Am I a SuperMom? Are You?

My friend G. recently said in an email, “I’ve been trying to get together with one of my good friends, but she’s a SuperMom and we haven’t been able to find a good time to meet.”

Hmm.

It was hardly the point she was making, but “SuperMom” caught my eye. I was curious about her friend. What is she, I wonder? Does she have a full time career and 2 (or maybe 3 or 4 or even 5) children? Is she a Bree van de Kamp minus the personal scandals? I wasn’t being competitive, but I was curious about the term. What separates the SuperMom from the regular mom with lower case letters? And why do we mothers use it on each other or ourselves?

I’ve been called a SuperMom by a couple of friends, bless their hearts. My reaction to this compliment was somewhat akin to the feeling I got when Canadian and Japanese friends congratulated me on Obama’s election. I was happy, but I wasn’t sure I was really the one they should be congratulating. In terms of SuperMom, so many others would deserve the title over me. Give it to the mother who stays home 24/7 with 5 children and with no help from her husband. Give it to the mother who has to raise a child on her own. Give it to the mother whose child has Down Syndrome, or to the mother in Afghanistan, or Sudan, or Cambodia. Give it to my mother who struggled as an immigrant, juggling work and illness to raise two children in two foreign countries while learning two languages.

Of course, there is a flaw in my thinking: that somehow I am less of a mother because of the cards I have been dealt (and that I have in turn played). It could be because I did grow up feeling I was raised by a genuine SuperMom. In my eyes my mother scaled the Mt. Everest of motherhood. She accomplished and endured what I know I could never, and she did this without wavering in her devotion as a mother, almost without ever raising her voice or losing her temper even when the stress was unbearable. I was both so awed and intimidated by her accomplishments that I was almost too afraid to become a mother, so high had she raised the bar of motherhood. However, she gifted me a life in which I would suffer less but gain more through the ability to make better informed decisions and have better opportunities. I would do more with less, and I would have more wisdom. My son will have fewer hang-ups than me; my marriage will suffer fewer tears. Because of what she built, I can be a good mother, naturally and without hurdles. But because my life is not hard – my husband is very involved in home life, I work from home, I have “just” one child, my child is healthy – there is a part of me that believes I am achieving less.

There is a story that still brings my mother to tears, nearly 40 years later. It’s the story of the time she left me at my aunt’s house in San Francisco when she went into labor with my brother. (My father was overseas at the time.) I was 18 months old and, worrying that I would only cry if I saw her leaving for the hospital, my mother decided to sneak out when I wasn’t looking. My aunt would later tell her that everyday for 3 days I would sit out on the front step waiting for my  mother to come home and cry until my face swelled. “I didn’t know…I just didn’t know,” my mother would still cry today. “I had never been a mother before…” And I would cry too, because I know, now, how she must feel. And yet this incident doesn’t change the fact that I still think she has climbed Mt. Everest. She wasn’t perfect, and she had made alot of mistakes, but she was and is amazing. It is a mother’s unique love that would allow her to carry this kind of guilt inside her for nearly 40 years. And maybe that’s what the Super should be in SuperMom – not perfection, not the number of balls kept afloat in the air, but simply the capacity to love.

Who took my 6 year-old and replaced him with a teenager?

I remember listening to my friend S. talk about her 7 year-old daughter once and feeling shocked and, dare I say, just the slightest bit smug. She was telling me about how her daughter was beginning to show attitude and quoted things that made me think of me when I was growing up with my mother – for example, “DON’T TALK TO ME! I said, DON’T TALK TO ME!” My God, they start early, I had thought. And surely this must be just a girl thing. I could never in a million years imagine that kind of attitude coming from my sweet mama’s boy Fred, who, at that time (age 5), was still telling me he wanted to marry me and still saying things like, “Whoever thinks Mommy is beautiful, raise your hand!” (and his arm and Max’s arm would shoot straight up.) Nooo, I couldn’t imagine that…until now (age 6). Only now I don’t need to imagine anything because I can hear it, in stereo.

Take last Friday, for example, when we picked Fred up from school and took a detour to our accountant’s office to drop off some tax documents. Fred noticed that, on the way back, we were taking a different route than usual.

“How are we going home?” he asked.

“Yeah, we’re going home now.”

“NOOO – I didn’t ask Are we going home – I said, HOW are we going home.”

“I thought you asked if we are going home.”

“NOOO – I asked, how are we going home.”

“Well, you can look out your window and see. We’re going to go down the same street where you used to go to pre-”

“YAH YAH I GET IT”

I responded by lecturing him about his unpleasant manner of speaking. Then I started thinking outloud to Max about whether this was karma – that Fred’s inheritance of my genes (Max: “Wasn’t me. I was quiet as a kid.”) was making an ugly and early appearance – and began worrying that maybe I am unintentionally modeling this attitude for Fred. Or, could it be, maybe I am actually being too soft and letting him walk all over me, already? If he is like this now at 6, what is he going to be like in high school? And do boys actually talk like this??

And there was another example last week. Fred was mad at me and did a kind of evil eye growl which I promptly mimicked (okay, maybe I am asking for it here).

“You look KOOKY when you do that!” Fred said.

“Well, that’s how you look. I’m just showing you.”

“Nooo! I look cool when I do that, you just look KOOKY!”

Hmm, yes. Flashbacks are appearing inside my head. I’m reminded of the time my mom and I were sitting on the bus headed downtown to go shopping. I glanced over at her only to notice that she was wearing basically the same outfit as me – black pants and a black parka. I was in my teens, and I was horrified that we would go out wearing similar outfits, like those young couples in love that like to dress up like twins. I had raised my voice in the bus and threatened to get off and go home to change.

And there was the time at the Chinese buffet when I returned to the table with some extra shrimp for Fred, because I know how he loves shrimp, and I spooned a few onto his plate. To my surprise he made a big stink, crying, “NO! I don’t want shrimp now! I didn’t ask for it! Take it back! Put it on your plate!” That episode was maybe the freakiest “I’m-turning-into-my-mother” episode I have experienced to date, since to this day my parents will continue to take me to the Old Country Buffet whenever I visit and I will spend a good part of my meal angrily rejecting things that my mother will spoon onto my plate, even if they do look pretty good and deep down I do kind of want to try them.

Because my relationship with my mother was (until quite recently) built on “attitude,” I really don’t have any other model to follow. I’m inclined to think it’s kind of normal for a kid to talk back every once in awhile, and for him/her to not always know how to regulate his/her opinions and their corresponding decibel levels – that this push and pull (Fred giggled in guilt and self-recognition after my lecture in the car) is part of our children’s groping toward finding their balance between autonomy and connection. Of course, this isn’t to say that kids’ attitudes should go unchecked – it’s our job to remind them how to speak respectfully – but I also know there is “We’re-family-so-we-can-talk-like-this” talk versus “This-is-how-we-talk-in-polite-company” talk. For now, I’m going to treat Fred’s outbursts as teaching opportunities. At age 6 alot of it is still novel enough to be cute and even impressive (“Wow, good comeback.”). I’m hoping maternal instinct will tell me when attitude has crossed a line and I’m guessing at that point I will have an inkling of what it felt like to be my mother.

Home Sweet Home

I love, love, love my home. Especially on a spring day like this. And because while I am eating lunch on my deck I see this:

I have lived in cramped apartments and cramped houses in big cities (Boston, D.C., Lima, Tokyo) all my life. I have woken up to wires criss crossing skylines and been jolted out of daydreams by the cussing of strangers. I have walked with one foot on the sidewalk and one foot on the road and learned to tune out the competing screams of sirens, motors and simultaneous cell phone conversations. It feels almost self-indulgent now to be in North Carolina where the skies are like ribbon candy at sunset and the only sounds I hear during the day are the chirps of birds.

But I love my home not just because of the tranquility and nature but because of what it represents for the first time in my life.

As a child I escaped into a safer place by drawing endless blueprints of my “dream house” – a two-story, fenced multi-bathroom house where I would live peacefully, without fear, without worry, without the tension that arises when an immigrant family is still bungling and struggling to reach that Good Place in life. As a child I used to hear popping sounds in the distance and I would try hard to convince myself they were firecrackers, and not gunshots exploding on random days and at random times of the year.

In my 20s, fears of committing to anything that promised security (ironically enough) – the very thing I thought I had wanted – sent me packing into and out of 6 addresses in 7 years, until I made my most “permanent” move up to that point  by venturing to Japan, where a one-year cultural immersion experience turned into an 8 year stint. And in those 8 years I matured and listened enough to myself that in time I settled down on a career path, a man and a home. Then, 2 years ago, I came back to the States with my new family and with a new peace that hadn’t ever inhabited this body before.

Of all the places in the world, we chose this as our “forever” home. Friends have tried to sway us into living in this part of the States or that part, but this particular town where we are fits us. And I have my own house now. Not quite the sprawling 3,000 square foot home I used to draw as a little girl, but my American dream home nonetheless. And it is here that I feel safe, that I am at peace. And I feel love. Here, now, I have reached the Good Place.

PhotoStory Friday
Hosted by Cecily and Late Enough

I got this Photo Story Friday idea from Late Enough. I had been meaning to write a post about home and this seemed like the perfect timing. Thanks Alex!

On Bullying

The recent news about Phoebe Prince, the young high school student who committed suicide after enduring several months of bullying, got me paying more attention to bullying, something that, until recently, I hadn’t fully realized I had also gone through as a young teen.

When I was growing up I hung out with the kids – three girls – of one of my mother’s friends. The mothers would hang out, usually playing mah jong and we’d come along. I guess in today’s lingo you’d call that a playdate. We started when I was in kindergarten and we ended up growing up together. We wrote letters even when we saw each other every other week and spoke on the phone even more often than that. We traded stickers and Charlie’s Angel cards, talked about celebrities we had crushes on and swapped Judy Blume books. We were no more than 2 years apart and in some ways they were the closest I had to sisters at that point.

Then around the time the older one – Linda – turned 13, her mood took a shift. I remember she didn’t laugh as much as she used to, and she also became meaner. She’d roll her eyes if I said or did something she found annoying, and when we got together with another group of friends she’d lead the gang to reminisce about all the times they hung out without me. She’d leave me out and did what she could to make clear that my presence wasn’t welcomed. She’d call my house a “dump” and ask to see how many clothes I had. She and another girl Liz would also steal my belongings and then deny having seen them. Raised to be a “good” girl who didn’t rock the boat, I finally got so fed up that I confronted Liz (at the time I thought Liz was the ring leader). Linda heard me from another room and suddenly changed her tune, at least that day. In that moment I realized how quickly and effectively an element of shock worked to quiet a  perpetrator. 

Years later I would realize that the mothers in this group did their collective “bullying” against my mother as well. They had invited my mother over only if they needed another pair of hands at the mah jong table. “Dump them!” I would tell my mom, but as an immigrant who didn’t speak English well, she knew that her choices of friends was limited. They also said things to her like, “If I only had one daughter, I’d put more effort into prettying her up” and “What? You mean someone actually asked Ceci out on a date?” When my mother told me she didn’t respond to any of these comments, I was furious. “Why don’t you stick up for me? Why do you just let it go?” I demanded to know. My mother would respond calmly, “They’re just jealous. You know that.” My mother was so unfazed, as if this were obvious…so confident was she of my gifts that she didn’t think a response was worth her breath. Yes, my mother was different, and she was above this kind of behavior. And yet. I wish she had modeled for me some good comebacks, some remarks that would stop those women and girls in their tracks and leave their mouths gaping.

I never labeled this treatment “bullying” because it hadn’t “scarred” me in any obvious way; I wasn’t physically hurt, I wasn’t tormented relentlessly. But over time I came to expect exclusion. I came to believe that I didn’t have very appealing qualities as a friend. It wasn’t until I was a junior in high school when my friend Jenny invited me to lunch with a group of her friends that I realized how much I had been impacted. “Really?” was my reaction to her, and I thanked her over and over for including me. In fact, my shock at her invitation was as great as her surprise at my shock. In the years following Jenny would manage to undo the pain and damage that Linda had caused. To this day Jenny remains one of my oldest and most loyal friends while at some point I had pulled myself out of those gatherings with Linda.

I had put that early episode out of my mind until I started work, and in the work place I have both witnessed and encountered innumerable instances of bullying. Partially sane adults are less likely to actually carry out physical threats, but they will try to intimidate a coworker or subordinate by exercising unfair evaluations or unreasonable workloads. An employee may bully a boss by acting insubordinate or playing games with upper management.  Some will play similar exclusion “games” that Linda did. And so the cycle begins in childhood and continues into adulthood for some. Sadly, for many of us, bullying was never properly dealt with when we were children, and so as adults we continue to lack the strategies to cope and deal with bullying, whether it is inflicted on us or on our children, whether it is our children who are bullying their classmates or we who are bullying our coworkers.