Accepting Myself Through My Mother's Eyes

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I received the news yesterday on my way to work that my mother is struggling to recover from a heart failure and seizure episode. My mom retired and moved back to the Philippines a few years ago. We live thousands of miles away from each other. Also, we barely spoke all these years and even decades. Our physical distance accurately portrays how detached I am emotionally from my own mother. And, that’s just scratching the surface.

I’m not quite certain when exactly our relationship begun to fade. All I know for sure is that the deterioration occurred as a result of culmination of various traumatic and major events in our lives. As immigrants to the U.S., my parents for sure had their share of grief from the isolation that emanates from the predominant American notion of “individualism.” It’s a fact of life for many immigrants. You get persuaded to come to America to find that “better opportunity” you envision in life but in exchange you lose that sense of connection with those you love.

But my mom and I have more issues between us besides the general challenges faced by immigrant families. In fact, the past between us depicts a slightly less morose version of the dreaded soap operas that I grew up watching with my parents in Manila. You see, when you live in a poverty stricken country, you only live to survive most of the time — that entails food and shelter. My mom is no different from most of the people from her generation. She grew up in the small town of Boac, which is located in the island of Marinduque, just south of Manila. My mom spent most of her life as a full-time mother when I was growing up. Part of me appreciates the complete devotion as a mother and yet I also thought that being too devoted harmed my mom in some ways. For one, she didn’t make use of her marketing degree from college to make a career out of it. Neither did she expand her horizons by undergoing non-family related endeavors which could have rendered her to become more open-minded.

As her life growing up poor propelled her to become focused on ensuring that her children didn’t succumb to the same level of hardship, my mom was meticulous about the family’s finances and in running the household, and of course, understandably so. After all, she had 4 kids to care for and my dad was the only breadwinner. My mom’s control over the finances easily transformed her into a more domineering mother — a trait that became more pronounced over the years even into my time as an adult.

My mom taught me early in life to value hard work as she assigned us chores from a young age. She was vigilant about the curfews. She instilled the importance of obeying rules and following authority which I later put to use as a practicing attorney. I’m in fact grateful for the level of discipline she used which included spanking and some other methods that the western world will hardly approve of. Her method of tough love was excruciating for us but it did the trick to make us strong in the long run.

But of course there is a “but.” My mom was far from being perfect. Her life struggles early on in life involved a domineering father who was an authoritarian. It wasn’t a surprise that she portrayed the same attributes as the mother to her children. Growing up in my mother’s home entailed living in fear — from rejection and sense of inadequacy. Although I didn’t mind the use of corporal punishment to teach us proper behavior, I never fully recovered from the emotional and verbal abuse from my mother. That remains true to this day.

The dark side to all these is living through a childhood where my self-worth hanged in the balance all the time. My mother yelled out her displeasure at every mistake we made and anything that might resemble some form of imperfection in her children. Thus, it was so easy for me to feel unaccepted by her, especially when she clearly expressed her sentiment that nothing I ever did was okay or that she wished I wasn’t born. She started drilling these ideas in my head since I was only 7 or 8, as best I could recall. Her war against her children’s flaws was declared from the start. That war never ceased and even on my last visit to see her in Manila in 2015, she made it a point to stage some drama between us. If you think my mom is critical, I would disagree and say, “no, it went far beyond that.” I can’t even tell you how many times she threatened to disown me for mistakes, big and small, that I made as humans normally do, which in her view resemble a character flaw in me every single time.

Throw in the fact that I am the only girl out of the four kids, my predicament was only worsened by my gender. Overprotective and paranoid, my mom disallowed me as a kid and in my youth from doing anything remotely related to outdoors, i.e. climbing trees, riding a bike. Later in life, this high level of seclusion from the outside world was exactly the fuel that ignited the fire in me to become an avid hiker and traveler which morphed years later into becoming a founder of a trekking/adventure company supplemented by my own outdoors blog. My mom doesn’t have a clue to the extent I put myself at risks on the mountain trails. We have implicitly agreed to leave it at that.

Over the years, my contact with my mother became more intermittent, and then, sporadic, especially after I moved to Washington, DC and started practicing law. Back then, my parents were living in Seattle but soon enough they moved to the Philippines to retire which only minimized our contact even more. Changes in life circumstances definitely impacted our relationship but also I can’t deny the fact that my mom just never learned to accept me for who I am, which is the very essence of the disconnect between us.

I often wonder how it’s like to be her. I’m sure it’s hell to be in a state of negativity all the time, which majority of the time she chooses to be in. My mom is a master at attacking the imperfections of my dad, her kids, her parents, her siblings, her friends and the rest of the world. I often wonder at what moment in time did she ever feel joy or peace or love. Besides the times when her children graduated from school, I hardly recall moments when she was happy for an entire day because spending a full day with my mom can only be best described as a roller coaster of a ride.

There was hardly any affection when we were kids and verbally there was no expression of love. To her credit though, as she got older, she did start saying “I love you” even if only on a birthday card or a message online. Of course, my younger self questioned, “did she mean it?” A mother who criticizes and never applauds her child’s contributions raises only one kind of daughter- the insecure type. That most certainly defined my 20s and early 30s.

Aside from that, I must admit that I never experienced a mother-daughter bonding moment in my life. In fact, at times, I even feel more guarded towards women than men simply because the volatility of my relationship with my mom created in me a sense of distrust towards fellow women. Luckily, I have managed to alleviate this sentiment over time. I know at one point I felt a tremendous dose of self-pity watching these movies depicting these loving mom-daughter relationships which I know, in my case, I never had and never will experience. Tough luck. But I have come to terms with this or at least I pretend I have until someday it becomes a reality for me. Faking it or not, does it really matter?

As for me, my progress and healing entailed having told my mom “I love you” on more than one occasion. I said those words to her with a closed heart. The years of turmoil between us and her disapproval of how I live my life and the men I dated have turned me into one who’s overprotective of her heart. In reference to the dating world, you should be advised that I’m the product of my mother’s paranoia, her protectiveness, her mood swings, anger issues and critical nature. I figured if the person loves me despite all that and sees me for who I am now instead of my past, then maybe we can be on the path to true love. That’s one hell of a big maybe — MAYBE.

So, going back to my mom — if she recovers from this current hospitalization, then what? Will we both finally reach out to each other and have a mother-daughter moment? No. I doubt it. Our relationship is so complicated that it would take more than the notion of an onion to delayer ourselves, piece by piece. But if I can fake the mom-daughter bonding scenario for just a moment, I’d for sure tell her that I miss her. I always have. I hope she finds some peace and joy in knowing that I have accepted myself for who I am and my imperfections even if she never did, and never will.

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