Thursday, March 29, 2018

Resetting

I've been perusing through some of my old posts, and I am amazed to see the difference between where I was then -- emotionally, psychologically -- from where I am now. A lot of my old posts are bogged down, as if I am trying to pull myself out of slowly hardening cement. So much to figure out. I can feel how frustrated and baffled I was with my inability to reshape myself emotionally or psychologically in relating to the issues I had in my life. I remember many of those incidents and feelings as if they happened yesterday, and yet, I feel so far removed from the person I was then. And I attribute most of these changes, if not all, to entering my masters program in marriage & family therapy.

My MFT program has changed my life. I am in a cohort of 27 students, and everyone is wonderful. Warm, caring, thoughtful, and kind. It's exactly the kind of community I've longed for, and couldn't find in the years after we left San Francisco. I once again feel like I belong somewhere.

During the interview for the program almost a year ago, I entered the room feeling slightly apprehensive. What skills did I have as a lawyer that would be conducive to me becoming a therapist? As a litigation associate, I had spent most of my time writing combative nastygrams to opposing counsel and dealing with discovery nonsense. Had the law hardened me to a point that I would be unsuitable for dealing with other people on empathetic and personal levels?

In the group interview, we were first asked to go around the circle and introduce ourselves. After listening to the impressive backgrounds of the people before me, who had actually all done something to better the world through social services, I found myself stammering, "I'm not sure why I was even invited to this interview, because I have absolutely zero experience in this field that I hope to enter. I am so impressed by each of you and all that you have done." And then I prattled off a sentence or two about how I had been a lawyer in my former life.

Amazingly, at the end of the interview session that day, the director of the program offered me admission to the program on the spot.

The program started in the summer, and we spent much of the summer listening to each other's life stories. We took turns talking about the experiences we had with our families of origin, what events shaped us, what issues resonated for us. There were so many stories, some with intersecting threads, others with unique directions. But everyone had a story to tell. And they were all humbling and edifying.

It felt like I had read 26 memoirs in a matter of weeks. And I loved it.

Since the fall semester, we have been meeting with clients, and I can't describe how much I love meeting the clients and listening and talking to them about their lives. It's similar to the conversations I have always had over coffee with friends, conversations I have always loved. But these are more intentional and more directed. And with strangers, at least at start, who give me the benefit of the doubt to open up with me.

This one change - entering a new program - had reset me completely. I don't obsess about my time as I used to. I don't feel bogged down by the fears or worries I used to have. I don't feel so negative about my past career as a lawyer or my passing days.

I think if I had been diagnosed with breast cancer before I had been admitted to the program, I would have fallen into a deep despair. I would have been so wrought with resentment and sadness that I had to waste time on something that had nothing to add to my life. I would have seen it as something to deal with in order to return to status quo. And I would have felt that it was yet another segment of my life wasted on top of the years I spent trudging through law school and working as an attorney.

Now that I'm in the program, the cancer diagnosis has hardly made a blip. I see it as a nuisance, nothing more. Even though most of my free days are filled up with doctor appointments, chemo therapy, and some test or another, it hasn't gotten to me. Not nearly to the degree I used to be bothered when I even missed one day of planned me-time when one of my kids got sick or my plans got upset.

Even though I attribute it to being in the program, there are many facets embedded in it that I find so fulfilling and satisfying. Most important is that I am learning again. I am learning about things I care about in life and exploring ways of seeing things through different frameworks. The conversations that I am having as I'm learning are complex, nuanced, and substantive. I am reading wonderful books by innovative and insightful thinkers. One of the most satisfying books I read over the summer was on multicultural perspectives. To date, I have never read a satisfying book on race, at least not one that addressed different perspectives of different racial and ethnic groups. But, yes, such a book exists! I am also spending time talking to my cohorts, professors, and clients about subjects that I think are worth talking about, not just about the weather, or sports, or some TV show. And all the while I'm doing this, I am among a group of people I really appreciate. The cohort is composed of people of various ages ranging from 23 to perhaps late 50s or early 60s, all with life lessons to teach, insights to share, and life pains they have overcome and somehow managed to shape into future directions.

When I think about how simple this was -- how simple it was to reset my life -- I can't help but wonder why it felt so difficult before.  The idea of going back to school seemed daunting. I was already in my mid-40s. I have small children. My husband worked. I had to take the GREs. I wanted to carry my fair load of household responsibilities, whether it was taking care of the kids or contributing financially. And as I list them, I now see that none of them were insurmountable. I recognize that I have it easy. Jeff took some time off of work so that I can go back to school while he takes care of the kids. He has taken over almost all of the domestic chores. But I see the other women in my program doing it. Like me, most of them are entering a second career. Many of them have working husbands and children. Some are single moms. And they show up to class and turn in their assignments.

I think about the countless conversations I had with my lawyer friends when I was practicing law about the second careers we wished to have. It was probably the most popular topic of conversation. And instead of regurgitating those conversations ad nauseam, I could have just gone back to school. But of course, in hindsight, it all looks so easy now. Besides the logistics, I think most of it had to do with the uncertainty of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. And I realize now that I didn't know what to do with my life because I simply had not lived enough. Maybe I needed all the detours and the events of my life to take me where I am now. Maybe I needed law school, my ten years lawfirm career, the disasterous layoff, the three miscarriages, the family estrangement, the precancerous cells in my cervix, the worries of being a parent, and the delicacies of being married as well as all the happy and fulfilling moments embedded along the way. Maybe I needed these more than others after a lifetime of being a good daughter and a rule follower.

Now, from where I sit, I am grateful for all those experiences - the challenging as well as the happy ones. Even my recent diagnosis. They have made me a fuller person. I relate to others differently. I relate to my children differently. I respond with more patience, more understanding, more heart. I even like myself more.

I think returning to school was about fulfilling one of my core needs. I need to be in an environment where I'm learning. And where I am connected to others through my learning. The learning doesn't have to come in an academic environment, but I need to make space for that in my life. When I didn't have that -- when I didn't have the time or the space to take care of one of my needs, I felt suffocated and desperate.

I think about the little steps we can take to identify and meet our own needs. And to recruit others to aid us in our effort while we help them in turn. Many of us may be gearing ourselves in that direction without even realizing it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Power of Responding

Almost a decade ago, shortly after Paul Hastings laid me off, I was talking to one of Jeff's acquaintances. I'll call her R. She told me how sorry she felt for me because "one of the most shameful things" that could have happened to a person happened to me, and so publicly too! I was so caught off guard by her comment that I didn't even respond. But that comment stayed with me.

I thought it about it recently as I read an article for a class (yes, I'm back in school getting my degree to become an MFT! More about that later.). The article discusses the importance of focusing on a person's response to a traumatic event, rather than the effects. Focusing on the effects of the trauma increases the sense of helplessness and casts the person as a victim; focusing on the person's response increases her sense of agency and calls attention to the actions taken by the individual, which highlights the person's values and identity. No matter how traumatic the event, the article argues that we always respond in some way, even if those responses are subtle or unnoticed by others.

Even though I didn't view my layoff as trauma, I realized that R's comment stayed with me because she focused only on what the firm did and completely disregarded my response to it. She only saw what was done to me, something she cast as shameful. Focusing on that, and stopping there, put me in a passive role. Something was done to me, something that I had no control over. Just thinking about that now makes me feel agitated.

My many friends, however, focused on my response. They saw me taking a stance, and in my stance, they saw a reflection of the person they know me to be. Their responses reaffirmed and helped further build an aspect of myself that I very much like. Their perspectives and affirmations were life-giving.

I've been thinking about responses a lot lately. Over the summer, we had a professor who is one of the loveliest people I've met. He smiled all the time, told the class how much he loved us (yes, a professor telling his students how much he loves them! Did I tell you how much I love my program?), gave us warm hugs, and was amazingly attentive to each of us and our stories. Near the end of the summer, he told us his life story. He started out telling us about his family of origin and his academic journey. He also told us how he met his wife. As I started to think he had such a perfect and easy path, he disclosed that his wife suddenly passed away several years ago from an unexpected illness. He was parenting three children alone while chairing a department and teaching and running an organization on the side.

From his story, I learned the value of leaning in to difficult experiences. Instead of shying away from his memories of this difficult time, he tells his story over and over with the hope that his students will learn something from it. And despite his difficulties, he didn't turn bitter or cynical. Before I met him, I don't think I could have imagined someone not turning bitter from such an experience. Instead, he responded with more love and compassion for others. His hardship, as difficult as it was, expanded his experience of life.

Ever since I've had kids, I've lived in fear of certain terrible events, like the possibility that one of them could fall seriously ill or be hit by a car or be kidnapped or choke on a grape tomato or wrap the bead necklace around their neck too tightly or want to ride a roller coaster. There is no end to the list of calamities I've conjured up in my head from which to protect my children. And trailing these calamities, I imagine a sense of helplessness and hopelessness -- a despair from which I am convinced that I could never recover.

I am caught in this idea that we all respond in some way to life's obstacles.  As human beings, we respond to these obstacles with some action or mindset and we make meaning of the event and our responses. In the article, Yuen writes "even when people are sunk in the depth of hopelessness and despair, "small acts of living occur'". These small acts of living may even happen despite ourselves. Thinking about this gives me a jolt of hope. It makes me think that no matter what happens, there is some action we can take or some meaning we can decide to adopt or reject. We can always do something. We can't help but affirm life by the mere fact of living and experiencing what life throws at us.

While I cried about my shaved head, it gave me a sense of purpose to pack my hair in a box and ship it off to Locks of Love. I loved thinking about how some child with cancer could use my hair, and my hair would not have to be wasted. The donation wasn't done for the sake of the unknown child, but for me. To give my act a purpose and to find some way to handle the situation. I think if I had just waited for my hair to fall out and simply reacted to the process as it unfolded over however many days, I would have felt somewhat paralyzed and helpless. Instead, taking some action helped me to focus and feel empowered.

I love how an idea as simple as this can shift how one views life's obstacles. Maybe it was obvious to others, but I think this was the first time I actually thought about the impact of thinking about one's responses rather than the effect. I hope you find it useful.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Strange and Familiar

Last Thursday, at around 9:05 am, I shaved my head. Completely. I walked into Super Cuts as soon as it opened and asked the lady behind the counter if they had room for a walk-in. She smiled warmly and said yes. After she took down my name, she asked me what I wanted done. I told her that I wanted to shave my whole head. She didn't give a hint of surprise, even though her eyes flickered ever so slightly. I explained that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and my hair had started falling out from the chemo treatment. I told her how I wanted to shave all my hair off before too much fell out so that I could donate my hair to a place that made wigs for kids with cancer.

On Wednesday, the morning before, during my shower, I noticed my hair collecting around the drain. I didn't even feel them falling out or running past my fingers. But when I looked down, there were little clumps around the holes in the drain. I knew the time had come. When I brushed my hair after, more clumps fell out, and the strands seemed limitless because the falling strands had other strands entangled in them. My brush looked like a shaggy animal from all the hair tangled in it. I hastily put my hair up in a tight ponytail and kept it that way all day.

I had planned all along to donate my hair as soon as my hair started falling out, but when the time came, I could not do it. Instead, as I saw my hair fall out, I cried. I wasn't necessarily attached to my hair. I hardly did anything to take care of it these days. Every morning, as soon as I woke up, it went up in a little bun. I didn't have time to blow dry or style it. I have breakfasts to prepare and kids to send to school. But with the loss of hair came all my insecurities about my looks, the size and the shape of my head, the excess weight I've put on, and all the features I don't like to think about or bring attention to when I'm in the middle of living day to day. Now, I didn't even have my hair to hide behind. My face, and all its imperfections, was exposed for me and the world to see.

That afternoon, I rushed to the store where I had ordered my wig a week before. When the lady told me my wig wasn't ready yet, I bought another and whisked it home as if I were bringing home a newborn. At home, I tucked it away safely in my closet while I thought about what to do. Actually, I didn't think about it as much as live with it. Live with the new circumstance. Live with this development. Live with the idea that my hair was falling out and I would soon have none left.

I thought about how fragile we are, how thin the divide between those who belong and those who don't. How we live in a society shaped by certain images and norms and how desperately we cling to them. I thought about what it would mean to be a woman with a shaved head. I could only think about Sinead O'Connor. And more recently, Emma Gonzalez. But who else?

Since the breast cancer diagnosis, I have not felt sorry for myself at any moment. It is only stage one, and it's completely treatable. It seems like nothing to complain about, especially when I think of others who have it so much worse. But that night, I let myself cry a little. It felt like a farewell of sorts, a farewell to a part of me that had provided a sense of comfort and protection. A part of me that would soon cease being a part of me.

I slept with my hair in the pony tail out of fear that I would lose too much hair along with my opportunity to donate it. On Thursday morning, I cautiously pulled the rubber band off to assess the situation. The amount of hair that sloughed off alarmed me, and I put the rubber back on immediately and braided it. I checked the hours for Super Cuts, and rushed over as soon as I could.

I sat in the chair, and the lady pulled out the electric razor. Mindful of how I wanted to keep my hair intact for donation, she kept my hair in the braid and started shaving from the top of my nape. I felt the coolness on my scalp as she worked on a section at a time. As she worked, I became self-conscious about the odor of my scalp since I had not washed my hair since the morning before. The kind lady gave no sign of noticing anything, and kept shaving. I don't think I looked in the mirror once while she was working.

When she was done, she reached over to put the hair in a paper bag, but I asked her to hand it to me as I had brought my own plastic bag. The hair still retained the shape of my head. In the cap, I saw several strands of white in the shrub of black. For a few minutes, I focused on pulling the white strands out, thinking that the kid who receives my hair shouldn't be stuck with white hair.

Finally, I looked up in the mirror. In myself, I saw images of Buddhist women monks. Emma Gonzalez. And Wakanda warriors. I looked strange and familiar.




Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Lens of Money

Since my teenage years, my singular image of my father is a vision of him crouching alone, at the end of the day, on the floor in his bedroom in front of his file cabinet. In front of him sits piles of coins: quarters, dimes, nickels, and reams of bills. First, he tackles the bills. He sorts them into twenties, tens, fives, singles. Then he returns to each pile to straighten out the bills, unbending the dog-ears, turning each face side up. Then the coins, each clanking as they fall onto the pile, while he counts softly under his breath. After each mound, he logs the amount into his notebook, marking the sum of his earnings for the day. This ritual is repeated day after day, with the exception of Sunday, when their business is closed. For a man who had no words left for his children, he spent a remarkable amount of time with his earnings.

In our family, life was understood through the lens of money. It represented the hours my parents spent cleaning, pressing, and bagging other people’s dirty clothes at their dry cleaners, where my mother worked through her bleeding hemorrhoids and talked of her simple longing to treat herself to a cup of coffee in a coffee shop one day like everyone else. It represented our mirthless days in the musty store, nodding along with customers who wanted a discount or expected us to carry their clothes to their car when their nails had just been manicured. It represented the monotonous years that passed, while the children graduated from high school and then from college with no parents to witness the commencement. It represented the decades spent away from our extended families in Korea who would eventually learn of our success in America.

Money was precious, precisely because they stood in for the lives we should have lived. A quarter wasted or an irresponsible purchase became causes for rebuke. “Do you know how much longer your mother has to work for that?” When I asked mother why we never invited others over to our isolated house, she responded, “Do you know that costs money?” Doctors went unvisited, gifts unpurchased, all social rituals foregone because money was something to be held, not used. To spend it meant we had no proof for the life we had lived.

Money wasn’t just our past. It was also our future. As we continued to hear stories of other dry cleaners dying of cancer, my father, who spent the most time hunched over chemicals, put off his retirement year after year so that he could save enough to cover treatment if he got cancer. Money was also our language of love. When they could not visit their parents in Korea, they sent money. On special occasions, my parents sent us money in an envelope addressed in block letters with a check inside, no note. When my mother sent me a check to prepare for my wedding, I cried in the dressing room as I tried on wedding dresses.

It would be dishonest to describe money only as a source of oppression. It provided for our food, our shelter, our clothes. It gave my parents a goal and structure when we had none. But we could only fit so much onto these flat, green surfaces already occupied by Washington, Hamilton, and Jackson. These objects offered no space for emotional connection. They didn’t console us when we felt alone. They didn’t comfort us when we needed a hug. We children didn’t understand the language of money. Even though we didn’t know it as we receded to our disparate corners, we were hungry for warm embraces, understanding, words of empathy.

I didn’t realize that I had become trapped on these flat surfaces until I was in college. I remember observing myself, devoid of emotions, intellectualizing everything, disregarding my yearnings. I did not know how to speak the language of emotions, even though I longed for connection. The intellect is superior to emotions, I remember arguing. My closest friends were those who saw eye to eye intellectually; they sufficed. The emotions flooding inside me felt illegitimate; I shouldn’t have those feelings and what was the point anyway. I didn’t know how else to be. The world of emotions was not mine, and I did not belong there.

When I started working, I too adopted the language of money. It was the only way to trump my dad’s power. No, Dad, let’s go out to dinner; I’ll pay for it. Yes, you can afford to take a vacation; I’m sending you. I paid for my mom’s doctor appointments when they had no health care. I helped them buy a new car when theirs broke down in the middle of a parkway.

No one event drastically changed my relationship with money; rather, it slowly became more grounded by the mere experience of living. Making my own money bought me liberation from my parents, and it allowed me the means to distance myself from them. From this distance, I was able to negotiate my own, direct relationship with money. It was no longer mediated through my dad’s anxiety or my mother’s longing for a life she couldn’t have. And unlike in my parents’ case, it bought me freedom, dinners with friends, membership to the ACLU, and a second career.

I am still very reactive when my parents, now in their mid-70s, choose to forego instead of spend, when they cut the paper napkin in two to share. It reminds me of their lives that passed uneventfully in a dusty enclosure, unnoticed by others, with no real sense of purpose or meaning. And no matter how much they have saved, it restores nothing. It saddens me that all they have to show for their lives is their savings.

My relationship with money hasn’t been a jig, but a slow dance. At times, I let go too much, and other times, I embraced it too tightly to find my own footing. In this clumsy back and forth, I learned that money is just a thing, an object, like a car or a chair, with no power over us apart from what we bestow on it. In my family, it often felt like the only thing. It held all the promise for a better life, but no matter how much we had, it was never enough. It was a currency of anxiety, insecurity, and desperation, but it also offered a glimmer of hope. My parents latched my hands to this glimmer until I was delivered to a safe landing. And like many children of immigrants, I suffer a sense of guilt for all I have and all they lack.

These days, I do what I can to alleviate my parents’ anxiety, buy them some enjoyment, allow them some moments of relief. But my offerings are delivered in the hands of my young children, who come with promises of an afternoon of giggles, a meal to be enjoyed together, and a reminder that there are relationships to nurture. And such afternoons restore my hope in all that is possible, in all that I can do, and all that a family can mean.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Making a Big Change

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in The New York Times called “Hesitant to Make that Big Life Change? Permission Granted”.

In the article, Carl Richards writes about why some of us have trouble making big changes. He believes one reason is our desire for permission to make such changes. He writes: "Seeking approval and external validation is part of the human experience, but when it comes to making a big life change, they can be hard to find."

About nine months ago, I set out to make a big change in my life - or at least work toward one. After years of complaining about my career path, I enrolled myself in a local community college and signed up for several classes in psychology, sociology, and philosophy. I wasn't quite sure what was next, but I wanted to give myself a chance to explore and see what I liked, to do what I wished I had done more of when I was too young and insecure to give myself permission to try my hand at something that didn't fit the script. For several hours, twice a week, I drove to the local campus and wedged myself into chair-desks to sit next to kids who hadn’t even been born when I received my B.A. and were still peeing in their diapers when I received my J.D. I raised my hands frequently enough to receive full participation points and felt a stupid mix of pride and shame each time teachers commented "Great!!!" with a smiley face on my homework or read my papers out loud as examples of how to write cogently. As far as I could tell, I was older than every teacher except one, who was my age.

I am now in my second semester at the community college, mainly to fulfill some prerequisites for a graduate level program in psychology, while studying for the GREs (yes, yet another standardized test). I am still not quite sure what I am doing, but I feel a certain amount of self-imposed pressure to define a direction for myself, so that I could tell myself and others what the hell I am doing with my life. After all, I am 45.

The one pervading feeling throughout all of this has been a disquieting sense of illegitimacy. In so many respects. I mean, really, I am a mom with one kid who just learned how to tie his shoelaces and another who still eats her boogers. How can I justify sitting in a library outlining social psychology when I have little finger nails to clip and healthy meals to plan and playdates to coordinate? Am I not supposed to be helping them prepare for life, instead of still fixating on my own development? Besides, I already have my B.A. and a J.D. Why the hell am I still hanging out with a bunch of kids who are trying to gain admission to four-year colleges? I could tell from the looks on some of the kids in my classes that they were wondering what went wrong with my career that I was now back at ground zero with them. (No, I did not go into the details about the inanities of corporate America.) And how about being a full-fledged adult with some income to show for it? Isn't it completely self-indulgent to be a student full time?

When I read Richards' article, I realized the unease I've been feeling for the past eight months was the discomfort of not having been granted permission, of not having received validation. Not from any specific person, but in a more cosmic sense. From the world we live in. The world I live in has pretty clear guidelines. Go to school, figure out a career in your 20s, plan a family, lean in and work up the ranks to partnership or management, save up, and retire when you have a decent nest egg. Sure, we deviate sometimes, but on the whole, that's where we fall in if we claim to be a certain kind of adult.

Validation is a big thing for someone like me, for someone who was raised as I was. An Asian, a good daughter, a middle child, an immigrant. I've lived my whole life seeking and receiving approval. I still remember how it felt to start receiving more attention as I began bringing straight As home, how it felt to receive recognition for helping out around the house as my parents started working long hours at their store. I'm one of those good kids, someone who never rebelled, who always accommodated, often to my detriment. I also have a lifetime practice of trying to fit in, as an outsider in America, even to the point of wearing blue eye shadow in high school. Thank goodness we left Texas.  

I read somewhere that most of us live as we think we ought to. We pick up a script that tells us how we're supposed to live, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to enact it. So maybe this process of validating a big change is simply a cognitive exercise. Will it into your script, and voila, it's yours to follow. That is more or less what I've been trying to do. Looking for examples of people who've already done what I am trying to do. There is an endless list of successful women who started their careers mid-life: Vera Wang, Toni Morrison, Julia Childs, Martha Stewart, and so many others like those profiled here. I keep meeting them in my own life as I explain to others why I'm back in school while my husband drops off the kids in the morning. Every mom I meet has a story about someone in her family or someone she knows who went back to school after they had kids. One lady I met volunteering told me that she cried and cried while she tried to decide whether to go back to school in her late 30s. When she called her dad and lamented she was going to be too old for school, he responded, "Well, you're going to get old anyway."

So I will quiet that little voice that nags that I'm too old, that I already missed my opportunity to set a direction for myself, that I should have been bolder in my youth, that I will be 50 by the time I graduate from yet another school, that I am being frivolous, that this is not my time, that it is too late...

I'll cling to that mantra. I'm getting old anyway. Might as well try it. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Aching for Ava

Sometimes I am startled out of my bubble. This morning, I couldn't sleep for some reason and found myself scrolling through Facebook at 5:30 in the morning. A photo drew me in unexpectedly, and I was caught in the world of Ava, a little girl fighting against leukemia. The pictures of the little girl's wide open smiles and her mother Esther's words of raw pain wrenched me in deeper and deeper until I found myself in a puddle of my own tears. I am reminded, as I wallow in my own issues sometimes, that there are others living through such unbearable pain. I know what a wreck I would be if such misfortune were to befall our family. The random thought of my children facing death even at the end of a full life fills me with sorrow at times, and to think that this family has been facing the spectre of death so abruptly, so mercilessly.

I'm a stranger to them. I'm miles away. Our only tenuous connections - we are fellow Koreans, both parents. But it's enough to fill my ears with the mother's pain. I hear her. And the weight of her loneliness is palpable. I wish I could do something for them. Offer to babysit their other children or cook some meals for them. Hold their hands. Give them a hug. Just sit with them. Let them know that we feel a sliver of their pain.

After reading Esther's posts, I heard my own children wake up. They staggered up the stairs, rubbing their eyes, T holding his ever reliable companion Beary, while S dragged herself up complaining that she was tired. Instead of responding with my usual impatience, I found myself giving them hugs and helping S get dressed, encouraging her with a promise of an M&M after breakfast. As S ate her breakfast of milk, toast, and prosciutto, I braided her hair. I carefully parted her hair to the side in the front and down the middle in the back. Then I tied one side before dividing the strands into three equal ropes. As my fingers wove in and out through my daughter's healthy, shiny hair, I thought of Esther who can no longer touch Eva's hair. As I worked on the other side, I thought of my daughter who will go to school and show off her little braids, jump a little extra higher to see them bounce, and who will want to loosen her braids to admire the curls before bed.

Parenting is not for the faint of heart. I am reminded again and again. We become parents and we enter the realm of possibilities, vulnerabilities, unspeakable joys and chronic fear.  Even though my own parenthood has been shielded from any meaningful challenges, I am anxious every day that something could happen to my children, that they could be taken away, by a misstep in the parking lot, a moment of carelessness, or an injection of a cruel unknown. And I see parents like Esther who face that real possibility. I ache for their big hearts and the love we all have for our children. Our dependence on them and our need for their permanence. Our desperate need to protect them at all costs and our inability to do so at times. We are at the mercy of chance, of the indifferent unknown. We can only hope to linger in a state of grace.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

One of Those Moments

I was having one of those moments the other evening. One of those moments when disappointments of life suddenly swell up like edema, filling up the empty crevices of my mind, welling up to a point that they block all that my eyes would otherwise see.

I don't even remember what set it off. Maybe a careless word from Jeff, or perhaps a tantrum from my vocal four-year old. A trifling that should have done noticed, brushed off. Instead, it takes over, like a drop of betadine contaminating a pool of clear water.

I remember taking myself to my bedroom, under the covers, even though it wasn't yet dark out, and blocking my eyes against the feelings of hopelessness. These feelings always hover in the wings these days, with the curtain widely parted, ready to take center stage.

In these moments, I see only failures, disappointments, neglect. I remember the people in my life who have moved on without me, let me fall by the wayside. Those who are now too busy, or can't be bothered. No one seems reliable. No friend true. No effort meaningful. I feel alone in this world, and no one notices.

I have fewer of these moments these days, but they still return. They don't let me forget that my life now feels different, that my relationship with the world has changed. I'm no longer the person I used to be. I'm now needier, more suspicious, more prone to hurt. So many words and silences feel like small rejections, and I find myself bracing for them. I can tell that my social persona is different, that I misread cues and don't play my social role as I used to.

The other day, when we were camping, I was walking behind my son, who was walking alongside our friend's dog. He was strolling at the same pace as the scampering pup, who spent most of his time sniffing this and that. After a few paces, my son turned to me and said, "Mom, he likes me!" Even though I saw no signs of affinity from the dog, I nodded and smiled back.

I couldn't help but wonder if our relationships amount to that. A strolling at the same pace, a confusion between simultaneity and attraction.

Noticing my absence, Jeff comes to find me. Wrapping me in a bear hug, he asks what is wrong. Suddenly, my tears come and I find myself stammering to articulate where I am. "What is the point," I find myself repeating. What is the point of all this? What is the point of friendships that dissipate? What is the point of making efforts that go unappreciated? What is the point of working toward goals that fail? And what is the point of family if they abandon you?

He hugs me harder, as he always does in these moments. No stranger to betrayal himself, he listens and nods along. After a pause, he tells me what works for him. Our children. Our little beings who place all their trust in us, and believe us when we say we will keep them safe. Our children who cry when they miss us and are consoled by our touch. They take away the cynicism, he tells me. They help me have faith in people.

It is a thought that jolts me. Since I became a parent almost seven years ago, I have thought a lot about how I could help my children, what I could do for them. But I've thought very little about what they do for me, how they help me.

When I have one of these moments, they come to me with solemn looks on their faces and plant little wet kisses on my cheek. They sit on my lap and wrap their arms around me. They tell me they love me. And I know that there, right there, is one true thing in my life.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Motherhood

I'm reading Motherless Daughters, a book by Hope Edelman about women who lost their mothers, many at young ages. Edelman lost her own mother to cancer when she was 17, when her mother was 42. The book is about how women, children suffer, grieve, and struggle to find a way to continue living after losing their mothers.

I'm reading the book on my computer in the middle of a local Starbucks. It's packed in here. At times I find myself ducking behind the computer because I feel the tears coming.

I can't stop thinking about my own children as I read. It is one of my greatest fears, that something may happen to me or Jeff or both of us, and our children will have to suffer the pain of such a loss. I can picture their little faces, mixed with confusion, fear, shock. How could they understand such a devastation? Who will comfort them? It makes me feel panicked just to think about it. And I think about how it would be better for all of us to go together than to put our kids through such misery.

Jeff and I are practical. We have our paperwork squared away. We have amazing friends who have agreed to step in if anything should have. We consider them family, and their children love ours. We know our backup plan couldn't be any better, but I also know that if anything should happen, our children would be thrown off their tracks forever, psychologically and emotionally.

I think of these women who suffered such devastations in their lives, and I think about how sheltered and privileged my life has been. No serious tragedies, no horrible misfortunes. Not even a broken bone. My own family intact. Healthy, beautiful children. The thought makes me want to cross my fingers.

The book also makes me think about the role of motherhood. Until now, I had focused mainly on keeping my children healthy, clean, fed, rested, and educated. But Edelman writes about what she misses about her own mother:
Even now, her absence remains a terrible hole. No home to return to for a holiday celebration. No one to tell me what I was like as a child, or to reassure or comfort me as a mother. 
I paused over her line about not having someone who knew her as a child. We are witnesses to our children's lives. Witnesses with the best seats in the house. We hold in ourselves an archive of their lives, the most pivotal moments as well as the mundane, from their first breath until our last.

I replay in my mind the moment my son was born over six years ago. My obstetrician pulled him out and plopped him right on my belly, his umbilical cord still in tact, his body still slimy. He took a second to shake off the shock and then started screaming, maybe at the indignity of it all. I started bawling because I couldn't believe this little person was real, that he had come into my life.

I think about the privilege of being a mother. This exceptional place that we hold in the hearts and lives of these little people who grow up to run this world. My four-year old daughter loves to say, "Mommy is all mine, all mine." She most frequently says it to Jeff. Sometimes, she tells him not to touch me, or to wait his turn before touching me, because I'm all hers. And I love being her magical, special person, not because I did anything in particular, but simply because I am her mother.

That thought makes me want to be a better mother. To give them more hugs. To console them better when they cry. To listen more attentively. To articulate more clearly to them what they mean to me. And to build a reserve of my love in their hearts, just in case.

It also makes me want to document our lives better. So that I'm not the sole curator of our archives. So that their future self-understanding, their future well-being will be less dependent on me.

I know it's not enough. It will not ward off the pain if some tragedy should befall our family. But I know of no other way to protect my children.

For me, becoming a parent has changed my attitude toward survival. Before, when I was alone, I never particularly cared about it. Not in some morbid way, but I figured I'd had a good enough life and when it's time to go, it's time to go. Now, I can't afford not to survive. My children need me. I have to stick around. I would guess many of those mothers who left their children behind felt the same way.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Time Of My Own

Growing up as an immigrant kid, I watched my parents struggle a lot. They worked painfully long, labor-intensive hours, often more than 14 hours a day with no real breaks, six days a week. They could never catch up on their sleep and had no time to spare. I remember their exhaustion stretching out like a rope of molten glass, drooping from its own weight, threatening to crack with the passage of time.

As a teenager, I tried as much as I could to help. I cooked dinner, washed the laundry, cleaned the house, helped out at their store. And I was hyper-aware that I should never impose on their time. I remember one time I returned to law school after a visit home. I accidentally left something behind at my parents', perhaps a watch. When I mentioned it to my roommate, she casually suggested that I just call my parents and ask them to send it. I thought her suggestion absurd. No, that's not possible, I said to her.

But more than with regard to time, I knew I should never impose on them emotionally. We weren't an emotionally open family to begin with. But the idea of bringing my personal issues into the household, where my parents' stress already stretched out the seams of our family fabric precariously, was unthinkable. When their frustration and unhappiness started to swell and they started unfurling their anger at each other, we just quietened our breaths and sagged against the cold, desolate walls.

I learned to be accommodating. To figure out a way to help quietly. To identify the areas of need so that I could find a way to fill them. I took it upon myself to play that role. I had to help us. I was the only one who could do something. There was no one else.

To do what, exactly? I'm not even sure I understood. To reduce the level of unhappiness in our family? To minimize my parents' stress? To free them from the unrelenting demands of survival? To create a sense of order when we felt none? To find some sense of security, some assurance that we will all be okay? Maybe all of the above. I'm not sure.

All I knew was that the situation felt desperate.  I had to do something. I had to find a way to help us, to get us out of the morass. So I stepped onto that hamster wheel and ran as quickly as I could.

After years of living like this, it didn't even occur to me to think about what I needed or wanted. In that context, all of my problems seemed so trivial in comparison. I couldn't even call them problems. They were nothing, insignificant bothers that didn't even merit mention. What are the worries of teenage girls? Weight, boys, popularity? None of them mattered, I told myself. Nothing mattered more than our survival, our survival as a family.

I don't think I even realized that I was effacing myself. I remember how detached I felt from my emotions at times, as if I were watching myself from the outside. I remember never crying. I remember constantly feeling guilty for whatever free time I had, for the smallest luxury, like treating myself to a piece of cake, and comparing myself to my parents who worked nonstop. I remember always fulfilling all of my duties first before I allowed myself to do what I wanted. I remember never asking for anything. Never making demands for myself. Simply biting down on that bullet and doing whatever it was that needed doing.

Ever since I became a mom, I realize that I've reverted to that role.  Of putting my head down and doing my part. Meeting everyone else's needs. Trying to make everyone else happy. Doing things for myself only when it didn't upset anyone else's needs or plans.

Of course I've heard all that talk about how motherhood requires balancing one's own needs against others. I heard all that, but it seems impossible to do at times. And selfish.

Despite myself, I've been bulging at the seams, steam leaking out of my ears and my nose. I could feel the frustration building over the day, over the week. The week would pass with me driving the kids to school, then picking them up, then driving them to taekwondo or swim or dance, killing time while they attend class, walking up and down the aisles in Target, Costco, Von's, picking up their toys yet again, preparing their meals, vacuuming their crumbs, bathing them, getting them ready for bed. And a thought would quietly appear, My life has to be more than this. And another thought, I'm getting so old. And I would try to push those thoughts away.

Then a week would hit where the kids get sick, and I would be homebound for days. The three precious hours I had to myself while my little one went to preschool would be taken from me, and those thoughts would keep resurfacing. I have nothing to show for my time. Just scrunched up balls of kleenex, red noses, and mounding anxiety about the minutes, hours, days slipping by. Those days would inevitably end in a blow up. A blow up about how I'm doing nothing with my life.

"Nothing" is a cold word. It slaps you across your cheek and says, Do something! Just do something! Figure it out! It doesn't leave room for excuses, and it does nothing to console the deep sadness I feel about how I spent my 44 years.

Jeff would try to talk to me about hiring a regular babysitter or switching roles and him taking a turn staying with the kids or figuring out what it was that I would rather be doing. And I found it difficult to say out loud that I just wanted time. Time to myself. Time to figure it out. Time to explore.

It just seemed too selfish. We are where we are. We have children, children I desperately wanted. We aren't retired. We need to make a living. It didn't occur to me that I could ask for something like that. It seemed impossible.

But the other day, Jeff asked me why I didn't relax with the kids. Why did I always go running off to this store or that? Why didn't I just sit with them and play?

I responded honestly and said that I just needed to get through the day, to pass it as quickly as I could. I just needed to pass the time.

He looked at me for a long time. Very quietly.

Then he said, "We need to make a change. You can't live your life like that."

He offered me a deal. Take a year. Do whatever you want to do. Just write if you want to. Or take classes. He told me I earned it after taking care of the kids for so long.

I didn't believe him. I know his anxieties about money, our future security. I know his goal-driven personality. How could it possibly work?

But the next day, he quit his job. He's been handling the kids' drop off, the pick ups, taking them to swim and taekwondo after school, planning some of the meals, and doing the grocery runs.

It's been a week. I've been writing, and I signed up for a bunch of classes at the community college.

When I was growing up, my family always needed things from me. Everyone else's needs always trumped mine. Their needs were always more desperate, more urgent. No one ever stopped to ask what I needed.

No one has ever done anything like that for me. Put my need above theirs. Put time back in my hands.

It makes me want to cry.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Moment

The sound of our kids' heavy breathing fills the small hotel room. T is under the covers, smack in the middle of the other queen bed about 3 feet away, with the sheets tightly tucked between the mattress and the box to keep him from rolling out. Our little S is curled up in her sleepsack in the pack-n-play by the window, her hair tousled around her face like a protective cloud. The kids passed out immediately after a busy day of visiting old friends and jumping around in an indoor playground. When we drove into San Francisco mid-morning to meet my friend and her daughter at the Academy of Sciences, my six-year-old T, who lived in San Francisco from birth until the day after his first birthday, said, "I love visiting my old friends."

It is only 9pm, but Jeff and I are lying in the dark, whispering to each other, my head on his shoulder, warm under the cover. We hadn't had much time to talk during the day since he came on the trip for business and allowed us to tag along only if we agreed to leave him alone to work. We left him to his meetings after we grabbed my Starbucks in the lobby in the morning and returned after a giggle-filled dinner.

In the dark, we talk about anything and everything: our schedule for the week, funny things the kids said during the day, his mother's declining health.

I don't even remember what it was I said, but he tells me, "You're a better person than me."

"No, it's not true. That's not true. Why would you even say that?"

"You are a good person," he says.

"What does that even mean, to be a good person?" I ask.

"You always try to do the right thing," he says.

And at this comment, I feel my eyes well up. He doesn't see me cry, but I feel the tears roll down my face.

"But it doesn't do any good. It doesn't make any difference."

He pulls me in closer and tightens his arm around me. And by his deep breath, I know he understands.

He kisses the top of my head and says, "It'll be ok."

I lie there as his words settle around me. I recognize the weight of his efforts -- to try to fill the void that he didn't create, to help heal what he didn't damage, to try to compensate when others have failed. I think of the weight he carries for me. And I hope I have the fortitude to do the same for him when my turn comes.