Why doesn’t she like me??

This morning at the school bus stop I ran into my neighbor, or former neighbor, I should say. She and her family just moved over the weekend but came back to tie up loose ends. I was happy to see her and told her we were going to miss her and her family, blah blah. And so we chatted for about 60 seconds before she (in my mind) made a sprint to talk to someone else…to a child.

Sigh.

In the two years that we had shared the same street I never really did connect with her despite the fact that our sons are good friends. She was very reserved, and so after a while I just let things be, not wanting to make her uncomfortable by forcing conversation. The only thing is, she seemed quite warm and friendly with some others on the street. She seemed cold or uncomfortable mainly with me.

What is wrong with me?

Of course, I’m 4x years old, not 14, or even 24, so I’m not going to waste too much time obsessing over this (just the 60 minutes to write this post) or feeling the need for everyone on this planet to like me. But let’s face it, I grew up needing to please and needing to be liked so while I won’t obsess, I will think about this, and allow this to bug me, just a little.

We face this all the time, don’t we? The neighbor who refuses to return hello’s, the mother on the playground who will chat up a storm with everyone but us. Last year my girlfriend and I went on and on about the mother of our children’s classmate, who barely ever looked in our direction whenever we said hello. What is wrong with us, we anguished; what did we ever do to her? We thought about what we could have said or done, but really, in our limited exposure to her, we really couldn’t have been anything but friendly. Our husbands, in turn, shook their heads at us. It is not our problem, they tried to convince us; it’s the other woman’s.

Yes, that may be true, if we’ve searched and searched and don’t believe we could have done anything wrong. But still we carry these accusations around with us like recycled baggage, this silent finger pointing at us that we have failed. Failed to conform to the person that the other woman would have liked.

Years ago in our 20s my closest girlfriend said something that blew me away when she found out that the guy she’d had the biggest crush on was, in fact, dating an Asian woman. She said to me, “I have this thing against well-dressed Asian women.”

Hello.

First of all, I was (am) an Asian woman. I’d considered myself not a badly dressed person, or maybe she didn’t, or otherwise she wouldn’t have made the comment. Second of all, it was just a mind-blowingly inane and racist thing to think, let alone say. But it was eye-opening because it made me realize how the basis of some people’s reactions really is grounded in nothing at all. As our husbands believe, sometimes it really is the other person’s problem.

And I am ashamed to admit that I myself have not always risen above this. In college I remember disliking this classmate simply because she was so damned perky and sure of herself, even though she was short – shorter than me – and she had frizzy hair. How dare she be so imperfect and confident at the same time?! I was so jealous. My negative feelings toward her said a ton about me, and had nothing to do with her. But she never knew that.

And so I have wondered about my former neighbor. I get along so well with all our other neighbors, but her…I was never able to penetrate. So maybe it’s because I’m Asian, I had once thought, until I saw how close she is to the Korean woman down the street. Or maybe it’s because I don’t go to church, and she and the Korean woman go to the same church, and somehow I ooze heathenism in her eyes. Or maybe I remind her of someone she didn’t like. Or maybe…maybe…

Or maybe we just don’t have that much power over other people, over their pasts, over whatever they’re going through right now, and whatever connections they make in their heads when they meet us. And it’s okay – we should believe it is okay – to let go of the need for that power.

 

Sensitive

I’m sitting in bed on a Sunday, with a cold and feeling bad. The fatigue and coughing…that’s not great. But what’s bothering me more right now is discomfort on a more emotional level. It’s a negative comment, by someone I don’t even know. I can try and logic my way out of it but that usually doesn’t work that well for me. Because I don’t work with logic; I work with feeling. And how do you stop yourself from feeling?

Yesterday over dinner we had a fun discussion with Fred over the characters in his favorite book series. “Which character best describes you?” I asked. At first he named the star character, the one who’s perfect – good, heroic, the one who always makes the right choices. But I wanted to make sure he was approaching the question correctly. I said, “Remember, think about the character who best matches you; not the one you most admire.” Then he thought for a quick two seconds and came back with a secondary character. I asked him why he chose this one, and he said, “Because he feels strongly. And so do I.”

And so do I.

For as long as I can remember I just felt everything so keenly. Small joys were ecstasy and small transgressions were betrayals. Hurts, even perceived hurts, could land me under the covers for half a day. Break ups? Love? Thank goodness the two happened in that order and not the other way around.

I’ve tried employing rational thinking to control my feelings. I would ask myself, “How would you advise a friend in the same situation?” I once also kept a notebook in which I would write counter-arguments to my negative thoughts. Too often, I just ended up giving in to the pull of my emotions and then beating myself up over the fact that I am so damned sensitive.

And then I started noticing this in my own child. How a seemingly unfair remark from his father can send him to pieces, transforming him from his usual happy mode to a screaming, indignant child. How a negative comment from me can move him to tears such that he can’t even continue with what he is doing. For the longest time I had not seen myself in his reactions, because on the outside he appears so headstrong, not your “typical” sensitive child. And so I often just sighed that he was “acting up” or hungry or tired. No, like me, Fred feels so deeply, and when he feels, he doesn’t know how to stop.

So last week when he threw a tantrum, instead of telling him to calm down (because how does a young child really know how to do that?) I approached him and asked if he wanted to talk, and when he didn’t respond I asked if he’d prefer to write down his feelings instead. He initially made a gesture to reject the idea, but in the end told me his feelings. Maybe letting him know that I want to hear him and giving him that channel to express his emotions can be a step in helping him manage his feelings. I don’t know.

To be honest, when Fred said, “Because he feels strongly. And so do I.” a part of my heart sank. I was so proud of his self-awareness, but in pain for him that he would go through life feeling so much. Because I know that while we sensitive types can, through maturity and experience, try and learn ways to manage our emotions, ultimately this is who we are at our core: uniquely compassionate, rich in our inner lives, and prone to hurt.

How do you handle negative feelings, or teach your children to? Any advice?

Voice: a story of

Growing up I had the perfect poison for extinguishing a voice: I was female, Asian, immigrant, undocumented.

Outside our home I learned to stay in the shadows and not rock the boat.

Inside the home, I was an explosive acid of pent up frustrations: loud, uncensored and callous. The fumes that boiled within had to come out somewhere and at somebody, but there was no willing ear, no one accustomed to voicing his/her own feelings let alone capable of dealing with another person’s.

My family loved generously, but in ways that were different from western culture, the only culture that made sense to me at the time. We never spoke of our emotions.

The rare person who got close enough to catch a good glimpse of me often reacted with such surprise. I remember the friend in 6th grade, after our first phone conversation: “I didn’t know you were so interesting! You are so quiet!” And my freshman year English professor: “I had no idea you had so much to say until I read your paper…I would love it if you spoke more in class.”

I credit my four years at a women’s college for re-introducing me to a word – Voice – that up until then I had only considered a physiological mechanism. English lit classes were about George Eliot, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf…and, in so many ways, about us.

But studying these pioneer women writers was only a first step in understanding the courage to speak. While I admired our foremothers, I didn’t yet make that connection between their achievements and my duty to myself. Coming out of college, I am not sure how truly empowered I was. I failed to defend myself against women bullies at my first job, or to recognize abuse in my first serious relationship.

It’s taken me many years to understand the consequences of an early life in which emotions are not acknowledged, expressed, talked about, dealt with, or validated. You learn that certain (many) emotions are shameful, and you decide to keep the poison inside. You are used to having negative emotions dismissed, so when you feel disrespected by a boyfriend who (for example) threatens to dump you if you gained weight, you choose to ignore your instincts. You are not used to getting feedback on your emotions, so when you are upset with someone you love, you lash back with a venom that isn’t warranted by the offense.

I was like that for so long.

Voice began emerging for me, once I started to build up small successes. Like stepping inside a gym for the first time, after a lifetime of not believing in my body. Being loved by friends after the trauma of childhood bullying. Being happy without a man after once needing a man so badly that I tolerated abuse. Giving a talk before an audience of 250 in New York when once upon a time teachers and classmates never heard the sound of my voice. Finding a compassionate and committed life partner after so many prior failures. Becoming a mother when once I believed I didn’t have what it took. Co-founding my own company when my first boss didn’t trust me to answer the phones or much of anything else. And speaking up to and taking action against a teacher who hurt my son…after a lifetime of allowing everyone else to be right.

And somewhere along the way new friends began laughing if I tried to tell them I considered myself shy. These days I have to consciously hold down my hand at parent-teaching meetings so I don’t dominate the Q&A, and my husband – the one man I’ve dated who needs it the least – gets earfuls of my “I Will Survive” tirades.

A few years ago I took my first writing class, and in a class of supportive strangers I nervously began to share experiences that I had only begun to find words for. I’ve since had a few personal essays published, and today I celebrate the three-year anniversary of Only You. During these three years I’ve gone back and forth on numerous posts, publishing and unpublishing, torn between catharsis and fear of judgment, between confidence and doubts that anyone cares. I’ve been attacked on Motherlode in the New York Times for expressing my opinions (heh, who hasn’t been?), and I’ve been personally put down for writing a “mommy blog.” (But I’ve always been proud of writing about motherhood, and of bearing that most awesome, significant and beloved title of Mommy.) This blog has exorcised whatever shame, doubts and depression that I still sheltered several years ago, because it became a vehicle for me to face and process the emotions that never before met with trust. I am so grateful to you, some of whom I’ve been privileged to become friends with through your comments, many others who I know return quietly with each post, and some of you whom I met the old fashioned way, before blogging became a word. In many ways old friends were the ones I was most afraid to share my writing with. I can’t thank you enough for being that listening ear I’ve been needing all these years, for allowing this Voice to come out, and for nurturing it to grow. You’ve saved me.

Control

I’m back, after an eventful and often difficult summer. In contrast to the school year, our summers are typically a bit messy and without structure, a time when bedtime routines fly out the window along with sugar restrictions and timely haircuts.

What all of this means for me, of course, is a feeling of being out of control…out of control in an area – parenting – that is, by definition, about letting go of the need to control. It means I tend to be out of sorts during summers and I’m ill prepared to handle any extra chaos on top of the unstructured days I already have.

But things happened this summer. The movie theater and temple shootings. The need for both my parents to get biopsies done. The sudden death of a staff member. A bike accident that left me with a broken leg.

I’ve always been a planner, disliking the idea of winging life or being caught by any of its unpleasant surprises. I organized the 5-year time line of our move from Japan to the US. I coordinate complex daily schedules of appointments, deadlines, pick ups and drop offs. “This is not the military!” my mother once said to me when I gave her strict bedtime instructions for our 5 month old.

In late June Justin died. Just like that, at 34 years old. We’d gotten together less than 2 weeks earlier and were drinking and laughing and so looking forward to the upcoming work season together. For the rest of the summer I was haunted by his voice and laughs, having a hard time grasping the fact that they would, from now on, exist only inside my head.

Justin’s unexpected death would trigger a transformation (of what kind I still can’t articulate) that would affect the way I deal with my most recent crisis, which is my own accident. Last week I broke my tibia bone – the main bone in our legs – and I will be in a cast until October and won’t be able to walk normally until next year.

I’ve been uncharacteristically positive, thanks to Justin. Despite the fact that at the moment of my accident Max was out of town, I’d forgotten my cell phone, and neither Max nor I were going to be able to pick Fred up from camp until hours past closing, when I hit the ground the clearest thought I had (besides the awareness that my ankle was definitely broken) was the fact that I was completely alert. My head never touched concrete. There were no cars involved. I could see, I could think, I could talk. Everything was gravy no matter how broken. I didn’t cry.

Since the accident I’ve learned effective and ridiculous ways to crawl up and down stairs. I’ve learned (from labor, of course!) to breathe through the agonizing daily pain of the swelling. I patiently allow myself to set aside a full hour each day to get into and out of the shower, savoring the hot water as my reward. I’ve warmed to the sweetness that my injury has brought out in my 8 year old (as well as in my 40-something year old!).  Most importantly, I have accepted the painful truth that I need to stay on the sidelines as a mother for the next six weeks, and I have handed over the reins to my husband. I have so far (mostly) succeeded in closing the door on that part of my brain that is temped to think my life right now sucks.

So I’m doing well, considering. Except once in a while, a feeling similar to the one I had in the weeks following Justin’s death creeps in. It is not frustration or anger or self-pity. It’s the feeling of vulnerability. Yesterday, while putting together a snack and lunch list for the school year – my attempt to plan my way back to “normal” – I suddenly became aware of feeling incredibly small, and I understood and feared that there will always be unseen things I will never have any control over.

Two days after I wrote this post I found out I have to have surgery. This time I cried…(but I’m okay). 

The beauty of being 40-something

“My mother likes her apples peeled,” 6 year-old Pauline said to me while examining her glossy snack. I was 19, and leading a group of rising first graders at summer camp.

“My mother does too,” I said.

 “YOU – have a MOTHER??” As kids say today (or do they?), Pauline’s eyes bugged out.

 “Yes I have a mother. How old do you think I am?”

“Well, my mom’s 36, so…you must be 42.”

You’ve got to love the logic of 6 year-olds. And at 19, 42 felt about as distant to me as it did to Pauline.

Until now. Today. 23 years later, I’ve landed on the 42 square. I’m well into the decade that I used to think of as happening to other, crinklier people.

But still, when I look in the mirror, it just doesn’t seem true.

The skin around my cheeks still feels tight.

On a good day, like before breakfast and with my breath held in ever so slightly, my stomach looks…not bad.

My eyes, if I don’t smile or laugh, still have that virginal look about them.

The grey hairs, which still look grey regardless of the type of light bulbs installed overhead, are surely due to the stress resulting from my active lifestyle.

My cursing at the dark fine print on restaurant menus – well, that’s because I’m hungry and the restaurant has too much, um, ambience.

And when I looked at photos from my 20th high school reunion a few years ago, I swore that I just could not possibly belong to the same demographics as my balding, bulging fellow alums.

***

Last week, I had lunch with two of my best girlfriends here. They’re smart, professionally accomplished, family-oriented, and completely down-to-earth. Our conversations have always centered on things that really mattered to the mature women that we are, issues like parenting, the state of public education or the state of our country. Then last week I heard them confessing their obsessions with shoes and Neiman Marcus clearance sales. I love that as girlfriends we can talk about anything and everything, but realized this was a conversation I could no longer contribute much to.

The truth is, I no longer look in the mirror very much. I’ve become frumpier, and a part of me wishes I have continued to “keep up.” As my dad used to say whenever my mom told him to fix one of the gaps between his teeth, “Who cares? I’m already married.” When I lamented about wishing I cared more, Max smirked, “It’s okay; you care more now about inner beauty.”

I rolled my eyes at his sarcasm but realized that he isn’t completely off.

I no longer look at myself much in the mirror but I do like to look at what’s around me. I see a quiet family and work life. My main colleague is my husband. Each morning, I walk downstairs in my sweats to begin work in our converted family room. It’s less invigorating and much quieter than the corporate life we had in Tokyo. But this life style also affords me more peace and time with Max and Fred. Some women say to me, “I can never live like you.” Well, I guess at one point in my life I had believed that too, until I had to make a decision about what I couldn’t live without.

I see my home, surrounded by green and trees. I can continue walking for days before I see a high-rise. I will pass an elderly couple walking, or a young graduate student jogging with her dog. I might stop and wait for a deer and her babies to cross the road, or I might spot a swan. Ten years ago you couldn’t have paid me to live here. Now you couldn’t pay me to leave.  

I’m more willing to show more of me now. My odd quirks (I can’t drive on highways); my inexplicable fears (I can’t get near anything with feathers); my imperfections (my past depression, my loving but dysfunctional family). I used to camouflage and adapt according to the person I was with; I now wear one coat, one suit of colors, no matter where I go and whom I see.

I want to make myself better. I want to be stronger mentally and physically. I want to learn more about the world. I want to learn to be kinder. I want to be less self-centered. I want to give more.

This is 40-something. And it’s something to look forward to.

The note of reflection

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

Dear Mommy and Daddy,

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

Love, Fred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They support one another, because that is what people are supposed to do

“person”

Chinese: ren / Japanese: hito

My late night conversation with my husband yesterday, as I felt like I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown:

Max: Are you crying? What’s wrong?

Me: I don’t know…everything…I don’t do anything, I don’t contribute…I just sit at my computer and I…I feel like I hate myself.

Max: Everyone hates yourself.

Me: What?

Max: Everyone hates yourself.

Me: You mean, everyone hates him- or herself?

Max: Yeah, that’s what I meant. I don’t like myself sometimes either.

Me: Why? What’s not to like?

Max: Like I’m getting old…and my English is not good, so I have to rely on you for everything.

Me (looking up at him, realizing he had just hit it on the nail): THAT’S why I hate myself, for relying on you for everything. If it weren’t for you I can’t run this household…I can’t even mother…I feel like I wouldn’t be able to function or get anything done…I feel useless…

Max: You know the Chinese/Japanese character for “person,” right? The two strokes [he writes the character in the air with his finger] – there are two strokes because they hold up one another. They support one another, because that is what people are supposed to do.

I never knew that, about that character.

Why do I feel less capable because I need help? Why do I feel that I have to be able to do everything on my own? The thought of needing someone – that I have to depend on someone else for survival whether it is financial, physical or emotional – frightens me. And I know that sometimes my fierce determination to be independent, to not need, hurts Max. We all like to feel needed, to know that, to a few important people in our lives, we are indispensable. But knowing that there is someone I can’t live without – that scares me. Because if I depend too much, someday that person may no longer be here, and that frightens me more than anything.

Happy anniversary to my other stroke, the one that holds me up without fail.

Could I have been “Greater”?

Every time a woman up for a high profile job hits the headlines – as Elena Kagan does this week – my thoughts revisit the path that I have chosen.

Don’t get me wrong. By no means do I place myself in the same league as women like Elena Kagan. I was never anywhere near being nominated for the Supreme Court. But I had once stepped foot on the escalator to professional achievement. I had been close. I am close – still close. But I have chosen a different path.

Growing up in a first-generation immigrant family, the expectations were fairly high. You’ve heard the stories, cliches by now: children who came to the United States without any English ability who go on to become valedictorians and Harvard-graduated doctors and lawyers. I grew up with these kids, sat behind them in homeroom, went to the prom with them.

I was less ambitious than those kids and outwardly less successful. While I attended top schools and earned a graduate degree, my race down the career path was less single-minded and slower than that of my peers. I researched and considered pursuing a PhD (in either education or psychology) for 8 years before finally giving up on the idea, nervous about the commitment I’d have to follow through on. Half way through my maternity leave in a position that had earned me a strong reputation in my field, I decided to resign. Today, I co-run a small but successful business with my husband and we work from home. The reason we chose this path was partially to contribute in our field, but largely so that we can have the flexibility to be parents. The company could be larger, it could be more influential. However, I don’t have strong interest in growing it any bigger than it already is. With the current size and workload, I can continue to volunteer at Fred’s school, be there when he gets home each day and spend whole weekends with him.

I’d be lying if I said that I have done this all for Fred, or all for Fred and Max. I’m doing this for me too. I know that the higher I go in my field, the less likely I am to actually do the work that I enjoy. I have been in “management” and I hardly enjoyed it. Disciplining employees, ensuring profit, navigating work politics and watching colleagues and bosses get sacked left and right for not producing results aged me in a way that years of diaper changing, sleep deprivation and isolation never did. When I stayed home that first year with Fred, former colleagues remarked at how much younger I had looked. Many women argue that mothering is the hardest job they’ve ever had; not so for me. To me, being a mother is less taxing and more intuitive than climbing the career ladder. Mothering suits my temperament and my passions. This makes it “easier”, and this is also why I choose it.

But every once in awhile I get tempted. As stressful as excelling professionally can be, there are some incredible highs as well. I have been as exhilarated by helping build up a successful company as I have been watching my son take his first steps. They’re different highs that intoxicate different parts in me. But both give me a sense of worth and a feeling of purpose.

A few years ago I learned that a former boss back home had gotten promoted. He was only four years older than me, and I imagined that, had I stayed on the same path, I could have been right there behind him. “We could move to Boston,” Max had said to me then. Bless his heart. Max has always been supportive of my professional goals. “Nah,” I waved the thought away. It was just a fleeting fantasy.

The year before we moved back to the States, a friend and former colleague e-mailed me out of the blue to recommend me for a head position at a northeastern boarding school. The benefits were a rent-free 3-bedroom house on a sprawling campus and a six figure salary. I was tempted by the prestige and public recognition, the challenge, the perks and the community. All of it sounded so inviting after having spent the last three years at home with a toddler and a virtual clientele and staff. I mulled over the idea and discussed it with Max for two weeks before letting it go. The job description was glamorous during that brief moment when I conveniently forgot about office politics, missed dinners at home, and the inevitable struggles in answering to too many people’s needs. 

It’s been years since I’ve looked at a job wanted ad. In fact, the last time I looked, job ads were printed on newspaper only. The “temptations” usually come via a well-meaning friend or former colleague. I am always flattered that they’d send me a job listing, and usually I simply forward it to someone else who might be better suited. There is relief in knowing that the jobs I get sent pale in comparison to the work that I’m doing now.

I’ll never forget the words of my assistant Mika when I was trying to muster up the courage to tell my boss that I had changed my mind about returning from my maternity leave. Besides me, she was the only other mother in the history of our company. She could tell what was troubling me and she gave me permission to feel it: “Cecilia, as great as you are as director, they will find someone else. But no one can replace you as Fred’s mother.”

I’ll always be grateful to Mika for that. I turned my resignation letter in to my boss, and I have never doubted my decision since. But while the grass stays green around the house in which I work 24/7, there are times when I briefly look across the fence, imagining what another life would have looked like.

My First Mother’s Day…

…was six years ago.

I had been a mother for exactly two months, and I was right in the throes of motherhood shock and the worst sleep deprivation I had ever experienced.

I was struggling with nursing, but determined (in part personal desire, in part societal pressure) not to give up. My nipples were bleeding, and the hunger cries of Fred every 2 hours brought images of razor blades. I came to dread hearing his relentless calls for food and hated myself for hating to feed my own child…I would read Dr. Sears’ chapter on relaxing and savoring the bond with our babies during nursing and wonder what critical maternal gene I was missing.

I was living in a Japanese surburb, staying home on a one-year maternity leave from my company. For the first time I realized I had no one to talk to during the day, or the night for that matter (see next paragraph). I realized that sleep deprivation + a foreign language + loneliness did not make me a happy mother. There was no park within walking distance and Fred and I spent our days hanging out at the local supermarkets and discount baby store, when I wasn’t entertaining the unannounced visits by my mother-in-law…

I missed my husband that first Mother’s Day. In the weeks leading up to Fred’s birth, Max’s company began a major restructuring. He was asked to head up a second department in addition to the one he was already running. He left the house at 7 each morning to begin his 70-minute commute and came home between 12:30 – 1:00 a.m each night. Often it made more sense for him to simply sleep in a hotel or in the office, but he made it a rule to always come home and help where he could. On Mother’s Day he left a L’Occitane bath gel gift set and a card for me on the dining table. For the coming year, I would bask in these citrus scents in the shower, trying to drown out the imagined crying that lingered in my ears long after my muscles had let go in the steam.

I spent many hours a day on the internet, becoming more and more addicted to the chat forums for young moms. I e-mailed other mom friends who were excited I had joined the club but who were too busy with their young children to write at length. “Gotta go – xxx is crying!” was how most correspondence ended. More than once I picked up the phone to call someone but hung up with doubts.  They’ve got enough on their hands without having to play therapist, I would think. I don’t want to call and start cryingI don’t want to sound like I don’t love being a mother.

My heart would drop like a rollercoaster and then start beating with fear whenever Max kissed me good bye and the front door closed behind him in the mornings. I would imagine the next 15-16 hours alone with this infant whom I loved in theory but barely knew. My thoughts  would race forward to all potential disasters: what if he throws up, what if he falls, what if he spikes a fever, what if I throw him against the wall – what would I do? How will I get help? In the midst of panic, will I be able to remember our address in Japanese, let alone explain my situation to an emergency operator? I would wonder, if I love my baby so much – if I am his mother – why do I feel fear when I am with him? Why do unspeakable images try to fight their way into my head?

My first Mother’s Day was a celebration I felt proud to finally be a part of. Like Hall of Fame inductees I imagine, or Academy Award or even Nobel Prize winners, I couldn’t quite believe that I would be the one people (alright, my husband) would be paying attention to on this second Sunday in May. Am I deserving? Am I really up in there in the ranks of my mother and those who’d gone before her?

I would get my answer slowly in the years to come, as I watch my little boy grow from a quiet and inobtrusive baby into an inquisitive and compassionate young person. And now, on the eve of my sixth Mother’s Day, I can comfortably look back and say to that young mother: You passed with flying colors; you were deserving. It may be your habit to focus more on what you should have done or could have done, but on this Mother’s Day, sit back, enjoy your family, and know that you’ve done well.

Happy Mother’s Day to all my fellow mothers and mother figures, especially to all the new moms 🙂

My Identity as a Writer – Blogger

After falling a bit behind schedule last night I eventually got Fred into bed, and by 9:30 he was breathing steadily and sleeping peacefully. I adjusted his blanket, softly ran my palm over the top of his head, and stepped quietly out of the room. Just a quick check on my blog and e-mail, I told myself, and tonight I’m going to watch the first half of Gran Torino which Netflix delivered well over a week ago. Max had already seen this on the plane at some point so I was on my own with this one.

At 9:32 I log onto my computer. Quickly scrolling down through Facebook I see that my friend Meg has posted something about Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution petition to improve school food. “Put the badge on your blog!” the thumbnail shouted to me, just as I had plans to soon hit the power off on my computer to go hang with Clint Eastwood. “Oh, alright,” I respond silently. It’s for a good cause, after all, and it’ll only take 15, maybe 20 minutes at most.

I click, toggle, blog, and publish. Next to me I hear a click-click-press. Max, who sits about four feet away from me and was doing client work, is logging off his computer. In my peripheral vision I see him head out the room. A few seconds later, I hear a sudden onslaught of voices, music and special effects. The sounds of the t.v. while I am at my computer are unfamiliar ones to me, because normally Max and I watch together.

I toggle back and forth among my three (non-work) e-mail accounts, blog stats page and Facebook, as if an important e-mail, surge in page views or clever status update could pop up while I was momentarily checking one of the other. I also begin this – my next blog post – even though my mind really isn’t capable of anything creative or coherent right at this time. I glance at the little digital clock at the bottom right of my screen. It’s now 10:57. How is it that an hour-and-a-half has already passed? So much for Gran Torino. Each day that I keep this DVD, Netflix is making money off of me.

Sigh. So I continue to read, comment on other blogs, and write.

Eighteen hours earlier I had woken up so tired from one too many nights of trying to cram writing, reading and hubby time into my few free hours each night, and I told myself that today, I will go to bed before midnight. But by now the clock is reading 12:08. So I log off and drag my sorry feet upstairs, feeling down once again. I have accomplished nothing. I didn’t lay a finger on the laundry. I didn’t organize the bills. I didn’t pack Fred’s school bag. I didn’t read my book. I didn’t watch my movie. Now the house is quiet, and when I reach the top step I will see the bedroom dark, and I will have missed another chance to say good night to Max. In the far reaches of my imagination I wonder, will I wake up one day to realize Max has taken up with another woman (or, perhaps, his own blog), so used to my spaciness will he be?

Not all nights are like this, but enough days and nights have passed like this to make me think that I don’t like feeling this way. I don’t like living inside my head. I don’t like being practically sewn into my computer chair. I don’t like feeling like I am sometimes inhabiting a different world from that of my son and husband.

But is it just blogging? Is this not also the ailment of many a writer? The distraction, the tendency to be constantly drafting inside one’s head, the inescapable discomfort of wanting to be at your computer or with your notebook over anything else, the irritation that swells when interrupted by a client’s request or a child’s cry.

A year ago I took a fiction writing class with the writer Masha Hamilton. In the class Masha, an acclaimed novelist and mother of three, talked about the universal guilt that mother writers feel on a regular basis – how they are driven to distraction by their urge to create, how they struggle to balance this with their need to be present with their children and spouses.

And yet when it is writers who feel this struggle there is something almost worthy about it. If we change the word “writer” to “blogger” there is something almost sick about it. We think of the preoccupation that comes with conscientious blogging as an addiction, something that destroys us and those close to us, something that happens because we have lost grip on our priorities and sense of reality.

But what compels me to blog is the same thing that compels me to write. In fact, I took Masha’s course because I wanted to write, not because I wanted to blog. I began blogging as an exercise in discipline. I needed to commit to writing on a regular basis, and I switched from my Word document to a blogging interface in large part because WordPress is such a prettier notepad on which to write. And perhaps there was a part of me that wanted the affirmation of an audience or a community, and I didn’t want to be at the mercy of a faceless editor to get that affirmation.

As a novice blogger I really had no idea how to get this audience, and I was content with having my friend Kathryn as my sole reader. And then the more I blogged and the more blogs I read, unexpected things happened: readers came over, and they left comments or e-mailed me. They liked what I wrote and responded with encouragement. Some even returned for more and passed my link on to their friends. I realized, then, that I was no longer writing to a faceless audience. I felt an incredible surge in energy when I received this kind of feedback. My motivation to write increased, and I felt lifted by this new community of like-minded mother writers. In a short span of time, I had built a very small but warm community of readers and – dare I say – friends. I began to gain more confidence and even pride in my words and my ideas, and this spurred me to keep writing.

At around the same time I began my blogging, I was also taking a creative non-fiction writing class with Kate Hopper. In the class we explored the question of “Why now?” What causes us to write what we do, now? And I began thinking. Why have I felt such a need to write, or to blog? The answer would come to me over the course of my writing. Throughout my life I had not spoken up. There could have been a number of reasons – class, gender, race, genes, environment. I was a first generation American in a blue collar immigrant family and I didn’t dare utter a word of English until I was seven. I was brought up to be a good girl who didn’t rock the boat, who didn’t take up space and who didn’t impose on others with her thoughts. But that was then. Today, after a lifetime of feeling stifled, I have finally given myself permission to take a turn, my turn: my turn to have a voice, my turn to take up some space. And I thank writing – and blogging – for allowing me to do that.