Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Distances and Passing Days

I left New York in 1999. New York was home, as much a home as I ever had. New York is where my family lived, the only family I had. I left behind my parents, brother, and sister, and moved 2500 miles across the country.

I was in my late 20s. Back then, 2500 miles didn't seem like much. Just a 5 hour plane ride, I said. I could fly there and back in one day. As I did one day in September 1999 to interview in San Francisco. For the interview, I took the first flight out of JFK to SFO. That night, I was back in New York. That same night, I decided to move west. It had been my first visit to San Francisco.

If I didn't like it, I could always move back, I thought. Decisions can be un-done.

The decision to move was impulsive. I didn't have as much a reason to move as a reason not to. "Why not?" was my attitude. I was young and single. No responsibilities and no attachments. I was offered a job, and that seemed good enough. All San Francisco offered was a job and two acquaintances. The rest of the city was a stranger.

I didn't think about what that meant until I was asked to provide my emergency contact at my new job. Suddenly, I realized that my closest family member -- in fact, my entire family -- was on the other side of a continent. On the form, I wrote in my father's name and his phone number with its Long Island area code. And then wondered about the three hour time difference. What if I were injured in some horrible accident and they needed his authorization to operate? Would they catch him in the middle of the night? Would he answer the call in his pajamas? Would he be able to find a flight out in an emergency?

Lately, I've been wondering about this decision. Not the decision to live in San Francisco, but the one to move myself 2500 miles away from my family. This decision made on the whim of the day, given not much more thought than choosing a soup or salad for lunch. My cavalier attitude.

We live 2500 miles away from our little guy's grandparents, his cousins, his uncle and two aunts, the only relatives he has in this country on my side of the family. To try to overcome the distance, we skype once or twice a week with my parents. We pop open the skype window, click their login name, and wait for the ring tones. When they respond, there is always an initial flurry of just sound, no images, as they try to find the right icons to click.

"Can you hear us? Why isn't it working? Is it working? Oh, I think I see them. Can you hear us? Is the baby with you?"

Then their faces appear. Two bobbleheads, illuminated by a florescent light behind them. My mom is always in the center, where she sits in front of the computer like a train conductor. She is the one who knows how to operate it. Even though the computer has been occupying a corner of their living room for two years now, my father does not know how to turn it on. Sometimes, when they are not online, I call ahead the traditional way. My father picks up the telephone, and as soon as I say, "Should we talk on the computer?," he responds, "Your mother is starting the computer now." In their household, it is her job to manage the kitchen as well as the computer.

So when they appear on screen, my mother sits on her throne. My dad hovers in the periphery, sometimes to my mother's left, sometimes to her right. As he shifts from one leg to the other, we catch parts of his chin, cheek, mouth, nostrils and at times, even his eyeglasses in the corners of our screen.

"How much he has grown. Look at him now. He looks like a little boy. Already no longer a baby. He's so much taller, and his eyes are so big. So handsome!"

The initial few minutes are always the same. The gushing, the fanfare, the exclamations of surprise at his growth, even though they saw him a week earlier -- and said the exact same thing.

"Over here, over here, look at us. Can you see us?"

They waive their hands, lean in closer, widen their smiles, and make clucking noises for his benefit.

On our end, Jeff and I hover around my 13 inch MacBook on the futon, one of us holding the little guy on our lap. We pick up the baby and try to present him the best we can. I'll often pick him up, let his legs stretch out, and pass his body from top to bottom over the screen, so they could see his full length. I'll also push the computer further out so that the video camera can capture the length of his whole body on screen. After, we'll tilt him over closer to the screen as his head flops forward and his arms flounder as they try to reach out to touch whatever they can.

Usually, at that moment, my dad will exclaim, "Look, he sees us! He sees us. He's reaching out to us. Look at him smiling!"

Then they will have an E.T. moment, where the two ends will try to touch across the screen.

In the way my parents lean forward and gaze at him, I could see how much they want to touch him. And hold him. The way I hold him every day, his little body bundled against mine, and nuzzle my nose against his neck, kiss his cute chubby cheeks, and inhale the sweetness of his baby scent. The only way to experience a baby.

I then vow to plan a trip to visit them -- sometime soon, really soon. But once I start thinking about whether I need to take the playpen, the car seat, the stroller, and the infant tub, I wonder if it would be easier when he's a little older. Then I think about having to take my breast pump on the plane and find a way to pump in that hole of a bathroom or under a blanket in my seat, I start wondering if my parents can't fly out to see us instead. Until I find out my mom's back's been acting up.

That's when the distance I created for myself seems like a burden and not the liberation I used to believe it to be. I'm sure it served some purpose and gave me an escape when I desperately needed it -- and probably still does to some degree from the sense of suffocation that can come from a family that has overtaken you, like overgrown ivy around a building. But nowadays, I seem to have lost memory of that suffocation. Instead, I wonder why I live 2500 miles away from them and what it means to be a family. Are we a family if we live 2500 miles apart but see each other once or twice a year? I guess we are a family by definition, so maybe the better question is what kind of a family are we. What does it mean that we live like this? For whose benefit? Why has it become so normal, so commonplace to live as we do?

Now with the baby and with my parents' aging, the passing days seem precious. I don't want them to miss out on him, and I don't want him to miss out on them. They are on opposite ends of the timeline of my life, and I want those two ends to join and form a cohesive circle, as I think a family should. That my parents should live out the rest of their lives so far away from us seems unacceptable, even cruel. But the thought of moving to the East Coast seems unthinkable. Not with our lives here, with our friends, with our jobs, without East Coast snowstorms and New York cynicism. The roots we have grown here seem too deep to uproot. So Jeff and I talk about the prospect of my parents moving out to California, but it's not so easy to move others to suit your own purposes and notions, especially when the others are set in their ways -- not too dissimilar from the way we are.

So we talk about planning a vacation with them. Maybe a trip to Hawaii. Days filled with sun, the beach, and carefree togetherness. Protected time where they can have their fill of the little guy to last them for the time being.

I think about the day when our little guy will grow into a man. And I wonder if he will move away from us. That thought makes my heart ache and I start to miss him already.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Field Trip

Yesterday, we spent the day at the California Academy of Sciences. I had never been there and wouldn't have thought about going if my friend hadn't invited us. I just assumed that my baby was too young for a place like that until my friend mentioned how her three year old loves the aquarium. An aquarium! I love aquariums.

The minute we stepped in, we were in the land of little people. Toddlers and school children with their backpacks ran around us. Mothers with strollers crowded the elevators. It was heavenly. We spent a few hours there staring at fish in florescent orange, hot pink, deep purple, and all other colors of the rainbow. We also hovered over the jellyfish pillar,the pen with the penguins, and the tank with the albino alligator. We watched a diver in a tank answer questions about tropical fish, as air bubbles streamed around him. My friend's three-year old dipped her hand into the touching pool and stroked a starfish. After lunch, she ran around the courtyard as her mother chased her.

Seeing so many little people makes me excited about our little T's upcoming years. I can't wait until he starts running around and touching the starfish. As he experiences the world, I want to go through it with him. In some ways, I feel like I did such a poor job of learning as I was going through school. Sure, I did my share of studying and getting good grades, but I don't know how much I really learned. I know how little I retained. There was a point in my life when I thought about reading junior high school text books just to find out what I forgot. Like most of my great ideas, it never came to fruition. But here is my chance to do it.

I loved the place so much that we went back today and bought an annual membership. The $99 pass makes so much more sense than paying $25 each visit. It's unfortunate that the tickets are so pricey, especially when the place is obviously geared toward children.

Anyway, today, I strapped Little T to my chest in the Baby Bjorn, facing out. We stood a good while in front of the enormous tanks and each time a colorful fish swam by, Little T kicked out his legs in excitement. Could we have a marine biologist in the making? Who know how these early days may shape his interests. I would love to help him figure out his passion, and if it means wearing out our membership, so be it. I just hope he doesn't come to me 22 years later asking me to review his law school application.


Ever since I had my baby five months ago, my head's been one big muddle. The adorable little guy fills me in a way I didn't know was possible and brings out a degree of love and devotion I didn't know I was capable of having. At the same time, he arrived with a jolt that seemed to knock off balance various delicate pieces of my life that I thought I had put into place over the years.

Since his arrival, I've been trying to unmuddle myself. To work through the various reactions I've been having and try to sort them out. The reactions have ranged from deep feelings of contentment and cloying affection to unshakable anxiety. Some days have been better than others. On some days, like today, I feel like I've emerged from that cloud and have happily moved on. On other days, I'm convinced it's just the hormones. But when, all of a sudden, I find myself emotional and overwhelmed, with my little brain feeling like it's ready to burst from a slew of endlessly trivial demands, I find myself squeezing my hands against my skull, as if to keep it contained. Other times, I feel the urge to bang my head, as if to knock out some of the excess junk that clutters the limited space up above. But then I return to my placid state when all seems perfectly fine, and I wonder what the hell was my problem.

In a nutshell, I don't feel like myself these days. I feel anxious, almost all the time. I often go through the day as if I'm being chased. If it's not feeding, changing, cleaning, singing to, and playing with the baby, then it's the daily ritual of two to three loads of laundry and six or seven cycles of bottle washing, sterilizing, and then preparing for the next round. When there are spare moments, I find myself mopping the floor, cleaning the refrigerator, unloading the dish washer, and cleaning the bathroom. After that, I look for other tasks. I feel as if I'm preparing for a hurricane, urgently bracing for the emergency, fearful that I'll be caught without my windows boarded, my supplies insufficient.

I'm struggling to reach a state of stasis. The problem with trying to sort all this out, however, is that I'm not really sure what is going on. All I know is that I feel uneasy, as if I forgot whether I turned off the stove before leaving for the day. I don't know if it is caused by the heavy responsibility of caring for another human being or the general stress of going through so many changes in life. Or the anxiety of not bringing home a regular paycheck. Or the fear of being doomed to a life of housework. Or hormones. Or maybe a combination of all above. Whatever it is, it is triggering associations that I am not consciously making and sending my instincts into overdrive.

The closest I can compare is the time in my early teens when my dad quit his job and my parents opened a small business together. As I've written about here many times, it caused a great upheaval in our family life in terms of our sense of financial and emotional stability. When my parents started working crazy hours, it became the responsibility of the children to run the household. I became mired in housework, and soon, manically folding the towels into perfect rectangles, meticulously wiping the dust off of the crevices of accordion lampshades, and organizing and re-organizing the cans in the pantry were the only ways I knew how to maintain a sense of control.

The other day, I was talking to a friend about how I feel these days. I told her that I feel as if I've reverted to my teenage days. When I told her about that period in my life, she asked me if I ever processed it.

"Process it?" I responded. "What do you mean?"

"You know, talk about it with someone. Maybe with someone in your family?"

Talk about it... In my family? No, we didn't talk about it. We were Koreans. We didn't talk about emotions, with the possible exception of anger. I wouldn't even know how to ask my parents how they feel. The closest approximation I can come to is asking them how they are. And to such a question, they would respond that they are eating well, or exercising, or spending the day at church.

In our family, we each hurried through the day, on our own. And learned to live with it. Whatever "it" was.

Or so I thought.

Over the years, I thought I had dealt with those events of my childhood. Or at least removed their sting. I learned to worry a little less about my parents, relax a little more, try not so hard to shape a family life that I thought we should have, instead of the one we were living. I thought I had put the intensity of my emotions behind me. But I'm starting to realize that you can never really put a part of your life behind you. Your life is your life, in one continuum. All you can do is shelve it. And maybe over time, the dust piles on, but sooner or later, you need to wipe the dust off and deal with it.

So I decided to find a way to deal with it, instead of waiting for it to pass. I called a therapist and started talking to her about my feelings of anxiety. And decided to write about it. Before I called the therapist, I felt pretty damn inadequate. Why were other women able to transition into motherhood on their own, and not me? Why couldn't I just be overfilled with joy like others and not be so mired in this state of stress, especially when everything in my life is so great? Really, what is my problem??

I don't know the answer. But once I find out, I'll let you know.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

On Not Blogging

I haven't blogged in a whole month. Yeah, February was a short month, but today is already March 4th. Seven whole minutes into it, as a matter of fact. It's the longest I've gone without posting since I started this blog. Suddenly, the thought of not keeping up with my blog fills me with fear that I'm letting go of something that has come to mean a lot to me.

But then, I've been juggling a lot the past few months. It's kind of ironic because the last couple of months, I've been feeling as if I've been getting a little more in control of all the changes and various responsibilities I'm now handling. But because I feel as if things are more settled and I am in control, I should let less slide. I have to prioritize, though -- and somehow, the little things I do for me shift down to the bottom. That means the baby is at the top of the list. His feedings, his baths, his singing time and strolls, his playtime, his cuddle time, the bottle washing, the laundry. After that, the house work, the dishes, the garbage. Oh, did I forget that I have a husband? And what about that part time job thing I'm trying to fit in? On top of that, I've been trying to maintain a separate blog just for our little guy, so that he can read it when he's older and has questions about how he was when he was little. Not that I've been very good about posting there either, but a little better than I've been here.

The problem is that at the end of the day, when I sit in front of my computer to try to write, I find myself giving into the sweet lull of sleep. Have I ever mentioned that I'm a sleep horse? I love to sleep. Almost as much as eating. I would sleep 12 hours a night if I could, but then I would end up spending half of my life sleeping and that seems so wasteful. But for a mother of a little guy, I get a lot of sleep. Eight hours a night, in fact. If only I slept one hour less a night and used that hour to write instead. Then, I would have the most fabulous and well-maintained blog.

So on this one very unusual night when I find myself not being able to sleep, it seems like a good occasion to try to get back into this blogging thing. This has been a busy day -- with a hearing this morning in one of my cases. The last few weeks -- the whole month actually -- have been busy in fact, with various filings for work and play dates on top of the usual. Oh, and a road trip down to San Diego to visit the in-laws. And turning 39. And I would like to keep track of all the thoughts I've been having about what it means to be a family, how having my own makes me think so much about my own family growing up and reflect more about the difficult times we had growing up -- and to see them in a new light. There is so much I want to remember/memorialize -- for me and the baby. But of course, I'm starting to feel sleepy again.

It would be nice to have the time to live and then to document all the living that we're doing. But I've always been terrible at taking photographs. I would rather just enjoy the moment than detach myself from it with a camera. One of these days, I hope to figure out a way to do both.