Sarah’s room needs cleaning. The moment I thought that, guilt welled up within me. When Sarah was small, I was a PhD student in English Lit at the University of Alberta, preoccupied with studying travelogues about China and with grad student duties. She was just eight years old when she left Guangzhou, China, with her dad to join me in Edmonton. An 8-year-old suddenly ripped out of all the comfort and pampering of home and dropped into a new life, a new culture, a new language. Surely, that little girl had needed her mother. Her mother who was preoccupied. Always preoccupied.
I began dusting her bookshelf. When she had started school here, we had lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment on the university campus. My study was also her bedroom — and also the living room. I sat and worked, and she slept behind me on a tatami we had rescued, still in its packaging, from the garbage. A tatami that lay at my back while I sat at my desk, immersed in one 1000-page reading assignment after another.
“Mummy, can you help me?”
As the dust cloth in my hand traced her books, I felt again the light touch of her tiny hand on my back. She was struggling in school and needed help with her homework.
I turned briefly to face her. “Mom is busy, honey,” I said. “Try again. Work at it yourself.” And I turned again to my own work.
Now, much too late, the softness in my belly was calling. What had I been thinking?
My heart ached.
In China, I had been a good mom. When Sarah was born, my mother had offered to take care of her so that I could be free from the chores of raising a baby. But I insisted on raising my daughter myself. I rigidly followed the nursing protocols in a babycare encyclopedia. Once I even made my husband pull the car over beside the highway so that I could measure exactly 200 ml lukewarm water for Sarah’s milk formula bottle on a completely level surface. I took her to the playground every day to make sure she got enough outdoor exercise. When she tried to grab a little bucket from another boy playing in the sand, I shook my head, like a good mom should, and gently said no. Though she was only one year old, she understood my gentleness didn’t undermine my resolution.
She was always an understanding daughter.
Even after she came to Canada. She had never complained about me not giving her enough care. She had done well at school and had even made some good friends to play and sleep over with. Would it have been easier for her if I had mothered her more? If I had cooked three meals plus two snacks a day like I had done in Guangzhou? If I had taken her to the playground everyday here too? Would it have been easier for me?
But something was wrong. I should have been pleased to have an understanding and well-adjusted child, shouldn’t I? Who said a mom pursuing her own career was no longer a good mom? Wasn’t it me — the same mom — who brought Sarah here so that she could have the privilege of speaking two languages? Of knowing two cultures? Didn’t her strong sense of independence come from me, her independent mom?
My eyes caught the framed photo on her bookshelf. Sarah with her birthday cake all over her face was glaring at me with a naughty look. She held her hands up beside her ears, making a lion-roaring pose to the camera. I thought back to a conversation about this photo. We were having breakfast in our new house.
“I changed a lot after moving to Canada,” she had said. She was in her first year of junior high then. A strange thing for a teenager to say on a Sunday morning.
“Oh? Why do you think so?” I was still thinking of Yi-Fu Tuan’s Coming Home to China but wanted to sustain the conversation.
“Well, look at the picture on the fridge. I was such a spoiled little brat back then.”
Her words had startled me. It was her analysis. Her self-reflection. Her self-criticism.
“You were a little princess then.” But hadn’t I been the ridiculously meticulous mom who had made her a princess by following the encyclopedia’s mothering rules?
“How have you changed?”
“I think I’m a better person now. Less self-centred. I like who I am now better.” She told me a story then about her friendship with Emma, what she did to grow it, how she had compromised, and how happy and grateful she felt after all the conflicts and frustrations.
I listened to her in wonder. Her maturation, her understanding, and her comfort in Canada mocked the sentimental, rigid maternity I permitted to torment me. It was like watching her branch out of the tree of me into a separate life, independent and vibrantly healthy. Her transformation mirrored what I saw in the travelogues I was researching.
It was also my own transformation from a mom with a confining view of motherhood to one who was able to take pride in her own independence and to savour the independence of her daughter. I wiped down the glass frame holding the Edmonton Youth Orchestra poster featuring Sarah as the soloist playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor. I felt so proud of her.