on softness, hardness, and maternal care

by ashley miller

As women, we are often criticized for either being too soft or too hard – yet simultaneously also expected to be both.

In women, hardness is stigmatized. We are criticized if we are too loud, too bossy, or too aggressive. But softness is unrecognized, almost rendered invisible. The exhausting and largely unacknowledged toll of emotional labor falls disproportionately on women, and particularly women of color. Responsibilities like caretaking and worrying about everyone else’s emotional needs are often expected and taken for granted.

My mother is undeniably fierce. As a result, she is usually perceived as embodying a certain kind of hardness. She unapologetically stands up for what she believes in, carrying herself with a fearlessness I admire.

Someone I love once said to me, “Your mother can be so Chinese sometimes.” He was referring to her strong personality. Her tendency towards aggression, to light flame at the first sign of injustice. At the time, I recoiled, thinking about the gendered and racial implications of this offhand comment.

What many people don’t understand, and what doesn’t often get talked about, is that for many immigrants, softness is not an option. Hardness is a form of resistance, and a means of survival. It is a way of pushing back in a world that tells you that you are not enough: not wealthy enough, not smart enough, not White enough. For many, developing a hard exterior is a response, rather than something innate – born out of a survival mechanism that pushes back against structures of power and privilege which systematically take advantage of anyone who is ‘other.’

As the youngest of eight children and the only girl in the family, softness was never an option for my mother. Softness would have been overshadowed, or simply overlooked. She learned from an early age that if she didn’t fight for herself, no one else would.

My mother left home in her mid-twenties. When she went to the UK for university, her professors asked if they could call her Mary. Apparently, her Chinese name was “much too difficult” to pronounce. To this, she replied sternly, “My grandfather gave me that name for a reason. If you can’t be bothered to learn it, that’s fine. But my name is my name, and you can learn how to say it, or not say it at all.” Now, she laughs about it, recounting everyone’s stunned expressions. “After that, everyone learned my name,” she says proudly.

She is the only one in her immediate family that left her hometown in Malaysia, moving to Rome and then on to Washington D.C. As an Asian immigrant to the United States, on the surface, my mother was a shining example of a model minority – an example of “success,” and someone who had “made it” in America. Behind this, however, was the truth that she had to fight, day in and day out, for the space she knew she deserved.

Maybe what we learn, we learn out of necessity. And maybe hardness is learned, and born out of a need for survival.

Artwork by Emily Lin

It took me a long time to understand that people show their love in different ways.

That love isn’t always expressed in cute lunch boxes with handwritten post-it notes, or white picket fences and perfectly manicured lawns, or PTA mothers bringing flawless homemade desserts to the school bake sale, or sandwiches filled with Nutella and fluff – rather than jam and taugeh (beansprouts).

It took me years–22, to be exact–to realize how I’d been carrying around a childlike feeling of injustice of never having the childhood I thought I deserved – a childhood in which maternal care was expressed in ways I saw reflected in my friends’ families, the ways I secretly yearned for as a kid growing up in suburban Maryland.

Instead, my mother had to work, constantly. She laid out breakfast for me before going to the office, sometimes not coming home until midnight, sometimes missing the last metro home. She worked herself until her mental health took a toll, and then worked some more.

With shame, and guilt, I realize that it’s taken me 22 years to recognize that I need to have more goddamn compassion. That there is a need to reimagine what maternal care looks like for immigrants, for women of color, and for single mothers. I think that for my mother, love was expressed through her hard work – through sacrificing herself, her time, her energy, and her mental health to provide for me and my sister, and to ensure we had the comforts and opportunities she didn’t have herself while growing up.

• • •

In my life, I think I’ve tended more towards embodying softness.

I catch myself shrinking to make space for everyone else, biting my tongue to cater to the comfort of others, apologizing when I don’t need to, and spreading myself thin to care for the people around me.

Growing up, my mom always told me that I needed to toughen up. She knew from experience that the world would not always be so kind. It’s only now that I’m beginning to understand that sometimes, you have to push back. That it’s okay to displease. To disappoint. To put yourself first. I am slowly learning that it’s possible to embody both softness and hardness in ways that do not contradict, but complement. I am learning that I can be both gentle and fierce, vulnerable and strong, compassionate and resilient. I am learning that self-care is a radical act. And I am learning how to love in ways that do not drain – how to give myself to others, but never at the expense of giving to myself.