A few months before my son’s due date, I called my mother to ask her to help us out with our baby.
She said, “I think American babies are different than Korean babies.”
“What do you mean?”
“American people take their babies outside right away. You would never do that with a Korean baby. American babies must be built stronger. I don’t think I would know how to take care of an American baby.”
I didn’t get into a discussion about whether our baby would be an “American baby” under her definition, but I tried to convince her that all babies are the same, even though I lacked the basis to make such an assertion. When my persuasive efforts failed, we agreed that she would help with only the cleaning and the cooking.
On Wednesday, the day before I was scheduled to be induced, my parents arrived from New York with enough food to last us through Hurricane Katrina. They opened their suitcase, and it spilled out with cellophane packets of seaweed, an assortment of dried fish, varieties of ground rice powder, sesame seeds, and other ingredients for postpartum concoctions.
After unpacking, my mother marched into my kitchen and surveyed my cupboards, refrigerator, freezer, and pantry.
“Where is the sesame oil? What about the soy sauce? You don’t have ground red pepper? Oh, these? These aren’t the right kind. Where did you buy these? We’ll have to get some more. How old are these black sesame seeds? Get me a basket. A big one…”
After she cleared my counter, re-arranged my pots and pans, and rummaged through my refrigerator, she grabbed my Swiffer and put my vacuum in my dad’s hands. By the next evening, my floors had been vacuumed and mopped, my refrigerator cleaned, my ceilings cleaned of cobwebs, my laundry done, all of my furniture dusted, my floor mats dried in the sun, my plants thoroughly watered, and our yellow labrador’s fur balls exorcised from all corners of our house.
Early Friday morning, we called my parents from the hospital to announce the baby’s arrival. They rushed over in a cab. After oohing and aahing over the baby and inquiring about my breakfast, they left the hospital in a cab. About five hours later, they returned, again in a cab, but this time bearing a pot of pine nut porridge in a thermos along with a small disposable container of soy sauce double wrapped in saran-wrap and a spoon, also protected in saran-wrap.
“I thought you told me the food was good at the hospital!” said my mother. “How come you ate only a bagel for breakfast? You can’t breastfeed on a bagel.”
The next morning, they returned with a new pot of abalone porridge, more pine nut porridge, and two types of seaweed salad.
“I wanted to bring seaweed soup, but I wasn’t sure how to transport it…”
I pictured my mom scurrying through the hospital halls carrying a vat of slimy, stringy seaweed, the kind you see washed up on the beaches, simmered in a broth brewed with sesame oil and soy sauce, sloshing and spilling all over the sanitized floors.
When we returned home from the hospital, we were greeted with “Congratulations” and “Baby Boy” balloons along with a big pot of seaweed soup.
During the next two weeks, I was mothered as I had never been mothered before.
As soon as I stirred in the morning, my mother knocked on my door.
“Are you ready for your breakfast?”
By 6 am, my mom and dad had already had their breakfast. By the time my husband and I woke up, fed the baby, and sauntered out of the bedroom around 8am, we would find my mother in the middle of cooking a second breakfast just for me. The living room would be filled with the aroma of frying oil, fish, sautéed garlic, boiling meat, and fermented cabbage. Pots and pans on the stove would be hissing with heat and sizzling for attention, and the glass panes overlooking the backyard would be sweating with condensed steam. The minute I stepped into the kitchen, she would shoo me out and point me to the dining table, motioning me to sit down. Then, she would bring over a steaming pot of seaweed soup, a fresh bowl of rice, a whole pan-fried fish with its eyeballs still intact, and an array of pickled and fermented side dishes.
“I cooked a separate pot of rice just for you. Dad and I’ll eat the leftovers. You have to eat everything I cooked for you!”
“But Mom, I can’t eat all this food. It’s too much.”
“You’re nursing. You have to eat a lot. In Korea, you eat until you get sick and tired of eating. You eat for your baby. Tonight, remember you have to wake up in the middle of the night and have a snack. You can’t go through the whole night without eating something. You can have some of the porridge I made for you.”
“Mom, I’m tired of eating. I ate non-stop for 9 months.”
“You do it for your baby!”
When I ate, my parents hovered over me. They jumped out of their chairs if I needed to re-fill my glass of water or wanted to check on the baby.
“You eat. You need to recover. I’ll get it for you! Don’t worry about the baby. He’s not even crying!”
For the meals we ate together, they brought over my food first.
“You start eating. Don’t wait for us. You have to eat when everything is hot. You are a mother now. You have to take care of yourself.”
It wasn’t the usual order of things, not in our family where Confucian hierarchy was strictly followed for the past several decades, with the father served first and the youngest child served last. And it was unlike the kind of parenting I had seen for most of my life as we played out the drama of an immigrant family. In the past, I had felt more like the parent, especially during my teenage years when I was the one cooking for them and waiting for them to return home from their small business.
When she wasn’t cooking or washing the dishes or mopping or dusting or doing the laundry or weeding my garden, my mom held our baby. And I don’t know how to explain how it felt to see my mother hold my baby the way she must have held me 38 years ago. To see her gently fold her arms around the child, to smile and coo at him, to wrap him in her love and to bestow all of her best of intentions on his well-being. To see her affection and tenderness spill out at his sight.
She must have forgotten her protestations about “American babies” when she showed me how to bathe him, how to hold him when breastfeeding, how to massage him.
Seeing her with him, I knew that I had been mothered in the best way possible. And that my child would be a part of this history—of mothering skills passing from one generation to the next.
Shinyung Oh, is an attorney currently residing in San Diego with her husband and two children. She blogs at capriciousbubbles.blogspot.com.