This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.
Every now and then, when I’m on the phone with my mom, I’ll mention something that I’m not looking forward to doing. Going to the DMV, perhaps, or needing to initiate a conversation that has the potential to be unpleasant.
My mother will respond: “Well, you just have to do it.”
“MOM,” I’ll say, rolling my eyes heavenward, immediately reverting to the 16-year-old version of myself. Obviously I have every intention of finding a dentist, I’ll say in a huff; I’m simply commenting that I’m not looking forward to it. I do not need to be reminded or convinced that it needs to be done.
“Okay,” she’ll say, in a way that I can’t quite read. Has she heard me? Does she really think that I’m considering not taking my car to the dealership for a safety recall? I don’t want to tell her that a more helpful response would be “Oh, that stinks” or “I don’t like doing that either.” She’s my Asian mom, after all, and I’m not sure how she would receive that kind of direction from anyone, let alone her child.
In hindsight, I think I subconsciously expected these conversations to increase after I had a baby. The world of new parenthood, I was told, was full of doing things that are tedious and unpleasant but need to be done anyway. I imagined that when I talked with my mom, three time zones away, about how I was doing, I would be hearing a lot more “Well, you just have to do its” and doing a lot more eye-rolling.
That I have yet to hear this refrain once, nine months in, is testament to how much has changed between us.
My mother is not a person you would describe as touchy-feely. It makes sense, given her history: She’s from a culture that has little tolerance for indulging one’s emotions — or even articulating them, really. Her own mother fled mainland China when the Communists took over — she was pregnant with her first child — and raised four kids mostly on her own while her husband, an army general, was away at his post. My mother came to this country as a young graduate student and worked her way up to full professor and chair of her department while raising two children, co-authoring over 100 publications, and co-founding a company on the side. One does not accomplish all of this if they’re easily sidelined by their feelings in the face of struggle. And she was not: Growing up, the one time I saw her cry was the morning she learned that her father had died after heart surgery in Taipei. We were in a hotel room in New York City; she was seated at the desk with her head in her hands, and I was lying in bed, peering at her over the comforter, uncertain how to give her privacy when our whole family occupied a single room. A few hours later, all four of us were riding the elevator to the top of the World Trade Center, our sightseeing plans unchanged. My mom was noticeably quiet and I’m sure she took in nothing of what we saw that day, but the fact remains that the greatest loss of her life to date didn’t stop her from taking her family to do what we had traveled to New York to do. Clearly, this is not a woman driven by her feelings; her feelings are in a suitcase in the trunk somewhere, to be released only on her terms, should they ever see the light of day. The phrase I most often use to describe her is ruthlessly practical, which might be the polar opposite of touchy-feely, and I’m only half-joking when I say it.
Don’t get me wrong: My mom is not a robot. She’s warm, kind, and generous, someone who smiles and laughs readily and often, who will always put out too much food when you visit. But not surprisingly, my mother and I have never had a relationship marked by long heart-to-heart conversations over steaming mugs of tea. Our relationship has always been good — she’s always wanted to know about my goings-on, and I’ve almost always been happy to share them with her; we’ve had countless long conversations about everything from colleges and majors to politics and celebrity gossip. Though we haven’t lived in the same time zone for over a decade, we’re consistently in touch through phone calls and emails and texts. But historically, if a boy broke my heart or some serious friend drama went down, she wasn’t the first person I would call. Or the second, or the third. It’s not just because she told me when I was eight that I wasn’t allowed to date until I was in college, though that certainly didn’t help; we just didn’t operate at that level. For those needs, I went to my girlfriends, who more than sufficed.
When my feelings did come up in conversation, I sometimes got the sense that she didn’t know what to do with them. I remember walking through the Diag one evening as a senior in college, telling her how much I loathed working on the thesis I had elected to do and how I wasn’t sure if I wanted to invest so much of my final year into it. “Just do it,” my mother replied, with more than a hint of exasperation in her voice. When she was a senior in college, she was preparing to move across the Pacific, to a country she had never seen, to get a PhD in a language she barely spoke. She did not have time for the angsty hand-wringing of her privileged second-generation daughter.
We had another iteration of that conversation years later, near the end of my graduate school career, when I told her that I didn’t like being a therapist and planned to leave the field after the graduation. “What are you going to do?” she asked, her voice marked by not sarcasm or shame but confusion. She and my father hadn’t had the option of disliking their fields of study; not only had they been assigned those fields based on their college entrance exam scores, but they were also immigrants in a country where they had no safety nets. They had to make their jobs work, emotions be damned. Entertaining feelings about their professions was a privilege they did not have. I, on the other hand — I had the luxury of these feelings, thanks to their hard work, and I had them in spades. I could practically see a DOES NOT COMPUTE screen flashing in my mother’s brain as it tried to make sense of my words.
So when it came time for me to have a baby, these were the kinds of responses I was expecting. I knew my mom would be a fantastic grandmother — she loves babies, babies love her, and she had been dying to join all of her friends in the grandparent ranks — but I was less sure how she would be with me.
She and my father came to visit for a month after the baby was born; she was a ruthlessly practical godsend. She did not ask for permission to help or suggestions for how she could be useful — she just went to work, cooking multiple meals a day for my husband and me, finding a mop and cleaning our kitchen floor, sparing us the energy of having to ask for anything or provide instructions. (It was one of the few occasions in my life when my family’s relative lack of boundaries was a gift.) When those tasks were done, she held and cooed at her grandson, which made her the happiest I’d ever seen her. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for her presence and everything she did that the mere thought of her leaving would bring me to tears — a rarity, as I am my mother’s daughter. Our farewell at the airport was the soggy mess of Lifetime movies. This was unusual, to say the least, but I wasn’t sure if something had shifted in our relationship or if this was all simply the result of the hormones coursing through my veins.
On one of our first phone calls after she left, I told her that the baby had started spontaneously shrieking at night. “It might be gas, but I can’t be sure,” I said, listing off all the ways I could try to alleviate a problem whose cause was anyone’s guess. I knew that a “Well, that’s just the way it is” response was possible, but this issue was taking up a significant amount of my headspace, and she was perhaps the only person in the world who cared about my son’s bowels as much as my husband and I did. I braced myself for the kind of unintentionally unsupportive answer I had come to expect.
But instead, on the other end of the line, I heard a sigh. “It’s frustrating,” she said. “You don’t know why he’s doing this, and you can only use trial and error to see if anything helps.”
I literally stopped in my tracks. A validating and empathetic response? Who was this? What happened to my mother, queen of the don’t-think-don’t-feel-just-do school of thought?
And that response proved not to be a fluke; almost every time I’ve told her about something parenting-related that’s been challenging or frustrating, she hasn’t rushed to offer solutions or indirectly told me just to deal with it. She’s listened, she’s sympathized, she’s shared similar stories from her experience. After decades of talking about everything but our feelings (and fumbling with them when they occasionally surfaced), she’s handling mine with aplomb, in ways that my old clinical psychology professors would approve.
I’m not entirely sure what caused the change. Maybe it’s because after 32 years of wildly different experiences, we finally have one in common. As engaged as she’s been in my life up to this point, she hasn’t been able to fully relate to being the only Asian kid in class or high school dances or feeling ambivalent about research. The transcendence and exhaustion of motherhood, though — that she knows intimately.
Maybe it’s because she’s learned how to be a better listener. Her friends, all grandparents themselves, advised her to approach this new phase of life not as an expert but as a helpful support. Perhaps she took their wisdom to heart.
Maybe it’s because I’m giving her more of a chance to support me. Not unlike the woman who raised me, I tend to keep a lid on things that trip me up, but now that my life is a neverending stream of new experiences and second-guessing, I don’t have much else to talk about. Perhaps she’s seeing these opportunities and rising to the occasion.
Maybe it’s because we both love this little person so profoundly, in a way that few others do, and that shared love has allowed us to connect on the deeper level that eluded us before. I suppose it makes sense that our love for this child would bring us together in a way that, say, my dissertation or our shared fascination with the royal family could not.
Maybe it’s because having a grandchild has changed her. A few months after he was born, I got an email from her that ended with this: “I found my productivity is low lately. Then I just realized that I spent so much time looking at the baby’s pictures and videos. This little guy really captures our hearts.” Maybe this baby isn’t just the kryptonite to her workaholism, previously undaunted for decades; maybe he’s also allowed her to access her feelings in ways that she didn’t or couldn’t before.
Maybe it’s because having a baby changed me, so that I have a far deeper understanding and appreciation for the work of mothering a child, and I want to talk about it with the one person I think might understand it too.
Whatever the reason, this change in our relationship has been the biggest surprise of parenthood so far. I wasn’t thrown by the depth or intensity of my love for my son, nor the depth or intensity of my sleep deprivation; though I couldn’t know exactly what those things would feel like in advance, I had been given ample warning. But little did I know that the greatest surprise of motherhood would not lie in my newest relationship. It would be in my oldest.