Mother at Sixteen

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Sitting with the slight, sixteen-year-old girl on tattered bamboo mats in her family’s modest home, we compared our babies: their age and weight, their entrance into the world, how well they sleep at night, yes we’re both breastfeeding, how easy and hard they are to take care of, how much support there is, how your worldview changes from carefree to constant worry.

We are at a similar stage in life and had a lot to share.

And yet I was struck by the difference. Her baby slept in a bamboo crib on a dirt floor with only shade and a breeze to protect them against the tropical heat; mine shares our king-sized bed in our fully air-conditioned house. Hers will find a place in the same Thai educational system she went through herself; mine has access to Gymboree and Montessori classes and will learn from a mother who completed a PhD from an American research university. I’m turning 35 next month. She is a mother at 16. We are almost 20 years apart and I have almost 20 years’ worth more of education and life experience, maturity and stability. At 16, she still has all her struggles in front of her. I know who I am, what I want, and what I’m capable of. She has yet to discover who she will be.

I approached my time with her trying to answer the question: why did she make these choices? She had to have known the risk she was taking with unprotected sex. What was her underlying motivation? She said no one ever taught her about protection (I remember her deciding not to stay for the sex health workshop I taught). She talked about the desire to experience new things—a typical teenager response. But I suspected the roots are deeper than that; that it may have even something to do with deeper psychological and emotional needs regarding her bond with her own mother, even if she doesn’t consciously read it that way yet. From what I know of her background, I suspected she never got enough consistent display of love from her own mother, and made these choices out of feelings of neglect, subconsciously trying to find a way to stay close to home rather than to leave.

But do I have the right to judge her choices? I may be disappointed. I may want to continue to present her with the chance to turn things around because her story (and now her child’s story) has still only just begun. I may want to learn from her example to see how we can prevent others from going the same way. I can expect her to take responsibility for her choices and urge her to continue to make better ones. I do not absolve her of that because it is true that others in same—or worse—circumstances make different choices. But I cannot be judgmental about it. I had parents who never gave me cause to doubt their love and commitment. With an absentee father and a mother who is a former prostitute now mostly gone away at work, she has no experience of a strong nuclear family and has no idea what that would look like. I came from a life of opportunity; she came from a life of poverty and risk. For me, being a mother at sixteen would have represented catastrophic failure and disappointment. For her, young, single motherhood is the norm. From two different worlds, we both forged two very different paths.

Perhaps the question of why isn’t really the root of the matter. Maybe the question we must grapple with honestly is: how much of our life is a forgone conclusion? How much can we change by choice?

Knowing Our Limits: What Not to Say to Each Other

IMG_0811There’s this thing women seem to have started saying to each other when we come up against something we’ve decided we won’t put up with, whether because we shouldn’t or because we can’t. When we say we’ve learned we have more needs than we wanted to admit, or that we’ve learned the boundaries of how much we can give unrequited, or that we’ve found the outer reaches of our self-esteem and self-respect, we tell each other: “At least you know that about yourself now.”

I’m not sure if this is really a Thing That People Say since I’m not living in a western country and am not as embedded in American culture anymore, but it’s been said to me on multiple occasions by very different women. And it’s been said in the exact same way, so I can only imagine that it didn’t just pop up out of nowhere.

It sounds like such a lovely, enlightened sentiment too. “At least you know that about yourself.” Because increased self-awareness is a good thing, a thing we strive for right? So learning more about yourself can only be a positive contribution to heightened consciousness. Right?

Except in each circumstance, it felt the opposite. It felt like such a patronizing thing to say. As in, “Oh you’re not as giving as you once thought you were? How sad. But hey, at least you know that about YOU.” Like, “Oh, you failed that exam, but hey, at least you tried, and that’s cool. I still got an A.”

There’s a thing that activists do where they try to out-activist other activists. When you’re committed to a cause, there is intense pressure to prove how committed you are: to do more in support of it, to identify with it more, and the peer pressure pushes people to be more extreme and uncompromising. Sometimes this manifests itself in beliefs and political stances. Sometimes it manifests itself in what initially would be a positive trait: giving, kindness, forgiveness…until you push so hard you get burnout.

Moms do this to each other too. However committed you are to a certain belief or behavior is exactly as committed as one should be. Anyone doing less or differently is less of a mother, anyone doing more is just crazy. Right?

Of course not. But we do this to each other.

Until you realize you are actually tired, stressed out, angrier than you should be, and maybe you do need to take better care of yourself in the ways that matter to YOU and fit in with YOUR lifestyle.

So if a friend of mine tells me she needs weekly spa treatments to feel human again after working full-time, mothering X number of kids, pursuing/finishing a degree, running a business, or frankly, with some of my friends, doing all of the above, or if she tells me she realizes she needs to demand a little more from others in order to keep herself afloat, I hope I never say, “At least you know that about yourself now.”

I hope I have the presence of mind to tell her something more like, “It’s not a bad thing to discover we all have boundaries.” Having boundaries is not something to feel guilty about, and it’s not something only certain people have. Everyone has them. Knowing where they are just means you can more efficiently find out in what areas you need to protect yourself and in what areas you can more freely give. Just because there is an outer limit to how generous you can be in certain circumstances does not mean you are not a generous person. Having a limit to kindness does not mean you are not kind. Having a limit to your selflessness does not make you selfish. Asking for the things you need is not being unreasonable. It’s just the smart way to ensure you can perform your best, whether as a wife, a mom, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a boss, an employee, or a warrior.

It took me many years to understand this, but I finally now get this saying, “You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.” Fill yourself up first. When we are full, we can give so much more to everyone else.

Life Around the Bend

IMG_0615Around the time I decided to change up my approach to blogging, I made some other adjustments that really brought me so much relief and renewed focus. I’ve been working at finding creative ways to contribute more to SOLD now that my life has changed with the onset of motherhood. I’m working from home, and with a baby, I just can’t travel back and forth the way I used to. Last year, that meant cutting way back on things I could do for SOLD. But now that Cy is getting older and (dare I say it?) marginally easier, I find myself confronting a gnawing desire to contribute more and feel more productive.

IMG_0785One change I made is I’ve devised tasks for myself that I can do from my phone when Cy is napping. I do a lot more scholarly research now and save notes to myself that I can then type up into memos to share with the staff to help everyone keep up on the latest news and knowledge.

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Another change I’ve made is I’ve gotten a lot more unapologetic about using whatever resources are at my disposal to make my job easier and more efficient. Instead of fighting with crappy tools, I looked around and found iPhone apps that streamline what I do. Instead of spending days and weeks of my time carefully (and often incorrectly) trying to translate my work into Thai, I’ve decided to put up the cash to hire a translator. There are seasons for trying to do everything yourself. This, for me, is just not one of them.

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And I’ve consciously decided to feel less guilty about having hired help around the house. Can I clean the house myself? Yes. Do I want to? No. Is my life more efficient, focused, and productive when I can outsource that task? Yes. Do I like having someone up in my business all the time? Not really. Do I like having a clean house and not being the one to do it? Heck yes.

I used to wait for opportune moments. I did a lot of waiting. My new mantra in life: Do what it takes to Get It Done.

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Of course, just as I got into a lovely pattern and flow, feeling focused, centered, and productive, creating several memos for SOLD that the staff seemed very happy to have, cooking more fresh and healthy foods at home, keeping our house nice and clean, and still managing to be with Cy to meet his needs….I had to let our maebaan (housekeeper/nanny) go.

It’s a long story, one in which I basically was really having trouble trusting her. The death knell in our relationship, however, came when I found her playing at dangling Cy and swinging him playfully out over the edge of our 2nd story balcony. I’m sure she thinks it was just a dumb mistake.  For me, ugh, I don’t even want to talk or think about it anymore. She’s gone. We need to find someone else. That’s about the sum of it.

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I’m taking on a lot more nowadays, and I’m tired at the end of it, but it’s a good feeling. It’s good to feel that I’m contributing to SOLD again, and it’s good to feel like I’m not torn in too many different directions. Before I felt like I was spinning my wheels more often than not. Now I feel like I’ve got things more in line.

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In the meantime, Cy has been great. He just gets to be more and more fun as he gets older. We had a blast visiting the islands, he was a stellar traveller as we schlepped him all over the country, and it’s just so fun to watch his personality develop. I feel our relationships with him are only blossoming deeper, and I feel like all the hard work of the first year is really paying off.

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This week he hit a bit of a rough patch, however, and has suddenly started banging his head against the floor when upset. Things that upset him today include:

- me telling him he shouldn’t eat vegetables that are still frozen
- me telling him he shouldn’t bang his head on the floor
- banging his head on the floor
- me not letting him startle Dot by stomping on her while she’s sleeping, and
- me being unable to carry him AND the water tank I needed to put on top of our water cooler

I think he’s teething. And he’s probably grumpy because he has a stuffy, runny nose from the poor air quality thanks to smoky season. And also he’s a toddler.

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On the plus side, his spoken vocabulary seems to be exploding. In about a week, the number of words he can say has more than doubled. He can’t pronounce the ending consonants so he calls tuk tuks “thoo thoo” and eggs are “E!” But he can say things like mama and papa, Dottles, bubble, hot, door, choo choo (train), google (logo), and a few different animal sounds.

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I used to think balance was an elusive concept when you throw family into the mix. I’m starting to think maybe we don’t always get it in any given moment, but that maybe it just comes more broadly over time.

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Please note: If you’re looking for the comments section, I have decided to close comments on my posts here on my site. If you would like to comment, please feel free to comment on the links to my posts on Facebook, or send me an email. Thank you!

Blogging is Dead – But Maybe Not For Me

When Andrew Sullivan announced he was going to quit blogging, it sparked a spate of articles (like this one) declaring the death of blogs—at least the old school kind. Though I never actually read Sullivan, what these articles say is something I have been feeling for a long time. Maybe close to two years now? Certainly by the time Bigger Picture Blogs, of which I was a contributor, decided to disband.

When I started blogging in 2008, I almost immediately found a wide community of fellow bloggers with whom I loved to interact. We would spend hours reading each other’s personal thoughts, commenting and conversing, and sharing our photos and our lives in a deeper way than we often did with people in our real lives. Of that original community, I can only think of small handful of bloggers who ever still blog, and even they join in only sporadically now.

Of course, blogs that have a team of contributors writing short, informative articles, especially lists (“The 10 Things You Need” or “The 5 Reasons Why”), and producing several articles daily, are still alive and well. However, I think of them more like webzines than blogs.

Meanwhile the blogs driven by a single writer producing personal essays are dying on the vine. I’ve tried to speculate on why things have changed. Perhaps the mommy bloggers who once had little babies now have big kids, and as the moms have grown in confidence, mommying is easier, and there’s less need for that communal support. Perhaps it’s because people have switched from going online on their computers to going on their phones, and commenting and deep engagement is just much more taxing from a phone. Perhaps our attention spans are shorter. Perhaps as the internet has grown, there is just too much interesting content vying for our attention.

I have thought long and hard about what this means for my own blog. It takes a significant amount of time to put together a decent post with photos, and as I’ve had to scrape together that time in the wee hours of the morning, the number of “decent posts” I can cobble together has waned. And if the community I’m talking to is disappearing, when does the effort expended exceed the returns?

But here’s the thing: I just can’t quit blogging. I would miss it too much. I fail at personal journals and don’t have the discipline for scrapbooks. For me, blogging is still the perfect medium for working through my thoughts and creating a history that I can look back on to remember a lot of the big and small moments in our lives. It’s a slice of creativity when I can’t fit it in otherwise, and a healthy habit for keeping creativity vibrant even when I can be creative in other ways.

And it’s a great way to keep the friends and grandmas in the loop about how Cy is doing.

So I’m not going to quit blogging. But I think I do need to change how I approach it. One of the rules of blogging (if you want to have a thriving blog) is to blog often and consistently. I’m going to break that rule and instead of posting because I’m supposed to, I’ll post when I have something I really want to share. I’m also going to nix the comments section on my blog because almost everyone who comes to read it regularly comes from Facebook and comments there anyway, and this way I don’t have to moderate spam (which is a serious time suck and the thing I like the least about blogging). In the meantime, I’ll be spending more time posting on Instagram and doing microposts on my Facebook page. Hopefully this means I’ll get to focus on engaging with the lovely, thoughtful and encouraging comments from my friends, which I can do from my phone when Cy is napping, and not have to waste any more time excommunicating links to jewelry sites in Russia. However, this also means I’m stepping down as a contributor at Communal Global, which makes me quite sad, though I still plan to visit from time to time.

I’m not sure what the outcome of these changes will look like. I do hope some of these changes will help revitalize what blogging once was about: sharing the things I’m itching to say and deep (if not wide) community. For those of you who have been with me over the years, thank you for sharing this space with me, for sharing your thoughts and reactions, and for all your encouragement as I’ve tried to grow as a writer and artist. I hope you will stay with me as I try out these new changes, but if not, I still want to say how much I appreciate you coming along with me as far as you did.

Until some other medium comes along, you can still find me here, at Tasting Grace.

Island Escape: Koh Chang

* I tried to post this last week, but the internet here is beyond slow and I couldn’t upload any of the pictures. I had to find a bar to get the pictures to upload–which I suppose isn’t such a travesty! (wink, wink)

It’s that time of year again: when the mountains of Chiang Mai can no longer be seen, when everyone starts coughing and the eyes start burning, and when we are finally motivated to get out of town. It’s smoky season. The local farmers start burning the brush because it helps cultivate the soil for mushrooms to pop up that they can then go collect and sell. It’s an important part of their yearly income, but it means bad health for everyone in the region.

Because we now have a baby’s health to consider, when the air starts getting bad, we make the effort to get out of town and go somewhere safer. This is our second year that we’ve taken the opportunity to get down to the islands.

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It’s funny that it takes the prospect of sore lungs to get us to head down south. Every year we wonder why we don’t do this sooner.

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In the meantime, if you need us, we’ll be busy being beach bums!

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The internet is kind of crap down here, so if you want to follow along, join me on Instagram!

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A Trip to a Favorite Temple: Wat Pa Laad

IMG_0583There’s a famous temple on a hilltop here in Chiang Mai called Doi Suthep. It’s where all the tourists go, climbing innumberable steps to the summit to look down on the city below, bypassing peddlers and tourist traps, scammers, and stray dogs all along the way. It’s a temple, and about as commercial as it gets.

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What most people don’t know is that just a few kilometers below Doi Suthep is another temple: Wat Palad. It’s as serene and tranquil as you’d expect of a serious meditation retreat.

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You can hike up to it, and encounter the beautiful waterfall at the summit, or you can drive straight to it (as we like to do because we are lazy).

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Almost no one but monks is ever there, so you’re free to traipse over the ancient grounds and explore the hidden treasures without anyone accosting you and asking for money.

A well for drawing water

A well for drawing water

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Cy traipsing after his grand aunt, Yai Nee

Cy traipsing after his grand aunt, Yai Nee

It’s worth a visit if you’re ever in the area!

Little by Little



Gratitude

Feeling thankful for great dads. A present father is such a gift.

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A little thing. But such a big, big thing too. This weekend I encountered the difference between a child loved and a child who had grown up unloved, and it was like seeing a treasure and a treasure destroyed. It made me more aware than ever the intense need children have for love, respect, and acknowledgment–and more determined than ever that when my little one acts out, I should respond with compassion. True for big people too, though they’re often better at hiding it.

Things I Love About Cy:

The other day, he asked me what a kiss was. I had kissed him on his hand, so he pointed to his hand and said, “Da?” “Hand,” I said. “Da?” “Hand,” I repeated. When he kept asking, I realized he wanted to know what I had done to his hand. So I said, “Kiss.” “Ahhh,” he said.

Cy doesn’t pronounce final consonants on words. So when it came to saying the word “egg,” he squints his eyes, grits his teeth, and yells, “E!”

Little by Little



Suddenly Mom

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When I make a connection with an individual student at SOLD and know we have a shared hobby or that I can expose them to more wide and varied experiences related to their interests, I like to try to invite them to spend a weekend with us in Chiang Mai, where I can encourage their passion and give them a glimpse into the wider world out there. There is one such boy I’ve known since he was about 13, who has always had the biggest heart, loves to eat and loves to make people laugh, but who has also had a very hard family life. He seemed to be falling by the way side over the past year, so I extended an invite to him to come visit us for a weekend and we would go do fun things together.

I didn’t hear anything for a while. Then I got an email on Wednesday night, followed by a phone call Thursday morning saying that yes, he wants to come, he’ll be here on Friday, and by the way, his family says I can keep him; they don’t want him to come back.

I literally started crying for him when I got off the phone. Of course he could come stay with us – but for how long? I wondered. My mama heart wanted to wrap him up and take him in immediately, but my brain that has seen the trials and burdens placed on at-risk kids knew this was no simple question. To really help him, we have to be all in. Otherwise, we’re just another source of instability and confusion in his life. Was I about to adopt a (now) 16-year-old boy with attachment issues, a smoking habit, and spotty school attendance record on little more than a days’ notice? Who also was raised in a different culture and speaks a different language? It was unlikely it would come to something so permanent, but I had to be prepared for the possibility that there would be at least an extended stay.

There were ups and downs, and there came a point at which, after taking him grocery shopping to make sure we had on hand whatever snacks, drinks, and breakfast items he preferred, and he immediately went upstairs and closed himself in his room while I boosted Cy on my hip and put the groceries away, where I really, really felt like a mom. More than anything I’ve ever encountered before, having a toddler on my hip and a moody teenager upstairs while I sorted groceries, made me suddenly feel like I have definitely become a capital M Mom.

There was a lot of uncertainty over the weekend, but mostly I just wanted to give him a respite from whatever was happening at home. At the end of the weekend, he decided to go back home with an invitation to return if he ever chooses to. I don’t know what the future holds for him, but I told him I thought he was brave for even coming to us in the first place. It’s a huge step to try to make a change in your life, when you have no idea where you’re headed or what the future will bring. He retreated from it in the end, but he did try.

Because Baby Goats

One of the perks of being able to be home with Cy is that when he has those not-so-good days, I can try to pop out with him into the city and go do something special. Yesterday, he hadn’t been sleeping well and he had been fighting frustrations with not being able to talk–which, frankly, living in a foreign country and not always being able to say what you want to say, is something I completely understand. Come evening time, I really thought it would be better to get out of the house and go on an adventure.

So we took him to the Night Safari and fed the animals.

We fed the deer.

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And the giraffes.

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And the goats! Because baby goats make everyone happy.

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Cy is always unafraid to get right up there with the animals. Feeding them turned around his mood like nothing else. The air was crisp and cool in the evening after a hot day, and there was plenty of space to run around and burn off excess energy. And there was ice cream.

All in all, I’d call it a successful excursion. (And excluding food cost us all of $5.)

Things I Love About Cy

I realized I haven’t been adding this onto the bottom of my momma chat posts lately, so I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing a few extra.

- Every time we go out, he knows I need to wear shoes, so he runs to get mine and bring them to me to put on.

- His new favorite word is “Ew!,” which he says every time we change a poopy diaper, his feet get muddy, he touches something gross, or sees a dirty street dog.

- His new favorite letter is D. Toby found an app that teaches toddlers the alphabet and when they got to the letter D, Cy exclaimed, “D!” We were so excited – until he got to the next letter and said, “D!” And the letter after that, and the letter after that. Well, he’s got one letter down anyway.

- He’s meticulous and fastidious. If a little bit of water spills on my lap, he’ll try to wipe it away.

- He’s learned to say owl and he says it was such exuberance. “OW-wull!”

That’s it for this week! Join us at Communal Global and Little Things Thursday!

Little by Little



The Hunt for a Nanny Part IV: the Liaison

_1080069If you’ve been following our saga in finding a nanny (catch up on Part I, Part 2, and Part 3 here), I first want to thank everyone for their support and commiseration with the whole process, and for validating my instincts. It’s definitely nice to know I’m not alone in this, or crazy for having maybe high or specific expectations.

Anyway, thankfully, I really haven’t been alone in this process — I’ve found an amazing and important advocate in the agency who put us in touch with our nanny in the first place. The owner and founder, Kristi, came for a house visit yesterday and I shared my concerns with her. Not only was she sympathetic and understanding, she was also incredibly practical. She brought a Thai assistant with her, and together, they had a private conversation with our nanny to give her a chance to share her own concerns and perspective and to provide a safe place where they could more clearly outline what I’m looking for and hoping for.

I can’t even begin to tell you what an immediate and effective difference it made. After Kristi left, I took Pii On and Cy out for a long walk, in which I could spend time showing her more of Cy’s interests, explain his efforts to communicate, and let her get used to our dynamic. By the end of an hour, he was able to play with her for extended periods. I got things done that have been sitting on my to-do list, eating away at my nerves for weeks. He began to look for her. He was happy. He had a fantastic day, and so did we.

There are still a couple of small wrinkles to iron out, like maybe she could nip it with the unsolicited parenting advice, and she’s so raring to go with him she gets a little pushy, and I’m hoping she’ll learn to trust me that things will go much better with Cy if I fill him up with food and mama time first before going to play. But these are comparatively such tiny things, and definitely fixable, and the huge difference in just one day is plenty of hope to go on to give these other things a pass and have faith that it will all turn into one well-oiled machine soon enough. And major kudos to Pii On for being so flexible and willing to hear critique and act on it.

It seems like such a little thing: a little fracture in communication and understanding, but it could have easily and quickly destroyed the relationship, and the simple addition of a friendly liaison to act as an advocate for the relationship, to make sure both sides are happy and well-understood. But such a huge impact. It makes me think, especially when there’s a big class, language, or cultural divide, or even the simple divide created by trying to be polite, there are so many relationships that can be cut off too quickly, or jobs too quickly lost, despite best intentions on both sides. Having an agent bridge the gap is so incredibly valuable, and I’m so thankful for ours.

If you’re ever in Chiang Mai and are in need of a housekeeper or nanny, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with Kristi, from Bliss.

Little by Little
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