Friday, March 3, 2017

How (Not) to Talk to Your Mother

This is Essay #9 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

I am a bad daughter.

Wait. Allow me to be more accurate: I am an unkind daughter.


My mother immigrated from the Philippines to these United States in 1973 to escape Ferdinand Marcos and his martial law. Newly graduated from nursing school, she just married my father, who was newly graduated from medical school. Classic Filipino pairing of that time: doctor-husband, nurse-wife. Their honeymoon was a permanent one in Akron, Ohio, the location of the hospital that accepted my father as an intern. Soon after, I was born.

The details of all of this are unknown –when they left, did they feel endangered? Were they scared? How could they leave their families? How did they feel about this? And then: as newlyweds and new parents in a new country, did they freak out? (I would.) I have no idea. My parents are not known to be storytellers. They prefer silence. (Interestingly enough, my paternal grandfather was known for his stories. What’s up with that?)


From an early age, I already knew there were two distinct worlds: inside our home and outside of it. Outside, there were two distinct sub-worlds: the Catholic school and the neighborhood, which was populated with public school kids. Then, there was just the Outside: the world of the general public. It was in this last world that I was –and, unfortunately, still am— an unkind, impatient, American-born daughter.

While my mother’s command of English was fluent, as a young girl, I saw that many people had a hard time understanding her because of her accent. Often, they would turn to me for a translation of whatever my mother just said in English. I remember once, in a grocery store, she was trying to ask the butcher for ox tail. I was around six. My three-year-old younger brother was in the seat of the shopping cart. The butcher spoke loudly to my mother, as if suddenly, that would make communication clearer for both of them.

I didn’t know ox tail was something you could buy at the grocery store. I thought it was just the body part of an animal in one of my brother’s picture books. I didn’t know that it was in one of our family’s favorite dishes, kare-kare. (Confession: I don’t like it.) All I knew was that the butcher was getting impatient with my mother, his fat face growing pink like the meats he handled. My mother started to wring her hands, deciding whether to pursue her objective or give up.

Memory is an ever-changing thing. Mine is usually fuzzy. About everything. Including what I did yesterday.

We never got the ox tail that day.


I don’t know how to talk to my mother about anything beyond the weather and community tsismis. Did you know so-and-so got pregnant from What's-His-Name? Oh, Tita You-Know-Who got her eyelids tattooed when she went home so now she never has to put on eyeliner. Can you believe that?

When I was twelve and needed a bra for my budding chest, my paternal grandmother took me to K-Mart and dressed me like a doll, not once asking if I needed a bra, but simply put one on me. When I wanted to go to one of the semi-formal dances at school, knowing full well that any kind of interaction with boys was strictly forbidden, I would leave event flyers on the counter and retreat to the safety of my bedroom, which my family called The Cave. (I couldn’t tell if this was said out of affection or if they were mocking me for being such a recluse… uh, I mean, writer in the making!)

Dating was never a topic of conversation with either of my parents. It was something that just wasn’t going to happen. In my lifetime.

Then, I went away to college. You can only imagine what happened then.


My junior year in college, I told my mother that I was changing majors. Well, revising it actually. At the time, I was double majoring in biology and English. As is typical of Asian parents, mine wanted me to be a doctor; thus, the biology major. But I was no good at chemistry or calculus. Seriously no good. I loved literature. I loved writing. I told my mother that I was dropping the biology major and would only be an English major. To which she said, predictably: what are you going to do with that? And: if you go to medical school, we’ll pay for it, but if you do something with English that requires more education, you’re on your own. Ah, the bribe. She stopped short of threatening to stop paying my undergraduate tuition.

I told her that it didn’t matter. That this was a choice I had to live with for the rest of my life, not her.

She was silent. She knew I was right.


In graduate school, I wrote a long poem called “Song for Virginia”. Its structure is song-like in that it has verses, a refrain, and, if my memory serves me, even a bridge. The poem on the whole is about my mother-in-law, but interspersed with meditations on mothers, including my own, and daughters and motherhood and everything in between. This, before I became a mother to daughters.

One verse is titled “Carmelita”, my mother’s name. It imagines what it might have been like for her when she first arrived to the US.

As part of our completion of the graduate degree, we were to give a reading from our thesis, which is a book-length manuscript of our work. My mother attended. And because I was learning how to lean into the fear, I chose to read this verse with her in the audience. This was my way of speaking to her.

Afterwards, she said nothing. Other people in the audience came up to her and told her that she must be so proud of me. She smiled, clearly uncomfortable that she was the subject of one of my poems, and nodded. I think she was proud but didn’t know how to express it. She doesn’t know how to talk to me.

She still doesn’t.


Last summer, I found out that I was awarded the James Merrill Fellowship in Poetry for the Vermont Studio Center. Naturally, I was thrilled. I reluctantly called my mother to tell her the good news. And true to form, her first question: who’s going to take care of the kids? No “congratulations”. No “that’s exciting”. No “wow”. I called her on it. I was upset. She doesn’t understand what I do. And in this moment, it was clear that she wasn’t willing to even try to understand. She was more concerned with the predictable demand that I would make on her to help me by caring for my children. She was concerned with her active still-working-a-job lifestyle and how my writing residency would affect her life. This was not exactly a supportive response. It was also not a surprising response. Nonetheless, even after all these years of this predictable response, I was upset.

Is it wrong for me to expect that my mother would be excited for me? That she would be more than willing to offer to help with my kids without my even asking?

But that would be a different mother. Not mine.


I am an unkind daughter.

I have little patience for my mother, an immigrant woman who will never understand her American-born daughter. My mother who will always be “immigrant” despite the fact that she’s lived here for more years than in her homeland. What kind of daughter is that? What kind of love does not extend patience to one who –to use a clichĂ©—is a fish out of water in this country? Maybe it’s not love then. Or maybe it’s the daughter-of-immigrants love.

I don’t know.

Love takes on many forms.

I used to think that becoming a mother would make me kinder to her. The effects of empathy, compassion. And sometimes this is true. But it’s rare. Most times, I am the sixteen-year-old girl who never opens up to anyone and treats her mother with an air of condescension. The girl who rolls her eyes every time her mother mispronounces a word or doesn’t get the punch line of a joke. The girl who has zero patience for her. The girl who takes her mother for granted.

I am an unkind daughter and I still don’t know how to talk to my mother.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Leslieann! This is such a brave witnessing and reframing of your relationship. The mother-daughter relationship is so challenging to navigate and you add so much nuance and perspective here given the particular experience you had as the daughter of immigrants. As always, love your essays and your commitment to facing your demons, as well as those of our wider society, with such insight and fire.