I watched with envy as my mother handed the blue Mickey Mouse watch to my younger brother. I listened as she said, “Blue is for boy. Red is for girl.” Even though I heard her saying those words, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t designated anywhere on the box sent by my Abuela. My mother wrapped my Abuela’s gift around my brother’s wrist while I struggled to put on the stupid dumb red one that I totally didn’t want because blue was my favorite color, ever! I stared angrily at my mother while making my brother my new sworn enemy because he was totally ruining my life.
My mother had many lines of distinction about what girls do versus what boys do. Girls learned to play piano, whereas guitar was more suited for boys. Girls didn’t wear black because it made us look depressing and unattractive, whereas boys could because it would make them distinguished and handsome. Girls cleaned the house, boys took out the trash; even though, taking out the trash took 20 seconds and cleaning the house took all-freaking-day. Girls got jobs at 16 to support themselves and boys got a new car at 18 to go to college without ever even having a newspaper route.
There were always clear lines about gender roles in my childhood home, maybe this is why I am so different with my two daughters. While my mother was trying to teach me to be a proper lady who would meld into the mindset of 50’s style mothers in hand-embroidered aprons making apple pies for empty windowsills, I became fiery, rebellious. Joan Jett was my spirit animal. I still excitedly don black clothing from top to bottom and Converse are my businessy business shoe. However, what I have found to be the sweetest revenge is that I made an important choice to make sure my two daughters would be inquisitive, smart, intense, and unyielding in their curiosity.
Like any mother, I think Umma (that’s Korean for mom) did the best that she could. She was an immigrant that barely knew how to speak English, who came to this country in her early twenties. Before I even reached double digits, my father was gone and she had to figure out how to support her two kids without an American education, hardly a grasp on the English language, few skills to offer, and absolutely no family support.
I have a different story. I grew up in this country, I have family and friends here, my daughters have their biological dad and a stepfather, who didn’t want to stop walking them to school long after they were ready, and endless aunties and uncles who are invested in their future. I work 9 -5 and have weekends free to let myself be an adult when the girls are with their dad, so when they are back, we can love each other rather than resent each other. I am not a mother who feels trapped or scared. I am not a woman who feels trapped or scared. I will do all I can to make sure that my daughters are equipped with the tools to never feel trapped or scared in a way that prevents them from living.
When my parents split up, there was never a conversation in my family. My brother and I were uprooted to Virginia where we simply lived without our father. When I decided to leave my ex-husband, I looked at my little tiny girls and said, “Mommy and Daddy aren’t going to be married anymore, but we still love you.”
When my period came, I cried in my bedroom assuming I was dying and felt a deep shame when my mom asked me why I kept throwing away my bloody underwear. When I answered, my mother explained nothing to me except for handing me a box of maxi-pads, leaving me to believe that I was going to bleed forever. My daughters found out about periods at a dinner party after running up to me and requesting a Tampax, which they mistook as bright neon colored skirts that twirled when you danced.
I met my stepfather because I came home from work one day and wondered who the man was in my mother’s room. Because I had adapted to the silence of my mother about her life, I didn’t even scream, “INTRUDER! INTRUDER!” rather, I calmly called her at The Jade Dragon, where she worked and asked who he was. It turned out that it was her boyfriend who had moved in that day. When my daughters met the man that would later be their stepfather, we chose a public place, Zoolights in Lincoln Park, where they didn’t have to immediately adjust to calling him dad or washing his underpants.
It won’t surprise you to find out that I had been living with a man long before my mother approached the subject of sex. Everything she had to say about it was in a simple question about whether we used condos. She meant condoms. While we didn’t use condos, because we were renters, I already knew a lot about having sex and just continued eating my soup and avoiding eye contact with my mother. My daughters, on the other hand, have to deal with loud sexually free women and men who have no social censors and tell them way more than they ever need to know… ever.
Raising my daughters feels terrifying every day. Maybe it would help if Umma would talk to me about her experience as a mother. Instead, she reminds me that she worked hard and that it hurt her not to be around. She hasn’t been able to open up and tell me what her fears were beyond money and hoping that no one found out that my brother and I were alone all day, while she was waitressing. Maybe, that’s all she needs to say, because as a mother, what more do you want than to protect your children and keep them close?
Every choice I make about my girls feels like the wrong ones even when I’ve weighed all the options. There are no words that comfort my heart about doing the right thing. I see my daughters as young women who need guidance and encouragement to be active participants of the world around them, but what do I know about raising children? I never held a baby until I held my oldest daughter in my arms. I never had a mother around that shaped my ideas on motherhood. I did have a friend named “Cyndi” who got knocked up our senior year of high school, but she was having a baby from a guy she met a week before so I’m not sure how much she knew at the time.
When the girls were smaller, I understood so many things that my mother did. Disciplining them for simple actions like, “Don’t bite your brother’s face,” was simple to figure out. As they get older, it seems like disciplining, in the traditional sense, isn’t the way. Conversations flow freely in our home. The girls seem to approach me with ease, even if they are scared. They are bold in their questions and statements, even when I think they are jumping the gun in their thoughts and ideas. And though, I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing by being so free in the communications that my mom refused to allow in my childhood home, I’m not sure I’ve heard of a better way.
My oldest daughter plays guitar. She paints her room with bold vibrant blues. She loves basketball, reading, and will not let you talk to her sister that way! She’s fiercely loyal and determined. My youngest draws comic strips, with characters that have blood dripping from their eyes. She wears black dresses, pulls her hair back, and hops on her bike to ride to school in her high top Vans through the city. She is firm in her convictions and fiery in her attitude.
Both girls, 16 and 13, have been able to sit at tables and discuss their burgeoning political views, ideas on books, and how to properly roast a chicken. They laugh at jokes that embarrass me and know when to be empathetic to my feelings. We have a beautiful relationship because they are beautiful young ladies. Ladies, that I have helped raise, but also ladies who are their own people, separate and because of me. They are amazing.
And so is my Umma. Umma, did exactly as I do. She made judgements based on what she thought was right with the added barrier of not speaking my language. She was flawed as I am and as my children will be when they have children, but how can you be perfect when you’re always learning? Babies become children, children become teenagers, and teens become adults. It’s exciting that it doesn’t stop. They keep growing into different roles as they age and so do parents to the point, that soon, my children may need to take care of me as I begin to return to a helpless self.
My hope for them is that they will remember that gender roles, fear, and self doubt aren’t reasons to not take action; that they have a mother, fathers, uncles, aunties, and friends who are always in their corner; to learn to make educated decisions in order to take calculated steps; and that they can have the goddamn blue watch if they want it.
As a matter of fact, I think that after all this time has passed, now that my brother and I are adults, I think Umma would give me the watch today. I think she would recognize that she, a woman, was the reason that our family thrived and that me, a woman, is someone she can depend on despite what instrument I play. That I’m an equal, a peer, and her advocate. It’s ironic, that now, I find myself waiting for the day that my daughters see me the same way.