Val and kids

Like mother, not like daughter

For Mother's Day, we hear from a mother/daughter duo on lessons from their Asian moms

Children of first generation immigrants know the stories of their parents’ sacrifice all too well. Their mamas are in their ears about the long hours they work, the rocky journey to make it in a country that isn’t their own and generally missing home. Filipino-American mother and daughter Valerie and Eliana Moloney reflect on the high and sometimes impossible standards of Asian motherhood, second and third generation guilt, and the tug of war between their Western upbringing and Asian roots.

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Like a lot of teens, I went through a cursing phase. I thought I was cool, older, sophisticated. My mama did not take kindly to this. I got the fly swatter, the slipper, sometimes the belt, but only when my dad was around, which was not often. This was when corporal punishment wasn’t so tabooor maybe it was then, but not in my house. 

I was stupid in the way of all teenagersthinking that I knew about life, rebelling against who I was, a poor kid in an upper middle class neighborhood. My immigrant motherwho adopted me after struggling with infertilitywas single, working night jobs at 7-Elevens and BP gas stations for most of my childhood. We were indeed passing ships. She’d come home at 7 a.m., cook “dinner,” spend a couple of hours with me, and then I’d be off to school.

Her schedule was a constant reminder that I was not like the other kids, even the Asians. Those kids had mamas who rode them to study encyclopedias and dictionaries, who helped them with their college applications. Those kids got grounded when they got anything less than an A on their tests. I was best friends with the salutatorian, a Chinese girl, and also the Student Council Association vice president, who both had two parents at home watching over them. My mother was always at work and/or asleep during the day, which I would later imprint as my own impossible work ethic.

I can’t blame my mom. Had I been in those circumstancesmy dad left her when I was 8 with IRS back taxes and a mortgage she could not pay for on her ownwho knows what I would have done. We moved eight times, lived paycheck to paycheck, and never went on vacations with the exception of the one year my mother had a boyfriend. In the leanest days, we would get to next Friday by eating eggs or canned corned beef. To this day, they are both comfort foods, reminding me never to lose humility. Never to take anything for granted.

If you aren’t suffering, then you aren’t living. Not sure that this was the mantra of all Asian mamas but it certainly was for mine.

But then it was my turn. I’m a mother of three now. One daughter is a college sophomore and the other is a rising freshman. My parenting style, which I swear I wouldn’t pattern after my doomsday Filipino mother, is a mix of hard and soft. I always modeled hard workeverything we have is because I am self-made. The house, the opportunities, the travel. With every job hop, I’ve jumped substantially in pay, showing my girls that it is possible to be anyone you wanna be, regardless of circumstances. For years, I would even take on side jobs to make extra money. This afforded us trips to Disneyland, Vegas, Boston, San Francisco… places I never got to see until well into my 20s.

Until I burned myself out. Until I forgot what pleasure was. I just didn’t make room for it, really, and who did I learn that from?

During one particular fight with my eldest girl, she asked me, quite simply: “Is that how you want us to live? We shouldn’t have to suffer just because you had to.” 

At that moment, the revelation stung like my mom’s slipper. The pain did not have to continue, just because it had generations before.

How wise of her to pick up on that so youngto choose whom she wouldn’t be. We first-generation children of immigrants wrestle with that guilt: constantly putting pressure on ourselves to ensure that our parents’ sacrifices weren’t for nothing, living out the dreams that they couldn’t have in their native countries. Except, a crazy thing happens. Sometimes that destination isn’t enough either. It’s hollow.

I’ve probably made the mistake of prioritizing material things over time. My mother was constantly shopping, whether she needed said purchases or not. I picked up that habit of excess for the temporary power it wields in a plastic world. My daughters are constantly scolding me to downsize. “You don’t need that, Mom,” they say.

They don’t fully get it, though, and maybe that’s a good thing. Everything I have now, I dreamed of having. I built myself. With my grit, my hope, my thirst. They have the luxury of easy survival. They don’t have to adopt beast mode. They don’t have to hear constant stories of their gumma being so poor that we could only go to the grocery store once a month, or live today like tomorrow they might lose their home to foreclosure.

I don’t want my kids to have to live like that. And I don’t want them to forget their roots either. But there is so much more to life than pain and sacrifice. If I could give that lesson back to my mom, I would.

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Valerie and Eliana Moloney

Courtesy of Valerie Moloney

By Eliana Moloney

After every shopping trip, my mother accumulated bags—not purses, but plastic: Aldi, Marshalls, and Burlington were bountiful in the collection, a habit she picked up from my grandmother. They lived everywhere: the cabinets, the closets, the car. While my Irish dad referred to them as “rubbish” my mom considered it a hack to save money. Still, I was always curious as to why we needed them. 

When monsters used to hide in my closet and lurked under my bed, I’d curl up with Mom. We’d stay up for about 30 minutes each night discussing our dreams, desires, and concerns. Usually, Mom would bring up the three troubling M words: marriage, mortgage, and motherhood. She opened up about her worries of being a working mom in a competitive city. She also told me stories from her childhood, one that differed so much from my own.

Born in San Fernando, Philippines, she hopped from rental to rental with her single mother and was a latch key kid. Her father was out of the picture–unlike my own. My dad would read us stories, take us to the bodega for snacks, play soccer with me and my sister. One of my prized memories was our dad-daughters-only trip to Ireland last summer.

Due to the way Mom grew up, her top priority as a parent was to provide for her family. She never wanted my siblings and I to endure the type of childhood she had. So while it was unintentional, we weren’t really exposed to Asian cultural norms like taking our shoes off as soon as we entered the house or being in charge of cooking the rice. 

I became acutely aware of the fact that I wasn’t like other Asian kids as well. My peers would describe horror stories of their parents not letting them go out just because they got a B, or getting grounded because they forgot to defrost chicken. When these conversations took place, I felt I could never chime in because my experience was different than theirs. I had such an abnormal Asian experience.

This disconnect from my culture led me to hold a grudge against my mom. Why didn’t she teach me Gumma’s sacred pancit recipe? Or a phrase or two in Ilocano?

During one of mom’s and my heated yelling matches, I brought up that she never educated us about our culture. My mom admitted she considered my siblings and I lucky that we didn’t have to grow up Asian: constantly being surrounded by the smell of fish sauce, living paycheck to paycheck, and drowning in what my gumma hoarded. She didn’t have the luxury to pick and choose when she wanted to be Asian. 

At first, it stung. How could my mom consider myself “lucky” that I wasn’t deeply enveloped in my culture? 

But I came to realize there was some truth in her statement. Because of Mom’s diligent work, I get to do the things she would've never dreamed of. Her parenting is a true marker of all the hard work and progress she has made to push back against the stereotypical Tiger Mom.  I won’t be grounded if I get an A-. I have relative freedom in going out with my friends. I’m trusted to make good choices. 

Additionally, my non-traditional way of growing up Asian has forced me to get out there and explore my culture on my own terms. I’ve taken up traditional Filipino dance and gotten involved with the Asian community at my highschool. I cooked my first batch of lumpia with my sister the other day and it was described as “exceptional.”

So sure, I don’t know how to speak Tagalog or cook up a mean batch of sinigang but I’ve come to realize that the sacrifices my mom made were not in vain. Everything she did was for the greater good of my family and everyday I keep dreaming, just for Mom.

Published on May 12, 2024

Words by Valerie Moloney

Chicagoan and Filipino-American Valerie Moloney has worn many hats in her 20+ years as a professional: beat reporter; digital manager; social strategist; restaurant critic; even obit writer. At her heart, she's an observer. When she's not pouring through analytics dashboards, she's on the hot yoga mat in puppy pose or figuring out what to feed her three kids for dinner.