Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

How I Got the Canadian Mother’s Day I Wanted in China

How I Got the Mother's Day I Wanted/ © shutterstock

Today is Mother’s Day. At least, it’s Mother’s Day in our house, long after the real Mother’s Day has come and gone. On the actual Mother’s Day, I arranged for my husband and I to take my mother-in-law out for lunch. Or so I thought. After all, my own mother is all the way in Canada. All I could do was wait for the evening and then phone my mother to wish her a happy day on her Mother’s Day morning (12-hour time difference). On the other hand, my closest mother now, geographically, is my husband’s mother and I knew it was our job to celebrate her that day, no matter what.


We foreigners take Mother’s Day very seriously.


But as of 2012, I am also a mother. Our daughter is still a baby—only just shy of 17-months-old—and so I realize that my motherhood is not something she will know how (or when) to celebrate until she’s much older. But, that shouldn’t stop her daddy from acknowledging that there’s another mother figure in his life now, right? The mother of his child? Me? (Imagine me knocking on the door of his consciousness right now—knock knock!)


On that real Mother’s Day, my husband was busy in the morning and he had to meet us at the restaurant. I discovered quickly that he had misunderstood my plans and thought that I was taking everyone out for lunch because he arrived without a wallet, much to my irritation. When the bill was delivered to our table, I released my held breath with relief when I found that I was able to cover it, with 4RMB to spare in change.


My MIL had already reached into her purse and pulled out money in preparation to cover the bill, quite without ceremony, surprise or expectation otherwise. That should tell you a little about how my husband has so inadequately celebrated Mother’s Day in the past. She was prepared to pay for her own Mother’s Day meal! I glared at my husband one more time for that, as we got up to leave from the table. He looked at me, confused.


Last year was my first Mother’s Day. He took us out for dinner and bought me flowers. I was satisfied with that. My friend from Canada was visiting us and, now that I look back in comparison, I wonder if his gesture of a meal and fresh lilies was about making a good impression on my friend. This is a culture of “saving face,” after all, and I’m cynical at the best of times.


Well, my cynicism is well founded. Mother’s Day came and went this year without as much as a “Happy Mother’s Day” from my husband. In fact, five days passed before I broached the subject. If I let it go this year, I thought, it will be this way from here on in. No, I resolved, this is unacceptable. I deserve this special day!


I have to admit that my experience of special occasions in China is quite often disappointing and I wonder if it’s just a Chinese cultural thing; like, perhaps special days are not celebrated the same way here, or perhaps an effort to make people feel special is designed only for those one is courting or trying to impress (more of the “saving/gaining face” concept). Just like saying polite words such as “sorry” or “thank you” to those one is intimate with is rarely done here, creating “specialness” for family members may also be considered strange or inappropriate.


This is all conjecture, mind you, and it doesn’t get him off the hook.


I am Canadian. I have Canadian needs. Even though I live in a Chinese culture, I can’t erase my culture, nor would I want to. In Canada, Mother’s Day is a time for special treatment. A meal or flowers are adequate. A massage is even better. Taking on a larger portion of the household duties will gain husbands more check marks. Extra childcare equals even more extra credit. Giving a set period of time and space to mommy (to do her own thing, like writing) will gain him even more gold stars. And all of the above? After the mother in question recovers her shock to be so “spoiled,” I would declare it a winning day.


And so it is that I wrote my husband a list of requirements for an adequate Mother’s Day, to be enacted on a day of his choosing but “sooner than later,” preferably before the month of May came to an end.


My list began with my husband getting up when our daughter woke and preparing her breakfast. Usually, mornings are Mommy’s realm. While I enjoy this time with my daughter, the opportunity to lounge in bed and not have to cook before I’ve even had a cup of tea was very relaxing.


Item number two was my husband taking on the role of delivering my daughter to her grandmother’s house for the latter part of the morning. If I am working, this is my job, but today I am not working and I wanted to relish staying in my pajamas until noon. My husband practices Tai Chi every day, so this is non-negotiable, but my MIL is also keen to see her granddaughter on a daily basis. While I would have loved to have seen my husband playing with his daughter all morning, this solution accomplishes everyone’s goals and no one is disappointed.


Item number three was exactly three hours of undisturbed alone time in our home without baby or husband underfoot. This would give me time to do my own thing, like writing or listening to music or just staring out the window. What a joy it is to just listen to silence for a while without little fingers tugging on my pants or the bellowing voice of my husband searching for something he has misplaced.


This afternoon, I will collect my daughter in time for her nap and bring her back home with me. She sleeps better over here. When I’m not working, I’d rather have her with me, I admit. Three hours is enough alone time. (Don’t tell her Daddy, but I even missed her when I could hear her downstairs eating breakfast this morning!)


Item number four is a meal at my favourite restaurant for dinner, and I made sure to specify that he was picking up the tab! Maybe I should remind him not to forget his wallet…


This is to be followed by item number five: a massage at the local spa located downstairs in our building, also his treat. What makes this even more special, however, is that the massage will happen while my husband takes responsibility for getting my daughter to bed. That includes making sure she brushes her teeth, then reading a story, singing her a song and putting her to bed, followed by washing her diapers and hanging them to dry. By the time I return from my massage, I wrote, I expect our daughter to be sleeping and the diapers clean!


My final item on the Mother’s Day list was to share time with my husband watching a DVD of my choice (which is important, considering we have quite different tastes in movies sometimes) accompanied by homemade popcorn. Unfortunately, I’ll have to make the popcorn myself because teaching him how to make it from scratch without burning it is not worth the drama. But, I don’t mind. I’ll make the popcorn. By then, I’m sure to be quite relaxed and willing to take on a small role in the making of my perfect Mother’s Day!


When my husband agreed to this plan, I’m sure he could see the fire in my eyes. His first response, ironically enough, was, “Just don’t make it ‘Labour Day’ for me, okay?” I had to laugh. “Labour Day” is a day that celebrates labourers by giving people a day off from labour. While I know that he meant that he didn’t want to do too much “work” on my “Mother’s Day Revised,” when I honestly responded by saying that he had nothing to worry about and that it wouldn’t become a “labour day” for him, I knew that was an accurate answer! It wasn’t going to be a day off; he was going to have to do a bit of work. As we say in the Swift family, “Suck it up, buttercup!”


And so now it’s my Mother’s Day. Finally. My three hours of alone time are almost up and I’ll be off to pick up my daughter any minute now. Well, that is, right after I say goodbye to my pajamas for the day. So far so good!


This is way better than lilies, by the way.

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Ember Swift is a Canadian living in Beijing who gave birth to her first child in January 2012. She is also a professional musician and writer who has released 11 albums independently, toured internationally and writes for several international publications in addition to keeping three distinct blog series active. Her official website is located at

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  1. CommentsInCultureParent | Celebrating Holidays as Global Citizens   |  Friday, 12 July 2013 at 10:02 am

    […] One of the challenges of living abroad is combining the traditions of your home culture with the traditions of your new country. Have you ever tried to hold a traditional American Thanksgiving in Kerala or a 10-year-old’s birthday party in Osaka? Although there are ways to combine traditions, sometimes you just want your own type of celebration, like a Canadian Mother’s Day instead of a Chinese one. […]

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