The Hunt for a Nanny Part 3: Pii On

couchCyBack in November, I contacted an agency that helps place maebaans (a term used for housekeepers and nannies), requesting someone who could help out with Cy for a few hours a day. After two months without any luck finding anyone (it turns out maebaans only want full-time work and they don’t want to drive more than 10 minutes to get there), I agreed to having someone come full time, with the idea being that she would also take care of the house.

Enter Pii On. She sounded great on paper (speaks English, has her own transportation, 7 years experience working with a foundation for kids), and she seemed bright and happy during the interview.

The agency provides a 2-day training session for the maebaans, after which there would be a 30-day trial period. Since we needed help immediately, we agreed to have her come help us finish unpacking, clean, and shadow me with Cy for 2 weeks until the next available training session, after which the trial period would officially begin.

We’ve just had the first 2 weeks with her and the first week went amazing. She did to this house in just a few days what would have taken me months to accomplish. She didn’t wait for direction; she just saw what needed to be done and did it. She goes above and beyond duty: she shows up early and leaves late, and though we provide her lunch every day, she never eats it until we’ve eaten first, even when sometimes I don’t get a chance to eat until closer to 2 or 3 pm. I couldn’t thank her enough for the load she lifted off my shoulders. I was really able to focus on being with Cy, without being torn in a million directions with other responsibilities.

The second week went okay…but a few odd things started to crop up. I noticed that though she said she speaks English I actually haven’t heard this happen, which is okay, but will complicate Cy being able to understand her. Her listening skills aren’t that great, which I think is because she sometimes has an idea in her head about what she thinks you’re saying instead of hearing what you’re actually saying. Occasionally she makes some comments that are vaguely offensive, but given my non-perfect Thai, I can’t really tell if she means to insult or if she’s kind of just tactless. And though she’s generally super conscientious, there are times like when I needed to stop by the grocery store after taking her and Cy to play at a playground, and she decided, without asking, to make a stop at the bank, which was okay except that her errand didn’t go well and ended up taking a really long time and involved going to a different bank–at which point, if I personally was in that situation, on my boss’s time, I would have either asked permission first or given up and gone on my own time–and ended up leaving me standing in the hot sun with a tired and cranky Cy, wondering what the heck was going on.

And I’ve been trying to give her time to play with Cy so they can get used to each other so that she can take him for a couple of hours a day, but things just haven’t been going smoothly. I kind of feel like she isn’t super interested in hanging out with Cy. She does play with him a bit, but she seems more interested in doling out unsolicited parenting advice to me than in finding out who Cy is as a person. And this past week, it has felt to me like she kind of hides upstairs, taking care of the most minute details, down to ironing our underwear, instead of hanging out with Cy and me.

BUT it could be that I’m not as inviting as I should be and that my reservedness is subtly sabotaging her ability to connect with him and me. It’s just, she’s got a bit of a salty personality that I find it not so easy to get along with. I think the little oddities have gotten my guard up, and I’m a bit turned off by the way she talks sometimes. The thing is, in Thai, when you speak in a low class way, it comes across as offensive–much more so than in English–but is that her fault, if that’s maybe the way she was raised or the only way she knows how to speak?

This wouldn’t be such an issue if she was just an employee because in many ways she’s a great worker. But as a maebaan, she is going to be more than that. She is being invited into many of the most private parts of our lives. Our whole house & home are open to her, as is Cy, and if I bring her with me when I go on trips to Chiang Rai for SOLD, then I’m going to be spending a LOT of time with her. More than an employee, she would be part of the family. And I wonder, if I don’t fully like her, will I ever fully trust her? It’s a question separate from how trustworthy she actually is; it’s about my capacities and limitations as a person too.

I’m trying to be self-aware about this, and in this 30-day trial period, I’m going to try my hardest to lower my guard and invite her in as much as possible and see what she does with it. Maybe this is just one more of those opportunities for me to grow and learn. We’ll see how it goes.

**If you missed them, you can read The Hunt for a Nanny Part I here and Part 2 here.



Kids, Tech & Gadgetry

_1060698It might be a bit early to start thinking about our house rules regarding technology for Cy, seeing as how the fancy gadget that’s really blowing his hair back right now is Dot’s clicker—a little plastic button that pushes onto a piece of aluminum and makes a popping sound. He likes to pop it with his gums. On the other hand, maybe it’s never too early, as technology already infuses his life: he sees his parents on their iPhones probably more than he should, kindles are on the family bed, Dad is at work on his iMac most of the day, we Skype with family half the world away, and we have a couple of “emergency” go-to video/flashy things to play for him when we really need to calm him down and nothing else is working (like, say, on a flight). There’s no divorcing technology from his life unless we turn into Luddites ourselves, but as it’s our connection to loved ones and it’s how Toby makes a living and supports the family, the gadgetry is here to stay.

What got me thinking more about this topic was reading this post by Sarah, from Memories on Clover Lane. She’s been in the trenches for twenty years, and I respect her views. She’s probably a bit stricter about technology than I am—I don’t view technology as inherently good or evil; it is we who must be mindful about our use of it—but I do plan to be stricter about Cy’s use of technology than I think might be necessary, at least to start with, because it is always easier to give than to take away.

Toby and I began talking about what goals we’d like to have regarding technology, figuring that’s the best starting point to guide what rules we make. Here’s some of what we came up with:

First, we want Cy to be able to use technology with ease, to be familiar with it, and to be able to navigate his way around the web, software, and devices so he can pursue any interest he might have. Because it is going to be a part of his life (and certainly a part of whatever job he might have), he needs to know how to manipulate it. Cutting it out of his life for fear of the pitfalls, I think, just becomes a wasted opportunity to provide him with proper guidance. Kids today appear to be “digital natives”, but my experience in teaching (from disadvantaged kids in Thailand, to university undergrads in America) tells me that they are in sore need of guidance. For example, they know how to punch in words for a Google search, but they are lost when it comes to keyword search logic, evaluating source credibility and legitimacy, and finding what they’re looking for efficiently. In today’s world, I think what you know is becoming less important than knowing how to find it out. So we want to encourage his use of technology, as well as guide him in how to use it effectively and appropriately.

However, our second goal for Cy is that we want him to be able to exist without technology. We want him to be able to put it aside and enjoy other pursuits where he can be out in nature, play a real musical instrument, or make something with his bare hands. We want him to experience boredom and how it can become the mother of creativity. We want him to be able to just BE, without constant input. We want him to be able to focus without technological distractions. And we don’t want him to hole up in his room, not interacting with his own family, or choosing to socialize with friends digitally instead of in the “real world.”

Here’s some rules I’m toying around with:

–I like the idea of restricting use of gadgetry to communal areas (like a family office, or the living room, for example).

–I also like the idea of keeping ownership communal until certain ages. I haven’t worked this all out yet, and I’m sure the popular gadgetry will have changed by the time this is relevant, but, hypothetically speaking…

–I’ll probably let him have his own kindle once he gets into reading chapter books because we travel a lot and I’m not interested in schlepping a huge library everywhere we go. On the scale of Potential Disaster, I think kindles are probably on the low end.

–The smart phone stays communal maybe until he can drive. I know the current trend is to give them phones quite young, maybe even around the time they’re 10. I just can’t for the life of me come up with a reason he would need his OWN phone that young. A family phone that he can use for whatever apps he might want should cover it until he makes it to high school at least.

–And the computer or laptop stays community property until we give him one as a graduation gift from high school so he has one to use in college).

–I also like the idea of limits being purpose driven. Instead of setting arbitrary time limits on how long he can use the computer, for example, it seems to make sense to set it around the purpose for which it is being used. Once the purpose is met, it’s good to go take a break and do something else.

But it’s not just about setting limits. It’s up to us to create opportunities for better alternatives. A big part of why kids are so “addicted” to their phones today is because they don’t have the same opportunities to be social, exist in public spaces, and explore the world freely with age mates that they once did. (Danah Boyd documents this well in her book, It’s Complicatedwhich is a really great read on teen social media use AND she provides the PDF available for free to download on her website.) So if we want him to “get offline,” we need to allow him time and space to have unstructured interactions with his friends, where he can unwind and play without adults watching his every move, so that he doesn’t have to turn to social media as his only outlet for being social.

That’s something that I think is much easier to accomplish here in Thailand, or in Europe, where there is easy public transportation and teens are welcome in public space, than it is in suburban America, where you need to drive to get anywhere and teens are viewed with suspicion by many. I remember as a teenager in suburban California, I would come straight home after school and spend hours on the phone with my friends because I couldn’t drive to go hang out with them in person, and there wasn’t really any place for us to go even if we could get there. I didn’t want to be on the phone; it was just my only option. I certainly would have done my homework more efficiently if it meant I could have had some time to unwind with my friends too.

And my third goal for Cy is to make him aware of how his actions online affect himself and others. This gets into a sticky issue about kids and privacy. Toby probably guards privacy more fiercely than I do. I believe Cy’s privacy is important, but that I reserve the right to revoke it if I feel Cy is going off track. I feel conflicted about what my responsibility as a parent is—to what extent is it my responsibility to oversee or monitor what he does and how he feels if it could lead to harm to himself or someone else? I want to say that it’s our job to just provide the foundation of good values and moral behavior, but I feel it’s also my job to protect him where I can. Would I second guess myself if something awful happened that I could have stopped? To what extent would his mistakes be mine too?

Boyd’s book offers an important perspective though: that kids need privacy, without the freedom to make their own choices and mistakes, they will be hampered in their moral development and growth as independent human beings. Moreover, they crave privacy, and the more you crowd them, the more they will turn to secretive measures to achieve it. If you don’t extend your children trust, you will undermine the relationship you seek to build with them.

American culture is particularly risk-averse, and as an American, I battle this within myself too. I know from my own experience, how important it is to take risks, how freeing it is and how much growth it engenders. But it’s one thing to know one should let go, and another to face the prospect of risk and danger with one’s child. I think that will be one of the biggest challenges for me as a mother: forever navigating the balance between guiding and letting go.

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How do you see your role as a parent? How do you approach technology with children?

Also: HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY to all my fellow American and Canadian mamas!

Thing I Love About Cy Today: When he’s happy about something, he flaps his arms and grins really wide.

P.S. Sorry this is such a long post! It’s just something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past week. (And trust me, it could have been soooo much longer!) Also, I’m going to try to participate in Little Things Thursday as regularly as I can, so it’s likely that I’ll shift my Momma Chats over to Tuesdays, starting next week. Thanks for stopping by and hanging out here in this space with me!

Momma Chat: On the First Three Pages of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

_1060539There’s a particularly vicious dog in our neighborhood, one who had gotten in a fight with Dot and left a hole in our dog, and who had come tearing after me and Cy one day, ready to attack, until I turned around and “Hssst!” loudly at it so it backed off. Yesterday, Toby was out walking with Cy and Dot, when this dog came around the bend. Dot, having learned her lesson, hightailed it for home to hide in her bed. Toby saw the dog take off–and then heard what sounded like a dog fight and then shrieking. Hurrying to make sure the commotion didn’t involve Dot, he found the dog…and the source of the shrieking. A neighborhood cat was clamped in the dog’s jaws, dead.

For this, I’m particularly thankful I know enough about dogs that I had an intuition about how to react when it charged at me and Cy–though honestly I feel lucky it worked. Many Thais respond to Dot by putting their hand out in a way that looks like they’ll strike her, so she responds by barking and growling at them. I shudder to think what would have happened with this dog if it encounters a person who responds that way.

That story doesn’t actually have anything to do with the rest of this post. I just had to get that off my chest.

_1060545I’ve been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance lately. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, but every time I tried picking it up before, I just couldn’t get into it. My head wasn’t in the right place. Sometimes books require not just the right reader, but the right time.

It’s one of Toby’s favorites, and at his urging, I picked it up and this time it clicked. “I’m happy to be riding back into this country,” Pirsig writes. “It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that. Tensions disappear along old roads like this.” I’m ready for that road, one where absence makes the most sense. And the first three pages coin phrases that pinpoint various thoughts I’ve been thinking with uncanny precision.

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You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

When Toby and I first moved to Thailand, we didn’t have a car, we had a motorcycle and a scooter. I’d ridden on the back of his motorcycle at home in the States, but never driven one myself. But it’s the best way to get around here, and seeing two people on a motorcycle puttering cheerfully through the countryside with rice paddies and mountains in the background is a quintessential scene in Thailand and the one that has always meant “home” to me, even though I never grew up around anything like it.

At first, I was a little afraid about learning to ride the scooter. Within a month, I began to love it. There’s a freedom you feel, moving through space with nothing but the air around you and the ground below you. There’s no filter: you feel the heat and the cold, you smell the grease and the grass, you can slip in small spaces unhindered and park on the sidewalk and at doorsteps. You are in the scene, not passing it by.

Except for tiny jaunts in our own neighborhood, I haven’t driven the scooter since I first got pregnant. I miss it.

Sometimes, when Cy falls asleep in the car, Toby and I go for long drives as it’s easier to just let him sleep than to get home, wake him up, and then get him back down for a nap. On one of these drives, Toby decided to take some back roads–ones where there’s nothing happening. Except it’s not nothing at all. We slipped into the countryside, where there’s wooden houses and makeshift bamboo structures, rice paddies, buffaloes, and a stream, and Toby remarked, “Oh yeah, we live in Thailand.” It catches us by surprise sometimes because Chiang Mai is an urban center, with fancy cappuccinos, plush-seated theaters, sushi, and H&M. We could be anywhere.

Normally, I’m in agreement with him when one of us makes this observation. But this time, I didn’t. My life since baby is one lived primarily in the house, the car, and the mall (where there’s both A/C and things to distract Cy). I don’t live in Thailand, I’m passing it by.

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“…where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you’re from and how long you’ve been riding.”

Early every morning, while it’s still relatively cool, we take Cy for a walk around the neighborhood. Our neighborhood is so quiet, I often make this trip in a T-shirt and fisherman pants, which is sort of okay for public viewing, but is really actually my pajamas. Towards the end of the walk, we always come across a group of lady gardeners, each one wearing heavy makeup barely visible under the wide-brim hat and scarves they wear to shield from the sun. “Maa laew, maa laew!” they call to each other when they see us coming, and they crowd around to get a good look at Cy, squeeze his calves, and try to elicit from him a hello. Generally, I like this kind of attention because it makes me feel like we’re a part of the community, but I always find these particular stops longer than I like primarily because I’m still in my PJs, sans makeup, and haven’t yet had my coffee. Did I mention no coffee? But it’s sweet, and yes, okay, maybe I do live in Thailand after all.

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For me this is all mixed with memories that he doesn’t have.

I’m feeling just a little homesick these days and am looking forward to our trip to the States in June, but I realize this time we won’t have a chance to get back to Santa Barbara, which for me is home home. It’s a special place for me and Toby; it’s where everything happened, where everything comes back to. Where we found ourselves, where we met each other, where we loved, where we fell apart and put everything back together, where we married and became us. And I think, Cy won’t know Santa Barbara the way we know it. We can visit it as much as we like, and it will never be imbued with the same meaning for him as it has for us. And I wonder, can he really know me without knowing Santa Barbara? Because I can’t see myself separate from my history which is so deeply intertwined in that place, and I’m a little sad at the thought that he might not really get me.

Then I think: do children ever really know their parents? In some ways, they know them more deeply than any other person on the planet, I think, in ways that aren’t always conscious. But no number of stories or facts about personal history tells a child who their parent really was before children, apart from the parent-child relationship. Parenthood changes us too. So what they see of us is not the same as what was.

Cy has started to enjoy head and back massages. I tried them a couple times when he was younger but he didn’t like them before. Suddenly now, he relaxes beneath my hand and it’s one way I can help him unwind before bed at night. We lie in the dark together, with just the soft glow of a night light, and I rub gentle circles over his back and run my fingers through his hair. His breath slows and his eyes begin to close, and I love doing this because it feels like such an intimate and loving thing to do.

And I think maybe Cy will know everything about me that actually matters.

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Thing I Love About Cy Today: I love the way he has figured out about how to climb up the step between his play area in the living room and the hallway leading to the staircase. He gets right up to the step, very deliberately he puts each hand one after the other on the step, then he gets his bum way up in the air, waddles his bum up to the step where his feet can feel the edge, and then finally pulls his legs over the threshold. It’s smart, systematic, and utterly adorable to watch.

 

Momma Chat: The Two Questions I’m Asked Most Often

_1060292There are a couple questions I’m frequently asked about mamahood and my lifestyle. The first one is about Cy’s bedtime routine, and given how I approach it, the question is: how do I have time for my husband and for own self?

So let me back up and explain how bedtime goes down in this house. Since Cy was about 3 months old, he started being able to nurse to sleep. At first this was great. It would start around 7 or 7:30 and take about half an hour for him to fall asleep and then he’d be out until about 11 p.m., when he’d need to nurse again (then again around 2 a.m, and then what happened between 4-7 a.m. was anybody’s guess). I could probably have just left him by himself in bed at that age, and gone downstairs to enjoy dinner and a movie with Toby every night, but he was still so little, I didn’t want him to wake up alone in the dark and be frightened. So I lay down with him. Plus, in the early days, I was pretty exhausted by his bedtime too, so I didn’t really want to do anything else.

Then, around four months of age, I probably would have felt comfortable enough with our routine that I would have let him be alone…except that’s when the 4-month sleep regression hell horror show started and it took anywhere between an hour to four hours of crying, carrying, rocking, singing, nursing madness to get him down to sleep at night. By the time that was over, it was often 11 p.m. and I didn’t want to do anything but crash myself.

We’re now getting back closer to what it was like when he was 3 months old (it takes more than nursing now, I have a routine: change his diaper & put on fresh clothes, nurse him, read On the Night You Were Bornthen alternate nursing & carrying him until he falls asleep), and still I lie down in bed with him when I put him down. People wonder: aren’t you bored/annoyed having to go to bed when he does? Actually, no. That’s my down time too. I don’t go to sleep, but I do need to unwind before bed. So Toby and I get dinner, switching off taking turns to eat and stay with Cy. While Toby eats, I get caught up on emails, blogs, and Facebook. Then we pull the laptop onto the bed, snuggle in together, plug in the headphones, and watch movies and TV shows.

“But you can’t talk to each other with him sleeping right there,” people wonder. “When do you and Toby get time to talk?”

This is one of the big perks of Toby working from home. We talk all day long. Cy and I pop into Toby’s office once every couple of hours or so just to say hi for a few minutes. We trade off Cy duty while we eat lunch together and chat. Then in the evenings we’ll often go for walks together in the neighborhood or at the mall, and while Cy chills out in the stroller we catch up with each other. Actually, some of our best conversations come in the car when we go out to the mall or dinner because we can talk uninterrupted and not have to be busy entertaining Cy.

Did Cy always need us to be there? Probably not. Some days he would need a little extra reassurance, other days not. It’s hard to say which would be which, but I did prioritize his sense of security and so I’m glad I was there when he needed me to be.

This definitely wouldn’t work for every lifestyle, but it works well enough with ours.

_1060308The other question I’m frequently asked is: how does becoming a mother affect your perspective on what you do at The SOLD Project? (For those who don’t know, I oversee the education programs at an organization that aims to help prevent children from being trafficked as sex slaves, by providing education and raising awareness.)

This question is hard for me to answer. I mulled over it for ages, and honestly, I don’t think being a mother changes how I feel about my work at SOLD. I still believe selling children for sex is inescapably wrong. And I couldn’t possibly believe it is more wrong than I already did.

However, I think my work at SOLD affects me as a mother. I know all too well the horrific conditions (the squalor, the emotional and physical torture…) children, even babies are subjected to. (How young do you think it starts? 14? 10? 5? I’ve heard tales of the sexual abuse of 6-month olds.) I know how nauseatingly atrocious, and how very real this gross injustice is. How close it is to our front doors–even in the U.S. It’s not abstract to me. It’s not the millions of children worldwide, and it’s not the 500,000 in the U.S. each year. It’s children I know by name. Children with whom I have hugged and laughed. If anything like that were to happen to Cy…oh, let’s just not go there.

And here, I bump into a real cultural problem. Here, Thai people LOVE babies, and they adore Cy. Complete strangers come up to coo over him and touch him all the time. From several yards away, they’ll point at him and nudge their friends to look at how cute he is. Random people on the street ask to hold him. Waitstaff in restaurants are often conscientious about wanting to hold him and entertain him so Toby and I can eat in peace. If you say no, people will actually get offended.

There’s about 50% of me that relishes living in a country where the sense of community around babies is so strong. It’s lovely to be so feel so welcomed with a baby, and to know that people are so generous and loving with children.

About 40% of me is happy he gets a chance to be with so many people so he can develop his sense of confidence among others and his social skills.

About 10% of me is terrified every time he is in the arms of someone who just might try to whisk him away. Someone who might see his value in dollars.

We have a neighbor lady who just thrills every time she sees Cy. But instead of enjoying her excitement over him, I get nervous. This lady never spoke one single word to us in the three years we lived here before Cy came along–not even when I was pregnant. Her husband was actually rude to us when we had car trouble. Then, when I started taking Cy out on walks, suddenly she comes out like we’re best friends. At first, it was nice that we were somehow legitimate or something…but as Cy gets bigger and more sociable, she keeps asking, “Is he easy to take care of?” and “Is he afraid of people?” At first, the questions seemed innocuous. I didn’t blink twice at them. But she asks me this every time she sees him. Maybe they are benign questions, but I find it strange that that’s what (and all) she wants to know about him all the time.

Then, a couple of days ago, I was out walking with Cy and she spotted us, drove out of her way to pull up next to us because her friend (whom I’ve never met) really wanted to take a bunch of photos of Cy. Prickles on my mama bear neck began to rise. Why would a complete stranger want photos of Cy? As foreigners, we’re subject to our fair bit of exotification (is that a word?), which doesn’t bother me,…but I didn’t like the smell of this.

Maybe my work over-sensitizes me. Maybe I’m just weirded out because effusive praise always puts me on edge, as it often comes across as being not genuine. But I also know the vast majority of child abusers and abductors are not strangers. They’re people the child knows and trusts, people who know them by name.

Because of my work, I can’t really relax and enjoy when waitstaff take him off our hands for a minute. Because of my work, I have no idea how to find balance between teaching Cy to be confident among people, but to also take care. Because of my work, I will never ask Cy to kiss, hug, or be held by anyone he feels uncomfortable with–even family–because I want him to know he always has the right to say no and he always has ownership over his own body.

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I wish I could end this on a lighter note.

Tell me: how would you handle the balance of cultural niceties versus protecting your child?

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Thing I Love About Cy Today: When he stands up now, he loves to stick out his tongue and go, “Pbbbbt!

Sneak Peek! My Guest Post on The Kitchn

I’ve been asked to do a guest post for The Kitchn as part of a series on how Christmas and the winter holidays are celebrated around the world. The Kitchn is a daily web magazine dedicated to bringing both beauty and simplicity to the home, and it’s a fantastic resource full of fun inspiration, tantalizing recipes, and great tips from experts.

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If you’re curious to find out how Thais celebrate Christmas, check out my post by clicking this link here! You can also check out the start of the series and found out how the party goes down in Rwanda!

Hope you like this little peek into Thai culture!

Curiosity Does Not an AHole Make

I’d be the last person to downplay the prevalence of racial problems in this world, but I have to say I do think there’s such a thing as being too sensitive about race. And I think that uber-sensitivity does us all a disservice in drawing attention away from real, actual problems of race, crying wolf when the real wolves are elsewhere, doing far more damage.

Here’s a case in point: an article on Jezebel about how to ask someone about their ethnicity. Let me summarize their answer for you: Don’t. It’s otherizing and exoticizing and that’s offensive. Apparently.

Now, I’m one of those people who never has an easy time with the question “Where are you from?” because the truth is a long story. So my answer depends on the context. If it looks like a shorter answer is appropriate, my response will be either “The States,” “California,” or possibly “Santa Barbara” though I could just as easily say Mission Viejo or Westminster if I’m being city-specific. If it’s a Thai person asking, I’ll usually respond in Thai that I’m a “half-race child: Thai & American.”

Sometimes more detail is called for: “My mom is Thai and my dad is American, but he grew up in South Africa.”

Sometimes it’s appropriate for me to mention that while my dad is an American, he primarily grew up in South Africa, but his family is actually from Norway. He’s as blond and blue-eyed as they come, but he grew up speaking Zulu (clicks and all) before he learned to speak English.

When asked where I grew up, I say southern California. But occasionally I surprise everyone when I admit I was born in Mississippi.

By that time everyone is confused, and I haven’t even gotten to the part about how my brother and sister are actually my cousins (no incest involved, thankyouverymuch) and technically, biologically, I’m an only child.

_1050346-2Like I said, long story. If people try to place me based on looks, they generally think I might be Hawaiian, or Mexican, maybe Indian. Not Thai, though. And not white either. If anyone has a claim to feeling “otherized” I’d think I do because I don’t fit the mold anywhere.

But while the “Where are you from?” question is never easy to answer, I don’t think people are assholes for asking it. Honestly, when I read articles like this Jezebel one, I just have to roll my eyes because, to me, it reeks more of the author’s own insecurity and discomfort in their own skin than racist behavior on the part of the questioner. More often than not, people asking where others are from are just making conversation. You never know their history either–maybe you look like you’re from Lebanon and that person just traveled there last month and is looking for a point of connection and a chance to talk with someone who gets it about the awesome time they had there. Or maybe you sound like you’re from Germany, and my family is from Germany but you’d never know it to look at me. Whatever. If you have an interesting heritage, maybe people are asking because you look like you have an interesting story to tell. Let me put it another way: would you rather forgo an interesting heritage in order to look just like everyone else? Is looking “exotic” such a bad thing? Is there something inherently better about looking obviously placeable?

I’d personally rather have people be curious about me than write me off.

The only time I’ve ever been really annoyed by the questioner was when he kept trying to make assumptions about me, being overly familiar and getting it all wrong. And I just wanted to tell him, “STOP. I’m sorry, dude, but I don’t fit in your preconceived molds so just stop trying to stuff me into one.” But that kind of questioner isn’t curious–in fact, he’s the opposite of curious, when he’s really just looking for the most efficient way to categorize everyone he meets–which sounds a lot more like racism to me than simple curiosity about others. Turns out this particular guy, a restaurant owner who liked to get real friendly with his guests, is now operating a hub for trafficking young girls and boys out of his restaurant, so he definitely qualifies as an asshole.

The world is only getting more globalized and we’ll only begin to see more multi-ethnic people and more convoluted stories about where we’re all really from, whatever that means. There’s no one way to ask a person about their heritage that encompasses all the possible responses. Is it really better to shut up and not ask the question for fear of “otherizing” each other, or is it better to leave open the opportunity for making a connection with each other, either through the magnetism of our differences or because there’s a hidden similarity that might not otherwise have been seen?

Meanwhile, if I feel otherized by or that I don’t fit in with a particular crowd because of my answer to the “Where are you from?” question, then they’re not the kind of people I want to spend my time with–regardless of whether they so boldly ask the question or not.

Playing the Waiting Game–in Life, Marriage, and Motherhood

Strung out on a line

Strung out on a line

When I was in college, the largely unspoken, but prevailing belief seemed to be that smart, strong women could have plenty of fun dating around, but would want to get their degree and all their career ducks in a row before settling down. For some, random hookups were the mode de jour; for others, dating was one long stream of bad men. Only a few had really long relationships. And motherhood? That was for way later, if at all. Pregnancy would practically mean the end of your life. Taking birth control was the only smart choice.

The trouble is none of us had any idea how difficult it could be to find a good partner after college. When you join the work force, you enter a pool of widely varied, but highly limited options. There’s usually a huge age range—which makes finding unmarried age-mates more difficult, and when you spend the vast majority of your life in one office, meeting people outside that milieu gets incredibly hard. If there aren’t any suitable mates among your coworkers (and let’s not even get into in all the potential trials of an office relationship), you can be hard-pressed to find the time or place to even meet anyone else new.

I remember when I was a teenager, I used to dream that I’d go to college, get a fancy career started, find an awesome apartment in a big city, and then find my future husband, whom I’d marry, preferably around the age of 28. After a couple years of marriage, we’d have our first child, probably when I was around the age of 30. Thirty sounded like a good child-bearing age. That still would give me a couple of years to have my second child at 32 or so, and be done well before that fertility drop-off at 35.

I assumed getting pregnant was easy because all you hear, when you’re young, is about the girls who got pregnant even though they only had unprotected sex “that one time.”

I don’t know if it’s by luck or by choice, but I never had a string of bad men or bad relationships. Sure, I dated a jerk or two and a few guys who, though nice, weren’t going to captivate me long-term. But those were always obvious from the start and I never was one to stick around with a losing bet (I distinctly remember one relationship that had a shelf-life of “Four Tuesdays”—my best friend from college will get this reference; there were lots of fun, crazy memories from that episode in our lives). My relationships either lasted a few weeks or a few years—the long ones, even the ones that didn’t work out, were great while they lasted, and important learning experiences in preparation for marriage.

It turns out, I met my husband in college—though neither of us was anywhere near ready for marriage at the time. But we fell in love, probably to both our surprises, and we stuck around each other, even though “not ready” was a big light flashing above both our heads. Toby took a year to travel the world after he graduated college, and in the interim, we had both grown a lot. By the time he came back, I knew I was ready to think about marriage, even if we weren’t anywhere near ready to marry each other. We loved each other; we knew that much. I probably broke a slew of dating rules by doing this, but I told him, in no uncertain terms, that if we were going to be together, it would be with an eye towards marriage. Though we both knew there were no guarantees in this trial run, I wasn’t going to waste time with someone who was only in it “just for now.”

Luckily for me, he was on the same page, more or less, and the years following were a steady learning experience in which we tried out what marriage might look like, what commitment meant, and what it would mean to devote ourselves to another. By the time he proposed to me, I was 26 and we were ready. We had grown into marriage together. We had become ready together. When we did exchange vows, I had just turned 28.

But marriage isn’t the only odyssey one embarks on—there’s also parenthood. Having just gotten married, I wasn’t in any rush to have a child. There was my doctorate to finish and a career to start. Toby was only just getting his career off the ground, and a job in the tech industry at that time seemed volatile and uncertain. We lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and had other dreams too, namely involving travel. Maybe living abroad for a while. There was still adventure to be had and a baby seemed more like a huge complication and intense responsibility than the next inevitable step in our life progression. The biological clock had started ticking, but I ignored the bell toll.

Though I had heard that fertility decreases with age, I still assumed it would be easy enough to get pregnant. I did have one friend who was trying to get pregnant and had started fertility treatments. She warned me getting pregnant could take time. I heard, but didn’t hear.

When I turned 30, I finished my doctorate and we made plans to move to Thailand. Work with The SOLD Project was already lined up; all I had to do was get to northern Thailand. We were leaving everything we knew behind. That wasn’t the time to start thinking about babies.

After we got settled in Thailand, and Toby’s work situation seemed solid, I was getting integrated at SOLD and halfway through writing a manuscript, I began to listen more carefully to that biological clock. I went off the pill slightly before entirely ready, thinking it would take a few months for the pill’s effects to clear my system, so that, fingers crossed, I might be 100% ready when it did.

Then, I didn’t get pregnant. Our jobs got even better, visitors came and went, we had grown into life in Thailand…I still didn’t get pregnant. My best friend from college was also enduring her own trial of fertility problems, and my best friend from grad school had suffered miscarriages, and another friend was going through a divorce…so by this time, I was really hearing it: Yes, it can be freaking hard to get pregnant. We traveled to Hong Kong and saw more of Asia. I still didn’t get pregnant. We spent a month in Europe, I didn’t get pregnant. We went back to the U.S. for a month…if I didn’t get pregnant soon, we’d have to think about fertility treatments. I didn’t even want to know what that cost would look like. My mother and sister had both had miscarriages before being able to carry a child to term. My cousin is 40 and still unable to get a baby to take, despite almost a decade of treatments. I knew that even if I did get pregnant, it might not work on the first try, and I had to steel myself for that possibility.

It turn out that it was only when we no longer had a stream of life and travel plans that, after more than a year and a half off the pill, I got pregnant. I’m turning 33 next week, and my dreams of having two kids are now looking more like I’ll be blessed to have one. I’m okay with that, and even saying this, I want it to be clear that I’m not complaining. I doubt I’d make different choices even if I had the chance. I love the years Toby and I have had together, and I think the stability we’ve built and the life experiences we’ve had, having had that time, will only serve our child better.

But I feel incredibly lucky. I feel like it’s only partly our choices, and mostly by chance that things have worked out for us (so far—I don’t want to jinx this!). I look at women I know who’ve been trying for years and years to get pregnant, or friends who’ve suffered miscarriages, or others who still can’t find a life partner, and I know how easily it could have gone a different way.

It’s a myth we tell ourselves when we’re young that we can somehow control life and when and how it happens to us. We make plans for what sounds like a good age to marry, and to have children…and these days, that “perfect age” is getting later and later. Instead of right after college, many push it off to their late 20s. Some women, realistic about demands certain careers make, push it off into their 30s, or even later. We don’t factor in the potential for complications. When we make our timelines, we don’t consider the possibility of divorce. We don’t consider the possibility of infertility.

Though I did get married at 28, the truth is I met the man I would marry when I was 20. It took us 8 years to get where we needed to be. If I hadn’t taken my feelings for him seriously way back then, when I still felt I had other life goals to meet first, or vice versa with him for me, who knows where either of us might be? Maybe we would have found other people to love. Maybe there is such a thing as soul mates, and we really are the only ones for each other. Who can really say? Meanwhile, people perpetuate this fear that marriage really hampers one’s freedom and independence. We’ve found this to be entirely untrue for us. Marriage has given us each a strong foundation from which we can both fly—both separately, and together. It’s made us stronger than we would have been alone.

We tell ourselves, when we’re young, that to be real strong, smart women, we have to put education and career before absolutely everything else. The truth is, life goals can exist side by side. You don’t have to put your ducks in a row…sometimes, you just kind of herd them along together. The trend now is to stave off marriage and family until you’ve lived your life first. What makes for “the right time” is an incredibly personal decision and it varies widely from person to person, but I do think we women do ourselves a disservice when we don’t make clear to each other that there are potential tradeoffs when we put off childbearing; that while you’re busy living your life, it can become increasingly harder (and harder than we think it will be) to be able to bear life. We underestimate how fragile life can be, and how uncertain fertility is. We all popped our birth control pills every day for years, each of us never knowing if we’d be the one who’d get pregnant on the first try, the one who would need years of fertility treatments, or the one who couldn’t get pregnant at all.

We can’t control when life happens to us, but we can be honest and informed about the consequences of our choices, and we can listen carefully to our inner guides about who is right for us and when we’re ready. From an employer’s perspective, there’s never a good time for a woman to get pregnant. But your life is your own. External deadlines matter little compared to the timeline we feel ticking along inside.

*   *   *

This post was inspired by this one, “26 and Already Pregnant,” by Kate from Eat The Damn Cake. If you’re interested in more fun facts about delayed marriage and child-rearing, check out this post, “The Sweet Spot for Tying the Knot,” by Susan Walsh at Hooking Up Smart.

A Coffee Chat

Fresh home baked bread

Fresh home baked bread

This week has been one of those weeks where I felt like we’ve been really busy, but when I try to remember what all it was that we did, I just draw a blank.

We did go furniture shopping on Thursday and on Saturday. My parents were browsing for items to fill their new house while I was looking for shelving units I can use to store our nice wedding plates once the shipment arrives and to make a couple of diaper changing stations for the baby’s stuff (one for upstairs and one for downstairs). No purchases to show you, though. We just got an idea of what’s available and prices. We didn’t find exactly what we were hoping to find, so I think we’ll just keep looking.

That’s something that’s still a bit hard, living in Thailand. In the U.S., I’d know exactly where to go to find pretty much anything I need and the variety of options is usually more than plenty. In Thailand, especially if you’re looking for something for the first time, it can really turn into a scavenger hunt and luck is pretty hit or miss when it comes to finding exactly what you want. No telling too, because sometimes you can find some really great, obscure items for really cheap. And sometimes it’s a challenge just to tackle the basics. I remember entire months when powdered sugar simply was unavailable.

American craft beer, a Macbook, and a dog = Toby bliss

American craft beer, a Macbook, and a dog = Toby bliss

I’ve come across a couple of interesting books this week.  One is The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. Written by the editor of Wired, it’s a fascinating look at how technology is changing the sale value of items that cater to niches. Before, when products (think like books, movies, music, etc.) had to justify their position on physical shelf space, it made sense for retailers to focus on the mega-hits, so items that cater to niche interests would be hard to find. But now, with online retailers like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, etc., there is virtually unlimited shelf space, which means it costs relatively little or even nothing to make those obscure items more available. They still, individually, won’t sell many units, but in aggregate, it ends up creating a huge new avenue for business. And it’s only growing, as people discover more and more how their tastes and interests diverge from the mainstream and they find new things they like that before they might never have come across. The ideas and observations in this book started as an article written in 2004 (and since then has been developed, with input, data, and insights supplied from leading economists, academics, and retailers).

What I find interesting, though, is that although notice of this phenomena is basically 10 years old, publishing houses are still trying desperately to cling to the old model of business, touting themselves as gatekeepers, instead of service providers for authors and readers. They like to pretend they’re the arbiters of taste…but the real irony is everyone knows a lot of what “sells” is total crap, catering to the lowest common denominator. Silly, because they’re just continuing to shoot themselves in the foot as the way we do business as top hits garner less and less in actual sales and niche markets take up more and more of the profit stream.

The other book I’ve come across is Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). The author let her 9-year-old son ride the NYC subway by himself, a trip that left him unharmed and totally thrilled with his adventure and burgeoning sense of independence, but caused her to be nationally vilified as a horrible, lazy mother. She then set out to explain how crime statistics are at the lowest they’ve been in decades (if not longer) and how thoroughly she prepared him for the trip in advance, arguing that we over-estimate risk and helicopter-parent our kids, leaving them unable to do for themselves what kids growing up in previous generations (or even different cultures) had no problems doing on their own. As she says in a post about outdoor play reducing ADHD, “outdoor play is probably very key, and taking it away in favor of more “safety” or more “education” has caused us a number of ills. Ironically, our kids are LESS safe (from depression, diabetes, obesity…) and LESS educated (about the natural world and all the things it makes you wonder about).” I haven’t actually read the book yet, only perused her website. I’m not sure how much I need to read the book when I pretty much already agree with the philosophy she espouses, but maybe it will help add more fuel to my fire if anyone ever accuses me of negligence when I let my kid play in the dirt, teach him to help himself in the kitchen, or, God forbid, have him ask a stranger for directions.

I was telling my husband about this book last night and he said, yeah, and we wonder why kids these days never go play outside, when we don’t let them actually go anywhere or do anything.

As far as I see it, part of being safe in this world is about being at home in the world: confident and capable at managing essential tasks like reading a map, talking to people you don’t know, and knowing how to take care of your own basic needs. If you don’t learn that when you’re young, when do you learn it? If you’re always waiting for Mom to do for you, you won’t know how to do for yourself, and eventually, all your future relationships could become about finding a Mom surrogate to fill a hole you’re too scared or inexperienced to be able to fill yourself.

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Anyway, that’s a bit of our week. How has yours been going? My mom and I have been practicing yoga together, which is fun. And it looks like we’ve got a couple nights of dinners out with friends coming up. Meanwhile, we’re anxiously awaiting the grand opening of a new mall, the Promenada Resort Mall, in just over two weeks. It might seem silly to get so excited about a mall opening (when I lived in the U.S. I would have scoffed at myself), but this one will be huge, much closer to where we live, and will hopefully have more variety of shops so we might be able to get some items (like possibly shelving units for baby stuff…??) that we’re having trouble finding now.

Happy Wednesday!

And Sometimes I Still Feel So Wrong-footed

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If class differences weren’t enough to make things tricky with a maid, try adding in cultural and language differences.

I’ve always done my own house-cleaning, but when we moved to Thailand, we got a much bigger home. More space = more cleaning. I kept up with it fine when it was just me and Toby and we’re used to keeping pretty tidy, especially since we had been living in a shoebox apartment where even one book out of place felt like clutter. But then came the year we hosted over 40 people for anywhere from a few days to several months each. It became difficult to keep up with all the bedsheet & towel washing and guest bathroom cleaning in between visits. When I have guests visiting from overseas, I’ll do all I can to clean before they arrive, but I feel ridiculous cleaning around them while they’re here, especially since I’d rather spend that time showing them the exotic Thai sights. Hosting and sight-seeing would be worked in on top of our regular jobs, so I became quite willing to spend the money to have someone come in once a week to just help clean the bathrooms, floors, and kitchen so that I could hold on to that extra fraction of sanity.

But this year is different. We don’t have nearly so many visitors, and since becoming pregnant, I’ve reduced my trips to Chiang Rai and focused more on work I can do from home. I still kept the maid on because there was no point in her losing her job (where she makes in 2-3 hours more than a full-day’s worth of minimum wage) just because I didn’t need her so much anymore and I figured when my parents return to live with us and the baby comes, I’ll be grateful for the help again. She doesn’t do a perfectly great job, but for $10 a week, I’m glad to not have to do it myself.

And here’s where the language and cultural difficulties start to play a role. I speak Thai well enough now to get on in most conversations and, even if I don’t know all the words, I can generally figure out from context what is being said. My grammar and vocabulary might not be perfect, but I can usually make myself understood. With Thai people. However, in Thailand there are large groups of ethic minorities, some documented, some not, and they all speak different languages. If I were to get along like a rockstar over here and speak all I needed to, I would learn not only Thai, but also northern Thai (which is very different), Akha, and Shan (a.k.a Tai Yai). Most of the people I interact with are Thai. But the underclasses, the ethnic minorities who make up the fleet of maids and gardeners, primarily speak northern Thai or Shan.

If I could speak Shan with my maid, I would explain our situation to her, so she could stop giving me weird side-glances when I’m sitting in front of my laptop while she mops my floors. We can communicate well enough that I tell her I work with an organization that helps disadvantaged children in Chiang Rai, but she never actually sees me work because she comes on Sundays, when I’m not in Chiang Rai. And how do you explain to someone who might, at best, have a 9th grade education (many minorities are highly discriminated against and wouldn’t be accepted in public schools and couldn’t afford secondary education even if they did get in) and does hard, sweaty work, that you who can afford a large house and a maid, do most of your work sitting on your butt at a computer in your own home? (And believe me, she does ask if we work–as has the gardener, who knows we’re home mid-week–and when I explain that we do our work online, I get the same blank look from them that I must give them when they speak Shan to me.)

If I were in the States, speaking my native language, I could also explain very politely, in ways that still make staff feel appreciated, when I need them to do a better job. Here, I know how to say quite literally “I need you to clean this better,” but I don’t know the best way to say it delicately. In the States, if they did a great job, I’d occasionally buy them lunch or share other small things with them, but here, I’m not sure the best way to do so because when I do try to give them extras it seems to make them feel profoundly uncomfortable.

And if I could speak Shan with my maid, I’d know what the proper response was when she’d ask me for favors. So far, she’s only asked for small things like can she have my used water bottles to recycle for extra money and can she have the fruit growing on my tree. (Answers thus far: Yes and yes.) She seems to understand my Thai well enough, but all I hear from her are long strings of unfamiliar sounds interspersed with “water” and “go” and “jackfruit” and “cut down” and “ripe” so that I can only barely pretend to know what she is saying, and even though I really don’t speak perfectly well, she seems completely oblivious to the fact that I usually can’t understand her.

Then today, just before she left, she came to me asking for help with her cell phone, which appeared to be broken. I had no idea what she was saying, but I gathered from the way she was trying to get the screen to scroll, and that it wouldn’t, that somewhere in there lay the crux of the biscuit. She seemed to be asking me how to fix it.

Me: I don’t know. Maybe you need to take it to a technician and have them fix it. Maybe take it to where you bought it.

Her: adfe ajiehfi anedn fmeaknjf eaf janekjfnka do you think it’s the phone itself anjdah hweknk?

Me: Umm…it could be the phone, or maybe just the battery or SIM card needs to be replaced. Did you buy it new or used?

Her: (proudly) I bought this one new. Do you think it broke because I keep it in my pocket while I work?

Me: I don’t think that would break the scrolling function. Maybe if it got in water or you dropped it? How long have you had it?

Her: I’ve never dropped it. hewajk eanjnekd at the store by aneknnd najdndnjd. I’ve had it for less than hetieshlhieht. I got it for $45 thiea nalmk dmf.

Me: (wondering how best to explain, delicately, that maybe the problem is that it’s a $45 cell phone) You can try taking it back, but I’m not sure if they can fix it. I haven’t bought a phone from a small shop before so I’m not sure what they’ll say. (again, intensely feeling class differences because I can afford to get my phone from a place that gives you things like receipts and warranties and clearly she doesn’t have that option)

And here’s where things began to get really perplexing. She seemed to be asking me to take her to the shop to get it fixed and I was totally confused because she has her own motorbike so why would she need me to take her? I tried to ask her where she wanted to go, and she just pointed vaguely in the direction past my dining room. I tried to tell her I didn’t really know where she wanted me to take her, and I really have no idea what she said in response.

It was only after several more fruitless efforts and after she seemed to have given up that it occurred to me that maybe she wanted me to go with her because I could speak Thai (and have money and education and whiter skin–i.e., am not Shan) and she hoped I might have better luck getting help. Except I have no idea how I could help her when I can barely communicate with her.

Maybe I should have gone anyway? Say yes, and ask questions later? If they couldn’t fix it and she had to buy a new phone, would she then be expecting me to buy it for her?

All I know is I ended that exchange feeling like there had been a test of some sort, and I had totally failed. I probably would have had no problem taking her, if only I knew what it was she wanted, but I didn’t even know how to explain that to her.

It’s all so very confusing.

The Kind of Article I’m Starting to Hate

There is a certain kind of article/blog post that I’ve been coming across more and more these days, and each time I read one, I know I should just click away, but I’m drawn to it like a moth to a flame. And just as assuredly as the flame can burn the moth, this kind of article draws my ire.

It’s the “What Not To Say” kind of article.

I’m sure you’ve seen them. What Not To Say to a Disabled Person. What Not To Say to a Working Mom. What Not To Say to a Stay at Home Mom. What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Miscarried. What Not to Say to a Mom With Lots of Kids. What Not To Say to Thin People. What Not to Say to Fat People. What Not to Say to Parents of Kids with Special Needs. What Not to Say to Girls…To Teens…To Pregnant Women…To Recovering Alcoholics…To Survivors of {fill in the blank}…actually, you can fill in whatever you can think of, I’m sure there’s an article somewhere on it.

They always sound so helpful at first, because yes, of course, we want to say the right thing when someone is facing a particularly difficult challenge. We want to empathize. We want to be helpful. We, by and large, want to avoid being assholes.

Of course.

But notice this kind of article I’m referring to is not a “What TO say” article. It’s not advice that tells you what will be helpful. By all means, tell me what I can do to best serve you in your need. Yet, far too many of these articles only focus on lashing out against the words of the uninformed and possibly judgmental.

The effect is, instead of telling you how to help, it basically tells you to shut the hell up. Because when you’re actually faced with a grieving person, can you really remember the full list of 10 Things You Must Not Say you read that one time last October? No. So you are left, mute, with nothing but the awareness that it’s all too easy to say the wrong thing.

Meanwhile, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the spirit in which these types of articles are written. We all face our own challenges in life. Our struggles are as unique as each of us, and we respond in different ways. What helps one heal or step up may not be useful to another.

The thing is…I don’t feel that other people owe it to us to understand us perfectly. Yes, people often say the wrong things, but how often do they really have bad intentions? If they haven’t been in our place, on what founding do we have the right to expect them to know how we feel? More often than not, it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is just trying to make you feel better. It may be a clumsy attempt. It may even be the opposite of helpful. But isn’t it worth anything that they’re trying?

Of course, there are some people who really are just being hateful, but I don’t think they’ll be won over by a “What Not to Say” article either. They’re not the intended audience – the real audience is the well-meaning commiserators. Just like it would be ungracious to throw a Christmas gift back at someone simply because it wasn’t what you wanted, I find it ungracious to judge others for a failed attempt to be kind. Even words that sometimes sound like judgment are really just awkward, clumsy attempts to try to protect you – a motivation based in love, not hatred or contempt.

Yes, there are better and worse ways to comfort people, to converse with them, to let them know you’re there. Many times, there are no words that can help a person heal or deal. Maybe even most times a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on are worth more than any thousands of words.

But the world does not owe us perfectly eloquent grace or perfectly clear understanding. Each person who loves us is a gift. Each loving intention is its own kind of grace. Embracing them all with loving kindness can do far more to help us heal than focusing on how they fell short of our mark.

 

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