By Tara Aquino
I didn’t have the words, until I saw Lady Bird.
On the surface, Lady Bird tells the story of an angsty teen desperate to escape her middle-class life in a dull California town, where she’s forced to put up with the politics of Catholic school—the rich kids, the strict rules, the repressed sexuality. But, at its core, Greta Gerwig’s little masterpiece is about the relationship between a mother and daughter whose conflicting love-languages consistently put them at odds.
About a year ago, I finally came out to my mom. The pain of presenting myself as I truly was to a woman who was holding on to a perfect idea of me was unbearable, and something that—until seeing Lady Bird—I didn’t know how to even begin to recover from. After I spent the past year attempting to contextualize my own relationship with my mother, the film gave a voice to things I’ve been struggling to comprehend, and in turn, encouraged me to use my own.
Below is an attempt to deepen my relationship with a woman I had only ever known conceptually—a villainous character I'd constructed after years of passive aggression and endless fighting—via a discussion about a film that intimately captured the essence of our relationship. What I expected to be a conversational roast of my entire existence evolved into a deeper understanding of my mom, Teresa, as an actual human being.
Here’s to the hope that in beginning to acknowledge one another’s humanity we can finally heal.
So, let’s start with what was the most relatable.
Everything I say, you always have an opinion. You’re so stubborn—especially when I say you always have to be neat.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I thought about that when her [Lady Bird’s] mom made the bed in the hotel room.]
I don’t want other people to think that you weren’t raised right.
The Catholic part of the movie also hit me. Obviously, private school was so expensive and we didn’t have a lot of money—why did you put yourselves through the stress of having to afford that?
Because we wanted to raise you right. We were scared of the environment, especially in L.A. I know we could’ve spent our money buying a bigger house and fancier things, but the most important thing for us was you and your brother’s education. Nobody could take that away from you guys.
You said earlier that you didn’t want people to think I wasn’t raised right. As much I resent having to care about what other people think, I’m starting to realize that a lot of immigrant life in America, unfortunately, depends on what other people perceive about you. Can you talk about the struggle to rebuild a life with a family in the U.S. as a Filipino immigrant?
We had to start from scratch, but thank God we had Nanay and Tatay and your titas and titos here to take care of you when I had to work instead of a daycare of strangers. In the Philippines, I was in banking. The [potential employers here] always asked me what my experience was working in America—none. But I told them if they don’t give me a chance, I won’t be able to have any experience here. I want to prove to you that I’m capable. Your dad, too. When I left your dad in the Philippines, he was a manager of a computer sales business.
How old were you?
I was 29 when I first came here. I went back to the Philippines to get married, and when I knew I was pregnant, I came back because I wanted to have you here.
So I’m an anchor baby—wow. Thanks. What was that like without Dad here for the first two years?
I would talk to your dad all the time. I would let him hear your voice. When I gave birth to you, he wasn’t around. He couldn’t get a visa from the US Embassy because they thought he wouldn’t go back. I wasn’t a citizen yet because I didn’t have my five years of residency. We’d send each other pictures with little notes on the back. It was so expensive, too. Most of our telephone bills—your uncles' too because your titas were still in the Philippines—were so high. We had to buy phone cards, which would keep getting cut off. I’d call your dad during my lunch breaks when I was still pregnant with you and I would put the phone on my tummy so you could hear his voice.
What did you wish you could tell us back then that you couldn’t because we were so young? Like her parents in the movie—their secret conversations reminded me of you and Dad.
I wish you guys didn’t see us fight. But I told myself that it was OK, because that’s reality. You guys would always say to us, “I thought we were a happy family. Why do you always want to separate?” And that hurt.
I just remember, especially when Dad was figuring out his job, the constant fighting. Why did you?
We were just so frustrated with our situation. There was no other man or woman involved. We couldn’t separate, especially for you guys. But we always prayed to God and kept our faith.
Remember the time when Dad had to change jobs? He was doing well, but he saw you guys growing up and he was missing it because he was working all the time. That’s why we started going on little trips more. Even when it’s challenging financially now, at least we spent that money trying to be together.
Speaking of Dad, did it ever hurt you that I was always closer to Dad?
I told Dad that that part reminded me of you guys, even down to the financial aid for Fordham. I knew you and your dad were keeping secrets from me, and that was alright. But it hurt to be the villain all the time. Like I told you before, kaming mga babae [trans. ‘us women’], especially me, I would be upfront with you—and your dad would be cool. But really, he would complain to me and he’d never say it out loud. That’s the reason why I’m always the bad guy!
Your dad and I thought it would be too overwhelming for you to have two ‘bad cops’, so I took that role.
You and I used to have blow up fights. I was dealing with a lot.
Yeah, I would pull over and leave you. [Laughs.] Or I would give you the silent treatment because I wouldn’t know what to say in the situation anymore. I just wish you would tell me what’s going on—you were always just so standoffish and short-tempered.
You know why. And I’m sorry.
It’s funny when they were together in the movie and she and her mom did their favorite activity of seeing open houses. I miss those days when you’d ask me to go out with you—movies, the mall, Chuck E. Cheese. That was our thing when your dad wasn’t here—you and I would go to Chuck E. Cheese every Sunday. Now, I hold onto every moment you come home just to do laundry. Now, I show my love by preparing your bed, folding your clothes—it makes me happy to be able to do little things for you because I’m so glad you’re here.
When you were in New York, I wanted to text you daily but I couldn’t do it because I was afraid you’d say, “Ang kulit naman si Mommy!” [trans. “Mom is so annoying!”] But I just wanted to text you good morning.
I know you love me though. Like in the movie, she knew her mom loved her and she told her friends that, but that love just came out as pestering.
With all the problems the mom was having in the movie, that’s the only way that love could come out. But if you look at her, you could see deep inside she’s hurt.
Welp, I feel like we got enough without breaking down completely. [Laughs.] That’s for another day. Any last words?
I had a tough time giving birth to you. I gave birth on Palm Sunday. I was there early Saturday and you ended up being C-section.
I put up a fight my entire life. I feel like that’s so symbolic of our relationship—that I had to rip out your insides.
[Laughs.] You’re crazy. But yes. And I still love you no matter what. I just want you around more, anak.