The Unexpected Primary Caretaker

“I just love being with Spencer all the time,” she said as she crawled up the play structure, on the heels of the child in question.

I was at a neighborhood playground with a new mom-friend, our toddlers happily ignoring each other.  We had met at a preschool open house the weekend before.  Our sons were less than 3 months apart, we lived mere blocks from each other, she had an engineering degree from the prestigious university down the street, and she was a full-time parent.  Excited to find another high-achieving mom who spent a lot of time taking care of her kid, I got her number immediately.  I had so many questions for her:  I wanted to know how she made the decision not to work.  I wanted to know if she still had professional ambitions and, if so, how she was keeping them at bay while she raised her child.  I wanted to know if the same drive and intellectual curiosity that had gotten her that degree ever made it frustrating to read the same Elephant and Piggie book eight times in a row.  I wanted to ask her all the questions I’d been wrestling with for the last 21 months, questions that neither my working-mom friends nor my stay-at-home friends could answer.

Five days later, we were having our first playdate, and I was quickly learning that we might have less in common than I thought.

“I can’t imagine having another kid for at least three and a half more years,” she continued. “We’re just having so much fun.”

I looked at her as she animatedly chatted with her son.  Then I looked down at mine, furiously turning the steering wheel of the plastic car he was sitting in, and sighed.  I was in my eleventh hour of the day with him, and there were still two more to go before bedtime.

So much for a friend in a similar situation, I thought.  I could not relate to anything she was saying.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

I Get the Hype About Grandparents Now

“Bear, we have to go inside.”

My son pulls at my hand.  His tug is insistent, surprisingly strong for someone who isn’t yet two; when I refuse to comply, he pulls harder, his legs in a textbook tug-of-war stance.  I counter his weight with one hand as multiple Target bags hang from the other.  I do not have the wherewithal to make the walk around the block that we often do after coming home.

Nor do I have the time.  It’s almost 4.30, and we have a date.  After struggling for a few moments, I pull out my ace:

“Yei-Yei and Nai-Nai want to talk to you.”

Suddenly his arm goes slack.  He drops my hand and runs to the front door, patting it insistently as I fumble for my keys.  We enter the house and I fetch my laptop.  As I sign onto Skype, he claps his hands and looks eagerly at the screen.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

Becoming a Mom Transformed My Relationship with Mine

Every now and then, when I’m on the phone with my mom, I’ll mention something that I’m not looking forward to doing. Going to the DMV, perhaps, or needing to initiate a conversation that has the potential to be unpleasant.

My mother will respond: “Well, you just have to do it.”

“MOM,” I’ll say, rolling my eyes heavenward, immediately reverting to the 16-year-old version of myself. Obviously I have every intention of finding a dentist, I’ll say in a huff; I’m simply commenting that I’m not looking forward to it. I do not need to be reminded or convinced that it needs to be done.

“Okay,” she’ll say, in a way that I can’t quite read. Has she heard me? Does she really think that I’m considering not taking my car to the dealership for a safety recall? I don’t want to tell her that a more helpful response would be “Oh, that stinks” or “I don’t like doing that either.” She’s my Asian mom, after all, and I’m not sure how she would receive that kind of direction from anyone, let alone her child.

In hindsight, I think I subconsciously expected these conversations to increase after I had a baby. The world of new parenthood, I was told, was full of doing things that are tedious and unpleasant but need to be done anyway. I imagined that when I talked with my mom, three time zones away, about how I was doing, I would be hearing a lot more “Well, you just have to do its” and doing a lot more eye-rolling.

That I have yet to hear this refrain once, nine months in, is testament to how much has changed between us.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

Maintaining My Identity Apart from Him

In college, it happened every year: One or two of my girlfriends would get into a relationship and drop off the face of the earth. She’d stop accepting invitations to hang out; her AIM profile would be filled with sappy song lyrics and maybe the date she and her new boy made things official; whenever we did see her, it would always be with him, as if their relationship mandated that they never be separated by more than 10 feet. When her name came up in conversation, we’d roll our eyes and shake our heads, a silent ode to our fallen comrade. If and when they broke up, she’d sheepishly resurface, never acknowledging her disappearance; the rest of us wouldn’t either, except for maybe a passive-aggressive comment or two as we reacclimated to her presence. Soon, it would feel as though she never left – unless, of course, she met someone new and absconded once again.

I never wanted to be that girl: the one whose life revolved around a boy, who made time with girlfriends feel like a second choice, whose presence could be counted on only if she were single. (Though in fairness to that girl, these traits aren’t entirely her fault, given that our society encourages women to define themselves by men at every turn. But I digress.) And I did my damndest not to be her, prioritizing time with my ladyfriends when I was in a relationship, even if it meant stretching myself too thin. Getting married, in many ways, made my life simpler: Instead of needing to schedule time with my husband and time with my girlfriends, I only needed to plan for the latter, since the former became the default. After several years of marriage, I was proud to say that I had managed to partner up without losing my own identity, my own interests, my own friends. I had a rich and full life with my husband, but I also had one of my own, both of which I prized. I could be married and still be my own person.

Not surprisingly, I took the same attitude when it came to parenthood. If and when I had children, I would not be that mom: the one whose world revolved around her children, who had no goals or conversation topics apart from them, whose email signature read “Proud Mommy of Mabel (7) and Angela (4).” My children would be a central part of my life, but they would not be its sole focus. I would have my own identity, my own interests, my own friends. I would be a parent and still be my own person.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

On Careers, Kids, and Living Up to Mom

A little bit about my mom: She went to the best girls’ high school in Taipei and the best university in Taiwan, and then she moved to the US and got her PhD in 5 years – in a language she could barely speak at the start of her program. She got a faculty position at her alma mater and earned tenure in 4 years. (Most professors take 6 or 7.) She would go on to become a full professor and the chair of her department while co-founding a business on the side. Meanwhile, she cooked dinner every night, drove my brother and I to nearly all of our after-school activities, and attended all of our recitals and concerts. She and my father also had an active social life, hosting elaborate dinner parties and hanging out with friends multiple times a weekend. And she managed to do all of these things while being a warm, lovely, hospitable person, with nary a complaint about stress or her myriad responsibilities. In some ways, my mom is a bit of a machine: She doesn’t eat much or need a lot of sleep; she loves her work and thrives on being busy. She’s one of those people who seems to have a limitless capacity for work.

Thus, when I was growing up, this was my prototype of a successful woman. It wasn’t consequence-free – I was doing full days in preschool by the time I was 18 months old (my brother started even younger); I spent many an afternoon in elementary school latchkey, which I loathed; I had recurring nightmares where I’d be chasing my mom but never able to catch her, dreams that were ripe for even the most amateur analysis. But all told, I think I gained far more than I lost from this upbringing. I learned to read and write very early, I was socialized young – but most importantly, my model for womanhood was strong, capable, and ambitious. I cannot overstate the impact that this model has had on my life, on everything from my academic and professional achievement to my sense of self-efficacy to my identity.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

Peking Duck and a Movie: My Immigrant Family Christmas

This post is part of the series “Christmas at My House” – reflections on the wide diversity of Christmas experiences.

My immigrant family had to learn many things the hard way: what a diorama was, when I came home from school in 2nd grade and announced that I had to make one for class; the difference between a good Halloween costume and a bad one; the odd customs around school dances. The answers were usually simple, if inexplicable: You buy your prom date a corsage or a boutonniere because that’s simply what people do; you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but no other saints’ days, for exactly the same reason. But the thing we never quite figured out was what we were supposed to eat for Christmas dinner.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

you just know.

how do you know he/she is the one? you just know.

i was never a huge fan of this response before i met robert (or even while i was dating him, for that matter). because what exactly does that mean? and let’s be realistic — there are probably plenty of couples who “just knew” and ended up getting divorced, not to mention all the ones who “just knew” and never made it to the altar. hell, i “just knew” that i would marry my then-best friend at age 16, and our pseudo-relationship fizzled after a whopping 3 weeks.

so when people ask how i knew that i was going to marry robert, i try to provide a more substantial explanation. because yes, i just knew. but it was a little more nuanced than that.

from what i can assess, there were two key factors at play. the first was affective. i knew how i felt about him, and i knew that these feelings were stronger than i’d ever experienced before. i also knew how i felt in our relationship; i felt significantly happier, healthier, and safer than i’d felt in any of my previous ones (and i cannot underscore enough the importance of feeling safe, because if that feeling is absent on any level, physical or emotional, you better run while you still can). and from what robert told me, i knew that these feelings were mutual.

the second factor was cognitive. this is best expressed in equation form:

p(meeting another man as good as robert) * p(being as compatible with said man as i am with robert) = virtually 0.

in english: i knew that the odds of me meeting another man as good as robert (who is the best man i’ve known to date, and i know some pretty extraordinary men) AND that i’d be as compatible with this man as i am with robert (with whom i am incredibly compatible) was slim to none. i’m not an old lady, but i’ve been around long enough to know that it’s not easy to meet an exceptional man with whom you are extremely compatible.

so for me, there was an element of emotional “just knowing” involved, but there was also a lot of logic and reasoning going on there too.

and that’s how i knew.

the us.

terry hargrave, a professor of marriage and family therapy, writes of a “third identity” in marriage — a “we-ness,” an “us” that is not quite the same as either individual, nor as the sum of the two. the “us” can have interests and preferences that don’t necessarily belong to either person. his example: the ballet. he, by himself, does not like the ballet. but when he and his wife make a date of it — getting dressed up, having dinner, enjoying the show together — it’s a different story; their “we” loves the ballet. it’s important to recognize and cultivate this “us”, writes hargrave, while also honoring and maintaining the identity of each spouse.

i hadn’t thought of this concept in our marriage until last night, when i found myself chopping fresh oregano and shallots for dinner as robert stirred a vat of pasta in boiling water. i, by myself, am not a huge fan of cooking. i love to eat, but cooking always felt like a giant hassle, especially when 1. i was only cooking for myself (meaning that i would be eating the same dish for days, and all of the leftover ingredients would slowly wither away in the fridge) and 2. i could get tasty, inexpensive, and relatively healthy dinners from trader joe’s that required minimal preparation. but we, armed with a stack of cookbooks from our registry, love cooking. we get to spend time together in both the cooking and the eating phases, we get to enjoy something that we’ve mutually created, and the whole process is much more efficient with two people. we’ve liked it so much that we’ve blocked off 2 nights a week for it.

another example: watching the sopranos. i never would have started watching it on my own, but watching it with him has been awesome. we eat peanut-butter-filled pretzels and talk in between episodes about what happened, putting all the pieces together, analyzing the characters and their motives. i still wouldn’t watch it without him, even now that we’re well into the (very compelling, extremely violent but freaking brilliant) series.

not to say that the all of the traits of the “us” are completely different from those of the individual. i love frozen yogurt by myself, and we love frozen yogurt. i love will ferrell on my own, and we love will ferrell. the “us” has pieces of both of us and some completely unique qualities, not unlike the offspring we might eventually have.

all that to say that while i’m continuing to learn more about robert and all of his many facets, it’s been really interesting to think about the development of the “us” — the birth of a completely different identity, whose characteristics can be fun and surprising.


rick snyder won the michigan republican primary today.

this victory has personal ramifications for my family, because my brother worked for snyder last year. he was offered a full-time job with the campaign but opted to spend his summer in dc instead, stating that he would return if snyder won the primary. discussions of his potential roles in the campaign and the pending administration ensued. and now, hot damn, his boy won, so j could move back to michigan as early as friday.

it boggles my mind how unstable the world of politics is, how many futures are changed by a single election. your skills matter to some degree, but when it all boils down, whether or not you have a job depends on the voting public. that’s it. when a senator loses his seat, tens of people lose their jobs with him. and then what? hard to say. no wonder the streets of washington are littered with the battered souls of twentysomethings, to roughly paraphrase a friend of mine.

my brother fared better in this case. he has the potential to ride this wave for quite some time. and his other option wasn’t so bad, either; he was going to stick around in dc until the likely influx of republican congressmen and senators in november and try to hop on board with one of them, living his dream of being a young suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying whippersnapper on the hill. and who wouldn’t want him? he’s smart, well-educated, articulate, outgoing, confident, thoughtful, and asian american (let’s be honest — any thinking republican would probably snap him up on that basis alone, regardless of his other qualities).

i’m thrilled for my brother (and for my parents, too — my dad voted for snyder solely because his win would mean that j would live 50 miles away instead of 500). but, as i told him earlier today, i also feel a pang of envy. the ink on his diploma is barely dry, and already he is doing exactly what he wants to do (hell, knows exactly what he wants to do), is working for a candidate he really believes in, and is well on his way in pursuing his dream of a career in politics. he has at 21 what i am still struggling to figure out at 27, and he has doors open to him that i can hardly fathom. he’s worked his ass off to find and capitalize on the opportunities he’s been presented with, and i am unbelievably proud; but a large part of me wishes that i had the same kind of direction and excitement about what i was doing.

(not to mention that he will probably be making more than i will as we simultaneously start our first salaried positions. master’s degrees be damned. dinner’s on you next time, kid. 😉

our big fat bicultural wedding

in the great scheme of asian families, mine is pretty acculturated. we speak english at home, we have lots of friends that aren’t asian, we usually eat out at non-asian restaurants, etc. etc. etc. but this wedding, more than anything else, is showing me that deep down, at the core of our beings, we are still very much chinese.

nowhere is this more evident than in our guest list. everyone says that this is the most stressful part of the wedding planning process, but i posit that this is especially so when you are part of a half-asian, half-not wedding.

allow me to illustrate.

for chinese people: a wedding is a communal celebration. we’re a collectivist people, and everything tends to be centered around the community. this is all the more true for large life events like weddings; the entire community gathers to celebrate. (think my big fat greek wedding, only with asian people.)

for white people: this is not the case. (or at least it is much less so.)

consequently, the “badizzo” side of the guest list is significantly longer than the “fantasticmrfox” side, and this is exacerbated by the fact that my family is exceptionally social. by my estimation, my parents are the 3rd most popular taiwanese couple in the metro detroit area. at the very least, they’re in the top 5. and i’ve gone through many different phases — high school, church, college, grad school — and i make friends fairly easily and tend to keep in touch with the ones i make. so our family’s social-butterfly-tendencies greatly magnify this issue.

as a corollary:

for chinese people: people in your community often assume that they’re invited to large events like weddings, when perhaps they in fact are not. however, you can’t tell them that they aren’t invited, b/c this is a serious offense. so if someone says something along the lines of “i’ll be there!”, you cannot tell them that they will not be. you just nod and email your daughter telling her that they’re coming.

for white people: this is not the case.

i was reminded of this today, when my mother informed me that one of her friends — self-invited — is now being accompanied to the wedding by her daughter, who i haven’t seen in 20 years. more on this in a moment.

for chinese people: you tend to know exactly who’s coming long before the invitations are even sent. for example, my mother knew months ago exactly which of her friends and relatives were coming, save for the few who recently invited themselves. i’m not sure why this is — maybe it’s so the hosts don’t get offended if a guest says no; the guest has time to explain him- or herself. but as a result, you have a very good gauge of how you’re doing on your head count early on in the process.

for white people: this is not the case.

ergo, we have no idea who among robert’s relatives and family friends are coming. which means that i have to sit in a very uncomfortable place of… uncertainty. this is not a place i like to begin with, and my anxiety is greatly heightened by the fact that i had to pause sending out invitations to my friends, people i love dearly, because we don’t know who from his family is coming yet, and we cannot proceed without a head count lest we go over. and this is further exacerbated by sporadic emails and phone calls from my mother telling me that more people are coming who were not on the list she and my dad sent me months ago, people who i generally don’t know and who i do not want to bump my own friends in favor of.

all that to say that i am highly anxious at the moment. i want robert’s family and friends to tell us if they’re coming or not, and i want my mother to stop telling me that more people have invited themselves, so i can stop worrying about our head count and resume the business of inviting friends.

in sum, guest lists are hairy for everyone, but when you have two cultures and two sets of social mores to balance… things get infinitely trickier.