I was eleven years old when I first watched “Mamma Mia!” I begged my mother to put on “Enchanted” for the millionth time, but she insisted on showing me the iconic jukebox musical of her favorite ABBA songs. At first I sat stubbornly and refused to engage, but when Meryl Streep began singing “Slipping Through My Fingers,” I couldn’t look away.
As I watched Donna (Streep) help her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) get ready on her wedding day, tenderly painting her nails while giggling and gossiping, I thought of our daily tear-filled battles to detangle my hair and pick out an outfit for school. If my mother noticed the longing and jealousy in my eyes, I couldn’t tell. She hummed along mindlessly, her emotional walls even stronger than mine.
I excelled at playing the role of the angsty, ungrateful daughter. My mother and I fought constantly; our anxieties ricocheted off each other and magnified our anger until I couldn’t tell whose pain was whose anymore. It was exhausting to keep up the act, but bitter resentment was somehow easier than being vulnerable about my fears and insecurities. As I grew up, I saw fragmented reflections of her bottled-up disappointment in the eyes of my grandmother. There are certain things the women in my family just don’t talk about. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doomed to act out the same part with my own daughter one day.
In high school, I tried to release my pent-up emotions in the form of cringey slam poetry. In one particularly dramatic piece, I compared her to the crazy moms on “Toddlers & Tiaras” who project their own self-doubt onto their daughters and live vicariously through their success in the pageant world. I couldn’t accept the fact that I held just as much blame for our fraught relationship, so I pushed her into the stereotypical role of Asian tiger parent. It wasn’t until I finally moved out that I realized how simplistic and unfair that was.
When I left for college, I wanted so badly for her to let me go, but at the same time, I needed her more than ever. ABBA was right: “Then when she’s gone, there’s that odd melancholy feeling, and a sense of guilt I can’t deny.” The song was written through the eyes of a mother watching her daughter grow up, but it touched me from the opposite perspective too. I spent so long trying to intellectualize my feelings as an anxious-avoidant attachment style, intergenerational trauma or any number of pop psychology buzzwords. I hadn’t ever tried to see her not just as a mother, but as a person.
Why didn’t I make more of an effort to connect with her? Was it too late? I was overcome with shame and regret. Emotional honesty doesn’t come easy to either of us, but I had to try. The last time I came home for the summer, I sat my mother down on the couch and forced her to watch a movie with me, just as she did ten years before. As the credits rolled for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” I held back tears and turned to her expectantly, hoping she might reflect on similarities between our relationship and that of Evelyn and her daughter Joy.
Evelyn constantly co-opts and undercuts her daughter’s struggles, while Joy dismisses her mother’s stress and sacrifices. The two move through the multiverse as wretched reflections of each other, who try in vain to distance themselves despite the invisible rope tying them together. In response, Joy assumes the identity of Jobu Topaki, a bitter villain bent on sucking the whole world into a bagel — a character arc not unlike my angry, awkward slam poetry persona.
“It was nice,” my mother shrugged. “You know I don’t really like sci-fi movies.” Still, she moved to hold my hand, and I could see a sliver of understanding just beneath the surface. We will most likely never have a relationship like Donna and Sophie, but I’ve come to terms with that. I’m done trying to act a part that forces both of us into ill-fitting boxes. I am my mother’s daughter. It is a blessing and a curse. Mamma mia, indeed.