In my life time, I’ve heard my mother cry once.
It was in the middle of the night, right after another one of their evening shouting matches. These had become so frequent that my brother and I learned to fall asleep to her shrill tones and his muted replies.
I was woken up by my father. He tugged on my arm and whispered for me to change places with him. He told me he’d sleep in my room and that I was to go sleep in their bed with my mother. Sleepily, I obeyed.
Their bedroom was dark. The shape of my mother took up the far side of the bed. I crawled into my father’s side and tried to sleep… but couldn’t. I was afraid. The anger and resentment still hung heavy in this space they shared.
So I just rigidly lay there, hoping sleep would come. I wondered how many times my father had lain in this same spot, hoping for the same. I tried to will sleep to come by forcing my breathing to slow, relaxing my limbs.
And that’s when I heard my mother sob. She tried to stifle it, wanting not to wake me. The mattress beneath my body shook with her pain. I froze. I have never heard my mother cry before.
My image of my mother is of Constant Anger and Resentful Hatred. Our home is occupied by her daily discontent and tantrums. Going to school was the escape. In my child’s mind, my Mother was the evil Dragon Queen, the Blue Beard, Hansel and Gretel’s evil step mother who convinced her husband to leave them for dead in the woods.
So to witness the Monster in my own version of a fairy tale actually sob from pain and sadness–I froze. I did nothing.
If I was a sweeter child, a kinder child, I might have rolled close to her and try to hold her. I might have cuddled up against her and told her that I love her. But the cold, terrified kid I was, I did nothing. I felt pained hearing her cry, as most people would seeing a family member in pain, but at the same time, I didn’t want to cross that invisible line.
My mother has an invisible boundary to keep intimacy out. I have never seen her give or receive intimacy from anyone. Not from our father, not even from her sisters. She kept everyone at arms length. I know she must have held us as babies, but I have no memories her holding us behind what was necessary.
My father was a different story. I remember my father holding us in bear hugs so tight that we screamed that we were being crushed. I remember feeling my father’s love for us being squeezed into our being and I remember feeling safe, even though we almost couldn’t breathe.
So I did nothing. For years I held on to that memory. I excused myself from feeling guilty by telling myself that my mother wouldn’t have wanted any comfort. I told myself that I respected the wall of resentment she erected against us.
The truth is, I missed the opportunity of a life time. Had I ignored my fears of being turned away or rebuked and just comforted her, my mother might be a different person now. She might have felt less alone in all those years. She might have come to understand that the children she didn’t want to have were actually good things to have in her life. She might have had a few less resentments to live with for the rest of her years.
I don’t really know what made me write all this here. Once I got into a long term relationship and had my first “cry to sleep” night because of an argument with a partner… I started thinking about that moment more and more. I remember feeling so alone, so sad, and just wanting someone to understand. And I wondered if that’s how my mother felt. I start seeing my mother and her life in a different way; not as My Mother the Monster, but as just another person I might know as a friend.
I saw all the struggles she had. The endless days being stuck at home with two babies, wanting to return to work but being told by her husband that she could not. Losing all of her friends and being cut off from the outside world. Being a stay at home mom was different for her; she didn’t have a car. She couldn’t have been able to go far with two babies on foot. Just strapping us in baby strollers to walk to the market was enough work, how could she have gone to visit friends?
I think of how alone my mother must have felt, as a 30-something year old mother of 2 young children. Now that I’m closer to her age back then, it’s become easier and easier for me to relate.
I’m not my mother. I know I’m not. I’m a happy person. I used to wonder if my mother had once been a happy person and life simply took that from her; but thanks to her sisters being too chatty with me, I know she wasn’t. She had been an angry child, an angry teen, and an angry young woman. She’s been angry her whole life.
Just a couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to put all these things down in words. I was afraid of writing about her. I still am a little afraid to write about it, fearing that I’d see bits of her in myself.
But now I can say… we do share similarities. We’re both loud. We both like to argue. We both fear intimacy. But we are also different. I’m a happy, easy-going person. I let go of resentments. I move on. I know that I don’t have to live my life according to someone else’s wishes.
My sunny outlook on life, my freedom to live as I want; this is thanks to my mother. She saw the kind of kid I was, and she saw how the strict social environment in Taiwan in the 80’s and 90’s would have crushed me–just as how it probably crushed her in the 60’s–and she took us all to Canada. What a Taiwanese school teacher called “willful and un-lady-like”, a Canadian school teacher saw as “imaginative”.
Whether I would have turned out like my mother if I had grown up in a similar social climate, I can’t say for sure. But I can say that despite my mother being the “Monster” in my childhood, her decisions ultimately gave me the best chance to grow up a happy person, and that’s something I can never thank her enough for.