The case for the stay-at-home parent

6.50am, and I was already tired of him. He was crouching in the entrance of the kitchen, howling in loud, short bursts. I can’t remember what he was upset about. Probably, I’d turned my back on him for three seconds in order to pour myself a glass of milk. It made me angry, and instantly sick of the whole day, the whole week. My face was still unwashed, and my left eye crazy itchy – from the haze or just the general unwashedness – and I needed to get away from this little yelling person before I totally lost it. So I did. Specifically, five metres away. Into the living room. Because disappearing from the scene entirely is rarely an option.

Welcome to high maintenance season, Day 22.

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My little slave driver hanging out in his crib in the living room, contentedly throwing random objects out through the bars, until…

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…I start glancing at the newspaper at my feet. Or fiddling with the camera. Or doing anything that does not involve him being entertained, by me.

If you’ve ever had a super needy best friend or boyfriend, take those feelings of desperation/boredom/annoyance, enhance them by a multiple of…ten? And that’s about how I feel in spurts throughout the day, every day. It’s distinctly worse in the mornings, when my energy is low, and I have already gone through every book, sung every song, and it’s only 8.30am. And he wants more.

Michael doesn’t talk yet, so his primary method of communication is to grab my hand and point with it, to get what he wants. Book. Other book. Other other book. Let’s go to my bedroom. To your bedroom, because that’s where the computer is, and I’m going to drag your hand to the mouse because I know that’s what makes the screen light up.

Grab, grab, grab. My hand is not my own. My body wants to go one way, but is pulled another. He is stuck to me like a barnacle.

I’ve been asking myself increasingly of late – what the value of staying home with my son is, because of course the other alternative always gleams brighter. Having a job (any job) other than what I actually do all day seems much more dignified. Much more interesting. And I’ve always been seduced by the idea that the working mother provides the best model to her children – proof that we are as capable, as professional, as invested in our own development and deserving of individual fulfillment as…the fathers might be. That we can do everything if we want to – maybe not perfectly, but reasonably well. And in most cases, admirably well.

I’ve found it a lot harder arguing the case for myself – where my full time job is looking after kid and household. (I don’t even do it all on my own, embarrassingly. I have lots of help, to be clear. Loads.)

I’ve somewhat dismissed the idea that I am here for my kid’s intellectual development. Michael isn’t worryingly slow, but he is by no means a prodigy…at anything. Unless we consider his frighteningly keen ability to locate forbidden food – that, he does very well. But when it comes to more refined skills, I would say that he’s no better than average. He doesn’t walk, he doesn’t talk, he doesn’t sing the ABCs or even a single monotonous note. I don’t know if he remembers that cows say moo and dogs say woof, despite me repeating that 10000000 gabazillion times and I CAN’T DO ANIMAL SOUNDS ANYMORE BECAUSE IT IS SOUL CRUSHING (but I will).

I mean, I do sort of try, at a minimum, to be mildly educational throughout the day, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought I was doing a significantly better job than the average childcare at stimulating and engaging my kid.

So… I’ve decided that the real reason that I’m here, picking up objects off the floor so that he can throw those same objects back down again, has got little to do with him, and much more to do with me. It is largely selfish.

Because this, has proven to be true.

There is something to be gained, from being the wall your toddler throws stuff at. There are benefits, not immediately obvious, accorded to the person who is simply here. You become a collector of moments. It’s not just the milestones witnessed, but the amazing stuff that comes and goes, fizzing and sparking and disappearing in seconds, which I would never have experienced if not for the fact that I was here. Those are the moments that I will never be able to adequately describe to anyone else, nor be able to fully appreciate if they had been described to me. Like panning for gold, you go through a lot of mundane rubbish to get to the good bits, but the magic dust is there, even on the terrible days. It is this dust that I find myself trying to share with my husband when he comes home at night, by lamely spinning stories which make sense, when sometimes there is no story – it was just an expression, a sound, a feeling. Frequently, the gold is mine only to keep.

I am convinced that toddler moments are the best. It is such a fleeting season, much like being in love right at the beginning, when everything is untainted and clear as the large smile that spreads over Michael’s face when he spots me from the other end of the supermarket aisle. There is something so honest and intense and physical and overwhelming about our relationship at the moment that I know it will one day change completely.

The other Saturday, I found myself in the car with my husband and child, unconsciously operating as interpreter for toddler-speak (“He wants you to sing the song!” “He wants you to point at the yellow taxi.”) and it suddenly dawned upon me that I was totally understanding everything Michael wanted and meant, and my husband was totally not understanding most of it. An unwitting best friendship has been birthed out of all that time spent together, and it is a different relationship than the one Michael has with his papa. I am his advocate, his best buddy, his preferred companion for many things, and while I do sympathise with my husband when Michael occasionally ditches him for me, I feel like this makes it worth it. This relationship is rightfully mine – I have earned it. It is my salary, my bonus, my pat on the back.

There are different rewards, for the parent who is not always here. Staying home is not better than working which is not better than staying. There are worthy joys to be had, no matter how you play it. I’ve only just begun to comprehend mine.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! (Not.) Also, parenting fail.

samsung jupiter air purifier

If you are currently residing in Singapore or Malaysia, laugh a bitter laugh with me.

As for those of you who aren’t – just be informed that for the past week, we have all been blanketed in various degrees of toxic smoke created by evil farmers in Indonesia who have decided that making people sick (or dead) is but a small price to pay for cheap land clearing.

THIS HAPPENS EVERY SINGLE YEAR. Some years, we are blessed with favourable winds which blow the heinous haze away, and other years, like this one, you can see it, smell it, and feel it in your throat. Some years, you have a little toddler who you assume is able to just shake off the haze as a fact of Singaporean life, and carry on as usual, as we all do, until one day his throat tickle becomes a full blown runny nose which morphs quickly into a terrible phlegmy cough which keeps him up all night because he can’t sleep without sucking his thumb and he can’t breathe if he does.

Suffice to say, on said night, in a fit of parental remorse and sheer desperation, I sent my husband out on a mission to acquire an air purifier about fifteen minutes before the stores closed, after unsuccessful attempts to communicate with sellers on Carousell. (“Hi! Is your air purifier with the free filters still available? Hello?? Hello???? Can I pick it up now? Answer meeeee!!!”) Unfortunately, the good ones were all either $800 (what??) or sold out and the cheap ones weren’t going to do the job. The next day, I marched grimly to the “Lucky Shop” a few blocks away, which proved to be so, because I found an okay priced (if you can call $349 an okay price) Samsung air purifier which I actually really like. Just in case you’re in the market for one. Which you probably aren’t, because you bought your air purifier five years ago, being the prepared and common sensical person that I am not. Anyway, I really like it. It makes me feel secure and comforted and happy, even if it sits there in the corner of the living room berating me gently for not purchasing it earlier and being more vigilant about keeping Michael indoors once the PSI hit 100. Yes, it does all that. And more! It has a cool light indicator which turns a creepy yellow/orange if the air quality sucks (which it picks up on the moment I open the windows) and a zen blue if the air is clean. Which is has been, these days. Indoors. We’ve been holed up here like hermits, peering half longingly and half disgustedly through the windows.

I’m not sure if it’s just him being stir crazy or it’s because of his sickness or because hiss canines are pushing through (why must teething always come and join the party? Why???!?) but the past week has made Michael into a bit of a raging, tantruming beast. A raging tantruming beast who only wants his maman, by the way. Separation anxiety, woot! I love you, old friend.

By the way, here’s another shoutout to Hyland’s – this time, their Tiny Cold Tablets, which seem to do a pretty good job at staunching a runny nose. This company is amazing. Their cough mixture (yes, I have practically purchased their entire range) is not so effective in clearing phlegm, because I don’t think that’s what they claim it can do, but I’m sure it works on the right kinds of coughs, too. Every single time that I’ve given Michael a dose each of the cold tablets and the teething tablets, he’s napped a solid 2 hours at least, and every time I haven’t, he’s woken up after 30 minutes, in a proper rage. It could be coincidence, or I could just be an idiot for still thinking that it might be.

Round Two

My period returned exactly 6 weeks after the D&C. I was all for trying again immediately, having gotten the green light from my doctor.

And then, on the brink of ovulation season, I started asking myself and my husband questions which had never really came up earlier, like, “Um, are we ready for another baby?” “WILL WE SURVIVE ANOTHER BABY?” And the answers were, “Don’t feel ready, nope, not at all!” and “I don’t know.” Even now, immediately after conception season has ended, I’m ambivalent.

We ask ourselves these questions knowing that the answers are irrelevant. We are going to have another baby, regardless. We are forging ahead. That’s the insanity of this baby making business. Despite the fact that another infant may – I don’t know – wreck our marriage, or our bodies, or our mental soundnesses, it is somehow crystal clear to us that we need another baby, on some emotional, visceral, even rational level. And it may as well be now, because seriously, I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to execute the squatting duck walk beneath the jungle gyms in eight years time. The timing is right for us now, not later. My husband is 8 years older than I am. (I have never seen him execute the squatting duck walk.)

And personally, I really want to be done with pregnancy, and pushing babies out of my vagina and feeding them with my breasts, as soon as possible.

But back to needing another baby. The answer came to me a couple of weeks back, when I realised that Michael is not just worth all the crap that has followed (don’t be fooled, babies are like Trojan horses, you let them in because they are so cute and the next thing you know, you have an army of crazy soldiers invading your erstwhile peaceful head space and running amok in your household and shouting really loudly at 2am and doing things which make you reach the end of yourself), but if I’m being conservative, he is worth it ten times over. At least. Even in the depths of parental despair, I am confident that I would assess this the same way. Ten times over. And actually, priceless, of course.

I did that math deep down, knowing that it was true, and everything inside me clicked. I became absolutely sure that I wanted another, despite the consequences, and the risks. I want another “ten times over” kid.

It will probably break us, and make us, and break us, and make us.

17 Months Update

It’s been a while since I’ve updated on our little guy’s progress.

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Hi! Did you close the door to get away from me for five seconds? Did you? Well I found you! Hi! Hi hi hi hi hi!

It’s funny how the photos, videos, mental documentation, all ground to a halt pretty much around the 13th month. After The First Birthday, you just stop thinking in terms of months. Events no longer feel uniquely significant. Sleep disruption? Grumpy season? Developmental milestone? Another tooth? Whatever. We’ve seen a hundred of those, around these parts.

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He’s not walking. By the way. He’s always been incredibly risk averse, and falling down is like AN ABSOLUTE CATASTROPHE so he’s been a little reluctant to heave himself up on his wobbly legs. It’s mostly mental, I think, because if he’s distracted enough, he can stand on his own for a couple of minutes, tearing up the mail or sorting out the oranges at the grocery store or whatever it is that he loves to do, while I hover in the background sniggering at how he’s standing all by himself without realising it, silly donkey. The moment he notices that he’s on his own, the game is up and his legs buckle.

He is, however, doing this:

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Practising at being a happy-drunk man walking a tightrope. I actually love this stage – apart from the fact that it’s cute as heck, it also means that when we are out and about I no longer have to desperately scan my surroundings for clean-ish, flat surfaces to set him down on so he can crawl to let off some steam. I just get him out of the stroller, land him on his feet, and off we go, happily exploring our neighborhood supermarket for the one thousandth time, but it’s all new and fun now because he’s like, two feet higher?

On the flip side, he’s also started to develop a habit of shrieking if I so much as suggest that we walk in a certain direction (because he would like to go over there, and don’t you stop me, thank you very much) but it’s a vast improvement to the crawling stage. Upward and onward!

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Loads of fun.

No talking yet either, by the way. But the bubbly babbles are still really cute, and I’m kind of mourning the day that he’s going to stop all that and actually start speaking words which mean something, because that would mean he’s no longer a baby, right?

On the other hand, I do wish he had the ability to inform us just why the heck he is up at 12am yelling his head off.

Speaking of which, here’s a shout-out to Hyland’s Teething Tablets. Where have you been all my life? Specifically, for the past one year? Funnily enough, I’m still not a total believer, because I mean, it’s a couple of tiny pills and homeopathic *roll eyes* but 1) Michael LOVES them, especially since I’ve been calling them “candies”, and 2) we went from three weeks of horribly disrupted nights to suddenly sleeping through again starting on the very night that I broke out the bottle of overpriced pills ($19.90 in Singapore, available at Guardian stores). So if your toddler has been teething his molars for weeks on end and everybody is generally having a terrible time, give this a whirl and then tell me what happened. Because I still can’t shake off my conviction that it must have been a coincidence. Paracetamol and ibuprofen do zilch for Michael’s teething pains, so I can hardly believe a minuscule amount of chamomile or whatever it is can do the job. You guys gotta check it out because it could change your life.

Moving on… to day time activities.

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Putting things into other things is still da bomb. He’s totally compulsive about it. He’ll do this for about five minutes (when we first introduced it, twenty!) and then sweep everything away in a rage because the level of concentration required is SO EXHAUSTING.

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Rice. And pieces of ginger. And sweet potato. And sometimes garlic. This was interesting for about ten minutes.

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THANK GOD FOR PLAYGROUNDS. But he’s starting to get a little bored. As he does with everything else.

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Except for this!!! This never gets old!!!

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Nor this!!!

I have no idea what to do with him, very often. Yes, he is a little sponge at this point, and no, I’m probably not giving him enough good stuff to soak up. He has no patience for books, but I’ve discovered that if I treat them like flash cards (“Dog!” “Tree!” “There’s a butterfly! Turn the page!”) instead of actually reading them, he remains pretty interested. So the other day, I also got him a stack of flash cards, which seem to be working rather well even though I would very much like to question the inclusion of “Unicycle” and “Yacht”. He enjoys throwing the cards about like confetti.

And I guess, we’re just busy being a toddler family. It means lots of eye rolling, laughter, hugs (Michael invented this thing where he hugs us alternately, ten times in a row, and it’s the best thing in the world, clearly), and mock chasing through tunnels constructed with folding mattresses. The power struggles are ramping up, but so far he’s not managed to prolong his tantrums beyond a few minutes. He’s too easily distractable at this point. (“Look! BIRD BIRD!” *Point at phantom birds in shopping mall* = Tantrum over.) I have no illusions that this is going to continue forever.

Meanwhile, we just hang on and take the turns as they come.

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And enjoy the baby fat while it’s still here. Sigh.

Confinement, or something like it

On the afternoon after my D&C, I woke from my nap to find that Christmas had arrived. Or rather, the Eu Yan Sang fairy had come and gone. One of my best friends had quietly dropped off a giant package containing several bags of mysterious Chinese herbs and fruits, all sorted into Weeks 1-4, with detailed instructions as to what to drink when, and for what. As well as two bars of chocolate (“coz herbs can get boring”) and a couple of boxes of raspberry leaf tea. It was exactly what I’d wanted to wake up to, without knowing it.

Up until that moment, I’d been a TCM unbeliever. I’d never gotten into the postnatal (or, in this case, post miscarriage) confinement thing because well…the whole not bathing for a month stipulation kind of undermines its credibility somewhat, and from there it just seemed like a lot of hogwash. My main argument was that the rest of the non-Asian world seems to get along fine without red date tea and pigs trotters in black vinegar and rice wine everythings, so let’s just eat like normal human beings and get on with life, shall we?

Except, after Michael was born, I wasn’t really eating like a normal human being. The first few postnatal months were a chaotic mess of disorganized and unbalanced meals, coupled with limited knowledge on what a wildly hormonal woman who’d just lost 500kg of blood and flesh should be eating. I was too exhausted, busy and depressed to even consider turning on the stove, so my well meaning mother-in-law took over the kitchen and basically cooked chicken in rice wine for twenty days, as a kind of nod to confinement principles. Generally, I was eating poorly. There was no real breakfast, lunch or dinner. I just pecked at whatever happened to be in the fridge, or left out on the stove, whenever I had the heart to. Eating was really the last of my priorities, behind “Stop Michael from crying” and way, way behind “Clean up poop situation that just happened on the rug”. It was even behind “Lie down on the couch and stare blankly at the wall”. I really didn’t have much appetite, even with all the breastfeeding going on.

On hindsight, I think poor nutrition held back my recovery somewhat. Of course it did. It’s so stupidly obvious, saying it (or writing it) out loud now. I was weak. I would have been less weak, if I’d eaten regularly and properly, at the bare minimum.

But the confinement diet is another thing all together. And I have no idea why I became a believer, that afternoon. All I know is – sifting through that package of twigs and shavings and wrinkled fruits all neatly bagged and tagged with my friend’s authoritative notes on how “This revitalising soup will strengthen your constitution and replace lost energy”, I somehow embraced it all. The love emanating from that large shopping bag held some kind of evangelistic, persuasive power. And there is something almost mathematically satisfying about every component having its own particular purpose. The ingredients to benevolent magic potions refined through the centuries by grannies fanning charcoal fires.

Instead of archaic, it has all started to seem… wise?

Whatever it is, this feels good for me. It feels like I’m taking care of myself, and that in itself brings me surprising comfort.

So here it is – I leave you with the iconic, the legendary, the Most Wanted potion of all – Red Date Tea. (Do me a favour and google the health benefits of red dates. And you thought quinoa was a superfood!) I’ve been drinking litres of this stuff, every day, and I can bet you millions of postpartum women are right now swigging this very tea all across Asia. I would have it dripped directly into my veins if I could, because it is actually oddly wonderful once you get into it. In fact, it sends me to sleep at night like a warm lullaby, and guess what – that’s what it’s supposed to do. Longans! And dates! They do that! I told you it works! Embarrassing to only discover it now, and even more embarrassing to provide a recipe for it. But here it is, folks.

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Red Date Tea

25 dried red dates (the big long ones, not the shriveled small round ones)
20 dried black dates
4 sticks of radix codonopsis (dang shen)
30 dried longans (obviously, ain’t nobody counting this, just do a handful)

This is by no means a strict recipe. Leave out the radix codonopsis, or replace the black dates with red dates, if you like – though black dates apparently have even more nutritional value than red.

Give everything a rinse and then throw it into a pot containing 4 litres of water. Bring to a boil and then cover and simmer over low heat for 5-6 hours. You should then be rewarded with a dark liquid which is sweet and possibly a little bit tangy. Drink it warm, and if you’re hardcore (or just in need of fibre, like I am) go ahead and eat the dates and longans too.

Be well!

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