Accepting calm

I’ve been doing something this year that I’ve never been able to do:  I’ve been saying No.

No to a well established business that its retiring owner has asked and asked me to take over.

No to the additional clients who ask to work with me.

It’s not that I’m not working, but I’ve been persuaded (by Max) to think about my stress level. Do I really want to go where I have been going all these past years? With mixed feelings, I’ve reduced my work load and instead delegated some of it to our staff.

But saying no comes at a price, quite literally.

I – we – lose income. How much exactly Max hasn’t yet calculated. But it’s not insignificant, especially during a year when my medical bills are sky high given my recent surgery. And we have other bills. And childcare and piano and martial arts lessons. And retirement and college to save for.

In a typical year I would be so busy right now I wouldn’t be writing this post. I wouldn’t be Christmas shopping. I wouldn’t be cooking. I wouldn’t be cleaning. I wouldn’t be sleeping 7 deep hours straight. Instead I have been spending chunks of entire days reading and writing; keeping the house reasonably tidy and clean; and making dinner in time to eat by 5:30 p.m. I even cooked on Thanksgiving for the first time since we moved back to the States, and I have been able to heal my broken ankle completely. Something feels different and thereby discomforting: I feel I am not busy enough.

It doesn’t feel “right” because neither work nor domestic life is stressful right now. It is the first time in the eight years since I became a parent and business owner that I can say this. We launched our business when Fred was a year old, and we did so without childcare. Max and I would trade off back then, and I’d either get up at 4 a.m. to do client work before Fred woke up, or work until 3 a.m. after he fell asleep. Stress was the air I breathed, and now I can’t recognize what it is that I’m enveloped in. Is it peace? Calm? Sanity? It doesn’t feel right.

Ironic, isn’t it, that once I have achieved the balance and quality of life that I have been working toward all these years, I find myself feeling as though I am cheating.

As a mother there is an odd unspoken pressure to groan about lack of sleep and lack of hours in a day. While it is hardly enjoyable to be constantly frenetic, it is frenetic that we (seem to) strive to be, because somehow that means we are being capable and useful and necessary. And to be anything less than crazy busy seems to be anything less than necessary.

I am so used to – since high school! – living constantly on a cliff’s edge that being on the brink of falling – and yet not falling – had become the ideal state to be. Suffering is the sign that I have pushed myself as far as I can go. The success of my son and my clients are my badges of honor and my own sleeplessness and anxiety are my battle scars. That is how it has always been.

But this new air…maybe it’s doing something to me. Because aside from the guilt, I have to admit I am feeling pretty good. At this place far from the edge of my cliff I hear no pounding of my heart, feel no sweating of my palms. At this distance from the precipice I find it easier to smile, to laugh, to notice, to feel, to soften, to love. I have decelerated from a blur to a human being. Maybe this is in fact useful, because maybe this is what my family needs: a mother who is present, a wife who pays attention, a woman who is happy. Perhaps I have not failed after all. Perhaps I may have even succeeded.

How crazy busy are you? Have you found calm in your life? If so, how did you do it and was it hard to accept?

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Sensitive

I’m sitting in bed on a Sunday, with a cold and feeling bad. The fatigue and coughing…that’s not great. But what’s bothering me more right now is discomfort on a more emotional level. It’s a negative comment, by someone I don’t even know. I can try and logic my way out of it but that usually doesn’t work that well for me. Because I don’t work with logic; I work with feeling. And how do you stop yourself from feeling?

Yesterday over dinner we had a fun discussion with Fred over the characters in his favorite book series. “Which character best describes you?” I asked. At first he named the star character, the one who’s perfect – good, heroic, the one who always makes the right choices. But I wanted to make sure he was approaching the question correctly. I said, “Remember, think about the character who best matches you; not the one you most admire.” Then he thought for a quick two seconds and came back with a secondary character. I asked him why he chose this one, and he said, “Because he feels strongly. And so do I.”

And so do I.

For as long as I can remember I just felt everything so keenly. Small joys were ecstasy and small transgressions were betrayals. Hurts, even perceived hurts, could land me under the covers for half a day. Break ups? Love? Thank goodness the two happened in that order and not the other way around.

I’ve tried employing rational thinking to control my feelings. I would ask myself, “How would you advise a friend in the same situation?” I once also kept a notebook in which I would write counter-arguments to my negative thoughts. Too often, I just ended up giving in to the pull of my emotions and then beating myself up over the fact that I am so damned sensitive.

And then I started noticing this in my own child. How a seemingly unfair remark from his father can send him to pieces, transforming him from his usual happy mode to a screaming, indignant child. How a negative comment from me can move him to tears such that he can’t even continue with what he is doing. For the longest time I had not seen myself in his reactions, because on the outside he appears so headstrong, not your “typical” sensitive child. And so I often just sighed that he was “acting up” or hungry or tired. No, like me, Fred feels so deeply, and when he feels, he doesn’t know how to stop.

So last week when he threw a tantrum, instead of telling him to calm down (because how does a young child really know how to do that?) I approached him and asked if he wanted to talk, and when he didn’t respond I asked if he’d prefer to write down his feelings instead. He initially made a gesture to reject the idea, but in the end told me his feelings. Maybe letting him know that I want to hear him and giving him that channel to express his emotions can be a step in helping him manage his feelings. I don’t know.

To be honest, when Fred said, “Because he feels strongly. And so do I.” a part of my heart sank. I was so proud of his self-awareness, but in pain for him that he would go through life feeling so much. Because I know that while we sensitive types can, through maturity and experience, try and learn ways to manage our emotions, ultimately this is who we are at our core: uniquely compassionate, rich in our inner lives, and prone to hurt.

How do you handle negative feelings, or teach your children to? Any advice?

Becoming a reader

I think there must be certain moments or periods in readers’ lives when they become readers. Because I wonder how many of us are born loving books, and how many fall into reading by chance, or kicking and screaming, or by choice later in life?

Do you remember when you became a reader?

I would say that I am a born again reader, having experienced both a birth and a death earlier in life.

I can’t recall any defining moment when I realized that I loved books. I just remember always spending long stretches of time in the children’s sections of book stores, and also taking longer than anyone else to make the absolute right choice whenever the RIF (Reading is Fundamental) volunteers came to our school to distribute free books. I also received a $1.50 weekly allowance, and with that I always made a bee-line to Barnes & Noble to get a novel of my choice,  devouring it well before my next allowance came. I would be 11 or so before I stepped foot into a real library for the first time, partly because my parents were new to the country and didn’t know where the library was, and partly because my younger brother and I had (allegedly) for years screamed bloody murder whenever our parents tried to get us into the dark Boston Park Street station (home of America’s first subway, and it looked it).

Stepping foot into Copley Square’s historical library and one of the largest in America, my mouth would just about literally water and I would borrow as many books as my library card allowed. At 11, I was especially interested in and worried about puberty so, pre-internet, books were my only hope of getting answers to the questions I had rather die than ask of my parents and friends.

I can still recall so vividly my favorite authors, titles, characters and jacket covers. I loved Judy Blume and Lois Lowry and I remember well and fondly Ramona, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Harriet the Spy, and the Littles. I was emotionally invested in each book I picked up and felt an unsettling discomfort whenever I was done. Circumstances were stressful growing up, and my characters’ lives were lives I escaped into. Without those places, life felt too real and uninhabitable.

When it comes to adult books I’ve loved, my mind draws an immediate blank and then begins searching, like a confused compass needle that needs to be recalibrated. During that long stretch between high school and motherhood, I had ceased to be a reader. This isn’t to say that I never picked up a book – I actually graduated college with a major in English literature – but I had lost my hunger to read.

I’d become clinically depressed during college. Without the mental functioning needed to desire, enjoy and concentrate on a good story, I simply went through the motions of reading. My mind was overwhelmed by a constant parade of obsessive and negative thoughts from which I no longer had the strength to escape. By the time my depression lifted, my energies were channeled toward my career and a new life overseas and I was more interested in living life than in reading about it. Perhaps I had too utilitarian a view on reading, that it could serve me only when I needed to run away.

It would be another 20 years before I opened myself to reading for pleasure.

The book was The Da Vinci Code, and I had just entered my second year as a mother. I had by then built a mini-library of pregnancy and childcare books but for some reason decided to pick up this novel on a friend’s recommendation.

I read The Da Vinci Code in a haze of sleep deprivation and in the midst of starting a new business while trying to keep the house under control. I read with one hand holding the book and the other hand stir frying dinner, and I sneaked in paragraphs while playing with Fred and when he had his back turned. Like exercise, I realized you really can find time to read if you wanted to.

Very slowly the childcare books gave way to “me” books, and I had to re-learn (or establish?) the rules of reading:

No self-flagellation for not reading books on child development.

No self-flagellation for not reading the classics or Booker Prize winners.

No self-flagellation for abandoning a book partway through because it fails to keep your interest.

Dare and give yourself permission to dislike a book that the critics “hail as the literary achievement of the decade,” and vice versa. 

In those early years of motherhood it was an achievement to read even two books a year. As Fred got a little older and our business began to stabilize, my reading time and mental capacity increased, and I was soon getting up to five books a year, and then ten.

And then I broke my leg this summer.

I began reading as a way to pass the copious time in isolation, but soon found myself eagerly lining up the next book before I was halfway done with my current one. My friend Shannon, a fellow mother and book lover, would give me recommendations or drop off library books for me that she knew I’d like. And I would greedily accept her lends even though I had four (or 40; where do you stop counting?) of my own in queue. She’d invite me to her house but tell me to “bring a book.” I realized this time that reading can be simultaneously an independent and shared fun experience, not necessarily an escape from which you don’t want to return.

I have two lost decades to make up for, but somehow I think I’ll make the time.

When or how did you become a reader?

And on a different note, my post What if feels like when your mom blogs about you is syndicated today on Blogher. If you haven’t read it, I’d love it if you stopped by

Girl Talk

Not long ago I did something that was unusual for me: I reached out to a girlfriend with an olive branch.

Some months back our children, formerly good friends, had a misunderstanding. We as mothers got involved and resolved it, and ironically, it was the resolution between the kids that led to some awkward tension between us. My friend had wanted to step in while I believed the children should resolve the conflict themselves.

It was a bit unlike me to reach out because I had never been comfortable handling friendships past a certain point, namely, when the friendship got difficult, when our initial soul mate highs gave way to the realities of sisterhood. We bond on sameness (“Me too! Me too!”) and crack at our differences. In the case of my friend above, we had different opinions on one situation that reflected larger overall differences in some of our views. She had, with not insignificant discomfort, managed to bring the issue to my attention, and appreciating how hard it must have been to tell me, I graciously acknowledged her concern and tried to do what I knew she wanted me to do, even if I didn’t really agree with her approach. That, plus the fact that we even came up against this wall at all, somehow seemed to rattle us both.

More than one girlfriend has said to me, “I’ve had several close friendships where we just stopped talking, even for years. The closer we were, the more likely it was going to happen.”

Looking back at my deepest friendships from high school through my 20s, all had gone through that silent volcanic eruption at one point or another. We never shouted or raised voices. Come to think of it, we never even had one single negative exchange. Instead, it was the feelings seething underneath, the ones we dared not voice out of fear of hurting the other’s feelings or just appearing disagreeable, that unhinged our friendship, if even temporarily. How many times had my girlfriends and I smiled and nodded and insisted we were “okay” when underneath we were anything but?

It’s been different for me with men. Before I met Max my best friendships with guys were differently and equally close. Of course there is a mutual understanding and sameness in my women relationships that I can’t replicate in my male friendships, but often I was struck by one critical difference: the freedom to speak completely openly.

With my male friends I somehow felt comfortable and safe enough to disagree. I could say things like “You are driving me crazy!” or “Are you out of your mind?” or take a different stance on a subject and nothing would ensue but rich discussion. Their skins appeared to be tougher, and their memories for emotional infraction blissfully short-term (if they considered the “infraction” an infraction at all). Our dynamics did not change nor did our friendships falter, unless the conversations took a Harry and Sally turn and one of us realized we had feelings for the other.

And it isn’t necessarily that we as women have thinner skins or are unable to cope with differences, but the rules for relating just seem to be different. With my women friends it is important to mirror and validate, and we are nourished by this validation and feeling of oneness. It’s the much needed balm that we can’t get from many men in conversation. I wonder if simultaneously, though, our balm serves as the lock that keeps us from comfortably engaging in conflict.

I’ve had limited opportunity to experience how female communication changes as we get older. One reason is that it’s simply harder to completely replicate the sisterhood friendships that sustained us through our single years. Those girlfriends that we’ve known since school or early career years are still there for us, but many of us in the early family stages, I assume, now depend on partners/spouses and families as our main emotional supports. Or we are now so busy with children and work and insane daily schedules that our friendships take place mainly via e-mail, Facebook, time pressured lunch breaks and frequently interrupted mommy-and-me play dates. In some ways this has built in a safe distance in terms of ensuring that the intensity of sisterhood doesn’t ever reach that boiling point of closeness. But there are days when I miss that intensity.

My friend’s daughter and my son no longer play together. But I realize it’s not because of that incident on the playground. They’re both in the third grade now, where girls and boys start gravitating toward their same-sex friends and groups. In second grade they were beginning these transitions. My friend’s daughter had gotten upset about something my son had said earlier that spring. When I agreed to talk to my son about the incident, in classic guy fashion he simply couldn’t recall the incident at all. He was sorry but mainly puzzled that his friend was still upset. Her mother and I never did get to the bottom of what happened, but the kids have learned and moved on, and so have we.

Do you also find it painful to bring up negative issues in your relationships with girlfriends (that is, more so than in any other type of relationship)? What is your experience with your daughters’ friendships? How do you teach your children about friendship and communication?

When baby’s proud of mama

Work has suddenly picked up these two weeks and I haven’t had a chance to write. Then I remembered this post from 2 years ago that was sitting in my drafts folder.

Fred’s eyes widened as his mouth followed. He glanced from the black-and-white photo to me.

“Mommy, you won!”

It was midweek between Christmas and New Year’s, and an essay I had written about my family’s immigration experiences appeared in a series of newspapers in our tri-city area.

“Read it to me,” Fred asked.

I hesitated, knowing that the essay would lose him in both concept and interest. On second thought, though, why not? He had every right to read what Mom had written. And so I started, interrupted a couple of times with “What does ____ mean?” By the time I ended the second paragraph, Max was calling us to the table for brunch.

At the end of the day Max would tell me that, after we had finished brunch and I had gone back to work at my computer, Fred had asked my brother (who was staying with us for the holidays) to finish reading to him the rest of the essay. When he was done, Fred took a poll of the table: “Who thinks Mommy is the best? Raise your hand!”

I was surprised that Fred had shown that much interest in my story, a story he undoubtedly would have rejected with a loud  “Boring!” had this come from any other source. My eyes welled up as Max relayed the story to me, a continuation of the unfamilar poke at my heart that I had felt earlier that morning when Fred first asked to be read to.

It’s a position I never saw myself in. I went into motherhood expecting to be the supporter, the coach, the one who says “Good job!” and gives high-fives. I look forward to those heart-bursting moments when my child might kick his first goal, win a spelling bee, or get into college. I hadn’t really expected that, once in a while, the tables might be turned.

My own proudest moment of my mother came just a year ago, when she called to tell me that – despite my advice to the contrary – she was going to apply for that teaching vacancy at her school. She had been a school teacher before she immigrated to the U.S., and since then has been working as a teacher’s assistant in the public schools. To lead a classroom again was a dream that kept eluding her. We had talked about the open position for weeks, but I ultimately discouraged her from applying. Too much stress and pressure at this point, I told her, especially given her health and age. She had turned 70 earlier that year.

But how I fought to keep the tears in as she said to me, “Ceci, I’m going to go for it.” With all that she has gone through as an immigrant and mother, it was that moment that I felt proudest to be her daughter.

Like many mothers, my main expectation is the chance to parent. The only gift I need is the joy in raising my child. I would have completely understood if Fred, at age 6, weren’t interested in hearing the details of my essay. But by the fact that he was, he has given me the most unexpected gift: encouragement to be more than a mother.

Do you have a story of when your children were proud of you? What interests do you like to pursue outside of motherhood/parenthood?