My Upbringing with(out) My Mom

I grew up without a mom. I have a mom, but she was absent. If she wasn’t sleeping, she would leave home for a week or a month at a time. Don’t ask me where she went. I have no idea. When we lived in Taiwan, we relied on Mcdonald’s and favors from extended family for meals. That’s why I couldn’t describe much about what Taiwanese food was like when I moved back to the US in 2002. I grew up on McDonald’s.

By nature, my mom is a free spirit. She is goofy and lively. She loves attention and is always the life of the party. She loves meeting new people and loves large gatherings. She can strike up conversations with strangers and become best buddies with them. My mom was the envy of other moms because of her lively personality. She always wore fashionable clothes and got fashionable haircuts–she was never afraid to express herself through experiment with her looks. She’s artistic in her fashion style, she lives through music and dance, and she is also creative in the kitchen, where she can cook up everything amazing. I’ve always thought that she is the most beautiful and in her element when she is creating new dishes. But as fun as she is as a person, she wasn’t a good mom. We didn’t get to see her a lot until we moved back to the US in 2002 when she had no choice but to stay home. Before that, she was more fiction than real. When we were in Taiwan, my sibling who wasn’t even six yet at the time, would turn on the entryway light before going to bed just in case mom came home that night.

Before I had the mom who would not come home at night, I had a mom who was always sleeping. In 1992, my dad quit his job at IBM to pursue something different in Taiwan, leaving my mom alone in the US with three kids (ages 1, 4, and 7). One of my female cousins stayed with us during this time to attend our local high school and was able to help out, but looking back, she was only 14 and was already changing my brother’s diapers. I don’t remember anything about my mom during this time, except for the fact that she was always in bed. When she wasn’t in bed, it felt off seeing her roam around in the house. Looking back, she was probably depressed. Being in a foreign land, raising three young children by herself is no small feat.

My mom was physically around, but not emotionally. My underwhelming lunches were a symbol of my mom’s disassociation with motherhood. I had an old-school, pink barbie doll lunch box. The rectangle kind that had a metal latch. There were days when my entire lunch box would consist of a boney drumstick wrapped in foil, or a lonely egg wrapped in foil. It was a sight to see the egg roll around in the empty box. I was embarrassed when I compared my lunch with my classmates’ lunches that included sandwiches and fruits and snacks, or even chicken noodle soup. I had a good rapport with the janitor at the school. Some days when looked sad and hungry, he would ask the lunch lady to give me a free lunch. One time, I was hungry and didn’t have food, so I stayed back in the classroom after everyone had left to the cafeteria to go through my classmates’ backpacks to steal change to buy lunch.

My mom didn’t show us that she loved us. There were days in elementary school in the US when I missed the school bus and had to walk to school by myself. It was little over a mile but it felt like a long way for a young child. In fourth grade in Taiwan, we sang a song about mothers in music class for mother’s day. The lyrics compared a mother’s love to the moon that watches over us with warmth and guidance. I cried for a mother that didn’t match the description. I cried for the sadness I felt when seeing daughters holding hands with their mothers. That night, I told my mom about the song and how it made me feel. Her response we defensive, “that’s because you feel sorry for not being a good daughter to me.” I felt that I was not understood.

My mom never showed us physical affection nor complimented us. We never hugged, but one day, a family friend brought over her little daughter who was probably three years old. My mom squatted down to meet the child’s height and hugged her while complimenting about how cute she was. I didn’t even know how to react to that scene because that was a side of our mother that I’d never seen nor experienced.

My mom wasn’t there when my body started to change. When puberty started and I grew breasts, my paternal aunt was the one who took me to get my first training bra. When I got my period, my mom found out but did nothing about it. I didn’t have pads. I cut out plastic bags to tape onto my underwear and rolled up toilet paper as the padding.

Because she was rarely there when we were growing up, I never connected with her on a deeper level. We did try in 2010 though when I was in Chicago and my sibling had gone off to college in NYC. At this point, my mom was living alone with my brother who is the youngest amongst the three of us. I called my mom every day on my drive home from work. The thirty minutes we shared on those days were ones that I looked forward to each day. We kept this up for at least 8 months before she moved back to Taiwan, but once she moved, our communication completely ended. The next time I could reach her was at least 6 months later. I felt abandoned all over again, also betrayed because the last eight months felt like a lie. I felt she only talked to me because she had nothing else to do.

I was resentful of my mom for a long time because of her absence in our lives, because of the negative mindset she passed onto us, because we continue to have challenges communicating. I cope with this by keeping our interactions to a minimum so that I don’t get angry at her or her at me. Right now, in this moment though, I don’t feel the resentment I had held onto for so long. This is a recent change, and it didn’t dissipate until I put myself into her shoes, imagining what life must have been like for her. She had all three of us by the time she was 35. I am 35 now and I feel that I have just begun to have a clearer picture of who I am, and I feel that I still have so much to learn and grow and experience in life for myself.

I see that she must have been struggling internally and dealing with emotions and conflicts that made it hard for her to be present as a mother. Perhaps she was struggling with her marriage–my parents fought a lot. Perhaps having children for her wasn’t something she really wanted but was expected of her. Perhaps she didn’t have the support she needed to raise her children. Perhaps, because she was raised in a wealthy family by maids and help, she didn’t have strong role models to emulate when she became a parent. Perhaps she mourned for a life she could have had and still wanted to continue to live that life even if it was frowned upon, even if it meant being an absent wife and mother. I have all these questions now, but I won’t know the real story until she is ready to share.

Even though she wasn’t around a lot, there still are some fond and appreciated memories. My mom took me to all my lessons––piano, violin, ballet. The drives to violin class were at least 45 minutes long each way and we always drove at night. After class, my mom would drive us through Mcdonald’s and buy me a Big Mac. I loved the moments when I would kneel on the floor of the last row of our Toyota minivan, using the seat as my table, and devour the burger. When I performed at concerts for violin, my mom and I would arrive early and she would have vocabulary and grammar workbooks with her for me to practice during the downtime. I still remember the characters in the workbooks, such as Al the Alligator. Although homework isn’t fun, those were rare moments when we spent time together. When I received a Pizza Hut reward for a free single-person pizza through school, my mom always would drive me to claim my prize. Those moments made me happy.

When we moved to Taiwan, my mom also would commute an hour with me on the Mass Rapid Transit system to get lessons from a renowned piano teacher. The journey was long, but she made the time and invested the money in me to do so. When we stayed at hotel rooms while on vacation, my mom somehow figured out how to wake up early, and would wake us up by wiping a warm washcloth over our faces. Those are happy moments of when we seemed like a perfect family. Another moment from Taiwan was from when we first moved there. I was born and raised in the US until 1994. When we moved back, even though I was able to have basic conversations in Chinese, I didn’t read that well. I had to repeat third grade instead of moving onto fourth grade because of it. My mom would spend nights reading with me as I followed along the texts. Her reading with me helped me pick up the characters much faster and I was able to catch up to my grade level within a month.

I tried to think about learnings from these memories, but all I can think of are actions that I can take to improve my relationship with my mom. To be honest, the feelings of anger come and go depending on how I’m feeling in a particular moment. Perhaps you have some ideas for me instead. Please share in the comments if you do!

  • Forgive My Mom. My mom has her shortcomings but she never aspired to be an absent mom. Parenting is not an easy task and we’ve turned out okay. My mom shows love in her own way. One of the ways is through food, and we see that whenever we are able to get together. Holding onto the past with resentment is not going to help improve our relationship. I’m sure she tried her best with the emotional capacity she had.
  • Be Compassionate. I don’t know what was truly going on in her life. I suspect that as a free spirit who got married and had children because it was the expectation of her family and society, she had trouble reconciling with who she is and what she had. My mom is human after all. Whatever it is, I should approach it with empathy and compassion.
  • Be Courageous and Open with Vulnerability. As I was thinking about this post, I messaged my mom who lives in Taiwan, “I used to feel resentment toward you because you weren’t home when we were growing up. But lately I’ve been thinking that maybe you were going through struggles internally that made it hard for you to be there. Would you share what raising us was like? What struggles did you have to go through? I appreciate you a lot and want to understand your story.”

    I have never asked something so personal and open to my mom and her response was a positive surprise to me. She thanked me for raising this specific topic and that she will be more than happy to share with me when the timing is right. Being courageous also means that I need to be willing to share how it was for me and my siblings growing up without her and how it had affected us. How it’s made us not want to have children because they may suffer, or how our self-esteems have been affected because she had nothing positive to say about us.

What we see is often just how someone else’s behavior impacts or have impacted us, but we forget that there probably is a story behind each of our actions. I hope one day soon, I can hear these stories from my mom. She called me the other day sharing with me other stories from her childhood. I intend to keep the conversation going so I can eventually get to how raising the three of us was for her.

Thank you for reading.