when I was born, her first girl after two boys. The baby of the family, until my little sister came along two years later. There were no blogs or smartphones back in the 1970's, capturing instant moments, to be revisited weeks, months later. She didn't journal, there were hardly any photographs (third child syndrome, I'm sure), and my earliest memories consist of my nanny, my one constant in the first seven years of my life.
There were no discussions of periods; she merely handed me sanitary pads when she found my discarded, bloodstained panties. There were no questions about homework; the expectation was that it just got done. There was no, do you want to do ballet or piano. I was just signed up and sent to classes. There was no talk about what I wanted to do when I grew up – she didn't have confidence in my intelligence to really make it in the world, perhaps I could be a flight attendant?
There were no hugs or kisses, no “Well done!”, no “Are you okay?” It wasn't our way. There were no mother-daughter dates, nor were there crafting or baking activities. We didn't talk about the birds and the bees, and I never told her about who I crushed on. We didn't talk much beyond what time do I pick you up from school, or what books do you need this year.
She drove us to and from school, to activities in and outside of school; she cooked for the family when our housekeeper left, she showed up for my kindergarten concerts (and nothing thereafter that I can remember). She took us shopping weekly, and she sent me handwritten letters and care packages when I was studying abroad in England.
What stands out in my memories however, are the times when she showed me how little I seemed to matter. The other, rarely-seen side of my normally soft-spoken, passive mother, was revealed only to me, at least in my mind.
That weird morning when she had an argument with my sister, which I'd wandered into unwittingly, and in her anger, lashed out at me physically. I was 15 or 16, big enough to defend myself against my barely 5 foot tall mother, but I stood frozen as she pummelled me in fury and hysteria. It was as if all those years of silently ignoring me manifested itself in one frenzied moment.
I received good grades for my pre-university course, and a friend of hers congratulated me. My mother said, “Ah, it's just a fluke.” A fluke. All the hours spent with my face in books, dismissed with a few thoughtless words. Her Chinese humility hurt me more than I thought possible.
There was that time when we discussed why I had turned down a flight attendant job (yes, I did apply for one) in favor of attending university. I stood my ground, argued my case for my preference for a tertiary education. She stood over me as I sat on her bed, and said, “One more word from you, and I'll smack your face. Your ugly face. It's just as well you're not going to work for the airline.” I shut up.
I felt unloved. I feel detached.
She wasn't there when I said “I Do”. Of the five people at our marriage registration, including my husband and I, she wasn't one of them. She wasn't there when I birthed each of my four children – by circumstance, but I didn't try to make it happen for her, just as she didn't make the effort to be there. I minded none of her non-attendance for each of these significant life events. I'd long come to accept that my relationship with my mother is not one where we stand in stead for big moments.
Thirty-eight years on, my mother has never told me that she loves me. She hasn't made any gestures to show it, although I know she does in her own way. She's not a bad person. She's soft-spoken, accommodating, generous, and kind. She loves her grandchildren. She's stood by my father through bankruptcy and marriage woes. She's just not the mother I wish she'd been.
I am the mother I am, because of the mother I have. I do all I can to fill the spaces in between my mothering and hers. I am overly affectionate with my children, overcoming my natural need for personal space. I write countless words, detailing their moments, recounting the funny, the poignant. I take thousands of pictures and hundreds of videos, desperate to encapsulate their little voices, their growing bodies and minds, grabbing the small moments, afraid they'll be lost forever. I want them to have these tangible reminders that they are loved, that they matter, that I notice. I want to be their soft landing place.
I attach myself frantically to my children, because in my mind, it is my chance to make things right inside of me, and to start my children off in the right place with their mother. I document our lives now, because I want them never to doubt my love and affection for them, my hopes and dreams for their happiness, my unwavering faith and belief in their abilities and character.
I love. I attach.