CONFESSION: Beyond the Stereotype

(C) SUZANNE M. CHAN 2010I’m writing this post mostly in part for posterity.  It probably is my biggest confessional yet because in it is the the very core of my worst fears — being a terrible mother.

Today I had a moment, and while I’ve had glimpses of this side of me before, my heart literally broke at this moment of discovery.  One of my biggest fears when my son was born, was neglecting my daughter, my first born.  You can usually type a firstborn child.  They are usually more mature, forced to grow up faster than they should, shoulder immense expectations and responsibility — some fair and others not so much.  I grew up with words commonly used like, “You just weren’t that kind of child (the huggy kissy kind), I expect better from you…” and the many sighs of exasperation from my parents when  I failed to meet their expectations.  Of course in typical Chinese fashion of humbleness, you never bragged about your children, instead your biggest flaws and mistakes were laundered in the open for everyone.  Its harsh even to this day when an elder doesn’t hesitate to remind your of a childhood transgression.

Watching your younger sibling relish in love and affection and bare the responsibility for them.  I still occasionally feel the pang of resent when my sister remembers her childhood fondly and easily forgets the many times I bared the brute of punishment for her mistakes simply because she must have learned it from me.  Those memories haunt me to this day and I vowed many times never to let my daughter feel… unloved… unwanted… neglected… less than her siblings in her parent’s eyes.  I feared that for my daughter having never forgotten those feelings.  You would think in that acknowledgement, it would make me more conscience of it and that I would be making every effort to do the opposite.  Yet, I find all it has is created is little more than awareness.

(C) SUZANNE M. CHAN 2010I often imagine fondly that my daughter is very much like I was as a child.  A touch of amused irony when family members tell me the same.  The funny thing is that the things I love most about my daughter – her joy, her wit and confidence – are often the very things that push my buttons the most.  Her joy, which is infectious on most days, can be somewhat irritating when I’m trying to get her to focus and be serious, especially about school work.  Her wit and confidence, which can often translate into smart comebacks and lots of back-talking.  Many times I look back and I actually silently applaud her for leaving me speechless, although my initial reaction is usually of anger.  She’s often referred to amongst my friends as 5 going on 35.  No truer statement is said about her.

The biggest thing I love about her is her spirit… and today I felt like I was on the road to crushing that… and my heart broke.

We were getting ready for bed.  In a break from routine, since I hadn’t had a chance to go over her homework, I asked her to read her homework books to me and practice her popcorn words instead of reading to her a bedtime story.  We started out with a little resistance, she gave me a little of her wit and sass while reading, which I ignored.  Who wants to be going over homework at bedtime?  I should have known better, but I pushed on.  On our 3rd book, she decided to push a little more sass and defiantly pretended not to know a word… we bantered for a bit and in my frustration of her lack of seriousness, I snapped.  Her face went from smiling to stunned in less than a second and she proceeded to read the rest of the book and the remaining 2 books with perfection.  She flipped through her popcorn words like a robot, not missing a beat.  What struck me the entire time was that she was trying so hard to be strong and to hold back tears.  I had done this to her.  All the expectations for her to grow up, be strong, never letting her cry too long — with my 3 – 2 – 1, get it together and you’re done —  lying on her 5 year old shoulders.  She was hurt, maybe even a little scared but she was being brave, because that was what I expected of her.  When she was done reading, she closed the books and gave them to me, said good-night without looking at me and turned to lie down in bed.  I said, “Good Night Ava, I love you.” knowing well that she probably didn’t believe me at that moment.  She didn’t look at me, but replied, “I love you too Mommy.” which I know she does with all her heart even behind those stifled tears.  I asked her to look at me.  She turned her head at me, I lifted her face, I wanted to say so much more to her but all I could said was, “I’m sorry Ava.  Mommy shouldn’t have snapped at you.”  She said “I’m sorry too, Mommy” as she started to cry.  I wrapped my arms around her, kissed her a million times, wiped away the tears and told her I loved her again.

(C) SUZANNE M. CHAN 2012I left her room a little later, broken.  There was so much I wanted to say and yet probably so much a 5 year old wouldn’t even begin to understand, so I sit here, crying wondering who I’ve become.  She is so joyful in everything… and I have done exactly what I feared most –stereotyped her into the first child.  I think about all I’ve asked of her since she was born, how she was the first born even when she was our only child.  Perhaps in our subconscious we knew she’d never be our only but the pressure and expectation was there from day one.

I cringe when I think about how much we expect from her in general.  She was our perfect child, never having more than an ear infection growing up.  She breastfed like a champ, met or exceeded all her milestones.  I marveled at her 1 and a half year old maturity when she declared she no longer was wearing pampies (diaper) and since then only wet the bed once when she was really sick.  I delighted in her resilience and adaptability having co-slept with us since birth and yet she made the transition to her own crib on any given day a non-issue.  I remember being particularly proud, just slightly a little older than a year, transitioning to a toddler bed without any qualm.  She never made bedtime an issue.  She was almost cyclical in her maturity.  She made being a parent look so easy.  She was my child which 3-2-1 Magic was her thing.  Her tantrums never last longer than a 3 count.  I could do everything by the 3 count, from eating that awful broccoli she cringed at, to picking up her laundry from the floor or cleaning her room.  Even now I marvel at how she simply doesn’t think how unfair things are as I make her go to bed every night by 9pm while her baby brother has no schedule and sleeps when his parents go to bed.  How she’s barely said anything about his co-sleeping with us since birth.  If she’s ever had a hint of displeasure, it was always fleeting and then acceptance.

It’s amazing how she doesn’t feel slighted at her age when I look at how differently we treat my son versus her.  How the same standards don’t apply to each child.  I think about how grateful I am that she doesn’t feel the unfairness of the expectations.  How much I love that it’s okay my son can still co-sleep with us in light of his seizure episode and how it will probably be okay if he was here until he was 25, as long as he was alive and breathing.  My hopes and expectations for my son are so much more different than for my daughter.  For my son, I just wish him a long healthy life.  All the other expectations play second fiddle to him simply being.  I think about my struggles with my son — taking his daily medication regimen, to making sure he’s eating the right foods, potty training.  I look at my struggles with my daughter and it’s proper table manners to sticking to routines and schedules to cleaning after herself in addition to always putting her brother’s needs first.

I think about how much she’s quietly sacrificed for her baby brother.  We’ve denied her absolute favorite meal of Mac & Cheese  because of her brother’s allergies.  How her ice cream has been replaced with organic fruit pops and sorbets.  How she always has to be conscious of her environment and the things she brings around him.  How she must routinely wash her hands, many more times than probably necessary out of our own personal paranoia, or change her clothes because she may have come into contact with an allergen that could send him to the hospital.  I cringe at the thought of how many times I’ve said,” You have to be careful, you don’t want Marcus to go to the hospital, do you?”, knowing just how much she loves her baby brother.

When my daughter says things knowingly like, “Marcus is sick again, everyone is so worried about him.” as if to prepare herself to be placed second, my heart twinges.  How grateful we are that she says nothing about the nights we spend in the hospital away from her.  How she’ll always welcome us all home with a big hug and smile and always first for her baby brother.  It’s hard in those moments, for a parent not to feel guilt.  Your one child, life-threateningly sick and the other needing equal attention.  I sometimes unfairly expect my husband to play second fiddle and tend to her because as mother, I deem my role as more important than his for our sickest child.  I can see it tears him up to not be able to be in both places at the same time.  He wants to be at the hospital with his son, but he knows he needs to be there for our daughter as well and I…well… give him no choice.  He bears the responsibility to make sure she’s not neglected or forgotten.  Yet, all too often we take for granted that she’ll be okay.

It’s really hard, and although no one is the perfect parent, I definitely am no where near one and am grateful for that realization.  I want to and need to celebrate my daughter more because she truly is an extraordinary child.  She is so smart, that wit gets me all the time.  She is so beautiful, those curls are to die for.  She is the most easy-going happy child.  She is often described as friends with everyone.  She has no favorites, she is always eager to help with a smile.  She is kind, always noticing when someone feels left out and including them.  She needs to be celebrated and as for my son, maybe those expectations need to be risen a little too.

While I am not the perfect parent, and probably never will be, but this I promise to my two eldest children, I will never stop trying to be for you.