One Thing I Didn’t Expect About Motherhood

One Thing I Didn’t Expect About Motherhood: How much I would think about bodies. My body. My children’s bodies. The way they grow, stretch, scar and heal. Their softness and their strength. Through pregnancy, birth and recovery, I’ve become more forgiving toward my body, though it hasn’t always felt like mine. Its changes aren’t easy to accept, nor are the demands to share it so frequently. I marvel at my children, so awkward and elegant. Why are we drawn to embrace so often? Why does touch offer such comfort? I am not religious, but since becoming a mother, I have learned to worship. Our bodies are holy.

This piece was originally published in the New York Times in July 2020 as part of their “Modern Love: Tiny Love Stories” series. Reprinted with permission.

Motherhood: A New Life, A New Layer

At the beginning of 2016, I knew my life was changing. I just had no idea how much.

My husband and I had been trying to conceive for a few months. Finally we got that much-anticipated positive sign on a pregnancy test. Such a little thing, with such an enormous impact. Suddenly all of our hypotheticals were on their way to becoming reality, and the questions we used to ponder just for fun would need answers. (For example: What to name the baby?) We knew there was no way to be fully prepared, but you kind of have to try anyway.

Overall I was lucky to have a smooth pregnancy. Still it was strange to see my belly growing and to share my body. Some days I felt excited and wondered what this tiny creature would be like. Other days, to be honest, I resented the weight gain, nausea, and exhaustion.

Then one morning, about halfway through my pregnancy, I felt my daughter move inside me. Just a faint wiggle at first, but soon she grew stronger and more active. She was like a goldfish, and I was the bowl. It was incredible! Kicking, hiccups, squirming, pushing — I looked forward to all of her movements, no matter how uncomfortable they made me. Even her 4 AM dance parties brought a smile to my face. She no longer felt like something vague and imperceptible, but rather a goofy little buddy who kept me company all the time. I started to talk to her. I started to fall in love.

She was born two weeks early, on my mother’s birthday. Because we hadn’t been expecting her yet, my husband was actually several hours away on a business trip when I went into labor. As soon as I called, he quickly prepped his team to handle the rest of the week’s events without him, and then drove through the night to get to me. He managed to arrive just twelve minutes before our daughter did.

Those first couple months as a family of three were special but grueling. Physically, I felt much worse than I had during any part of my pregnancy. Plus I was sleep deprived, struggling to figure out breastfeeding, and constantly second-guessing myself. The joys of parenthood are real, but so are the hardships and worries.

After a period of colic (now called “purple crying”) our daughter turned a corner, sleeping better and smiling more. Now at six months old, she is such a joy. Every morning I look forward to her waking up. I sing silly songs to her, and she snuggles into my neck. We play with her toys in the living room, and she approaches everything with avid curiosity. Books, blocks, her feet, sitting, rolling, standing. I can practically see the wheels turning in her brain as she tries to figure out each new thing, and I love it. I never realized how spectacular it would be to witness a tiny human — my tiny human — exploring the world.

But even with an easy, cheerful baby, parenthood is demanding. Exhausting. Mind-numbingly repetitive. And it’s intimidating, to be responsible for another being, especially one as pure and helpless as a baby. Turns out, dirty diapers are the least of a parent’s problems. What’s really tough is making decisions for someone else. What should she wear today? How long should I let her cry before going in to help her sleep? Will traveling at a young age be too stressful and disruptive? Where should she go to school?

In spite of the pressures, I wouldn’t give up the immense privilege — the unparalleled pleasure — of being her mother. Of helping her to discover and become the person she’s meant to be.

At the same time, I’m still striving to become the person I’m meant to be. I still have my own wants, needs, and dreams. Motherhood hasn’t changed me at the core; it’s just a new layer. One I’m still learning how to wear.

Training Wheels: Learning How to Be a Mom

Earlier this summer, my husband Andy took his parents and siblings on a tour of Italy. Being five months pregnant, and having been to Italy before, I decided to skip the trip. So while they visited ancient ruins and art museums, ate pasta, drank wine, and hiked the Mediterranean coast, I stayed home and took care of our year-and-a-half old niece, JB.

With no childcare experience under my belt, I was going from zero to Substitute Mom. Luckily I had gotten through the constant nausea and exhaustion of my first trimester. I did my best to prepare, shadowing my sister-in-law before she left, learning how to change diapers, fill bottles, and put JB down for naps and bedtime. I scheduled playdates with my friends who had children close to JB’s age. And I toddler-proofed our house, covering outlets and putting away breakables.

But there’s a big difference between being ready and being ready. I’m not even sure it’s possible to be ready. You just have to dive in and do it.

So I did.

For the first few days, I tried to be “perfect.” I talked to JB constantly, used every little moment as a teaching experience, and tried to limit her time in front of the TV. I also packed our days full of activities that I thought would be fun and stimulating. The park, the grocery store, the library, the mall. JB seemed to enjoy everything, but the nonstop schedule left us both crashing hard at each naptime and at the end of every night.

On our playdates, I watched my friends and saw that their parenting styles were more relaxed. They didn’t follow their kids around to feed them, or worry about every sharp corner or big step, and their kids were still doing great. I wondered if I should ease up with JB, but I was scared to.

There’s a big difference between knowing that everything is (most likely) going to be fine, and actually being responsible for making sure that’s true.

The turning point came when my mom made a last-minute decision to visit for a few days. As soon as she arrived, everything felt more manageable. Having extra hands and eyes really helps when it comes to taking care of a bright, energetic toddler. My mom also encouraged me to pull back, to give both JB and myself more down time. She reminded me that I watched plenty of cartoons growing up and turned out just fine.

Throughout it all, JB was a delight. Brown-skinned and curly-haired, with pensive eyes and a sunny disposition, she charmed everyone we encountered. In public, dozens of people stopped us to say hello and tell me how beautiful JB was. At home, she found joy and wonder in the smallest things — a shiny lamp, a spray bottle, my husband’s guitar, the stairs. In spite of my exhaustion, and occasional frustration, I felt my heart swell with love whenever she pulled me over to play with her, or cuddled with me on the couch, or clung to my neck as I carried her in my arms.

When the ten days were over, and my husband and his family returned from Italy, I was relieved but also sad. I knew that pretty much as soon as they drove away, JB’s memories of our time together would begin to fade. It made me think about my own aunts and uncles, and all the special things they may have done with me or for me that I had no memory of. It made me sad to think of how little I appreciated them while growing up. And it made me glad that starting in college, I’ve gotten to know most of them so much better, developing my own relationships with them that don’t depend on my mom or dad being there too.

Hopefully JB will seek that out with me someday too. But even if she doesn’t, I will always strive to be a loving aunt to her, and I will always treasure our ten days of learning and laughing together.

Finding My Father’s Mark

Over Labor Day weekend, I visited Seattle for the first time. The city is an interesting mix of big business and hippie culture, with vibrant art and foodie scenes too. I saw all the main attractions — Mt. Rainer, Puget Sound, Pike’s Place market, the Space Needle, Chihuly Garden & Glass — but one of the most memorable highlights, at least for me, was something you probably wouldn’t find in a travel guide.

4th Ave. About 35 stories tall. Cross-hatching support beams that you can see from the outside, like giant X’s. I think it’s brown with black windows. And it used to be owned by a bank.”

This was the information my father had given me over the phone. Vague memories from decades ago. The reason my dad wanted me to find this building is that he had been part of the team that designed it, back when he worked for a big architectural firm. He has always done this: pointed out bits of history that are interesting or important to him, thinking they’ll be interesting or important to everyone else too. Growing up I thought it was cool, then lame, then annoying, then endearing. Now that I’m an adult, I think it’s all of those things at once.

Scanning the skyline from the Bainbridge ferry and later the Seattle monorail, I saw a handful of skyscrapers that were possible candidates — including an ugly brown one that I desperately hoped was not his. But upon closer inspection, none of them had the cross-hatching support beams that my dad swore would confirm his building’s identity. They were like a litmus test, or a birthmark.

Fueled by a sense of daughterly duty, I decided to reserve my last morning in Seattle for tracking down my dad’s building. The strap of my duffel bag dug into my shoulder as I hiked up and down the hills, certain that somehow I could find this thing. Certain that my dad’s role in the project would echo through the years and serve as a homing beacon for me to follow.

That didn’t happen. In the end, it took another phone call to my dad, and an assist from Google, to figure out which building it was. But at long last, I found it. Better yet: I liked it.

The building sits on the corner of Marion St. and 5th Ave, crisp and white, striped by dark windows. It has a little Asian restaurant in the ground floor, as well as a newsstand, an ATM, and other useful nooks. It’s clustered in with several other skyscrapers — some taller, some not — but its gleaming façade distinguishes it from the crowd. Though it was built 30 years ago, the building still looks modern. The materials are attractive and have held up to both time and weather. There is good attention to detail, such as the tidy angles, the orange accent panels, and the lovely contrasting textures. Those cross-hatching beams are subtle, but elegant.

After taking photos and admiring it from the outside, I made my way inside. The interior was similarly sophisticated and stylish. As I wandered around, grinning, I found myself hoping that someone would stop me to ask what I was doing. Then I could say, “Oh, I’m here because my dad’s an architect. He designed this building.”

Returning to my family’s homeland

A decade has passed since I last saw Taiwan, the island country where my parents are from. They spent their childhood until their early 20s there, before moving to the United States to advance their education and start a family. They have now lived here longer than they’ve lived in Taiwan, but as much as they love Texas and consider it home, I know how important their native country is to them.

Every few years when I was growing up, my parents would take my sister and I back to Taiwan to learn about their homeland and to know our family. We always stayed in the apartment of my puopuo (grandmother on my mom’s side), where she cooked with my aunts and spoke with a heavy accent. I often had to ask my mom to clarify her mother’s Chinese, but there was one thing I always understood: puopuo sweetly calling me by my middle name, Yen Tzu, and reminding me how good and wonderful I am.

One time I left my beloved teddy bear in her bed and flew back to Texas without it, crying. She assured me over the phone, “Yen Tzu, do not worry. I will watch him closely and take care of him until you return.”

I did return to see puopuo and collect my bear, but years later as an adult, I slowly started turning away from Asia and what I knew. When I first tasted the freedom of traveling on my own, I choose to explore the unfamiliar – such as Europe – wanting to create new, amazing personal experiences.

Over the years, my family has visited Taiwan several times without me. While I always wished I could go too, I never felt too much urgency, assuming there would be other opportunities. It was not until the beginning of this year, when my mom called me to say that puopuo had a stroke, that the need to return filled my entire being.

Unfortunately Puopuo passed away a few weeks before we arrived. (Fortunately my cousin had recently given birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl, and puopuo had been smiling about this news before she passed.) So I was finally back in Taiwan, heavy with mixed emotions, missing the one person I wanted to see most. There was grief for my beloved grandmother, guilt for having waited so long to return, and curiosity to rediscover a part of me, to see where my parents grew up and how it had changed.

In the next JBU columns, I will share some of my thoughts and experiences in Taiwan. This beautiful country is full of wonderful sights, food and, for me, family. I know puopuo was proud as she watched all of us return, pay our respects, and explore our family’s homeland.

Scenes from my aunt’s house

One tree in the front yard, or two? Wood siding, or brick? Have I ever even set foot in the backyard?

These questions roll through my mind during the drive to Dallas. It’s been over 10 years since I last visited my aunt’s house, but 4 short hours later, here we are. The front walk is like memory lane, leading me to answers I didn’t realize I had forgotten.

* * *

I’m 7 years old, sitting at the dining table, legs tucked underneath me. I hold out one finger, my body tensed in fear of being bitten. Inside a brass cage, yellow and blue feathers rustle, punctuated by twin chirps. My aunt opens a little door and slips her hand in. Next thing I know, tiny claws are dancing across my pointer finger. I relax and smile.

* * *

I’m 9 years old, playing Hearts on my laptop. My cousin, older and wiser, leans over and shoulders me out of the way. “Have you heard of an mp3?” he asks. As I shake my head, he is already typing and clicking and downloading a few things from his server at MIT. “It’s the future of music,” he assures me. Soon we are listening to some song called “Sweetest Thing” by some band called U2 on some program called Winamp. Impressed, I nod to the beat and try to sing along with the chorus.

* * *

I’m 10 years old, knocking tentatively on my cousin’s bedroom door. He doesn’t say to come in, but he doesn’t say to go away either. I close the door softly behind me. He’s sitting on the bed, face red with anger, eyes wet with tears. I sit down on the floor in front of him, but he just keeps staring hard at the opposite wall.

After several minutes of silence, I ask if he wants to play Connect Four. He still doesn’t say anything, but he scoots off the bed and slides the board game out. We’re dropping our red and black checkers into place when his father comes in to apologize. But he never actually says he’s sorry. He just holds his arms out and waits. They hug silently, my cousin’s small body stiff, my uncle’s hand heavy on his back.

* * *

I’m 12 years old, up late for no real reason. While the rest of the house sleeps peacefully, my typing fills the darkness. A childhood friend is teasing me over chat, but I feel something else coming. Something exciting and frightening.

Oh god, there it is. But what do I do now? What do I do with those three little words? I want them — of course I want them — but not from him, not right now.

Joy, regret, and panic churn inside me. With tears in my eyes, I type, “I’m sorry.” I hit send. I sign off.

I don’t sleep that night.

* * *

I’m 26 years old, sharing a mattress with my mother. In the morning we wake to soft light filtering in through the windows. Still half-asleep, we stay in bed, lying on our backs and talking. Catching up, sharing stories.

Memories layer one on top of the other, new on top of old, hers on top of mine. It’s been over 10 years since I last visited my aunt’s house, but pieces of me linger, hanging on the walls next to the photographs. I collect them now, questions and answers no longer forgotten.

One tree. Brick. Still not sure.

A sweet celebration

Despite fireworks and festivities, the start of 2011 was bittersweet. Shortly after we rang in the New Year, Andy’s younger brother was deployed to Afghanistan with the Marines. Their family has a history of military service, but mine does not. This was my first experience worrying about a soldier overseas, and I quickly learned that when someone you care about is at risk, politics and philosophies go out the window. All you want is for them to come home safe.

For months we prepared care packages like it was our job, like our soldier’s life depended on it. Every other week we filled a Support Our Troops box with flavored sunflower seeds, white tube socks, lighthearted DVDs, and lots of deodorant. We wrote letters filled with the most inane details — about dogs and gardens and sports and celebrities — because we wanted to help him stay connected with “normal” life.

After half a year, we got the good news that our Marine was coming home. (“So please stop sending boxes, because by the time they get there, he’ll be gone!”) His first tour was over, and he arrived safely back in the States at the peak of an August heat. After spending months in the Afghani desert, marching for miles under the scorching sun, our soldier didn’t mind the “hot spell.” He barely even noticed it.

To celebrate his return, Andy took his brother, parents, and me to Chicago for Labor Day weekend. We visited Sue the T-Rex at the Field Museum. We shopped the Magnificent Mile. We laughed until we cried at the Second City comedy show.

But the highlight of our trip was a quiet dinner at Joe’s, the renowned seafood and steak house. After making reservations (several weeks in advance) Andy emailed to ask if they could do anything for his brother. He specified that we weren’t looking for freebies; we just wanted a special night. The manager replied that they could only give us their best server, an offer we happily accepted.

And our server was indeed fantastic. Attentive, friendly, knowledgeable, accommodating, and funny. We had a lovely evening, thanks to his witty banter and many excellent recommendations.

At the end of the meal, we decided to order a couple desserts to share. Our server got a twinkle in his eye and said he knew just the thing. A few minutes later, he wheeled out a tray of nearly a dozen desserts, which we figured were for the tables nearby. As it turns out, every single dish on that cart was for us. Andy’s brother was fairly embarrassed, but his mother and I both got tears in our eyes as our server and the manager came over to thank him for his service.

Although we were already full, the five of us ate as much of those cakes and pies as we could. Not because they were free, or too delicious to waste, but because they were all our fears put to rest, all our hopes confirmed, all our pride, gratitude, and good fortune baked into chocolate and iced with sugar. Those desserts were what our trip was all about. Celebration.

We savored every bite.

A night under the stars

On my most recent trip home to Houston, my parents and I went to Clear Lake for an evening sail on our boat. The weather was good, the waters calm. After a busy day, we were looking forward to the relaxing rhythm of the waves and the fresh, salty air.

Unfortunately, when we got to the marina, we found several inches of water inside the cabin. Somehow our sailboat had partially flooded! So instead of a leisurely night enjoying the surf and the breeze, we spent two hours with a plastic bucket and a leaky pump, bailing out the stale and murky water.

By the time we finished, we had mosquito bites on our ankles, our clothes were spattered with dirt, and our skin was covered in a fine layer of seawater and sweat. Anyone in their right mind would have been miserable. And yet, my parents and I smiled and joked as we headed to the bathrooms to clean up.

Upon reflection, I realized that in a weird way, I actually enjoyed that night of gross, sweaty work. Because my parents and I were spending time together. Because I was helpful to them.

As an only child, I’ve always had a close relationship with my parents. But now that I live so far away, I see just how much we did as a family, and how hard it is to do that kind of stuff now. Thanks to technology, my parents are never more than a phone call or an email away, but it’s not the same as hopping in the car for ice cream at Dairy Queen, or going to see a movie on a whim, or just hanging out at home with the TV on, all of us sitting in our “reserved seats” on the couch. Things that I used to take for granted. Things that aren’t so easy anymore.

Whenever I visit home, my mom asks if I want to do anything, and my dad asks if I want to go anywhere. Favorite restaurants, new museum exhibits, the beach at Galveston, even Austin or San Antonio. I know they just want me to have fun, but I always tell them not to go to any trouble. They can’t understand why.

That night, after our decidedly not-relaxing evening on the boat, we put our swimsuits on, rinsed off, and then hopped into the community pool at the marina. Beneath a dark sky filled with stars, we floated on our backs and kicked our legs. We sat on the deck chairs and ate cherries. We talked and laughed and talked some more.

I guess that’s the real reason that night didn’t feel miserable to me. That’s why we don’t need to go anywhere or do anything special. Because we’re together, spending time as a family again. And that’s enough.

The Power of Sharing

Keep it to yourself. That used to be our family motto. We never talked about my sister’s “condition,” especially not to anyone outside the family. We were private, and there was nothing anyone could to do help anyway.

In high school, I started to rebel against our silence. I was beginning to learn who I was (headstrong) and what I wanted to do (make a difference). Being on the newspaper staff during this time helped me develop a voice, and despite my parents’ hesitancy, I wrote about my relationship with my sister. For the first time, our story became public.

There is nothing heroic — or shameful — about our family. My sister has mild mental retardation, or more appropriately, she is a wonderful woman with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). She is lively and clever, attends community college and job training, lives in a group home, and is a Special Olympics athlete. Nowadays, everyone around us knows of her achievements. They have seen her grow and blossom over the years.

My parents and I have grown and blossomed along with her. After meeting and talking with other families we found that this informal support network mattered, that other people understood our experiences. Their friendship gave us strength. So my parents began telling our story and sharing their strength too.

My parents now work tirelessly on FFASN (Friend and Families of Asians with Special Needs), a nonprofit they helped found to inform and empower parents and caregivers about what they can do for their loved ones. (Note: Despite the name, FFASN is for everyone, not just Asian families.) With other volunteers, my parents organize support meetings for parents, sports teams and musical activities for their children, and fun picnics and festivities for the community. They dedicate much of their resources to something they truly believe in.

One of their most impressive undertakings so far was hosting the first FFASN community workshop earlier this year. The workshop focused on educating parents and caregivers about available resources, such as waiver programs. As a FFASN volunteer, I flew home to help out with the workshop.

That day was moving in many ways. Watching my mild-mannered father open the workshop and encourage a room full of parents to be their child’s advocate was especially inspiring. But the best part was hearing all the positive feedback from participants about how helpful the workshop was. One woman graciously told me, “Really, thank you for doing this.” But that the credit really belonged to all the wonderful volunteers who make FFASN possible.

I never dreamed my parents would go from “keep it to yourself” to sharing their story and creating a nonprofit. After years of silence, they opened up in a big way. I wrote this column because I am incredibly inspired and amazed by their hard work and continued efforts to make not only my sister’s life better, but other families’ lives as well.

* * * * *

FFASN will be hosting its second community workshop, “Long Term Planning for People with Special Needs,” on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011 at the MHMRA Conference Center at 7033 SW Freeway, Houston, Texas 77074. Early registration encouraged, seating is limited to 100. There is a $10 registration fee for attendees and lunch is provided. To learn more about the workshop or FFASN, please visit or email FFASN.Houston [at] gmail [dot] com — or feel free to email Angie at JBUcolumn [at] gmail [dot] com as she will be attending the workshop.

Scenes from a childhood

In my parents’ office, there were four tables pushed together to make a single large one. I remember sitting underneath those tables while my dad worked. I was out of school, for the day or for the summer, and I needed to be entertained. My dad gave me an old toolbox filled with china markers and colored pencils. For several minutes I drew squares and triangles on blank sheets of paper and pretended to be an architect, like him.

I remember sitting in front of his shoes, close enough to touch but far enough not to get in his way. I looked up at the underside of the table and tried to imagine the schematic he was working on just above my head. A house? A school? A bank? I talked to him through the the tables, pushing my little voice through the cracks where the tables met. I giggled when he answered, even though he wasn’t intending to be funny.

I remember his pipes. He kept four or five of them on a stand on the other side of the room. I thought they were cool, and grownup, like him. But he almost never smoked them. He had only picked up the habit, he said, because back when he taught at Yale, that was what all the professors did.

I remember how he reached for one of the pipes. Held the bowl in his hand, ran a finger along the stem. I crawled out from under the tables to watch.

My dad took the mouthpiece between his lips, sat back, and closed his eyes. As he savored the taste of years long since passed, I could see that he was not my father. He had been someone else before me. There would always be a part of him I didn’t know, and those pipes would never let me — or him — forget it.

I stopped thinking the pipes were cool.

Now, decades later, the pipes sit on a shelf, untouched and unremembered. He hasn’t smoked them in years. He has been my father.