It’s Complicated…with My Mother
My mother’s love comes with silent but strong messages that I should not be too happy or fulfilled because she wasn’t.
I vividly remember one argument between my parents when I was in middle school. My mother wanted to ballroom dance as a hobby and my father was insecure about it and forbade her. She told him he was welcomed to come with her if he was jealous, but he refused. I watched this spiral into a huge argument between them while I sat on the black leather couch in the living room. I witnessed my mother cry in the middle of a car ride while she wailed that my father was controlling and repressive. I was old enough to comprehend the argument and felt my father was being unreasonable. I could see how trapped my mother felt. I saw the suffering my mother endured and thought the problem and solution were obvious. My inner child thought I was the only one who could “save” my mother. This isn’t true, but I carried the belief for many years afterward.
It is fourteen years later. I was sitting in a car with one of my best friends. We had just had some ice cream on the boardwalk after dinner. I just cried to her (in public) about how terribly my parents treat each other. We were having one of those goodbye conversations that was supposed to last five minutes but became an hour instead. My best friend lost her mother at a young age. Although mine is still alive, I realized I was missing so much mothering from her that she was essentially absent. It hit me that my friend and I were like sisters, both missing emotionally available and nurturing mothers. We both suffered “mother wounds.”
The mother wound is the pain of being a woman passed down from one generation to another. It is a set of oppressive patterns and beliefs which cause women to sabotage themselves and put limits on their growth. It shows up in the words that mothers say and don’t say to their daughters. It is communicated in how mothers treat their daughters, whether they stand up for them and cheer them on or tell them to be quiet in the face of displeasure from family members, especially male family members. It is the message being sent to daughters when mothers make choices to be financially independent or rely solely on their spouse. It is a message about how much value daughters have and whether daughters have permission to do as they wish or must conform to societal expectations.
These messages were communicated loudly to me in how my mother expected me to live my life around her. My mother has made it clear that she prefers I live close to her and see her once a week. She expects to live with me and my husband and children when she reaches old age. Because cultural expectations pressure me to live this way as well and because I am prone to emotional caretaking and harbor ideas of “saving” my mother, it was a big internal struggle for me to go against her wishes and tell her I have no intention of meeting her expectations.
My mother asks me when I was moving back into her neighborhood frequently. A heavy feeling of guilt weighed on me for many months when I made clear I had no intention of doing so. I knew she was asking because she missed me and was deathly afraid of being abandoned in her old age. I reassured her that I intend to take care of her when she reaches the age of needing it, but I am not uprooting my life because she has fears of the future. I felt guilty again when my mother asked if I would return home to attend a wedding in her family and I said no because it significantly disrupted my work schedule. It took me a while, but I finally accepted that I would have to disappoint my mother in many regards to birth the life I genuinely want to live.
My reluctance to disappoint my mother kept me held back for many months when I was attempting to create my own life far away from her. The inner child in me was still waiting for her approval of my choice to create a fulfilling life for myself both in love and my career. I know this approval will never come and my mother will likely be opposing me the entire time I am choosing my own life. I had to overcome the internal notion that I owed my mother my life and that I was “betraying” her by living a fuller and happier life than she had. Only recently have I felt safe enough to step out of her shadow and express that I have my own needs and emotions as a whole person — that my mother’s preferences are second to my own. Only recently have I been brave enough to celebrate myself and to be vulnerably seen.
This became evident to me during one of my recent birthday parties. Ahead of the party, a critical inner voice piped up in my head, “I am not important. Not many of my friends will come to my birthday party. They probably didn’t take the time to organize a gift for me.” None of this was true, of course. My friends did remember me and treated me to a great birthday celebration. It was the inner child in me that was used to being overlooked by my parents while they were caught up in their arguments that expressed these fears. It was the part of me that lacked confidence and felt I didn’t deserve to have my needs met. I realized how out of place and disparaging these comments were and brought them up in therapy. I worked with my therapist to reframe this inner critic into an inner cheerleader: “I am an important part of my friend’s lives just like they are an important part of my life.”
Patriarchal cultural expectations are one of the root causes of mother wounds, as evidenced by my father’s suppression of my mother’s social life. Society tells women: don’t be so bold or loud, and don’t have so much fun or be happy. These messages are passed on between mothers and daughters and absorbed from the media. While shopping for summer dresses, my friend picked out a floor-length, glittering gold dress for me. It was beautiful and matched my skin tone perfectly. My first thought upon seeing it was, “This dress is too elegant. I could never pull it off.” I found the oppressive messages from patriarchal society in my head. Luckily, my friend convinced me to buy it. Wearing the dress regularly has become an act of embracing my feminine side and not shying away from dressing in my full glory!
My mother and grandmother have no notion of resisting patriarchal stereotypes and only reinforce them at home. If they had seen me in the gold dress, they would think I must be “whoring” myself. They would try to shame me out of wearing such a dress with undercutting comments. My mother would never dress this nicely herself; she generally wears mismatched and old clothing. I believe this behavior is a result of her traumas from being a refugee and discrimination as a Chinese ethnic minority in Vietnam. It has engendered her scarcity mindset and low self-esteem. She passes on the same mindset to me, not realizing how restrictive it is for me to hear.
My mother’s years of constant criticism has left me traumatized. I have not fully healed even after one year of therapy. In a critical tone, she often told me, “There must be something wrong with you if you don’t behave a certain way and have a certain preference.” It happened so many times that my body has associated critical tones with being attacked. I have mini anxiety attacks when I hear aggressive Chinese being spoken. It triggers the shamed, humiliated, and fearful five-year-old child in me who was verbally attacked and not able to stand up for herself.
Despite working with my therapist to re-frame the critical inner voices in my head, I still have tapes inside my head criticizing me, sometimes repeating the same negative comment ten times a day. I realized how vicious the critical inner voices in my head were when I read this apt description: imagine the critical inner voice as a person talking to you from the outside. Now spend a day with such a person. You eventually realize you must get as far away from this person as possible because they scare you and have a huge negative impact on you. I purposefully put physical distance between me and my mother’s criticisms to protect myself. Now, I realize I must do the same between myself and the critical voice that sounds like her in my head.
I am certain my mother and grandmother have suffered from their mother wounds. Both women have been subjected to strong patriarchal stereotypes reinforced by their fathers, husbands, and sons. In my grandmother’s suffering, she relied on my parents to help her cope with her pain. She demanded very much from my parents including favors and tasks and made judgmental comments about my mother’s parenting skills and suitability as a daughter-in-law. This often caused arguments between my parents. My mother was often uncontrollably jealous of the energy my father spent on his mother. In this way, I felt my grandmother sucked up a great deal of my parents’ energy and emotionally stole them from me. Perhaps if my mother was able to spend more of her limited emotional energy on me when I needed comfort and advice, I would not feel so emotionally neglected.
I wasn’t able to develop an inner sense of safety in my turbulent family environment. For my whole life, I have lived with a low underlying sense of anxiety and hypervigilance. I have to constantly remind myself not to jump to the worst-case scenario whenever faced with uncertainty. I have had to tell myself repeatedly: “I am safe. Nothing will happen to me. I will always be safe; I will always have many people around me who love me and will always have someone who will be there when I need them.” This lack of safety prevented me from being spontaneous and was the root of my trust issues in relationships.
My lack of safety made me regard being happy as stupid and useless for many years. I was unconsciously turned off to happy and carefree people and decided spending my time on “productive” economic activities was more worthwhile. It took me a long time to realize that there is nothing greedy or stupid about happiness. Being able to just spend time with friends and loved ones pursuing activities such as board games, painting, picnicking, raising a pet, sunbathing, having a bath with candles and wine during weekends and holidays are pleasures I deserve to have. On the last day of one such carefree vacation, a powerful wave of grief hit me when I realized my parents would never allow themselves to experience the same level of leisure.
I have learned holding out hope for my mother to change and remaining in an unfulfilled state only leads to anxiety. Years of this habit led me to develop an anxious attachment style. If only my parents would change and meet my emotional needs, I’d be fine. That’s what I told myself. The perpetual state of emotional hunger became my normal state. It led me to pick partners who were emotionally unavailable like my mother until I recognized this pattern of unfulfillment and how it caused me to become obsessively anxious. I made a change. Instead of choosing partners using the instincts of the traumatized five-year-old inside me, I chose partners using the instincts of the woman in her thirties inside me who understood what ingredients were needed in healthy relationships. I began to identify and find emotionally available partners. I discovered a world of calm I had never experienced before.
There are days when I wish I had an emotionally available mother to talk to about the difficulties I’m facing. It is very painful to accept that I will always be missing a mother-figure while other daughters have emotionally available mothers they can talk to every day. I am disappointed every time I get on the phone with my mother expecting warm advice and instead find a panicked voice telling me to make myself smaller to avoid threatening others. I found the best way to get what I need is to find other mother-figures to go to for motherly advice, and only expect an emotionally shallow relationship with my mother. My mother does her best to meet my physical needs like food which is what I can expect and appreciate from her.
I still feel a pang of anger when I see other women’s great relationships with their mothers. I feel I am missing an important element of nurturing when I hear of professionally successful mothers giving guidance to their daughters and breaking down patriarchal stereotypes. When I think of my mother though, I feel compassion. She has experienced unimaginable trauma and did not receive a high level of education growing up in Vietnam. It is unrealistic for me to expect someone from her background to be able to push back against centuries-old patriarchal forces. She would certainly not be able to teach her daughter to do so. I am lucky to be born in a country and time when I can recognize patriarchal stereotypes and access resources to combat them, as well as understand how these patriarchal forces have translated into oppressive messages from my mother. I am strong enough to have the courage to resist these messages and realize my full potential and dreams with a mindset of abundance and wealth.