Bad Moms, Good Moms, and Burnt Toast

In the glass door of the studio, I could see the ghost image of my reflection staring back at me as I huffed through a series of triceps curls during a Pilates boot camp class. I focused on my feet: wide and angular around my bunions, thanks to poor shoe choices when I was younger. My instructor is a long, slip of thing, like a ballerina. I think she could fit two of her feet into the width of on of my shoes.
Quickly, I shift my eyes back to my oblique curves and a flat, post-pregnancy abdomen, once split 2 inches wide open. Not bad for a mom who is well north of 29. Go ahead. Roll your eyes. What if I also told you that I have one boob, my stomach skin sags a little and I have had to consistently work for my new shape for the last six years? Still want to hate me

There was this mom that I knew back before I started Pilates 6 years ago. She had greasy hair, wouldn’t shower for days, wore jeans, which gave her a muffin top, fished from the dirty clothes bin, . She had a short temper, snapped at her children and husband and was late to her first child’s first-ever play. She secretly regretted that she thought she could ever be a mom. Pathetic right? What do you think now when I confess that woman was I, going through post-partum depression, just before being diagnosed with Stage III breast-cancer.

Today as I procrastinated about writing a tribute to moms for mother’s day, I read a FB post from a dear friend about a new movie, “Bad Moms.” The trailer was ripe with funny spoofs on perfect moms and bad moms. I can’t wait to see this movie and have a good laugh with my mom friends.

Then I thought about my mom. My mom was almost orphaned at the age of five, her father and brothers were assassinated by North Korean forces during the Korean War. Her mother, found buried alive in a pit of dead bodies, became, by my mom’s account, psychologically insane. At age ten, my mom moved out on her own when her grandmother passed away. No one in her home would support her desire to get an education. She lived and helped a distant family in Seoul who in return allowed to to go to school until she could support herself. After a short-lived enlistment in the Korean Army, she was medically discharged. She found a job on the American military base and met my father. That is how she became my mom.

When I think of my mom, I think about burnt toast. Around the age of 8, left own to make breakfast, I burnt my toast several times before learning to adjust the toaster dial. I remember how quickly my mom blamed me when things went wrong. If I defended myself, she would scream, “I go lie down in street, get run over by car. You see how wrong you to talk back to me!” In the care of others, I was sexually and emotionally abused a few times. I never told her until I was an adult because I thought I would make her angry. Sounds horrible right?

But wait. I also remember waking up at 2:00 am in the morning, going into the dining room and finding my beautiful mother, smelling like Chanel No 5 and cigarette smoke, her red-dyed hair piled high in an early 70’s bouffant, and perfectly winged eyeliner. She would sit quietly with one knee pulled up close to her as ate her late dinner of Kim chi and rice. Worn out from her night shift of waiting on soldiers at the NCO club, she would let me wiggle into her lap and share her late night feast with me before sending me back off to bed to get some rest.

Money was always an issue so my mother was always working to make ends meet. Money became her way to make up for her absences in my life. When a person is struggling, just trying to get by to pay rent, buy food and clothing for three children, there is very little time for understanding that no amount of money can ever take the place of an intentional and present mother. I swore to myself that I would do better.

Then I became a mom. When my son was born, my mom would visit me. I barely recognized her. She cooked huge Korean food feasts and took care of Jory. She was vivacious, silly, patient, and so very loving; everything you would imagine a good grandmother to be, a good mom to be. At first, I resented this. I would yell at her for letting my child sleep too long. Unruffled, she continued to help me. When I became sick with breast cancer, she would roll her small black suitcase through my front door and take on all my burdens so that I could get well. I dubbed her the Korean Ninja, as she would tirelessly fly through meal preparations, dirty laundry, vacuuming and caring for my two children.

Did I have to work on forgiving her? You bet.  Time to be an adult. I established self-care boundaries with her to take care of my family and me. Is that hard to do? Only when I let it be. Do I love her? Yes, I give her my unconditional love. Is she a great mom? No. She is even better. She is my mom. I know in my heart that given her background, her circumstances and her big heart, she did the best she could with what she knew. Let’s just say, she burnt a lot of toast.

Being a mom is a profound life-purpose. Even if you are not a mom, being a mother, as a woman, is a role we all share in our universal village. When my mom was unavailable, there were other women; some were moms, and others who had no children. Like Laura Schroff, writer of her memoir, “Invisible Thread,” they mothered me. They were kind to me. They encouraged me. They saw strengths and talents in me. They gave unconditional love to me. I am a better person because of them.

These days, I rarely talk to my mom. She is “starting over,” she likes to say. She lives with her boyfriend in the mountains of Virginia. She visits to see her grandchildren once a year. I don’t call often because as it’s hard to communicate with her on the phone. Occasionally, she sends money or gifts to her grandchildren to make up for the hole the hole that she has left in our lives. Do I allow that to hurt me? No. I can’t change her. I empower myself and choose to not make it an issue.

In the meantime, I continue to work on being the best mom and me that I can. Sometimes, I bake an epic birthday cake. Sometimes, I burn the toast. Most importantly, I don’t keep score. Because, it’s not about “good mom” or “bad mom;” it’s not about “us” vs. “them.” It’s about being in this world, trying to be your best and making it better together. Happy mother’s day to every woman.

Shine on!

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