Several weeks ago, my husband snapped a photo of our family’s new nightly feeding routine. The scene is set around 3:00 am, the dead of night, and my back is turned toward the camera. I lean over to adjust the breast pump. In the frame, the half of the bedroom we fashioned as a diaper changing station and nursing oasis is dimly lit by a single, soft white bulb. My husband holds our infant son, Charlie, as he greedily suckles a bottle, the contents of which were donated by some other mother with more than enough breastmilk to spare. I sit bathed in white light and attempt to increase my own supply, as the rest of the bedroom glows red. The night light casts bloody shadows across the wall. We are exhausted.
Prior to parenthood, I knew the breadth of change that a newborn would bring: sleepless nights, ringing ears, tested patience. I watched other mothers navigate the early weeks and months, and I thought, “I am up to this challenge.” What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the emotional rawness of the experience. I thought perhaps Charlie’s birth would be a clean slate, a new beginning. His would be a fresh life as yet untouched by the secrets and pain of his ancestors’ trauma. And, in some way, I thought my hopeful focus on the future would seal the jar on my own sadness and loss.
Instead, the experience of bringing a new child into the world was not isolated. I could not wall it off from the past year’s events. Charlie continually reminded me of the DNA discovery–a biological father I would never meet and my mother’s half truths and omissions. I stared into Charlie’s tiny face and big, expressive eyes, and I saw my own eyes reflected. Would I have been so upright if his financial stability and childhood were on the line? If I knew the truth would push him into the same cycle of broken relationships of the family’s previous generations, would I still swear allegiance to it?
I began to see the threads of connection between my own parental experience and my parents’ messy lives. Even though my biological father was no longer alive, his DNA lived on in the tiny human I held in my hands. I had yet to discover which traits of his Charlie carried, and the truth was that I might never be able to distinguish them from the genetic gifts of my maternal line. Would Charlie love dogs and travel? Would he wield a charismatic directness in his older years? Would his almond eyes remain as evidence of Japanese ancestry even as his hair turned my mother’s shade of strawberry blonde?
There was no perfect answer to these complicated questions–no new life blooming except through the roots of the old. Just like the photograph, the legacy of loss glowed red alongside the hope of an unmarred future. There was no separating them. New parenthood taught me that living fully means embracing the reality of what came before.
What the camera portrayed and what my son’s face reflected was this: death is just the beginning of hope.
I must love the questions
as Rilke said
like locked rooms
full of treasure
to which my blind
and groping key
does not yet fit.
and await the answers as unsealed
mailed with dubious intent
and written in a very foreign
and in the hourly making
no thought of Time
to force, to squeeze
I grow into.
Oh god, the ship lap. The careful, muted walls covered in shades of gray, or rooms baptized in splashes of whitewash. For years HGTV proselytized the gospel of earth tones with home renovation shows. It was an aesthetic reborn over the years as farmhouse or shabby chic (even when the homeowners lived in the suburbs and had no agricultural experience). The original goal for decorators was, no doubt, to design spaces that felt organic, homegrown, and natural, but now the rustic trends were just tired and overused. As I traipsed through the drab housewares collections in home decor stores looking for a spark of inspiration, I could only ponder, Why did we erase the visual variety and spice from our homes?
The Pantone Color Institute, an organization that influences global color trends for fashion and design industries, announced two colors would share the title for 2021 Color of the Year: Ultimate Gray and Illuminating. That’s right—gray and yellow. After a year of worldwide illness and death, economic loss, and collective suffering, even the trendsetters had one foot in the grave.
I, for one, saw my share of loss and sadness over the course of the last year, and these depressing hues reflected the sentiment back to me. In the mornings I stood in the closet vacillating between a worn hoodie or a pale sweater. What goes best with stained sweatpants? The options were bleak. And then, I had a revelation: I’m too interesting for this shit. I want color back in my life.
Cultures the world over embrace a hodgepodge of vibrance—from traditions like the Hindu festival of Holi to Japanese New Year, Ghanaian kente cloth to Indonesian kebaya. So many people celebrate the sumptuous messiness of bold color, and yet here we were in the United States buying prairie dresses in faded taupe to match our exhausted souls.
I needed a refresher on how to color clash. I turned to the Internet’s sartorial sherpas and began to collect photos of Instagram influencer Baddie Winkle and the iconic Iris Apfel. I pinned snapshots of playful street art and crafting kits. I’d had enough of the constant sadness, and as I scoured online stores for their chunkiest acetate necklaces, I decided I’d like to dress like a veritable birthday cake.
Give me the beaded earrings that look like multicolored sprinkles. I choose the shoes emblazoned with lemons. I proudly donned a turquoise scarf with a peach jumpsuit and ordered a loud, overstated botanical print blazer. More is more, I thought as I looked around for other ways to infuse joy into my surroundings.
My husband had recently completed some drywall repair in our dining room as part of ongoing home improvements, and I came to him with a request: Give me your blessing to paint a wall pink. The other accents and color schemes in our home included blue, white, gray, green—cool tones traditionally associated with masculinity. I argued that the right shade of pink could also be neutral, that it wouldn’t be the chalky Pepto Bismol pink he feared. I was cooped up with a husband and a male dog, pregnant with a baby boy. I’m surrounded by penises! I exclaimed. Let me have this wall! He reluctantly agreed.
I waltzed out of the house to retrieve paint swatches that afternoon. After carefully contrasting them against the blank white space, I chose a color that would both act as a statement and coordinate well with the adjacent art in the room. A quick call to our neighborhood hardware store confirmed they could have the shade of blush available within an hour.
I prepped the space with painter’s tape and drop cloths, and I removed my festive summer scarf to protect it from inevitable drips and splashes. After pressing play on an upbeat Spotify soundtrack I cracked open the gallon of Creamy Peach. And as I submerged my paintbrush, I also dipped into a brightly-colored well of hope.
Where did you learn to love, and how?
Tell me, and I will trace your path
Back through the thistled thicket and gnarled trees,
Along the shallow brook of mossy stones and puckish caddis flies
To the clearing where you began.
Did the moon beckon with misty fingertips,
or were you dropped down as prey for a prowling pack,
Plump and squirming, an offering to the gods?
Where did you learn to love, and how?
Tell me, and I will map the lines
Of heart and head, of sun and fate,
To read the myth of you inscribed in folds of skin.
Your palms outstretched, I light the lamp and hold it high
So your right foot sees where the left has been.
The pandemic came to town over a year ago. Like the rest of the community, I drew inward to decrease the threat of microscopic invaders ravaging our nation. We all know the stories well. The weekly happy hours and backyard barbecues? Canceled. Stolen moments around the office water cooler? Defunct. Giant wedding parties and dance floors? Obsolete. I, and so many others, staved off total despair by searching for new hobbies—painting, knitting, baking, reorganizing our bathroom shelves. As we surpassed the twelve month anniversary of collective isolation, however, I felt the loss of those little social leisures keenly.
Before the pandemic, I constructed my world around external relationships. I wove silken webs of connection among college classmates, work colleagues, neighbors, friends old and new. My chosen family. These connections were my support system, my entertainment, my first and favorite priority.
My husband, Alex, and I frequently hosted large gatherings. Jovial Halloween house parties, taco dinners before a night out on the town, casual grill-outs, and rolicking New Year’s Eve soirées. During these affairs I loved to smash disparate social universes together to see what conversations arose. These interactions thrilled me when neighbors and acquaintances discovered their shared love of a podcast or bonded over an obscure band they followed.
Then the pandemic winter froze out any hope I had of simulating this level of socialization out of doors. Not even socially distant park picnics or walks beside the lake could survive the freezing temperatures. After months of sitting behind computer screens, even the facsimile video gatherings lost their shiny sheen. I hit a wall.
Meanwhile, Alex joined a Discord channel with several male friends. Each Thursday night, he and twelve other men used the virtual platform to play online games, video chat, and participate in trivia. My heart swelled when I heard his raucous laughter from the other room, but I was also jealous.
Jealous, not of his newfound friendships or the joy he fostered in the midst of a global crisis, but of his unavailability to connect with me. Despite the relative independence we enjoyed prior to the pandemic, I realized he was my last lifeline to human contact. In the before times, I’d supplemented my social appetite with micro interactions—the wave and how are you today at my local gym, the small talk with the bartender when she had a lull between serving rounds. I craved the idle chatter at the bus stop that used to annoy me. Every time I took the dog for a stroll around the block, I yearned to let the leash go long when we met passersby.
To make matters more complicated, I was pregnant with my firstborn. The novelty of planning baby showers and shopping for empire-waisted dresses was dampened by the isolation. I thought of friends in their maternal glory who coordinated photo shoots and birth announcements while I sat at the laptop and pushed Buy on my online shopping cart. Friends and family had only seen me from shoulders up on our video calls. The lack of witnesses to my physical transformation made it feel like an illusion, somehow. I was large and round and stuck at home, a waxing moon locked in the Earth’s gravitational pull. I was a homebody.
Every few months I attempted to recapture some element of spontaneity. I learned how to create lavish cheese plates. I built a makeshift yoga studio in a spare bedroom nook. I ordered takeout and enlisted Alex to eat it with me as we sat in the car across the street from the restaurant. These self-styled car-picnic dates only served to make me more depressed.
My belly continued to expand, and I photo documented the growing girth in the full-length mirror. Tiny flutters from within became more pronounced, and I no longer had to play the game, “Is it baby kicks or digestion?” The spontaneity I searched for had been delivered to me in the form of a wildly changing physique.
If there was anything that could bring specialness to the mundane rituals of my pandemic life, it was the concept that I was housing a tiny tenant. Perhaps this unwilling house arrest could be more of an exclusive party. I began to find joy in the babe’s growth and development and celebrated the wonders of my own adaptation to facilitate life.
This revitalized daily focus brought new questions to mind. What are the things I do for this life inside of me that I’ve neglected for myself? What would I do for my own body if I loved it in the way that I do my friends, my family, my colleagues? After all, this body has supported me for decades longer than it has the stranger within. I began a mental inventory of the ways in which I could nourish and care for both of us, pandemic or no.
I blocked time on my work calendar to stand up, drink water, and stretch. I held forth the boundary that no other meetings could usurp the water break unless there was another open slot in my day to preserve it. I sought new and exotic tea-time snacks. As I bit into chocolate-dipped Pocky sticks or savored Biscoff biscuits with a steaming cup of tea, I banished lingering guilt and shame about the indulgence. The practice was imperfect, but I began to look forward to my oyatsu, a tiny Japanese tea break.
Slowly, these small touchstones illuminated the darker days. They inspired me to explore other self-care—new bath salts and longer bathtimes, slow-moving yin yoga instead of frantic calisthenics, and the freedom to get in bed at any hour of any day, even if just to sit and read. These little crumbs led me away from the abyss and back to myself. Amid the days of hardened isolation I realized the truth: I was not just a homebody. My body was this baby’s home.
The blood test results arrived, and I skimmed the summary via the online patient portal. The doctor’s professional analysis was not yet available, but I took the raw information and Googled the value for each chromosome. All chromosome pairings looked normal, as far as I could tell. I was awash in medical terminology, my head just barely above the surface. No Aneuploidy Detected.Result consistent two copies of Chromosome 21.
The magic of modern medicine was that this genetic screening could both tell me if the baby I carried had obvious chromosomal abnormalities and isolate whether the fetus had XX or XY chromosomes. I could learn my baby’s sex based on information taken from my blood. Or rather, our blood—the technique relied on the assumption that my blood was healthy and that I was female. Any deviations could be chalked up to the little stranger forming in my womb.
The sex chromosome showed an X and a Y. It was a boy! When Alex returned from work, I held the phone screen up and watched his face change slowly as he drew the same conclusion I had. I’m so relieved, he commented. I have so much experience being a boy!
Over the next months, I began to transform one of our spare bedrooms into a nursery. Prior to the discovery of our baby’s sex, I was already passionate about creating a space conducive to any gender expression our child might have. No baby blues or passive pinks for us. There would only be bright, joyful colors. I wanted to leave negative space for my future child—they could color in their own lines. I did not want to tell this future human how or who to be based on a lab test.
I chose rainbowed crib sheets and multicolored polka dot wall decorations. I painted a turquoise accent wall and splurged on a plush, green dinosaur toy. And as I auditioned different window curtains to choose the most playful shade of yellow, I realized I was scared. Unlike Alex, I did not have so much experience being a boy. But I did have so much experience being a girl. I had layers and layers of observations about the privileges boys around me received, the actions they took with and against me, and the experiences of my fellow sisterhood.
As I nested in the nursery, I felt the weight of my responsibility as a newly-christened “boy mom.” Yes, there might be dump trucks and trains and ABC blocks on the horizon. Then again, there might be mermaid tails and princess wands and Barbie dolls, too. I didn’t know yet. But what if my child did express himself in that traditional, raucous, boy way? How could I nurture in him the tools and discernment he would need to be a man in a world where so many self-purported “good guys” did heinous things to women? I swore to the good God above that I would not dismiss bad behavior with phrases like locker room talk.
The questions I had were bigger than finding the right rug for the playroom. I didn’t want to blunt the edges of my future son into a dull, dissolute mother boy. Instead, I needed strategies for how to make his discernment scalpel-sharp. I hoped I could help him wield his power in the direction of equity, resolution, and kindness. My worst fear was that he become a man who succumbs to the trends of the market or corruption of power that often pass as success. How could I become a boy mom that raises her son to be deeply attuned to his conscience? Could I teach my child to use his empathy as a sextant to chart his life’s course?
I decided to start small. I would amass a children’s library that represented varied perspectives beyond his own. This boy could both love baseball and understand the tradition of hijab. He could make finger paint messes and understand consequences and clean up. There would be no shrugging mantra of boys will be boys in this house.
I also realized that I could not teach what I did not, myself, know. I might not be able to control the behaviors of this new, autonomous being, but I could work on my own knowledge and toolsets. I began to evaluate my own behaviors and habits—was I making inroads towards a just and peaceable world? My actions were already speaking for me. What did they say?
Yes, I gave financially to causes I thought advanced equity for women and people of color. I recycled. I read anti-racist literature. I subscribed to podcasts about education initiatives and how nice white parents could elicit unintended consequences. But I started to see gaps where I could do more. The To Do list stretched much longer than I had anticipated, and the baby wasn’t even born yet. Everything already felt out of my control.
I sat on the floor next to the newly-assembled crib, surrounded by children’s books, and the realization came. No amount of parental preparation or discipline that I enforced could guarantee the goodness of my child. I could stack the deck in such a way that he was surrounded by community who loved him and challenged him, who inspired him and held him accountable. I could invest in strong education and literature. I could wrap my own morals around him as a cushion and hope he would make the right choices. But when all was said and done, I would reenact the same cycle I hoped to break.
If I attempted to do the emotional labor for my son, he would not learn how to do it for himself. I could stock his childhood library, but I could not take responsibility for his character. That would be his alone to grow.
I ran until air was a precious resource. Each breath, a pickaxe in my chest. Surely this time Chase would choose me. The leggy boys outpaced those of us in the remaining pack. They pivoted to face us, arms aloft. “Here, here!” they chanted.
I ducked and darted around them, determined to render my shortcoming of height irrelevant. I propelled my body into the emptiest green space down field. “Here, here,” I joined their chorus.
Chase’s eyes panned horizontally. I marked the turn of his head as he jogged back and forth. He saw me—the air was clear between him and I. The makeshift end zone was a breath away. As Chase turned left, he severed the link I imagined between us. In an instant the football spiralled skyward to Armando, our 5th grade Goliath. Armando scooped the ball inward and swaddled it with his body. He danced el jarabe tapatío around the fingertips of ten boys and into the end zone. In celebration, he spiked his precious cargo against the ground. The boys cheered.
The next time our loose alliance gained custody of the ball, we regrouped. I lined up left of center. Chase shouted, “Hut!” and I weaved frenetically through the forest of beckoning arms. I juked to the right and lost my ponytail holder. A brunette tangle of curls unfurled behind me like a comet’s tail. One completed pass, and I could be the Emmitt Smith to his Troy Aikman, I thought. But the day’s recess elapsed, and I made no catch. Wednesday and Thursday saw slower boys receive Chase’s passes. By Friday I knew I was permanently on defense. Even though I couldn’t see the cloth with my eyes, this playground team already had matching jerseys. And no matter how fancy my footwork, I was wearing the wrong color.
Traffic around us accelerated. A glimmer of silver approached from the onramp. I watched the vehicle carefully through the passenger side mirror. I felt Adam Smith’s invisible hand push cars to surround my navy Honda Accord. Pop music blared from the radio. I matched the speed of the other cars and steered the sedan deftly into the left lane.
Matt peered over his shoulder to joke with Dylan and Ben in the backseat. I enjoyed the company of these male friends. I fancied myself relatable, drama-free, and funny, and they must have agreed with my conclusions. The four of us were exuberant about the night’s activity: a local band would play an 18 and up show at The Underground. Our admittance was only contingent upon a wad of dollar bills and the black, Sharpie marker X’s on the backs of our hands.
I’d navigated this interstate many times under Dad’s watchful eye. My sixteenth birthday delivered both a driver’s license and a prohibition: Dad forbade me to drive on the highway until he personally signed off on my merging skills. Now that I held his approval, I volunteered to drive during group outings. I liked independence. My friends liked the affordable gas bill.
As I signaled my intent to swoop between moving cars, Dylan chirped from the backseat: You drive like a guy! I responded with a Thank you. Pride welled inside my chest, and I took the exit with a swiftness. It wasn’t necessary to ask what he meant. This was an endorsement of my prowess. Dylan felt I was strong, capable, assertive. At ten years old, I practiced the bob and weave on the playground yard. I learned to contort my body and adapt to make space for the boys. Now, my informal gridiron lessons paid off. I held the keys to a powerful new tool—I knew how to make men comfortable, even when I was in the driver’s seat.
Twelve months. The Midwest job I accepted the previous year was a golden road to financial stability. I no longer needed to pick up childcare shifts and manage reservations at The Whiskey Kitchen to supplement my salary. The god of industry required a sacrifice, however. It compelled me to exit my tight-knit community of Nashvillians and relocate across the country. Twelve months passed before I could arrange a homecoming visit to see old friends.
Now, we perched at a high top table on the patio of Mafiaoza’s. The 12th Avenue spot once served as our favorite Nashville rendezvous point for pizza and beer. My friends and former roommates, Lauren and Yves, sat across the table. I recounted the rigorous project management and software training I completed in the time since we last connected. Yves inquired about the role’s requisite domestic travel.
Between sips of beer I leaned forward energetically, elbows on the table. I missed my friends, and the conversation was comfortable and warm. I first met Lauren in the cinder block hallways of our alma mater. She rode a folding bicycle maniacally through the building, and I was enamored of her offbeat humor. We then shared an apartment during the early days of her relationship with Yves. The housing situation came full circle years later when I rented Yves’ spare bedroom for a time. And when they eventually married, I officiated their wedding.
Despite years of history together, I noticed Yves’ face change. He observed my casual posture and assertive gesticulation. You sit like a man, he interjected. The comment surprised me. I’d known Yves for years, even lived with him. He knew I loved big earrings, Joni Mitchell, and a well-timed makeover. I knew his bluntness. But when I inquired about his meaning, he could not articulate it.
I ruminated on the exchange over subsequent days of the trip. The comment followed me onto the return flight home. I formed a mental checklist of the evening’s elements. I had worn women’s clothing during dinner, and my haircut was a traditional curly bob. I sported lipstick and jewelry. I had not premeditated conversation topics nor made an effort to rebrand myself. To my mind, whatever personality changes I experienced over the year had been gradual.
I closed my eyes, and I heard the words. He said I sit like a man, but he meant to say that I sit like a woman in power. I had not noticed the self-possession and confidence I accrued from my adventure in a new city. In my new work world pressure was a privilege, and I had more professional responsibility leading teams and high dollar projects than ever before in twenty four years. And men, even male friends, were startled to find these traits separate from their gender.
I presented myself, newly actualized, enthusiastic, and wearing lipstick, and Yves’ instinct was that I had inherited his tribe’s persona. In actuality, independence merely sharpened the tools I always possessed. I no longer skipped and jumped around men to prove my belonging. I didn’t need to wave my arms and chant, “Here, here!” for their consideration. I stopped the chase, picked up the ball, and threw it. I’d always worn the right color.
It’s easy to feel like a fake. The voice in my head injects its unsolicited input: You’re overdoing it. Stop trying so hard. If it’s not natural, you’re doing it wrong.Do something else. Somewhere along the way I collected an inventory of ideas like this—gleaned from neighborly advice, books I’ve read, newspaper headlines, offhand comments from friends. I’ve even used this arsenal of judgments to silently criticize others. The tone-deaf troubadour singing off-key tunes in the coffee shop? It’s just not natural for him. The woman wearing leopard print spandex at the grocery store? That outfit is….a lot. The guy in class I just couldn’t find attractive? He’s so desperate.
I struggle to articulate why, in those moments, it feels urgent that I distance myself from others who I deem too much or not enough. Cognitively I support equity and justice for all. I love Lizzo and Jameela Jamil and all the other women pushing body positivity forward. I care about black and brown folks and those who are differently abled or neurodivergent or under the poverty line or living in bodies that don’t match their gender. I truly want all of these people to thrive. But if someone doesn’t have an obvious label that reminds me to be kind, why do I still recoil when watching them fail?
Whatever that reflex is, I also use it violently against myself. I am afraid of coming on too strong or seeming overly confident in abilities that others deem inferior. I know from conversations with female friends that we all grapple with impostor syndrome to some degree. Every new creative endeavor or project idea or clothing choice, for that matter, comes with a caveat. I’m new. Please be gentle. I wouldn’t qualify my choices, even laughingly, if there weren’t some imminent threat of judgment.
Earlier this year, I discovered that I am 25% Japanese. I have a biological grandmother from Japan who married a GI during World War II. This news came after a lifetime of socialization as a white girl. I was German and Irish, as far as I knew, and I could count on two hands how many people of color attended school in my rural Texas town. The majority of those folks were Hispanic. I’d always passed for white, with the exception of a few confused inquiries from people over my lifetime. A childhood boyfriend once told me I looked Chinese when I tanned darkly in the Texas sun. I told him he was stupid. The African grill cook at my college restaurant job asked me if I was mixed—maybe part Asian? No, I laughed, “But thank you,” and walked away.
With this DNA discovery, I was suddenly cataloguing any Asian person I’d known or cultural experience I’d witnessed. Were there any clues to this secret ethnicity that I missed along the way? I’d never been to Japan, and I’d never met any of my Japanese or Japanese-American relatives. I’d never had an affinity for broadly Asian culture other than loving sushi. I can’t count that—everyone loves sushi. That shit is delicious.
I mean, sure, DNA technically puts me in this category, but I don’t have any of the other street cred. I don’t know the language, the clothing, the music, the food. My life is devoid of the lived experience that many Asian-Americans know. Am I a fraud if I suddenly check the Asian/Pacific Islander box in my demographic information? To add to the sense of isolation, all of this information came to light during a pandemic. I couldn’t attempt to meet my newly discovered relatives and, even if I could, they might not want to connect. Cultural festivals were canceled, in-house dining at restaurants was closed. What should I do? I resorted to the Internet.
I found Eve Sturges’ podcast of other people who had discovered secrets in their DNA. One of the podcast guests mentioned a private Facebook support group, and I met others whose ethnicity was different from what they’d been raised to believe. We each shared our stories and traded frustrations. We recognized our deepest fears as headlines spread about Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug. We didn’t want to be fakes. We weren’t pretending to be BIPOC for personal gain. Please, god, don’t let us trample on the cultures we’re just trying to learn. How proudly could we, or should we, claim ownership of this heritage?
Someone in the group affectionally called me a “hapa”—a Hawaiian word used to refer to someone of mixed Pacific Islander or Asian heritage. I read blogs by others of varying racial backgrounds. Someone coined the term, “quapa,” meaning a combination of “quarter” and “hapa.” Is this me? I thought. I kept researching. I discovered NPR’s Code Switch episode, “Who Gets to Be ‘Hapa?‘” Nope, I was not Hawaiian. Maybe I should use a label that didn’t offend the people who invented it.
A friend connected me with Jo Oyama-Miller, the woman who leads Madison’s sister city relationship with Obihiro, Japan. She explained that the Japanese use the term, “hafu,” which is a transliteration of the word “half” from English. Even in Japan, where they value homogeneity, people of mixed race are considered inauthentic. I wouldn’t be considered Japanese by my grandmother’s country, either, even if I had been born there.
So where does this leave me? I can’t write Japanese kana, I never learned how to make miso, and I’ve only ever seen one Studio Ghibli film. Sure, I can take cooking lessons and read books about aspects of my culture. I can watch documentaries and listen to the Asian Enough podcast, but there will always be the risk of seeming like an overzealous white girl. Then again, maybe the most authentic thing I can do is to do it anyway, internal voices be damned. Perhaps the experience of being too much and not enough is what it means to be Asian in America. I’ve got a lot of learning to do.
Although we’ve only been married for three years, Alex and I started dating in early 2012. By my count, that’s eight years of learning each other’s favorites. It’s also ample amount of time to find those quirks that begin as endearing and become insufferable. A few years ago, Alex became so attached to his particular brand of running shoes that when they fell apart, he marched back to Movin’ Shoes on Park Street and asked for an identical pair. When they discontinued the line, he searched high and low on the Internet to find as many pairs as possible in size 12.5—both new and gently used. He bought them all at once. For the last several years our entryway has featured at least three sets of the blue and gray Adidas lined up like a little family. Don’t fix what ain’t broke.
This lack of variety is anathema to me. Over the weekend a new acquaintance of mine asked me when my birthday was—upon finding out I was a Sagittarius her eyebrows lifted to the heavens. The only things I know about my horoscope are what I’ve deemed to be true: the wanderlust is real, when my gut says it’s important I do it IMMEDIATELY, and variety is oxygen and I need it to survive. I ask you, what’s the fun in getting new shoes if they are going to be exactly the same as the ones you had before? Sacrilege.
However with the pile up of trauma and loss we’ve experienced this year, I’ve found it deeply important to ruminate on little joyful things that still exist. I need them as touch trees to find my way back out of the forest of despair. And as I confided to my close friend, Kitty, there are many things that are wrong in my life, but at least I chose the right partner. Maybe it’s a good thing that when Alex finds something he loves he clings to it for eternity. In the spirit of that joy, I share with you the top ten lessons I’ve learned from my husband:
Koop’s Arizona Heat will transform a grillable into the best thing you’ve ever tasted. Furthermore, the world of mustard is wider than you could know.
Ritual can be beautiful. Every morning Alex makes coffee and sits on the back deck to throw the ball for our 85 pound rescue dog, Arrow. He then comes in and makes a very deliberate breakfast sandwich to fuel his day.
There is always a way to pack more items into a hatchback, car trunk, or moving van. And the way to do that is for Alex to Tetris these items into the space himself and for you to get out of the damn way.
VOTE. It’s important to watch and listen to the world around us. We are connected. Don’t take for granted that our relative comfort will remain indefinitely. We must fight to preserve what is good and right and to expand our privileges to others.
It is possible to be very soft and sensitive and have a convincing gruff outer shell. This is a development born out of necessity, and sometimes that shell is heavy to carry.
No creature is happier than a dog with a ball. Except maybe a man with a dog with a ball.
A well-curated reading nook is desirable. To pass muster, the nook must be on a screened-in porch or by a window, and extra points are assigned for the presence of a bird feeder.
Solitude is important and refreshing from time to time. (Again, Jess, get out of the damn way).
Love letters can look like a clean kitchen and a freshly mowed lawn.
Heaven is a big, rowdy crowd of our favorite people. The party soundtrack is a very important ingredient to get there.
When I started spotting, the rust seemed surprising but potentially harmless, according to what I read on the Internet. I felt a little crampy down low in my abdomen, the familiar ache of my lower back, like the monthly rites I’d observed since I was twelve. Another unexplained pain that I’d inherited from the mothers of mothers before me. Most of my wider social circles didn’t yet know that I was pregnant. My husband, Alex, and I had only begun to tell close friends and family the weekend before. I wanted to eschew the convention of waiting until the end of the first trimester to spread the news. After all, if I lost the pregnancy, I’d be telling the people in my life anyway, and I felt the traditional silence during the first three months contributes to a misunderstanding of how common pregnancy loss really is. I’m not superstitious, I thought, and pregnancies are not gained or lost by words.
Over the weeks that passed, I was observant. I know my body well, but I’d never known my body under these conditions. So when the cramping started I tried to give it grace. I chanted silently, please, please, please, as I applied the loving heat of my warm palms to the full throb underneath my belly’s softness, pressing against the pain. I talked to the unknown person inside me, the person who was doing the hard work of becoming.
I was sweaty, sticky like the late summer heat that hung in the air, as I sat across the patio from friends and shared our good news. No I haven’t been experiencing morning sickness, and I feel very fortunate, but they aren’t kidding when they say you’ll be exhausted. Yes, we are excited. Thank you.
No one told me that I would politely excuse myself, barricading the bathroom door to discreetly take stock of what was happening down there. When I saw the first blood clot, I gasped Oh no reflexively, before my brain understood what I’d said. I returned to the table outside, resumed the friendly small talk, quietly tapped out a message to my doctor on the smartphone under the table.
When I finally got the call in the morning from the nurse, she was the first one who needed me to speak the truth of the situation into the world—to describe the timing, the color, the consistency. I hadn’t even mentioned the symptoms to Alex yet, hoping the conversation would be moot before I’d need to share. But the nurse needed to know, so I began. She was polite, professional. “The doctor does want to see you at 6:00 tonight, given your symptoms. It’s not a bad idea to do more than just order some bloodwork to be done, but no need to panic.”
My first prenatal visit would be two weeks earlier than scheduled, and it would be to hear the OB/GYN walk a verbal tightrope as she explained the possibilities. “The abdominal beta test will likely be inconclusive, it’s too early to tell, but we will do it just in case it could offer reassurance.” Alex sat nervously as she palpated my lower torso, looking for any signs that indicated the embryo had attached somewhere outside the designated area where babies grow.
They scheduled additional lab work and a Friday morning ultrasound, at which point I would have more conclusive answers. No one told me that I would manage several work calls and a training seminar while I waited for results, pretending professionally that the world I’d hoped for wasn’t crumbling around me. The stuffed dinosaur I bought, the one baby toy I gave in to purchase this early in my pregnancy was the only witness when I cried during my lunch break. Later, Alex would find me weeping as I cleaned the bathroom, coaxing me to lie down, letting me cry into his shoulder as I talked about my feelings of grief and loss and frustration at having to start again.
No one told me this, so I will tell you. At least one in four pregnancies end in a loss. 25%. One quarter. That number is so much higher than is publicly understood. Although people use the term miscarriage, I find the word itself is a misnomer, a lame attempt to describe a complex event in a single word. As if the person whose body carries the baby has much control over the intricate assembly of DNA occurring within. As if that potential life has been misplaced or mismanaged. As if it were simply a mistake made.
The truth is that many early pregnancy losses are unexplained. According to Emily Oster’s “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know,” roughly 90% are due to chromosomal complexities that cannot be tracked at this stage. The genetic building blocks aren’t piecing together correctly and the system shuts down—the foreman says gruffly, “Start over,” and hits the button to halt the assembly line.
What I didn’t know until I experienced this myself is that it would take several days before my body was done clearing the debris, and during this time I’d get to experience the creative ways my brain deals with grief. It’s not an instantaneous moment of trauma, like a car wreck. It’s more of a tsunami that leveled my town. I still had to wade through the ankle-high water as I went about picking up the pieces, worrying about aftershocks and flooding even once the damage was done. It was an exercise in endurance, where eventually I stopped thinking about how sad I was that I was losing the pregnancy and started waiting for the moment when the pregnancy was fully lost. At least then I could grieve without the abdominal pain. At least then we could start over.
Before the loss, Alex and I sat around a backyard fire with a couple who are expecting. We had just shared our good news, excited to be in the same cohort with them as first-time parents. As we stared into the flickering glow, we shared our concerns and fears about bringing a new and vulnerable life into the world in the midst of a pandemic, in a society awash with violence, selfishness, greed, and resultant political unrest.
We thought about the ways we had been wounded in our own lives, our complicated relationships with our parents, the tools we wish we’d had on hand to navigate the hardships of life. And there was one thing on which we agreed: to bring a child into the world is the physical manifestation of hope. It is the tiny step forward, a whispered vow, an existential contribution to the greater beauty that could be amidst the pain that is. We can offer up our best efforts to imbue a sense of empathy and bravery into a child beyond simply wishing for high test scores, physical prowess, or creative acumen. But true courage is in knowing that we will not be able to control the world around them or the choices they make and choosing to move forward anyway.
Despite the abrupt collapse of our expectations for a child in the next 40ish weeks, Alex and I are already parents. It’s just that our journey to embody hope in a broken world starts with how we move through grief to begin again. We’ve been forced to live the kind of brave that we hope our future children will be—to lay a foundation before we know who will live in the house or when they will move in. It’s scary. It sucks. But, it can also be beautiful.
If you’ve experienced pregnancy loss, please know you are not alone. Below are a few resources that have been helpful for me.