Updated: Oct 11, 2021
Growing up, I lived in the suburbs of Santa Clara, a small city in the Bay Area, and I went to private Catholic School from Kindergarten to high school. I did all the after school activities and had all the typical experiences that one would expect; sports, dance, decathlon club, student council. Nothing was out of the ordinary and everything I set my mind to, I achieved. I was granted a huge amount of privilege that wasn't apparent to me until my adult years and, as I reflect on this privilege now, I realize that it actually set me up to fail as a mom because I never truly experienced the feeling of failure until I became one.
My son, now two years old, is growing and changing every day, and I can remember his newborn days like it was yesterday. I hated to admit it then, but I felt like I was drowning. I needed to ask for help but I didn’t know how. I had intense self-doubt as a new mom and turned to self-blaming and shame for not being the perfect mom I saw glamorized on social media. I would think to myself, “you’ve wanted this your whole life, just be grateful.” The feelings would come and go during the first months of his life and so I never took it seriously. But I continued having feelings of heaviness and cried everyday. I wasn’t able to recognize it at the time, but I was having symptoms of postpartum anxiety (PPA) and postpartum depression (PPD). Motherhood felt like a dark cloud. I was hypnotized by the idea of what a “mother” should be and look like. Comparing myself to others was stealing my joy and it took over my natural motherhood intuition.
My husband could see I was struggling and he was an amazing support system to get me out of my darkness. He took over parenting and household responsibilities when I couldn’t, and simply sat with me as I cried. One day, while we were on a family walk, I broke down and I finally realized that I didn’t want to feel like this anymore. That day, I reached out to my outside support system for help - a few mothers with children the same age as my son, as well as Suzanne, my good friend turned colleague here at Family Tree Wellness. She directed me towards the Adjusting to Motherhood Support Group. I was used to being a strong friend and support system for others, but realized that especially in this moment, I needed to follow my own advice to seek out and accept help.
Throughout my life, working through failure wasn’t modeled for me, and feelings and emotions weren’t normal to process or express. As an adult, this led me to fear failure and reject vulnerability. I could easily look at my upbringing as the cause of all this; however, I do not blame my parents in any way. I realize that I learned about emotions from them, but they learned about emotions from their upbringing. Legacy burdens. It’s what we carry from our ancestors. As a second generation Asian American, I have lived in the United States my whole life and grew up with a mix of both collectivist ideals, doing what’s best for the collective group (my family) , and also individualist ideals, being more motivated by personal goals and objectives. This push-pull feeling was never more apparent than when I became a mother and realized what kind of mother I ultimately wanted to be. The beauty in this realization is this: I can choose to write my own narrative moving forward and also be open and humble to getting help that I need with absolutely no shame or guilt.
Historically and culturally, mental health has been a taboo subject amongst the AAPI community. Despite the mental health struggles faced, AAPI individuals are the least likely of any racial group to seek help (three times less likely than white individuals), with a 17.3% overall lifetime incidence of psychiatric disorders, and yet only 8.6% seek mental health help. (Discrimination and Mental Health–Related Service Use in a National Study of Asian Americans https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2978178/) Many of us have been taught to believe that our weaknesses would bring shame upon ourselves and our family and that we shouldn’t burden others with our problems. I empathize with how difficult it is to shed those beliefs, and I also know we can break these patterns. Only 5% of the psychologist workforce identifies as Asian, 1% from other groups (which includes Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander), while 86% identify as white. (As AAPIs, We Need Therapists Who Look Like Us, Dr. Elissa S. Lee, Researcher, Occupational Therapist, Lillian Man, MSW/MPH Candidate)
There is a need for culturally competent care by and for AAPI communities. I saw this need first hand while attending grad school to become a marriage and family therapist and I was inspired back then to fill in the gap for my community one day. When I became a mom, the gap became more clear, and it has led me to create our new support group at Family Tree Wellness, AAPI Mothering. AAPI Mothering aims to support the AAPI mom in her journey through motherhood and explore how our culture and generational legacies impact the way we mother. I recognize this need in our community and also acknowledge how sharing our most vulnerable parts with someone who looks like us and understands the AAPI lived experience can make all the difference.
As I reflect back on my journey as an AAPI mom, I am now at a place of feeling free to be my authentic self and I realize that there is no such thing as the perfect mom. I hold grace and self compassion for the ways I have grown and the ways I am still growing. My son observes me everyday and it’s empowering to know that I am modeling for him that it’s okay to show your emotions, it’s okay to fail, and that life can be hard, but he can be his authentic self and still be loved and accepted unconditionally. All feelings and all emotions are welcome in our household, with no shame or guilt, and my hopes are that he carries that with him the rest of his life.
Unlearning perfectionist patterns, and asking for help has been the ultimate healing for me in my transition to motherhood. If you are an AAPI mom or AAPI mom-to-be, my hopes are that if any part of my story resonates with you, you can find the support you need here at Family Tree Wellness. Motherhood is a life-changing journey, and if we can connect with one another over our shared experiences, celebrate in our joys and discuss struggles as AAPI women, then we can be the most authentic versions and mothers that we can be. Come join us next month for our AAPI Mothering group starting November 10th. We will learn, explore, process and hold that safe space together.
Written by Melissa Villamejor, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (Supervised by Jessica Sorci, LMFT 53881)