The organised chaos

Life in the age of the coronavirus

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.

In happier times. Changi Village, March 2020.
Aidan

Eight years of Aidan

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.

Aidan at his first birthday

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.

My little man and I
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2019: Goodbye to this year, this decade

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.

Prioritising me

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.

Also, there was this tofu debacle, which I had almost forgotten about. And my scary brush with uveitis.

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!

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What Frozen 2 means to a daughter with no father

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.

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On solo parenting

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.

Four more weeks. Can’t wait!

Motherhood

In the still of the night

It’s 11pm.

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.

The organised chaos

On 2018

Between trying to debug this WordPress blog (it is so ugly now, urghs) and spending time with my littles, time has been woefully short. Without time, I have not been able to reflect on everything that has happened over the past 12 months.

In the one year that has just passed, I have graduated from my crazy and hectic one-year masters course. In between sleeping at 2am on an almost daily basis and maintaining my full load of work at my job, I also sold my house, bought a new flat, embarked on renovating the new flat before finally moving into it one week before I flew to Madrid to complete the last lap of my masters.

When we moved in, only our master bedroom was partially ready. Everywhere else was incomplete, raw, bare. We had no light, no heater, no air-conditioning, no wardrobe. The kitchen cabinets were not up, we had no stove and no sink. The living room was full of uninstalled carpentry. It was a total nightmare, and then I had to pack my bags for Spain, leaving my family behind. This actually warrants a post on its own, in an eye-rolling kind of way.

It was a tough period. 

A few months later, the husband flew off on one of his long business trips and I was solo parenting. It wasn’t that hard, as most solo-parenting mamas will attest, we get used to it fairly quickly. And then soon after, my mum was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in late stage.

I struggled a lot. I tried to hold it down together but there were moments where I broke, when I felt broken. There were times when I cried hard as I drove back to work after sending her to her chemotherapy sessions. There were evenings when I parked the car and sat in it alone and sobbed. And as much as I needed my boys in that period, I also needed to be by myself a lot. I couldn’t pack and compartmentalise my emotions with them around.

My work suffered, between all that shuttling and adjustments. And it came to a boiling point when I suddenly came to the realisation that this is just work. I am not indispensable, I am not valued. I am just an employee, full-stop. My values and the company’s are no longer in sync and the disharmony is grating. 

With all that had happened, I was feeling tired and defeated. By the time December came around, I felt unmoored and directionless. I used to believe that I am strong and can withstand just about anything but this time, I was exhausted and breathless.

And then we made the decision to take a quick trip up north, to bring our kids to their favourite theme park and to also catch a breath. It was simple, fuss-free, with no itinerary. But it made all the difference. 

We encountered so much kindness and happiness. First, from a smiling pair of young men who gave us their 1RM note to pay for parking when we didn’t have the right amount on hand. It was only 1RM, I know, but their swiftness in handing over their note once they heard our verbal exchange and their refusal to accept payment warmed our hearts. 

And when we got to Legoland, the staff was amazing and the weather was kind – cloudy without that sticky humidity. I went into the park feeling optimistic and hopeful, and told the husband that I had a good feeling about the lucky draw. So we set about purchasing something to get us into the draw. I really wanted to buy the Harry Potter minifigs and went to the counter to start feeling up the sealed packs, haha. At the same time, the husband and I were chatting to the cashier and he asked if she knew how the individual characters felt. She did, and offered to help me. Pack by pack, she went through to find the three characters that I wanted and there were well over 20 packs. But she did and I ended up with the three that I really wanted.

At the lucky draw, we stood on the sidelines expectantly when the emcee picked out the first entry – consolation prize. “The surname is…LONG!” he announced and the husband and I grinned like fools. It was my receipt that he had fished out. And then five minutes later, he picked out the husband’s receipt for the third prize. We were laughing uproariously! Out of the five prizes, we had nabbed two.

“Told you I had a good feeling!” I said to the husband laughingly as we walked out in the darkness. Never mind that the prizes are honestly….crap. It was the good vibes that mattered.

And that feeling of…I don’t know…somebody watching over me. I was feeling really crummy but this trip really lifted me up. I don’t care much for organised religion but I believe in something – or someone – greater than us in the universe and in that moment, it was like God was saying, you’re going to be okay, you are loved and blessed.

And that is how I will move into 2019. With calmness and the knowledge that I am blessed. I don’t know what will come my way but I know that I cannot fear the unknown and the unpredictable. 

In the new year, I will prioritise me. It’s okay to put me above everyone else once in a while, and it’s okay to want to be alone. I want to read more books, work on my fitness regularly, get back to writing and shooting pictures. I want to spend time with those who love me. I want to step out of my comfort zone more often and do things that scare me. I want to say “no” more often. I want to move in a new direction and live boldly, as Will Traynor so wisely advised Lou. 

I will face this world bravely but I know I will not be alone.

blue sky with clouds