Of all the figures in my life, perhaps the one most difficult to adequately define is also the one who’s played some of the most fundamental roles in my life. My mother. The main example of nurturer and disciplinarian, and a case study on the resiliency and break down of the human spirit, my mom is living proof that people are tremendously complex and ever-changing.
Our relationship is difficult to describe. I love her ferociously as all children love their mothers, but we’ve also hurt each other, we’ve withheld things from one another, and there are parts of our lives that we’ve lived quite separately. Over the last few years we’ve experienced a role reversal of sorts, and I’ve been able to see more of this complex woman and indeed, how similar we are.
As I become older and the women around me in turn become wives and mothers, the topic of ‘mothers’ is often at the forefront of thought and discussion. Being far from this life stage myself, I can speak mostly from a child’s point of view, and perhaps that’s the best place to start. For a child is immature and incomplete in her knowledge of the world, full of odd hopes and dreams. It reminds me that our mothers were also all children once, and you wonder, in their dreams for the future, if you had played a prominent role.
This is a portrait of a woman who is more than who she appears to be on the surface. This is a portrait of a woman who is strong yet flawed, who’s made mistakes, has been wronged, and has suffered tremendously. This is the portrait of a woman who has played many roles; immigrant, enterprising hobbyist, patient wife, sacrificial mother, teacher, nascent dog lover, and a student of the world of hard knocks. This is a portrait of a woman whose story is still being written, a work-in-progress. But aren’t we all?
In my humble and inadequate attempts to draw her likeness, I wonder how she may be viewed from the outside. But regardless of whether or not you and I partake in the same experiences, the same emotions, the same questions, I hope that above all this will serve as a potent reminder that mothers are wonderfully flawed, wonderfully beloved, and wonderfully human.
The bows were pink. Shockingly pink. With white polka dots. Nestled under layers of intricately twisted ribbon figure eights was a formidable army of bows waiting for their moment to shine. Multi-colored, multi-layered, and brilliant, these hair bows were the jewel of mothers who delighted in dressing up their daughters like princesses, and subsequently the treasure of little girls who believed they were.
At five years old, and most decidedly not a princess, the bows were both the bane of my existence and a point of pride. Pride because I had watched my mom painstakingly craft each one of these creations that now hung from the store’s colorful display case; bane because I was often my mom’s unwilling model and assistant. But days like these were my favorite; the days when Mom delivered her bows to the department store, when I could leisurely peruse the aisles of toys, clothes, and stuffed animals of which I was particularly fond, as I waited for her to finish negotiating with the store’s clerks over inventory and planning the next delivery. I would meander over to the hair section and watch little girls squeal over the bows and I would think to myself: ‘That’s my mom!’
Memories of making these bows and buying trips shape many of my early memories. What I find most remarkable is that my mom did this for fun. She had spent much of her 20s as a young housewife, mother of two young girls, and decided to pick up a hobby. In my mom’s quest to dress her daughters up like dolls, her bows were a nod to her Herculean efforts. That other mothers would equally appreciate her artistry was just an afterthought. How she decided on hair bows and approaching local department stores by herself remains a mystery to me, but I’ve always admired her hutzpah and entrepreneurial spirit despite cultural and language differences. And the bows are just one episode in my mom’s enterprising spirit. Her hobbyist’s intense dedication to the craft of her choosing, and her eventual abandonment of said activity dropping it like it was hot, says a lot about her.
I’d see those bows featured prominently in old photographs as we wore them to birthdays, performances, competitions, vacations – a bow for every occasion. In her prolific production I imagine my mom may have been struggling with a question of purpose and identity. She had come to the states from South Korea while in high school and had an early, yet challenging acclimation to American culture; something I came to appreciate greatly as I witnessed my friends’ parents struggle with immigration at a later life stage. She married my dad and became a homemaker for my sister and me while Dad worked to get his PhD. I imagine that my mom aspired to much in her young adulthood, a graduate of the University of Washington with her own life goals, it must have been a departure and a lonely journey as she sacrificed those dreams to tend to two hopelessly demanding infants.
Yet I don’t imagine she questioned it like we do today, the way that we champion the ‘working mother’, or argue whether or not women can truly ‘have it all’, endlessly debating what motherhood should look like when the only thing that is true is that there is no archetype for ‘motherhood’, nor for a ‘working woman’ and certainly not for a ‘working mother’. It was a different time, a different culture in which women were expected to become housewives. For so many women of this generation, cooking, cleaning, child bearing and raising were not so much questions for debate as they were mandates. And so it was for my mom. She quietly and selflessly accepted her fate once she married my dad, and from that point there was no turning back. That loss of ‘self’, the sacrifice of youth, dreams, energies, the effects of a life dedicated to serving a family that often times took her for granted and caused unimaginable pain; I question, did the return offset the investment?
The increasing rates of depression and mental health issues among older women, which I’ve seen manifest strongly and devastatingly in my own mom and in many others, has made a lasting impression on me as to how I view family life and the role of a mother in that unit. The decision to become a mother is not an easy one to make. In observing the transition to motherhood for my friends, I see more clearly now the struggle and sacrifice, the juxtaposition, the need to feel wholly ‘mother’ against the desire to feel still independent and free as a ‘woman’.
As I reflect on my mom’s love for us, I draw the eventual parallels to God’s love for us. You hear all the time that these are quite analogous in their characteristics of selfless sacrifice and sometimes unfathomable pain and the Bible uses numerous examples of a mother’s love to demonstrate God’s character and comfort. But where our mothers are human and wonderfully flawed, God the Father loves perfectly. God’s love infinitely surpasses a mother’s love, and personally speaking, what a relief.
As selfless as it is, a mother’s love hurts, it can backfire and turn abusive, and it suffers. Sometimes a mother’s love feels conditional on good behavior, circumstances, success and achievements. A mother’s love can fail. But God, in his omniscient understanding and power, loves perfectly and unconditionally, no matter how much we wound and fail Him. And if Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the purest representation of the selfless, overwhelming power of love, then our human efforts are quite simply no match. Yet the grace of the gospel engenders love and forgiveness within us; Christ’s power within us ensures that we too have these powerful tools at hand, ready to unleash on the world. Ready to unleash on the most difficult ones to love, which may ironically be the ones we love most.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
On a recent trip home I came across a box of bows amongst rolls of unused ribbon and glue sticks. There they were, still pristine in their condition despite the years gone by. You can’t find bows like these anymore. Harkening to a different era of femininity (and perhaps madness), the craftsmanship is unparalleled to today’s imported mass-production. With each painstaking, unique design I realized that more than the monetary or aesthetic value these bows provided in my childhood, they represented yards of a mother’s love to create something beautiful for her daughters. And perhaps they also fulfilled that part of a young woman who wanted to continue carving out an identity for herself outside the confines of her household, her husband, and her children in the way that so many of us strive to find purpose and create a legacy today.
My mom didn’t love perfectly, but the beauty of the gospel promises that no matter how flawed we are in our love for one another, we are still loved wholly and perfectly by the Father. So I can’t help but look back fondly on those bows, tinged with both sentimentality and some regret. How beautiful the colored and winding manifestation of sacrifice and love, and if I ever have a daughter, I can’t wait to give her one.
This is the first part of what I hope to be a series of vignettes and thoughts on a mother-daughter relationship. And while I fully understand that these stories are representative of neither the normalcy nor craziness of the world’s mothers, they are wholly representative of mine.
Kathryn is the founder of That’s What She. After years spent roaming through the wilderness, she met Christ in adulthood and hasn’t looked back. An avid lover of storytelling and prone to run-ons, she hopes to embark on this journey with all of you and learn quite a few things along the way.