On Conflicts, Children, and Relationships

Suggested House Rules [by my 9-year-old]

1. When there is a fight/argument, don’t say anything.

2. Play as much as you can.

3. HAVE FUN!! 🙂

4. Read ALOT!! 🙂

5. Keep track of Library books

6. BE HAPPY

7. Think Positive

8. Help each other

9. Be kind

10. Calm down when needed

Fred showed me this list a couple of weekends ago, after witnessing Max and I fight the night before.

“I wrote some rules for us last night, Mommy,” he said. “And I read and drew until 11:00. I also found a calm place in my room. I’ll show you.”

He led me to his room and pointed to the left corner of his packed closet.

I asked him if he was okay, and he nodded with an exaggerated smile, as if to reassure me he was really, really fine. I sighed to myself and pulled him into my arms and held him, telling him we were okay too, and that I was glad and proud that he’d found a way to make himself feel better.

It pains me to look back on that evening, remembering Fred’s shouts, “No, don’t say anything more! It’ll only make things worse!” He tried so hard to get Max and I to stop where we were, to not escalate our emotions any further.

And unlike my situation growing up, Fred doesn’t have a sibling with whom to seek comfort while his parents squabble.

But also unlike my childhood, Fred has the reassurance of experience that things do get better, if not by the next morning then by the next evening, or the day after. He knows that Mommy and Daddy love one another and that the conflicts are temporary and smaller than the relationship. It took me the perspective of adulthood to understand my parents’ love and marriage; as a child I honestly didn’t know if my parents loved one another or not, and I grew up equating conflict with detriment.

So while we haven’t been able to shield Fred from seeing our conflicts – nor do I expect that to be realistic – I hope that we have been able to show him that real and worthwhile love encompasses both unparalleled joys and surmountable difficulties. This is no small feat in the multi-generations of our family, because despite being connected by strong love, we also have a more hidden history of divorce, estrangement, and displacement.

Last year, when his class was asked to write and display a personal narrative, Fred chose to write about his relationship with his best friend of the last five years. Here is a part of it:

I was happy to find a friend. He is my first friend in kindergarten. Me and Jack are very close friends and now we are still friends. Once, maybe in first grade we were mad at each other. I forgot why we were mad at each other. I didn’t play with him for the whole recess. The next day we played with each other.

This idea that he and Jack can be angry for a whole day and sometimes say mean things to one another and still be close friends is something that has really impressed him, because it’s a story that comes up again from time to time. Yes, it is possible to be angry at someone you love, to not even want to talk for an entire day, and still be the best of friends. It’s quite something when you realize it; I certainly wish I had understood that in my friendships and even in my family growing up.

Image courtesy http://www.favim.com

Cultural Loss Over the Years

Tomorrow is the Lunar New Year or, as we’ve been calling it for many years, Chinese New Year.

My memories of this holiday growing up are vivid. My mother would spend days scouring the house from top to bottom like a mad woman, because a huge part of the tradition is to clean out the old and presumably evil spirits in order to ring in the new year on a literally clean slate. With a traditional (read: didn’t lift a finger) husband who was always at work anyway and two uncooperative children who couldn’t see the point, my mother was at her crankiest on the days leading up to New Year’s. Every year we spent those final days of the year wishing we could have our old mom back.

Then there were the rules. We had to get our hair cut the week before New Year’s, even when we didn’t need a haircut. We weren’t allowed to say anything remotely hinting of ill fate or that included any version of the word death (as in “Ha ha ha, you’re killing me!” or “Wow, I would die for those shoes!”). Worst of all, we were forbidden to shower, bathe, or wash our hair on New Year’s Day lest we cleansed all the good that had by then reached our bodies (which only led to more cursing about how we were going to die of stink).

And there was the food, lots of it. Chinese New Year is celebrated on not just one day but over a period of two weeks. We had an enormous dinner on New Year’s Eve and another large meal on New Year’s Day to “open” the year. Two weeks later, we would close out the celebrations with another final large dinner.

My brother and I met these meals with some groaning. Because Chinese New Year dinner is not spring rolls and sesame chicken and sweet and sour pork (well, not that my mother ever made those dishes (they’re not real Chinese food, you know)). New Year dinner was a big, pimply, ghost-white chicken with its loopy head and neck still on the plate. It was dishes and dishes of healthy blandness that we normally never saw during the year, with ingredient names like “dizzy ear” and unidentifiable foods that looked like tangled hair.

Chinese New Year, to me, was a lot of Chinese-ness that went against my whole plan to be American and “normal.” So I mopped the floor (reluctantly) and skipped the showers (until I was brave enough to dare the evil spirits to take me on) and ate the bloody chicken (there was literally still some blood in the cracks of the bones). Until about fifteen years ago, which is the last time I celebrated Chinese New Year. Because of my time in Japan and then my work schedule, I haven’t been back to spend any of the holidays with my parents in all these years.

During this time, of course, I’ve formed a family of my own. We’re a tri-cultural family now living in America and following American traditions. Lack of access to ingredients, information, and shared celebratory spirits is one major reason. There’s also the lack of confidence. My Singaporean friend suggested getting together for New Year dinner, and I immediately felt overwhelmed at the prospect of cooking for the occasion. I wouldn’t know where to start. What to cook? How to cook it? How to shop for ingredients?

But maybe saddest is my lack of connection. I’d spent so much of my youth rejecting my heritage, seeing and looking for all the parts that threatened my chances of being accepted in America. By the time I became more curious about my Chinese roots, I’d already distanced myself too much. I sometimes view the Chinese culture now the way any foreigner would.

I only realized how far I was when Fred once remarked, in a crowd of Chinese people, that he and I were the only non-Chinese. He knew he was American and he knew he was Japanese, but he did not know that a significant part of him has its roots in China.

But is this something that I need to worry about? Why does it need to be important for me to maintain my heritage, when obviously I had made my choices long ago in terms of how to live and who I wanted to live as? I think the sadness for me is that in loosening my connection to my heritage, I feel I am losing some part of a shared identity with my parents. We all disconnect in some ways and to some degree as we mature into adulthood. Being on the other side of the cultural divide within my own family just seems more severe, an ultimately necessary part of feeling at home in my own country but a division I hadn’t anticipated.

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.

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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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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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?