My mother came to the United States around the age of 10, after surviving a war in Southeast Asia. Five years later, she met my father and married him, despite still being a kid. Ironically, she thought marriage would give her an escape from the patriarchal traditions that plagued her life.

As the oldest of eight children, my mom often babysat her younger siblings. She practically raised them. Almost every weekend, she was at her uncle’s house, cooking and cleaning at their gatherings. Long and exhausting weekends filled with alcohol and dishes weren’t part of the life my mother wanted.

Far away from her family, my mother began her new life with my father across the country, one she soon came to regret. She could never escape the roots of her culture, the roots that put her below men. Not too long after, she became pregnant with me. The next year, she became pregnant again, and next year, again. Before the age of 21, my mother had three little girls.

My mother didn’t have the time to be a teenager. She worked part-time at a grocery market after school. When she first met my father, he had just graduated from college. Young and naive, my father was still soul searching, something she couldn’t even afford to do. Their financials were unstable, something she didn’t expect from a college graduate. My parents didn’t understand each other as much as they’d thought they did. 

Ten years separated them in age and wisdom. They wanted similar yet different things in life and they rarely were on the same page. 

My mother had dreams too. She wanted to go to college. However, at the time, making money was more important. She didn’t have anyone to push her, she said. No one encouraged her. 

I never knew how much my mother suffered during those early years of my life. Even though I was with her when she was in high school and beyond, she was good at making sure we didn’t see her pain and hear her cries. I only remember catching her once. Until then, I was so sheltered from the ugly truth. I thought my life was perfect.

I’m sorry for my mother who spent many nights alone. I’m sorry for my mother who worked hard to provide for my sisters and me. I’m sorry for my mother who stayed with a man whose loyalty wasn’t solid. I’m sorry for my mother who had to sacrifice her youth for mine. 

Ua siab ntev, my mother was told. Those unnerving words said to Hmong wives, mothers, and daughters, are nothing but poison. She was patient and calm. But, she was tired of being both. Must she always be patient? Must she always be calm? Thoe words suffocated my mother more than anything.

I’m sorry for my mother whose life only got harder after I arrived. I’m sorry for my mother who worries she’ll lose the child she spent her childhood raising. Would things have been different if she had birthed a son instead of a daughter? 

“Curse this world for what it does to the mothers, for what it does to the daughters. Curse it for making us strong through loss and pain, our hearts torn from our chests again and again. Curse it for forcing us to endure.”

Sabaa Tahir, “A Reaper At The Gates”

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An Open Letter To My Mom
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