Healing my relationship with my mother
When I was growing up, my mum was everything to me, and she was a quintessential Tiger Mum.
She would sit down beside me and watch me do my homework every day when I came back from school, check my school bag and homework assignments, and watch me write every stroke of my penmanship. If my handwriting wasn’t perfect, she would erase everything and have me write everything all over again. Also, when it came to exam results, especially for Math, anything less than 100 was unacceptable.
She had a fiery hot temper, so I could never tell when she was going to explode. I lived in fear and tiptoed around her, and became very good at reading her moods. I learned how to appease her whenever she blew up.
I hated her, loved her, feared her, and desperately wanted to please her, all at the same time.
I wanted her off my back, and I knew the only way was to prove that I could get stellar results without her interference. So in secondary school, I claimed my independence by studying harder than ever, and achieving good grades all on my own.
I absorbed her beliefs and attitudes around work, and I believed that I had to work hard all the time, that my worth was defined by my achievements, that being smart was the highest good I could hope to attain.
On the positive side, that made me motivated and conscientious. On the negative side, I had an inferiority complex and constantly felt never good enough.
I became more independent as I grew up, and eventually lived and worked in the US for six years. During those years it seemed that our relationship had thawed, but it was really only in stasis because I was living away from home.
During those years away from home, my life was about achievements, chasing prestige and status, and proving myself worthy and smart, which led me to take up a job as a highly-paid and well-respected investment banking analyst.
The job made me miserable and when I eventually quit I was lost again. I wondered why I had spent my life chasing a job that made me miserable, and why the holy grail of achievement hadn’t brought me happiness.
I realised that I had never really wanted a job in banking. All I wanted was to please my Mum. That simple desire had defined my entire life. Everything I had done, I had only ever been trying to answer one question: Mum, are you proud of me?
I finally plucked up the courage and called her:
Mum, are you proud of me?
Yes, of course.
Even if I don’t have a job?
Yes, of course, you are my daughter.
Do you remember that time when you came to pick me up from school and I wasn’t there and made you wait?
No, I don’t remember. It’s okay, I’ve forgotten already.
Do you remember when I got 90 marks on my exam? Are you still mad about it?
No, I don’t remember, I’m not mad.
Through that conversation, I realised she was softer and more forgiving than I had ever imagined. She had long forgotten my childhood transgressions, and had never held anything against me. She didn’t hate me as I believed she did.
I had spent most of my life shutting her out, running away. I spent years being defensive and guarded around her, snapping at her whenever she nagged me, because I had carried all my hurt within me all those years.
But now it was time to let the past go.
I realised that I had always been good enough as her daughter, and that she had always loved me.
And so after 25 years, I started to get to know my mother again, and began rebuilding our relationship.
I asked my mentor, why does my mother shout so much? He said that she is obviously trying to communicate something, and no one was hearing her, so she had decided that her best strategy was to keep shouting.
So I started to listen between the lines.
And I heard that underneath her shouting, she was really saying that she wanted to be appreciated. And I saw how much she had given to us all these years, by giving up her career to stay home and take care of my siblings and me, by fetching us to and from school, by making sure we always had food on the table and a companion during meal times.
I realised that when she kept asking us questions about our lives, she was not nagging us. But that she just wanted to be part of our lives. It was so much easier to be in our lives as children when we depended on her. But as adults, we had become independent, and she just wanted to check that we were doing okay.
I learned that when she was angry, she was really just hurting inside, and she did not know any other way to communicate. And while we took her anger to be hurtful and malicious, she really did not mean to hurt us. She just didn’t know how to handle her pain.
I had demanded that my mother was a perfect person, to be giving and caring and nurturing in every way. But I did not see her for who she really was, a frail and vulnerable woman in her own right, someone who was also struggling.
All my life I had struggled from self-esteem and self-acceptance issues, and I harboured a secret wish that my mother would one day accept me for who I was and all my pain would go away. I wished for someone loving and kind and gentle, a goddess who could save me, and I blamed my Mum for not being that person.
And then I realised how absurd my wish was. She had already given everything to me, and her way of parenting was the best way she knew how to express her love. And I was demanding her to give me something she had never received herself.
That is when I saw that it was not her job to rescue me. It was my job to rescue myself. It was my job to learn how to love myself, to learn to be kind, to learn to be accepting, to learn to be nurturing, and learn to soothe myself, to learn the lessons she never learned.
As our relationship slowly improved, I was able to spend more time with her enjoyably. We would go out on meal dates and talk about our favourite drama serials and the characters we liked. It was a whole new way of interacting with her, where I didn’t have to prove myself through results, and I could just connect with her in a light-hearted way.
We even went on holidays together in Phuket, Macau, and did silly stuff like watch the New Year’s countdown together. I realised that I was the complex one, and she was the simple one! Here I was, making my life one of hard work and strife — always trying to coach more people — and there she was, getting amused by simple fireworks, light installations, and hotel decorations.
The biggest lesson I learned:
All her life, my mother had been shouting out her love for me. It was me who had been too deaf to hear it. But now I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was loved, that I had been loved, and that there was nothing wrong with me, that I had always been good enough. That all my Mum had ever wanted was for me to be happy, and she had never wanted anything more than that.
After years of working on my relationships with my parents, here is what I’ve learned:
- We unconsciously absorb the beliefs and attitudes of our parents, and are way more similar to our parents than we care to admit. The beliefs we inherit from them define our lives.
- If we want to grow we need to actively work on ourselves to uncover and transcend our parental imprints.
- At some level we hate / blame our parents for the way they parented us, but we have to realise that they themselves did not receive the type of love we so desperately wanted them to give us.
- Our parents gave us everything they possibly could.
- In their own ways, they love us and wish for us to be happy.
- It takes a while to learn how to recognise and appreciate what they have given us.
- To heal our relationships with our parents and families, we first need to heal ourselves.
Originally published at https://www.betterself.sg on August 6, 2020.