The Ways We Become Our Mothers


I chopped my hair. Now, the kids say that I look like halmuhnee, their grandmother, my mother. It was inevitable, I suppose.

It's strange how often throughout the day my mother, and my grandmothers materialize before me.Click To Tweet

I will say something in a certain way, or feel my body in a particular posture or doing a gesture, and I can see in my mind’s eye my mother, and her mother saying or doing it, too, mimicking me. The way I stand or sit shoulders hunched or when I put on my makeup my face against the mirror or when I chase Ellis out of the house, like my maternal grandmother. The tone of my voice or the inflection in a certain phrase, most likely and usually about food. The edge to a screech when I’m losing it with the kids. The quiet and calm that overtakes me in a moment of chaos, like my paternal grandmother. The manic way I tackle certain projects – obsessive and focused, like my mother.

I look at my hands sometimes and see the same hands in old photographs like at the birth of my younger brother. My mother is sitting in the delivery bed clutching him swaddled in a light blue blanket as I sit nearby, a 2 year old buzzing with barely contained excitement at the camera. Whenever I look at this picture my eyes aren’t drawn to my bedhead pigtails or bright red Osh Kosh B’Gosh overalls. I see her hands because it shocks me how they look so familiar. They’re really my hands. I notice her hands all the time now, and remember looking at them once when Ozzie was born, and how much they’ve changed with the years, and yet still maintain such strength and tenderness somehow simultaneously.

It’s Mother’s Day, and I approach it with such mixed feelings. Before the twins were born, and when we were trying to get pregnant, I hated it – I hated the elevating and pedestaling of what was my lack and failure. On this side of it, I realize that many relationships with our mothers are imperfect (to say the least), and I admit that my own is fraught with disappointment and often frustration, and almost always guilt. Not only with my mother but with motherhood, in general, and with my own children, and especially my daughter. For all the ways I am grateful to my mother for everything that I know and don’t know of her sacrifices I am always regretful that I wasn’t somehow a better daughter or a better cook or a better housewife or a better student or a better everything. It’s not necessarily something she has put on me directly or explicitly, and yet, I know that it is something that was passed on to me, and I have a feeling it was passed on to her from her mother, and her mother received from her mother.

We receive so much from our mothers. The right way to smother huge napa cabbage leaves the kimchi mixture crouched down on the floor over the blue tub with our hands wrapped in thin plastic gloves or how to measure out the water with our hands for cooking rice. Hours of piano lessons or Korean language lessons, and how to fold the mandoo so the edges match up perfectly or how to scoop perfectly balled up cups of rice into the bowls. How to walk or how to speak or how to stand or how to respectfully call our fathers from their offices or the backyard that “dinner is ready.”

But, we also inherit their insecurities with their bodies and their skin, their struggles with the all too pervasive inequities and inequalities of work and childrearing, and all the questions of how to survive and love all the layers of motherhood.

We acquire their faith, too, and their resilience, their persistence, their songs.Click To Tweet

My mother would go about the house singing old hymns and sometimes that old-timey, operatic rendition of The Lord’s Prayer, belting them out, every verse or simply humming them, like a continuous meditation throughout the day. Everything – not only food, but the laundry, the small vegetable garden, the sewing, everything she touched and shaped – everything was leavened with this thick substance of faith – hefty and dense like the doughy rice cakes we eat for New Year’s day and on birthdays – permeated by a desperate hope for life and the periodic glimmerings of it as that life materialized in surprising ways.

As each year goes by I am amazed and a little horrified at the ways I am becoming my mother. For good and bad. Whether we know them or not, whether we are cognizant of it or not, whether we want it or not, something passes onto us, something connects us to that bizarre, but beautiful force that perpetuates humanity. For all that we carry, for all that we are forced to bear in our bodies and spirits, for all that we are to be grateful, I pray that I will become more. More thoughtful. More hopeful. More faithful. More alive. Perhaps this is the best Mother’s Day gift I can give and receive myself.