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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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