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.

 

I came, I conquered, and I’m here to tell: the story of my twenties

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.

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Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

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.

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Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

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.

What no one tells you before you become a parent

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.

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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?”

 

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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.

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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.

The four people that I would invite to a dinner party

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Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Back when I used to read Portland Monthly magazine, there was a small section in which the editorial staff listed who they would invite to a dinner party. Displayed at the bottom of the page before feature stories were names of about four or five individuals (and an artist’s rendering of that individual) who are either well known in the local community or have done something to be noticed, anyone from business owners to artists to sports players. The names change with every issue, but the point remains—these are the people who are most likely going to turn your dinner party into an unforgettable night.

It made me wonder—if I were to host a dinner party, who would I invite?

In this fictional dinner, I’m a woman in her late forties hosting with my daughter, who is in her early twenties. I’d imagine this would be a “women’s supper club” of sorts, where men are not allowed (sorry guys) because we’re going to be talking about some serious woman stuff—the kind of stuff usually discussed behind closed doors, hidden under the sheets, or tucked away in a closet in someone’s home.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about sex. Female pleasure. Perceptions and expectations. Where we get our knowledge from. Stereotypes against men and women. How society views sexual desires and activities. And most importantly, what women (young and old) think about their bodies and how that translates into their sexual activities.

But first—let me give you a little background before I reveal my dinner guests. As an adult, I can say that I’ve never had a conversation with my mother about sex. In fact, I don’t think we ever talked about how babies are made. Most of what I learned about sex came from books, TV shows and movies. One particular favorite of mine resonates strongly with who I was as a teenager—a book called, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” by Judy Blume. It’s a story about an adolescent girl caught in a crossroad between religion and sex. Like Margaret, I grew up in a religious home. Practically everyone in my village was Catholic and went to church every week. I was educated by nuns yielding whips and threats. But unlike Margaret, Catholicism was my only religion, whereas in Margaret’s case, her parents came from two different religions. Her mom is Christian and her dad is Jewish. She doesn’t identify with either religion but instead talks to a God. She has a lot of questions about her growing body and forms a secret club with her friends to discuss “womanly” things like getting your period, bras, boys, etc.

Besides young adult novels, I had the media to inform me about change. Shows like Sweet Valley High and Saved by the Bell introduced me to the world of high school drama. Now, as an adult with two kids, I feel like I have a responsibility to pave a better road for my own daughter, so she doesn’t grow up with these misconceptions about her body, or sex, or anything in between. In short, I’d rather be frank with her, no pun intended.

"Dad said he wanted to talk to us about birds and bees so we're doing a little advance research."Lately, I’ve been doing research on how sex education has been taught in America. Not surprisingly, for the past two decades (since the early 90s), sex education has been primarily focused on abstinence-only education. For me, there was no sex education at all. Neither my middle school or high school offered it. Sure, there were health and PE classes, but none provided the information necessary for growing adolescents at their peak hormone levels. There were school nurses, yes, but I never felt comfortable going to her and asking for anything other than a Band-Aid. Sounds familiar to you?

As a teenager, I went to Planned Parenthood for birth control, medical exams, and the morning after pill. I went there instead of my mother because it was the only place where I knew I wouldn’t be judged. I would get the care I needed and move on, whereas if I had gone to my mother, she would’ve had a heart attack knowing that her daughter was sexually active and seeking birth control.

The other night, I asked my husband if his parents ever gave him the sex talk. He told me that his mom attempted to give him one, but it was vague. Later, as a teenager, his dad gave him a talk about the dangers of sexual activity. He was told that he should not get a girl pregnant, because if he did, then he would have the responsibility for the rest of his life. For a teenage boy, this kind of talk is terrifying. The weight of responsibility for another human being is not something that teenagers want to deal with. But then again, it was typical American parent activity—to scare their children away from having sex by translating it into a devious, risky behavior.

I think it’s time we change that. Thus, for my dinner party, the first person that I would invite is Peggy Orenstein, author and journalist. Peggy has done many interviews with young women and asked them personal questions about their perceptions and behaviors regarding sexual activity, which she outlined in her Ted Talk here. She said that a lot of women do not take into consideration their own pleasure—after all, society has dictated that male pleasure takes precedence. In her talk, she referenced a study done on 300 young Dutch women and young American women and their early experiences. Published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, this study noted that American women had engaged in sexual activity at an earlier age and were less likely to use birth control. They’re also more likely to feel pressured to have sex. By contrast, Dutch women’s experiences involved open communication with their partners about what they liked and didn’t like, along with using protection appropriately. They were more comfortable about their bodies and more in tune with their own pleasure.

The main difference between Dutch and American parents is that Dutch parents instilled a sense of responsibility and joy. From an early age, they talked to their kids openly about sex, pleasure and mutual trust, whereas American parents either provided the “risky sex talk” or didn’t talk about it at all. My experience along with my husband’s experience fits into this mold perfectly.

Speaking openly about sexual thoughts and behaviors is difficult for many of us, men and women included. But one person who has talked candidly about her sexual escapades is Amy Schumer. She is the second person that I would invite to my dinner party. In her book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, she talks openly about her childhood, her family, her thoughts and sexual adventures. The first chapter of her book is titled, “An open letter to my vagina,” which, as you would expect, is funny and raw. Her “openness” might be misconstrued as overzealous confidence. Whether or not that’s true, I think her “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” attitude has helped her fit well in to the male-dominated world of comedy. As a woman, she’s had doubts and uncertainties about herself and her abilities, and I think it would be great to bring that to the table.

And while we’re at it, I’d also bring the author of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, E.L. James. For someone who wrote one of the best-selling series in the world, I was surprised to find that she is currently in her mid-fifties. She has truly opened a lion’s den regarding people’s sexual adventures, turning something that surely has been common (but kept secret) in America into something acceptable and extremely erotic. She has redefined female sexual pleasure to a whole new level.

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Recently, I watched Fifty Shades Darker with my husband. Even though it was almost 10 o’clock, our bedtime, our eyes perked up at the sex scenes. I’m not going to lie—it was hot. This movie challenges many cultural norms, such as where pleasure should be directed to. It’s clear that outside the bedroom, it’s all about him, but inside the bedroom, it’s all about her. A woman’s desires and articulation for that desire was brought forth in this film. For example, in one scene, Anastasia says to Christian, “Kiss me,” a euphemism for oral sex. In another scene, she asks him to take her to the Red Room, a secret room where he keeps his chains and whips.

What E.L. James brought forth in her novels is that women are sexual creatures too. They want to be loved, yes, but they also want to be open and exploratory. Women’s desires are just as important as men’s. Thus, she created this young woman who is just barely out of college as an anchor for what young women should be like today—confident, self-assured, and knows what she wants.

On that same note, the party wouldn’t be complete without Anastasia Steele, James’ main protagonist, as my last dinner guest. I realize that she’s fictional, but Ana is a raunchy character who keeps up her “good girl” image in the professional world (evidenced by her refusal to submit to her boss Jack Hyde’s sexual advances), but instead allows her man to take control of her in bed while telling him exactly what she wants. She is, in theory, more Dutch than American.

As a society, particularly in American society, we often undermine girls’ self-pleasure. We don’t talk about girls masturbating; instead, the attention is on boys’ masturbation. We often make a joke out of it, saying that boys are bottles of hormones waiting to be expelled, whereas it’s lewd for girls to pleasure themselves. The result is that these girls grow up into women who doesn’t know how to articulate their sexual desires to their partners.

While I don’t disagree that you should warn your kids about the dangers of unprotected sex and sexually transmitted diseases, I do think that it’s important to give kids a straight talk rather than the danger talk or avoiding it altogether. Recently, I thought about how in approximately 7 years, my daughter will be 12 and in the swing of puberty. No doubt she will have questions about her body and boys and sex (she’s already asked me, “Why do women have boobs and little girls don’t?”) and I thought about how I would have “the talk” with her and what I would tell her about her body. So I wrote down a list of what I called, “Body Advice That My Mother Never Gave Me.” One of things on the list is about her hymen, how it will bleed the first time she has sex. Then I discovered this Ted Talk called “The Virginity Fraud” and it took me a step back. Whoa. Here I was, thinking that the hymen was like a piece of sensitive skin that breaks during first sexual intercourse, when reality, it’s more malleable than that.

After listening to the talk, I had to re-examine what I knew about the female body, and I realized that misconceptions such as the one about the hymen have been extrapolated from a variety of sources that I came into contact with growing up in America, such as books, TV shows, movies and my peers. It was then I realized that I, too, need to overcome certain misconceptions. I need to do my research before I tell my daughter that our bodies are the same, because it’s not. According to the speakers, hymens come in all shapes and sizes. Thus, hers might not be the same as mine. Lastly, her sexual experiences will not be the same as mine either.

At the end of this dinner party, I hope that we all can come to the consensus that while it’s important to give the talk, it’s more important to give the right kind of talk, the right kind of information, and be open and honest about our desires and experiences. As a woman, articulating my wants is something that I’m still working on. It is quite difficult to do when one grows up in an environment of secrecy, unmentionables and filled with abstinence-only education backed by religious beliefs. Still, I look forward to the day when I can talk to Lily about all of this.

Want to start thinking about sex education in a different way? Start with this Ted Talk.

Work – Life Perceptions in the 21st Century

How the work landscape has changed in the past few decades

It’s an obvious path — you finish high school, go to college, finish college and then start working. Then you work for a certain amount of years before you get married and have children. Once the children come, what happens next?

I’ll admit, I never gave much thought to the decision on how or who should be responsible for the upbringing of my kids once I have them. Because my path was so typical (as mentioned above) it wasn’t until I had my first child that the thought of going back to work was incredibly difficult for me. The thought of being away from my child for many hours in a day was terrifying, but the thought of not having enough income was also daunting, now that I have another mouth to feed.

At that time, I had the help of my mother. Thankfully, she came to my rescue. She watched my daughter for eight hours a day while I went back to work full time, even though she was still working herself — she did the graveyard shift four days a week at a food production company and came home in the early hours of the morning, babysat my child and slept whenever the baby slept. This was incredibly difficult for her as she was nearing her mid-sixties and almost at retirement age. Luckily, she did retire several months later.

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Whereas I feel like I had a choice to back to work or not, my mom has been working her whole life. For more than thirty years, she braved a variety of manual labor jobs, from being a food vendor, carrying all her pre-made food in two large baskets straddled between her shoulders, to working in a freezing cold environment preparing meals for airlines, she has done the hard work, the kind of work that I simply cannot imagine doing for more than a year. And that is simply because educational opportunities weren’t readily available for her during her youth (we lived in a third world country); hence, when one doesn’t have the education to obtain office or administrative jobs, one ends up doing manual labor that is a test on their physical self.

But for many women like my mom, who chose to go to work, the choice to go to work isn’t so much of a choice — it’s a necessity that is detrimental to their personal life. In a recently published HBR article, written by a professor at ESSEC Business School France, it identified four different perspectives on work-life balance — a hot topic in today’s world.

The author states that our perceptions on work & life are impacted by what you saw your parents do while growing up. Based on what people experienced, they typically fall into one of four categories.

A) Intentionally adopt their parents model completely

B) Intentionally reject their parents model completely

C) Unintentionally adopt their parents model

D) Unintentionally reject their parents model

While I do agree with the findings of the author, I also think that is quite skewed in the scheme of studies. She only studied 78 parents and conducted 148 interviews to people who work in two specific industries — law and accounting (ahem, only people who are middle or upper middle class) and between the ages of 30 to 50 years old. This study clearly does not take into consideration people like my mom, who fell into the “lower income” category for many years and did not have an appropriate educational level to be qualified to work in law or accounting.

Now, it doesn’t take a college degree or research to tell you that the results are clearly and blatantly obvious. While I don’t believe that I fall directly into one of the categories, I do believe that I have had mixed perceptions about work and life balance. Several years ago, when my first child was born, I would’ve fallen into the “Unintentionally reject their parents model” scheme of things. My perception of my parents’ choices to generate income was skewed in the fact that I had more time with one parent versus the other, and I equated that with their level of love for me.

You see, because my mother worked a lot, more than ten hours a day, six days a week (because we were so poor), I saw my father a lot more. He was always around, but there was always a sense of disdain coming from my mom because my dad was what you would call “a starving artist.” He was a poet, a writer, and a comedian (not a professional one though). He could make everyone laugh, write fantastic poems & stories, and be the life of the party, but when it came to making money, he wasn’t so good at keeping jobs. Needless to say, my mom was the more reliable person who could keep on going with her job. It’s the type of tenacity that took me awhile to appreciate.

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The struggle is real

When I was young, I felt a sense of resentment towards my mom because she was never around. This feeling lasted all the way through early adulthood. It wasn’t until I became a working mom myself that I understood the need for her to work — because my dad wasn’t the main breadwinner in our family, she had to be. She was forced to be in a position that wasn’t so typical in our society back then. I don’t think she wanted to be a working mom at all. I think she wanted to be like all the other mothers, her sisters and sisters-in-law, who relied on their husbands to make the money so they could stay home and take care of their children.

So, yes, my perception of work-life balance is truly impacted by what I saw growing up. I knew that I didn’t want to be away from my kids all the time, but at the same time, I enjoyed going to work. I still do. It took me awhile to realize that going to work and being away from my kids is actually a beneficial thing for me and for them, for it allows me the opportunity to provide for them — you need money to pay bills and provide food & shelter, after all — plus, as the cliché mentions “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” I’ve found that I truly miss them and want nothing more than to be with them at the end of the day.

But back to the study — while there were valid points made, I also think there needs to be more studies done to broaden the horizon for work life balance perception from all aspects of life. To only ask a person who makes $80,000 a year whether or not it’s a challenge for them to work all the time is frankly, not great data to rely on, especially for those who only completed high school and are struggling to get by with a small income and a family to raise. To speak only to the privileged is to do a disservice to the underprivileged.