The reason we wanted to talk about the relationship between Asian mothers and their daughters is that it is something that continues to come up for our clients, our support group members, and even our Asian therapists. Mother-daughter relationships are part of the Asian American experience and should be examined as such to understand.
Any mother-daughter relationship can be complicated, nuanced, and layered. These are relationships that are deep and filled with love and sacrifice. At the same time, there are unique complications in mother-daughter relationships in many Asian households, partly because of the gender roles and expectations held in many Asian cultures. Daughters in an Asian American household are often daughters of immigrants – helping at home goes beyond merely an expectation. It is often a matter of survival because their parents are working or do not speak English. Many Asian daughters have stories of being ‘adultified’ (taking on age-inappropriate tasks around the house) or ‘parentified’ (taking care of their parents’ needs without anyone to address theirs). We will be exploring just a few complicated dynamics here.
Being Compared to Your Mother as an Asian Woman
Some Asian daughters find themselves being frequently compared to their mothers, from their looks and appearance to their abilities and skills. They also find their experiences being compared to their mother’s experiences. While the comparison to friends and family members is not uncommon in Asian and Asian American families, it can feel more personal and even more hurtful to be compared to their parents.
On academic ability: “My mom would always tell me that I got my skills in math from her, and that when she was my age, she was top of her class. She would also compare my handwriting to hers. I don’t know if she realized how hard I had to work in school.”
On body image: “My mom was always talking about my body. She would compare me to what she looked like at my age, or to how she looked like now. She would even compare our appetites. And then, yell at me for not finishing my food. She always claimed that she just wanted to help, but it just made me feel worse every time she compared me to her.”
On dating: “When I started dating my first boyfriend in high school, my mom would tell me all about how she used to be so popular with boys, and how they all used to want her. I was never that popular. Instead, I was just the nerdy girl. I knew she was just trying to relate. But, I wish she didn’t always make my experiences about hers.”
Being Expected to Help Your Mother
Many Asian daughters are expected to help their mothers, and as they grow older, some are expected to care for their mothers as well. They are expected to help their mother with translating documents into their native language or interpreting with English-speaking school administrators or healthcare professionals. They are also expected to make their mothers’ lives easier by being well-behaved and obedient. If they do not comply with requests or demands, then their mothers may become upset and shame them for being ungrateful. Or if they go against their mothers’ rules, they may be blamed for their mothers’ unhappiness
“By the time I got to college, my mom’s health declined. I had to help take care of her, partly because there was no one else and partly because I was ‘a good daughter.’ Sometimes I would have to cancel my plans or miss school because I had to drive her to an appointment. I didn’t see that I had any other choice.”
Helping Your Mother Heal, or Making Up for Her Absence
Some mothers, particularly those who experienced trauma from violence and war, never had the chance to heal from their experiences or reach for their dreams. As a result, some daughters can become parentified – they do not want to make their mothers’ lives more difficult with their own emotions, and they find that helping their mothers can involve helping with their emotions too. In some cases, being a good daughter can also mean being a good source of emotional support for her mother.
“I felt like I was my mom’s therapist from a young age. I always had to help her when she had fights with my dad or my grandma, and she would always tell me about the abuse and violence she experienced in her country’s war. She would also complain to me about my sister, asking if she was a bad mother because my sister did not help out as much. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how unfair it was that she came to me with everything.”
Being Seen as An Extension of Your Mother
Some Asian daughters have felt like they were simply extensions of their mothers. For example, they were not allowed to act out or misbehave growing up because their actions would embarrass their mothers. Since, of course, their actions reflect on them. While it can be argued that children’s behaviors are learned and are reflective of parenting. Especially, when the children are young. This does not hold as the children age. Yet, even as teenagers or young adults, some Asian daughters are still not allowed to make their own decisions because their mothers make decisions for them.
“When I was 12 or 13, I remember making a face at a family gathering because I didn’t like the food. Later, my mom yelled at me for embarrassing her. Okay, sure it was rude, but I don’t think it was embarrassing. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be seen as my own person. It was my face, not hers.”
Becoming a “Good Asian Woman” Early On
Many Asian daughters, particularly if they were the eldest, were expected to take on typical women’s responsibilities in the household. They were expected to help their mothers with cooking, cleaning, and other household chores. They were also expected to help take care of any younger siblings.
“Because my mom was always working, I was expected to take care of my two younger brothers. While I had to help with cooking and cleaning, they were allowed to play. I had to teach them how to do the dishes and how to do laundry when they got older, since I didn’t feel it was fair for me to have to keep taking care of them.”
No Privacy and Boundaries for Asian Women
Another way Asian daughters could be considered an extension of their mothers includes being expected to take their mothers’ side in disagreements or conflicts. Or, not being allowed to have privacy or boundaries from their mothers. When a parent and child do not have boundaries with each other, they can be considered to be in an enmeshed relationship. Or, a relationship in which the members are overly connected and not independent from one another.
“Living at home can be so stressful. When my mom argues with my dad, she always brings me into their arguments to say that she’s right, and then she gets mad at me if I think my dad is right. She also barges into my bedroom, or even when I’m in the bathroom. She also read my diary growing up until I got better at hiding it.”
As a ‘good’ daughter, it can feel like this is just how your relationship with your mother is going to be forever.
You might feel guilty about blaming your mother or saying that her actions were hurtful. Of course, you know that your mother acted out of good intentions and love, and sacrificed so much for you. It is possible both to appreciate everything your mother has done for you and to act as your own person, separate from your mother. While it may be very difficult, it may help to discuss with your mother how these experiences have impacted you. And, how you can set boundaries between the two of you. It may take time, but ensuring that there is independence in your relationship can keep resentment from developing. Plus, improving your relationship can ensure that the two of you are able to enjoy your time together moving forward.
Written by: Angela Nguyen, MSW
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Further Reading About Asian Women and Mother-Child Relationships:
Recommendations from Vogue Singapore (https://vogue.sg/9-books-about-mother-child-relationships-by-asian-authors-including-3-from-singapore/)
- The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan
- Wild Swans, by Jung Chang
- The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston
- Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
- The Last Story of Mina Lee, by Nancy Jooyoun Kim
- All You Can Ever Know, by Nicole Chung
- Ponti, by Sharlene Teo
- Sugarbread, by Balli Kaur Jaswal
- 17A Keong Saik Road, by Charmaine Leung