Women’s Friendships, Women’s Voices, in The Story Hour

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is about the friendship of two women from two different cultures, whose complicated personal histories and cultural values eventually lead to judgment and misunderstanding and threaten to end their relationship.

Lakshmi is a 30-something woman who immigrated to the US from India to join her Indian husband, a store and restaurant owner. As we are introduced to Lakshmi, we begin to understand how lonely she is in the US and in her marriage. She feels no love from her husband who treats her more like a possession than a partner and who has forbidden her from ever contacting her family again. Lakshmi tries to kill herself one night (this is written on the back cover), and while hospitalized is assigned to talk to Maggie, an African-American psychologist.

Lakshmi’s husband scoffs at the idea of therapy and tells Maggie they cannot afford it. At that point Maggie tells them that she will meet with Lakshmi in her home without charge.

With the therapy sessions Lakshmi gradually comes to develop a voice for the first time, encouraged to believe that her stories are worth telling. As she tells her stories and becomes braver in her trust in Maggie, she reveals more and more, and we learn that her marriage to her husband is not what it seems.

At the same time, and unbeknownst to Lakshmi, Maggie is dealing with her own issues in her marriage and questioning how much her abusive relationship with her father has impacted her and her relationships to this day.

Toward the latter half of the book, the issues of the two women clash and come to a head, and both are reeling in their judgment of one another. Both are not the people they had imagined the other to be.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. To me it was women’s literature without being chick lit. There is the cultural piece, for those who want to read “diversely”; as an Asian-American who’s very familiar with how it feels to have one foot in one culture, I saw well the cultural differences that Lakshmi and Maggie were dealing with. Do you honor family or do you honor yourself? Is passion in marriage more important or duty? In very traditional Asian cultures, it is often hard to have both.

Mostly, I enjoyed the psychological complexity as I’m always drawn to stories of basically good human beings who are confronted with difficult life decisions and choices. I thought this was an intriguing study of two women with complicated histories that are made more complex by the cultures in which they grew up. It’s also an interesting story about women’s friendship and the expectations we have for our women friends. We can want and love so much and at the same time be very judgmental and unforgiving. In the case of Lakshmi and Maggie, I’ve wondered how much each was projecting on to the other, and did judging the other make it somehow easier to accept (or not think about) one’s own mistakes? This would be a fun book to read in a book club.

(Literary Wives) Not Enough Marital Connection and Too Much Facebook: Wife 22

I apologize for my sporadic writing of late, but I’m back to review our (on-line book club) Literary Wives’ October book, Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon.

Wife 22 is a book about contemporary issues: growing disconnections in family – between mother and children and especially between wife and husband – and the role that technology has come to take in the modern family.

Alice Buckle is a 44-year-old mother to two (a surly teenage girl named Zoe and a still affectionate tween boy named Peter) and wife to William, an advertising professional who loses his job about a third of the way through the book. Alice is a passionate playwright who now, because of family commitments or a past failure, works part-time for the drama department at the local elementary school with funds from the PTA. Like many upper middle class suburban wives, she is trying to juggle schedules, raise good kids who would still like her, make sure she hasn’t lost her husband in the midst of parenting, and, somehow, remember what her own needs are.

Twenty years into her marriage, though, she is falling apart. Her position at the elementary school is shaky; her daughter is constantly sarcastic toward her; she is nearing the age at which her own mother had died; her husband feels like a stranger; and she is spending too much time on Facebook.

Then one day Alice receives an invitation to participate in a marriage survey/research study. She accepts it and is assigned the anonymous username “Wife 22.” She is given a lengthy set of personal questions asking her to reflect on her marriage and on marriage and love in general. She is paired up with an equally anonymous “Researcher 101” with whom she occasionally and then, eventually, frequently corresponds. Their emails soon become more and more flirtatious and more and more intimate. Alice is in the giddy but uncomfortable position of finally feeling the intimacy that she wishes she had with her husband.

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

There are several wives in the book. There’s Alice, of course, and then there’s her best friend and neighbor Nedra, who is about to marry her long-time partner, Kate. There are also a few minor characters in the book who are married. The experiences depicted in this book all fit our modern, western definition and expectations of what it means to be a wife: to be independent, to feel purpose beyond marriage, and to be emotionally connected to and respected by one’s partner. Alice is flailing in the absence of these things, and she needs them to feel herself again. She had once worked full-time in advertising along with William and she was good at it. She and William had once been so in love with one another, so connected. No doubt the intervening years parenting and the growing complacency in a long-term marriage have diluted that early connection. Nedra offers a contrast to Alice. She has been living in a committed relationship with Kate for many years now (and have a teen boy). Though not legally married until late in the book, their relationship is rock solid. There is another minor character who is happily married and another who eventually divorces, presumably all due to how well they’ve mixed their particular formulas for a successful marriage under our modern definitions.

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Alice really wants connection with her husband and she is clearly very lonely. But she is passive. When her husband gets “laid off,” she goes behind his back and asks his co-worker to send her the video from work that did him in. She watches in horror but doesn’t let on to him that she knows anything about it. She later helps him get a job but she does that in a round-about way, behind his back, as well. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve read this book, but I don’t seem to recall an instance of her trying to talk to William about her feelings or needs. Of course, I understand this is a catch-22 (hence the book title perhaps…) – the less she and her husband communicate, the more distant they become; the more distant they become, the harder and more awkward it is to communicate. So she finds herself on the verge of getting in too deeply with another man and she has knowingly allowed herself to get into this position.

In my opinion Alice has defined “wife” as a rather weak player in marriage who allows circumstances to dictate the direction she – and her marriage and family – will go in.

~~~

Overall I really enjoyed the book. I’d been on a steady diet of literary fiction and very heavy subjects, and Wife 22 was a breezy, funny, and thoughtful read that was right up my alley. As someone who has also been married a long time, I appreciated the discussion of husbands and wives trying to connect, and the technology context was also quite fun. I wasn’t entirely crazy about the twist at the end of the book, which I had suspected, and which made the story a bit too romantic-comedy-movie for me. I can totally picture this book as a Jennifer Aniston movie. Anyway, I did like it all in all.

………………………

Please also check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library (she will post in a couple of weeks)

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

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The Masks We Wear Over Depression and Anxiety

I am so grateful to all those who stopped by last week when I wrote about anxiety, and to those who commented with words of encouragement, told their own stories, and/or shared my post with others. The piece, to my surprise, was the most viewed post (in one day) that I have written on this blog.

Of course, me being me, I thought, Crap, I should have done a better job writing it. The topic is so vast, and my experience so entrenched, that I almost didn’t know where to start.

One thing that I have been wanting to write about – and I confirmed this after hearing the stories of friends and readers – is the mask that so many of us battling depression and anxiety feel compelled to wear. The outer us and the inside us. The visible versus the hidden.

Story after story shocked me, because never in a million years would I have guessed that these people struggled with something as debilitating as anxiety and/or depression: dedicated parents, a head of department, a published author, Ph.D. students, a passionate college instructor, a high-end New York designer, a top-ranking management consultant.

The irony is that others might say the same about me. I’ve got the elite names on my resumé to project a certain kind of image, and I’ve been described as “fierce” and as driven and confident. I’m both flattered and amused by the descriptions, unsure about their accuracy.

My self-image is distorted, of course, by my personal knowledge of my struggles. I admit to somewhat dismissing or at least downplaying my strengths and achievements because I experience, sometimes at a high level, the human emotions of insecurity and fear. Maybe we are shocked when we learn about “successful” people suffering because we believe achievement and anxiety (and depression) to be mutually exclusive, that somehow success cannot coexist with mental or emotional difficulty. We can be extremely anxious at the same time that (or perhaps because?) we are extremely competent, but in making public only the proud self we perpetuate the belief that anxiety does not exist in the happy, smart, and capable.

My friend, a teacher who once asked me to help with one of her music classes, had no idea how much internal debating I required before I could say yes. I had to look up the address of her class, enter it into Google driving directions, ascertain the 6-mile-long route to see if I could comfortably navigate it on my own, check with my husband’s schedule, debate whether it was worth pulling him from work to drive me, and check both our schedules to see if he could do a practice run with me if I decided to drive on my own. After stressing for days without getting back to my friend, I finally decided to tell her the truth and ask for a ride, even though I knew it meant adding another task to her already packed schedule.

“Sorry to be lame…”

“You’re not lame,” she told me. “I can get you.” 

In the same way, my on-line book club members have no idea how much stress I went through in the week leading up to our first on-line chat. Back and forth, back and forth I debated over whether I should cancel. I hated the way I looked on video. I worried about sounding dumb “in real life.” I did not feel like interacting live.

But I went through with it, because I knew I would feel worse about myself if I didn’t. And it turned out to be wonderful. When it was all over something in me lifted at the same time that something else – a shard of fear – fell away.

One of my readers wrote in her comment last week, ” . . . you have to remember that success is built in increments, and that by getting through daily tasks, you’re accumulating success all along even if you don’t realize it.” I think I’m old enough to be her mother, and there she was giving me something brilliant to take away. And I wouldn’t have benefited from those, and so many other warm words had I never dared take off the mask. The thing about opening up is that the fear of someone’s reaction is by far more frightening than the actual reaction. The real thing – when the other person is real (and you don’t need her if she’s not) – is unexpected, disarming, and heartening. Where you expect a ditch you’re given a bridge, and an outstretched hand that says either “I’m proud of you” or “Me too.” Either way, the hand beckons “Come here,” and the arms take hold and envelope you.

 

 

 

On feeling important and valued, and a Tale for the Time Being (in progress)

I usually alternate my book posts and my “life” posts, but today I’m going to write both.

My first read of the new year is Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 Booker Prize finalist, A Tale for the Time Being, which I’m still in the middle of reading (and enjoying quite a lot). It’s the story of a writer, Ruth, who finds a Hello Kitty lunch box washed up on shore near her home on a Canadian island. When she opens the lunch box she finds the handwritten diary of a seemingly perky teenage girl, Nao, in Tokyo. She begins reading it, and learns quickly that Nao is in fact planning to kill herself. Nao recently returned to Japan with her parents after having spent her whole life in California, and she is being bullied relentlessly at school and her father is unable to find employment. Her father, thinking that he is of no use to the family, throws himself in front of an oncoming commuter train in a failed attempt to end his life.

What’s struck me so far, aside from the fact that the language is a lot lighter and funnier than what my description may lead you to believe, is the idea of feeling important. Nao writes in her diary:

“I hope you understand that I don’t think he [her homeroom teacher who participated in her bullying] was a bad man. I just think he was very insecure and could convince himself of anything, the way insecure people can. Like my dad, for example, who can convince himself that his suicide will not harm me or my mom because actually we’ll be better off without him, and at some point in the not-so-distant-future we’ll realize this and thank him for killing himself.” (page 78)

Both Nao and her dad have suicidal fantasies. Neither feels wanted. Nao feels unwanted for obvious reasons: her classmates actually hold a fake funeral for her in homeroom and make no bones about the fact that they don’t appreciate her existence. But Nao’s dad’s sense of not being needed seems more self-imposed. He’s unable to provide for his family, feels ashamed for not fulfilling his role, and believes that his family will be better off without him. (I haven’t read any evidence of his family actually rejecting him.) It’s only after he sees Nao’s devastated reaction that he realizes he was wrong in his perception of his place in the family.

This got me thinking about the whole concept of feeling entitled – to love, to owning a space in someone’s life. This theme struck me because I’ve felt both loved and not in different areas of my life, and I have known others who have felt the same. What makes us feel wanted and needed? And how do we show others that we want and need them?

For all the griping I’ve done about the often too-close relationship that I have had with my mother, she at least gifted me with a strong self-worth within my family. And because she took her role as a mother so seriously, I carried that importance with me when I became a mother too. I know I am needed, by sheer title alone. I know my place in our family, I know I have a critical role to fulfill, and I know that my loved ones would be devastated if anything were to happen to me.

That may sound obvious to many, but I mention it because I’ve been surprised and hurt to hear important people doubt their self-worth and their place among loved ones. I know that people have walked away from families, or have ended their lives, due to distorted or real views of where they stood in their loved ones’ lives. I have no answers here, only questions.

~~~

My early experiences with close friendship were not as positive as my experiences with family. The first “real” friendship that I have clear memories of was with a friend I’ll call M. She and her sister were daughters of my mother’s friend, and we used to all hang out whenever our moms played mahjong together. Then M turned 13 (I was about 11) and she suddenly became mean. She began putting me down about my clothes and my house and led her sister and a couple of mutual friends to begin excluding me, until after a year or two of on-and-off psychological bullying I stopped  accompanying my mother to their house. (And no, I never said a word of any of this to my mother…)

That early experience did define the value I held of myself in terms of girlfriends. I rarely took initiative to start friendships or to pursue them deeply. I left the ball in others’ court. Among groups of friends, I never expected to be included. Then one day during sophomore year I was shocked when a classmate invited me to join her and her friends for a movie. I remember thanking her profusely and she looked at me as if I were crazy. I honestly didn’t realize that my reaction wasn’t normal until I saw her face.

Emmy changed my life, and she gave me the confidence to find more friends like her.

All of this leads me to my next question, which is how do we show others that they are important to us? And the answer is not as forthcoming as I had thought. I am trying to think back to Emmy, and how she made me feel wanted. She was never the sentimental or affectionate type. In fact, she was pretty no-nonsense and blunt. But she included me. She listened. She waited. She always answered my phone calls with “Hey, Seal!” as soon as she knew it was me on the other line, no matter how unenthused she may have sounded when she picked up. Likewise, I think back to the other people in my life over the years who have made me feel valued, and I think about what they did to convince me of it. They included me. They listened. They waited. They were glad to see or hear from me, and they showed it.

It made me think about how I am showing the people in my life that I value them.

How often do I ask questions, and hope to get a long answer? How often do I pick up the phone, and how often do I let it go to voicemail? How often do I carve out time for others, and how often do I say “Unfortunately, I’m working” or “Hurry up!”? When was the last time I invited a friend out for lunch, instead of waiting to be invited? When was the last time I asked for help? When my mother called last time, couldn’t I have mustered a more enthusiastic tone when I heard her voice?

While I know I am important in friends’ and family’s lives, do they know how important they are in mine? I’ve had an extreme need to assert my  independence for most of my life, and in the process I’ve failed to show some of the people I care about most just how much I really need and value them.

Can you relate to any of this? Has rejection or bullying touched any part of your life? Do you allow people into your life and space easily?

Lessons learned in 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to look back on a year, but I decided to do it this year. Here are some of my reflections from 2013:

[Addendum: I apologize for my horrendous numbering system below (no 4 and 2 6’s)! I edited this post literally 15 to 20 times before hitting ‘publish’ but I completely neglected the numbers. I’ve decided not to fix it, however, since some readers cited by number the items that resonated with them. I’ll leave the list as is for reference 🙂 ]

1. The world is kinder when I change the lens.

I’ve always had a tendency to look too much into things. If someone consistently fails to say hello or respond to some of my emails, my mind reaches for the negative: I’ve done or said something wrong, or she thinks I’m a bother. I’ve been reminded not infrequently (usually by books and male friends) that when something like this happens it says more about the other person than it does about me.

This year, I began trying to give others the benefit of the doubt. The acquaintance who appears cold and does not respond in kind? Perhaps something is going on in her life right now, and she is not in a place to extend herself. My world became softer and kinder when I changed the way I made assumptions about others’ motives.

2. It does feel good to not beat myself up.

The comments were so innocuous (or regular) that I couldn’t even see anything wrong with them until a therapist pointed it out to me. Judgments like “I’m such a mess” or “I look awful” or “I’m such a bad mom,” when piled up day after day, year after year, can do a number on your psyche.

3. My child is not perfect, but he is terrific.

All my unrealistic expectations of myself trickled down to my child and I struggled this year to let go of the fear that every flaw signals potential trouble ahead. My son will make mistakes. He will forget things. He will miss answers on a test. He will be careless. He will get overly emotional. He will be tired and he will be hungry and he will be stressed and he won’t always be able to put on a happy face in these situations. The thing is, what human being doesn’t do this every now and then? I’m living proof of the damage that can be done when the bar is set to the sky, and now it’s my responsibility to bring it within reach for my son.

5. There’s a certain decibel level of my voice that no one should ever have to hear.

I would never have labeled myself a yeller, but in fact I do yell. Or I did. I am trying to make that the past tense. There is nothing in my life that warrants shouting. My son’s behavior is never so beyond the norm that it cannot be addressed by a regular or at most firm tone of voice. And even if he ever really did cross the line, I doubt that shouting would be effective or productive.

6. I need to be kinder.

Not more polite and not gentler but actually kinder, whether it’s mumbling criticisms about a waiter at a restaurant or judging someone’s behavior or arguing with my husband.

6. I want to remember the man I fell in love with. 

Twelve years of marriage and almost ten years of parenthood have turned our pre-parenting memories to black-and-white. Something triggered an old romantic memory the other day, and I allowed myself to go with it, to rewind through the last 10 years to a time when it was just the two of us. I realized that those memories are an important anchor in a family dynamic that has since changed so dramatically.

7. I deserve at least 2 hours to myself each day.

My busiest two weeks of work are ahead of me, but so far I’m holding firm to my new rule of not working at night. I am not a rescue worker and no one’s going to die if I don’t respond late at night. After Fred goes to sleep, it’s me and my books or my writing.

8. My emergency oxygen mask is this, in this order: sleep, water, exercise, a (reasonably) tidy home.

I blamed everything from hormones to depression this year when in fact what I needed was basic self-care. I need to have all 4 of the above before I can care for anyone else properly.

9. We all speak different languages.

I’m planning to write more about this in a future post, but it really hit home for me this year how certain conflicts I’ve felt have been a result of the fact that loved ones and friends and I speak different “love languages.” Example: Max shows love through actions while I show it through words. In fact, I view and relate to the world through words but I realized that not everyone does.

10. Motherhood has more than one job description.

At 4 Fred drew a series of t-shirt designs for each of us. On his dad’s shirt he drew the American flag; on his he drew a dinosaur; on mine he drew a computer. He said that it was because I liked to work.

I’ve felt guilty for almost the entire time I’ve been a mother, because I’d failed to live up to my image of the “ideal” mother. I don’t do arts and crafts, I don’t cook and bake more than I have to, I don’t enjoy playing, and I am not all-sacrificing. It was thanks to your responses to a post I’d written on the subject that I began to swap out the old picture for a more realistic one that depicts the kind of mother I actually am: a travel-loving, book-loving, word-loving, conversation-loving, thinking-loving and independence-loving mom. I realized that I don’t need to trade in who I am in order to love and raise a child.

onlyoublogwalking

Flaws and friendships

I had a wonderful, cathartic time over coffee this morning with a friend. We live close to each other but were both away most of the summer. In the intervening weeks I had met up with old friends and caught up with others on line, friends of different intimacy levels, friends who satisfy different needs. There is the friend with whom I can be freely neurotic about my child’s future, the friends who can relate on the the cross-cultural issues, the friend who has known me since I was Fred’s age and before I became the person that all my other friends know, the friend around whom I feel some pressure to show my best (most intelligent, put-together) side, the friends who don’t care if they see my worst.

Few people fit like a glove, and in any friendship there is a getting-to-know-you, a checking out of style and expectation that we try and adjust to and work with in order to ensure the growth of friendship. We don’t always fit like a glove but we try to make a good fit. It means that sometimes we learn to be friends with someone who goes against our grain, a little, or we temper something in ourselves in order to make us a little easier for our friend to take.

We give and take, and ask ourselves what we can live with and what we cannot. In doing so, I’ve come to learn that the quality I appreciate and need the most in a friend is acceptance. It’s the ability to confess that I’d been depressed, or that I’ve been feeling incompetent, or that I’d just had this horrible fight with my husband. And that is all I need – just the ability to do all of this. It means that this friend has, long before, created an environment in which I can go to her and do this – pour it, myself – out to her, and feel absolutely safe.

When it comes to friendships, our animal instincts kick in; somehow we know whom we can go to and whom we cannot. But sometimes I test the waters. I do that by seeing how much that friend tells me about herself, how she reacts when I confess something personal. It does sting when I realize, or imagine, that I am being judged. A non-reaction when you expect one, a look that says nothing, a barely traceable scowl or raising of an eyebrow. Women often avoid conflict, prefer not to say anything if they can’t say anything nice at all. Is the quiet look at the period of my sentence a look of criticism? I wish I could tell; I wish I were daring enough to ask, “What are you really thinking of me?” But that silent exchange of assumptions has just placed a solid barrier between us.

We also want to give, as friends. That a friend is willing to take from me means that I’ve earned her trust. As much as I appreciate her listening to whatever issue it is that is going on with me, it would only feel like a true friendship if she felt the same trust toward me. I have to earn this, I know, although sometimes it doesn’t come, no matter how hard you believe you’ve tried. It is difficult for some people to say, to show, too much. I don’t know if it is a matter of trust or a matter of shame, a wall that no one, no matter how well-intentioned and trusted, can bring down. I’ve been saddened by the drifting away of one friend, who’d gone from chatting with me regularly to barely responding to e-mails ever since her husband had gone from a prestigious position to something humbler. You let her know that you want to be there in the hard times, but she only wants to be seen during the good.

These may be the friends who make you think twice before you continue to confess you are merely human. If she is too ashamed to admit that she has flaws or doubts or bad days, how will she feel about yours?

I started this blog anonymously, and in many ways it still is fairly anonymous. I don’t use real names, except for my given name. I don’t post personal photos. But slowly, over the years, as I’ve tested the waters and developed thicker writer’s skin, I’ve released my blog to more and more “real life” friends, a big step because unlike in the on-line world of personal and confessional blogging, acceptance is not necessarily the modus operandi of relationships made in the larger world. But several old friendships of mine have been rekindled through my blog, and I have been heartened and grateful for that. I don’t believe that masking flaws makes us any more perfect on the outside, or any more admired, and I hope that in readily admitting mine, I am offering the kind of acceptance to my friends and readers that can make real connection and friendship possible.

A Friend of the Family: When you don’t like your child’s friend

Occasionally I will write a brief book review and connect it with a life story.

A Friend of the FamilyA Friend of the Family is a 2004 book by Lauren Grodstein about a suburban doctor and father trying to regain control of the wheel of a family life that is veering wildly off the course that he’d wanted.

The book opens with Pete isolated, teetering on the brink of familial and professional bankruptcy. A young man shouts threats at him; he has lost his long-time medical practice; he is living apart from his family above their garage; he is facing divorce. We don’t know why he is in the situation that he’s in, only that he’s done something to bring all of this upon himself.

We begin to learn about Pete’s story through flashbacks, and are introduced to the main players in this drama: his teen son Alec, his wife Elaine, his best friend Joe, and Joe’s daughter, Laura.

The crux of the story is the growing relationship between Alec – seventeen and lost – and Laura, a woman with a troubled past 10 years Alec’s senior. We learn early on what it is about Laura that bothers Pete so much, and why he doesn’t want her anywhere near her son. The story, then, is about how far a father is willing to go to protect his child from bad influences. It is also a story about how important it is for many of us parents – to our egos, to our sense of security – to force our children to conform to the dreams that we have created for them. At what point do we need to let go, and accept that our child has turned out artistic when we wanted athletic? ordinary when we wanted Ivy League? gay when we wanted straight? Why is it so hard to trust our children to forge their own life paths and to choose their own relationships?

The book was a quick and enjoyable read for me (a 3.5-4 star beach read), probably so because my own son’s adolescent years are looming and I am anxious to learn about the challenges that grip parents at this stage.

The one issue that jumped at me, of course, is the lack of control over whom your child decides to become close to, as I find myself entering this territory already with my rising 4th grader.

Pre-school, we pretty much chose our children’s friends; they were the children of our friends, or they were friendships that we had to take part in developing. With growing autonomy, Fred and his friends now develop and maintain their own friendships.

Fred has one good friend whom Max and I don’t particularly like. (I’ll call him “Jon.”) I’ve twice tried to “prevent” them from getting closer by requesting on the school’s annual student placement questionnaire to not put him and Jon in the same class, but each time they were placed together (I think I was not the only parent making this request…). Jon had behavioral problems when he was younger, being prone to aggressive/violent outbursts when things didn’t go his way. This seemed to have tamed when he got a little older, and now it’s more personality. We invited him to Fred’s birthday party once and I caught him stealthily trying to steal something. However, young children are still learning and developing, I understand, and I’ve tried to trust Fred’s judgment by finding the good in this child. Jon can also be warm and intelligent and they have many of the same interests, so among boys, shared hobbies is often the big connector.

And then I saw this e-mail from Jon over the weekend:

“Hey Fred, is your mom really strict? Do you or can you keep your e-mail private?”

We started an e-mail account for Fred as a way for him to stay in touch with his uncle, but he’s since used it with a couple of close friends. He keeps his account on my iPhone, and he knows that I look at it. (Things are still Mommy & Me with us.)

I was disappointed to see that e-mail, this early in Fred’s life. Or maybe this is normal and only feels early because I am absolutely unprepared for it. My son is clearly less precocious, more innocent. I am not sure how to handle this or what to make of it.

This year, Max and I witnessed/learned of a couple of instances at school in which Fred had risen above the mob behavior of his male classmates. One took place during a field trip that we chaperoned, and the other was an incident that a fellow mother relayed back to us. At a school event, she went up to Max and told her how grateful she was to Fred that, when her son was going through a rough period being teased and taunted by the boys in their class, Fred was the one boy who refused to take part. I teared up when Max told me this. How do you teach a child – a boy – not to fall to peer or group pressure? How do you ensure that your child has the strength to put someone else’s feelings and dignity over his own need to belong or his desire to feel powerful? I’ve followed no “formulas” in parenting once parenting became more complicated than swaddling and nursing, and so often I feel as if I am holding my breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop as a result of things I did too much of or didn’t do enough of during these early years. With these  two incidents I was awash with an intense relief.

Fred calls Jon out on his bad behaviors, and distances himself when Jon becomes too much to take. When I remarked once at how polite and gentlemanly Jon was, Fred responded, “He acts differently around adults.” Fred knows. He can hold his own. And, well, I am going to need him to continue to hold his own, because going into the complex world of teen friendships, it will be my child that I will need to count on.

Have you already experienced this? How do you deal with it?

Why doesn’t she like me??

This morning at the school bus stop I ran into my neighbor, or former neighbor, I should say. She and her family just moved over the weekend but came back to tie up loose ends. I was happy to see her and told her we were going to miss her and her family, blah blah. And so we chatted for about 60 seconds before she (in my mind) made a sprint to talk to someone else…to a child.

Sigh.

In the two years that we had shared the same street I never really did connect with her despite the fact that our sons are good friends. She was very reserved, and so after a while I just let things be, not wanting to make her uncomfortable by forcing conversation. The only thing is, she seemed quite warm and friendly with some others on the street. She seemed cold or uncomfortable mainly with me.

What is wrong with me?

Of course, I’m 4x years old, not 14, or even 24, so I’m not going to waste too much time obsessing over this (just the 60 minutes to write this post) or feeling the need for everyone on this planet to like me. But let’s face it, I grew up needing to please and needing to be liked so while I won’t obsess, I will think about this, and allow this to bug me, just a little.

We face this all the time, don’t we? The neighbor who refuses to return hello’s, the mother on the playground who will chat up a storm with everyone but us. Last year my girlfriend and I went on and on about the mother of our children’s classmate, who barely ever looked in our direction whenever we said hello. What is wrong with us, we anguished; what did we ever do to her? We thought about what we could have said or done, but really, in our limited exposure to her, we really couldn’t have been anything but friendly. Our husbands, in turn, shook their heads at us. It is not our problem, they tried to convince us; it’s the other woman’s.

Yes, that may be true, if we’ve searched and searched and don’t believe we could have done anything wrong. But still we carry these accusations around with us like recycled baggage, this silent finger pointing at us that we have failed. Failed to conform to the person that the other woman would have liked.

Years ago in our 20s my closest girlfriend said something that blew me away when she found out that the guy she’d had the biggest crush on was, in fact, dating an Asian woman. She said to me, “I have this thing against well-dressed Asian women.”

Hello.

First of all, I was (am) an Asian woman. I’d considered myself not a badly dressed person, or maybe she didn’t, or otherwise she wouldn’t have made the comment. Second of all, it was just a mind-blowingly inane and racist thing to think, let alone say. But it was eye-opening because it made me realize how the basis of some people’s reactions really is grounded in nothing at all. As our husbands believe, sometimes it really is the other person’s problem.

And I am ashamed to admit that I myself have not always risen above this. In college I remember disliking this classmate simply because she was so damned perky and sure of herself, even though she was short – shorter than me – and she had frizzy hair. How dare she be so imperfect and confident at the same time?! I was so jealous. My negative feelings toward her said a ton about me, and had nothing to do with her. But she never knew that.

And so I have wondered about my former neighbor. I get along so well with all our other neighbors, but her…I was never able to penetrate. So maybe it’s because I’m Asian, I had once thought, until I saw how close she is to the Korean woman down the street. Or maybe it’s because I don’t go to church, and she and the Korean woman go to the same church, and somehow I ooze heathenism in her eyes. Or maybe I remind her of someone she didn’t like. Or maybe…maybe…

Or maybe we just don’t have that much power over other people, over their pasts, over whatever they’re going through right now, and whatever connections they make in their heads when they meet us. And it’s okay – we should believe it is okay – to let go of the need for that power.

 

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?

Kids, Cliques and Friendship

Fred was glum when I picked him up from school yesterday. I’d
assumed he was hungry or tired, until we were driving along and he started
telling me about recess that morning, how, for reasons unknown to him, his best
friends Jack and Luke suddenly ignored him.

“Did they know you wanted to play with them?” I asked.

“Yes! I told them I wanted to play together.”

“And what did they say?”

“Nothing…they ignored me the whole time…even after they saw
me leave and start crying.”

Needless to say, our hearts sank when we heard this story,
and doubly so because Fred really wears his heart on his sleeve. This is a child
who, at 5, stayed up late at night to tailor each holiday card to his
classmates, writing different messages and choosing a different color ink
depending on what he knew to be the child’s favorite color. Just the other day, he
found out through Jack the name of the kid who had stolen his Pokemon cards recently. When I asked if he’d
confronted the culprit, Fred’s response was, “I don’t know yet if Jack was
supposed to know. So I don’t want to do anything until I find out, because I
don’t want to get Jack in trouble.”

Max and I know this is the stuff of children’s lives, and
that at different points along the way most children will play both victim and
victimizer until they learn to be more self-aware, compassionate and assertive. For all
the times I have been the dedicated friend, I shamefully admit that I, too, had
played the part of the cold rejecting friend.

I had not developed good friendship skills until – yes – my 30s.
It took me three decades to learn how to be a friend, how to balance my own
needs with the needs of others, how to handle the more intense and honest
feelings that naturally arise when intimacy is reached, how to brush off the older, accummulated feelings of rejection that stayed a part of me even into adulthood.

I am grateful that my dearest friendships have survived
those trials. Getting smarter and happier translated into having similar-minded people in my own life. By the time Fred came along, I could present a better model of a friend to him. Max and I have an open door policy when it comes to Fred’s friends, and we rank socializing right up there with studying hard in school.

But the pleasant times of friendships are the easy part; can
we do as well teaching Fred how to navigate his relationships when he is
confronted with rejection and conflict, especially when the idea of our baby being
hurt threatens to blur all rational thinking? I had to consciously hold myself
back from coming down hard on Fred’s friends when we were discussing this at
the dinner table. It was so easy for me to point fingers, too tempting to tell Fred to find other friends who could better appreciate
him. “Well, why don’t you tell them how you feel?”, I did finally manage to say, choosing the high road over the emotional and over-protective one and, perhaps, the more painful ones that I’ve already walked in the past.

Fred listened to us attentively while alternating feelings
of hurt and indignation. Yes, the kids were mean. Yeah, Jack might be “smart at
math but he’s not smart at human nature!” And yes, Fred certainly has many
other friends besides these two.

“But,” he said, “I haven’t given up.”

Of course. You don’t give up when you love
your friends…nor should I, on these children who are just trying to figure relationships out for the first time. Maybe this little guy doesn’t need too much coaching from us after all.

Have you already had to deal with your children’s friendship troubles? Any advice? How have you grown as a friend?