Women of different times have different visions and expectations of motherhood. My grandmother never went to school because of her gender. Her parents and the society in general expected her to marry young, support her husband and raise children. Grandma didn’t work a single day outside of her home. She brought up her five children as well as us five grand kids. Her value and accomplishments were reflected by the children she raised. Her needs and interests had never been the topics of discussion. Ever since I could remember things, everyone in the neighborhood called her “Grandma.” If Grandma ( had lived to this day, she would have been 100 years old.

Both my mother and aunt received decent education. Mother was a nurse and Aunt ( a teacher. My mother chose to stay with her husband, the son of a capitalist and target of the Cultural Revolution. As a result she only got to see me and my sister briefly once every four years since we lived with Grandma (her mother) thousands of miles away. Aunt was once an enthused Chairman Mao follower, like millions of young people of her age. In those days, any indication of a lack of zeal for Mao’s cause could easily put one in the category of his perceived enemies. The need for survival preceded all other basic human needs. Aunt came home to her kids every day, but Grandma was the main caregiver.

At the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, my father’s health deteriorated. My parents retired to Shanghai and Mother became his full-time nurse. A few years later, at the start of the economic boom, Aunt began to show signs of Alzheimer’s and her husband turned into her full-time caregiver.

People of that generation were manipulated into devoting the best years of their lives to a cause that wasn’t their own. Family life and value was trashed during that dark era when mothers weren’t allowed to raise their children and husband and wife were forced to live apart.

In 1988 when I came to America, the land of promise and dreams, I was suddenly exposed to so many possibilities that Grandma, Aunt and Mother could have never imagined. I decided that I wanted it all. I had to further my education, build a solid career, have a few kids and enjoy an ideal marriage in which the flames of love would never burn out. Naively or arrogantly, I believed I’d be the best mom in the world who would never raise my voice or lay a finger on my children. I’d always be loving and encouraging and as a result my children would grow up successful and outstanding in everything I’d guide them to do.

Such unrealistic expectations and self-indulgence could only lead to disheartenment and shame. There were days when I felt I was the worst mother or even human being in the world. I was horrified by some of the things that came out of my mouth because they could have scarred my girls forever. What I wanted to be and what I was struck a stark contrast.

The more I failed, the more desperately I wanted to make it right. So many times I was tempted to quit my job and devote all my time and energy to my kids. Maybe without the stress of commuting and work demands, I’d be more relaxed and patient. However at the same time I enjoyed the financial freedom my job offered. It had been a tug of war especially when the girls were young.

Not all women are born naturally to be mature and nurturing mothers who want nothing out of life but caring for their children. Daniel Kahneman and colleagues had almost a 1,000 American women reconstruct their working day and rate each activity. Like most people, the women self-reported that that they got enjoyment out of the sensory, sexual and social pleasures. Commuting and working were the least liked activity during their day. Most surprisingly they also reported that being with their children was less rewarding than watching TV or shopping or spending time with friends or relative (Some mothers stated that while, in general, they really enjoy being with their kids, on that particular day the kids were being horrible)*.

So you are not alone if you don’t feel an immediate connection to your newborn or can’t see yourself spending every waking moment with demanding children. We learn and mature as we go along. What I have learned from being the mother of 3 children is that motherhood is about the children. We’ve got to listen to them, accept them, help them develop their strengths and pursue their own dreams. Secondly, mothers are human and therefore not perfect. We’ve made plenty of mistakes and most likely will continue to do so. Most children grow up just fine in spite of our blunders. So if you did something that hurt your child’s self-esteem, correct it quickly and move on. Even if the mistakes are irreversible, you’ve got to let yourself off the hook. Guilt will only eat you away and destroy your chances of ever being happy. Last but not the least, don’t give up your dreams for the sake of your children or anyone else. Keeping your aspirations alive will inspire your children to do the same.

Motherhood is a privilege. Unlike the generations before us who were faced with little or impossible choices, women today are more empowered than ever to be the best mothers they can be while making the other aspects of their lives just as fulfilling. Women are continuously gaining visibility in politics and other industries not too long ago dominated by men. Work-life balance enables us to use our talents outside the home but at the same time remain close to it. Outsourcing of domestic work as well as our partners’ more active involvement in child rearing give us the freedom to take care of our own needs and interests.

Today the prospect of having it all is within the realm of possibilities. However choices can make life more complicated and stressful if we are unclear about our priorities. Anything that starts small, whether it being a new job or new hobby, has the tendency to suck us in and subsequently run our lives. We have to learn to say ‘no’ to ourselves or others in order not to lose sight of the most important job we are called to do.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there!

*The Pleasure Center by Morten L. Kringelbach