Although Tizon calls his biological parents “Mom” and “Dad,” both figures come off as distant and relatively uninvolved. The essay is not kind to his biological mother, even with his much-criticized attempts to humanize her, including a passage where he describes reading her diaries. Tizon seems surprised at the love and care his biological mother expresses about her children, as surprised as he is by the accounts of the friendships she has formed with other women at work. “Mom had a life and an identity apart from the family and Lola. Of course.”
Tizon admits to, at times, feeling real hatred for his biological mother. In contrast, the most negative emotion he feels about Lola is annoyance when she moves in with him: He is annoyed that she tells him to wear a sweater, annoyed that she gripes so much about his father and stepfather, annoyed that she fills his kitchen with disposable containers. These are the emotions a child feels about an aging, hoarder parent who comes to live with them.
Whether or not he realized it, Lola was his real mother.
Tizon uses “Mom” and “Dad”—parental titles—to refer to two distant figures. And when he looks at Lola’s domestic work and emotional labor—acts that are coded in our culture as motherly love—he thinks to himself, “That is servitude.”
But is he wrong? Marriage, for most of human history, has been a gross violation of human rights. Women were sold or given to men by their parents. Their bodies were used to cook, to clean, to make children and to take care of them—all for free. Violence and exploitation are not incidental to the feminized labor that is coded as motherly love, but historically inseparable from it.
Tizon’s love for Lola, and whatever love Lola bore for him, are not incidental to the violations of her rights. Their bond is not a poignant coda that helps to mitigate the horror of her enslavement. Nor is it an inconvenient detail in a bigger story of oppression. Their mother-child connection was the basis, the cause, and the reason for her exploitation.
The romantic mystique around familial love is used to gloss over matters such as compensation and humane treatment. “Embrace of the kinship idiom can deter [au pairs] from complaining about their living and working conditions,” writes the law professor Janie Chuang of the U.S. Au Pair program. When Tizon accuses his biological mother of owning a slave, she defends herself by claiming that he will “never understand” her special relationship to Lola. What’s wrong with working your mother for 15 hours a day, anyway? It’s all in the family.
* * *
By the time I was born, my extended family in Korea neither arranged marriages nor had servants. But “My Family’s Slave” dredged things up that I had not thought about in a long time. My own late grandmother, the proud matriarch of a large family that included 20 grandchildren, was only 15 when she married my 26-year-old grandfather. He had already been widowed twice by then, and had two small children that needed to be taken care of. He liked the look of my grandmother, and asked her parents if he could marry her. She rarely spoke of her deceased husband, and when other grandchildren attempted to record her life story, they couldn’t get very far before she broke down in tears and refused to continue.