In Competition with My Mother

I didn’t know that my birth was my entry into a misery contest.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Before I was even 10, I had started compiling a list titled Things I Will Not Do When I’m a Mom. My daughter arrived when I was 32 and I stuck to it; It was easy because Rule 1 was that I would never invalidate my daughter’s feelings. Rule 2 was that I was never going to make her feel like shit.

Both were easy, and continue to be.

And this makes me angry for the child I was. I had no idea that when I was born, I would be treated as my mother’s rival for love and validation.

The competition was so fierce that she would sabotage me in various ways; Love and all good things in life were apparently scarce, and my mother and I were not on the same side. This message was drilled and reinforced over decades.

When I was 8 or 9, the radio was on at home. A woman said on air that “all women” loved their children and wanted better for their kids than they had experienced themselves. This was so alien a concept to me that I immediately asked my mother if it was true.

“No,” she said, laughing.

“You don’t want my life to be easier or better than yours?” Because this was what had made me sit up, knowing my mother didn’t exactly exude this benevolence towards me.

“No,” she said, with a glee that I would always see at the times in my life when she could hurt me.

In retrospect, I can at least appreciate that she was honest.

Things I Will Not Do When I’m a Mom

For a stay-at-home mom, my mother seemed to resent any time and effort with me. It seemed that from my earliest days on earth, my mother was gossiping on the phone constantly, or carting me to my grandma’s so she could be with other female relatives while I entertained myself.

Till now I’m hard-pressed to think of anything we did to bond. Instead, my mother told me I was difficult to soothe as a baby, and as a toddler, I would keep asking her to read my favorite book. So, she recorded herself reading that book so I would stop pestering her and just listen to the tape. I recall the silver SANYO cassette player more vividly than I can recall any other early toys. My small fingers sometimes needed help with the Rew(ind) and Play buttons.

I taught myself to read my favorite book with the tape recording. Ironically, the book was The Little Red Hen, about a chicken who learned how to grow wheat and bake bread all on her own. My other device was the Speak & Spell. It was the heaviest thing I owned for a long time.

My other early babysitter, the Speak & Spell. It was a veritable brick. CC BY-SA 4.0

Once I learned to read, I devoured all the other books and texts in my parents’ home out of boredom (or neglect). This included the grownup books, and Penthouse and Playhouse magazines in my room in a cabinet under my desk. The girlie magazines were contraband from Hong Kong that my father had hidden in my childhood bedroom. (He put his p0rn in my room for years, presumably to keep them hidden from my mother. Never mind what he thought would happen when I found them — if that entered his mind at all.)

“In My Day”

Growing up in a Confucian and hierarchical culture, the power held by one’s teachers and adult authority figures was absolute. At school, I watched the smallest mistakes and misdemeanors — like forgetting one’s homework or having shoes too dirty — earn the most ridiculously unforgiving punishments.

This made school scary, and if I sought any comfort from my mother, what I got was a hardship contest I couldn’t win. Sympathy from her was conditional on whether my teachers were worse than hers from over 2 decades ago.

Were my teachers prone to losing their temper and shouting? Well, hers used to beat students blue and bloody and throw students’ belongings out of the window. Did my teachers use the wooden ruler to beat our hands or knuckles? Her teacher would do that and make those students stand outside in the rain or hot sun where the entire school body could see.

For every difficult experience I shared or witnessed from my school day, my mother had stories more numerous, horrific, and humiliating. I would feel worse and ashamed, obliged to comfort her and to diminish my own experiences. I had to be “grateful” that my tough days and struggles weren’t as bad. Whatever I went through was literally called nothing next to hers.

And I learned not to bring her any of my troubles unless they were catastrophic.

Sadness and Fear earned Humiliation

At age 5, my cousins and I liked to compare the ages we’d learned to stop crying — because crying was shameful and only for babies. Tears only earned us shaming or the silent treatment.

I had to walk back to my accomplishment at age 6 when I entered school and started getting massive anxiety. My Chinese language classes were a special place of terror for me. Despite the government insistence that I had to study this language because it was my “mother tongue”, neither of my parents actually spoke it and I was learning it from scratch among people who had used the language since birth. For this, I was further shamed while my teachers and classmates treated me like an aberration.

My anxiety gave me emotional breakdowns where I would beg my parents to leave the country or put me in a different school system so I wouldn’t keep facing shaming and bullying from my language teachers and classmates. That didn’t happen, and I learned to swallow and push down my fear and hurt.

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

When I was 11, I broke down again at a school camp because I had been elected leader of a student group that I didn’t know how to manage. I called my mom, crying in despair and desperation to come home. (They didn’t let me.) When I attended the next extended family gathering, I was laughed at and mocked for crying by my aunts and uncles — my mother had supplied them the story, because of course my pain was fair game.

Who was I to expect protection or soothing from my parents, or from any adults? Emotions and tears were just fodder for their shaming and entertainment.

Nitpicking, Fault-Finding, and Drawing Everyone’s Attention to My Flaws

In any society obsessed with looks, it’s said the worst thing that a mother can do to their own daughters is to pick on their appearance and physical flaws. As I went through puberty, however, this was my every day, and I wouldn’t learn till much later just how fucked up this was.

My mother had always hated my thick hair and wouldn’t hesitate to tell me that the small hairs that grew near my forehead were a physiognomic sign that I was lazy and disorganized. And my chin was weak, like its owner. If anyone at all said positive things about my physical features, she would laugh and deny the compliment for me while praising the other person (or their daughter) for their looks or figure.

My mother also spent hours and thousands of dollars on beauty products and services for herself while I had horrible hormonal cystic acne. I had to beg her to buy me facial products and to let me see a dermatologist. I washed my face obsessively, causing red, inflamed skin that was also clogged and bumpy. I cried (again) to see a skin doctor because I was desperate and willing to risk public humiliation by my mother again just for professional help.

It is against this backdrop the Party Incident happened. This party was hosted by our condominium neighbors one door down from us. I was 14 or 15 during this incident, self-conscious, and already doing everything I knew how to do for my skin. I also arrived later to the party than my mother.

When I entered the double front doors of my neighbour’s living room, it was clear my mother had been waiting maliciously for my arrival. Her voice loudly rang over everyone’s heads as she asked in disgust if I had even washed my face before coming because my skin looked so bad.

I washed my face 3 to 5 times a day; I assuredly had washed it before the party. I was also practised by now at affecting numb nonchalance, and I calmly said, yes, I had washed my face. And then I asked, rhetorically and just as loudly, what results she expected when she only bought me the cheapest crap at the drugstore twice a year while she spent hundreds on her own skin every month.

Knowing everyone had heard it, I then ignored her for the rest of the party as she had no comeback. Of course I paid for it after the party when she raged at me at home to never embarrass her like that again. (She was apparently allowed to do it to me with impunity.)

I learned to not count on my mother to be on my side; this woman would always sooner offer me as a free punching bag for public shaming and humiliation and for (somehow) earning her sympathy and validation. Only in hindsight can I guess that she probably made me the villain and ungrateful daughter in her stories. I would not have gotten grace or understanding from the people around her.

My teenage self had likely known this subconsciously; self-isolation and hyper-independence were my friends. Till now, I still hate dealing with anyone from my parents’ generation.

Photo by Artem Podrez

My Mother was My First “Mean Girl”

These stories have just been a few picks out of many more. My mum was my first bully, and my hair was often the battleground — she loved making the hairdresser cut it short (never letting it go past my chin till I was 12) so that I would be forever envious of my cousins and classmates with long hair. She would laugh at the crying 4-year-old me at the salon and on the long way home — a lengthened parade route for my mother to berate my stupidity to the neighbourhood shopkeepers for being upset over a haircut.

It was like walking a gaslighting gauntlet — even the adults who took pity on my tears would try to “comfort” me by saying my mother knew best, that my short hair looked “cute”. Even when I became a teen, I had been conditioned (or tortured) so well that growing out my hair brought guilt and self-doubt.

These early and consistent experiences molded my patterns of avoidance, self-loathing, and distrust of others. This legacy included physical illness: The constant childhood stress and lack of coregulation kicked off several health issues in my teens that stayed at least three more decades: Allergies and chemical sensitivity, endometriosis, anemia; and later, Graves’ Disease.

Through my teens, my parents dragged their feet on getting me medical attention, insisting I was too young to be so sick. They would keep on blaming my health issues on my “habits” even when I was not doing anything different from them or what they’d taught me. This blame just made me hate myself more, always wondering what was wrong with me. I know now that the toxicity I experienced was too much for the younger me to bear.

I Didn’t Know What I had Survived Till Decades Later

I was 39 when I began to learn what emotional abuse was, and then from there to recognise the abuse in my childhood.

It took years and different therapies for me to start seeing the full picture of my mother’s malice and envy. I’ve written elsewhere about my father’s influence as well.

It took even longer to realise that the actual malice I experienced possibly went beyond generational trauma, and is more often part of narcissistic abuse.

Writing about my experiences, especially within an Asian cultural context, has earned me accusations of being “ungrateful”, “lacking filial piety”, having internalized racism, and not understanding generational trauma. The last may be the most unfounded; I’m earning my Masters in Counseling and constantly reading and comparing examples and studies of generational and intersectional trauma, and abuse from Cluster B personality disorders. It’s all trauma, and I’ve paid in lost time, lost health, lost self-worth and confidence, hours of different therapies for CPTSD, and tens of thousands of dollars for the physical and psychological scars.

And, yes, I’m not a fan of high-conformity cultures that want to keep abuse hidden and its youngest and most vulnerable members — children — silent about their abusive adults. That this pain has been passed down for generations is not a rationalization for it to continue or to excuse the people who perpetuate the hurt because “they don’t know better”. I will call out Confucian and Asian “values” that hide abusers and their enablers.

And I’ll wear this badge and fight this fight unapologetically.

And as for the misery contest… Ma, you win.

You can win all of them. You wanted worse for me, and I’m sorry again to disappoint.

Call this one a free treat from me.

In Competition with My Mother was originally published in Age of Empathy on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.