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.

~~~~

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.

Advertisements

Taboo books, songs, and conversations, and kids

Photo credit: FreeSpeechDebate

Well, it’s National Banned Books Week, a week that celebrates our freedom to read and to access ideas that we all should have a right to. I checked out a few lists of the most commonly banned books, and frankly all except for Fifty Shades of Grey (kidding) leave me shaking my head, or maybe my inability to comprehend the need for censorship reflects my own lack of open-mindedness?

Among the books that have appeared on banned lists are To Kill a Mockingbird, The Harry Potter series, The Bluest Eye, The Diary of Anne Frank, even Charlotte’s Web! Thoughtful, provocative books reflect life and its realities, and opening ourselves to them makes us more compassionate, less ignorant and hopefully less prejudiced. I can’t imagine telling someone what he or she can and cannot learn. I can’t imagine trying to raise a humane child by preventing him/her access to different ideas.

As a mother I’m fairly liberal, and I draw (an ever adjustable) line only if I feel my child is not yet ready for certain material. I started talking to my son about race and racism when he was four, homosexuality and homophobia when he was seven, and terrorism around the same time. Now, it’s not like I have an agenda and I’m intentionally infiltrating his pliable mind with all these issues, but these topics come up naturally in conversation or when we have the television on, and while I’ll of course adjust the depth and language accordingly, I don’t shy away from answering Fred’s questions, the way my mother used to, dangling the “I’ll tell you when you’re older” carrot. When my then-six-year-old asked me specifically out of just which part of my body he exited, I told him matter-of-factly and even pointed (in the general vicinity; I do have some level of modesty ;-)).

Of course, these open discussions are a bit easier when we have some control over them. Things get trickier when the kids enter school, and suddenly they’re hearing about mass shootings from other people first, or their friends are introducing them to rap music, which is what happened with us at the beginning of this school year.

“Mommy, I’ll give you $2 if you help me buy these two AWESOME songs!” (My Fred is now nine.)

I was ready to just mindlessly hop onto iTunes and get the songs for him when I suppose maternal instinct kicked in and I decided to google the lyrics first. Rap is unmapped territory for me, though at that point I had some vague idea that some, but not all, rap music was explicit. So I found the lyrics and, sure enough, the two songs my nine-year-old wanted happened to be explicit. I don’t remember the exact words but I do remember “my cock” in the very first line, and more choice words following. The second song was something with Britney Spears featuring a somebody or other who would jump in every few lines calling her “B*tch.”

Okay.

Ms. Liberal Mom minded, finally. And Fred being Fred, I knew he was going to press me for a reason, especially seeing as I had just said “yes” a few minutes before.

Having to say no led me to try to understand when and why I draw the line and when and why I believe something is acceptable, even right, to censor. It is hard, though, when the reason is something that you feel, rather than something that you know. Why do I not want him listening to this music? Because he’s nine and because I don’t want him listening to a litany of cock, f*ck, and sh*t at this age. B*tch is a little easier. It’s misogyny.

But Mommy, I’m not stupid. I already know a lot of cuss words, but it’s not like I ever go around using them.

I know. I know that he knows right from wrong. I know he’s got a will of steel, as I have seen him stand up to his father and me as well as withstand boy herd mentality.

Don’t you trust me?

We do. But I told him it wasn’t about trust. What I didn’t want was for him, at nine, to enter a world that is no place for a child. Even if he won’t be using the words, I don’t want him getting so used to hearing women being called “b*tch” that it almost becomes normal, and I don’t want him mindlessly regurgitating words whose concepts he hasn’t the faintest idea about. He will get to all of that eventually – the strong emotions, the sex – and at some point in the not distant future, I will be entrusting him to make more and more of his own decisions. But he is not there yet. Surely there are other rap songs that are less…inappropriate.

He was disappointed but in the end he understood. He told me that there are “clean” versions of those songs available and he showed me how to find them. He said that he just liked the way the music sounded.

What are your thoughts on censorship? Have your parents and/or teachers ever tried to forbid you from certain books or music? If you have older children, how do you deal with all this??

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? 🙂

On anger, forgiveness, and love

I’ve had this post sitting in my draft box for a couple of months now, but I finally felt brave enough to hit the “publish” button after reading Rudri’s heartfelt and emotional post On Lessons from Experiencing Loss. Thank you, Rudri, for sharing with us what you’ve learned from grieving.

…………..

I’d written quite a bit about my difficult summer last year – about my broken ankle, the sudden death of our young colleague. But there was another event that I hadn’t shared, which was that for two very long and life changing days, I had believed I was going to lose my mother.

My mother was diagnosed with a condition carrying such words as “rare” and “aggressive.” When she called to update me on her post-surgery follow-up, she had, due to language barriers, misunderstood her doctor’s prognosis, and passed along to me her interpretation that, due to the sensitive location of the tissue in question, the doctor was unable to treat her completely. To be unable to remove everything, according to my research, meant basically a gradual but inevitable death. At my request, she arranged to have the doctor speak to me in two days.

I have written about how my leg injury led me to pledge to live life differently and certainly that is true, but in truth, it was those two days in between losing and regaining my mother that had changed me. By the time I got off the phone, my ankle had ceased to be something worth whining about. What a waste of emotional energy it had been to feel sorry for myself, to wonder if I could ever walk again. Of course I would walk again. How trivial every other “tragedy” becomes when a loved one’s life may be at stake.

My connection with my mother at this stage in our lives, with so many miles between us, is symbolized by our weekly phone call. Usually Sunday, usually around 9 a.m. But sometimes she would catch our answering machine and sometimes she would call outside of our unspoken time slot and I would get annoyed. More often than I am proud to admit, I had been unable – or unwilling – to talk to her, cutting her off because I was in the middle of something or on my way to something. “Yes, I know, you’re busy. You are always busy. There never seems to be a good time to call you,” my mother had said to me tearfully and more than once.

I had rationalized to myself, for many years, that I had gotten that way because of our complicated and sometimes painful relationship, that if she had criticized me less, or been less controlling of me, maybe I would have had different feelings of our relationship. I would tell her that it was her fault I didn’t want to talk to her, that I would get on the phone and feel paranoid she’d find more fault in me. I would tell myself that I was trying to achieve peace and self-acceptance, and I needed to push away all sources of potential toxicity. I’d forgiven so many people in my life, but not my mother. I had had nowhere to go with the raw and painful emotions I felt growing up, and somehow I had turned my mother into my scape goat.

I had been angry for over thirty years, and for the first time I softened. When I realized I might have only a few more years left with my mom, I softened.

I began picking up the phone patiently whenever she called me at work. I let slide any minor annoyances. I simply nodded “okay” when she nagged me. I listened to her vent about annoying colleagues. And, really, that was all. There were no criticisms. No attempts to control me. We talked and we laughed. She began looking back on her years as a mother, half laughing and half sighing, “Ay…I was so clueless…it’s a wonder you and your brother turned out okay.” And I began learning things about her I had never known – that her single mother in rural China had encouraged her – a girl in the 1940s – to be anything that she wanted to be and that she (my mother) used to love what few books she could find, and would stay up until 3 reading Russian novels by lantern light. In very quick time, I began to look forward to our weekly conversations.

Like that I let go of all the anger I had harbored against her over the last three decades. I let it go only to realize, with intense surprise and then regret, that the overly critical mother I had immortalized in my head all this time did not even exist. Or maybe she did, 10 or 20 years ago, but she had changed. Or, perhaps, I had changed…maybe I had stopped fighting her love and her attempts to get close to me, and I finally gave her the space and permission to be the mother she had always been trying so hard to be. I’ve had a lifelong fear of getting too close to people, of being loved too much, of being possessed and smothered. And I fought my mother the hardest…of course, because she had been the one person with the most love to give.

Our past is complicated and I am a flawed person from a family wounded by immigration, poverty, mental illness and cultural and generational differences…why I would want to push my mother away is a whole other, much longer story. But had I been willing to let go of my anger sooner, we could have had more quality years together. We could have been laughing longer. I could have seen my mother more clearly, instead of holding on to the image I may have created in my head as a way to avoid responsibility for my own healing. While the cancer did not reduce my mother’s years with me, my anger did.

I spoke to my mother’s doctor two days later. She’s fine. Everything was treated. They need to keep an eye on her condition but no, it is in no way a death sentence. So like my leg injury, the misunderstanding of the doctor’s prognosis turned out to be a gift. It was a 5-alarm fire call to let go of the past and a chance to reunite. I saw and chose love at the brink of loss, and, so luckily, I was given the gift of more time. I am late, but I made it.

 

Why doesn’t she like me??

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

Sigh.

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

What is wrong with me?

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

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

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

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

Hello.

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

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

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

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

 

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?

Growing up and letting go

Our house was like Grand Central this weekend, with the neighborhood boys streaming in and out. We love these Social Sundays, especially now that I’ve gotten over the early bittersweet of my baby forming his own world without me.

Then that day came another milestone.

After playing with his friends on our street, Fred asked if he could go to Brian’s house, 2 blocks away. Straight path, no traffic. It seemed high time for him to go there on his own.

When it turned out Brian was still eating lunch, Fred came back and asked if he could go to Kyle’s house, a more complicated path 4 blocks away within our subdivision. Again, we said yes.

An hour later, Fred came back with Kyle and asked if they could go to the park. The neighborhood park is a little under 10 minutes away by foot, and up until that point Fred had never gone there without an adult. It’s not that we had forbidden it; he simply never asked and we never had to think about it. But today it came up, and again, we said yes.

I was surprised to feel relieved. Max, too, added, “This is how boys should live.” Coming from a country where kindergarteners commute alone on public transportation, Max has since adopted my American wariness and done his fair share of standing guard at playgrounds. But we always recall our own stories of how much more carefree our childhoods had been: how Max traveled alone from one end of Japan to the other at the age of 9, how I was walking 3 blocks through traffic in a much rougher neighborhood to catch the school bus when I was 8.

I didn’t realize how exhausting it was to fear and worry…not about safety from speeding cars or kidnappers but about how to make sure we don’t overprotect Fred.

In the second it took for me to calibrate the risks of letting Fred go to the park, I asked myself what it was that I was fearing: Was it child molesters? Traffic? Getting lost? Given our neighborhood, getting lost was the greatest risk, but even that was basically nil. There was more to lose by holding Fred close.

But I will tell you the bigger anxiety I had that day, once I’d let him go.

I wasn’t worried about Fred getting to and from the park safely, or being safe while playing at the park. I worried about what he would do – from now on – when there is no adult to say, “No, don’t do that.” My mind flashed back to all those stories of dumb pranks performed by my perfectly intelligent male friends, antics that helped build up my earlier vow never to have a boy. But you know, writing this, I am ashamed to admit to my own fair share of regrettable choices and dumb behavior. This latest milestone made it clear that I have entered that parenting stage where the most important thing I can instill – and rely on – is my child’s good judgment.

And suddenly potty training feels like a breeze compared to trying to shape a child’s moral compass and self-control.

This post took me three days to write. I didn’t know where to go after the above paragraph. Then, in trying to find my direction I ran up against this question again: What is it that I’m afraid of? Has Fred chosen bad friends? Has he made poor choices in judgment? Has he given me any reason so far to worry that he will one day binge drink at his first fraternity party (because, you know, that worry ranks right up there with doing bike wheelies and entering hotdog eating contests) ?

One of the incidents that triggered my worries was how oblivious Fred became to me as soon as his friend told him she was organizing a neighborhood talent show. He became so giddy he ignored my warning that it was dinner time, and threw himself at the piano to practice Jingle Bells, his latest and proudest piece.

After I’d gained some perspective, I realized, it’s Jingle Bells, not crack.

So, after more than eight years as a mother, I’m learning to let go…to let go of not my child, but my fears.