Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

My Aunt Jane passed away last week.  It has been a very sad time for my family.  Aunt Jane was my mother’s sister.  She was only 66 years old.  She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only six months ago.  Two weeks after Aunt Jane was diagnosed, my mother lost another sister, Aunt Susan, who was 67.

I am writing an open letter to Milo, who is now 2 1/2 years old.  Below is what I wrote to him about Aunt Jane.

May 21, 2012

Dear Milo,

It’s been a sad time.  Auntie Jane passed away.  It was expected.  She had pancreatic cancer.  She was diagnosed six months ago and given 4-6 months to live.  Auntie Jane was my cousins’, Sally and Tina’s mother.  They lost their father when they were school girls.  Now they lost their mother.

Auntie Jane is Ah-mah’s sister and she helped Ah-mah and Ah-kong at their company for many years.  She lived near Ah-mah and Ah-kong.  She met you when you were born and loved you very much.  You saw her often enough that you recognized her.  She was very gentle and kind.

The last six months of her life, Auntie Jane lived in New York, near her daughters.  This last month of her life, I brought you to visit her three times.  I drove you with Ah-mah to visit Auntie Jane, because we didn’t have much time left with her.  It was a long drive, but you were a trooper.  I brought you because it made Auntie Jane happy to see you.  I even told you this, that you made everybody happy.

When we saw Auntie Jane one month ago, she was very skinny, half the size of her normal self.  But she was still able to walk around and have a conversation.  You gave her a hug.  We went to the park and played.  She was very happy to see you.

Three weeks later, we came back to visit.  It was Auntie Jane’s 66th birthday.  She could no longer talk very well and needed help to walk around.  You sang her happy birthday six times.  All the aunties  were there and everybody clapped.  I watched Auntie Jane watching you.  Even though she could not speak, I could see some light dancing in her eyes.  Your singing brought her some joy.  For the rest of our short visit, she watched you play and sing.

The next week, we came back to say goodbye.  Auntie Jane was bedridden and could not open her eyes or speak.  She was most likely unconscious, but they say she could possibly hear us, so we spoke to her.  Ah-mah was very, very sad.  I was sad too.  You and I sang Frere Jacques to Auntie Jane.  I could tell it was very confusing to you and part of me debated about bringing you.  It was a very stressful visit.  But I thought it was important that we say goodbye.  I think she heard us.

The next day, Auntie Jane passed away.

A few days later, we drove back to New York for Auntie Jane’s funeral.  We drove together with Ah-mah and Ah-kong in another car.  We shared a hotel suite with two bedrooms and a living room.  The hotel had a pool.  You had a wonderful time playing in the pool.  I was asked to give the eulogy for Auntie’s funeral, so I woke up early to finish it.  The morning of the funeral, you declared, “I make everybody happy!”

Your father and I laughed.  While I hope you don’t grow up with a god complex, I was glad for your light in a very sad situation.  I was very glad you could bring a little joy to Auntie Jane during her last days.

I know you probably won’t remember Auntie Jane in your conscious memory, but I hope this note in your letter reminds you of someone who loved you.



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That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo
Knopf, 2009

I recently purchased a Kindle for my birthday in September.  This action was both an act of my youth and my aging.  I had long resisted the e-book format as I love books, the heft of the volume, turning the physical pages, the feel of the paper in my fingers.  However, after I spent an entire afternoon reading (a rare luxury with toddlerdom), I discovered that my eyes are not what they used to be.  My husband suggested I get a Kindle so I could read everything in 14 pt font.  So I did.  And now I’m gobbling up the e-books.  Maybe I look hip and trendy reading my Kindle, but no one needs to know that I’m reading it in large print format.

Amazon recently created an e-book lending program with libraries and I wanted to see how it worked, so I checked an e-book out of the library and had it downloaded directly to my Kindle.  Pretty nifty.  The book I chose was Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic.  (I have Russo’s Pulitzer-prize winning Empire Falls sitting unread on my bookshelf, where I have a lot of unread books, thanks to my ailing eyes.)  Now that I am endeavoring to embrace middle-age, That Old Cape Magic turned out to be an appropriate read for me.

Jack Griffin, a 50-something college professor, is about to see his life and marriage unravel.  After a long, successful career writing in the film industry, Griffin snagged his position in academia as a professor of screenwriting.  After all, screenwriting is a young person’s game, Griffin notes, as he made his move out of Hollywood to the tony suburbs of a Connecticut university.  As the only child of neurotic English professors—with whom he has contentious relationships—Griffin seems to have come full circle with academia and he settles into a comfortable existence with his beloved wife in their Connecticut dream home.  This dream home life lasts more than a decade, but the death of Griffin’s father, long divorced from his mother, forces Griffin to face some uncomfortable, unanswered questions.

Much of the novel takes place on Cape Cod, where Griffin’s family spent many summer vacations during his childhood.  Cape Cod signifies his parents’ idyllic dreams, the lazy summers by the sea, the escape from the politics and positioning of academia.  There is the status of having a summer home on the Cape, but the Griffins never owned their summer home.  They always rented a house and bickered over not being able to afford to buy their ideal summer home.  (The ones they could afford they “wouldn’t have as a gift.”)  The Cape was where Griffin and his wife, Joy, honeymooned and dreamed up their life plans together.  Nine months after the death of Griffin’s father, they return to the Cape for the wedding of a family friend, and Griffin has his father’s ashes in the trunk of his sports car (a not-so-subtle cliché of his middle-age crisis).

Russo’s writing is generous to his flawed characters, the kind of people you would like to have over for dinner, but may not know about their inner thoughts.  There are many comedic moments that were both delightful and pushed close to the edge of disbelief.  Griffin’s mother is a piece of work, an arrogant academic who sees herself well above the world and lets the world know it.  She’s a little over the top, calling at the worst times and intruding herself into Griffin’s life.  She is exactly what Griffin does not want to become, but he cannot stop her voice recording in his head.  Mommy issues.  Ah, yes, I know about those.

That Old Cape Magic is not a very “dramatic” novel in the sense that large, dramatic events do not happen, but it is a very human novel.  The crisis that happens in Griffin’s life has been building very slowly over the years, the way a person is formed by the small events that gather throughout one’s life.  This is particularly true of the conflict between Griffin and his wife, Joy, who share over 30 years of marriage that most people would call happy.  While they love each other, they also hurt each other in small, painful, irrevocable ways.  I found this to be an accurate portrayal of “happy” marriage.  That’s as good as it gets—teetering between love and contempt, hope and despair.  Perhaps a good reflection of the tenuous choices we make in life, marriage, and  middle-age.

Middle-aged Mommy and Milo on Cape Cod.

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Evolution of a Bed

We decided it was time to get Milo out of his crib and into a toddler bed.  For some families, this change can be traumatic because the child has a hard time transitioning into the larger bed.  For our family, the drama came with the actual bed itself.

Blake is a very spatial person and things need to fit well in his living space.  We’d seen the IKEA Kura bed at a friend’s house and we liked how it could be elevated to allow more play space underneath.  We also liked that it was a full twin-sized bed and that Milo could grow up with it, rather than outgrow a toddler-sized bed in a few years.  I was a little iffy about the elevated bed at Milo’s age, but Blake felt confident Milo could adjust fairly quickly.

When we saw the bed in the store, it was configured as pictured in the link, with the ladder on the left and the play space opening up to the left.  We needed the bed to be configured in the opposite way, with the ladder and the play space opening up to the right side.  In Milo’s room, there’s really only one spot for his bed, because of the mural and the optimum feng shui for the room.  If the bed wasn’t configured correctly, it wasn’t going to work.  But Blake was sure IKEA would be smart enough to design the bed to be assembled with flexible configurations, so we went ahead and bought the bed.

When we got the bed home, we started running into some problems.  It turns out the bed could not be configured in the way we needed.  We mulled over rearranging the room, but decided we really liked the current arrangement.  So Blake decided to pull out his drill and hack the bed into the correct configuration.

Then we found that the bed covered up more of the mural than I liked.  I spent a lot of time painting the mural while I was pregnant and I didn’t like that it was getting covered it.  (See post Baby Registry for photo of me preggers in front of mural, based on a silkscreen by my friend, the artist Nancy Hom.)

before hacking, covering mural

So Blake decided, since he was already modifying the bed, he would hack off a foot from the length of the bed.  This, of course, required pulling out the table saw and cutting the pressboard as well as the beams.  The mattress was foam and could easily be cut down to size.  We just had to tuck the sheets underneath and it would look just dandy.

after hacking, mural intact

It’s not a full twin, but the size seems more appropriate for Milo.  Plus, he’ll still be able to fit in it for several years to come, though maybe not through high school.  That’s okay.  He’ll probably want a bigger bed by the time he hits puberty.

Here is the completed bed:

completed bed, version 2.0

Milo loved his new bed.  He could barely go to sleep, he was shrieking, “New bed!  New bed!”  He loved trying to climb the ladder (which he could do with assistance) and he loved playing underneath the bed (dubbed “The Tunnel!”) and he loved being elevated on his new bed.

Most of you must be thinking, is it safe to have such a little guy elevated that high?  Yes, well, the first few nights, Daddy placed a piece of plywood over the ladder opening to keep the kid from falling out.  And in full disclosure, Mommy ended up sleeping with Milo those first nights.  It was a little awkward climbing up into that thing, but I managed.  After a few days of new bed, version 2.0, Daddy had to catch Milo from tumbling off the side.  Then Daddy starts thinking about hacking the bed even further to build and attach a pipe railing on the sides to keep Milo from falling out.   He’d have to get PVC pipe and make handles and figure out how to attach them to the wooden beams…

So I say, “Why don’t we just flip the bed over?”  IKEA designed the bed to be reversible, so that it could be elevated or not.

Daddy doesn’t think Milo will go for that because he loves being elevated and he loves the play area underneath, aka. The Tunnel.  But Daddy agrees to try it.  “We’ll see what Milo thinks.”

This is what Milo thinks:

New bed, version 2.1

Great climbing structure AND safe.  Milo is happy, which makes Daddy happy, and Mommy is happy too.  Sometimes the best solution is the simplest one.

As for Milo’s adjustment to the big bed, he’s done surprisingly well.  He’s fallen off the bed only once.   It’s also nice that Mommy can snuggle up with him sometimes in the new bed (and not have to climb up the ladder).  Hopefully he doesn’t outgrow the snuggling too soon.

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It seems like New Englanders are pretty jaded when it comes to bad weather.  Last winter, there were no fewer than seven major snow storms that shut down schools and businesses.  But this time, it’s not the middle of winter.  It’s August, and the storm we’re waiting for is a hurricane.

Hurricane Irene is expected to pummel her way up the eastern seaboard over the weekend and reach New England by Sunday.  New Hampshire is expected to get a good dose of her Sunday afternoon and evening.  They tell us to expect a lot of strong winds and be prepared to lose power, perhaps for several days.

So we’re stocking up: water, batteries, a new flashlight, food, important documents.  We also got a delivery of propane today that should last us through the winter.  We expect the power to go out.  We don’t have a generator, though the neighborhood hums of generators during big snowstorms.  Instead, Blake hooks up an inverter to one of the car batteries and we’re able to run lights and computers.  This is how we got by for a year when we lived in a cabin in the Oregon woods.  That was, of course, pre-baby.  Baby complicates a few things.  It will the hard to go without running water for several days, for instance.  That would really suck.  But Blake seems to take great pleasure at preparing for long power outages.  He’s a pretty handy person to have around during a natural disaster.

Our (partial) shopping list:

4  2.5-gallon containers of water
2 4-packs size D batteries
1  Maglite LED flashlight
50 pounds ice
20′ x 25′ plastic sheeting
2 gallons milk
2 pounds salami
1 pound bologna
2 loaves sourdough bread
1 5-pound bag brown rice
1 jumbo bag tortillas
1 5-pack dried udon noodles (aka, ramen)
2 cans sardines
10 Luna bars
2 cans coconut milk
1 bag muesli
1 box steel cut oats
1 package burrito-sized flour tortillas
1 lb sliced mozzarella cheese
1 lb. brick monterey jack cheese
2 lbs. butter (for pie baking!)
1 lbs. bacon
1 package UHT milk
1 pack 7th Generation disposable diapers (b/c we won’t be cloth diapering during the storm)

I didn’t see too many people panicking, but the stores are running out of supplies.  New Englanders are a tough breed.  Since I still think of myself as a transplanted Californian, I’m probably over-preparing for disaster.  (California disasters tend to be earthquakes and, well, you can’t really predict those.)  Still, we like to think of ourselves as resourceful, and we’re hopeful we’ll be able to ride Irene relatively unscathed.

Just to be sure, I confirmed with our homeowners’ insurance that we were covered in case of hurricane.  There is a big tree that’s awfully close to the house.

Some of our hurricane purchases. Gotta love ramen.


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The Name Game

I got a phone call today from our dental insurance company regarding coverage for Milo.  (Milo recently had his first dentist appointment with a great pediatric dentistry practice.)  The insurance company wanted to know if Milo had any additional insurance coverage.

I told them no, Milo was covered under my name.

The insurance person asked, “So, no additional insurance coverage from the natural father?”

Excuse me?  Natural father?  “No,” I repeated. “He’s covered under my name.”

“Oh,” said the insurance person.  “It’s just that your names are different.  He’s Clark and you’re Chen.”

I explained that I just didn’t change my name and that Milo’s father and I were indeed married.  But nevertheless, Milo did not have additional coverage under his father.

As I hung up the phone, I felt a little indignant.  I understand it’s a little confusing that I didn’t take my married name, but in this day and age, why make the assumption that the different names meant that I wasn’t married to the father of my son?  Because that was the implication with the term “natural father.”  Why not just say “father”?  And what does it matter anyway?

Milo’s full name is “Milo Chen Clark.”  Chen is his middle name.  We decided not to hyphenate, but that Milo would be “Milo Chen Clark” and that we would be known as the “Chen Clark Family.”  Still, on the insurance forms, he was “Milo C. Clark.”  Annoying that insurance forms don’t conform to our vision of our child’s name.  I realize this will not be the last time  we have this confusion over my relationship to my own child.

Still, there are very specific reasons I chose not to take my married name.  I got married at the age of 38, after I was already well established professionally and personally as Sabina Chen.  I had no desire to re-invent myself as “Sabina Clark” or even as “Sabina Chen Clark.”  More importantly, being Asian American was a big part of my identity and changing my name to “Clark” seemed to undermine who I was.  “Clark” is so very…WASP.  It felt incongruous to me.

Blake didn’t really care what name I took and we knew plenty of families like ours: mom keeps maiden name, children take father’s name or some combination of the two.  Welcome to the 21st century, right?

The other day, I heard Blake explain Milo’s full name to someone.  Then he said, “We figured when he gets older he can choose–”

I interrupted, “Choose whether he wants to embrace the Chen side of his identity?  Because he doesn’t have a choice about the Clark side!”

Did I destine my child to be a WASP?

Probably, when Milo comes of age, he will reject both his parents’ names and make up some anagram of the two.  Milo Carlcheck or Charnleck.  Will accept suggestions for anagrams.


Milo working on his identity. I gotta be me!

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Missing Daddy

Blake is in Africa for a month.  He’s building a school in South Sudan.  (You can read his updates from the field on Rebuild Sudan’s blog.)  He’s been away almost two weeks now and I’m adjusting to single motherhood. Exhausted.  Single parents are saints, I tell you.

Overall, Milo is doing okay with Daddy’s absence, but he’s definitely not the same.  On the day Blake left, we took Daddy to the airport and said goodbye.  Milo didn’t understand what was going on until that afternoon, when he looked for Daddy in every room in the house, but couldn’t find him.  It was a distressing moment.  Daddy, one of Milo’s most important objects of permanence, was no longer here.

Now, Milo won’t let me leave his sight.  Friends and family had lined up to help during this month of Blake’s absence, but having someone else babysit has been traumatic for Milo.  Previously, he’s been okay as long as he was familiar with the person babysitting him.  (The one exception has been my mother, but that’s for another post.  Tiger Grandmother, anyone?)  Last week, a friend was watching Milo so that I could go to a yoga class.  It was the mom of one of Milo’s playmates, someone he saw a few times a week.  Thirty minutes after dropping him off (and 10 minutes into the yoga class), I got the call: Milo is freaking out.

In general, Milo is definitely more sensitive than he was when Daddy was around.  Previously, he was pretty easy going.  Other moms noted that he didn’t even cry when he fell down.  He would just pick himself up and keep going.  Now, he’s much more prone to weepy outbursts.  Falling, tripping, moments of frustration normal to toddlerhood–any of these now set him off.  And it may be something in my reaction too that feeds his sensitivity.  I’m perhaps a bit too eager to pick him up and hug him these days.  Who knows?

One thing I’ve noticed is Milo’s increased attachment to Baby, his doll.  (See previous post, A Doll for Milo.)  Before Daddy left, Milo would hang onto Baby only around naps and bedtime.  Now he carries Baby around everywhere.  He wants to take him to the store, to visit friends, to the sand box, to potty.  Today, he even wanted to bring Baby into the shower.  Baby has become a new object of permanence.  But he can’t replace Daddy!

Blake does call when he can and Milo enjoys listening to Daddy’s voice over the phone.  We did managed to skype once.  Milo kept kissing Daddy’s face on the computer screen.  In the meantime, we’re keeping busy, doing fun things: lots of play dates, bowling, a trip to Boston’s Children Museum, Milo’s first parade.  We will be visiting friends who live on a farm this week.  Next week, Grandma comes for a visit.  We’re so proud of Blake and all his work building this school in Sudan.  But if Milo could count, he’d be counting the days until Daddy comes home.

Milo and Baby at the Memorial Day parade in Nashua, NH.

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A Doll for Milo

I’ve been struck by how distinctly gender roles are defined in baby stuff.  Clothes are definitely geared for girls; the choices for boys are mostly limited to sports or transportation themes: footballs, baseballs, fire trucks, etc.  The same goes for toys: cars and trains for boys, dolls and clothes for girls.  Blue for boys, pink for girls.

I am trying to be conscious about what messages this early gender marketing is sending to Milo.  It’s okay to wear blue, but not pink.  You’re expected to be athletic and like sports.  Boys like cars, but girls don’t.  Why?  Why send these messages to our children?  What’s the point?  In an era where the definitions of masculinity and femininity are fluid and evolving, why box our children into their gender roles at such a tender age?

Blake likes to think of himself as a “sensitive New-Age guy,” not your stereotypical man.  He is especially sensitive to how societal pressures may squash Milo from being himself.  In addition to the cars and blocks in Milo’s toy stash, Blake suggested we get Milo a doll.  This would encourage his nurturing side, he explained.  Milo had recently learned the word “baby.”  He’d been pointing out pictures of babies, or even photos of himself, and chanting, “Bay-bee! Bay-bee!”  Now would be an opportune time to introduce a doll.

It was unlikely we’d find an appropriate doll at Toys R Us, however.  Blake wanted a doll that was plain, with small features.  Such a doll would be like a blank canvas that would allow Milo to use his imagination to create its personality.  This idea comes from Waldorf teaching philosophy.  (In a past life, Blake had considered training as a Waldorf teacher.  Sensitive New-Age guy.)  A simple, small or no-featured doll made sense to me too.  However, most of the dolls on the market already had their personality, pre-stamped by Disney.

So I decided I would knit a doll for Milo.  I consider myself an advanced intermediate knitter and I thought knitting a small doll for Milo would not be too difficult.  I knit this:

It took me a little longer than I had anticipated, partly because I had to make a lot of little decisions: size, color, what kind of yarn, hair, etc.  “Milo’s Baby” is machine washable, complete with belly button.

One morning, we left Milo’s Baby in his room, in a spot where we knew he would find it.  Milo declared, “Baby!” and seemed to know exactly what to do with his doll.  He gave it a hug.

We’ll see whether giving Milo a doll will break open the gender role boundaries for him.  Milo has been both nurturing and ambivalent towards Baby.  He finds it convenient to carry Baby around by his hair.  One day, his hands were full so he decided kicking Baby down the hall was the most efficient way of transporting him.  But one night, Milo sat in the rocking chair and rocked Baby to sleep in his arms.  Then he pointed to the crib.  Daddy put Milo and Baby to bed together and they both slept through the night without a peep.

Knitting pattern for Milo’s Baby can be found at Wee Folk Art.  This is a great website for making all sorts of Waldorf type toys.  You know, for the sensitive New-Age guys in your life.

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Spilled Cheddar Bunnies

Yesterday, my dear little boy did this:

He poured out almost a full box of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies on the floor.  Oops.

I was reminded of a story a friend told me years ago.  Her first child, who was then about the same age as Milo is now, had gotten into the flour pot and spilled flour all over the kitchen.  The little girl had flour all over her face and hair and she had made a big mess.  As my friend was telling this story, I would have thought she might react with annoyance at having to clean up after her baby.  Instead, she said, “Oh, well!” and let her daughter continue to play with the flour.  She figured the deed had already been done and she might as well let her daughter play in the flour.  She could clean up later.

I remember this story struck me because I admired my friend’s sense of humor and grace in this situation.  It would do no good to freak out and yell at the baby, who was just innocently curious.  And since the mess had already been made, you might as well let the baby explore and have fun.

So when Milo poured out the Cheddar Bunnies, I stifled my urge to say “Uh-oh!” and grabbed the camera instead.

It was great fun for about 20 minutes or so.  And afterward, Milo helped me clean up!

I get the feeling we’ll be finding Cheddar Bunnies in strange places for the next few weeks.  But it was worth it.

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Tiger Motherhood

This essay, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,  came across my facebook newsfeed and pretty much gave me post-traumatic stress.   This essay is an excerpt from the soon-to-be published book, The Battle Hymm of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua.  The article recounts Ms. Chua’s own parenting philosophy, contrasting the Chinese parent and the Western parent.  There is a particularly harrowing scene in which Ms. Chua, trying to help her daughter master a piece on the piano, tries to “motivate” her daughter by calling her “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic.”

If I had a dime for every time my mother called me “lazy,” “undisciplined,” or “stupid.”  Her favorite phrase was, “What’s wrong with you?”  She was trying to “motivate” me too.  Intellectually, I know she did so out of love.  She wanted me to succeed so that I would be accomplished and financially secure in America, and accomplishments and financial security is what she equated with happiness.  Intellectually, I understand why my mother parented in this way.  But emotionally, I have always felt unworthy of my own mother’s love.  This has made me feel unworthy of love in general, an insecurity which has plagued my friendships, relationships, self-esteem, and marriage.  In so many ways, I have failed my mother’s expectations of me.  I was not very good at piano, I did not become a doctor, I didn’t marry a doctor or even someone I could call a sugar daddy.  As a writer, I am far from financially secure.  And now, as I am a mother myself, my mother can be critical of how I mother my own child.  It never ends.

I’m far from alone.  Most of us who have Chinese mothers can relate.  The top comment on the New York Time Motherlode column is this, from “Catie”:

I was raised by a Chinese mother like Ms. Chua, with the added “bonus” of frequent and harsh corporal punishment.

The postitive side of this style of parenting: I have a couple of advanced degrees and a faculty position at a prestigious University. I own a home and am financially stable.

The negative side of this style of parenting: I have no emotional connection to either of my parents and I was greatly relieved when my mother passed away. I moved thousands of miles away from my father to get away from a man who stood idle while a small child was beaten, degraded, and humiliated. I have stayed in abusive relationships because I have an unhealthy threshold for mistreatment– it’s easy to minimize bad behavior when my own mother treated me even worse in the name of love.

Is it worth it? My parents would probably say that it was, and that academic/financial success, social prestige, and family honor outweigh any of the emotional and psychological consequences. I disagree.

Needless to say, Ms. Chua’s essay struck a chord with many.  It recalls some primal defenses many of us developed against a barrage of criticism, of growing up in a household where love was withheld unless you performed perfectly.  Mine is a generation of Asian American adults that collectively struggles with the collateral damage of what the essay calls Chinese parenting.  We vow not to do the same with our own children, but we have no models of how to do it better.

To be fair, as I read through the essay, I did not get the sense that Ms. Chua was actually advocating for “Chinese parenting.”  (I put this term in quotations because I am loathe to generalize all Chinese parents.)  I thought the essay was an attempt to shed light on the differing parenting philosophies and how each of them find the other equally horrific.  Westerners would call “Chinese parenting” borderline abusive.  Chinese would call “Western parenting” undisciplined and self-indulgent, a failure to prepare a child for survival in the big, bad uber-competitive world.  Westerners value self-confidence and critical thinking and individuality to make one’s dreams come true.  Chinese value honoring the family and the ancestors through tradition and virtue.

My husband is a Westerner who can trace his lineage back to the Mayflower and he was raised with a fairly Beaver Cleaver childhood.  His mother is the sweetest person ever and he calls her several times a week.  They can talk for hours.   But, quite frankly, my husband, with his Beaver Cleaver upbringing, has as many dysfunctional issues as an adult as I do.  Even his mother would say so.

Of course, my husband had a visceral reaction to Ms. Chua’s essay.  He couldn’t stop talking about how wrong she was and trying to poke holes in her argument.

“Argument?”  I said.  “I don’t think she’s trying to argue for anything.”

“But she titled the essay, ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.'”

“Hm,” I said.  “I highly doubt she chose that title herself.”

I know a thing or two about publishing and I know the writer doesn’t always get full control of how his or her material is marketed.  A headline like “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” is designed to get people to read it.  I suspected the essay itself may have been edited to create buzz/interest/outrage about the upcoming book.  Nothing helps book sales better than controversy.

It turns out I was right.  A few days after the essay was published in the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Yang, who writes the AsianPop column in the San Francisco Chronicle actually read Ms. Chua’s book and interviewed her for his column, which he entitled “Mother, Superior?” From the article:

Apparently, it [the essay] had been edited without her [Chua’s] input, and by the time she saw the version they intended to run, she was limited in what she could do to alter it.

“I was very surprised,” she says. “The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.”

Because of the Wall Street Journal essay, Ms. Chua has received a firestorm of criticism from the public, accusing her of being a horrible mother, “wrong,” “a monster,” “pathetic.”   (Hm, criticism not unlike that from a Chinese mother.)  But it seems the publicity is doing its part.   Discussion of Ms. Chua’s “excerpt” has been on the Today Show, NPR, The Huffington Post, and all over the blogosphere.  Advance book sales of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother have been through the roof.  Unfortunate how Ms. Chua’s reputation has to be sacrificed for the business of publishing.

My mother did cut out a copy of “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” and gave it to me, two days after I had already read it online.  She probably read it as a justification for her parenting style.  I get it, I want to say to her.  You did it out of love.  But the damage has been done.  I don’t tell her this, of course, because my mother has never listened to me, as much as I’ve tried and keep trying.  On this occasion, it’s too much emotional energy to spend on a talking to a deaf ear.

My relationship with my parents is strained at best and we will probably never be “close,” the way many Western families tell each other everything and can talk for hours.  As much as I wish things were different, I don’t really blame my parents for their shortcomings.  They didn’t know any other way of parenting.  They had Chinese mothers too.

I will write more about this, I’m sure.  As Flannery O’Connor said, anyone who survives childhood should have enough to write about for a lifetime.

My mother and me, circa 1972

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Composting Diapers

Being a good, conscientious liberal, I was torn between disposable and cloth diapers for Milo. Daddy is clearly a convenience guy when it comes to diapers and he convinced me to go with disposables when Milo was first born. There were all these changes in our life, nighttime feedings, hormonal changes, no sleep, etc., why make more work for ourselves? Go with the disposables. I agreed at the time, but every week, when I lugged a big bag of used diapers to the transfer station, I feel my liberal guilt weigh me down. All that shit goes to the landfill. All that shit from my one little baby. Wow.

So when Milo was six months old, a friend lent me some cloth diapers to give it a trial run. Prefolds and diaper covers, pocket diapers, al-in-ones. It turned out to be less scary than I had thought; even Daddy had to admit it wasn’t so bad. By this time, Milo was pooping only once a day (as opposed to the 4-5 times a day when he was a newborn), so changing a pee diaper that was cloth was very manageable.

But the problem was laundering. Daddy (who was an environmental economics major) felt the laundering used so much water that from an environmental standpoint, it was almost as bad as shoving disposables into the landfill. I was not as convinced of this as he was, but the laundering was quite time consuming. Using disposables, we did Milo’s laundry once every 5 days or so. With the cloth diapers, we were doing laundry every other day.

The diaper system I chose was a hybrid system, which means you can use both cloth and a biodegradable/flushable insert in the diapers. During the day, we use cloth, but at night, we use the flushable insert because they are much more absorbent. However, since we have a septic system, it’s not possible to actually flush the insert down our toilets. Bummer. It is, however, possible to compost the diapers. (The pee ones, at least. The poopy ones are much more complicated. We just toss those, but since we’re using the inserts only at night, they’re typically not poopy.)

layer of diapers on the compost pile

So a few weeks ago, we build a compost pile and threw in five months’ worth of pee diapers. I’d been keeping the pee diapers in a big paper bag on our porch. We mixed the diapers in with layers of mulched dead leaves, kitchen waste, and soil. We used the compost recipe from How to Grow More Vegetables, by John Jeavons, which calls for 45% mature organic material (like dead leaves), 45% immature organic material (like kitchen waste), and 10% soil.

I had been storing up my kitchen waste for several months and much of it already started decomposing by the time we opened it up to build our compost pile. It seemed like we ran out of kitchen waste quite quickly. But Daddy thought our diapers could be categorized as “immature organic material” because of the nitrogen in the urine, which is what you really want from “immature organic material.” So we went with that. No idea if it will work. According to the book, we should turn the compost pile once, about three weeks after we built it. After that, leaving it alone, we should have cured compost in about six months. In the springtime, we should build another pile. So we’ll see if the diapers actually do compost well and add all that nitrogen to our compost.

Milo had great fun the day we built the pile. A fall day out in the yard with Mommy and Daddy and his diapers. What could be more fun?

Composting is fun!

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