01/12/2013 12:19 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2013

Mothering Through the Generations

I think about my grandmother alot. I grew up partly in her house, surrounded by cousins, eating delicious, home cooked Chinese food, and spending many weekend afternoons looking at old black and white pictures of my father and his seven siblings.

At that age (12?), it never occurred to me, not once, that perhaps mothering eight children -- and as a widow from the time her youngest was only small -- that it could have been tough. It did not cross my mind, what might have been her hopes and dreams for her family, mothering and bearing children, through the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in the 1940s.

She was just my grandmother.

I think about my mother now, and I wonder what it must have been like, getting married at 22 and having four children before the age of 30. I think about how different it was for her, compared to my grandmother. My mother grew up in a privileged family, where hired help (they called them 'servants' in those days) was common, where doing something like cook was not the work of someone in the family, rather, it was the job of a cook hired by the family.

All four of us were raised, literally by a village, I suppose you could say. With her first child, my eldest brother, she was hands-on, or so I've been told. With her second son, she hired a nanny, and a housekeeper. When I came along, my brother's nanny had left, and I more or less spent the first seven years of my life raised by my nanny and by kindergarten. My sister spent the first two years of her life with my grandmother and her eldest daughter, our unmarried aunt. Her weekends home were the highlight of my life then, at two-years-old.

I did not think about all this mothering through the generations until I became a parent. I chose to stay home with my son. I chose to forgo the typical hiring of a 'helper' (as they call them these days), like many women like me in Malaysia do once they have children, whether they go back to work or not. I decided to do it on my own. I had no village.

In a way, I felt maybe just a hint of what it must have been like for my grandmother when she first became a mother. I like to think so. I did not have a chance to talk to her about this. She may have had a village, though I doubt it. Everyone back then was too busy raising their own families. And to go on and have seven more children, well, I cannot even imagine.

When I was expecting my second child, one of the most common questions I had my way was this: "Are you hiring a helper?" I will be honest and say I had thought about it briefly, although I cannot imagine what she would do.

Would she mother my toddler? Would she be the one who would get him out of bed in the mornings, with the "Hello Monkey" greeting? Would she be the one to get him into his bath and wash his hair? Would she be the one who would choose his outfit for the day? Would she be the one to get him his meals? Would she be the one he would run to if he had a boo-boo? Would she be the one who would comfort him when he was ill? Would she just cook and clean, and fetch me tea?

So my answer was, and still is, no. I understand why people would. My own mother did, because she had her hands full, and because some things like cooking did not come naturally to her (although after all our hired help left, my mother took a cooking class, and we had amazing meals thereafter). She was used to having people who were specifically there to do a certain task.

But I choose not to. I like to think I am going back a little in generation, to mother like my grandmother did. Although if I had eight children, I may be singing a different tune.