The Taming of Guilt

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I’m sitting here in the hospital surgical waiting area, and I thought, maybe today is the day I start writing in my blog again. I had taken over a year off. The last time I wrote, my mother was hospitalized with a grim prognosis and my father-in-law died unexpectedly four days later. For the next year and a half I turned deeply inward, not writing, not really getting on social media, not reaching out to friends. I began to feel as though I was losing my friends, and yet I didn’t know how to explain to others that I just didn’t have energy…no energy to clean the house in order to have people over, no energy to be a good conversationalist…no energy to be ‘normal.’

While it was a quiet year, it was also an intensely productive one: we changed schools for our son, moved to a new town, moved my mother (who’d since stabilized miraculously) in with us for at least part of the year. I also started acupuncture treatments, meditation, and exercise, and I no longer wake up in the mornings with my heart racing in fear of what may or may not come. I am present for Fred, I am remembering to be a thankful wife, I am making efforts to reach out to the amazing women in my life. I am, finally and slowly, learning to be compassionate toward myself.

I’m in the hospital right now because my mother’s in surgery – not a life threatening one, but a serious one in which the best outcome will still affect her quality of life. We experienced an unexpected turn yesterday and I had spent a good part of the day fighting a guilt so strong that I decided I couldn’t allow it to win.

I am realizing that the guilt of ‘what-if’ is inevitable when a loved one suffers a calamity. What if I had questioned the doctors earlier? What if I had been more aggressive about pushing her appointments up sooner? Maybe I could have prevented things from getting to this stage. I suppose that the guilt is especially strong because I’m a daughter, and because I’m the first born and the one who always took ownership of my immigrant parents’ issues. Somehow I believed that I had the power to change the course of things, and I had failed. Worst of all is the knowledge that I had not done everything in my power…if this had been my child, I would have fought harder.

The new compassion comes in my understanding that the guilt is pointless. I’m getting better at asking this: what value does this thought, does this word add? The guilt really adds nothing, except the satisfaction that I am punishing myself. This must come from childhood, from having been taught to feel shame for having done something bad or being something bad. “There, I have beaten myself up” – there is satisfaction in that, like a metaphorical spanking or self-imposed time-out or an actual beating. There is satisfaction, but there is no good in it.

And to be a functioning daughter, mother, and wife I need to preserve whatever good I feel about myself. I am realizing that.

I started having this imaginary conversation with myself yesterday, while thinking about my guilt. In this conversation, I am the one getting the operation, and my little Fred is the one feeling guilty, for not having done enough. This is how it goes:

Fred:   (Crying)

Me:     What’s wrong? Why are you crying?

Fred:   I should have done more. I should have tried to get your surgery moved up. Then it wouldn’t have gotten to this point.

Me:     But you did move up the appointment once, and the doctor is booked! People come from out of state to see her, everyone needs her, everyone has probably waited months for her.

Fred: I just feel that if I had done more this wouldn’t have happened. I feel like I am responsible.

Me:   Fred, the ONE thing I do NOT want you to feel, even for a second, is guilt! How can you be responsible for what happens to my body, for what happens to me? Do you know how full my heart is, knowing how much you HAVE done for me? Can I ask you to instead think about everything you have done for me, instead of all the things you were powerless to have made happen?

Something like that. And it is amazing how things turn around once you treat yourself the way you would treat your child. The love is instantly palpable, even when it is coming from yourself. And you start seeing yourself the way others might be seeing you, as the good and decent woman that you are. That I am.

 

Photo courtesy of http://www.viralnovelty.net

 

 

 

Understanding, accepting, and appreciating the language of husbands and fathers

When Fred was a baby I became more aware of how some (many) women often corrected the way their husbands parented: they didn’t like the way they diapered, bathed, dressed, fed, or played with their babies. Around the house, too, I would see it. One husband-friend of mine once shook his head after being criticized by his wife and said to me, “See? I’m afraid to do anything. And she wonders why I don’t help more.”

I didn’t really go through that, because Max was actually better with babies than I was and he is often better around the house as well.

But I had my one area of “expertise,” and that was the emotional rearing of our child. On this I was convinced that I was better. I grew up with and was influenced by a mother who, while critical, almost never raised her voice. She never shouted, never punished, and never talked down to my brother and me. For better or worse, she spoke to us almost as equals. This was in sharp contrast to many of the other Chinese mothers and caretakers I knew. I had one extreme daycare teacher shout at us, “Shut up or I’ll chop your heads off!” I was told that this was how people talked “back home” (back in the villages of China).

For years I corrected Max on this aspect of parenting. He, like all parents, came into parenting with the experiences he knew growing up in his family and in his culture and his style, I felt, was a little too Asian and old school for my tastes. And so for years we talked, fought, and cried over this. Finally, nearly ten years later, we are pretty much on the same page. I think it is our greatest achievement as a couple.

Then a few weeks ago I found myself repeating something I’d promised I’d try my best not to do: correct Max in front of Fred. It was a knee-jerk reaction and the words came out before I knew what I was doing. Max and Fred were butting heads on something and I didn’t like the way Max was handling the situation.

Max was furious with me and walked off to his office, so I emailed him. (I know it sounds odd but we email when we’re mad (it’s better than us screaming).) He wrote back that he and Fred have their own relationship and that they are doing fine without my stepping in to complicate things.

Maybe that should’ve been obvious, but it was the first time I really saw and understood that. Sometimes I would cringe or “tsk tsk” at the way Max talks to Fred – the teasing, the gruffness. It’s not abuse or humiliation, just different from how I would talk to Fred. Then I realized that different in this case perhaps simply means “male” or just “different” rather than “wrong.” I relate to my child as a woman does: I nurture, soothe, validate. Max, too, is very affectionate and tender with Fred, but he is not me and he has his own style. And the thing I haven’t allowed myself to see is, I do screw up, a lot. As “expert” as I am on all of this, it’s textbook smarts and I over-personalize parenting and stress out and criticize and even a decade later I am no better at this gig than I was when I first gave birth. Children keep changing and the only thing I can count on is my determination to keep understanding my child and to understand myself better through that experience. I know I need to give Max this chance too. So I  accepted that I have to let go…and let them build their father-son bond, a bond that is as unique and necessary as the bond that I have with Fred.

Yesterday they had another minor episode. I was in another room so I don’t really know what happened, only that Fred showed attitude and Max got angry. But I minded my own business and trusted that Max would be able to handle it fine and I went out to run errands. When I finished an hour later, I walked into a house filled with the cacophony of two recorders playing Mary Had a Little Lamb. Instead of working (we work from home), Max had joined Fred to practice the recorder. Later after dinner, the two belted out When the Saints Go Marching In over and over, doing their best renditions of Louis Armstrong. And then closing their finale they mooned me. They nearly fell to the floor laughing so hard while I just sat in my chair rolling my eyes…and inside falling more in love with the two of them.

Men, boys. Fathers and sons. They’re foreign to me sometimes, but the joy and the love – I get that.

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Halloween and the unimaginative mother

Happy Halloween!

Those were Fred’s first words to us this morning. He’d been waiting for this day for a full year, and this year he’s expanding his trick-or-treating territory to cover 3 additional subdivisions.

I remember so well the first time we took Fred trick-or-treating; he was 4 and newly American (we were in Japan up until that point). He chose a red Power Ranger costume, and we would stand behind him, instructing him to walk up to a neighbor’s door, ring the bell, yell “Trick or treat!”, stick his bag out for (free) candy, say “Thank you,” and move on to the next door and repeat, no strings attached. You should have seen the look on his face. What a concept! What a country!

Whoa - what a concept!

Whoa – what a concept!

Halloween takes on so much more meaning once you become a parent. Before Fred came along, Halloween ranked just a few notches above Columbus Day for me. I’d never really gone trick-or-treating as a child, since the year my immigrant mother first learned about the concept was also the year that someone in our city was putting razor blades and poison inside the children’s treats.

This non-Halloween upbringing led to a certain inertia every year came Halloween. I don’t even remember ever having dressed up for college Halloween parties.

And then I had a child. Each year October became a month of anticipation beginning with costume planning and trips to the pumpkin patch and culminating in a magnificent and surreal evening that this underprivileged girl can only say comes straight out of the movies. On October 31st each year our neighborhood streets are filled with dressed-up children who seem to have come out of the woodworks. After-school activities are canceled and homework is excused. Halloween is huge, and it is happy.

When Fred was a toddler I hand made his costumes and threw annual Halloween parties. We were in Japan and I wanted to share this unique piece of Americana with my Japanese friends. Elaborate costumes, decorations, food, arts and crafts, games and 6 screaming toddlers. I actually used to do this.

Then we got to the States, and I began pulling out the credit card. I’d groan having to shell out $30-40 for a one-time costume so you can imagine my joy when Fred announced one year that he wanted to be Darth Vader a second Halloween in a row. We’d get pumpkins but I would leave the carving for Max to do with Fred. I’d look at our neighbors who plant skeletons in the soil or blow up 12-foot spiders to guard their front doors, and I’d do my part by moving our carved pumpkins into better view on our front step.

This year, I felt a slight deflation when Fred announced that he will not be going as himself after all, and then thankfully Max stepped in to help make his costume. I initiated our trip to the pumpkin patch a couple of weeks ago (very fun) and this evening I will accompany Fred on his expanded trick-or-treating route, keeping my eye out for a 20-something-year-old man in a red sedan that was seen yesterday in our town in an attempted child abduction. We didn’t have (or make) time to carve our pumpkins this year and our house/front door looks as festive as it does on Columbus Day. Seeing other people’s children already dressed up on Facebook this morning filled me with some guilt, another reminder of what I am not doing enough of as a mother (though we’ve covered that in an earlier post here where I am supposed to understand that, err, I have other gifts as a mother). But it’s also been almost 10 years. It’s hard for this non-Halloween and unimaginative gal to sustain the rah-rah for a full decade. I still have a dream to someday turn our house into a haunted house and to bake orange cupcakes for all the neighborhood kids. (I used to dream of dressing up as a belly dancer but I have long let that dream go.) This year, I’ll focus on keeping the kids out of the reaches of that red sedan, and rely on the insane concept of adult-supported-candy-begging to keep my 9-year-old more than content.

Remembering our babies, mothers, and fathers

I have a stark memory from my pregnancy, during one long morning when Max and I were sitting in the hallway outside my obstetrician’s office, waiting for my regular prenatal check-up. A woman walked out of her ob’s office, her hands over the little person curled up inside of her, her entire being enveloped by the arms of another woman. They walked briskly down the corridor and toward the lobby and exit, their bodies seemingly attached, both sobbing the kind of pain that we only hear in our worst nightmares. This was Japan, a country in which such public expressions of emotion are unheard of. My heart pounded and constricted at the same time. I wanted to wish her news away.

In the coming three years I would hear two other stories that would make my breath and heart seem to stop. Fred was a healthy, active, smiling two-year-old, safely playing in our living room when my midwife, who had by then become my friend, came over for lunch and a visit. She told us stories of her experiences in the maternity ward, and especially of one woman who couldn’t decide whether or not to listen to her instinct to get checked, and then lost her baby on his birth day, born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. Her story haunted me for a long time. After a long and difficult labor Fred was born with the cord around his neck. I had barely a glimpse of him before the medical team rushed him to the NICU. But he was with me, two years later, giggling and playing hide-and-seek with my midwife. My what-if’s channeled into gratitude for the simple, small, daily miracles of a child growing and smiling. Every day I know absolutely how lucky I am.

NICU

One year before Fred was born, my friend Claudia, whom I have known since our shared study break days in college,  lost her infant son, Caleb. Fred and Caleb share the same birthday week and each year that Fred blows out his candles I also remember the sweet face of Caleb and his and his mother’s story.

By chance I read this morning that October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Last Friday on Facebook Claudia had posted a stunning tribute to the ten years since Caleb passed away. I wanted to share her words with you and I am grateful to Claudia for allowing me to do so. I don’t have adequate words to introduce Claudia but I think that her voice below will more than show the kind of mother and person she is.

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A decade is a long time for a mother to be without one of her ducklings. Caleb Joseph Stahl died on the 11th of October 2003. My third son’s earnest, brave, innocent seven months of life changed me irrevocably. On the eve of the tenth anniversary of when I last held my little sweetheart, here are ten wonderful gifts Caleb gave me:

1. Fearlessness. I have survived the worst; very little rattles, bothers, or frightens me anymore.

2. Compassion. We never know what struggles a person might be going through at any given time. I like to think people are doing their best to get through the day – sad, averted eyes or brusque greetings? They might be covering a world of sorrow.

3. Joy. When triumph is measured in occasional smiles, half-drunk bottles of milk, and decent O2 sats, a person learns to celebrate the little things every day.

4. Patience. Sitting at Caleb’s hospital bed for hours, waiting for a peek at his gorgeous hazel eyes, was worth every single moment.

5. Friends. Old friends returned to me and new ones came along the way. The outpouring of love for our family during Caleb’s life and since has been astonishing.

6. Sam. Sam was only five when Caleb died. Countless afternoons, Sam was in charge of his two-year-old brother in the hospital play area. He never complained. He never whined. To this day he is one of the most stoic, grounded, genuinely kind people I know.

7. Henry. Henry doesn’t remember Caleb, which is incredibly painful and poignant. Yet he seems to have the strongest connection to him – he used to ask to go to Caleb’s gravestone just to play near him. Henry’s tenderheartedness, tucked beneath his exuberant exterior, takes my breath away.

8. Abigail. The first thing I did when an ultrasound confirmed I was expecting my fourth baby was drive to Caleb’s place to tell him he was going to be a big brother. I told Caleb the baby would know all about him and that he would always be kid #3 while the baby would be #4. All her life Abby has declared that she has THREE big brothers. Abby is loyal, steadfast, and loving.

9. Goodness. The past decade has not been without its curveballs, disappointments, and grief. However, Caleb’s life lessons – packed into just seven months’ time – taught me to relish the good and relinquish the bad so I am always surrounded by good.

10. Gratitude. I cherish everyone and everything mentioned here and so many others who are not on this small list. I only had 219 days of “I love yous” to share with Caleb. When he died, I vowed to appreciate and acknowledge life’s gifts – this is a work in progress for me, but I have Caleb to thank for giving me the marching orders for my remaining years.

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Thank you, Claudia. xoxo