The Invisible Woman

PleaseLookMomThough Please Look After Mom was an international bestseller by a South Korean novelist, I didn’t care for the lackluster title or the parts that were overstated. But the well-painted portrait of a mother who goes missing redeemed the read plenty. She is a prototype of wife and mother from every culture since the dawn of time. We see the heart of the invisible woman.

So-nyo, an elderly mother of four grown children, vanishes in the Seoul subways. Her husband hurries ahead in the crowd, characteristically impatient, and in a moment of disbelief the subway door shuts their hands apart, pulling the car away with him. The novel is a rotary of voices – of the children and husband who search for her in despair while thinking back in shame at the woman they realize they had never seen.

Hyong-chol, the eldest child, thinks back on the time his father brought into their village shack a woman to live with him, with the family. Naturally, So-nyo left the house. Trying to buy her way into the hearts of the kids, the Other Woman carefully packed their lunch, even to top it with the fried egg, then a luxury. Hyong-chol not only didn’t eat it, but made his siblings bury their lunchbox. The Other Woman went on to buy them new containers that kept their rice warm. The son refused to renounce the food strike.

   Mom came to school to find him.  It was about ten days after the woman had come to live with them.
   “Mom!” Tears spilled from his eyes.
   Mom led him to the hill behind the school. She pulled up the legs of his pants to reveal his smooth calves, grabbed a switch, and hit them.
   “Why aren’t you eating? Did you think I would be happy if you didn’t eat?”
   Mom’s thrashing was harsh. He had been upset that his siblings weren’t listening to him, and now he couldn’t understand why Mom was whipping him. His heart brimmed with resentment. He didn’t know why she was so angry.
   “Are you going to take your lunch? Are you?”
   …Instead of running away, he stood still, silent, and suffered her blows.
   “Even now?”
   The redness bloomed into blood on his calves.
   “Even now!” he yelled.
   Finally, Mom tossed the switch away. “God, you brat! Hyong-chol!” she said, embracing him and bursting into sobs. Eventually, she stopped, and tried to persuade him. He had to eat, she said, no matter who cooked the meals.

Even in the second reading, my eyes smarted. I am not endorsing child abuse, of course. But my heart swelled with understanding of So-nyo’s pain and the desperate attempt of a mother to get her child to eat – though it meant that she let Another Woman feed him. In one of the most telling moments in human drama, embracing insult to injury, a mother physically tries to force her son to an act that reinforces his father’s galling unfaithfulness. She swallows her dignity for the well-being of her child.

So-nyo chooses to go under. I’m not praising her for laying down as a doormat beneath the man she had served with nothing but devotion. In fact, she returns home to chase him and the Woman out of her house. But part of the attraction the book holds for the reader is that So-nyo seems to be Everyone’s Mom. Please allow the sweeping generalization that bears exceptions. The protagonist was so recognizable: I saw a great deal of my own mother in her and could pull up a good many other moms and grandmothers who could have replaced her name. Hers is a life of sacrifice from the day she marries and her self-renunciation, a silent one. Not once does she complain – I think because it doesn’t occur to her to. Interestingly, I don’t recall her ever saying, “I love you” to any of her kids. Calloused hands freeze over while washing the offerings of the garden, the clothes, the dishes in the winter water. Unflagging fingers pickle food for the seasons ahead while dancing over pots and fire as they contrive the next meal. In fact, she has an awful lot in common with the women out of Little House on the Prairie. In reading aloud some of the stories to my son and husband last year, I tried to figure out what was so familiar about the Prairie series when my life has been so unworthily comfortable by comparison. It hit me one day that the untiring work of the parents, especially of the mothers, mirrored the call to unsung exertion that many Asian women answer when they have children. But this isn’t ethnocentrism. Many, across time and culture, can see So-nyo in our own mother, aunt, neighbor, or grandmother. She is not attractive, and goes about with a towel over her eyes for the sweat. She is no model but certainly beautiful. She has always been there for her family, receives her husband with ready food when he slinks back from an entire season of idle adultery. But she is missing from the family radar. When she actually disappears, the family unravels both individually and as a unit.

Two years ago, I asked a friend if he thought he appreciated his mother who had raised five boys. He didn’t begin to, he answered, until he had his own. And pointing to my boy, added that Tennyson will come nowhere near appreciating the cooking let alone the rest of it until he himself becomes a father. After having my own family, I have nursed shame for not having helped my mother enough in the long immigrant years she juggled work, cooking, and housekeeping, all the while somehow keeping present and active in my schooling. In my elementary years, Mom sewed for the garment factory. One time, flying off the lightning force of the Singer machine, the whole needle sank into her finger. I remember her rushing to the doctor, trying to cup the dripping blood with the other hand. The pain did not slow her down in the many things her hand had to touch: the needle’s remained to this day. We can never thank Mom enough. Because by the time you’re a parent who sees your mother’s hands in your own labor, your own family becomes priority. Grace runs down – not up. The love of a mother will outdo and outpace her child’s, and the debt you owe her is one you pay forward.

52 thoughts on “The Invisible Woman

  1. Wow, what a great post. I can’t wait to read that book. Reading your post reminded me of a video on a similar theme. A friend sent this link to me a couple of years ago and it touched a nerve for me because I have resented the way women are so unseen by their families. Yet this speaker, as with your post, demonstrates the beautiful side of our mothers’ sacrifices. Hope you enjoy it:
    I agree with you that what our mothers give us can only be paid forward. I also appreciate that you share and underscore that these issues transcend generations and cultures.

    • JULIA!! I NeVeR SIT and watch stuff online, for lack of time. I print to-reads, and get to them in cracks of time on the go. I started smiling when I saw the title…and WOW. I’m posting it on the discussion board of a homeschool group I just joined. I would elaborate that cathedrals are for worship (so there are your implications for what mothers build in the Lord) and that Jesus is the Cornerstone. If you knEw how many times I’ve expressed, in hurt anger, how I’m not SEEN in my own home!! I love how she ended it, that the invisibility of the believing mother is a gift to save us from our self-centeredness. How else will we die to self, right? Thanks so much for the thoughtful feedback. Will be staying connected.

      • Good, I’m so glad you like it! I have watched it several times since someone first sent it to me. It can be so healing to hear another person putting into words something we didn’t know how to say, and this video does that for me.

  2. Since becoming a mother I have called my mom many times to thank her or apologize. My daughter is facing the dawn of her teen years, I expect I will be apologizing to my mom even more.

  3. You’re back! =) Thanks for tuning in. I’m sure you can relate to the post. Is your creativity online a way of coming out after years of labor in the shadows, now that the kids are grown?

  4. As the daughter of a Korean woman, I feel like you are talking about my mother and my childhood in this post. So much so that it brought me to tears. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    • Thanks, Jennifer. Seems we’re done with the generations of mothers who were made of the tough stuff. We’re so cOmfortable in the postmodern age. I just don’t see us moms today even needing to rise to the challenges that forge character with the pain. Yes, I bust my butt in the home. But I just don’t think I could juggle all my mother did, at least as cheerfully and graciously as she did.

  5. I have had some interest in how the readers outside South Korea will react to this book, although the author has recently been a butt of joke among some of us for good reasons. I heard that her meandering(or reflective, shall we say) writing style was parodied as a joke at a college classroom(and it got an A+!).

    But I understand its appeal to readers, and you nicely summarize the reason in this blog entry of yours. It seems its appeal is a universal one.

  6. Very interesting posting. About the part concerning her disciplining of her child for not eating. One aspect of Godly parenting is for the parent to recognize what type of discipline gets the best results for each individual child. In this case, perhaps the whipping was not the best type of discipline to use on her son.

    There are some children that respond well to properly applied corporal punishment, for others it may profit nothing. Also, I would be in agreement with you, that level of severity of punishment was borderline abusive.

    Lord bless you.

    • Neither the author or the mother character is Christian. In fact, there were a lot of references to traditional ancestral rites I was not familiar with. It WAS abuse. That was the irony and poignancy of the moment, very well done on a literary level. The desperation of a mother. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and for the follow. I do my best to stay in touch with my supporters but it’s getting harder, with another blog I’m working on. Do feel free to share a post down the line that you’d like me to see. =) Blessings.

    • I don’t know if you can do it there but I just got it from the library. Thanks for chkg out the post and for the follow. I do my best to stay in touch with my supporters but it’s getting hard with the other blog I’m juggling. Feel free to rap on my window with any posts you’d like to share with me down the line if you happen not to hear back. Warmly, Diana

  7. “A rotary of voices” really did it for me. And to think of this issue about moms and their output for the sake of the children (Kodomo-Tami-Ni (in Japanese) – See:, in Japanese), I’ve never been able to embrace this concept of giving myself to someone else, besides a lover/wife. And as a writer yourself, but one who can share her world, I want to think that such self-sacrifice cannot be done and you still be a good writer, but then there are lots of great writers with kids on their laps.

    As you may know, there is a whole slew of articles implying that women don’t like mama’s boys, but as this story illustrates, and as I have tried to be the best son that I can, in my being attentive to my mother, I am proving that I can be attentive to a wife. I am like my mother. She was a free spirit, who sat around and contemplated, but before that, before having my sister and me, she was a run-way and television fashion model, who went to CAL, and how walked into a commercial art job and sat down. I’ve loved her work. She’s fantastic, never knowing how beautiful she was nor how gifted, just loving it. At the beginning, it must have been hard for her smothered by the fact of two children, a divorce, and then an only parent. We turned out fine. I think she suffered immensely and was crushed when I told her in a poem that she had failed. I had no idea. My aunt said she was a bad wife causing my father to die due to stress. What can I say, I must love my mother, she knows me the best. I get like Bigger Thomas, sometimes, and yell at her but I do so for no other reason than to say, in effect, I cannot help you. So much has been taken from her. The very essence of who she was was side-tracked never to be found again. I can remember being in California and hearing that she had fallen flat on her face walking back from an Au Pair job, where she cooked for a family. I knew then that she couldn’t muster up a meal, much less prepare one for 4-5. Her conceptions of what was acceptable diminished over time. She must have been in survival mode.

    I would rather be a Mama’s boy than sail with convention. How I treat my mother is the key to my spiritual success. To me life is a lesson and this lesson you speak of is the most important one. How a mother is treated is how Mary Magdalene should have been seen: “She was the ‘Apostle to the Apostles.'”

    • I’ve argued with a whisper that I’ve fallen a bit short as a mother since I started writing earlier this year. The license I’ve given the Wayfarer is that it’s her time now, after five and a half years of waking and breathing for her boy. It really is very difficult for a woman to juggle anything else along with the mothering and not have it subtract from her calling over the little life. All the more when that pull is a passion that rivals her love for her child. And even more so when she isn’t as talented as she’d love to be, and so takes great thought and time in her work.

      I know your mother did not feel smothered by her kids. Why did you write that she had failed you??

      We have all yelled at our mother.
      Simply heinous.

      Of course everyone’s suffering is uniquely and exquisitely theirs, but as I said in the post, your mom’s difficult journey sounds so much like that of many, many women.

      “How I treat my mother is the key to my spiritual success.”
      Wow. Huge.

      I tweaked a few spots in the post. Minor edits, as if any edit is minor. Time always lends clarity.

      • Your son will be fine as long as he knows, and he does, that at least one person loves him.

        I don’t remember what I said exactly about her failing me. I think it was a general statement about her failure as a person, never having achieved career greatness, having to stop to raise us and her field passing her by. She had nothing in the end, except a house filled with a huge truck load of junk. She is a hoarder. There are about four cardboard boxes now in my bedroom that represent all the possessions of value. The last thing she was working on was a book about making things out of junk, her version of recycling, which was very sad, because people don’t want to spend money making junk out of junk. She came up with a pretty good idea for a purse made of jeans, but I bet it’s been done. She would go no further than the idea stage, she wouldn’t even write it down so that someone could read it. I was too busy with my own ideas, to stop and help her with hers, which I am sorry for. But, I am exhausted with a job I hate. There’s no time living for two people. I know we have yelled at our mother’s, but I understand it in terms of Richard Wright’s protagonist.

        I am so sorry for women. Just as men understand that women don’t want to have sex all the time, I think the world has enough children.

      • A woman is no failure because she did not achieve career greatness. I would stand by this assertion even if the statement had nothing to do with me. History proves it. But as for me, even if I accomplished nothing but the investment in this human being who grows under my nurture – even if I could most painfully never pen another word – I would be nowhere near a failure. Cradling my little boy those first few months, I wrote something out of awe in the face of motherhood, said it is the highest calling. On my food blog, I mention that it is a sacred privilege. Irony: men want the sex. Well, they’re going to sire children. I – along with many, many women (especially those who have grieved littles they have lost or have longed to hold) – will be offended by the assertion that the world has enough children. Except I understand the claim comes from one without experience in this area.

  8. You are not a failure for knowing this. And what is “this?” That having and raising a child is succeeding. Yes, it makes sense to me. There is honor in it; it speaks of a sacrifice of self that implies at least 18 years of tender unbroken love, a dog’s love, until you no longer have the capacity to care and that will never happen, because a child that comes out of you is a greater project than yourself. Life is about this. Even I know it as a man that all of this is a testing ground for humans, frankly it excludes women. Women were ripped out of the chest of Adam and formed by the bone, they are inherently innocent, but they can be cruel because they see the obvious signs of the failure of man. Every one of them has to be saved.

    I was wrong to verbally attack my mother, but I don’t think that you got that in aligning myself with Bigger Thomas, I was admitting defeat. We think we can help our mothers and our lovers, with the greatness capitalism seems to promise, when in the end our lives are just like a mother’s raising of her children. We tell them we love them, we lift them up when they fall, and we kiss their heads when they are sad and promise it will get better.

    Bigger Thomas yelled at his mother “Because his family suffers and he cannot help them.”

    As a man perhaps I can see what my economics professor laughingly stated: “Over-population takes care of itself.”

    When I talk about failure, I talk about it in terms of myself. What I measure to be the success of a man: A good job, a good woman, and a house to keep them safe. My mother didn’t have a job, a house, or a lover. She had given it all to take care of us. Yes, in a sense that is success.

    But, I am mad at her because what I am, what I tirelessly attend to, what I must become is this person, who seeks to communicate the weakness inside that has no place, where we end up having nothing to show and becoming a burden.

    With great rapidity we rush my mother to the hospital or the ambulance comes to her. The second-to-last time I brought her to the hospital because she was bleeding. She was there for three days and then released because she would not cooperate in allowing tests. Luckily, she stopped bleeding.

    I was drafting a letter to thank the doctors and staff for helping her, but I never sent it because it seemed like an avoidable apology. My mother’s life and mine seem like avoidable apologies. We work on projects that in the end someone will perceive as junk and simply toss. Every mediocre piece of art that I have produced is not the stuff of Picasso or Henri Cartier-Bresson, but rather a self-taught exercise, and maybe that is the point of life. Maybe someday something I create will touch another person like T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” or his “The Wasteland” that touched me. But, in the end, these are morose works. They speak of “sharing in the poet’s sins.”

    No, that part of this, where my mother’s sacrifice is clear, I am not addressing. I am addressing what she has created in at least one of her children. I am the friend-turned-betrayer (Anthony Howard Goldwyn) in the movie Ghost, who hits on Demi Moore while Patrick Swayze tries to warn her. I was never attacking you. Don’t you know by now that everything a person does is a projection? But, I also hope you see that there are too many children in the world, and that the strays should be adopted. Still, your reaction alludes to this question: “What is it about men that makes women lonely?”

  9. mothers

    from their wombs
    spring forth all futures
    and those of kindly souls
    their past shall be eternal

    I know I jump all around blogs– never always to the most recent posts. But thanx for sharing this older post. Peace.

  10. ooh! loved reading your commentary on this book. (especially since i dont know that many people who have read it). you are right… we could all see our ‘mother’ in So-Nyo. i read the book when it first came out and it really tugged at me- my mother in law was still alive at that time, fighting cancer, and its not until you are at the brink of losing a mom that some of these feelings come to surface.

    although i found some of the writing confusing (like jumping between characters in different chapters) i am thankful i read it, because it helped bring the ‘invisible’ stories of a mother’s sacrifice and love to the forefront.

    • Wonderful to know how timely the book was for you, though it was a sad situation for you. Yeah, it’s neat we can talk about it. =) The author really coulda done better with the title. Some parts were overstated, like when the mom turns into “ghost” toward the end. But the author certainly captured the

      invisible woman.

  11. This story brought to mind the Biblical record of Solomon’s first test where he had to decide which of he Mothers claiming a baby was the true Mother. The one who was prepared to let the child go to the other woman rather than see her son killed was the true Mother. I enjoy these kind of stories.

    • Mmm, I hadn’t made that connection, Ian. But yes, such a poignant act and (schizo) wish on the part of the mother, to want her boy to eat from the hand of The Other Woman rather than go hungry. Sigh. She was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t. Thanks for being here, esp HERE, in this meaningful story.

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