“The state of your room reflects the state of your mind”

I have never been a neat person. Ever. Try as I might, I just can’t seem to declutter or organize, like the way I can’t do home improvement projects or figure out maps. A gene has to be missing, or perhaps a wire’s gotten detached.

When I was living at home my mother used to say to me, “The state of your room reflects the state of your mind,” which I found impressive for its stunning accuracy. There really was alot on my mind as a teen and my inner world often prevented me from being able to process my outer world, like that of my desk, closet, bedroom or, later, apartments.

The first time Max visited my parents, to “ask” for my hand in marriage, my mother sat him down in a tearful one-on-one in the next room, which I eavesdropped.

“Ceci is a very good person, but I need to tell you something about her.”

My mother’s voice cracked toward the end and the room stayed silent. I could picture Max watching her intently, worried about what she was about to reveal just as he was planning to pledge his whole life to me.

“She’s – she’s -” The sobs started to come out.

“She’s…she’s very messy.”

Max let out a small laugh before stifling it.

“But I need to ask you to please try and forgive her. Because she’s a good person.”

Max is not a total neat freak, but he does, for example, have a specific system for our linen closet and dressers. Early on in our marriage I came home from work one day to find my panties and socks color coded in my drawers. My goal, on the other hand, is to simply make sure that our clothes make it off the floor.

Max has tried hard to remember my mother’s words. So much so that for much of our 9-year marriage I have been able to get away with being me. But there was one memorable episode, perhaps in year two of our marriage, when Max was vacuuming and in a shocking burst of anger, grabbed my clothes off our bed (and perhaps the floor) and threw them into another room. “I am sick and tired of you leaving all your stuff around!”

As a person who isn’t wired to see messiness it is hard for me to truly comprehend how my habits could bother another person. I love a neat room and I am always amazed at how great I feel psychologically when I do something as simple as make the beds or wipe a bathroom counter. The problem is that, most of the time when I walk into a room, I don’t see the piles of papers that need to be dealt with, or the different outfits I had strewn on the bed that I decided on not wearing. I am not sure what I see, because when I walk into a room all I am aware of is what I’m thinking. It could be what I have to do next for work, or what post I’m going to write about, or how I’m going to track down that other mother volunteer who was supposed to get back to my email. I just don’t…see. At least not until my stuff is piled up so high (and so everywhere) that I can’t avoid noticing. But by that time Max’s blood is already near boiling.

Yesterday was one of those days. There has been definite tension, and it made me guilty enough to drop the novel I was reading to instead check our bedroom to see what could be done. I changed the sheets, and that’s when I also noticed that the towels Max had put in the dryer were already done. So I folded those and put them away. Shortly afterwards I picked Fred up from school, and I proposed to him that we tidy up the house through a game. (We’d write down various tasks on pieces of paper and throw them into a box. Whatever task we picked out, we’d have to do.) Fred whizzed through the livingroom picking up all his origami and Bakugan balls, and stacked my magazines in a neat pile. Within 30 minutes our livingroom and diningroom had undergone a major makeover.

When I finally saw Max after his work some time later, his mood was light and happy. What’s gotten into him, I thought? And then it dawned on me. The house looked nice. I’d put in some effort. I’d showed that I cared.

It’s truly embarrassing for me to be reflecting and writing on this at my age, because you’d think I’d learned by now. I don’t think that there is anything horrible about being comfortable with clutter (I am not a hoarder, I should make that clear ;-)), but in my mind it is infinitely better to be neat. It saves time in terms of looking for keys, documents for tax filing time, etc. It also just feels so much better psychologically. And, being in a family, clearly my actions impact the emotional state of another person and the quality of our marriage. Finally, and this is perhaps most important, I need to model a better way for my child. My parents are very neat people, but early on my father had told my mother that there was no point in asking my brother and me to put away our toys when we would only take them all out again anyway. They’d argued about the merit of this, and my mom gave in reluctantly. And so here I am now. I am crippled in terms of how to both get and stay organized (papers, toys, random accessories like photos), and I see Fred following in my muddy footsteps.

For those of you who are neat and organized, how do you do it? Do you have tips, suggestions, advice, consultation services 😉 ?  

The note of reflection

A couple of weeks ago I found the following note in Fred’s school folder:

Dear Mommy and Daddy,

Today I poked my freind with a paper clip. I am having trubble keeping my hands to my self. I promiss to be better.

Love, Fred

The note was, I would soon come to find out, a “note of reflection.” It was to be read and signed by a parent and returned to the teacher.

I sighed at the note, mildly exasperated at both my active 6 year-old and his seemingly over-sensitive teacher.

“But I didn’t poke him with the sharp end,” Fred told me when I probed him about the incident. “I just used the round end and I went like this.” He demonstrated by gently touching me on the back with his finger. He was playing around, as I know he is prone to do. So I wasn’t alarmed so much about the paper clip as I was about the second line, “I am having trouble keeping my hands to myself.”

Every former elementary school teacher flashed through my mind. Keep your hands to yourself. Keep your hands by your sides. The annoyed admonishments were directed mainly at the boys, I remember. As a well-behaved, approval-seeking little girl, I never quite “got” what was so hard about simply sitting still. Even at that young age I equated the lack of ability to restrain oneself a sign of immaturity and yet more evidence of the male gender’s inferiority to girls. (And I have a feeling that some of my teachers did too.) As a woman, I couldn’t quite get those implulses until I became a mother of a little boy.

I’ve found it a simultaneous joy and struggle to be the mom of a boy, and all for the same reason: because he is so different from me. Fred is physically adventurous in ways I never dared to be, and assertive in ways that I envy even now as an adult. He is so full of energy and love for the outdoors and as a result healthier and more robust than I ever was. And for as long as I can remember he has had no problem telling a kid off who’s cut him in line or taken his toy without asking. At the same time, the physical risk-taking shows up as scars, cuts and bruises. How is it that he can fall again and again and not learn to avoid it? I worry about the day we might end up in a hospital ER. He will also sometimes defy adults, whether it is us or his teachers. He will not always do as he is told if he disagrees and he will sometimes repeat an offense because he “forgot.” I worry about him ruffling feathers and getting on people’s bad sides. The joy in mothering Fred is that I see strengths that did not exist in me; the struggle is mothering a child who is becoming a person I was not. It feels unfamiliar and so when he sometimes doesn’t behave as I would have, my alarm bells go off.  

I understand that the above qualities don’t only belong to boys, and that this ambivalence can and does probably happen between most parents and their children regardless of gender. I know that I became a very different person than the one my mother had envisioned, and this became hard for her even though or perhaps because we are both women. So often I disappointed her because I didn’t behave as she would have or made the choices that she would have. As a young woman I thought this was selfish parenting; as a mother I am understanding just how hard it can be to let your child be different from you, to trust that your child will turn out well – perhaps even better! – by following his or her own way.

Those notes of reflection are hard on me. Knowing that my son isn’t always the angel in school is hard on me. Wondering if his “misbehaviors” reflectly poorly on me as a mother is hard on me. And yet, I wonder how I would feel if he, like me when I was a little girl, stressed to behave perfectly in school, so terrified of a teacher’s or friend’s disapproval that he couldn’t speak his mind or be himself. Maybe he knows what he’s doing. Maybe he will surprise me. The only way I’ll know is by guiding the little boy who’s in front of us, rather than pushing for the person who’s lived inside of me. 

“The best day”

I came home Sunday evening feeling pretty good. I had just finished my 4th swim class, and I was finally making some progress on my breathing after a week of frustrating practices. In fact, I was feeling more than just pretty good; I was on a high.

“Was it the best day, Mommy?” Fred asked me after I gave Max a recap of my lesson.

“It wasn’t the best day,” I responded, “but it was a good day.”

“Well, it was the best day for me.”

I smiled at Fred’s innocence and the fact that this was the second time in three weeks that he’d had a “best” day. Both days were soccer days, when he overcame the initial nerves to really get in there with the ball and the other kids.

But it made me think. How funny that the same day for the two of us was looked at and labeled so differently. It was the “best” day for Fred and a tempered “good” day for me. What constituted star rating days in my book anyway? If I were to look back, I’d probably list up superficially some no-brainers, like the day I got married, or the day I gave birth. I also remember the day I won this special award at my high school graduation. Surely there were other happy days in between all those years, but those are the ones that stick out. But were they that happy, or more marks of achievement?

You’ll agree that one of the most touching things about being a parent is being able to see life through your children’s eyes. And happiness seems to come so easily to Fred. Like being able to play hide-and-seek with both Mommy and Daddy. Being allowed a sip of carbonated soda. Getting his first piece of junk mail addressed to him. Wearing a Halloween costume, even if it’s the same one for the second Halloween in a row. Knowing that snow is in the forecast. Seeing a cardinal land on our porch railing.

Me? I make happiness jump through hoops. Happiness for me has to be grand (again: award, wedding, childbirth). It has to be flawless with no bumps. Often, it has strings attached, so even if I am having a good day, I may not necessarily trust it enough to welcome it into my psyche. If I dare embrace happiness fully and without question, maybe I will pay for it in some other way. 

It wasn’t until much later that night, after Fred had fallen asleep and I was slicing some cheese to go with some crackers and wine that I thought, hey, today was kind of perfect…

I had had a breakthrough conversation with my mother earlier that morning. She’s been worried about my brother, and taking my own lessons with Fred and “stereo parenting,” I told her to relax. She said, “You’re right” and added, “You know, it’s so hard to be a mother. I’ve struggled since you two were babies to know what is the right thing to do.” For once, we talked not necessarily as mother and daughter, but as mother and mother…like friends.

Fred was an ace on the soccer field. After several up and down weeks, that day we saw his confident, fighting (in a good way) spirit and enthusiasm come back. On the field he was smiling, running, pumping his fist and all around having a good time and feeling good about himself.

Fred also, for the first time, dared to let go of my arms in the pool, and stretched out with his face under the water, blowing bubbles. We counted, 1-2-3-4-5 as he stayed afloat and when he came up for air and realized what he had done, his eyes widened as much as his smile did.

Then, in my own swim class, as half the class didn’t show up, the instructor had time to come around and watch us more closely. She corrected me on some of my mistakes and gave me several exercises to work on my breathing. The exercises worked, and I began to feel that I was making some progress.

And the sun shone today. Dinner was delicious. Max was always close by cheering for and guiding us in our small victories. We were together. And we are all healthy. Healthy enough to have the privilege of kicking a ball or learning to swim. 

As I was preparing the wine and cheese and cracker plate, something I had previously denied ourselves because of its extravagance, I realized I just felt different this time. I was at peace and managed not to think, “What if someone takes this moment away from me?” I guess you could say that I was happy…Fred was right. It really was the best day.

A Mother’s Self

My first post as a contributor to Stacey’s Mom Renewal Project can be found here today. Stacey’s dedicated her blog to helping moms find ways to recharge themselves in “body, mind and spirit,” which I think is a pretty good cause 😉

To that end, I’ve written a post about the importance of remembering who we are as women and building an identity that can stand alone outside of motherhood. Won’t you visit me at The Mom Renewal Project?

Our best intentions

Like many other parents of our information-rich generation, Max and I started out on our parenting journey wanting to do things better than our parents did. This isn’t to say that we don’t appreciate the work of our moms and dads, only that we’ve had the privilege of watching and learning from them.

And so around Fred’s first birthday, Max resigned from his company to join me at home. Wanting to break the family cycle of absent fathers, Max was going to run a business from home and be there for Fred in a way that his own father never was. We agreed that we’d both work part time and thus share equal time at work and with family. Though we lost a second income, the flexibility for both mom and dad was important for our quality of life.

We’ve indeed been able to live a very family-centered life. Though work can get busy, because we work for ourselves we’ve never had to miss a meeting or event at Fred’s school. We’ve been lucky enough to keep Fred at home every time he was sick. We’ve also been able to pretty much eat every breakfast and dinner together for the last six years. There’s alot of togetherness and love and support and attention in our household.

But recently I began to wonder, is it too much?

You’ve read about my struggles with Fred’s anxieties over soccer. Well, they continued after my last post about it. For the first three weeks we went full force with a campaign to bring down his anxiety. We told him stories about Hellen Keller and the Wright Brothers, about all they’d achieved because they never gave up. I borrowed library books and DVDs like Kung Fu Panda about characters who conquered their fears. We gave him motivational speeches and lectures every chance we could. All of this would pump Fred up enough to run to the soccer field smiling but fall short of actually pushing him through an entire practice. His stress was still there. Then, last week, after having exhausted all our strategies not to mention depleting my mental reserves (I’d lost 4 lbs. from worrying about this issue), I said to Max, “How about just not caring?” It felt odd, but somehow right, to sit back in our minds and to just not care, to understand that if Fred decided to sit out half his soccer practice that he was not doomed to a life of failure.

So, last week, we mentioned soccer not a single time. No speeches. No stories about famous people who’d overcome the impossible. When Fred whispered “I’m nervous about soccer” before drifting off to sleep the night before, I simply said, “That’s okay. Just do whatever you’re comfortable with,” and his eyes closed and he immediately fell asleep in peace. The next day came, and for the first time since his program started, Fred stuck it out for the entire practice.

Max and I realized we had been coming at Fred in stereo. Sure, we’re supportive and we’re loving, and all the words out of our mouths have to do with believing he can do it and that he’s fabulous, words we never heard from our parents but which we were determined to shower on our own child. But I wonder if anything, no matter how positive, can be effective when it comes at you full blast? Whether it’s soccer or school or his friends, we’re on him like a hawk at times. Fred has our full attention and though we don’t mean to, we probably make him feel as if he is living under a microscope. We had gotten nervous when Fred started blinking excessively for a few weeks, and noticed that the only time he did it was at the dinner table. “Why?” I remember saying to Max. “Dinner is pleasant, it’s his down time, and we’re just chatting.” It was only recently that we realized that maybe dinner is not so pleasant for Fred. “My God,” I thought, “we are what’s stressing our son out.”

I can’t go back and undo the last four weeks or the last four years, and I guess I should be thankful that we figured this out sooner rather than later. Like my own mother, she couldn’t understand how I could be irritated at her when all she had done for me was out of love and with the best of intentions. And now it is our turn. In our efforts to be the most loving and caring parents we could be, we, too, have made mistakes, despite having this arsenal of information and resources, lessons from our childhoods and deeper self-reflection. But perhaps what we’ve learned to do, that maybe our parents’ generation didn’t do enough of, is to look in the mirror and to start from there.

Lessons from a year of blogging, Part 1

Well, it looks like today is my one-year anniversary of blogging. (Should I put an exclamation mark?) The whole thing feels a bit anticlimatic as I have, in fact, been blogging for longer than a year. But pre-Only You my blogging was all half-hearted attempts. I had tried writing “news-y” sort of posts about being a business owner as well as light, fluffy anecdotes about returning to the U.S. after my stint abroad. Nothing stuck, except this. Below are some of the things I’ve learned/experienced/realized over the last year:

Voice

To fellow bloggers, was this hard for you? I struggled so much with this in the beginning. I thought that voice was something you could put your finger on, something you could choose and then implement. The other thing was that, well, I have more than one voice, more than one side to me. Which one would I show? Or, more appropriately at the time, Which one would appeal to others most? I’d have such a good time visiting an irreverent and sarcastic blog and think, “Oh, I want to sound like that!” or I’d go to a more serious and contemplative blog and think the same. This multiple personalities beginning is the reason I started and stopped about 4 blogs with titles ranging from “Eight Days” to “Hoop Dreams.” I worried so much about how I sounded that I couldn’t even really focus on the content. I finally just started writing about the issues that I cared about most. Those happened to be my thoughts and experiences related to motherhood, marriage and self (hence my tagline) and the voice – the deep thinking one that appears at 2 a.m. when I’m lying awake in bed – is the one that came out and took over. That voice is not necessarily me 24/7 but that is the me that was knocking on the door the most, asking to be let out and be heard.  

Peaks and valleys and obsessions – the pitfalls of blogging

Blogging brought incredible highs for me. I remember the first time I received a comment, and then the first time I received over 10 comments, all raving (this was the post about my identity as a blogger). I nearly hit the roof! You’d think I’d won the Pulitzer. I was responding to each and every commenter with tears in my eyes, like I was accepting the Academy of Motion Pictures’ Lifetime Achievement Award. Like one’s first kiss (heh, not mine though) or first car or first other momentous thing there is nothing like realizing that non-spam people are clicking on your blog and that some are actually coming back

At around the same time, though, the same efforts that made all this happy feedback possible also brought on a most uncomfortable transition – the one that transports you from normal, active human being to sedentary zhombie. You are constantly composing blog posts in your head. You swear you see your child moving his/her mouth, perhaps telling you s/he needs food or the stove has caught fire, but all you can hear is your next post. You see/hear every person, every quote, every incident as blog fodder. You worry about page views and comments and tie them to your budding blogger’s self-esteem. You’ve incorporated expressions like “I’ll be there in a minute!” into your daily vocabulary and your spouse knows what that means. Most of all, you feel guilt. Blogger’s guilt is unlike any other, because it feels like an addiction. I’d never come close to addiction of any kind but at about month 3 or so, I think I had my first taste.

And then after that initial high was over, there were (are) those moments when I just don’t feel like writing, either because my brain isn’t producing or because I’ve entered a temporary hermit phase where I simply don’t feel like interacting on a computer. I’ve worried about what this means, if I’m a quitter, if I’m going to lose all those readers and friends I had worked hard to keep. Feeling like this turns blogging into a job, and that is what blogging shouldn’t feel like (unless, of course, it is your job, and you are getting paid for it). When I hit this phase for the first time in month 8 of blogging, my fellow readers told me to rest assured; I should take all the break I need and Google Reader will let them know when I’m back. And sure enough, they – you – were always there. 

It was also during month 8 that I took a 2 week break from the blog world when I visited my in-laws overseas. It was then that I somehow weaned myself off of the emotional dependency I had on my blog. By that time I had my handful of faithful readers, and I realized that an increase or decrease of 10 or whatever pageviews each day really didn’t matter. I wasn’t running for mayor of Blogsville, I told myself, and this helped give some perspective.

Friendships

At around the same time I was blogging, my son was stepping into his own social world. I admired how easily young children could make friends, and then realized the blogosphere was no different. I don’t have to join some outdoors adventure club or hang out at PTA meetings hoping to eyeball a nice mom, drum up conversation, gain trust, etc. What I did was find a small handful of blogs that I enjoyed (because of the writing and the content and thus the writer’s personality) and curiosity would lead me to click on their recommended blog links. Birds of a feather and all of that. There is something about the blogosphere that reduces all the awkward, insecure steps of friendship making. Maybe it’s because, through reading each other’s posts, we sort of speed our way through the lengthy get-to-know you stage. Anyone who checks into my blog today can easily learn plenty (maybe too much) about me. I’m all here, under Archives. 

(Having said this, there is awkwardness in cyberworld as there are the occasions when you keep visiting another blogger and she doesn’t give you the time of day or vice versa – someone visits you frequently but you don’t or can’t reciprocate, or when a regular reader suddenly stops coming…I won’t go into it but we know it exists and I am not saying that it’s all peaches and cream in the blog world. But again, the important thing is to not tie your feelings of self-worth to your blog.)

Of course (and I feel like I have to put this disclaimer out there), this doesn’t mean I have chosen cyberfriends over flesh and blood friends. I’m still in close touch with friends from the different stages in my life and I have several new friends that I’ve made since moving to the area. We go out for lunch or dinner, have playdates with the kids, chaperone school trips together, etc. But it never hurts to have more friends, friends that you can get to know even if you’re in a different time zone. These relationships, built on line, are based on the intimacy that we’ve shared through words.

Concision

Be to the point. Write in succinct paragraphs. Don’t let your readers’ eyes glaze over. This has been another struggle for me since there are always too many words running through my head. So, as I skid over the 12oo word mark, it is time for me to sign off, and continue this next week.

Thanks so much again for reading 🙂

How long have you  been blogging and/or reading blogs? What has the experience been like for you?

The world I want for my son

About this blog carnival: “The world I want for my children” is an effort to support The Joyful Heart Foundation, which was founded by Law & Order: SVU actress Mariska Hargitay to help victims of sexual assault mend their minds, bodies and spirits and reclaim their lives. Today, the foundation is at the forefront of an effort to end a disheartening backlog of tens of thousands of rape kits in labs across the country, a backlog that contributes to a rapist’s 80 percent chance of getting away with his crime. The backlog and its detrimental effects will be the topic of an SVU episode on September 29th.

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In 2004, when Fred was born, Max and I made the decision that we would move to the States to raise Fred here. We were in Japan (of which Max is a native) and up until we became parents, we never had any definitive plans as to where we would settle or when.

But like my immigrant parents and my father’s immigrant parents before him, the future takes on a different urgency once you have children. I imagine that few Americans need to question which country in which to raise their children. Living in Asia with my American perspectives, I encouraged (okay, urged) Max to consider alternatives. Would Japan provide the opportunities that we want for Fred? Would our Japanese lifestyle allow us to have the family life that we want? Do Japanese values fit our values as a family and as individuals? There is so much that is truly wonderful about Japan, and in fact a number of my expat friends have chosen to raise their families there. In the end, the negatives (for us given our particular needs) outweighed the positives (and vice versa; the positives of America outweighed the negatives), and we chose to move to the U.S.

After nearly 10 years abroad I was looking forward to returning to my home country and being able to communicate fluently once again, but I didn’t come without trepidation. I remember those early feelings of not fitting in, of seeing myself as meek and overly deferential, only to realize later in Japan that I was simply being Asian. I had grown up in the 70s and 80s and was caught in the desegregration movement in the Boston Public Schools not that long after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. I remember the occasional racial slurs and taunting and the feeling that I wasn’t American not because I didn’t feel it but because others wouldn’t see it. In the back of my mind, I knew that Fred could be who he is but I worried if he can also feel fully accepted.

My worries, over the next two years, would be gradually appeased as even Max acclimated to our new home with relative ease. There is a popular Japanese school here which Fred now attends in order to keep up the language and remain connected to his heritage. Our neighborhood, despite being in the south, has been called by some as a mini United Nations and the children play together without thinking twice. Fred’s school, one of the top in the southeast, is diverse in nationality, ethnicity, socioeconomic class and ability. A sizeable number of children are international children adopted into American families. At least half of our couple friends are multicultural or biracial. Though these are examples of diversity in culture, the larger point I am trying to make is that there is no one “standard” – my son sees no mold in which he needs to fit, or to fit others. At least not yet.

It was an election year the year we moved, and one of Fred’s favorite first English words was “Obama” (perhaps because of the way it sounds). He began equating the American flag with Mr. Obama since he never saw a scene or photo of the presidential candidate without the flag behind him, and for a long time insisted that the stars and stripes were called “the Obama flag.” I remember one day asking him, at age 4, what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“I want to be president,” he said.

“President of a school, a company?” I asked.

Fred stretched his arms wide to show the scope of what he was talking about.

“No, I want to be president of the United States!”

Max and I were impressed, and this dream continued until he turned the tables on me.

“Why didn’t you become president, Mommy?”

I was floored by his innocence. Yes, why didn’t I become president of the United States, or a doctor, or a chef, or a librarian for that matter? I struggled to come up with the “right” answer. The truth is, as an immigrant Chinese girl in the 70s, it simply never occurred to me to become the president of anything.

“Uh…I guess because it’s too hard for me. It would just be too stressful. But that’s just me.” 

“Okay, never mind. I don’t want to be president anymore.”

“Oh, just because I didn’t want to be president doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be.” How quickly my words impacted him. I really wanted him to go for it if that was what he wanted (even if it was just the flavor of his 4 year-old week). 

“Nah. I don’t want to be president. I want to be a daddy.”

And that’s the world I want for my son. A color blind world where there are no limits, no messages whether overt or covert that tell him he can’t reach his potential or simply be who he is. A world that would provide him the space and the opportunity to grow into someone who will take his turn making the world a better one for the children who follow…as a president or a daddy or…both.