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.