모녀 ‘mo-nyuh’: mother & daughter

The love you immediately feel for your child is entirely foreign and completely natural at the very same time. A similar tension seems to bleed into a lot of what it takes to raise a baby based on my very short experience so far.

Sleepless nights, which in any other circumstance would render me useless, leave me energized and ready to take care of anything and everything my darling baby Chloe asks for.

My ever deepening relationship with Chloe currently comes at the cost of time with others and for myself.

The joy and pride I feel as I see her thrive is coupled with the suffocating sadness I feel that she is not as tiny as she was when we brought her home from the hospital.

The excitement I feel as she grows comes with a shadow of incredible anxiety that I will not be able to meet her evolving needs.

When we first met Chloe in the delivery room, my heart burst as I felt myself drowning in the love I felt for this beautiful little stranger. I laughed and cried simultaneously as I felt the miracle of loving someone so deeply, so immediately.

As she lay on top of me, my husband, my mother and I looked at each other through blurry, tear-filled eyes, holding hands, staring at Chloe and trying to process the fact that all of our dreams for the past 40 weeks were now real.

Chloe started moving her little head around and puckering her lips all over me. It felt like she was kissing me all over and I could not stop giggling saying,

“She’s kissing me! She’s kissing me all over. I love her. I love her so much.”

The nurse let us have this moment, but soon suggested I breastfeed her, informing me that Chloe was actually looking for my nipple to start feeding.

Okay, maybe they weren’t all kisses, but there definitely were some mixed in.

While breastfeeding seems like it should be a beautifully intuitive experience, it’s actually pretty confusing, painful and exhausting at first. Luckily, Chloe had a great latch and was not fussy about it. She did her part well. However, your body doesn’t actually produce milk for about 48 hours after birth. While you wait, new mamas produce something called colostrum. Often referred to as “liquid gold,” colostrum is a goldish, thick liquid that is packed with nutrients.

“One drop of colostrum is enough to keep your newborn’s belly full for hours,” the nurses told me.

I believed them at first but as we moved into day two postpartum, Chloe’s initial birth weight dropped as she lost the water weight she retained from the womb. This was all expected and normal, but it was hard to fight the feeling of inadequacy since I was her only food source.

When the lactation consultant visited our postpartum room, I anxiously threw questions at her about about effective ways to feed Chloe as much as I could. My mother jumped in as well and asked,

“Do you have suggestions for what we should do when Diana’s milk comes in and how to best handle the pain? When I had her, my husband had to massage my breasts when this happened, but just curious if you had other recommendations.”

The lactation consultant looked confused and responded in a polite but subtly condescending manner.

“Hm… that likely won’t happen.”

“What won’t?” I asked.

“Pain. There won’t be pain sweetheart, don’t worry.”

She then shifted to focus her eyes and voice only towards me, removing my mother from the conversation, as she continued to provide recommendations.

This shift towards me was one that I had become quite familiar with growing up as an immigrant child. While interacting with my mother and other adults such as teachers, bus drivers, grocery store clerks, pharmacy staff, etc., a similar exchange of happened quite frequently. I felt the familiar embarrassment and acknowledged the lactation consultant’s behavior with tacit agreement and shut my mom out of the conversation as I had so many times during my childhood thinking,

Um-ma please be quiet.

Of course there’s the universal “My parents are so embarrassing” phenomenon that happens for many children, immigrant or not. But, as an immigrant child I had to overcome not only generational gaps, but also cultural ones. I was often translating English to Korean or Korean to English on topics I hardly understood.

While it was just a lot of work to play the adult at times, the bigger struggle was protecting the respect I had for my mother when she often seemed less knowledgeable than other adults. Every adult outside our home looked and talked like the ones I saw on TV and in movies, so they all seemed much more legitimate. If my mom ever suggested something that was different than someone else, I just assumed she was wrong.

In kindergarten she taught me how to tie my shoelaces. She taught me the bunny-ear method, two loops and cross one over the other. I went to school and showed my teacher, Mrs. Ward. She applauded me. She then also showed me another way “for fun,” which required just one loop.

“Now you know two ways!,” she exclaimed.

Instead of feeling excited at my multifaceted shoelace tying abilities, I just felt embarrassed. The bunny-ear method did not seem right anymore. I held back tears until I got on the school bus home. My mom eagerly waited for me at the stop as she always had, waving and smiling at me as I got off. I still remember trying to hide my tears, but she knew I was upset. I told her what happened and asked her,

Um-ma, why did you teach me the wrong way?”

“There is no wrong way, there are many different ways to tie your shoe. As long as it holds your shoes together, it’s okay.”

I didn’t believe her. I never used the bunny-ear method again, even though it was so much easier than the one loop method for me at the time.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love my mother. She is beautiful, strong, a lifelong hustler, full of energy, passion and love. I never doubted this in my heart, but it was often difficult to remember because of all the cultural differences. And, while some cultural differences were harmless (e.g., shoelaces), some found me on a beer run at age 10, getting questioned by the cashier about my parents, because my mother didn’t realize that there is an age minimum to purchase alcohol in the US. Although not always required, I maintained an air of caution when it came to things my mother suggested.

As soon as we got home from the hospital, my mother started to cook and feed me an endless amount of mi-yeok gook or seaweed soup. In Korean culture, mi-yeok gook is the main entree for a postpartum mother for the first 100 days after giving birth. Throughout her pregnancy, a woman’s bones primarily in pelvic and hip area temporarily expand to prepare room for baby’s entry into the world. Korean culture states that it takes 100 days postpartum for bones to return to their original place in the body. So 100 days after a baby’s birth is celebrated not only as a big milestone for baby but also for mom. During these 100 days, new moms should avoid prolonged exposure to cold things (i.e., fridge, wintery air, ice, cold water, etc.) and eat warm things (i.e., soups, broths, etc.). The primary “warm thing” to eat is this mi-yeok gook because seaweed has nutrients that are thought to help rejuvenate the new mother’s body and help with her milk supply.

Seems pretty legit, right?

However, because not a single nurse or lactation consultant mentioned a word about seaweed soup, I was skeptical. Outside of the soup, everything she suggested I questioned and asked her to Google to confirm. For example, even though she was an amazing swaddler, I double checked her handiwork because she didn’t know the word “swaddle,” as it’s called bo-de-gi in korean. It wasn’t until my husband continually praised her for her amazing swaddling technique that I finally trusted her. My mother grew frustrated at my doubting everything she was saying and it became an emotionally strained situation for us. My doubting reached an all-time high postpartum because now it could impact not only me, but my daughter, and I did not want to risk a “beer run at 10” situation.

Then, it happened.

My breasts became incredibly hard and painful. This was more excruciating than any contraction I felt (caveat: I got an epidural at 5 cm) or any other labor or pregnancy related pain. It felt like both breasts were on fire from the inside and the shape of them resembled Madonna’s cone bras in the 80’s. When this pain started, my mother got right down to business, massaging me, using warm compresses to relieve the pain.

Now I know what was happening is called engorgement. This happens when all your initial milk comes in and your milk ducts become inflamed from the sudden activity. At this point, the last thing I wanted to do was have Chloe nurse because of how tender everything felt. I resisted and screamed as my mom told me that’s what I needed to do. I relented out of sheer exhaustion. Then almost immediately Chloe’s suckling lead to the sweet relief I had been looking for. It felt like scratching a mosquito bite a bit too hard; with the added joy that unlike a bug bite that you’re not supposed to scratch, this was the right thing to do. As she suckled, everything softened and the pain disappeared.

Um-ma was right all along. The lactation consultant was dead wrong.

After I fed her, I passed out feeling at peace physically but emotionally sour over how guilty I felt about doubting my mother at all costs. When I woke up a few hours later, I found my mother sitting with Chloe on her chest, with lullaby music playing from her phone, tears streaming down her face.

“I am so happy… she loves music just like you did. You’re lucky to have a daughter as sweet as mine.”

I realized then that while I was obsessively caring for my daughter, my mother was doing the same for hers.

Sarang eun meet uh loh heul un dah. Love flows downwards.

It’s a korean saying that I understood intellectually before, but was able to physically breathe in at that moment. It alludes to the bittersweet truth that once children actually realize the extent of how much their parents love them, there isn’t enough time to give it all back, so instead this love is poured down onto their own children.

Chloe’s birth and my postpartum weeks were as much a chapter in my mother’s life story as it was in mine. Perhaps it was an even more significant chapter in some ways because it was a reprise. A rare beginning when most things are winding down.

Once my mother flew home to New York, all I craved and ate was mi-yeok gook. Thankfully she made and froze a 100 day supply for me to defrost daily. Even more thankfully she ignored me when I told her not to do that. I called to tell her this.

Um-ma, all I want to eat is mi-yeok gook now.”

“I should have left sooner,” she joked.

We laughed together. I missed her so terribly at that moment, I took a breath to avoid crying. She didn’t speak either so I wonder if she was doing the same. I changed topics to Chloe.

Um-ma, I think it’s basically impossible to show Chloe how much I love her.”

My mother answered, “I know.”

If you felt something while reading, remember to click the heart button below.

Originally published on my blog: the rose gold.