Personal cleansing: identifying the stuff that gets you down

One of my very “with it” girlfriends recently told me that she thought I was “fierce,” and in a good way. Wow. I was shocked and flattered. As I’ve always thought of myself as fragile, I love it when I appear to be the exact opposite. I was one of those princess-loving girls who fantasized about being Wonder Woman.

Of course, when I look at the big picture, I think I’m pretty strong, given some of the things I’ve gone through. But at the micro level, on the day-to-day level, I’ve often thought of myself as fragile.

I’m sensitive – maybe too sensitive. By that I mean that I feel too much. Things don’t bounce off of me; they soak into me. Back-handed compliments, rude tones, dismissive attitudes…I give people too much power over how I feel about myself sometimes.

I’ve been kind of monitoring my moods of late, because I’m getting tired of the emotional see saw. I’m giving up on “Forget about it!” and “Don’t let it get to you!” because those instructions don’t come with instructions. Really, when someone does or says something that feels mean, how do I not let it get to me – me, who feels everything so keenly? Someone needs to tell me how.

Of course, I do make an effort to try and react from my head rather than my heart. It’s beyond difficult, since I am not wired this way, but I do make efforts. For example, if someone makes an off-handed remark that was meant to sting, I have to remember that it says more about the speaker than it does about me.

In the meantime, though, I do think that we need to arrange (or rearrange, if necessary) our lives in order to maximize healthy living and to minimize toxicity. I didn’t always do this, and out of either cluelessness or politeness chose to stick around situations that were not uplifting.

Years and years ago I was with a man who had no limit on how he could frustrate and torment me. At one particular party he’d spent half the time avoiding me (even though we were in a committed relationship) to talk to other women. I was crying and then trying to explain everything to a concerned girlfriend who turned around and said to me, “I don’t care what the reasons are. All I know is that you shouldn’t be crying.” That pretty much sums it all up. Now, of course, if you cry at everything, then that’s a problem. But assuming you are a normal, warm-blooded human being, you really do have to question situations and people that constantly leave you crying.

And the following are things that make me cry, or at least figuratively speaking (and the things I need to pare down on or do something about):

Facebook

So ridiculous, isn’t it, that something so trivial can actually dictate what mood underlies my days. My FB friends would never believe it given how active I was on it (I am using the past tense, effective 18 hours ago), but I actually don’t feel good on FB a lot of the times. And it’s not because of envy, the most commonly cited issue that people have with FB. Most of my friends (bless them) do not brag or flaunt, and I don’t take very seriously the two that do.

However, I do find it too easy to feel rejected on FB. It reflects my insecurities in general. If I were to psychoanalyze myself I can trace this flicker of fear back to the time I was 14 when my best girlfriend decided to suddenly leave me out of things she was doing with our mutual friends. It is easy to put something out there and feel ignored, whether the gesture is real or imagined, and to wonder if you have just made a fool of yourself or written something that offended someone or are being judged. FB is poison for those who crave interaction but who also think and worry and analyze too much.

People in Friend Disguises

Especially with the advent of Facebook we really need to find a new word for “friend.” I have whittled my real life pack of friends down to the people who really deserve the title. Sometimes it’s not easy, because there are people in friend disguises. They blow their cover when they make off-handed remarks about the fact that you have no children, or have only have one child, or that you work outside of the home, or that you stay at home, or that you formula feed. They tell you you can tell them anything and then freak out or avoid you when you actually do. Or they take up more and more of you and make you feel guilty for taking a step back.

Family

This is so hard, when the people who love you most are also the ones who make you cry. I love my mother and on many levels I am in awe of her, and I know I can never live up to many of the things she has accomplished as a mother and as a woman. But she can be hard on me, still, all these years since I’ve learned impeccable manners and brought home good report cards and earned my university degrees with honors. And as a parent my life is just rife with fodder for criticism right now.

But I can’t just avoid her or cut her out of my life. I do understand that there are daughters and sons out there who have no choice but to. So in my case I am fortunate, fortunate because it is not like that. I know there is more to us than these particular bad feelings, and I know that in a perverse way the criticisms stem from worry which stems from love that is too strong to be rational and objective. I can drift apart from people in friend disguises, but family doesn’t let me off the hook quite as easily. There is a lot at stake here, so I need to speak up.

Clutter

This sounds trite but it’s as big as the piles of books and papers that surround me. Serenity starts with order. I can clear out the toxic people from my life but still drown in my own clutter and disorganization. So 15 minutes a day, even 60 seconds. Today while waiting for my computer to boot up I tidied up a small pile of books on my desk and threw a few things into the waste basket.

Guilt and Self-Criticism

This is the Headquarters where all the toxicity originates. So many self-reprimands (often very quiet and very subtle) when I fail to do something, including accidentally getting on Facebook this morning. There’s no point in trying to rid yourself of mean or unhealthy people when you are your #1 toxic friend in disguise. Why is it so hard to be kind to ourselves? To talk to ourselves the way we would talk to others? Last month when I spoke to a therapist she told me it was my internal voice that was sinking me into that hole I couldn’t seem to get myself out of.

Part two of this de-cleansing would be to surround myself with all the good stuff, but for now this is my list of things to cut down on or moderate or do something about. What’s on your list? What eats into how you feel about yourself?

sky and trees_wal_022713

Addictions and obsessions

I have amusing memories of having seen my dad sometimes sneak past the kitchen and up to the attic when he used to come home from work. He was a clothes horse and a bargain hunter, and he was sheepish about letting my mom know so he would hide his purchases in the attic.

My dad’s “addiction” was never harmful, though; he was always dutiful to his family and financially responsible. But he worked long hours and had little in the way of an outlet. I think that he found it therapeutic to shop.

I had had my share of addictions and obsessions growing up too: books, boys, Gone with the Wind, celebrities, women’s magazines, Culture Club. I tended to go all out and spent a little too much time in fantasy land. For me I do think it was bordering on unhealthy, since I was constantly creating escapes for myself; the addictions served a definite purpose.

As an adult I’ve had interests (fashion, photography, yoga, Japan, writing, wicker baskets…), but nothing obsessive. Of course, the real killer has been the internet, and maybe that fits best the definition of addiction. Unlike my childhood addictions there is little that’s pleasurable about not being able to unstuck myself from the computer at 11 at night. My eyes are glazed over, my neck and shoulders are stiff, and my lower back aches. And I get on Facebook the way I used to bring my tray over to sit at a table with people I didn’t really like. Yet I won’t unfriend or block certain people because I don’t want to appear rude, and then I don’t want to miss the posts by people I actually do like. I’m on the computer for hours past my actual need, and once I’ve managed to log off and get myself into bed, I then proceed to check my iPhone a couple of more times before actually turning out the lights. The internet is my technological potato chips;  after gorging I usually regret it.

On the other hand, a fun and good addiction can make life so much rosier. A couple of years ago, I started to develop a gradual addiction to books (followed by coffee), which is what led me to buy all this at a local library sale last week, maybe the fourth one I’ve gone to this year:

booksale books

I can’t explain why I have this compulsion to attend these things knowing that each time I go I will find something, and at this point I already have a year-and-a-half of reading (at least) on my shelves. I can’t stop. At one point the thought of adding to my to-read pile actually caused anxiety, but I got over that pretty quickly.

Fred said to me the day before my much-anticipated trip to the book sale (I had been counting down), “Mommy, you have too many books that you haven’t even read. You shouldn’t get any more until you are down to 4 or 5 on your shelf that you haven’t read yet.”

Um, yeah.

You know you’re addicted when you can’t even care if you are setting a bad example for your child. I told Fred that I really needed to go.

Then there’s the issue of my husband. He reads occasionally, but he doesn’t fantasize about books. I hold my breath each and every time I walk home with another bag of books and am surprised when he doesn’t complain. In fact, after he picked me up at the sale this last time he actually agreed to get another bookshelf, and to turn our family room into a home library lined with shelves of books. He has become my abettor! I think he’s just grateful it’s not shoes.

My dad used to explain his addiction to clothes to my mom this way: “You know, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t go out. I just work, and I like my clothes.” I guess there are worse things in life than finding joy in clothes…and in books. I’ve never met a book that made me feel badly or judged or lonely or rejected or just negative in any way. And they will always wait quietly and patiently for you.

I had to lay them all out, the way my son lays out all his Pokemon cards to admire.

booksale books laid out                                                              

I’d love to know what your addictions are! What can’t you get enough of and does your family mind it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like to read with him, I started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture credits

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

Housework rules!  frenchfriedgeek.wordpress.com

Is school starting yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like aging parents and maturing children…and summer vacations.

Head and heart

We had a rough morning today.

We’ve been working with Fred on time management, and today he was a half hour late coming down for breakfast after already being twenty minutes late for school yesterday. This despite the fact that both Max and I had, at different points, stopped by his room to remind him to get dressed and come downstairs.

Because this has been going on long enough – and we were at our wit’s end because we have tried everything – with Max’s nod, I “punished” Fred by asking him to come straight home after school today. Yesterday was supposed to be his last day at his after school program, but he and his friends agreed he’d come back one more day to say their good byes and play together.

I hadn’t anticipated the depth of his devastation. You can picture the rest: screaming, crying, negotiating, hyperventilating. If he can’t see his friends one last time today then, he protested, he was not going to school at all.

When the screaming and anger finally gave way to a momentary calm, he wept and said, “I’m going to miss my friends. It’s my last day.”

At that moment I looked over at Max, who shook his head hard at me. “NO…we are staying firm,” his eyes said.

And that is when I went upstairs to my room and fell apart.

There was no script for me to follow this morning, or any morning, or any day, for that matter, in this parenting business. In my mind this would be like any of the 100 or so days that we’ve had so far: Fred would saunter to the kitchen table by 7:05 or so, I’d give him his breakfast, he’d eat it, he’d put on his jacket and backpack, and he’d be off at school.

I didn’t know he was going to be half an hour late, because he has never been this late before. (He was in his room gathering all the toys he was going to take to after school.)

I didn’t have planned the best possible consequences for this behavior because, I don’t know…I’m tired, or busy, or lazy, or clueless. I flew by the seat of my tired pants – my mind one half on getting his snacks and lunch and breakfast ready, one half semi-functioning. But I needed to think fast, and I know my pent-up frustrations and concerns about his time management fueled my eventual choice of punishment.

So many times during parenting I feel like that guy in the action thrillers: the one who has to figure out in 60 seconds which wire goes with which, so the plane doesn’t blow up.

When Fred reacted the way he did I realized I had pushed the biggest button on his little body. More than toys, more than video games, more than sweets, his friends are what mean the most to him. “Why didn’t you warn me this would be my consequence? Why can’t you give me a different punishment?” he cried. “Why this one?”

When I realized this, I sat down with him and promised I would get the contact information of his friends’ parents. We’ll have his friends over for play dates. He can absolutely still stay in touch with them. But he should have planned his good-byes for yesterday, the official last day we’d agreed on. And his spending half an hour to prepare for his after school playing meant that he was prioritizing socializing over getting to school on time. This is the logic that I tried to use to voice over the crying of my own heart.

Logic…I have plenty of it. The problem, sometimes, is that my heart is bigger, and louder. As a parent I know I need to somehow find a place where the two can meet as equals.

Forty-five agonizing minutes later, we were able to calmly get our tear-stained boy in the car to school with the agreement that he would come straight home in the afternoon. And I went back to my room, to pick up the crying where Fred had left off.

Have you had moments or days like this?

More peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Accepting calm

I’ve been doing something this year that I’ve never been able to do:  I’ve been saying No.

No to a well established business that its retiring owner has asked and asked me to take over.

No to the additional clients who ask to work with me.

It’s not that I’m not working, but I’ve been persuaded (by Max) to think about my stress level. Do I really want to go where I have been going all these past years? With mixed feelings, I’ve reduced my work load and instead delegated some of it to our staff.

But saying no comes at a price, quite literally.

I – we – lose income. How much exactly Max hasn’t yet calculated. But it’s not insignificant, especially during a year when my medical bills are sky high given my recent surgery. And we have other bills. And childcare and piano and martial arts lessons. And retirement and college to save for.

In a typical year I would be so busy right now I wouldn’t be writing this post. I wouldn’t be Christmas shopping. I wouldn’t be cooking. I wouldn’t be cleaning. I wouldn’t be sleeping 7 deep hours straight. Instead I have been spending chunks of entire days reading and writing; keeping the house reasonably tidy and clean; and making dinner in time to eat by 5:30 p.m. I even cooked on Thanksgiving for the first time since we moved back to the States, and I have been able to heal my broken ankle completely. Something feels different and thereby discomforting: I feel I am not busy enough.

It doesn’t feel “right” because neither work nor domestic life is stressful right now. It is the first time in the eight years since I became a parent and business owner that I can say this. We launched our business when Fred was a year old, and we did so without childcare. Max and I would trade off back then, and I’d either get up at 4 a.m. to do client work before Fred woke up, or work until 3 a.m. after he fell asleep. Stress was the air I breathed, and now I can’t recognize what it is that I’m enveloped in. Is it peace? Calm? Sanity? It doesn’t feel right.

Ironic, isn’t it, that once I have achieved the balance and quality of life that I have been working toward all these years, I find myself feeling as though I am cheating.

As a mother there is an odd unspoken pressure to groan about lack of sleep and lack of hours in a day. While it is hardly enjoyable to be constantly frenetic, it is frenetic that we (seem to) strive to be, because somehow that means we are being capable and useful and necessary. And to be anything less than crazy busy seems to be anything less than necessary.

I am so used to – since high school! – living constantly on a cliff’s edge that being on the brink of falling – and yet not falling – had become the ideal state to be. Suffering is the sign that I have pushed myself as far as I can go. The success of my son and my clients are my badges of honor and my own sleeplessness and anxiety are my battle scars. That is how it has always been.

But this new air…maybe it’s doing something to me. Because aside from the guilt, I have to admit I am feeling pretty good. At this place far from the edge of my cliff I hear no pounding of my heart, feel no sweating of my palms. At this distance from the precipice I find it easier to smile, to laugh, to notice, to feel, to soften, to love. I have decelerated from a blur to a human being. Maybe this is in fact useful, because maybe this is what my family needs: a mother who is present, a wife who pays attention, a woman who is happy. Perhaps I have not failed after all. Perhaps I may have even succeeded.

How crazy busy are you? Have you found calm in your life? If so, how did you do it and was it hard to accept?

Becoming a reader

I think there must be certain moments or periods in readers’ lives when they become readers. Because I wonder how many of us are born loving books, and how many fall into reading by chance, or kicking and screaming, or by choice later in life?

Do you remember when you became a reader?

I would say that I am a born again reader, having experienced both a birth and a death earlier in life.

I can’t recall any defining moment when I realized that I loved books. I just remember always spending long stretches of time in the children’s sections of book stores, and also taking longer than anyone else to make the absolute right choice whenever the RIF (Reading is Fundamental) volunteers came to our school to distribute free books. I also received a $1.50 weekly allowance, and with that I always made a bee-line to Barnes & Noble to get a novel of my choice,  devouring it well before my next allowance came. I would be 11 or so before I stepped foot into a real library for the first time, partly because my parents were new to the country and didn’t know where the library was, and partly because my younger brother and I had (allegedly) for years screamed bloody murder whenever our parents tried to get us into the dark Boston Park Street station (home of America’s first subway, and it looked it).

Stepping foot into Copley Square’s historical library and one of the largest in America, my mouth would just about literally water and I would borrow as many books as my library card allowed. At 11, I was especially interested in and worried about puberty so, pre-internet, books were my only hope of getting answers to the questions I had rather die than ask of my parents and friends.

I can still recall so vividly my favorite authors, titles, characters and jacket covers. I loved Judy Blume and Lois Lowry and I remember well and fondly Ramona, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Harriet the Spy, and the Littles. I was emotionally invested in each book I picked up and felt an unsettling discomfort whenever I was done. Circumstances were stressful growing up, and my characters’ lives were lives I escaped into. Without those places, life felt too real and uninhabitable.

When it comes to adult books I’ve loved, my mind draws an immediate blank and then begins searching, like a confused compass needle that needs to be recalibrated. During that long stretch between high school and motherhood, I had ceased to be a reader. This isn’t to say that I never picked up a book – I actually graduated college with a major in English literature – but I had lost my hunger to read.

I’d become clinically depressed during college. Without the mental functioning needed to desire, enjoy and concentrate on a good story, I simply went through the motions of reading. My mind was overwhelmed by a constant parade of obsessive and negative thoughts from which I no longer had the strength to escape. By the time my depression lifted, my energies were channeled toward my career and a new life overseas and I was more interested in living life than in reading about it. Perhaps I had too utilitarian a view on reading, that it could serve me only when I needed to run away.

It would be another 20 years before I opened myself to reading for pleasure.

The book was The Da Vinci Code, and I had just entered my second year as a mother. I had by then built a mini-library of pregnancy and childcare books but for some reason decided to pick up this novel on a friend’s recommendation.

I read The Da Vinci Code in a haze of sleep deprivation and in the midst of starting a new business while trying to keep the house under control. I read with one hand holding the book and the other hand stir frying dinner, and I sneaked in paragraphs while playing with Fred and when he had his back turned. Like exercise, I realized you really can find time to read if you wanted to.

Very slowly the childcare books gave way to “me” books, and I had to re-learn (or establish?) the rules of reading:

No self-flagellation for not reading books on child development.

No self-flagellation for not reading the classics or Booker Prize winners.

No self-flagellation for abandoning a book partway through because it fails to keep your interest.

Dare and give yourself permission to dislike a book that the critics “hail as the literary achievement of the decade,” and vice versa. 

In those early years of motherhood it was an achievement to read even two books a year. As Fred got a little older and our business began to stabilize, my reading time and mental capacity increased, and I was soon getting up to five books a year, and then ten.

And then I broke my leg this summer.

I began reading as a way to pass the copious time in isolation, but soon found myself eagerly lining up the next book before I was halfway done with my current one. My friend Shannon, a fellow mother and book lover, would give me recommendations or drop off library books for me that she knew I’d like. And I would greedily accept her lends even though I had four (or 40; where do you stop counting?) of my own in queue. She’d invite me to her house but tell me to “bring a book.” I realized this time that reading can be simultaneously an independent and shared fun experience, not necessarily an escape from which you don’t want to return.

I have two lost decades to make up for, but somehow I think I’ll make the time.

When or how did you become a reader?

And on a different note, my post What if feels like when your mom blogs about you is syndicated today on Blogher. If you haven’t read it, I’d love it if you stopped by

Lying to Mom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you eating?”

“Uh…”

“Your favorite fish dish?”

“Uh…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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