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. 


  1. Thanks for your candid sharing -- all of which I can relate to! I came to realize that it definitely takes more than two adults to provide the care and inspiration needed to nurture the modern family. Some folks have biological parents/relatives to help nurture (we did not). I was blessed with an exceptional neighbor, and a wonderful part-time paid "nanny/housekeeper". It is a myth that parents can do it alone -- a very destructive myth. You all are discovering, as you go along, the options that work for you. Using your options well is a mark of wisdom. You undoubtedly will discover even more options as you move along your family development trajectory -- what works at one phase won't work at another. Your real skill is recognizing that you will need assistance, in various ways, and reaching out for it. That's the evidence of your strength, and your parental/familial love. Many of us want to help you succeed as a family.

    1. Thank you, grannieowl, that means so much to me to hear that from you. I appreciate you sharing your support :) Knowing that I have you around the corner, is a good feeling. I think I often think that it's only people in my generation that think we need help, but hearing your perspective is very encouraging :)