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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Disillusionment in marriage, home, and life: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is Julie Otsuka’s 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novella about Japanese picture brides trying to start new lives in California during the first half of the 20th century.

The book opens with the young women’s journey at sea. They are frightened, nervous, hopeful, excited, and uncertain about what awaits them. They are from different walks of life and from different parts of Japan, but they all have in their hands (or in the sleeves of their kimonos) the photos of hope: handsome, young men who have promised that they can provide for them well in the new country.

Once the brides are literally off the boat, they cannot find the faces to match their photos. The young and handsome businessmen are, in fact, older, haggard, and sometimes cruel farmworkers and laborers. It hits the women at this point that they have been deceived and, unbeknownst to them, that this is only the beginning.

The chapters that follow cover the new wives’ lives over the next few decades: marital rape, infidelity, hard labor and long hours, sexual harassment, the struggles to care for their children, children who reject them and are embarrassed by them, acculturation, racism. The book ends with the mass exodus of these now Japanese-American wives and their families and neighbors to internment camps as per Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order issued shortly after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

I’ve read other longer, more plot-driven books about the immigrant experience and I was surprised at how powerful this experimental novella is. This is both for your information and a warning: Otsuka’s narrator is a lyrical, first person plural. The book doesn’t focus on any single character or even a handful of characters, but instead covers the range of experiences of the collective group of brides. Here is an excerpt from the second chapter, entitled “First Night”:

That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word . . . they took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel . . . They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time . . . they took us for granted and assumed we would do for them whatever it was that we were told . . . they took us violently, with their fists, whenever we tried to resist. They took us even though we bit them. They took us even though we hit them . . . They took us shyly, and with great difficulty, as they tried to figure out what to do. “Excuse me,” they said. And, “Is this you?” They said, “Help me out here,” and so we did . . . They took us with more skill than we had ever been taken before and we knew we would always want them. They took us as we cried out with pleasure and then covered our mouths in shame. (pages 19-22)

I didn’t feel that the narration took away from the intimacy I felt with the characters’ experiences (though admittedly it is a different kind of intimacy) and in fact maybe it is the collective voice that makes this book so powerful: seeing the range of experiences drove home for me how much these women were going through and what it meant to be a picture bride in a country that was, at the time, still very hostile to unfamiliar cultures.

The women in this book arrive as strangers to both their Japanese-American husbands and America. It is a tale about what it’s like to land in hostile and unfamiliar hands, and it is as much about marriage (and its disappointments) as it is about immigration. The issues are heavy but somehow Otsuka’s writing translates the difficulties and hopelessness into something that is emotionally impactful and not bleak. I would have read this book in one or two sittings if I had the uninterrupted time (I read it in three); I thought it was wonderful.

Scandal and Secrets: The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhon

I’m happy to do my second post for the Literary Wives virtual book club. There are six other members posting as well, and I’ll share their links at the end of this post.

December’s read is The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress, a debut novel by Ariel Lawhon. It’s a fictionalized account of the 1930 disappearance of Joseph Crater, a judge on the New York City Supreme Court.

Image courtesy of Goodreads

In Lawhon’s version of events, Joseph Crater was last seen on August 6, 1930 getting into a taxi with his mistress Ritzi, a showgirl. The two had just spent the evening with Crater’s lawyer friend William Klein at the night club owned by notorious gangster Owney Madden. Partway through the evening Crater had said to Ritzi, “Why don’t you go powder your nose? . . .  Now.” (p. 29). Of course, that’s code for “Let us adult men talk.” Ritzi, while indignant, knows her part and does as Crater says. She spends just enough time in the ladies’ room to let them finish whatever it is they need to talk about, and when she returns to the table she catches pieces of their conversation, which hint heavily at some kind of attempt at a cover up and threat of foul play.

In the taxi Crater tells the driver to take them to the Belasco Theater, where Crater is only able to get one ticket for that night’s show. Ritzi offers to go home, but Crater redirects the driver to Coney Island. Crater books a hotel room for the two of them and it is here that Crater is last seen.

The rest of the novel moves both forward and back from alternating perspectives of Crater’s wife, maid, and mistress, to show the investigation following the disappearance and also the back story that finally reveals what happened to Crater and who was involved.

Here are the two questions we’re talking about:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Maria, the maid, is married to a member of the NYPD whom Crater pulls some strings to promote to detective. Following this favor, he says to Maria, “I do wonder . . . how the daughter of Spanish immigrants managed to snag one of New York’s finest.” (p. 19) Stella defends Maria, but adds, “You are smart enough to know that a woman is only as good as her husband is. The better off he is, the better off you are. Many women don’t understand that.”

She is speaking of the times, of course, when the financial quality of a woman’s life was really only as good as her husband. Stella has scarified everything in terms of personal choice and peace (and, yes, integrity) in order to enjoy her life of luxury with a corrupt and wealthy politician. At the possibility of ruin, she cries,

“If they [find and convict Joe], it ruins everything . . . My life! Everything we built. Every night I spend alone. Every compromise I made for him. Every one of Joe’s affairs. Not to mention every penny we have. All for nothing!” (p. 226) Stella’s extreme dependence on her husband for a certain lifestyle puts her in shackles, and she is stripped of any power to speak up or to expect respect from her husband.

However, marriage appears happier, kinder, safer, and more equal for the working class Maria and Ritzi, who has a husband in the book (I can’t say much more about Ritzi’s marriage without giving things away). Maria works two jobs as a maid and a tailor and is married to a man who loves her fiercely. Jude is very protective of Maria, and for good reason given the circumstances, but there is that sense that as a wife she needs to be protected. While in the bath together one evening, there is this interesting imagery:

“Their knees rose from the water like mountain peaks from mist, and she was locked between his legs.” (p. 234)

Jude will work hard to protect Maria, even decades after her death.

Finally, Ritzi, despite also being locked in her own shackles as a puppet for Owney Madden, has an iron will that drives her to try and take charge of her life on her own terms, as much as she possibly can given her own difficult circumstances and the constraints on women at the time. In the very few scenes that we see her with her husband, we get the sense that he is someone who loves her as she is, as he accepts her under less than ideal circumstances.

I think it is no coincidence that the most internally liberated woman in this story is the one in the most (presumably) egalitarian marriage. Ritzi is the one who has the greatest sense of autonomy and confidence in herself.

****

Overall I found The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress a fun, entertaining, and fast read. I enjoyed it in part for the mystery but more for the story about women. It’s a story about what it meant to be a woman in the early decades of the 20th century and it’s a story about husbands and wives. I can’t say that I was terribly surprised at the ending but it was still an entertaining read with some twists and a conclusion that will satisfy those readers who don’t enjoy loose ends, like those that exist in the real life story of Joseph Crater.

Please also check out my fellow book club members for their take on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library 

Audra of Unabridged Chick – Audra has a wonderful Q&A up with Ariel Lawhon, with questions from us.

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

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The gulfs in marriage and home: Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

I am so grateful to a couple of blogger friends who recently urged me to move Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri up on my reading list. This book had been sitting on my shelves unread for maybe three years.

Interpreter of Maladies is Lahiri’s first published work, a collection of short stories that also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

The stories take place in both America and India although we often get the sense that we’re in both: the characters are making a new life in America or traveling back to India to a country that’s unfamiliar or consoling a friend who’s been separated from his family.

The stories are also about marriage, about secrets and lost connections. The opening story is a powerful one about the gulf that takes place in one marriage after the death of the couple’s first baby. Other characters struggle with infidelity, loneliness, hunger to be noticed, and bewilderment at the behavior and thinking of their partners.

And there are stories of women living on the margins of society in India – the ill, the displaced. They, too, long for connection and belonging.

I’m trying hard here not to resort to cliches or overly dramatic expressions to describe how I felt reading these stories, but the only thing I can say is that I was amazed at how much punch each of these short stories could pack. Lahiri captures the immigrant’s and the outsider’s story with such nuance and poignancy – the optimism, the hope, the alienation, the longing, the loneliness…and all of this is rolled together with the parallel emotions faced in each of the characters’ marriages or relationship with the community. These are stories for anyone – Indian or not, immigrant or not – who’s ever felt a part of themselves empty, who’s ever wanted to be full and yet not known how to feel whole.

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.

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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

Re-thinking Valentine’s Day

I was very conscious of the fact that while running errands in the drizzle and traffic yesterday the one thing I wasn’t doing was picking up gifts for Valentine’s Day. As I rushed by markets and stores, I considered and then abandoned the idea of bringing more chocolate into the house (we’ve been on a steady diet of it since Christmas). Maybe I’ll bake muffins today, maybe. Maybe I’ll make cards for Max and Fred. But I didn’t have a plan. Somehow I didn’t make Valentine’s Day a priority, despite the fact that there are so many people whom I love so much, starting with the two boys in my life.

I thought about why I am so blasé about the day when for an extensive time in my life it had once been so important.

In my opinion, Valentine’s Day ceases to be fun once you’re out of the elementary school age set and hormones begin determining your experiences of “love.” I had been the shy, awkward and skinny teenager too nervous to date who grew up into a young woman who dated all the wrong men. Valentine’s Day, pre-marriage, always reminded me of what I didn’t have, of how I didn’t belong. Really, it is the senior prom over and over for single people. And the feeling was worse once I was in a relationship, with the kind of men that I used to be attracted to. Broken promises, unmet expectations…I once had an investment banker boyfriend who surprised me at work with a huge and stunning bouquet of flowers only to tell me at our 60th floor panoramic-view dinner that he and his friends were going to hit a party at a women’s college afterwards. It hurts more when you think you’ve finally joined the club and realize that love still alludes you, even on – or especially on – Valentine’s Day. I really used to wait for one day of the year to get “proof” that I was loved. Perhaps for no other holiday should this saying be truer: “Every day is Valentine’s Day.” Every day should be Valentine’s Day. Every day one should feel loved.

To quote my single, 40-something New York friend on Facebook this morning, “Valentine’s Day makes me want to vomit.” I suppose that is how I used to feel.

To have a genuine Valentine, to finally be among the real celebrants of February 14 had been a life goal of mine. I finally reached this pinnacle in my early 30s when I met Max in Japan, a country now infiltrated by many of our customs which are then adapted to suit their particular tastes or economic needs. In Japan Valentine’s Day is the day for women to treat their men; a separate holiday for men to reciprocate has then been established for mid-March. It’s genius and ridiculous consumerism.

Max and I never really paid much attention to the Japanese way of doing it, or even to the American way. Somehow, since we’ve been together, Valentine’s Day has been low-keyed. There was a year when I made a simple dinner, and he bought me a thin bouquet of flowers from the grocery store. On another year I may have gotten Tiffany earrings. Then there were years here and there in which we didn’t do anything at all. Maybe the fluctuation in our observations reflected our ambivalence about the meaning of the day. We love Thanksgiving, we love Christmas, and we love Mother’s and Father’s Day; when it comes to Valentine’s Day, I guess we are not quite sure about what it means. Is it about love? Is it about infatuation? I understand my lack of anxiousness about the holiday also reflects my security in love. I was surprised that once I found love, Valentine’s Day – as I saw it through pop culture and media – suddenly felt trivial.

Early this morning while I was still lying in bed Max stepped out of the room and then returned, coming over to me smiling, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” and reached down to give me a hug and kiss. He gave me a hand-made card decorated with origami hearts and a present. “I didn’t do anything for today,” I said over and over, guiltily. Then I tore open the wrapping and laughed. Max gave me a pill box, for my daily vitamins, because for the life of me I can never remember if I’ve taken my vitamins or not. Fred dashed in seconds later, yelling “Happy Valentine’s Day, Mommy!” and handed his own origami heart card to me. I couldn’t think of a better way to open my eyes to a new day, and I realized, that is the best way to feel on Valentine’s Day.

v-day cards

What are your feelings on Valentine’s Day? 

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?

Featured today

It’s been a while since I’ve written and I have fallen behind on reading your blogs as well. I’m in the middle of a major work deadline week and trying my best to fend off a cold. About an hour ago, my writing teacher from this spring, the wonderful Kate Hopper, emailed to say that one of my essays is being featured today as part of Mother Words week on the Minneapolis StarTribune’s parenting blog, Cribsheet. Each year, Cribsheet celebrates the power of women’s writing about motherhood by featuring essays from Kate’s Mother Words students. I had taken her on-line class this past spring and had the most wonderful experience. I credit Kate’s incredible support and inspiration for my ability to open up and keep writing, one full year later. In fact, this week I celebrate my one year anniversary of blogging!

Anyway, this is my first piece to appear publicly some place outside of my blog. I’m going to try to resist giving you all the disclaimers that it isn’t that good, that if only I had more time I could’ve strengthened it, etc. and just say that you can find the essay here if you are interested in reading it.

Thank you all so much for being there for me!