One of my best friends recently had a baby. In helping to plan her mother blessing – a take on a baby shower inspired by Native American traditions that instead center the mother – I asked all of her guests to write a letter that she could read postpartum, on a hard day, because hard days were sure to come.
It’s almost impossible to make you laugh, but you love to share gummy smiles with us, and on rare and wonderful occasions, tiny chuckles. If I bury my nose deep enough under your arms or neck, sometimes I can dig for those chuckles.
You like to grin at us too, your eyes creasing with joy as you stick your tongue out of the corner of your mouth.
Sometimes, Instagram is a place of wonder. Other times, it’s a place of utter bullshit. I recently stumbled upon two instagram posts that allowed me to wallow in the wonder. These two posts really captured how I’ve been feeling about my nascent motherhood. The first post I saw was a mother of multiple children who wrote that before becoming a mother, she had no idea that having children was a lifelong agreement to have your heart live outside your body for the rest of your life. The second post was a mother who wrote that she would literally carry her son on her back, even if it broke all her bones in the process.
If you were to ask me how motherhood feels so far, in terms of how I feel about my daughter, the above just about sums it up. No biggy.
I am a nineties baby. As a young girl, I proudly learnt about things like “girl power” and feminism.
I was a little, multiracial sponge, moving through childhood absorbing messages about race, identity and gender. I learnt how to be attractive (aspire to be white and appeal to men’s whims, whatever they might be), how to identify (strong, protective, funny, exotic), how to be strong (read: reject things perceived as feminine) and how not to be weak (read: be openly feminine). Friends, society really did a number on me.
This messaging also affected how I showed up in my family. I have two younger brothers. As the eldest sibling, I believed that I had to be my brothers’ protector. In my mind, this equated to physical strength. Based off of the lessons I was unwittingly absorbing from society, media and family, my child‘s brain did the maths and came to the conclusion that feminine equalled weak, and masculine equalled strong. It seemed simple enough. I suppressed the part of myself that was intrigued by pink, that wanted to be “pretty”, that liked cooking, that really wanted to learn to knit, and instead tried to emulate Action Man. We had the same scar on our left cheek after all, so that had to be a sign.
I learnt how to impress my family and friends by doing twenty press ups in a row, and I was the undisputed mercy mercy champion.
Wikipedia describes Mercy as:
…a game of strength, skill, endurance, and pain tolerance popular in Britain, Canada, Pakistan, India, the United States, and elsewhere. The game is played by two players who grasp each other’s hands (with interlocked fingers). The aim is to twist the opponents hands or bend the fingers until the opponent surrenders. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercy_(game)
My then-twisted understanding of “girl power” and feminism warped gender into a one way street. Writing in Time Magazine, Allison Yarrow noted how the nineties had done a number on her too.
The “Girl Power” movement promised that progress for women would trickle down to girls…In the end, the 1990s didn’t advance women and girls; rather, the decade was marked by a shocking, accelerating effort to subordinate them. As women gained power, or simply showed up in public, society pushed back by reducing them to gruesome sexual fantasies and misogynistic stereotypes. Women’s careers, clothes, bodies, and families were skewered. (90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality (Harper Perennial, 2018).)
Fast forward a few decades and I’m on the verge of thirty. As I look my third decade in the eye, I realise that I have finally been freed from vehemently resisting the qualities, traits and interests which I deemed “girly” and weak as a child. I am embarrassed to say that this shift is a relatively recent one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a bloody lifetime of working on gender and identity to figure out who and what I am, but the true shift finally occurred when I had my daughter. Giving birth opened the door to the things that I turned my back on as a child, and welcomed them back in.
Pregnancy, labour and motherhood have taught me lessons that have left me flat on my back. I have learnt that it is impossible to parent without humility and grace. As I’ve leaned more and more into motherhood, I’ve come to understand that to be soft is to be strong. I know that sounds like an Instagram caption, but hear me out. The physical strength which saw me become the Mercy champion of my prepubescent peers did nothing for me during labour when I had to relax, release and relent. The upper arm capabilities which allowed me to do twenty press ups didn’t help me when my daughter would not stop crying and required patience and softness. I have learnt to be a great mother by slowly allowing pieces of myself to return back to me.
As my life has shifted into rhythms of breastfeeding, care-taking, cooking and cleaning (just joking, my house is a shit show), tasks which I watched my mother do, but never actually saw and appreciated, I’ve realised that all the things that I thought were weaknesses, are today my super powers.
Excerpt of interview
Jess: Reading this book for me was such a sensory experience. I felt like when I read it, I read it with my whole body. There were parts of it that felt like home, that smelt like home, that sounded like home. I saw you posted a Spotify playlist that was kind of the playlist the soundtrack of you writing this, and I was wondering what foods and scents you were surrounded by as you manifested this
Ocean: Oh Lord, I work whenever I can, and I work at night so often I. I wrote a lot of this book in New York and some of it in New England. And it’s usually just the smell of dew and wood fire coming through the window. But I think I went back to to all the sensory details and the richness of Connecticut and the tobacco farm that I worked on, the barns, the Vietnamese kitchen which is its own world. And the sounds and the textures. I wanted the book to have an embodied sense of knowledge, because for so many of us immigrants and refugees, when your tongue is gone, when English is not available to you, you have to learn other languages – the language of the body, the language of vigilance, and I was taught by these women to look at the world and read the world with not only words, but the way people move, to understand how people look at you, to understand it, to make my way through sense and sound to understand the tone.
I love you.
I don’t remember the last time that I thought that, let alone put pen to paper and etched it into my mind.
This is a love letter to you and the journey that you have been on.
A journey that started in your grandmother’s womb.
My article for Ethnic Seattle can be found here
“Another hot button topic in our country right now is illegal immigration. Often you’ll hear people (mostly those critical of immigrant rights) use the phrase “Illegals” when talking about undocumented immigrants. Yet Holocaust Survivor and world-renown writer and activist Elie Wiesel has famously told us that, “no human being is illegal.” His reasoning:
“Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal… Once you label a people ‘illegal,’ that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews.””
From this great article
Get knee deep in my latest piece for Ethnic Seattle: “Xin Chào magazine shares stories of the Vietnamese-American experience”