good mother

Good Mother by Sara Lee

My mother has a deep-rooted sense of shame regarding her ability to be a “good mother.” She’s ashamed that she didn’t have any money to provide for her kids growing up, to pay for our college tuition, to take us with her when she visited family in South Korea all those times, disappearing into the sky without a word on when she’d come back. She’s ashamed to leave empty-handed, without any expensive gifts and money, but capitalism has laid waste to more than just her pride. The United States was her Promised Land, the country where she was supposed to strike it rich and give her children a better future, to elevate her social status, to save her two younger siblings from the crushing debt that ultimately squeezed the breath from their lungs.

My mother considers these to be her greatest failures. She hates herself for being poor, when her kids grow up struggling to make ends meet. She gazes at all the beautiful houses in the magazines, the ones that rich families employed her to clean for ten bucks an hour, and wishes they could be hers. She’s lived here for longer than I’ve been alive; she tells me we’re the only things she’s made in this country to be proud of. When your parent gives up everything to realize just one basic dream through you, how are you supposed to own your life? How can you earn the world for her when it’s hard just getting out of bed most days?

My mother has stopped hearing my voice, wobbling, breaking:
엄마, you’ve been abused by those with more privilege
엄마, you’ve made mistakes but I forgive you
엄마, you’re a good mother
엄마, 엄마, 엄마—but she doesn’t hear a word, drowned out by her deep shame and regret. My voice has been buried under the pain and guilt of death of suicide, lost in her decaying dreams: the absence of money, and cars, and houses, and...

“Oh, my poor Sara,” my mother says, “You should have been born to another mother.” She refers to a rich, white woman whose mother tongue is English; that is what a good mother is. A good mother is no longer defined by her children, nor the love and understanding in her heart. A good mother is defined by access to privilege and money, and lots of it.

But I don’t want a white mother. I don’t want a rich mother. I don’t even want a mother who understands everything I say without interpretation. I want my mother, with her experiences, her resilience, her voice. All of her virtues and all of her flaws. She wouldn’t be a good mother without them, and I wouldn’t be me without her.

I wish we could make a living on that much alone.