Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Two-Word Advice For My Younger Self

Original Image: Flickr Creative Commons

Around 3 years ago, I encountered this article from HuffPost where fans were asked to write down some advice to their younger selves in only two words. Giving advice in hindsight is quite easy but to do that in only two words sounds ALMOST impossible. 

Well, challenge accepted! 

Here is my list of 2-word nuggets of wisdom to my younger selves. I decided to break it down per decade of my life given the unique challenges each period presents.

First Ten Years: COMPARE NOT. 
I can't even begin to tell you how much of my life and sanity have been consumed unnecessarily by comparison. As a young child, I found myself always looking up to my older sister who, in most people's eyes and mine, was probably the perfect child. She was compliant, gentle and most of all, highly intelligent and academically brilliant. She set the bar really high and I was neurotic enough, even as a young child, to take it upon myself to strive for that bar and then consequently hate myself for not succeeding. I heard and interpreted every compliment given to my sister as a criticism toward me and how I was not measuring up. And it's not even like I was a failure and not doing well in school. It was just that I was different from my sister, that's all. No one punished me, compared me or made me feel less. It was all me and my predisposition for self-flagellation. I wish I had known better. 

It was in my teens when I began to realize that I was not your average small-framed Filipino. I started hearing insensitive remarks pertaining to my size and weight that contributed to my insecurities getting worse. I never fully allowed myself to feel fully confident in my own skin and always wished I could look different, more attractive, more lovable. I wish I had known then that it all needs to start from within and that I am perfect in my own imperfect self; that loving oneself gives one that priceless beauty that radiates from within.

20s: LET GO. 
I looked around me and found that my peers were getting into serious relationships, getting married and even having children. A lot of them also seemed set in their chosen careers and there I was, still trying to figure things out. I wish I had more patience and saw that we are rarely able to really control much in our lives. I wish I had known the value of being able to let go. It would have saved me much stress and more joy as I let life unfold and allowed myself to just be present in each moment rather than agonizing about an unknown future. Letting go would have gifted me with Patience which in turn carries with it a whole gamut of gifts such as acceptance, gentleness with life, courage and love. 

It was in my 30s (or very late 20s) when I had my first taste of true love. I fell in love twice, got married and had my child in my 30s. This is truly a decade of mature love and I am certain that the real lesson to take to heart is to love well and to never hold back. Choose who you love and love with all your heart. Be brave and know that love should never be defeated, diluted or clouded by fear. Loving well means giving of your whole self, and though it's a big risk, there really is no other way. Only in loving wholeheartedly can deep joy and fulfillment be found. You need to go all in to reap love's rewards.

People often ask me now why I've become so paranoid. I always answer with one word: Motherhood. Having my son brought out the Mama Bear in me to the extreme. I am overprotective and am perpetually consumed by worries. Though I have slowly improved through the years as I've acknowledged this disease, I know I still have a long way to go. If given the chance, I would tell my younger self to enjoy life and be certain that Faith is larger and stronger than fear. Perhaps with 'Stop Worrying' I could add 'Breathe Deep', 'Slow Down', 'Have Faith' and 'Pray Often'. Those are the most important elements to staying calm and finding joy in our everyday worrisome lives. 

How about you? I'd love to hear what two-word advice you'd like to offer your younger self.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Son, This is Really Why I'm Angry...

There are certain things that can definitely get a parent so riled up, so frustrated beyond words that it becomes close to impossible to resist the urge to blow up and be impulsive. Sometimes it's just so much easier to give way to a visceral reaction, rather than be rational and take a pause...

It was a typical school day afternoon. My son Noah was walking home from the bus stop and unknowingly, he dropped his jacket on the ground. One of the boys walking behind him called his attention and let him know that his jacket was on the ground. When Noah turned around to pick it up, he saw another boy "Q" just walk all over his jacket.  It was obvious to Noah that Q did it on purpose because as this boy walked all over his jacket, he muttered the words "step, step, step", as if it was nothing, or worse, that it was something entertaining.  Q neither paused nor made any effort to avoid stepping all over my son's jacket. He just kept walking away as if it was garbage to be ignored. I asked my son how he reacted to the situation and he said he did nothing. Nothing. He simply picked the jacket from the ground and headed home. He was obviously upset over the incident and yet he said nothing to the other boy.

At that point, frankly I couldn't decide who upset me morethe jerk who stepped all over my son's jacket, or my son who once again did not assert himself in a situation where he clearly should have.  Once again, he chose not to stand up for himself when clearly he was mistreated. In spite of repeated talks in the past where I'm practically hemorrhaging from every orifice on my body as I explain to him how important it is to stand up for oneself, he still chose to stay quiet and just walk away. 

This. Made. Me. Explode!!!

The truth is, I sat in front of my computer for a while and let my fingers type away. I knew how to contact Q's mother online and started composing an angry email. But right before hitting the Send button, I took a breath, re-read and reflected. Is this really all worth it? I know my email will only make the mother defensive and will definitely strain our relationship (not that we have anything more than knowing each other very casually and belonging to the same subdivision). Is it really worth making me and my son even more uncomfortable in our neighborhood given our already introverted selves? Can I guarantee that no awkwardness can ensue from my upset message? Do I know the other family well enough to judge how they will feel about my letter? 

The answer to everything was a No

I had to choose my battles.  I knew that awkwardness in the neighborhood in trying to avoid each other was something I would not be able to handle.  Nor is it something I am willing to burden both my son and husband with, simply for the reward of getting my anger off my chest.  It's not like we could just move and sell our home if things escalated and became intolerable.  Now, if my son were physically or verbally abused then clearly that would be a different matter. But this was simply over a jacket being stepped on and a child being inconsiderate or rude.  Could I really not let this one go?

I had to let it go where I knew I had no place controlling the other person's choices. But I couldn't just let it go altogether. 

I got angry at my son for not saying anything. I got angry at him for not responding to the situation the way I needed him to. Most of all, I was angry because I couldn't scream at the other boy. 

It was a selfish and myopic choice. My blowing up was because of a sense of powerlessness with the other boy but not with my son. I knew it was a case of what Martha Beck calls Stress Rolling. I was displacing my aggression, passing on my own stress, anger and sense of powerlessness on to someone (my son) who is less powerful than I am and who I know won't fight back. It was also because of my own fears: fear that my son might be bullied; fear that he might not learn how to speak up for himself; fear that he will get hurt and not be able to defend himself. But as I think about these fears, I also realize that they still point to a sense of powerlessnessmy acknowledgment that I really have no control over most anything that happens to my child. I cannot be with him to defend or protect him from every harm. I cannot make him behave according to my desires. I can't magically make him acquire a personality that is not truly his. Most of all, it's unloving of me to expect him to give me something I don't have myself, something that perhaps I have not shown him. 

Parenting advice prescribes that adults make it a point to explain to their children why they are being punished or what it is that disappointed or angered us. 

It's worth considering that maybe we get angry not just because our children fell short of our expectations, but that we ourselves feel some disappointment with how we've turned out as adults; that there is an inadequacy within ourselves that needs our attention. Or maybe our anger shines a light on the truth that parenthood does not translate to power, but instead to vulnerabilityour capacity to accept that there are very few things in life we can fully control, and the only real space where we can learn trust and courage. The sooner we see that powerlessness is a space for growth, the easier it will be to shun anger. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

What Spells Success

I'm not entirely sure but I have a strong suspicion that I was way more tense than my son. It was the morning of the 2016 Third Grade Spelling Bee at his school and we have both been reviewing for the past week. Last night, his last chance at really preparing for this event, it came to a point where I can see he had mentally given up. He was too exhausted and I had to back off. He really didn't need any more pressure. A 9-year old can only take so many "I before E except after C's", or his mother interrupting him with "Wrong. Repeat!

The event was held at the school library and the finalists' parents were invited, with two rows of chairs designated for us. I made sure to occupy the back row, a corner spot where Noah won't spot me so easily. I was afraid of making faces unconsciously, or him seeing all my facial muscles contract with trepidation. To be honest, I wasn't sure if it was in my son's best interest that I show up. I asked him repeatedly if he wanted me there and he said yes, he was sure. And so I went, and so did my husband. 

The thing about these events is that it's an exercise for parents to tame our expectations. It's when we fully understand the meaning of 'Expecting the worst, yet hoping for the best'. You want to cheer your child on without putting too much pressure. You tell them you love them no matter what, but you also know deep down that winning makes a difference. You don't want your child to be overly competitive, but you don't want them to be a slacker either and prefer that they grow up with some fight in them. It's a delicate balancing act that, if you truly think about it, simply teaches us Love and Acceptance. We can only exert so much influence and in the end, our children will still experience things beyond our control and end up into people who won't fit our molds with the precision we desire. Ultimately, the challenge is to still receive them with open arms, win or lose. We are constantly taught that the end goal is not to have perfect children, but good-to-the-core, happy children. That's it.

The Spelling Bee lasted for close to an hour, and for those who made it until the end, they ended up spelling words for approximately 50 minutes. There were a total of 18 finalists from the different classes, until finally it was down to three. After a few back and forth spelling between him and another finalist, Noah emerged as the champion!

I have never held my breath for so long that I think it gave me a headache. But when I could finally exhale, the pride and gratitude took over. I was ecstatic that all the hard work Noah put in paid off! But him getting the trophy is really only half the victory. In my view, this image below is what makes him even more of a winner. It was the best part of my day...

That's my son being hugged by one of his best buddies, C, who was also a finalist. Yes, I am proud of Noah for working so hard and bringing to the table his best self. But more importantly, I am happy for him for having such great friends who are supportive and humble. C was there cheering for my son and feeling so proud as well for his friend's success! What an amazing kid, isn't he?

My son is blessed. He may be quite reserved and tends to keep his feelings in, instead of openly expressing them. But I have no doubt that deep down he feels as exhilarated and deeply grateful as I do for being able to share his joys with his wonderful and loving friends.

I hope he knows that success can only feel good if you really worked hard for it, and most importantly, if you have openhearted friends and loved ones who genuinely and unselfishly share in your joy.

I thank God for helping my son today. And I will also forever thank God for giving my son the sweet, unparalleled taste of knowing what good friendship looks and feels like. That's an unfading trophy worth keeping in his heart.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Unexpected Gifts of Motherhood

There are immeasurable rewards to being a mother in spite of the infinite challenges parenthood has to offer. For every sleepless night, anxiety, frustration, messy house, spit or puke stain on your clothes and simply being exhausted to the bone, there is the deep joy, as well as the kind of love you never thought possible that continue to make you evolve into a better human being. Indeed those are priceless gifts to be treasured, all thanks to motherhood. But that's not what I'm here to talk about. Beyond what I expected to get out of this amazing role and identity, there are a few things that took me by surpriserealizations, lessons or transformations that I didn't think would touch my life as I became a mother. 

Appreciation for Time

I look at my son—the shape of his cheeks, his hair, the feel of his skin, his height, the way he walks, tells his stories, plays with his toys and interacts with other people—and always ask myself only one question: Where did the time go? Every mother I know echoes the same sentiment and for a split second you see in our eyes that wistful look. I am proud of my son and always grateful that I came out still relatively sane after the most difficult first 3 years of motherhood. He is no longer that colicky baby, the needy toddler, or as fragile as any young child is when it comes to illnesses. He is now so much more mature, more independent, very well-disciplined and less shy around friends. So much has changed, some easier than before, while others are more complex. And though I see how far we've come, I can't help but wish time didn't move as fast sometimes. Often times I find myself looking at old photos and watching family videos from the past and as my heart melts with every shot and scene, I know that the only lesson is for me to not take any moment for granted. Time flows independent of our desires and the kindest thing we can do for ourselves, especially as mothers, is to be fully invested in every second. Savor it. Be present. Capture the experience, not with lenses, but with your heart. With every motion time makes, it carries with it possibilities pregnant with change. We can never tell which ones are consequential, although I have learnt that in a mother's eyes, every slight change, every inch gained in height, every slight change in hair color, voice tone, scent and temperament are worth cherishing.

Newfound Courage

Dealing with people outside of one's comfort zone is never easy for an introvert like myself. If you only knew how much effort I put in and how exsanguinated I could feel after a simple phone call with a bank or credit card employee, you would wonder how I've managed all these years fulfilling my mom duties. But that's the beauty of motherhood. It will make you realize that you are the first and foremost advocate for your child. You are a Mama Bear and no one can mess with you where it comes to your child's well-being. Somehow, motherhood infuses us with a 'can-do' spirit, activating that side of us that has no choice but to do what is necessary when it comes to making sure our child is safe and well. I have no issues talking with doctors, asking anything I need to ask when it comes to illness or medication. I have no issues with school personnel, as long as I know I'm not violating any boundaries and not seeking any special treatment. I am still an introvert, very reserved when dealing with others and certainly never confrontational. But I also know that motherhood made me grow claws, ready to come out when needed. 

Perfection Redefined

I have always been aware of my perfectionist tendencies and have been casually labeled by friends and family as having borderline OCD when it comes to organization. Motherhood transformed that side of me. Though I still demand some organization for my sanity's sake, I also now concede that there is perfection in every situation, no matter how chaotic. There is no one system that can work for every family, in every situation. Sometimes you have to let your idea of perfection go in order to experience life more deeply. People are more important than things; laughter and fun more than perfectly sorted toys, remote controls and crayons. And though I still believe in the power of scheduling, I no longer chastise myself for not sticking to one day in and day out. I can't be controlled by blocks of time telling me when and what part of my house to clean each day when I know that my family needs me to be present for them, as well as my personal work and creative side calling out for my attention. I now know that things always work themselves out somehow and that life is perfect even with the bumps and wrinkles we encounter along the way. 

'Dependence' Is Not Always Unhealthy

I always say that I don't know how my Mom did it all. She worked full time and yet took care of 3 children. She woke up at 4 a.m. every day to make sure we had a good breakfast before heading out the door. She and my Dad were also out the door by around 6:30 to go to their respective office jobs. We never felt neglected, and I would say that we had a happy and healthy childhood. But to say that my Mom did it all by herself is also only half-truth. Apart from having my Dad, for a few years when we were still very young we had house help (or a 'maid' as some would call it). Most importantly, we grew up in a duplex with my Aunt (Dad's sister) and her family living right next door. My Aunt was a stay-at-home mom and so she was always there to keep an eye on us. Eventually when we no longer had house help, it was my Aunt who really watched over us whenever needed. This is also why now that I'm living in the U.S., I still find the concept of hiring a baby sitter quite foreign to me. Filipinos are very family-oriented and we are used to relying on extended family for help. There is always an aunt, uncle, grandparents or cousins you can call if you need someone to watch your kids for you. I don't have that now and relying on a complete stranger to watch my son is so scary and alien to me. This is why I fully appreciate the idea that it does take a village to raise a child. Doing EVERYTHING by your self ALL THE TIME is quite impossible. You need family, friends, neighbors, and trusted institutions to assist you with your children. Asking for help is never easy for anyone but parenting assumes dependence on others. It is a vulnerability that's just part of the job description and is not necessarily a bad thing.

Deeper Appreciation for My Mom

Last but definitely not least, my own motherhood definitely takes me back to my Mom and how she was and still is a mother to us. Do you remember how we all hated it when our mothers used to tell us, "Oh you'll understand all this when you become a mother yourself"? To me it wasn't just because it was a withholding of information. It also felt like a threat and a curse. But it's all true. Things I disagreed with or hated when I was a child are things I now see as necessary and find myself doing as well. The strictness, the need for structure, the discipline—I've reaped the rewards of all that and want the same for my son. I consider myself one of the very fortunate ones for having good role models and an amazing, strong, intelligent woman for a mother. I am eternally indebted and just hope with all of my heart that I am making my Mom proud with how I've turned out as a mother, and that she feels I am honoring her with all the right choices I make now, not only as a parent, but as a human being. 

Motherhood is a privilege I will unceasingly be grateful for. It has enriched my soul in countless ways and the lessons just keep pouring in. It is such a tough, all-consuming job and the rewards are there, just not always in ways you'd expect. But thank you. Thank you, Motherhood, for all your gifts whether packaged attractively or not. I receive them with an open heart and wish that all mothers everywhere embrace you with pride and the courage to claim your gifts.