But we don’t just look back at the past, we also celebrate this child as he is, today. Parenting an almost-teenager is an interesting experience. It’s like warm, comfortable water mixing with a cold draught: the cosy, known factor of him being still a child and his rebellious, independent self emerging.
The Aidan at 11 is a beautiful child. He is a (mostly) kind and loving brother to his sibling, and he is very much a beacon of rightness to Zac. According to his teachers, he is a helpful kid and that’s why he was selected to be a class monitor for the second time. Heaven forbid that you ask him why he isn’t a prefect though, he gets really offended, haha. He thinks that being a prefect is boring because it requires him to be perfect and good. Can’t argue against that, honestly!
Unlike most kids I know on Instagram, he is not academically-driven. Oh, he is getting better at making sure that his homework is completed. But good luck to you if you have to get him to study – it is a complete waste of time, in his opinion. School, to this boy, is a social activity – it’s only great because he can spend time with his friends. It would be much, much better if he could play Roblox all day, everyday!
And so, as his parents, we crack our brains trying to figure out what would motivate him. We think we have a winning formula on hand but if parenting has taught us anything, it is that winning formulas are never permanent. But it’s fine – we just want to make sure that he gets the opportunities and exposure that we never had, in case he isn’t cut out for academic life.
This would likely shock most Singaporean parents because, hey, getting into the top schools is like the ultimate goal. The truth is, we simply don’t care. Our mandate to them is to firstly, put in effort. I always tell the boys that if they put in effort and don’t do well, I have no complaints. They tried, period. But if they don’t put in effort and the results are crap, then they have a lot to answer for.
Secondly, we only need them to do well enough to have options. As someone who grew up poor and with little financial options, my grades were the only things that prevented me from remaining in that stratum. At every step of the way, I did well enough to have choices and I made sure those choices count. I want them to create these choices in life by themselves, as much as possible.
Lastly, we want them to always be learning. There is nothing more dreadful, in my opinion, than to be someone with zero curiosity. When there is curiosity, there will always be learning. And to be honest, we have their teachers in school to thank. Despite their misgivings about spending so much time in school (and NOT PLAYING!), they often come home raring to tell us about the new things that they have learnt.
But back to my child. I have loved him unconditionally since the day I knew of his existence in my womb but I am also cognisant of his flaws. Between the husband and I, we are working hard to help him with these flaws but we realise that sometimes, he just has to learn the hard way. Sometimes, he reacts too quickly and emotionally (my genes, sorry). Sometimes he gives up too easily (papa’s genes, for sure). Sometimes he is impatient and loses sight of empathy (a mix of his parents, for sure).
He is also kind and generous. His teachers once got him to sit next to a boy who was likely to have special needs. They asked him to “help” the boy, who did not submit his homework, was messy with filing and could not pay attention in class. Aidan took it so seriously, he got upset when the boy did not listen to him, and shared his frustrations with us. We counselled him, told him to be patient with his classmate, and explained what being neurodivergent meant. Shortly after, I reached out to his form teacher, who explained that Aidan was selected because they felt he would be a good influence over the boy. And once they took the time to explain that to Aidan, he was more confident of lending a helping hand.
As an educator, I know the importance of doing well. At the same time, I also see that the kids who succeed in life may not necessarily be those with a perfect GPA. The ones who do well are empathetic, kind, considerate, resilient with a dash of good humour. And there are those who bloom later in life, when they finally shake themselves free from the shackles of mainstream education and find a vocation that suits their personality and skills. I may be biased but I know my kid – and I know he’s on his way to fulfilling these important life qualities.
So to my dearest Boo, continue to be brave and kind and good-hearted. These qualities make you the best version of yourself, and I am always proud of you, because I know that you are not defined by results. You were the gift that took me out of the miserable state that I was in more than 11 years ago, and I know that you will continue to be a gift to the world.
I love you to the moon and back, never, ever doubt that.
Happy birthday to me! That’s one more revolution around the sun, one more year earth side, and wading deeper into the 40s zone. Back in my 20s, I had this notion that the best age to die would be 40 because, silly me, I thought I would have accomplished everything that life has to offer by then.
(Twenty-somethings can be so silly sometimes.)
If I were to have one word that encapsulates my hope for this year, it would be “Bloom”. I used to hate being a January baby because nobody knows or remembers your birthday, after the hullabaloo of Christmas and the holidays and being in a new class at school. When you are a lonely kid whose family doesn’t celebrate your birthday, it can make you feel even lonelier.
As an adult, I see its beauty. At this time of the year, we are at the tail end of winter – the cold is thawing and spring is approaching. In our Chinese culture, there is a sense of hope and optimism for the lunar new year. It’s cold but we are slowly getting warm.
And so, bloom. Like the gorgeous flowers just waiting for the right time to burst forth into their own, so am I.
To be perfectly honest, the past four or five years have been rather un-pretty in many aspects. My career stalled, bosses who added little value to my professional journey came and went, and the work culture was toxic. I was miserable and wanted to resign so, so many times. Somehow, I held on. I can probably thank my students for this – without them making me laugh, cry and roll my eyes, work would have been absolutely dreary.
The pandemic came and stayed. It was also when it suddenly hit me how awful and dysfunctional my childhood had been. I started reclaiming boundaries and parts of my life for myself.
My trajectory started changing rapidly late last year – so fast that I barely had time to breathe. Change after change happened and suddenly, I found myself with a new boss whom I actually respect and trust. More importantly, I was given the opportunity to work on projects that I enjoyed and was good at.
And just like that, I am at where I should be.
For the first time in a long, long while, I feel…complete. Like I know exactly where to go. Like I am doing what I know I am good at, and people recognise my effort.
I have been suffering from imposter syndrome all my life, and I know that this is a result of my childhood trauma. When there is nobody to offer you words of affirmation, to encourage you to try new things despite your fears, to believe you…it can be hard to believe that you actually are good at something.
Here, now, today. I am where I am meant to be.
Does life end at 40? Absolutely not! I am still seeking growth, fulfilling dreams and notching personal achievements. I may not have many friends but the people whom I have surrounded myself with are good for me. They encourage me, tell me hard truths and help me to be a better person – and I know how lucky and blessed I am.
Some days, I muse that my sons are suffering from FOMO. But now, I see where they get it from. It’s me – it’s me and my fear that I will regret not trying something that I have always wanted to try, on my deathbed. It’s my fear – that I have lived a life that did not explore fully what living should be – that keeps me going.
And so, here we are. Completely at ease with who I am and where I am. Work is exciting again and hey, not everyone can boast of having a billboard of their face welcoming all visitors to the campus. (I was embarrassed at first – hi, imposter syndrome – but screw it, I ought to be proud of it and myself).
What is in store for the next year? I don’t know but I am going in with the best version of myself that I have ever been.
I sat in my usual spot, in the middle of the queen bed. This is where they want me to be at, every single night, as they fall asleep with some form of physical contact with my body. Sometimes it’s a leg strewn artfully over mine, sometimes it’s them tucking their heads under the curve where my arm meets my shoulder.
Tonight, they did not take too long to fall asleep for it was later than their usual bedtime. The exams are over and we are getting lax when it comes to routines. After a while, when there was no movement or sound, save for their breathing, I deduced that they were truly sleeping and started to extricate myself from the tangle of human limbs.
Then a little voice piped up, “Are you leaving?”
I smiled in the darkness at my ten-year-old. “No, I am not,” I whispered.
He took my hand and turned on his side, effectively forcing me to spoon him from the back. And so we laid like this for a while, him still holding on to my hand as he drifted off into dreamland.
“I love you,” I said quietly into his ear. He stirred a teeny tiny bit, before mumbling, “I love you too.”
He didn’t let go of my hand and I marvelled at my son, who is on the cusp of becoming a young man and is still a child in so many ways. Wasn’t it not too long ago that we celebrated his 10th birthday?
Right now, we are still the centre of his universe but it is a world that is slowly expanding. He is starting to become more aware of his self. He is beginning to form connections with others; he moaned about not being able to go to school to spend time with his friends when he was ill earlier in the week. He has his own mind and opinions, and is vocal and confident in articulating them.
He still kisses me, but not too many times. And when we go out, he will still hold my hand, but for 10 seconds. After which, he will subconsciously flow into the direction that he wants to go, leaving me behind.
It’s a good thing, for our job as parents is to raise our kids to have the self-assurance to take on the world by themselves. Eventually, his sense of identity and space will grow and grow, and we will be knocked off our perch from the centre by the torrents of time. And it’s a good thing, it is exactly how it is meant to happen.
It’s also a bittersweet thing.
I suppose that’s why we have more than one child. So that as the older one starts to grow into his own, we learn our lesson well enough to treasure and mentally file away the baby moments that we still get from the younger. The littlest cannot fathom a life without us, and he still wants to hang out with us as often as he can. He holds my hand and asks to sit on my lap. And so I indulge him, knowing that these requests are going to fade away sooner than later.
But I may be premature in declaring that the childlike days of my 10-year-old are over. The other day, I was working from home after being in the office for weeks. He was home too, for he had caught a cold. He came into the study and leaned into my chair to hug me.
“Thank you for making me feel better,” I said. “I guess you are too big to fit into my lap these days.”
He grinned cheekily and spun around, backing into me as he finally sat his bum on my lap.
“See, I can still fit perfectly on your lap.”
We sat like this, my arm around his waist, his hands over mine, for just a moment. I breathed in the scent of this beautiful boy, and felt a sense of gratitude for his presence in my life. It didn’t last very long – he bounced off to play Roblox with his friends – but it was enough.
Earlier this March, my firstborn celebrated his first decade earthside. I know, I know, I am only writing about it now? Unfortunately, COVID happened. Mr 10 first contracted the virus, and then I got it too, as his main caregiver. While he recovered in time to celebrate being 10, I was still rather ill. Getting over COVID has taken a longer time, for me, than expected but that’s another story for another day.
Right now, this is about me being a mother for the past 10 years. If you had asked me to envision this milestone back then, I would have laughed bitterly. There was a time when troubles seemed too much to bear…I jest, I jest. Or not. Because there was a time when I didn’t know if I would ever cradle a child of my own in my arms, let alone imagine crossing this milestone. And then when the baby was born and in my arms, I was exhausted because he would not sleep. I thought I would never get a full night’s sleep, ever again.
And look at where I am today, 10 years on. I survived the lack of sleep, I survived juggling the many hats that I had on, I survived all the naysayers who told me I could not. I not only survived, but I did it DAMN. FUCKING. WELL.
So if I could go back in time to talk to my tired, uncertain, and determined self, this is what I would tell her:
This will not last forever, no matter how never ending it feels.
There are days when you feel frustrated. Because your baby is fighting sleep and you are spending hours pacing up and down the room, trying to get him to just. Fall. Asleep. For. Fuck’s. Sake. You contemplate sleep training him but you can’t. You wonder if you are dooming him (and yourself) to a lifetime of poor sleep.
The truth is, it will end. There will come a time when a switch will go off in his brain and he will sleep for hours at a stretch. And there will come a time when he does not need to be breastfed back to sleep, and so you can rely on your husband to take on the nighttime duties.
And there will come a time when he would be 10 years old, telling you, “Mummy, I want to go to sleep.”
On weekends, you get woken up by him early in the morning. If you are lucky, it’s close to 7am. If you are not, it can be as unearthly as 5am. You crawl out of bed, throw a few toys on the floor and hope that they can buy you some time as you try to catch a few more winks. Inevitably, the toys will outlive their purpose in less than 15 minutes and you begrudgingly command your body to get up. A while later, the three of you – including a similarly wretched looking husband – will bundle out of the home, in search of a cafe that is opened at this crazy hour to get your caffeine fix.
Eventually, you will gift the boy a little brother. And he and little brother will bond over their shared love for Roblox. And on weekends, he and little brother will continue to wake up at unearthly hours – yes, they do not bid 5am mornings farewell – but guess what? They will now conspire to sneak down the stairs, switch on the TV and watch YouTube videos on Roblox with the volume down. By themselves.
And you will get to wake up at glorious 9am, to a lounge with two couch potatoes and breakfast bought by the husband.
You know how that saying goes:
“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ”
Elizabeth Stone, author
When you first saw the positive pee stick, you were in disbelief. But at the same time, unconsciously, a burning flame had been lit in your heart. He might have just been a mass of cells in your uterus but from that moment on, you will give your unconditional love and protection to him. He is a part of you and you will do whatever it takes to ensure his happiness and growth.
When you first felt him flutter in your womb. When you saw his body take shape in the ultrasound. When that first kick took your breath away. When you first held him in your arms, tears flooding your eyes. When you marveled at the perfection of his little body. When you carried him close to your heart in that baby carrier. When he first giggled in the backseat of the car. When you took him everywhere with you on your first trip to Sydney. When he gurgled and celebrated his first birthday. When he nearly broke your – and the husband’s back – by wanting to walk for months before he was ready. When you heard him say his first word, “mama”. When he cried and cried when he first went to the childcare centre. When he started bringing craft home, dedicated to you. When he graduated from kindergarten. When you took him to primary school on his first day. When he finished reading the Harry Potter series and could talk to you about it. When you heard the familiar voice of Neil Gaiman narrating his audio book and you realised that he had borrowed the book. When he hugged you and forgave you when you were short-tempered with him.
For every moment of his life, your love will not wane. That flame will keep burning and there are times when it grows fiercer. There will be wonder and joy and anger and exhaustion – oh, you will continue to be tired from juggling all those hats – but the love will never waver.
And that is the privilege that you bear as his mother. And what an honourable privilege it is.
It’s been 10 good, eventful years of being a mother. I say this at every age but 10 is really awesome. I love Aidan for the 10-year-old that he is, and I love that he is at the stage where he is independent yet still comfortable enough to be a mama’s boy.
You are the best of papa and me in many ways. You have a forgiving, gracious heart. You have a wild imagination. You tell me to quit my job so that I can be better paid because you truly believe that I deserve better. You speak like a mini philosopher sometimes, and tell me you love history. You are competitive but without malice. Your teachers consistently tell us that you are a helpful and kind boy. You listen to us carefully when we explain your flaws or mistakes, and we can see you trying your best to improve. You love your brother – even though the two of you troll each other relentlessly. You are not someone who envies others, in fact, you are always taking stock of the things that you are grateful for.
You are not a perfect, unicorn child, but I never expected you to be one, especially since we are such flawed parents. But you have brought me so much joy and love since the moment I knew you existed and I am thankful that you chose us to be your earthside family.
In a blink of an eye – oh such a cliche phrase but so true though – it’s been six months since I last sat down with my thoughts. It’s been three days since I celebrated another birthday and while I had so many reflections, alas, the mind is just no match for the ageing body. Our days of waking up at 6am have begun in earnest and most nights find me flat out on my bed.
But no worries, here I am again. It’s a Saturday evening and my dinner plans got cancelled at the last minute. The boys are off to dinner with papa at their grandparents’ and so, unexpectedly, I find myself enjoying the solitude of my own company. How utterly, completely introverted of me.
So, another birthday spent in the 40s. Another year as I observe my eyesight going south, haha! But in spite of me entering my 40s in such turbulent times – hello, COVID19, I see you – I can’t say that it’s been completely crazy. In fact, I do enjoy this phase of my life so very much.
If I had to pick out a keyword for my 20s, it would be search. That was the time when I finally left school behind me and became an adult. All my life, getting a degree had been my goal. I knew that it was my ticket out of poverty and I needed it to get a job so that I can support my single mother. I never thought beyond getting a degree and suddenly, I found myself fresh out of school and trying to establish myself professionally.
I bounced from job to job, trying to find something that felt right. Okay, if I were to be honest with myself, I was also bored after two years at the same job. I always felt like I had learnt enough and wanted to move on to something new. And so that was me in search of the right job – moving from journalism to communications to photo sub-editing to, finally, education. There were days when I wondered why I couldn’t stay put at one place, I struggled so hard to reconcile with myself. But now I see clearly that it all worked out in the end. My need to learn new things, my curiosity- they were perfect for my job as a lecturer.
My 30s, on the other hand, was spent in a haze of exhaustion and motherhood. I tried so hard to get pregnant (this entire blog is full of infertility woes) and then I finally did, twice. The next decade was all about being pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to put little people to bed (our parquet flooring was probably worn out by our pacing), bringing them up while juggling multiple hats. Throw solo parenting into the mix and you can imagine why the days seemed so long but the years are short.
Along the way, I got bored again (a recurrent theme, as you can see), and decided to challenge myself by enrolling in a one-year accelerated Master’s blended learning course. And that was with a full-time job, travelling husband and a three- and five-year-old to boot. Ah, good times. I graduated in one piece and armed with a 3.63 GPA to boot. Am I proud of myself? Damnit – a hundred percent YES.
And so here I am, in my 40s. I crossed into the threshold last year with a full-blown pandemic. It hasn’t all been fun, there were days mired with grief and anxiety and fear. There were days when my kids spent way too much time on their devices and I did nothing to stop them. There were days when I laced up my shoes to go out for a run, to hell with wonky injury-prone legs, because I needed to breathe. Alone.
But it hasn’t all been bad. I have enjoyed working from home tremendously. Being with the husband 24/7 has actually helped our marriage – we weren’t one of those couples who wanted to kill each other. We spent more time with the boys. Going to the gym has been a way for me to let off steam and I am fitter than I have been for the past 10 years. I discovered that I don’t actually have a black thumb and can, in fact, keep plants alive.
More importantly, I have regained my identity as my sons grow up. They no longer depend on me for their most basic needs and I can spend time doing the things I enjoy again. I feel alive, and joyful and uncertain and…well, me.
There are times when I worry about the future. But if there is one big lesson to be learnt from this chaos, it is that we have to let go of the future. A girlfriend suggested that I read Flux Mindset: 8 Superpowers for Thriving in Constant Change by April Rimme, and this was one of the superpowers she espouses. Every time I start to feel anxious about sometime, I would take a deep breathe and remind myself to let go. There is no certain future in this unpredictable world.
And so, 40s. This is where I discover myself all over again. It is when I go in search of more things to learn and try, while learning to let go of any expectations and fear. Wish me luck!
I have an M.O when it comes to getting my hair done.
It usually takes place during the term break, so once every three months or so. I will take a day off from work, and it is typically a week day, and the earliest appointment the salon can arrange for me. I drop the kids off at school and park the car at home before taking the bus into town for the appointment.
After the usual works – greys get touched up, a trim to keep the shape neat and tidy – I’ll head over to an eatery for my coffee and meal. There, I’ll linger for a while, enjoying the quiet sips of my coffee as music wafts into my ears through my noise cancelling AirPods. There, I am shut off from the world, immersed only in my book and my music. There, I am my own, and I am gentle, and I am silent.
Time, however still it seems, doesn’t stop. Before I know it, the cup is empty, the aftertaste of coffee lingers in my mouth and a glance at my watch tells me that it’s time to head home so that I can pick my littles up. A quick check of the app shows me that the bus will arrive in eight minutes – I pay for my meal, pack up and slip out of the place to walk to the bus stop.
This process emerged, initially, because of a lack of time. Weekends are for spending with the kids and husband, and I needed to be home in time so as to pick the boys up from school. As time went by, it became a block of time that I carved out for me.
Over time, it became a ritual that I followed unconsciously. But for the past couple of months, and perhaps even the year, there were times when COVID guidelines meant that I could only zip and out for a haircut. The ritual that I had built so carefully over the past decade had been systematically and ruthlessly dismantled because of the pandemic.
The past two months of living under the shadow of Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) has shown me just how much the pandemic has robbed us of. I never thought I would miss dining in at an eatery so much and so when we weren’t allowed to do so, it felt like something was missing. When the rule was finally lifted, the first thing I did was to book a dinner date with the husband. And our first meal out was a piping hot bowl of bak chor mee, post gym.
Over the past year of working from home and ordering food in, we have had many bowls of noodles, obviously. But somehow nothing beats waiting for the food to be cooked, and then to tuck into the freshly made noodles.
And then it hit me: it was a ritual in itself. The process of us heading to the gym together, deciding what to eat, queueing up to order, and sitting at the table while devouring our food. Having a date night is also a ritual – me deciding what to wear, dolling up, driving down the expressway with the moon roof opened and pretending that we are doing a road trip, holding hands and walking to the restaurant, conversing with no worry or care.
Maybe that’s why there is always something heavy weighing inside of me. (Granted, I tend towards the melancholy more than the usual.) But there’s always a sense of grief – at times teeny tiny, at times an avalanche – of what we have lost and given up, of what our kids have had to let go of. I am grateful that we, as a whole, have emerged relatively unscathed but I also recognise that my anxiety and grief are valid too.
Perhaps the underlying lesson to be learnt is this: to treasure the little moments of what we have, and to never take anything for granted. On some days, truthfully, the lesson can be a bitter pill to swallow. But you know, time does not stop for us. Summer is here, it’s hot and bloody humid, and before you know it, the kids will be out of school and it’s time to celebrate Christmas. We just have to focus on putting one foot in front of us at a time, shed some tears and laugh out loud along the way, and we will be where we are meant to be in due time.
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.