October 2012

Post 75.

Given the fact that everyone involved is completely unconscious during the period under question, it’s amazing how much consideration is given to where the baby sleeps.

Okay, I’m a sucker for hug up whole night…with the baby and, yes I admit it, Stone is left to sleep on the far, Arctic side of the bed. But does it really matter? Is my marriage really at stake? Is this really going to affect my child’s ability to be independent? Will any of us ever be able to recover? Am I being a bad mother? Is it worse to be a bad wife?

I’m guessing that every single parent and rationale person on the planet will tell me to get Ziya used to sleeping in the crib again, and I have a sneaking suspicion that they are right. It’s not that I’m spoiling her, I’m spoiling me. It’s obvious that we each think that night is really the only time we get to be together, hearing each other breathe, smelling each other’s skin. Where does that leave Stone? This is indeed a good question as the Arctic is a vast, cold and isolated place. Will I feel this way only temporarily and, eventually, will both Zi and I be ready to give up all this loving up for sleeping alone (her) and hugging up only my husband again (me)? It’s hard to say and it’s hard to care.

I could be the only person to feel this way – or to admit it – but I’m in love…with Zi, far more than I’ve ever been in love with Stone (whom I’m still in love with) and right now, its all heady endorphin-infused mutual attachment. Zi misses me during the whole week, I miss her and Stone is peripheral because each of us is the other’s North Star. It’s bad, really bad. It’s worse for me because I know it’s not too long before her process of individuation starts with all its little shifts from a dependent baby to a truly separate human being, the kind who simply is no longer on you. I don’t want to keep her little and hold her too tight, I just want to hold her tight now, in fact hold now tight, while she still lets me.

I’ve heard it all. The stories of women whose children are still sharing their bed when they are ten or for that matter seventeen, and whose husbands are either in the bed with them or have made their bed somewhere else in the house. I’ve heard the warnings about how Stone’s suggestions to put Ziya back in the crib should not only be heard, but taken seriously. I’ve heard all kinds of psychological theories about ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ child development. I recognise there are multiple perspectives and everyone has a view and somewhere inside I understand why this is an issue. I see why the question of where three people lie unconsciously over a few dark hours is at the heart of how you organise your multiple relationships and selves after you have a baby. I also think that surely it can’t be the source of the crises prophesised. We are, after all, unconscious during this time. How bad can it be?

I guess, more importantly, there are three people in this family and the desires of two count more than the third. I get that inequality and loss in status and say, and it makes me feel sorry, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to go to sleep and just hug up my baby. As he shivers in the long night of virtual abandonment, I wonder how long a tolerant, understanding and patient husband will indulge me. I’m going to go thank him, give him a hug and let him know I’m living a dream I always wanted, partly because I know he loves me and lets me.

Post 74.

Permission to make the choices you do sometimes comes from the most unexpected of sources and in the most unexpected moments. By permission, I don’t mean that you need or are waiting on someone else’s approval. I mean that something clicks in your head just when they say what they do, and that click creates the sense of resolution or acceptance or even just acknowledgement that you were seeking from yourself.

In a recent conversation with a man, I was talking about how much I wanted focus on my career, even apply for a fellowship abroad, but how much I was pained by the way it would inconvenience and separate my family, and reshape their whole lives around my own priorities, even if just for a short time. If I went away, my mom and/or husband would have to come to help with the baby. This may not be the ideal situation in terms of how either or both of them may have pictured their lives. I’d have to find comfortable, affordable lodgings for either or both, we’d have to budget for a cut in income if my husband stayed with me as household and parenting support and/or an increase in expenses as I looked after the needs of my mom, as she would be fully dependent on me while she helped to look after my needs. There’d be some unsettled feeling as we all settled down in close quarters in our different and not necessarily always compatible ways, and I’d feel underneath it all not only somewhat selfish for calling on everyone to make a sacrifice for me, but also more than a little responsible for making sure either and/or both of them could be happy and not frustrated, resentful, neglected or lonely.

Yes, these thoughts were related to my aspirations and their implications for unwanted shifts and changes in my family life, but these only became significant, requiring consideration and negotiation, because of my dependence on my mother and/or husband to be willing participants in looking after my (our) baby. I might have been able to go off on my own before, but now I couldn’t do it alone with Zi and leaving her wasn’t an option. I clearly want both family and career. Was being selfish or unrealistic to want it all? When I made the decision to have a baby, did I also make a decision to not want or go after some of the things I would have before?

I don’t get this at all, this man told me. His parents were both academics and when his dad went away to get his PhD, his mom looked after their three children born all about a year apart. When she had to get her PhD, he did the same. They both went on fellowships throughout their careers. Neither considered the idea of that one should sacrifice more than the other or that one deserved more than the other or that one was more responsible than the other.

If his parents could do this, if his mother could move forward without thought of the consequences for his father’s personal, economic and career sacrifices while he was the one there and fully available to care, then forty years later, why couldn’t I? After all these decades and such everyday empowerment, how come I was still wrestling with these dilemmas?

Without knowing it, the man in this conversation gave me permission to go ahead. Or, maybe it was his mom and dad that gave me permission. I didn’t need them to decide for me or to give me their approval, I needed to do it myself. This man took for granted that these were his mother’s rights, and seeing them through his – and her – eyes, I saw my own too.

The very next day, a fellowship that seemed perfect for me arrived in my inbox. Without thought to how anyone else would manage, because, well, they would just have to, I decided that if this was what I wanted, I would apply and I’d just have to be eternally grateful but also guiltless to my mom and/or husband for the support they gave and which I deserved as part of the give and take of family, commitment and love. My husband would have to figure it out and grow as a person if necessary. My mom would have to manage even if I couldn’t meet her needs. I know I’m there for them and they would have to know I needed them to be there for me. Or, like an adult, I’d have to myself figure out how to do it alone, with my child, and I’d have to grow as a person and manage even if my mom and/or husband couldn’t be there as I thought they should be. 

This leads me to the second time in the past weeks that I heard that click. Today, while meeting Penny Williams, the Australian Ambassador for Girls and Women and a mother of four children, a student asked how she coped as a diplomatic in a profession generally unfriendly to family. She said, I guess the answer is, you just do some things badly.

Not a profound statement, not a loud click, but there it was. I just had to make the decisions right for me and accept that I would make mistakes, I would make choices that I later question, I would ask for more than I get, but most importantly I had to not give up because of fear, guilt, concern or love before I even tried. This was essentially it, I might do well at a fellowship but badly at family one year, I might be the mom, daughter and partner that I always wanted to be, but have to defer tenure twice. I have to give myself permission to try, to suceed and sometimes to maybe or maybe not make my mom and/or husband – and/or baby – happy.

No one could apply for that fellowship for me, no one else could apply these ideals to me, but me.

Post 73.

This weekend, I felt I witnessed history. Live on television, I watched Austrian Felix Baumgartner jump from a capsule floating at the edge of our atmosphere at 128 000 feet above the earth. Planes fly at 33 000 feet. He free fell for four minutes at over 700 miles per hour after jumping from the step of the capsule. Shockingly, he could see the entire globe of the world from where he stood, not even just a continent. Imagine doing something no one in the history of humankind has done. What courage, what opportunity. I can’t imagine what he invested in order to fulfill this dream.

I watched his family overjoyed that he was successful, and survived. In the seconds before he jumped, I sat with my heart in my mouth, wondering about vertigo at such height and about the sacrifices his family must have made. What kind of family support does a man like that need to to achieve something so seemingly impossible? If it were a woman, would she have gotten the same freedom and opportunity? Would her family have understood or would she have been seen as selfish for her long days spent preparing, her willingness to risk her own life, her decision to put her family second? Could she have so clearly sacrificed the responsibilities (but not love) of mothering and done so without guilt? I hope so.

A few weeks ago, one woman in my class, just older than me and a mother, was trying to explain why she thought women should, if necessary, stay at home to raise their children because children suffer when no parent can give them the time and investment they need. ‘Somebody has to sacrifice their dreams’, she said, ‘I think it should be the woman because this is more naturally their role’. She wasn’t arguing the point, she was simply explaining her view, but I know she’s been questioning it since, as I am sure she was before. What has made people think that women should sacrifice their dreams? Don’t all human beings deserve equal chance to aspire and achieve?

Ironically, in another conversation just last week, an older male academic was trying to calculate the public cost of professional women, who were educated on public funds like national scholarships, leaving the workforce to raise children. He was wondering if he could mathematically work out the level at which women should stop schooling if they planned leave the labour market for fulltime childcare. That way, society wouldn’t invest in them beyond the returns they brought to the paid workforce. I said that fulfilled and happy women are good mothers, why make women choose between mothering and their dreams?

I know I struggle with these questions daily. When I want to spend a weekend at work to focus on my career, I fear I’m being a bad mother for not protecting the time with me that my child deserves. When I think about applying for fellowships that could disrupt my family routine and mean that Stone, Ziya, my mother and I live in countries far apart for periods of time, I question whether I am being inconsiderate of the impact my choices have on them and their rights and needs. When I stay late at work, in the back of my mind I think that someone is putting in time that really is my responsibility, and I wonder if I’m being selfish. I wanted to be a mother, but I’m still working out how to manage my dreams.

Witnessing one man’s almost insane dream come through, I hoped that one day Ziya would have that chance to make history if she so chose, because it seemed like a new era of possibility for human beings. Yet, despite all the rhetoric of women now having all they want, I continue to wonder if it is equally an era of possibility for them. I think Zi has the options to one day break barriers like never before. However, for her sake, just so she could risk it all even if it seems unimaginable, I hope that the barriers women face, which still tell them their natural role is to sacrifice their dreams, will already be broken.

Post 72.

The other night, when a little boy who came over, picked up and began to play with Ziya’s toy guitar, the entire of this garden-gnome-sized toddler went into full defensive gear. She brought in her temper tantrum dance which consists of shifting back and forth unevenly and erratically from one foot to another, like a version of Muhammad Ali floating like a butterfly in the ring, but with the grace of an angry 22 month old. She began to howl like Native Americans gone to war, except her attempts at fear-inducing decibels were pierced with ringing punctuations of ‘mommy!’ And she began to pelt slaps at the bigger and stunned-into-standstill older child like a heavy-handed, unstoppably forward-pressing and fearless sumo wrestler. It was easy to conclude from this that she was either not taught to or had refused to learn how to share, and that she was spoilt and selfish or was going to grow up to be. It was easy to respond by either insisting on giving the guitar to the little boy as a way of teaching her how to behave or using the moment to give her a mini-lecture meant to set boundaries on her indiscipline.

Luckily, I had observed that Aunty at day care doesn’t let other children take the things belonging to little ones in her care even while encouraging them to share. Turns out that at this age, children are learning to define themselves in relation to the persons and objects around them. It’s a possessive phase. In a few months, Aunty reassured me, when Ziya is closer to two and half years old, she’ll be much more likely and receptive to sharing her toys with others. Pushing her to do so now would just be teaching her a lesson that doesn’t match her life stage and wouldn’t be easily received.

Hearing this helped me to figure out how to understand Ziya’s reaction and how to approach my own. As a parent, it’s important to understand babies’ life stages because that can determine how you deal with everything from tantrums to sharing to touching. It’s not that your child is bad, it’s that she or he is two years old and beginning to assert an independence. It’s not that your child is perverted or immoral, it’s that discovering their genitals is a natural part of their own development. It’s not that mini lectures, quarrelling, anger or beating helps, it’s that they may entirely miss the moment.

So many parents, myself included, may be entirely clueless about these things, maybe because we are too busy to read the ‘What to Expect..’ book for this age group or maybe because we were brought up with parents who believed in beating you into submission or maybe because we make assumptions that children are bad behaved when they are actually just entering or experiencing a natural segment of their growth, with its specific and trying challenges, dilemmas, emotions and upheavals.

It’s tough to know if what is happening is normal or is your parenting gone wrong, but it can make a big difference to how you help your child learn what matters, with the patience, understanding and gentle encouragement that can register in exactly the right way at the right time. Me, I’m back to reading every night about Llama Llama, who first learned to go to school even if he missed Mama and who is now learning to share his toys with the Nelly Gnu, the new girl next door. Ziya totally gets the concept of sharing, she’s just not entirely ready, but hopefully one day soon we’ll both be a little more prepared to make it happen when and how it should.

(In the meantime, I’m not supposed to laugh about it, but I tell you, clearly nobody can downpress my girl or woe be unto them!)