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.

Onlyoublog_fs

Coping and self-soothing

I was surprised yesterday when sitting down to guide Fred to plan out his homework schedule he said, “I want to be calm before I do math, so I’m going to play piano first.” My thinking was to get the hardest homework over with first, but Fred chose to read and play music instead.

It made me think about how, when and if one learns to self-soothe. I grew up in a stressful household but also in a family that didn’t “talk.” It wasn’t part of our culture to discuss feelings and besides, my parents didn’t have time; they were so focused just on surviving. But it’s human instinct to find or create coping skills, however immature or ineffective they may be in the long run. As a child I spent a lot of time reading and daydreaming – activities that took me, at least mentally, far from where I was. My little brother and I, using our stuffed animals, created an entirely new family complete with its own history and life.

As an adult I often relied on a busy schedule. At one point I was active in a handful of volunteer activities and joined a gym on top of a full-time job. My mother remarked that it was as if I were trying to numb myself by keeping every minute of my life occupied. Maybe I was. Maybe I was afraid of what I’d feel if I had time to feel.

I’m so grateful for all of your support last week when I posted about my inertia. Since I wrote that post I’ve had a great week. It is pretty amazing how much things can fall into place once you make that first change. Since joining the gym I’ve looked forward to going back each day, and since decluttering the dining room I’ve moved on to the kitchen. I also began doing small things: getting out of my pajamas and putting in my contacts before work (I work from home and usually rush to start due to my clients’ time zone), eating breakfast before 9:30, drinking more water and less juice, leaving my laptop in a different room and on a different floor after 8:00 p.m., and noticing my tone around my family more and apologizing when I need to, even for small things. I didn’t notice all the ways I had not been taking care of myself until I started to do it.

I feel I need to do all those things first before I can think about the more commonly thought of self-soothers like massages and aromatherapy candles. I’ve done that, along with the scented shower gels and lotions, and now I know why they hadn’t worked for me; I hadn’t taken care of my body’s most basic needs first.

I’m not sure why I’ve been so neglectful of myself. There are, of course, those intense years of early motherhood when the last person on your list of priorities is yourself. Those are the years that you eat standing up, fold laundry and cook when you should be napping, and throw talcum powder in your hair instead of washing it. Those years have formed a habit. Except I think I was kind of negligent even before I became a parent. While I’d taught myself to escape as a child, I never learned to stay and feel better.

This week Fred had an unfortunate incident. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t the end of the world. He locked himself in his closet, sobbing, “I just want to die!” It was a wake-up call because I saw myself in him. It was just a week ago that I had felt and cried the same thing to my husband. An article on suicidal thoughts says, “Often we don’t want to die; we just want the pain to end.” When you’ve never had a chance to properly face and process difficult emotions, they can easily become overwhelming…and crippling and threatening. And then eventually life itself becomes overwhelming, and even taking basic steps for self-care becomes difficult.

I know that my 9-year-old wasn’t literal about wanting to die, but I do know that he was feeling something more powerful than he could handle. He wanted to be anywhere except where he was at that moment. I know. I have been there…many times and over long years I have been there. I’ll make sure that Fred is never there alone, and that he knows he is stronger than anything bad he feels.

How do you cope or teach your children to cope with life’s more difficult moments?

Halloween and the unimaginative mother

Happy Halloween!

Those were Fred’s first words to us this morning. He’d been waiting for this day for a full year, and this year he’s expanding his trick-or-treating territory to cover 3 additional subdivisions.

I remember so well the first time we took Fred trick-or-treating; he was 4 and newly American (we were in Japan up until that point). He chose a red Power Ranger costume, and we would stand behind him, instructing him to walk up to a neighbor’s door, ring the bell, yell “Trick or treat!”, stick his bag out for (free) candy, say “Thank you,” and move on to the next door and repeat, no strings attached. You should have seen the look on his face. What a concept! What a country!

Whoa - what a concept!

Whoa – what a concept!

Halloween takes on so much more meaning once you become a parent. Before Fred came along, Halloween ranked just a few notches above Columbus Day for me. I’d never really gone trick-or-treating as a child, since the year my immigrant mother first learned about the concept was also the year that someone in our city was putting razor blades and poison inside the children’s treats.

This non-Halloween upbringing led to a certain inertia every year came Halloween. I don’t even remember ever having dressed up for college Halloween parties.

And then I had a child. Each year October became a month of anticipation beginning with costume planning and trips to the pumpkin patch and culminating in a magnificent and surreal evening that this underprivileged girl can only say comes straight out of the movies. On October 31st each year our neighborhood streets are filled with dressed-up children who seem to have come out of the woodworks. After-school activities are canceled and homework is excused. Halloween is huge, and it is happy.

When Fred was a toddler I hand made his costumes and threw annual Halloween parties. We were in Japan and I wanted to share this unique piece of Americana with my Japanese friends. Elaborate costumes, decorations, food, arts and crafts, games and 6 screaming toddlers. I actually used to do this.

Then we got to the States, and I began pulling out the credit card. I’d groan having to shell out $30-40 for a one-time costume so you can imagine my joy when Fred announced one year that he wanted to be Darth Vader a second Halloween in a row. We’d get pumpkins but I would leave the carving for Max to do with Fred. I’d look at our neighbors who plant skeletons in the soil or blow up 12-foot spiders to guard their front doors, and I’d do my part by moving our carved pumpkins into better view on our front step.

This year, I felt a slight deflation when Fred announced that he will not be going as himself after all, and then thankfully Max stepped in to help make his costume. I initiated our trip to the pumpkin patch a couple of weeks ago (very fun) and this evening I will accompany Fred on his expanded trick-or-treating route, keeping my eye out for a 20-something-year-old man in a red sedan that was seen yesterday in our town in an attempted child abduction. We didn’t have (or make) time to carve our pumpkins this year and our house/front door looks as festive as it does on Columbus Day. Seeing other people’s children already dressed up on Facebook this morning filled me with some guilt, another reminder of what I am not doing enough of as a mother (though we’ve covered that in an earlier post here where I am supposed to understand that, err, I have other gifts as a mother). But it’s also been almost 10 years. It’s hard for this non-Halloween and unimaginative gal to sustain the rah-rah for a full decade. I still have a dream to someday turn our house into a haunted house and to bake orange cupcakes for all the neighborhood kids. (I used to dream of dressing up as a belly dancer but I have long let that dream go.) This year, I’ll focus on keeping the kids out of the reaches of that red sedan, and rely on the insane concept of adult-supported-candy-begging to keep my 9-year-old more than content.

Breaking the cycle of how we were parented

Jp_shpSigh…parenting is hard. I know I’ve been saying this every year for the last nine years. But really, it is very hard for me right now. I’m struggling because I’m finding it hard to separate my own issues from my parenting.

Those of us who didn’t grow up with “ideal” parenting always vow to not turn into our own parents. We will know better, we say; we will be different. I used to criticize my husband for repeating his parents’ negative patterns, until lately when I’ve realized for myself just how hard it is to break out of those cycles.

I tend to be critical and perfectionistic. My mother tends to be critical and perfectionistic. I never met my grandmother, a single mother, who passed away before I was born, but I’ll venture to guess that she was pretty critical and perfectionistic too.

Over many years I’ve trained my eye to notice only the gaps – the 5% on a 95 on a test, the slightly bungled response in an otherwise fantastic job interview. Don’t even get me started on photos of myself.

God knows what the cumulative damage has been, from living with this kind of lens. And now I find myself looking at my own child in the same way.

Fred got a 94 on his math test last week, came in second in his martial arts competition two weeks ago, and remembered to bring home everything from school yesterday except for his water bottle. I know enough to not voice my knee-jerk reactions every time, but it’s bad enough that I even have knee-jerk reactions to begin with.

One area in particular that’s a hot spot for me is time management. The problem is that the one area Fred needs to improve on is the one area I’m very good at. I’m a planner and I haven’t worn a watch in over two decades because my internal clock is so freakily accurate. Time management is important to me and something that’s come naturally so I don’t know how to help those who aren’t able to do it.

But I’ve been trying – big white board with check-off list, a ticket incentive system. After a number of struggles, yesterday morning I heard Fred’s alarm go off a half hour earlier than his normal wake-up time, and then the opening and closing of his dresser drawers followed a couple of minutes later by the clapping of the kitchen cupboards. He had gotten dressed and gone downstairs to get breakfast. I told him I was proud of him and that he was up early enough to catch the bus (always a treat for him). Then, five minutes before he was supposed to leave, he needed to use the bathroom, and ended up missing the bus…which was just as well, because he then realized he’d almost forgotten his recorder for music class.

I didn’t shout or get angry (this time), but I was visibly irritated. He was up a half hour early for crying out loud, and still managed to make no progress in terms of getting to school any earlier.

The truth is that Fred did great that morning. He had the foresight to set his alarm clock, at an early enough time to give himself a comfortable cushion (he had not originally planned to take the bus). He got dressed and prepared himself breakfast before either Max or I were even up. This is HUGE for him. I just wish I had really seen that, and not only in hindsight.

The most painful realization in all of this is that I have blurred the lines between love and approval, and it clued me in on why I, too, have spent my life terrified of losing people’s affections whenever I make a slip. Sometimes when I’m disappointed by Fred’s behavior I’ll feel myself freezing up, even though my love for him of course hasn’t changed. Fred on the other hand will, without fail, kiss me and tell me “I love you too, too much” before closing his eyes to go to sleep each night, no matter what my mood is. On one particularly bad morning before leaving for school he wrapped his arms around me, hugging me long and hard before getting into the car.

I know that his challenges with time management are the flip side of his creative mind, a mind that is often lost in intense thought. Among his many gifts is a huge capacity to love, overlooking others’ flaws and mistakes and slips, and making sure that the last message before “good night” and “good bye” is always “I love you.” I have so much to learn from him, and every incentive to break the cycle.

Do you struggle with this too – that is, repeating patterns from your own childhood?

Remembering our babies, mothers, and fathers

I have a stark memory from my pregnancy, during one long morning when Max and I were sitting in the hallway outside my obstetrician’s office, waiting for my regular prenatal check-up. A woman walked out of her ob’s office, her hands over the little person curled up inside of her, her entire being enveloped by the arms of another woman. They walked briskly down the corridor and toward the lobby and exit, their bodies seemingly attached, both sobbing the kind of pain that we only hear in our worst nightmares. This was Japan, a country in which such public expressions of emotion are unheard of. My heart pounded and constricted at the same time. I wanted to wish her news away.

In the coming three years I would hear two other stories that would make my breath and heart seem to stop. Fred was a healthy, active, smiling two-year-old, safely playing in our living room when my midwife, who had by then become my friend, came over for lunch and a visit. She told us stories of her experiences in the maternity ward, and especially of one woman who couldn’t decide whether or not to listen to her instinct to get checked, and then lost her baby on his birth day, born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. Her story haunted me for a long time. After a long and difficult labor Fred was born with the cord around his neck. I had barely a glimpse of him before the medical team rushed him to the NICU. But he was with me, two years later, giggling and playing hide-and-seek with my midwife. My what-if’s channeled into gratitude for the simple, small, daily miracles of a child growing and smiling. Every day I know absolutely how lucky I am.

NICU

One year before Fred was born, my friend Claudia, whom I have known since our shared study break days in college,  lost her infant son, Caleb. Fred and Caleb share the same birthday week and each year that Fred blows out his candles I also remember the sweet face of Caleb and his and his mother’s story.

By chance I read this morning that October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Last Friday on Facebook Claudia had posted a stunning tribute to the ten years since Caleb passed away. I wanted to share her words with you and I am grateful to Claudia for allowing me to do so. I don’t have adequate words to introduce Claudia but I think that her voice below will more than show the kind of mother and person she is.

~~~

A decade is a long time for a mother to be without one of her ducklings. Caleb Joseph Stahl died on the 11th of October 2003. My third son’s earnest, brave, innocent seven months of life changed me irrevocably. On the eve of the tenth anniversary of when I last held my little sweetheart, here are ten wonderful gifts Caleb gave me:

1. Fearlessness. I have survived the worst; very little rattles, bothers, or frightens me anymore.

2. Compassion. We never know what struggles a person might be going through at any given time. I like to think people are doing their best to get through the day – sad, averted eyes or brusque greetings? They might be covering a world of sorrow.

3. Joy. When triumph is measured in occasional smiles, half-drunk bottles of milk, and decent O2 sats, a person learns to celebrate the little things every day.

4. Patience. Sitting at Caleb’s hospital bed for hours, waiting for a peek at his gorgeous hazel eyes, was worth every single moment.

5. Friends. Old friends returned to me and new ones came along the way. The outpouring of love for our family during Caleb’s life and since has been astonishing.

6. Sam. Sam was only five when Caleb died. Countless afternoons, Sam was in charge of his two-year-old brother in the hospital play area. He never complained. He never whined. To this day he is one of the most stoic, grounded, genuinely kind people I know.

7. Henry. Henry doesn’t remember Caleb, which is incredibly painful and poignant. Yet he seems to have the strongest connection to him – he used to ask to go to Caleb’s gravestone just to play near him. Henry’s tenderheartedness, tucked beneath his exuberant exterior, takes my breath away.

8. Abigail. The first thing I did when an ultrasound confirmed I was expecting my fourth baby was drive to Caleb’s place to tell him he was going to be a big brother. I told Caleb the baby would know all about him and that he would always be kid #3 while the baby would be #4. All her life Abby has declared that she has THREE big brothers. Abby is loyal, steadfast, and loving.

9. Goodness. The past decade has not been without its curveballs, disappointments, and grief. However, Caleb’s life lessons – packed into just seven months’ time – taught me to relish the good and relinquish the bad so I am always surrounded by good.

10. Gratitude. I cherish everyone and everything mentioned here and so many others who are not on this small list. I only had 219 days of “I love yous” to share with Caleb. When he died, I vowed to appreciate and acknowledge life’s gifts – this is a work in progress for me, but I have Caleb to thank for giving me the marching orders for my remaining years.

~~~

Thank you, Claudia. xoxo

The quiet of growing up

As if I needed any more reason not to clean…

On Friday I cleaned out my closet, a catch-all storage over the last half year for everything from clothes to bags to Fred’s toys when I needed to take them away from him. Within the first five minutes of entering this black hole I found the following “interview” I had taken in my notebook three-and-a-half years ago, shortly after Fred had turned six. Funny how I had thought nothing of his words then.

While reading it Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World also happened to be playing on Pandora and within a couple of minutes I had to switch the station. It was too much. (If you want the full effect you can click on the link above and listen to the song while reading my post, though I will totally understand if you are not awash in the same nostalgia and bittersweet melancholy that I was.)

Things I’ve Learned Now That I’m 6 [by Fred, and dictated by Mom]

Bugs don’t live that long.

This is something that I knew when I was 5: The earth spins around and around and around.

People make books.

Some people are strong, some people are smart.

Some babies write on books for the library or something.

Babies don’t know ABCs until they read a book on ABCs.

My dad can go fast.

Dads can read books.

My dad can do origami.

The grown-ups cook and the kids eat.

It’s not good to fight.

I love my mom and dad.

It’s not good to lie.

5 x 5 = 20.

6 x 2 = 12.

9 x 2 = 18.

If you use a magnifying glass, you can see bugs very well.

The sun is very hot. You would not want to live on the sun.

Making things makes your bones strong.

You can get hurt when you play a sport.

Some bugs like wet.

Flowers or any kind of plants die if you don’t water it. Almost everybody knows that.

If you tear a paper, you can’t put it back without tape or glue.

And in his writing: 

If you bracke a promas then that persen will be mad.

If you have 1 one pensle and you bracke it: you will have to buy another pensle.

~~~

At the time I thought it was cute, mundane…if anything I remember wishing he would come up with something deeper than how bugs look under a magnifying glass. But now having reached the median of my active duty as a mother, I appreciate this innocent list as a glimpse into my child’s world during the year he started school, when he was taking cause and effect and rules and being a good person to a next level, as well as admiring Daddy. There will never be another list like it.

I don’t see Fred growing in the way that I used to, when change meant such drama as going from traveling on all fours to walking upright. Nowadays I catch it in the quiet and in passing – the sighting of small wads of hair in the recycling bin because he has decided to fix his haircut by himself, or when I look up from my cutting board one evening to answer a question and realize that I need to raise my head higher now in order to meet his eyes.  I see it if I take the time to peer into and appreciate his world, a world that is constantly shifting, changing, growing, at a speed now so steady we can hardly feel it, not unlike the rotation of our planet or the blooming of a flower when we water it.

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? 🙂