Privileged Parenting

A few months ago I volunteered at Fred’s book sale at school. I was working the register, and the librarian was explaining to me how to process the free coupons that a group of kids would be coming in with over the next hour. Though there was no one else in the library except the head librarian, she told me in a rather hushed and even apologetic way, “The underprivileged kids get a coupon for a free book. It’s just something that the outreach group wanted to do.” I nodded in quick understanding. “Sure,” I said, thinking this was a good thing but at the same time feeling a twinge of unfairness that not all children – my child, in particular – had this privilege.

Thirty years ago, I would have been one of those hush-hush children. I would have received a coupon, and I probably did for one event or another. I remember free lunches, and as my parents moved slowly up the socioeconomic ladder, reduced fee lunches. I most certainly remember financial aid during college and the almost laughable way one upper-middle class classmate called her financial aid package for a prestigious summer program overseas. “They may give me some financial assistance.” Over and over she refused to use the word “aid.” I attended an elite east coast college and boy, did I have my opinions about those sorts of people.

I remember very distinctly at one point in college when I thought to myself that when I have a child, I would make him live a normal, average life. This didn’t mean that I would set my expectations low, but that he would have to earn the things that he wanted. He should flip burgers or work for minimum wage, as I did, and learn how to balance work with studies and activities. He should know first hand how the average person lives and not be exposed to luxury. I thought he should understand the price of opportunity and the value of hard work. I believed that I should, and that I could, pass down my life experiences to him.

Then somewhere between the time I set foot onto my ivy campus and the time I swiped my credit card for a $250 birthday party for a 5 year-old, I became one of those people I swore I’d never be. It is a world I had never known as a child but perhaps deep in my subconscience I had aspired to: the world of playgroups, playdates, piano lessons, soccer practices, PTA meetings, outsourced birthday parties. It is the world of options and opportunity, the world of privilege. The fact that we could now enter this world – a result of my immigrant parents’ sacrifices so I can do “better” than they did – was not a surprise the way that my new attitude was.

Max and I are not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but so far we have been able to provide a rich life for Fred. Some of it is simply chance; by virtue of the fact that I married a Japanese man and into a Japanese family, Fred “automatically” became bilingual and we have to travel periodically to Japan to see Max’s family, in particular his aging parents. This doesn’t come without palpable financial sacrifice but international travel has become a necessity for us in a way that it isn’t for other families. Other than chance, we have a sense of empowerment that comes with a good education and a respectable profession. This empowerment allows us to tap into resources, find out what opportunities are out there, and design our lives in a way that would best suit our family. Because of this we can feel we are the drivers, and not the passengers in our child’s life.

What I realized, since becoming a parent, is that I, like any parent, simply want the best for my child. I want him to reach his potential. I want him to be happy. I want him to be safe and protected. This doesn’t mean that I will give in to every request and desire. I know the dangers of overindulgence. But if I can buy a house in a safe neighorhood with highly rated schools, wouldn’t I do it? If I can make Fred’s face light up with a dinosaur birthday cake and party, wouldn’t I do it? If someday he has the chance to take part in a science program for the summer versus waiting tables 40 hours a week, and we can afford it, shouldn’t I allow him to do it?

Whenever I get the chance and it is appropriate, I tell bits and pieces of my story to Fred. I tell him about his grandfather, whom I rarely saw growing up because he had to work 12-hour shifts 6 days a week in order to feed his family. I tell him about the home I spent my childhood in, a 2-room apartment in a neighborhood that was so different from the one he lives in now. We talk about the children in Southeast Asia, in Africa, in Haiti. When he is a little older, I plan to take him volunteering with me.

Looking back on my life, I realize that I do not want to pass on my experiences to Fred. My parents moved to a foreign country and had no choice but to work blue collar jobs. But they moved mountains so I wouldn’t have to. They lay the groundwork for me to live a more privileged life so that I can provide the security and opportunities to my child that they couldn’t for my brother and me. What I can pass on, from my experiences, are a strong work ethic, humility, compassion and a commitment to service. And, along with material resources, I can also give Fred my time and attention. These, too, are the gifts of privileged parenting.

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Unspoken Love

From an early age my little guy was good about showing his concerns for Mommy. Even before he could speak in complete sentences he would bring tissue or stroke my hair if I cried, and now that he is older, he will ask, “Are you okay?” or “Why are you sad?” if he senses something is wrong. Like the other night, for example, when I started coughing after the lights were out. I’ve had this bug for a week and it had started to get worse.

“Are you okay, Mommy?

(Cough cough) “Yes, I am. Thank you so much for asking.”

“Are you okay? Are you okay?”

“Yes, I am okay.”

“No, I’m just saying that for the next time you cough, and the next time after that, because I’m gonna be asleep.”

Awww…

About 30 seconds before the alarm went off the next day, Max pulled the covers off abruptly and got out of bed, shuffling to the bathroom with throaty breathing that told me he was half sleepwalking. After about 90 seconds he went downstairs to the kitchen and I began to hear the light banging of the cutting board as it was pulled out of the cupboard. Our unspoken system is that whoever heads down to the kitchen first is the one to make Fred’s lunch and 2 snacks for the day, a slightly heavier task than getting Fred dressed and driven to school since it involves some amount of brain straining not to mention getting out of bed sooner.

But lately Max has been doing the heavy lifting, and I figured, the Nyquil the night before should have equipped me with enough power to at least pack a few meals. 

“I’ll make lunch.” I whisper because my voice is gone.

No response. I strain a little harder.

“I said I can make lunch.”

“Okay.” Max goes back upstairs.

An hour later, Fred is off at school and Max is back home. He comes into the office and turns on his computer.

“Fred was ok?”

“Yeah.”

We type, going on about our work. Max interrupts occasionally with something or other about a client. And I am waiting. I am waiting for him to ask me if I’m okay.

Two hours pass. I decide to initiate this conversation.

“You know what was so sweet last night? Fred heard me coughing and he said, ‘Are you okay?'”

Max nods, smiling.

“Fred! He asked me if I was okay.”

Max nods at me again, as if to say yeah, I heard ya the first time.

“He’s a child, and he always asks me if I’m okay. Why haven’t you even asked me how I feel? Don’t you care?”

“Of course I care! You know I do.”

I do, and yet…wouldn’t it be nice to actually be asked?

We weren’t always like this. I remember those days, some time before 2002 or -3, when my girlfriends back in Japan would ask voyeuristically if Max tells me “I love you,” and I would send them into a fit of school girl giggles by responding that not only did he tell me he loved me, he would tell me a minimum of 3 times a day. Nothing went unspoken – I love you, You look nice, You’re beautiful, This tastes great. This was true of the negative stuff too; after we fought there was always an apology, the actual words “I am sorry.” And there would be talking, going over what happened; there would be words to make sure we were on the same page. Somehow, somewhere over the course of our 9-year marriage, more and more became unspoken, but then more and more became understood as well. We don’t apologize as frequently as we used to after a fight now, but somehow we could feel the remorse in the actions that follow – a gentler tone, an attempt to break silence, a noticeable effort to change an annoying behavior. Love also shows up more quietly, understated. We let the other person splurge on a writing class, premium ice hockey tickets, a crate of books from eBay. We stick to our ritual of staying up to watch t.v. together even when one of us might feel tired enough to go to bed. We do the heavy lifting when we sense the other could use a breather. We get up first to pack lunch.

We get comfortable and we know each other more intimately as time goes on. We can anticipate what our partner is going to feel or say or do even before it happens. We’re less likely to state what we believe should be obvious to the other. It reminds me of the way the Japanese communicate – because of shared and common thinking, alot is communicated through the unspoken. But still…wouldn’t it be nice to still hear from time to time the words that drew us together in the first place?

Recovering from Depression during Motherhood

I think I’m getting out of my funk now, finally. I go through this maybe once or twice a year, often at the end of an intense work season. It’s a good thing because I’ve got taxes on the horizon, a few more work deadlines, a mortgage refinance application and, oh yeah, a child to take care of.

But it’s not the way it used to be and hopefully it never will be again. Despite research that says that survivors of depression are more likely to get hit with repeated bouts, everything has been pretty tame since I licked my depression in my late 20s. In fact, I even managed to survive the first year of motherhood, and isolated in a Japanese suburb no less. I think I suffered from the same depressive episodes that many new mothers do, but it did not get much worse than that.

But there are days still. There are days when I can’t play with Fred. There are days – my God, so many days – when I think, if Max didn’t work from home with me, where would we be. On those days I am filled with shame, because I think – no, know in my bones, I am convinced – that I am not a real mother. I am beside myself with guilt because on those days I put my needs – the need to stay in bed, the need to stay silent – before those of my child. And I am convinced that I am less of a mother because if it weren’t for my husband, I would not be able to mother. If it weren’t for these depressive tendencies, I might be able to have a second child.

Don’t get me wrong; for the most part I do great. I co-run a business that, if I don’t put my all into, we would simply not survive financially. Despite my occasional drops in mood our child is healthy, happy and well-adjusted (and so far appears to take after his non-neurotic father). Most of my friends would probably be shocked to know that I had ever been depressed. But my slips in mood will be seen in other lower-priority and less visible areas, like the house. You will see my mood in the bed that doesn’t get made, in the papers that don’t get thrown out, in the sink tops that don’t get wiped. And you will see it in the pajamas that stay on and in the emails that don’t get returned soon enough. It is a matter of feeling overwhelmed not by demands but by emotions…emotions that have no logic if this is part of your make-up. Because I am the happiest I have ever been in my life: I have a loving husband, a healthy son, a wonderful network of friends, financial stability and, I believe, self-acceptance. But if I think this for too long, this too will add to my guilt because now I will begin to feel like an ingrate. 

But for those of us who experienced depression early on, and experienced it hard, I wonder if it ever truly, completely and thoroughly goes away. Does it sneak up on us and tease us to come back? Does it pay quick visits, staying for just a day or two, hanging out with our hormones? Does it threaten to plant its seeds in our children? I am not sure. But I now know at least one thing that I didn’t know back then: it is okay to tell others and it is okay to ask for help.

Mother Blogger Bashing

I was checking out The New York Times’ Motherlode blog over the weekend and was kind of excited to see Lisa Belkin’s Friday post about mother bloggers. She posed two questions (I paraphrase): Why do you blog, and why do you read mother blogs?

It was good to see a group of mom bloggers chiming in. (I did as well.) Not surprisingly, the bloggers talked about the desire to form communities, meet like-minded parents, write about issues important to them, and partake in the shared experiences of parenthood. Many talked about the isolation of motherhood and how blogging has helped bridge them to a larger community and new friendships.

Then, fifteen or so comments into the discussion a particularly nasty commenter added her two cents, and then more began to chime in. Now, I am all for discussion and the voicing of different opinions. That is why I loved (uh, yeah, past tense) these discussion forums. But the comments I am referring to here were not “I don’t understand the need for blogging.” or “Mother bloggers really need to think carefully about the privacy of their children.” They were accusations of mother bloggers being “pathetic,” “clingy,” “narcissistic,” and incapable of forming real friendships. It is the hostility and anger of such comments that surprised me the most. Whatever others do is their business has always been my personal attitude. To react so vehemently and emotionally to what others (strangers no less!) have chosen to do with their lives signals to me that there is something deeper going on.

The vitriol of these comments reminds me of a woman I worked for in my first job out of college. She had turned 30 and was constantly going on about when she was going to get married. She had graduated from a prestigious college but was going on her ninth year as a mid-level secretary in a university dean’s office. She had biting comments and opinions about every woman in our building from the 24 year-old receptionist who was putting together graduate school applications to the head of IT who was leaving for a promotion to the then-first lady Hillary Clinton. Frustrated by the tension created by this woman, in a conversation with my male boss he tried to explain as diplomatically as he could: “You know, some people feel very stuck in their lives and cannot find a way to get themselves out. When they see someone doing something to make her life better, it bothers them.”

Mothering is the oldest profession in the world. But mothers still don’t get paid, and they still don’t get much recognition let alone thanks. Motherhood is also a humble, silent and silenced profession. How many times have new mothers thought, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this, why didn’t anyone tell me what it was really  going to be like?” If mothers spoke out more, shared their experiences more, maybe fellow mothers  would feel more confident. We wouldn’t need to think that we are the only ones who feel like we’re going to screw up our kids or drive our husbands away. I get depressed not infrequently but I frequently feel very ashamed about it. And it was in Alex’s blog Late Enough where she wrote about the day she felt like she couldn’t parent and couldn’t stop crying that I realized, hey, maybe I’m not abnormal after all (or at least if I am, I’m not alone). 

And if mothers who blog are seen as being self-promoting or wanting attention, then so be it! Throughout history women have not had a voice. In college and grad school I read about the women who fought to give the rest of us the right to speak and be listened to – among them Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Carol Gilligan – but I had taken for granted that this was history, that the path had already been cleared. The comments on Motherlode this weekend made me think I was completely and horribly mistaken. It is 2010 and there has been a huge movement of mother bloggers giving voice to and making public their experiences. Sadly, it is a movement that is being met with shocking resistance, and, I am guessing, by fellow women and mothers who, for one reason or another, choose to vilify the sisters who simply want to do something to make their lives happier and to give motherhood the recognition it deserves.

 

“It takes courage to write about motherhood in a culture that sets women with children on the sidelines, and it takes even greater courage to give voice to the powerful emotions and fears that swirl deep beneath the surface of our daily lives…” -Kathleen Hirsch and Katrina Kenison, Mothers (from Kate Hopper’s blog Mother Words: Mothers Who Write)

Birthday Omens

As Max collected the trash around the house last night, the eve of Fred’s birthday, it dawned on Fred that he would be turning 6 on the same day the garbage collectors make their weekly rounds.

“I am SO not lucky! My birthday is the same day as trash day!”

Now, how he’s inherited this superstition I have no idea…but we reassured him that, actually, trash day is a GREAT day, because it is the one day of the week that our garbage pails are empty, lined with fresh and pristine bags. Out with the old, in with the new. Think of your birthday as the day of cleansing and fresh starts, we told Fred on his last day of 5.

We’re indeed lucky. Six years ago this minute I had already been on my back for 7 hours, in labor for an additional 9. (Your math is correct; that is 16 hours and counting, and still no sign of Fred sliding down the birth canal.) I was hooked up to a fetal monitor in a high-tech hospital literally adjacent to rice fields in a town about 1.5 hours outside of Tokyo. Twelve hours into my non-progressing labor the nurse told me that the doctor wanted to do an ultrasound. I would understand soon that the umbilical cord is wrapped around Fred’s neck. That his heart rate is skyrocketing every time I have a contraction. That he is, in essence, being strangled every 90 seconds. They tell me that at the next sign of fetal distress they will deliver Fred via an emergency C-section. Can I please sign the papers? Talk to my husband. Get my husband, I tell them, sobbing. I don’t understand any of this, not just because it’s all in Japanese but because it is even happening at all. 

Tomoko, the midwife who speaks English like a native, somehow finds out and dashes into the room and grabs my hand. She talks to me. She is not my assigned midwife but for the next 4 days she will check up on me and report to me regularly her shift schedule so that I’ll know when I can ask for her. Six years later, she is still my friend.

The nurses tell me the labor could last another 2 hours or another 72 and act like this is normal. I ask for an epidural. I try to read their faces to see if they approve and I think they are politely supportive. They are also calm. They let nature take its course; pitocin and induction are not part of the vocabulary here. The epidural takes noticeable effect and I calm down. Miraculously, they never end up wheeling me in for my C-section. The baby apparently stabilizes.

My labor lasts long enough for my regular obstetrician to return from his vacation. At 6 a.m. he greets me and I am thrilled. I did not think he would be able to deliver my baby, but here he is.

Things start moving at around lunch time. They kick Max out to prep me. The epidural’s wearing off and I feel like someone is literally pulling my pelvic bones apart. I tell the nurse I feel like throwing up. She practically throws me a large metal pan and without looking at me. This nurse is a bitch and she upsets me. The next one tells me “I can see the baby’s hair.” I’ve been in labor so long I have seen shifts of nurses and midwives come and go.

At 2:00 p.m. or so my dream team surrounds me: Dr. M. my ob; Dr. A., the head of anesthesiology who did his fellowship at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and who took the time to chat with me about good times in Boston; Max, my coach and 2nd translator. The moment has arrived. They cheer me on like it’s the Olympics, and for someone as non-athletic as me, this is my Olympics. With each push Dr. M. gives me the instructions in Japanese; Dr. A. translates the instructions into English; and Max repeats the translation for good measure. 

At 2:37 p.m. I hear a gurgling sound as if someone had let the bottom out of an aquarium, and I see Dr. M. quickly bend to a high squat as if to catch a football he didn’t know someone had passed. And I hear the cries of a baby. Not loud or shrill like I had imagined but I hear them.

A team of doctors and nurses surrounds Fred and about 20 or so minutes later they wheel him away. I don’t know how he looks like or how he feels like. I wave at a blurred image half shrouded by white coats and then he is gone.

Fred is to spend the next three days in the NICU for observation. My inadequacies in Japanese prevent me from fully knowing what’s going on, but the doctors and nurses reassure me Fred is fine, that they just want to make sure he is okay. Later, when I stumble into the wrong room looking for Fred, a nurse tells me, no, my son is not in this room, because this is the room for “healthy babies.” Of course. Of course he’s not healthy. Otherwise he wouldn’t have to be lying inside a plastic box under bright lights and amid the whirring of machines. If he were healthy he wouldn’t need a tube attached to his body to feed him oxygen. If he were healthy he wouldn’t have to be separated from his mother on his first days in this new world. For some reason this was a revelation to me. I thought that “unhealthy” babies happened to “other” people but, no, the nurse was talking to me.

But Fred does become healthy. He has grown into a boy who relishes the outdoors and who blazes through high energy 15-hour days like a mini-Japanese salaryman (but with more optimism). He wakes with a smile and falls asleep with a smile and is a sippy cup half full kind of kid. He tackles his Legos and bike riding and math with a force that doesn’t know the meaning of “give up.” And I am not surprised. As his mother I wince with helplessness at the struggle Fred had endured to come into this world, but he has shown me time and again that he can hold his own.

Several years later when Tomoko visits us, she shares birth stories that she has experienced or seen. She tells me the story of one mother who lost her baby the week he was due. Her son had suffocated on his umbilical cord.

We are very lucky. Happy 6th Birthday, Fred.

Terms of Endearment

I was a real sweetheart this morning.

It is “Opposite Day” at Fred’s school today, so Fred dressed backwards. Meaning: shirt on backwards, pants on backwards, jacket on backwards, non-matching sneakers. It says something about my evolution as a perfectionist that I let my child out the door looking like this. “Hey, just make sure you ask Mrs. L. to unzip your jacket for you when you get inside, ‘K?”

No, not only did I check the tag on Fred’s pants to make sure it was on the wrong side, I even stop him from getting into the car so I can get a picture of him. Max has started the engine for me and loaded the car. I dash back into the house to find the camera and when I come back out I can hear Max’s grumblings in the background as I tell Fred to hold still. Snap. Snap. Nothing goes off. Max’s grumblings continue. “I’m recharging the battery!” and with that he stomps inside with the camera.  

I know what this is all about. Racing against the clock stresses him out but according to my watch, we can make it to school with 4.5 minutes to spare before the late bell rings. And a photo op for this once-in-a-school-year-chance should only take 30 seconds. But his background noise had already started to rattle my nerves. Whatever. I don’t need the picture that badly.

“Forget it!” I notice Max is trying to stuff the battery into the camera. I get Fred into his car seat and strap the belt over him.

“This is NO time to be taking pictures!” He shouts from the family room on the other side of the garage.

Oh —-  Oh —- Oh, “SHUT UP!” I shout loudly enough for him and a third of our neighbors to hear.

“SHUT UP?”

Uh, yeah. Shut up. I know, I shouldn’t have said it. I was annoyed and I wanted to have the last word. These aren’t the most appropriate last words but they are the last ones, and they are mine.

A small angry voice pipes up reminding me that someone important has heard me.

“It’s not nice to say ‘Shut up,’ Mommy!”

I let out a breath of relief. He is old enough to judge. I don’t have to backtrack that Daddy is not the bad guy.

“Sigh…I know. I’m sorry, Fred. That was very rude of Mommy. I’m going to apologize to Daddy when I get back.”

“Yeah. Because it’s not fair if only I have to apologize for things and you don’t.”

“I know. I don’t know why Mommy said that. I think I was just frustrated and I said something mean. I’m for sure going to apologize to Daddy when I get back.”

Glamourless

The closest I’m coming to glamour these days is the t.v., like the Academy Awards last night, which I watched for the first time in at least 10 years. Was it just me or did Hollywood change in the 8 years I was overseas and watching shows 3 seasons behind schedule on Fox Japan? Max and I swore the women seemed less glamorous in that anorexic and (plastic) surgical Hollywood way. Arms were plumper and body proportions were more off-kilter. My friend D. was convinced I was just sleepy. Or maybe I was looking through Hollywood through my own glamourless lenses.

Case in point: I have been dragging my feet about my hair (ouch, that was meant to be figurative). I know I am probably in good company, but I really don’t even dare say among frenzied mothers the last time I had my hair cut. I had a fairly expensive cut (expensive for me) and I think a correspondingly good cut, which I rationalized would last me, ahem, x months. And you know when you’re growing out shoulder length hair you’ve still got a good few inches left before you hit that stage where you want to yank every strand out of your scalp. I reached that point two weeks ago but never got around to making an appointment. And then today I discovered the pony tail; the temperature finally crawled above 60 degrees and I think I can finally do without the turtlenecks and natural hair scarf. As Max keeps prodding me to book an appointment with the salon I am now wondering about the possibility of sporting a pony tail until school lets out for the summer. 

Okay,  so what is so horrible about getting my hair cut. Nothing really. I mean, I just love trips to the salon. I love the vibe of hairdryers and gossipy patrons and the sight of brilliant waxed floors littered with hair. The too-young music overhead and the smells of perm formulas transport me to a ladies’ Disney Land where all troubles are forgotten as I sit and get pampered. Why would I avoid this? I don’t know. I suppose for the same reason I continue to use those damn eyeshadow and lipstick samples from Lancome. You could say I am sacrificing my looks for Fred’s birthday party fund.

This is all really funny for me given that since the 70s I have sported every popular ‘do of the times, following the stars: Farrah Fawcett, Princess Di, Jennifer Aniston. I grew up experimenting with half the shampoos and conditioners on the market and trying every type of curler there was. There were years where hair was literally the first and last things on my mind each day. Until I had a baby and skipping showers became the norm. And going for days without looking in the mirror became the norm. And putting myself last and not allowing myself small luxuries became the norm…and habit.