My (Liberating) Secret Shame

When I was 16, my mother told me that I would never be happier. Entering womanhood, leaving home, joining the work force, having children — these phases, according to her, would all be marked by suffering and disappointment.

I didn’t know how to tell her that I felt suffocated and anxious all the time, so I pretended to be the joyous, carefree girl that she wanted me to be.

“I was happiest when I was your age,” she said. “Beautiful. Free. You should enjoy it now before it’s gone.”

I did not feel any of those things, only the clawing, panicked certainty that it must get better. But how could I question a body that once held me in its loving folds?

“I was the most beautiful one in my family,” my mother told me more than once. “So many men wanted to marry me. They came to my parents and begged to court me. I could have married anyone. A doctor from Texas. A French businessman.”

Instead, she married my father, a Vietnamese Catholic man from a good family. She moved from her close-knit community in Santa Ana, Calif., to San Jose, a distance that made her feel stranded at sea. She was 22, with a 33-year-old husband she barely knew. I was their first child. In the years to come, she kept trying to produce a brood of children, determined to follow the example of my grandmother, who birthed 10.

I was 4 when I became a big sister. I was 4 when a lancing pain cut into my abdomen. I was 4 when doctors cultured my cells and found them to be malignant. I was 4 when nurses rolled me into a cold, bright room and a surgeon removed my right ovary, and with it, half my eggs. Even then, I felt desperately responsible for my parents’ fear and exhaustion, for my mother’s grief about the children I may never have.

Twelve years later, my mother suffered another miscarriage, the last of several that I recall from my childhood.

This time, though, I was old enough to understand the root of her despair, to know that she would slip into a pale shadow of herself for months. Besides me, only one pregnancy had been successful — my little brother, whose wide liquid eyes reflected my own anxiety every time the shroud fell over our home.

I could not help but imagine my ghost siblings. A rebellious, open-minded sister to share secrets in the middle of the night. A second, more mischievous little brother to bear the burden of lifting the funereal mood.

During my mother’s final pregnancy, our family was hopeful enough to name the baby: Patricia, Trish for short. After the miscarriage, I lay in bed and imagined alternate futures. In them, my little sister grew up to be an artist. Together, we published illustrated books, building impenetrable worlds where no one could hurt us, where we could not hear our mother sobbing in the next room.

I always carried the awareness of the dead babies my mother mourned. I felt the responsibility of making up for their loss, of being five daughters in one body. The smart one, the loving one, the goofy one, the girly-girl, the black sheep.

When my mother bought me clothing and fixed my hair, I smiled and let her, holding my arms over my head like a compliant doll. Even as a teenager, when I was no longer attached to sweet pastel frills and pearl necklaces, I let her swaddle me in fantasy.

When I took a creative-writing class during my first year at college, a fellow student critiqued my writing by saying, “Your characters are chameleons. They lack a strong point of view. They don’t know themselves. They are so unbelievable.”

I sat there trying to morph into the kind of person who belonged in a writing workshop, taking notes for future improvement.

My mother used to suggest that I lie or omit the fact of my missing ovary. She said I should wear one-piece bathing suits to hide the scar.

“People will look at you differently if they know,” she said. “You should say you had another type of cancer. Or pretend you never had cancer. You were so young.”

She vibrated with the terror that the world would see me as less whole, less lovable for my damaged reproductive system.

Reading Lacan for the first time at age 20, I highlighted: “All sorts of things in this world behave like mirrors.”

I longed to be more than a reflection of someone else’s fragmented parts.

I was not alone in harboring a suspicion that my body was not fully my own. My cousins hid tattoos under sweaters and long sleeves. They fretted over haircuts that their parents might hate. My mother avoided wearing shorts because her eldest sister once told her that she had unsightly calf muscles. When a distant relative gained weight after having a baby and posted vacation photos at the beach, I listened to my aunts and mother gossip about the audacity of showing off a larger body.

I was 32 before I mustered the courage to dye my hair bright purple, and I only did so after moving to Virginia and placing 2,700 miles of distance between me and my family. The first time my mother saw me on FaceTime with my new hair, she stared as though I were a stranger. Later, she texted me that I was more beautiful with my natural hair color.

“How awful that you had to move so far away,” she often said when we spoke on the phone. “How lonely you must be. How sad.”

My loneliness and sadness stemmed from the isolation of a pandemic, not from the distance. In Virginia, as the leaves turned, I finally had space to breathe.

My cousin, whose queerness is still an open secret, pulled me aside at a family wedding and said, “My parents want me to go to France to meet some man who is having trouble finding a wife. His mother is here, and she asked them to send me. Like I’m something to be ordered on Amazon.”

We giggled, tipsy on champagne. I told her to take the free plane ticket to Paris and find her future wife.

The next morning, we awoke before everyone else and drove to the beach. Sitting with our coffees, we said to each other: I am so tired.

Around the same time, I finally saw the medical documents from when I had cancer. The binder had sat in full view on a shelf for nearly my entire life, and yet we all pretended it didn’t exist. It was only when I began thinking about starting a family that I thought to look.

Reading them, I learned that I carry a chromosomal translocation that doubles the risk of miscarriage. In my family, women carry the deep guilt of failed motherhood: my mother and her miscarriages; my grandmother who lost two children during a famine; an aunt whose child drowned when they fled Vietnam by boat; the cousins who suffered miscarriages and infertility struggles in isolation.

I carry my own secret shame — that when I learned of my waning chances of conceiving a child, I felt sadness, yes, but mostly relief. I had long feared having a daughter and the millstone of needing to protect both her autonomy and my own. This was a lesson I inherited from my mother, aunts and grandmothers: To be a woman is to fight for your body’s vital parts while other people claim ownership.

I have always known that my mother loves me more than she loves herself, a fact that brings more guilt than comfort. My mother loves me — the wailing infant of me, pure in my potential — but at what cost?

Some mothers see bodies and minds as clay to be molded, a second draft sculpture of the life they wanted for themselves. When I look in the mirror, I see me but also the many versions that could have been. Somewhere in there is the daughter my mother envisioned when she first held me.

I have often wished to be the living panacea for the pain she felt as a child refugee, a powerless girl in an often-hostile country, and a lonely young wife. At times, giving myself the permission to be something else — the self who feels most tender and true — feels like an unforgivable betrayal.

But I cannot relinquish my life’s narrative to another person, even if their intention is to spare me the pain that lives in their bones, calcified through generations of trauma. I will likely never know what it is to hold my own baby and imagine an entire life for her, but I can soothe the infant inside me.

I’ll tell her my most hard-earned truth: that she can be both loved and free.

Teresa Pham-Carsillo is a writer who lives in Napa, Calif.

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