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ILLUSTRATION BY JAMIE BENNETT

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week, First Person tackles the doubts and the blessings that motherhood brings.

You’ll find Ma behind the pristine white counter in the pharmacy looking down the bridge of her nose trying to decipher the doctor’s writing on a prescription. It’s her resting work face that shouts “don’t bother me with trivial questions.” You’ll also find her in the grocery store trying to look for the freshest looking piece of salmon; this is to fulfill Ma’s golden rule: The Hoang family must eat fish once a week, even better – twice. You’ll find her in the shopping mall checking for any loose stitches or stains on the piece of clothing she’s about to buy. You’ll find her in those tour-guide groups in Europe, wearing a floppy straw hat, still carrying a bulky camcorder to record everything and everyone. You’ll find her in the basement, every night, running on the elliptical machine whilst blaring her Vietnamese soap opera on her mini iPad.

Ma’s life is defined by motherhood. That’s it. And yet, that’s everything.

At 6 a.m., she’s awake. Her finger vigorously rubbing against her nose, making a nasty snot noise that temporarily wakes everyone up. She’s awake early to put the dried dishes in the cupboards. She’s awake to make lunch for the whole family. She’s awake to fill a small plastic container with grapes and strawberries cut in half with their stems plucked for my sister and I to snack on during the drive to school.

At 4 p.m., Ma pulls into the driveway and into the garage, deliberate and slow.

I know she’s swearing under her breath. Ma’s a bad parker. A bad driver, really.

She opens the front door only to have it get stuck on my snow boots.

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“How many times do I have to tell you guys to stop leaving your damn boots right in front of the door,” she says, with that “don’t bother me” face.

She’s tired. Ma refuses to take a break during her eight to 12-hour shifts. She’s a workaholic. She doesn’t know how to take a break. (Not me, I allow myself a nap after my four-hour shift at work.)

Ma’s tiredness combined with her pent-up emotions and frustrations comes out after a bad day at work. Or just comes out on any day. I call it menopause. But it’s just motherhood.

After a bad day, I lock myself in my room – my personal sanctuary and refuse to talk to anyone. After a bad day, Ma slams the cupboards shut and throws the clean utensils in the drawer. After a bad day, Ma locks the bathroom door and sits on the white plastic stool and cries. Because even her bedroom is not a private place: it’s dad’s room, it’s the hair-drying room. After a bad day, Ma sits in the kitchen in silence, not saying a word. After a bad day, Ma realizes that maybe she’s not happy even with a happy family and an amazing job. After a bad day, Ma realizes that Dad curbed her adventurous side. After a bad day, Ma realizes that she doesn’t live her life for herself, but for me and my sisters.

And yet, even after a bad day, she decorates a small plate with fruits and brings it up to my room for me to snack on. Her life is motherhood.

When I stare at my face in the mirror, I look for any new blemishes so I can cover them with makeup. I look at how wrinkles appear when I smile.

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When I catch Ma staring at herself in the mirror, she’s looking for grey in her black shoulder-length hair. She’s looking at the wrinkles that grace the corner of her eyes. She’s looking for any new brown spots that may have appeared on her face because she forgot to wear oversized sunglasses whilst driving the other day. The sun is her enemy.

“Bean! How does this look? Do I look like an old country woman?” she asks me before every outing that requires her to dress up.

She’s insecure. She’s no longer that young fashion icon that I steal clothes from. She doesn’t have the same body she had 25 years ago. Her body is scarred from her three pregnancies. There are stretch marks, and her lower back has a small indent from the anesthesia needles. It’s the small dip in her back that you can feel when you hug her.

“Does it look weird?”

“Are you sure?”

The woman who built my self confidence and makes me feel beautiful doesn’t feel beautiful. The woman who excitedly helps me pick out a dress for a party and styles my hair is gone for a second.

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She’s gorgeous.

One day I ask her: “Would you redo it? Motherhood?” I am sitting on my couch, typing my English assignment.

“It’s a human being’s duty,” she says.

“No,” my little sister interjects, laughing.

“If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t have you girls,” she says nonchalantly.

Ma is defined by motherhood. She lives her life for her family. She loves it. She hates it. I am defined by my desire to be a mother. Because of Ma. Despite her mood swings. Despite her secrecy. Despite her sudden spurts of anger. Because she’s human. Not perfect. Because motherhood is the only 'hood where you’ll find your most loyal homegirl.

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Marie-An Hoang lives in Montreal.

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