Sunday, January 29, 2012

Popo and Cedar

Christmas Eve, huoguo (hot pot) tradition
Also celebrating Popo's birthday

My grandmother has been visiting the last couple months, staying with my parents in Seattle. My mom flew down to L.A. to fly her up here, and in a little over a week, my parents will fly her back down.

My grandmother is 92, too old to fly alone. She still looks remarkable for her age, but each time I see her I can tell that she is shrinking. It is true: old people shrink. Young people grow. Her hearing is going too, which makes it hard to talk with her, especially when in Chinese, a language I am still hesitant to use. You cannot be hesitant in a language in which you need to yell to be heard. Often, I just opt for smiles and silence. There is not much to say anyway.

I love watching Popo interact with Cedar. She met him first when he was five months old, then I sent her photos of him every few months until she met him again when he was 18 months. But it hasn't been until these last couple months that she’s really gotten to know him. I bring Cedar over there two afternoons a week for my parents to watch him while I go write or run errands, and recently I'll come by a couple more times too, where I stay and hang out as well.

Playing deejay and dancing are two of Cedar’s favorite activities at my parents, especially since my parents indulge his every request—changing the c.d. or record again and again and again while he shakes his head, “No, no, no,” until they finally alight on one he wants to listen to. Amongst his favorites are fifties classics like ‘The Twist’ and ‘Rock around the Clock’; or songs for kids like Nat King Cole’s ‘Frosty the Snowman’, me and my sister’s old Puff the Magic Dragon record, or the Sesame Street rendition of ‘Sing a Song’ (which my dad found amongst other old kid’s classics at a record store).

Cedar’s other favorite is “Beat It.” “Bi bi!!!” he’ll yell when it comes on, and when the song transitions to ‘Billy Jean’, he’ll shake his head, “No. No. No,” until my dad switches it back to ‘Beat It’. Then, when he puts on a new record, Cedar demands to be picked up so he can “See, see!” (Did I mention that this boy gets whatever he wants over there?)

Recently we were all dancing to “Beat It” in the basement in the midst of Seattle’s snow storm. My parents were practicing their hustle/swing steps, I was indulging Cedar in his favorite form of dancing (being held and swung around), and my grandmother was marching in place. It was one of those fleeting moments that, even as it’s happening, you realize is precious. 

Popo loves Cedar. She smiles, bobs her head, and pats her lap rhythmically when he’s around, calling him over. He runs up to her, and together they do a sort of chicken dance—bobbing their heads in and out towards each other (Cedar copying Popo’s movements). She pulls his bulky 30 pounds up into her lap, even though she is less than 90 pounds herself. She makes noises, “Bababa, bababa…” and also talks to him in Chinese. He copies her intonations-- in fact, my mom shakes her head at the grating way she taught him to call my name, loudly and with an emphasis on the second syllable, “Mamaaa!!!” He calls her Taipo (great grandmother) and she calls him “Cedee”, both pronouncing the other’s name imperfectly.

But really, at two and 92, who even needs language? He is the perfect companion for her, a burst of delight and energy, a being she can relate to because he is a (not quite) two-year-old, and two-year-olds are more or less the same in any language. They are curious, silly, stubborn, delightful. Popo can spoon feed Cedar avocados, let him turn on and off the lamp by her bed, let him play with the remote to the T.V. to his heart’s content. I will swallow my usual annoyance when told how to parent my child, and Popo can admonish me all she wants to put on his hat before we go out, to make sure the gate to the stairs is closed, and to not let him play with a rubber band, because she is his great-grandmother, because she has raised five children, and because no matter how much advice has changed in the parenting department over the years and across cultures, most of her words are still valuable and sound.

When it’s time for us to go, I can always tell that Popo is disappointed.
“Stay for dinner at least,” she’ll say.
“We can’t Popo. Cedar needs to go to sleep in half an hour. And he can’t eat most of the food we eat anyway.”
 “When will you come back? Tomorrow?”
“Not till Wednesday. The day after tomorrow.”
She nods, looking slightly disappointed, but appeased that at least it won’t be longer.

I need to make sure that Cedar and I spend as much time as possible over there in the coming week, because before long Popo will be flying back to L.A., and I do not know when I will see her next. It is not easy for me to travel with Cedar, especially without my husband who is tied to a busy work schedule, and the idea of trying to keep Cedar occupied while at Popo’s condo for days on end (without resorting to watching copious amounts of T.V.) sounds slightly… awful. So I hope that my parents will invite her to come back to Seattle again soon, perhaps this summer, and that she will still be healthy enough to travel.

Each time I see Popo now, I cannot help but wonder if it might be the last time. Overall, she’s in great health for someone who is 92, but still, her blood pressure runs high and even a cold will send her into a tizzy of fear and stress (not to mention real, escalating symptoms). But more than this, I can sense that Popo is wondering the same thing each time she hugs me goodbye now, or comments on how old she is, or forces me to take a little extra money: she is thinking, this might be the last time.

Every time I see Popo, and especially as she starts to anticipate her departure, she will start to reflect on how she helped to raise my sister and I when we were young. “I’ve held you since you were a baby,” she’ll remind me again, and nowadays she’ll shake her head and add, “I used to care for you when you were Cedar’s age, and now you have a child of your own.”

I can only imagine what this must feel like. She is 92. Cedar is not quite two. Ninety years separate the span of their experiences here on this earth. One of them can reflect on how fast it all goes; the other does not yet know that there is anything to be lived outside of this moment. One is losing her memory and hearing; the other is learning new words every day.

When he is older, Cedar will probably not remember these days of playing with his great-grandmother. But I will. And I will tell him how much she loved him, how much delight he brought her in such a short span of time, and how much joy it gave me to be able to share him with her, to watch them laugh and play together, these two beings connected to me through blood and fate, these two beings whom I was given no choice but to love. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Awesome-Crazy-Hard Plunge into Becoming a New Mother

I’m getting excited to facilitate my first PEPS meeting next week. To welcome this group of mothers and babies into my home, to drink in their tender new beginnings.

As a new mom, PEPS was extremely helpful to me. Although I had other moms and drop-in parenting groups I gathered with on occasion, PEPS was one thing I could count on each week, my one structured commitment in what was otherwise a blur of feedings and naps. Coming together with a group of women who knew me through my emerging identity as a mother and who understood on some silent level what I was going through, helped me to better process this intensely transformative time. It helped me give voice to concerns I had and to articulate what was going on for me and my baby.

The format was simple. Each week we met for two hours in one of our homes. We all lived in the same part of town and we all had babies within a few months of age of each other (PEPS creates groups based on your zip code and due date). A volunteer (also a mother and PEPS alum) facilitated. Each week we would begin by sharing our high and low points of the week, and then go on to discuss some pre-determined topic, like sleep, feeding, or shifting identities. Babies would cry, feed, and sleep during meetings, and moms learned to grow more comfortable tending to a fussy baby in a space outside their own homes. Resources were shared and sympathy given, yet PEPS is not a therapy group nor a parenting class. Mostly, it’s a place to form community and feel more supported as a new mom. It can help normalize what otherwise can be an incredibly overwhelming and isolating experience.

Some PEPS groups continue to meet for years after their formal group has ended. Others, like mine, gradually disband, because women go back to work, schedules conflict, and everyone become more busy. Regardless of the group’s future, however, I believe that the value of belonging to a group like this for even just three months can be enormous.

Motherhood has been such a profound, transforming experience for me, and I’ve spent so much time over the last three years reading, writing, and learning about so many facets of the experience, that I like the idea of sharing some of the resources that I’ve garnered. But more than this, I like the idea of helping other moms to process and talk about the joys and challenges they are going through. My role as a facilitator is not to be a ‘teacher’ (especially since I can’t remember a fraction of what I once knew about each particular stage of development), but rather to be a conduit to help the group form their own strong connections.

PEPS philosophy, as well as my own, advocates that there is no one ‘right’ way to parent. In a culture which inundates pregnant women and new mothers with well-meaning but often unwelcome not to mention judgment-ridden advice, sometimes what we most need is just for somebody to listen. And it is often through feeling heard by another that we can actually begin to hear for ourselves the precise nature of what is actually going on inside. Have you ever had someone say to you something like, “That sounds hard,” after you’ve relayed a story, and then, for the first time, you feel tears brimming in your eyes, tears that key you in on just how hard it actually has been? That’s what I’m talking about.

The other day I went through my roster and called each woman to welcome her to the group and see if they had any questions. In the background, I could hear babies crying, breast pumps wheezing, and the muffled voices of the women themselves that suggested they might be holding a sleeping baby or simply existing in that slightly altered time-space of being holed up with an infant for days, weeks on end.

I try to remember those first days and what they were like for me, still coming off of the drugs from the cesarean, lying down or sitting in the recliner, my breasts heavy with milk, my hair uncombed, the heat turned up high. Visitors would come now and then bearing food that was greatly appreciated, taking their turns holding our newborn, but mostly we kept to ourselves, venturing outside for a walk to the neighborhood pond only after the first three weeks were spent solely indoors, save for a few steps out into the yard.

I also remember how nervous I was when I had to drive the baby alone for the first time, and what a relief it was to arrive. When you are caring for a newborn, there are a million little hurdles like this to get over—first night, first bath, first day caring for him alone, first time away from his side. Actually, I think this statement could probably be said for caring for any aged child: parenthood is a continual succession of ‘firsts’, and although it may not feel as daunting and I may not feel as raw as I did during those first months, parenting continues to grow more challenging and complex in other ways. Although some of the early demands (sore nipples, woken all night, fears of suffocating your baby, seismic identity shifts) might have diminished, there are always new stages and concerns to worry about, and new joys and milestones to celebrate, as well.

Let’s just say it: parenting is really fucking hard. (Only the f word seems to do justice to the gravity of this sentence). If anyone claims otherwise, they are employing a selective memory. It’s tiring, all-consuming, non-stop. It is a constant challenge to carve out enough time alone with your partner; to carve out enough time alone with yourself; to negotiate a sense of equity with regards to how you divide childcare, respites from childcare, and chores; to maintain your friendships, especially with those who do not also have kids. For those who go back to work, it can be hard to be away from your baby for so much of the week. And for those who decide not to go back, it can be hard to leave behind huge chunks of your identity that were tied to the work that you once did out in the world of adult interactions.

Parenting, and motherhood in particular, is challenging on so many levels. But it’s also filled with so many transcendent moments that are equally piercing when they come over you. Beyond the exhaustion and tedium that parenting can bring on, each day we are also privileged to witness a new being coming alive, discovering the world for the first time. Discovering its hands, toes, tongue, voice. Discovering lights, sounds, textures, tastes. And this discovery keeps going, never ends. It is amazing to witness and realize all the stages of discovery  that go into becoming a person, all the skills and ordinary miracles around us all the time that we adults take for granted in our daily lives.  Holding and witnessing a newborn, a being so new, so tied still to some other world, we are reminded of the pure awesomeness of life, of how each and every one of us was born and came into this world.

Together, new mothers and babies are an inseparable unit, existing in this vulnerable, other worldly state. New mothers have just gone through the exhausting and traumatic feat of giving birth, only to then plunge into a blur of days and nights spent caring for their newborn. Their hormones are careening, their bodies healing, their emotions reeling, their former world and life turned inside out, and they don’t get time to rest to recover-- they just have to dive in.

Mother and baby both recognize each other on some level—recognize each other’s presence, experienced now from a different perspective—yet they are understandably also in a state of inexpressible awe about where and who they now are. This is a magical time; this is a crazy time. This is a fragile time, a painful time. This period of brand new motherhood can be so many things; everyone experiences it slightly differently, but no one can deny how intense it is-- and how precious it is—because it is also so fleeting. One stage, one age, one crisis, one delight, one day merges into the next. And although you may still feel like you are in survival mode for many months or even years, where it feels like enough just to manage to eat, to sleep, and shower (if that), somewhere along the way it can be so important and illuminating to carve out the time to step back from “total immersion parenting” and give voice to your experiences. Whether this voice comes forth through talking to a friend, writing in a journal, or joining a support group, it can be so valuable to find the words to express what you are going through, what we all go through albeit in different ways, as mothers. For it is through this process of reckoning-- of mourning our losses, proclaiming our discoveries, and speaking our truths (and yes, even garbled, sleep-deprived, grasping for truths)-- that we can begin to step more gracefully into the demands of motherhood. In naming and honoring all that we have gone through and are going through, we can learn to see our experiences through a clearer lens, with more perspective, and hopefully with more acceptance, self-compassion, and trust.


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