First Mother’s Day without my mother. The lingering sadness is sometimes poignant, and others numbing. People say the feeling will never go away, but time will heal. I believe it.
In fact in the past 5 months since her passing I have been more reflective than grief-stricken. What is the single most important thing I have done that has made my mother happy? I have been thinking. A doctoral degree from Princeton? A decent job at a Fortune 500 company? Nah. Surely these are the things that have made her proud of, but neither has made her happier than a family of my own, and soon after a child who transformed me into a mother. My mom was not just happy, she was ecstatic. Like any other mother, I imagine. It’s just that she had never overtly expressed it. So her. I can totally relate to it.
Through her action and my own experience, I have come to realize that motherhood is such a deliberate act, one that embodies intense love, empathy, patience, mindfulness, caring and giving. It can manifest in a wide range of emotions: joy, happiness, pride, awe, forgiveness, worry, disappointment, fear, anger and pain. To our children, we are essentially a commander-in-chief, a dictator, a friend, a cheerleader, a fan, a sympathizer and occasionally a partner-in-crime. Sometimes mothering is smooth sailing others storm impending, but ultimately it is belief beyond believing that defines a mother’s love.
I was a late bloomer—marrying late and giving birth late—not a grand gesture of my feminist side, I can assure you. In a culture that often puts a premium on families and children I was quite the exception rather than the norm. I am sure of it. I would belong to the league of “leftover women”—a term that often refers to a Chinese woman in her late 20s who is still single and unwed. Sigh. Luckily I moved far away during my prime reproductive years, and my love life was not subject to close scrutiny. But that didn’t make my mom’s worry for me go away. She probably worried more.
Every now and then when we spoke on the phone, my mom would casually bring up the topic of marriage with a “by the way…” I knew she was trying to get a progress report from me, but the conversation would always end with her saying “I know that special person is out somewhere. You are destined to meet him one day. Don’t sell yourself short.” That was her subtle way of nudging without pushing. I was sure she must be incredibly relieved when I was finally “domesticated” at age 38 and became a mother at age 40—39 ½ to be exact.
Ironically in many ways, my mothering was as much to mimic my mom as it was to break loose from her. Literally. It was comical and hilarious at the beginning. I remember the long list of “Dos and Don’ts” she had sent to me right before my son was born. All were rituals and customs about what a new mom was or was not supposed to do. After all they worked in her time and in my culture.
Rule No. 1: Only hot and warm food and drink; it will help your body recover faster–but I went straight for ice water and cold milk.
Rule No. 2: Stay in bed for the first 30 days; you will benefit from it for the rest of your life–but I started moving around as soon as I was discharged from hospital. I am still pretty healthy 11 years later.
Rule No. 3: Keep your baby indoors so he won’t catch cold or virus–but I walked everywhere in town with my son snuggled in a Baby Bjorn on my chest, and took him on subway rides to see his pediatrician in the city on a weekly basis. He was fine then and is fine now.
Rule No. 4: Drink Pig’s Feet and Peanut Soup everyday so that you will have enough milk pumped out—but after 2 days of milk drought catastrophe, my milk supply could feed a troop of army non-stop. So I didn’t drink that thick and rubbery soup for a month.
Rule No. 5: Swaddle your baby tightly so that he will have beautiful straight legs—I did swaddle my son in a teddy bear cotton blanket hand-made by my sister and mailed to me directly from China, but I did it to make my son feel safe as if he were still in my womb.
The list went on and on. My point is it was not my mom’s childrearing advice that made her so special to me, but her presence in my life. To know she was always there for me was a tremendous gift she has left to me till this day. It has inspired me to so want to be an anchor point in my son’s life, and to roll with the punches as a new mom. Through trial and error. Many times.
It sounds like a cliché to say this but it is true. It was not until my son was born had I realized motherhood could be this profoundly meaningful and the love for a person could be this intense, eliciting “tight chest, lump in the throat emotion” (beautifully said, Sally, and thank you!).
In the early days when he was a baby, I often woke up in the middle of the night consumed with all sorts of worries: Was he breathing? Was he well fed? Was my milk nutritious enough to help him grow? Why was he not crying? Was he on track with his developmental milestones? I would check on him again, again and again. In his toddler years, I watched in agony his intense separation anxiety: the big tears dripping down his cheeks, that it-can-melt-your-heart sweet but sad face, and those tiny wiggly fingers trying to reach for me. Was he happy? Was he fearful? Was he having fun? Was he making friends? Could he feel my love for him?
How I wish I had known back then whatever he was going through was completely age-appropriate! I remember sitting by the door of his pre-school classroom waiting anxiously but patiently for the right distraction to draw him in so that I could walk away confidently without feeling guilty. I remember the 3-to-4-page note I often wrote at the beginning of each school year to his new teachers: about what I had known of him as a mother—his likes, his fears, his habits, his routines, his love for trains, airplanes, Lego, puzzles, as well as the many trips we took as a family. All with one hope and one hope only–to have an early head start for the teachers to bond with him. How incredibly silly was that! Maybe it was. But deep down I knew that was the least I could do to help my young son cope with the anxiety he could face in a new situation.
Now eleven years down the road, my confidence in mothering has grown in parallel to my son’s confidence in himself. Still a quiet, sensitive, empathetic, creative and analytical gentle soul, he has grown more self-assured by leaps and bounds. Do I continue to worry about him? You bet I do. Well, maybe the old worries have gone away but new ones have kicked in. I still have these awakening nights with the same intense emotion worrying. In a world of high pressure and fierce competition, how can I help him not only reach but also build his potential? And to never stop dreaming? How can I nudge him gently without pushing him too hard? How can I help him understand it is OK to be him? And to take more risks without changing who he is? How can I ensure what he wants is not what I want him to want? How can I prepare him to cope with potential adversity without breaking his spirit?
Then I see my mom and her broad smile at me. In motherhood there is no epic failure but only epic love. Bask in his presence. Roll with the punches. Enjoy the ride. She is telling me.
Oh, the magical power of a mother’s love, endearing and enduring. Nothing to worry about. I am telling myself.