On the Irreplaceability of Mothers: Reading Please Look After Mom
Title: Please Look After Mom
Author: Kyung-Sook Shin
Publication Year: 2011
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: eBook from library
In case you didn’t hear the news, or if you’ve been living under some kind of faith-based education version of a rock, Islam is pretty big on moms.
But why? I ask this not in opposition to the unfortunate instances of mothers who have neglected and failed their children, but something even more fundamental: what is it about motherhood that has such an honourable status? Why is dying in childbirth equivalent to martyrdom? How is it that just having a child perform good deeds is one of the only forms of ongoing goodness that is being recorded, long after one has passed on? Why is motherhood so inherently worthy in Islam?
For me, Please Look After Mom gives one answer to this question.
This is the story of a family that suddenly discovers that the mother has gone missing. As they are distributing flyers, asking everyone who could have seen her, and visiting every place she could be, the children and husband are submerged into the swamp that is the stuff of complex emotional relationships in a family. In the process of wrangling in this swamp, a richly and freshly textured understanding of their mother rises to the surface. For it’s only in her absence that her family realizes how this woman was more than just a mother and wife: she had dreams that she actualized through her children, she suffered from acute frustration that she let out by shattering ceramic lids of containers, she suffered from wounded pride and heartbreak when her husband brought home another woman, and she had a boundless capacity for generosity that only became apparent when its benefactors come to ask after her.
One of the most beautiful parts of the book is when the daughter asks her mother if she liked being in the kitchen. Her mother, who also has to attend to farming alongside household duties, confesses about the exhaustion she feels:
There’s no beginning or end to kitchen work. You eat breakfast, then it’s lunch, and then it’s dinner, and when it’s bright again it’s breakfast again. . . . When the kitchen felt like a prison, I went out to the back and picked up the most misshapen jar lid and threw it as hard as I could at the wall.
But then, softening, she adds:
But it was nice when you kids were growing up. Even when I was so busy that I didn’t have time to retie the towel on my head, when I watched you sitting around the table, eating, with your spoons making a racket in the bowls, I felt like there was nothing else I wanted in the world.
Without a moment’s passing, I immediately recognized this in my mother, that deep trance of contentment she gets into when we’re all around the table, eating. And this wasn’t it: I recognized, without having realized it earlier, how she bends over backwards to give me what I want: whether it be snow peas or a certain brand of tea or a headscarf in a particular colour. By being a mother, she is made to be a provider, a source of bounty, a nurturer of life just like the mother in this book is. Allah works through her to give me my provision, and He’s not going to skimp out on rewarding her for being the medium He works through.
I have been blessed to not have experienced anything like this. But by speaking to others who have experienced such a loss, my understanding is this: one of the worst things about the loss of a family member, especially a parent, is wondering whether you did enough while they lived. Your skin crawls when you remembered the times you lashed out at them. You ardently wish that you could somehow give back what they have given to you, and perhaps even wish that you acknowledged and thank them more properly than you did. And I imagine that you go through what the characters in this book go through: they are inflicted by memories, memories so wholesome, memories plagued with the realization that no one will sacrifice for you and love you as wholly as your mother does.