Getting through winter blues

It’s not just me, right?

I was scared to admit it except to close friends, but a classmate (I’m taking an on-line writing class) today confessed to feeling seasonal depression, which gave me permission to admit to related feelings. 

There have been signs everywhere: lack of motivation to finish my Christmas cards, lack of desire to exercise (hmm, this one is so persistent it feels more like a way of life rather than a symptom), lack of excitement at the prospect of a free day (because I knew I would waste it wallowing in blah).

With me it’s seasonal. I get this way every winter after I finish an intense work season. A recent google search about burn-out symptoms shed light on my seemingly inexplicable need to hide in a cocoon: “When burned out, you have a tendency to isolate yourself in an attempt to preserve what energy you have left.”

The weather is a possibility, though I am south enough to not have to deal with snow squalls every three days. But still, I miss the sun.

Sleep deprivation is definitely a culprit. Though I don’t stay up late working or cleaning nor am I being kept up by an infant. I just watch too much t.v. (= husband bonding time; I’m really working on my marriage).

And then, I often wake up before the alarm goes off. And then I start to think too much.

Like how I’ve lost my wedding ring. (I don’t even want to think about it.) In Japan. Three years ago.

Like how I’ve already entered the beginning stages of empty nest.

Like how I canceled plans to go swimming and chose, in its place, to have leftover birthday cake and ice cream.

Small problems loom very large at 4 in the morning.

Small tasks feel very onerous when you have the winter blues.

And so until the little groundhog makes his appearance on Wednesday, I think that I need to keep my (self) expectations low, and shrink that to-do list to a manageable one or two items a day (the whole don’t-set-yourself-up-for-failure approach). Since energy begets energy, I  need to do what I least feel like doing to get through this.

Yesterday I mimicked Fred’s soccer drills on my own, and found that not only did I enjoy them, they are good for my thighs!

Today I am trying out a new salmon recipe.

Two weeks ago, I booked us a cruise to the tropics (yes!).

So I’ll stick on a smile and make myself move until the day comes when all of this becomes effortless. Hopefully, that will be soon, and I will learn to love even winter. 

Do you get seasonal blues? Do you feel burned out (regardless of the season)? How do you cope?

The beauty of being 40-something

“My mother likes her apples peeled,” 6 year-old Pauline said to me while examining her glossy snack. I was 19, and leading a group of rising first graders at summer camp.

“My mother does too,” I said.

 “YOU – have a MOTHER??” As kids say today (or do they?), Pauline’s eyes bugged out.

 “Yes I have a mother. How old do you think I am?”

“Well, my mom’s 36, so…you must be 42.”

You’ve got to love the logic of 6 year-olds. And at 19, 42 felt about as distant to me as it did to Pauline.

Until now. Today. 23 years later, I’ve landed on the 42 square. I’m well into the decade that I used to think of as happening to other, crinklier people.

But still, when I look in the mirror, it just doesn’t seem true.

The skin around my cheeks still feels tight.

On a good day, like before breakfast and with my breath held in ever so slightly, my stomach looks…not bad.

My eyes, if I don’t smile or laugh, still have that virginal look about them.

The grey hairs, which still look grey regardless of the type of light bulbs installed overhead, are surely due to the stress resulting from my active lifestyle.

My cursing at the dark fine print on restaurant menus – well, that’s because I’m hungry and the restaurant has too much, um, ambience.

And when I looked at photos from my 20th high school reunion a few years ago, I swore that I just could not possibly belong to the same demographics as my balding, bulging fellow alums.


Last week, I had lunch with two of my best girlfriends here. They’re smart, professionally accomplished, family-oriented, and completely down-to-earth. Our conversations have always centered on things that really mattered to the mature women that we are, issues like parenting, the state of public education or the state of our country. Then last week I heard them confessing their obsessions with shoes and Neiman Marcus clearance sales. I love that as girlfriends we can talk about anything and everything, but realized this was a conversation I could no longer contribute much to.

The truth is, I no longer look in the mirror very much. I’ve become frumpier, and a part of me wishes I have continued to “keep up.” As my dad used to say whenever my mom told him to fix one of the gaps between his teeth, “Who cares? I’m already married.” When I lamented about wishing I cared more, Max smirked, “It’s okay; you care more now about inner beauty.”

I rolled my eyes at his sarcasm but realized that he isn’t completely off.

I no longer look at myself much in the mirror but I do like to look at what’s around me. I see a quiet family and work life. My main colleague is my husband. Each morning, I walk downstairs in my sweats to begin work in our converted family room. It’s less invigorating and much quieter than the corporate life we had in Tokyo. But this life style also affords me more peace and time with Max and Fred. Some women say to me, “I can never live like you.” Well, I guess at one point in my life I had believed that too, until I had to make a decision about what I couldn’t live without.

I see my home, surrounded by green and trees. I can continue walking for days before I see a high-rise. I will pass an elderly couple walking, or a young graduate student jogging with her dog. I might stop and wait for a deer and her babies to cross the road, or I might spot a swan. Ten years ago you couldn’t have paid me to live here. Now you couldn’t pay me to leave.  

I’m more willing to show more of me now. My odd quirks (I can’t drive on highways); my inexplicable fears (I can’t get near anything with feathers); my imperfections (my past depression, my loving but dysfunctional family). I used to camouflage and adapt according to the person I was with; I now wear one coat, one suit of colors, no matter where I go and whom I see.

I want to make myself better. I want to be stronger mentally and physically. I want to learn more about the world. I want to learn to be kinder. I want to be less self-centered. I want to give more.

This is 40-something. And it’s something to look forward to.

I should be happy…my son is becoming independent

The steps have been gradual:

Sleeping through the night regularly.

Walking on his own.

Spooning food into his mouth by himself.

Going to the bathroom without help.

Picking out his own outfits without my input.

Showering and shampooing alone.

All those baby steps toward independence spelled relief for this tired mama, who craved the extra minutes added to each day by a little kid who could handle some of the more tedious tasks on his own.

Somewhere over the last couple of months, though, some of those much yearned-for steps brought on a different and unexpected feeling. They started out as pride, but somehow lately have evolved into something for which my feelings are harder to reconcile. 

My baby is developing his own new and separate world.

As parents, one of the happiest milestones has been seeing Fred emerge as a friend. There is so much joy to be had in this major development. When your child begins to build friendships, you begin to see even more acutely all the wonderfulness that is your child: her compassion, his ability to share and empathize, her desire to connect. You see your child from someone else’s eyes. Your child is liked. He is needed. She is important to somebody.

You’re so full of joy seeing the happiness in your child’s new world. How exciting it is to be invited on a playdate! How excruciating it is to tear themselves away from their best friends! There is huge solace knowing that your child is not alone in this world. As the parents of an only child, we feel this doubly so. How grateful we are for the “unofficial” brothers and sisters in Fred’s life.

And we do come to see Fred’s closest friends as his siblings. We feel that we love Jack – Fred’s best friend and self-professed brother (born 3 days apart and living 4 houses down) – almost as if he were our own child.

We love having Fred’s friends over and having the house filled with children’s voices and laughter. We love it for all of the reasons stated above, and busy fellow mothers and I have (only partially) joked that we also love it for the free time it affords us.

And then suddenly there is a shift.

Phone calls begin coming into the house that are for neither Max nor me. “Fred? Uh, hang on – I’ll go get him.”

Playdates are arranged unbeknownst to Max or me. “Yeah, me and Jack already talked about it at lunch today. He wants me to go to his house on Sunday.”

Door bells are being rung. “Can Fred come outside to play?/Can Fred come to my house?”

Requests are being made to see Jack or Isabella or Jeffrey after school, on Saturdays, on Sundays, on holidays. “Didn’t you just spend 8 hours with _____??” I always ask.

“You should be happy,” Max said this weekend, when a sudden panic fueled my urge to tear up. “Our son is becoming independent.”

As only a mother would, my mind fast-forwarded to junior high school – when Fred will be too embarrassed to “hang” with his parents – and to high school, when Fred will be too occupied with activities and friends and maybe even a girlfriend to spend much time at home. “Empty nest will not happen all of a sudden,” my nonchalant husband had once said to me.

And so that is how, in one weekend, what had been such a source of happiness for me suddenly became a window into the bittersweet that is motherhood. Next weekend, I told myself, I will plan better. We’ll do an outing, just the three of us.

As I waited for Fred to come home from Jack’s on Sunday (after he’d spent the day with Isabella on Saturday), I thought of what I would say to him when he walks through the door: that I wished I could have spent more time with him this weekend, that I wished he had wanted to be with me over his friends. But I knew my job as a mother. When Fred came home bounding up the stairs looking for me, I simply hugged him and said, “I missed you.”

“Am I making myself clear?”

It happens all the time:

I tell Fred it’s getting late and that he needs to get to bed. He takes no action.

Max tells me to plug the space heater in a different spot. I do, but he’s still annoyed.

I ask one of my staff members to return a document to me. She returns it half a week after I had hoped to get it back.   

In fact, it was this morning that Max and I got into a fight about the damned space heater. He had said more than once that he didn’t want the cord stretching across the floor lest it tripped anybody, and so I moved it. What I didn’t learn until today was that he didn’t want the space heater planted in front of the toaster, which he uses every morning. He thought I was ignoring him; I thought he was expecting me to read his mind.

But we all do this, don’t we? At work I have a load of expectations, but I don’t often communicate them explicitly, assuming that my staff have the same expectations I do. It is the same at home, and especially with Fred. For example, I expect that if I tell him it’s late, then he should know to put his toys away and head upstairs to brush his teeth. But what I need to do is give him explicit instructions: You can play for 10 more minutes and I’ll set the timer. When it buzzes, please start putting your toys away.

Sometimes people are ignoring us, or they might be preoccupied or have projected their own interpretations onto our words and thus misunderstood us. Sometimes we haven’t been clear enough with our intentions.

Once in awhile I go through this with my writing. When I get some comments on my blog that are different from what I’d expected, I read my post again to see what story had actually spun out. I did this this morning with the post I had written yesterday, about mothers being “prison guards.” I had wanted to tell a story about our doubts and uncertainties in terms of how much “permission” to give our children, and to link my mother’s mothering experience with mine. I ended up worrying if I had instead written a story that compared a “tyrannical” mother against the angelic me.

The truth – which I conveniently omitted from my post – is that, in Fred’s eyes, I too, have been a tyrant in prohibiting nearly all forms of technology in our household. I am strict with access to computers and television – much stricter than the parents of Fred’s friends – and I was a rock when it came to videogames. In our last confrontation about the Wii, he had shouted to me for the first time (and repeatedly) that I was MEAN, and demanded to know why I was so mean, and this was the crux of his frustration: my unwillingness to hear him out or to bend in any way. 

I didn’t quite tell this story, though. It could’ve been carelessness and fatigue (I was writing shortly before midnight); it could’ve been my own “nearness” to the story, which prevented me from knowing how much to recount and how much to assume is understood; it could’ve been my own reluctance to publicly volunteer a less-than-flattering picture of my mothering.

But I was reminded today of our responsibility to communicate what it is we really want to say. And yesterday’s post is about taking the responsibility to listen when someone is banging at your door.

I edited my post from yesterday, telling the story exactly as it was.

Mothers as “prison guards”

If my adolescence was a high security prison, then my mother was the 20 feet walls that took the wind out of my gale forces, so to speak, defeating me at every attempt to coax her into getting me what I wanted.

She was unbending, and adroit at keeping me on the (deprived) side of teen temptation.

I remember at 14 I had decided to get my very own Sony Walkman, the hot product of my era. I was so excited at my purchase that I failed to contain myself when I later met up with my parents at our car.

“You bought a what?” My mother had asked. “Oh no, you are returning that. NOW.

I protested and within minutes found myself shouting and then crying. Even my father intervened in my defense. But my mother was unyielding, confident, resolute, so sure was she that my new headphones would burn me like crack.

Losing yet another battle, I pulled myself back to the store and up to the customer service desk, sobbing as I explained to the 20-something year-old behind the counter why I was returning this Walkman just minutes after I had bought it. He sucked his teeth in sympathy. “Man, just wait till you come of age; ain’t nobody gonna tell you what to do.”

I nodded in appreciation and walked away.

Somewhere in the decades that followed, that teen memory morphed into something to look back and laugh about and then, recently, into something to dread. The tables would be turning, I knew, and soon it would be my turn to be prison guard. We mothers all know this moment is coming, right?

I just didn’t know it would come so soon.  

Over the winter break, Fred came home from his best friend Jack’s crying, “I want a Wii. I am the ONLY person at my school and in this neighborhood who DOESN’T have a Wii!! WHY are you being so MEAN to me??” He had found out that yet another friend of his had gotten a Wii for Christmas.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time we’d heard this. We’d been hearing it for months, and each time I’d staunchly put my foot down about “NO VIDEO GAMES” – end of discussion. It is probably easier for me to gloss over this obsession of Fred’s because I am so “lo-tech”; to this day I do not have and do not care for an iPhone and the idea of Kindles taking over books leaves a pit in my stomach. I’m still a bit dreamy in my 1970s/80s world of books, board games and all things natural. It is hard for me to appreciate Fred’s need for a Wii, and so much easier to chalk it up and dismiss it as his puerile flavor-of-the-week.

Two weeks after Christmas, though, Max, my lo-tech ally in all of this, showed signs of bending. Our neighbors got their daughter a Wii for Christmas, and Max played a few games of tennis on it when they had us over for New Year’s. He liked it. In fact, he was hooked. He could see why Fred wanted it so badly. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all, he’d persuaded me. It would be fun for all three of us, plus it would get me to move.

And, so, as a poorly disguised early birthday present for me, we indirectly got the Wii for Fred. Secretly thrilled for myself, I remained nervous for Fred. His strongest intellectual quality is his intense curiosity and creativity. Will a videogame replace the time he used to spend building Legos, folding Origami, and conducting his own science experiments? Will the mind-numbing instant gratification of technology quash the meaningful but more arduous work of creating?

Perhaps these are similar worries my mother had when she made me return my Walkman nearly 30 years ago. The Walkman could’ve come from out of space for all she knew, and she was afraid of the potentially addictive quality of portable music. She was afraid of what I’d be listening to. She was afraid of what it would do to my ears. The thing is, she was so confident, or at least she appeared so.  It would only be last year that she shared her doubts as a mother for the first time. “I didn’t know how to be a mother. No one teaches or tells you anything.”

But I suppose if we listen carefully, we can find lessons – in our mothers, and in our own experiences. While the Wii does make me nervous, I’ve finally decided it’s good for Fred to have it in his life. It’ll give him a chance to figure out how to balance his different priorities and desires. It’ll force him to learn how to stay in control. As the mother, I, too, need to listen a little better, and learn how to balance keeping those gates closed and letting them open once in awhile.

“Chinese” Mothers aren’t superior; they’re just scared (how our fears affect our parenting)

I’m a bit tired of responding to Amy Chua’s heavily viraled piece from the Wall Street Journal. However, what the article did manage to do (aside from alternately confusing and disturbing me) was get me to think about the root of what drives us as parents.

Growing up in an immigrant household, I was well aware of the motives behind my parents’ push for us to excel academically: fear of poverty.

Despite having a college education and professional background as a teacher, with little English skill my mother had no choice our first eight years in America but to work in a sweatshop, producing garment pieces for 1 cent a piece. My father worked as a dishwasher before moving up to bus boy, waiter, and then, one day, co-founder and co-owner of his own restaurant.

Their fears of poverty and instability manifested themselves in what my brother and I often thought were unreasonable demands for good grades and top schools. But in Asia where my parents came from, one’s future success (i.e., ability to lead a normal life free of hardship) really does hinge on that one university entrance exam score and one’s ability to get into one of the very small number of top schools in the country. They didn’t fully grasp that, in America, there is still hope even if you don’t get into Harvard, that that is why we’re called the Land of Opportunity.

As a mother now, I have my own fears, some of which are completely different from the ones that drove my parents, some of which are perhaps similar.

I am fearful about self-esteem, or the corrosion of it. The excess focus on external achievement with which I was raised and the deprivation of my voice created an Ivy League graduate who was a shell of a person. In my 20s I had written in my journal, “Sometimes I feel so insecure and so unsure of myself that I think I am going to fall apart.” I obsessed about my abilities, my personality, my physical looks, other people’s opinions of me. I was all skin and no core.  

As a mother I worry the most about the strength of Fred’s core. Is he happy? Am I giving him enough positive messages about his self-worth? Am I damaging his self-esteem if I scold too much? This worry makes me a bit zealous in protecting his feelings.

I fear making Fred feel unloved, and so that has made me more lenient than necessary when it comes to setting limits and expecting independence. 

I fear depriving him of opportunity and thus failing to maximize his potential, because I had either missed or passed up so many chances of my own growing up and wonder to this day if I could’ve been greater. This has pushed me to involve Fred in a number of activities, and I fear both continuing and cutting back.  

I fear that if I don’t make all the right moves with the chess pieces of his life, I will fail to equip him with the wisdom and guidance that I had felt so lost without growing up. This makes me hover too much.

Deep down, I fear that how “successful” Fred will be will be a reflection of me and my competence in my most important life role, and that’s in part why I care about what reading and math groups he’s in and why I can’t help mapping out his educational path in my head. 

Deep down, I fear messing up as a mother, and producing a child who will be unhappy or unsuccessful academically/professionally or both. I want him to be happy and carefree at the same time that I want him to be among the best. I strive for a middle place, but my uncertainty as to how to navigate this terrain makes me parent inconsistently and with mixed messages.

A confident mother produces confident children. A mother who is comfortable and at peace with herself has the appropriate vision and distance to raise her child independent of any fears, insecurities, or unmet needs on her part. Our – my – biggest task is to understand where those fears end and where our children begin.

Your husband or your children?

When I married Max I thought that I could never, ever love another human being as much as I loved him.

Max, however, suspected that I could, and that I would…if I became a mother.

Max’s first marriage had fallen apart following the birth of his son. And he was afraid the same would happen to us. He was afraid he would lose me to motherhood. Still glowing in the hormones of my pregnancy then, I promised him with crystal clear certainty that I would never, ever love anyone more than I loved him.

And in that first year of motherhood my love and my emotions for him were still crystal clear. Motherhood may have impaired my ability to carry on an adult conversation with monosyllabic words, but in year 1 Max was still my biggest partner, as together we faced the challenges of understanding our still unfamiliar, blank-slate bundle of joy.

And then the years went on. In those ensuing six years our identity-less bundle  grew into a young boy full of vigor and personality. His healthy growth demanded our full attention, energy, time, patience, and love.

Off-stage our marriage morphed too, but it wasn’t the linear path in which Fred’s growth skyrocketed. Our relationship blossomed, then slumped, then slid, then climbed, then hiccuped…

The other day a friend posted an article on one psychologist’s 15 new year resolutions that he felt all parents should keep. At #9 was the proposal that we all put our marriages first, our children second.

At first read I bristled. I was offended. I thought, this is why there are so many insecure children out there. In being responsible for a young person’s life, it is impossible for me to fathom putting anything ahead of parenting.

But at least the pointer made me think. While I can’t put marriage ahead of or behind parenting, I understood the basic message there. Our marriage/relationship with our partner is the foundation of our family. If families were trees, mom and dad would be the trunk and roots, and the kids would be the branches. Having grown up with parents who made my brother and me center stage and who gave zero attention to their own relationship to one another, I get this completely.

I’ve noticed that in parenting I am an active mother-in-training. I’m constantly trying to improve myself, and I’m constantly trying to understand how the actions, words and experiences around my child impact him. Example: I yell unnecessarily and use sarcasm as I try to hurry Fred along to school. Without fail, I will reflect on this incident at some point, and study how a pattern of such behavior would ultimately impact Fred, his behavior, his feelings, our relationship.

Somewhere between year 1 and year 6 in our post-baby marriage, I’ve failed to do the same with my husband. When I snap a little too quickly, or say something inappropriate during a moment of stress, or choose not to say “I love you,” or “thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” I am no longer thinking about how that bit of behavior will impact him, his behavior, his feelings, our relationship.

I’ve been treating parenting as something organic and, without intention at all, I’d begun viewing marriage as something static. We tend to bolt upright and pay attention only when things are on the verge of exploding, like ignoring a lump until it becomes massively cancerous.

But we would never do this with our children.

My husband is a grown man. My son still needs to hold my hand crossing an intersection. On a fundamental level, Fred’s needs do come first. Max understands this, as do I. But we can do a little more.

This morning, instead of silently heading downstairs to prepare Fred’s breakfast as I normally would, I went up to Max at the sink while he was washing up and said, “Good morning,” and planted a light kiss on his lips. A faint smile crept over his face, and I knew that I’d made him happy and started his day off differently than the others. It is as simple as that.

Growth and Change

Over the last few months I’ve been hearing this same observation from my husband:

You’ve changed so much this year.

Though he’s always been tolerant and understanding, on some level I always suspected I had room for improvement: to be less anxious and more in the moment and more optimistic. I’d dragged pieces of old baggage into my marriage and never quite relinquished them.

Was it therapy? Self-help books? I approached neither. Instead this year I went public with a blog (and wrote approximately 80 essays in the process), and I got to know myself better. I’d taken the blinders off to reveal areas that needed work. And I got feedback from all of you. Writing gave me a voice, and I think that was the balm I had needed all these years.

Below, some of my a-ha moments of 2010:

If you want to change someone, change yourself first

I saw this in action with my 6 year-old. I was reminded at a parenting workshop of alternative and calm ways to talk to children. It’s not rocket science, but infinitely hard to put into action when you want something done and now. It was workshop homework to make the effort, and so I did. What followed was nothing short of miraculous. Fred cooperated and I never raised my voice. Attitude begets attitude; shouting begets shouting. If Fred is the chicken and I am the egg, then I think many times the egg does come first.

If you want to get out of your head, get out of the house

A major turning point for me in my road to anxiety-freedom took place literally on the road. Max, a relatively new American, wanted nothing more than to explore his new country. This meant road trips galore this past summer, along with highway motels and Cracker Barrel dining. Out of respect for my husband’s new patriotic curiosity, I bit my tongue and agreed on every trip. While I mumbled inwardly about the tedium of life on the road, the truth is that I saw a new side of  life: one that takes place in the here and now, outside of my head. Max taught me to get out, move, explore, and just plain have fun.

Dare to reveal, dare to share

My greatest show of support came, surprisingly, at posts I felt most self-conscious about posting. I am not advocating (to myself or anyone) to reveal for the sake of revealing. The most gratifying writing is that which is heartfelt – when a writer writes what cannot be stifled.  But of course, I struggle with this. There is so much that wants to come out, yet much that begs for discretion. I worry about disrespecting the privacy of my subjects and I worry about what readers might think.

But I will try to remember what I felt as I read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes about growing up impoverished in Ireland: gratitude. How lucky, I thought, that I got to read his words. Through him my perspective and value system expanded even more. I’m not saying I could ever have the impact that McCourt has had, but I want to believe that reading another human being’s honesty brings an author closer to rather than further from her reader.

It’s okay to call myself an aspiring writer, and to say that I have readers

Okay, I will say it: I dream to be a writer. But it’s one of those things that you don’t exactly get appointed with. When and if you call yourself a writer is really your decision. Am I a writer if I have a personal blog up? Or do I qualify only after I have had a dozen or so publications (preferably national) under my belt? 

Related to one’s identity as a writer is one’s concept of her readership. When I became too busy to post regularly this fall, I hesitated in putting a post up to say so. Instead, I merely “disappeared.” The reason? I told myself, “Well, no one’s going to miss me anyway” and “I’m probably doing everyone a favor by not clogging up their Google reader with yet another verbose post.” It’s irrational, I know, and I swear I’m not fishing for compliments here. I just think it’s one of those baggage pieces left over from my childhood.  

And so I appreciate the new reader who left the first comment after my short hiatus: “I was literally just thinking of you yesterday! Was wondering if maybe you had stopped blogging. So glad you hadn’t forgotten about it.”

So, there I end with my biggest lesson this past year. If my blog was my balm, then you, my readers, were – and have been and are – my healers. I’m sure my husband thanks you too for helping me change so much.

May you all enjoy a new year of joy, growth, fun, and huge rewards! I’m so looking forward to another year of growing with you all. 🙂