Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Waiting for the SAHD Fad

Rumor has it that there are between 180,000 and 2 million stay-at-home dads in the US (apparently it depends on who you ask and how you ask the question). I am married to one of them. You might think this means awesome potatoes for me. In a way, I guess you’re right. I can go to work and know that the kids are in good hands, that they are not being over-exposed to those awesome kiddie communicable diseases like hand-foot-mouth and pink eye, and that there won’t be a mountain of housework to greet me after a day at work. But, some things stink about being the mom in a stay-at-home-dad family. Here are just a few of the minor annoyances:

1. The Gulliver Syndrome. Even though I work and Ren stays home, I’m still the mom. No matter how cool dad is or how much they enjoy being with him, I’m. still. the. mom. When they wake up in the middle of the night, they always come to my side of the bed. (This is proportionally truer if I have an early morning meeting), and when they are sick at school, they have the school nurse call me (something that also seems to be directly related to my degree of busy-ness at work).

When I am home, any and all questions, problems, stories, songs, and debates are directed at me, and me alone. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my kids, but just occasionally, I want to be able to have one or two clear thoughts or a brief uninterrupted exchange with Ren before they tie me up and carry me away like Gulliver. The instant I step in the door, I’m on duty. I don’t even get time off to go to the bathroom or change my clothes. I’m pretty sure that if Ren was the one coming in after a long day of work, the kids would nonchalantly say, “Hi, Daddy,” and then go back to what they were doing (Unless of course, something electronic was broken or in need of a battery. Then they’d be on him like glue.)

2. Stereotypes that Die Hard. Our relationship is forced to withstand a lot of pressure from all sorts of people who question our perfectly rational choices to be in the roles we’ve chosen for ourselves. This might be 2011, but gender-role stereotypes are alive and well. A lot of folks out there just can’t seem to get their heads around the idea that I work and my husband doesn’t. When we meet new people, they always ask him what he does (but they rarely ask me). Then, some of these people become unable to carry on the conversation when we (gently) explain that I work and he doesn’t. When a mom works, she is a negligent mom. And when a dad stays home, he’s an unemployed man being supported by his wife. It’s hard not to take these stereotypes personally. It’s equally hard not to tell people stuck in the 1950s to get their heads out of their you-know-whats and embrace the modern age.

3. Stereotypes that Die Harder. The media is not helping our cause. Let’s face it, until recently according to the media, the choice is Mr. Mom or Mrs. Doubtfire. So, either you’re forced into it when you lose your job and you totally suck at it because how could a man possibly know how to use a vacuum cleaner? Or, you are a childish artistic-type who can’t hold down a job, so the only way you can spend time with your kids is if you dress up like a loveable old Scottish lady who makes a killer cup of tea. “C’mon, dearie, this will cheer you up!”

Is it so hard to imagine a father who is willing to stay home and who is also competent around the house? I spent the first year or so of our marriage trying to get him to vacuum less. (Please don’t hate me for this. You’d be surprised how disruptive vacuuming can be). And Ren taught me pretty much every trick I know for getting stains out. In fact, my parents call him before they even think about calling a professional to get spots out of their white carpet (God only knows why they went with white when they have so many grandkids, and no, I didn’t just send Pink P over there so she would vomit on their carpet and instead of ours…). To be fair, some recent television shows (like Parenthood and Up All Night) have regular stay-at-home dad characters, but the world of media and popular entertainment has a long, long way to go.

4. Play groups and toddler time. Before they start preschool, my kids need a little social interaction. They get some at church and with the occasional play date, but I really want them to participate in community play groups and toddler time. This means Ren has to take them. Sure play groups and toddler time are open to dads, but they don’t tend to be the most welcoming environments for them. First, most of the other moms seem a bit afraid of Ren when he goes. Second, very little of what they discuss interests him. Third, and this is the deal breaker, when the kids misbehave with him, he’s immediately accosted by a roomful starting women suggesting, intentionally or not, that he is an incompetent parent. Not once has another mom offered words of solidarity or encouragement—a simple, “I know what you’re going through,” or “Would you like a swig of whiskey from my flask?” would go a long way.

5. School Field Trips. We've never seen another father on a school field trip. This makes Ren uncomfortable. This makes Sky and Pink P uncomfortable. No matter how open-minded and cosmopolitan we try to make our kids, being different from their peers always sucks. Since they are already bicultural, biracial, and relatively new in town, and since one of them is also on the autism spectrum, we try to downplay difference where we can. So when I can go on the field trip, I go. But sometimes, I can’t. And sometimes, our kids get a teacher who doesn’t embrace stay-at-home dadness. Once Sky brought home a permission slip that had the following written on it: “Dear [Sky’s Mom], We would like you to come on the field trip if you want him to participate.” (Pause for dramatic effect and a brief WTF?!?!). The school (which my son no longer attends) knew I was the working parent, and on that particular day, I couldn’t take time off, so Sky couldn’t join his classmates on the outing. Can you imagine a school telling a working father he had to chaperone? So, yeah, school field trips are hard.

6. The Mom Communication Network. I am convinced that most schools/communities have very strong mom communication networks. Let’s face it. Most of us like to chat (much in the same way that we like to blog). We’ll chat about just about anything to just about anyone, and it’s through this chatting that we convey some pretty important information. We learn things like which form is due when (very helpful to those of us with kids who have language-processing issues). We learn which teachers to avoid. We learn what products are safe/awesome/on sale. We learn which kids our kids like/fear/hug too often. On afternoons when I can go pick up Sky from school, I can easily access this network of information. Ren, not so much. Like most men I know, he’s not terribly chatty. When he goes, other moms look at him, and some of them even say hello, but the conversations stop there. His passcode for the Mom Communication Network is effectively defunct, and we miss out on a lot due to his inability to access it.

I know I’m lucky that Ren does what he does, so I can do what I do. It’s a fad waiting for its day in the sun. I just can’t wait for it to catch on. And when it does, I suppose we’ll have to think of a new acronym. SAHD is a tad depressing.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For

I've always been a bit enamored by the idea that writing a wish and hanging it at a shrine might just be enough to make it come true. (Though never enamored enough to actually pay the $8 or so it would cost to get one of those pieces of wood --called "ema"-- needed to properly convey my wish.)

The last time we were in Japan, Big Sissy pointed the one at the top right out to me.

"Be careful what you wish for," she told me, smiling.

I had to laugh. She knows me pretty well after all these years.

The one on the top right reads (in beginner's Japanese), "I want to marry a Japanese person. Please."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Before the Dawn

In one hand, a butterfly preschool backpack, my keys, a barbie horse, two hats, a thermos, and a glove. In the other hand a book-laden backpack, my coat, a Cars 2 lunchbox, the other glove, and a can of Diet Coke. Under that arm, two broken down cardboard boxes for recycling, and in the crook of the other arm "Princess," Pink P's teddy bear.

Thus laden, I walk toward the garage in the pre-dawn darkness. Before I get there, Ren calls out, "Aren't you going to take the garbage?"

Wordlessly, I turn to show him my load, and he simply says, "Have a good day."

If I could have juggled it, I would have, but lately, I've been feeling like my hands are way more than full. We've been down one parent for a few months now since Ren's back decided to go south for the winter. See what I get for making Ren sleep on the ground with a bunch of first-grade cub scouts back in the fall?

Like most working moms, I was already juggling a lot. But since Ren's the one who gets stuff done at home, things have certainly taken a turn to the next-to-impossible. We're hoping the lumbar epidural steroid shot he got yesterday does the trick! Until then, apologies for the sporadic posts!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Less Glamorous Side of Our So-called International Life (part 2 )

This blog post is part two in my description of some of the headaches that come when you try to live a multicultural, international life somewhere in the middle. Like I said in the last post, there’s a lot that’s fun and interesting about this life we lead, and then there’s some stuff that kind of stinks. Here is some more of the smelly stuff...

The Customs
As the parent of bi-cultural kids, I am always worried that my parenting will cause them to favor one culture over the other. Maintaining a balance of culturally distinct customs is challenging. Making sure the kids understand and respect these customs takes a lot of intentional effort and usually requires us to educate people beyond our immediate family. You wouldn’t believe, for example, how hard it is to get our American friends and family to take their shoes off (at least not without a considerable amount of grumbling). It seems like we are always defending these cultural practices to friends, family, and strangers alike. Enough already! For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that there’s a great big world out there with all sorts of awesome diversity in it. And, while we’re at it, let’s pretend that embracing this diversity is a good thing. Believe me, even without your skepticism, my job is hard enough. As soon as my kids start school, they want to chuck whatever makes them different than their peers--aka, all that cultural coolness we are trying to instill in them. Why learn to write in Japanese if none of your friends can? And who wants a rad Japanese bento for lunch if all your friends are eating PB&J and potato chips?

The Holidays
For us, it’s not just about deciding whose Thanksgiving traditions we will follow or where we will spend Christmas. Most of the holidays we celebrate in the US are not celebrated in Japan, and vice versa. So the issue becomes which holidays to celebrate (celebrating them all can be exhausting), and how to pull them off. It’s not so easy to buy a turkey in Tokyo and pretty much impossible to simulate a Fourth of July parade. It’s equally impossible to convince the US post office to hold all our end-of-the-year greeting cards and to deliver them early in the morning on New Year’s Day (like they do in Japan).

(Japanese-style New Year's food -- you should be impressed! Ren made all of this.)

The question of which holidays to celebrate comes down to a complicated equation that calculates how important the holiday is, how difficult it would be to buy whatever is necessary to celebrate the holiday, and whether the parent from the country of origin remembers enough about the traditions associated with the holiday to be able to pass them on. Elucidating the nuances of any given holiday can be difficult. Try explaining to a foreigner why we boil eggs, decorate them, and then hide them for an imaginary bunny. Go ahead. Try it.

In an international family where the parents come from two vastly different cultures, the onus of properly celebrating any given holiday falls squarely on the shoulder of a single parent. The other ends up being a crappy wingman at best.

The Trip
Being an international family necessitates a lot of super-long airplane rides. Super-long airplane rides with small children. Often.

Actually, the kids are getting better and better at flying, but this does not make the flight any shorter. And it doesn’t keep snarky childless people from glaring at us since they know we will ruin their flight.

To all the folks who think we shouldn’t fly with children since we will most likely disrupt your flight: can it!

If there was a better way to get from point A to point B, believe me, I would do it. I’m not a fan of holding one or more of my kids on my lap for 14 hours straight. In fact, I try really hard not even to be in the same room as all of them for that long. Unfortunately, it’s illegal to mail them, so until you can figure out a way to teleport my family to and from Japan, keep. your. trap. shut.

The Trip consists of three pretty persistent minor antagonists: The Cost, The Baggage Restrictions, and The Customs Official.

The Cost
Flying back and forth to Japan with a family of five costs roughly the same as it would to modestly furnish a small house. For the price of two or three trips, we could buy a really nice new car. But what do we get for all that money? Bad service and multiple lost bags. Sometimes we get unexpected nights in airport hotels due to airplane malfunction. Sure The Trip takes us to see our loved ones, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that all we’ve really gotten for the tens of thousands of dollars we’ve spent to go back and forth is extensive time strapped in uncomfortable seats.

The Baggage Restrictions
Okay, so the good thing is that on international flights, you’re allowed two “free” checked bags (They’re free, that is, unless you count the 1000+ dollars you spent on the ticket). The bad news is that they are stricter than ever about the ever-shrinking weight limits. I can pack a seventy-pound suitcase with my eyes closed. Unfortunately, these days, bags have to be 50 pounds or less.

Our trips back and forth are first: family visits, and second: extended shopping trips. There are just things you can’t buy in one place or another. These things –books, clothes, shoes (you try buying a pair of women’s shoes in an 8 ½ in Japan…), underwear, rice flakes, seaweed, dried tofu--must be evenly distributed and then crammed into our suitcases.

I’ve been known to saddle each family member with a 35 pound carry-on just to outsmart The Baggage Restrictions.

The Customs Official
Why yes, Mr. Customs Inspector, as a matter of fact, I do mind if you search our luggage... .Surely you see the small children traveling with me…. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they are stir crazy after such a long flight. This is, after all, International Arrivals...What? You want to know if I am bringing anything into the country illegally? Seriously, how could I possibly find the time to be an international smuggler? And, where in the world would I find space in our suitcases for it? I am, after all, Traveling.With.Small.Children. I have been cooped up in an airplane for 14 hours with these three balls of energy, one of whom was on my lap the entire time. It took me hours...no days...to get all of our stuff to fit in the suitcases with just the right distribution of weight. If you open that suitcase, everything will fly out of it, and while I am gathering it all up again, my children will make a break for the door. But, you know, do what you gotta do…

The Middle Ground

There is no middle ground. You can’t live in both places at the same time. Ever. This means you’d better get get over it or used to the two unwanted guests in any international family: Sacrifice and Guilt.

Why I'm a Bad Mom (the Japanese Version)

(This is a post I wrote when we lived in Japan--Looking at it now makes me feel less guilty about all the ways I goof up on a daily basis!)

I once saw an article in Time magazine (online) that said there are 2.6 million stay-at-home moms (versus 159,000 SAH dads) in the US. I am sure the numbers of SAHMs are much higher in Japan. In fact, I guess I am one of the very few "working" moms at Sky's preschool. I have heard horror stories about the pressure put on moms once their kids start school here, so we approached our son's preschool experience with a relaxed attitude (reason #1 I am a bad mom). Before he started we got a guide for preparing for preschool entrance. Fifteen pages long, it outlined all that we needed to know (= needed to do) before he started. Being a Catholic school, it started with a list of useful prayers that we could teach him. Then it reminded us to make sure our child always responds cheerfully when his name is called and gave us advice on how to prepare him (mentally) for starting school. All of this information was helpful enough.

(kids in their summer smocks enjoying story time with their teacher)

Then, about page 6, guide started to outline what we would need to make/buy for him before he started, clearly separating items into what we should buy and what we should make. The list of things to make included: a picture book bag (29 cm X 38 cm), a bag for his gym clothes (20 cm X 30 cm), bags for his tea cup, his plate, his luchbox, and his shoes, a placemat (20 cm X 27 cm),elastic bands for his crayon box and his lunch box, and an emergency cushion cover. These are to be made of double-layered quilted material (usually with a different design for front and back). We bought or borrowed all of these things, using the valid excuse that our sewing machine was in America(reasons #2-11 that I am a bad mom). Then came the list of things into which we are supposed to sew his name (not write it, sew it--in Japanese of course). We paid to have the most necessary one done, but for everything else, we used a permanent marker--oh the nerve of us! (reason #12 I am a bad mom). Lest I not feel adequately guilty about all this, one day when we took the kids to the doctor, we ran into another little boy from school. On his way out of the doctor's office, he held up his picture book bag and proudly said, "My MOMMY made this!"

Then there are the lunches. Sky's school only requires the kids to bring lunch twice a week. Forget the fact we had to spend about $30 on the separate lunch boxes for summer and winter (the winter one is aluminum so they can put it in the lunchbox heater). Some moms have been known to go overboard (check out this link, if you don't believe me!), and there is no shortage of books (or websites) telling you how to make the perfect boxed lunch. I think I do okay on this front. My son's lunches are healthy and full of variety and he seems to be pretty excited about them. I haven't seen many of the other kids' lunches (since I haven't been for an observation yet, reason #13), so I can't be sure how guilty I should feel.

(Here's one I made.)

Of course, nothing makes up for reason #14 (well, really, reason #1) that I am a bad mom. I don't stay home. Of course, we all know that every mom working inside the house or out loves her kids, but it is an interesting experience to be in a country where handmaking a kid's book bag is meant to be an expression of love that will make him feel proud and independent! I think I've incurred enough guilt for a lifetime!

(Here's a post I wrote about finally figuring out Japanese preschool, kinda...)

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Less Glamorous Side of Our So-called International Life (a 2-part series)

So you know from the tag line at the top of my blog that I’m mom to three smallish kids (ages 7, 4, and 1>) and stepmom to one big one, and I’m living a bilingual, bi-cultural life with my immigrant husband in small-town mid-America. This blog post is about what it's like to try to live a multicultural, international life somewhere in the middle. There’s a lot that’s fun and interesting about this life we lead, and then there’s some stuff that kind of stinks. Here is some of the smelly stuff(and thanks for humoring the rant. I promise I won't do it often)...

The Stares
No, we don’t look like you, and no, we don’t look entirely like each other. Yes, we are speaking a different language. Yes, sometimes we are even speaking more than one language at a time. Get. Over. It. Frankly, when you stare, it confuses me. Are my kids being too loud? Did one of them just pick his/her nose? It is not out of the realm of possibility that my kids are being inappropriate, so please reserve your stares for those times. Or better yet, mind your own freaking business.

The Questions
When people see a mixed-race, multilingual family, suddenly they feel at liberty to ask all sorts of ridiculous questions. They want to know what we eat, what language we speak at home, which country we prefer to live in, and on, and on, and on. This seems to be the case no matter where we are.

At a local festival in the Midwestern United States, a well-meaning (I guess, though I’m not really sure what kind of woman would ask this question) came up to 10-month old Sky and me and asked,

“Where did you get him?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Where did you get your baby?”

My first reaction (which I suppressed) was to tell her that no, the dingo did not take her baby and give it to me. Next, I had to resist the urge to say: Well…you see…when a man loves a woman, sometimes they will touch each other in certain ways, and sometimes that will lead to a baby... I’m pretty sure this isn’t what she meant, either. I also toyed with giving her directions to the baby section at Wal-mart. In the end, I couldn’t figure out what to say, so I just pointed at my stomach and walked away.

A question we get with even more frequency than the one about where our children originated is whether we think they look more like me or like Ren. What people really want to know (but can't think of how to ask tactfully--this, by the way, should be your first hint that it's an inappropriate question) is whether we think our kids look more Japanese or American. How the heck am I supposed to know? They just look like Sky, Pink P, and Stow to me. I can tell you with absolute certainty that to every Japanese person we meet in Japan, they look American and to just about every American we encounter in the States, they look Japanese. So there you have it. A definitive answer.

The Language
While this isn’t the case for all international families, ours uses more than one language. This can be immensely beneficial when we want to say something that we don’t want complete strangers to overhear. In fact, speaking a foreign language generally scares people into minding their own business (which is exactly what we want them to do). I can tell my son to straighten up or he’s going to get grounded without anyone thinking I’m being a you-know-what. And strangers rarely feel the need to offer their perspectives on my parenting technique if they can’t understand what I am saying. It’s kind of like having a secret code.

It’s pretty awesome how the kids seem to know which language to use when. But this takes time and leads to some unfortunate misunderstandings along the way. When I first dropped Sky off at Parents Day Out, the teachers were amazed by how much he missed me. “He kept saying, ‘Mama! Mama! The whole time you were gone,” they told me. While I wanted to take credit for all the warm fuzzies they thought he was sending my way, I couldn’t. Instead, I explained, “He calls me Mommy. Mama is food.” He wasn’t missing me. He just wanted a snack.

By far the most annoying part of being a bilingual family is that some folks insist we don’t use certain languages in front of them. Despite what I said about the secret code, we are not actually international undercover agents or scheming to take over the world in any way (though I can see how you might make that mistake). We are also probably not talking about you. Chances are we are talking about whether we remembered to shut the garage door or whether Stow needs a new diaper. Riveting stuff, I assure you.

Don't be so paranoid, and whatever you do, please don't let your paranoia convince you you should tell us what language to speak to our kids! I don't ask you to speak a foreign language to your kid, so it'd be great if you could return the favor! Because, to tell you the truth, if you insist that I speak only Japanese to the kids or that their dad speak only English, it will freak them out. Why in the world would you want to do that?

To be continued...