(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.

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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.

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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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Love, loyalty, hurt and anger – the powerful world of mother-daughter relationships

I am so honored to be contributing to the wonderful writer D.A. Wolf’s series on mother-daughter relationships. This was by far the hardest piece of writing I have ever done, and more than once I asked myself why I had promised to contribute a piece. But I’m so glad for this experience writing and collaborating with D.A., which literally changed me.

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I’ve just spent my fourteenth holiday without my mother. In the years since I packed up two suitcases and moved from the States to Japan, a defining event in our relationship, we have been a long distance family, missing milestones and special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and the birth of her only grandchild.

There have always been reasons: the distance (even now that I’ve moved back to the States), her health, my work. I try to see her once a year and when I do I realize how much I miss her… how for so many years we knew the daily rhythms of each others’ lives and now that’s no longer the case.

For many years I had been the dutiful daughter. I acted as my immigrant parents’ interpreter from the age of seven when they moved from Peru to New England, and I helped them to navigate life in America. I attended college ten miles away from where they lived, and I moved back home after graduation. It was a shameful admission to my American friends that I was choosing to live with my parents, and a slap in my mother’s face that I was wishing I had chosen otherwise.

To continue reading this piece please click here to go to D.A. Wolf’s blog Daily Plate of Crazy.

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

Breaking the cycle of how we were parented

Jp_shpSigh…parenting is hard. I know I’ve been saying this every year for the last nine years. But really, it is very hard for me right now. I’m struggling because I’m finding it hard to separate my own issues from my parenting.

Those of us who didn’t grow up with “ideal” parenting always vow to not turn into our own parents. We will know better, we say; we will be different. I used to criticize my husband for repeating his parents’ negative patterns, until lately when I’ve realized for myself just how hard it is to break out of those cycles.

I tend to be critical and perfectionistic. My mother tends to be critical and perfectionistic. I never met my grandmother, a single mother, who passed away before I was born, but I’ll venture to guess that she was pretty critical and perfectionistic too.

Over many years I’ve trained my eye to notice only the gaps – the 5% on a 95 on a test, the slightly bungled response in an otherwise fantastic job interview. Don’t even get me started on photos of myself.

God knows what the cumulative damage has been, from living with this kind of lens. And now I find myself looking at my own child in the same way.

Fred got a 94 on his math test last week, came in second in his martial arts competition two weeks ago, and remembered to bring home everything from school yesterday except for his water bottle. I know enough to not voice my knee-jerk reactions every time, but it’s bad enough that I even have knee-jerk reactions to begin with.

One area in particular that’s a hot spot for me is time management. The problem is that the one area Fred needs to improve on is the one area I’m very good at. I’m a planner and I haven’t worn a watch in over two decades because my internal clock is so freakily accurate. Time management is important to me and something that’s come naturally so I don’t know how to help those who aren’t able to do it.

But I’ve been trying – big white board with check-off list, a ticket incentive system. After a number of struggles, yesterday morning I heard Fred’s alarm go off a half hour earlier than his normal wake-up time, and then the opening and closing of his dresser drawers followed a couple of minutes later by the clapping of the kitchen cupboards. He had gotten dressed and gone downstairs to get breakfast. I told him I was proud of him and that he was up early enough to catch the bus (always a treat for him). Then, five minutes before he was supposed to leave, he needed to use the bathroom, and ended up missing the bus…which was just as well, because he then realized he’d almost forgotten his recorder for music class.

I didn’t shout or get angry (this time), but I was visibly irritated. He was up a half hour early for crying out loud, and still managed to make no progress in terms of getting to school any earlier.

The truth is that Fred did great that morning. He had the foresight to set his alarm clock, at an early enough time to give himself a comfortable cushion (he had not originally planned to take the bus). He got dressed and prepared himself breakfast before either Max or I were even up. This is HUGE for him. I just wish I had really seen that, and not only in hindsight.

The most painful realization in all of this is that I have blurred the lines between love and approval, and it clued me in on why I, too, have spent my life terrified of losing people’s affections whenever I make a slip. Sometimes when I’m disappointed by Fred’s behavior I’ll feel myself freezing up, even though my love for him of course hasn’t changed. Fred on the other hand will, without fail, kiss me and tell me “I love you too, too much” before closing his eyes to go to sleep each night, no matter what my mood is. On one particularly bad morning before leaving for school he wrapped his arms around me, hugging me long and hard before getting into the car.

I know that his challenges with time management are the flip side of his creative mind, a mind that is often lost in intense thought. Among his many gifts is a huge capacity to love, overlooking others’ flaws and mistakes and slips, and making sure that the last message before “good night” and “good bye” is always “I love you.” I have so much to learn from him, and every incentive to break the cycle.

Do you struggle with this too – that is, repeating patterns from your own childhood?

Is school starting yet?

I’ve lapsed in my writing, as we hit the road (again) the last couple of weeks to see more family and we had almost no internet connection.

We are home, finally, and now hosting my mother and Fred’s 16 year-old half brother. It’s been a whirlwind summer with the non-stop traveling, people-seeing, and work. The three of us have had our share of crying, shouting, and whining.

There are a number of things that I can use as a barometer for how things are going, but the most telling one is how I’m doing as a mother, and I can say with confidence that I’m just a bad mom right now.

I don’t know if I’m a “bad mom” because it’s summer in general, or because it’s been a particularly strenuous summer. I am always in awe (and flooded with guilt) when I see Facebook pictures of mothers cheerfully working on arts and craft projects with their children, or taking them on excursions through state parks. My Facebook posts (if I were to dare post them) would consist of photos of me rolling my eyes the nth time my child tries to negotiate to have dinner at McDonald’s, or wagging my finger at him to knock off that whining, NOW. It’s quite embarrassing to admit, but on three different occasions I have said to Fred, “You know, you would just love Auntie XXX.” I am thinking out loud during those moments, but I could name at least three friends off the top of my head who could make my child happier.

I am so tired, and I readily admit that I lack that maternal gene that allows me to be pleasant when I’m around a child 24/7 for more than a week. I feel guilty when I find myself thinking, “When is school starting again?”

I know it’s not so much my child that is driving me crazy as it is my fatigue that is facilitating my being driven crazy. The more tired I am the more impatient I am, and the more impatient I am the more I am chipping away at the relationship between Fred and me. When he is temperamental or difficult, he is saying to me, “I don’t like this. I don’t like this tension. I am not happy. Where’s my real mom?”

Indeed. Where is she? She’s buried this summer under the physical strain of traveling and adjusting and readjusting to time zones. She’s grappling with in-law issues and aging parents for the first time. She’s confronting the question of where to live over the next few years. She’s wondering how to keep her child entertained, or if it is even her responsibility to keep him entertained. She’s swinging between helicoptering and “free ranging.” She’s confused. She’s staying up too late and waking up too early. She’s trying to please too many people and get too much done. Then, she’s beating herself up because she sometimes doesn’t like whom she sees and hears when she looks at herself.

When over nine years ago I had asked Fred’s nurse how bad it would be to give Fred formula once in a while if I just couldn’t hack the breastfeeding (I struggled even while still at the hospital), she told me the oft-quoted advice that the first person to take care of was myself, and to do what was best for me. It’s clichéd advice in America, but significant then as I was in Japan, a country where the mothering culture is about sacrificing all of one’s self for one’s children. Nine years later, I know her advice still holds true. There’s maybe a mistaken assumption that as our children get older, things get easier, and that as we get older we become wiser and stronger. They do and we do on some level, and yet new and different challenges confront us and tax our energies and confidence.

Like aging parents and maturing children…and summer vacations.

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?

Living, Loving & Reading: my new blog theme

I’m back from my whirlwind trip through 4 cities in Japan, simultaneously exhausted and energized. So much happened internally for me over the last few weeks, as going back and meeting family and friends took me face-to-face against such issues as our aging parents and mortality, the meaning of filial piety, the cultural differences in what it means to be successful and how to raise our child in this blended context…

Exhausted and energized. American and Japanese. Confused and clear. Fatter and leaner. Yes, even down to my weight and body, I feel like a contradiction. Somehow I managed to gain 5 lbs. and feel more plump (due to the incessant eating) and yet more muscular (from the miles of walking and commuting we did each day).

At least the trip was a kick-start to get me out of the lazy comfort zone I had fallen into. Despite a difficult return home (our connecting flight was cancelled after the 13 hour leg from Japan, and we were stuck for the night at Newark Airport which I am convinced is hell on earth), I threw myself into work and cleaning the moment I got home. Maybe seeing my weakened parents-in-law (a distant relative died on our last day in Japan as well) unconsciously pushed me to not waste a minute.

I spent a couple of jet-lagged nights making over my blog. I’d struggled over the last few months to write meaningful content and to stay consistent. I’d gotten close to launching a second blog as well, on books and reading, until I had to be honest with myself that I can’t in any way be able to manage 2 blogs simultaneously. I think I was struggling with my blog identity.

As fellow blogger friends of mine have done and talked about, I need to let my blog grow with me. I started writing several years ago focusing on motherhood. These days, although motherhood is no less a priority for me, it has become less pressing for me in terms of discussion. Someone should probably write the life cycle of a mom blogger, as this cycle must exist. Somehow we go from wanting to talk and read about mothering all the time to wanting to talk and read about other things as well, all while still focusing very much, of course, on our children.

So I’m at that stage right now. Fred is 9. In many ways parenting is easier now. I don’t need to find childcare if he’s home from school and I need to work. I don’t have to serve him breakfast if he’s up and hungry and I’m still in bed. I don’t need to take him to the restroom if he has to go and we’re out in public. (Though I’ll wait outside. I’m paranoid of him being alone in a male restroom.)

But in other significant ways parenting is harder now. I feel less control than I ever did, more clueless about whether or not I am doing the right thing (with an uncomfortable, gnawing feeling that I am going about it all wrong and a fear of finding out just how wrong once the teen years set in). When Fred was younger the challenges were largely physical, and in the end I was usually successful in my influence. I’m feeling my power as a parent waning slowly bit by bit as Fred gets older, and I’ll continue to write about mothering in the middle years.

And I’ll still write about life, which is starting to look a little different now, with my time less constrained and with more need to find purpose, with the tarp over my relationship to my husband slowly coming off now that our child is older, with our thoughts turning now to the eventual loss of our first parent.

My new addition to my blog is a discussion of books. (I’ve added a new page to my menu (a list of the books I’ve read this year) as well as links to previous posts on reading to the right of the screen.) I’ve cranked up the reading this year, as some of you know, and I’ve loved being able to throw myself again into this hobby over the last few months. I’m finding myself gravitating toward other readers and other blogs about books, and I thought it would be fun to become a part of that community too. I read mostly fiction and memoir, and I know there’ll be parallels between what I’m reading and what I’m living.

So as you may or may not have noticed also, I’ve changed my tag line from “Motherhood, Marriage and Self” to “Living, Loving and Reading,” because that pretty much sums up what I want to be doing these days. Thanks so much for sticking with me so far, and I hope you’ll also join me in my future book discussions!

Summers

Summer’s started.

In sharp contrast to the eternal, mind-numbing boredom of my summer days growing up, my summers since becoming one half of an international couple have involved travel. We are always an ocean apart from one set of parents or the other, and this distance only became harder when Fred entered the picture. Both sets of grandparents are getting older, their health is an ongoing issue, and the responsibility to make the time to see them while we still can has become ours.

We leave early tomorrow for Japan, where Fred was born and had spent the first four years of his life. Though he’s stopped speaking Japanese, he maintains an inexplicable attachment to his first home. He still remembers the park near our home, the “school bus” he used to take to preschool, his favorite store, his grandparents.

I always go back with a bit of weight in my heart. Japan is where I became a mother, and memories of those early baby and toddler years are packed up – so neatly, so separately and so inaccessibly – on one side of the world. I have no physical reminders of my early motherhood where we are now in the States, at all…but when I go back – two planes, one three-hour bus ride and a taxi later – it all hits me again. I walk again down the path to our favorite park and the familiar streets to my three grocery stores. We didn’t have a car back then, so I used to walk those roads pushing Fred in a stroller, with groceries in a backpack and more hanging on the handles of the stroller. As Fred got older he would come with me on his tricycle. On bad days when he was too hot or too tired, he would refuse to pedal and ask to be carried. I would then carry him and the groceries, and push the tricycle the half mile it took to get home. But mainly I remember how he would stop to look at the flowers or pebbles along the way home, or we would stand at the train crossings to wait for and watch the trains go by. With Max away at work 16-18 hours a day, I often felt lonely and alone that first year, isolated in a town with no friends and knowing no one who spoke English. The days seemed endless with so many hours, and so I didn’t mind how long it took to get home from the store. During this time, Fred and I had our own special world: we had each other.

We moved to the States right around the time Fred was ready to enter school. By the time he started kindergarten he was becoming part of a social fabric that would stretch wider and wider. In the years since, he’s moved from my arms and my lap to arranging play dates on his own; from watching flowers and pebbles to explaining to us how our phones and camera work.

But we’ve both grown, haven’t we? I get together with girlfriends now, without Fred. I’m working again with clients. I’m reading again, and writing. We’ve both developed our own worlds here in the States, together, and apart.

So I’m looking forward to flying out tomorrow, and spending three weeks together with Fred and Max, starting with the 16-hour flight. I’m looking forward to asking Fred, “Do you remember this?” and sharing with him the pieces of our world that have meant so much to me but which he was probably too young to remember.

Do you revisit the different places of your children’s life?

How to grieve a public tragedy

I wasn’t happy with my post on Tuesday, the one in which I’d written about Boston.*

All of it was true – the way Fred asked me how I’d felt, the way he gave me permission to feel bad, the deep, deep indebtedness and pain that I feel toward the city that gave me life. But I wrote it all from a place of self-consciousness. I held back. I put up a front. I thought, the only way people will come to read this piece is if I tell them it’s not a depressing piece. I fenced in my emotions and plagiarized the optimism and fortitude that I’d read about and already seen in so many people.

The thing is, I don’t know how to grieve. I don’t know how to grieve for a public tragedy and for one in which I don’t have any direct connection to the actual victims or survivors. But it hurts, and it hurts me in a way that is different from the Oklahoma bombing and even the 911 attacks. It hurts so badly because it happened to a place that I see as my second mother.

And I didn’t know what to do with my feelings. Of course, I called my parents and talked to my brother briefly. Max got it all in stereo. Fred got the abbreviated PG version. Close girlfriends and I exchanged very short messages. But really, what can you say? A good friend of mine offered to talk. But she’s busy, and I couldn’t imagine dialing her up while she is trying to juggle school pick-up and grocery shopping just to make her listen to dead silence occasionally punctuated by a sob in the background. No, at this time I probably needed to be alone…to be alone and yet not all by myself. So I went to Facebook. It is there that I learned of the explosions in the first place as well as found an instant gathering of friends, including childhood friends in Boston.

Grieving on Facebook made me feel better until it did not. And I’d go in this cycle over and over and be too stupid to just sign off. It’s an easy place to grieve. You can identify those who feel the same as you do and, through mutual sadness and anger and bewilderment, you find company. But not everyone meets you there; in fact, the majority doesn’t, or some do, but sporadically. You try to control yourself and only update your emotional state twice a day, and you think you are helping the public by sharing articles that offer newsworthy updates or some eloquent meditation on what has happened, swearing, to God, that this “must-read” will be the last (for the day, anyway). You do this because for you it’s cathartic, and because, you hope, it might bait some friends to come over and make you feel less alone. But slowly, you fear, your Facebook friends are tuning you out. Or perhaps they’re so consumed by their own grief that they cannot deal with Facebook. Or perhaps they don’t know what to say. Regardless, you are left back where you started: What do you do with your feelings?

It all happens in such vastness. It isn’t our grandmother dying, where there’s a place we can all go to and feel connected. When large, distant tragedies hit we shed tears with our hands clasped over our mouths across state lines, across oceans and we want to hold someone’s hand and yet so many times we are doing this in front of a screen. During Sandy Hook and Boston I wanted to reach out and hold more than just my husband and my son. I wanted more but I didn’t know where I could find these other hands. Maybe the reason I’ve turned to Facebook is because when so many invisible people are hurt, I need to go to the biggest place I can find.

And with vastness comes diversity. I have learned, through Sandy Hook and now through Boston, that we all deal with and process our feelings so differently, and yet how we do it impacts how others around us can cope. There’s the person who can’t stop talking about it and the person who wants to shut it all out. Put them together in a common space, like Facebook or a house, and no one’s needs get met.

When no one talks then it can be easy, at least for me, to assume that everyone else is moving on. Everyone is coping, and everyone is doing what she needs to do to not let a couple of bombs get in the way of Being There for her children. Many girlfriends say to me that they just turn off the news; it is too upsetting and they just turn it off. I allow myself to believe that they can do this because they are made of better maternal fiber than I – that in times of crisis and down-to-your-knees emotion they still have the mental clarity and wherewithal to carry out their priorities.

On the day after the bombing I blogged about Boston and then I failed to make dinner. Max had to take Fred to his after school activity, and I told him that I couldn’t cook. I just couldn’t. Because cooking would mean going to the supermarket and going to the supermarket would mean getting showered and getting dressed. I’ll change to go out for dinner, but before that I couldn’t.

And things continued like this. My body started to feel heavy, like I was on the verge of catching the flu. My head, neck and shoulders ached. Fred asked to do something with me and I said no. At night I scolded him, longer and more harshly than was necessary, because he was slow to get into bed. Rather than talking back, he just clamped his hands over his ears. Yet still, before he drifted off to sleep, he reached for my hand as he always does, and whispered with his lips brushing my cheek as he never fails to do, “I love you too, too much.” He is a third-grader, just like the little boy who died. I got to hear my son tell me that he loves me; Martin’s parents never will.

Yes, I hated myself at that point.

After Fred drifted peacefully to sleep – a privilege I realize I can no longer take for granted – I opened my computer, and I read my friend Alexandra’s blog post When Your Heart Tells You to Stop. She talked about her day after the bombing. It was uncannily similar to mine. She could barely cook. She’d walked out of the auto shop forgetting to pay for the work done on her car. She was unsettled and unfocused and hurting.

It wasn’t just me.

It isn’t just me.

It is because of Alexandra’s post that I can feel, let alone write all of this. Before it I was bombarded in every direction by Fred Rogers’ quote, the one about how in bad and scary times we should always look to the ones who help. There were messages galore about looking on the bright side and being resilient and bouncing back and having hope, and that became the message I believed I needed to feel and to own, right away. We Americans are very strong and very forward thinking and very optimistic. I take so much pride in that, but on the first day and even on the second, I just wasn’t there yet. I couldn’t race my emotions through. Call me slow but for the life of me I couldn’t muster up the strength to move on, no matter how many people, it seemed, were already on that other side. How those people got there so fast, I don’t know. Maybe they are wired differently. Maybe they found all the right support. Maybe they turned off all the news. For me on those first few days, I just needed to hurt, to say, This Sucks, and to have people tell me, I know.

*I’ve since edited my post Boston from Tuesday, because I owe it at least that. I’m happy with it now.

Our sky: on having goals mid-parenthood

I received my college newsletter the other day. It opens with a pep talk by our class president, in the equivalent of a drill sergeant’s 0500 whistle: “We all need to have GOALS, people!” (I paraphrase; this is how her words sounded to me when I read them in my pajamas at 1200.) “We’re in our mid-40s! It’s time to GO!”

Continued, on page 2, is the feature article, written by one of our classmates whose recent novels have been nominated for awards and praised by Oprah. The books are being translated into multiple languages and there is discussion about a possible television series, or a movie. But she is not here to talk about success, she says; she’s here to talk about failure – the many failures that she had overcome before she won her first book deal, and the fear of failure that we can’t allow to stand in the way of our developing our goals.

Good ideas all around, except she was apologetic… apologetic for bringing up the taboo topic of failure to our class of female glass ceiling shatterers. My alma mater carries a long history of women who have changed the world, women whose names are too big for this humble blog.

The newsletter jarred me. My first instinct was to cry and crawl back into my own womb of girlfriends, writers/bloggers and fellow mothers with whom I have shared my real life these last three years, into this world where I never have to apologize for being anything less than human.

The truth is, I don’t feel like GOing. I’ve gone, I went, and I don’t want to go back. In fact, I want the opposite. I’m trying to slow down. There was a long time in my life when it was exhilarating to keep getting better than I was and to keep learning more than I knew. I threw caution to the wind and moved to Tokyo when I was 30, working 6 days a week and trying to absorb every ounce of intercultural newness. I had a seemingly permanent zip code in Outside My Comfort Zone. Then one day I turned inward. I wanted steady, and predictable. Maybe I needed that because this new project called parenting that dive-bombed into our lives was so new and explosive that I needed everything else around me to be constant and easy.

While I sat there momentarily judging my class president, I stopped to think about her pep talk. Ear-splitting whistle and whip cracking aside, maybe there is validity in her words. The idea that I have to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or break the frontiers of science or write a Pulitzer Prize winning novel are expectations that I read into her words, because I viewed her not as a friend or fellow mother but as a spokesperson for the alma mater that had long ago made the sky both our limit and our goal. We all need purpose, but perhaps we need to make it up to us in what direction we want to reach.

I’ll be honest. For the last 6 weeks or so since my work season has quieted down I have dragged my feet from one day to the next. I worked hard these 8 years to finally achieve this balanced life style that I now have, and instead I find myself feeling listless and without purpose. What do I want to do now? What will be meaningful for me? My relentless years of nursing and diapering and chasing a little child around are over. My years of trying to build up a fledgling business are over.

I need a goal and another form of purpose. But before I can figure that out I need to re-define my sky and know that it will be a different one from the alumna next to me, and from the one that shone on me a decade ago before I became a mother.

Do you have goals outside of parenting? Do you feel you’ve also changed in how “ambitious” you are since you became a parent?