“…I didn’t do enough…”

I feel the weight of familial guilt, shame and expectations heavily. The older daughter married to a first-born son can’t get away with “I don’t feel like it” or “I can’t fit that into my schedule”. I try. Believe me. I try. But the danger of living a bicultural existence relatively detached on a daily basis from the direct implication of said existence is that I begin to think I am the only one in my family who feels the weight. I may think and experience life a bit differently but most mornings when I rushing out the door to work or to drop the kids off, life is less bicultural and more chaotic.

Anyway, the other day I was on the phone with my mother talking about my grandmother. She is 86 and still lives on her own. As one who has helped care for an aging parent, I was trying to sensitively give my mother advice on how to best care for her mother. About two minutes into the conversation I remembered there really is no culturally sensitive way to give one’s own mother advice (if any of you have figured it out, please let me know…).

Instead I tried to listen, but I was so sad and disturbed at the weight of the guilt my mother carried that I wanted to hang up the phone lest the weight take me down too. My mother was wondering out loud why her own mother is choosing not to move closer to her adult children, and after she had run out of what seemed to be the most logical and legitimate reasons (grandma likes her independence, she doesn’t want to leave her friends, etc,) my mother went “there”.

“Maybe she doesn’t want to move in with me because I didn’t do enough for her. Maybe she doesn’t think I will really take care of her,” mom said.

One of the things I find most difficult about adulthood is navigating the cultural divide with my parents. As a child/teenager/young adult my response was often one of detachment or simple resentment. “They don’t understand” was the path of least mental and emotional resistance. The older I get the more I begin to understand and appreciate that they understand as much as they can given the circumstances. They have spent their lives as parents bending in an attempt to understand America and its culture and trying to bend their lives to fit and be “American” enough for their neighbors, coworkers, children. My guess is that they understand my bicultural journey more than I know.

What I still don’t know is how best to respond when my mother goes “there” with her guilt and expectations.


  1. Melissa Mulholland February 4, 2009


    As one who comes from a long line of martyrs, I empathize. In a recent discussion with my own mother, about a major life-changing decision I am considering, I found myself listening to how my decisions in this area will affect her and what she perceives as “her family.” As if to say, I might consider staying in a place where I am obviously not happy because it will allow her, as she ages, to keep her family (and holiday celebrations!) as it is.

    She called back later and apologized, saying that she shouldn’t have said what she said and that she knew I “had to do what I had to do.” Yet, the damage had already been done. I was already filled with the guilt that I might be ruining her golden years if I sought out my happiness.

    I am afraid mother-guilt crosses all cultural lines. Thanks for showing me I’m not alone in that struggle 🙂


  2. Josh Deng February 4, 2009

    whew, I feel ya too. I’m on the verge of proposing to my girlfriend and it is not the happiest situation with my parents…I’ve never been given the guilt card straight up but even after working it out in my head and with God multiple times, there is still a bit in me that feels bad about not “specifically obeying” my parents (i.e. not getting married yet). It’s rough! But we need to try to get rid of any guilt or shame that lays there, because that’s not the stuff that’s from God…

  3. Kathy Khang February 4, 2009

    Hey, Melissa! (I am staring at my sparkly crown right now…)

    Yes, that mother-daughter relationship is a tricky one, indeed. Whenever I look at my own daughter I think, “How will the words coming out of my mouth and the look on my face impact her?” Crazy, I know.

    I was tracking with your situation until you wrote that your mother called to apologize. That seriously does not translate. Sad, but true. Apologizing, however, is something I’ve learned to do as a parent and wife. Probably more as a parent. (Sorry, Peter.)

    I agree that the culturally/family of origin/not so healthy guilt and shame thing needs to be addressed, but I’ve often wondered how to look at our experience of guilt and shame as a gift. I think I mentioned this in a blog post a few months back…a woman I met at the Seattle “More Than Serving Tea” conference talked about how she has learned not to completely dismiss the guilt and shame and the weight of it, but to lean into it as a way God speaks into our hearts/minds/conscience about sin.

    I think what we all really struggle with is that balance, right? Guilt and shame has to be there at some level, just not at the level in which our families might crank it up to sometimes.

    Peace to you, Josh, as you learn to honor v. obey.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *