Monday, November 30, 2009

Learning to Be a Mother

I've been surprised to find that I've been nagged by a strange sense of anxiety since becoming a mom. Not enough to take away from the doting moments I've been sharing with the little guy, but enough to make me wonder what the hell is going on. Hormones? Definitely. The control freak in me rearing its enormous head in the midst of all the changes? Probably. Some unexamined fear creeping out? Hmmm...

You'd think after all the waiting and anticipating, I should just sit back and enjoy motherhood. That's what I expected. And most of the time, that's how it is. I hold the little guy tight across my chest and soak him in. But at random times throughout the day, the anxiety seeps out. When I find myself unshowered and undressed at 11 in the morning. When the feeding has been going on for over an hour, and I haven't yet crossed off any of the items on my to do list. When I realize that I have just a couple of hours left before it is bedtime again.

I sometimes feel like I should be somewhere else. As if there should be two of me -- one running around as I am used to doing and the other cuddling with the baby. I feel somewhat desperate and unproductive. And almost always, like I'm trying to catch up.

The anxiety was the worst about a month after delivery. When my parents had already left and we were trying to handle our new life on our own. We were starting to settle into a routine that was meant to give us time to get some sleep, to do all the tasks that needed to be done, and also to find some time for each other and ourselves. And discovered in the process that there isn't time to fit them all in.

I generally have a lot of anxiety about time. Probably from watching my parents work away for decades doing meaningless, repetitive labor -- only for the sake of making a living for the family. And because I so fear that such a big chunk of their lives had been wasted, I feel like I have to have something to show for my day -- something concrete that I can point to and assure myself that the day had been productive.

Being a mother is forcing me to let go of my desperate hold on time. I feel like I have to take some lessons in Zen Buddhism -- and learn how to focus on the moment at hand instead of keeping a part of me always speeding ahead. And to be ok with not being able to account for it by the tenth of a billable hour. And letting some things go.

But that would mean giving up my sense of control. Another thing I like to latch onto.

One of these days, I will learn these lessons.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Our Thanksgiving

I should have gone to bed at my usual time the night before. On most nights, I'm tucked in bed by 9pm, following up on the day's emails and news, before I conk out around 10pm for four hours of solid sleep while Jeff takes care of the baby. My shift starts at 2am.

The night before Thanksgiving, however, we watched more episodes from the third season of Lost on Hulu, an indulgence we haven't had since I was on bedrest during pregnancy. It was too easy to click the "Next Video" button as we excoriated Kate for having slept with Sawyer and wondered how they were going to kill off Charlie. And before I knew it, it was already past 11:30pm. But hey, live wild. It was the holidays.

When I took over for my shift, the little guy was just finishing one of his many meals. He then slept until around 3:30 am. When he woke again, I took him into the other room where he ate and then dozed for about 30 minutes. He then woke again unhappy with his state of being and proceeded to toss and turn, apparently trying to deal with his gasses. After a couple of hours of discomfort, it was mealtime again. I finally got him to sleep again at 7am.

I intended to close my eyes for just a few minutes while he slept, but when I woke again, it was already 9:30am.

I rushed into the bedroom and woke up Jeff.

"Jeff, when are your parents coming?"

"I'm not sure. They haven't called back yet."

I grabbed his phone and saw that there was no message.

"I hope they don't show up too early. They wouldn't just show up, right? We'd better get up and get dressed."


"Can you watch the baby for 10 minutes? I really need to poop and then I have to pump."

"Sure. Come here, Mr. T."

I handed the baby off to Jeff and rushed to the bathroom.

It had been a few days since I had done number two and that's never a good thing. Some alien creature had taken over my body since delivery and my system was no longer reliable. My efforts to eat more fiber sometimes failed when we had no time to shop for groceries, so I often resorted to taking plum extract supplements that my mom had sent. But they obviously were not working as I had hoped. I felt packed inside, and I knew I had to go before it got worse. So on this morning, I even took a nasty tasting drink of "Colon Cleanse" that we had in our pantry.

I had been sitting there for good 15 minutes with US Magazine across my lap when Jeff banged on the bathroom door. He popped his head in and said, "They're here!"


"My parents are here!"

"Oh god. I haven't even showered. And it's going to take me some time here. And I have to pump."

"Don't worry. Do what you have to do. I'll take care of things out here."

With that, he shut the door.

I sat there, feeling miserable. And for the life of me, I couldn't go. I sat there as I heard the doorbell ring and heard Jeff rush down the hallway and open the door. Then I heard the greetings and his parents coo at the baby. Then their footsteps walked past the shut bathroom door, as I continued to sit there.

After another 5 to 10 minutes, I finally gave up. Feeling worse than I did before I started, I took my shower and got dressed as quickly as I could.

I rushed into the living room to greet Jeff's parents. Then sat uncomfortably for a few minutes as they chatted about their recent cruise to the Hawaiian Islands. I then handed them the photo album I had made for them of our little guy's birth so that they could entertain themselves while I went off and pumped.

I then rejoined our guests for another stretch while Jeff went off to take his shower.

Later, I handed the baby back to Jeff and excused myself as discreetly as I could so that I could try again.

No luck.

I came back out and squirmed some more.

Around 1pm, I decided that I had to do something. Jeff's brother and his girlfriend were also coming around 2pm, and I couldn't keep excusing myself. Then I remembered we had coffee. The caffeinated kind. Coffee always worked for me. But I haven't had it for two years ever since we started trying to have a baby. Now that I was breastfeeding, it was still not an option. But I was desperate. I had to sacrifice one round of breastmilk to do this for myself.

So while Jeff prepared the roast and our guests munched on cheese and crackers, I downed one cup of coffee like a tequila shot. Then another. I waited 10 minutes and then excused myself again.

This time, after additional effort, it worked. With great relief, I did a mercy flush. And heard the now all too familiar sound of the toilet clogging.


I tried to unclog the damn thing with the new heavy duty plunger that we had just bought last week. It hadn't worked the week before and it wasn't working now.

About 15 minutes later, I heard Jeff knock on the door.

"Are you ok in there?"

"I clogged up the toilet." I felt on the verge of tears.


"Here, let me try it."

"No, no. Stay with your parents. I'll just call the plumber. I hope they're working today..."

I closed the lid and ran into the bedroom to look up the number for Plumberman. Then got voicemail.

"Hi, this is Shinyung. You were here last week. Our toilet is clogged again, and we need someone to unclog it right away. We have guests at our house, and we only have one bathroom. Can you please, please call me back as soon as you can?"

With that, I waited with the phone in my hand. And turned to Baby T, "Things are not going so well today..."

The phone rang less than 15 minutes later.

"Hi, this is Larry from Plumberman. I can be there in about half an hour. Does that work."

"Oh, bless you."

When I went out to the living room to tell Jeff the good news, he was on the phone, telling his brother to make sure to stop by a gas station on their way up if they had to go.

Shortly after our other guests arrived, Larry the Plumberman showed up. He was done in less than two minutes. He charged us his usual $60, even though it was a holiday. Jeff gave the guy a $20 tip.

After, we had a lovely meal. Our little guy's first Thanksgiving with his grandparents, his uncle and his girlfriend and their three pugs.

Little does he know that The Plumberman saved the day.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


It's 5:30 in the morning, and I am listening to the grunts, sighs, wails, and snorts coming out of his little body. I had just picked him up to pat his back to make sure I had burped him properly. After re-swaddling him. And adjusting the folds across his neck to make sure that they weren't brushing too closely to his mouth. Earlier, when he wasn't breathing as heavily, I had leaned in to listen to his breaths, to make sure he was breathing. And took an extra minute to stare at him, as I have done over and over again during the past six and a half weeks.

The little guy -- all 11.5 pounds of him -- fills up our whole house. When we are in the same room, all of our being is directed toward him. When we are elsewhere, his every crackle and sneeze are transmitted through the baby monitor. His noise takes up all of our consciousness and alertness. We crane our necks, stop in our tracks, and still all else to listen to what comes out of him. Does it sound unusual? Is his breathing labored? Is that a cute little snore coming out of the little guy? Doesn't he grumble remarkably like a gremlin?

Sometimes, I still don't believe it. That he's here with us. Two years after we started trying to conceive. After two miscarriages. After fretting that it was taking so long. And then fearing that it may never be.

Now, he is here. With each breath, he announces he is here. And reminds us how he depends on us.

Time now seems to fly by in warp speed, taking with it pieces of him, how he was yesterday, the day before. And presents new discoveries with each day.

All I can do is hold him and be grateful.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

California Lawyer Article

California Lawyer magazine asked me to write an article for them a few months ago, and here is what I wrote. Not much different than what I've written often in this blog, but I thought I might as well post it. Here is the link.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On Mothering

My parents stayed with us for three weeks to help us take care of our newborn.

When I first asked her to help us out with our baby, my mom responded, "I think American babies are different than Korean babies."

"What do you mean?"

"American people take their babies outside right away. You would never do that with a Korean baby. American babies must be built stronger. I don't think I would know how to take care of an American baby."

I didn't get into a discussion about whether our baby would be an "American baby" under her definition, but I tried to convince her that all babies are the same, even though I lacked the basis to make such an assertion. When my persuasive skills failed, we agreed that she would help with only the cleaning and the cooking.

On Wednesday, the day before I was scheduled to be induced, my parents arrived from New York with enough food to last us through a nuclear attack. When they unloaded their suitcase, it spilled out with cellophane packets of dried-out seaweed, an assortment of dried fish, varieties of ground rice powder, sesame seeds, and other ingredients for postpartum concoctions.

After unpacking, my mother marched into my kitchen and surveyed the cupboards, refrigerator, freezer, and pantry.

"Where is the sesame oil? What about the soy sauce? You don't have ground red pepper? Oh, these? These aren't the right kind. Where did you buy these? We'll have to get some more. How old are these black sesame seeds? Get me a basket. A big one..."

After she cleared the counter, re-arranged the pots and pans, and browsed through the refrigerator, she grabbed the Swiffer and put the vacuum in my dad's hands. By the next evening, the floors had been vacuumed and mopped, the refrigerator cleaned, the ceilings cleaned of cobwebs, the laundry done, all furniture dusted, the floor mats dried in the sun, my plants thoroughly watered, and our yellow lab Sherlock's fur balls exorcised from all corners of the house.

Early Friday morning, shortly after we called them from the hospital to announce the baby's arrival, my parents rushed over in a cab. After oohing and aahing over the baby and inquiring about my breakfast, they left the hospital in a cab. About five hours later, they returned, again in a cab, but this time bearing a pot of pine nut porridge.

"I thought you told me the food was good at the hospital!" said my mother. "How come you ate only a bagel for breakfast? You can't breastfeed on a bagel."

The next morning, they returned with a new pot of abalone porridge, more pine nut porridge, and two types of seaweed salad.

"I wanted to bring seaweed soup, but I wasn't sure how to transport it..."

When we returned home from the hospital, we were greeted with balloons and a big pot of seaweed soup.

During the next two weeks, I was mothered as I had never been mothered before.

As soon as I stirred in the morning, my mother knocked on my door.

"Are you ready for your breakfast?"

By 6am, my mom and dad had already had their breakfast. By the time my husband and I woke up, fed the baby, and sauntered out of the bedroom around 8am, we would find my mother in the middle of cooking a second breakfast just for me. She would bring over a steaming pot of soup, a fresh cooked bowl of rice, a whole fish, and various other side dishes.

"I cooked a separate pot of rice just for you. Dad and I'll eat the leftovers. You have to eat everything I cooked for you!"

"But Mom, I can't eat all this food. It's too much."

"You're nursing. You have to eat a lot. In Korea, you eat until you get sick and tired of eating. You eat for your baby. Tonight, remember you have to wake up in the middle of the night and have a snack. You can't go through the whole night without eating something. You can have some of the porridge I made for you."

"Mom, I'm tired of eating. I ate non-stop for 9 months."

"You do it for your baby!"

When I ate, my parents hovered over me. They jumped out of their chairs if I needed to re-fill my glass of water or wanted to check on the baby.

"You eat. You need to recover. I'll get it for you!"

And for the meals we ate together, they brought over my food first.

"You start eating. Don't wait for us. You have to eat when everything is hot. You are a mother now. You have to take care of yourself."

It wasn't the usual order of things, not in our family where Confucian hierarchy was strictly followed, with the father served first and the youngest child served last. And it was unlike the kind of parenting I had seen for the past 25 odd years when I had felt more like a parent at times as we played out the drama of an immigrant family.

When she wasn't cooking or washing the dishes or mopping or dusting or doing the laundry or weeding my garden, my mom held our baby. And I don't know how to explain how it felt to see my mother hold my baby the way she must have held me 38 years ago. To see her gently fold her arms around the child, to smile and coo at him, to wrap him in her love and to bestow all of her best of intentions on his well-being. To see her affection and tenderness spill out at his sight.

She must have forgotten her protestations about "American babies" when she showed me how to bathe him, how to hold him when breastfeeding, how to massage him.

Seeing her with him, I knew that I had been mothered in the best way possible. And that my child would be a part of this history -- of mothering skills passing from one generation to the next.