My Battles with Anxiety

I have to thank one of my readers/blogger friends for mentioning in a comment once that she suffers from anxiety. It was her honesty that emboldened me to acknowledge my own relationship with anxiety. Since then I’ve struggled whether to write about this personal issue but ultimately decided that if my words can bring comfort or validation to one more person – as this blogger friend did for me – then I am willing to do it.

I think that I’ve failed to acknowledge my anxiety until now because it has been a part of me for so long…so long, in fact, that it became my normal. As a child I suffered constantly from headaches and canker sores. I had trouble sleeping and eating, nearly falling off the growth charts, and I often dreaded school, gym class, doctors’ appointments, my father’s days off, swim lessons, the company of certain girlfriends, and the attention of boys.

Anxiety has evolved with me as I’ve gotten older, both increasing and decreasing in intensity and in ways that have baffled me. How did I once speak so comfortably before audiences of 200+ only to end up losing sleep over a dreaded Skype call with five people? Why was I once able to maneuver the maniacal streets of Boston but am now unwilling to drive further than five miles from my house in our small town? Equally perplexing, I was terrified of water my entire life and yet eagerly learned to swim just three years ago.

I was at my best during those first several years that I was bold enough to move to and live in Asia. From being the sole woman manager in a foreign company to entering a permanent relationship to having a child overseas, I was reveling in that wide space outside my comfort zone. And then one day, without my realizing why, my world began to contract. Once ordinary events and tasks became a strain for me: driving, being in groups, having a busy schedule. Since I work from home, I have a fair amount of control over my day-to-day. And I’ve been coping by managing my surroundings to meet my comfort level.

But like taking Tylenol to control your fever, you can’t really know how sick or well you are. By controlling my environment, I was comfortable, but also masking what needed to be healed.

I finally began looking for a therapist when I realized I was single-handedly downsizing my life. I love this quote by Anaïs Nin, which came to me two weeks ago as if from an angel: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” My therapist told me that the things we avoid eventually hold power over us.

I chuckled and cried when she complimented me for “functioning as well as [I am] – for having a job, for running a household.” What does that say, when you are praised just for living and surviving? But she was acknowledging the decades-old traumas that still have their grip on me. I cried for the majority of that session, in a catharsis that began to drain the stagnancy in my body. By the time I got home I felt a peace and lightness that was alien to me. I found myself breathing steadily and calmly, and looked forward to moving on with my day. Is this what normal people usually feel, I wondered. A few hours later Max and I went out for lunch and to run errands. We were on the freeway, with me in the passenger seat. I looked down the road that for once didn’t look so intimidating and said to him, “I would be able to drive today. If I can feel like this all the time, I can drive.”

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Love, loyalty, hurt and anger – the powerful world of mother-daughter relationships

I am so honored to be contributing to the wonderful writer D.A. Wolf’s series on mother-daughter relationships. This was by far the hardest piece of writing I have ever done, and more than once I asked myself why I had promised to contribute a piece. But I’m so glad for this experience writing and collaborating with D.A., which literally changed me.

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I’ve just spent my fourteenth holiday without my mother. In the years since I packed up two suitcases and moved from the States to Japan, a defining event in our relationship, we have been a long distance family, missing milestones and special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and the birth of her only grandchild.

There have always been reasons: the distance (even now that I’ve moved back to the States), her health, my work. I try to see her once a year and when I do I realize how much I miss her… how for so many years we knew the daily rhythms of each others’ lives and now that’s no longer the case.

For many years I had been the dutiful daughter. I acted as my immigrant parents’ interpreter from the age of seven when they moved from Peru to New England, and I helped them to navigate life in America. I attended college ten miles away from where they lived, and I moved back home after graduation. It was a shameful admission to my American friends that I was choosing to live with my parents, and a slap in my mother’s face that I was wishing I had chosen otherwise.

To continue reading this piece please click here to go to D.A. Wolf’s blog Daily Plate of Crazy.

Lessons learned in 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to look back on a year, but I decided to do it this year. Here are some of my reflections from 2013:

[Addendum: I apologize for my horrendous numbering system below (no 4 and 2 6’s)! I edited this post literally 15 to 20 times before hitting ‘publish’ but I completely neglected the numbers. I’ve decided not to fix it, however, since some readers cited by number the items that resonated with them. I’ll leave the list as is for reference 🙂 ]

1. The world is kinder when I change the lens.

I’ve always had a tendency to look too much into things. If someone consistently fails to say hello or respond to some of my emails, my mind reaches for the negative: I’ve done or said something wrong, or she thinks I’m a bother. I’ve been reminded not infrequently (usually by books and male friends) that when something like this happens it says more about the other person than it does about me.

This year, I began trying to give others the benefit of the doubt. The acquaintance who appears cold and does not respond in kind? Perhaps something is going on in her life right now, and she is not in a place to extend herself. My world became softer and kinder when I changed the way I made assumptions about others’ motives.

2. It does feel good to not beat myself up.

The comments were so innocuous (or regular) that I couldn’t even see anything wrong with them until a therapist pointed it out to me. Judgments like “I’m such a mess” or “I look awful” or “I’m such a bad mom,” when piled up day after day, year after year, can do a number on your psyche.

3. My child is not perfect, but he is terrific.

All my unrealistic expectations of myself trickled down to my child and I struggled this year to let go of the fear that every flaw signals potential trouble ahead. My son will make mistakes. He will forget things. He will miss answers on a test. He will be careless. He will get overly emotional. He will be tired and he will be hungry and he will be stressed and he won’t always be able to put on a happy face in these situations. The thing is, what human being doesn’t do this every now and then? I’m living proof of the damage that can be done when the bar is set to the sky, and now it’s my responsibility to bring it within reach for my son.

5. There’s a certain decibel level of my voice that no one should ever have to hear.

I would never have labeled myself a yeller, but in fact I do yell. Or I did. I am trying to make that the past tense. There is nothing in my life that warrants shouting. My son’s behavior is never so beyond the norm that it cannot be addressed by a regular or at most firm tone of voice. And even if he ever really did cross the line, I doubt that shouting would be effective or productive.

6. I need to be kinder.

Not more polite and not gentler but actually kinder, whether it’s mumbling criticisms about a waiter at a restaurant or judging someone’s behavior or arguing with my husband.

6. I want to remember the man I fell in love with. 

Twelve years of marriage and almost ten years of parenthood have turned our pre-parenting memories to black-and-white. Something triggered an old romantic memory the other day, and I allowed myself to go with it, to rewind through the last 10 years to a time when it was just the two of us. I realized that those memories are an important anchor in a family dynamic that has since changed so dramatically.

7. I deserve at least 2 hours to myself each day.

My busiest two weeks of work are ahead of me, but so far I’m holding firm to my new rule of not working at night. I am not a rescue worker and no one’s going to die if I don’t respond late at night. After Fred goes to sleep, it’s me and my books or my writing.

8. My emergency oxygen mask is this, in this order: sleep, water, exercise, a (reasonably) tidy home.

I blamed everything from hormones to depression this year when in fact what I needed was basic self-care. I need to have all 4 of the above before I can care for anyone else properly.

9. We all speak different languages.

I’m planning to write more about this in a future post, but it really hit home for me this year how certain conflicts I’ve felt have been a result of the fact that loved ones and friends and I speak different “love languages.” Example: Max shows love through actions while I show it through words. In fact, I view and relate to the world through words but I realized that not everyone does.

10. Motherhood has more than one job description.

At 4 Fred drew a series of t-shirt designs for each of us. On his dad’s shirt he drew the American flag; on his he drew a dinosaur; on mine he drew a computer. He said that it was because I liked to work.

I’ve felt guilty for almost the entire time I’ve been a mother, because I’d failed to live up to my image of the “ideal” mother. I don’t do arts and crafts, I don’t cook and bake more than I have to, I don’t enjoy playing, and I am not all-sacrificing. It was thanks to your responses to a post I’d written on the subject that I began to swap out the old picture for a more realistic one that depicts the kind of mother I actually am: a travel-loving, book-loving, word-loving, conversation-loving, thinking-loving and independence-loving mom. I realized that I don’t need to trade in who I am in order to love and raise a child.

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Americanah

Image courtesy of http://cdn4.fishpond.co.nz

Americanah is the third novel by Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s the story of Ifemelu, a young middle class woman who, due to the many strikes that have disrupted her university at home,  decides to go to the U.S. for college. She attends a school in Pennsylvania and we learn about her experiences as both an international student and a non-American African in America. She struggles financially for quite some time, unable to get hired for part-time work. Out of sheer desperation, she finally takes on a humiliating job in which she compromises her dignity. This leaves her in a depression (or triggers an identity crisis?) during which time she also ends up cutting off all ties to the boyfriend she had left behind in Nigeria.

Her boyfriend Obinze is a seemingly good man, her intellectual equal, and he adores her. He is heartbroken and confused when she no longer returns his calls or e-mails, but eventually moves on. He goes to England but outstays his visa, and soon he is working illegally under someone else’s identity, and he makes arrangements to marry a British citizen in order to stay in the country.

Meanwhile, Ifemelu recovers in the U.S. and finds great success writing an anonymous blog entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American BlackA central part of Americanah is a study on black-white race relations in America, in particular, the experience of the African in America versus that of the African American. Ifemelu says that she never even thought of herself as black – she never thought about race – until she stepped on American soil. She picks up on the peculiar ways in which people react to subtle issues of race. For example, while paying for an item at a clothing store the cashier asks which of the two sales women had helped her. The cashier would identify the two sales women by hair length (if I recall correctly) but not race, when one of them was clearly black and the other white. She finds race a volatile issue yet something that people aren’t really supposed to notice or talk about directly.

She also experiments with her own assimilation, from trying to straighten her hair to letting it go natural, from trying to perfect an upper-middle class (white) American accent to finally returning to her own. After leaving behind Obinze she dates Curt, a wealthy, white software entrepreneur, and then Blaine, an African American faculty member from Yale. One powerful part of the book is when Blaine stops speaking to her because she had chosen to attend a university department talk over the campus protest he had organized to speak up against the unfair arrest of an African American security guard. Such is the terrain that Ifemelu walks, as an African immigrant who has not lived the American black experience and who needs to learn to fully “get it.”

Race is a central theme in the middle of the book, but by the end the story evolves into more of a love story when both Ifemelu and Obinze are back in Nigeria. They meet again, and are faced with a difficult, life-changing decision.

This was my first time to read Adichie, and I have become a new fan. Americanah is one of those books where the author’s writing fit me – the book is no lightweight, at nearly 500 pages, but I glided through for the most part not feeling as though I was reading. There was a lot that I was able to relate to, in my experiences as an expat and immigrant and having worked with many international students. At the same time, it was an eye-opening read for me as it gave me a window into the Nigerian experience in America as well as a first-hand tackling of sensitive race issues.

Many readers, I’ve found, have either loved the book or felt disappointed by it. Those who don’t like it have complained that they felt lectured to on race. There are certainly parts in the book in which the race discussion feels contrived. For example, Ifemelu is a quiet and often uneasy observer in Blaine’s regular get-togethers with his sister and intellectual friends. The group is a diverse one, and during these dinners they would all discuss some topic on race. I felt the same about a conversation between Ifemelu and Obinze about the present state of Nigeria. There’s a bit of unnaturalness there, like the characters are placed there to be sociological mouthpieces.

Adichie also closes some chapters with Ifemelu’s blog posts. The following is an excerpt:

Sometimes they say “culture” when they mean race. They say a film is “mainstream” when they mean “white follks like it or made it.” When they say “urban” it means black and poor and possibly dangerous and potentially exciting. “Racially charged” means we are uncomfortable saying “racist.”

I was probably too fascinated by the discussions to mind the presentation of the race issues. As Ifemelu says, it is more palatable to people if an African rather than an African American writes about race in America. And that is exactly what Adichie has done, albeit to mixed reactions.

Sunday mornings, then and now

2009

Wake up from sound sleep and with a near heart attack at 5:30 a.m. to a little pair of eyes staring down at me, willing me to wake up. Wonder how long he had been standing there. Get pulled out of bed to play. Silently curse…curse a lot.

2010

Wake up at 6:00 a.m. to the pitter-patter of footsteps approaching our room, then stopping abruptly to read the “Come back to Mommy and Daddy’s room after 8 a.m.” sign on the door. Hear and can’t help smiling at child who lets out a very audible “Awwww!” and slumps down on the floor against our door to wait. Hear him giving up after 10 minutes, and allow myself to fall asleep again at the sound of his retreating footsteps.

2013

Wake up at 7:30 a.m. from the sound of husband closing the bedroom door behind him. Fall back asleep. Wake up again at 7:57. Reluctantly sit up and reach over for laptop. Check e-mails and Facebook. Go downstairs to say hello to child at 8:30. He is playing a video game, watching t.v., or reading quietly. Say good morning three times and make him respond. I wrap my arms around him and playfully squeeze him, asking him how he slept. I take his mumbled “good…” for now. He nods when I ask if he has already eaten something. I go back upstairs to bed, to my laptop. Twenty minutes later, I hear his footsteps running up the stairs, more staccato now, less pitter-patter. He gets dressed and washes up. He and his best friend Jack had already made an appointment to meet at 9, at his house.

All I ever wanted was sleep, and now the house feels so quiet.

What are your Sunday mornings like? 🙂

Reflections of a “Lawn Mower Parent”

The first time I heard the term “Helicopter Parent,” I remember scoffing with pride that I certainly wasn’t one of them, these parents who are all over their children and their children’s teachers. Don’t get me wrong; I have a few propellers whizzing around over my child but I have seen obsessive and aggressive parents, and I know I am not like them.

And then I saw an article on my Twitter feed about the “Lawn Mower Parent” – a parent who attemps to “mow down any obstacle in their children’s path.” (courtesy of Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, “Spare the Spanking, Spoil the Report Card?,” The Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2010). This time the term struck a nerve.

In fact, I remember beginning my parenting journey with this goal (one of many): to spare my son the trauma, the unpleasantness, and the hurts that I had endured as a child. Don’t we all have that as a parenting goal? What parent says, “I want my child to get bullied. I want my child to get his feelings hurt. I hope my child has an uphill battle to fight in school.” ? Our parental instinct is to ensure our children’s happiness.

I’m sometimes amazed at how vastly different Fred’s childhood is from mine. Due to particular circumstances in my family then, I had lived in a lot of fear, and tension was the norm rather than the exception. Everything except academics had felt like an uphill struggle. Very little had felt smooth back then, and my parents were too busy or did not  know enough to help. So I stumbled along myself. I figured out how to get into one of the top high schools in our state. I wrestled with friendships and relationships. I figured out my own career path, found a good man to marry, became a mother. I’ve struggled with a lot of mistakes over my life time, as well as wasted years, depression, and self-doubt. But now, at 40+, I am confident in my ability to rely on myself and to take care of others.

Do I want that for Fred? Would I want him to go through even a third of what I had gone through? No doubt those early struggles on my own helped me develop some of the strengths that I have now. But I see my strengths in a small tub mixed in with a great deal of anxiety and insecurities that would not have been there had an adult played a bigger role helping me get through those obstacles.

I do get the whole argument about the Lawn Mower Parent. Like all these short-cut parenting labels, they’re meant to generalize and stereotype the most extreme parent. The Lawn Mower Parent is the one who doesn’t want his child to ever not get what he wants. She’s the one who doesn’t ever want her child to cry. While I want to protect my child from trauma (if I possibly can), I do know that kids have to experience frustration, struggle, hurt, fear, injustice, and disappointment in order to develop maturity, confidence and coping skills. And believe me, I have more than once wondered, Is Fred’s life too easy? Is he too happy? Has he not had enough bad things happen to him? And then I see the absurdity in this line of thinking, in the kind of self-questioning that these parenting labels induce.

The truth is, try as I might, life has its own way of throwing potholes in my son’s life path, and I am guessing that much of the time there will be little that I can do to shield him from suffering from them. I want so much for Fred to live a happy and pain free life, but already he knows what it’s like to be falsely accused by a teacher and principal, to be cheated by friends, to lose, to doubt his abilities to perform, to fear the anger of people he loves. To think that I have the ability to smooth or clear all of this for him is to overestimate my power as a human being.

Screw all the parenting labels. I’m going to love my son the only way I know how, and be confident that he is going to turn out a responsible, good, and happy human being.

A Mother’s Self

My first post as a contributor to Stacey’s Mom Renewal Project can be found here today. Stacey’s dedicated her blog to helping moms find ways to recharge themselves in “body, mind and spirit,” which I think is a pretty good cause 😉

To that end, I’ve written a post about the importance of remembering who we are as women and building an identity that can stand alone outside of motherhood. Won’t you visit me at The Mom Renewal Project?

Back, Slowly

I’m back, though just barely 😉 We had a fun and exhausting trip and Fred has somehow decided over the last couple of weeks that he needs just 2-7 hours of sleep a day…If my blog were a t.v. sitcom this is the part where I would air a rerun or one of those compilation episodes. So luckily for me one of my posts is up at the blog Laugh Out Loud today. I wrote this one in February before most people knew I had a blog. Please join me at LOL and I hope you enjoy the post. I can’t wait to start reading and writing and connecting again. Happy 4th of July!

They support one another, because that is what people are supposed to do

“person”

Chinese: ren / Japanese: hito

My late night conversation with my husband yesterday, as I felt like I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown:

Max: Are you crying? What’s wrong?

Me: I don’t know…everything…I don’t do anything, I don’t contribute…I just sit at my computer and I…I feel like I hate myself.

Max: Everyone hates yourself.

Me: What?

Max: Everyone hates yourself.

Me: You mean, everyone hates him- or herself?

Max: Yeah, that’s what I meant. I don’t like myself sometimes either.

Me: Why? What’s not to like?

Max: Like I’m getting old…and my English is not good, so I have to rely on you for everything.

Me (looking up at him, realizing he had just hit it on the nail): THAT’S why I hate myself, for relying on you for everything. If it weren’t for you I can’t run this household…I can’t even mother…I feel like I wouldn’t be able to function or get anything done…I feel useless…

Max: You know the Chinese/Japanese character for “person,” right? The two strokes [he writes the character in the air with his finger] – there are two strokes because they hold up one another. They support one another, because that is what people are supposed to do.

I never knew that, about that character.

Why do I feel less capable because I need help? Why do I feel that I have to be able to do everything on my own? The thought of needing someone – that I have to depend on someone else for survival whether it is financial, physical or emotional – frightens me. And I know that sometimes my fierce determination to be independent, to not need, hurts Max. We all like to feel needed, to know that, to a few important people in our lives, we are indispensable. But knowing that there is someone I can’t live without – that scares me. Because if I depend too much, someday that person may no longer be here, and that frightens me more than anything.

Happy anniversary to my other stroke, the one that holds me up without fail.

Love, Sparks and Fireworks

When I was younger, getting swept off my feet meant alot to me. In fact, this was my #1 criterion when it came to looking for potential soul mates. My daydreams were the stuff of romance novels and I really believed that Mr. Right could take the form of a Fabio. And throughout my 20s I met my fair share of Fabios – sexy men who knew how to talk, confident men who made me feel like Cinderella. The only problem with these types of men was that always the clock struck 12, and always my carriage turned into a pumpkin. Butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, heart palpitations – those were quickly doused by a case of the commitment jeebies that typically reared their heads at month 3. 

When I was 29 and I imagined my biological clock getting ever more deafening, I began to wonder about the logic of my thinking. My older friend Marisel, a sexy 39 year-old who was calling it quits on her long dating career to marry a quiet computer programmer, said to me, “Cecilia, the fireworks aren’t real. Your mother is right. Stop looking for it or you’ll be alone forever.” I never believed my mother when she told me this. However, hearing it from Marisel, I immediately turned my thoughts to Henry, my oldest friend since kindergarten and my best male friend for the last 10 years.

Henry grew up in the house behind mine. We went to school together for 13 years until we attended separate colleges and our friendship grew as we got older. We would talk on the phone for eight hours straight and we would cry on each other’s shoulders over lost boyfriends and girlfriends. Henry had just finished medical school, training to become a pediatrician after serving two years in the Peace Corps. He was tall, good looking, and my mother loved him. The reason I never considered dating Mr. Too Good to be True was because the thought of kissing him made me think of my little brother. Given that I had met Henry when we were both 4, in a sense, he really was like my brother. But I believed Marisel, and now my mother. Fireworks may not be real but my ticking biological clock was.

So I mustered up the courage to shoot off a 3-page letter to Henry, asking if our brother-sister relationship meant we were destined to be together as lovers.  

Given that he lived just 20 minutes from me, he called me the next day, presumably the moment he received my letter.

“Wow, I was really surprised.”

“Oh?” I was tentative, nervous.

“Yeah, I mean, really surprised.”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t know…maybe there was a time when it could’ve happened…but…you weren’t interested then, so…now I can’t look at you as anything other than a sister.”

Uh huh…

“Actually, I’m driving down to New Jersey Friday night. I met this stripper at Paul’s bachelor’s party last weekend and I got her phone number…”

If this were a movie this would be the part where the sound effects of tires screeching and glass crashing would be heard. I know I’ve scared some Fabios and Casanovas in the past with my desire for commitment, but now I’ve also scared a nice Peace Corps doctor too – straight into the arms of a sex worker.

As the only person among my friends not amused by the irony of this situation, I secretly swore myself off men from then on. And that, in part, contributed to my ability to move to Japan later that year. The absence of commitment, whether real or imagined, freed me to pursue my personal dreams, untethered to anyone or to the dream of anyone.

And much to the pleasure of my wagering friends back home, I would indeed fall in love when I least expected it, personifying the favorite cliche of the 20-something crowd.

I still remember the first time I met Max: handsome, gentle, smiling, clean cut. He was a Fabio in the sense that he caught my eye quickly and had a smooth, confident way about him. But different from my past playboys, Max possessed the tenderness and humility of a computer programmer, engineer, accountant, kindergarten teacher. He was the Prince without the pumpkin, the Henry without the incest. Before we ever spoke, I knew that he was The One.

And luckily for me, Max felt the same way. Those early months of our relationship were indeed fireworks: stolen kisses in stairwells and subway stations, 4-hour dates followed up by 2-hour phone calls followed up by 3-page e-mails. We were walking public displays of affection in a culture that doesn’t even peck at weddings. Not only did the butterflies fight another world war in our stomachs, they continued long after our first “I love you”s. And they continued after we met each other’s parents, after we sent out the wedding invitations, even after I was practically tipping over with a 6 lb. Fred camping out in my uterus.

Last night, I walked out of the shower with my shoulders glistening with drops of water, my thick, oversized towel barely staying over me. I walked over to Max’s side of the bed to pick up my glasses and gave him a sideways glance. He got out of bed, shot a quick look in my direction and headed to the bathroom. I smoothed lotion over my damp body as Max made his way back to bed and pulled up his right knee. He opened his nail clipper and began picking away at his foot corn. I pulled my $4.99 leopard print pajamas over me and climbed into bed next to him, opening up David Sedaris’ Naked to the last essay on his experience with the senior citizens in the nudist colony.

Well, it is nine years later. I guess the fireworks don’t last, but the embers still glow. And I’ve still got my Fabio.