Overwhelmed

The other day I was out with a good friend and we were chatting about something as we watched our daughters play when she said, “Are you okay? You seem overwhelmed recently.”

Now, if you know me, you know I’ve got a lot of pride and so I replied, without even thinking, that I was most assuredly not overwhelmed, but instead simply busy at the moment.

But her question stuck with me and sent me on a journey inside myself to really uncover if I was overwhelmed. And the answer is yes, by the sheer amount of things I want to and attempt to accomplish in 24 hours. The length of my to-do list requires that I have to put things (and let’s face it, friends as well) further down than I want to. I micromanage my time down to the minute, which means I rush my kids from one activity to the next so that I can fit it all in before bedtime.

I know I’m not alone in this. I know everyone feels like there is never enough time. Everyone is busy. Whether you’re a working mom or a stay-at-home mom or you’re something in between, there just aren’t enough hours in the day sometimes.

I’ve been meaning to have lunch with a newly-made friend for about 3 weeks now, but this project at work just won’t end and continues to drag on and creep into my personal life negating any chance of a meet-up. Every night I put my little one to bed I think of all the moments I spent doing something else instead of helping her write the alphabet. I think of the friends who are carrying on without me because I never seem to have enough time.

In those moments when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I try to remind myself that these are opportunities to exercise grace and patience. But grace and patience are hard to execute when you’re moving at the speed of light, when your mind is never settled because things are being added to your list faster than you can tick them off.

But then I read an article written by someone who was complaining about people who complain about never having enough time. (Clearly the author was a 20-something-year-old childless person who, like all 20-somethings, believed they had stumbled upon the key to one of life’s greatest mysteries simply by surviving their teens.) In the article, the author said a lot of stuff that was obvious and trite, but perhaps the most important piece, the piece that made the article worth remembering was this: the key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.

A key priority had fallen so far down on my list of things to-do that I had forgotten it was there. And that was taking care of me. Of setting heathy boundaries for my mental wellbeing so that I could function happily (dare I say with peace and grace?). I can say no to that project meeting scheduled after my working hours and my eldest can help my youngest with her alphabet one evening.

I understand that there are some aspects of my schedule that are fixed and at this juncture in my life, planning works better than “impromptu”. But when things begin to feel overwhelming, it’s probably a good time for me to stop and assess my priorities. All of our lists of things to-do are too long to ever complete because each day brings about new endeavors, new responsibilities, and new tasks.

Maybe, just maybe, that 20-something-year-old was on to something.

Village

My hands approach the keyboard with a caution unfamiliar to them. I often write about personal things involving only me. To write about something that involves the lives of others adds a layer of responsibility that I’ve not had before. I find myself reticent. Careful. But writing is how I express myself. It is how I make sense of the world, and sometimes the horrible things that happen.

Village is a theme that has occupied my thoughts over the past few years. Prior to children, I flitted between countries, crowds, and jobs staying long enough to become disinterested. But things changed when I gave birth. While I still enjoy a good adventure, I put a higher value on friendship. Relationships. Other women. Mothers.

My village is like most: We look after one another. We celebrate birthdays, milestones, and anniversaries together. Kids of similar ages develop friendships. Motherhood is the essence that unites us. We laugh about our kids’ fussy eating habits. We cry together when they don’t fit in. We are a network of unique shared experiences. Someone knows someone who’s going through something similar.  You are never alone. Even if you feel it. That’s the beauty of a village.

And so when death strikes, the pain is shared. It burrows into the hearts of all those who call that village home. Especially when it’s a child. We are left trying to make sense of misery. We cling to one another as we are forced to accept the harshest of truths: we cannot always protect our children, and not everything is in our control.

I was at a friend’s house for a playdate. Our youngest ones were playing separately, but together in the same room. Our eldest children were putting on a concert. My friend’s daughter had a red guitar with rockstar sunglasses that had an attached microphone, and she was pumping up the crowd (me) for a once-in-a-lifetime performance. My daughter was handling stage props.

Then my phone rang.

Watching a child slip away is excruciating for the mind to process. It tears at the primal part of you, a place where logic cannot abide. And it must be cataclysmic when that child is yours.

Thank god for our villages. It is the strength and support of those around us that get us through these times. I never felt more connected to humanity than at the moment I watched a woman perform CPR for over ten minutes. Or how a neighbor shored up her resolve and assigned us useful tasks while we waited for the ambulance.

I never felt more grief than when I looked at the mom. It is not her son’s body that I remember as if staring at a photograph. Instead it is her eyes that refuse to release me. They went from pleading to emptiness, and then back again. In that moment I wanted to say something that would return the smile to her face that I saw not thirty minutes prior.

I never felt more inadequate.

Another mom organized a memorial the following day. We held hands. There was a box of tissues. The mom who found him made his favorite bowl of porridge.

My village has been irreparably changed. The memorial provided the first step to recovery for some of us, but for a select few the memorial marked the beginning of a dark road. We know it will not be easy. We can never forget.

The following day the sky was cloudless. There was even a breeze. I wondered on the unfairness of it all. It felt unseemly that the heavens were not raging.

I thought of her. If she had noticed the sky.

Words still fail me.

Family

I’m told you should never forget where you come from. That sounds like good advice, but I’ve always struggled with this because it seems nonsensical to me. I’m not sure I could forget my beginnings. It’s woven into my memories and helps to define who I am. My fears, motivations, and perspectives are rooted in where I come from.

But then life changes you. Experiences shape those initial perspectives allowing them to expand and mature. It can be hard going back to where you’re from if your point of view has shifted. Blood is thicker than water only to those who’ve never built a family outside of their relations.

I recently went home for the first time in years. It was a long trip. Two twenty-hour flights with a three-year- and an 18-month-old had its share of challenges. But it felt good to reconnect with my roots and revisit my history. My kids met their cousins. Bonds were established. Alliances formed and favorites developed. I met my nephew for the first time, and leaving him was more emotional than I thought it would be.

Aunts who were part of my mom’s village and who had changed my diaper now changed my daughter’s. I ate some soul food. Typically the term applies to southern-style Black food—you know, greens, yams, mac & cheese (baked, none of that boxed stuff), black-eyed peas, corn bread—but to me, the term has grown to mean food that excites memories or brings people together. Three generations of us sat around the table. It felt good.

While we ate, we teased one another for the silly stuff we did as kids, then for some of the silly stuff we do now. I got my share for still nursing a toddler and the seemingly unlimited amount of choices I give my oldest. We laughed at how my youngest sister would fall asleep on the sofa while three screaming children ran around her. (She’s nine months pregnant.) Then it was my Dad’s turn for his knack of climbing up on a “high horse” about any polarizing political topic. But it was all good-natured.

And it was comfortable being at home because so much was familiar, but for all the things that were the same, there were a couple that took me by surprise, like my younger sister who wasn’t so young anymore. I was humbled by how she had grown into a woman of her own. She was just as intelligent and beautiful as always, but wiser now. (She remains the only one who can successfully reason my Dad down from his high horse.) She was finished with schooling, achieving her doctorate three years ago. I wanted more time with her. I wanted to hear about her journey. I told her how proud I am of her. How she was a role model for my kids, and I wanted her in their lives more.

Likewise, my younger cousins who were in grade school when I first left the States were now adults with careers. Some were moving away from home to start their lives in different cities. We gathered around to console the moms who were now facing the empty nest. I had a glimpse of what the future would look like: my girls off to start their own adventures, without me.

I had a sleepover with three of my closest friends from university. Our children were with us, and it was very cool to have a slumber party with all of our families together. My friends knew me before I left the States, before my days of backpacking up the Mekong or my failed attempt at Machu Picchu because of altitude sickness. They knew me before I had children, back when possibilities were endless.

It was refreshing being with them again. We reminisced about our uni days, but mostly we talked about our hopes for our children and our goals for ourselves. We spoke about serious stuff like helping our children develop positive self images and learning how to raise personalities that are different from our owns. We realized that all grandparents think we should do it like they did, and no we shouldn’t, but yes we are going to be the same when our children have children.

Then we spoke about the silly similarities that all kids share, like their love of french fries or how they never want to go to bed–even when they’re tired, and that regardless of their ages, siblings will always fight over who gets to push the shopping trolley in the grocery store. (Solution: get a trolley for each.)

There was something empowering about knowing that we struggled with some of the same issues regardless of our locations or personal beliefs, and that they fret over their children just as much as I fret over mine.

It will be years before cousins and aunts and friends reunite like this again. But for now, I got just what I needed. Family.

Grace

Grace is one of those words I struggle to define. It’s grown to mean more than just elegance or poise in my opinion. It’s a word that I’d use to describe a woman, never a man, and this distinction intrigues me. A man can have finesse, but that’s not the same thing as grace. 

To my mother, it means a complete acceptance of God’s will. To me, it means being able to keep my cool when having to tell my eldest to put on her shoes for the fifth time while my youngest is crying because she’s been sitting in the stroller for five minutes–waiting for my eldest to put on her shoes!

There’s a direct causal correlation between my ability to handle my children calmly–dare I say gracefully–and the amount of sleep I had the night before. The phase of life I’m in at the moment requires that I live life like a trench soldier. I sleep in shifts more nights than I’d like to admit. There are some nights when I get five hours sleep, broken into two parts with a stint of me warring with one and then the other child. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of mother who can sleep when her child is crying. I will lie there and wait patiently, perhaps to the outside observer gracefully, until one or both fall back asleep. But the truth is I’m seething on the inside. I’m cursing up a storm! I’m tossing and plotting for their teenage years when I get to wake them up for no other reason than I think they’re sleeping too late.

This is not grace. This is fatigue.

Having children has been a mirroring experience. I now see myself through their eyes. When my eldest was just eighteen months, we were walking in the mall once. I was pushing her empty stroller and she was walking beside me pushing her new toy stroller. I had one hand on my hip for some reason I can’t recall, and when I looked down she had placed her hand on her hip as well. To this day she mimics me. The good and the bad. Knowing this makes me want to be a better person, someone worthy of emulating. Someone graceful.

But it’s not easy. I struggle to find grace on those mornings when I’ve been up for two hours the night before because my youngest just had to tell me about her day at 2am. My eldest senses my fatigue and low tolerance threshold, and she mirrors it. It is those mornings that she doesn’t want to go to school, can’t put on her uniform, insists on non-matching socks after I’ve already put on a matching pair, and despite being hungry, there’s nothing in the house to her liking for breakfast.

I see my frustration approaching like a tidal wave. I tell myself to keep calm. I stop and search for grace, but it feels like on those mornings I fail to find it. Intellectually, I tell myself that I’m human. Who wouldn’t lose it in this circumstance?

When my children reflect on their childhood I want them to smile involuntarily. Fun and safe are two of the first words I want them to think of when asked to describe these years. But equally important they need boundaries and they need to learn appropriate family and social behaviors, which means there will be time spent in the corner and sad faces will decorate the calendar on some days. They will see me frustrated, and that’s okay because grace isn’t the absence of frustration, but the acknowledgement of it. Gaining control of it. Showing them how to manage those conflicting emotions without lashing out.

Right now I am a trench soldier. Some nights I will be pulled from a deep sleep by the sounds of my eldest falling out of bed or my youngest wailing because her teeth are breaking through the gums. Sometimes there won’t be a discernible reason for their insomnia, and yes, I will be frustrated by it. But they will be loved and they will be safe, and for now, that’s grace enough.

 

Kampong

You make friends fast when you’re an expat. You’re a little more receptive to differences and your boundaries for “normal” are forcibly expanded. Everyone becomes a potential friend. The people you’d form an opinion about back home are the ones who come through for you when you’re in a pinch.

I’ve lived abroad since 2001 (minus a two-year stint in Seattle). I was childless then, so my days were spent working and my nights drinking and dancing. My friends were my colleagues. We went to brunch on Christmas and out partying for New Year. Easter Friday was just another workday, and Thanksgiving was celebrated one year, but not necessarily the next.

Kids changed all that.

I’ve slowed down. “Drinking” is a glass of wine before bed. A night out means my husband and I try to be home for ten.

Friendships are harder to maintain–and make. You look for people who you can connect with quickly. No need for pretenses or apologies, they just get you. And if you find someone so rare as to understand you without needing to know your backstory, they become part of your kampong, your village.

In the twelve years I’ve lived abroad I’ve had friends, but this is the first time I’ve had a village–a group of women who care about you and your children, who will visit you when your youngest is in the hospital, cook for your family when someone back home passes away, or stop another kid from bullying yours at the playground.

When you find this, you know you are blessed. When you find this and you’re an expat, you know it won’t last. Someone will inevitably move away. But for that moment in time, you cherish that your children have an extended family. They have “cousins” who speak different languages, eat with different utensils, and have faith in different gods.

It’s hard to describe what brings together this mosaic collection of people. You learn not to think about next year–tomorrow is far enough. They help you see the beauty in differences and the necessity of faith even if you don’t share it. You explore together, you learn together, you cry and laugh together. You do things you’d never do back home. Your point-of-view shifts to the left (very seldom to the right) because you learn that perspective is in everything.

Since the beginning of civilization, we women have been the seams that unite a family and the ones responsible for the next generation of leaders and followers. We have dried each other’s tears, cheered one another forward, and held one another up until we were once again strong enough to stand on our own.

It feels intensely beautiful to be a part of a village that shrinks and expands with diversity and acceptance and love.

Harvest

Seven other nations celebrate Thanksgiving or a holiday akin to it. Whether you’re sitting down to a stuffing-ladened turkey in the USA or if you’re eating a special banana dish in the Norfolk Islands, the premise is the same: it’s a time to give thanks and to enjoy the fruits of our labor, which historically have been a successful harvest.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. There are no gifts, but there are stories. Aunts and Uncles gather around a table and speak of memories from the “old days”, when they lived in the “old house” and all the kids shared the same bedroom. They giggle about the time when someone went outside to the privy in the middle of the night and was almost bitten by a rattle snake. They confess to things like when my mom hid underneath the porch with her brother and they pulled the heads off her dolls to see what was inside. They laugh at us “younger” generation and how we have no patience or respect. We let our kids get away with murder (as the saying goes) and employ these newfangled parenting techniques like time-out or the punishment corner.

“Spare the rod…” someone starts.

“…and spoil the child,” someone else always finishes.

A chorus of “umhmm” erupts.

Everyone takes a turn at being the subject of laughter for awhile. Like the time my cousin snuck off to school with her mom’s high heels on only to have my Aunt appear in her classroom to retrieve them. Or the phase I went through when no one could tell me that bright red lipstick was not my color. (Those photos have been burned and buried.)

But whether you’re being laughed at or you’re laughing at someone else, you feel the love. It flows around the table like the scent of sweet potato pie. For this one moment everyone’s together, and that means something.

We weren’t the family to start our meal by taking turns to recite what we were grateful for. We prayed. Usually my Uncle said a very long and tear-provoking prayer. We amen-ed, and then set about enjoying the fruits of our labor, the laughter quickly returning.

The last time I had a Thanksgiving like that was in November of 2000. I was moving to Japan the following January, and my family traveled to my mom’s to see me off. I was prayed over, hands were laid on me, but mostly I remember our joy at being together again.

Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday in Singapore. My husband worked, but I still made a dinner with a few dishes from the “good old days”. I sat at the table with my two daughters, and before we could join hands my eldest had already put a spoonful in her mouth. I explained to her that from now on we will start our Thanksgiving meal by reciting what we are grateful for (or what makes us happy given she’s just three-years-old).

She looked confused and so I went first. I told her that she made me happy. Then I asked if she remembered the time she was in the school play and she wore a chicken costume? I told her watching her dance the chicken dance and singing in Mandarin with her classmates made me happy.

She laughed and said, “That was fun, right?”

She didn’t quite get it, but that’s ok. I was planting seeds. I was creating the first of our Thanksgiving memories.

As we ate, I thought of my Mom, and knew she missed me the way that I will one day miss mine. I thought of my Aunts and Uncles and their stories that my children won’t hear. I thought of my friend who is having her first Thanksgiving without her mom. And another friend who is having a quiet Thanksgiving because her son just had surgery. I thought of the empty space at the table my husband’s absence created because he was still at work… so that I could be at home.

And I was thankful.