Mother at Sixteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing Our Limits: What Not to Say to Each Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Around the Bend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Suddenly Mom

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

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

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

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

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

The Hunt for a Nanny Part IV: the Liaison

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little by Little

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.



Moments I’ll Miss

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They say the time goes by so fast and that you’ll miss these baby years. Since I like to learn from the experience of others I’ve been very intentional about soaking up every milestone and every phase, even the ones that are hard and that I wish would pass by faster because I know I only get one chance to be his mom and I don’t want to have regrets. So for the most part I’ve found the joys of each stage of his growth thus far and welcomed each new one without much wistfulness or nostalgia for the ones that have passed.

But there’s one thing I know I will miss when it goes. One thing that imparts that beautiful ache more than any other. One thing I already miss even as I enjoy it.

It’s the moment when we see each other and I smile real big and open my arms real wide….and he lights up. He blisses out and he comes running, delighted to see me, over the moon that I am happy to see him. It fills me up and breaks my heart that the simple fact that I love him means so much.

He won’t always come running.  One day my love will embarrass him even if he secretly appreciates it. To be a mother is to celebrate fullness with full awareness of impending loss. This is one of the moments I’ll miss.

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My kitchen is on The Kitchn! Check out Part 1: a tour and Part 2: on why I shipped plates of the kitchen tour!

Little by Little

Sticky Pants

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Cy has started trying to feed himself. He’s slow and careful about it, meticulously getting food on his spoon and bringing it up to his mouth.

There it is...

There it is…

But his new favorite thing is to try to feed me too. I’m usually sitting with him in my lap, so inevitably, the yogurt, the milk, the rice…whatever it is, ends up in my lap and on the floor while my OCD neat-freak side cringes and shudders.

I know it’s super sweet that he wants to feed me, and really it’s no big deal to toss pants in the laundry, and that I have a choice to encourage him in his sweetness and to meet him on his level and engage with him where he is.

...someone inserting himself in the shot.

…someone inserting himself in the shot.

I know I should conclude this by saying something about how the sweetness matters more than sticky pants, because pants can always be washed, but sweetness can be lost.

And it does matter. It does.

And there it goes.

And there it goes.

But I still can’t help bemoaning the sticky pants.

I tell him what a wonderful boy he is, and I mean it. And secretly I sigh as I take a tissue and blot ineffectively at my pants.



Flying Solo

I’ve been parenting solo this week as T is on a business trip back in the U.S.
The first day T was gone, I told Cy, “Papa went on an airplane.” I don’t think he believed me.
Then when we were doing our bedtime routine, Cy turned to where T normally sits on the bed, wanting to give the goodnight moon book to his papa, who normally reads the story, but he got confused when T wasn’t there, and he didn’t know where to go.
I said, “Papa went on an airplane. A big bye-bye. But mama can read your story. Can mama read your story?”
He chucked the book back in the crib (where it’s kept) and lay down to sleep.
No papa, no goodnight story, I guess.
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December 4 is the last day to get my book on sale, for $1.99!!
Make it a gift to yourself, or a loved one this holiday season!
Get The Yellow Suitcase: A Novel on Amazon today!
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Little by Little