Monday, May 17, 2010

On Anger

For the past three and a half years, my sister has been angry at me and has refused to communicate with me. I'm not really sure what we're fighting about and she has refused to explain. We haven't really communicated during this period except for the few times I tried to reach out clumsily, only to make the situation worse.

Before the fracture, I had considered her the most important person in my life along with my parents. Of course, we've had our differences, and I'm sure the things I did to annoy her accumulate to a sizable mound. But whenever I cooked a new dish, I made plans to cook it for her and my parents. And when I traveled, I always bought her a little trinket first before buying one for myself. I had valued her as a friend and an ally in the family, and trusted her as someone I could talk to about things that mattered the most. She always had great insights, and it had always been important to me to get her perspective and input.

I have friends who are estranged from members of their family, but I never imagined it could happen to me, especially not with my sister. I just never thought we would have a problem that we couldn't talk or fight through, that we would at any point in our lives just give up on the other person, that we would forever condemn each other for our faults or foibles.

Since it started, this has been a great source of distress. She didn't attend my wedding, hardly knows Jeff, and has not yet met our baby. Also, because of the awkward situation, I have avoided going home to New York to see my parents or my brother and his family, including during the holidays, which has created all sorts of additional guilt. The one time I visited during the summer, I pleaded with my mother not to mention my visit to her. I couldn't stand the thought of having some huge blow up or being treated as a pariah by her.

In a way, this fracture has colored my perception of so many other things in my life. For one, it makes me question the nature of relationships in general. When a relationship you've relied on for a big part of your life breaks off, is it possible not to wonder about the tenuousness of all relationships and to feel anxious about life's unpredictability? The severing of our relationship has also made me despair a bit about my family in general. Whereas before I saw cohesion and rays of possibilities despite all of our difficulties and differences, I now only see fracture and the looming cloud of failure.

It may be different if I had a better understanding of what we're fighting about and if she could explain why she is so angry. There is a list of offenses that accumulated after we started fighting, but they never seemed to explain why this started in the first place, what is really at issue. Being in the middle of a devastating fight without understanding its cause has felt maddening at times. It takes away the ability to think through the issue, to assess the rightness or the wrongness of the behavior, to address the problem, to make amends. It takes away the ability to find a sense of order. It makes me feel powerless and helpless. It's being stuck in a maze with no way out.

I've tried to examine our relationship from every angle to try to understand why she may be so angry with me. I of course have my suspicions, but it's difficult to reach any conclusion or view it with any clarity when the other person in the relationship refuses to say yes, that's why or no, that's not it. I am in limbo, waiting for her to respond in some manner and address the issue.

Last week, I read a book called The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. Years ago, I read a few of Lerner's other books and bought this one at that time, but never really got around to reading it because I never thought of myself as a particularly angry person. Something made me pick it up the other day, and it is probably the single most important book I've read in the past ten years. It helped me to see the relationships in my family, particularly with my sister, with a new perspective and to understand some of the causes of tension as well as my own missteps.

Lerner's premise is that we become angry and our relationships suffer when we allow the demands of the relationship to supersede our own needs or if we expect others to address our needs for us. The book starts with this insightful comment about anger:

"Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self -- our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions -- is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth. Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say 'no' to the ways in which we are defined by others and 'yes' to the dictates of our inner self."

She also writes:

"Anger is inevitable when our lives consist of giving in and going along; when we assume responsibility for other people's feelings and reactions; when we relinquish our primary responsibility to proceed with our own growth and ensure the quality of our own lives; when we behave as if having a relationship is more important than having a self."

She believes people (women in particular) "betray and sacrifice the self in order to preserve harmony with others," a process she calls "de-selfing." "De-selfing means that too much of one's self (including one's thoughts, wants, beliefs, and ambitions) is 'negotiable' under pressures from the relationship."

In the book, she focuses on family relationships because she writes "[i]t is here that closeness often leads to 'stuckness,' and our efforts to change things only lead to more of the same." One of the most insightful points she makes is that often, family members fight, not to change, but to maintain the status quo. In other words, fighting is a way to resist change.

"If feeling angry signals a problem, venting anger does not solve it. Venting anger may serve to maintain, and even rigidify, the old rules and patterns in a relationship, thus ensuring that change does not occur."

I found myself underlining sentences from every other page so that I could remember her words and go back to them later. There are too many to go through all of them here, but I'll discuss one point that's relevant here.

Lerner says that in close relationships, our boundaries often blur so much that our sense of responsibility gets confused. She writes:

"Instead of taking responsibility for our own selves, we tend to feel responsible for the emotional well-being of the other person and hold the other person responsible for ours. When this reversal of individual responsibility is set in motion, each partner may become very emotionally reactive to what the other says and does, and there may be a lot of fighting and blaming..."

She believes women in particular are prone to this blurring of the self: "Why is the question 'Who is responsible for what' such a puzzle for women? Women in particular have been discouraged from taking responsibility for solving our own problems, determining our own choices, and taking control of the quality and direction of our lives. As we learn to relinquish responsibility for the self, we are prone to blame others for failing to fill up our emptiness or provide for our happiness -- which is not their job. At the same time, however, we may feel responsible for just about everything that goes on around us. We are quick to be blamed for other people's problems and pain and quick to accept the verdict of guilty. We also, in the process, develop the belief that we can avert problems if only we try hard enough."

She writes, however, that we do not cause the other person's reaction; the other person chooses how to react:

"It is tempting to view human transactions in simple cause-and-effect terms. If we are angry, someone else caused it. Or, if we are the target of someone else's anger, we must be to blame; or alternately -- if we are convinced of our innocence -- we may conclude that the other person has no right to feel angry. The more our relationships in our first family are fused (meaning the togetherness force is so powerful that there is a loss of the separate 'I's' within the 'we'), the more we learn to take responsibility for other people's feelings and reactions and blame them for our own. ('You always make Mom feel guilty.' 'You give Dad headaches.' 'She caused her husband to drink.') Likewise, family members assume responsibility for causing other people's thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

"Human relationships, however, don't work that way -- or at least not very well. We begin to use our anger as a vehicle for change when we are able to share our reactions without holding the other person responsible for causing our feelings, and without blaming ourselves for the reaction that other people have in response to our choices and actions. We are responsible for our own behavior. But we are not responsible for other people's reactions; nor are they responsible for ours."

Those words fell on me like a bucket of ice on a hot day. I am not responsible for my sister's anger. Her anger is her own.

Somehow that thought is completely liberating. I feel like I've been punishing myself for the past three and a half years, trying to set this right, trying to find a way to appease her, trying to get to the bottom of it. And this whole time, I've been waiting, waiting -- waiting to be pardoned, waiting to be forgiven. But if someone were to ask me for what, I wouldn't know the answer.

At the same time, I've been allowing my sister's reaction to overshadow my own. I was so caught up in reacting to her anger and being consumed with a sense of guilt for having caused her anger that I didn't really think about what I want out of all this. She has not been a part of my life for the past three and a half years. During those years, I got married, had two miscarriages, lost a job, had a child, and experienced so many personal changes that I don't even know where to start. Yet, she has not been involved in any of that. We no longer have a relationship. So why am I struggling so hard to try to find a way to have a relationship with someone who wants nothing to do with me?

I've decided to give myself the permission to move on with my life and not feel hung up by this situation. I also decided that I should not use this situation as an excuse to give up on my other relationships and to give in to the easier path of dejection. There is nothing I can do to change her or her anger, and it is hers to live with as she wishes. But I can find a way to be happy in my own life.

Yesterday, Jeff and I went to our friends' wedding at the Brazilian Room in Tilden Park. They are one of the greatest couples we know, and we were thrilled to see them on this day. The day was chilly and foggy, but the smiles on the faces of the couple, the bridesmaids, the groomsmen, all the family and friends lit up the place. The couple had written their own vows, and they each promised to be present for each other -- to listen to each other, to fight fairly, to forgive easily. Later, after all the jokes and the stories and the laughter, the bride's father - who was himself divorced - toasted the couple with his one wish -- that their love for each other be stronger in 30 years than it is now -- as he admonished them that they have to work at it, that it won't come easy. As I sat there to witness, I gathered the wisdom in all of those words and took them in for myself, as I vowed to apply them to those who choose to remain in my life.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

On Mother's Day

My mom called, and as soon as I picked up the phone, she shouted, "Happy mother's day!" It's weird to have this day apply to me. Me! Til now, it has been a day when I thought about a little gift and a card I could find for my own mom. Even this year, I thought about it more as a day for my mom than for me. But as I sit here blogging in the middle of the day (!), the little guy is taking a nap and Jeff is in the kitchen preparing a gourmet Italian meal for us. What an indulgence. Shouldn't we have mother's day more often?

In Korea, May 5th is Children's Day. When we moved to the US, I remember asking my mom with great concern, When is Children's Day in America? My mom responded, Everyday is Children's Day in America. Shouldn't that also be the case with Mother's Day??

My life now is drastically different than it was a few years ago. By 9:30 this morning, I hadn't showered, hadn't eaten breakfast, and hadn't even thought about making a cup of coffee. But I had already fed our little guy two meals, filed his nails, prepared and froze the broccoli and English peas we bought for him yesterday at the farmer's market, and played with him for two hours. A few years ago, all I could have mustered by this time was to take a shower, get dressed, drag myself onto the muni, stand in line at Starbuck's, and sit in front of the computer with my latte, thinking about the long day ahead.

To everyone who told me that being a mother of a 7 months old is completely different than being the mother of a newborn, you are so right! These days, I actually have time to read! Read -- as in books for myself, not just skimming books on how to take care of babies. And for our baby sign classes, which I host at my house, I've actually had time to bake snacks like bread pudding and pear tarts. Those little snacks were a great hit. Granted, those baking events require a little coordination. I pick out the snack about a day in advance and do all my shopping the day before. Then during the morning of the gathering, I try to squeeze in all the work while Little T naps. If I still have more to do when he awakes, I plop him into the Exersaucer or the Jumperoo (see photo above), two of the greatest inventions for parents.

I'm getting greedy and starting to plan for all the other things I want to do. I already signed up for a writing class that starts in two weeks and have been doing pilates once a week, which I would like to expand to two. We've again started to have friends over for dinner, which I had sorely missed. And I'm itching to brush the dust off of my brand new sewing machine, which I hardly had time to use before I got put on bedrest during my pregnancy. This is on top of all the things I want to do for our little guy, like regularly going to the farmer's market to pick out produce for him. Now that he's eating solid food, I am getting the greatest pleasure out of trying to figure out what to feed him and what he may like. Seeing the little dollops of peas and sweet potato go down his throat is inexplicably and completely satisfying. I also spend inordinate time these days on Amazon and Toys-R-Us websites to try to find toys that may be fun and good for his development. I realize I'm probably being overly ambitious and that I'll not get to all of these, but it feels like a little challenge to try to figure out how to squeeze more time out of the day.

My life these days is nothing like those days when I could sit on the beach and read my beloved books under the sun. When I could take a 2 hour jog in the middle of the day. When I could run out at a last minutes notice to meet with friends for drinks. Those days are long gone. But these days, I have my adorable baby boy, my wonderful Jeff, our beautiful family. It's much more than I could have hoped for five years ago.

Entering motherhood had been a tremendous privilege. It has given me an opportunity to take stock of my life, to see things from a new perspective, to learn things about myself that I had previously been blind to, to find levels of satisfaction I have never experienced before, and to feel the all consuming love for a precious little person. I feel like the luckiest person to have been allowed this chance at motherhood. Yes, it certainly is reason to celebrate.

In Rejection of Denials

In our family, direct communication is not our forte.

This is what happened when I asked my parents if they wanted to vacation with us in Hawaii this summer.

When I called, my dad answered the phone. When I asked him if he wanted to go to Hawaii with us, he told me to ask my mother.

So I asked my mom.

"Mom, how about going to Hawaii with us this summer?"

"Oh, this summer may be difficult."

"Difficult? Is there a better time for you and Dad? This fall?"

"Maybe the fall is better. But it's too soon to know. You and Jeff should just go by yourselves with the baby. Don't wait for us."

"But Mom, we want to go with you and Dad. We were planning to visit New York, but then thought it would be more fun for all of us to go to Hawaii instead. Is it because you're still having back pains?"

"I'm not completely healed yet, but you guys should just go by yourselves. Don't worry about us."

"Mom, it would be fun to go together. Maybe we can plan something for fall."

"Well, let's see. It's too early to plan now. Anyway, you should go by yourselves. Because you and Jeff got married so late, you have to squeeze in more fun than other couples."


A few days after the call, I talked to Jeff about the best possible times for us to travel, given his work schedule. I looked through our calendar again and scanned for blocks of time that didn't interfere with our baby's swim class, baby sign class, and music class. With those date options, I scoured the flights on Orbitz, compared prices for various airports in the Bay Area, checked prices for flights from New York for my parents, and jotted down the few flights that seemed reasonably priced.

I then called my mom back.

"Mom, how is your back? Is it better?"

"It's better now. I'm almost completely well."

"Oh, good. What a relief. Does that mean we can plan our trip to Hawaii now?"

"Well, it's hard to plan now because your dad is getting the driveway repaved."

"Oh, is something wrong with the driveway?"

"It's messy. Not as good as the neighbor's."

"Oh, I never noticed. So how long does it take to repave the driveway?"

"I don't know. We have to ask the contractor. But he has to get the permit first."

"Does the permit process take long out there?"

"I'm not sure. They submitted it a couple of weeks ago."

"Oh, ok. Well, can you repave it after the trip?"

"After the trip?"

"Yeah. Maybe get the permit first and then hold off on the repaving until after the trip? We'll only be going to Hawaii for about a week or so."

"You and Jeff should just go by yourselves. Don't worry about us."

The conversation proceeded along this vein for a few more minutes, with me probing as if I were taking a deposition, and my mom either evading the question or answering only the literal question asked, like a well-trained witness. After a few more probes, my mom hesitated and then blurted out,

"Your dad and I are thinking about going to Canada this summer. Or maybe Yellowstone."

"Oh, really? Mom, that's a great idea. You've already been to Hawaii so you should go somewhere you've never been. Are you going with one of these Korean tour groups?"

"We're looking at it. We haven't booked it yet."

"That sound really fun, Mom. We can go to Hawaii another time."

"You think it's ok?"

"Of course it's ok. It sounds great, Mom."

When I got off the phone, I thought about this funny exchange. Why couldn't my mom have told me up front that she wanted to take a different trip this summer? It was perfectly understandable since she had often spoken of her desire to travel but had not had many opportunities before she and my dad retired. Since she had already been to Hawaii, it made sense that she would want to travel somewhere else. Instead of a simple declaration of her preference, however, we bounced back and forth, back and forth, with me assuming she was just hesitating because she didn't want to impose on us, the way Koreans always go back and forth about who's paying after a restaurant meal.

As a family, we've never been good at expressing our desires. Instead, we are experts at denials. Pretending that we don't really want anything while secretly hoping that someone picks up our subtle cues. The way the last piece of kalbi always remains on the plate and we each take turns encouraging the other to eat it, denying that we want it for ourselves. Implicit in each of these denials is an assumption that fulfilling one's desire would be a deprivation for the other. If I eat it, you can't. The problem is that it ignores the enormous plate of kalbi that had just been consumed, sitting in our overextended bellies. If this assumption relates only to material needs, it may not be such a big deal. After all, pretending that you don't want that last piece of kalbi doesn't really matter when you can turn around and eat a tub of KFC. But in our family, this inability to say "I want" extends into other realms.

For example, in our family, we don't know how to say, I need a hug today - or to make any other expressions of emotional need. Growing up, I don't recall hugging or kissing my parents or holding their hands, even though we have photos of them holding us as babies or toddlers. I almost never saw my parents hug or hold each other's hands. And god forbid that they should ever kiss. After I moved away from home, my mom started giving me hugs when she and my dad picked me up or dropped me off at the airport. They would be standing by the cordon behind the gate, and when I walked out, she would greet me with a big hug as if she were making up for all the hugs missed over our lifetime. My dad often stood to the side with his arms behind his back, and after hugging my mom, I would give him a quick pseudo-bow as he smiled sheepishly. I have given my dad a few hugs in my life, but they were awkward occasions. I would approach hesitantly and clumsily but a little too hurriedly put my arms around his torso as I avoided his eyes, and he would give me a quick pat on my back as he stiffened. But those were special occasion hugs. Casual hugs didn't exist in my family. Expressions of physical connection were not a part of our everyday language. But it was apparent that we longed for such connection because every once in a while, our needs would seep out in a disguise. Like the times my mom pretended to hug my dad while posing for photos. Or the time my dad furtively kissed my baby right before running out the door and down the steps as they were leaving for the airport. That was the only time I ever saw my dad kiss anyone.

We also don't know how to say, I need you to listen to me. As a family, we don't quite know how to talk to each other. Sometimes we chit chat about current events or other random happenings. Or my dad will make announcements about our extended family in Korea. Most of the time, my mom talks elaborately about dishes she'll cook for us or she'll dispense advice about how we should conduct ourselves when we're out in the world. I have of course talked to my mom about things going on in my life, and it turns into a funny game of telephone when she fills my dad in what I told her. But it's always just one of us talking to our mom with a filtered version of events. As a group, we don't really know how to talk about things that matter. Like our ambitions, our anxieties and fears, what we really think. When we timidly venture into such terrain, we're often misunderstood, whether it's due to the language barrier or an assumption that the world we inhabit in America is the same as the one in which they grew up. We interpret the other's message only in our own context because we don't always know how to make our minds large enough for differing realities. When we feel misunderstood, we initially hold our silence. On occasion, the silence accumulates like a dark cloud until the resentment boils over and we explode with a rant. Sometimes, the inability to open a clear communication path causes us to mutter and bicker about the pettiest of all petty grievances, until we wonder what the hell we're arguing about. At other times, silence is used as a weapon, as in I am not going to respond to anything you say and I won't talk to you until you figure out what the hell you did wrong and don't look to me to help you!

Along the same vein, we never learned how to say I need you to see me as I really am. Growing up, we spent a lot of time doing things behind our parents' back. That may not be so unusual. After all, isn't that what teenagers do? But when you're in your late 30s and still doing the same thing, something is wrong. We're still stuck in the role of trying to live up to our parents' expectations and seeking their approval. It is almost as if we have a deficit in the things we were supposed to have accumulated in our childhood, whether it's parental approval or assurance. We children still spend too much energy judging ourselves through my parents' eyes, ultimately a dissatisfying process since we live according to different values and cultural norms than they hold. To this day, the echo of whether we failed or succeeded in their estimation reverberates in our lives more vigorously than it should.

Another thing we never learned to say is I love you. After all, what is a greater expression of our need than to love, to be loved, and to know that we are cared for in this world. Jeff and I say it to each other and to our baby almost every day. We want the other person to hear it regularly, to never doubt that we love each other. But growing up, those words didn't settle on our tongues very well. We always assumed -- hoped -- they didn't need to be said. That our other evolved ways of showing affection, like my mom's over-dedication to feeding us, were enough. But it isn't always easy to reciprocate with another mound of food, not as easy as simply saying, "I love you too."

I'm not sure why we never developed the skills to express our needs with each other. Maybe saying "I want" flew in the face of a family shaped by self-sacrifice. Expressing one's need in such a family requires heightened sensitivity to the others lest we add more burden to one who had already sacrificed too much. So before blurting out desires for ourselves, we engage in a little do-si-do, maneuvering backwards around the others to first feel them out, anticipate their sensitivities and their needs, and signal that we mean no threat to them. After a while, it becomes a habit, just a way of being.

Stuck in this mode, we seem to hope that others would somehow detect our needs, without having to spell it out for each other, or that with enough denials, we would somehow be able to arrive at getting our needs met, like three right turns becoming a left. So at times, our denials are screamed out loud, as in I don't need you, I'm better off without you. Or don't worry about me, just go on with your lives. It is those indirect cries that often ring the loudest in our ears.

Looking back over the past 39 years, I wonder where our denials have gotten us. It feels like nowhere, a never ending loop of right turns when all of us really want to turn left. There is always a pervading sense of deprivation and resentment -- and a sense of resignation that not all needs can be met. Not this way, not when we have to expend so much time reading between the lines to try to decipher each other's messages. And I'm always left with a sense of guilt that I didn't know how to read the messages properly or do more to address them.

These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to be a family. How do we take care of each other and still find a way to take care of ourselves? Someone recently asked me what I would do differently in raising my own children. One answer is that I decided to leave behind the model that leaves no room for individual needs in the name of family. We don't have to step all over each other, but we also don't need to travel a mile out of the way to avoid the possibility of imposing on the other. We can speak directly and clearly when we ask for what we want and allow the other to respond in kind. Maybe somewhere in that process of talking, we'll find a way to meet our needs -- all of our needs.

My first mother's day seems like as good a day as any to start down this path.

Monday, May 3, 2010

An Aerial View

The problem with having unidentified sources of anxiety is that the source is unidentified. So when I meet with my lovely therapist, we cover many topics. But we often veer to the topic of family, the top candidate for the source of most things in my life. I give her the outline of my life story, the family I had growing up. She listens, asks questions, listens some more, and then asks more questions. That is how we delve into the details of my life. Slowly, a picture emerges of this world I inhabit physically, mentally, emotionally.

When I present her with these details, she sifts the information with a more dexterous hand. She repackages them for me, in a way, and delicately bounces them back in the form of questions. Sometimes, the questions spring back lightly. "Why?" "Why do you see it that way?" Other times, the questions land with a thud. Last week, she asked me, "What would it be like to have a family without obligations?" They are almost philosophical, these questions. And like almost all questions along that vein, the answers appear elusive. Yet they seem to hold the key to the missing piece, the sharpening lens that could bring the fuzzy pictures into focus.

Through this process, I start to see my world as it may appear to an outsider like her. I gain a little distance from the familiar, the every day assumptions that have moved in and taken hold, like fixtures that begin to define the house.

I am now realizing how I've become stuck in my perspective over the years. I've fallen into the habit of casting the various members of my family in certain roles and playing the same narrative over and over again in my head. These roles have overtaken all else, like weeds that begins to suffocate the unsuspecting flower. In this refrain, we no longer know how to relate to each other outside of these roles, as the full human beings we are when we are out in the world. However peculiar they may appear to an outsider, I've accepted these roles and the ways of my family as facts, truths. And forgotten that there are other ways.

Here is where the therapist steps in, re-focuses the lens, and asks me to take another look. Look again, she says. Don't you see all the assumptions tucked away in there? She reminds me that there are other possibilities. We have choices in the way we want to be, the way we want to live. We don't have to keep doing things the same way, just because it has always been. We can break out of these roles.

I find myself looking back at her, my mouth agape. Of course, of course. Why didn't I see that before? It feels earth-shattering. And relieving. And so painfully obvious.

But I remind myself that sometimes, it takes an outsider to point out the obvious. To help remove the blinders we've forgotten we have. To remind us to move our heads side to side, up and down, all around, and to shake the dormant strands of thought loose.

It feels like a privilege, this opportunity to talk about my life this way. To study it, almost like analyzing a piece of literature, looking at it this way and that, probing for more details and examining it further, piecing bits and pieces together, searching for insights. But this time, it isn't just theoretical and it isn't about someone else's life. Here, there are immediate consequences. It helps set me in a better direction, a much needed tune-up, at a time when it seems critical as I start out with a new family, before I have a chance to screw up a new relationship. And to do it with someone who has no agenda but to help me think about my life. She has insights inaccessible to me, and she finds patterns in my behavior I've never noticed before. A stranger to my life who sees more than I can. She helps lift me out of my own life for an aerial view and points out the obstacles I have built over the years. Not so insurmountable, she suggests. No, I certainly hope not.

We should all be so lucky to have this chance.