Seeing what’s not in front of you

Last night I lay with my crying 6 year-old for an exasperating and tiring 40 minutes, trying to alleviate his fears of his upcoming weekend soccer practice. The clock was ticking toward 10:00 p.m., and I really needed him to fall asleep. 

Though in my last post (about Fred’s nervous first day of soccer) we had a happy ending, you all know as well as I that with kids it’s one step forward, two steps back. Yesterday was a particularly long day for Fred. He was tired. It was late. Every negative emotion he had was magnified several fold.

“Well, do you want to quit?” I tried to ask as sincerely as I could. It was not a threat and I was not being sarcastic; I really wanted to know what he was feeling.

But at the mention of quitting he stepped on the gas with his tears, and followed up by slamming his fists on his bed. I guess, no, he did not want to quit.

“Well, then you keep going.” He stopped the banging but continued wailing.

“Fred, those are your two options! You can quit, but if you don’t want to quit, then you keep going.”

“I want another option,” he cried.

I let out a semi-laugh in exasperation, wondering outloud what other possible options could there be? You either do or you don’t.

But he yelled again.

“I want ANOTHER option!”

Okay. This second time I decided to hear him differently, and I allowed his words to sink in. He wanted to tell me he was ready for neither of the choices – neither extreme – that I had presented him. He wanted me to help him find another way to play soccer.

Fred’s words struck me, and not for the first time. When he was 4 or 5 I had brought up my fuzzy version of the Heinz dilemma, Lawrence Kohlberg’s question of what the poor husband of a dying wife should do if he can’t afford the medicine needed to save her. There is more to this dilemma, but those were the details I remembered at the time and so I had asked Fred, “Should the man steal the medicine for his wife or not?” I expected a yes or no answer, but instead Fred floored me with this response: “He should talk to the man at the drugstore. He should tell him about his wife and he will understand, but he should talk to him first because if he steals it and goes to jail, then he can’t take care of his wife.”

In instances like this Fred reminds me that there are indeed options, that you don’t need to accept only what is in front of you. There are varying paths to the achievement of your goals. There are steps, points, grey in between. I don’t think this is something I had believed growing up, and as a habit this hasn’t been the way that I think or process life. I am not the type to question doctors, for example, to consider the possibility of something better that hasn’t already been presented to me. If rejected repeatedly (e.g., by a publisher, employer, coach, etc.), I would not be one to think there might be another way or another chance. I had, until recently, believed there is one path to achievement and that it needs to be a rather short and quick one. You either have the talent or potential or ability or you don’t. This attitude explains why I used to give up so easily on things.

Last night  after Fred told me he wanted more options, I reluctantly asked him if he had any in mind, nervous that I might need to actually follow through. He told me, “I want to play just in the last minute of the game, or the last two minutes, or the last three minutes…or, I want to play just at the parts that I like.” I understood. He was telling me he wanted to take baby steps, and that, I guess, is a reasonable enough option for me.

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You just keep trying

Fred woke up yesterday with a huge bounce in his step: he was going to his first soccer practice.

We had a bad experience with the popular recreational group that we’d signed him up for last fall, and this time found a skills training program for 6-8 year olds at another soccer organization. They’d promised a challenging but age appropriate and fun program, and it sounded just right for Fred who told us he wanted to get good at soccer.

And it was perfect. The kids started with various versions of freeze tag as a warm up and then moved into several drills. Fred had lost the self-consciousness and shyness that plagued him a year ago and he was right in there, running and kicking with everyone. But I could tell the moment that they lost him. The coach’s instructions began coming faster, and he was using expressions like “inside short, outside long” that Fred had never heard of. The other boys were running around, and I saw Fred getting increasingly bewildered. His pace slowed down, and when Max and I squinted across the field, we found ourselves asking outloud, “Is he crying?”

When the whistle blew for a water break Fred ran over, his face no longer able to keep the tears in. As soon as he was within arm’s reach he began sobbing, crying, “It’s too difficult…it’s too difficult.” We stroked and hugged and soothed him and told him he was doing great, that this is just the first day, that Daddy will practice with him afterwards. But it didn’t work. He refused to go back. He said it was too much, too hard. We tried everything to encourage him to go back into the field, but nothing worked, not even bribery of ice cream and Silly Bandz. There were still 30 full minutes left. I sat gazing out into the field, fighting back tears. Why is my child the only one to come crying off the field? Am I really pushing him too hard? Have I made a big mistake by enrolling him?

The final whistle blew with Fred clinging to my arm. Max talked to the coaches afterwards and had Fred meet them. The assistant coach came over and told us how he always ran off the field to his mother when he was his age, and how it took him 2 years to become good. And then he loved soccer and ended up going pro.

As all the children, families and coaches and staff walked off the field, Fred, with his eyes still wet, asked Max if he would practice with him. They went through all the drills that the coach introduced and within minutes Fred was smiling and laughing again. An hour and 15 minutes later, we coaxed Fred to leave so we could go get some ice cream. At that moment I finally made sense of all the thoughts that had been running inside me: He loves soccer. He is motivated. But he should not give up at the first sign of difficulty. Being able to know the difference between pressuring and teaching about persistence has been one of my greatest struggles.

Fred was so pumped up after the practice with Max, but our old conversation came back at the dinner table. Fred wanted to quit again and again we went through waves of understanding and empathy and exasperation and frustration. We talked about the Wright Brothers and Obama and other figures in history, about how much effort and patience it took for them to reach their dreams. And then I talked about me.

“What am I good at, Fred?” 

He responded: “Sitting. Sleeping. Eating. Watching t.v.”

And there you have it. To Fred Daddy is good at driving, cooking, sports, fixing things. Not only does Fred see me without hobbies or talents, he probably sees me without confidence.

I go through with him a shockingly long list of all the things I could have gotten good at but never did, because I had given up too soon:

Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, German, sports, cooking, art, knitting, ballet, writing, swimming, psychology (as a career). I remember so vividly how I broke into tears every time someone tried to teach me something and I couldn’t grasp it right away. The panic and humiliation were intolerable and I couldn’t go back. I had wanted to be perfect, yet the learning process is antithetical to perfection: to become “perfect” you need to make mistakes first.  

At 40+ I am finally trying writing and swimming. No, it’s never too late, I countered Fred, but how rich my life would have been had I not given up when I was a child. But perhaps more important than the skills learned are the confidence, self-worth and empowerment gained only through having achieved something through your own efforts. Fred does not need to become a star soccer player, but he does need to be someone who is resilient and who believes in himself. After an hour of talking, we believe we convinced him of this.

Later that night, as Fred and I were putting his toys away, I told him I was having my first swim class in two weeks.

“What should I do, Fred, if it’s really hard?”

He looked over at me and said, matter-of-factly, “You just keep trying.”

“I might cry though…”

He chuckled. “You just need to keep praticing, silly! You should practice in the pool everyday.”

“Okay. So I shouldn’t quit, no matter how hard it gets? Because, you know, swimming is really hard.”

Fred rolled his eyes. “No, of course not. You just keep trying.”

I’ll tell you when you’re older

I heard that alot growing up. “How did I get into your stomach?” “How come people can have babies if they’re not married?” “Why is Karen [my cousin] sending wedding pictures again? Isn’t she already married? And who is this guy?”

Needless to say, the answers never came, and I have definitely gotten older.

In fact, I’m old enough now to be on the receiving end of those questions.

Well, they started coming a few years ago, when Fred was about 3. His big thing at the time was peeing. We had spent alot of time in the bathroom together because of toilet training and the continued post-training supervision. At that age, as you all know, there is no such thing as any private time to do your business, and Fred was always right there next to me when I was doing mine. Then one day he got curious, and started walking around me while I was seated on the toilet. He walked to the left and walked to the right, bending his head to peer this way and that at my private parts.

Where does it come from? Where does your pee come from if you don’t have a chin-chin [Japanese for pee pee or weiner or what have you]??He was genuinely baffled, and I was genuinely flustered. He deserved an answer, didn’t he? And yet I didn’t give him one.

Another bigger issue came when he was 4 or 5, and he became fascinated with my breasts. He’d stare at them when I was changing or when I was in the shower with him, and he’d try to find some way to touch them. This was a little harder for me to take, because, despite the fact that I knew he was just young and curious, I couldn’t escape that feeling of keeping my breasts absolutely sacred (could possibly be one reason I did not enjoy breastfeeding). I’d react strongly, much more strongly than was appropriate, and all the while I’d worry that by making too huge of a fuss over this I was only making him more intrigued. What if he ends up being a breast man, one of those guys who hoards Playboy magazines and only dates women with big breasts, all because his mother made the female body such a taboo subject? I never did handle this well, and in time his fascination dropped as he moved onto Star Wars or insects or whatever.

The other day we were at the dinner table, just the two of us as Max was working, and I am not sure how the subject came up but Fred, now 6, asked me, “So where exactly did I come out of your body?”

And, with one hand stuffing some chicken into my mouth, I used the other to wave at the general vicinity of my vagina. “Around here,” I said.

“You mean your chin-chin?” He almost broke out into a cackle.

“No, there’s a separate hole there, for babies to come out.” I continued eating.

“But how? Isn’t it kind of small?”

“It stretches.”

“Okay, how much does it stretch? This wide? This wide?” He had gotten out of his seat now, and was holding up his hands trying to measure different widths. God, I honestly hope that this curiosity and intense line of questioning will lead to greater good, like a career as a scientist, prosecutor or Hollywood reporter.

“Ten centimeters. Wide enough for a baby to come out.”

And that was that. He was satisfied, and we continued eating.

Maybe I could do this because of his age, but maybe I could have done this sooner as well. I honestly think it’s because of blogging, but over the last year or so I have steadily lost many of my inhibitions, many of those feelings of embarrassment and shame that I used to have. Childbirth, our bodies and sex are all so human and so natural, but perhaps I didn’t think this way a year ago. This time I couldn’t imagine not answering this way, not simply telling Fred the facts of life.

Have your kids started asking the “hard” questions? How do you respond?

Crossing out the Ex’s

Something must have been going on with the planets because in the span of about 2 weeks recently 3 of my girlfriends confided in me that they still think about their ex-boyfriends. Two of those confessions were in the context of “Really, he was the love of my life,” past tense. Both have nonetheless moved on: one to a lower fireworks kind of guy and the other to the wrong guy from whom she is now divorcing. The third friend simply brought up her ex in the context of “Do you ever look yours up? Do you ever wonder how life would have been different?”

And to both questions I answer Yes. I have looked them up. I have been curious about what they are up to now. (In one case, with an unexpected delight, I even realized that for the life of me I couldn’t remember the guy’s last name as I typed in my google search.) I have thought about how life would have been different with them, and I imagine the following scenarios: Divorce. Lunacy. Asylum.

I suppose it says something about what kind of guys I had gone out with if a future with any of them would make me shudder like that. But it’s true, and I don’t even blame the guys; they did not yo-yo me around without my permission – nay, my groveling. “Disrespect me, please! Walk all over me now, c’mon! I don’t deserve any better!” I was a much different woman in my 20s.

Though at times I might have regretted dating some of the men that I did, I’m also aware that with each relationship I learned something about who I was and about the personalities and values that fit me best. I also tried to learn to express love and fear and anger and to build a mini-life with another person. Each failed relationship led me to Max. If I hadn’t dated the other ones, would I have been able to appreciate Max? Would I have built up the skills and self-awareness necessary to handle the intricacies of an intimate relationship?

I remember those hungry, anxiety-ridden days of my 20s when my biggest worry was Will I get married. Though I was active in my career and in community activities, nothing meant more to me then than the hope of meeting the right man. But deep down I wasn’t ready. Maybe I knew I still had some growing up to do. Maybe I still wanted to hold onto my independence. That lack of readiness combined with too many messages that I “ought” to be married translated into my pursuit of impossible relationships. I was attracted to slippery men who couldn’t give me commitment, because it wasn’t even what I had wanted deep down. When I finally realized that, I gave myself permission to be single and to feel at peace with that, and it felt great. I worked on myself, on my personal goals. That is when I got promoted in my career, when I started working out and taking dance, and when I started to build a circle of very close and good friends. I realized I could be happy and fulfilled even without a man propping up my self-esteem (and to be honest, when you look for someone to prop you up emotionally, you always end up with abusers).

A younger friend of mine with whom I had lost touch for years recently got married. She is not in love. I am not sure if she is even in like. And I wanted to tell her, But you don’t have to get married. Maybe this is coming from me now, in my early 40s, after nearly 10 years of marriage and another 10 years of dating. Is marriage absolutely necessary? Isn’t it better to be single and happy than commmitted and miserable? But I remember how she had felt. I remember what it was like to think that if you don’t take the guy now, then there may not be any other guy later let alone a better one. And the fear of being alone or being different from your friends or being a societal outcast is so, so strong when you’re single.

I think about the irony of how life has turned out. I struggled for so long in bad relationships, drowning in tears and self-pity. By the time I had healed I then spent more time beating myself up over the choices I had made. But ultimately there was a purpose in everything: the blessings that came disguised in all that heartache of the 20s were the lessons that brought me to my true love, the one that didn’t get away.

The mother in my mirror

So much for my arrival at peace during my recent trip home. I ended it with an enormous blow out with my mother on our last full day, and I left barely saying good bye.

My relationship with my mother had always been both stormy and full of love. I am her life and for this I am both grateful and resentful. She simultaneously thinks I am the greatest thing that ever happened to her and the most imperfect creature she could have created. She wants the best for me while being dissatisfied that I can’t be the best. She wants me to see the world but never leave her side. Maybe many of you can relate…maybe there are many daughters out there that can relate.

Our life together has been full of paradoxes. We’d shop and eat and bond together and have the best time but can end a conversation with screaming and doors slamming (me, not her). One look, one word, one less than flattering tone and I feel destroyed. In the five days after we got back, I continued to cry daily, waking up in the middle of the night with knots in my stomach. I’d felt so wounded by her words and absolutely powerless as to how to cope or change the situation.

And I talked to girlfriends. “She’s not going to change, so it is up to you to change.” The first time I heard this advice I was infuriated. How little she understood me! And I tried to explain myself to her. “But…but…” Still she held firm. “Things were different in our parents’ time,” she reminded me.

Four days later, another friend said, “You’re just butting your head against the wall. She is not going to change. You need to learn to accept her.” This time I nodded.

Six days later, I stopped crying. I knew what I had to do. I will try to accept her.

I had picked up a book about mothers and daughters and gotten as far as the introduction. But it was enough to get me thinking in a way I hadn’t before. Our mothers are a composite of strengths and weaknesses, the book said, a product of their times, a product of the way they had been mothered. Of course. So obvious and so trite as I quote it. Like me, my mother is human. Flawed. A product of generations of well-intended but imperfect mothering. It was only last week that it hit me that my mother was raised by a single mother in a household of three children in rural China. She had never laid eyes on her father. There is so much about her and my grandmother that I don’t know and that I don’t appreciate.

My mother had wanted me to look like a movie star. To go to Harvard. To be a mother of two even more beautiful and perfect children, preferably a boy and a girl. To marry and have my own family but be mainly loyal and close to her. It was not so easy for me. As a graduate student in education, I realized I had fit the profiles of the children we were studying: “at risk.” I had grown up an at-risk child, a prime target to be a school drop out, a teen pregnancy or a substance abuser. My mother had such huge, seemingly impossible dreams for me to reach. Couldn’t she see that just being able to get through each day without hating myself was achievement enough?

And what were my expectations of my mother? That she not only overcome poverty, immigration to an unfamiliar country and language barriers but also convert herself into an upper-middle class, surburban American Carol Brady mom. For years I had been resentful that she didn’t tell me “I love you” or hug me or have heart-to-hearts with me. If only she had been more emotionally in tune, I thought, more “western,” I would have turned out better. How ironic; in my quest for perfection, I chose to blame my mom for my failure to achieve it.

But I’ve turned out well, haven’t I? I mean, given the circumstances. Or in spite of the circumstances. I’ve turned out alright: self-aware, well educated and happy. My mother (and father) had done the best they knew how. In fact, they did what, to me now as a mother, was beyond human.

I had placed such impossible expectations on my mother, been so unforgiving of her humanness and imperfections and even of her culture. I had felt frustrated all these years that she couldn’t see me and yet I am realizing now that I never “saw” her either. And I have heaped all of this onto no one but her…not my dad, not my brother, not my friends. I sometimes feel that I do the same to Max, but hopefully not to Fred. As Fred gets older, I wonder if he will have the same expectations of me. How will he view me? Will it be different because he is a son rather than a daughter?

I talked to my mother for the first time a week-and-a-half after I got back. As angry as I had been at first, I was simultaneously troubled by how I had alienated her. I know our rift would devastate her. But I couldn’t talk to her. And when I picked up the phone I was still curt, but I stayed on the line. She called again yesterday, thanking me for the DVD player I had earlier agreed to help her order. Our conversation was a little better.

I doubt if we will ever see eye-to-eye on some things, and I am sure that I will continue to feel irritated if not infuriated from time to time. But I am hoping that my attempts to think of her differently will make some impact on our relationship at this late stage in her life. For the first time, I want to make things better and to make the best of our time together before it’s too late.

If it is not overly personal to share here, what is your relationship with your mother like? If it was/is difficult, how have you coped? Do you think your feelings toward your mother have impacted the kind of mother you are today?