Love

I experienced the most humbling moment of my 5-year motherhood career tonight.

Fred and I were chatting about his friends, and I realized when I started hitting a wall of shoulder-shrugging “I dunno”s that I should get him to try understanding and expressing his feelings about his friends. “Why do you like Jack?” I asked. We went back and forth several times and couldn’t get past “Because he’s my age and he’s a boy.” 

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll make it easier for you. Why do you love Mommy?” I realized this was a better example to start with. He smiled and crawled over to me and pressed his cheek against my hand. “Because you’re soft…”

“And?”

“Because you make me sleepy…” I am the person he feels safest with while drifting away from his waking world each night. I knew what he was feeling but I wanted  him to try. I decided to change my line of questioning to get him to think some more about why he loves the people that he does.

“Would you still love me if I yelled at you all the time?”  He sat up and his smile flattened.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“Would you still love me if I were a totally mean person?”

“Yes.”

Why?” I wanted an explanation. I wanted to know why he’d forgive and love anyone who could ever do anything short of loving and respecting him. No one would deserve that, not even me.

“I don’t know.”

But he said all this without any hesitation, without any hint of facetiousness, as if this – his unconditional love for me – were a given, as certain as day and night.

He knew. He knew the way I’d always known the way a mother’s love works. But I did not know fully, not until tonight, how a child’s love works for his or her parent. I didn’t appreciate fully until tonight just how much power I have over my child.

Boy enough

Last night my kindergartener summed up for me the language of his sex, providing me a bright preview into the smelly 4-letter word- and beer-filled world of his future locker room society: “Pee, poop, toilet, and FAT. That’s what boys like to talk about, Mommy!” And he ended that revelation with a full and self-satisfied laugh that sounded nearly as sweet as his first “I love you.”

The forebodingness and significance of that little quote were not lost on me. I quickly made a point of letting his father know just what came out of his offspring’s little mouth. “Did you hear that, Max? Fred said that boys like to talk about pee, poop, fart, and fat.”

“NO! I did not say fart! I said toilet! Pee, poop, toilet, and FAT.”

I stood corrected. Maybe “fart” will come later this spring when surely a first-grader will introduce to Fred’s posse the coolness of the word (and concept).

What do I do in such cases? My responses are typically, “No, we do not talk like that.” “No, no bathroom language. It’s rude.” “No, let’s not talk like that at the dinner table.” I’m fairly…slightly…sort of firm and I admit I do not say it until I’m blue in the face. “No bathroom jokes” ranks a notch or two below “I’m sorry” and “thank you” and expressing feelings using words. In terms of cutting it out with the bathroom talk, I must say also that Max is neither a consistent nor staunch ally.

As someone who is teaching Fred to knit and encouraging him to be verbal with his feelings, I believe that boys will not have to be boys. I remember what my college friend M. said to me when I told her we were having a boy: “Well, we’ll know that there will be at least one sensitive male on this earth.” (She was going through a bad break-up at the time, I think.) Yes, I’m trying to pass on all my gender-neutral and human “rules” of living to Fred: that it’s wonderful to be creative (whether it’s through Legos or yarn); important to communicate (it’s okay to cry and show pain and weakness); and critical to be yourself (don’t be afraid to admit you like pink or still need mama). But try as I do, Fred still gravitates toward race cars and dirt and bugs and bathroom jokes. I see him at school with the other “guys”, see how they slap him on the back or give him high-fives with as deep of a grunt as a 5 year-old boy can emit, and I can’t help but feel a twinge of…pride…and massive relief. Relief that my boy is “one of the guys”: accepted, liked, respected…which in Motherese translates into some peace of mind that her son can hold his own in a world that will only become too harsh and hardened, a world from which Mom will one day feel too powerless to protect her baby.

40 Trumps 4

My friend K. rescued me with that reminder, and it has since gone into my figurative handbook of motherhood mottos.

I ended up enrolling Fred in a Chinese after school program. I e-mailed the principal with questions, managed to land myself a discount, and signed Fred up faster than you can say yi, er, san because…

  • He had expressed interest in learning Chinese for some time now (as evidenced in the Char Siu Bao post below).
  • The location is just right.
  • It would be great for him to get the basics of his family language, and I could, indirectly, do something to make my Chinese parents happy for a change.
  • This is a great time cognitively for him to learn a new language.

This was a no-brainer for me.

I then called my Chinese friend to see if she had enrolled her son in the program too. After all, it was just the week before that we were saying how it really is impossible for a child to maintain a language unless s/he were exposed to it on a daily basis. No, she said, she’s going to leave Jack in the regular program because he likes the computer games there so much. Plus the facilities really aren’t ideal. She’ll wait things out and see how the program pans out in another semester. Bump me down a notch on the new mom confidence scale. 

Then came the real test. “Fred, Mommy found a Chinese program for you! Aren’t you excited??!” “No,” pout, “bleh,” I forgot how he responded exactly but it was pretty clear where he stood on the matter. My heart was starting to sink as quickly as my guilt was beginning to rise. How instantaneously my maternal instinct that this was the perfect opportunity morphed into self-condemnation that I was pushing my child over the top, tearing him away from his friends and teachers so he can get a head start on the path of academic prowess. NO – get a hold of yourself! (that is, I said to myself) – that was never my intention but how easily I can let a simple protest turn me into a self-labeled monster mom.

Opportunity and future versus comfort and the familiar. My friend K. (who after a few more posts like this really will deserve a real pseudonym of her own) reminded me that I do have a few extra years of experience under my widening maternal belt. Yes, if I were to consider Fred’s “happiness” at every decision, we would be having mac and cheese and ice cream 7 nights a week.

Fred came home from his first day of Chinese school a tad bit obsessed with the Chinese characters, practicing 3 straight hours until bed time. I was giddy with relief and nearly called my mother. Then as we lay in the dark getting ready to sleep, he whimpered, “Mommy, I don’t want to go to Chinese school. I want to go back to the regular after school.” And my heart again took a nosedive.

Over the weeks, I’d come to realize, Fred would continue the back-and-forth until the comfort of his former program was replaced by the faces and rhythm of his new program. He’d have such a ball at Chinese school that it would take us 20 minutes to leave, then when he’s tired or cranky he’ll ask to go back to his other program. Two weeks later, the complaints are coming less frequently. In fact, the other day he said, “You know, in Chinese after school they let you slide down the railings. In regular after school you can’t.”

40 trumps 4. I’ll keep that in mind.

Mom's New Leaf, Turn 2

In 2009 I hit a personal (age) milestone which intersected with another milestone in Fred’s life: entering school. This meant that, for the first time in five years, I was able to divert some attention back to me. Max and I own a home-based business which runs  a cyclical six months more or less, which in turn leaves me free (more or less) to do as I please the other six months of the year. (What paradise of a job do I have, you might ask? I’ll answer that in a future post. (Note in advance: it’s not all that paradisiacal.))

So literally on my birthday I started an on-line fiction writing course, led by the writer Masha Hamilton. The only book I had read in the  five years leading up to that point that didn’t include the words breasts (in the lactation context), acid reflux and pertussis was The DaVinci Code, and I certainly hadn’t written anything literary since my college Imposter Syndrome days as an assistant editor. I suddenly found myself in a class of published writers and retired college writing instructors. I was so intimidated that I literally cried after reading the first round of email exchanges. However, I felt determined to stick it through, since up to then I had a habit of turning away too soon and too quickly from anything that might reveal my inadequacies.

The course was demanding and intense with multiple weekly 1,000-word exercises and 20-page assignments every 5 weeks. I was shocked to find at times my hands shaking while typing freewrites that pulled me back to years I had long forgotten. But the experience brought me back home to the world of words. It reconnected me to the parts of my life I had discarded since becoming a mother and dared me to share with strangers my most intimate thoughts, however imperfectly expressed. This is the first prerequisite for writers, and it taught me to live comfortably in a perpetual state of self-consciousness.

After the course was over I worked on a few pieces and submitted three short stories. Two were rejected (presumably), the third was put on hold as publication plans were delayed. I started and stopped at least three blogs. I failed to write regularly but I did start reading again.

Yesterday I was going through my old pieces, and there is one in particular that I like because it tells the story of the journey Fred and I had taken together over the last five years. It is the best way I can try to explain the ambivalence I experience now as a mother who has finally achieved the freedom she’s wanted since she became a mother. I had my finger on the “send” button, ready to submit to Literary Mama. But I hesitated, fearing I was sending an imperfect piece out to disappear in the cyberspace of some editor’s office. While stalling I surfed around on Literary Mama’s website, and found that one of the editors, Kate Hopper, is offering a writing course in February. I sent an inquiry, and grabbed the last spot in the class.

2010. Another year, another birthday, another chance to dust myself off and try, try again.

Lucky

It’s a common gripe among mothers of onlies: the inquisitions from usually well-meaning if not on occasion insensitive family, friends and especially strangers about when the next one is due.

Like any “advice,” these conversations only bug me when there’s a hint of criticism that somehow my decision is wrong. And it’s not the put-down that bugs me, but the fact that this person believes it is her place to cast an opinion on my personal life.

But recently I’ve been noticing that really the ones who do bring up the issue of a second child for our family are Chinese – friends who not long ago immigrated from China, a fellow mother on the playground, an administrator at my son’s school, my aunt. In particular, the one person who brings this topic up the most is a new and dear friend of mine, Mei. She tells me, “I never dreamt I would leave China, go to a foreign country someday. But when my husband got his student visa to America, the first thing he said was, ‘We will have another child.'” And she looks over at  her son. “Jack is so lucky. If we couldn’t come to America, Jack wouldn’t be here today.” Her second child, her American dream. He, and not I, is so lucky, are the words she has chosen. Lucky to be here, lucky to have life.

I listen to Mei with my heart wide open, sharing my tears for both her baby and the one we chose not to have.