It all started with this little Korean drama called Crash Landing On You (you might have heard of it). Coincidentally, the girlfriend and I were watching it in April last year, two months after it had finished airing, on Netflix at the same time.
“Wah, that Son Ye-Jin looks really good,” I texted the girlfriend.
“Yah. Can you believe she is just one year younger than we are?” Girlfriend replied almost instantly. “We need to work harder to look better at our age. Maybe we need to explore K-beauty.”
And thus our journey down the skincare rabbit hole begun.
Neither of us has been very good at taking care of our skin and it was starting to show. She had what she called “crepe-y eyes” (ie. hello extensive crow’s feet) and I had confused skin that was oily and yet dehydrated. Years of abuse have caused vascular damage, which explains all the red patches I have on my cheeks, and there was hyperpigmentation. Oh, and my pores are always popping out to say CUCKOO! CUCKOO! CUCKOO!
And most importantly, this was something that kept us sane during the whole COVID-19 shit storm that was blowing across. The. Entire. World. We were in “circuit breaker” mode and were juggling so many different balls at the same time: keeping up with the kids’ home-based learning (her three and my two are of the same ages), feeding our families, pivoting from a face-to-face curriculum to a 50/50 to (finally) a fully online one (me), worrying about our parents, anxiety over our kids’ emotional well-being etc. I have always been someone who is a little worried in situations in which I have very little control over so the pandemic was not great for my mental health at all.
And so, skincare. After talking about how many tears we had shed for that day or how there was a deep inexplicable ache in our hearts, we started discussing skincare brands and sharing reviews of the products we were trying.
For me, it became something that kept me occupied during my down time. I started reading up about ingredients, understanding my skin’s behaviour and putting together a routine of sorts. I used to be a cleanser-moisturiser-eye cream-sunblock kinda girl and the lack of care was starting to show. Immersing myself into the science of it all – and it really was science, when it came down to understanding what sort of UV filter Bis-Ethylhexyloxyphenol Methoxyphenyl Triazine was – helped to take the edge off my anxiety.
And having a good, solid routine to start and end the day really, really helped. Since we were all stuck at home anyway, I could take the time to properly layer the different serums and essences on my face without having to drop the kids off at school at the ungodly hour of 7am. I channeled calm and peace during my routines in an unhurried manner and knowing what I will do in the mornings and evenings has helped tremendously in managing my stress.
Later in the year, we received even more sombre news. The girlfriend discovered a lump in her breast and she quickly made an appointment to see a doctor. After scans and tests and biopsies, the diagnosis was dire: it was malignant and it needed to be taken out, fast. In the lead up to the fast-approaching surgery, the girlfriend was understandably on a roller coaster ride. Some days were good, and some days made her fear her mortality. And it was on those scary days that we used skincare as a form of distraction. She would share her fears and worries and we would grieve a little. And then we would move on. We would discuss the products that she could bring to the hospital, wonder how her skin would change after chemotherapy and postulate what would make her feel good about herself after she had removed her breast. Inevitably, the mood would lighten, a little, and then just like that, another day’s passed and we were still alive and sane.
And because both of us became fans of Sulwhasoo after jumping into the deep end of K-beauty, I bought a Sulwhasoo lip serum for her birthday – so that she could put it on during her chemotherapy days and feel good about herself.
I am sitting here, typing at my iPad with a sheet mask (My Beauty Diary, Moisture DUO Brightening Black Pearl EX+) on right at this moment (talk about multi-tasking). It is 2021 and clearly the pandemic is far from over. We won’t know when this will ever be over – if it ever blows over – and the world is no longer the same as we knew it. This is a new world and it can be scary sometimes.
But I have learnt to deal with it. I am in a better place now, both physically and mentally (thanks to the pandemic allowing me to have a fitness regime – but that’s another story for another day!). And I don’t even drink that much these days! After eight months of paying close attention to my skincare, I can see that my skin has definitely improved. I no longer have dry patches on my cheeks, my skin doesn’t go tight and scratchy on me in the middle of the day and I no longer produce sebum like the oil fields in the Middle Eastern countries. There are mornings when I would unwillingly crawl out of bed at 6am, look into the mirror and think, damn today is a good skin day. Talk about instant perk up!
So yes, ironically, the pandemic has given me the time and space and excuse to improve my skincare routine. At the end of the day, you do you, boo. Whatever it takes to stay mentally healthy!
Suffice to say, I think it is pretty obvious to most people who know me that I am a huge fan of the show. There are many reasons, and one of it is its clever use of literary tropes and themes. Each episode is named after a book, and there were so many literature Easter eggs sprinkled across the entire arc. I have watched the entire series twice and each time, I come away with new findings. It’s really fun!
Anyway, I cannot claim credit for all of the findings. Some of it, I gleaned from fan forum; others were shared with me by Justina, who is even more of a lit geek than I am. I have enjoyed every moment of the show and this is definitely one of the bright sparks in what has so far been a weird and shitty year.
Imagery of light and dark
Ah, this must be one of the most commonly used lit technique. I swear, the imagery of light and dark must be used in almost all of the literature textbooks that I studied during my GCE O’ and A’Levels! (PS: I did Gothic literature during my junior college years and it was so. Much. Fun.)
So, light and dark. Super prevalent in the show. Our first glimpse of Ko Moon Young (MY) is in the restaurant. The director took pains to draw attention to her dark attire: her black dress, those gorgeous black Jimmy Choo heels and her luscious long hair tumbling down her back. You can see that her nails are painted black, and she subsequently made that little girl cry by telling her that in her books, it’s the witch who is pretty. It’s clear that the director and writer want to set the tone for MY’s character here – she is the witch, the epitome of darkness.
Contrast that with Moon Kang Tae (KT). He gets off the bus in his first appearance, and is seen walking into the light. When the two first meet at the rooftop of the hospital, she is dressed in a black dress while he is in his light-coloured hospital uniform. Later in episode one, when she sees him in the SangSangESang office, he is bathed in a halo of light.
(She also says WOW in a way that makes me love her. Just sayin’.)
As the show progresses and MY’s cold heart thaws, the colour of her nails also changes to light pastels and white. Her outfits too become lighter. For example, that floaty mint green dress she wears the day after she cuts her hair, the white tweed outfit in the series finale (sob sob). When she decides to confront Park Ha-jaeng (PHJ) in episode 15, her nails go back to black, showing that she has to revert to the hardened, cynical person that we met at the beginning, in order to tackle the situation.
In episode four, KT zips out of his house to search for MY after hearing from Jae-Soo that she had been choked earlier by her father at the hospital. When he finally finds, and embraces her, the lighthouse momentarily shines its light at them. It’s a visual cue, that they now have a light – each other – to find their way out of the darkness.
When Sang Tae (ST) and KT move into MY’s house in episode six, they also brought the light in with them. The castle was known as the haunted castle, and it was super eerie with rattling doors and ghostly wet footprints. Yuck. But when the Moon brothers became inhabitants, the house immediately took on a lighter and more welcoming note. In their first morning, the brothers opened the front doors to let in more light, and are seen making breakfast in the kitchen, which is also bathed in light.
The use of terror and horror
There are plenty of scary shows out there (and I hate watching them because the images and emotions stay with me for a long, long time). Terror and horror are used extensively in gothic literature and the difference, according to writer Ann Radcliffe in her essay On the Supernatural in Poetry, is that terror is very much psychological and larger than life. It is the fear of the sublime, it escalates and makes you feel like you are drowning.
While terror is largely all in your mind, horror is a fear of what you have seen, a reaction. For instance, watching that Freaky Friday guy in a mask stab at his screaming victim violently at the movies – you feel horrified just looking at it (which is why I don’t pay to watch horror movies at the cinema!). It’s a visceral reaction to something you have observed or encountered.
In IOTNBO, there are allusions to both terror and horror. The terror, of course, refers to MY’s great fear and revulsion of her mother. Even though she knows that her mother is most likely dead (she saw her mother’s broken and bleeding body), psychologically, she still allows the memories of her mother to influence her behaviour, her thoughts, her actions. It manifests as sleep paralysis in her case and in episode seven, she tries to cut her hair off but she simply could not bring herself to do so.
What we, the audience see, are the cheap horror tricks employed by the director to visualise her fear. Honestly, I don’t think the tools – those watery footprints, rattling of doors, ghostly figure hovering above her etc. – added any value to the story but I suppose they were needed to establish the hold that the memories of her mother has over her, and to illustrate the abusive childhood that she had.
As with many Gothic Literature texts, which are all about terror and/or horror, IOTNBO also contains many similar elements:
A haunted castle or house: CHECK
A damsel in distress: CHECK, sorta for while MY is someone with a distressing life, she can take care of herself, thank you very much
A sense of mystery and/or suspense: CHECK
A hero with a burden or a past: CHECK (I mean, KT is like a walking baggage of pain and sorrow and mental abuse)
Dreams/nightmares: CHECK (my husband watched the sleep paralysis scene with me and he was like, is this a horror drama series?)
Ghosts or monsters: CHECK
Grey, gloomy weather: hmm…there was quite a bit of rain in the show? Also, that scene in episode two when MY hunted down KT at the OK Psychiatric Hospital – you can’t miss the (deliberate) ominous thunder/lightning
One thing I noticed about the denouement was how easily and swiftly the villain was dispatched of. Do Hui-Jae was built up to terrifying levels in the show: we know that she is cruel, intelligent, sadistic and possibly suffering from APSD and/or narcissistic personality disorder. And yet her downfall is at the hands of a man who hit her with a thick tome of fairy tales? How ironic, isn’t it? (Yet another literary motif! Irony!)
I am guessing that the message that the writer is trying to share is that the only thing we should fear, is fear itself. Because when that sense of terror is manifested in real life – AKA PHJ – it really isn’t scary or difficult to beat. In The Wizard of Oz, which the show heavily references (in the last episode, ST refers to Director Oh as “the wizard of Oji-gun”), how the Wicked Witch of the East and West died were pretty comical. West was killed when Dorothy’s house landed on her while East died when Dorothy tossed water on her. Also, did you realise that DHJ’s books are called The Murder of the Witch of the West?
(PS: Justina shared that she does not think PHJ is really DHJ, and I have to agree!)
In literature, the Other is the outsider, someone who fundamentally does not belong. It could be someone of a different race, or religion, or sexual orientation, or origin. The Other is seen by the group as different and therefore treated or seen as a lesser or inferior being. Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Rebecca are some examples of literary works that has a strong theme of The Other – the latter two were also referenced in IOTNBO (the hunchback in the Bluebeard scene, and the cruel and clever way in which Rebecca manipulated her husband is paralleled in how DHJ treated Ko Dae Hwan.
In IOTNBO, all the three protagonists are shown to be The Other in their own ways. ST, being autistic is treated carefully and differently by the people around him. For instance, KT did not dare to be honest with him when he spent the night with MY, thinking that his brother might not understand and preferring to walk on eggshells around him. ST saw himself as different too, as seen in episode six. When KT explained that the villagers reviled Bluebeard because of his, well, blue beard, ST asked, “Is being different something to be afraid of?”
As for KT, he never did grow up, as Jae Soo explained to MY. Since the age of 12, he has been his brother’s keeper and one day, he woke up and he had become an adult. He believed that he could never lead a normal life, which explains why one of his dreams, as he shared with MY in episode 11, is to go to school just like every other kid.
(On another note, I just loved how the writer/director treated KT. When he first appears in the show, we only see his back as he walks towards the school to speak to the principal about ST’s outburst. The first time we see KT’s face is through ST’s eyes, when ST was peeping at KT from outside the principal’s office. His first words are “are you hungry?”, complete with that fake “Joker” smile that he uses to keep his true emotions hidden from ST. In other words, his identity was tied strongly to ST right from the start.
Contrast that to the end, when he has finally found his smile, and is shown driving in opposite directions from his Hyung. That scene always makes me cry! It illustrates such growth in both characters, but most especially, I feel, KT’s. He used to be defined by his brother and they were in the most unhealthy co-dependent relationship but they have become their own individuals. Sniffs.)
MY has always been The Other since she was born, thanks to her mother. We know from the prelude that she was always stuck in the castle in the forest and had no friends. And when she finally tried to befriend the village kids, they ran away from her after seeing her offerings of two dead birds.
(Also – that animation has to be my of my favourite things about the show. It’s so Tim Burton/Coraline-esque!)
From the flashbacks, we know that her mother had deliberately raised her in her own likeness. She was not allowed to have friends, and she had to obey her mother in every single aspect of her life. She was, as CEO Lee noted, extremely lonely but unable to fit into the conventions of society due to her upbringing.
There’s probably more…
…but I think that’s all I can think of right now! I have enjoyed this series thoroughly. Watching it unlocked a lot of memories in me and I was really emotionally drained for a while. But since then, I have started seeing a counsellor and it’s been helpful in many ways. Rewatching the show – at a slower pace because my first viewing was sheer binging – has allowed me to enjoy the nuances and characters very much. It was clearly a labour of love and a lot of thought and heart was put into it. Truly one of my favourite shows of all time.
It all started with a bedtime conversation I had with the boys.
“When I was a kid, I fell down a lot,” I said. “And I got scolded by my mother because of that.”
“Why would your mother scold you?” asked the littlest.
I smiled into the darkness. “Because she said I was clumsy and careless and I should pay attention to where I was walking.”
There was a pause.
And then, his tiny voice piped up, “You are not clumsy, mummy. It’s not your fault.”
I started watching the Korean drama, It’s Okay To Not Be Okay, around that time. I had zero expectations, having no knowledge of who the actors were. I only knew the synopsis intrigued me, after all, it’s not every day that a drama series deals with mental health issues.
But it turned out to be a hugely triggering event for me and that was obviously not something I had bargained for.
To get here, we need to look back at my past, the childhood that I had emerged from.
It wasn’t a pleasant one. My father had died when I was six, leaving my mother penniless, the sole bread winner, and the only caregiver to two young girls. Back then, there was such a stigma on everything to do with mental health. There wasn’t information or help on processing grief, the pragmatic society expected you to get up and get going.
My mother worked hard and for long hours to bring food to the table. She wasn’t educated so there were few options available to her, a widow with two kids. As such, we were left to our own devices. There wasn’t anyone asking me if I had homework, or to go through spelling with me. My mother provided me with our material needs and whatever energy she could muster, and I was to fill in the gaps myself for everything else.
Looking back, I think it was very clear my mother had difficulties processing her grief. She didn’t know how to, and she tried to move on because life required her to do so, ASAP. But mentally and emotionally, she was probably not well-supported most of the time. We didn’t grow up with hugs and kisses, we never received affirmation. I got scolded a lot. I was often left by myself at home, left to fend for my own needs. My sister and I were pegged, she being deemed the “challenging” child and I, the “good” child. As such, she spent much of her attention and effort on my sister, and believed that I would be okay.
And so, there were days when, I think, I had to be both a daughter and a husband to her. Because I was “reliable”. When she couldn’t hold back her own flood of emotions, it all came pouring out in the form of angry outbursts to me. The triggers could be something as simple as me forgetting to take my medication, or defrost something for dinner. I had to bear the brunt of the tirades, my sister preferring to stay out of our home as much as possible.
How could I, when I was a child who did not know how to understand my own feelings? There wasn’t anyone to teach me how to channel my anger or my sadness or my envy or my feelings of inadequacy, or even put a name to what was churning inside.
I had a teacher in school who was horribly abusive – emotionally – towards me and when I finally broke and told my mother about it, she said I had probably misunderstood the situation and we never spoke of it again. I was placed in my aunt’s care during that same period of time, and I felt anxious, scared, lonely and unwanted. My aunt had two older kids and an infant, she probably had no bandwidth to care for me. Years later, when I finally told my mother that I was undergoing fertility treatments, she changed the topic and started talking to me about my baby nephew’s antics.
I don’t want to take anything away from my mother’s parenting, she did the best she could, given the circumstances. And it wasn’t all misery. There were trips to the Bedok library where I spent many happy hours, reading books at the little amphitheater in the kids’ section. We took the bus to Cathay cinema on weekends, where she used to sell snacks at the bar with my godparents. I remember sitting next to the open window, sticking my face and hands out to feel the wind, singing my favourite songs as the bus trundled on. We ate our favourite ice jelly dessert at the Hollywood stall at the market at Bedok Interchange.
There were good memories.
But there were some godawful, and painful ones too.
There were many times when I wanted to throw myself out of our eighth floor flat. To this day, I don’t know why I never did. Maybe it was my innate sense of pragmatism, maybe I was a coward.
But this was my childhood, where I learnt to keep to myself, where I never did identify what I was feeling and how to cope with it, where there wasn’t an adult to be my champion.
To this day, I still feel a sense of disconnect towards my mother. I love her and I understand that she did her best. I am grateful. But at the same time, I can’t be what society expects me to be, that child who provides love and comfort for the parent unconditionally. I just can’t.
And so I started watching It’s Okay To Not Be Okay. And I started crying at every episode. Initially, I thought it was because of a well-written plot and beautifully fleshed out characters played by convincing actors. And then I realised it was because I saw myself in them, I was crying for them and for myself.
When Kang Tae read story of The Zombie Kid out loud, it was me, the zombie kid was me, in need of warmth and assurance. I had food, I had things but I needed that hug. I needed someone to say, hey, I see that you are feeling broken and I am here for you. Like KT, I have been hiding my emotions for a very long time, and have conditioned myself to behave “normally”. I function normally, most days, and I am mostly happy but every once in a while, the dam breaks and it aches.
I’ve never really shared with anyone, partly because I don’t know how to. As a child, I learnt to retreat into myself, into books and my words. I feel like that emotionless princess – talking and laughing loudly to mask the emptiness inside. And honestly, what can I say? What do I say? Maybe I am just waiting for someone to say, let’s talk, with no judgment and plenty of empathy. I don’t need or want solutions, I just want to be heard and comforted.
And like Moon-young, I use my clothes as an armour. I want to be different because that’s how I have felt as a child, I am that kid without a dad, an outsider. And since I am different, I might as well play it up as a focal point and dress differently from people.
One of the show’s key message that hit me the hardest was when Director Oh says that humans are weak, and that we become stronger when we lean on one another. It resonated because all my life, I have prided myself for being strong. To move on. To carry on even when life is hard. That was how I survived my infertility days, when I was jabbed again and again until I could laugh and joke while getting my blood drawn. It was how I could function when my mother received her stage 4 cancer diagnosis.
But maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to say that I’m tired and rest.
I’ve always wondered why I can’t be like everyone, to be happy and at peace and comfortable with life. There must be something wrong with me, to have something unseen gnawing at me and to not being able to understand myself with great clarity. My favourite quote is this line from The Lord of The Rings: not all those who wander are lost and it’s what keeps me sane, by reminding myself that I may walk a different path from my family but it doesn’t make me wrong or bad.
But I see now that it’s me and it’s not me. The me of today is partly nature and partly nurture. And I now understand that it’s time to fix me. Fix the parts of me that can’t seem to express myself well to anyone, that retreat into myself when threatened, that sabotage myself and make questionable decisions because I don’t know if I am good enough.
I’m writing it here because I want this year to be about me. I’ve taken the first step to seek professional help because I acknowledge that there’s only so much I can do for myself. I need to learn and grow before I can fix me.
I don’t know where that will take me but I am hopeful. I know that I am very lucky in so many ways and I always feel like I shouldn’t complain. But it’s okay to not be okay. And it’s okay to acknowledge that I am tired and vulnerable and I am flawed.
There is something about mamas and their littlest.
Oh, I love my kids equally. But I also love them in different ways, and for different reasons. And my littlest holds a special place in my heart. While I will always see his brother as the one who finally made me a mum (and gave me that baptism of fire into parenthood), the younger one is the one who rounded the edges of my heart.
At six, Zac is mercurial, curious and extremely precocious. He loves asking us questions – unfortunately, this tends to almost always happen at bedtime. It’s almost as if his brains refuse to shut down and starts bombarding him with all sorts of random things. Sometimes, he asks about death (this was a phase that he went through, oddly enough). Sometimes, he asks about something he’s read in a book, or something he heard from his friends. But always, the questions come.
He is also sassy to boot, often saying things that you would not expect from a six-year-old’s mouth. During the circuit breaker, a friend sent over baked goodies. A few days later, the husband ransacked the jar, only to find it empty.
Husband: I didn’t even have any!
Zac: Oh too bad.
Me: Who are the culprits eating up all my snacks??
Zac: Let’s talk about this another day.
Another time, he had to count the number of chairs and tables in the house as homework as part of home-based learning. Once he was done, he flopped himself onto the sofa and exclaimed loudly: “Oh that was so stressful!”
This is usually the point when we would look at each other, trying not to burst into laughter but failing spectacularly. Because this is him, this child, he just says the darnest things. When he was 18 months old, both grandmothers thought he might have speech impediment issues because he was not talking. He started preschool at 21 months, started speaking a couple of months later and since then, he hasn’t stopped. He. Has. Not. Stopped. Talking. Whether we are having dinner, or going somewhere in the car, or simply walking, his mouth never stops moving. Okay, half the time he is eating but when he does not have food stowed in his mouth, he is busy chatting. To someone, anyone.
The greatest thing about this boy is his capacity to love. He loves deeply and he loves to show us how much he loves us. I can always count on him to shower me with hugs and kisses and even compliments. He loves his brother and loves to hang out with him. It really is the sweetest thing to see them play together, and to hear the littlest giggle. It is the cutest and happiest sound in the world. And it makes me glad that they have each other.
Oh Zac, you are the funniest and most darling boy in the world. Sometimes you may lose your temper and you are exactly like me when you do that – your emotions get the better of you. But I am trying to help you with it and you are getting so good at controlling your anger, and I am so proud of you.
And last year, you started reading independently all on your own, and we didn’t even realise it. It started when papa bought the Dog Man comic books for Aidan. You took an interest (well, you are always interested in everything that your brother is interested in) and started flipping the books on your own. We thought you were merely looking at the graphics but you surprised us by reading the sentences out loud. I was duly impressed because we’ve always left you alone with the books and didn’t make any effort to “teach” you to read.
And essentially, this boils down to the essence of you. You have never walked according to the beat that others have set for you; you will only do what you want to do when you want to do it. But you are learning to listen and to try when we tell you how to do it better.
Carry that innate inquisitiveness with you forever, and never stop asking questions. You are so very precious and we love you to the moon and back.
This has been stewing in my mind for the longest time but I have never been able to sit down and put it all together. You have no idea how many times I have typed a paragraph and erased it – this is probably my fourth? Fifth attempt?
Ever since this whole pandemic and semi-lockdown begun, I have struggled on so many levels, on so many days. I vacillate between different emotions: anxiety, determination, exhaustion, frustration, gratitude. Oh gosh, the anxiety and worry. When my kids are slumped in front of the TV or have eyes glued to the iPad, I think about how my lack of generosity to grant them screen time has been eroded vastly. Do I want them to become as blind as a bat as I was, pre-Lasik? Are they meaningfully occupied? Are they learning?
When I am sitting in front of my work laptop, trying feverishly to think of ways and means to teach 80 kids how to use the manual functions of a camera without a camera in their hands, I wonder if this is going to work and if it will ruin the next three years of their academic life with us. And I stare at my screen, and wonder why the hell I decided that it was a good idea to overhaul all the materials. WHY CAN’T I PUT UP WITH UGLY SLIDES.
Hmm, I had better hit the supermarket during lunch, so that I can avoid the weekend crowd but is my freezer too full? Do I know what I want to cook/eat?
And then I swing, like a monkey drawn to the potato chips in an unsuspecting tourist’s hand, to running on 100% efficiency mode. I hunker down in front of the laptop and pound out slide after slide of teaching materials. Sometimes, though, this comes at the expense of my children and my lunch. I don’t have an appetite and I get annoyed at them (the children, not the lunch) when they don’t do the work that they are supposed to do. Sit up straight! I bark. Pay attention to your Zoom lesson! Stop moving! Listen! Focus! Drink water! Stop disturbing mummy!
Oh wait, but all these people on the interwebs are telling me that I should prioritise the children’s emotions and their feelings over homework. I should be baking cookies and building crafts and connecting with my kids over hand-drawn games and growing plants. BUT ARE THESE PEOPLES GOING TO DO MY WORK TO PLAN AND TEACH? Yup, I didn’t think so.
I know, I know, we will get through this. But at what cost? What will we see at the end of this tunnel? What will life be like?
All of that above exists in my brains, every single day. It’s hard for me to articulate how I feel. Because I don’t even understand how I feel sometimes, it’s this deep churning pool of murky feelings and sad feelings and I WILL SURVIVE feelings. And I am not great at telling someone how I feel because it’s not something I am used to doing. This is what happens when you grow up pretty much alone and without someone to confide in. (Which is why I prefer writing.)
But it’s not all bad. We have many good moments and I know that I am very lucky in so many ways. I am extremely thankful that we shifted to our current flat because oh, the space! When I am tired and want to be alone, I can be alone. It may be in the toilet, so it’s a good thing that we gutted out the toilet and redid it so prettily AND ADDED THAT TUB. My kids are rather independent and they can read/poop/pee/eat/shower on their own. Failing which, they are rather talented at switching the TV on and finding a Minecraft video to watch on YouTube. They also know how to work the carbonator to make all the sparkling water that they can drink. Other life skills that I have imparted to them include making buttered toast and fixing their own cereal.
And most importantly, I am grateful that this isn’t a complete lockdown. Every evening, we try to hit the nearby garden. It is small, quiet and steps away from our block. It offers space for the boys to expend their never-ending energy while I fit in a quick workout. I get the chance to move and breathe and the fresh air does everyone heaps of good.
So that’s me for the past weeks, in a nutshell. It’s a hell of an emotional rollercoaster – and now I am triggered because I am duly reminded of the Battlestar Galactica ride at USS that nobody would go on with me. But every night, I’d sit at my balcony (thankful we opened up the balcony when we bought the flat) with a glass of something (G&T tonight) and stare into the wide open night. It’s calm, and it’s peaceful, and it is where I press the reset button. And then I go to bed and rinse, repeat.
A photo popped up on my Facebook memories this morning, one of my firstborn’s first birthday party. He was seated on a table, chubby leg smeared with cake, his little round face peering at the camera with a slight smile hovering on his lips.
Fast forward to seven years later. He’s turning eight tomorrow. Any ounce of baby fats has since vanished into the vacuum called “growing up”. His voice is still as sweet as ever and oh, almost eight, it is such a beautiful age for my darling boy right now.
At eight, he still comes to me for hugs for all the reasons in the world. We hug when he is sad, hug when he is happy, hug when he just wants to feel close. He showers us with kisses before he goes to school, and we shower him with kisses at bedtime. He loves to be next to me as he drifts off into sleep.
When he feels sad about going to school, he clasps my hand in his, his smile wobbly and his eyes filled with tears. I hold him close, tell him that I will see him very, very soon. He nods, leans into my ear and whispers, Pick me up early, okay? And I say, You know I will if I can. He then takes one tremulous step, two, three, before turning back and calling out, Bye bye mummy! Love you! I wave back feverishly, and reply, Love you boo! And then we repeat this dance of walk-turn back-wave until the car rounds the corner or he disappears from our view.
How did eight years fly by so quickly? It felt like only yesterday, when we were pacing up and down his bedroom, willing him to go to sleep (and stay asleep!). And yet here he is, all limbs and length. Ah, eight. What a wonderful age. Where he’s old enough to be independent in many ways, and yet still little enough to want us to be near him.
He loves Beyblades. Loves reading. Has completed the first three books in the Harry Potter series (YES!) and is now starting on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Can do a mean floss. Is serious about his haircuts. Plays football and basketball during recess. Picked up inline skating like a natural pro. Is attempting Grade 3 ABRSM piano exam. Still hates sleep with a vengeance. Just built a kickass house in Minecraft. Cannot say no to candy and chocolate and ice-cream. Does not like cream in cakes. Bosses his little brother around. Is also awfully protective of his little brother. Fabulous at traveling. Loves Art and Mathematics in school. Thinking of joining wushu for his CCA. Has learnt all the different strokes in swimming. Aces spelling but isn’t as good at ting xie. Is a skinny minny like mummy. Teaches me what conditional love, patience, humility and joyful living is all about, every single day for the past eight years.
Happy birthday, beautiful boy. God knew exactly what we needed when he brought you to us. We love you to the moon and back.
Wow. How did we come to this point, the last day of 2019? It’s a total cliche to say that time flies but the proof is in the pudding – suddenly we are on the cusp of a brand new year and decade.
2019 has been pretty significant in many ways. There weren’t any major upheavals – I didn’t study for my masters’ part-time while juggling two little people and full-time work AND sold/buy a house at the same time (here’s looking at you, 2018) – but there were little things that helped to cement this year as a momentous one.
At the end of 2018, I wrote that I wanted to “put myself above everyone once in a while” and I am glad that I did it!
For starters, I decided to dedicate time to build my fitness. If you know me in real life, you’d know that I am the type of mother who hates to miss out on time with my kids. I am the mum who loved breastfeeding, co-sleeping and who willingly drops off and picks up the kids from work every single day. When we go out or travel, we schlepp the entire family along. We are that family, it’s simply a choice that we made unconsciously when we became parents (not judging anyone else: your family, your preferences).
But now that the littlest is five, it’s clear that the boys are not reliant on me for their needs as much as before (YAY). I started carving out 30 minutes to an hour in the evenings to squeeze in a workout, while they cycle or scoot or run at the park, three times a week. Initially, I was just appalled at how I looked in the mirror, urghs. Then as I got fitter, I enjoyed the feeling of being strong. And I realised that my gift to kids is to be a healthy parent, to be a good role model to them.
My mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer a year ago, and her oncologist told us bluntly that any treatment was not to cure her but to maintain her current state of living. It was aggressive and it had metastasized into many of her organs. Gratefully, her cancer is under control after one round of chemotherapy. She is not cancer-free but I will take whatever I can get. #fuckcancer
It was then that I knew I had to be kind to myself. I was constantly juggling my different hats and running in and out of the hospital. During that tumultuous period, I was unmoored, set adrift, alone. To be perfectly honest, I was probably mentally and emotionally burning out. When things looked up, I decided that I had to carve out a safe space for myself so that I could patch myself up.
I also made the decision to cut someone toxic out from my life. It wasn’t a hard decision, truthfully, for this was an unhealthy relationship that had been going on for years and years. Family or not, I do what is best for me and my marriage and my children.
Books have always been a part of life. Until the babies came along, that is. This year, I made it a point to read more books and not surf the internet meaninglessly. And I did it! Okay, granted that I did revisit many of my old favourites – reread all Harry Potter and His Dark Materials books – but I also picked up a few new ones along the way. It’s probably bad for my health though, because I am one of those people who CANNOT PUT A BOOK DOWN. I went to bed at 2am many a night because I had to finish something.
Carving my own identity
Having spent most of my life trying to please everyone and feeling insecure about myself, I think this year was a watershed one for me. I truly, truly came into my own and started giving exactly. Zero. Fucks.
I know, sounds dramatic, right? But it was something that was gradual. I didn’t use to speak up because I felt that I didn’t know enough or I might be wrong or I hated confrontations. But these days, I have stopped giving a damn. If I see that something is not quite right, I no longer hesitate to voice out my opinion.
Maybe it’s growing older (!) and wiser (!!). But this year, I saw a more confident and outspoken me emerge. I know my value to my organisation and the people around me, and I know where my place is. I know my strengths and I make it clear I am willing to learn to to make up for my shortcomings. Nobody can say that I am not giving my all. My RO called me a “diva” (she laughed and said it was meant in a good way when I gave her a horrified look) but I have decided that if being a diva means I get shit done and I suffer no fools, then by all means!
This year, I spent less time in the kitchen than before. I have come to accept that I am no domestic goddess. I cannot keep my plants alive, and I am no Samin Nosrat. I used to think that I am a good mum if I could feed my kids food cooked by my own two hands because that was how my mother showed her love. But this isn’t me. I don’t have to follow the expectations cast by the people around me. I can cook and I will cook. In my own time and according to my own tune.
To the decade that’s just gone by
I spent so much of the past 10 years trying to be a mother, and then – gratefully – being a mother. Back in 2010, I had embarked on fertility treatments and was being jabbed like a lab rat every single month. I had sat on the floor of bathroom sobbing time and time again, because I couldn’t see an end to that tunnel.
But there were silver linings. I befriended fellow infertility warriors who went on to be my biggest cheerleaders. We were eventually blessed with two high-octane, madcap, annoying, loud, smelly little boys in our lives, first in 2012 and then in 2014.
The following years were spent trying to navigate my way was a mother and wife, and still grow my career at the same time. There were many tears and plenty of scraped knees (literal – theirs – and mental – mine). There were fights and unhappiness and frustration and exhaustion. OH THE EXHAUSTION. There were so many times when I felt tired and lost, because I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing anymore.
Of course I then decided that it was the perfect time to pursue my master’s. Took the plunge and was rewarded with an experience that was so, so enriching, that it was worth all the sleepless nights
And now it’s 2020 and wow, what a decade this has been. How life-changing, definitive. It’s been an adventure and being in my 30s has been all sorts of awesome. I used to think that growing old was scary but I was just being a dumb blonde.
So, 2020. Here you are. We don’t have flying cars yet, a couple of idiots are running the world’s most influential countries and I have been in the same job for the past eight years. Will wonders never cease, and there are still adventures to be had, even if one is inching towards middle agehood.
To a year ahead of wisdom, joyful living and exciting adventures!
I love December. I love Christmas. I love the cool weather and even the rain. I love the smell of fresh pine. I love the lights that are strung up on every corner that I turn.
And yet, December is also a month of mourning for me, a month of “what might have been”.
Thirty-two years ago, my father died. On a nondescript mid-winter morning, he collapsed at the basketball court and was dead even before we got to see him at the hospital. Serendipity, that his last moments were spent at a place he so loved. He had been an active basketball player since he was a young student and from all accounts, he never really grew out of it. Isn’t dying while doing something that we love considered the holy grail of life?
On hindsight, death is easy. He did not have to deal with the aftermath. Living was hard at pivotal moments in my life. So incredibly hard. When you grow up knowing that you are so different from everyone else, that your family is fractured, that there isn’t enough money, there is a huge chip on your shoulder. There is emotional and mental burden, unseen and unknown, that you carry in every step you take along the way. The absence of my father unwittingly shapes every move, every decision.
I will never know if the person that I am today will be who I am in an alternate universe where my father never died. I try not to think about it, because I know that as much as I mourn the breaking up of my family, I am also mourning the who that I could have been. I am mourning the confusion and feelings of being lost and lonely, which accompanied me for most of my formative years.
I was a teenager searching for myself, my identity, trying to figure out how I could fit in. And I had nobody to help me grow into myself. Grief was not an easy cloak to shrug off.
Over the weekend, we took the boys to watch Frozen 2. I didn’t read the synopsis and I wasn’t a fan of the first installment, we simply decided to go with dear friends and their boys. But the movie hit me hard as a mother, a fatherless child.
When Elsa sings of how she knows she is “not where I’m meant to be” and “there’s a part of me that longs to go” in Into The Unknown, it struck a chord in me. In my youth, I had dreamt of going places, of doing things. But how could I, when I had to graduate and get a job so that I could help my mother support the family? How could I, when I knew my mother relied on me and my presence? Where could I have gone?
And as Elsa embarked on in her journey of self-discovery, that moment where her mother’s voice led her to her epiphany was particularly moving. When the images of her late mother shone from the walls and she sang joyfully of being found in Show Yourself, it resonated.
You are the one you have been waiting for all of your life.
I grew up, I learnt how to feel comfortable with myself, in my own skin. It has been a hard-fought battle and it’s still ongoing. I can be prickly, I still doubt myself and my abilities, I can be hard to live with. But I know who I am.
Maybe to detractors, this movie is nothing more than a commercial endeavour. It probably is. But it is also a reminder to me, as an individual, that I am enough. And it also gently reminds me that as a mother, my connection with my boys will outlive me.
What I want my boys to take away from the movie is that they can still be brave and kind and empathetic even if they are scared and uncertain. And most importantly, they will forever carry my love with them even when I am no longer around. A mother’s love will never die, just like how my father is still in my memories after all these years.
The husband flew off on another one of his long business trips one week ago. This means that I have officially survived one week doing this parenting gig on my own.
This time, he is off for five weeks and, well, I’d be lying if I said that I was zen about it. Nah, my reaction when I heard that he would be gone that long – and missing Mr A’s birthday and the March school holidays – was more of OMGWTFBBQ. I was NOT HAPPY AT ALL. But what can we do? Work is work and life goes on.
I count my solo parenting stints by how many weekends I have to fill by myself. How many weekends of sitting in on the boys’ music lessons, while threatening, coaxing and encouraging in equal parts for two straight hours. I count it by how many swimming lessons I have to get through alone, ferrying the boys there in time and hassling them to get out and get dressed so that we can go home.
Some weekends we get by easily. I bring them to the pool and we enjoy the glorious view of planes landing every other minute. Or we meet up with friends for play dates (thank you friends!). But there are also weekends where I don’t plan anything and we chill at home. I cook, they play and perhaps we go to the playground.
I count my solo parenting stints by how tired I am. The boys hanker to sleep with me when papa is away and I acquiesce. And then I don’t get much sleep because I worry about someone falling off (check) or they take turns to treat me as their pillow and I wake up to someone’s head on my tummy (check, check, check) or they dig their feet under my body because they are cold (check, check). And if I pack them off to their own bed, someone will inevitably creep into my bed in the middle of the night or fly into my room at the crack of dawn to wake me up.
And then I count my solo parenting stint by how lonely it gets. When I want to share my day or some hilarious incident with him and he is asleep. We only get a few windows of communication each day: in the morning as I am busy herding everyone out of the house in time (read screaming at everyone to HURRY UP PUT ON YOUR SHOES WHERE ARE YOUR SOCKS GET OUT OMG) while he is in the middle of work; before he goes to to bed while I am knee deep at work (and when I am not in a meeting or at training); and before I go to bed while he is getting ready to head to work. Let’s face it, nobody else will think that our kids’ antics are super adorable and funny and ridiculous except us – so who better to relate all these stories to than to their other parent?
But most importantly, I count my solo parenting stint by counting my blessings. I remember that at the end of the day, I still have a partner to whine to, and a partner who will return to reclaim his share of the load. I remember not to take his presence and the little things that he does for us for granted. I remember what it’s like to not see him everyday, and how I used to store things away in my memory so that I can tell him when I next see him. I remember how it was like talking to him while in a sleepy haze, fighting to stay awake so that I have one more minute with him before the day ends.
The boys are sleeping in their room. The husband is out for a work do. I am sitting at the balcony while a chill playlist is running in the living room, out of our Apple TV. A glass of wine – Brown Brothers’ Rosa Moscato, because I cannot resist any wine that is delicately sweet – while a breeze ruffles my air-dried hair.
It is moments like these which fill me with a gentle longing to quieter days and times. I am by nature an introvert. I don’t like mingling and I don’t like big parties. Seat me opposite a good friend, however, and we can chat for hours and hours.
Like today. I had taken the day off to spend it with the littlest at his school’s Chinese New Year celebrations. He had been hoping that we’d go and so we did. And then I took him along with me to meet Yuling after the crazy tornado known as “children’s party” ended.
We sat in the cosy cafe run by the warmest of people – I mean, they actually entertained Z and his relentless stream of questions and activity! – and we caught up. For three hours, the conversation didn’t dither, except for the times when I had to accompany the little one to the toilet as he, well, took a dump. A few dumps, actually (totally his father’s child, this one).
And that sort of interaction and connection nourishes me. Just as me, sitting alone at the balcony in the still of the night, makes me feel alive.
I have two boys whom I love to the moon and back. But they are also two very noisy, rambunctious, highly energetic boys. And sometimes it gets just too much for my introvert self, especially after a long day at work with the groups of teenagers who can be equally – if not more – demanding.
It’s a struggle on many days.
I recognise that to retreat on tough days is not a sign of weakness. It isn’t a sign that I am a terrible mother or human being. It’s a sign of awareness, a moment that will grant me the recharge that I need in order to function as a better mother.
And so I head into the bedroom and put a workout on on my laptop or phone. Or I hide in the bathroom. Or I lie in bed and empty all thoughts from my mind. Some evenings, all it takes is 20 minutes. But there are also times when I would hide for as long as is necessary. Whatever it takes for me to recalibrate and decompress.
I know that these days won’t last very long. After all, the days are long but the years are short. The days of them needing me to brush their teeth or cuddle them to sleep or fill their love tanks are not going to be forever. But there are no prizes for pushing through pain and exhaustion and frustration. The journey is not a sprint but a marathon.
And this is why I relish these quiet moments at the balcony.