When I was younger, I remember my mother climbing the stairs to our upstairs attic where she would head after dinner nearly everyday for 2 years. My mom was earning her college degree long distance from a small private college in Maine and she used that little 8′ x 8′ room at the top of the stairs as her study. I don’t really even remember how old I was and I certainly didn’t understand what a big deal it was for my mom at that age; I just remember helping her sometimes with the grammar on her papers because English wasn’t her first language and even though she was a fairly fluent speaker, writing was a whole other story.
Of her 4 siblings, my mother was considered to be the “smart” one and the one that had the most ambition. She always wanted to be a doctor, but opportunities were scarce back then in Korea, especially for girls, so she went to nursing school instead and came to NY in 1971 soon after she graduated, seizing the first opportunity that she could find. But she always wanted a college degree. When she finally completed her studies sometime during my high school years, she traveled up to Maine for the graduation ceremony alone. I remember seeing photos of her trip to the college, but I always later wondered why we didn’t go up to the ceremony as a family.
When I think about my mom being the age that I am now, I think about her with a daughter who was 19 and already gone from the house and a son who was 13 and ready to enter high school. I think about how she switched careers at this age after 18 successful years as a nurse to real estate because she realized that her career was taking a physical toll on her health. She also knew that she had 2 kids to send to college and she couldn’t do that on a nurse’s salary. I don’t remember with clear details her transition from one career to the other because I had already moved out of the house at that point and quite frankly, was too busy trying to live my own life. But I do remember that my mom would cook and leave dinners wrapped up for my brother as her new work schedule had shifted and she was no longer home by the time he got home from school. My brother’s high school years in that respect, were different from mine.
I remember many years ago having a talk with my mom when I wasn’t feeling any validation from her, or praise, or whatever I was seeking at the time. After all those years, the approval from my mom wasn’t any less important than it was when I was 10. I don’t even remember what the conversation was specifically about, but I do remember her response. She asked me where her validation came from. Who was telling her that she was doing a good job? Who was telling her that they were proud of her? Maybe that is why she went to her graduation alone. She never expected validation from her family because she never received it before, from her parents or siblings growing up or from us. Maybe she learned to accept that ultimately, the only person she needed validation from was herself.
It’s ironic that I wrote that post about validation from strangers a few weeks ago, because I think about my mom’s response often. It wasn’t the response I was expecting, but it holds truth. We often expect so much from our mothers – the basic needs for survival, food, shelter, unconditional love, praise, and security. When we’re younger, our mothers are our mothers, beacons of love and protection, and we don’t necessarily think about the people that they are separate from that identity. But there comes a point when we realize that our mothers are people too – fears, insecurity, frustrations and all. Maybe you come to understand this when you see your mom cry in front of you for the first time or when you witness a vulnerability that you never saw or understood before.
As my girls get older I think about this more and more as we start having conversations not just as mother and daughters, but as people having discussions with our own opinions. I think about the message that I send out to the girls with my actions as well as my inactions. I think about the relationship that I have with my mother and the role that I have as a mother to my daughters. Whatever shortcomings may have happened in the past doesn’t have to be irreparable in the present, and I just want to say to my mother today that I am very proud of her.