when our mothers become people in our eyes

May 13, 2013 |  Category:   family life remembering



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.

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  • Katie May 13, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    This is beautiful! Thank you for sharing.

  • Jen May 13, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    Such a wonderful post. My mom was also deemed the smartest of her six siblings. She was also the hardest working so was pulled out of school at a young age to work full time to support the family after her father suddenly passed away. She also liked to learn – she wanted to be a pianist, she wanted to go to college. But it didn’t work out for her. I didn’t really grasp her struggles or why we had the sort of conflicts we had until the last few years. I think there are so many interesting immigrant stories. It would be a great idea/project if one day all the kids of immigrants of our generation like us could document some of their voices, particularly coming for a Korean/Asian perspective.

  • Kim May 13, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    beautiful post. i am reading this while sitting in our loft (attic) at my desk, working on my phd for the 4th year while 2 babies sleep below me. or at least i will be when i’m done writing this. takes a toll, but I’m sure I’m doing it for something. thanks for writing this.

  • Kiana May 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    Jenna, this is so touching. Your mom sounds like an amazing woman. My father came to the U.S. from Iran and had to redo his degrees because they didn’t accept his Iranian degrees and he encountered so much discrimination (this was the time of the hostage crisis) and I am amazed by him. I live in Barcelona now where I don’t speak the language (Catalan) and don’t have any contacts or much networking opportunities. I’ve been out of work for a year now. Every time I feel discouraged, I think of him.

  • MCC May 13, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Beautiful. (wiping away a tear….)

  • sarah May 13, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    Your mother sounds like an amazing and strong woman. I would be very proud of her too.

    I was probably in my mid 30s before I really saw my mother as a woman independent of being my mother. I’ve learned so much about her and have come to respect on a whole different level. I still need her as a mother but I really enjoy her now as a friend.

  • Josephine May 13, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    Well said, Jenna. Beautifully expressed sentiment.
    I think I was at university before I came to know the ‘person’ my mother is. We worked at the same place during that time and we got to interact as colleagues rather than relations! Of course, becoming a mother myself three years ago deepened my appreciation of her!

  • Jess May 13, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Beautiful post. I love your blog so much. You’re so thoughtful and reflective, and I appreciate that it is this quiet space without lots of posturing and boasting. Thank you.

  • Juju May 13, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    although our mothers appear to be very different, i still find your post so close to home. you write so beautifully and this post is one of those posts, I’ll be reading and re-reading again. thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  • Mrs. Kinne May 13, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    This is beautiful. I have been thinking a lot about my relationship with my mom– and the relationship I want to build with my little one, who is only 8 months old. I think I needed to read this today.

  • ethaney May 13, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    jenna, this was so beautiful.

    i think you would really enjoy reading ‘please look after mom’ by kyung-sook shin. i related to it so much because i am korean as well and made me think of my mom. it was so heartbreaking and sad and beautiful. i hope you check it out. i truly think you would enjoy it.


    • Jenna May 15, 2013 at 1:24 pm

      Thanks for the book rec. I will check it out!

  • britney May 13, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    thank you for writing such a beautiful post.
    a realization this important has been really difficult to stomach. in my case, at least, any meaningful conversation with my mother as a person would have to begin with an apology and a great thanks.

  • Helle May 14, 2013 at 4:13 am

    A lovely post. And as someone who doesn’t have her mum anymore, I’d like to say, value her and talk to her while she is still here.

    • Jenna May 15, 2013 at 1:24 pm

      Hi Helle, wise words. And a good reminder. thank you.

  • Kelly May 14, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Beautiful writing….thanks for sharing

  • Funaek May 14, 2013 at 11:39 am

    You always perfectly capture emotions and thoughts similar to those I am feeling or have felt! I can still recall being really little and believing that my mom could protect me from anything and I was almost certain she had superhuman powers and knew whenever I did something bad. And I can still recall that disenchanted heartbreaking feeling of discovering that my mom is a real, regular, and flawed person. I think this is part of why the teenage years are so rough between parents and children. Beautiful post, as always.

  • Anne May 14, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Beautiful!! – And the picture as well!

  • Jennifer May 14, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Your Mother is absolutely beautiful! That is a darling photo. Your posts are always so, so lovely and always seem to strike a chord with me.

  • Soo May 14, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    This post is so eloquent and thoughtful. I know you don’t need validation on your writings, but this one is awesome!!

  • Anna May 14, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    What a lovely post Jenna; your mother was obviously a very positive influence on your life. I like her approach to ‘validation’. One of my daughters goes to a Montessori school and I – as an eldest child who has always sought external success and praise – have often reflected on their belief that motivation should come from within, otherwise we risk a fear of failure and lack of inner self-belief (as I do).
    My mother is very different to yours; she’s very vulnerable, heavily dependent on other people, has virtually no self discipline. However, I understand what you mean about seeing your mother as a rounded person, rather than just as a mother. I’ve seen my younger siblings experience the same change in their relationship with mum, as they age, and it’s often not easy. I hope it’s different when my children become adults and look at me with fresh, more objective eyes 🙂

  • Rachel May 15, 2013 at 1:16 am

    It’s scary having the revelation that your mom (and dad) is only human, just like everyone else. I still expect my parents to be infallible sometimes, and I often need to remind myself that their opinions aren’t the epitome of all opinions. The thought of my mom being more than just a mother is sometimes comforting, and sometimes discomforting, depending on what I want to be true at each particular moment. I like knowing that I can differ from her in my personality, thoughts, and beliefs, and it’ll be okay, because she doesn’t have the last say, but I also sometimes wish I could go back to the days when her word was comfort and truth, and the second she told me something, I didn’t have to worry any more. Now I don’t even know what to believe half the time! Growing up can be so hard.

  • Sarah May 15, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    I’m in my early 20s and am learning more and more who my parents are beyond their identities as my mom and dad. It’s strange but kind of fun. My mom and I are really alike in our temperaments and personas so hearing about her hopes/struggles as a 20 something recent immigrant really puts perspective to my present life. This was a great post! Your mom sounds like an amazing woman.

  • Thienan May 15, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    This was not a sappy post in any way, but it did make me choke up at the end–very poignant. My relationship with my mom is very similar to yours.

  • Cristina May 16, 2013 at 5:26 am

    You’re so right..I do understand things differently now that I’m a mother too. Also, times have changed. It must not have been easy for your mother back then. My mother, for instance, just gave up working as soon as she could, but wasn’t well soon after…

  • Joya May 18, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    so good, Jenna.

  • Erika November 21, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    Have you ever seen the show Englightened? Your post made me think so much about one of my favorite episodes, “Not Good Enough Mothers”. Laura Dern’s character has this beautiful monologue (she has those a lot, and I love them all) where she keeps repeating, “But the mother is a child, too…she’s just a child, too”. It’s one of the most heart-wrenching and eye-opening things I’ve see on TV, and it’s so, so true. Coming to terms with the fact that my mother is a person in her own right, flaws and needs and all, has shaped so much of my adult life, and our relationship.

    All this just to say, I completely understand where you’re coming from, and so enjoyed reading this (I’m incredibly behind in my blog reading, if you can’t tell)…

  • Mutaleni April 2, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    Jenna, I keep coming back to this post. So beautiful. Thank you.