How to talk to your child about death

I may be making a big assumption here, but I would say that most people’s first memory involves something pleasant—being held by someone who loves them, riding a fun ride at an amusement park, meeting a new sibling, getting a puppy, receiving toys for Christmas, riding a bike, etc. My first memory involves nothing of the sort. In fact, it involves death. Death laid next to me and filled the air with dread for days as I struggled to get better.

When I was around four years old, I got very, very sick. To this day, I still don’t know what it was that made me so sick. Was it malaria? Meningitis? Typhoid fever? Or some other tropical disease? My parents wouldn’t tell me. All I know about that story is my parents’ decision to take me to the hospital which is what ultimately saved me.

I had been sick for about two weeks when they took me to a local clinic. The nurse there took one look at me and said, “If you don’t take her to the hospital, she will die.” My parents were poor. We didn’t have health insurance. In fact, we lived in a country that had literally no concept of healthcare—it was lackluster especially in our areas; thus, whenever one goes to the hospital for treatment, they would have to pay out of pocket. Never mind that, the nurse said. Her prophecy that I would die put my parents in a tough spot, and made an impression in their minds. “The prognosis is not good,” she told them. Finally, they decided to take me to the hospital where I stayed for several weeks.

While I stayed there, I remember seeing a little boy laying on the bed next to me. He didn’t move for hours. I thought it was strange so I asked the nurse on duty why that boy wasn’t moving.

“Oh honey,” she said with a painful look bordering on pity. “He’s gone.” It was my very first experience with death. I understood right away what she meant—her saddened face gave it away. What I didn’t understand though was why he was laying next to ME. After all, I was still alive.

Later, I learned that the hospital kept all of the really sick kids in one area, regardless of whether or not they were dead or alive. The dead ones were simply waiting for their families to make funeral arrangements and once that happened they would pick up the body.

So yes, I lived in a hospital that doubled as a morgue. The experience never left me feeling anything but sadness. I feel sad for that little boy, not so much older than I was, perhaps five or six, who died before he had a chance to become somebody. Many children died in Vietnam from poor healthcare and lack of nutrition in the late eighties / early nineties, and I was just one of them. But luckily I didn’t die. I got better and life moved on.

Fast forward to present day. It’s June 2019, and I have a six year old daughter now who’s never been really sick thanks to preventative healthcare that she was rewarded with from the moment she was born. (So lucky!) She comes to my husband and starts bawling because she’s been thinking about death.

“Huh,” I said when my husband told me of this conversation. He said that Lily went to him and asked him if when she’s dead, will she see him in heaven? This was no doubt a big girl question and none that I expected she would ask at this age. Because Lily has never truly been close to death as I was by her age, and because she’s never really lost a loved one (not YET), we haven’t talked to her at all about the idea of death.

How she suddenly began thinking about this concept is beyond me. What’s more, she’s having nightmares about it. This morning she came out of her bedroom at 6:45 a.m, which is earlier than normal, and began bawling about a nightmare that she had. I was more concerned with trying to calm her down so I didn’t fully hear what it was about. Then, later this afternoon, when she had another crying fit she went to her dad and told him of her fears regarding death.

It’s tough to think about ways to talk to your children about death, a topic so deep, so personal, and so convoluted that you’ve never thought about how you’re supposed to talk about it. I wanted to find out if there is any literature on how to approach the subject, or at the very least, a set of guidelines as to what to say to kids about death, so I turned to my friend Google and searched “how to talk to your kid about death.” And not surprisingly, most of what I discovered were articles on talking to your kids about death as an actual event. There were hardly any guidelines as to how to have that conversation about death before it actually happens.

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Surprise, surprise–the word divorce came up before death

“Cry. Cry together. Cry often. It’s healthy and healing,” says this article in Psychology Today. “Allow your child to participate in rituals. Let children pick clothing for your loved one, photos for the memorial, a song or spiritual reading,” it continues. Similarly another website’s advice — to allow the children to participate in rituals. Listen to their reactions. Let them cry if they want to. Tell them that it’s okay. Basically—do everything you can to comfort the child while also keep your emotions in check. Try not to show that you’re a wreck on the inside because you just lost a loved one.

Which is interesting to say the least—it makes me wonder why that is. Why is it that adults don’t talk to children about death BEFORE it happens? Why do we wait until an actual death occurs in the family before actually talking about it? Moreover, why are there no guidelines on how to talk about something that happens to everyone? Lastly, why are there conflicting information as to how to cope with death? Why should you bottle up your feelings and say things like “I don’t know “ when you know full well that the reason that person died was because of X, Y, and Z?

We certainly talk about life a lot. We give our kids the birds and the bees talk. And when we have another child and bring that baby home from the hospital we introduced the baby as a new life, a new addition to the family. Don’t you ever wonder if kids themselves are wondering how that baby came about?

According to this National Geographic article, studies have been done on children’s understanding of death shows that kids begin to grasp the idea at age 3, but do not grasp the full elements of death until age 5-7, that death is universal, death is irreversible and nonfunctional. Which certainly makes sense that at age six, Lily is starting to think about the concept of death even though she’s never lost a loved one…yet.

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Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

To be honest, I didn’t lose a loved one until I was about 9 years old. Both of my grandparents on my father’s side passed away within months of each other (my other grandparents were gone well before I was born). And I remember feeling sad, especially when my grandma died, because was a nice lady. She always told me that I was her favorite granddaughter, and I basked in the glow of her approval for me. It was only when I got older I realized that she probably said the same thing to all of her grandchildren to make them feel special. After all, with as many children as she had (she had 15 children total, 3 of them died in infancy) and each one of her children had their own children…well, I’ll let you do the math. Still, she was special to me because she was the only grandmother I had, the only one I knew.

Anyhow, when she passed away first, it put my grandfather in a complete utter state of shock which later turned into heartbreak. He couldn’t live without her and became quite reclusive and withdrawn. We’d like to say that he died of a broken heart. Regardless of whether or not that’s actually true, losing two grandparents in a single year was tough. I didn’t know what to make of it. But at the same time that I participated in the funeral festivities nobody really sat me down and explained that my grandparents were never coming back. Eventually I figured it out on my own.

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Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

So far my daughter has not come to me directly to talk about death (although I feel like it’s going to happen any day how), I feel that I should be prepared to say a few things about it. But how do you talk to a child about a fear of hers that is also your own? How do you explain the depths of your fear, that you often feel like you have an enormous lump lodged in your throat every time you think about dying? That it sends a terrifying chill throughout your body and makes you as stiff as someone who is already dead? That you have to remember to take a deep breath before it takes your breath away?

These are the things that I can’t explain to her yet. At the same time I’m not surprised that she’s inherited my fear of death. However it’s not so much death itself that I’m afraid of–it’s the process of dying. I would be perfectly happy if one day I’m alive, and the next day I’m not; for whatever reason, I go quickly and have little time to experience the dying part. For example—if I’m going to die by drowning I don’t want to be sinking to the bottom of the ocean, lake, or river (or God forbid, pool), and have an awareness that I’m dying and that nobody is coming to save me. Likewise, if I’m getting stabbed and I’m bleeding to death, I wouldn’t want to feel the wrath of the person (or animal) that’s trying to kill me as I lay there hopelessly thinking about my impending death. It’s too gruesome to think about—the experience of torture, of dying slowly. This is perhaps influenced by my childhood experience in the hospital as a child almost close to death, and seeing death so close to me. To this day, I still can’t get the image out of my mind of that little boy—hopeless and dead, as well as other little children hopeless and dying.

Hopefully I will be able to figure it out soon.

 

What works for one might not work for another

Lately, I’ve decided on one thing–that there is too much literature on how to be a parent. You’d think that with the age group most primed to be having kids right now (millennials) are having less kids and having them later in life that there would be less articles, blog posts and books on parenting, but I see them all the time! Perhaps it’s because I’m a parent that I tend to gravitate towards the stuff related to parenting (with all the newsletters I subscribe to relating to family, wellness and parenting, I might be as you say “slightly obsessed”) but I also feel like it travels with me wherever I go.

If you’re a parent you know what I mean. You have friends, colleagues and neighbors telling you this and that about kids, and then you have the media telling you this is what kids / having a family should look like. Then you have other media such as social media proclaiming the wonderful, high feelings of being a parent and not displaying the lows, which in turn tells others viewing your social media that you have a perfect life. It’s hard not to be one or the other — you’re either the one jealous of others lives with children or you’re the one boasting about your family/kids/life. Either way, you can’t win.

Anyway, what I’m getting is at is that I’ve been seeing a lot of “how to” articles. How to raise healthy kids. How to teach kids about not bullying. How to get your kids to do this and that. It’s kind of overwhelming!

For example–you might have heard the good ol’ wisdom of letting them “cry it out.” When your baby or toddler is freaking out, do you go and comfort them or do you let them tough it out? If you do the latter it’ll make you feel like the worst parent in the world, because you’re letting them suffer. But if you do the former, then you’re coddling then. Either way, you can’t win.

I can’t tell you which side I’m on or which side actually works when you’re trying to teach your baby/toddler something (like a new skill–crying their hearts out or self soothing), but I can tell you that I’ve tried both. Both options will yield similar if not successful results, but it all depends on the kid.

Take, for example–When Lily was about 2 1/2 years old, my husband I decided that she was a little bit too old to have a pacifier, so we embarked on a mission to wean her off the contraption. We decided to do it the hard way–cut it out cold turkey. So one day she had ’em, and the next day she didn’t. As one would expect, she cried and cried and cried. It was incredibly agonizing. I’m pretty sure that she must’ve cried for over an hour once, just because she didn’t have her binky. We sat there on the couch on the other side of her bedroom wall and looked at each other with a level of incredulity because 1) how can a kid cry that long? And 2) how can a kid still need that when she’s almost three?

Well, we decided to tough it out for a few more days. Fast forward several months later, she’s three years old and her brother is born. She is no longer using the pacifier. It was incredible, and I can’t believe it worked.

Did I feel like a horrible parent? Yes, but as I’ve written about it here, sometimes they need a major push in order to accomplish something. Sometimes you just can’t string them along.

Time goes by, and now James is about six months old. I can’t remember exactly but I know he was less than a year old when he was having a terrible time sleeping at night. For whatever reason, he didn’t sleep longer than two hours. All the parenting literature says that at his age, he should’ve been sleeping for at least four hours if not more. Well, he wasn’t.

And once again, it felt like deja vu. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago that we were trying to train our daughter to sleep with no binky…

And once again, we were back on the couch “ignoring” his cries. And feeling like horrible parents. And talking about what we should do every minute that we were awake–which was all night, due to the fact that he was crying, not sleeping, and therefore, keeping us up.

Nowadays, he sleeps like a champ.

So you see where I’m going with this right? My position on how to train your kid to sleep, eat, or whatever is necessary has a better success rate if you just let them “tough it out.” Remove the debris that’s causing them delays. Get rid of it cold turkey. Right?

Welll…like I said, it depends on the kid. With James, we did what I call “tough reality” training with regards to sleeping. But there’s one thing that we’ve been a little slow to remove so quickly, and that’s the bottle.

James takes a bottle to go to sleep. One for nap time, two for night time. It’s how it’s always been for the past two years. We’ve never really discussed how we should wean him off the bottle, even though we discussed getting him a big boy bed and potty training and all that stuff. When it comes to the bottle, we simply shrugged and said, “Whenever.”

Little did I know that we would never actually have to do it cold turkey, that he would wean himself off the bottle.

Last night I said to my husband, “I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch but…James has not been taking his bottle at all. He takes a sip and then says, “Put the bottle down,” or “Take the bottle away.” I was flabbergasted. I did not expect him to say such things, I told my husband.

Tonight he did the same thing. Which only brings to mind the realization that he is outgrowing his bottle needs.

Of course, this sounds easier than it actually is. In reality, we have employed a slower approach to weaning. For several months we have been giving him less and less each night. It wasn’t until this week that he stopped demanding for another bottle. Prior to this, he would scream, “More bottle now!” after finishing the first (diluted and small) bottle. And I’d stick to my guns. I stayed firm and tried to distract him with something else. Over time, I think it stuck.

Well, I have to give it another week or so to see if this behavior changes but I can’t tell you how immensely happy I am that we will no longer have to buy milk, heat it up to the correct temperature and give it to him to help him sleep. I love that, but I’m also scared of the possibility that he will soon stop napping. Big changes. BIG STUFF indeed.

Here’s a piece of literature you can rely on–try different things with different kids. You never know which one will work but you won’t know until you try. Whatever you do, stick to your guns. Do not waiver. It will get worse before it can get better.

How to teach your kids about money

I stumbled upon some rather interesting content today on the web about the intersection between money and children. For example, this article on Inc.com says that parents are not discussing a crucial topic with their kids–student loans and credit card debt, based on “research” done by an online lender called SoFi, which was really just a survey of a thousand people between ages 36 and 65 (most likely their customer base only) about their attitudes on money.

The author then went on to provide three tips on helping your (millennial) kids become more financially savvy, from – you guessed it – an employee of SoFi (somehow I feel that this article was just another advertisement for the lender) – things like “teach them healthy habits early” and “help them develop a good credit history” to “create debt grids” (write down all your debts and keep track of them).

While there is some merit to this advice, I think that ship has sailed for many millennials. Their baby boomer parents were no doubt, lacking in details about personal finance when they were growing up, so of course, they didn’t teach their kids about money. Can you blame them?

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Photo by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash

It’s no surprise that all parents will come across this in their parenting journey–how to teach their kids about money and what to teach them about. I think that in many ways, teaching kids about money has the same elements as teaching kids about sex–you’d rather avoid it until it’s absolutely necessary because…well, it’s uncomfortable, especially if you don’t know much yourself or you’ve made some bad choices with money, you definitely don’t want to ‘fess up to your kids, right?

Or maybe you do, and you want them to learn from you. Nonetheless, it’s still an uncomfortable subject even for adults to talk about. No wonder why money is like the number one thing that couples argue about, because chances are, you probably married someone who has opposite money philosophies than you do.

My parents fit this mold completely. Not only do they differ in their parenting styles, but they also differ in their money philosophies. My mom is a saver, and my dad was a spender. Both of them taught me some very important lessons about money.

We didn’t have much money when I was growing up, due to my dad’s inconsistent job history and the fact that we lived in a third world country, where everybody else around us was poor. It was a normal thing to be poor. I knew this right away as a child–that we didn’t have much money and that I was much luckier than my brothers, who was born and grew up during the war. A famous line of my mom’s is “We didn’t even have enough money for food so I had to divide the portions into three meals! And I didn’t have much to eat so I couldn’t produce enough breast milk to feed my kids!” Luckily, when I came along, there was enough food to go around, so she was able to produce the milk.

Despite that, my dad was a major giver–he’d give away whatever he had left, telling people, “It’s okay. You don’t have to pay me back,” or “This one’s on me, buddy.” As a child, I didn’t understand why he did this. I thought, “Why on earth would he give away money when we’re already so poor?!”

Now, as an adult, I finally understand.

MoneyToon

From watching Ellen Rogin’s Ted Talk today, I learned that giving can be just as rewarding as receiving. It can make you feel even richer. In her talk, she advocates for giving back to the community through charity donations and volunteering your time. This was something my dad did a lot. He volunteered his time at our church (the main hub of our community) and he gave away whatever money he had left (after he’d spent the majority of it, that is). This solidified his position within our community–everyone respected him and loved him, and we were always invited to parties and gatherings. He was also a funny guy–that helped too. His philosophy on money and on life was so simple, and yet it worked.

My mom, on the other hand, is the opposite. Besides the tithe she gives every week at church, she is not typically a charity giving kind of person. Instead, she hoards her money in random places and tends to them in the same meticulous manner as one would tend to a flower garden. Unlike my dad who couldn’t keep a job long enough, she worked hard at the same job for many years. She was the financial rock in our family. Without her, we probably would be worse off.

Ironically, my dad was the one who bought a life insurance policy and convinced her to do the same. But that’s another story.

The point is–kids are like sponges. They absorb information so much, and so quickly. As discussed in Ellen’s talk and in this article, kids learn a lot from how we act around them.

…how our children will manage money in the future is being shaped by the atmosphere around finances at home right now. – Ted blog

Reading this reminds me that as an adult, as a parent in particular, I need to pay attention to how we talk about money at home. In fact, my husband may agree that we don’t really talk about money in front of the kids. Besides saying, “We don’t have money for this and that” sometimes we typically don’t give them any idea as to how we are financially. I think they’re too young right now. My daughter is old enough to understand certain things though.

My parents didn’t talk about money either, but I learned so much from observing them in my youth. I think it’s worth noting that in order to teach your kids to be responsible with money as adults, we must first model that behavior. But I also don’t think that you should go around and say, “Don’t do what I did!” until they’re old enough to understand, probably around teenage years, when the majority of them start earning their own income.

I don’t want to be like my mom, but I also don’t want to be like my dad either, so I strive to be somewhat in the middle in terms of money. Every once in awhile, I’ll take the kids out for a treat–bubble tea, baked goods or a Happy Meal. They love it because it doesn’t happen very often. It’s my way of saying, “We don’t always have money to do this, but when we do, it’s fun!” Delayed gratification, right?

Weekend in review: January 19-20

Last weekend was full of rain, indoor play, gluten, and more gluten! In case you’re wondering–yes, there was a lot of baking!

Prepping croissant rolls. It was my second time making them EVER.

Waiting…

And they turned out great!!

Pretty proud of myself

James’s room

Morning coffee

The living room, before the kids came out and made a huge mess

James

Lily

Silly girl

Wet days in January

…which is the more reason to bake!

Banana bread

More rain

Later this week, I’ll share some photos that I took of my old high school. It’s a special place that deserves its own post. Stay tuned!

Weekend in review: January 12-13

Last weekend, as told through photos.

My little kitchen helper

My first time making cream biscuits — it was a success!

Did I mention it had cheese inside? Cheesy biscuits – yes please!!

Thumbs up!

James

James close up

Lily loves to draw

Showing me her drawing

My kitchen

This is the face of a boy who did NOT want his picture taken haha

Much better

Happy boy

And we’re still drawing…

Messy house. The usual.

Sadly, these biscuits were my first baking failure of the year 😦

The picky eater

It happens like clockwork. Every night, when we sit down for dinner (sounds crazy, I know, but we do it), my son James will take one look at his plate then immediately says, “nana” or banana.

This request frustrates me to no end. Many nights, I sit there seething, glaring at him while my daughter concurrently tries to eat as slow as possible. She picks at her food and spews out at least five sentences before putting two bites in her mouth.

But my daughter’s dinner habits are nowhere near as frustrating as my son’s. James always asks for a banana, and he always gets it. That’s because my husband and I realized that in order to keep the peace at the dinner table, it’s better to just give the little man what he wants. Besides, it’s just fruit. There are worse things to be addicted to, I suppose.

On days when we don’t have bananas on hand, and he asks for them, and we tell him no…boy oh boy–those are the nights when we all incur the wrath of James.

Luckily, tonight we do have bananas and as usual, my husband hands him one. He takes a bite of the banana while my husband and I eat and Lily chirps away with her words. My husband then said to James, “Here, try some.” (He does that a lot). He takes a tiny bit of the curry that he made and tries to get James to taste it.

Oh boy, I thought. Here we go. Another attempt, another failure.

But instead of refusing it, James reluctantly takes it in…and it was like my whole world erupted in fireworks. Then, much to my surprise, he asks for more!

“More!” he says, “More!”

It was at that moment I realized two things–one, my husband is brilliant! Not only can he cook waayyy better than me (I will never be able to compete, even if I become a better cook than I am now), he is also slick in his ways of getting our son to eat the foods he makes! This is why I married him! (Not the only reason, of course, just one of many).

As he continues to feed James, he said, “This is like that time he ate most of my duck curry at the Thai restaurant.”

Ahhh yes, I remember. Several weeks ago, we all went out to eat on New Year’s Day, at a Thai restaurant nearby and by husband ordered a roast duck curry, and he had to feed it to James because James was so into the sauce.

“I guess he’s a big fan of the saucy, pudding type of textures,” I said.

Just minutes before this event happened, I had lamented to my husband, “He eats like 50% of what you make, and like 10% of what I make,” to which he responded, “Well, at least he eats most of what I make.”

“It should be more like 80%,” I said.

Now, here I am, moments later, sitting there watching my son eat and realizing that not only is my husband a brilliant cook and good at toddler convincing, this is also like stepping back into the past.

You see–I was a picky eater myself. When I was around James’s age, I refused to eat most foods. It didn’t matter if it was catered by the world’s best chefs–the only thing I would eat is rice with sugar sprinkled on top. So my parents gave in and gave me that. It’s not really healthy and it certainly doesn’t help your teeth, but hey my parents are like us–they didn’t want a ruckus at the dinner table either.

Much to my chagrin, my son turned out to be pretty much the same way. Granted, he’s not as picky as I was–he still eats a lot of different foods for breakfast and his lunch is still a bottle of milk, but it’s only dinner when he gets the nerve to ask for a banana, knowing that he’ll get it every time. I, on the other hand, was very strict in what I would eat.

James

Luckily these days I am no longer a picky eater. I grew up to be a very flexible eater. I love trying new foods, and I’m open to just about everything.

See, that’s the thing that they don’t tell you–that if you were a picky eater yourself, you might end up with the same kind of kid! It’s a 50/50 chance but chances are pretty high to me. It’s almost like fate telling you, “Hey, how about them apples huh?”

I think we know for sure that James will eat curry in the future. And oatmeal. And yogurt. He loves all of those gelatinous, mushy, soft pudding-style kind of foods. He’s definitely my kid.

The REAL housewives of Instagram – do they exist?

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!”

Sounds familiar?

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).

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Spring 2018

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.

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I love my kids, but I also don’t want to monetize them.

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.

 

Someday you’ll understand–and other wisdom from my mother

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.

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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.

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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.

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Lily, baby James and my mom

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.

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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.