A Literary Trip Down Memory Lane, from Girlhood to Midlife

It’s my birthday week. Though I’m in far less celebratory spirits than I was when I turned, say, 21 or 25, I’ve made the decision to not rain on my own parade. So in celebration of my, er, maturity, I thought I’d take a trip down memory lane and talk about some of the books that have accompanied me on my slightly turbulent, often clueless, and always eye-opening journey to middle age.

Books that made me happy and feel like a kid

I thank books and their gifted authors for rescuing me during those stressful years when my family immigrated to the States. I’m honestly so grateful that I learned to read quickly since that was the activity I depended on to stay sane. I read and loved many books but these three stand out because they were so much fun:

The Ramona series, by Beverly Cleary

The Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series, by Betty MacDonald

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

The first books that made me really think and feel

In late elementary school I began to gravitate toward the kinds of stories that I would eventually seek as an adult: human stories about inner conflicts, struggle, and growth:

A Summer to Die, by Lois Lowry

Deenie / Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

Books I read on the verge of becoming a woman

One summer during my teens my mother confronted me about my copy of Judy Blume’s Forever, which she found in my bookcase. I got angry at her for snooping around in my room but decided not to tell her that I actually hadn’t picked up the book again since I was twelve (or was it eleven?). Hormones and curiosity were running high, and these were some of the more memorable books that opened my eyes to sex, lust, love, passion, and a world with the opposite sex:  

Forever, by Judy Blume

The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough

Flowers in the Attic / Petals on the Wind / If There Be Thorns, by V.C. Andrews

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Looking for Mr. Goodbar, by Judith Rossner

Delta of Venus, by Anaïs Nin

Good Bye, Columbus, by Philip Roth

A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen

Books I read while exploring an emerging adult identity

It was during college and graduate school that I began to really notice the negative space around me. How had I been shaped by biology, circumstances, geography, and history? I began appreciating what it meant to be a woman and racial minority in the United States. Here are some of the books that made an impression or impact on me during this time:

The Bell Jar / The Journals of Sylvia Plath, by Sylvia Plath

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua

Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creating Perspectives by Feminists of Color, by Gloria Anzaldua

Strangers from a Different Shore, by Ronald Takaki

Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher and Ruth Ross

Books as therapists

And then I started looking for Mr. Right…and was so clueless as to why I kept dating nasty men that I began turning to the kinds of books that I had to hide in my underwear drawer whenever I had guests over. This is just a fraction of the self-help books that lined my shelves during my twenties and just those with the less embarrassing titles. The very last one I bought was The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which I read together with Max when we were engaged. Since then I haven’t read another book on relationships; now I figure that the best way to understand my husband is to talk to him myself.

He’s Scared, She’s Scared: Understanding the Hidden Fears that Sabotage Your Relationships, by Steven A. Carter

You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, by Deborah Tannen

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert, by John M. Gottman

Books that helped me in the hardest, most perplexing job in the world

This is only a tiny fraction of all the books I have read, purchased, or borrowed on the subjects of pregnancy, labor and birth, childrearing, and child development. These two that introduced me to the sisterhood of motherhood were among my favorites because honestly, the non-judgmental sisterhood is the only thing I’ve needed besides an equal parenting partner.

The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy, by Vicki Iovine

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, by Anne Lamott

The first book I read for fun since becoming a parent

I read this while bleary-eyed from sleep deprivation during Fred’s first year and I even read it with one hand on the frying pan. It was a fun page-turner that made me realize I can make time for reading no matter how exhausted and overwhelmed I am. After this, I slowly eased back into pleasure reading for the first time in a long time.

The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown

The book that I needed to read

Those peak career and parenting years are a self-absorbed time. With a tunnel vision I focused on my own family while allowing my parents to fade into the background. Then one day I picked up Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin and I was devastated. It’s the story of an elderly Korean woman who goes missing in a crowded Seoul subway station, and over the days and weeks that her husband and grown children try to find her, each family member reflects on his or her past with the woman. Almost all have regrets of not having appreciated enough the woman who had given her life to them. I recognized myself in the grown children and my mother in the elderly woman.

In the years since I’ve begun to develop a new relationship with my mother, and for the first time I learned of her early love for reading and writing, how she grew up in rural China with almost no books except a few Russian novels in translation that belonged to a cousin…and she would devour them, staying up until three in the morning, reading by lantern light. Instead of looking at my mother as someone from a foreign time and place, I’m now seeing her as a woman who was once a girl with interests and dreams very similar to my own.

Thank you, Mom, for giving me a life so rich with books and hope and love and opportunity.

Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin

What books have left a mark on you? What did you enjoy reading while growing up? And did you also read V.C. Andrews? 😉

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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

Summers

Summer’s started.

In sharp contrast to the eternal, mind-numbing boredom of my summer days growing up, my summers since becoming one half of an international couple have involved travel. We are always an ocean apart from one set of parents or the other, and this distance only became harder when Fred entered the picture. Both sets of grandparents are getting older, their health is an ongoing issue, and the responsibility to make the time to see them while we still can has become ours.

We leave early tomorrow for Japan, where Fred was born and had spent the first four years of his life. Though he’s stopped speaking Japanese, he maintains an inexplicable attachment to his first home. He still remembers the park near our home, the “school bus” he used to take to preschool, his favorite store, his grandparents.

I always go back with a bit of weight in my heart. Japan is where I became a mother, and memories of those early baby and toddler years are packed up – so neatly, so separately and so inaccessibly – on one side of the world. I have no physical reminders of my early motherhood where we are now in the States, at all…but when I go back – two planes, one three-hour bus ride and a taxi later – it all hits me again. I walk again down the path to our favorite park and the familiar streets to my three grocery stores. We didn’t have a car back then, so I used to walk those roads pushing Fred in a stroller, with groceries in a backpack and more hanging on the handles of the stroller. As Fred got older he would come with me on his tricycle. On bad days when he was too hot or too tired, he would refuse to pedal and ask to be carried. I would then carry him and the groceries, and push the tricycle the half mile it took to get home. But mainly I remember how he would stop to look at the flowers or pebbles along the way home, or we would stand at the train crossings to wait for and watch the trains go by. With Max away at work 16-18 hours a day, I often felt lonely and alone that first year, isolated in a town with no friends and knowing no one who spoke English. The days seemed endless with so many hours, and so I didn’t mind how long it took to get home from the store. During this time, Fred and I had our own special world: we had each other.

We moved to the States right around the time Fred was ready to enter school. By the time he started kindergarten he was becoming part of a social fabric that would stretch wider and wider. In the years since, he’s moved from my arms and my lap to arranging play dates on his own; from watching flowers and pebbles to explaining to us how our phones and camera work.

But we’ve both grown, haven’t we? I get together with girlfriends now, without Fred. I’m working again with clients. I’m reading again, and writing. We’ve both developed our own worlds here in the States, together, and apart.

So I’m looking forward to flying out tomorrow, and spending three weeks together with Fred and Max, starting with the 16-hour flight. I’m looking forward to asking Fred, “Do you remember this?” and sharing with him the pieces of our world that have meant so much to me but which he was probably too young to remember.

Do you revisit the different places of your children’s life?

The American piano

piano inside

Photo credit: Fred

Over thirty years ago, when I was about Fred’s age, my mother took me around to a couple of piano retailers. I had somehow gotten chosen to take piano lessons through our school’s music program, and after a year or so of lessons, my mother thought that to make any improvement I was going to need a chance to practice at home.

Eventually, and to no surprise, my mother told me that we weren’t going to be able to afford a piano after all, or even a keyboard for that matter. And it wasn’t just the piano, but a house large enough to accommodate a piano and the private lessons that I would need once the music program ended when I entered middle school. I knew it was a pipe dream anyway, but it moved me that my parents – recent immigrants who wouldn’t even treat themselves to an occasional coffee – would even consider the possibility of piano lessons for me.

I don’t remember feeling overly disappointed about stopping piano, as my interests in playing music barely had a chance to germinate. Whether it was a way to rationalize our inability to afford music or actual belief, the refrain “We’re not a musical family [and thereby have no talent or potential]” came to play over and over, so much so that I never picked up another musical instrument again, nor did I ever expect or plan for my own child to play music.

Then one day we were at a friend’s house for a playdate. Fred was three years old at the time. While the other children were playing, Fred caught sight of my friend’s piano, and walked over and planted himself on the bench. He grabbed a pizza take-out menu, placed it on the music rack, and began “playing” with both hands. He kept his eyes intent on the menu, following the “notes” dictated by the different pizza and side order options and periodically flipping to the next page of the fold-out menu to continue with the piece. Emotion took hold of his small body as his entire posture took on the shape of his impromptu pizza masterpiece.

We adults all gathered around this toddler “virtuoso” and laughed and applauded. In the years following this episode, Fred would gravitate toward pianos and keyboards at friends’ homes and at electronics stores and experiment with the keys.

When he was eight, I finally decided to find him a piano teacher. He will never be really good – I’d convinced myself of that at the time, and told all my musical friends that we are not a musical family – but since he seemed interested, I thought it would be nice for him to learn to play, and to make music a part of his life. We got him a $250 keyboard using credit card reward points and found a graduate student in music who was teaching twice a month. This more relaxed schedule suited us and the expectations that I had for Fred.

Fred’s been playing for a year now, or technically a half year, since he only meets every couple of weeks for lessons, and has performed wonderfully in two recitals. Sometimes (often) he complains about having to practice, but there are times when we can’t get him to stop. He enjoys taking familiar pieces and playing them in a half dozen different ways, making his own “Chinese” versions and “Halloween” versions, or creating his own pieces inspired by commercial jingles. Once, a couple of musically sophisticated friends – the type of near-prodigies that I always imagined the children of real musical families to be – laughed at Fred’s rustic pencil-scrawl compositions. Sadly, my normally assertive boy did nothing to defend himself and I knew it was because deep down he believed himself to be inferior. But I no longer believed this of my son, and while I typically stay out of friendship squabbles, I stepped in this time to stop the ridiculing. No, we had come too far to be shamed back to square one.

This weekend, we bought a piano.

When I was younger I’d always known I would one day own a car, a house. No matter how modestly one starts out, a car and a home are always an accessible, equal opportunity part of the American Dream. When I put my signature on our piano purchase this weekend, it dawned on me that the dream I never dared have was suddenly realized: more than just ownership of a magnificent instrument, it was the lifting of barriers through the generations in my family that said “We can’t.”

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.

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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.

 

When baby’s proud of mama

Work has suddenly picked up these two weeks and I haven’t had a chance to write. Then I remembered this post from 2 years ago that was sitting in my drafts folder.

Fred’s eyes widened as his mouth followed. He glanced from the black-and-white photo to me.

“Mommy, you won!”

It was midweek between Christmas and New Year’s, and an essay I had written about my family’s immigration experiences appeared in a series of newspapers in our tri-city area.

“Read it to me,” Fred asked.

I hesitated, knowing that the essay would lose him in both concept and interest. On second thought, though, why not? He had every right to read what Mom had written. And so I started, interrupted a couple of times with “What does ____ mean?” By the time I ended the second paragraph, Max was calling us to the table for brunch.

At the end of the day Max would tell me that, after we had finished brunch and I had gone back to work at my computer, Fred had asked my brother (who was staying with us for the holidays) to finish reading to him the rest of the essay. When he was done, Fred took a poll of the table: “Who thinks Mommy is the best? Raise your hand!”

I was surprised that Fred had shown that much interest in my story, a story he undoubtedly would have rejected with a loud  “Boring!” had this come from any other source. My eyes welled up as Max relayed the story to me, a continuation of the unfamilar poke at my heart that I had felt earlier that morning when Fred first asked to be read to.

It’s a position I never saw myself in. I went into motherhood expecting to be the supporter, the coach, the one who says “Good job!” and gives high-fives. I look forward to those heart-bursting moments when my child might kick his first goal, win a spelling bee, or get into college. I hadn’t really expected that, once in a while, the tables might be turned.

My own proudest moment of my mother came just a year ago, when she called to tell me that – despite my advice to the contrary – she was going to apply for that teaching vacancy at her school. She had been a school teacher before she immigrated to the U.S., and since then has been working as a teacher’s assistant in the public schools. To lead a classroom again was a dream that kept eluding her. We had talked about the open position for weeks, but I ultimately discouraged her from applying. Too much stress and pressure at this point, I told her, especially given her health and age. She had turned 70 earlier that year.

But how I fought to keep the tears in as she said to me, “Ceci, I’m going to go for it.” With all that she has gone through as an immigrant and mother, it was that moment that I felt proudest to be her daughter.

Like many mothers, my main expectation is the chance to parent. The only gift I need is the joy in raising my child. I would have completely understood if Fred, at age 6, weren’t interested in hearing the details of my essay. But by the fact that he was, he has given me the most unexpected gift: encouragement to be more than a mother.

Do you have a story of when your children were proud of you? What interests do you like to pursue outside of motherhood/parenthood?

Lying to Mom

The phone rang Sunday morning, and I asked Fred to check the caller ID. It’s Grandma, he said, looking at me. I told him I will call her back later in the day when I felt better. Without batting an eye he set the phone down, still ringing, and went back to what he was doing.

The thing is, I haven’t told my mother about what happened to my leg, and having just come out of surgery, I was too uncomfortable at that point to have pulled off a normal conversation.

It had been a no brainer for me to just keep this from her when I was in a cast; I figured, it’s temporary, and I am going to heal. Then when I learned I needed to have surgery, I was no longer so sure about keeping this mum, but at that point I’d already gotten in too deep…

It is quite possible, in the complex world that I inhabit with my mother, for me to be simultaneously intimate and dishonest with her. And then I remember reading somewhere recently that something like 92% of all teenagers lie to their parents about something, at some time. It got me thinking about why we lie and when we lie, and to whom we do it.

Last spring I was out of town to take care of my mother after her own surgery. Max and Fred had returned home earlier, and I called one night to check in.

“So what are you doing?” I asked my 8 year old.

“We’re, uh, what? [apparently off line to Dad]. Uh, we’re at, at China Kingdom.”

“What are you eating?”

“Uh…”

“Your favorite fish dish?”

“Uh…”

I started to grow impatient. Then I heard Fred’s little hand cover the mouthpiece as he hissed not softly enough, “Daddy! She’s asking me what we’re eating!”

“Fred! What is going on?! What are you eating??”

“Uh…crust…” I could see him cowering on the other line.

“You’re eating crust…at China Kingdom??”

And so I put 2 and 2 together and figured out they were at Chuck E. Cheese eating that horrible pizza. For dinner.

And so we all laughed and thought, isn’t that cute, ha ha, let me put this on Facebook. Until it dawned on me that it’s actually not funny to lie to Mom.

And why did they lie? Because they know how I get about fast food, and Chuck E. Cheese. I know pizza (of course) isn’t poison and Chuck E. Cheese isn’t a drug house. But I get it – if you’re not doing anything bad, why rattle Mom when you don’t need to?

I still consider myself close to my mom. Our weekly phone calls are always over an hour long. I share a lot, but I’ve also learned to keep away from her information that may excessively worry her. Like so many mothers – like myself – she finds her children’s pains so difficult to bear. When something happens to me my stress is doubled as I feel not only my pain but the pain that she feels. She’s tried hard to shield me from hardship, and on my last trip home she once even tried to carry my bags for me. We’ve always conflicted because I get insulted by her overprotectiveness. I ask her why she can’t see strength in me; she gets upset that I can’t see how she loves me.

The biggest lie I have ever had to keep from her was Max’s past. When it became clear that we were going to get married, I was suddenly tormented as to how or if or when I was ever going to tell her that Max had been married before and already had a child. She was coming from a very conservative culture and generation, and she would not understand what divorce meant or what it would mean for me to marry someone who had been divorced.

But keeping something so huge from her about her future son-in-law was more than I could bear. As many people do (I’d come to realize), I went to my father first, because it was easier. The way I interpreted love, my father loves me but sees strength and competence in me, and he has never seen me as an extension of himself. His calm centered me and he advised me on how to break the news to my mom.

Though I was right to tell my mother, it was the single most painful experience of my life. In her shock and fear of the unknown, she told me to call off the wedding. I was as outraged at her small-mindedness as I was at myself for having failed to make her happy.

It’s been over ten years now, and my mother’s come to ease up a bit on her worrying, especially seeing how I had thrived overseas on my own for nearly a decade, and now understanding how strong my marriage is. However, I can tell she remains vigilant about whether or not I’m being well cared for by Max. And I still dread the moments when she detects hoarseness in my voice or a lingering cough. I have imagined how I might tell her about my leg, but ultimately the idea of having to string together the words “I” and “broke” and “can’t walk” and “surgery” in a long distance phone call to her is too much. I might be underestimating her, but I worry that it will be too much for her…or maybe for me.

The last two weeks with my broken leg have been up and down. I have so far only allowed myself to cry in front of Max. Sunday, two days post-op, was one of those more down times. After leaving a message on our landline, my mother tried my cell phone. I turned and looked at it for a long while as “Mom and Dad” pulsated on the screen. I blinked away tears before deciding, finally, to let the phone continue to ring.

“Chinese” Mothers aren’t superior; they’re just scared (how our fears affect our parenting)

I’m a bit tired of responding to Amy Chua’s heavily viraled piece from the Wall Street Journal. However, what the article did manage to do (aside from alternately confusing and disturbing me) was get me to think about the root of what drives us as parents.

Growing up in an immigrant household, I was well aware of the motives behind my parents’ push for us to excel academically: fear of poverty.

Despite having a college education and professional background as a teacher, with little English skill my mother had no choice our first eight years in America but to work in a sweatshop, producing garment pieces for 1 cent a piece. My father worked as a dishwasher before moving up to bus boy, waiter, and then, one day, co-founder and co-owner of his own restaurant.

Their fears of poverty and instability manifested themselves in what my brother and I often thought were unreasonable demands for good grades and top schools. But in Asia where my parents came from, one’s future success (i.e., ability to lead a normal life free of hardship) really does hinge on that one university entrance exam score and one’s ability to get into one of the very small number of top schools in the country. They didn’t fully grasp that, in America, there is still hope even if you don’t get into Harvard, that that is why we’re called the Land of Opportunity.

As a mother now, I have my own fears, some of which are completely different from the ones that drove my parents, some of which are perhaps similar.

I am fearful about self-esteem, or the corrosion of it. The excess focus on external achievement with which I was raised and the deprivation of my voice created an Ivy League graduate who was a shell of a person. In my 20s I had written in my journal, “Sometimes I feel so insecure and so unsure of myself that I think I am going to fall apart.” I obsessed about my abilities, my personality, my physical looks, other people’s opinions of me. I was all skin and no core.  

As a mother I worry the most about the strength of Fred’s core. Is he happy? Am I giving him enough positive messages about his self-worth? Am I damaging his self-esteem if I scold too much? This worry makes me a bit zealous in protecting his feelings.

I fear making Fred feel unloved, and so that has made me more lenient than necessary when it comes to setting limits and expecting independence. 

I fear depriving him of opportunity and thus failing to maximize his potential, because I had either missed or passed up so many chances of my own growing up and wonder to this day if I could’ve been greater. This has pushed me to involve Fred in a number of activities, and I fear both continuing and cutting back.  

I fear that if I don’t make all the right moves with the chess pieces of his life, I will fail to equip him with the wisdom and guidance that I had felt so lost without growing up. This makes me hover too much.

Deep down, I fear that how “successful” Fred will be will be a reflection of me and my competence in my most important life role, and that’s in part why I care about what reading and math groups he’s in and why I can’t help mapping out his educational path in my head. 

Deep down, I fear messing up as a mother, and producing a child who will be unhappy or unsuccessful academically/professionally or both. I want him to be happy and carefree at the same time that I want him to be among the best. I strive for a middle place, but my uncertainty as to how to navigate this terrain makes me parent inconsistently and with mixed messages.

A confident mother produces confident children. A mother who is comfortable and at peace with herself has the appropriate vision and distance to raise her child independent of any fears, insecurities, or unmet needs on her part. Our – my – biggest task is to understand where those fears end and where our children begin.