The aim of each thing we do is to make our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible. – Audre Lorde
Raising a child requires profound strength and hope. You must believe in your ability to forge a future that is better than the present we currently inhabit, even if you never live to see it. – Angela Garbes
When I was growing up, my mom was always cooking. If you have a mom who cooks—especially an immigrant mother—then you know what I mean.
While my brother and I did homework or watched TV or lazily lounged around on the sofa fighting over the remote, my mom was in the kitchen cooking, either for that day or many upcoming days. Our freezer was always filled with future meals.
If she wasn’t cooking, my mom would be at the kitchen table, paging through that week’s grocery circulars and cutting coupons. If it was a good week and there were extra good coupons in the circulars, she’d send my dad down to the Acme to get more. Coupons were currency, and my mom never bought anything unless it was on sale, she had a coupon, and it was double coupon day at the grocery. I remember standing at the checkout line with her, mesmerized by the the steady swipe-and-chime as each item passed through the scanner, while my mom, hawk-like, watched each price as it rang up. If there was an error, she made sure to get it corrected. Sometimes, to get around the “Limit one coupon per customer” rule, my mom would send me off to a separate line with items to purchase and the coupons that went with them. I was a reluctant accomplice, but what choice did I have? I also knew that some of the items we were getting on sale were things we’d be sending or bringing home to the Philippines on the next visit—things like toothpaste, soap, lotion, Oil of Olay, aluminum foil, and Hershey’s chocolates to fill balikbayan boxes and luggages.
Now that she’s retired, my mom is still busy, though now her days are spent at church, socializing with aunties and church friends, and traveling to all the places (and churches) around the world she and my dad didn’t get to visit when we were younger. And of course, she still cooks, bakes, and shops for all the weekly grocery deals, although the intense fervor I remember from childhood seems to have faded to more of a beloved habit. Since it’s just her and my dad at home now, she sends food to my house at least twice a week (a benefit of living less than two miles apart), usually cooking for her grandchildren all of their favorite things. Just yesterday, my dad brought over a blueberry baked good of some sort that my mom knows Toby loves. Her grandchildren are also her willing test subjects, happy to taste-test whatever new recipe my mom is currently trying out. For my mom (like other immigrants), cooking, feeding, and sharing food with her family is her love language.
I didn’t understand that when I was growing up. But there are a lot of things I didn’t understand back then.
One thing I couldn’t understand was how my mom never seemed to be able to just relax. From 7:30 to 4:30, Monday through Friday, my mom was a chemist, working at the same company for more than forty (?) years. But it was her work at home—what seemed like an endless cycle of cooking, grocery shopping, and coupon clipping—that was the work most visible to me. While my brother and I were only too happy to grow up on a (un)healthy diet of 1980s cartoons and sitcoms, my mom rarely sat to down to watch TV with us. I remember just wanting her to stop doing so much (probably more to relieve my own feelings of guilt). The only exception seemed to be Saturday nights when The Love Boat and Fantasy Island were on. I’d fall asleep in my parents’ bed and my dad would either wake me or carry me off to bed when the credits began to roll.
If you asked my own kids if they had one of those moms who cooked all the time, you’d get a confused stare in response. While I have a few “specialties” that they’ll remember as childhood favorites—pork chops and rice, mini cheeseburgers on Hawaiian rolls, and spam fried rice (yes, this counts as cooking)—they won’t remember me as a mom who cooked tirelessly for the family. Other than hosting Christmas dinner, I don’t cook as often as I know I should. I don’t clip coupons, and I spend too much on take-out. I don’t go to multiple grocery stores for the sales they’re having. I don’t stockpile Saran wrap. I don’t spend hours in the kitchen like my mom did. Because the truth is, while I’m so grateful for all of it, for all of the sacrifice and love my mom poured into feeding us, I didn’t want that for myself. I didn’t want to work the way she did, to never be able to just relax.
I feel ashamed admitting that. I feel ashamed because it feels like saying I don’t want to be like my mom, even though she and my dad are the people I admire most in this world. If I could even be half the mother my mom is, I know my boys would be infinitely blessed.
Of course, now that I’m older (and after many a conversation with my therapist), I realize that I’m much more like my mom than I thought. I may not spend hours in the kitchen or grocery shopping, but I am always working. Even when it looks like I’m relaxing and watching TV, I’m never really just relaxing. I’m also reading the news or checking my email on my phone or laptop or trying to finish the manuscript for this book that seems to be in a perpetual state of always-almost done. When I’m in the shower, I’m planning my day. When I’m driving to work, I’m listening to an audiobook or podcast. When I’m not at school, I’m organizing projects and institutes and PD for teachers.
I may not spend hours in the kitchen or grocery shopping, but I am always working.
And I’m tired.
I’ve done a lot of work trying to unpack and untangle the way having a “great work ethic” has dominated my life, a phrase disguised as a capitalist compliment. But the push to work hard, to do more, be more—at the root of all that is that nagging feeling of never being enough. It’s a scarcity mindset rooted in colonialism and perpetuated in intergenerational trauma. White Supremacy culture has most people of color believing that they have to work twice as hard to prove themselves to be half as good. I know this and the work to free myself from this is the work I do every single day.
And knowing this, I find myself at times trying, desperately, to parent my own kids in a way that rejects this. Yes, I want them to work hard, but not at the expense of themselves. I want them to know that their value isn’t in what they do. That they are a whole person regardless of what they do, or feel they need to do, to prove their value to someone else. I remind them that I love them no matter what—that I love them not because of who they are but simply because… they are.
My mom’s love of gardening was another thing I never understood when I was growing up. Once the weather was warm enough, my mom would spend hours outside working on her garden. This always confused me because she also had terrible allergies, and I didn’t understand being outside in all that pollen. And it wasn’t just flowers and the occasional vegetable garden that kept her outdoors, either; sometimes I’d look out my bedroom window and see my mom squatting, Filipino style, pulling weeds from the lawn, literally one weed at a time.
This, too, I saw as work. And like cooking, I think I must have made an unconscious decision at some point in my childhood to avoid all things gardening and plant related. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t want to. Over the years, whenever my mom or others, including students, gave me a plant, I usually killed the plant after a few weeks or perhaps months, if the plant was lucky.
But about a year and a half ago, things changed.
When I left the school that had been my home for more than twenty years—and carrying all the grief that goes with that—I moved into a new leadership role and a new office. And that’s when something inside me inspired me to ask my mom if she had a plant she could give me for my office. Maybe it was because of the beautiful floor-to-ceiling window in my office. Or maybe it was just me needing something from my mom in this new, unfamiliar place.
A few days later, she handed me a parlor palm plant, and said matter-of-factly, “Here. This has been alive for more than 10 years. Make sure you take care of it.” I think my younger self would have been annoyed, but I felt the responsibility of that plant not as a burden but as a gift. Shortly afterwards, a friend gave me an aloe plant, the perfect symbol of healing I needed at the time.
For several months, watching those two plants grow under my care seemed magical. I could do this.
Since then, my humble plant collection has grown, and each plant I bring home or into my office teaches me something new. And mostly what they’re teaching me is that they’re not too different from people: each plant needs a little something different.
My succulents like to dry out completely between waterings, while the maranta in my bathroom enjoys the humidity from my showers. And I’ve even taken to reclaiming—or as my friend Kim says—liberating plants native to the Philippines from big box stores. I’ve also learned that over-watering is really about insufficient light, that you can grow a whole entire plant from a leaf cutting, and that I can even create my own soil mixes (usually some mixture of cactus soil, perlite, and orchid bark).
When I brought my first monstera plant home, I learned that their leaves will develop fenestrations (those signature holes and splits in the leaves) as the plant matures. In their native habitat (tropical rainforests), monsteras climb up the sides of trees, and as they climb, the newer leaves at the top develop those fenestrations so that sun can still reach the leaves beneath them. When I learned that, I thought about how we might be all a little better off learning from plants.
I’ve said to friends that caring for plants has become a form of therapy for me. So if you need to know how I’m doing, you can tell by how many plants I’ve surrounded myself with (I’m kidding, sort of).
But the truth is, caring for plants has filled a small emptiness inside me that I didn’t realize was there.
Which brings me back to my mom.
In so many ways, our parents and our children are the people we know best and least in the world. I can tell you exactly what my own mother’s shoulder felt like and how she smelled of baby powder and lotion when I leaned against her a child, but I can’t tell you what she was thinking as she stood at the counter frying bicho-bicho on the stovetop. I can tell you exactly what my 17-year-old’s “usual” will be from almost any restaurant, but I can’t tell you what his greatest fear is about going to college next year. I can guess, but I don’t know.
And now that I’ve become a plant person, like my mom before me, I know how much caring for plants has healed my spirits in ways I didn’t expect. And so now when I think back to my mom, pulling those weeds and tending to her garden, I wonder, what healing might she have needed? What griefs did she carry?
A few months ago, after sharing yet another fun fact about a plant in my collection, my son turned to me. “Mommy, you know who you’re becoming? Yaya-ing” (what my kids call my mom).
He said it jokingly, of course, but he’s right. I guess I still don’t know in what ways quite yet.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of Indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars.
Please CLICK HERE to read this year’s and previous years’ contributions.
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