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.

Momma Chat: Good Idea, Bad Idea

_1060581At all moments in which Cy is moving about (also referred to as “being awake”), you’ll hear a steady refrain:

No, don’t eat the power cord.
No, sticking your fingers in the fan is a BAD idea.
Wandering down the stairs is also probably a bad idea.
Diving headfirst off the bed, that’s a bad idea.
Bothering Dot while she eats, also ill-advised, my son.
Don’t put your mouth on the toilet.
It’s probably not a good idea to stick your fingers in the wheels of dad’s office chair .
Let’s not climb through the dog door.
How about we don’t try to stand on things that move.
Maybe you shouldn’t let go of the things you’re holding on to, eh?

Basically, I save his life all day long. Even when it comes to things he’s supposedly got the hang of, like crawling, he’ll be trucking along and then randomly keel over. There have been more times than I care to admit where I swear I’ve been staring right at him and have no clue what happened, but he’s suddenly somehow maimed himself. It’s like he’s on a path to deliberately self destruct.

One time, I had him on the bed while I was quickly changing clothes. I put him smack dab in the middle, up by the head board, surrounded by pillows. He turned, fell, and landed his eyebrow straight on my hard plastic hair clip, the only other thing on the bed. Somehow he always finds all the things.

Also, he is now tall enough to stand and touch the top of the dining room table (whaaat??). Just putting that out there.

And two teeth have broken through, which works out because it just so happens that silicone kitchen utensils make excellent teething toys.

spoons

I’m in a weird space these days, simultaneously going through my house and getting rid of any and all dead weight, thoroughly organizing what’s left, while also going on shopping binges. I’ve bought several new clothes, invested in fresh new skin & hair care products, and if our house weren’t rented, I would do the same kind of makeover to my furniture and repaint the two red walls (that I’m so sick of) something that isn’t red. Most likely a sage green, or some other nice earth tone.

At first, I thought I might be going a little crazy with the sudden intense compulsion to buy. But actually, I’m not looking to buy just for the sake of acquisition. Now that I think back on it, the clothes and beauty supplies are all selected very consciously to fit a very specific minimalist, yet still youthful aesthetic that is both celebratory of and marks me settling into my new body and my new role as mom. I weigh less than I have most of my adult life, but certain parts sag that never did. I’m stronger, but older, and age and sleepless nights have taken their toll. So I choose only outfits that make me feel well-put together (and are breast-feeding friendly), with minimal time and effort. I invest in the health of my skin so I don’t have to do so much to make it presentable in public. It’s nice to feel like I’m taking care of myself.

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But that’s probably not even the heart of it either. Maybe what’s really going on is that I’m trying to exercise a bit of control, reclaim some part of myself, when all other parts of my life have been ceded to the raising of my son. It makes no sense to want new furniture when he (or the dog) will likely find some way to destroy it, and yet, I’m still driven to maintain the semblance of a nice home, no matter how much of that energy is a total waste.

Good idea, bad idea. Maybe it makes little sense, but it does feel nice to reinvent and reinvest in myself.

At any rate, it gives me something to do while we spend so much time at the mall (where there’s ice cream and A/C), because gawd, it’s HOT in Chiang Mai.

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Thing I Love About Cy Today: He loves to drink cold water from a real cup, and when he manages to get ahold of Dot’s rope (and isn’t trying to stick it in his mouth), he’ll try to throw it for her to chase, even though it’s way too big and unwieldy for him to lob it more than an inch or two.

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

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Chatting up Mr. Turtle

Before I had Cy, I used to make a promise to myself that I wouldn’t lose myself in motherhood. I have been a part of the mommy blogger community long enough to know how easy it is for mothers to get so consumed by being a mother that they let all the other parts of their identity fall by the wayside. Then, as their kids slowly grew into independence, these mothers would be left without their sense of purpose–who they were before kids no longer fit, and as their primary function as mother no longer brought so many demands, they faced a crisis of identity.

Now that I’ve been a mother for two months, I can see more clearly how easy it is to let motherhood become one’s entire identity. I find myself giving over entirely to him. My previous interests fall into the background as I spend more time obsessing over his needs. Whatever time is left is dedicated to the basic requirements of survival and maintaining a functioning home. And I don’t really miss what came before.

Sometimes I do get impatient with the demands of raising an infant. Sometimes I long for him to grow more quickly so that I can catch a break. But when I try to formulate in my head what that “break” really means, what it is I’m longing for, the only things I find I really want is a decent cup of cappuccino, and for him to be able to play a little more independently for at least a few minutes at a stretch so I don’t have to be ON all. the. time.

I wonder if this state is a natural biological imperative, arising simply because his needs right now are so big and so much, and if as he grows in independence, I’ll start to want to reclaim mine. I wonder if I’ll be so attuned to him that, as he grows, I simply can’t let go, even if I might theoretically want to.

_1050680This week our mostly quiet, cheerful infant has suddenly become supremely fussy. I suspect it’s partly some minor gastrointestinal discomforts, which may or may not be related to a possible growth spurt. He’s suddenly growing a lot longer these days, so maybe there’s some growing pains thrown in the mix. Whatever it is, he’s been crying more often and longer, once or twice apparently inconsolably. I mean, he’s not colicky or anything. It’s just more crying than we’re used to, when before, I could probably count on one hand the number of full minutes he’d cry collectively in one day.

At first, I fought against this change in our son. Mentally and emotionally, I chafed against it, and the more upset he was, the less calm or patient I could be. Previously any crying was directly tied to a discoverable reason. Now sometimes there is no discernible reason. I fought it hard. But in the last few days, I’ve found myself surrendering to it. I just do my best and ride it out. Most times we figure it out. Sometimes we don’t. But either way it’s easier on me when I just go with it and stop expecting life to be different than what it is.

Yesterday had been a long, fussy day. In the early evening, however, he fell asleep while nursing on the first side, so I sat with him, not moving until he awoke, wanting to give him a chance to finally get a decent nap. He woke a half hour later, and I brought him to bed and lay down with him, nursing him down to sleep on the other side, allowing him to use me as a pacifier. I normally don’t do that, but he seemed to need it, and I needed the rest too. My friends, he slept for FIVE hours. It was amazing. And when he woke, all fussiness was gone. He giggled and cooed at us, making us smile and laugh for about an hour before signaling that he was ready to go back to sleep. We swaddled him up, and he slept again for another four hours.

In that time he was awake, I played with him, I wooed him with my songs. I snuggled right up to his face and he snuggled back. And that moment right there…it made up for the entire day.

And, come on, just look at that smile

And, come on, just look at that smile

(And today, he started to seem more like his usual self–gastrointestinally and behaviorally. Fingers crossed, we’re through the growth spurt–if that’s what’s to blame.)

Aside from growing longer, several other developmental changes have shown up this week. He found his fingers and has started sucking on his fist. He’ll catch your eye and hold a gaze for a long time. He’s starting to enjoy hanging out in his little activity gym; he likes the mirror best (little narcissist) and listening to the tinkle of little bells inside one of the toys that dangles from the bars. He’s not interested in the toys yet, but there’s a large orange circular piece that connects the bars, and he’ll stare at that, enrapt, for many long minutes. And his little vocalizations are getting louder and longer. I love his little voice. I can’t get enough of it. He’s hardly talking and already I can’t wait to hear what he has to say.

And I tell him, “Hey, little man, you and me. We’re a good team, aren’t we? You and me.”

Thing I Love About Cy Today: That even when he has a rough day, like on Monday, when he had to get two immunization shots, he still has the wherewithal to smile at us and coo.

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.

How Pregnancy Changes The Skin I’m In

4 months preggo

Before I became pregnant, I don’t think I had much of an idea of what happens to your body in pregnancy. You get bigger, you get crazy cravings and eat more, and might have to throw up in the mornings. I think that’s all I thought happened.

{Insert a long stream of slightly manic laughter here.}

While I seem to have lucked out on the whole morning sickness thing, my body is changing faster and in more myriad ways than Aladdin’s Genie let out of the lamp Robin Williams style.

First, I got the dry skin. I seemed to be trying to compete with the Lubriderm gator. So I started putting lotion all over. Until I noticed that every time I did, I’d suddenly break out with an unsightly body pimple somewhere. So I stopped with that.

Then I got the dry eyes and had to start putting in eye drops.

Then there’s the stretch marks. Not on my belly. On my boobs.

Then my nails started growing three times as fast as normal. I’d scratch an itch (see dry skin above) with my suddenly uber-long witch nails, and break out in a mini rash.

Thankfully I work (*smirk* there’s an overstatement, when in the first trimester I could barely stay upright) mostly at home so I can hide the fact that I now find underwear supremely irritating.

Sleeping on my left side is good for my growing belly, but now I wake up with numb hips and pins & needles.

Speaking of that growing belly, it was growing at a nice, steady, slow pace right in line with what the doctor recommended during the first trimester. Second trimester hit and suddenly I’m clocking in a new number every time I get on the scale (which, admittedly, is less frequently these days because, heck, I gotta’ hold on to some scrap of sanity).

Apparently, there’s supposed to be some sort of pregnancy glow? All I know is I’ve had to switch to a super mild face cleanser and then follow it up with a super strength moisturizer strategically placed on certain spots on my face, since spreading it across my whole face makes me break out.

Add to all this, chronically sore feet, a complaining bottom & back, constant trips to the bathroom (all pee and no poo), cravings for sweets that I now find too sweet so that I end up having to bake them myself with a third of the sugar (Toby doesn’t mind this part because I’ll eat maybe three of the cookies, and he gets the rest) and cravings for steak (which is really expensive here, and normally I don’t eat much red meat), crying at the slightest provocation, and throw in a little bit of hot season so I sweat all the time and need more A/C than my husband wants to have, and it’s like: Who AM I? Where did my body go?

To cope, I now have a full skin regimen every time I get out of the shower. I apply a tiny bit of Bio-Oil to my boobs (I don’t know if this will help with the stretch marks, but it does smell nice and make my skin soft, so for $10 I consider that a win). Then comes tummy butter for my tummy, hips, and butt. Aquaphor strategically placed on the very dry or itchy patches of skin, rather than all over. Baby powder on my inner thighs to reduce the sweat. H20 moisturizer spot-placed on my face. Aveeno lotion spot-placed on semi-dry patches of skin. And occasionally at night, Burt’s Bees coconut oil foot creme on my toes & heels.

I’m pretty sure I smell like a pharmacy. Or at least the beauty section of CVS. And I have to trim my nails every five days or so.

Oh, and in addition to dryness, my eyes started getting more sensitive to direct sunlight, so now sunglasses are a must when I go out. I think I’ve officially become Thai now too, because I’ve started carrying an umbrella for sunny days. (What? It keeps the sun off.)

There are a bazillion articles on how to “get your body back” after pregnancy – most of which seem concerned with erasing any sign of pregnancy as quickly as humanly possible to become fitter than you were, with firmer boobs and younger more nubile skin than you had before getting knocked up, like there is some ideal version of you, and as Kate from Eat the Damn Cake observes, whatever ideal that is, it’s probably not the body you have right now.

But the thing is, as much as I jest and kvetch about my changing body, I’m also kind of proud of it. Though sometimes I feel like a little alien has taken over (which, let’s face it, is kind of true – I mean, for crying out loud, if you don’t get enough of a certain nutrient, the baby takes it first, so if you don’t get enough calcium, the baby will suck it up, leaving you with rotted, decaying teeth and osteoporosis), I’m thrilled to be the party host. While I don’t always recognize my body anymore, and new changes spring upon me almost daily, it doesn’t mean I want the old me back. Because the old me didn’t have this little one who dances around doing somersaults and waves at us in ultrasounds. I don’t want to be who I was before, because, before, I didn’t have another tiny heart beating inside. I don’t care if I bounce back tight as a virgin three months after the baby comes, because these rounder breasts and hips are proof I bore life separate from mine. Stretch marks aren’t unsightly. They’re reminders that I became something more than just me. I put on the cream less from vanity and more just to keep my skin supple and smooth, to match the calmness I feel inside. I don’t want to erase that.

I don’t want to erase the fact that I am becoming a mother.

Creating a Family Narrative

My sister, my mom, my brother, and wee little me, back in the days when we lived in a tiny apartment in Mississippi.

An article in the NY Times recently argued that the best way to instill resilience and self-confidence in children is to provide them with a strong family narrative. It’s a fascinating read. Much like other social groups, there is greater cohesion when the group shares its history – the highs as well as the lows – and forms a strong core identity in which children are helped to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves.

As I read the article, I saw how it reflected my own family. I knew where my parents grew up, I knew some of the darker skeletons in the closet, I knew the story of how my parents met and how I came to be, and my mom told me more times than I can count that blood is thicker than water; that friends may come and go, but that family – whether you want them to or not, and even if they sometimes go about it in really kooky ways – will always be there for you.

It wasn’t just words either. I saw our family banking system in action: when one member needs a boost to qualify for a home, the various relatives scramble to put it together, knowing full well one day it’ll eventually come back to them, though they’d do it regardless; when another gets married or has a baby, the older relatives pull together and set up a nest egg; when the younger members get older, they send money home to the grandfolks or even offer them a place in their own homes, and they continue the cycle of sending money down to help out the younger generations. The insurance is better than anything the FDIC can offer and it’s interest-free.

I saw unconditional love in action: no matter what was said, no matter what hurt was dealt, you could always come home. It might not be easy – justice would always be meted out – but you would never be turned away at the door.

Why does a strong narrative instill resilience? How does the family story bring strength? The article suggests it has to do with “sense-making,” identity creation, and group cohesion. Based on my own experience, I think it’s about more than that. Whenever my mom sat me down and gave me her blood is thicker than water spiel, I always took a deep amount of solace in that knowledge. I took comfort in knowing that I always had a home base, that I would never be shunned no matter what I did (I might surely have to pay the piper, but ostracism would never be the price), and that I always had a gaggle of supporters cheering me on from the sidelines.

Besides, when the family unit is strong, there’s no one better than an older, indulgent sibling, who once kissed all your boo-boos and got you that thing no one else knew you really wanted, to tell you when you’re being a schmuck. Because if you’ve gotten to the point where even they have to say something, then you know you better get your butt in gear. Crying about it is not going to make you shine any brighter in their book, so man up.

The flip side of that coin was a deep sense of duty. I’m not sure it was ever put into so many words, but because I had that comfort and the experience of seeing the family in operation, I knew I had a role to play too: that when others needed my help (whether it was asked for or not) the best way to show love was to jump in and do what was needed, that one needs to learn to be open-minded enough to see love in the kookiest of gestures and appreciate even the quirkiest of personalities, and (this was never expressly said, but if it’s true that I would never be ostracized, then the transverse must also be true) that the worst thing I could ever do would be to turn my back on family because they would never turn their back on me.

It’s part of what gave Toby & me the courage to take a leap and fly across the globe. We knew, no matter what happened or how miserably our experiment might fail, we could always have a soft spot to land at home. It’s what kept me going in the darkest, hardest parts of my most painful experiences…when I wanted to give up, when I would have simply let go if it were simply up to myself, I hung on for my family. When I couldn’t do it for me, I did it to honor the ones who never dreamed they could do it for themselves.

This NY Times article shone a light on an aspect of my family that I hadn’t put into quite the same words before. But if it’s true that a strong family narrative creates stronger children, I know what I’ll do when my child joins the fray. I’ll show them each and every day not just how I love him* and not just how my husband loves him, but all the ways all our aunts, uncles, grandmammas, grandpoppas, and cousins love him and what it means to love back. I will tell him again and again where and who we came from, and I will show him that whatever we did and no matter from how far away, we did it together.

* And by “him” I mean “him or her.” No, we don’t know the baby’s sex yet. 

For the month of March, Bigger Picture Blogs is celebrating the turn from winter toward spring with the theme: Rejuvenate! Come join us: Rejuvenate your heart, rejuvenate your soul – pick up your pen, your camera, and your spirit!

Find all the ways you can blow some fresh air into life and link it up with us at Bigger Picture Blogs!

Live. Love. Capture. Encourage.

Raising Men in the Aftermath of Feminism

Photo by Kristi Phillips

It’s no secret now that, while women are still fighting for equal pay and the face of power remains decidedly male, the gender gap in schools didn’t close, it flipped directions. Girls and women at all levels of education, from elementary to collegiate, are outstripping boys – so much so that some colleges are even giving a little extra boost for the guys (yes, you heard that right, affirmative action for white males). Nicholas Kristof provides a nice summary of the problem here and Businessweek has another good one here, but even a cursory poke around Google will bring you a slew of articles from across the Western nations documenting this counter-intuitive trend.

Meanwhile, when we look around at male role models in popular culture, what do we see? Primarily, a glorification of one of two things: underperformance (a la Peter Griffin, Homer Simpson, etc.), or androgyny (types like Michael Cera, “metrosexuality,” dare I even mention Ryan Gosling?). We have to look to Mad Men to find masculinity of the type we used to revere – except they’re all philanderers and misogynists, so that ideal is certainly tarnished.

Toss in rising divorce rates plus a “gotcha!” culture of news media (if I may borrow that phrase) focused on catching politicians and celebrities with their pants down, so to speak (for good or ill), and we have a recipe for stripping society of role models to look towards. I’m being a little blase and overgeneralizing an incredibly complex issue here, but the truth is men these days are often confused about what role they should play and are taught to be ashamed of manliness rather than to uphold its virtues.

We’ve focused so much attention on girl power and what it means to raise a confident, empowered woman, that we’ve forgotten the need to guide our boys too. But we’re doing our girls no favors, when they grow up to be strong, smart, independent women only to find there are no men they can respect to stand strong beside them. Building women up does not require tearing down our boys.

A fellow blogger touched on a growing double-standard in her post, “I never thought he would feel that being a boy was a limitation.” Her children are young, so her concern focuses on erasing gender lines with the toys her kids play with and the cartoons they watch.

But it’s about so much more than that.

It’s about so much more than whether girls can play with monster trucks or whether boys can enjoy watching My Little Pony. As my friend, Brook put it, “we want ALL children to be confident, compassionate and courageous.” Courage is not just for the men, just as compassion is just not for the women.

BUT I don’t think androgyny is the answer either. We do both our children and our society a disservice when we tell them it’s wrong for men to be manly and wrong for women to be feminine. (By the way, we haven’t just hurt our boys either – teaching girls to act like men when it comes to sex has created a host of problems, including, but not limited to: undermining their own sense of value, repressed needs, and increased difficulty in finding and maintaining relationships.) Moreover, we’re simply lying to ourselves when we pretend that there aren’t at least some biological differences between the genders.

That doesn’t mean everyone has to follow a gendered ideal, though – we all suffer when we try to force anyone into a box, no matter what that box is. I’m not harping on anyone who naturally falls towards the middle of the gender spectrum. Gender and sexuality are both complex and we should honor that complexity. What I AM saying, though, is this: We don’t celebrate humanity by wishing (or socializing) away all our differences. We celebrate humanity by encouraging authenticity, harnessing the power of each individual’s strengths, and treating ourselves and each other with respect.

There are two blogs I follow despite the fact that I am neither male nor am I mother to a son. I follow them because I find the articles provide a fascinating discussion of what masculinity means in a post-feminist world: how men can still strive to be the best they can be, present themselves with distinction, be assertive, demonstrate honor and valor – and that masculinity does not have to imply male chauvinism. The first is The Art of Manliness, which grew so quickly and displayed such gratitude from its readers that it showed just how lost men feel in this age, how desperate they are for some guidance on how to be men. The other is 1001 Rules for My Unborn Son. Both hark back to the past for examples of great men, tempered with the greater understanding and self-awareness we have gained in the past decades. It’s a shame how far we have to look back to find great examples.

So whether your boy melts his G.I. Joes in violent combat or plays quietly with a Carebear, teach him to read because great communicators make for great leaders. Whether he prefers World of Warcraft or Sims, teach him to help with chores around the house, because a sense of responsibility breeds great husbands and fathers. Whether his interests lie in the sciences or the arts, teach him to show others respect and appreciation because courage means putting others before ourselves and strength should always be on the side of justice. Whether his hobby is fly-fishing or baking, encourage it because any added skill makes for a more well-rounded human being. Teach him how to change his oil, sew a button, safely discharge a firearm, and iron his shirts…because one day he might need to know all those things.

And roughhouse with him too, because we don’t learn everything there is to learn from “playing nicely” alone.

 

A Conversation

Her: So you’re telling me you live in a gated community with security guards that salute you and click their heels every time you pass through the gate. And you’re in a 4-bedroom house. For $670 a month.

Me: Yes. Except for the first full year I felt incredibility guilty about it, like we had somehow found a way to game the system and it’s all great now, but someday karma’s going to come back and bite us in the ass.

Her: Right. Because God clearly hates people who try to prevent children from being trafficked into prostitution.

Me: Yeah, well, and yesterday I felt like a total schmuck because our maid came, and she normally comes on Mondays, when I’m working, so it’s fine and makes sense, but this week she came on a Sunday, which is my day off, and I felt like a total asshole sitting on the couch reading a book while she cleaned up around me.

Her (blink, blink): Because…why?

Me: Well, you know, it’s guilt. I’ve got this whole white liberal privileged guilt thing –

Her: White liberal privileged guilt — You’re half-Thai – white liberal privileged guilt, and you’re not even all that white. Do even you hear how ludicrous this sounds now?

Me: (nodding while tears of laughter stream down my face)

Her: It’s like the Thai side makes it worse; like your Thai side is warring with your white side…and um, I barely know you, but here’s my assessment of your entire cultural identity. You’re welcome.

Me: (still laughing, but not, because it’s totally true and I’d never thought of it that way before)

::

We met to exchange written words and ended up talking for hours. That conversation stuck with me for days afterward, and I wanted to preserve a piece of it, even if I only caught the gist of how it made me feel, because it made me feel better. I love people who can make me laugh; I really love people who can make me laugh at myself. I wanted to thank her for that.

Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us! 

Live. Capture. Share. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up at Melissa’s!
BE SURE TO CATCH HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PREVIOUS WEEK
And head there for your daily dose of creativity:
prompts for photos, for words, for inspiration,
and for a life lived mindfully!

Ten Things…

Note: New Writing Circles dates have been announced! Two new dates hosted by yours truly in October! Check my sidebar on my home page or click here for details.

This photo has nothing to do with this post. I was just in the mood to take it.

Ten Things I Know to Be True: (in no particular order)

1. Forever friends are rare in life, and it can be a surprise who turns out to be one.

2. Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I miss good cheese.

3. Everything we do in life is a choice, even if we are not actively deciding.

4. The older I get, the harder it is to pinpoint things I know.

5. I’m tempted to log out of Facebook until the election season is over.

6. The universe is very, very big and I am very, very small…

7. …but even fragile leaves and wee sea shells can leave an imprint behind.

8. I like me better when I wonder more and worry less.

9. Getting good at anything takes practice, practice, practice…and even maestros never stop practicing.

10. Love is magical. Instead of diminishing when shared, it grows. The more deeply and widely you love, the greater expands your capacity to love. The more you give, the more you have.

Ten Things I Should Have Learned By Now: (Must I stick to only 10?)

1. The discipline to stick long term with healthy diet and exercise.

2. That most people don’t consider it “helpful” when you correct them.

3. Basic car maintenance, like changing the oil or a flat tire.

4. Anything related to finance. Once I get any deeper than “this is what I have in the bank” and “this is how much those shoes cost,” I’m generally in over my head.

5. How to shoot in full manual – and to not be too lazy to use a tripod.

6. That there’s a difference between being busy and being productive.

7. Patience.

8. I will never be taller.

9. Things are much simpler if you just tell people what you want. You may not get it, but you do get to skip the annoying mind games.

10. It’s silly to be shy about complimenting someone for fear of looking stupid. When I think something positive about someone, I should just tell them.

This post was inspired by spoken word poet, Sarah Kay,
who bowled me over when she said:

“Getting the wind knocked out of you
is the only way to remind your lungs
that they like the taste of air.”

What caught your breath this week?

Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us! 

Live. Capture. Share. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up at Melissa’s!
BE SURE TO CATCH HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PREVIOUS WEEK
And head there for your daily dose of creativity:
prompts for photos, for words, for inspiration,
and for a life lived mindfully!
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