As I watch the spring buds form on the trees in Beijing, I can’t help but think it’s a lot like what has happened to our family in the past three years—a sudden growth of two little ones followed by their constant flourishing, expansion, and blooming. Our daughter has now turned three and we plan to place her in a kindergarten in September. Our son at 15 months is walking and saying his first words. I guess you could say that our family is in its early spring bloom of growth. I will have to wait fifteen or more years for their late teenage years that will then be characterized as my “long-awaited autumn.”
These are the seasons of parenting.
It goes without saying that I am so fortunate. My children are healthy and bright. They are little lights of energy that fill up my days and spirit. There is no greater gift than becoming such a vibrant family (even if it was so quick to suddenly have two children!) and I am grateful beyond words for this gift of motherhood.
Still, I’m worn out. Satisfying their constant needs on the weekends when it is just their mommy with them, alone, has me spinning constantly, especially at meal times. If I remember to put a spoonful of food in my own mouth then I consider the day to be victorious. By the time it’s the eldest’s bedtime at 8pm and then the last dish is washed and put away, I collapse on the couch in a daze. A day of attempted maintenance in this kaleidoscope of a household generates such a specific fatigue that I barely recognize myself.
I think to myself, “Am I going to make it? Will I get these kids through these spring years and into school before I die of exhaustion?”
My mother-in-law has been helping us take care of the kids since my daughter was born. She comes over almost every day except the weekend because I insist she rest so that I can have some mommy time with them. This is important, not just for my MIL’s health, but also because time with mommy is time in English, with my own cultural influences not being muted by the constancy of Chinese culture that accompanies my MIL’s big presence in the house. She is a force. She also doesn’t speak or understand English or Western culture. Hence, I am no match for her. I can only insist she stay away—”to rest,” of course—so that I can give them some one-on-one cultural training from the other half of their genetic code. So far, so good. My daughter is just as able to converse with me in English as she is able to use Mandarin with her Chinese family. My son is proving that he’s able to comprehend both languages too. I guess I’m doing something right.
However, I had to hire childcare assistance too. A morning and an afternoon “ayi,” both here to focus on childcare over cleaning, come five days a week and also help with general household tasks. Frankly, my MIL at nearly 60 is unable to care for both kids alone every day. She’s fit but she’s easily tired. And, hey, I get it.
Since I’m working an erratic schedule during the week, not to mention holding down band rehearsals, writing gigs and a Masters program, we needed an extra set of hands available to help my MIL handle the kids’ spinning needs. Basically, someone else to watch the children while she cooks, to feed one child while she feeds the other, to help take care of one while she gets the other into bed, to help mop up the spill on the floor while she changes their clothes from the same spill, etc. It’s essential.
I live in a country in which domestic assistance is affordable and common. In Canada, there is no way we could have full-time in-house childcare. The cost of living is too high there; domestic care is too expensive. We would be forced to find a group daycare for both children, which is nowhere near as ideal. Currently, Echo and Paz get nearly 100% one-on-one attention. There’s no contest.
You may be wondering where my husband is in this dynamic. His near-consistent absence is a sore spot for me, as a Western feminist who expected my partner to co-raise our children—willingly. People tell me that Chinese men simply aren’t engaged in the early stages of childhood, but this is an excuse I find hard to swallow. Culture or choice? I tend to stress the latter.
Nevertheless, if the task of raising our children were completely thrust upon my own shoulders—solo—as a result of his comparative absence, then I know that I couldn’t cope. Not just physically, but emotionally as well. As a person with an established self and long professional history before I became a mother, I know I would collapse under the weight of such enormous expectations. I’d lose my self (not to mention my dignity), cornered in an inequitable marriage and parenting environment.
At least now, thanks to all of this outside help, I can still maintain a professional life, still pursue my artistic dreams, still pursue some areas of study that will aid my professional future, etc. I owe it to my mother-in-law and these professional caregivers who are ready and willing to sweep in and sweep up. Without them, I would have lost my mind ages ago. Without them, I couldn’t be writing this article.
[I insist he pay for half the childcare fees. Some of my Western friends think that’s too generous… ]
People tell me that this stage is short-lived. Like the spring, it comes in a glorious burst of smells, colors and new green growth, but before we know it our family will be swinging into summer.
They say, “Hang in there. Your husband is also a product of his culture. It will get easier. Don’t blame him. Don’t get down on yourself.”
I know they’re right. I know that nothing I can do can change the fact that this time is simply going to be hard if you are a person, like me, who chooses to be an involved parent. One day soon, when summer descends upon us, I will wake up to realize that the kids will not only both be out of diapers, they’ll be fully conversational and even in school. They’ll be growing into little people throughout the blazing summer of their childhood and by the time they reach age ten, I’ll be hoping summer won’t end too soon, wishing those August nights of innocence could just linger on a little while longer.
So, in the spirit of celebrating spring and not begrudging it for the things it brings that aren’t so wonderful (like lots of sniffly head colds caused by the suddenly chilly apartment when the heat’s been shut off, for instance), I am concentrating on the beauty of these buds otherwise known as our kids: their sparkling eyes and giggles, their little hands and amazing discoveries happening every single day, their blooming into little people from the babies they were, limbs lengthening like shoots on trees, words forming like birdsong in their little throats.
Spring is truly my favorite season. I have always loved it best. It’s an unfolding.
I pledge to remind myself of this on those evenings of collapse.
And count my blessings:
This post first appeared on Ember Swift’s site on March 2015.
Ember Swift is a Canadian songwriter, musician, writer, cyclist, green thumb, cupcake fan and proud mom living in Beijing with her husband, Guo Jian, and their daughter Echo (born January 2012). They are expecting a second child at the end of 2013. Ember writes professionally for several print and online publications (including beijingkids), as well as three blogs through her own site: www.emberswift.com. She is also an internationally touring musician and performs regularly in China with her all-girl local band. She has released 11 independent musical albums over the years but, these days, prefers to be with her family rather than on the road touring. She continues to release her music online and hopes to have completed her memoir project by the end of 2014.
Photo: jazbeck (flickr)