In a family of different tongues

This week I am doing one of the writing prompts at Mama Kat’s Writing Workshop over at Mama’s Losin’ It! 

Mama's Losin' It

I was born to Chinese immigrants, am married to a Japanese man. I have been working with international students for the past 10 years. My whole life has been a lesson in cross-cultural communication, of which I am still a woeful student.

Differences in language can bring alot of chuckles and misunderstandings.

My brother and I will never forget the time my mother left a note for us on the kitchen table, reminding us there was some zhong – sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves – in the pot in case we got hungry. Except she mispelled zhong, and wrote the following: “If you get hungry, there is dung in the pot. Put some water in the pot and steam until the dung is soft and hot and ready to eat.” My brother and I literally fell to the floor laughing until our insides nearly came out.

In my own work with international students I have read about pubic policy, regular intercourse with supervisors, the investment bank Goldman Sucks. One student, in filling out a school application form, inquired about how to respond to the question of “Sex.” M and F were not indicated, and he proceeded to average out the number of times he had intercourse per week (but not with his supervisor).

Spelling as a secret code to discuss “inappropriate” or “confidential” topics before a child also does not work well in a household where the husband and wife don’t speak the same language. Sure, my husband Max could handle words like S-E-X or B-B-Q with no problem, but if I needed to communicate something like, “Hey, should we get the B-A-K-U-G-A-N or the P-O-K-E-M-O-N-C-A-K-E for Fred’s B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y?” Max would need to reach for that finger pencil of his and begin taking dictation in the air. By the time he’s figured out what I’d spelled, I’d made up my mind and ordered the cake.

But sometimes language foibles and difficulties are not so funny, like when they happen to me. I can still remember the time I decided to try my Chinese to order at a Chinese restaurant. The waiter started laughing and couldn’t stop. In fact, he could barely write my order down. I smiled awkwardly, semi-playing along, but dreading the whole time that perhaps he was mocking my Chinese. As someone who has done her fair share of laughing, I know there is usually no harm meant. But how differently it feels when the tables are turned.

At no point was language a more traumatic experience than when I lived in Japan. I had only planned on living in Japan for a year and thus never invested in studying the language. Little did I know that I would stay for nearly a decade, and by then a 70 hour/week job and, later, a baby and our own business left me with little energy or motivation to tackle a language as impossible as Japanese. I worked in an American department and I had a Japanese husband to rely on. The Japanese are gracious – unbelievably gracious – to Americans who don’t speak their language. Everyone from restaurant wait staff to medical doctors will apologize to you because they don’t speak your language. So it wasn’t humiliating to not speak the language well, but over time it began to weaken me, and one day I realized that I could relate to people who need wheelchairs, who can’t see, or who have lost use of an arm. For me it was not enough to simply be able to order take-out or even talk about our babies’ feeding habits; I wanted to relate with others intimately, to have the capacity to manipulate whichever word and thought I needed to fully express myself. I learned to appreciate the many immigrants and others who live life with only half their voices.

And this gap in communication worried me most in my relationship with my child. I knew enough Japanese to understand my toddler/preschooler well. I spoke to Fred in English while he responded in Japanese. Things are okay now, I had thought, but what if we stay in Japan permanently? What will happen when Fred gets older? His English words were very few and far between, and every time he uttered anything in English I would lap his words up like drops of water in the desert. It would be nearly 5 years (when we moved to the U.S.) before I had my first 2-way conversation with my son in my own tongue.

 As someone whose life revolves around words and expression, I have sometimes wondered if it is not ironic that my closest loved ones do not share my native tongue. I speak in my moderately good but imperfect Chinese with my parents and my husband and I continue to stumble over cultural miscommunications. But at the same time, despite the barriers, despite the occasional frustrations at not being heard completely, they are my closest loved ones. They know me thoroughly and they love me. Somehow, words have not been an impediment. Or, perhaps because of the barriers, we have simply worked harder in other ways to understand each other.

What a Date Looks Like after 9 Years of Marriage

Below, our anniversary date and its aftermath:

Moment #1

We arrive and are seated at the restaurant. After we place our order, Max begins taking snapshots of everything in the restaurant: the enlarged photos on the walls, the art deco lighting, my wine glass. He has recently begun a restaurant reviews blog, and he is collecting photos for a future post.

After 15 minutes of this trigger happiness, I notice that he has taken a photo of everything and everyone in and outside the restaurant except ME, his wife of 9 years. But I am not one to mince words, at least not after 9 years. So I say, in these exact words,

“Hey! You have taken a photo of everything and everyone in this restaurant except ME! And this is our anniversary!”

To which Max responds, “But you just said outside that you hate being in pictures -”

To which I retort, “I didn’t mean – I mean – I don’t – grrrrr! Will you just take a picture of me??”

And so I lean back ever so sexily into the back of my chair, hands gently folded in my lap, my head tilted ever so slightly. Max takes a shot. And then another. And then another. And then another. Because every time he snaps the camera, I insist on assessing the result, and I am dissatisfied every time.

Moment #2

Our unmemorable but pleasant conversation comes to a lull after the appetizer but before the  main course. So I decide to take the bull by the horns and gaze lovingly into my husband’s eyes. He notices, and stares back, asking me, “What?”

I decide to ignore that, and continue to reach my hand out to take his, only I notice that his hands are in his lap, and again I take him by surprise because, to an unsuspecting outsider, like one’s husband, it may appear that I am attempting to steal his fork. Again he asks me, “What?”

“I just want to hold your hand,” I say, biting my tongue so that DAMMIT doesn’t roll off it to ruin this high-potential romantic moment.

At this moment Max places both hands behind his back and whips out a present wrapped in pink paper and a handmade card.

“TAH DAH!”

I swear, it was like he had just pulled a rabbit out of a hat. I never even saw him carry the present into the restaurant! I could tell by the shape and size of the present that it was a hardcover book. He has gotten me enough jewelry and boxy shirts over the years to know that no present, aside from a spa getaway (which I have yet to get), delights me more than a good book. The card is also lovely. Not dissimilar from the cards that Fred makes, but it’s the thought that counts. He has written a loving note inside and included the most perfect family photo we have ever taken – all three of us are smiling naturally and beautifully. I want to cry, and I show this scrunched up little face to Max, which he always happily accepts as a heartfelt thanks.

Moment #3

We finish dinner with 30 minutes to spare. Max asks, “What do you want to do  now?” And I say, “Fred needs new shoes.” So we drive to Rack Room Shoes on our way back home. The store manager is smoking a cigarette outside and beams when he sees us approaching. He yells, “Welcome back!” and opens the door for us.

Moment #4

We drive home and walk down the block to pick Fred up from Natassha’s. The family is watching a Disney movie and Natassha gives me a glowing report of Fred. She and Sergei smile broadly and are genuinely interested in hearing about our evening. The children are happy and tired. Fred doesn’t want to walk, so Max carries him back home. As he does, he smothers Fred with kisses. Though he didn’t say a word about it all evening, I realize then how much he had missed Fred. I have had many a fight with Max over the years for him to be softer with Fred, that I don’t believe Fred needs to be “toughened” at this young age, and nothing turns me on more than to see my husband be so tender with his baby.

Fred falls asleep at 10 p.m. and so does Max. For the first time in a long time, I feel drunk with guiltless happiness.

Moment #5, The Morning After

At 6:35 I wake up suddenly from what feels like a horrible dream. Max was making eyes at a famous actress who was in town for a premiere, and the actress took him up on his offer to give her a massage. I yell to Max, “It’s our anniversary! You won’t look at me in that way but you will at another woman?!” And there the dream ends, and I immediately yank the covers off to go look for Max.

I find him in the livingroom, and let him know by a wicked frown that I have something I want to talk to him about. I lead him to the couch and tell him about my dream. He smacks his forehead and cries, “Again?!?” Ugh…he says, we had such a nice evening, and now I have ruined his day before it even started, and why am I yelling at him for something he didn’t even do.

And so instead of letting this car veer recklessly down its usual crash course, I decide to keep the blood pressure down, and employ the positive behavioral reinforcement techniques that they use at Fred’s school.

I say to Max, “Okay – you’ve got some choices here. You can either go on and on about how I am ruining YOUR day and make it all about YOU – in which case it will make me even more upset and I will simply go back upstairs – OR – you can read between the lines and understand that what I need right now is REASSURANCE.”

Silence. I get up slowly off the couch, signalling to him that I am about to march right back upstairs.

He sighs. “I…still…think…you’re…attractive.”

Hmph. “Fine. Thank you for saying that.”

Whatever. I go on about my day.

Moment #6, Making Amends

A few hours later, while he is at a cafe waiting for Fred to finish up at his Saturday activity, Max sends me an e-mail to apologize for the morning. He had woken up at 3:30 a.m. and couldn’t fall back asleep, he says, and wasn’t in the best of moods this morning. He is sorry for not having listened to me well.

And I write back, “Oh, it’s okay. Why couldn’t you fall asleep? Are you alright? Anyway, I really appreciate that you wrote to apologize.”

And so we calmly ended it. It took 9 years to be able to do that.

What it’s like to prepare for a date when you haven’t done it in nearly a decade

Friday evening, in preparation for our first date in eons:

4:20 pm

Mumble to Max about needing to leave the house a little early before picking (son) Fred up from his after school program. Drive to the Rite-Aid pharmacy. Look for anniversary card. Finally find a good one that says what I feel but did not have enough foresight to compose, but feel disgusted that all but one is not yellowing or wrinkled. Wonder how Rite-Aid stays in business looking like my parents’ attic.

4:38 pm

Drive to Fred’s after school program.

4:45

Remind Fred he is going to Isabelle’s house this evening. He tells me he hasn’t had a chance to eat his orange slices. Okay, eat your oranges then, I tell him.

4:46 pm

He moves to another table to play with his Legos. I ask him, what about your oranges? He moves back and eats his oranges.

4:51 pm

His friend Lydia finishes his oranges. I beg Fred to pack up and leave.

4:55 pm

I beg Fred to pack up and leave.

5:01 pm

I pack Fred’s bag and leave.

Fred decides to follow me.

5:08 pm

We arrive at Isabelle’s house. Fred and Isabelle greet each other on their hands and knees, making small purring sounds although they are supposed to be puppies. They are happy to see each other and I am quickly forgotten as they race up the stairs and disappear. Isabelle’s parents, Natasha and Sergei, greet me with huge smiles. “Relax tonight – don’t rush back!” I feel immense gratitude to them.

5:10 pm

I’m home. I jam the oversize Rite Aid plastic bag into my purse and sneak upstairs. Water is running – Max is in the shower. I look in the mirror and wonder on what side of my head I should part my hair. If I go right then I have a little 80s hump where my hair won’t come down flat on my scalp. If I go left I look like I had slept with a big rubber band wrapped around my ears. I decide on left.

Then, I see a number of short grey hairs introducing their disgusting little selves to me from my new part. I yank them out.

5:17 pm

I rummage through my make up box. I put on foundation, covering the blemish on my chin. Look for my mascara. Can’t find it. I scrounge around and find my other make up bag. Oh yeah, this is the bag where I keep the make up I no longer use. I find my mascara and eyeshadow, free samples from a 2008 Lancome purchase. I put them on, noticing that the mascara is not making a lick of difference. Oh well.

5:27 pm

I go through my closet, very fast. What to wear what to wear what to wear. Not this not this not this. Okay, this. I find my black Ann Taylor pants, still wrapped in the drycleaners plastic. I put them on. (And will not notice until I use the bathroom 3 hours later that I never took the drycleaning tags off. Sigh!) Put on the sexy pink sleeveless top that I am surprised my mother bought for me. Ask Max if it makes my arms look pudgy. Wait 10 seconds for him to decide on an answer and to tell me No. Whatever. Don’t care enough to argue.

5:35

Go downstairs. Switch the contents from my striped crochet hobo bag into my black Coach bag. Realize there is alot of crap in my Coach bag. Take out wrinkled napkins from our favorite deli and McDonald’s. Straws with the paper covering tattered. Packets of ketchup. A fortune cookie crumbled inside its wrapper. A few Lego pieces and crayons. An opened bag of Swiss Miss instant cocoa mix (with the opening folded down of course). Three pens from the local bank. Receipts, receipts galore.

5:38

Max shouts to hurry.

I pour my jewelry out of my little jewelry bag. All my necklaces are tangled. I find one pair of earrings. They’re aquamarine. Don’t match my pink and black outfit. Briefly touch my earlobes and realize no one will see my ears anyway. Stuff the tangled jewelry back into the bag.

5:39

Run down to the front door. Realize I am carrying my hobo bag. Run back up and down to our family room on the other side of the house. Switch bags.

5:40

Run up and down back to the front door. Realize I don’t have my strappy heels. WHERE are my strappy heels?? I open the door and yell to Max, who is already sitting in the car, engine humming. “I need to find my shoes!!” I yell. He tells me again to hurry. Run back up and down to the family room which is connected to the garage. Rummage through a large carton box where the out-of-season shoes are kept. No strappy heels anywhere. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I saw them. Possible I could have thrown them out some time ago since they did give me blisters.

5:43

Run back up and down to the front door to get my black sandals instead. DAMMIT!!! My sandals are in the garage. AAARGH. Run back up and down to the family room and into the garage. Close door and slip into my sandals.

5:44

The garage is pitch black. Quiet. I take a milisecond to think – I think I’ve got everything. I can stop running now. I reach my arm up and hit the garage door open button. Like a stage curtain, the door rises slowly and steadily to a bright, shining line. I take a breath. My heart is pounding (though from the running up and down the stairs, not anticipation) and I make my formal entrance… into the driveway and the SUV that is waiting for me.

***

We’re driving along, on our way. We’re smiling and laughing and chatting. And then, for a few minutes, I’m quiet.

Me:   Okay, I’ve got my blog post! I just wrote it, in my head, just now! I’m going to talk about what it’s like to prepare for a date after all these years. God, I can just imagine what divorced people go through when they begin dating again.

Max: Hello. It’s our anniversary.

Me (busting out laughing): Oh yeah, sorry! You know what I mean.

They support one another, because that is what people are supposed to do

“person”

Chinese: ren / Japanese: hito

My late night conversation with my husband yesterday, as I felt like I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown:

Max: Are you crying? What’s wrong?

Me: I don’t know…everything…I don’t do anything, I don’t contribute…I just sit at my computer and I…I feel like I hate myself.

Max: Everyone hates yourself.

Me: What?

Max: Everyone hates yourself.

Me: You mean, everyone hates him- or herself?

Max: Yeah, that’s what I meant. I don’t like myself sometimes either.

Me: Why? What’s not to like?

Max: Like I’m getting old…and my English is not good, so I have to rely on you for everything.

Me (looking up at him, realizing he had just hit it on the nail): THAT’S why I hate myself, for relying on you for everything. If it weren’t for you I can’t run this household…I can’t even mother…I feel like I wouldn’t be able to function or get anything done…I feel useless…

Max: You know the Chinese/Japanese character for “person,” right? The two strokes [he writes the character in the air with his finger] – there are two strokes because they hold up one another. They support one another, because that is what people are supposed to do.

I never knew that, about that character.

Why do I feel less capable because I need help? Why do I feel that I have to be able to do everything on my own? The thought of needing someone – that I have to depend on someone else for survival whether it is financial, physical or emotional – frightens me. And I know that sometimes my fierce determination to be independent, to not need, hurts Max. We all like to feel needed, to know that, to a few important people in our lives, we are indispensable. But knowing that there is someone I can’t live without – that scares me. Because if I depend too much, someday that person may no longer be here, and that frightens me more than anything.

Happy anniversary to my other stroke, the one that holds me up without fail.

Our First Date

A recent conversation about our upcoming Friday wedding anniversary went something like this:

Max: So, what are we doing for our anniversary?

Me (swiveling my head from whatever it was I was doing): Hah?

Max: What do you want to do?

Me: You mean, like what restaurant I want to go to, or how we should spend the day? (with a “Oh, not that question again” undercurrent)

Max: I mean, do you want a present? (with the same tone you would ask “Would you want to eat that day old bread?)

Me: Wha – what the – how am I – what I am supposed to say to that – you don’t ask someone if she wants a present – do you want a present?

Max (shaking his head): No. No, I don’t.

Me: Seriously – is that a “no” like my mom’s no? That is, are you saying no only to get upset later if I really don’t get you anything?

Max: No, I really don’t want a present.

Which really is true coming from him. I had forgotten; that was me I was talking about in terms of saying no and then getting upset later.

Me: Okay, good, because I really have no idea what I’d get you.

We’ve come a long way.

Ten years ago, it took me three days just to pick out an outfit for a date with Max. Getting ready would begin the night before, when I experimented with different hair styles and make up applications. A year-and-a-half later, on our first wedding anniversary, we were at Nobu’s in Tokyo, ringing up a check that was higher than our current monthly car payment. I think, too, that jewelry was in the picture.

Extravagant, romantic celebrations were the way we had marked our anniversaries. As a couple wildly in love, we did everything by the Hollywood book: candle lit dinners, tropical vacations.

Until we became parents.

We celebrated our third anniversary when Fred was two months old. I craved and missed our old life terribly, and arranged to have a sitter rock Fred to sleep while Max and I slipped out to a restaurant nearby. To this day I remember the crab, the stillness of a restaurant without children, and the pit in my stomach. Does the sitter know what she is doing? Has Fred fallen asleep? I kept stealing glances at my watch while forcing myself to smile and bask in my 2-hours’ worth of freedom.

That evening date became the last one we ever took.

Just like I had mistakenly thought I’d stay thin forever, I thought, too, that we’d be romantic forever, immune to the stress and desexualization of so many new parents. Part of it was fatigue and scheduling, part of it was culture (our parents never hired sitters). Anniversaries became whole family affairs – Max, me, and Fred. At first it was just the way the cookie crumbled, then one day, it became the way we liked it. How could we celebrate our marriage without celebrating our parenthood? One became the other, and both became the same.

This year, our friend Natasha (not her real name, but she told me that if I were to ever write about her, to please use the name Natasha) has graciously offered to host a playdate between her daughter Isabelle and Fred so we can go out on our anniversary. Gasp. This meant we “should” think of somewhere nice to go, that we’d have to spend money, money that seems better spent toward Fred’s college fund. But we are so used to being with Fred. We can go out during the day when he’s in school. My friends tell me, “No but’s!” In the end, we accepted Natasha’s offer, because we wanted Fred to enjoy his date with Isabelle and because we wanted Natasha and her husband, er, Sergei to feel comfortable leaving their daughter with us if they ever wanted a night on the town.

 Wow. Our first date. We’ve already chosen the restaurant and booked the reservation. It’s Wednesday. Maybe I should start picking out my outfit now. And arranging my list of emergency contact numbers.

Letting Myself Go

This weekend I had found the denim capris I have been looking for for over a year. I was at Walmart shopping for bleach and made a detour when my eyes spotted the $14 jeans. Now, I had never thought of buying clothes at Walmart before but apparently something happened to me over the last six years. That same something is, apparently, what also resulted in the horror that was my reflection in the fitting room.

“Oh. My. God. I am disgusting. I am absolutely disgusting.” Like looking at a car wreck on the side of a highway, I couldn’t leave well enough alone; instead of going straight from my shorts into the capris I chose to pause, turn around and look at my butt in the mirror. I did a double take and then a triple take out of pure shock. I swear I could model as a Before ad in diet commercials.

“Why do you say those things?” piped Fred, who had scurried into the fitting room with me. “Why do you say mean things to yourself?”

Oh, the wisdom of children!

Yes, why do I say mean things to myself? Would I ever, ever in a millon years say to a girlfriend, “Oh. My. God. You look disgusting. Absolutely disgusting.”?

I’m sure that my first model in making friends with my body came from my mom, who for all the years I have known her believed that she was fat. So much so that in the first grade when I had to make a sentence with the word “fat,” I raised my hand and said, “My mother is fat and weighs 200 pounds.” This resulted in an explosion of guffaws and a prolonged argument with my teacher who refused to believe me. Now I understand why; my mother was about 125 lbs. at the time.

I had hated my body growing up. Unlike most girls and women I knew and knew of, though, I wasn’t worried about being fat. I was the opposite: I desperately needed to put on weight. As a teenager I looked skeletal in jeans and I always found excuses not to accept invitations to the beach. I longed to look like Cheryl Ladd and Christie Brinkley and, later, like my best friend Jennifer who at 13 was already turning heads in junior high. I carried around Catherine Bach’s (Daisy from Dukes of Hazzard, of course) famous words, “I was a total stick until I was 16!” like they were a Mark Twain quote, praying and praying that I would experience the same fate.

And sure enough, at around 17 I started to fill out. I began to look feminine. I dared go out in mini skirts and form-fitting dresses. At 27 I hit a peak, when in the midst of a major life overhaul I took up yoga, ballet, hip hop dance, skating, aerobics and weight lifting. A major crush on a trainer landed me in the gym 4 times a week rain or shine and the results were fantastic.

“What are you staring at?” I remember snapping at a male friend at lunch.

“Your arms. They’re frickin sculpted! They’re amazing!” He was tranfixed, on a totally non-sexual part of my body. This made me happy.

“Oh yeah…you’ve got a tight body,” a male friend of the non-platonic nature once said in a making out session. This, too, made me happy.

Little did I know I should have bottled those moments, because those days are gone forever.

I had once believed that I would be one of those women with a spring-back body post-birth. After all, I had been thin my whole life, and there I was in my late 20s and early 30s with my sculpted arms and sleek stomach. But by month 8 of my pregnancy I began having doubts. The first dimples appeared on the back of my thighs and I wondered where all that skin was going to go once my belly had nothing more than my stomach to hold.

And trust me, I mourned after I gave birth: I cried about the breasts that became machines, the waist line that was no longer there. In my mind I had crossed a fundamental divide: from carefree to responsible, from hot thing to matron.

My son is now heading toward double digits, and so I’ve had plenty of time to get back into shape. But I know I will never get my old body back. I weigh the same as I did before I was pregnant, but what the number doesn’t show is the changed size of my hips, the loose flesh around my mid-section, the increasing jiggling of my arms. But as I settled into my identity as a mother, I’ve also made a home in my mind for this new body. I have come to think I look pretty good, even if my hey day is gone. One could perhaps say that I’ve lowered my standards; I prefer to think that I’ve come to better understand the real meaning of beauty. I now think of what my body can do rather than what it can show, and I know that loving life can do more to fill out those lines and radiate youth than any lipstick or diet fad can.

But, I do need to get and keep myself moving. Not so I can look like a celebrity mom, but so I can be around to cry at Fred’s graduations and to play tag with my grandchildren. Who knows? With all that exercising things may fall into place, and I could end up looking like one hot grandma 🙂

Art work by hersheydesai

Sigh…The Torture of being on Auto Pilot

It’s been that kind of week. I wake up from a nap to realize it’s almost the weekend.

I am amazed at how little I got accomplished this week. As I am writing, I am imagining you, my fellow readers and bloggers and parents, zooming around contributing to family life and society. I see you (if even just in my mind) making lunch for your kids, nursing babies, changing diapers, running errands, shopping for groceries, going to your workplace if you work outside the home, battling traffic, writing your blog posts, planning and cooking dinner, sorting out bills, scrubbing the toilets, coaching Little League, exercising, holding conversations, making plans, feeding the needy, reading to the blind. Etc. Whatever it is you are doing, you are moving, with deliberation and spirit.

Even more, I am imagining my 6 year old, at school, practicing rhythm in Thursday’s music class, sweating from tag at recess, rotating from art center to computer center, reading silently and then in his guided reading group, marching in a single file from one activity to the next.

To me, the world has always been non-stop and more often than I would like to admit, I have been an immobile bystander. Is it depression kicking in again? Fatigue? Humidity? Is it just me?

My client work was quiet this week – about an hour’s worth of work a day, really. That leaves me with the kind of time that most adults would die for. But I’ve squandered it away. Not organizing my paperwork. Not cleaning the house. Not planning the future. Not exercising. Not even reading for fun.

I’m tired and I feel unmotivated. I feel like I’m coming down with something but I don’t really have any “real” symptoms like a fever. So I sit at my computer, waiting for the urge to do something meaningful to hit me and beating myself up when it doesn’t. I feel incredibly guilty because I am middle-aged (as much as I hate to admit that), and time is limited as it is without my intentionally wasting my precious remaining hours of life. And next thing I know, it’s time to pick Fred up from school.

At a quarter to six, Fred is still buzzing with energy. We used to pick him up from his after school program at 3:30. And then 4:00. And then 5:00. And then 5:30. Because trying to get him to leave is like prying a child away from the amusement park. He can’t get enough of his school and his buddies.  We finally leave when the teachers kick us out. And he is a bundle of energy even when he gets home. After a talkative dinner, he wants to bike, ride his scooter and play basketball outside. It will then take another hour and a half to settle him into bed, because he’ll want to read and write and fly his paper airplanes.

The gene came from his father’s side, that’s for sure. I’m convinced that there are two kinds of people: action-driven folks and thought-driven folks. I tried explaining this theory to Max the other day, having sized him up as a person of action. “You see,” I told him, “you move; you don’t think,” before realizing it had come out the wrong way. What I meant was that he doesn’t live inside his head. He does and he moves and he doesn’t let thoughts and guilt paralyze him. I have always admired those people and I wonder if I can ever become one of them.

Maybe a to-do list could help, giving myself some kind of direction each day. Or maybe I could try a walk outside or an extra hour of sleep each night. Whatever it is, I hope it is not depression, and I hope that next week will be a better week.

Could I have been “Greater”?

Every time a woman up for a high profile job hits the headlines – as Elena Kagan does this week – my thoughts revisit the path that I have chosen.

Don’t get me wrong. By no means do I place myself in the same league as women like Elena Kagan. I was never anywhere near being nominated for the Supreme Court. But I had once stepped foot on the escalator to professional achievement. I had been close. I am close – still close. But I have chosen a different path.

Growing up in a first-generation immigrant family, the expectations were fairly high. You’ve heard the stories, cliches by now: children who came to the United States without any English ability who go on to become valedictorians and Harvard-graduated doctors and lawyers. I grew up with these kids, sat behind them in homeroom, went to the prom with them.

I was less ambitious than those kids and outwardly less successful. While I attended top schools and earned a graduate degree, my race down the career path was less single-minded and slower than that of my peers. I researched and considered pursuing a PhD (in either education or psychology) for 8 years before finally giving up on the idea, nervous about the commitment I’d have to follow through on. Half way through my maternity leave in a position that had earned me a strong reputation in my field, I decided to resign. Today, I co-run a small but successful business with my husband and we work from home. The reason we chose this path was partially to contribute in our field, but largely so that we can have the flexibility to be parents. The company could be larger, it could be more influential. However, I don’t have strong interest in growing it any bigger than it already is. With the current size and workload, I can continue to volunteer at Fred’s school, be there when he gets home each day and spend whole weekends with him.

I’d be lying if I said that I have done this all for Fred, or all for Fred and Max. I’m doing this for me too. I know that the higher I go in my field, the less likely I am to actually do the work that I enjoy. I have been in “management” and I hardly enjoyed it. Disciplining employees, ensuring profit, navigating work politics and watching colleagues and bosses get sacked left and right for not producing results aged me in a way that years of diaper changing, sleep deprivation and isolation never did. When I stayed home that first year with Fred, former colleagues remarked at how much younger I had looked. Many women argue that mothering is the hardest job they’ve ever had; not so for me. To me, being a mother is less taxing and more intuitive than climbing the career ladder. Mothering suits my temperament and my passions. This makes it “easier”, and this is also why I choose it.

But every once in awhile I get tempted. As stressful as excelling professionally can be, there are some incredible highs as well. I have been as exhilarated by helping build up a successful company as I have been watching my son take his first steps. They’re different highs that intoxicate different parts in me. But both give me a sense of worth and a feeling of purpose.

A few years ago I learned that a former boss back home had gotten promoted. He was only four years older than me, and I imagined that, had I stayed on the same path, I could have been right there behind him. “We could move to Boston,” Max had said to me then. Bless his heart. Max has always been supportive of my professional goals. “Nah,” I waved the thought away. It was just a fleeting fantasy.

The year before we moved back to the States, a friend and former colleague e-mailed me out of the blue to recommend me for a head position at a northeastern boarding school. The benefits were a rent-free 3-bedroom house on a sprawling campus and a six figure salary. I was tempted by the prestige and public recognition, the challenge, the perks and the community. All of it sounded so inviting after having spent the last three years at home with a toddler and a virtual clientele and staff. I mulled over the idea and discussed it with Max for two weeks before letting it go. The job description was glamorous during that brief moment when I conveniently forgot about office politics, missed dinners at home, and the inevitable struggles in answering to too many people’s needs. 

It’s been years since I’ve looked at a job wanted ad. In fact, the last time I looked, job ads were printed on newspaper only. The “temptations” usually come via a well-meaning friend or former colleague. I am always flattered that they’d send me a job listing, and usually I simply forward it to someone else who might be better suited. There is relief in knowing that the jobs I get sent pale in comparison to the work that I’m doing now.

I’ll never forget the words of my assistant Mika when I was trying to muster up the courage to tell my boss that I had changed my mind about returning from my maternity leave. Besides me, she was the only other mother in the history of our company. She could tell what was troubling me and she gave me permission to feel it: “Cecilia, as great as you are as director, they will find someone else. But no one can replace you as Fred’s mother.”

I’ll always be grateful to Mika for that. I turned my resignation letter in to my boss, and I have never doubted my decision since. But while the grass stays green around the house in which I work 24/7, there are times when I briefly look across the fence, imagining what another life would have looked like.

Mother’s Day Wishes, from my baby

I had the luxury of sleeping in yesterday until I was startled out of a dream with deafening cries of “TISSUE! I NEED TISSUE!” The sudden and temporary disappearance of Max (into the bathroom or garage, I am not sure which) forced me to get out of bed in a worse mood than I’d hoped for the start of Mother’s Day. I stumbled downstairs cursing under my breath and with my eyes barely opened. “Why can’t you get your own tissue?!” I snapped at Fred who was frozen at the kitchen table with a foot-long snot hanging out his nostril. After wiping his nose I slept walked to the couch and stayed there, listening to footsteps pattering up and down the stairs and whispers ssshing back and forth. It was Mother’s Day. A surprise was looming ahead. Within minutes, I opened my eyes, feigning surprise at the two-person chorus of “HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!” and presentation of flowers and cards and hugs and kisses.

I realize I loved this Mother’s Day because it was the first Mother’s Day that came from Fred. Up to now, Fred had signed the card when Daddy asked him to, or crafted the little jewelry keepsake box because his preschool teacher told him to. This year, Fred was in it, heart and soul, and he knew the significance of the day.

“Mommy, today’s the day me and Daddy take care of you.”

Here was Fred’s card in his favorite Christmas colors

He’s got it right. I’m always sitting on a chair watching.

Here he’s colored me in peach and himself in brown. He’s aware of race and culture now, but for years he thought he and his dad were African-American because of their darker coloring. I love that to him he is what he is.

This morning, as we were getting ready for school, Fred said to me, “I have another Mother’s Day surprise for you. But I can’t give it to you until Tuesday.”

“Why Tuesday?”

“Because I have to practice.”

“Wow! Practice? Is it a song? a poem?”

“No. On that day you have to get in the bathtub with me, and shampoo.”

Oh goodness. Should I be nervous? 

And so my celebration continues. With Fred in my life, everyday will be Mother’s Day.

My First Mother’s Day…

…was six years ago.

I had been a mother for exactly two months, and I was right in the throes of motherhood shock and the worst sleep deprivation I had ever experienced.

I was struggling with nursing, but determined (in part personal desire, in part societal pressure) not to give up. My nipples were bleeding, and the hunger cries of Fred every 2 hours brought images of razor blades. I came to dread hearing his relentless calls for food and hated myself for hating to feed my own child…I would read Dr. Sears’ chapter on relaxing and savoring the bond with our babies during nursing and wonder what critical maternal gene I was missing.

I was living in a Japanese surburb, staying home on a one-year maternity leave from my company. For the first time I realized I had no one to talk to during the day, or the night for that matter (see next paragraph). I realized that sleep deprivation + a foreign language + loneliness did not make me a happy mother. There was no park within walking distance and Fred and I spent our days hanging out at the local supermarkets and discount baby store, when I wasn’t entertaining the unannounced visits by my mother-in-law…

I missed my husband that first Mother’s Day. In the weeks leading up to Fred’s birth, Max’s company began a major restructuring. He was asked to head up a second department in addition to the one he was already running. He left the house at 7 each morning to begin his 70-minute commute and came home between 12:30 – 1:00 a.m each night. Often it made more sense for him to simply sleep in a hotel or in the office, but he made it a rule to always come home and help where he could. On Mother’s Day he left a L’Occitane bath gel gift set and a card for me on the dining table. For the coming year, I would bask in these citrus scents in the shower, trying to drown out the imagined crying that lingered in my ears long after my muscles had let go in the steam.

I spent many hours a day on the internet, becoming more and more addicted to the chat forums for young moms. I e-mailed other mom friends who were excited I had joined the club but who were too busy with their young children to write at length. “Gotta go – xxx is crying!” was how most correspondence ended. More than once I picked up the phone to call someone but hung up with doubts.  They’ve got enough on their hands without having to play therapist, I would think. I don’t want to call and start cryingI don’t want to sound like I don’t love being a mother.

My heart would drop like a rollercoaster and then start beating with fear whenever Max kissed me good bye and the front door closed behind him in the mornings. I would imagine the next 15-16 hours alone with this infant whom I loved in theory but barely knew. My thoughts  would race forward to all potential disasters: what if he throws up, what if he falls, what if he spikes a fever, what if I throw him against the wall – what would I do? How will I get help? In the midst of panic, will I be able to remember our address in Japanese, let alone explain my situation to an emergency operator? I would wonder, if I love my baby so much – if I am his mother – why do I feel fear when I am with him? Why do unspeakable images try to fight their way into my head?

My first Mother’s Day was a celebration I felt proud to finally be a part of. Like Hall of Fame inductees I imagine, or Academy Award or even Nobel Prize winners, I couldn’t quite believe that I would be the one people (alright, my husband) would be paying attention to on this second Sunday in May. Am I deserving? Am I really up in there in the ranks of my mother and those who’d gone before her?

I would get my answer slowly in the years to come, as I watch my little boy grow from a quiet and inobtrusive baby into an inquisitive and compassionate young person. And now, on the eve of my sixth Mother’s Day, I can comfortably look back and say to that young mother: You passed with flying colors; you were deserving. It may be your habit to focus more on what you should have done or could have done, but on this Mother’s Day, sit back, enjoy your family, and know that you’ve done well.

Happy Mother’s Day to all my fellow mothers and mother figures, especially to all the new moms 🙂