Understanding, accepting, and appreciating the language of husbands and fathers

When Fred was a baby I became more aware of how some (many) women often corrected the way their husbands parented: they didn’t like the way they diapered, bathed, dressed, fed, or played with their babies. Around the house, too, I would see it. One husband-friend of mine once shook his head after being criticized by his wife and said to me, “See? I’m afraid to do anything. And she wonders why I don’t help more.”

I didn’t really go through that, because Max was actually better with babies than I was and he is often better around the house as well.

But I had my one area of “expertise,” and that was the emotional rearing of our child. On this I was convinced that I was better. I grew up with and was influenced by a mother who, while critical, almost never raised her voice. She never shouted, never punished, and never talked down to my brother and me. For better or worse, she spoke to us almost as equals. This was in sharp contrast to many of the other Chinese mothers and caretakers I knew. I had one extreme daycare teacher shout at us, “Shut up or I’ll chop your heads off!” I was told that this was how people talked “back home” (back in the villages of China).

For years I corrected Max on this aspect of parenting. He, like all parents, came into parenting with the experiences he knew growing up in his family and in his culture and his style, I felt, was a little too Asian and old school for my tastes. And so for years we talked, fought, and cried over this. Finally, nearly ten years later, we are pretty much on the same page. I think it is our greatest achievement as a couple.

Then a few weeks ago I found myself repeating something I’d promised I’d try my best not to do: correct Max in front of Fred. It was a knee-jerk reaction and the words came out before I knew what I was doing. Max and Fred were butting heads on something and I didn’t like the way Max was handling the situation.

Max was furious with me and walked off to his office, so I emailed him. (I know it sounds odd but we email when we’re mad (it’s better than us screaming).) He wrote back that he and Fred have their own relationship and that they are doing fine without my stepping in to complicate things.

Maybe that should’ve been obvious, but it was the first time I really saw and understood that. Sometimes I would cringe or “tsk tsk” at the way Max talks to Fred – the teasing, the gruffness. It’s not abuse or humiliation, just different from how I would talk to Fred. Then I realized that different in this case perhaps simply means “male” or just “different” rather than “wrong.” I relate to my child as a woman does: I nurture, soothe, validate. Max, too, is very affectionate and tender with Fred, but he is not me and he has his own style. And the thing I haven’t allowed myself to see is, I do screw up, a lot. As “expert” as I am on all of this, it’s textbook smarts and I over-personalize parenting and stress out and criticize and even a decade later I am no better at this gig than I was when I first gave birth. Children keep changing and the only thing I can count on is my determination to keep understanding my child and to understand myself better through that experience. I know I need to give Max this chance too. So I  accepted that I have to let go…and let them build their father-son bond, a bond that is as unique and necessary as the bond that I have with Fred.

Yesterday they had another minor episode. I was in another room so I don’t really know what happened, only that Fred showed attitude and Max got angry. But I minded my own business and trusted that Max would be able to handle it fine and I went out to run errands. When I finished an hour later, I walked into a house filled with the cacophony of two recorders playing Mary Had a Little Lamb. Instead of working (we work from home), Max had joined Fred to practice the recorder. Later after dinner, the two belted out When the Saints Go Marching In over and over, doing their best renditions of Louis Armstrong. And then closing their finale they mooned me. They nearly fell to the floor laughing so hard while I just sat in my chair rolling my eyes…and inside falling more in love with the two of them.

Men, boys. Fathers and sons. They’re foreign to me sometimes, but the joy and the love – I get that.


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

Family vacations – the good, the bad, and the ugly

We just got back from our first family vacation in 2 years, and I overestimated my ability to keep up with my blog, so I apologize for the long silence (assuming you had missed me ;-))!


We tackled our first theme park vacation in Orlando, having booked the trip at a prematurely optimistic point in my broken ankle recovery when everything felt great. (My ankle would start to ache again a few weeks before our trip.) We also decided to go during Fred’s (and half the world’s) spring break, which started over Easter weekend (smart move #2). Finally, we chose to drive for 2 days rather than fly. Smart!!

So, with the ugliest pair of Easy Spirit sandals I could tolerate, a car trunk packed almost to the roof, and a 9-year old fully outfitted with electronics, headset and snacks, we were off to undergo the parental rite of passage/sacrifice of Making One’s Child Happy.

The following is what I have learned about vacationing with family:

  • Don’t believe family members when they say they’re “okay.”

Max drove all 10 hours to FL. I have anxiety issues surrounding driving on highways and in unfamiliar places so I couldn’t relieve him. We got in late afternoon and took it easy, then decided to hit the Kennedy Space Center the next day. But something was off. As if a typical 9 year-old child doesn’t challenge your nerves enough on a regular day, imagine what it feels like when you’re (both) exhausted and cooped up together 24/7 in a small hotel room or in 45-minute line after 45-minute line in 80+ degree heat. By the third day (because it is always the third day of a trip when your world explodes), I had sent a text to my girlfriend back home telling her this family vacationing thing was all a mistake.

Another friend of mine once told me that she and her husband have a 3-day (see?) grace period with each other when traveling; for those first 3 days, snapping and short tempers are understood and forgiven. It’s the exhaustion talking. For many people including myself, there is this pressure to not waste a minute of a trip because you’re there for a limited time and especially if you have already spent $$$ on park passes. Next time, though, I’d be willing to take a full day or two “off” to let the tired parties rest – book a massage ahead of time for the driver, sleep in, take turns relieving one another of childcare duty (assuming you are traveling with another adult).

  • Don’t believe your child if s/he says s/he’s not hungry.

Fred waited 2 years – not an insignificant amount of time when you’re 9 – to visit Legoland. So as soon as we got there, he was salivating at every ride and at every store and at every play opportunity. He had no idea that he was hungry. By the time we were finally able to tear him away to eat, it was already 1:00 p.m., and the funny thing about eateries is that, when you’re starving, there doesn’t seem to be any around. So we walked and walked until we came upon a panini place. Max searched and waited for a table to open up while I waited in line. The line, which didn’t look that long, took 40 minutes to move. By now it was 2:00, if not later. Max helped bring the tray of food back to the table which was, incidentally, very wobbly, and because the lid had not been placed tightly on my large Dr. Pepper, the whole cup splashed all over my chest, legs and feet when Max set the tray down. It seemed like a fitting end to the torturous wait for lunch and, picking up on my mood, Fred refused to eat, which only made me even more exasperated. Our bickering finally culminated in him sobbing, “I didn’t wait 2 years for this!” And with that he reminded me of what was important. I stroked his hair and face and apologized and he finally picked up his sandwich to eat.

My tip: start scouting and getting in line for food a good hour before you know your children will be hungry. (I’d brought snacks but on this particular day, they didn’t work – Fred was too excited to acknowledge that he was hungry.) Or, get in line well before the lunch crowd hits.

  • Let it go

I had a lot of rules and expectations crossing over the FL border: wake up early each day and leave for theme park by 8:30; order only water as the beverage at dinner; order soda a maximum of 3x over the course of the vacation; delay bed time by 30 minutes maximum; refrain from purchasing unnecessary souvenirs; update blog mid-week.

We followed none of it. We’d get back to our hotel at 9 p.m. at the earliest and sometimes couldn’t make it out the door the next morning until 11. Fred came home with stuffed animals, Lego sets, Lego shoes, postcards, and a small $8 Kennedy Space Center keychain for keys he doesn’t have. My soda rule for him also went flying out the window, even though we’d “agreed” on it before leaving home. It’s just hard when on most kids’ menus the only available drink option is soda, and every child, it seems, is walking around Legoland with a gargantuan Lego shopping bag. I could either auto pilot “If everyone jumps off the bridge, does that mean you will too?” and brace myself for battle or simply give in (within reason, that is). Given how much bickering had already taken place, I decided to let these battles go. “It’s vacation,” became my new mantra. And with that, I gave myself permission to stuff myself to the gills as well (and returned home with an extra 5 pounds).

Oh – and the most important thing to let go of? The illusion of the perfect vacation. Just because we’re sitting on the Riviera doesn’t mean we don’t still get hungry or sick, don’t still make mistakes, don’t still feel any emotion other than joy. We’re human regardless of where we are geographically or how much we have invested in this get-away.

  • Savor

What snapped us back into place time and again was the big picture we kept inside of us: We’re on vacation…and not just any vacation, but a 9 year-old’s equivalent to my personal dream of visiting Fiji Islands or the Taj Mahal. The joy for us was seeing the delight in Fred’s eyes over and over and over again: when our car entered the parking lot of Legoland, when he got splashed wet at the killer whale show at Sea World, when he took a lick of his first dolphin-shaped ice cream. Though there were times when I had rated this a “so so” vacation because I lacked the power to make it absolutely perfect, Fred recalls only that it was one of the best trips he has ever taken. Children have an amazing way of not dwelling on the small moments of unpleasantness – the long lines, the growling stomachs, the traffic, the small fights. I realized, then, that Fred had created his own power to make the perfect vacation.

Jet kite FL

What did you do for spring break? What have been your best (or worst) vacation memories? Any tips?

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.

When we fight in front of our children

There had been clues along the way.

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

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

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

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

But at 7, Fred doesn’t know this.

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

I was 7, the same age Fred is now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Get You

It’s been awhile!

My winter blues had morphed into a stubborn and long winter bug, and if it weren’t for the lovely Justine over at Here Where I Have Landed, I just might still be sitting on my bum staring at an empty screen. I am so honored to be guest posting over at Justine’s blog today, on marriage and fighting. It’s part of Amy’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? meme.

I think that many of you already know Justine; if not, she has truly one of the most eloquent and heartfelt blogs out there, the kind that makes you feel and think. I am also looking forward to checking out Amy’s blog.

Tomorrow we leave for our 10 year wedding anniversary trip. Our anniversary isn’t for another few months, but the prices were right this third week in February. (Frugality trumps romance after ten years!) See you all when I get back 🙂

Your husband or your children?

When I married Max I thought that I could never, ever love another human being as much as I loved him.

Max, however, suspected that I could, and that I would…if I became a mother.

Max’s first marriage had fallen apart following the birth of his son. And he was afraid the same would happen to us. He was afraid he would lose me to motherhood. Still glowing in the hormones of my pregnancy then, I promised him with crystal clear certainty that I would never, ever love anyone more than I loved him.

And in that first year of motherhood my love and my emotions for him were still crystal clear. Motherhood may have impaired my ability to carry on an adult conversation with monosyllabic words, but in year 1 Max was still my biggest partner, as together we faced the challenges of understanding our still unfamiliar, blank-slate bundle of joy.

And then the years went on. In those ensuing six years our identity-less bundle  grew into a young boy full of vigor and personality. His healthy growth demanded our full attention, energy, time, patience, and love.

Off-stage our marriage morphed too, but it wasn’t the linear path in which Fred’s growth skyrocketed. Our relationship blossomed, then slumped, then slid, then climbed, then hiccuped…

The other day a friend posted an article on one psychologist’s 15 new year resolutions that he felt all parents should keep. At #9 was the proposal that we all put our marriages first, our children second.

At first read I bristled. I was offended. I thought, this is why there are so many insecure children out there. In being responsible for a young person’s life, it is impossible for me to fathom putting anything ahead of parenting.

But at least the pointer made me think. While I can’t put marriage ahead of or behind parenting, I understood the basic message there. Our marriage/relationship with our partner is the foundation of our family. If families were trees, mom and dad would be the trunk and roots, and the kids would be the branches. Having grown up with parents who made my brother and me center stage and who gave zero attention to their own relationship to one another, I get this completely.

I’ve noticed that in parenting I am an active mother-in-training. I’m constantly trying to improve myself, and I’m constantly trying to understand how the actions, words and experiences around my child impact him. Example: I yell unnecessarily and use sarcasm as I try to hurry Fred along to school. Without fail, I will reflect on this incident at some point, and study how a pattern of such behavior would ultimately impact Fred, his behavior, his feelings, our relationship.

Somewhere between year 1 and year 6 in our post-baby marriage, I’ve failed to do the same with my husband. When I snap a little too quickly, or say something inappropriate during a moment of stress, or choose not to say “I love you,” or “thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” I am no longer thinking about how that bit of behavior will impact him, his behavior, his feelings, our relationship.

I’ve been treating parenting as something organic and, without intention at all, I’d begun viewing marriage as something static. We tend to bolt upright and pay attention only when things are on the verge of exploding, like ignoring a lump until it becomes massively cancerous.

But we would never do this with our children.

My husband is a grown man. My son still needs to hold my hand crossing an intersection. On a fundamental level, Fred’s needs do come first. Max understands this, as do I. But we can do a little more.

This morning, instead of silently heading downstairs to prepare Fred’s breakfast as I normally would, I went up to Max at the sink while he was washing up and said, “Good morning,” and planted a light kiss on his lips. A faint smile crept over his face, and I knew that I’d made him happy and started his day off differently than the others. It is as simple as that.

You just keep trying

Fred woke up yesterday with a huge bounce in his step: he was going to his first soccer practice.

We had a bad experience with the popular recreational group that we’d signed him up for last fall, and this time found a skills training program for 6-8 year olds at another soccer organization. They’d promised a challenging but age appropriate and fun program, and it sounded just right for Fred who told us he wanted to get good at soccer.

And it was perfect. The kids started with various versions of freeze tag as a warm up and then moved into several drills. Fred had lost the self-consciousness and shyness that plagued him a year ago and he was right in there, running and kicking with everyone. But I could tell the moment that they lost him. The coach’s instructions began coming faster, and he was using expressions like “inside short, outside long” that Fred had never heard of. The other boys were running around, and I saw Fred getting increasingly bewildered. His pace slowed down, and when Max and I squinted across the field, we found ourselves asking outloud, “Is he crying?”

When the whistle blew for a water break Fred ran over, his face no longer able to keep the tears in. As soon as he was within arm’s reach he began sobbing, crying, “It’s too difficult…it’s too difficult.” We stroked and hugged and soothed him and told him he was doing great, that this is just the first day, that Daddy will practice with him afterwards. But it didn’t work. He refused to go back. He said it was too much, too hard. We tried everything to encourage him to go back into the field, but nothing worked, not even bribery of ice cream and Silly Bandz. There were still 30 full minutes left. I sat gazing out into the field, fighting back tears. Why is my child the only one to come crying off the field? Am I really pushing him too hard? Have I made a big mistake by enrolling him?

The final whistle blew with Fred clinging to my arm. Max talked to the coaches afterwards and had Fred meet them. The assistant coach came over and told us how he always ran off the field to his mother when he was his age, and how it took him 2 years to become good. And then he loved soccer and ended up going pro.

As all the children, families and coaches and staff walked off the field, Fred, with his eyes still wet, asked Max if he would practice with him. They went through all the drills that the coach introduced and within minutes Fred was smiling and laughing again. An hour and 15 minutes later, we coaxed Fred to leave so we could go get some ice cream. At that moment I finally made sense of all the thoughts that had been running inside me: He loves soccer. He is motivated. But he should not give up at the first sign of difficulty. Being able to know the difference between pressuring and teaching about persistence has been one of my greatest struggles.

Fred was so pumped up after the practice with Max, but our old conversation came back at the dinner table. Fred wanted to quit again and again we went through waves of understanding and empathy and exasperation and frustration. We talked about the Wright Brothers and Obama and other figures in history, about how much effort and patience it took for them to reach their dreams. And then I talked about me.

“What am I good at, Fred?” 

He responded: “Sitting. Sleeping. Eating. Watching t.v.”

And there you have it. To Fred Daddy is good at driving, cooking, sports, fixing things. Not only does Fred see me without hobbies or talents, he probably sees me without confidence.

I go through with him a shockingly long list of all the things I could have gotten good at but never did, because I had given up too soon:

Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, German, sports, cooking, art, knitting, ballet, writing, swimming, psychology (as a career). I remember so vividly how I broke into tears every time someone tried to teach me something and I couldn’t grasp it right away. The panic and humiliation were intolerable and I couldn’t go back. I had wanted to be perfect, yet the learning process is antithetical to perfection: to become “perfect” you need to make mistakes first.  

At 40+ I am finally trying writing and swimming. No, it’s never too late, I countered Fred, but how rich my life would have been had I not given up when I was a child. But perhaps more important than the skills learned are the confidence, self-worth and empowerment gained only through having achieved something through your own efforts. Fred does not need to become a star soccer player, but he does need to be someone who is resilient and who believes in himself. After an hour of talking, we believe we convinced him of this.

Later that night, as Fred and I were putting his toys away, I told him I was having my first swim class in two weeks.

“What should I do, Fred, if it’s really hard?”

He looked over at me and said, matter-of-factly, “You just keep trying.”

“I might cry though…”

He chuckled. “You just need to keep praticing, silly! You should practice in the pool everyday.”

“Okay. So I shouldn’t quit, no matter how hard it gets? Because, you know, swimming is really hard.”

Fred rolled his eyes. “No, of course not. You just keep trying.”

Crossing out the Ex’s

Something must have been going on with the planets because in the span of about 2 weeks recently 3 of my girlfriends confided in me that they still think about their ex-boyfriends. Two of those confessions were in the context of “Really, he was the love of my life,” past tense. Both have nonetheless moved on: one to a lower fireworks kind of guy and the other to the wrong guy from whom she is now divorcing. The third friend simply brought up her ex in the context of “Do you ever look yours up? Do you ever wonder how life would have been different?”

And to both questions I answer Yes. I have looked them up. I have been curious about what they are up to now. (In one case, with an unexpected delight, I even realized that for the life of me I couldn’t remember the guy’s last name as I typed in my google search.) I have thought about how life would have been different with them, and I imagine the following scenarios: Divorce. Lunacy. Asylum.

I suppose it says something about what kind of guys I had gone out with if a future with any of them would make me shudder like that. But it’s true, and I don’t even blame the guys; they did not yo-yo me around without my permission – nay, my groveling. “Disrespect me, please! Walk all over me now, c’mon! I don’t deserve any better!” I was a much different woman in my 20s.

Though at times I might have regretted dating some of the men that I did, I’m also aware that with each relationship I learned something about who I was and about the personalities and values that fit me best. I also tried to learn to express love and fear and anger and to build a mini-life with another person. Each failed relationship led me to Max. If I hadn’t dated the other ones, would I have been able to appreciate Max? Would I have built up the skills and self-awareness necessary to handle the intricacies of an intimate relationship?

I remember those hungry, anxiety-ridden days of my 20s when my biggest worry was Will I get married. Though I was active in my career and in community activities, nothing meant more to me then than the hope of meeting the right man. But deep down I wasn’t ready. Maybe I knew I still had some growing up to do. Maybe I still wanted to hold onto my independence. That lack of readiness combined with too many messages that I “ought” to be married translated into my pursuit of impossible relationships. I was attracted to slippery men who couldn’t give me commitment, because it wasn’t even what I had wanted deep down. When I finally realized that, I gave myself permission to be single and to feel at peace with that, and it felt great. I worked on myself, on my personal goals. That is when I got promoted in my career, when I started working out and taking dance, and when I started to build a circle of very close and good friends. I realized I could be happy and fulfilled even without a man propping up my self-esteem (and to be honest, when you look for someone to prop you up emotionally, you always end up with abusers).

A younger friend of mine with whom I had lost touch for years recently got married. She is not in love. I am not sure if she is even in like. And I wanted to tell her, But you don’t have to get married. Maybe this is coming from me now, in my early 40s, after nearly 10 years of marriage and another 10 years of dating. Is marriage absolutely necessary? Isn’t it better to be single and happy than commmitted and miserable? But I remember how she had felt. I remember what it was like to think that if you don’t take the guy now, then there may not be any other guy later let alone a better one. And the fear of being alone or being different from your friends or being a societal outcast is so, so strong when you’re single.

I think about the irony of how life has turned out. I struggled for so long in bad relationships, drowning in tears and self-pity. By the time I had healed I then spent more time beating myself up over the choices I had made. But ultimately there was a purpose in everything: the blessings that came disguised in all that heartache of the 20s were the lessons that brought me to my true love, the one that didn’t get away.