“A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.” -Tenneva Jordan
When I was a kid, maybe about 12, I remember coming across this quote in the newspaper, probably the Globe, thinking that the mother described was just like my mom. I remember cutting it out to show her because I couldn’t believe that someone had so perfectly captured her essence in words, her approach to raising my sister and I, and the role she has assumed in our family. Selfless provider. Loving. Caring. Self-sacrificing. All without a second thought or a single complaint.
Even from a young age, I recognized that my mom is an exceptional mother. After reading the quote, however, I wondered if perhaps all mothers were as self-sacrificing as mine, but over the years, as I’ve gotten to know other people’s mothers I’m certain that not everyone is lucky enough to have the kind of mom that I have. Not even close.
I have always had a really close relationship with my mom. As an immigrant from Hong Kong, with her own family far away, she has worked so diligently and sacrificed so much to give us happy childhood memories and the types of life experiences that most people only dream of. A working mom with a demanding career, she somehow always found time to be at my soccer games, take me to piano lessons, and help me with my chemistry homework late at night.
She has always been there to support us, absorbing our troubles, anxieties, and disappointments like a sponge. I can’t tell you how many times she’s sat at the foot of my bed with a warm washcloth to wipe away my tears. She has instilled confidence in us when we’ve questioned ourselves, assuaged our fears and anxieties, found the silver lining in disappointing news, and eased us through difficult life transitions. And she did all of these things even when we were at times less-than-perfect children, when we threw tantrums, when we behaved like self-absorbed teenagers, when we let our tempers get the best of us. The term “unconditional love” does not even begin to describe it.
In my 31 years, I’ve only ever seen my Mom lose her temper about three times, if that. As a mom myself, I understand now more than ever how incredible that is. Even when we were at our worst, and would selfishly take our frustrations out on her, she would never get angry. She used to gently remind us, “Just remember, you’ll be sorry when I’m gone…” The words worked like magic. The painful realization that she might someday not be around was enough to stop us from misbehaving. That’s all she had to say, and we would behave like angels from that point on.
These days, I’ve managed to keep the fist-pounding, arm-flailing tantrums to a minimum. But even now, ashamed as I am to admit it, I do lose my temper occasionally and she bears the brunt of it.
Last weekend, at a family Chinese New Year Dinner, I yelled at my mother which in retrospect I recognize was for no good reason. I was holding baby CJ, who was fussing and flailing, on my lap while I was trying to enjoy a bite to eat along with everyone else. As I brought the food up to my mouth, the baby quickly turned his head towards it and his pudgy little face came a little too close for comfort to my fork. I pulled it away in time. But my mom, sitting next to me, gasped one of those loud, heart-stopping, alarming-to-a-baby gasps. And after a brief delay, in classic social referencing style, he started crying.
Without thinking, I snapped at her, “Can you NOT do that?”
It wasn’t technically “yelling” and probably does not seem like a big deal to most of you, but I felt horrible afterwards, especially after seeing how defeated she looked. She doesn’t have to say, “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone…” anymore because those words are now engrained in me and the thought almost automatic. As soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted it and was consumed by guilt for a long time afterwards. For the rest of the evening, I kept thinking about it and talking about it to my husband. He couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just apologize and let it go.
After replaying the incident in my head, I realize that I snapped at her because I felt her gasp was a criticism of what I had done and I knew she was right. I used poor judgment trying to multitask while holding the baby. I was annoyed with myself for creating the potentially dangerous situation. In my harried, sleep-deprived state, I took it out on my mother who was only expressing concern.
Of course, I called her twice afterwards to say that I was sorry. And of course, she told me it was okay, that she used to snap at her mom, too, but that her mom always knew she loved her. This anecdote just made me feel ten times more guilty. Her mom is no longer around and my mom can’t tell her she’s sorry anymore.
After some introspection, I’ve realized that my guilt over this interaction stems from my underlying anxieties about the future. As we get older and our parents age, we begin to realize that our parents will not be around forever. When I was younger, I used to wish in some ways that I would die before my parents so that I wouldn’t have to live without them. But being sandwiched between my role as a daughter and a mother now certainly changes how I think about that. Nonetheless, I am nearly paralyzed with fear when I think about the inevitable truth that someday my parents will be gone. I sit here with glassy eyes, a sunken heart, and a knot in my stomach from just typing out those words.