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.

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?

The non-kitchen wife and mother: my struggles with domesticity

Over coffee some time last week Max and I were looking through his Facebook newsfeed together when we came across a photo of a French dinner that a friend’s wife had prepared, a full table cloth and silverware setting and wine kind of spread that she seems to prepare nearly every weekend at home, even with a toddler in tow. I joked to Max, “I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘Now why don’t I have a wife who can cook me some Facebook worthy meals??'” (Slap knee!) Because if anybody ever came up with a ranking of The Wives with the Most Oft-Posted Meals on Facebook, I would probably be in the bottom quartile.best-cook-housewife

Max just kind of looked at me quizzically because, bless his heart, I honestly don’t think he ever thinks that. When I’ve seemed apologetic for not being more…culinary, his answer has always been, “That’s fine, because I don’t mind cooking.”

I don’t not cook, but I don’t cook a lot. In fact, I don’t bake a lot, I don’t clean a lot, and I am in general not in the kitchen a lot. There is minimal traffic in our kitchen. Someone is there when a meal is to be prepared and when the dishes are washed, and then everyone is out of there. Looking at my friends and at my own mother, I’ve always been conscious of being an anomaly. “Oh, God, yes – like, why can’t they pick up their own socks, right? Do they think they’re actually going to walk to the hamper themselves? Sheesh!” I sometimes need to talk the talk among girlfriends in order to keep my cover.

I have even gone so far as to psychoanalyze myself. I love eating, and yet the idea of planning a meal saps all the life out of me. I’ve dug deep, back into my difficult childhood years: Did I associate meal times with trauma? Had something terrible happened in our family while my mother was preparing meals? I draw a blank each and every time. I don’t remember anything from my childhood meal times except the savory aromas from the dishes my working mother never failed to prepare from scratch.

Housework rulesThen three weeks ago I sat in a therapist’s office. It had been well over a month since we’d finished all our traveling, and I was still exhausted, even less motivated than usual to do anything around the house. I felt as though I had checked out as a mother and felt paralyzed to do anything. The thing is, my mother would never have gotten paralyzed. Her love for her family was enough force to spring board her out of bed each day to cook and clean.

And worst of all, I wasn’t spending enough time with Fred.

My therapist asked me, What do you like to do with Fred?

Ugh…I knew that my list was going to be short. Because along with being non-domestic, I’ve often felt non-maternal as well. I love my child and I love being a mother, but I was not one of those women who always knew she wanted to have children. I came into motherhood after two years of soul-searching, weighing the “pros” and “cons,” and talking with my husband. My heart has more than caught up since the moment I found out I was pregnant, but my tastes and interests haven’t. I knew what I wasn’t going to say; I wasn’t going to say that I enjoyed baking cookies or getting down on the floor with my child to play or doing arts and crafts.

I like to read with him, I started.

and I like to talk…actually, we love to talk. We talk about everything. The Boston bombings. Women’s Role in Society Through the Ages. What I’m reading. What life might be like on Mount Olympus. His grandparents’ life story. Homosexuality. Racism. What’s really in those McDonald’s cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets. How it feels to screw up. How awesome it is to get over something hard.

Then, after another 20 seconds or so, I threw in going to the museum and beach and taking day trips to fatten the list a little bit and to sound less lame.

My therapist nodded. She said it was quite something, that we loved to talk. She said, Do you know how many parents struggle with this once their kids get into their teens? Do you know how many parents lose their children at that age? She told me that I am building the groundwork of our relationship.

I don’t know how to properly describe how my therapist changed me in that instant. I honestly had never thought of it that way. I mean, yes, of course I know that it’s great that I can talk with my child. What I hadn’t allowed myself to accept was that that – my particular brand of mothering – would be enough.

In Japan, where I’d lived during my first four years as a mother and where there is really only one accepted brand of mothering, I was dealing with jokes from girlfriends like “Do you know how to boil water?” And I would make myself giggle along with women who oooh’ed and aaah’ed over my husband, this rare and exotic Japanese bird who never expected me to be in any place except his heart and who has happily (?) stepped in to take over the laundry and to color code my undies. It’s all rather ridiculous, because I contribute financially to our household, a contribution some people had a hard time recognizing. And while I am no fixture in the kitchen, I am hardly lying in my chaise longue munching grapes. I have absolute certainty that, without my contributions (in discipline, financial management, education planning, etc.), our family life would not be the same. But I continue to feel that my value is measured by my domestic life. Having a husband who does his fair share around the house has not meant that we as a couple appear 50/50; I’ve sometimes felt that it means I appear only 50% as a woman. I’ve allowed the scraps of an arcane definition of Mother and Wife to make me question my self-worth, even back here in America where we’re supposed to have progressed so much as women.

No, there was no trauma in my past that has led me to rooms outside of our kitchen. I’m a woman who loves her family and I am the way that I am, for no particular reason at all.

Picture credits

You are the Best Cook! www.retro-housewife.com

Housework rules!  frenchfriedgeek.wordpress.com

Sunday mornings, then and now

2009

Wake up from sound sleep and with a near heart attack at 5:30 a.m. to a little pair of eyes staring down at me, willing me to wake up. Wonder how long he had been standing there. Get pulled out of bed to play. Silently curse…curse a lot.

2010

Wake up at 6:00 a.m. to the pitter-patter of footsteps approaching our room, then stopping abruptly to read the “Come back to Mommy and Daddy’s room after 8 a.m.” sign on the door. Hear and can’t help smiling at child who lets out a very audible “Awwww!” and slumps down on the floor against our door to wait. Hear him giving up after 10 minutes, and allow myself to fall asleep again at the sound of his retreating footsteps.

2013

Wake up at 7:30 a.m. from the sound of husband closing the bedroom door behind him. Fall back asleep. Wake up again at 7:57. Reluctantly sit up and reach over for laptop. Check e-mails and Facebook. Go downstairs to say hello to child at 8:30. He is playing a video game, watching t.v., or reading quietly. Say good morning three times and make him respond. I wrap my arms around him and playfully squeeze him, asking him how he slept. I take his mumbled “good…” for now. He nods when I ask if he has already eaten something. I go back upstairs to bed, to my laptop. Twenty minutes later, I hear his footsteps running up the stairs, more staccato now, less pitter-patter. He gets dressed and washes up. He and his best friend Jack had already made an appointment to meet at 9, at his house.

All I ever wanted was sleep, and now the house feels so quiet.

What are your Sunday mornings like? 🙂

Caring about what others think

I did something this week that was uncharacteristic of me; I turned down a social invitation even though I had no excuses, and I told the truth why.

A friend of mine had invited a rather large group of women to get together. I didn’t have anything on my calendar at the time, and, as members of my friend’s social circle, the women on the guest list were no doubt interesting, intelligent, and successful people. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t go through with it. (Couldn’t or wouldn’t – the two feel almost the same). I thought about the continuous small talk I’d need to engage in, the repeated explanations of what I do for a living, the awkwardness of sitting alone once small talk exhausts itself and the person has moved on to someone else, or has already found her niche. Not that I am anti-social or always awkward socially, but I’m outgoing and friendly in certain situations, in certain moods, and with certain people. And very likely 10 or even 5 years ago I would’ve put on my networking mask, told myself I needed to get out of my comfort zone, and gone. This time I questioned what was so wrong with being comfortable. And so I turned down the invitation and, instead of offering an excuse, I simply told my friend the truth (tactfully so, of course).

I remember when not caring about what others thought was such an alien concept – a shock that it was even a concept at all. I was 30 when I was introduced to a gentle 43-year-old divorcee on my first day at a new job. After we exchanged hello’s, my boss told me privately that Mina had come a long way since she turned 40 and became single again – better able to hold her own and less anxious about what others thought of her. That evolving to this emotional freedom was even a possibility in a woman who didn’t seem all that different from me was inspiring and hopeful. Emotional independence became a silver lining in the inevitability of one day turning 40: I had something to look forward to.

I’m now there – or here, rather, and I’ve noticed myself indeed drawing the line more and more. Over the years, marking this boundary has evolved from consciously choosing to responding instinctively to a desire to take care of myself. The PTA begging for volunteers, another friend asking for a favor, someone organizing a big party, a client asking for a last minute appointment, acquaintances wishing to get together when we travel. How and when to mark one’s territory is rarely an easy decision, because in some of these situations it’s the choice between being selfless and being selfish. It’s always been hard to make the selfish decision, but I find myself doing it more as I get older.

But it’s not always about sacrificing. Sometimes it’s about what others would think, and a matter of preserving the image that you want to project.  What would others think of you if you acted out of self interest, or chose to reveal the real you? I absolutely knew that I was taking a risk in telling the truth when I turned down the invitation. Though I consider the hostess my friend, our friendship was initially born in the context of a presumably shared professional and social status. I’m aware of the kind of image I should portray – someone confident, someone sociable, someone successful. So why did I risk presenting myself as a socially inept wimp? Because I believed that my friend deserved more than a lie, if even a white lie. Maybe deep down I wanted to “come out,” so to speak, to say, this is the real me. (This is probably why I keep a blog; it’s the one place where I can be authentic.) I’ve also recently come to believe that not liking big crowds is not a weakness; it’s a preference the way I like wine better than beer, or staying in the city over camping in the woods. I have social skills; they just don’t include working crowds of strangers.

Choosing to honor yourself – to not care about what others think – is also about asserting yourself: telling someone that the line starts back there, asking for your money back, telling an acquaintance, friend, or loved one that enough is enough. I think that for many women this strength, if latent before, kicks in during motherhood, when you have no choice but to protect and stick up for your children. I have one clear memory of being on the playground when we first moved back to the States, and Fred and I watched from the swings as a woman I’d never seen before picked up Fred’s bike helmet from the bench and put it over her daughter’s head and strapped it on. We were both incredulous, unsure of what her motive was, and for a couple of minutes I found myself hesitating to go up to the woman. Finally stirred by my 4-year-old’s increasingly insistent cries of “Mommy, it’s not right!” I swallowed my discomfort in confrontation and walked up to the woman. If I can’t do this for myself, I thought, I need to at least do it for my child, to signal to him that he has boundaries to be honored and to model a proper way for standing up for oneself. Assertiveness is not just marking your territory but becoming aware that you actually have a territory to mark, and that territory is defined by respect.

I remember so many women in college and in the years after who seemed to already be at the place that would take me four decades to reach, so it was reassuring when I later came to hear about women who started to come into this emotional independence in middle age. Why so relatively late for some women? For me part of it may be sheer exhaustion from having done so many things at the expense of my own needs and my desire for authenticity. I’m also much more aware of the passing of time now, and I’ve grown more assertive about how I want to spend the time that I do have.  Certainly it’s a greater inner strength that did require all those years to develop. I have a self now that I didn’t when I was younger, and more faith in myself and in others that I will not be chipped away with each no, disapproval and judgment.

How about you? Do you tend to worry about what others think? 

Stress and growing pains (a back-to-school post)

I didn’t get much uninterrupted sleep over the last week. Fred was struggling with a cold and an on-again-off-again fever, night terrors, and complaints of mysterious leg pain at odd hours of the night.

I can attribute all of this to any number of things — the hectic travel schedule we had this summer, summer camp fatigue, recirculated air, too much t.v., too much video game playing, too much sugar…and/or…I can blame it on August, the ending of summer and a time when his half-brother returns home 7,000 miles away, and the anticipation of a new year at school.

As in tune to my child as I’d like to think I am, I haven’t always been successful in seeing when he is anxious. After all, he is not likely to come to me and say, “Mommy, I’m nervous about starting school and about the academic and social pressures that I’ll be facing this year.”

Of course part of it is because it’s too easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day to always see beyond the surface, to know that your child might be talking back to you or overreacting over small inconveniences not because he’s being difficult but because something deeper is unsettling him.

It can be hard, too, because we might have forgotten exactly what it’s like to be 5 on the verge of starting kindergarten or 6 about to head into 1st grade or 10 wrapping up the final year before moving on to middle school. By now, we’ve conquered so many feats from surviving high school to passing any number of job interviews to graduating from the dating world to giving birth. Our adult brain with all its experience and wisdom and a certain amount of amnesia now ranks moving on to the next grade in school as nerve-wracking as taking that first step into a cocktail party; it’s uncomfortable but after a couple of drinks and some introductions we know we’ll sail through.

It’s also harder for me to notice the signs, I suppose, because I had it harder, just like my parents had it harder than I when they were in China. Growing up in my family we’d heard so many versions of “When I was your age I had to walk three miles to school without shoes.” (The joke for our generation is “When I was your age I had to get up to turn the t.v. channel. ;-)) As a first generation American, though, things were quite difficult for a good number of years while my parents were trying to get established in a country where they didn’t know the language or customs. They fought all the time from the stress, to the point where I used to run into bed and hide as soon as I heard my father coming home from work. For the first 10 years we lived in a 2-room apartment in a pretty bad part of town, and one night when I was about Fred’s age I heard a woman get shot outside my bedroom window while I was trying to sleep. I never talked to anyone about how I was feeling, but my body was screaming through headaches, stomachaches, tics and canker sores. And I coped by turning inward, to reading, writing, drawing, and daydreaming.

Those years feel like a lifetime ago, and today we have everything – my modest definition of everything. We live in a safe community, a beautiful home (once I organize it), and we have the luxury (and burden) of knowing that Fred never needs to suffer or want for anything. He travels, takes piano and martial arts lessons, studies foreign languages, reads books he is running out of room for, plays freely outside with his friends. He is safe and he is incredibly loved. To me, he has absolutely everything.

Interestingly, though, that is how my parents saw me as well: blessed and privileged. In their eyes I got to grow up in America, to know English, to attend school all the way through graduate studies without ever needing to question otherwise, to not know the threat of soldiers or invasions, to never have to go a day without food, and to grow up with both parents (my father was on his own from 16 and my mother never saw her father). My parents had not seen the stress I was suffering, because they thought I had everything.

Nine years ago when I was an expat in Japan and home alone with a new baby, I spent a good deal of time on a mothers’ forum on the internet. I was living in the suburbs then and knew no one and couldn’t speak the language well. I was grappling with some level of post-partum depression or “blues” as well, and though new to the whole world of social media, decided one day to reach out and talk about my feelings of isolation, especially with my husband away at work 16 hours a day.  I received many sympathetic and encouraging responses, but one woman brusquely responded that at least my husband wasn’t stationed in Afghanistan, that those wives were the ones who had it hard.

Her response humbled, hurt and angered me. If I were to compare my troubles against the troubles of the world, then I should simply keep my mouth shut, something I had been doing my whole life anyway, up until I posted that message to the forum. Absolutely many have it harder. There are women raising families alone, women living with disabilities, women being beaten by their spouses, women being sold into prostitution, women being raped and mutilated and murdered — where do I stop? And yet the fact that others have it harder or worse – and even the awareness and appreciation that they do – does not lessen my need for comfort during my own times of difficulty, even if the difficulties seem paltry against the world’s larger and innumerable problems.

And so for all the parenting mistakes I have made, I am grateful that I have managed to not belittle the stresses felt by my son, comparing his experiences against mine. Over dinner with family friends the other day, Fred said, “Teachers yell more in the 4th grade. In kindergarten and first grade they’re nice to you and they take care of you, but they yell more and more after that. And there’s going to be bullying, and bullying tends to take place around lockers.” This is thanks to stories, rumors, books, and too much Nick at Night. But this is also the reality that my rising 4th grader believes he will face in the coming year – the certain extrication from childhood, the entry into a more unknown and threatening stage of boyhood – and that can be pretty stressful for anyone.

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.

Defining home

When I was in college, a “worldlier” friend used to enjoy making digs at me because I’d never left Boston. Indeed, I went to both college and graduate school right outside of Boston and I started my career 15 minutes from where I grew up.

So when a young attendee at one of the work events I was hosting read my palm (she just happened to be psychic – I wasn’t working with the paranormal ;-)), I soon learned that a foreign country was in my future. I balked at her prediction, because I was every bit as domestic as my college friend accused me of. I’d just gotten promoted at work and moved into a new apartment (10 minutes from where I grew up) and I had no interest in going anywhere.

Then, sure enough, one fluke event led to another, and two years to the month that I’d met the palm reading woman, I was standing at Narita International Airport with the two suitcases from which the next eight years of my life would grow. I would end up changing my career, meeting my husband, and becoming a mother in Japan.

Nearly a decade later, we – Max, Fred and I – relocated to the States, to the south. We wanted warmth and affordability and we wanted out of the city. Our son gets to now grow up with the kind of life I used to only dream about and see on television: a neighborhood filled with the laughter of children, an American-sized house, trees, yards, elementary schools with campuses, neighbors who smile and lend you eggs and butter if you need them. While there are larger, serious problems with our state, I do love the idyllic, international, intellectual, liberal-minded and friendly town we live in.

But I started to have second thoughts this year, when the bombings in Boston pulled me back to a familiarity and security that I’d long resisted. Mourning in the shared pain back in April, I realized that I have roots, however ambivalent I may be about my actual experiences. Boston, with its harsh climate and harsh personalities, was not an easy place to live or grow up in. But it was home – the place that I will always associate my family and childhood with, and the security that family and the past bring.

That I felt rooted is significant, as someone who for a good part of her life didn’t feel like she belonged anywhere; I was too American for my Asian friends yet not quite western enough to be seen as American. Coming back after almost 10 years overseas, I have an affinity for other expatriates and international people.

I found myself wanting to move back to Boston – for my parents, for Fred (there are better educational opportunities in Massachusetts (read: feeder schools)), for myself. I’d even managed to convince Max to seriously consider the possibility, which was no small feat given that he’d left one home behind for me already.

After some gut wrenching ruminating, I told Max I’d changed my mind. I couldn’t make the possibility work without throwing a grenade into our family. Our time line would mean sending Fred to 3 different schools in 3 years. We would need to downgrade our living space to a small apartment. Finances would be tight. And I’d need to pull both my husband and son from the only home in America they know, a home and community that they absolutely adore.

The whole process made me rethink the meaning of home. Is it where I have my roots, my childhood memories, my parents? Is it a place that is defined by history, or is it a starting point for history? Is it the place brimming with opportunity and stimulation, or the place where you feel most serene? Can home be a home if one has chosen out of duty – for filial piety, for a better shot at Harvard for your kid? Can it be a home if one half of your partnership doesn’t feel the same way you do about it? Can you love your home and yet still long for another place? Questions like these made my head spin.

In the end I understood that home is where all three of us are happy, and eventually the place where my parents are better off retiring to. I decided that home for me needs to be about peace and comfort and space and freedom, a place without resentment or constant anxiety…and it is what we already have.  But the decision is also a compromise because we don’t have the luxury of having it all, and no matter what we choose we do end up sacrificing.

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.

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!