The note of reflection

A couple of weeks ago I found the following note in Fred’s school folder:

Dear Mommy and Daddy,

Today I poked my freind with a paper clip. I am having trubble keeping my hands to my self. I promiss to be better.

Love, Fred

The note was, I would soon come to find out, a “note of reflection.” It was to be read and signed by a parent and returned to the teacher.

I sighed at the note, mildly exasperated at both my active 6 year-old and his seemingly over-sensitive teacher.

“But I didn’t poke him with the sharp end,” Fred told me when I probed him about the incident. “I just used the round end and I went like this.” He demonstrated by gently touching me on the back with his finger. He was playing around, as I know he is prone to do. So I wasn’t alarmed so much about the paper clip as I was about the second line, “I am having trouble keeping my hands to myself.”

Every former elementary school teacher flashed through my mind. Keep your hands to yourself. Keep your hands by your sides. The annoyed admonishments were directed mainly at the boys, I remember. As a well-behaved, approval-seeking little girl, I never quite “got” what was so hard about simply sitting still. Even at that young age I equated the lack of ability to restrain oneself a sign of immaturity and yet more evidence of the male gender’s inferiority to girls. (And I have a feeling that some of my teachers did too.) As a woman, I couldn’t quite get those implulses until I became a mother of a little boy.

I’ve found it a simultaneous joy and struggle to be the mom of a boy, and all for the same reason: because he is so different from me. Fred is physically adventurous in ways I never dared to be, and assertive in ways that I envy even now as an adult. He is so full of energy and love for the outdoors and as a result healthier and more robust than I ever was. And for as long as I can remember he has had no problem telling a kid off who’s cut him in line or taken his toy without asking. At the same time, the physical risk-taking shows up as scars, cuts and bruises. How is it that he can fall again and again and not learn to avoid it? I worry about the day we might end up in a hospital ER. He will also sometimes defy adults, whether it is us or his teachers. He will not always do as he is told if he disagrees and he will sometimes repeat an offense because he “forgot.” I worry about him ruffling feathers and getting on people’s bad sides. The joy in mothering Fred is that I see strengths that did not exist in me; the struggle is mothering a child who is becoming a person I was not. It feels unfamiliar and so when he sometimes doesn’t behave as I would have, my alarm bells go off.  

I understand that the above qualities don’t only belong to boys, and that this ambivalence can and does probably happen between most parents and their children regardless of gender. I know that I became a very different person than the one my mother had envisioned, and this became hard for her even though or perhaps because we are both women. So often I disappointed her because I didn’t behave as she would have or made the choices that she would have. As a young woman I thought this was selfish parenting; as a mother I am understanding just how hard it can be to let your child be different from you, to trust that your child will turn out well – perhaps even better! – by following his or her own way.

Those notes of reflection are hard on me. Knowing that my son isn’t always the angel in school is hard on me. Wondering if his “misbehaviors” reflectly poorly on me as a mother is hard on me. And yet, I wonder how I would feel if he, like me when I was a little girl, stressed to behave perfectly in school, so terrified of a teacher’s or friend’s disapproval that he couldn’t speak his mind or be himself. Maybe he knows what he’s doing. Maybe he will surprise me. The only way I’ll know is by guiding the little boy who’s in front of us, rather than pushing for the person who’s lived inside of me. 

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?

Free to be Happy

Max and Fred, our first week in the U.S. two years ago

A childhood trauma had hardwired my brain to fear and expect loss. Though the experience is long behind me, a couple of years ago I began to realize that I was not completely free of its grip. 

My happiest moment was July 4, 2008, when we moved to the U.S. after having spent 8 years overseas. Of course, I was also happy the day I married Max and the day I gave birth to Fred. Somehow, though, moving home had a different momentous feeling…perhaps because I wasn’t gaining something as much as I was reclaiming something that had felt lost. Yes, I had made the choice to experience Japan but, after a few years, I had desperately wanted to come back. The U.S., for all of its problems, is the place that felt most intimate to me, the place where all my dreams of “happily ever after” took place. And so that ability to return, with a husband who was willing to sacrifice his home for mine, is something I will never take for granted.

But as grateful as I was to finally have “everything” that I had wanted, I never felt truly happy and at peace…because I couldn’t allow myself to. For the first three years of our marriage (until Fred was born), I had feared constantly the day I would lose Max. And now that I am a parent, I fear the unspeakable. My anxiety over having the rug pulled out from under me, of losing everything that I have worked and waited for, made me go through life waiting for something to happen rather than savoring what was right in front of me. I remember sitting at a cafe the first week we were in North Carolina, looking out the window into a sea of green that I had thirsted for after almost a decade in the concrete jungle of Tokyo, and I started to cry. This is where I wanted to be, and yet I feared being punished for being too happy. 

A few weeks ago I wrote about my frustrations being on auto pilot, of not feeling motivated to get through the daily obligations of life. Your supportive comments led me to a deep self-reflection and further conversations with Max and a close friend, all of which led me to the following conclusion: Time will pass regardless of how I spend it, and so I’d might as well spend it happily. I know this sounds trite and cliched to most people, and yet for me it was never at all obvious. I had known no other way to live except with anxiety and in fear of loss, and to let go of that need to prepare for the worst is easier said than done.

But this time, I feel that I have done it – that is, I am determined to try and change. Because I have hit rock bottom, and I am sick and tired of worrying. I see Fred growing right in front of me and growing with so much joy, and I’d hate to look back and realize that half that time I was worrying about things that may or may not happen instead of relishing the little boy who was becoming a man right before my eyes.

So this weekend I began shifting my attitude. On Friday Max and I took the morning off to chaperone a field trip at Fred’s school and then enjoyed an outdoor cafe afterward instead of returning to work. On Saturday, I finally mustered enough positive energy to clean out the boxes from our family room/office, to make way for a brighter and happier space. I also tried a new citrus body scrub and painted my toenails. Small, trivial indulgences to most people that I have rarely allowed for myself.

And then the other evening, in the rarest of rare moments, I invited Fred to come along on a bike ride with me. We rode along together through our neighborhood, up and down hills, laughing and taking in the sights of our beautiful small town. As I pumped my legs to make it up the hills, I felt the new will that told my body to keep pushing despite how hard it felt, and when the bike glided down, I decided to let my body go – not thinking about going too fast or falling or crashing – and to just enjoy the ride…light, effortless, and free.

Mothering, Memories

Something must be in the Mother’s Day Eve air because it seems that everywhere I looked this week mothers were talking about memories and growing children and their accompanying bittersweet emotions.

Some wonderful articles and blog posts on the subject that I found these last few days:

(1) Letting Go of Your Kids, Little by Little

This is Alice Bradley’s recent column in Redbook magazine. As many of you may know, she is the author of Finslippy. It’s a quick read about the “different” boys she’s had from infancy to now. Alice’s son is just a year older than mine, and I nodded in recognition in some places while I had to hold back tears in others. It looks like it may be less than a year that my son might stop wanting to hold hands with me.

(2) Three is a Magic Number

Aging Mommy writes a lovely post about the bittersweet feelings she experienced when she saw that her 3 year-old daughter was able to wheel her shopping cart around the market and do quite a good and independent job shopping herself.  She writes: “I was bursting with pride and at the same time practically wanting to weep – because once again, I was reminded of the fact that she is changing so much and so quickly and these days of her being just three will soon be gone too.”

(3) With Love, Mom

Good Day, Regular People shared with us another mom blogger’s idea of writing letters to her children and having them professionally bound for her children. Commenters chimed in with their own wonderful ideas of how they pass their legacies to their children.

In a related post in February, I wrote about Writing My Family’s Memories.

There are a number of ways I’m trying to preserve our family’s memories and stories but I’m afraid I’ve been going about it in a completely disorganized away. I have several handwritten journals, a Word journal, this blog and a private blog that I wrote in 2007-08 which I plan to restart, and folders and folders of Fred’s drawings, worksheets, etc. I have half a dozen blank photo albums and two boxes of scrapbooking supplies. I even have a huge bag of squares I had cut out from Fred’s baby clothes and some fantasy that I will actually make a quilt out of them one day. (Yeah, right!) At the rate I’m going, I’m afraid I might be spending my empty nest years putting together these things! What are you all doing to preserve the memories??

(4) Six Words on Why Moms Matter

In a project to raise awareness of mothers around the world who live in extreme poverty, Women ONE2ONE, in partnership with Smith magazine, are inviting readers to compose their own 6-word memoirs on why mothers matter. To submit your own 6-word memoir, click on the title Six Words on Why Moms Matter above. My 6-word memoirs: “She will sacrifice anything for her children” and “Loves her children more than herself.”

(5) And finally, while I didn’t win Kate Hopper’s haiku contest with my poem about, ahem, leaking, the lovely and talented Pia at The Crack and the Light did with a stunning poem about what she didn’t know about motherhood. So I’d like to end my post here with her haiku, which amazes me with its beauty and simplicity in how it captures, in 17 syllables, exactly how it feels to be a mother:

My heart left my chest
In tiny jeans and t-shirt
Walks around, exposed

Boy enough

Last night my kindergartener summed up for me the language of his sex, providing me a bright preview into the smelly 4-letter word- and beer-filled world of his future locker room society: “Pee, poop, toilet, and FAT. That’s what boys like to talk about, Mommy!” And he ended that revelation with a full and self-satisfied laugh that sounded nearly as sweet as his first “I love you.”

The forebodingness and significance of that little quote were not lost on me. I quickly made a point of letting his father know just what came out of his offspring’s little mouth. “Did you hear that, Max? Fred said that boys like to talk about pee, poop, fart, and fat.”

“NO! I did not say fart! I said toilet! Pee, poop, toilet, and FAT.”

I stood corrected. Maybe “fart” will come later this spring when surely a first-grader will introduce to Fred’s posse the coolness of the word (and concept).

What do I do in such cases? My responses are typically, “No, we do not talk like that.” “No, no bathroom language. It’s rude.” “No, let’s not talk like that at the dinner table.” I’m fairly…slightly…sort of firm and I admit I do not say it until I’m blue in the face. “No bathroom jokes” ranks a notch or two below “I’m sorry” and “thank you” and expressing feelings using words. In terms of cutting it out with the bathroom talk, I must say also that Max is neither a consistent nor staunch ally.

As someone who is teaching Fred to knit and encouraging him to be verbal with his feelings, I believe that boys will not have to be boys. I remember what my college friend M. said to me when I told her we were having a boy: “Well, we’ll know that there will be at least one sensitive male on this earth.” (She was going through a bad break-up at the time, I think.) Yes, I’m trying to pass on all my gender-neutral and human “rules” of living to Fred: that it’s wonderful to be creative (whether it’s through Legos or yarn); important to communicate (it’s okay to cry and show pain and weakness); and critical to be yourself (don’t be afraid to admit you like pink or still need mama). But try as I do, Fred still gravitates toward race cars and dirt and bugs and bathroom jokes. I see him at school with the other “guys”, see how they slap him on the back or give him high-fives with as deep of a grunt as a 5 year-old boy can emit, and I can’t help but feel a twinge of…pride…and massive relief. Relief that my boy is “one of the guys”: accepted, liked, respected…which in Motherese translates into some peace of mind that her son can hold his own in a world that will only become too harsh and hardened, a world from which Mom will one day feel too powerless to protect her baby.