It took me 20 years to fully comprehend my mother’s love

From a tense environment with grudges and arguments to an open and improving relationship, I trace my arduous past with my mother to the better days we have now.

Caleb Lau

Grew up a musician, found a calling in photography and writing. Still in love with all of them.

Published: 7 May 2022, 3:40 PM

While most see the annual commemorative date of Mother’s Day (May 8 this year) as a day of pure joy, I find it a significant time to reflect on my relationship with my mother. 

Our relationship in the past wasn’t smooth – it included loud arguments at home in the middle of the night, resentment I held for years, and staying away at my grandparents’ home when things got too intense.

Certainly, what didn’t help was the ideals I held growing up of what a “perfect mum” looked like; hearing and seeing how others’ mothers checked off many boxes on that list only made me more frustrated with mine. 

But, call it the process of maturing or a journey of self-discovery, through conversations and realisations, the unhappiness gradually has turned into appreciation of what my mother has done for me. 

Understanding the struggle of raising four boys

Two years after marrying my father, my mother gave birth to me. Within the span of the next ten years, the five-room flat we grew up in was nothing short of rowdy for me with three brothers to grow up with. 

From primary school through secondary school, hearing from or staying over with friends who had personal bedrooms seeded some resentment within me. I couldn’t have what they had – walls of my chosen colour, decorations to my liking, a bed and desk all in one room. 

Instead, everything at home was co-shared with my brothers  – where we slept, studied, ate, bathed. What was a playroom or study room in the day for me and my siblings functioned also as our bedroom at night; we grew accustomed to laying down and propping up our mattresses daily.


split time evenly mother's love
Though with four children to tend to, my mother spread her time evenly to care for each of us, organising family appreciation dinners weekly. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU


Though I never verbalised my resentment to her, in hindsight it was the foundation of numerous arguments at home. We would argue about trivial matters like who was to wash the dishes for everyone as if it was a matter of life and death, because I wasn’t willing to reconcile to a life of shared responsibilities. 

While in my freshman year of university, a casual conversation with my maternal grandparents unveiled how my mother wilfully gave up her full-time career as a school teacher to devote time to mother all four of us children.

Hearing how her life changed with giving birth to four children created a deep impression on me. It struck me hard because I know how much she has loved teaching; even after quitting, she still worked tirelessly as a freelance literary educator and tutor. 

All along I was so focused on how my life paled in comparison to my peers, neglecting the large sacrifice she had made too, to be so present in my life in spite of her dreams and goals.

As two of my brothers and I have reached our 20s, gone were the days she had to coup herself at home stressed out over our next academic test; aside from focusing on my youngest brother still in secondary school, she can now afford to devote her time and energy to her key passion as a storyteller.


mother storytelling seniors pursuing dream
Occasionally, I accompany her as a helper or photographer for her storytelling workshops for seniors. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU


Seeing her being able to pursue her own dreams now makes me grateful for her past sacrifices and glad that she can now do more of what she loves.

Learning her reasons to be frugal

Another frustration I had growing up was how every time I came home carrying something new I bought, my mother would utter : “How much is it?” and “Why did you buy it? We have that at home”. 

It didn’t have to be the latest $1,000 iPhone in town. Bringing home several of my go-to Pilot pens from the Popular bookstore would also face the wrath of her questioning.

Even when I spent from my savings without requesting money from my parents, my mother would still make a huge fuss over the necessity of the item.

For things beyond my budget like clothes and shoes, we went to the cheaper stores like Bata and Giordano and bought those that were on-sale. These items would only be bought if the current ones were truly worn-out or unusable – these were some of the lengths she would go to be thrifty, even for herself. 

However, what seemed the unlikeliest of scenarios happened when I was 17 years old.

Having a desire to pursue film and photography in school and as a hobby, my mother granted me my first mirrorless camera and film editing software, collectively costing almost $2,000. 

Of course, the naive me back then was just overjoyed with the new gadgets in my hands, but looking back on it, a sense of gratitude overcomes me.


first sony camera hobby freelance career
The first camera my mother bought for me serves as a constant reminder of her support of my passions in spite of her thrifty outlook on finances. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU


In hindsight, it wasn’t just the camera that she wilfully spent on. Spending to put me and my brothers through tuition, music classes and getting costly violins and a piano for our musical passions were just a few that I can list off the top of my head.

As a secondary school student, all I could think about was the newest and trendiest thing to have, and I felt all my mother could care about was the bottom line. 

Taking into account that she never spent much on herself, such as using the cheapest phone plan and turning down my family’s requests to get her anything new, warms my heart even more.

I’ve realised that all along, it was through her careful ways of expenditure that she had more than enough to invest in my family, the people she cared for the most.

Understanding her silent ways of mediating conflict

With all the tension and unspoken grudges in my secondary school years, arguments were a norm with my mum. 

Whenever they would happen at night, I remember packing an overnight bag without hesitation and travelling 30 to 40 mins via public transport to reside at my grandparents’ house until I was emotionally ready to come home again and face her.


mother grandfather short film graduation school 2016 moving in
Through my short film for school graduation in 2016, I chronicled the past relationship dynamic and how my mother and I reconnected. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU


What fuelled my unhappiness was her lack of addressing our many conflicts, acting as if everything was okay once I returned home from my many escapades, making me feel like she couldn’t care less about my feelings. 

But it was only a year ago, in a conversation I had with her about our unresolved issues, that I realised her silent ways of handling conflict and giving me space was what she thought I wanted in those moments of tension.

Being so focused and insistent on hearing the word “sorry” from her mouth, I neglected the care she actually showed in her own way, prioritising making me feel welcome at home in spite of our differences. 

In that conversation we had a year ago, I could communicate that I preferred an open conversation after any conflicts we had. And since then, whenever conflicts arose, I know better than to assume based on her mannerisms, and we instead focus on communicating our thoughts with one another clearly.

An ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on

In spite of the strained relationship that I grew accustomed to in my earlier years, the hardships I experienced later on in National Service and university showed me another facet of my mother’s love. 

I remember the first two weeks of confinement in Pulau Tekong. Given the harsh environment physically and mentally, I leaned on my parents for support, mostly my mother. Daily phone calls just to talk about what was going on back at home and hear her encouragement became a necessity to me. 

Sure, she would not fully be able to comprehend what I was going through, but it was in that time I realised the motherly support I needed most was actually always available to me.

Even if we had some arguments on the weekends when I would be at home in the subsequent weeks, nothing would stop me calling her at odd hours of the day to just hear a word of support from her.


passing out parade tiff joy
Even though we had a tiff just a day before my Passing Out Parade, having her by my side on that day of celebration was a joy to me. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU


Lately, I was reminded of that side of her love when I went through the break-up of a year-long relationship, which both my parents had advised me to consider hard before getting into from the start.

Sitting down and breaking the news to them, what I thought would be an expression of “I told you so” was instead a forlorn look, as my mother patted my trembling hands lightly and told me to stop blaming myself. 

It really was in my own dark times that opened my eyes to how her love was always there and how much it has meant to me. The more I treasured those moments, the more I was willing to let go of the unhappy times we shared in the past.

Aiming to be a close-knit family instead of something picture perfect

By looking at our relationship with a retrospective lens, I also recognise that I had my part to play in how things turned out. 

Many times what held me back from seeing her love for me was my idea of picture-perfect motherly care portrayed in films and social media, and my quick assumptions based on what I saw and felt in those moments instead of looking at things objectively.

Slowly but surely, my understanding of my mother’s hidden care has led me to let go of internal grudges and the ideals that I once held so close to my heart.


birthday 24th treat family meal
For my 24th birthday this year, I celebrated it by treating my family to a big meal as a gesture of appreciation. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CALEB LAU


The aspects of my mother I grew up resenting – the decision to have four children, to live frugally – have become things I learnt to cherish and treasure her for.

With Mother’s Day just around the corner, I’d love to take the opportunity to do what matters close to her heart – doing away with material gifts that she has no need of, but perhaps planning a good old family dinner filled with heart-to-heart conversations and words of appreciation.

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