I hated my mom before I loved her.
I love my mom dearly, but it wasn't always that way. This Mother's Day, I don't get to see her, but it gives me some time to reflect on our relationship and how it's come to be what it is now.
My mother is human. I often forget that, and it made me unable to appreciate her complexities as I grew up. As a little Asian kid growing up in Culver City surrounded by no other Vietnamese people, I always thought my mom was weird at best and a raging tyrant at her worst. She's a pretty energetic and entertaining person in a group setting, and her antics always made people laugh. However, as a kid, you never want your parent to be the one who stands out. You just want them to be a "normal" parent like all the others. Like the ones on TV. When your classmates ask you why your mom is doing this weird thing (like randomly bear hugging your teacher) or that strange thing (like making little shrieks of joy during a conversation), it sort of makes you want to shrink and go hide in a hole. Kids can obviously be pretty short-sighted and mean. I'll be honest though. I let those things influence my impression of her, and I was embarrassed and ashamed of her at times as a kid. I didn't really appreciate her or see her for all aspects of her as a person, only what I thought mattered to the public eye.
"We never hugged. She never kissed me."
Behind closed doors, she was your typical Tiger mom. Academically, she pushed me hard and taught me math lessons ahead of what we were doing in class. I hated it at the time, but I didn't truly see what she was trying to do for me. From an emotional and psychological standpoint, she didn't do as well. I know parenting doesn't come with a guidebook, and a lot of what she did was instilled from her childhood as well as cultural norms. However, it still really screwed me up for a while. I don't know how affectionate she was with her family back in Vietnam, but she and my dad fought all the time as I grew up (and not the healthy kind of fighting). That's literally all I remember about them from my childhood. Things were fine when my dad did exactly as my mom said, but when things went bad, there were full on screaming matches.
That lack of connection spilled over into her relationship with me. I could tell that she wanted me to be successful (reflecting on it now, I think that's also what she thought would make me the happiest in life) by how hard she pushed me in school. However, we never really connected beyond that. We never hugged. She never kissed me. We never talked about what was going on in my life or what I thought and felt about things that mattered to me. Whenever she wanted something done a certain way, there was no explanation. No reason for why she thought it would be best for me. No room for me to raise my concerns and have them addressed by her. None of it. It was her way or a spanking.
Over time, that built up resentment in me. I hated feeling shut down and ignored, and the more it happened, the more I would withdraw from her. It made me less likely to want to talk to her about anything or even be around her. I withdrew into a world of videogames, and that became my addiction to escape from everything.
I should touch upon one point about parenting I've learned from this, and it's that people, including children, need to feel validated. Even as adults we need to feel validated. We need to know that our thoughts and feelings are being heard by our partners, our families, our friends, our coworkers, etc. It's part of building healthy relationships around you, and that's the most important thing in life. Parents may think that because children are young, they are too dumb to process anything we explain to them. However, children aren't dumb. They're naïve. They have an immense ability to learn, but they don't necessarily have the experience to back up their decisions. That's why they depend on you. That's where it falls on you as a parent. Will you decide to take the time to explain things to them and teach them? Or will you be too busy to "entertain" the idea of talking it out? Too busy to sit down and invest in their development. Too busy to care how they might be feeling in that moment. If you're too busy now, when will you not be busy?
Anyways, that lack of communication created a rift between me and my mom starting at a young age, and it only grew wider with time. It even got to the point where I hated God because of her. As the years went by, I gathered more experiences that were never shared with her, and it felt like she understood me less and less as a person. I resented her for that, although I didn't take any steps to fix it either. I became easily annoyed and quicker to anger when she asked me "dumb, simple questions" about my life. I told myself that "She should know these things about me already. Isn’t it obvious?"
It wasn't obvious. Not to her. But it was too late. I had gotten to the point where I had hardened my heart completely, and I was content being on my own. It'd felt like I had been "on my own" emotionally for two decades and there wasn't any reason to change it now. Even when she called me daily during college to see how I was doing, I didn’t realize she was trying to reach out to me. Instead, I viewed it as an annoyance, distracting me from building the groundwork for the career in medicine she had pushed me so hard to do. Irritated, I "put up" with her phone calls long enough to tell her that school was fine and I was healthy before making an excuse to hang up.
In all honesty, I now miss the days when she would call me everyday to catch up.
I'm not totally sure when our relationship began to change. However, two particular moments come to mind that made a big impact. The first was during my second year of residency when I was living at home for a few months. I was a preliminary General Surgery Resident at UCLA, having not matched into a program during medical school. I was busting my butt off to try to do a good job while also trying to suppress feelings of inadequacy and fear of an uncertain future. I came home one day when I was post-call (I did 30-hour calls every 3 days for over half of that year), and I must've looked like death because my mom looked worried and asked why I looked so tired. I told her I just had a rough call. She then proceeded to tell me, "You need to take care of yourself. You need to eat and get enough rest!"
She always tells me this. I swear I've heard it at least 5000 times during my lifetime, but for some reason, it particularly irritated me that day. I just lost it, and I yelled back at her "What do you want me to do?! YOU wanted me to go into medicine and become a doctor! Didn't you know that we'd have to go through all of this training for years?! YOU asked for this for me." I stormed off to my room to finally try and get some rest, but not before catching a glance of her face. She looked hurt. Confused. Unsure of what to do and how to navigate the situation. I didn't really care. I was so fed up and tired that the last thing I wanted to deal with was my mom "nagging" me again.
I replayed that moment in my head over and over for months. I don't remember the exact day I came to this realization, but it finally hit me that that post-call day was the moment I realized my mom cared for me more than she cared about my career. It may seem like a stupidly simple realization, but growing up with my mom, she was relentless in how hard she wanted to push me to become successful in my career. It was all she seemed to care about, and because of our lack of a deeper relationship, it appeared to me that she probably cared more about my career than she did about me as a person. That moment was the first time she EVER told me to slow down with how hard I worked. It was the start of a breakthrough for my eventual understanding of how much she loved me and cared for me.
Here's a second learning point for me as a parent: You can't push your kids into doing something you want them to do. Despite what you may think is best, your kids will develop with their own personalities and innate talents. They will make their own decisions and their own mistakes. You can give advice and help guide them, but that only comes after you've developed and maintained a strong relationship with them. They won't listen to you just because they're your kid. You won't be able to force them to fit the mold that you have in your head. Your job as a parent is to help them reach their full potential, whatever it may be. As a Christian, it's also my highest responsibility to help my future kids learn to love and serve God as best they can.
The second breakthrough moment happened during my third year of residency. The girl I was dating around that time had just ended things right before my vacation. We were planning to go to the Grand Canyon together, but that obviously wasn't a possibility anymore. On a whim, I decided to ask my mom if she wanted to go. She happily agreed and moved around her work schedule to make time to go with me. We had a great time exploring the park along with Antelope Canyon nearby.
We ended up driving in the dark on our way back to LA. I had the music playing low so as not to bother my mom while she tried to get some rest. She couldn't sleep, so we sat there awkwardly not saying anything. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Twenty. I began thinking about all the things I could say to her. Many of the questions I had been meaning to ask her all of these years began coming to mind. I looked over at her resting with her eyes closed. It was the first time I had really gotten a good look at my mom for years (don't worry, my eyes were still on the road). She was getting older. Hairs were greying. Eyelids sagging. Despite that, she was actually pretty healthy. However, she obviously wouldn't be around forever, but when will she leave me?
Figuring I may never get the chance to ask her again, I started with simple questions about her life at the time. Then I asked her about life back in Vietnam. I asked about her journey to the United States. The sister she lost to pirates at sea. Her work. Her relationship with my dad. Her relationship with her siblings. The more I asked, the more I realized that I had no idea who she was at all. She started asking me questions about my life. Questions she had always asked before, but questions I never took the time to answer. In this moment, in the darkness, all I had was time. So I finally took the time to answer. I told her about my relationships. I told her about struggling at work. I told her what my impression of our family had been over the years. This ended up being one of the best conversations I had ever had with her.
Our relationship has grown immensely since then, and we continue to learn about each other. It takes understanding and patience. A lot of patience. I try to take the time to talk to her and let her know about what's going on in my life. It's still a challenge. Often, I feel like it takes too much emotional and psychological investment, but I guess that's the point. At least now I can approach it while understanding the importance of our relationship. I take every chance I can to hug her and kiss her because one day I won't be able to. One day, she'll be with God, and I'll be glad I took the time to love her.
Mom, I'm grateful to you for:
1) Pushing me so hard back when I was a kid. I was super annoyed at all the work at the time, but now I'm thankful that you instilled the discipline in me to achieve my dreams.
2) Encouraging me to hang out with the right friends. I thought you were just interfering in my personal life as a kid, but now I know you understood that I was the average of the people closest to me. Their habits became my habits, and I want my habits to reflect the kind of man you helped raise me to be.
3) Loving me when I didn't return it. I was a selfish little kid and an even more selfish young adult. It took me a long time to come around, but I'm glad you stuck with me through it all. Your unwavering love helped give me a strong foundation to explore and learn in life.
4) Accepting Jesus. At least, I won't have to worry about what's going to happen to you in eternity lol.
5) Being who you are. You aren't perfect and neither am I. I'm sorry for not giving you a chance to show me who you really were when I was growing up, but I'm grateful for all of the opportunities we have now.
I love you, and you can rest assured in that fact forever. Hugs and kisses.