More peace

I’ve been quiet the last couple of weeks, drained by the Newtown tragedy, a cold that has lingered for months, and some uncomfortable feelings of tension at home. Maybe they’re all connected, as stress has a powerful way of breaking us physically and emotionally.

Whatever the causes though, stress is not something we can avoid. And so when I hit rock bottom over Christmas for events that didn’t warrant the level of anguish I suffered, I began to ask myself why.

I have never done well with conflict and anxiety. I have a heightened sensitivity to tension, to anger, to loudness, to violence. My heart pounded whenever I witnessed playground fights as a child, and my heart continues to race today whenever I hear voices begin to escalate at home. If the combination of anger and loudness brings back enough memories, my lungs will feel like they are closing off and my fingers will begin tingling. I will then have a full blown panic attack, feeling and seeing in my head an emergency (that may not actually exist) from which I cannot escape.

I grew up in tension, in chaos; anxiety, however unpalatable, is the air I am most used to breathing. So despite wanting peace so much, despite having such a visceral reaction against anything that upsets, I wonder if I, too, contribute to the chaos with my own violent reactions…every time I think a mean thought, every time I choose to say something that will scourge, every time I blame, every time I fantasize about hurting myself as a way to escape feeling pain. Maybe I recreate the emotions I am most used to even if I don’t want them.

I was struck by this blog post on anger by Shannon Lell, and in particular the latter half of this (the emphasis mine):

I am coming to understand that my anger is my half of why my marriage isn’t better than it could be.

Invariably, whatever tension is felt in my life is felt most frequently in my marriage…not necessarily because we may have issues (though there is that, as there are in most marriages), but because our partners often get on the receiving end of whatever discomfort we feel in life: sleep deprivation, annoyances at work, etc. Often our partner is our most regular and intimate other, and lucky they become subject to our every mood unless we happen to be skilled at and vigilant about monitoring our emotions.

When things aren’t right with my husband, things don’t feel right anywhere else in my life.

But this time I remembered Shannon’s words: my half of my marriage.

Too often when Max and I are overcome by emotion we end up spewing out a whole lot of you’s: but you did this, and you said that. We focus on how the other person has wronged or hurt us. I’d like to think that we do this not because we are malicious or self-centered, but because deep down, it is easier to accept someone one else’s wrongdoing than it is to accept our own. While it may anger us to know that someone else has hurt us, it may be unacceptable to our conscience to know that we have hurt the person we love.

Or at least I realize that may be the case for me. By focusing on what someone else did to me, it becomes convenient for me to avoid having to acknowledge the things I have said, and the wrongs that I have committed. I don’t think we can ever go anywhere with someone if the person is constantly made to feel defensive against our words. We end up in self-protection mode, and we begin to see the other person as enemy. Because we shouldn’t have to protect ourselves against friends.

I’ve decided that from now on, whenever I have an urge to say something, I will ask myself, Why am I saying this – is it to satisfy my feelings of anger, or is to further our discussion? If it will not improve interaction, then there is no point in saying it.

From now on, I will think about my half of any relationship, and focus on what I can do rather than what the other person can do. It takes two in any relationship, but ultimately the only person we can control is ourselves. But in doing so maybe we can help bring about the change, and the peace, that we have longed for.

Girl Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voice: a story of

Growing up I had the perfect poison for extinguishing a voice: I was female, Asian, immigrant, undocumented.

Outside our home I learned to stay in the shadows and not rock the boat.

Inside the home, I was an explosive acid of pent up frustrations: loud, uncensored and callous. The fumes that boiled within had to come out somewhere and at somebody, but there was no willing ear, no one accustomed to voicing his/her own feelings let alone capable of dealing with another person’s.

My family loved generously, but in ways that were different from western culture, the only culture that made sense to me at the time. We never spoke of our emotions.

The rare person who got close enough to catch a good glimpse of me often reacted with such surprise. I remember the friend in 6th grade, after our first phone conversation: “I didn’t know you were so interesting! You are so quiet!” And my freshman year English professor: “I had no idea you had so much to say until I read your paper…I would love it if you spoke more in class.”

I credit my four years at a women’s college for re-introducing me to a word – Voice – that up until then I had only considered a physiological mechanism. English lit classes were about George Eliot, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf…and, in so many ways, about us.

But studying these pioneer women writers was only a first step in understanding the courage to speak. While I admired our foremothers, I didn’t yet make that connection between their achievements and my duty to myself. Coming out of college, I am not sure how truly empowered I was. I failed to defend myself against women bullies at my first job, or to recognize abuse in my first serious relationship.

It’s taken me many years to understand the consequences of an early life in which emotions are not acknowledged, expressed, talked about, dealt with, or validated. You learn that certain (many) emotions are shameful, and you decide to keep the poison inside. You are used to having negative emotions dismissed, so when you feel disrespected by a boyfriend who (for example) threatens to dump you if you gained weight, you choose to ignore your instincts. You are not used to getting feedback on your emotions, so when you are upset with someone you love, you lash back with a venom that isn’t warranted by the offense.

I was like that for so long.

Voice began emerging for me, once I started to build up small successes. Like stepping inside a gym for the first time, after a lifetime of not believing in my body. Being loved by friends after the trauma of childhood bullying. Being happy without a man after once needing a man so badly that I tolerated abuse. Giving a talk before an audience of 250 in New York when once upon a time teachers and classmates never heard the sound of my voice. Finding a compassionate and committed life partner after so many prior failures. Becoming a mother when once I believed I didn’t have what it took. Co-founding my own company when my first boss didn’t trust me to answer the phones or much of anything else. And speaking up to and taking action against a teacher who hurt my son…after a lifetime of allowing everyone else to be right.

And somewhere along the way new friends began laughing if I tried to tell them I considered myself shy. These days I have to consciously hold down my hand at parent-teaching meetings so I don’t dominate the Q&A, and my husband – the one man I’ve dated who needs it the least – gets earfuls of my “I Will Survive” tirades.

A few years ago I took my first writing class, and in a class of supportive strangers I nervously began to share experiences that I had only begun to find words for. I’ve since had a few personal essays published, and today I celebrate the three-year anniversary of Only You. During these three years I’ve gone back and forth on numerous posts, publishing and unpublishing, torn between catharsis and fear of judgment, between confidence and doubts that anyone cares. I’ve been attacked on Motherlode in the New York Times for expressing my opinions (heh, who hasn’t been?), and I’ve been personally put down for writing a “mommy blog.” (But I’ve always been proud of writing about motherhood, and of bearing that most awesome, significant and beloved title of Mommy.) This blog has exorcised whatever shame, doubts and depression that I still sheltered several years ago, because it became a vehicle for me to face and process the emotions that never before met with trust. I am so grateful to you, some of whom I’ve been privileged to become friends with through your comments, many others who I know return quietly with each post, and some of you whom I met the old fashioned way, before blogging became a word. In many ways old friends were the ones I was most afraid to share my writing with. I can’t thank you enough for being that listening ear I’ve been needing all these years, for allowing this Voice to come out, and for nurturing it to grow. You’ve saved me.

Lying to Mom

The phone rang Sunday morning, and I asked Fred to check the caller ID. It’s Grandma, he said, looking at me. I told him I will call her back later in the day when I felt better. Without batting an eye he set the phone down, still ringing, and went back to what he was doing.

The thing is, I haven’t told my mother about what happened to my leg, and having just come out of surgery, I was too uncomfortable at that point to have pulled off a normal conversation.

It had been a no brainer for me to just keep this from her when I was in a cast; I figured, it’s temporary, and I am going to heal. Then when I learned I needed to have surgery, I was no longer so sure about keeping this mum, but at that point I’d already gotten in too deep…

It is quite possible, in the complex world that I inhabit with my mother, for me to be simultaneously intimate and dishonest with her. And then I remember reading somewhere recently that something like 92% of all teenagers lie to their parents about something, at some time. It got me thinking about why we lie and when we lie, and to whom we do it.

Last spring I was out of town to take care of my mother after her own surgery. Max and Fred had returned home earlier, and I called one night to check in.

“So what are you doing?” I asked my 8 year old.

“We’re, uh, what? [apparently off line to Dad]. Uh, we’re at, at China Kingdom.”

“What are you eating?”

“Uh…”

“Your favorite fish dish?”

“Uh…”

I started to grow impatient. Then I heard Fred’s little hand cover the mouthpiece as he hissed not softly enough, “Daddy! She’s asking me what we’re eating!”

“Fred! What is going on?! What are you eating??”

“Uh…crust…” I could see him cowering on the other line.

“You’re eating crust…at China Kingdom??”

And so I put 2 and 2 together and figured out they were at Chuck E. Cheese eating that horrible pizza. For dinner.

And so we all laughed and thought, isn’t that cute, ha ha, let me put this on Facebook. Until it dawned on me that it’s actually not funny to lie to Mom.

And why did they lie? Because they know how I get about fast food, and Chuck E. Cheese. I know pizza (of course) isn’t poison and Chuck E. Cheese isn’t a drug house. But I get it – if you’re not doing anything bad, why rattle Mom when you don’t need to?

I still consider myself close to my mom. Our weekly phone calls are always over an hour long. I share a lot, but I’ve also learned to keep away from her information that may excessively worry her. Like so many mothers – like myself – she finds her children’s pains so difficult to bear. When something happens to me my stress is doubled as I feel not only my pain but the pain that she feels. She’s tried hard to shield me from hardship, and on my last trip home she once even tried to carry my bags for me. We’ve always conflicted because I get insulted by her overprotectiveness. I ask her why she can’t see strength in me; she gets upset that I can’t see how she loves me.

The biggest lie I have ever had to keep from her was Max’s past. When it became clear that we were going to get married, I was suddenly tormented as to how or if or when I was ever going to tell her that Max had been married before and already had a child. She was coming from a very conservative culture and generation, and she would not understand what divorce meant or what it would mean for me to marry someone who had been divorced.

But keeping something so huge from her about her future son-in-law was more than I could bear. As many people do (I’d come to realize), I went to my father first, because it was easier. The way I interpreted love, my father loves me but sees strength and competence in me, and he has never seen me as an extension of himself. His calm centered me and he advised me on how to break the news to my mom.

Though I was right to tell my mother, it was the single most painful experience of my life. In her shock and fear of the unknown, she told me to call off the wedding. I was as outraged at her small-mindedness as I was at myself for having failed to make her happy.

It’s been over ten years now, and my mother’s come to ease up a bit on her worrying, especially seeing how I had thrived overseas on my own for nearly a decade, and now understanding how strong my marriage is. However, I can tell she remains vigilant about whether or not I’m being well cared for by Max. And I still dread the moments when she detects hoarseness in my voice or a lingering cough. I have imagined how I might tell her about my leg, but ultimately the idea of having to string together the words “I” and “broke” and “can’t walk” and “surgery” in a long distance phone call to her is too much. I might be underestimating her, but I worry that it will be too much for her…or maybe for me.

The last two weeks with my broken leg have been up and down. I have so far only allowed myself to cry in front of Max. Sunday, two days post-op, was one of those more down times. After leaving a message on our landline, my mother tried my cell phone. I turned and looked at it for a long while as “Mom and Dad” pulsated on the screen. I blinked away tears before deciding, finally, to let the phone continue to ring.

How well do we really hear our children?

A month ago I picked up Dave Cullen’s Columbine, considered the most definitive account of the Columbine massacre that took place 13 years ago last Friday. Like many I reacted with horror but then detached interest when the story came out. Of course, I was still relatively young then, and nowhere near parenthood. Now a mother, and a mother of a school-aged boy, I flew through the book with vested interest.

The mastermind and leader of the killings, Eric Harris, was confirmed by experts to be a textbook psychopath: cold, heartless, calculating. The second killer, Dylan Klebold, proved to be more complex. In fact, the initial profile of him sent chills down my spine: He was bright, curious, athletic, sensitive. He loved Lego and origami. It was irrational, but I shivered because that just described my son. How can a killer have started out this innocent boy, so similar to my own?

To my own surprise, I finished the book without judging the parents of the two boys. Unlike what some might think, Eric and Dylan were not raised in broken or abusive homes. Their parents were middle class or upper middle class and well educated, loved their sons, made efforts to discipline, and appeared to have paid attention to their children. And yet the question lingers on every parent’s mind: How could they not have seen this coming? Could we be as equally blind?

I look at my own parents. My father, a product of his generation, worked 80 hour weeks and left the childrearing to my mother. My mother devoted her life to caring for my brother and me, “dedicated” being an understatement to describe her. And yet, for cultural and generational reasons, my mother did not “hear” us much less listen to us. She was not raised in a culture or in a time where concepts like self esteem and depression were even conceivable. How can you hear what you don’t know exists?

But I, on the other hand, born into a cotton candy pop psychology bubble, would know. I’ve gone through periods in my life where self-help books lined my shelves, and I continue to talk like an amateur psychologist. I only amp up the psychoanalysis now that I’m a parent: Have I told my son enough times that I am proud of him? He was a little quiet after school today – did something happen with his friends? Don’t tell him to drink milk so he’ll get bigger – you’ll teach him to pursue a false body ideal!

And even so, as emotionally in tuned to my child as I think I am, I’ve missed some critical spots.

Like when Fred was about to start kindergarten, and he began acting out and throwing tantrums. I was taken aback, shocked at my 5 year old’s new aggression. We scolded and threatened and wondered if it was heightened testosterone, until Max brought up the idea that maybe Fred was simply anxious about starting school. Of course. We’d made such a big deal over kindergarten, telling him how exciting it was. But given his limited experience as a person, he had no idea what kindergarten was. We took him to an ice cream social at his new school, let him meet his teacher, and, like that, the aggression disappeared.

Then when he started first grade he began showing signs of more extreme stress: nervous tics, inability to sleep long. “I never get a day off!” he would shout, and we felt the guilt, but we plugged on with his activities, having convinced ourselves that they were non-negotiable. He had to go to Japanese school, to keep up his language and culture. He had to study Chinese, to keep up his language and culture. He had to stay with soccer, to build up his physical strength and teamwork skills. We finally took him to a behavioral pediatrician, who said to us, “Fred’s fried. He’s not telling you with words, but he’s telling you with his body.”

I look back on that time – just a year ago – with shame. Shame because I’d prided myself on being such a good mother, a mother who can see her child through and through. But maybe what I need is not so much to see – especially only what I want to see – but to really hear, and to really listen.

Part of Momalom‘s 5-for-5 writing challenge on “Listening.” Click here for other fabulous bloggers’ posts.

Your child’s personality

A few days ago I wrote tongue-in-cheek on Facebook that if strong-willed and defiant children are more likely to grow up to be CEOs, then I’d better be raising the next Steve Jobs. I was having a tougher-than-usual week with my 7 year-old, and instead of pulling out the last strand of hair still standing on my head, I made myself look on the possible bright side to get me through this rough patch called motherhood.

Then yesterday I read the ever wise Delia Lloyd in her post Five Ways to Think about Personality Types, and I heard about the DISC Personality Assessment, which focuses on the behavioral characteristics that make up an individual’s personality. The descriptions on their site include General Characteristics, Value to Team, Possible Weaknesses, Motivated By, DO and DON’T.

These categories translate very well into work personas, a very comfortable territory for me. After all, I’ve spent a significant chunk of my life in offices or cubicles, dealing with bosses, colleagues and subordinates. It’s in the work place that I spend the most time analyzing both the angels and doozies that surround me: the manager who doesn’t like people, the support staff person who tears up at the slightest criticism, the client who questions every piece of advice that I give.

To be honest, I analyze everyone, not just co-workers: family, friends, neighbors. Okay, that sounds bad. What I mean is that I like people watching and people understanding. Why, for example, can my husband Max not hear me when he is playing with Fred or typing on the computer? Turns out he is very focused on the task at hand and prefers to concentrate on one thing at a time; next time I need him I will ask him before or after he is engaged in something. I understand to learn, and to be a better relative/friend/neighbor.

Yes, I analyze everyone – everyone except children.

When it comes to children, they come in these one-size-fits-all labels: easy, difficult, picky, shy, hyper, sensitive, rambunctious, stubborn. Am I missing any?

I was so floored by DISC. Because it led me to look at my little boy as a future adult, in terms that I can relate to. My boy was no longer a developmentally immature child but a real person in the making, complete with motivations, temperament and a work style. Reading DISC reminded me that my child is not out to make my life hell nor does he have any kind of childhood behavioral disorder.

To be honest, if I looked more closely and understood my child better, I would see that he

likes having autonomy and appreciates the freedom to make his own decisions.

places more priority on big picture issues than on routine details.

likes to think outside the box and come up with his own solutions.

If I’d understood Fred better, I may not greet him at school pick-up with the friendly “Where is your jacket? Don’t tell me you’ve lost another jacket!” Instead of fretting if he has an attention deficit disorder I would more calmly help him find a way to remember those mundane details.

When he rejects my instructions because he’s thought of a better solution, I may be less likely to respond with, “I’m the mother; why don’t you ever listen!”

I might hover less and allow him to do more.

I would lecture less. Nag less.

In the DISC “DO” section, when dealing with “D” (Drive) personalities, I am to “[b]e brief, direct and to the point . . . Suggest ways for him/her to achieve results, be in charge, and solve problems. Highlight logical benefits of featured ideas and approaches.”

It also says DON’T “[r]amble. Repeat yourself . . . Make statements without support.”

No wonder I’d been having a tough week.

Our little future CEOs. Teammates. Teachers and crusaders. Or the next big thinkers. They all started somewhere, and I’m guessing it wasn’t from easy/difficult/picky/shy/stubborn.

Kids, Cliques and Friendship

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

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

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

“And what did they say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But,” he said, “I haven’t given up.”

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

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

Protecting your child from bad guys: when the ‘bad guy’ is someone you trusted

We had an incident recently with Fred’s after school
teacher. The incident started with an accident (in which Fred was the victim) and
ended with the teacher’s firing.

The story is involved and I’ll keep it short: the accident was caused by the teacher; I casually brought the accident to the teacher’s attention in a private conversation and in a “no biggie but FYI” kind of way; the teacher became belligerent and defensive, denying the whole incident; the accident reflected larger classroom management
incompetence; we believed in our son; we spoke up; our complaint was not the
first.

Speaking to the head of the program was one of the
most empowering things I have done as a parent. We were fortunate in that we
were listened to and fully supported. When we first spoke with the director, we
were immediately offered the choice to switch Fred into another class. Fred is
very adaptable, and took the changes in the coming few weeks in stride.
However, he was curious: “Why am I switching teachers?” “Where do I go
tomorrow?” “Where did Ms. ___ go? Is she coming back?”

I somehow managed to evade his questions by
responding vaguely, something I could get away with perhaps because the issue
involved someone he had not been that happy with anyway. I was vague because,
regardless of his or our feelings toward the teacher, I believed that I should
not reveal the negative side of the important adults in his life.

But ultimately it would not be up to me. During a
car ride with Fred’s best friend Jack and his mother, I overheard the two boys
talking about the “incident.” Jack’s mother asked me what was going on, and I
told her the whole story. I’d lowered my voice when I told her how the teacher
vehemently denied everything, and that is when Fred’s 7 year-old voice pierced through
our whispering like a bomb: “She is a BIG FAT LIAR! She did it and EVERYONE
knows it! EVERYONE heard me crying! She is a STUPID LIAR!” My throat tightened
and we stopped talking. Initially it was my dismay that he had heard me, as well
as a knee-jerk reaction to hearing him speak disrespectfully of a teacher. But
soon I realized I was reacting to something else. While I had never doubted
Fred’s version of the story, his raw fury simply made the truth all that much
clearer to me.

“Well, she is not there anymore,” was all I decided to
say, to let him know that he had been heard, that he had been vindicated.

Throughout this incident I’ve tried to walk a fine
line between maintaining respect for this teacher and letting Fred know that we’d
gone to bat for him. But how do you tell a child you’ve beaten the bad guy
while maintaining his illusion that there is no bad guy? Central to this
experience is the lesson that we want to teach Fred about self-respect: no
one – no child and certainly no adult – should lie to you. And if you feel
something wrong has been done, you need to speak up. Good people
will listen. Good people will support you. Things will work out, and if they
don’t, at least you will know that you have done all you could.

At the same time, how real does the world need to be
for a 7 year old? What does it do to his concept of trust if he knows that the
most important adults in his life can behave so badly?

I’m just beginning to look for answers. At the very least, I want Fred to know that for
every bad adult that’s out there, he’s got an army of good ones on his side.

When we fight in front of our children

There had been clues along the way.

The prolonged hugging in the morning, before Fred left for school. “I love you too much,” he said, as he rested his cheek against my belly. I responded in kind and wrapped my arms loosely around him. He repeated himself one more time, “I love you too much,” before he finally let go to head for the car. But midway he stopped and ran back to hug me again. “Okay, go, go!” I said.  “Get in the car!”

Yesterday, when he seemed to overreact when his afternoon playmate had to go home for dinner. “WHY does he have to go?” Fred had shouted in tears. “HOW do you know he is eating dinner NOW?” Max and I had already started arguing in the next room by that time. I later realized that Fred was dreading to let go of his friend, afraid to be left alone in the house while his parents were fighting.

Where there is love, there is conflict. Where there is intimacy, there is hurt. We fight because we feel and because we care. As the saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. As long as we engage in conflict, we are showing that we care enough to engage.

I know this. At least, after 10 years of marriage, I know this. I know that lack of sleep or misunderstandings can trigger some of our meltdowns. I know that within 24 hours things will blow over. I know that, despite the hostility we feel at those moments, our love cannot be so easily destroyed.

But at 7, Fred doesn’t know this.

I remember the first time I heard my parents fight. I was in bed, and all I could remember hearing were my father’s shouting and my mother’s muffled crying. At the crack of dawn, I woke up to study my mother’s face and body, making sure she was still breathing and that she would soon wake up. I had believed, then, that you could die from someone’s anger.

I was 7, the same age Fred is now.

The night after our fight, while Fred and I were reading at bedtime, we came across the word “courage” in his story book. I asked Fred if he knew what the word meant. He asked, “Is that like me not crying last night?”

I realized we had not talked about the fight. I told him to feel okay about telling Mommy and Daddy how our arguing makes him feel. I told him that sometimes as adults we forget; we are so emotional and we forget how our anger impacts our children. Fred, who had been stoic this whole time, suddenly started blinking back tears until they overpowered him. I realized, then, how much he has grown, how much of a complete person he has become, and how vigilant we have to be now in his presence.

Long before I became a mother I had a goal to spare my future children the stress of a war zone at home.

A number of things have defined the person I’ve become, but none more than the experience of witnessing and living with my parents’ fighting. The feelings of powerlessness had led to depression, the fears to anxiety, the anger to a sometimes overly strong need for independence from any man. But how easy it has become to prioritize getting all our emotions out over making a serious effort to consider the impact on our children. More than once I found myself saying something to Fred that echoed too painfully what my mother used to say to me, something that used to give me zero comfort: “Your father is not angry at you; he is angry at me. This has nothing to do with you.”

A fight between Mommy and Daddy is the cracking fault line in a child’s world. Our fighting has everything to do with them.

After a day of not speaking, I finally reached out to Max when I saw the notes in Fred’s school folder. Fred had been acting out that day. He did not listen to his teachers. He was angry. They made him write a letter of apology to be signed by us. Without explanation, we both knew the cause of his behavior and what we needed to do to restore normalcy to Fred’s – and our – life. Like a powerful glue, it was our child that put us back together again. Our children have everything to do with us.

How do you handle your marital conflicts when it comes to your children? Are you able to fight behind closed doors? How do your children react to conflict?

My struggles with writing

I didn’t realize how long I’d been away until I was visiting a favorite blog of mine last week, and saw on the author’s blog roll: Only You — last updated: 4 months ago.

I’ve been struggling with my writing all year. Topics became harder and harder to come up with, and I worried that I was writing without feeling. I would look at some of my posts and grimace at the writing quality. I was going downhill, I thought, and in my mind I decided it would be better to pause than to keep churning out bad material.

Motherhood, marriage, identity and all these other issues I had loved thinking and writing about were still important to me, and yet I found myself coming up dry. Have I moved on, I wondered? When I started this blog almost two years ago, I did so with an inexplicable urge. Life was probably no less busy then than it is now, but I had enough drive to make writing (and blogging) a priority. For the first time in my life I had the courage to let my voice out and so I did week after week, publicly – intimately – writing about things I had not even told my family or close friends. My voice was a volcanic eruption. Then gradually this spring that drive lost its urgency. I felt at peace, even when I was  not writing. Had I healed? Had I gotten so much out of my system that I no longer needed to talk? Words became less of a focus for me this year. For some reason I can’t explain, I even stopped reading this summer. Life was busy – I was a “single” mom for a while with Max in Japan and Fred’s martial arts activities intensifying – and I began living life rather than only thinking about it. And by this I am not saying that writers don’t live – only that I don’t. I’ve tended to write during periods of my life when I needed to heal, and I’ve written much less during times when I felt good.

And then recently I heard from a friend, “I miss your blog.” I read Alexandra’s poignant post about bloggers who disappear (and she’d mentioned my blog). The lovely Jessica at Mommyhood: Next Right even e-mailed me to say she’d missed my writing. I was honestly shocked. I had not realized that it might make a difference to someone to read what I have to say. It feels embarrassing to be this self-depracating at my age, but as someone who still has a hard time calling herself a writer without quotation marks, I’d say that my self-esteem as a writer is probably right at the high school level. But why not, right? There are so many writers – both professional and amateur – whose voices I would desperately miss if they were to stop. Whether it’s because they share experiences that make me feel less alone or stories that take me somewhere I could never experience, I am so grateful to be touched by them. And like finding a good hairdresser, I make sure I hold on to those writers that really make an impact on me. I don’t mean to be presumptious enough to say that I play that big of a role in a reader’s life, but I need to remind myself that part of the reason I like to write or blog is to make an impact; I am not only doing it for self-healing.

So I’m trying to ease back again. I will likely continue to struggle with time – time to write, time to read and comment on blogs, and I doubt that my writer’s block has completely lifted. But I miss the sharing and the interacting, and I miss the process of reflecting on an experience. Hopefully this time I will find a new voice – a voice that stays present even in the absence of healing, a voice that reflects the growth I’ve accomplished in the last couple of years. I hope that you can still be there for me.