My First Mile: Overcoming a Lifetime of Negative Beliefs About My Body

I wish someone had told me, years ago, that the way I saw myself at 10 or 15 could be the way I’d see myself at 25, 35, 45.

Certain self images can and will change but others will be stubborn as hell to budge.

I had weight issues growing up, but not the variety that our society pays attention to: I was underweight. In fact, I think I may have even fallen off the growth charts at some point. I remember catching colds frequently and being teased about my small frame. I turned down friends’ invitations to the beach because I didn’t dare get into a bathing suit. But most damaging of all was what I came to believe about my physical ability.

Moving was not my activity of choice. My mother said to me once that she could stick a book in my hands as a child and forget that I was in the room. I preferred daydreaming, reading, writing, and drawing. P.E. in school was an exercise in torture and humiliation from elementary school on through high school. Unlike the physical education that my son is now getting, my schools didn’t emphasize wellness, or at least that is not what I remember. What I remember is cringing at dodgeball, kickball, softball, and relay races. P.E. was about competition and winning.

And yes, when it came time for the captains to pick their teams, it would always come down to me or the fat boy as the last candidate. Maybe no one felt good about this because I remember their sympathetic and uncomfortable looks, even at 10 or 11. I was a nice girl, everyone liked me, but competition is competition.

Am I being melodramatic and overly sorry for myself when I say that I still tear up when I think back on that? Over 30 years later I can still feel the wind blowing over my hair and hear the muffled sounds of chatter as I stand there waiting for the captains to make up their minds and wishing that I could disappear.

As a teen I learned to forge my parents’ signatures to get out of P.E. and swim classes. I discovered that I could wear gym clothes that passed for regular clothes and sit out the rest of class after attendance was taken. I took myself out of the category of humans who could do things with their bodies. “I’m not an athlete,” “I’m not good at sports,” “I don’t exercise” all became part of the identity I would, for years to come, describe to others.

Thankfully though, life became more humane after high school graduation. I enrolled at a women’s college despite their graduation requirement of a year of P.E. credits. It was in college that my eyes opened to real physical education for the first time. The choices seemed endless, and kind: yoga, ballet, strength training, aerobics…yes, there were competitive or “hard” sports like lacrosse and squash but the menu was inclusive. I came to look forward to each semester when I could try something different. By senior year, I felt safe enough to even sign up for tennis. But my tennis instructor, also the coach for the women’s team, soon put me into the bottom group of the class so she could focus on the more talented players. “Your forearm is so thin,” she had said to me. “You’ll never be truly good at tennis.” I wasn’t trying out for the varsity team; I just wanted to try.

And so it went. I didn’t become a permanent couch potato as an adult, but I have been up and down. I joined a gym for the first time at 27, after a bad relationship break-up, and continued for a couple of years. And I tried yoga for the first time, as well as ice skating and rollerblading. With each sport the person teaching me would say the same thing: “You are really good for someone who has never done this before.” It was nice to hear, but my own messages about my athletic potential overpowered their words. I continued to dabble in yoga on and off over the years, but I abandoned the others.

It is ironic that I ended up marrying an athlete, seeing how I had always been intimidated by athletes. And then I birthed an athletic son. I also work with many successful professionals who had once been athletes. The last ten years of my life have been a gradual armchair lesson in the transformative value of sports, of believing in your body, of developing teamwork skills, perseverance, and a goal-setting mindset through sports. Most eye-opening was the fact that many “athletes” were not necessarily born but made…made over the course of many years if not decades of physical obstacles and self-doubt. It was this shred of belief that perhaps my body isn’t so different from everyone else’s that at 41 I overcame my lifelong terror of the water to learn to swim.

And last week, on Memorial Day, I ran my first mile without stopping. I never thought I could run. I was one of the last to finish in my high school running assessments, straggling in the rear with my lungs hurting. It was Max, who ran his first half-marathon at 48, who said that I could do it. Even after I had broken my ankle, even after undergoing surgery, even after believing for nearly 40 years that I didn’t have it in me to run more than 30 seconds before gasping for air. Max has been running with me, coaching me gently a few times a week. He didn’t know me when I was 10 or 15 or 20. He doesn’t know the person that has been occupying my thoughts all these years. Instead, he sees the woman I never met: beautiful, athletic, capable of anything.

Last Monday, when I could feel that I was running much longer than I ever had in my life and without any pain in my lungs, I began to cry, trying to juxtapose what my body was doing against all the pictures that were passing by of my days as a child. I did it. I finally did it.

running_onlyou

 

 

On Self-Consciousness, the Fear of Being Judged, and Struggling to Write

I’ve been having a hard time over the last couple of weeks mustering up the energy to write. The struggle is not new; I get hit by this every so often.

Emotional and physical fatigue is my biggest culprit. I experienced extreme highs and lows over the last couple of weeks that included a death in the family. I don’t sleep as much as I should on normal days, so the last couple of weeks have taken a bit out of me.

The other block is a renewed self-consciousness. I’ve received only support and encouragement ever since I posted about my experiences with anxiety, and friends are now even forwarding articles to me on being good to myself. But in the aftermath of those personal posts are the uncomfortable feelings of having said too much. Do my friends look at me differently now, even though my achievements have not changed? When I meet people, are they smiling at me out of pity or judgment? One friend confessed quietly that she had suffered from depression as well, but added, “But I’m not about to go around telling everyone about it.” Though she was speaking only of herself, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was also making a statement about my choice.

How do writers balance authenticity and vulnerability?

There are two sides in me, constantly, that either fuel or drain my motivations to write. There’s the side that expects the best in others – their open-mindedness, their compassion, their acceptance, their lack of judgment. And then there’s the side in me that fears the worst. My culture has instilled in me the importance of keeping secrets and keeping face; the reality of my life has shown me the toxicity of holding everything in. Since I started writing almost five years ago I’ve been gaining strength in my internal battle against the needless shame of being human. I had made the decision that having a voice outweighs the fear of being judged. It’s a seesaw I ride on every week that I write, and I hope that in time the nobler side wins.

Image courtesy http://www.ynaija.com

 

 

 

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?

Thoughts on blogging by an ordinary blogger

My blog is four years old today (!). That’s four years longer than any plant I’ve ever owned, a little less than half my son’s lifetime, and a third of the life of my marriage.

I’m not putting myself down when I call myself “ordinary.” By ordinary I am referring to clout and status in the blogosphere. It’s not unlike money and status in the off-line world. By both accounts I am ordinary. But do I think I am a good person who lives authentically? Yes, in both worlds, I do. I don’t have tips here on how to get big and successful, but if you want validation, you might find some here today.

I started blogging because I was interested in writing again. I could’ve simply written in a private journal, but maybe what I wanted was to speak up and be heard, by somebody. When I began looking back after a couple of years, it became clearer and clearer to me that I wanted to write because I had spent most of my life silenced. For many different reasons, not the least of which was growing up in a culture of shame, I had been trained to shut my voice down and to take up less space. We all have a voice, and it is a matter of whether or not we want to activate it. After all those years I wanted to activate mine.

And so I started, with many false starts. I had different blogs with different themes and names and nothing stuck until Only You. I named Only You for my son, then five years old. I liked having him be a part of this new life, and partly for that reason I have never considered abandoning this blog, even during stretches when I had lost motivation and confidence to continue.

But Only You was also me, because after having been consumed by motherhood those previous five years, I felt my identity fading out once Fred entered his own world of school and friends. And yet there was no previous self that still existed that I could go back to. Blogging helped me to re-draw the outline of who I was and to fill it in again.

So below are some thoughts, looking back on my four years of blogging:

On motivation

I was never a prolific blogger, and I have gone through peaks and valleys in terms of posting. For me the biggest motivation drainers are lack of physical energy, low writer self-esteem, and perfectionistic tendencies.

I’m going to sound a bit self-pitying here but in the name of honesty I’m just going to come right out and say it: I used to be inconsistent in part because I wasn’t sure if anybody cared. Writing to an audience of busy mothers I’d felt apologetic for my long and heavy posts. And when I found it hard to write – and I have gone as long as two or even three months without writing – I also didn’t explain my absences because I’d assumed that no one would notice if I disappeared for a while.

Of course, what I’ve learned is that 1) as a blogger you need to take a leap of faith and start from there; and 2) creating a community will help lessen that fear of “Who’s going to care?”. It’s a catch-22 because the less you write, the less likely it is you will gain a community and the less accountable you will feel about showing up. For a long time I was caught in exactly that negative cycle.

I also decided to follow my heart in adapting my blog. I was losing a bit of steam writing about motherhood, most likely because my world had shifted. Since the summer, books were becoming a greater part of my life, and I really wanted to start writing about reading. So I took a chance and added books as another blogging theme. I was a bit nervous about changing my blog but being able to write about my passion has refueled my motivation to write.

Finally, I’ve learned to not care as much. I used to approach writing each post almost as if I were drafting an essay for publication. That kind of pressure is what it takes to kill any chance of getting a blog off the ground. I’m still struggling to find my voice after all these years, to write more the way I talk, but I realize that won’t come unless I keep writing and keep practicing.

On community

I’m not going to say the predictable just yet. Instead, I want to say that it took me a while to get the hang of community, the on-line kind. I started out as a “mom blogger,” and soon learned that there is a whole subculture in the world of mom bloggers. There are the big players and you can choose to be a part of that whole scene or not. I’ve strung along to see what the fuss was all about, but I often ended up feeling more alienated and alone than anything else, like being back in my freshman year in college when I was struggling to find my niche. Any social situation that reminds me of those adolescent times is a sign that I need to move away. And so I did.

I also took things a little too personally in the beginning sometimes, feeling hurt if, for example, someone I followed didn’t follow me back. I’ve long let go of that need for tit-for-tat commenting and visiting, because the truth is I often can’t follow back the same people who follow me. Trying to keep up on-line is overwhelming and I understand that everyone else is going through what I go through. It’s not personal. There’s huge freedom in being able to visit a blog simply because you enjoy it, and not worrying about obligation of any kind.

And now I’ll say the predictable: I love my community. It is hard to talk about this without sounding trite or resorting to cliches. I blogged last Friday about the things that bring me down. Well, the people I’ve met through blogging are what bring me up. It is not better or worse than having friends off-line, but there is a certain amount of ease in building relationships on-line. Our first impressions are made not through appearance but through the most intimate parts of a blogger: her words. We can know quickly if we click or not, and with each post we feel we’ve gotten to know the other person a little better. Words are my favorite medium for bonding, and so I love being able to build authentic connection through that.

On validation and vulnerability

Like most bloggers I’ve done my fair share of obsessing over statistics, followers, comments, and shares. Are people reading my posts? What do they think about what I’ve said? Why did I just lose a follower? I never had any goal to amass a huge following, but still, I probably spend more time than I need to checking on my stats.

A few times I got syndicated on larger sites, and it was like small midwestern town girl meets the Big City. My stats skyrocketed during those brief periods of exposure, and it was there, in the scary streets of Blogher and Mamapedia, that I also encountered my first trolls. It was kind of a surreal experience, being told I was an incompetent mother who needed therapy or at least a few good self-help books, all because I’d written about the regrets I’d felt and the lessons I’ve learned from fighting with my husband in front of my child. Since then I’ve had little motivation to put my words out there again, in such public venues. It’s not so much that I’ve allowed myself to be intimidated into silence as it is my lack of desire to share myself with so many people whom I don’t know. It’s like I’ve decided I like my small town better than living in Los Angeles. My goal isn’t to make the big time.

Putting yourself out there and being vulnerable to judgment as both a person and a writer is one of the hardest things you can do. It’s impossible not to be self-critical and to fill yourself with doubt, honestly paralyzing doubt that makes you question if there aren’t easier and safer things to do with your free, unpaid time. So if nothing else – even if I don’t have a ton of followers or page views to show for my four years of blogging – I can say that I’ve shown up, year after year.

Do you blog? If so, what’s helped you stay in the game? As a reader, what keeps you coming back to a blog?

On beauty and looking “American”

asian woman

photo credit: Time

I was going to post something more innocuous today until I read the status update of an Indian/Japanese-American friend on Facebook: “It’s really hard not to take this personally.” She had posted a link to the angry outbursts on social media over the fact that an Indian American was crowned Miss America last night.

I’m not going to rehash the racist and other asenine comments here. But the issue made me think about what it means to not look “American” in America, to be bombarded with images of beauty that are not only difficult but literally impossible to attain.

I am Asian and I grew up in America. I was and am petite – thin framed and with a soft face that, for better or worse, makes me look perpetually youthful or perpetually childlike depending on your interpretation. As a child I went from worshipping Snow White and Cinderella to worshipping Charlie’s Angels, especially Farrah Fawcett, Cheryl Ladd, and Jaclyn Smith. I was much less interested in the brainy and skinny Kate Jackson, whom I probably had more in common with than the other three sexier and more curvaceous Angels.  I wasn’t much older than my son is now when I began collecting celebrity magazines and analyzing actresses’ facial features and bodies. The cruel secret that I didn’t know at the time, when I didn’t yet know to distinguish white from brown from yellow and continued to hold up pictures in front of the mirror to compare against my own face, was that I would never, with any amount of exercise, diet, hair color, make-up, plastic surgery and positive thinking, look like a beautiful Caucasian – American – woman.

In late night talks in my women’s college dorm, after spending our days studying English literature and economics and feminist theories and doing good in the community, my Asian-American girlfriends and I would sometimes trade tips on how to look less Asian and more white: clothes pins to elongate our noses, hydrogen peroxide to lighten our hair, blush applied strategically to create more angles on our even faces. We would envy friends who were blessed with double eyelids.

According to ethnic identity theories, it is often during college that we in the 2nd and 3rd generation would become curious about and appreciative of our heritage, after having spent our adolescence rejecting it. We would enroll in ethnic studies classes, look for same-ethnicity peer groups, and start using chopsticks in the college dining hall. I followed lockstep with this model minus the chopsticks, but the one thing that stayed was the dissatisfaction with my appearance. I often felt self-conscious and less than in student gatherings and campus parties, allowing my appearance to stand in for who I was inside, and worrying that others – including and perhaps especially members of the opposite sex – would find me as attractive as I found myself.

My mother used to say to me, “In Hong Kong you would not be small. In Hong Kong you would be so normal. The girls in those beauty pageants are all your size.” At some point I had seen a photo of Hong Kong pageant contestants, and indeed many looked like me – petite, narrow shouldered, narrow-hipped, small busted. I still judged them against the American ideal though, thinking, how pubescent they looked, how unwomanly. But at least now I knew that somewhere in the world, even if 6,000 miles away, someone like me was not so far off from the standard of beauty.

Whether it was my surroundings or maturity I don’t know, but I started to obsess less and less with my appearance after I moved to Japan when I was 30. I went for a personal challenge, and ended up staying for nearly a decade. What’s interesting is that the emphasis on beauty in Japan is even more insidious than that in the U.S. In Japan you’ll never see any woman running around with a suit and sneakers, or with hair wet from the gym. Hair is perfectly coiffed, nails are clean and polished, and make up is flawlessly applied. Beauty is not just aesthetics but evidence of personal responsibility. Still, it was during my years in Japan that the expectations of beauty began bouncing off of my now hardened skin and ego. Definitely it made a huge difference to be surrounded by images of people who resembled me, but I was also living on my own and in a foreign country for the first time, and running a $1.25 million department in a Japanese company as the sole woman manager. I was doing things I never thought possible during those earlier years when I hid behind a mask of learned helplessness and obsessed over things I couldn’t change. Working in Japan I barely had time to pee let alone manicure my nails, and I was the most satisfied with myself I’d ever been.

America literally looked different when I came back, five years ago. Barack Obama was running for U.S. president, and my son was introduced to Dora and Wendy Wu on children’s television. However, as evidenced by the reactions to President Obama and to Nina Davuluri, the new Miss America, there are still many places in our country where the American face is supposed to look one way only.

At the moment, I am at a loss as to how to make any changes at all, except to start with my own child. We don’t talk much if ever about people’s appearances, and usually when Daddy can’t contain himself and has to tell Mommy she’s beautiful.  And we’re fortunate enough to be able to choose where we live: in an open-minded and internationally diverse town with like-minded neighbors. This year my then 8-year-old caught a glimpse of the Academy Awards red carpet for the first time, and watching him react was like watching him land on another planet. Why are the women so tall? Why do their faces look like that? To watch Hollywood is to open the American dictionary of what beauty should be, and I closed that book fast. I don’t know how long it will last, but right now we are going to bask in our 9-year-old’s world in which it is decency and not looks or narrow expectations that define us.

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? 

The Academy Awards and my little kid

Watching the Academy Awards red carpet with my 8 year-old last night, I realized how eye-opening and foreign the world of Hollywood was to him. Among the endless questions:

Why is she so tall?

Why is everyone so tall?

Why are there mostly women?

How come there are barely any men?

Who is Jennifer Aniston?

Why are there so many Jennifers?

What is Tiffany?

He’s the one who played Abraham Lincoln? How tall is he? (His 3rd grade class had just finished a unit on Abe Lincoln and one big takeaway was what a tall president Lincoln was.)

In trying to find “good mom” answers to Fred’s endless questions, I realized what was all so new and puzzling to him. Yes, everyone is tall because tall is what our society deems attractive; there are mostly women because we care about how the women look; there are so many Jennifers because Jennifer, in my generation, was the “cool” name for girls. And Tiffany? Tiffany is a famous jewelry company.

Fred, welcome to the world that Mommy has been trying to pretend for you doesn’t exist.

I suppose we all arrive here at one point or another in our lives and, if we’re lucky, we eventually emerge from and escape it forever: this place where beauty, height, popularity and wealth matter.

Fred has been shielded from much if not all of it; it’s partly intentional, mostly natural. We don’t talk much about beauty or appearance because it’s not all that important to us. We don’t have wealth to flaunt. And we’re very fortunate in that we live in a kind of utopia where the vast majority of our friends and neighbors have better things to do than to try and keep up appearances.

I now occasionally indulge in the Oscars and in People magazine, but I’ve come far enough in my life to now be able to view it as strictly entertainment, as a fun escape from the daily grind of work and sometimes life.

But growing up I did get sucked deeply and violently into this Hollywood vortex. Left to my own devices, I began collecting celebrity magazines by the time I was Fred’s age, cutting out and studying pictures of Charlie’s Angels and Cheryl Tiegs…wondering when and if I could ever look the way they did in their bikinis (never mind that I was still years away from puberty!). Of course, it wasn’t just Hollywood that did this to me; I’m sure it was a confluence of the heavy emphasis on beauty in my household, my own lack of self-esteem, and my own shame in my Asian features. For years as a girl I’d yearned to look like someone I could never look like: a tall, western model.

Fred will be spared much of this, I am sure, because I will not let him down this path. I will not allow him to believe that a woman’s face, breasts and legs are what constitute true beauty; I will not allow him to believe that as a man he needs power as defined by wealth and women. But last night I did open the door for him. He saw enough to be surprised. He is a petite boy, a petite boy who eats well, exercises and gets rave reviews at every check up. But he is not tall, and he will likely never be tall. I’ve made sure to not pass on any messages to him that as a man he needs to be tall and big, that to find the love of his life he needs to be over 6 feet, that to be successful professionally he needs anything beyond integrity, passion, a good work ethic and teamwork skills. So he feels great about himself, because he knows he’s an energetic, caring and curious kid who is loved by friends and family. Last night the majority of his confusion and the bulk of his questions had to do with height and why the stars needed to be tall, and in coming up with answers – answers to questions that I have honestly never needed to answer before yesterday – my heart felt a little broken, and my power to protect and influence him just a little smaller.

Why doesn’t she like me??

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

Sigh.

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

What is wrong with me?

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

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

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

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

Hello.

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

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

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

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

 

Raising a reader

When Fred was 3 or 4 I’d read a New York Times article about the crisis of boys and reading – how boys are not reading, and how this puts them at risk for dropping out of school and heading into a whole host of adult problems. I remember feeling pretty smug at the time, because my preschooler just loved reading, thank you very much, almost as much as he loved eating vegetables.

And as many mothers of older children know, in time we learn to eat our humble pie.

Like many mothers who are privileged enough to do so, I’ve filled our house with children’s books from the time that little stick turned pink. I began reading to Fred almost from Day 1, knowing that even the newest of infants can begin to understand and process language even if they can’t yet verbally communicate.

Fred loved books, and he loved being read to and flipping through books on his own. This is instinctive, I thought, human. Boy or girl, what child doesn’t love color and pictures and a good story?

As he got a little older I saw that Fred was the stereotypical little boy who could barely sit still, a boy who preferred creating over absorbing, doing over reflecting. Then I realized this was the daytime Fred; by nightfall he became a reader. No matter how tired he was he wouldn’t be able to sleep without having cracked open a book first. It became a ritual as necessary as bathing. And trying to get him to close his book and turn off the light was the one fight I welcomed and was often willing to lose.

I would also talk my books with him and take him to library book sales with me. He was only too happy to oblige, somehow loving being a part of my adult reading world. He’d ask me questions like, “Is the girl with the dragon tattoo the same girl who played with fire?” He’d beg me to retell novels like The Hunger Games, and I’d struggle to abridge them to Rated G versions.

But then one day I messed up.

Last year in the second grade he became fascinated with The Mysterious Benedict Society. A complex 5th grade level book about a dangerous mission undertaken by 4 gifted children, it was not an easy read for this 7 year old who’d only just learned to speak and read English a few years before, but he loved it and we read it together night after night, chipping away at the 400+ page book, stopping every once in a while to go over unfamiliar vocabulary or expressions. How proud I was the day he gestured to take the book from me saying, “Mommy, I want to try reading this. Let’s take turns.” And so we did, and a few days later he said, “Mommy, I want to take this to school to read.”

He came home that day, beaming that he had read 30 pages.

“30 pages?! Did you understand what you read? Can you tell me what happened?”

I drilled him all evening, and he responded with, “I guess…sort of…I guess I sort of understood everything.”

Overnight my pride turned into panic. Reading is not about finishing a certain number of pages or trying to look grown up. I wanted to make sure he enjoyed reading, that he was getting as much out of the stories as he could.

The next morning I noticed that he’d taken The Mysterious Benedict Society out of his backpack.

“Aren’t you going to take the book to school?” I asked.

“Nah…” Fred responded.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to have you asking and asking me what happens in the story.”

I told a veteran mom friend about what had happened and she reassured me that I can quickly get him back. But deep down I knew what I had done. Since that evening Fred never again picked up The Mysterious Benedict Society on his own.

And so last summer I saw him slowly sinking into that hole I’d read about in the NYT article five years ago. Whenever we went to the library he’d head straight to the DVD section or the computers. Whenever I asked him to get a book he’d borrow manga. Whenever I suggested certain chapter books he would complain that there were too many words. My heart was breaking. Eight years it took me to build up a reader, and in the space of an evening I had managed to dismantle his passion for books and his confidence to read.

That summer I began googling “boys and reading” and looking through library books with titles like How to Get Your Child to Love Reading. I read all the old advice again: Fill your home with books; read to your child; have the men in your house read in front of your son; accept all kinds of reading material, from cereal boxes to comics to magazines, and don’t criticize.

Don’t criticize.

And so I – we (I’d enlisted Max’s help as the male role model) – started again from the beginning.

Then one day we were at the library, and for some reason Fred pulled off the shelf the first book in the Warriors series, the intricate story of a clan of cats that wrestles with such hefty themes as loyalty, ambition, individuality and identity.

“Lily reads these,” he said, referring to a friend whom he finds excruciatingly annoying but who is famed for reading 400 pages a week.

We started the book together that night, and we both became hooked. Then Fred made me swear to keep all of it a secret, because boys don’t read about “cute animals.” I countered that he should be proud to read anything he wants, and that besides, these cats fight. Fred reconsidered.

By September, Fred was well into the series. He started telling his classmates about the books, and one by one hooked the others onto them. By the end of the month his class was divided into cat clans with his classmates each named after a cat character.

These days, I worry about Fred getting enough sleep. While he cooperates about lights off at night, he is often up at 6:30 if not earlier to read. He reads at the breakfast table and in the car and he begs me to ask him questions about what he’s read. And this time, I ask questions to talk rather than to test. This precious world with his books and characters and distant places? It is his, and may no one ever take this refuge away from him.

Tell me about your reading life with your children. Have you had struggles? How do you keep your children loving to read?

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.