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Take a Picture
By Kelly Hung
Ten years ago, I woke to the sound of a woman weeping. That night, I had elected to sleep in my mother’s room; Dad was away on a business trip, and Mom didn’t like sleeping alone.
I remember the moon shining in through the windows, the trees from the streets below casting shadows upon the bedroom wall. The room, thus, was strangely illuminated; the night had become a stranger version of day. When my hand twitched to the left, I noticed that the water bed felt strangely empty. Vacated. I guess Mom got up for water, I thought.
That’s when I noticed the crying. It didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard before—there was a strange sadness to the heavy breathing; the anguish was almost tangible. As I sat up in bed, the sounds subsided, and I was met with silence.
I remember sliding off the bed and peering around the corner and feeling startled when I saw my mom kneeling on the ground, her arms clasped together in front of her, as if beseeching someone. She was facing the open bathroom door, where the small window in the corner of the bathroom let in a sliver of light, casting her face into eerie shadow. I could hear her softly whispering to the gods above, imploring somebody, anybody, to listen to her, to help her endure motherhood.
She never noticed me standing there, never realized that her youngest was standing three feet away, an unwelcome intruder in an oddly private, intimate moment. She never let her eyes waver; she never let her head tilt to the side; she never noticed my presence at all.
I remember marveling at her exposed fragility; she never revealed any weaknesses when Dad was there. Maybe it had to do with pride; maybe she just didn’t want to cause more stress for him. But really, it was all because she knew that Dad didn’t like hearing about her frustrations with child-rearing—Tim’s temper problems coupled with my inability to be more amicable resulted in many sleepless nights for my mother, but that was all it was: sleepless nights. She didn’t reveal her frustrations during the day; only under the cover of darkness did she let herself slip into a darker frame of mind.
I remember the cold white tiles beneath my feet; I remember, falsely, a breeze in the room—falsely, because my mother never sleeps with open windows: she doesn’t trust the world enough. I remember feeling, for the first time in my life, scared—scared because somehow, I felt that this moment, this snapshot would be a turning point in my life. A point of no return.
I remember thinking that there was scarcely anything worse, in a child’s mind, than hearing a parent cry, because crying shows weakness—and when a kid realizes that her parents are, in fact, weak, the world becomes a little darker.
There are things called flashbulb memories: memories so intensely emotional, so intensely vivid that they become seared, burned into your memory, bright as a camera flash. This was one of them.
Take a picture.
My mother never shied away from letting us know how much she regrets having children—or, rather, she never shied away from letting me know how much she regrets having children. It’s rather strange, I know, to say that a child of six became her mother’s sole confidante. But, because my parents had decided that Dad’s career in Taiwan shouldn’t stop my brother and me from receiving a superior education in the United States, my mother raised us alone, in America. Even when my mother called my father to discuss child-rearing tactics—well, Dad was always the type to bury his head into the ground whenever problems arose. And, because my brother was the root of the grief my mother felt, I became my mother’s confidante by default.
When she drove me to piano lessons, she’d look into the rearview mirror and tell me about how she envied the freedom that her still-single-and-childless friends possessed. Sometimes, instead of a bedtime story, she’d tell me the story about a girl who stayed independent and free her entire life, unattached to obligations and parental responsibilities. Other times, when things got tougher at home when my brother rebelled—when voices thundered and shouts ensued—she’d directly tell me about the freedom that was stolen from her hand.
It’s funny because it’s not as traumatizing for me as you might think. Maybe it’s because I always knew that my mom regrets having children: my brother and I—well, my brother, really—were difficult children to raise. My mother’s frustrations were kept bottled up inside because my mother found it difficult to make friends in a foreign country. So, from the time I was old enough to hold my own in a game of tag, my mother confided in me daily: from the time I was six, my mother would tell me about her fear and guilt about my brother—had she done something wrong with her parenting methods so that my brother turned out to have low emotional intelligence?—to her wistful regret regarding childbirth. If she hadn’t had children, she could still be living in Taiwan, among her family members, instead of here, in America, where even her newly found citizenship status does not make her belong.
Without children, she’d still be in her motherland, working as an independent woman, traveling as a free individual, and living without bounds. She might have become the freelance writer she always dreamed of becoming. She might have lived differently, daringly. Yes, these regrets of hers I always knew. And, since I have always been my mother’s confidante, I understood, as a matter of familiarity, that my mother’s regret was real; I never thought it my place to question her sentiments.
Yes, I always knew that she resented motherhood. She wasn’t afraid to let me know this, but, to her credit, she wanted me to avoid the same sadness and lack of freedom that might befall any mother. As a deterrent, she would always tell me about how much pregnancy and childbirth sucks.
“It’s nine months of torture. Your feet get swollen. You get fat,” she once told me.
Hearing this, I looked up from my toy cars and gave her a once-over. Sitting cross-legged on our ugly green couch, she didn’t look fat to me. In fact, I’d always thought my mother was pretty. Her face was well-balanced. Arched eyebrows. Large eyes. Straight nose. Naturally full, thick, dark brown hair that fell straight, like a waterfall, to her shoulders. The only downside? Her blobby freckles.
“But…then you get to have a baby!” I responded, still cheerful.
“Yes, but so many health problems could come up. When I was pregnant with you, I got high blood pressure. And, now, Mommy has to take pills every day.”
A surge of guilt racked through my body, but, seeking reassurance, I asked, “But…you’re glad you had me, right?”
She didn’t respond at first, but then she muttered, under her breath, “Not to mention that having babies makes your butt huge.”
She’s not alone in her sentiments. More and more, Taiwanese men and women refuse to have children. According to the 2013 list of birth rates compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, of 224 sovereign states and dependent territories, Taiwan ranks 216th. To put things in perspective, in Niger, for every 1,000 people, there are 46.84 births. In the United States, there are 13.66; in Canada, 10.28. In Taiwan, there are 8.61 births for every 1,000 people.
As things stand, the birth rate will only continue to dwindle in both the United States and Taiwan: many couples are choosing not to have kids given the current economic situation in either country. They worry that giving life—forcing life—to someone is the same as dooming an innocent individual to a life in a corrupt, poverty-stricken world. More specifically, many women regret having children—just as my mother does. According to The China Post, approximately twenty percent of working Taiwanese mothers regret having children, citing the psychological and financial burdens that come with motherhood. Indeed, my mother feels that the psychological burden of having children wasn’t and still isn’t worth it—the pain and loss of freedom just isn’t worth it.
My mother’s sisters share the same general opinion. Aunt Joyce, who lives in China, was around forty when she had her daughter, Youshika. Prior to that, Aunt Joyce had been an adventurer, a diva. She had loved traveling across Asia, seeing the countless sights and tasting the endless tastes of a world that was filled with open doors. She had been free with her time and money. But, once she had Youshika, she realized that her freedom-filled days were over. Yes, upon realizing that she was pregnant, Aunt Joyce cried for days.
Yet, Aunt Joyce once told me, “I do regret giving birth to Youshika. It was an accident. But…” she quickly added, glancing at her sleeping daughter. “That doesn’t mean I don’t love her.”
Maybe regret and love don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Maybe that’s the key.
I was lying before when I said that my mother’s regret hasn’t had much of an effect on me. That’s not true: I resent the very idea that marriage and childbirth—giving birth to me—is, in my mother’s eyes, the prime reason for her lack of freedom, her imprisonment. Yes, she has had many regrets in her life. From getting married to having children to agreeing to raise us in a foreign country without Dad.
Yes, I think I was lying whenever I told myself that I didn’t mind her regret, because I think I do, just a little. Because if she had the option, if she could have a do-over, she would choose to have me killed while I was in her womb. Maybe that’s why when I was little I always told her that I regretted being born. I thought that telling her this—hurting her like this—might give her a snapshot into my own pain.
I remember now, in hindsight, that Mom would use analogies to warn me not to have children in the future. Beyond the physical and psychological health risks, she always characterized parenthood as a game of chance.
Recently, I broached the topic once more.
“Mom, do you actually…regret having children?”
She looked at me with a kind of faraway look in her eye, and I imagined her mulling over various ways to answer me. After all, I’d be eighteen—and she’d be done with me—in three months.
“I think…that having children is a game of chance. You never know what kind of kid you’re going to have. And let me tell you,” she said, staring hard at me, “if your kid turns out to be emotionally unstable, you never get over the guilt. That’s why—” Here we go again, I thought “—you shouldn’t have children. Don’t even consider adopting, either.”
It’s all a game of chance, a game that my mother regrets playing. From all those years acting as my mother’s confidante, I, too, became horrified at the mere sign that one of my brother’s outbursts was about to ensue. His livid face and raised voice and vicious glares were often too much for me to bear, and I used to view my bed as the only safe haven in the world. I used to watch out for signs of the heavy breathing that served as a doubtless indicator that my brother was about to blow up at us. Yes, as my mother’s confidante, I gained a unique understanding of my mother’s uncertainty when it came to her relationship with my brother. I came to understand that motherhood is, in a way, just a glorified form of indentured servitude. A prison sentence.
That night, all those years ago, when I woke to the sound of my mother weeping—that night had been preceded by a terrible fight between my brother and my mother. There had been screaming and yelling. I had been terrified.
That night, my mother lay sleepless as she pondered her own perceived mistakes, as she thought about the many hard years still to come. She wondered if, somewhere along the line, she had made some dreadful mistake when she was raising my brother, wondered if perhaps allowing us to be separated from Dad was the worst mistake she could have made. She wondered if our education was really worth it, if a fatherless family could ever really be complete. She lay there resenting the heartbreak, questioning her right to be a mother—and beyond that, she lay there longing for the stolen freedom that was no longer hers.
That night, my mother’s hair was tied in a small pony tail, and the rest of her hair framed her face. In Taiwan, they call this method of hair-tying “princess hair.” There was moonlight, the cold tiled floor, the high window in the bathroom, the lack of a breeze. The picture, the snapshot of that night lays in my mind, clear, untainted.
When she married, my mother lost much of her freedom, and when she had kids, she lost
it all. Yes, prior to motherhood, my mother was a relatively successful businesswoman; managers scrambled to hire her. Her good looks and quick wit made her a favorite among her colleagues, and she balanced her work life with her familial duties with ease. Even when her mother—my grandmother—was diagnosed with cancer, my mother remained strong, going to work by day and visiting my grandmother by night, always staying brave.
She quit her job for motherhood. And, when my family decided to live in the United States to give my brother and me a better education than our motherland could offer, my mother became a prisoner. With no relatives and scarcely any friends in a foreign land where her native tongue eludes her, my mother became a prisoner for twenty-one long years. And for the past twenty-one years, my mother made every sacrifice she could for her children; she gave everything she could, even when she suffered heartache and depression; she gave everything she could until twenty-one years’ worth of sacrifice, of imprisonment, was up. I can’t give back her freedom. After all, there’s no easy way to hand back twenty-one stolen years.
And right now, I think my mother’s scared. In three months, soon after I turn eighteen, my mother will be free. For the first time in twenty-one years, she will be free to do as she pleases. She can leave the United States, where I know she has never felt like she belonged. She can travel, as I know she’s always wanted to. She can claim back her life, as I know she deserves to.
For the first time in twenty-one years, she’ll be free of direct obligation to her children. She won’t be tied down anymore, and I think that scares her. For the first time in twenty-one years, her daily life won’t be mandated by the wishes of her children; for the first time in twenty-one years, she’ll be free to do whatever she pleases.
But, I have a feeling that she won’t know what to do with herself. Because for the first time in twenty-one years, she’ll be allowed to live her life.
And I’ll be left to fend for myself.
What’s funny is that all this time, I’ve thought about how my mother will be a scared kind of free person. And then I think about myself.
She’s really the only parent I’ve ever had. Dad always lived in a different country. And it’s only been the two of us since my brother went off to college. We’ve grown close, I think. Relatively. I am her sole confidante, but she is mine, as well. She’s told me her regrets about life; she’s opened herself and cut herself open for me until I could see her very essence. Yes, she’s the only parent I’ve ever known. But, when I graduate, when I move away from home, when I leave her, three months from now--
I’m not sure I can move on.
"20% of Working Mothers Regret Having Kids: Poll." The China Post. The China Post, n.d.
Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
"Flashbulb Memory." Memory Technologies. University of Illinois at Chicago, n.d. Web. 22 Feb.
"List of Sovereign States and Dependent Territories by Birth Rate." Wikipedia. Wikimedia
Foundation, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
#Real #Essay #FirstPerson #Motherhood #Womanhood #Mothers #NoChildren #IDontWantChildren #NoKids #Mom
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