My Mother, Her Daughter

My Mother, Her Daughter

Kate Jane Villanueva
Media Staff

I hated my mother for a long time. 

And right now, I cringe at the sight of those words on a page because I have never uttered them out loud, much less to another person. They were always words of hardened resentment lodged in my throat that fought against every breath I took. But despite the culture of filial piety that I am still steeped in, I must admit, it’s the truth.

I resented her for the trauma she passed on, resented that I had to be the daughter to break this cycle. Why must I be the one to nurture my inner child? I never asked to be a mother, not now, not to myself. While my peers received antique recipe books and beautifully preserved woolen coats, my only family heirloom was this collective hurt, built up from emotional isolation carelessly thrown from generation to generation. 

You see, this generational hurt has imprisoned us each in our own glass castles—able to see each other’s pain, yet isolated all the same. But my god, it’s a beautiful prison, isn’t it? My mother would always beam around her friends, “look at the way my children shimmer, watch how they glisten in the sunlit showers of success.” She was always an artful storyteller, weaving loose strands of memories into a tapestry of a tale. Her best story, though, was the one she told others about us—that false story of composure, of the American dream, of the perfect nuclear family. A story that made me feel like I was never quite enough because how could I ever live up to her fantasy?

Growing up, I craved my mother’s validation, starved for it—truthfully, I still do. I remember as a kid, every time we had something to celebrate—an A+, an academic award, an immaculate musical performance, an elegant ballet show, a winning soccer goal—my mother would pick me up and whisk me around. I remember how my legs would whirl around in erratic circles, how the wind would dance through my hair, and how warm laughter would echo through the halls of our home. I remember how her joy, her love, her validation felt so freeing that it felt like flying. 

Then one day, maybe I grew too tall, maybe we grew too far apart, but she stopped spinning me around. Maybe that’s when I started to love carnival rides and roller coasters, ones that would whirl me around like there was no tomorrow because they made me feel like a little girl again—her little girl.

But I also remember how I tiptoed through our glass castles, holding my breath, afraid that my very presence would cause this glistening castle to come crashing down. A castle my mother so seemingly cherished. Instead, I slapped Scooby-Doo band aids of shiny smiles and golden laughter on the hairline fractures in the walls. But the fragility of the castle begged release, the glass was desperate to be shattered. 

Yet somehow it never did.

I probably will never have the kind of emotional reckoning pictured in blockbuster movies like Everything Everywhere All At Once or Turning Red, movies where the immigrant mother and second generation daughter finally understand each other, finally see each other, melting their decades of difference in one all-consuming hug. The only apologies I’ll ever receive from my mom are a bowl of Korean melon that was painstakingly hand-peeled with a knife and an offer for a night walk around our quiet neighborhood. But maybe that should be enough.

My mother often tells me that she’s not good at English, that when we fight, I speak too fast—weaponized words fly over her head in a frustrated fury. But our barriers have never just been about language. No, our barrier was always about understanding. 

How strange it is that we are two individuals who so desperately want to connect with each other, but fail to every time. I envy the friends who turn to their moms for advice, gossip about friends and potential significant others, go shopping and eat delicious feasts, spend nights in doing skincare and watching old movies. I envy those friends who confide in their mothers about their deepest secrets, their greatest fears, their joys, their aspirations, their desires; the friends who were loved in the way that they wanted—needed—to be loved. I crave that bond. And I hate that I do. 

But us? We are rotating in two different orbits, always just barely missing each other. And sometimes this orbit feels less like spinning and more like falling. Falling down. Falling apart. Do you feel like you’re falling too, 妈妈 (mama)? Will we always be victims to this abyss of disconnection, lost from each other, lost forever?

Some days I ask myself why I care so much. Some days it feels easier to leave than to stay. Some days it still feels like the umbilical cord was never cut. Some days it feels like we’re tied by that invisible string, trading the same pain back and forth, back and forth.

But other days, when you hug me deeply and clutch my icy hands, asking “Why are your fingers so cold, you never eat enough,” I remember why I always return. Because on days like those, days where you were the mother I always needed and I was the daughter you always wanted, our castle walls look less like glass and more like a mirror.

For mothers are oracles for us daughters, simultaneously a window into the future and glimpse into the past. And when I remember this, I remember that I cannot hate my mother because she is both my architect and my blueprint. She is partly me and I am partly her. Her history is embedded within my DNA and ignoring her will not save me from her same fate.