Words for My Mama

On the evening before Mother’s Day, I found my mind flashing back to two years ago. I had surprised my mom, who lives in North Carolina, with a mixed bouquet of roses and lilies. She found the second choice of flowers to be humorous, commenting that lilies are typically seen at funerals (oops), but she was nonetheless deeply grateful. “Simple gestures like this mean so much to me” her text read, alongside a photo of her proudly lifting the vase as though a trophy. 

This instance reminded me that small acts of self-compassion are not second nature to immigrant mothers like mine. My mom’s idea of love, and the one that I first inherited, is instead intrinsically intertwined with self-sacrifice. She felt good about herself if she was well-rested after an overnight shift, but she felt even better if her family was taken care of. 

I often think back to the last time I visited my family in the Philippines, alone in 2016, while in the midst of taking an online class. “You’re just like your mom,” my titas and titos would say as they saw my books sprawled around me. “Studious and independent.”

My parents at my mom’s college graduation (circa early 1990s)

Her intellect was often a topic of discussion when we reminisced and shared stories about our tight-knit family. Given their high praises, I have no doubt that she could have easily furthered her academic career if she wanted to. However, she became pregnant with me at 23 years old, and ultimately chose to leave her masters degree in nursing unfinished. When my brother was born the following year, my parents decided to shape their existence around making our childhood comparatively brighter than theirs. 

My mom was the first in her family of nine to move away from home. She recently shared that at first, my grandparents were anxious about her decision to leave because they did not have any friends in the UK, much less relatives. Yet my mom was determined and in the early 2000s, the UK was experiencing a deficit of nurses. The destination was the less favorable option for natives seeking to migrate relative to the United States–its former colonizer of 48 years. However, moving to the UK would at the very least serve as a first step, while ensuring my siblings and I were still exposed to better educational and economic opportunities. 

My mom’s expression of love was fundamentally grounded in a desire to protect her children from the prospect of the economic insecurities she had known so intimately in her own, largely unspoken upbringing. Yet as bold as her move was, she raised us to value security and stability, among other principles synonymous with predictability. This was challenging for my younger self to process: why was she–my brave and resilient mom–seemingly discouraging us from becoming trailblazers in our own lives and quests for purpose?

The role of higher education in determining one’s socioeconomic mobility was frequently discussed in our household, even before I could truly comprehend it. My mom’s undergraduate degree in nursing enabled her to move abroad and fare better than her counterparts working in our homeland, so she hoped for my education to similarly ensure my success. However, my mom’s dream for me also meant her conceptualization of meaningful careers was narrowed down to legal or STEM-related fields. Both of which I did not personally care for.

Instead, my younger self daydreamed about being a full-time creative. I was especially passionate about working in the visual arts as a teen. Although my mom encouraged me to develop my talents, she also often urged me to keep my creative interests as a hobby. In her eyes, the intersection of work and passion was a privilege only a few could afford, and our family was not a part of that group. My mom, like many immigrant parents, saw artistic careers as abstract and unstable–a threat to the foundation of stability that takes years to build.

Our thresholds of stability and what we were willing to trade off in its pursuit were often at the core of our interpersonal conflict. In my eyes, what good would it do to pursue a career where one is financially secure but emotionally unfulfilled?

Nonetheless, a big part of me also wanted to make my mom proud. Not only was I hyper-aware of her sacrifices, but as time passed, I also became more fearful of her disappointment if I was unable to meet her definition of success. As a result, my early understanding of love–coupled with a wealth of internalized guilt–prompted me to sacrifice parts of myself in order to actualize ideals around success in a westernized nation.

Hopkins graduation (May 2019)

Part of my process ultimately led me to Baltimore, Maryland, to attend Johns Hopkins University for undergrad. There’s no doubt that I was infinitely proud of myself for being accepted into a globally-renowned institution. But deep down, it was the idea of my looming independence that excited me the most. I deceived myself into thinking that the transition would be easy. As far as academic rigor was concerned, I finished community college with a 4.0 GPA and had received multiple statewide awards to supposedly validate my intelligence. In my mind, relocating would be an even greater breeze, because after all–I’m a first-generation immigrant. 

I prepared for large upheavals my whole life. 

Nonetheless, I constantly questioned if I truly knew myself and my capabilities during my first semester. My intelligence was no longer a key differentiator and I couldn’t seem to grasp theories as effortlessly as I did at community college. My former, heavily extroverted self also grew uncomfortable with the fact that I wasn’t making friends as easily, nor was I as embedded in multiple social circles. There was clearly a disconnect, but that version of me couldn’t quite tell you why. 

My initial vitality and excitement around starting afresh gradually started transmuting into daily numbness, a desire for the days to pass as quickly as they began. It was during moments staring at my bedroom ceiling, overwhelmed with disheartenment, where I would find myself imagining my mom’s earliest days in the UK. My state-to-state move was only a microcosm of my mom’s global migration, yet I was feeling at loss and terribly unequipped to process my emotions. I often asked, how might my mom have felt?

I realized that I did not know the answer. I knew little beyond, “of course it was hard.” This realization prompted me to wonder if there were other hidden sides to my mom that I was unaware of. A lack of discussion around mental health is not uncommon in immigrant households, and mine was no exception. No family member to my knowledge had a mental illness, so I grew up believing that it meant I could assume our family was “normal.” Yet what lacked in verbal conversations was nonetheless communicated through the body. In my mom’s case, it was evident in her chronic fatigue and omnipresent anxiety about money, despite now living in the “land of the free.”

Getting curious about my own mental health has helped me become better at befriending my emotions in all its forms. Episodes of disorientation akin to my early experience at Hopkins are met with more kindness and sensitivity. Self-introspection and copious therapy sessions have also endowed me with the ability to see my mom’s humanity through a more compassionate lens. 

What appeared to my angsty teen self as unresolved conflicts and value misalignment was, in reality, a mutual cry for someone to remind us that things will be okay. We both sought reassurance that our respective struggles around identity and immigration were not innate shortcomings, but rather gentle reminders of what it means to feel and be human.

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My little sister and I (likely laughing at a bad joke) (Aug 2016)

On that note, I would like to wish my mom a belated Happy Mother’s Day. 

Some of the qualities I admire most about myself–my spirited independence, strong determination, and deep empathy–certainly did not start with me. No amount of flowers or words could ever truly express the level of gratitude I feel towards you for your unwavering love and support.

And the more I learn about myself, the clearer I see you too. My appreciation for you grows knowing that you had your own internal battles to face, but you often chose to set them aside to be the best possible mom, sister, aunt, and role model etc. you could be. 

Whether you intended to or not, your example still taught me–and continues to teach me–much about family and community, taking risks, choosing love over fear, and more. Your sacrifices may have afforded me the privilege of learning at a prestigious institution, but you will always be my greatest teacher.