Friday, June 10, 2016

My Daughter Might Call You Fat. Please Remain Calm.

She's three and a half, and really into using adjectives lately. She likes to stop and touch flowers, twigs, rocks, on the side of the street. She tells me they are soft, bumpy, wet, dry, or slippery. She likes to touch my hair, my hands, the mole on my right cheek. They are smooth, rough, shiny.

Then, the other day, she said, while thinking about a good friend of ours, "Mama, Donna* is very fat." Now, I have the reaction that I think most American women have upon hearing these words. The first responses in my head are "Don't say that." "That's not nice." Or "people don't like it when you call them fat, honey." But I don't say any of those things to her. I look at my daughter's face, at its pleasant, relaxed, happy, and curious expression. To my daughter, there is nothing negative, nothing unpleasant, about "fat." In fact, she likely has very positive associations with the word. Other things she describes as fat include but are not limited to: the very hungry caterpillar just before his metamorphosis, her belly after a big meal or when she puts a "pretend baby" inside her dress, her baby brother's cheeks, the dinosaur on page 17 of “Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs,” and the fluffy black dog that lives on our street.

Sometimes she uses negative adjectives, like icky, stinky, yucky, scary. When she uses these words, her brow crinkles, and her nose bunches up, her lips turn down at the edges, o
r her eyes widen and water. She makes none of these faces when she uses the word fat.

I hate the power this word has in our culture. I hate how women struggle with the implications of this word for most of our lives. When did it start? When did fat become bad? We weren't born with this idea.

When my daughter was born, my parents were quick to joyously proclaim how fat she was. “Look at her fat thighs!” my mother said. “Look at her fat cheeks and her fat butt!” she cooed. Like in many cultures, a fat baby is a good thing in Chinese culture. These were wholly loving statements. My husband's side of the family was a little taken aback--"never call a lady fat!" they joked.

There's a HuffPost blog post that began circulating when my daughter was a baby. It's titled "How to Talk to Your Daughter About Her Body." I love it. I shared it on Facebook, I circulated it among friends, I forwarded it to my family. The piece begins, “How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: Don't talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.” The piece also says, “don't comment on other women's bodies either... Not a single comment, not a nice one or a mean one. And don't you dare talk about how much you hate your body in front of your daughter.”

My husband and I were on board. For the record, I believe it applies to the way we talk to boys as well as girls. We avoided all talk about bodies. We taught our daughter about bodies and how they work. By two she would talk about her vulva, about how mama has one too, but dada has a penis, her baby brother has a penis too. Penises make her laugh. We all have nipples, but only mama's have milk behind them. Someday, maybe hers will too, if she has a baby. When she was inside mama's belly, she started as a tiny egg, then she grew and grew and grew. Inside her face are bones, and blood, and muscle, and fat.

We were feeling very proud of our little talker and all the words she was learning. It felt good to know that she could identify parts of her body, and it helped tremendously when she hurt herself.

But as she grows, I'm finding that simply "not talking about bodies" is not enough. Not talking about appearances doesn't prevent my daughter from observing people's appearances. Just because I don't say anything about her body, or mine, or others' will not make it so that she will not notice. And especially during a period of time in which she's very interested in describing things, acting as though there are no adjectives that apply to bodies is not helpful.

"My fat belly"
So the other day when she said, "Mama, Donna is very fat," I lost a little breath. It's not something we say so nonchalantly. But my daughter's face held no judgement, no loathing, or hate, or disgust. It held none of the things that we as adults have learned to attach to certain adjectives. Here's the thing: without hate for our bodies, none of these words has any power. Think about that. If I love myself, then the adjectives used to describe me, are just words, just descriptors. Words only mean as much as we feel they mean. And for my daughter, a word like fat has only neutral to positive associations right now.

When I was in the eighth grade, the awkward barrier between boys and girls was tumbling down, and I was memorizing lots of boys' phone numbers. My mother started fielding calls not only from Christine, Jennifer, and Sarah; now she was passing the phone to me after hearing from people named Jon, Nate, Nick, and Marc. I think this must have been a tough time for my mom, watching her first child grow up.

Neither my sister nor my mother remembers saying what I'm about to share, but then it's not the kind of thing that you remember unless it is said to you. My sister told me one day something my mother had said to her in private, I can't remember exactly when it was, but I'd guess it was during the summer between middle and high school: "I don't know why all those boys like Lynnette, she's not even pretty." I'm not sure what inspired my mother to say that, and since she doesn't remember saying it, I don't think I'll ever know. But over the past 20-some years I've been thinking about those words. Before you conclude that this was a terrible thing to say, I want to tell you, these words were one of the greatest gifts to me in my life.

I can still remember how it felt to hear the words. There was a slight sting, and a fogginess around my ears, making me feel like for a moment, I was in my own fuzzy world. The truth was, I didn't really view myself as pretty. I was up to my nose in the awkwardness of my early teens. I wore very thick glasses, my teeth were covered in braces, my skin was experiencing puberty at its finest. My mother's words left me curious, deeply curious. Something in her upbringing, and in her experience of the world, led her to believe that boys liked you if you were pretty. Yet, here I was, unpretty, yet still in the midst of developing exciting friendships and relationships with boys. I was forced to draw a different conclusion from the one my mother drew. Boys like me for something besides being pretty.

Some day later, I received another gift, when a boy told me (bless the honesty of adolescents), "I've got a crush on two girls, you and Susie*, I like Susie because she is hot, and I like you because you have a good personality." How many coming-of-age rom coms would paint that as a burn? "Ouch! That sucks!" But even back in the eighth grade, it taught me something about physical appearances. Maybe they don't matter that much. Maybe people like me because they like the kind of person I am, the way I treat people, and the experience of hanging out with me.

Please don't let me mislead you. I have certainly lost many hours of life stressing about my body and my appearance. Later boys and girls, many of whom I called friends, would describe me with other words, like "bitch," "desperate," "poser," "flat-chested," and "Neanderthal." Yeah, those words stick around in your memory for decades, because they hurt and shock. But those words also lost their sting over time, and even then I think I already believed they had nothing to do with who I am.

Hearing our bodies described as fat only has power over us if we believe that being described as fat has anything to do with who we are, what we can do, and our worth as human beings.  Can we stop believing that?

I am learning something about writing blog posts. I set off to write about one thing and I learn that it's really about something else. I thought I was writing about fat, about not shaming my daughter for the words she uses. But this is about more than that.

Someday my daughter will hear words describing her appearance. They will run the gamut. Someone will tell her she is too fat, too skinny, that she is ugly. It will probably hurt her feelings. I will not be there to say anything, or maybe I will. I hope she will be able to hear these words and know that they have nothing to do with her worth, her person, her capabilities, or her potential. Because that is true. That is true of everyone. The words used to describe our appearance have nothing to do with who we are. Nothing to do with our compassion, or our will. They do not reflect the goodness or badness of our thoughts or inner drives. This is true for all of us. So can we all stop responding like they do?

If my daughter calls you fat, please stay calm. Don't scold her. Don't act offended. Please consider that these words, whether spoken by a three-year-old or an 80-year-old, have nothing to do with who you are.

A lot of our cultures value appearances, some speak it out right, others think it, or imply it. I wish I could change all these cultures, persuade everyone to stop talking about appearances, like that HuffPost blog does.

But it's hard to control other people. I suspect it'll take more than my lifetime and my children's lifetimes for the world to stop talking about physical appearances. So for now, the culture I'm interested in changing is how we receive these words and descriptors. I'm interested in helping my children believe that the words other people use to describe bodies, that the words they use to describe their own bodies, have nothing to do with who they are.

I'm not totally sure how to do this. But I have an instinct that it starts with remaining calm when my daughter calls someone fat. I invite you to do the same.

*the names aren't the real names

Friday, April 29, 2016

Parenting, Like Art, is a Revolt

I recently read Kim Brooks’ piece A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom in New York Magazine. And I have some thoughts about it. I tried to be legit and I sent a "letter to the editor" to NYMag, but while I wait for them to discover the genius of my thoughts, I'll share them here. 

Several of my mom-artist friends had re-shared the piece on Facebook. The responses were positive; most friends agreed with Brooks. Brutally honest, someone commented. I clicked on the link, my heart fluttering faster at this chance for emotional camaraderie. But the truth is, while I did mutter a couple of internal "amens," I was largely nose-scrunching, and eye-squinting, and squirming at the core. My disagreement crept in like a slow burn; the reason for it was not obvious to me. I needed to read the piece at least five times, printed out on paper, with a highlighter, to get to the center of why I was feeling so crummy. The heart of her argument is that the qualities that make for good artists make for bad parents, and vice versa. I couldn’t disagree more. 

Brooks writes that having children changed her view on the value of suffering, “Pain is constructive. And misery can be useful. I believed that like I believe the sun rises in the east. Then I had children, and I slowly began to disbelieve and disavow it.” In her view, she must become a boring, conventional, cautious person so that her children will suffer and struggle less. I share Brooks' beliefs on suffering, but I unlike Brooks, having children did not change my position. Regardless of our efforts as parents to keep them safe, our children will suffer, they will struggle, and they will also overcome adversity. There is nothing we can do as parents to prevent it.  Hopefully as they grow, they will come to find that their pain and misery can be constructive and useful. What if, instead of resisting our children’s suffering, we artists held fast to it, and with deep curiosity sought to understand its roots? Psychology and art both lead me to believe that our lifelong fears and pain are rooted in the first moments of life, at a time when we don't yet have words to describe our feelings, while we are figuring out whether our needs in life will be met. As parents we are closer than ever to the source of suffering. Parenting a child gives us a way to understand suffering at large, which helps us make better art. 

What's the point?
When it comes to the point of art (and there are so many opinions out there), I agree with Brooks. Quoting her friend, she writes, “the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe." But, she adds, "that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.” Shouldn't it be? I have a problem with her take on the point of parenting, especially her assertion that people make families for the opposite reason they make art.

What if all artists approached parenthood the way they do their art? Brooks quotes one of her first writing teachers, "Art, itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think." Are our inherited methods of parenting so stable and so reliable that we don't need to undermine them, or destabilize them, as an artist would? Brooks points out, Hippocrates says, “Art is a revolt.” I say, parenting is a revolt too, or it should be. For the first time in history, we get to choose whether we will, when we will, and how we will make families. And maybe our reasons for making a family should be changing too. My husband and I married outside our family and cultural backgrounds. In some ways, our relationship is a revolt. Why should starting our family be different? What if, like artists, we see our task as critically examining the way we were raised, saving what served us well, and aggressively tossing away the rest? I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but maybe I do mean to be subversive. 

Brooks thinks that our parenting suffers when our artist brains are at work. I think all parents would benefit from thinking more like artists. We don't have to just rely on the status quo of parenting. In my opinion, there are major problems with the current parenting culture. So many of us engage in it with whole hearts and minds and guts, and yet, there is this sort of unspoken agreement we won't really talk in depth about what we think or feel or discover within parenting. Out of respect, we do things exactly the way they've always been done, because "we turned out fine," as the previous generation tells us. Or out of respect, we do things differently, but quietly. Outspoken parents who share their convictions are shamed, or blamed for starting a "mommy-war."

We don't have to settle for the way our families did it. Why should we? Do we think that humanity has reached its peak potential? Is the world as wonderful and thriving as it could be? If not, then we should be doing everything we can to raise children who will grow into adults who will make it better.  

I’m art-making and family-making for the same reasons right now. I do both in my corner to heal my piece of the world. I’m challenging what’s already here. I do think it is lovely and fine and great that my experiences as a parent feed my art, as Brooks shares of her friend’s experience at the end of her piece. But I think the more powerful realization is that the artist in me feeds my parenting. 

I’m not talking about how art makes for creative moms, who can throw Pinterest parties, craft up a storm, and improvise twenty verses of Twinkle, Twinkle (though I do love those things). I’m talking about how, as artists, we have the potential to be uniquely excellent parents. Parenting well is not about raising the most well-behaved, socially acceptable, highest-salaried, or even happiest child; but neither is it about creating a protected utopia for our children, free of pain, suffering, or struggle. As artists, we have a deep and obsessive desire to understand relationships, to hold our children’s tears, to dwell with them in the pure pain of childhood, and to feel life's suffering more fully. We challenge what's here, we struggle with the status quo. Maybe we do this, selfishly, to be better artists. But I think it's our selfishness and our deep empathy for the people we love, that will grow our children into people who will also question, undermine, and force this world towards a place we’d rather inhabit.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Chris Rock Made an Asian Joke: A Confession, and My Thoughts

On Monday morning my husband and I were very romantically hovering over the bathroom sink, sonicare-ing our teeth, and simultaneously scrolling through Facebook on our phones. He paused the vibration of his toothbrush to say, "looks like people are pretty upset over Chris Rock's Asian joke?" He was asking me, because while he was busy prepping for a week of classes on Sunday evening, I will confess that I was watching the #OscarsSoWhite with a dear friend. I admit this sheepishly, as despite my quiet outrage at the fact that no actors of color had been nominated, I looked forward to passive night of viewing awards for movies I haven't seen with a glass of wine and the treat of female friendship post-children-in-bed time.

I'll admit something else. I wasn't paying enough attention at that point during the show to recall what the bad Asian joke was. So, I had no answer for my husband as his toothbrush resumed buzzing.

But I wanted to have an answer. I wanted to have an Asian American answer. I immediately started to ask myself if I had been a bad Asian. Where was my outrage? How did I miss that moment? Am I offended? Should I be? I am an Asian artist. I am a writer. I should have an opinion. This is precisely the moment I need to chime in.

I went back and watched the clip of the joke. If you know me well, it won't surprise you to hear that I have been Asian my entire life. I have encountered racism in various forms over the course of 36 years. Sometimes the form was a joke. Some made me laugh, some did not. Sometimes it was a comment, a situation, a declaration. Sometimes I felt angry, blood-boiling, fire-in-my-face mad in the moment. Sometimes it took years for me to realize the sting. Sometimes it came from a dear and close friend. Sometimes from a stranger on a bus. Sometimes the form was flirtation. Sometimes it came from the parent or grandparent of a friend, of a boyfriend. Sometimes it came from a superior, a teacher, a director.

I watched Chris Rock's joke again. And in the midst of trying to formulate my perfect Asian answer to what I ultimately consider a poor choice that hurt rather than furthered the cause for actors of color, it hit me what I was feeling. And what I was feeling wasn't anger at a racist joke. What I was feeling can more accurately be classified as protective mama-bear horror as I witnessed the faces of three young children, who I have a strong sense did not understand why they were on stage.

Do you think they know why the grown ups are laughing?
I imagined my daughter in their shoes, dressing up, being quiet, hitting her mark (or missing it in the case of the little boy in the middle), and standing still in a Dolby-Theatre-sized room as the laughter of grown-ups creeps up from the audience. My heart is saddened, and there's anger behind my eyes. In addition to seeing and hearing our children, I believe it's our job to protect them, not only from physical harm, but from the psychological and emotional harm that being the butt of a joke they don’t understand can harness. 

I’m saddened and angry because we live in a society where the lure of 15 seconds of fame is stronger than parents' protective instinct against exploiting our kids. And laughing at kids' expense, when they have no agency in the matter, while their brains think concretely and they don't yet perceive the difference between the nuance of a joke and real life, that's exploitation. While we're asking how such a joke got past so many people, based on its racist content, I'd also like to ask how it got past so many parents, how it got past these kids' own parents, based on its exploitation of children.

Those are my thoughts. Today I'm furthering the cause of artists of color by giving myself not just the (per)mission, but "the mission" to use my voice. I am an artist. That I am also "of color" is an added descriptor due to where and when I happen to exist in history (a predominantly white country in the 21st century). Today I contribute to the conversation, which I'll argue is the only way to combat any “fill-in-the-blank so white" situation. I join the conversation even though today I was moved more by my mother identity than by my Asian identity. Alternatively, I don’t need to wait until something happens that involves Asian Americans, to lend my voice. I can lend it anytime, whenever I have something to say. Maybe the more I, and other people like me, join the conversation, and wake up our quiet outrage, the less likely our society will be to allow, or even imagine a joke that relies on the cooperation of silent, obedient, Asian kids. Let's make it so that silent Asians aren't even "a thing."

Monday, February 22, 2016

I Thought I Was Better Than You

I'll chalk it up to a healthy dose of self confidence, of positive thinking, maybe some arrogance. I really thought that I was going to be a fantastic stay-at-home-mother, and I thought I was going to make it look effortless. When you were posting Facebook updates of the crazy things your kids were doing, and how exhausted, and drained, and at your wit's end you were, I felt bad. I sympathized. But I secretly thought that I would never be you. I am Asian American after all. Overachieving is part of my culture.  

It was possible, wasn't it, that I would be the exception? Some people think running a marathon is crazy, that performing on stage is terrifying. Hadn't I done those things? You guys, I like a challenge! I enjoy trying to do it myself, to figure it out myself, to make it from scratch. It feels good to me. This might be an annoying thing about me to some, but I think it might bring a certain charm too?

Anyway, hopefully it's obvious where this is going. Maybe I don't need to tell you that my visions of cooking with my daughter, singing with my son, endless cuddling, painting and sculpting art projects, spontaneous dancing, and dramatic storytelling, got tossed out the window. Maybe I shouldn't even mention that I was going to do all this while looking incredibly fashionable, and having a super connected, passionate, compassionate relationship with my husband. Out the third-story window too.

In the fall, I was rehearsing for my neighborhood's community theatre production in the evenings, and I was teaching music classes during the day for families and children. These felt like reasonable pieces of creative work and life that would make my life better, that would help give me enough of this sense of professional identity I was craving outside of being a mother. We were hiring a sitter when I was working and rehearsing. She was working about 20 hours a week. But it wasn't enough, it wasn't even close.

Here was our reality. On a typical day I would get up, and not shower, not wash my face, and not put on any make up. I would MAYBE brush my teeth, and I would very likely pop my contacts in. I would struggle with 3 monsters before 8 am, and send my daughter off to daycare with my husband without giving either a kiss. I would forget to eat breakfast and hand a wailing baby to the babysitter, rushing out to teach a class where I would muster lots of energy to be an engaging and fun music teacher. I'd roll though a fast food drive thru, and sit in my car parked outside my apartment, enjoying the precious 20 minutes of "me time" while my boobs filled with milk. Upon coming in the door, my son would crawl-cry toward me, and I'd pull my shoes off and my shirt up so I could breastfeed him. My stomach would gurgle because of the very fast not very healthy lunch, and I'd feel guilty that my daughter was in full day daycare that day. On the days she was not in daycare, I'd come home to that same crawl-crying baby, and another laugh-crying daughter. Mama milk mama milk! And I'd pull my shoes off and my shirt up so I could nurse both of them. My stomach would gurgle from lunch, and I would ask myself why I didn't just send my daughter to full days of day care every day.

I wasn't enjoying motherhood. By the time my husband got home, I was angry and resentful. I felt dirty, and unappreciated. I was mad at my son for being so needy. I couldn't give my daughter the attention she received before he was born. I was mad at my daughter, for regressing, for wanting more from me when I didn't have any more me to give.  I couldn't give my son the kind of undivided attention she received when she was born. Nothing felt fair. I made dinner while my son screamed from inside a pack n play, and while my daughter screamed for chocolate. I wasn't smiling very much. I was ornery, all the time. 

I left for rehearsal at night feeling more loads of guilt for leaving two children under 3 with my husband. I think I spent 80% of the day feeling angry, resentful, and/or guilty. Hopefully, for the other 20%, I was sleeping.

If you're a parent of young children, maybe this all seems completely normal. I was having the same small-talk conversation over and over again about how hard this time is, but how I'll miss it so much once they are older. And I knew it was true! All the while, I knew that so many mothers do this, that so many mothers have done this. My mom and my husband's mom each had three children, my friend Kelly has four, I know someone else who has five! Why can't I do it? I should be able to do it! And more guilt and disappointment would set in. My experience was such a far cry from the original expectations I had for myself. 

Trip to L.A. in December
If you're in suspense as to how this chapter concludes, I'll fill you in quickly. We started hosting an au pair, and our lives have completely changed. Au pair. it's a French term which literally means "on par" or "equal to." Practically, it refers to a young person from a country different from ours, who helps with childcare in exchange for a cross-cultural experience, and room and board. She's someone who is an "equal" in our family. Her name is Julia, she is from the southern part of France, and she's our new family member. 

Prior to making this fairly impulsive decision, we had all sorts of knee-jerk oppositional reactions to the idea. I think this could, in part, be a result of our Midwestern upbringing. We feel like we not only can, but should do everything on our own. I believe we link some amount of shame to employing help. Having "help" is upper-crusty, and something only "fancy" people have. But I think that hosting an au pair might be an underutilized solution frequently dismissed without honest thought by families all because we think of ourselves as down-to-earth. I think it's possible that we allow our cultural norms to make decisions for us. And while it is true that not everyone has the means, space, or the interest to make this decision, I think that more families might find enormous benefit from this kind of childcare. After running numbers, and if we’re just talking about money (but I’d argue that this conversation is more than about “money”) I can tell you, this solution is less expensive than a full-time nanny, or full time daycare, for a single child here in Chicago. Maybe I’ll talk about that more in a future blogpost. 

Right now, I want to talk about what's changed. 

This morning my daughter got up earlier than usual, but my son was half nursing half sleeping in our bed. My husband had an early morning meeting at work.  But this morning, instead of sacrificing the baby's and my sleep, we got an extra half hour. My husband got to get ready for his meeting on time without rushing. And my daughter got to play with Julia, the kind of playing I always want for her, where a variety of hilarious voices in multiple timbres ring down the hallway. And the dolls are having a dance party. And they bake chocolate cheese broccoli cookies out of blocks. 

This morning I can take a shower, and I have time to write a blogpost and a scene of a play. I can read a chapter from a book. I can drink a cup of tea. I can teach a class. And then after lunch I'll pick my daughter up from half-day daycare, so she can spend the rest of her day with me and her brother. I'll get to be with them, the way I always wanted to, because I'm not as tired, I'm not as angry, I'm not resentful. I don't have this feeling that I’ve given up every part of myself for them. 

Tonight, I can make dinner, and my daughter can help me (one of her favorite things ever). Julia can hold my son up so he watch, or sing songs with him in another room. Tomorrow night, Julia can make dinner, we'll all learn a new recipe and my daughter can help cook again. I can play with my son, we can roll around on the floor making funny faces and sounds, we can read books together. We can all laugh a lot. We have time and energy to laugh. We can cry too. I have the energy to be with my kids when they cry.

We still have lots of whining, crying, frustration, and jealousy. The beds still get wet, and I still don't "sleep through the night." I think these are normal parts of being a growing family with young children, and I'm not sure I want to trade those things in anyway. But we have something else now too, we have a little extra time and with that extra time comes extra energy. Energy to be a lot more like the mom I always wanted to be. We also have a new friend. A new friend who tapes collaborative multi-media art projects on our walls, and helps us with the dishes. Life is full, and much better. 

I’m becoming a little less concerned about what “kind” of a mom I am these days. Maybe I don’t fit into the “stay-at-home-mom” box, or the “working mom” box, or the “work-from-home-mom” box, or the “part-time working mom” box. I am learning to care less about those boxes. They mean less and less to me everyday. I am a mom, and I’m a lot of other things too, and maybe that’s okay.

A part of me is terrified that I've lost you, and that your eyes are rolling at my privilege and at this "too easy” solution. I know that we are tremendously privileged, and I am grateful for this. But I'm hoping very much that you've stayed with me and that you can hear what it is I'm trying to say. Maybe it's okay to look for help if we need it. Maybe it's okay for us to think about what it is we need. Maybe our cultural norms don't have to tell us how to be parents. Maybe there's another way. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

There's a Monster in My House, and It Doesn't Live Under the Bed

Currently, my son is 8 months old, and my daughter is almost 3 years old ("on November 13th" she'll tell you). Before having kids, I expected that taking care of a baby would be difficult, but in my experience, having a toddler in my house is much much harder. 

If you have, have had, or have ever taken care of a toddler, then maybe you know how I feel. You're probably familiar with this scenario. I know that what we're experiencing is not out of the ordinary, that it is in fact, to be expected.

L is my daughter, M is me.
M: Sweetheart, how about you try sitting on the potty before we head out?
L: No!
M: I'd really like you to just give it a try, really quick.
L: Um, I'm sorry, I don't want to.
M: Why not?
L: Um, because I don't want to!
M: Okay, well, you need to try before we head out, so I'll ask you again in three minutes.
(some times goes by)
M: Alright sweetheart, I'd like for you to try sitting on the potty now.
L: Okay 
(starts walking to the bathroom, gets to the door, turns around, suddenly furious)
L: But I told you I don't want to go!
M: I need you to try, otherwise we can't go to the playground.
L: I don't want to go to the playground.
M: You don't?
L: I want to go to the playground!
M: Hon, if we're going to the playground, I need you to try sitting on the potty before we go.
L: No!
M: Okay, then I'm sorry, but we have to stay in.
L: (more furiousness, some crying, some screaming, some stomping, some throwing of objects, some hitting the air, some attempted swings at her brother, before going back into the playroom and reading a book) 
M: (starting to get ruffled, I don't even care about going to the playground, this was her idea to begin with, so whatever, let's just stay home, meanwhile Baby J is whining, he's been strapped to me this whole time, maybe getting a little warm)
L: (playing, standing near the bookshelf, pees, everywhere, all over her clothes, all over the rug on the floor, and stomps in it, flinging wet clothes on our new sofa, it's on the toys, it's on some books)

And this is when the monster comes out. It's quick, a flash, a hot feeling that creeps up behind my eyes, a gurgling in my throat, a hard and sharp pit in my stomach. I feel the monster spread to my hands, they shake, it's in my neck and head, they shake. And in this moment I understand how it is that some parents physically hurt their children. I understand how bruises develop on little bodies and how tiny bones are broken. I am so angry. As angry as I have ever been at anybody. 

Wow, that escalated quickly, Lynnette, you might think. Or, come on, Lynnette, aren't you exaggerating? But here's a bit of dark truth. If anything, I'm underplaying it. I've chosen a scenario that I think might draw some sympathy from you. In reality, there are many scenarios that are far more innocuous, more universally understandable, and that same monster shows up, just as quickly, just as angry, just as dangerous.

It's a monster I keep hidden well from the world. Even my closest friends, people who know me very well, over many years, have not met my monster. Maybe my husband has seen it; maybe a few times in our lives. Maybe. I reserve this terrible creature for my tiny, innocent daughter, who I love more than life itself. She's heard it in my voice; seen it in my eyes. 

Here's what I actually believe about my toddler. I believe she's developmentally in a stage where her job is to test her boundaries. I believe that her saying "no," and "I don't want to," are signs of strong and normal development. It means she is a bright kid, who is asserting her independence.
I don't believe a child this age is capable of being a jerk - she may be acting like one, yes, but she doesn't have malicious intent. I believe she's at a stage where she wants to try things on her own, but also needs badly to feel safe and protected. I don't believe she's a bad kid. I don't think she can be bad. I believe these moments of "rebellion" and "defiance" are her way of asking me, "am I safe here?" "will you have my back no matter what?" and "do you love me?" She needs me to endure the meltdowns, to make my expectations clear, but to find at the end that I am still here, not withholding love from her, and not punishing her for having completely age-appropriate feelings and impulses. Despite all these beliefs, and how much I want to say, "Yes! Yes, my darling, you are my treasure, and I love you, no matter what," I encounter this monster, over and over again.

I've seen this monster before. It's the same one that I glimpsed behind my dad's eyes when we were kids. It's the same monster that spanked me for reasons I can't remember. It whipped out my dad's belt and slammed it against the kitchen table. It banged a chair against the floor, a head against a wall. It lived in the raised red hand print shaped mark on my thigh; it lingered while I watched and waited for the mark to flatten and fade. It's the same monster that I heard in my grandpa's voice, yelling at my grandma, it seemed nightly, shaking the walls and floor beneath my sister's and my bedrooms, waking us up after we'd already gone to bed. And while this monster has not driven me to repeat history, I certainly recognize its growl, and the feeling of uncontrollable anger.

This is an incredibly "un-saving face" kind of blog post to write. Not the kind of thing a good Chinese daughter writes about her family, shining a light on unsavory family details, calling out a grandpa on his abuse, years after he's already left the earth. Why bring that up? Just take responsibility for your own monster, Lynnette, stop trying to blame it on your father, and your father's father.  
I think it's a common thing, to follow in your family's footsteps. It's why we have idioms about apples falling from trees. And so often we do the thing our family has done, in the name of respect, and honor. We default, as parents, to parenting the way our parents did. Sometimes we consciously choose to do what they did, saying, We turned out fine, didn't we?

I think this monster has been speaking to my family for many generations, and that the parents who have come before me have also heard what I'm hearing, a warning, "watch out, you've got to control this kid, make her listen to you, or else." Or else... or else you'll end up with a spoiled kid, or else she'll take advantage of you and others, or else she won't know wrong from right. We listen to this monster and do what it tells us, in an effort to protect, to teach. That's our job as parents isn't it? 

But I'm interested in saving a new face. The beautiful faces of my toddler daughter and my baby son. Lots of things get passed on through the generations of a family: the appearance of our hair and eyes, the tendency toward having bad vision, a talent for music, diabetes, alcoholism, and I also believe, monsters. I don't have much control over whether my kids end up receiving a lot of those things, but if there's anything I can do to stop this monster, I'd like to try. I'd like to save my children's faces from having to feel this monster creep up behind their eyes and ears. I'd like to save their faces from wearing any of this monster's scars.

So I think I'd like to swallow this monster. Better yet, I'd like to demolish it, drown it, burn it, make it small and powerless. I want to do to it, all the things it makes me want to do to my daughter when it appears. I'd like to wipe it off the face of this earth, end its relationship with me and my family, forget it completely. 

But I can't give my children a monster-less world. This world is full of monsters, and these feelings are real. Perhaps there's even a way to honor the old things passed onto me by my family, both the seemingly good, and the seemingly bad.

So I'd like to say thank you, dear monster, for your urgency, your passion, and your rage. I hope that I and my children will spring to action when we're needed, will find things worthy of our passion, and will know which things deserve our rage. I see you, dear monster, and I thank you for your warning, but you may go now, because I am not afraid of you or what you have to say.

I've been reading No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Lansbury. It's helping me keep the monster at bay.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

National Breastfeeding Awareness Month is Over.

All last month I read blogposts and articles about breastfeeding and have wanted to get in on the conversation. I have pages of handwritten thoughts on the matter. But the month has come and gone, and I've struggled to edit those thoughts.

I've been wanting to write about my boobs for quite some time. I wouldn't have guessed I would ever feel this way. Before having children, I'd have put my money on me being the kind of mom who would want to nurse privately, discreetly, out of sight, who would go to great lengths to make other people feel comfortable. But here I am, wanting to write about boobs. Breasts.

This is a conversation I have with my daughter. We have a book aimed at preparing older siblings for the arrival of a new baby. The book talks about how the younger baby sibling is going to be drinking milk from mom's breasts. And every time we get to that part, she asks me again, "Breasts?" "Breasts." "Breasts?" Like, "am I saying that right?" She laughs, "Okay, but I call them mama milks!" She'll be 3 years old in November, and she is familiar with breastfeeding because it is something she does everyday.

I've been stressing about what to write about breastfeeding, because I have felt some sort of pressure to "make a case." When I flip through those handwritten pages, I find defenses, apologies, explanations, and proof.

Last December, when I was quite pregnant with my son and my daughter had recently turned two, I found this article circulating in some of my circles about a woman who was nursing her six and a half year old daughter. Despite the article's many examples of positive results from her full-term nursing, her story garnered only a bit of support. It felt to me that the whole of the online public was appalled with her choice, calling her lots of things from "extreme" or "disgusting" to "completely insane" and "sexually abusive."

A few weeks later, an NPR piece came out called What's Right About a Six-year-old Who Breastfeeds. The story included scientific and anthropological evidence for why "extended breastfeeding" is beneficial and quite normal throughout much of the world. An anthropologist interviewed for this piece, who breastfed her own children until they were 3 and 5.5, acknowledges that the information can be hard for people to stomach in the moment, and thus encourages others like herself to “shout it from the rooftops once their children are grown.” After this article came out, I found silent solace in the fact that I could one day, decades from now, shout from the rooftops that I had nursed my child into toddlerhood (and beyond?).

But a couple decades is a long time to wait to talk about something that is such a big part of my current everyday.

I don't share my story in order to convince, or persuade. I am not interested in judging anyone's choices as a parent. I am honored, and incredibly fortunate, to have the opportunity and ability to do what we do. I'll put these thoughts on the page, relieving myself of the pressure to find the most important or compelling things to say. My story is not unique. I am joined by mothers in my local community, and by thousands of mothers in online communities who do what I do. My simple goals are to contribute to the conversation and to come out of the tandem nursing closet.

I've hardly been completely secretive about nursing both my kids simultaneously. But in those moments when I have shared it, I have felt myself apologizing for it. And I hate that tensing in my neck, and the way my voice gets high, like I'm embarrassed or ashamed. I hate hearing myself joke, "Ha-ha, I'm sorry! I guess, I've turned into one of those weirdo hippie moms!" I'd like to stop prefacing my story with "I'm sorry," because I am not sorry.

I used to joke with a dear friend about how the time to stop nursing was when your child could start asking for it in his own voice with his own words.  It seemed reasonable at the time, from where I stood, childless and very unaware of my breasts.

My daughter started to ask for "mama milk" a little past her first birthday. A few months later she started to say "other side milk." She was just learning to walk, and it felt like a bad time to stop. I think both she and I were excited that we could so clearly understand one another. Around that time, we found that we were expecting her younger sibling.

It's the case that many mothers lose their milk supply when they are pregnant, and that many babies self-wean because they lose interest due to the decrease in milk, or the changing taste. I thought it was likely that would happen to my daughter.

That was over a year and a half ago.  My son was born a couple months after she turned two. I'm sure there were changes in my milk, but they didn't affect my daughter's interest in nursing.
                                                                                                                                                                These days, there are certainly many times (i.e. in the middle of the night, when we're out in public) that feel inopportune to nurse. I ask her, more than a little exasperatedly, "Why do you need mama milk, right now?"

And I can see her gearing up to answer; thinking carefully about her words. She doesn't want to mess it up for herself. Her voice is steady and slow, but quickens a little, the way mine does when I'm nervous I won't get something I really really want.

"But mama!" her voice and face are bright. Then, "mama," low and calm. "Because I really really love mamamilk sooooooo much!"

"Why do you love it so much?"

"Because!" Brightly again and a little incredulous. "It makes me so so happy! It makes me feel very happy!"

Nursing my toddler daughter is taxing at times. When I'm full, nursing her feels like a wonderful and great relief: the world's gentlest and most effective breast pump. When I'm tired, or depleted, nursing her feels like an icky skin crawling chore. But then I ask myself how many times I have been able to identify so precisely and verbalize so clearly, that something I love brings me happiness. It doesn't feel right to me to respond to her pure and straightforward desire and request, with termination. It doesn't make sense to me to stop now either.

Nursing my seven-month-old son is sometimes like offering a warm and soft coconut to a tiny, hungry, very soft, and squishy chipmunk. It's like curling up in the softest, coziest hammock, and letting the barely-there breeze swing you to sleep. And other times I am being sucked up by a baby beast, who yanks at my hair or tries to remove my lips from my face with his very strong tiny fists as he drinks. I remember hearing about how breastfeeding is a special way to "bond" with your baby. Yes, I think that is true. But never did a word feel so inadequate to describe the experience. Nursing, feels to me, like the closest I can get to my kids while still remaining a separate person.

When I was pregnant with my son, we talked about how "Baby Junior" (his in utero nickname) would come out someday and would want to have mama milk too. My daughter would cup my opposite breast while she was nursing, then take a break to tell me, "this one is for Baby Junior." My husband and I wondered how much she was understanding about my pregnancy. The idea that she'd be joined by a new tiny person, who would one day take her toys, and share her milk, seemed to us a very abstract idea for a two-year-old to grasp.

I'll never know how much she truly understood, but on the day she met her baby brother, she demonstrated that there was some part of what we'd been saying for the past nine months that stuck with her. When she heard him cry for the first time, she jumped up next to me and patted one of my breasts. "Maybe he wants mama milk," she said. She stood by my side as we urged a 36-hour-old Baby Junior to latch. She actually took hold of my boob and pressed it toward his mouth, offering it to him while he cried. When he had latched, she sat down on one half of my lap and joined us, nursing on the other side, like it was something she'd done a million times.

I don't nurse them at the same time everyday, it's something that happens from time to time. Often times my daughter wants to join, when she sees me nursing her brother. And lately, my son wants to join when he sees me nursing his sister, especially in the afternoons on the days she's at daycare. It's a way we get to all say to one another, "Hello, it's nice to see you again. I missed you today"

Nursing them at the same time is like being in on a sibling secret. They lock eyes, and from the very moment my son was home with us, the two of them have had this opportunity to communicate intimately. When he was days old, she would reach out and touch his head, or stroke his back. As he got older, he would eventually start to reach out and touch her face, or tug on her hair. She laughs at this, which makes him laugh, which in turn makes me laugh. There is no possible way to not laugh when you have two giggling children latched onto your breasts. They hold hands. It is not something I taught them to do. They reach for each other and laugh, and their little hands are saying "I'm here."

Breastfeeding awareness. I am so aware, so so aware of my breasts these days. They are so presently a part of my life, They have a big job to do.

I've been asked, "but aren't you looking forward to having your body back?"

And this is what I think. Nobody took my body from me. I never did lose it. I love this awesome body, that birthed two babies like a champ, with breasts that fill with milk and make my children feel so so happy, that have the power to make two screaming children cuddle, coo, and sometimes fall asleep within seconds. I love my breasts that never let me forget that my kids are here, even when I'm not with them. They tell me when my kids need me, or when I need them. Right now, this body can squelch loneliness, soothe "owies", calm tantrums, ease upset stomachs, silence monsters, and ward off sickness.   This magic body is mine, all mine.

National Breastfeeding Awareness Month may be over, but I don't see why we can't keep the Breastfeeding Awareness spirit alive, all year long.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why December Makes Me Sad

Musing on why December makes me sad...

I wrote a blog post for this week, and I'd like to link to it here.  Perhaps, despite the melancholy tone of the piece, you'll feel hopeful like I do?

Hello, December. It’s that time of year here in America. A time for good tidings of comfort and joy. A time for happy family memories and meaningful traditions. But for me and my interfaith marriage, December now comes packaged with a new tradition–an annual holiday cry (or if I’m really being honest…cries. Plural.)
Now I know a lot of people cry during the holidays. The pressure of stressful travel plans and forced family gatherings is enough to make many people crack. But for the interfaith family, December is a particularly lonely time.
I go online to order holiday cards. (I am a little behind this year.) I skip over the red and green ones, the ones with Christmas trees or holly or Santa Claus, the ones that say “Merry Christmas,” the ones that say “Happy Hanukkah,” and I’m left to choose from lots of cards with “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” written generically on the front. After much much agonizing, I pick, “Peace, Joy, and Love.” Those are things that people from all faiths want, right?  Continue reading -->