Practicing Family

April 11, 2020 4 comments

I don’t think family is everything, I think it’s the only thing. Everything else is just noise, and accessories.

I disagree with Merriam-Webster. Family isn’t just a noun, it’s also a verb, an action you practice when you’re showing your highest loyalty, selflessness, and greatest love for someone, all at the same time. And not unlike love and hope, some days family, and the practice of it, feels like a double edged sword.

Some people practice what I call “family lite,” with conditions and limits to how far they’ll go. I’m Filipino and most of us go hard, driving ourselves nuts along the way. As long as I consider you a part of my family tribe, then no limits, no conditions, and we all rise and fall together.

I am the self proclaimed matriarch of my nuclear and extended families. The glue that holds shit together, the one you consult when you’re in a bind, and the one who encourages you to do what you’re supposed to be doing. I’ve got the spreadsheets and legal documents to prove it.

My family is decked with mental illness, diabetes, high blood pressure, and dementia – heavy on the mental illness. That’s before we talk about the eccentric personas and strong Asian influence. All that said to correctly imply the depths my loyalty and love – my sense of family, are often tested. Some weeks family feels more like a metal chain, as opposed to a boastful necklace, heavily clanking around my neck,  the chains soldered in loyalty, love, and an Asian culture that shuns nursing homes.

I am writing this in the era of COVID chaos, but honestly, I could’ve written this last year, primary difference being right now I have the time to reflect on my life.

I am sheltering in place with my two 19yo daughters, my grumpy 71yo aunt, my sister who has just started trying to rebuild her life, a mother with dementia, and seven dogs. No need to gasp at the mention of number of dogs. That’s my pack and believe me when I say they are the easiest of my family tribe.

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Quarantine shenanigans.

My mom’s degree of dementia varies each week. On a good week she can take care of her personal hygiene, didn’t set a kitchen fire, and tells random stories over and over in an hour. Last month she was  installing locks on her kitchen cabinets because she believed the contractors remodeling her home were stealing her foil pans. She also likes to jam her unsolicited opinions on everyone, on repeat because she forgot she just did it ten minutes ago. These last two weeks she can’t find 90% of her words, needs to be spoon fed, keeps hugging the toaster, and I just bought her the most dignified looking adult diapers I could find.

My aunt is how those old people stereotypes come to exist. She stands watch behind curtains and keeps tabs on who parked too close to our driveway. She’s convinced that neighbors are swapping out our garbage bin because ours is “cleaner.” They’re not. When the kids were younger and had friends over, she would arrange the pantry and refrigerator so that she could tell what was eaten and deliver angry oral reports in the morning. She also asks 30 questions a day and needs the answers repeated at least twice.

My sister, well, you’ll have to read My Sister’s Keeper for that story. I will say it’s always challenging to be a part of a support circle for anyone trying to get back on their feet, especially when mental illness is involved.

And to keep this real. I’m no picnic. I’m more like a fancy dinner party with a five course meal, a dress code, serving MD 2020, where I sit at the head of table holding a bullhorn in one pocket and a bottle of Lexapro in the other. I’m an alpha and a perfectionist. I seek control in lists and plans. I have written apocalypse plans, danger passwords and all my kids have “go bags” in the trunks of their cars. I think a mile a minute and extra AF.

 

My 19yos are going stir crazy during this quarantine. Their plans to move out together have been postponed, first with the holidays, and then with COVID. But as the days needed to shelter in place increase; forcing them into online classes; robbing them of their young adult social lives; and, as the number of daily antics my temporary convalescent home residents pull off rise, I can see my daughters’ patience dissipate and their agitation grow, and understandably so. It’s the same slight of attitude I sense from their older brothers when I tell them to take my mom or aunt to do groceries, visit my sister, or help me move a giant piece of furniture (pre-COVID).

Here’s the thing. I get it. I really do. But I don’t feel bad for my girls. And yes, I realize most of their friends and our non-Asian community don’t have to shelter in place with convalescent home residents. But that’s because we don’t exercise family lite, it’s not a luxury afforded us. We family hard. 

It’s trying times right now and tolerating family is part of that. Some days that looks like laughing for days, family movie night, and talking about nothing and everything over dinner. Other days it looks like inconveniently living together a while, telling my aunt you have no idea why the grass is greener on the left side of that tree for the third time in a row, ignoring my sister having a conversation with herself, and following my mom around the house turning off all twenty lights she turns on every hour. And that’s what practicing family looks like.

Like I said earlier, family isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. I  won’t let my kids forget that, not now, not ever.

 

 

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The Second Half

Don’t laugh. I think I’m having a mid-life crisis or maybe a self-identity crisis. Whatever. I just know my head is all *&$#ed up.

Before now, I lived my life according to a disciplined rhythm. Kids, work, school, shower when I have time, wash dishes between loads of laundry, feed dogs, rinse, repeat.  And even with all of its flaws, and there were many, I loved that life with all of my being. I knew exactly who I was, and how important I was.

But now, now I just feel lost. Change can do that to you, make you feel displaced, uncertain.

When the kids were younger we each had assigned kitchen seats, but when we ate out it was every man for himself. The kids always fought over who got to sit beside me. Sometimes there was shoving and tears and I would have to negotiate deals to keep the peace. The memory of my kids treating me as a prize worth fighting for is a marker in time when their lives were tightly intertwined with mine.

But eventually kids grow up.

With high school graduation behind them, and following their older brothers’ leads, my two youngest children are moving out in August. Then it’ll just be me, a bunch of rescue dogs, and a grumpy aunty I take care of. No daily family dinners, the wipe board menu gathers dust above my refrigerator, and there’s  no need for assigned seating. I can sit anywhere I want. But the kitchen table that once barely fit a bustling family of eight feels too big for me now.

It feels like only yesterday I had a crash course in grappling with understanding who I was after being someone’s wife for 16 years and suddenly not. I got over that, eventually. But this, this seems bigger, the pain much deeper. I mean, after 27 years of parenting, who am I now if I’m no longer a mom?

People tell me, “It’s your time now, Maria. Do what you want – travel, eat out, date.” But that concept of taking care of just me, eating alone at the restaurant of my choice, and traveling to places only interesting to me, that’s all foreign to me. I’m not a saint, I’ve just never done that before, put myself first.

As a woman, a mother, putting myself first doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to put a lot of thought into what a life like that is supposed to look like and even then when I envision myself doing it, I feel my brows furrow and my body retreat, as if to say, “I couldn’t do that. That’s too weird.”

When my kids were young, I spent hours just watching them: sleep, eat, play, run around the house like maniacs. I adored them and felt such pride in simple moments like that. I gave them life and in turn they gave my life clarity and a deeper sense of purpose. Those kids were the foundation to the first half of my life, my world.

As the kids got older and started spending more time away from home, creating lives outside of mine, I found myself staring at pictures of them on my phone, admiring them through social media’s lenses and the family pictures we took at birthday dinners. I felt a different pride, at their growth, their beauty, their independence, and the authenticity behind their smiles. I knew then life was changing, and faster than I wanted.

But I knew this day was coming. I tried to prepare for it. I went back to school, got my undergrad, then my law degree, all so I would have something of my own, something I could lean into when it was time to let the kids go. And in theory it sounded so perfect in my head, but in practice not so much. Now I have to learn how to do two new big things at the same time – live like a single person and learn how to lawyer. It’s quite the ride right now.

It feels as though I’m grieving the end of an era, the end of being a mother as I’ve only ever known, and a version of myself I’ve since outgrown. The first half of my life is over and I’m feeling the pressure to figure out what I want the second half of my life to look like. And no lie, the struggle is real. It’s hard to grow, to let go of who you once were, especially when you feel like you just learned to appreciate that version of yourself. 

I should clarify that I’m not so foolish as to believe this place I’m standing is anything less than a blessing. I know it is. Raised 4 good kids – check. Got my law degree and finally passed the bar – check. Survived the first 40 years of life’s obstacles without losing my sh*t – check check. I did good. But still, endings are often as sad as they are joyful and new beginnings scary as they are exciting. And that’s where I am now, standing at the halfway point in my life, trying to convince myself to let go of my yesterdays long enough to see the horizon holding my tomorrows.

And that’s a little bit of terrifying. I have to navigate this second half alone and find a way to be comfortable with that. I have to learn a new normal, absent kids or a husband. I already know it’s going to be a bumpy road, with plenty of trial and error moments, and epic fails. Beginnings are full of those. I have a lot to do, a lot to learn. I don’t feel ready. But I have to believe that the next half of my life is going to be even better than the first. I have to trust this process of growing and evolving. I’m not lost, I can’t be, this is just transition. I have to keep moving, forward always forward.

Okay, one breath at a time, inhale, exhale, and here I go.

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The Single Parent’s Anthem

January 14, 2019 11 comments

I’m the one who explained why you left, the one who dealt with their anger, their frustration and tears.

I have defended you because it’s better than telling them to give up on you.

And because it hurts less than hating you.

I have paid for all their flights to see you, and even some of yours, so you saw them at all.

I reminded you to call them on their birthdays, to text them during their bad weeks, and then pretended I didn’t.

But I am the one who has been there, since day one and every day in between.

I’m the full-time mother, the part-time father, their financial advisers, their #1 fans, their Lyft service, their advocates, their therapists, and their life teachers.

I planned all their birthday parties and checked off their Christmas lists.

I reemed them when they missed classes, praised them when they got As, and consoled them when they didn’t get the grades they thought they deserved.

Then I helped them look at colleges, filled out their financial aid, and edit their college applications.

I signed their car notes, reviewed their leases, scheduled all their appointments, taught them how to budget and even cook themselves dinner.

I have had the hard conversations with them, the ones about sex, heartbreak, adulting, and how to care for their mental health.

I watched and hurt with them for every single disappointment they’ve had since you left, and to be honest, even all the years before that.

I have taken all of their calls, including the scary ones that came in after 2am.

I picked them up, literally and figuratively, when they were lost.

I taught them about love and loyalty, and also what bull shit smells like.

And while you complain about child support, I creatively find ways to pay the other 90% of their expenses you think you shouldn’t have to cover.

I am the ride-or-die parent, the real-deal-superwoman-single mom, who has sacrificed much to give them lives that don’t lack, despite your absence.

So, when you ask me with callousness and undeserved annoyance, “What the hell do you want,” my simple answer is this –

Be a good dad, a better man.

Respect the mother of your children.

And show some gratitude that while our children may carry your name, they bear all of my heart.

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Chasing Hope

I’ve been pretty good about checking my expectations with dating, so much so that I have none. You meet, have dinner, drinks, and hopefully there’s some good conversation to go with it. And you cross your fingers the guy looks like his pictures and pays the bill. To be honest, dating has become a drag and at 43 in the last year plus I’ve actually weaned myself off. I’m happy to Netflix and chill by my damned self.

But several weeks ago, and absolutely at random, I met someone. He came out of near nowhere, wasn’t at all in my wheelhouse, but there was something about him and I thought there was a click. He said there was a click. I felt it, so I believed it. The conversations, and everything that came with, were great. For a little bit, it was euphoric. And I was, for the first time in a long time, hopeful. Read more…

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Tonight I Finished Law School

After 4 ½ years, tonight I finished law school. I’m thankful for 4 amazing and loyal kids who sacrificed a lot to get me here, 7 faithful dogs who waited well past their bedtimes until I got home safely from class, an employer I love that worked with my schedule so I could attend school, and the dozens of family and friends who played an active role in supporting me. That kind of love humbles me to my core.

I used to say that I lived my life backwards. I had my kids in my teens and early twenties, but didn’t get my undergrad until my 30s, and now my law degree in my 40s. You could say I gave the first half of my life to my kids and former husband. I don’t regret that, but I have since given myself permission to live the rest of my life for me.

I was wrong about living my life backwards. I took the path I was meant to, lived life the way God intended me to, and it may have taken me a while to get here, but I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be and not one minute late.

Look out world. I’m aiming to make my mark on you and I am one determined woman. Just look at my track record. Single moms, raise your glasses. And cheers to me.

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This is 42

 

This is what I know.
There’s life after the kids grow up and your marriage ends.
It’s never too late to be what you might’ve been.
If I miss a deadline at work or get a bad grade so I could spend more time with my kids and dogs, I’m still winning.
Dating and meeting new people lends me hope.
I can still make the right guy melt.
A room full of books, a pen in my hand, and a fresh sheet of paper under my fingertips is still my church.
You find your truth when you own the extent of your worth, the breadth of your capacity, and the impact of your roar.
When it feels right, lean in. Always.
This is 42. Happy birthday to me.

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An Ode to Weeds and Tantruming Dogs

IMAG2281On this morning’s walk with the Fab 5, we were forced to stop several times as each dog tried to graze weeds and my girls and I tugged them away. At one point, and with the indignation of a collective set of 5yo children in the toy aisle, all of the dogs simply refused to move.

Instead, they all stood there looking at me, leader of their pack, heads tilted and suspicious eyes demanding to know, “Why? First, you tell us we can’t lick our butts, then not even our own privates, and now you say we can’t eat weeds. We deserve to know why!!” So, on the side of the road, and in the rain, I launched into a tirade against weeds.

Weeds are a source of frustration for homeowners who have a life outside of grooming their front lawn and a false sense of superiority for homeowners who think a bright green lawn, free of weeds, is synonymous with a perfect life. (Lies!) Weeds are a steady source of revenue for HOAs (kind of like those failure to make a complete stop tickets are for the city). Weeds like to taunt grass, their self superior and goody-two-shoes cousins, by reminding them how much taller they are than them. And some weeds are even poisonous to dogs, like the ones Dexter ate last year resulting in a $2000 emergency vet bill I’m still paying off. So, no boys, weeds are a lot of things, but they’re certainly not dog food.

And yet, despite the logic in my lecture, and ironically with the stubborness of a patch of weeds that refuse to bend into submission, the dogs retained their stance, unpersuaded by my words, and still staring me down like the enemy. It reminded me of the good ole’ days at my house when my kids and instigating younger brother dubbed me the ‘Fun Police’. So, like a parent succumbing to defeat in the Target toy aisle, I pulled out treats and bought their temporary obedience, and we got to finish our walk.

If this lawyer thing doesn’t work out, maybe I’ll just become a professional dog walker.

 

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