On motherhood

Jan. 24, 2024, 1:22 a.m.


In Mandarin, the term for period and disappointment are the same: 倒霉 (dao mei, in Pinyin). My mother still speaks of periods in a hushed voice, as though they are something to be perpetually embarrassed of. The first mark of womanhood comes as an unwelcome, unwanted surprise. 


Years and years ago, when I was still in love with my high school boyfriend, I was determined to be a Modern Girlfriend, freed from any conceptions of the patriarchy and its trappings. That meant we split the check — always — that I bought him a gift of equal or more value to whatever he got me, that I wanted a domestic partnership instead of a traditional marriage and, most importantly, that I didn’t want children. I wanted us to be independent. Without children, we could do anything — travel the world, live out of a tiny apartment and spend lavishly on omakase and Michelin-starred Italian dinners, and always put our friends and each other first.

After we broke up, those convictions crumbled, one by one. As if in opposition to everything I believed so strongly in before, I started letting men pay on dates and didn’t offer to split the check. I decided I did want to get married, and I wanted a beautiful, lavish wedding at that, on the shores of Lake Como or in the Cape Cod summer heat.

But children — that, I’m still ambivalent about.


I used to browse Reddit posts about hysterectomies. Doctors will almost never operate on anyone under 25. If you are 25 and single, they can still refuse you, under the guise that you might eventually change your mind — or that your future partner might, and you wouldn’t want to make your husband unhappy, would you? Even older patients may find themselves questioned — how sure are they that they don’t want children? Are you 100% sure? Well, you never know. Why not leave that road open? You have children already? Why not more? Wouldn’t you want your family to be bigger, happier? Why not leave it up to chance?

In high school, whenever I was angry at my mother, I would tell her that I never wanted to have children. I’m going to get sterilized at 25, I vowed. Just watch. You’ll see. 

Inevitably, we’d both end up in tears.


Whenever I tell the men I’m seeing that I don’t want children, they’re always surprised. Do you mean now, or, like, ever? they ask, propping themselves up with an elbow, wide-eyed.

Both, I respond. 

Just the idea of pregnancy terrifies me — your body mutating into something unrecognizable, feeling your stomach swell and stretch, like a science fiction experiment come to life. There is no coming back from it. As someone who has to examine my body from at least three different angles whenever I find myself in front of a mirror, I can’t imagine myself being fine with the “normal changes” of pregnancy.

And even beyond that, the act of raising a child is terrifying. There are so many places you can falter. There are so many ways to fail a child. I love my mother, but when I think of her, I think first of myself at six, crying in my childhood bedroom as she yelled at me for reading in the dark. 

A friend once said that she could never see any of the men she knew as boyfriends, but she could envision them easily as fathers.

It is easy for men to want to be fathers. To them, it’s playing chaperone at Little League games, grilling hot dogs in the summertime, playing catch and helping with math homework and being the recipient of grateful hugs after work. 

For mothers, it’s the rest. For mothers, it’s nine months of pain and then two years of pain and then years and years of more pain, and rare smiles in between while their children are inevitably never grateful enough — because you will never understand how much your mother has sacrificed until it is far too late to say so. 


And yet I’ve started making a list of baby names.

Not for right now, obviously. Right now, they’re just names I like — old-fashioned, sometimes, always a bit preppy, but names I like. Names like Juliet and Dylan (but only for a girl, not a boy) and Kennedy. Names I could imagine writing in frosting on a birthday cake, someday. 

And if my partner didn’t want a child, I would never push the subject. I could be completely, utterly happy without children. But I do think that if my partner did want children — especially if they wanted them badly — I would do it. I could be amenable to the idea. 


My mother loves to talk — long, winding tangents on car rides that end only when I turn on the radio — but she tells me very little about herself. What she does tell me is always in snippets, rarely elaborated on. 

My mother was born in Beijing. She met my father in college. When they graduated, the economy wasn’t good, so they immigrated to the United States, where my father had gotten into a graduate program in chemistry. She had me when she was 32, once she and my father had moved from Oklahoma to New Jersey. Up until I was 14, we visited her parents yearly in Beijing, and I would spend my summers in my grandparents’ apartment watching cartoons and reading books at the foreign language bookstore in Wangfujing.

Once I started high school, though, those visits trickled to a stop. There were other things to do over the summer — classes to take and programs to go to and essays to write for college admissions — and we kept pushing off visits. My mother visited her parents alone in 2019 for the span of a few weeks. I was supposed to visit them in 2020, after I graduated from high school. We all know how that went.

It took four years for my mother to visit Beijing again, and seven years for me. In the week prior to our departure, I idly made an itinerary — mostly comprised of thrift shopping and wandering around malls, eager to expand my ever-growing wardrobe. 

And then it was the morning we were due to fly to Beijing from Seoul, and my mother called her own mother — as she did every day. 

Last night her mother hadn’t picked up, she told me. She called once, twice, and there was still no answer, so she called her younger sister, who picked up on the first ring.

My mother asked her if everything was okay. My aunt was silent for a moment and then said, We’ll talk about it when you get here.

My mother asked her what happened. My aunt repeated the same thing, to which my mother said, No, tell me. Tell me, please.

Two days ago, my grandmother had a stroke, my aunt told her. They were taking her to the hospital that afternoon. She sent my mother a video of my grandmother, sitting in a wheelchair, slumped over. She looked much older than I remembered.

My mother and I landed in Beijing at a little past noon. We made our way to the hotel, where we dropped off our luggage, and then immediately called a taxi to the hospital.

On the way to the hospital, my mother made conversation with our cab driver as I stared out the window, trying desperately to suppress tears. Eventually, she told the driver that we were going to see my grandmother in the hospital. 

I’m scared she won’t remember me, my mother said, her voice breaking. When I was little, because of the Cultural Revolution, she had to go to the countryside to work, and every time she left, I would say that it was okay, that she could go, but I would be clinging onto her the whole time. She always had to leave. I was scared that she wouldn’t come back. I was scared that she would forget about me. 

I thought about all the times I had shut out my own mother — locking my bedroom door in high school, neglecting to respond to her texts on time, dismissing her gestures of care with a quick I’m fine, I don’t need anything — and swallowed hard. I’d never heard this story before, and I wondered if she would have told it at all, if not for the cab driver’s presence. Here was an audience that wasn’t her daughter, who was permitted to see her as something more than a mother again — who could see her as the daughter she still was. 

My grandmother shared a room in the hospital with two other patients, both of whom seemed to be much further along in their recovery. One was a woman in her late forties, who sat up straight as she slowly sipped soup from a plastic carton. Another looked to be around my grandmother’s age, but she was scrolling through her cell phone and making idle conversation with a visiting relative. 

My grandmother was lying in her bed, her eyes closed, her breathing labored. 

My mother was at her side immediately, grasping my grandmother’s wrinkled hand. 

Ma, do you remember me? she asked. Do you remember me?

Slowly, my grandmother nodded. She said my mother’s name, and I didn’t know if my mother’s gasp was one of pain or relief. 


My mother has been in Beijing now for the better part of six months. After my grandmother’s stroke, she decided to stay for as long as she could, postponing her return date to the United States from September to next June. She spends her days trying to find better and better caregivers for my grandmother and her nights calling my father. 

In Beijing, my mother sleeps in a room cluttered with photos from her childhood. In Beijing, my mother is hounded by my grandfather for staying out past nine. In Beijing, my mother goes to shopping malls and dyes her hair. In Beijing, my mother is a daughter again.


At the end of fall quarter, as I was due to leave my study abroad program in Oxford, I went through a breakup. It was a breakup that I knew was coming, but my prescience didn’t make it hurt any less. 

The morning my boyfriend and I broke up, I was supposed to fly to Amsterdam with my friends, and on the bus ride to the airport, while listening to — what else — “Come Back, Be Here” by Taylor Swift, I started sobbing uncontrollably. Just as I had done after every breakup before that, I called my mother.

I told her that I had broken up with my boyfriend. I told her that yes, I’d had a boyfriend in the first place. No, it was not anyone in the photographs I’d sent her from my trips to London, Dublin or Edinburgh. I told her that he’d treated me well. I told her that I missed him. 

My mother’s face was tired and drawn. She told me that she hadn’t slept well the night before, that they’d had to find a new caregiver for my grandmother again. She told me that she’d gotten into another argument with my grandfather. 

She listened to me cry into the phone, my words and breath unsteady, and told me that everything would be okay. She told me to give it time. She stayed on the phone with me for an hour, two, until I finally reached the airport. I told her I loved her. She said she loved me too.

Kathryn Zheng ’24 is from New Jersey. She is majoring in Economics and currently writes for Arts and Life as a columnist under the Culture desk.

Login or create an account