Growing up and letting go

Our house was like Grand Central this weekend, with the neighborhood boys streaming in and out. We love these Social Sundays, especially now that I’ve gotten over the early bittersweet of my baby forming his own world without me.

Then that day came another milestone.

After playing with his friends on our street, Fred asked if he could go to Brian’s house, 2 blocks away. Straight path, no traffic. It seemed high time for him to go there on his own.

When it turned out Brian was still eating lunch, Fred came back and asked if he could go to Kyle’s house, a more complicated path 4 blocks away within our subdivision. Again, we said yes.

An hour later, Fred came back with Kyle and asked if they could go to the park. The neighborhood park is a little under 10 minutes away by foot, and up until that point Fred had never gone there without an adult. It’s not that we had forbidden it; he simply never asked and we never had to think about it. But today it came up, and again, we said yes.

I was surprised to feel relieved. Max, too, added, “This is how boys should live.” Coming from a country where kindergarteners commute alone on public transportation, Max has since adopted my American wariness and done his fair share of standing guard at playgrounds. But we always recall our own stories of how much more carefree our childhoods had been: how Max traveled alone from one end of Japan to the other at the age of 9, how I was walking 3 blocks through traffic in a much rougher neighborhood to catch the school bus when I was 8.

I didn’t realize how exhausting it was to fear and worry…not about safety from speeding cars or kidnappers but about how to make sure we don’t overprotect Fred.

In the second it took for me to calibrate the risks of letting Fred go to the park, I asked myself what it was that I was fearing: Was it child molesters? Traffic? Getting lost? Given our neighborhood, getting lost was the greatest risk, but even that was basically nil. There was more to lose by holding Fred close.

But I will tell you the bigger anxiety I had that day, once I’d let him go.

I wasn’t worried about Fred getting to and from the park safely, or being safe while playing at the park. I worried about what he would do – from now on – when there is no adult to say, “No, don’t do that.” My mind flashed back to all those stories of dumb pranks performed by my perfectly intelligent male friends, antics that helped build up my earlier vow never to have a boy. But you know, writing this, I am ashamed to admit to my own fair share of regrettable choices and dumb behavior. This latest milestone made it clear that I have entered that parenting stage where the most important thing I can instill – and rely on – is my child’s good judgment.

And suddenly potty training feels like a breeze compared to trying to shape a child’s moral compass and self-control.

This post took me three days to write. I didn’t know where to go after the above paragraph. Then, in trying to find my direction I ran up against this question again: What is it that I’m afraid of? Has Fred chosen bad friends? Has he made poor choices in judgment? Has he given me any reason so far to worry that he will one day binge drink at his first fraternity party (because, you know, that worry ranks right up there with doing bike wheelies and entering hotdog eating contests) ?

One of the incidents that triggered my worries was how oblivious Fred became to me as soon as his friend told him she was organizing a neighborhood talent show. He became so giddy he ignored my warning that it was dinner time, and threw himself at the piano to practice Jingle Bells, his latest and proudest piece.

After I’d gained some perspective, I realized, it’s Jingle Bells, not crack.

So, after more than eight years as a mother, I’m learning to let go…to let go of not my child, but my fears.

 

 

 

 

 

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). 

My story

Forty years ago today my family (originally from China) arrived in the U.S. from Peru. I was three years old and my memories of that night are still vivid: stepping out of a taxi into blackness; feeling the balmy air after an early rain; exploring our 3-room apartment with excitement; feeling pride when my dad said, “Ceci, you can take your shoes off all by yourself!”

My earliest memory is that of anticipation and togetherness. I remember waving good bye to my grandparents from the airplane in Peru, but I don’t remember missing them. I don’t remember what, if anything, I was told about the new life we were undertaking. But I must have been an adaptable child, because I remember being happy.

And in time the joy and excitement gave way to reality, the kind of reality lived when you are undocumented. We received court orders to be deported. My parents came home from their jobs describing with rapid heartbeats their narrow escapes from arrest by the INS. My mother would grab my younger brother and me whenever someone knocked on our door, huddling in a corner, clasping her hands over our mouths until the footsteps faded away.

I will stop here, because this is as far as I feel comfortable going. This is a story that I am telling “publicly” for the first time in 40 years. My former writing instructor has urged me to write a memoir, as has my husband Max. I am not sure if I will, or could. But today as I set out to write a blog post commemorating my family’s journey to America, these are the unplanned words that are spilling out.

The huge irony that I grew up with is that my parents had stressed honesty above almost everything else. Honesty in one’s deeds. Authenticity as a human being. When I was 14 I was a dime short when purchasing a pack of cough drops at the local store. The shopkeeper told me I can take the cough drops and just pay him back the next day. So the next day after school I got off my bus a stop earlier and handed him the dime I had owed him, shocked that he was shocked.

My parents were, are, good people…amazing people. That they broke the law confused me as a child. But I understand better now as a parent. How far would you go to ensure that your child will not have to go hungry or live in fear? As a child my father used to figure out whether or not there would be supper by seeing where the cooking pan was. “If it was hanging on the wall, it meant no dinner that night.” It is a primal parental instinct to want our children to have more than we did. Among my generation, it is the wish to be able to afford music lessons, private school if we wanted, international travel. Among my parents’ generation, it was the need to provide safety, food, shelter, a shot at a decent education, and hope. My father said that there was absolutely no hope for any kind of future for us if we’d stayed.

My family has been US citizens for many years now. I remember the first time my father could vote in a presidential election – he got up at 5:00 in the morning, dressed in a nice crisp shirt and vest, ate breakfast, and was ready to go. “The polls aren’t even open yet!” I had said, laughing, with tears I tried to hide. My parents now live a quiet life in a house that they own. My father’s retired, and enjoys daily swims at a local gym. A few years ago he told me, laughing, “Ceci, I am happy! You know, for the first time in my life, I am really happy!”

Those days when we lived under a shroud of dark and constant threat of losing everything we had seems like a lifetime ago. And I’ve battled depression and anxiety for much of my life. There is a part of me that still questions “Why bother?” Small things like redecorating our house, or buying a new outfit…an irrational part of me sometimes wonders what is the point, if ultimately everything could be taken away from me. And I have struggled between how close I want to be to my parents and brother, because it is sometimes too painful to be in the family unit that triggers so much. It is nothing that they have said or done, but everything that being in my family reminds me of. I have hurt my parents and brother by pulling away.

But time is healing. As is a conscious effort to understand what belongs in the past, and what can belong in the present. My family, my parents, belong in the present, as does acknowledgement that yes, this is a dream, but it is the American Dream: solid, secure, and mine. I, too, am truly happy for the first time in my life.

A renewed purpose to write (overcoming my struggles to write and blog)

I keep disappearing, I know. And I keep promising to be consistent.

I’ve been struggling to write and blog for exactly a year now. The ideas became harder and harder to come by. I no longer had topics I felt compelled to talk about. I’d think about the theme of my blog – motherhood, marriage and self – and feel as though I had exhausted everything that once screamed at me to come out. Did I no longer care about those issues?

I also began to question the whole exercise of blogging. For all the laundry I had shamelessly hung out over the previous year, I suddenly caught a delayed case of modesty. I thought about taking down some overly personal posts (if I could even bare to re-read some of them, that is). Some of the issues I had written about – depression, old family conflicts – were no longer really there for me, and suddenly felt like the black sheep that I wanted to deny ever existed.

And I found it very hard to be a good blog follower. Time, or the lack of it, and a job that consumes me for half a year, left me with little energy to follow fellow bloggers. We blog not simply to share our own needs but to be a part of a wider community and to respond to the needs of others. And not being a skim-through kind of reader, I feel that if you took the time to put your heart out there, then you deserve to have someone really read and understand your words. I was afraid of being selfish for blogging, if I couldn’t return the same attention to fellow bloggers. When my time became limited, I thought that if I couldn’t throw myself into blogging 100%, then I wasn’t going to do it at all.

But the idea of closing shop on Only You made me wince. Though I had neglected it over the last year, I wasn’t ready to stop writing, as shutting my blog down would in essence shut down a significant part of who I was and the larger community that I came to know.

I realized that I simply needed to look again for my focus. What is it that is now screaming to be heard?

For the past year, while I was hiding behind my blog, I was actually trying to figure out where I was going as a person. Somehow I felt gradually different, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. Then, over the last few months, things became clear. Maybe that is why the old theme had come to resonate with me less, because I have now moved on to the next stage of my life. I feel less of a need to process now, to look back on my past. Having done all of that work has brought me to where I am now: I am ready to go, ready to make concrete changes, ready to become the person I have always wanted to be. And my husband Max reminded me that having grown doesn’t mean that the past – Only You – wasn’t real or wasn’t a part of me, that I don’t need to ditch or change my blog, but just continue with Part 2. So, having this clarity now, I’ve found a renewed purpose to write, to share, and to know that I can put myself out there and engage again as I once did.

Have you ever found yourself direction-less? If so, what did you do? If you’re a writer, have you struggled with short- or long-term writer’s block?

My struggles with writing

I didn’t realize how long I’d been away until I was visiting a favorite blog of mine last week, and saw on the author’s blog roll: Only You — last updated: 4 months ago.

I’ve been struggling with my writing all year. Topics became harder and harder to come up with, and I worried that I was writing without feeling. I would look at some of my posts and grimace at the writing quality. I was going downhill, I thought, and in my mind I decided it would be better to pause than to keep churning out bad material.

Motherhood, marriage, identity and all these other issues I had loved thinking and writing about were still important to me, and yet I found myself coming up dry. Have I moved on, I wondered? When I started this blog almost two years ago, I did so with an inexplicable urge. Life was probably no less busy then than it is now, but I had enough drive to make writing (and blogging) a priority. For the first time in my life I had the courage to let my voice out and so I did week after week, publicly – intimately – writing about things I had not even told my family or close friends. My voice was a volcanic eruption. Then gradually this spring that drive lost its urgency. I felt at peace, even when I was  not writing. Had I healed? Had I gotten so much out of my system that I no longer needed to talk? Words became less of a focus for me this year. For some reason I can’t explain, I even stopped reading this summer. Life was busy – I was a “single” mom for a while with Max in Japan and Fred’s martial arts activities intensifying – and I began living life rather than only thinking about it. And by this I am not saying that writers don’t live – only that I don’t. I’ve tended to write during periods of my life when I needed to heal, and I’ve written much less during times when I felt good.

And then recently I heard from a friend, “I miss your blog.” I read Alexandra’s poignant post about bloggers who disappear (and she’d mentioned my blog). The lovely Jessica at Mommyhood: Next Right even e-mailed me to say she’d missed my writing. I was honestly shocked. I had not realized that it might make a difference to someone to read what I have to say. It feels embarrassing to be this self-depracating at my age, but as someone who still has a hard time calling herself a writer without quotation marks, I’d say that my self-esteem as a writer is probably right at the high school level. But why not, right? There are so many writers – both professional and amateur – whose voices I would desperately miss if they were to stop. Whether it’s because they share experiences that make me feel less alone or stories that take me somewhere I could never experience, I am so grateful to be touched by them. And like finding a good hairdresser, I make sure I hold on to those writers that really make an impact on me. I don’t mean to be presumptious enough to say that I play that big of a role in a reader’s life, but I need to remind myself that part of the reason I like to write or blog is to make an impact; I am not only doing it for self-healing.

So I’m trying to ease back again. I will likely continue to struggle with time – time to write, time to read and comment on blogs, and I doubt that my writer’s block has completely lifted. But I miss the sharing and the interacting, and I miss the process of reflecting on an experience. Hopefully this time I will find a new voice – a voice that stays present even in the absence of healing, a voice that reflects the growth I’ve accomplished in the last couple of years. I hope that you can still be there for me.

Mothers as “prison guards”

If my adolescence was a high security prison, then my mother was the 20 feet walls that took the wind out of my gale forces, so to speak, defeating me at every attempt to coax her into getting me what I wanted.

She was unbending, and adroit at keeping me on the (deprived) side of teen temptation.

I remember at 14 I had decided to get my very own Sony Walkman, the hot product of my era. I was so excited at my purchase that I failed to contain myself when I later met up with my parents at our car.

“You bought a what?” My mother had asked. “Oh no, you are returning that. NOW.

I protested and within minutes found myself shouting and then crying. Even my father intervened in my defense. But my mother was unyielding, confident, resolute, so sure was she that my new headphones would burn me like crack.

Losing yet another battle, I pulled myself back to the store and up to the customer service desk, sobbing as I explained to the 20-something year-old behind the counter why I was returning this Walkman just minutes after I had bought it. He sucked his teeth in sympathy. “Man, just wait till you come of age; ain’t nobody gonna tell you what to do.”

I nodded in appreciation and walked away.

Somewhere in the decades that followed, that teen memory morphed into something to look back and laugh about and then, recently, into something to dread. The tables would be turning, I knew, and soon it would be my turn to be prison guard. We mothers all know this moment is coming, right?

I just didn’t know it would come so soon.  

Over the winter break, Fred came home from his best friend Jack’s crying, “I want a Wii. I am the ONLY person at my school and in this neighborhood who DOESN’T have a Wii!! WHY are you being so MEAN to me??” He had found out that yet another friend of his had gotten a Wii for Christmas.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time we’d heard this. We’d been hearing it for months, and each time I’d staunchly put my foot down about “NO VIDEO GAMES” – end of discussion. It is probably easier for me to gloss over this obsession of Fred’s because I am so “lo-tech”; to this day I do not have and do not care for an iPhone and the idea of Kindles taking over books leaves a pit in my stomach. I’m still a bit dreamy in my 1970s/80s world of books, board games and all things natural. It is hard for me to appreciate Fred’s need for a Wii, and so much easier to chalk it up and dismiss it as his puerile flavor-of-the-week.

Two weeks after Christmas, though, Max, my lo-tech ally in all of this, showed signs of bending. Our neighbors got their daughter a Wii for Christmas, and Max played a few games of tennis on it when they had us over for New Year’s. He liked it. In fact, he was hooked. He could see why Fred wanted it so badly. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all, he’d persuaded me. It would be fun for all three of us, plus it would get me to move.

And, so, as a poorly disguised early birthday present for me, we indirectly got the Wii for Fred. Secretly thrilled for myself, I remained nervous for Fred. His strongest intellectual quality is his intense curiosity and creativity. Will a videogame replace the time he used to spend building Legos, folding Origami, and conducting his own science experiments? Will the mind-numbing instant gratification of technology quash the meaningful but more arduous work of creating?

Perhaps these are similar worries my mother had when she made me return my Walkman nearly 30 years ago. The Walkman could’ve come from out of space for all she knew, and she was afraid of the potentially addictive quality of portable music. She was afraid of what I’d be listening to. She was afraid of what it would do to my ears. The thing is, she was so confident, or at least she appeared so.  It would only be last year that she shared her doubts as a mother for the first time. “I didn’t know how to be a mother. No one teaches or tells you anything.”

But I suppose if we listen carefully, we can find lessons – in our mothers, and in our own experiences. While the Wii does make me nervous, I’ve finally decided it’s good for Fred to have it in his life. It’ll give him a chance to figure out how to balance his different priorities and desires. It’ll force him to learn how to stay in control. As the mother, I, too, need to listen a little better, and learn how to balance keeping those gates closed and letting them open once in awhile.

“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.