Motherhood & Words

mother love and Snow Flower

I just finished a wonderful novel: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. It’s a story set in nineteenth century China about enduring friendship, footbinding, and nu shu, women’s secret writing. It’s also a story about motherhood and mother love. Aha! The dialogue between different pieces of writing continues.

Just two weeks ago, my students read Andrea Buchanan’s “Mother Love” and wrote about what mother love meant to them. I have been thinking about it, as well, what it means to love a child, what that feels like. I think of a moment in the car when Stella was staring out the window, singing Joy to the World softly. I think of waking up in the middle of the night to her cries, getting out of bed though it’s freezing, and going in to lie down with her until she feels safe again. (And I’m not bragging or trying to make myself seem like a great mom here. I really, and I mean really, hate to get out of bed in the middle of the night.) But these moments, to me, are what mother love is.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about this so much that I had such a hard time getting into this book. I knew it was about footbinding, and it’s hard for me to get my mind around the fact that for over a thousand years, mothers had to do this to their daughters. I think of Stella running around the house, jumping from the couch, scaling the jungle gym at the park, and then imagine binding her feet, not only taking away her freedom, but inflicting that kind of pain. It seems impossible.

The crazy thing is that Snow Flower’s narrator, Lily, uses this exact term–mother love–throughout the story: “This type of mother love (is) teng ai. My son told me that in men’s writing it is composed of two characters. The first means pain; the second means love. That is a mother’s love.” After Lily’s mother slaps her, Lily says, “Although my face stung, inside I was happy. That slap was the first time Mama had shown me her mother love, and I had to bite my lips to keep from smiling.”

How do I reconcile the kind of mother love I was thinking about with Lily’s sense of mother love? Is there is difference, really?

I do understand the cultural significance of footbinding, and I understand that if I grew up in China a hundred years ago, I would have had my feet bound and I would have bound my daughter’s feet. But it still makes me teary, and I didn’t really want to read about it.

Those parts of the book are hard. Period. But See really is a wonderful storyteller. Once I got into the book, and accepted footbinding as inevitable, I was captivated by the special friendship, the laotong relationship, between Snow Flower and Lily.

So, I’m curious if anyone reading this blog has read this book and and/or what your ruminations are on mother love? I’m thinking it’s something to which I’ll keep returning.

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Mandy on February 22, 2007 at 6:21 am

    I haven’t read this book, but I often wonder about this kind of thing (what you’re calling mother love – but maybe what also encompasses sister love or woman love) in my current location in regard to something like “female circumcision,” to put it lightly. I wonder how mothers and daughters come to envision this kind of thing as natural, or as love. Same thing goes for the hijab, though it is a prevalent thing in contemporary Egypt to say that the hijab is a deeply personal choice and is not forced upon most women. I think it is actually somewhere in between being forced and being a personal choice – as you are saying, I think – the space between love and pain in a binding relationship can be hazy.

  2. kate on February 23, 2007 at 10:31 am

    I actually thought a lot about female circumcision while I was reading Snow Flower. I struggle with it in the same way. Have you read Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories, by Lila Abu-Lughod? I think you would find it really interesting, and I’d love to hear what you think about it.

  3. moonlight ambulette on February 23, 2007 at 11:34 am

    Interesting! I love when two seemingly disparate pieces of writing end up speaking to each other in this kind of way. I haven’t read either of these, but they sound really wonderful!

  4. Mandy on February 23, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    I haven’t read this – it sounds great – I’ll be on the lookout for it – thanks!

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    i haven't read the novel. i'll probably google it first before buying it. thanks for the information.