The Water is Wide

I can't tell you about it because you're a grown-up. Grown-ups can't know about these things.

Last week I found a note on 8th Avenue. It was scrawled on an index card and it caught my eye.


1. What brand formula????

2. How to introduce? I have 8 frozen bags, pumping approx. 10 – 12 oz/day (2 – 3 bottles). How much? (She gets 4 oz bottles 3x at daycare.)

3. Ok to mix with cereal to make breastmilk last longer?

There was something about the urgency, the abbreviations, all the question marks. Once, I too knew and anguished over exactly what was going in and out of my daughter. I have the logs to prove it. Logs that record which breast she nursed on and for how long. Logs that describe the frequency, consistency, and color of her poop… Logs that detail which foods were introduced and when: December 8, Cheerios!!!

Like a romantic old movie, the pages of the calendar swirl gracefully off their binding until suddenly they fly off in a whirl of paper. Eight shockingly fast years later, my logs languish in a box, ink fading, paper curling at the corners, stained with Burt’s Bees, spotted with pear puree.

It’s early evening in the kitchen and I hear myself repeating myself. I know that endless parental repetition is a kiddie soporific and doesn’t actually penetrate their conscious minds. I get that my staccato exhortations go through the 7-year-old vocoder and emerge in her ears sounding like the hiss and whine of our old radiators. I also know my cat doesn’t understand me, but I keep talking to him anyway. It doesn’t stop me. I’m the Rainman of the kitchen counter.

Eat your peppers. One more pepper. Stop reading and eat your pepper. Just two more bites of pepper. Try the pepper. Time to eat the pepper. More pepper. Have you eaten your pepper? It’s almost bedtime, eat your pepper. The pepper is the most important part, eat it. Try the pepper. You need to eat the pepper…

I’d like to pretend that it’s conscientious – green and healthy – parenting that propels me into this red pepper recitation. It’s not. It’s food-obsessed, controlling, guilty parenting. I come from a long line of food-obsessed, controlling people. No matter where I am in the world, my father relies on the US mail to exert his remote nutritional control. Boxes with vitamin jars, bags of hulled barley, cans of tuna, and the occasional organic hangar steak have been arriving at my door since I left home at 18. So, it’s no mystery why I get itchy when I can’t remember the last vegetable my daughter ate. I have so much less control over what is going in her these days, but I am still responsible for her mental and physical wellbeing.

And also, well, I found a package of half-eaten skittles under her bed, and I really thought she did not know where I hid the bag of Halloween candy.

I once had a trusty vegetable and fruit abacus in my brain. With this system, I could easily calculate how much of the right stuff was going in each week. A RobinHood calculator of good vs bad food. If we went out to dinner on Saturday, and she chose her favorite pasta swimming in butter and cheese followed by a scoop of Häagen Dazs topped by gummy bears, at some point that weekend an equally large serving of veg and fruit would be consumed.

Times have changed. She is not the willing open-mouthed cub she once was. She has grown into a delightful but moody, snaggle-toothed chimp and I am her chittering monkey-mama… jumping around the edges of the forest, vainly trying to pop the nutritious little bugs into her mouth as she swings through the trees.

“Stop it, monkey mama,” she complains as she bats my comb-wielding hand away from her messy hair.

“Gross, monkey mama,” she yells as I try to shove one more bite of egg yolk into her mouth before she runs out the door to school.

“Get off, monkey mama, “ she sighs as I wrap a scarf around her cold cheeks.

She is swinging away from me – each day she gets higher and higher and the view from below is precarious. I don’t care how ridiculous I am. I will continue to pull the ants out of their holes with my stick and throw rocks at the coconuts to get them to fall onto the ground. In about 10 years I’ll be lining up at the post office with a box of multi-vitamins and brown rice.

Best Dressed Baby

For years my daughter’s baby clothes sat in boxes in my parents’ house. She had a lot of really nice ones. The moms in my baby group used to call her “Best Dressed Baby in the Slope.” My mother-in-law is a tireless shopper who spent many happy hours buying beautiful bargains to adorn her granddaughters.

Last month my parents shipped the best dressed baby’s wardrobe to my sister’s grateful assistant, due to birth a girl any moment. And though I will not be needing baby clothes until I adorn my own granddaughter, this information has created a small tremor in my emotional wellbeing.

That small tremor started to flutter more powerfully this morning when I noticed that the new brown 6X leggings I purchased last month are officially capris. My daughter is growing so fast I can’t keep her in pants. If my kiss doesn’t make it to her upturned cheek quickly enough, she is already down the stairs to school without so much as a “bye”. I am not welcome in the bathroom anymore – except when she has forgotten her towel or has a hot-bath-induced philosophical question to ask. And there are secrets brewing in her mysterious, mischievous mind that are fervently whispered to her friends but not to me. Who am I anymore? Sometimes I think if a housekeeper replaced me one night, she wouldn’t be that concerned.

Lately I can’t seem to get organized. Maybe it’s my fragile emotional state? Too many pieces of paper shoved into folders hanging around our kitchen. Too many freelance jobs and shmoozey meetings and rushing home to pick up from after-school, holler about homework and slide some dinner on the table. I’m losing track of my center and craving definition.

In the evening we work together at the counter. She does her homework, madly erasing and muttering to herself, while I race to put the finishing touches on some project or write another thank you email. Tonight I realize the counter is moving. Bored and unfocused she is randomly kicking the base while doodling in the margins of her math sheet. I ask her to stop, I tell her I can’t believe she’s doodling on her homework – the conversation escalates and, before I can steady myself, a seismic argument begins. We are at war and she stomps off to her room in a full tweensplosion.

How can I be the mother I want to be when I am still searching for the person I want to be? How can I be sensitive to her increasingly mysterious needs when I am so busy juggling my own increasingly mysterious wants. How do I adjust to this girl/woman in my life when I still feel the best-dressed baby kicking in my arms?

She eats her dinner in silence glancing at a Lands End catalog as if she’s going to whip out her credit card and make a purchase at any moment. I ask her to apologize for her “inappropriate behavior.” She does. I launch into a lengthy analysis of “what went wrong and how we can do better next time.” She stops me and says, “It’s over mom, it’s over.” She’s right.

After bath she gets into her pajamas on her own and climbs into bed with one of her many books. I kiss her goodnight and she barely looks up at me. We are both sore around the edges from the earlier flare-up. I start cleaning up from dinner and returning more emails when I hear her calling me. She asks me to crawl into her bed and cuddle with her for just one minute. I sneak under her covers, misplacing the cat and curl my arm around her. She is warm and smells like my conditioner.

It is very still in her bed, Still and quiet. The world is swirling around out there but here I am on a solid island awash in soft warmth. She turns on her back, sighs, and says, “You made me mom, didn’t you.”

“Yes,” I whisper, “ with dad, I made you.”

“That’s very cool,” she says.

“Yes, very cool.”

Best Dressed Baby was originally published on

You're Innocent When You Dream

I am standing on a crowded Manhattan bound B train staring at a row of sleeping people. It’s early, the train is very warm, and they are all overheated in their layers of winter clothing. They look like the drowsing snow-suited babies I have just seen being strolled around the neighborhood snuggled in their cushy blankets. I imagine the warm rhythmic movement of the B train plunging these slack-jawed snoozers into a deep sense-memory of that long ago innocent transporting sleep.

One man awakens – maybe he senses my stare? I have broken the 4th wall of subway etiquette.

I love to watch my daughter sleep. It is really the only time I can contemplate her awesomeness without disruption. During her waking hours she is moving too fast and is too resistant to my ministrations. I braid her hair while she is eating, I have to sit on her to cut her fast-growing toenails, and putting a Bandaid on her is like trying to grab that greased watermelon in the pool at summer camp. When she sleeps she is completely still. Completely still and completely innocent. If the Pope came to our house at night and snuck into her room, he would have to revise that Catholic edict about children being born with sin.

During her waking hours she’s anything but innocent. She has recently discovered the thrill of sneaking behind my back, hiding things from me, and even lying. On playdates, one of her little friends inevitably migrates to my side to update me on her daredevil behavior. She has tied a bonnet on the cat’s head. She is eating silly putty. She is cutting her hair in the bathroom.

This loss of innocence feels like it happened overnight. I can still hear the wondrous sound of her baby bellylaughs when she wore a pair of tiny red ladybug boots and we slid her little onesie-clad body down the front cushions of our leather couch. Last night I heard her breathing heavily and discovered her standing on the arm of that same leather couch preparing to propel her body straight into the cushions. Same couch, different day. “Just 10 more times Mama, I’m teaching myself to fly…” It does solve the mystery of why we keep finding the couch closer to the wall each week.

Every day around 5:15PM I feel like an addict who needs a fix. I miss her so much. I cannot wait to scoop her up and kiss her rosy warm cheek and hold her sweaty hand. We talk all the way home and I wonder how I have survived all day without her. By 7:30 when her homework isn’t done, she has changed clothes 4 times and left them in piles on the floor, she hasn’t finished her dinner yet, she is sneaking cookies, and tormenting the poor cat again, the need has been more than met. Taking the place of the praising yearning mother is the shrewish yowl of the repeating robot mother.

Please finish your homework. Take your hair out of your mouth. Leave the cat alone. Eat one more piece of broccoli. Please stop drawing on your hand with the Sharpie. You need to pick up your clothes. LEAVE THAT CAT ALONE. Don’t make me count. I’m going to count. You’re sharpening the eraser, sharpen the pencil. No, no cookies until you eat the broccoli. Stop writing your name backwards on your homework. Brush your teeth properly. You can’t have PetShop toys in your bed. Okay one PetShop toy. Only one. Only one. ONLY ONE. That’s it. Go to bed. If you don’t stop talking to me you are going to be in trouble. I don’t know what but it’s going to be bad. Yes I Love You. No I do love you. I’m just frustrated. Because you need to go to bed. Of course I love you. Okay. Goodnight. Goodnight. I Love You. What? No. One PetShop toy. Just-one. JUST ONE. BECAUSE I SAID SO…

And then, blissfully there is no more whining, no more sound. I sneak in. I rearrange the pillows. I could probably turn her entire body upside down when she sleeps and she would never know. When she’s out, she’s out. I tuck her in, move the cat, take the Petshop toy out of her hand, adjust the heat, and then I just look.

Sometimes she sleeps with her hand thrown over her face and she has the world-weary look of Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8. Sometimes she is tucked around her stuffed sheepie and her lips are curved around his head like she’s rediscovered the security of her breastfeeding infanthood. Sometimes her fists are clenched exactly as they were when she was a newborn. Mostly she looks so innocent and so much like the baby who wore the ladybug boots I think my heart will break. I know I can’t go back. And even though I’m exhausted by her, I love the complicated, intense, glorious and even sneaky person she is becoming. At night when I stare at her beautiful sleeping face I think that Tom Waits song seems truer than ever, “You’re innocent, when you dream… when you dream…”

The man on the B train tries to stare me down – to dare me to continue my rude observation – but he cannot fight the siren song of the subterranean mothership and his eyes shut once again, his weary head bobbing on his chest, the New York Post clenched in one meaty fist.

A Vivid Awareness

I am sitting in Dr. Chan Sai Lock’s fertility clinic picturing my ovaries as giant buds opening into psychedelic blooms. The bench in the waiting-room is built for narrow Hong Kong women and I have to keep shifting my size 12 rear-end so I won’t slide off. Last week I tore open my left index finger with an electric mixer during a sweet mother-daughter cookie-bake that turned into a Wes Craven movie. Six stitches and a mysterious infection later, I have to keep my bandaged finger elevated to relieve the throbbing. I look like I’m trying to make an important point or flag down a waiter -– all the time. The other hopeful patients are stealing quick glances at me. I think my labored floral visualizations, inability to stay upright and frozen gesture are making me look suspicious.

In 2004 my husband and I moved to Hong Kong with our young daughter. I don’t think my body ever recovered from the jetlag. After a year of festive but fruitless baby-making attempts, I was told I had entered early menopause at 41. Bolstered by the fact that I come from a long line of stubborn, late-blooming matriarchs, I plunged into a regime of acupuncture, Chinese medicine and lymphatic massage. Five months later, my jumpstarted ovaries and I are at the fertility clinic waiting to find out if there’s a whisper of a chance to conceive another child.

I always thought I would have at least two kids. I think being the last of three either makes you a loner-for-life or a needer-of-noise. When my older sisters left for college I mourned for months, wrote them pitiful letters and counted the days until they came home on break. From the ages of 12 to 18, I was a sleep-over-party addict with a constant sore neck from spending so many nights on the floors of mildewy basements, shag-carpeted rec rooms and wood-paneled dens.

At college and in my 20’s, I welcomed roommates and their complications. The more they kept me up with broken hearts and career crises, the happier I was. Even now when my husband gives me a much-needed break by taking our daughter out, I feel a certain anxiety during the blissful silence that descends.. My needy heart aches over the news that I may have waited too long to feather the crowded nest of my dreams.

My acupuncturist has prescribed many remedies to stave off menopause. In addition to administering tiny soul-pricking needles and various tongue-curling herbs, she has also recommended positive thinking, creative visualization and a reversal of my comfortably sardonic, glass-half-empty outlook. So, after completing my 15 minutes of forced and unimaginative visualization – and while I am still waiting for the in-demand Dr. Chan – I attempt to round up my little chicks of gratitude. A loving, magical husband; a very funny, beautiful and mercurial 4-year-old daughter; a wonderful and healthy extended family; a bunch of great friends, old and new; and one very optimistic acupuncturist. I hoard these fuzzy thoughts and think about a book I just read my daughter.

In it an adorable cat realizes that she wants to eat her best friend, a sweet mouse. At one point a devil and angel sit on the adorable cat’s shoulders while she contemplates her dilemma. My girl is fascinated by this straightforward depiction of good and evil..

I am simply nostalgic . My optimistic angel got booted off my shoulder long ago by its more powerful and devious negative counterpart. The worn and tattered angel struggles to climb up my leg - holding on for dear life - while my fully-loaded, camo-wearing devil easily maintains her hegemony.

I tell myself:, "I’m healthy."

I hear: "But, you’re only 42 and already your ovaries may be calling it quits. What’s next?”

I tell myself: “I have a roof over my head and shoes on my feet.”

I hear: “But your landlord’s trying to sell your apartment and where can you afford to live in this inflated city? Also, your shoes are looking pretty soggy after typhoon season."

I tell myself: “I’m lucky, I’m so lucky.”

I hear: “Then why are you so broke? Then why do you always want what you can’t have?”

When I take a deep breath and imagine my glass half-full, I find that I am immediately hobbled by my surroundings. Here in Hong Kong, we live among a rarefied group of expats. In our experience everyone speaks at least two languages and many appear effortlessly fertile with families of three and four kids – well spaced, started early. Somehow they manage to carve out time from their intensive work and parental obligations to travel (often with their families) to exotic locales, volunteer for local charities, coach their kids’ sports teams, and locate the latest culinary genius serving up dumplings-to-die-for in her living room.

Oh, and they’re really nice too.

I can’t force my chicks of gratitude to stand in a straight line. They keep wandering into other people’s gardens.

In the waiting room one of the nurses calls out a name. I come to a familiar and vivid awareness of just how many nerve endings an index finger has.

The Water is Wide

There’s a drawer in our apartment that I don’t like to think about. I hear a low thrum coming from inside it, beating like the tell-tale heart.

The drawer is filled with photos, a tiny just-home-from-the-hospital infant hat, a crazy log of contractions, a crazy log of breastfeeding times, cards, poems, first curls from a first haircut, handprints made at a street fair.

If I went to a Mom’s Anonymous meeting, I’d have to stand up and admit, “I’m Carla W, my daughter Kate is almost 5 years old and I still haven’t made her baby book.” And, as Kate reminds me on a daily basis with a classic hands-on-hips, eye-rolling, foot-stomp, she is not a baby anymore.

So, I try to write little notes to remind myself of funny things she has said. I send e-mails to the grandparents in the hopes that they’re saving these stories for posterity or they’ve forgotten how to delete. I have ambitiously transcribed a few of her “stories” when the muse strikes, but often I can’t decipher my shorthand. She talks really fast when she’s on a creative roll… The drawer’s cry becomes more audible to me with each birthday.

Last week we were eating dinner and listening to one of our "Music Together" cds. Kate and I started taking "Music Together" classes in New York when she was two months old. A mom friend convinced me to go and, although we mostly nursing through the songs, we enjoyed seeing the future in the faces of the new walkers and boisterous toddlers jumping about and singing along. One of the best parts of Music Together classes is that they give you swag - a cd and bound sheet music collection of the songs you’ll be hearing and singing that term.

Kate and I continued to attend classes and through the years we’ve had all sorts of teachers. From a cute curly-headed, hung-over rocker whose sly humor and energetic singing was fun for both kids and parents; to a zither-playing avant-garde jazz singer; to a lovely aspiring musical theatre performer whose lap Kate preferred to mine; to the unflappable Andy who runs Hong Kong’s "Music Together" classes with her sweet voice and Cheshire cat grin. We’ve been in classes full of loving care-givers, classes full of naughty kids who suck on the maracas and hit their mommies, classes full of perfect quiet children who make Kate look like a screaming banshee, and classes full of new friends who let the music lead them into 45 minutes of joyous abandon.

After Kate went to bed tonight I snuck into the living room and played four years of "Music Together" discs. Standing in front of our dusty stereo, I thought about making out to the greatest hits of the 80’s with Noah Kapstein in his dorm room. Teen grope fantasy pushed aside, I ate a bowl of bunny-shaped pasta with my fingers and listened to the greatest hits of Music Together. A "Mom’s Top of the Pops."

And then these real moments from Kate’s life came swimming back to me and I could taste them. Like an amnesiac reviving, I remembered.

I am proudly feeding Kate homemade apple sauce, which I’m convinced she loves much better than the store-bought baby-food. I’m making her open her mouth wide by singing: De colores, de colores se visten los campos en la primavera… all the colors in me and the colors I see come together in a rainbow of one…

She eats until... Lukey’s boat is painted green, Aha me boys! Then, like clockwork, she fidgets and fusses until she is lifted out of her bright blue feeding chair, bib off, face cleaned, and over to the rocker by the window where she gurgles and barks to: Stars shinin’, number, number one, number two, number three, Good night. By ‘n’ by, Good night, good night… until she starts to nod off for her morning nap.

Spinning in her exer-saucer in the weak mid-morning light of our garden apartment in Brooklyn. Put the rhythm in your hands and go clap, clap, clap; Put the rhythm in your feet and go tap, tap, tap. Suddenly, as the music instructs, Kate starts to clap her hands and stomp her feet. I call my mother, my sisters, my sister-in-law and 5 friends to brag.

In the music class, Kate is screeching with giggles as I “trot” her on my knee, holding tight onto my index fingers with her sweaty hands. Trot old Joe, Trot old Joe, You’re the best horse in the country-o, Whoa, Joe.

Suddenly she is weeping through her favorite song, A ram sam sam, a ram sam sam, goolie, goolie, goolie, goolie, goolie, ram, sam, sam. I try to jolly her up until an observant nanny points out that she looks feverish. Mortified, I rush her home and discover that she has her first very high temperature. After a panicked visit to the doctor, a tasty dose of grape Tylenol puts her to sleep in her stroller. I walk her through the snowy park eating a warm slice of pizza. I hum to calm myself...

The water is wide, I cannot cross o’er, and neither have I wings to fly. Give me a boat that can carry two, and both shall row, my child and I.

When we repeat the same music collection in Hong Kong, Kate gets much more demanding. No longer satisfied with just a “trot,” trusty old Joe must transform herself into a rodeo horse. My abs get a work-out every Wednesday morning as I hold a 35lb girl on my lap and throw myself backwards. The faster and higher the better. The screeching giggle remains the same.

These days Kate makes requests like, “I want the potato song.” Soon as we all cook, sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes, eat ‘em right straight up. Sometimes she imitates the kids from her classes instead of giving the song title. “I’m beezy mama, I’m beezy,” means: Two little blackbirds sitting on a hill, one named Jack and one named Jill. She once tried to make her little Korean friend be a blackbird in the song, and the friend turned to her and said, “I’m beezy” which cracked the whole class up. Now we even make up our own lyrics to the "Music Together" tunes. Though these days Kate’s lyrics mostly consist of scatological phrases strung together and punctuated by wild laughing and flashing of tushies.

Once in a while I think about... my lady wind… round and round the house she blows, trying to get in… and I realize that the song still has the power to depress me. It makes me think about those dark, lonely winter hours when Kate would wake up very cranky from her afternoon nap at 5PM. How cold it was and how much I ached for adult companionship. I remembered carrying her in the sling into the windy sleet of a December night because I was just desperate to get out of the house. We walked along the streets and looked at Christmas lights in people’s windows and I felt like the only person in the world who had such an enormous burden. Just the two of us and all those endless hours until bedtime.

One day I’ll glue that tiny infant hat to a page. Until then... Goodbye, so long, farewell my friends, goodbye, so long farewell, We’ll see you soon again, and then we’ll make Music Together again.

The Time Thief

Don’t tell anyone but I ran away to the beach today.

I was on my way to the shower this morning when I got detoured into Kate’s bedroom. There I was transformed into “Hannah” a very sick girl who was required to “lie down flat” in bed and be “fixed” by the doctor. Twenty minutes later I finally broke free of my sickbed, unraveled the red yarn that was tightly wrapped around my “broken” legs, peeled six Dora Band-Aids off my “broken” arms, and fled to the bathroom. I locked the bedroom door. I could hear Kate banging on the door and the babysitter trying to distract her with offers of card games and water colors. Sitting on the toilet, peeling off another Band-Aid I discovered on my elbow, I felt a great peace descend. Then the cat nosed his way into the bathroom, sniffed, meowed, and crawled into the underwear that was pooled around my ankles.

Most mornings I’ve usually done one round arts and crafts; played one (endless) game of Groovy Girl Crazy Eights; performed one raucous duet to the soundtrack of High School Musical; and endured one stint as a customer in a painful beauty salon before 8:30AM. Then I drop Kate at school and steal away with my laptop to the local café. Today a lethal combination of 60’s-muzak and a local expectant-mom’s-meet-up makes it difficult to concentrate. I am too busy eavesdropping on an episiotomy conversation, imagining what the women would say if I butted in with a detailed description of Perineal massage. Clearly I’m procrastinating, but I can’t go back home. The cat has migrated from my underwear to the shelf under my computer table. Kate and her little friend have come to our house after school and are busy tormenting the cat with their Barbies. I can’t go home or I’ll be seduced into playing Polly Pockets and my working hours will evaporate into a blur of tiny pink shoes. So I ran away to the beach.

When Kate was four months old I took her to a housewarming party at a friend’s trendy Chelsea apartment. The baby was cute as a bunny in her one-piece fuzzy jumpsuit and I was feeling very happy to finally be out and about. A successful magazine editor with two young sons cooed over Kate and asked me how I was doing. She was surprised to hear me honestly respond that I was still in a fog, and I was wounded by her surprise. What was wrong with me? Why was I still floating in the confusing nether-world of new motherhood while others had emerged much sooner with their feet on the ground?

The editor then remembered that she had gone back to work full-time when both her boys were 3 months old. There was no opportunity for long-term fogginess. There was an office with a name on the door; employees to manage; and voicemail and e-mails to cut through the mist. She told me she thought I was very brave for choosing to freelance so I could spend more time with my daughter. She confessed her struggles, adding up the hours she spent commuting and working versus the hours she was able to spend with her boys. I felt a surge of terror as she sent up her list of compromises like a sinking ship. Nobody wins. The kitchen we were chatting in had a shiny new stainless steel refrigerator and I could see the fuzzy outline of my body in it. An anthropomorphized kangaroo-person with Kate stuck to my chest in her snuggly. How did I really feel about my new reflection?

I made a choice to freelance so I could have a flexible schedule and spend time with my daughter. But maybe the choice made me? Now that she’s older, and our bank balance reflects the loss of a full-time second income, I’m wondering who benefits most from this arrangement? I visit a moment in my childhood. I am sitting with my mother who has just started working part-time after freelancing for my first three years. She is holding a wall calendar while I cross off her “work days” with a giant red marker. Probably just as painful as peeling 6 Dora Band-Aids off.

Today I am a paranoid secret agent, I sprint down the beach road past the playground. I’m hoping that Kate or her playmates won’t spot me out of the corner of their steely eyes. Maybe they’re still at home under the spell of My Little Pony. It’s a gorgeous day. Hong Kong winters bring warmish winds and bright sunlight that make a person happy to be alive.

Between the glare of the sun and the hair blowing in my eyes, I can barely see the computer screen. As the waves rush in and the majestic Hong Kong kite birds swoop overhead, I squint at my writing and peck out words with one hand while I pick the hair out of my teeth with the other.

I have become a time thief. Stalking the streets of our small village, stealing away into the mid-morning light with my laptop and papers, hiding behind the fruit stand when I spot my daughter walking towards me. I sneak away before she gets home from school. I sneak away to the library, the cafe, and the windy beach. And then I worry about her. Is she bored? Did she eat her lunch? Is she arguing with her friends?

If I finish early I can sneak back to see her. I will put my key in the door and hear her scream “MAMA”. I won’t even make it inside the front hallway before she comes careening towards me to wrap her arms tight around my waist.

Quirky Gweilo Mama

In 1988, after a bad break-up, I wept on a New York City subway for 45 minutes. No one looked directly at me and most people slowly slid away from me. Unless you’re bleeding to death – and maybe even then – New Yorkers don’t like to get too involved. It’s a self-preservation thing. You never know who is really lurking behind the seemingly sweet façade of a teary young woman. It’s a big city full of all kinds. New Yorkers learn to mind their own business.

Which is why it’s deeply weird for me to walk out the door of our Hong Kong apartment. We live inside a street market and, unless it’s high tourist season, the vendors are usually so bored that any diversion is of interest to them. If the diversion happens to be me, that quirky Gweilo mama, then all the more welcome.

First there are friendly hellos and questions about where I’m going, what I’m doing, and where my daughter is. Sometimes there are comments on my appearance:

“You don’t look so fat today Carla…”

what I’m carrying:

“Why do you go to that expensive foodmarket… too expensive..”

what they hope I’m doing:

“Going to get Kate? Bring her back home so we can play with her!”

If I have a cold - diagnoses, medicines and herbal treatments are recommended. If Kate has mosquito bites, various unguents are pressed into my hands. If I’m dressed up, eyebrows are raised and I am asked questions about the location of my husband. Nothing goes unnoticed or uncommented on.

This winter there is a low level of shock and awe when Kate and I emerge dressed in what I feel is appropriate clothing for January in temperate Hong Kong. As our eternally over-heated girl bounds down the market street in a tee-shirt and light hoodie, I am besieged by concerns for her temperature. Hands reach out to touch her hands and stroke her arms. “She’s cold, she’s so cold… are you cold Kate?” I try to point out that they are standing still while she is generating the heat of a normal energetic child. My excuses are greeted with nods and sweet smiles, but underneath there is a question brewing. How clueless is the quirky Gweilo Mama?

They have uncovered my Achille’s heel: Mama Imposter Syndrome. Each morning the curtain rises just outside the door to our apartment, and my fears of being unmasked are realized. Sometimes, my wee drama queen doesn’t even make it down the stairs before she decides that it’s time to have a messy tantrum. Her loud wails rip through my shaky grasp on parenting and expose me to a rapt audience. I am on stage with no costume. I am taking a test in my pajamas. The salespeople and store owners from the street market where we live; the ancient bowlegged woman who tears up the cardboard boxes; the sanitation workers taking their morning tea break; the local philosopher who sells Ming vases; they’re all clucking, pointing and, incredibly, laughing. Maybe it’s my quirky Gweilo mama paranoia, but I feel like they all know something I don’t and it’s me they are laughing at.

I stand beside the histrionic pocket-diva and harrumph about a “huge time out” and “no videos for a week,” but she continues her barefoot soliloquy. All she lacks is a bullhorn, a sandwich board and a giant inflatable rat. She rejects the sneakers I am asking her to wear. She not only rejects the sneakers, she refuses all footwear that threatens to enclose her hot little feet.

It’s a stand-off. Actually, it’s a kneel off because now I’m kneeling down to make some serious and significant eye contact. It’s a useless gesture. At this point, the star of the show is speaking in tongues and practically levitating with the force of her indignation. Then, without warning, the Deus Ex Machina descends. It’s the lady who runs the silk bathrobe shop. Before I can make any more threats, Kate is scooped onto the bathrobe lady’s lap where she happily sucks a sweetie and patiently allows both sneakers to be placed and then firmly Velcro-ed on her newly placid feet.

I am left kneeling in the street, raw with the scratches of public humiliation and furious that bad behavior has been rewarded with candy. But, while I yearn for the anonymity of the F Train and my posse of "time-out-wielding-mind-your-own-business" mama-friends, I see that my daughter is growing up with an unparalleled sense of love and safety. Here strangers reach out to touch Kate’s hair or stroke her cheek with curiosity, affection and even reverence. She is often photographed, handed sweeties and engaged in conversation as if she was her own decision-making entity and not a dependent child.

Sometimes toothless grannies will see her eating an ice cream and, in clear-as-a-bell sign language, demand that she give them a bite. When she reluctantly offers up her treat, they applaud her generosity and kiss her on the cheek. They’re just testing her – it’s their job as part of the Hong Kong community that is raising our daughter. Grannies teach morality, bathrobe ladies give sweeties.

Before Kate and I go back to New York for a visit, I usually stage an intervention by role-playing “bad guys” and lecturing her on staying close and not trusting strangers. It feels strange to be injecting this element of fear into her innocent life but I think she understands that the world is filled with different kinds of people. I also think she understands that her tantrums won’t always end in sweeties. I know she understands, better than I do, that her quirky Gweilo mama is doing the best she can.

Mama & Kate

Mama & Kate
What could be more fun than this?

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