Blew Me Away: An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

Where do I begin? I’d started and deleted so many introductions to this post. Maybe I should just use the words of the Goodreads reviewer who convinced me to pick up the book: “Wow. Just wow.”

I actually learned about Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State through fellow Literary Wives blogger Carolyn’s beautiful review, which you can find here. Her post was compelling, but it left me in a predicament: I knew I wanted and needed to read this book and yet I wasn’t confident I could handle the intensity of the subject matter.

The book is a work of fiction, about a young Haitian-American woman who is kidnapped during her visit to Haiti to see her parents. Mireille is a spirited and headstrong woman who is living the American Dream. She is happily married and successful in her career as a lawyer. She is also the new mother of a baby boy.

The kidnapping takes place in the first pages of the book. The screaming, the pounding of fists on the glass of the car, the cries of the baby in the backseat – I can still see, hear, and feel the blood-thumping events as I type this. At that point I had to put the book down for a couple of minutes before continuing on. I had to, reading this as a woman and as a mother and wife.

Mireille’s father is a self-made man, who has succeeded in business and now lives a life of luxury that stands out all too starkly from the majority of the Haitian population. His wealth makes his family an easy target for kidnappers. And so the abductors demand a handsome ransom, but one that Mireille’s father can afford, and one that he makes the kidnappers wait to get. It would take him 13 days to give up the money, and so it is 13 days that Mireille has to endure – is there a stronger word for what she goes through? – before she is released.

The first half of the book details Mireille’s 13 days as a captive, and these scenes alternate with flashbacks to her past, mainly the development of her relationship with her husband and her entry into motherhood. There is some flashback to her life with her parents as well. This back story allows us to understand Mireille as a human being and gives a context for the second half of the book, which details the aftermath of her ordeal. When Mireille is finally freed, she is, both literally and figuratively, broken. She struggles to feel human again but doesn’t know how. We see how her husband copes, or doesn’t cope. We see her struggle in the new light through which she sees her father.

Mireille’s voice is a force. Roxane Gay’s writing is a force. The scenes of violence were intense and effective, but they were not gratuitous or more than I could handle.

Why did I choose to read this, knowing it was going to be difficult? Carolyn said it so beautifully, and so I will borrow her words here – first a quote from writer Cynthia Bond, and then Carolyn’s words:

 “Somewhere along the way, working with at risk and homeless youth in Los Angeles for 15 years, living with my own abuse, and hearing stories of such pain and torment, I thought—If you can bear to have lived it, I can at least bear to listen.”

Exactly. I read An Untamed State because somewhere out there, someone has lived it. And I can at least bear to listen.

I second that. And I’ve felt doubly so after learning that Roxane Gay had drawn from her own experience of having been gang-raped as a teenager to write this book. I am so grateful to have been introduced to this writer and I’ve already ordered her subsequent book, Bad Feminist: Essays.


Have you read Roxane Gay? What is the most difficult book (in terms of subject matter) you have ever read? 

Men, Women, and Chivalry

I’m reading a captivating book right now called Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty. I plan to review this next week so for now I’ll just say briefly that it’s a mystery/suspense tale about an accomplished 50-something woman who finds herself on trial as an accomplice to a murder.

More than just a mystery, though, Apple Tree Yard is about what it means to be a woman – a successful woman – especially at midlife. How independent and strong are we, and how much do we need from our men? More specifically, this is a story about crimes against women, and here I define crime broadly whether it is infidelity, estrangement, professional intimidation, rape, or physical abuse. And most strikingly, it is a story told in the context of husbands and sons and colleagues and lovers.

Reading the book I started to think about the role of protection in our partnerships with men. For women in heterosexual relationships, how much do we expect to be protected? How much responsibility are we placing on our men to shield and guard us and to be our shelter?

The protagonist, Yvonne, becomes the victim of a crime but she doesn’t tell her husband or her closest girlfriend. Instead, she tells the lover with whom she has recently started an affair. She calls him every time she feels unsafe or whenever something triggers a painful memory, and he responds as any protective man would – by listening, yes, but also by offering more physical and concrete protection.

I couldn’t help putting myself in Yvonne’s position. I know whom I would go to if anything like that ever happened to me. Even without making the mental effort I immediately visualized the scene. I would be crying, maybe hyperventilating, and I would need to be enveloped inside the protection of my husband. I am grateful that I have someone whom I can collapse into in this way.

Do we still expect chivalry from the men in our lives? For all my independence and earning power, there is a significant part of me that is very dependent on Max. I feel lost when he’s away. I feel safer when he is driving. I’m more comforted when he’s sleeping beside me. Though we are equals as parents and business partners, that quieter, more invisible side of me feels like a little girl sometimes, not unlike the way I felt around my parents growing up. A girlfriend once attributed this to my lack of independence until I reminded her that I had once moved to a foreign country on my own and have pretty much steered my own life since childhood and made my own money since junior high. No, it is not that. It is not about being weak. I want to think that it is about love, and it is about being a woman in the sense that, as equal as we may be in brains or capability, we will always be more vulnerable physically.

In the end, I know that love brings out our most basic instincts to protect whether we are women or men. Women, with their maternal instincts, are fierce in this sense. I have seen this in myself. Seeing my child get hurt unjustly has brought out an assertiveness in me that I never before exercised. And in quieter, more unseen ways, in the absence of any real danger, I have been protective of my husband as well. It happens in the way I speak about him to others and in the way I implore him about things like driving too fast or running when it’s too hot. It happens every time I move on from a fight and put things behind me. It happens each day that we are together and I commit to loving him. While love motivates us to protect, it is also love – ordinary, unheroic – that is our protection, the shield of security that envelopes us.

Image courtesy

My heart swells every time I watch this scene: Count Laszlo de Almásy walks 3 days to try and get help for the dying Katharine Clifton in The English Patient. Image Courtesy:


A Literary Trip Down Memory Lane, from Girlhood to Midlife

It’s my birthday week. Though I’m in far less celebratory spirits than I was when I turned, say, 21 or 25, I’ve made the decision to not rain on my own parade. So in celebration of my, er, maturity, I thought I’d take a trip down memory lane and talk about some of the books that have accompanied me on my slightly turbulent, often clueless, and always eye-opening journey to middle age.

Books that made me happy and feel like a kid

I thank books and their gifted authors for rescuing me during those stressful years when my family immigrated to the States. I’m honestly so grateful that I learned to read quickly since that was the activity I depended on to stay sane. I read and loved many books but these three stand out because they were so much fun:

The Ramona series, by Beverly Cleary

The Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series, by Betty MacDonald

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

The first books that made me really think and feel

In late elementary school I began to gravitate toward the kinds of stories that I would eventually seek as an adult: human stories about inner conflicts, struggle, and growth:

A Summer to Die, by Lois Lowry

Deenie / Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

Books I read on the verge of becoming a woman

One summer during my teens my mother confronted me about my copy of Judy Blume’s Forever, which she found in my bookcase. I got angry at her for snooping around in my room but decided not to tell her that I actually hadn’t picked up the book again since I was twelve (or was it eleven?). Hormones and curiosity were running high, and these were some of the more memorable books that opened my eyes to sex, lust, love, passion, and a world with the opposite sex:  

Forever, by Judy Blume

The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough

Flowers in the Attic / Petals on the Wind / If There Be Thorns, by V.C. Andrews

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Looking for Mr. Goodbar, by Judith Rossner

Delta of Venus, by Anaïs Nin

Good Bye, Columbus, by Philip Roth

A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen

Books I read while exploring an emerging adult identity

It was during college and graduate school that I began to really notice the negative space around me. How had I been shaped by biology, circumstances, geography, and history? I began appreciating what it meant to be a woman and racial minority in the United States. Here are some of the books that made an impression or impact on me during this time:

The Bell Jar / The Journals of Sylvia Plath, by Sylvia Plath

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua

Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creating Perspectives by Feminists of Color, by Gloria Anzaldua

Strangers from a Different Shore, by Ronald Takaki

Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher and Ruth Ross

Books as therapists

And then I started looking for Mr. Right…and was so clueless as to why I kept dating nasty men that I began turning to the kinds of books that I had to hide in my underwear drawer whenever I had guests over. This is just a fraction of the self-help books that lined my shelves during my twenties and just those with the less embarrassing titles. The very last one I bought was The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which I read together with Max when we were engaged. Since then I haven’t read another book on relationships; now I figure that the best way to understand my husband is to talk to him myself.

He’s Scared, She’s Scared: Understanding the Hidden Fears that Sabotage Your Relationships, by Steven A. Carter

You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, by Deborah Tannen

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert, by John M. Gottman

Books that helped me in the hardest, most perplexing job in the world

This is only a tiny fraction of all the books I have read, purchased, or borrowed on the subjects of pregnancy, labor and birth, childrearing, and child development. These two that introduced me to the sisterhood of motherhood were among my favorites because honestly, the non-judgmental sisterhood is the only thing I’ve needed besides an equal parenting partner.

The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy, by Vicki Iovine

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, by Anne Lamott

The first book I read for fun since becoming a parent

I read this while bleary-eyed from sleep deprivation during Fred’s first year and I even read it with one hand on the frying pan. It was a fun page-turner that made me realize I can make time for reading no matter how exhausted and overwhelmed I am. After this, I slowly eased back into pleasure reading for the first time in a long time.

The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown

The book that I needed to read

Those peak career and parenting years are a self-absorbed time. With a tunnel vision I focused on my own family while allowing my parents to fade into the background. Then one day I picked up Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin and I was devastated. It’s the story of an elderly Korean woman who goes missing in a crowded Seoul subway station, and over the days and weeks that her husband and grown children try to find her, each family member reflects on his or her past with the woman. Almost all have regrets of not having appreciated enough the woman who had given her life to them. I recognized myself in the grown children and my mother in the elderly woman.

In the years since I’ve begun to develop a new relationship with my mother, and for the first time I learned of her early love for reading and writing, how she grew up in rural China with almost no books except a few Russian novels in translation that belonged to a cousin…and she would devour them, staying up until three in the morning, reading by lantern light. Instead of looking at my mother as someone from a foreign time and place, I’m now seeing her as a woman who was once a girl with interests and dreams very similar to my own.

Thank you, Mom, for giving me a life so rich with books and hope and love and opportunity.

Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin

What books have left a mark on you? What did you enjoy reading while growing up? And did you also read V.C. Andrews? 😉

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like to read with him, I started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture credits

You are the Best Cook!

Housework rules!

Our sky: on having goals mid-parenthood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A Mini-Travel Memoir of Japan

I’ve been back a week now, physically; mentally I’ve still got a little ways to go. 😉

Japan was wonderful: hectic, stressful, exhausting. I realize how much, after two years in beautiful and quiet North Carolina, I’ve missed the big city. We could walk to the supermarket, enjoy streets bustling with people, take a commuter train to the museum, a temple, a night club (though not that we did). On the downside, there were days when Max and I did not get home from meeting clients until midnight, days when we had to commute 2 hours each way to get to a work destination. I had to coordinate childcare and drop-off and pick-up schedules with Max and my in-laws. On Father’s Day we needed to call in all the troops: my friend Kathryn and her husband to take Fred from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and my in-laws to take Fred from 5:00-11:00 p.m. Such is life in Japan, where Father’s Day and Sundays do not take precedence over work. We could not live like this long term, which is why we were hungry to relocate to the US. But, for 2 weeks, it felt good to meet our clients face-to-face and to experience the bustle and purpose of an energized life.

And I understood during this trip that there is no longer any point in trying to narrow down a home to one. I inhabit both America and Japan, maybe not physically all the time but always in my heart. I missed Japan because it is where my life transformed into what I have now. I revisited old shopping malls and walked down old streets with an internal camera to the days when Fred waddled beside or ahead of me, his bottom bunchy and big with his diaper, his little legs and feet pat-patting the ground with the delicacy of a newly confident toddler. On the day these memories came at me full blast I was alone; Max was working and Fred wanted to spend the day with his grandparents. I shopped at our favorite mall alone, stroller-free for the first time, and ate at my favorite organic restaurant in peace for the first time. Every time I saw a toddler I saw Fred in my flashbacks as a new mother. Did I ever think that the next time I’d visit this mall that I would come back with only my memories?

The rest I will tell in pictures. I’ll admit that, miraculously, I had turned off my blogging brain during this trip. Not looking for blogging material, I regret that I didn’t take enough pictures. But here are a few:

This is where we – the 3 of us! – stayed. It’s what the Japanese call a “monthly mansion” (apartment). It’s designed for (single) business travelers but the 3 of us squeezed into this mini studio because it was the only option we had within walking distance of Max’s parents. Hotels in Japan charge per person rather than per room, and the closest hotel is about a half hour away. Kathryn opened her American-size home to us and we stayed with her and her family one night.

Jet lag + cramped quarters + work = 1 nasty fight between Max and me the second night we were there. We’ve learned, the hard way, that these fights can simply be filed away under “duress/both equally at fault.”

Giant billboards in Tokyo during the World Cup.

A typical commute home. This photo was taken at around 10:30 p.m. one Thursday night inside the train. That’s my head at the bottom of the picture. (Yes, at 10:30 I really ought to be in bed or in front of my t.v., not commuting on a train!) Believe it or not, this wasn’t even a particularly bad ride; I’ve experienced many others where I felt my bones were about to rip apart, or where I was pressed up against strange men more closely than I have ever been pressed against my own husband. Blech!

In a city as crowded as Tokyo (the station hub Shinjuku is the busiest in the world, with over 3.6 million passengers passing through its 200 exits each day), order is critical. Trains are scheduled to the minute and passengers politely line up to board. The above sign is part of a great campaign to promote train etiquette. If only they had this in New York!

(Top photo): A sign inside the train station announcing the “Women Only” passenger car. Train “gropers” (chikan) are notorious on crowded Tokyo trains, as social misfits have no other way to release their sexual urges other than to anonymously molest women on crowded trains. Men have been known to assemble via the internet and they prey on women who look unlikely to fight back. In my 8 years in Japan, I have been lucky to not have encountered a chikan. Also true is that some women who do not get groped then have a complex, wondering, “What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t anyone want to touch me?” Ahem. No thank you.

(Bottom photo): A group of OL’s (“Office Ladies”) on their lunch break. These are women workers hired to do clerical work. The difference between American secretaries and Japanese OL’s, though, is that the OL position is inherently sexist and dead-end. Not only do they do menial tasks, they are required to pour tea for and otherwise serve the (usually) male managers and clients. They are also the only employees required to wear uniforms.

When I first arrived in Japan in 1999 I had stayed in a women’s college dormitory. I was held to the same rules as the 18 and 19 year-old students, meaning I had to adhere to a daily 9:00 p.m. curfew. I was allowed to stay out until 10:00 provided that I filled out paperwork 3 days in advance and received all the required signature stamps from the senior dorm staff. (A colleague finally rescued me by inviting me to share her apartment.) If only blogging existed then!

All this to say, I’m lucky to be an American woman.

A beautiful, serene temple tucked away in the center of bustling and ultra-modern Tokyo. I love the bottom picture of a businessman taking a quiet lunch break in the temple.

Noticeably missing are family pictures. We came home with no photos of Fred’s grandparents! We were able to celebrate Max’s father’s 85th birthday the day before we left, and we went to a stunning restaurant located in the middle of a traditional Japanese garden. As is our way in Japan, though, we were constantly rushing, and Max had brought the camera but left the battery still recharging in the apartment. Such was our time in Japan. We keep thinking, next trip we’ll be more relaxed…next trip we’ll do it right.

Am I a SuperMom? Are You?

My friend G. recently said in an email, “I’ve been trying to get together with one of my good friends, but she’s a SuperMom and we haven’t been able to find a good time to meet.”


It was hardly the point she was making, but “SuperMom” caught my eye. I was curious about her friend. What is she, I wonder? Does she have a full time career and 2 (or maybe 3 or 4 or even 5) children? Is she a Bree van de Kamp minus the personal scandals? I wasn’t being competitive, but I was curious about the term. What separates the SuperMom from the regular mom with lower case letters? And why do we mothers use it on each other or ourselves?

I’ve been called a SuperMom by a couple of friends, bless their hearts. My reaction to this compliment was somewhat akin to the feeling I got when Canadian and Japanese friends congratulated me on Obama’s election. I was happy, but I wasn’t sure I was really the one they should be congratulating. In terms of SuperMom, so many others would deserve the title over me. Give it to the mother who stays home 24/7 with 5 children and with no help from her husband. Give it to the mother who has to raise a child on her own. Give it to the mother whose child has Down Syndrome, or to the mother in Afghanistan, or Sudan, or Cambodia. Give it to my mother who struggled as an immigrant, juggling work and illness to raise two children in two foreign countries while learning two languages.

Of course, there is a flaw in my thinking: that somehow I am less of a mother because of the cards I have been dealt (and that I have in turn played). It could be because I did grow up feeling I was raised by a genuine SuperMom. In my eyes my mother scaled the Mt. Everest of motherhood. She accomplished and endured what I know I could never, and she did this without wavering in her devotion as a mother, almost without ever raising her voice or losing her temper even when the stress was unbearable. I was both so awed and intimidated by her accomplishments that I was almost too afraid to become a mother, so high had she raised the bar of motherhood. However, she gifted me a life in which I would suffer less but gain more through the ability to make better informed decisions and have better opportunities. I would do more with less, and I would have more wisdom. My son will have fewer hang-ups than me; my marriage will suffer fewer tears. Because of what she built, I can be a good mother, naturally and without hurdles. But because my life is not hard – my husband is very involved in home life, I work from home, I have “just” one child, my child is healthy – there is a part of me that believes I am achieving less.

There is a story that still brings my mother to tears, nearly 40 years later. It’s the story of the time she left me at my aunt’s house in San Francisco when she went into labor with my brother. (My father was overseas at the time.) I was 18 months old and, worrying that I would only cry if I saw her leaving for the hospital, my mother decided to sneak out when I wasn’t looking. My aunt would later tell her that everyday for 3 days I would sit out on the front step waiting for my  mother to come home and cry until my face swelled. “I didn’t know…I just didn’t know,” my mother would still cry today. “I had never been a mother before…” And I would cry too, because I know, now, how she must feel. And yet this incident doesn’t change the fact that I still think she has climbed Mt. Everest. She wasn’t perfect, and she had made alot of mistakes, but she was and is amazing. It is a mother’s unique love that would allow her to carry this kind of guilt inside her for nearly 40 years. And maybe that’s what the Super should be in SuperMom – not perfection, not the number of balls kept afloat in the air, but simply the capacity to love.

Mother Blogger Bashing

I was checking out The New York Times’ Motherlode blog over the weekend and was kind of excited to see Lisa Belkin’s Friday post about mother bloggers. She posed two questions (I paraphrase): Why do you blog, and why do you read mother blogs?

It was good to see a group of mom bloggers chiming in. (I did as well.) Not surprisingly, the bloggers talked about the desire to form communities, meet like-minded parents, write about issues important to them, and partake in the shared experiences of parenthood. Many talked about the isolation of motherhood and how blogging has helped bridge them to a larger community and new friendships.

Then, fifteen or so comments into the discussion a particularly nasty commenter added her two cents, and then more began to chime in. Now, I am all for discussion and the voicing of different opinions. That is why I loved (uh, yeah, past tense) these discussion forums. But the comments I am referring to here were not “I don’t understand the need for blogging.” or “Mother bloggers really need to think carefully about the privacy of their children.” They were accusations of mother bloggers being “pathetic,” “clingy,” “narcissistic,” and incapable of forming real friendships. It is the hostility and anger of such comments that surprised me the most. Whatever others do is their business has always been my personal attitude. To react so vehemently and emotionally to what others (strangers no less!) have chosen to do with their lives signals to me that there is something deeper going on.

The vitriol of these comments reminds me of a woman I worked for in my first job out of college. She had turned 30 and was constantly going on about when she was going to get married. She had graduated from a prestigious college but was going on her ninth year as a mid-level secretary in a university dean’s office. She had biting comments and opinions about every woman in our building from the 24 year-old receptionist who was putting together graduate school applications to the head of IT who was leaving for a promotion to the then-first lady Hillary Clinton. Frustrated by the tension created by this woman, in a conversation with my male boss he tried to explain as diplomatically as he could: “You know, some people feel very stuck in their lives and cannot find a way to get themselves out. When they see someone doing something to make her life better, it bothers them.”

Mothering is the oldest profession in the world. But mothers still don’t get paid, and they still don’t get much recognition let alone thanks. Motherhood is also a humble, silent and silenced profession. How many times have new mothers thought, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this, why didn’t anyone tell me what it was really  going to be like?” If mothers spoke out more, shared their experiences more, maybe fellow mothers  would feel more confident. We wouldn’t need to think that we are the only ones who feel like we’re going to screw up our kids or drive our husbands away. I get depressed not infrequently but I frequently feel very ashamed about it. And it was in Alex’s blog Late Enough where she wrote about the day she felt like she couldn’t parent and couldn’t stop crying that I realized, hey, maybe I’m not abnormal after all (or at least if I am, I’m not alone). 

And if mothers who blog are seen as being self-promoting or wanting attention, then so be it! Throughout history women have not had a voice. In college and grad school I read about the women who fought to give the rest of us the right to speak and be listened to – among them Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Carol Gilligan – but I had taken for granted that this was history, that the path had already been cleared. The comments on Motherlode this weekend made me think I was completely and horribly mistaken. It is 2010 and there has been a huge movement of mother bloggers giving voice to and making public their experiences. Sadly, it is a movement that is being met with shocking resistance, and, I am guessing, by fellow women and mothers who, for one reason or another, choose to vilify the sisters who simply want to do something to make their lives happier and to give motherhood the recognition it deserves.


“It takes courage to write about motherhood in a culture that sets women with children on the sidelines, and it takes even greater courage to give voice to the powerful emotions and fears that swirl deep beneath the surface of our daily lives…” -Kathleen Hirsch and Katrina Kenison, Mothers (from Kate Hopper’s blog Mother Words: Mothers Who Write)