Thursday, September 27, 2012

How to Be an American Housewife

I have had the opportunity to read a few good books lately, mostly in the middle of the night. Surprisingly, the late-night timing has actually improved the quality of the reading, since it has to be a pretty good read to keep my attention when I'm that tired. The first one I read when I came home from the hospital was one I'd picked up for $3 at a recent Barnes and Noble sale: How to Be an American Housewife. 

The book is written from two points of view: Shoko, an elderly Japanese-American woman, who married an ex-GI after WWII and moved to California, and her daughter Sue, who is struggling with her identity and career path. Shoko has a bad heart, a possible after-effect of the Nagasaki atomic bombing, and it is expected that she won't live through her next surgery. She feels strongly that she wants to go back to Japan and reconcile with her brother Taro, who she hasn't seen or spoken to for decades, before she dies. Taro has never forgiven her for marrying an American, or for her previous affair with an Untouchable. But Shoko's doctors and her husband Charlie tell her she cannot possibly travel that far. Instead, she sends her daughter Sue and granddaughter Helena to Japan as emissaries to her family there. Sue's journey provides her with the sense of family and culture that she has always wished for, and brings healing to Taro and Shoko.

The "How to be an American Housewife" part comes in at the start of each chapter, with little excerpts from a fictional book of that title that supposedly helped Shoko assimilate into American culture (though after 40 years, she still speaks with very broken English and doesn't have any American friends). Those excerpts symbolize my favorite part of the book: the contrast between the American and Japanese cultures. For people who love reading about different cultures, this book provides a comfort zone. It's more accessible (though not as well-written) than Memoirs of a Geisha, my favorite book about Japan.

Give this one a try if you're interested in cross-culture domesticity and deeply-rooted family dynamics.

It's September 27th! What does that mean? It means I just downloaded J.K. Rowling's first adult novel onto my Kindle. Expect a review in the next few days!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Things I Am Grateful For

When you're going through a challenging time, the little things in life start to mean more. To qualify, by challenging, I don't mean painful or even difficult, since those have negative connotations. I just mean that life is challenging you, stretching the limits of your abilities and forcing you to learn new skills. That's a good description of my current state of being, and I think most new parents would feel the same.

Here are some of the little things I am grateful for right now:

1. The tiny book light on my Kindle so that I can read during a 3 AM feeding and not wake my husband or disturb my child.

2. The sound sleeper that makes soothing nature noises to help all of us get to sleep.

3. Our older cat, who is usually a needy princess, going completely against expectations and adjusting to life with the baby beautifully. She's not even crying at the closed bedroom door, which she did for weeks before the baby came. She actually seems calmer and more self-assured than ever.

Here's a picture of my Ari:

Isn't she beautiful?

4. Decaf nonfat pumpkin spice lattes that my dad brings me from Starbucks most days. Thanks, Dad! (Even though I know you're mostly doing it so you can see your grandson.)

5. Aaron Sorkin. During the long wait before the baby came, my husband and I watched a lot of West Wing, which was free with our Amazon Prime membership. I love the writing, the pace, the wit. That prompted me to re-watch the single season of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, another Sorkin creation. I think it was a travesty that the show wasn't picked up for more seasons. Even with the competition from 30 Rock, another NBC show about late-night sketch comedy, I still think it would have held up. The writing and acting were brilliant and didn't compete at all with 30 Rock's style.

At any rate, Sorkin has gotten me through a few late nights recently, and I'm grateful.

6. All the Sephora beauty products I bought this summer. I like to shop, and since I couldn't shop for clothes, not wanting to waste money on maternity clothing for one summer, I spent a lot more time at my favorite beauty store. I love getting lost in Sephora, finding new products and spritzing all the perfumes. I've only been wearing the basics of makeup lately (concealer, powder foundation and mascara) but I still take the time every morning and night to smear on my favorite Korres moisturizers. I'm a huge fan of Korres products. They're expensive, but they're organic, feel wonderful, and last a long time. I think skincare is incredibly important, and I want to have good skin forever. So I'm grateful to Sephora and Korres.

There are more little things, and certainly a lot of big things- like my husband, our families, and our fantastic pediatrician- so this list is just a small piece of my gratitude. I hope all of you take some time today to think about the little things you're grateful for. If I have time to appreciate them, so do you!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Commodity of Sleep

It's time for the announcement we've been waiting for since I first posted about it back in March: Sowul, Renewing. My son, Edwin Michael, was born on Friday, September 7, at 8:57 PM. He took his time getting to us and I ended up needing to be induced, but labor and delivery went well. I'm grateful now that he took his time, because he came out so strong and alert! He completely defies the "drowsy newborn" stereotype. He's got a personality and energy that I never expected and am completely in love with. It's the perfect reward for the sleepless nights and endless diaper changes.

I am not going to post pictures here, as tempted as I am to do so. Many of you are Facebook friends and will be able to see pictures there. Since this blog is completely public, though, I feel it's important to protect my son's image here.

It's only been nine days since his birth, but it seems much longer. When you're awake for more hours, and when those hours span all 24, time seems like a different entity. I've also changed and learned so much in the last nine days that it seems an impossibly short span.

I'm not going to make this a very long post, as I don't want to set the bar too high during these next few weeks. But I wanted to write about two ideas I had at 3:00 this morning when I was up feeding Edwin. Unsurprisingly, I've been thinking a LOT about sleep since his birth. Sleep is something I've always treasured and protected. For the last 31 years (or at least since I had control over my own bedtime) I've been diligent about getting at least 7 hours a night. I think sleep is just as important for one's health and well-being as exercise and nutrition. I'm a good sleeper most of the time. I've never been much of a napper, though I did get better at it during the end of my pregnancy.

So for someone like me, being plunged into a newborn's sleep cycle was incredibly disorienting. The short periods of sleep don't suit me; the unpredictability makes it nearly impossible to always "sleep when the baby sleeps"; and the day-night flip that most newborns, or at least my baby, is still experiencing, just adds another layer to the problem. Once he can right himself on the day-night schedule, I predict things will be much better, but in the meantime, sleep has become something of a commodity in my house: valued much higher than it once was because of its scarcity and sometimes inaccessibility.

Here are my two 3 AM ideas:

1. Expectant parents take a lot of classes on labor, breastfeeding, newborn basics, etc. My husband and I took all of these, and they were very helpful. I think there should be a class on Sleep Training for new parents. Sleep training is a big debate for babies, but you can't sleep train a newborn, whatever your future plans are, so the parents need to adjust. If I had realized how difficult the sleep component would be, I might have tried to train myself. I might have stayed up later and slept later, to get myself closer to a reversed schedule. I might have slept less during the night and taken more naps. I think both of those things could have prepared me better, though never completely (unless I used one of those "training babies" programed to cry at random intervals).

2. Someone should invent a pill that makes people feel like they've gotten 8 hours of sleep. Why has no one done this? It would be wildly popular. Of course, there are plenty of illegal drugs that do this. I'm not talking about that. I mean something that would be reasonably organic, wouldn't adversely affect the person's health or personality, and could be taken while breastfeeding. With all the billions of dollars the drug companies take in, why has this not been invented yet?

Okay, they weren't great ideas, but please forgive; at 3 AM, I was lucky to have any coherent thought at all.

And now my baby's asleep, so I'm going to take a nap.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Teachers and Pushcarts

It's the first day of school today, and for the first time in 27 years (since I was 4) I'm missing it. It's a strange feeling for me, but I know that I'm about to embark on a new experience from which I'll learn more than I could ever imagine, and will also become the most important teaching job that I'll ever have. 

I want to give my appreciation to all my friends and colleagues returning to the classroom today. My thoughts are with you. I hope you all have a smooth start to the school year.

It's hard to be a teacher in America right now. At some point since I started teaching 9 years ago, teaching went from being a profession you proudly announced to one you mumbled about. I'm not sure when or why we've become the villains in society, but it kind of reminds me of the classic children's satire, The Pushcart War, by Jean Merrill. In the book, trucking companies are taking over New York City. There are so many trucks, and they are so big, that traffic is impossible, and rather than take responsibility, the trucking companies decide to find someone else to take the blame. They choose to target the pushcarts, those innocent sellers of produce, pretzels and clothing. They start a secret campaign, and people start to say, "I hear it is the pushcarts who are to blame," even though the 530 pushcarts in the city barely take up the space of a city block, while one big truck left idling in the street can stop traffic for miles. And yet, because every problem needs a scapegoat, the people of Manhattan blame the pushcarts, until the pushcart owners themselves decide to fight back. 

It's a great book, one of my favorites of all time. I still read it as an adult. 

I find it an appropriate analogy because as someone deeply entrenched in the educational system (as a student, a daughter of two teachers, a college student in a education program, and then a teacher myself, the spouse of a teacher, and the close relative of many other teachers and administrators) I see so much passion and hard work from educators. No one lasts in this profession unless they really love and believe in the power of learning. Contrary to belief, this is not a profession in which a person could "phone it in." There are students sitting in front of you every day, waiting for knowledge and understanding, and often for guidance and compassion. It's literally impossible to not respond to their bare need. Like the pushcart owners in the story, we're being blamed for America's larger problems, while our needs, and the true needs of our students, are going ignored or largely misunderstood. 

I'm not making any political argument here, or saying that the educational system in America is excellent. It's not. Any teacher will tell you that. We all know the system is broken- we fight against it every day. But it is not the teachers who are to blame. We are all doing the best we can with the resources we have, and we're doing it with passion. 

So teachers, as you go back to work today, remember to be proud of who you are and what you do. America may not value us right now, but America's students need us. 

In the meantime, take a lesson from the pushcarts, and don't let the trucks push you around.

Monday, September 3, 2012

What No Pregnancy Book Tells You

I've learned a lot of things in the last nine months, from books, friends and experiences. I've concluded that women need those nine months just as much as their babies do, for emotional development and education about babies and motherhood. When I got pregnant, I thought I was ready for a child, but I really wasn't- at least, not completely. I'm grateful for the whole process and emotional journey, because it was something I needed to get to this point. I just can't wait to meet this baby, and I'm not afraid of what comes next.

I was surprised to encounter some setbacks along the way, though, and even more surprised at the form those setbacks took: other mothers.

If you had asked me nine months ago what other mothers' responses would be upon learning that I was pregnant, I would have predicted surprise, delight and encouragement. But while everyone expressed surprise and delight, I was shocked by the number of mothers who then immediately went into what I'm going to call "negative-cliche mode."

Here are some of the things I heard over and over again, from many different women- mostly acquaintances, but some strangers and even some friends. Here, also, is my inner response to these negative cliches.

1. "You're due in the summer? Oh, that's the worst! You're going to be so miserable." (Have you ever head of air conditioning? Or swimming pools? And truthfully, even in the intense heat of this July, I really didn't have much of a problem. I just stayed indoors more, drank a lot of water, and used up more electricity.)

2. "Enjoy that sleep now while you can! You're never going to sleep again once that baby comes." (I'm pretty sure that I will, in fact, sleep. Will it be when I want to and for long periods of time? No. But does that phase eventually end? Yes. At some point, the baby grows into a child who you can teach to stay in his room and play quietly. They even have alarm clocks now that change color at the time when it's ok to wake Mommy up, so he doesn't need to know how to tell time.)

3. "Oh, it's a boy? You need so much more energy with a boy." (Well, I have nothing to compare it to, but I'm a pretty high-energy person myself, so I think I'll be okay. Also, extra calorie burn! Yay!)

4. "You'll be exhausted all the time. You'll never have any time for yourself." (This one was my favorite, because it just seemed so mean. And while I'm sure there is some truth to this, I also don't believe any mother LITERALLY has no time for herself. After all, they have time to post on Facebook, read parenting articles, and spout negative cliches at pregnant women, don't they?)

5. "You say your husband is taking great care of you now? Don't get used to it. As soon as the baby comes, it's all on you, honey." (I feel sorry for you and your marriage. My husband and I have a great relationship, and he's going to be a fantastic dad. We also have amazing family in the area who can't wait to extend their support. Not everyone's situation is the same.)

6. "You're going to get so fat. Everyone gets fat with their first." (To be fair, this was only one person- the evil nurse-receptionist at my endocrinologist's office. She also swore up and down that I would be having a girl because I was so sick during my first trimester. It was fun to tell her she was wrong the next time I saw her after the ultrasound.)

I experienced these Negative Nancys often enough in the course of nine months that at times, it truly did make me feel like being a mother was going to be a terrible experience. However, I also had a lot of wonderful, true friends and mother role-models to give me support, encouragement and advice, and they got me through. I do believe that most mothers really love being mothers, and love their children more than anything else in the world. I'm not sure why some take the negative route so automatically, especially toward an innocent pregnant women, who is on the path to motherhood whether she's ready or not. Given the opportunity, why do these women choose to tear her down, rather than support her? What good does it do?

I hereby give my pledge to all my future mother friends and acquaintances that no matter what my experience is with my own child, I won't project any negativity onto you. I will support and encourage you, because that is what you need. I will only give you advice if you ask for it.

And I will never, ever tell you that you're going to get fat.