This morning, I listened to this episode of NPR’s The Hidden Brain in which they talked about the power of advertising. The idea being is that we are being advertised to and we don’t even realize it. They discussed a unique way of advertising to people through social media accounts such as Instagram. A light bulb went on inside my head, and immediately I thought, “Those mommy Instagrammers!” Their #ads and #sponsored content and how they show up every once in a while in my feed, talking about product ABC and how much it has improved their lives. Oh, the holy trinity of marketing have appeared in the supposedly simple lives of non-famous moms around the country.
For the past few years, ever since I became a mom, I entered the world of social media where I kicked Facebook to the curb and became active on Instagram. It was through photographers accounts and links in their accounts that I found many moms on Instagram. These moms are (no surprise there) white and middle class…at least, that’s what it appears to be from their pictures. They also appear to be stay-at-home moms, although that’s not always the case. Some moms do have jobs outside the home, but they don’t talk about their jobs. Instead, they post pictures of their glamorous, well-decorated “minimalist” home with fancy floor tiles and high end refrigerators and soft, comfy couches from West Elm. Even worse is when they post pictures of the outside of their homes–it makes you feel like the house you live in comparison is minuscule and ugly, because oh my gosh these homes are HUGE. It makes it seem like all they do all the time is decorate, decorate, and decorate.
Whether or not they actually occupy the majority of their home is unknown to me. Sometimes they display pictures or other household items that are so beautiful that I’d think, “Did they just buy that for the picture? Or clean it up for Instagram?” These acts, I realize now, are all tactics of implicit advertising.
Sometimes there would be links to other Instagram business accounts or coupon codes at checkout. For example, “I love these @briarhandmade bonnets! Avery loves it too. You can get one for your little one on their website for 20% off with the code SAVEME20 at checkout!”
Yep, all this time I’ve been advertised to, and although I can’t say that I actually used any of the codes to save me money, but I have visited the business’s Instagram account as a result. And because I viewed their Instagram feed, I was tempted to follow them, so I did. It wasn’t until the other day I realized that I have followed over 100 accounts, and around 40 them are mommy accounts and/or business and mommy accounts (the ones who are moms who also have a business). And I wondered to myself, “How is this benefiting me? What joy do I get from seeing these perfect homes with their somewhat adorable children?” (Trust me, some of those kids are just downright ugly, but the moms sure know how to correctly take a photo of them in the right light so they appear to not be so ugly).
Armed with this knowledge, I decided to unfollow about 30 of them. The exception to that is photographers who are also moms whom I’ve never met and the moms that I’ve actually met in person (around five). I kept the photography-related feeds because as a photography enthusiast, I enjoy looking at beautiful pictures of landscapes and food. It gives me inspiration, whereas looking at the unattainable mom ideal in my feed gives me anxiety. After all, I am not a middle class, white mom in my mid-to-late thirties. I’m a lower class mom in my early thirties. I live in a small two-bedroom apartment, where I sleep on the couch with my husband (our kids occupy the two rooms for a reason), and our closets, bathroom, and kitchen are the size of a standard walk-in closet for most people.
Just as the advent of Facebook and how people have expressed themselves online went in a downward spiral, I feel that Instagram is becoming that way too. Oftentimes, we are shown pictures of what is, when that is not really what truly is. Take, for example, one of the moms mentioned in the Hidden Brain podcast–despite having pictures of herself using the Google pixel phone, she is still an iPhone user, she admits. It makes me wonder just how much of it is just for show, and how much money these moms actually make every time they post something linking it to a product or another Instagram account.
With the popularity of parenting blogs, it feels like the “mommies of Instagram” is its own exclusive club, one that I’ve tried desperately to portray in the past five years. I’ve learned to edit my iPhone photos to reflect the light airiness of the things that I’m portraying and used hashtags to make sure people find me. But I have yet to figure out how an “average mom” from the suburbs can garner 50,000 followers when she doesn’t seem to have a blog, a professional portfolio or a website. I wish I knew. But at the same time, I am also glad to let them fade out of my feed forever.
There is a picture of my mother and I standing in front of a cactus that sits directly in front of our house in Vietnam, next to the wrought-iron gate. I must’ve been around seven or eight years old, so this was in 1992 or 1993, several years before my family and I came to America. My mom and I both appear happy, with big smiles on our faces. Her face is hollow, while mine is chubby. I remember posing for this picture, which in essence, is one of the few remnants of my childhood, along with the picture of me as a baby being baptized, another one of me as a grumpy-looking toddler (presumably because I didn’t want my picture taken), and another one of us when I was around 12 years old, at a relative’s barbecue.
In these pictures, my mom appears to be a relaxed, fun-loving mom who was always around, but in reality, she was anything but. In fact, my mother was an untactful, hard-to-please, working mother. Minus the working part, she is still alive and kicking. My mother is a tough woman–she survives on a cocktail of pills (including vitamins), religion, and spewing out words that goes into the ear of an individual (like myself) and out the other in less than a minute.
For as long as I’ve known her, my mother has never been without “words of wisdom.” I put this in quotation marks because I’ve never really taken her words seriously until I became a mom myself. With five years and two kids under my belt, I feel like I know something about motherhood, but certainly not everything. For one, there’s the fact that you make sacrifices for your kids. If you’re down to the last bit of food, you’re going to give it to your kid and allow yourself to starve. At least, that’s what my mother claimed she did during those years of suffering, as she calls it, from 1976 to 1979, right before the Vietnam War ended.
I don’t know much about those years of suffering, just as she doesn’t know much about mine. She survived the War in her twenties whereas I survived the Great Recession of 2008-2009 in my twenties. It’s one of those things that we don’t discuss in depth, because for one, due to my lack of communication skills in Vietnamese (I can understand a lot and read a little bit, but not to the point of deep conversation), and also because it brings back treacherous thoughts that are much better off being bottled up and left in the attic of someone’s mind. It’s the fact that we survived that matters more, I think.
My mom was born in 1947, thus she became a woman and a mother in the midst of a historic war in our country. She married my father at the age of 17 through an arranged marriage, and four years later, had her first baby, my brother Long. Because she wasn’t the most fertile woman in our village, or perhaps because she wasn’t that interested in making babies with my father, she didn’t have another child for six years. After that, God deemed her too unhealthy to have another kid–she had certain medical issues that required operations–and was told that she would most likely never have another child. That must’ve been hard for a 27-year-old woman to hear, I bet. I was not supposed to be born, and yet I was, ten years later, in 1985. By then, she was 37, normal by today’s standards, but very old by our country’s standards.
Because of the fact that I was born to an older mother, I always felt that this was a barrier to our relationship. The age gap created an invisible path that I couldn’t cross, and that she couldn’t pave the way for me to cross.
My mom in her twenties
Growing up, I saw her as a working mother. She’d wake up very early in the morning, prepare the food that she would sell, then put all that food in two baskets strung by ropes held together by a long wooden stick, similar to this one, and she’d be gone for many hours. Often, she wouldn’t come back until the wee hours of the evening. She either left me with one of my aunts or my father. She used to tell me that I was a tough customer–I wouldn’t let anyone give me a bath except her. Although this may indicate fondness and preference for my mother, I never thought of her as the type of individual who I would “prefer” to be around, the favorite parent, or even the lovable one.
Our personalities clashed as I grew up and she continued to work. She was absent from my life a lot, and I resented her for that. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t there to provide snuggles or kisses like other moms. It took me awhile to understand that she wasn’t the affectionate type–my father was. Whereas I was/am a complete introvert, she is more of an ambivert. She thrives in certain social situations but also prefers to retreat to a quiet world with God.
So it should not have been surprising to her when I decided to leave for college after my father died. After all, why stay for something I never had in the first place? Frankly, I wanted to get away from her as fast as I could.
Throughout college, there were periods of time when we didn’t talk at all. She continued working while I continued college. Months would pass by without conversation. Whenever we did talk, it was a one-sided conversation in which she called me, and immediately after I answered the phone, she’d spew out a slur of criticisms, starting with, “Why haven’t you called me?” I didn’t really have an answer, except for, “I don’t want to talk to you,” but of course, I didn’t tell her that. Instead, I’d mumble something about being busy with schoolwork and whatnot. She’d then proceed to talk for the next five minutes, and in one continuous motion, let out more complaints than I cared to hear about. If all she wants is to complain, why would she call me? I thought. Needless to say, I ignored her phone calls a lot. Simply put, I did not want to be yelled at. I wanted to avoid any contact with her, because I knew she wasn’t calling to give me advice; she was calling to get on my nerves.
I always thought of my mother as someone who’d tell it like it is. My husband always says that she has no sense of tact, and he’s right. She never had it. But where she lacked the ability to maintain an intimate relationship with other human beings, she held a strong belief in a relationship with God. This was, and still is, one of the things that bothers her the most about me, the fact that I strayed away from God. In reality, I still believe in God, but not in the doctrines of Catholicism anymore. The main issue that I have with the religion, or faith in general, is the fact that I was never given the option to choose my religion. Instead, I was born into it, and according to my mother, if you’re born into a religion, you have to stay in it, no matter what.
It’s hard to convince her otherwise, so I gave up trying. And she continued to believe that I was following the devil, that I betrayed God. She’s not completely wrong, but she’s not right either. I don’t follow the devil, but I also have betrayed God, in a sense. I don’t frequent the church as I used to, mainly because I don’t feel like I could connect with God in an intimate way.
Last night, a New Yorker article serendipitously appeared in my inbox called, “The Unmothered” by Ruth Margalit. Although the author talked about loss and grief, about losing her mother to cancer, she used the term coined by another writer to describe the absence of a mother, I felt that the term “unmothered” also applies to me. For many years, I felt unmothered–the absence of a mother in my life. Even though she is still alive, she was not physically in my life that much. I did not see her for long stretches of time for over a decade.
It wasn’t until the past few years that our relationship started to move in a different direction. I felt that she started to dial down the criticisms a little bit, and I became softer when I became a mom. I understood the struggles of having to take care of kids, of trying to make money while also balancing familial responsibilities. My mother always said, “When you have kids, you’ll understand,” so often that I came to associate the phrase as my mom’s mantra, the other religion that she lives by.
Perhaps because of the fact that she was a working mother, or because she felt guilty, my mother chose to help with daycare after my daughter was born so I could go back to work full time. I say “chose” because my husband and I gave her a choice–it wasn’t like she had to spend time with my daughter all day, especially since she was still working the graveyard shift at the time. But in the end, she reasoned that she wanted to have an influence on our daughter’s life, so she decided to do it. I felt that she knew she was being given a second chance. She wasn’t there for me, but she could be there for her granddaughter, and start fresh with her. Giving her that opportunity, knowing that it might not work, terrified me. Fortunately, she became a strong influence in my daughter’s life, something that I am truly grateful for.
These days, we talk a lot more on the phone. She calls me if she needs help with something, or if she wants to see her grandchildren. We don’t have in-depth conversations–we never have, but because she loves my kids, I decided that the least I could do is make an effort to stay in touch with her for their sake. If I have a missed call from her, I’d call her back. We still do not understand each other on a deep level, but we are united by my children and liaised by my husband. She’s still hard to understand, but at least we’ve come to a point in our lives where we can remain neutral.
On a cloudy Wednesday morning last month, I signed up to do some volunteering with my coworkers. About seven of us showed up, and after our task was completed, we walked to a restaurant across the street from the volunteer site for lunch. While waiting for the food, conversations began about a variety of topics. At one point, one of my coworkers, a 29 year old female, declared out loud that she felt no desire to have kids whatsoever.
“I mean, I love kids and all, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll be a good mom, but I just don’t feel any need or want to have kids,” she said.
Another coworker, a white female in her mid-thirties, echoed the sentiment. “Yeah,” she agreed. “I feel like I’d rather be a very good aunt.”
A second coworker chimed in, “I’m still on the fence about it,” she said.
A few murmurs went around table. Of course, mine was not one of them. I remained silent. After all, I was the only person at that table who have kids. I felt like the odd (wo)man out.
When I was 23 years old, I got married. Fresh out of college, I married my high school sweetheart. We’d already been together for six years by that point. Like many smart twenty-somethings, we decided to wait a few years before having a kid. We figured we were still very young and not ready yet. Thus, we had a couple of years of childless freedom, where waking up at 9 a.m. was normal on the weekends, and we could go anywhere we wanted without having to consider logistics thoroughly, as one would often do when there is a kid involved.
When my daughter was born, I had just turned 28 ten days prior, and my husband was 26. Therefore, we thought we were pretty “normal.” We had reached at point where the consensus was, “Even though we’re not ready financially, we are ready mentally, so we’re going to do it.”
Jumping into parenthood in your late twenties was something that I thought everyone from my generation did. Little did I know that a few years later, I would come to discover that a lot of people from my generational cohort do not feel the same way.
The reality is this–more and more people are delaying parenthood. Take, for example, in a recent survey done by Discover.com illustrates this ambivalence towards parenthood has a lot to do with age and people’s perception of their maturity. They found that out of 1000 people born between 1981 and 1997, the older the person the more “ready” they feel for parenthood. Feeling like you’re ready is a major personal accomplishment. The majority of 19 to 27 year olds do not feel ready at all, whereas those ages 28 to 36 feels somewhat ready. [Keyword: somewhat… because nobody is ever truly 100% ready].
I wondered to myself if geography plays a role in child rearing. After all, where I live (the Pacific Northwest) people’s political views tend to be more liberal, and along with that comes a new wave of feminism in which women (and men) are delaying parenthood for the pursuit other goals, because it makes them feel empowered to be able to choose. Nowadays, it’s quite common to see parents of toddlers with gray hair at the playground and libraries (two places that are always filled with kids). This realization is unsettling to me. It makes me feel even more out of place in this parenting journey. Perhaps if I was a thirty-something ten years ago, I mused, I would’ve seen more parents my own age, but nowadays I do not. I see parents who have obtained higher education (masters and Ph.Ds), began their careers many years ago, and have purchased a home and have money in savings. In other words, they are more “well-off” than I am. Their gray hair gave way to the years of maturity demonstrated in their age and their wrinkle lines, the result of the careful planning of their lives.
I discussed this observation with my husband, and he agreed. We both felt like a little fish in a big body of water, who somehow managed to swim away from its own territory and are now lost in the sea of much older, larger, and more aggressive fishes.
So it’s not surprising that my 29-year-old feminist coworker feels empowered by NOT having kids. After all, statistics show that not only do millenials feel that they’re not ready yet, but they also want to pursue personal goals such as buying a home, getting a pet, having money in the bank, and having a stable, well-paying career before having kids. As if having all of those things will ensure that you will be a great parent.
Never have this evidence been so evident last year, when my daughter was in her first year of preschool. At the time, we took her to the university daycare center where my husband was a student. My daughter, although new to the social realm of preschool, made friends quickly. One day, one of her friend’s moms invited us over to their place for a play date. She also invited two other boys and their moms.
While our kids played in the other room, the four of us sat in the living room and talked. We talked about a variety of things that our children did, what they did for extracurricular activities, and so on. As I sat there and observed the other moms, I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, they must be at least 5 years older than me.” Turns out, two of the moms were around 10 years older than I am. One was a lesbian mom whose partner was also slightly older. Another mom had a husband who became a college professor before the age of 30. And the mom who invited us over was in her early forties, I presumed, because she talked about how there isn’t much of an age difference between her and her husband, and when I finally saw her husband later, he resembled an older version of Homer Simpson.
The realization that these parents probably graduated college before I even began high school stayed with me for awhile.
Many of us forget that women have a biological clock. This clock certainly will not slow down even if you have a big house, your student loans paid off, a stable career, a savings account, and so on. So often I hear tales of infertility, and I wondered to myself–did these people thought that their fertility was invincible, that they can just easily get pregnant in less than a year once they deemed themselves “ready”? Unfortunately, this is one of those situations where your body and your mind may not agree. It is incredibly heart-wrenching to wait so long to have kids, only to wait even longer to have them. At that point, you just hope for a miracle of some kind.
My mom is a perfect example of a “fertility miracle.” Unlike her sisters and sisters-in-law, she was told by doctors after having her second kid that she would never have another one. This was difficult for a 27-year-old woman to hear. But she trooped on and went about with her life. So it was a great surprise to my parents when I came to the world ten years later, when she was 37.
Because I was born to an older mom, and one who worked a lot, I had an unstable relationship with her. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t like other moms who were always around, taking care of everyone, making sure I had enough kisses and snuggles. She put food on the table, and kept our family from sinking even further into poverty, but as far as the relationship factor was concerned, it was nonexistent.
Thus, armed with this experience, I knew that I didn’t want to wait until my mid-thirties to have children. I knew that waiting was the right choice, but only up to a certain point. Waiting so long because you want to achieve other extrinsic goals first was not something I considered. Simply put, I knew that I wanted to be able to relate to my kids better, and felt that I could only do so if I was a younger mom.
As millenials are projected to beat Baby Boomers as the largest generation ever, as indicated by the Pew Research Center, we must think about how these attitudes on child rearing will affect FUTURE generations. If millenials at their prime childbearing ages do not children, many family lineages will stop there. Once the said millennials reach old age, they will not have children or grandchildren around to take care of them. Instead, they will have to rely on those (other millenials’ children) to take care of them. I can imagine a certain level of loneliness will ensue when those no-children millennials realize that perhaps having children wasn’t such a bad idea after all, but nonetheless it’s too late. I imagine that a certain level of guilt will accrue in their minds, but then again, who am I to judge?
I think the best way to describe having kids as this–my husband once said, “You don’t know that you want a baby until you have one, and when you finally have one, you don’t know how you could possibly live without them.” I know I can’t convince my strong-willed, independent millennial coworkers have children, but I can definitely say that having them changed my life for the better. I know that if I had waited until I felt “mature enough” personally, then that moment will most likely never happen.
Every morning for the past three months, my alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. About five minutes later, I’d trudge out of bed, slowly at first, then stumble into the kitchen, turn on the coffeemaker, and then make my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth and go to the bathroom. Once I’m done, I head back to the kitchen, where the coffee is almost ready, then I’d go over to my husband, still sleeping on the couch (we sleep on a fold-out sofa bed) and nudge him out of bed. After a few minutes, he begrudgingly does the same.
After he’s done in the bathroom, we’d go into the kitchen, where we’d drink a cup of hot, steaming coffee, sigh with satisfaction, exchange a few words here and there, then sit down on a small kiddie chair (him) and a step stool (me) and we’d start reading. This would go on until I have to go to work or one of our kids wake up.
We’d go on about our days as normal, him taking care of our kids mostly, and me at work. After the kids go to bed, we’d step outside and do our workout every other evening. On the evenings that we don’t exercise, we either work on a jigsaw puzzle or watch a movie or use it to take care of personal business.
This chain of events would never happen if we weren’t parents. It certainly would not have happened while we were poor college students. Back then, if I woke up before 8:00 a.m. I’d give myself a high five. Waking up early to read and exercising consistently 4-5 times a week is utterly incomprehensible to me up until a month ago. You might think that we’re crazy–you may ask, “Aren’t you tired after a long day with the kids or a long day at work?”
“Hell yes, we’re tired as ever, but we have goals to reach,” is what I’d say. When you want something to happen bad enough, you do whatever it takes to make it happen.
Earlier this year, I had several realizations about myself. The first one is that I am not great at finishing things, mainly books. In a typical year, I’d start about 30 books but rarely ever finish them. Second, like many people, I went to coffee shops a lot! Of course, my justification was that if I only went twice a week, then it’s okay. Umm, not a good justification, because I don’t make the kind of money that allows me this particular luxury. Lastly, I hardly ever exercise. All my life, I’ve been skinny. I weighed barely 100 lbs in high school, and continued to be small throughout college and in my twenties. I never once thought that my weight would catch up with me. I thought my metabolism was invincible.
Boy, was I wrong. Earlier this year, I started to notice that my weight had climbed up a little bit. By BMI standards, I was close to being considered “overweight.” This translates into being 131 lbs. Ouch. For an American white female, this is normal, but for a short Asian female, it is not.
I wondered to myself if whether those pounds added up gradually because I had two kids or because I’ve had a sedentary job for the past year and a half and I’ve been going to Starbucks a lot to compensate for the long days.
I realize now that it is most likely the latter. The holiday season certainly didn’t help with my seasonal depression. I was feeling down because I didn’t have any money and we were living off credit cards, and I felt pressured to be jolly. Then February came, and I was greeted with a heaping portion of baked goods, to which I accepted. It wasn’t until the end of February when I went to the doctor for an annual check up and my doctor mentioned the phrase, “holiday pounds” that it clicked in my head. Yep–office job, the holidays and its sweets, then more sweets in February (Valentines Day and my birthday is only a week apart) is what got me to where I am today–being almost overweight for my age group and ethnicity. I cringed when I saw the number on the doctor’s office scale. Not watching what I eat and not exercising has been detrimental to my body. The scale doesn’t lie. This is the heaviest I’ve ever been without being pregnant.
I remember a customer that I used to help when I worked at a local credit union. His name was Paul, and when I first met him, I decided that he couldn’t possibly be older than 50. Then I looked at his profile and saw that he was in his mid-seventies! He looked incredibly healthy and fit. Not surprisingly, he worked out everyday and taught fitness classes for bus drivers. I was in awe, and admired him for his strength.
Then I examined those around me currently–at work, at home, in public places. And I was blown away by the evidence of unhealthy lifestyles all around me. At work, for example, I see at least three individuals who are extremely overweight and have trouble walking even three blocks. Plus, they looked so incredibly old for their age. The evidence was clear in their physical appearance–they did not eat healthy foods or exercised, two components necessary for maintaining a healthy weight.
I’m more inspired from seeing what I don’t want to be versus what I would like to be.
I thought about my bad habits and how they do not align with my values. It became obvious that changes need to be implemented right away.
So at the beginning of March, I stopped going to Starbucks. If I can manage to do this for an entire year, I’ll save at least $400, or $35/mo. I started my reading routine and invited my husband to do the same. My husband has never been the type of person who’d wake up early to read either. For him, it’s a real game changer. I also created a workout schedule, and even signed up for a 5K, something I never imagined I would do.
As March continued on, I started feeling better. My insomnia was almost nonexistent. Surprisingly, I looked forward to working out, because it meant quality time with my husband. And because of the consistent reading, I’ve finished three books in January, three books in February, and five books in March. My husband has also finished his own share of books. We’ve completed two jigsaw puzzles together. I went to Starbucks zero times (okay, I cheated– once to a Dutch Bros. thrive-thru, and once to a convenience store, which comes to a whopping $5 total). I spent roughly $16 on coffee for home brewing, and still have coffee for next month. I bought lunch exactly once. It was the best $5 I’ve spent in a long time. I exercised for fifteen days. During the month of March, I ran approximately 26 miles and averaged 9709 steps, roughly 3000 more steps than I’ve had in the past six months. Simply put, I’ve doubled what I’ve done in terms of exercise. I’ve saved a lot of money by not going to coffee shops as often. And I’ve nurtured my brain with jigsaw puzzles and reading every day.
I realized that if I’m going to allow my kids to eat only Cheerios and no other sugary cereals, then I must treat myself the same way–with restraint. I must practice eating healthy and resisting the urges that ignite in my brain whenever I’m bored/anxious/sad/angry/whatever. I have to learn to distinguish between a true need and a simple desire.
I ran into Paul several months ago on the train platform by my house. We exchanged a few brief words. He still looks the same as he always does–fit and happy. And it made me think–if I want to be as healthy as him in retirement age, then I need to start early. I need to start now.
The first few days were incredibly difficult. Like stepping on hot coals for the first time, you feel a sense of shock as the pain registers in your body—as mine did in the first few runs. The “fight or flight” response is in full swing at this point. Instead of choosing to quit, I chose to fight. My determination overrode my fear of becoming a depressed, unhealthy individual.
I’m not going to lie–it’s been hard. But if there’s one thing that I learned from the past month it’s this–determination is the driving force to success. It starts in the mind. To me, there are three elements to achieving a goal. The first is deciding on which goal to tackle. The second is putting it into action. Lastly, continuing that action until you see active results. This is the part where a lot of us get hung up on–patience. Success doesn’t happen overnight, and for many of us, myself included, impatience gets in the way. Bad habits manifests itself in your thoughts, like the devil whispering on one side of your ear telling you that you are not capable. Being able to shut out the intrusive thoughts is difficult, but this month and beyond, I plan on continuing my path towards developing better habits.
We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. – Joseph Campbell
This year in February, I turned 33. Exactly ten years ago I graduated from college–the first in my family, in fact. It was a proud moment of my life. What was supposed to be the grandest achievement in the greatest year of my adult life was about to become the greatest challenge that I would face in my youth.
One of those challenges was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I had to have a job, but what? I didn’t spend a lot of time while in school trying to figure this out. That was my first error. That error, along with a great force of divine intervention, put me directly in the middle of one of the greatest recessions of all time–the Great Recession of 2008-09.
We all know about that. The one where the real estate market crashed. Just about everyone who owned a home lost value. People lost money left and right. There were no jobs available anywhere. It was an economic downpour that led to an enormous thunderstorm which would take years to recover.
This particular period wasn’t the brightest one in my twenties, and it was something that I was willing to never think about again, until I read this article.
I felt that the article was talking about me, to me. It talked about a concept that I’ve never heard of before called transformative resilience–the ability to improve because of a setback.
My story began in 2008. I was a new college graduate, eager and excited for the real world. But as I’ve mentioned above, my first error in navigating the “real world” was not spending time trying to figure out what career path to pursue. Thus began a journey of almost a decade of struggles, both personally, professionally and financially, before I was able to see any clarity in what many would call “the prime years” for working.
I was in a comfort zone in college, a bubble that didn’t burst until after I graduated. I was lucky to find a job right away. It was an internship doing marketing for a local health benefits administrator. I had a good working relationship with my boss, and because of that (and my expressed desire to obtain a full-time, regular position) she referred me to another department in the company when they had a full-time opening. The job was nothing fancy–doing data entry work, but nonetheless, I was on cloud nine because I was making more than I’ve ever had in years. This equates to about $13/hour, great for 2008.
Then the gossip came. My coworkers whispered that we might be out of a job, due to the recession. I didn’t think that was possible. I was doing well, so it came as a surprise to me when I was called into the manager’s office and told that I would be let go–they had to cut labor. Of course, they could not do that to the older, long time employees. It would have to be me, the newest bud.
Earlier that year, right after I graduated, I got married. My husband also just graduated from the local community college and had gotten a job at a hotel, working the front desk. The pay was nothing short of minimum wage, but it was what he wanted to do at the time–work in the hospitality industry. Little did he know that during a recession, not many people travel for pleasure. It was mainly for business.
The next blow came when I called the unemployment office to seek out benefits after being laid off. After waiting thirty minutes on the phone, I was told that I didn’t qualify. I was flabbergasted. The representative told me that the hours I did work during the last year were not regular hours because they were mainly work-study, subsidized by the government. I hung up the phone in tears.
Next came another strike when my husband and I sat down to do our taxes. I remember us so clearly–hunched over tax booklets and forms (we were still using paper and pencil at the time), one person reading the instructions, and the other writing down numbers and doing the math. Several hours later, we discovered that we owed $1500.
We had never done our taxes before, so I figured we must’ve made a mistake. I demanded that my husband take our taxes to the nearest H&R Block for a free review. He came back with the same consensus–yep, we did owe that money.
Problem is, we didn’t have that money in the bank. We were living paycheck to paycheck. Heck, we had just gotten married, so funds were dried up from the wedding.
So we decided to ask his dad for money. We knew that our moms didn’t have much money, so his dad was most likely to help. I was shocked when my husband came back and said, “Nope.”
The reasons are still unclear–he was either unwilling or unable to help. We decided not to dwell on it and moved on. The next task would be to find me a job–any job, really. Living on one income, especially one $9/hour income wasn’t feasible, especially when you have to pay back $1500 in taxes and student loans and a car payment.
I was lost. All my life, I was brought up to believe that once you obtain an education and get a job, you’d stay there and move up in the world. This upward mobility, stay-in-one-place path would prove to be something that many millenials do not do, and certainly not I. Nobody told me about the challenges of finding a job that fits your values while also utilizing your skills. Nobody told me that getting a job, any job, would be so hard. But that was the reality.
By this time, I was in the third stage as mentioned in the article–in the middle of chaos, where self compassion is absent, denial is in full swing, and panic sets in. Add on the lack of self-esteem, confusion over one’s abilities, and desperation, and you have a recipe for a full blown career crisis. This kind of crisis would put me in a blinding confusion that would last for many years to come.
I bounced from not having a job to having a job within a month. Sounds lucky, right? Except this was the first job that I found. It only paid $9/hour. The hiring manager made it clear that it wasn’t a very fancy or high paying position, but I took it anyway. I was desperate. It was either this or wait for who knows how long before I can get another job. I clung on to the first raft that I found, not realizing that it would drag me down so tremendously for the next year.
Almost every day, I came home from work crying. I had a devious, controlling coworker who’d watch everyone like a hawk and went to the manager immediately upon seeing an infraction of any kind–whether it be that the person was not putting things in the correct order, or was not telling people that they were going to the bathroom–in general, very small infractions that clearly did not dictate their overall capacity to perform the job. But she found it where she could and made everyone’s lives miserable. She assumed managerial responsibilities and barked orders at everyone even though she was not a manager. We all hated her, but there was nothing we could do, so we ignored it. I ignored it for awhile, until it bothered me. It filled me with a rage. Finally, I went to my manager to express this, and although she listened, she did not do anything to correct the issue. Not only that, I was doing three different jobs–something they did not disclose to me during the interview.
I was doing three jobs for $9/hour–it was not worth the stress, I knew it. But at the same time, I didn’t know what else to do. I had gone from a situation of a comfortable job to no job, no unemployment, no savings, and no parental help. Our country was in the middle of a recession–there were hardly any jobs to be had. So it came as no surprise when my husband found out that his company instigated a two-year pay freeze. Nobody would be allowed any raises for the next two years. Ouch.
Not only that, we had to pay back our taxes, so my husband and I devised a plan to save as much as possible in order to make the payments. Part of that involved being diligent about what we were spending our money on. We decided that we would limit our grocery budget to just $30 per week. We had no money for lunch or dinner dates, so the $30 would have to last an entire week for two people. This equates to around 72 cents per meal.
Now that I think about it, I remember it so fondly–us dragging our “grandma cart” down to the nearest Grocery Outlet (because driving costs money) talking and laughing, all the while calculating our total before we got to the register. We had to be precisely on budget or under.
I have to tell you that we did not frequent food pantries at this time. I suppose we could have, but being young and somewhat ignorant, we did not know how to seek out help. We vaguely knew about food stamps, but we never seek it out. We figured we had to be self-reliant. I thought food stamps were for low income immigrants, and I didn’t think of myself that way. In reality, that’s exactly what I was. The combination of pride and shame prevented us from seeking out government help, especially after getting rejected by one of our parents.
Looking back on it now, I remember we were in the stages of chaos and struggle for several years. During this time, we followed the $30/week grocery budget strictly, never went out, never bought alcohol or got massages, spent $10 or less on haircuts (which were rare), always shopped for things on sale, utilized coupons, used second hand furniture, and rarely drove our car. For fun, we stayed home and watched movies that I got for free from the library, and went camping & hiking in the summer.
After a year, I left my miserable job, and I found another one at a bank as a teller. Eight months later, I moved on to a credit union, where I would stay for the next four years. The experience at the credit union is another story altogether, reserved for another day, but the point remains–I was still confused about what I should do with my life, I was holding onto a raft that was dragging me down again. I explored and researched many career paths but never actually made any leaps of faith. Having just barely survived the recession, I favored stability over adventure, or rather misery over excitement.
Luckily for my husband, he survived his company’s pay freeze, and went on to become manager in the dining department. He stayed there for several years until he became stifled himself, seeking out new opportunities. But after having worked in only two main industries, it was difficult to transition to another industry without a certain level of education or experience, so he decided to step down from his position and go back to school.
Then a month after he enrolled, we found out that I was pregnant. Thus begins the next chapter of our lives–he started college with no kids and ended with two. It was challenging to say the least. We would not have made it without his grants, scholarships, student loans and government assistance. He was working part time, and at one point, I left my job to stay at home with my daughter so I could figure out what I was going to do career-wise.
Time flew by. We focused on raising our kids; he focused on finishing school. We were in a trance for a long time. Despite all of this, we still managed to come out on the other end slightly untethered. We paid off the taxes that we owed to the IRS. I educated myself on taxes so we would never be in the same boat again. We increased our credit rating and kept it at a consistent high. We paid off our used car loan of roughly $7000. We also paid off my husband’s community college loan. We started retirement funds and took advantage of 401Ks. When we had kids, we started their college funds too. We also saved over $10,000 in the course of four years, which was later used in 2014 when I was a stay-at-home mom while my husband worked part-time and went to school full-time. With the help of my mom, we bought a new car outright in 2015. We haven’t had a car payment since 2011. We took a trip to Vietnam to visit my family in 2009. We saved up for a trip to Hawaii in 2012, and it was amazing because every dollar spent was worth it knowing that it took almost a year to save up that money–our money. If you were to measure our wealth in terms of experiences, we were rich.
When you fall down and get hurt, it’s easier to stay in one spot and complain about it, and wait for someone to rescue you. But it’s also another to get back up and move on, to face the unknown ahead and say, “I can do this.” As the article mentioned, all of us will experience a challenging circumstance in our lives, regardless of our socioeconomic backgrounds or ages. It’s what we do with it that matters more.
I truly believe that everything happens for a reason, and the main thing that I’ve walked away with about my twenties is this–it was a challenging period in my life, both professionally and financially. I had no sense of direction whatsoever. I made lots of mistakes. But I’ve also learned a lot. It was from those mistakes that made me the person I am today. If I had not been forced into unemployment, or been depleted of funds, or worked at jobs that paid very little, then I never would’ve learned the value of frugality. I never would’ve consciously chosen to live within my means. I never would’ve felt the desire to save money, and I never would’ve felt the pure joy of spending the money that I saved. There were periods of time when I went crazy and spent more than I should have, and sure enough, I paid the price for that.
Late last year, I met with a financial advisor (for free, of course–who can afford one with my salary?) and we reviewed my retirement funds. He told me that my husband and I are above average for people our age. It felt great to know that we were on track, that we were much better than the average millennial. Having kids really changed a lot of perspective. Being low income for a long time really put things into reality. I no longer felt shame that I had to rely on food stamps while my husband was in school and I wasn’t working, or when I was working but part-time with two kids. Although we have ways to go in terms of our career paths, things are looking up, and it only took about a decade to see it in its full clarity. I just wish I had seen it sooner.
One of the facts of life is this–none of us are perfect, we all have flaws, right? But for some reason, these flaws don’t make their appearance until we become parents. At least, for me anyway. When you’re young and self-absorbed, you tend to push your flaws aside, thinking that while you acknowledge their existence they don’t make a full impact in your everyday lifestyle.
Then you become a parent, and things start coming out of the closet.
Just 10 days after turning 28, my daughter was born. I officially became a parent. My world from that point on changed completely. I learned to take care of someone else besides myself, and if you are one of these people (parents) then you know what I mean. I worried like most parents worry. I slept little like most new parents slept. I handled explosive poops and temper tantrums like most parents have to do.
Like many parents, I wondered how my daughter would turn out. And everything I did seemed to revolved around the thought of, “How will this look like in her eyes?” Her perceptions of me were more important than what other parents thought of me.
When Lily was three and a half years old, she started preschool. I remember dropping her off on the first day and feeling a sense of nostalgia–my baby was growing up, but I wanted her to stay little. She was a talking, walking and discovering little toddler, with thoughts and questions now. I gave her a hug and a kiss goodbye, and for the most part, she was excited to start preschool. She was perfectly okay with me leaving her there for half the day. As soon as we arrived at her school, she’d start in on an activity, as if to say, “Mom, I’m good, thanks. You can go now.”
Fast forward another year or so, this separation agreement evaporated completely. It started at home, when my husband told me one day that Lily had a problem with him going outside for a bit. He had to take out the trash, do the laundry, etc.–things that involved stepping outside our apartment. She’s always been one of those kids who were okay with this, but all of a sudden she was not.
Did it make it hard to do chores? You bet. Every time he had to step out, she’d dissolve into a pool of tears which ballooned into a full freakout. I was not there for the majority of these freakouts (because I was at work), but got the full frontal experience one day when my husband was at work himself.
As any typical day goes, there is laundry and trash and dishes to be done. After doing the dishes one Saturday morning, I had a bag of trash that needed to be taken out. Not only that, there was the looming presence of laundry–so full that it looked like it was about to burst out of the hamper, and I needed to take care of these things immediately.
This is the part where I feel like Homer Simpson whenever he goes, “Doh!” and slaps his head, because it was not very smart. I thought I could get away with it, if I was quick enough. And I planned on being as fast as possible, to not allow Lily to figure out what I was doing. I was a ninja in my head, I thought.
So, while she and her brother were playing in her room, I sneaked out with the bag of trash and laundry. I ran to the dumpster as fast as I could, dumped the trash in, and rushed to the basement of our quad, turned the laundry on, and felt relieved that I only took about five minutes or so.
As I stepped out of the basement, I heard what was no doubt cries–piercing cries coming from my apartment upstairs. I walked up the stairs, and not surprisingly, the cries were doubled. Turns out, whenever Lily freaks out, her brother also freaks out, because he’s a baby and other people crying and screaming that loud scares him.
I let out an exasperated sigh, and braced myself for the drama. Deep breaths, I told myself, but all I could feel was anger rising in my chest. I mean, for God’s sakes, it was only a few minutes! What the hell.
When I stepped in and opened the door, there she was in her full crying glory–babbling away incoherently words I didn’t understand, and her brother being completely freaked out next to her. By this time, things are getting LOUD in the living room.
It was then that I just lost it. I mean, completely lost it. I don’t remember the exact words I yelled, but it was something like, “What the hell’s wrong with you?!?! I was only gone for like five minutes! What’s your problem?!? Can’t a person go outside for a few minutes to do chores without coming home to this??? WHAT THE FUCK!!!” I slammed the door hard and demanded that she go to her room.
By this time, all three of us were crying–me because my toddler wouldn’t allow me to leave for a few minutes to do chores, her because of the fact that I did it, then yelled her at her, and James because he was scared at the commotion between the two of us.
Because the crying was amplified, my neighbor from downstairs came up to see what was going on. I had my door opened by that time, and she just walked in and immediately gave me a hug. She didn’t say very much, but I knew she understood because she’s a mom herself. I cried and cried, feeling resigned, like I couldn’t handle any more of this drama.
Then she left me be and went to my daughter, gave her a hug, and whispered something in her ears that made everything a little bit quieter. For the next few minutes, Lily and I were in separate rooms, stewing by ourselves. It was that toxic.
And that, my readers, is one of the lowest, if not the lowest moment of parenting in the past five years to me. You know it’s bad when the neighbor comes up to help you. The last time she did that was when James was born. That’s another story.
In retrospect, that incident taught me a lot about patience. Heck, becoming a parent taught me a lot about patience! But when your toddler pushes you to your breaking point, and you don’t know what to do…well, there’s a sense of helplessness there. It’s a vulnerability that we all have, but a trait that rarely comes up for some of us. On that day, I felt a lot like Homer Simpson, not just because I had a “Doh!” moment, but also because I wanted to wring her neck. I felt like Homer whenever he grabs Bart by the neck and say, “Why you little…!!!”
With all dreams of abuse aside, I knew I would never do that. After all, she was going through what is typically known as the “terrible” ages–Terrible Twos transformed into Terrible Threes. Anyone who tells you that you only get to experience the Terrible Twos is lying. I think that the terrible ages last well into early 4th year. As soon as you start feeling like they’re on a good schedule, sleep-wise, they enter the Terrible Two stage, which by itself, is a test of your physical and mental endurance.
As I’m writing this, I’m happy to report that the phase she was in have dissolved. Finally, we can go out to the dumpster by ourselves! And down to the basement to do laundry! Or to the car to pick up something! Hallelujah!
I never thought I’d be so glad to say, “I can go out to the dumpster by myself,” but I am. There you have it.
Confession of the day: I am notorious at almost finishing articles. If you’re a parent, you know what I mean. You browse the ‘net and you see an interesting article that you want to read. But as many parents face this all-too-common dilemma, time doesn’t allow you to finish. Rather, your kids don’t allow you to finish.
So what do you do? In my case, I leave the article(s) open on my phone’s Safari browser. That browser gets inundated with more open web sites than it knows what to do with. The other night, as I’m making an effort to clear out my baggage, I came upon this article about parental fear. The points made in this article is relatable–that parents, especially new ones, have this innate fear of their child getting hurt and it reminded me about the time that it happened to me…and my husband. It made me wonder–why the hell didn’t anyone tell me about this?!?!
It was perhaps fall of 2013, when Lily was about five or six months. She had reached the semi-mobile stage where she could roll over and lift her head up sturdily. One day while I was at work, I got a call from my husband. He sounded frantic on the phone as he explained what had just happened to our daughter, making it sound like she was almost near death.
“Oh my god! Lily just fell off the bed.” Ahh, those magic words. I was immediately alarmed.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I just left the room for maybe a minute, or two tops, and then I hear this screaming. I left her on the bed so I can go grab something…and next thing I know, she’s off the bed!”
“Oh. My. God. That’s terrible!” I exclaimed. “Is she okay?”
“She’s freaked out, crying. And then your mom came rushing into the room and starting rubbing tiger balm on her. What the fuck.”
[disclosure: this is probably not the exact words spoken by us, but it was pretty darn close].
At this particular point in time, I faced a personal dilemma. One side of me said, “Tell him that it’s not the first time she’s fallen off the bed. Tell him that it happened to you too.”
But the other side (the devil side) said, “Hell no! You’re crazy if you tell him that! You gotta make yourself look like the good parent by NOT disclosing your bad decisions.”
The good side of me responded with, “Don’t listen to her. She’s crazy. You tell him that it already happened, at least you’ll feel a bond, a connection because you understand what he’s going through right now.”
The devil side retorted with, “That’s just baloney, and you know it.”
Do I tell him? Do I tell him? I was being pulled in two different directions by two separate forces.
Guess which side won? The devil side.
I decided to keep my mouth shut and uttered my condolences to my husband, who reacted like any new parent would–with feelings of horror and guilt, that they’re the worst parent ever, that their kid might possibly be heading towards a brain injury.
It’s exactly the same kind of feeling that I felt when it happened to me. Just a short period of time (perhaps a month or so) before it happened to my husband, I was at home by myself with Lily. With the naivete of a new parent who didn’t think their kid was capable of rolling any further than two inches, I put her in the middle of the bed. Mind you, it was at least two inches inward from the edge. Our bed was about three feet off the ground and rested on top of hardwood floors. Yikes. If we had carpet, the fall wouldn’t have been so bad, but we had hardwood floors and there was no rug underneath or anywhere near the bed. Just a clear landing for my little girl.
I needed to grab a diaper for her, so I went into the other room, where we kept our diapering supplies to get one. I thought she was safe where she was, but within a minute I hear this awful scream. My heart had palpitations as I walked into the room and discovered that she had fallen off the bed.
How the heck did that happen?? I asked myself. After all, I wasn’t gone that long. How did she manage to get that far?
Luckily, her landing was perfect, just like the landing on the moon. She was inches away from hitting the foot of the crib, spared from brain injury. She landed on the floor with a quick thud, and a shocked expression, but that’s about it. She cried and cried and cried, and I picked her up and consoled her for what felt like forever. The whole time I’m holding her, I thought to myself, “Man, I am the WORST parent ever. How did I let this happen? And how on earth could she have rolled that far? What the hell!”
Guilt and indignation followed me the rest of the day. So, when my husband called me to confess right after it happened, I was faced with the dilemma and even more shame, because I didn’t tell him right away. I kept it zipped up, because you know, she was fine. We were both fine several hours later. No harm, right? Besides, I didn’t want to make myself look like the bad parent.
I told myself that if I ever have another kid, I would make sure that it doesn’t happen again. I was wrong. It happened to James after he started rolling over too.
It’s an inevitable truth that one day, your child will hurt themselves and you won’t be there to prevent it. And it happens sooner than you think. It happens when they’re little. Life does that to you, just to test your morals. It’s like the devil saying, “How do you like them apples?”
Now that I’ve been a parent for five years, with two kids who’ve managed to roll off the bed under my watch, I can say that it’s one of those things that affects parents way more than it affects the kids. What no one tells you before you become a parent is that kids are more resilient than you think. We’re all made to believe that babies are fragile–and yes, some of them really are–but in general healthy, normal babies will do things that are normal in their development, but terrifying to the parents who raise them. They roll off the bed, fall into things, touch things that are dangerous, so on and so forth. As a parent, we feel the need to protect our kids from all harm’s way, and while that’s good in theory, it’s impossible to do. After all, one day your baby will no longer be a baby–he/she will grow up and go out into the world, and they’re going to get hurt, no matter what they do, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Just like how there’s no way to preventing falls, or bruises, cuts, etc. there’s no way to prevent hurt. And it’s not the fact that it happens, it’s what you do afterwards that matters. I may have felt terrible for “allowing” my daughter to fall off the bed, or my son to do the same, but then again, I was there to console them afterwards. I checked to make sure they didn’t have any signs of physical trauma, and then held them for awhile after it happened. I think that is really the best thing that you can do as a parent.
Last year, I was talking to an old coworker of mine and she mentioned how terrified she was of her daughter beginning to roll over. I chuckled…quietly, of course. As the devil would have it, I didn’t tell her that her daughter will probably roll off the bed at some point, or do something to get hurt, because I didn’t want to scare her. She was a new parent. It’s not something I’m proud of doing, but I can remedy that by telling all new parents–if you are one of them–that it’s going to be okay. Things will happen, but kids are not china dishes. They’re strong, resilient, and they will survive, but their survival depends on you. You are the force that can help them get back up.