Just when the world rejoiced with the news about the vaccine, the silently growing balloon in me burst: I thought I was a total failure as a working mom, and I wanted to quit.
“Maybe I have to stop working,” I thought, tears quietly trickling down my cheeks while I was disinfecting bags of produce delivered by Whole Foods at my door an hour earlier, chopping red onions and the other ingredients for my husband’s and my plant-based meal — he decided to switch to this diet in the middle of the pandemic, and washing spinach and stirring up the chicken cooking on the stove for the kids’ meal.
When drops of tears no longer went down from the corners of my eyes, my voice rose up. My rage was never more loud, powerful and fierce. My whole brain was buried in a hurricane of madness, disappointment, betrayal, pain, and “I can’t take it”. I hated my son. I hated the fact that I couldn’t teach him. I just wanted to beat him but I set myself a rule of never hitting my children. I felt I was like a total failure as a mom. I felt helpless. And in the middle of the mess outside in the kitchen and a humongous one in my head, I wanted to give up on my career. Maybe, having more time so I can show up for my kids would fix it all. However, I didn’t want to choose either. I felt so suffocated that I felt like my throat and my nostrils were choked with chunks of cotton and my chest was buried under a stone wall, making me unable to breathe, let alone talking.
I burst, as if I wanted to let it all out, “You like playing games! So tell your teachers you don’t go to school. Just play games! You don’t need to even help us with chores anymore! Just play games! After dinner, go to your room and play!” I tried to force myself to think of all the great things about him such as the fact that everyone says he is a nice and good boy, that he plays and teaches his sister, that he is a great companion for me when I have my down moments. I tried reminding myself that it takes a process and lots of patience to help anyone including a child his age to make positive changes, and that his logic brain is still developing. None of these work through the hurricane. My own logic brain was numb, at the mercy of my emotional brain that withdrew most of the limited energy in there towards it.
All of sudden, my very own beloved son became my enemy. He was the opposite of my childhood, a childhood of not having a proper family with my dad abandoning my mom, my sister and me, of living in a house with holes on its roof, of striving so hard to excel at school, of working hard to help out with house chores and my grandmother’s convenience store, of being wildly grateful for a second-hand T-shirt or a pile of old books from my cousins, and of fully appreciating a made-in-China toy piano my mom was able to afford. And here he is, having a caring father, a mom he says loving and patient, a cheerful and self-sufficient sister, a nice apartment to live in, in a city and a country many only can think of in their dreams, great food to eat, lots of books to read, high quality clothes and an iPad and a computer. Yet he is bored when he is banned from playing games for a few days. Yet he forgets his piano lessons a few times as he only remembers to check how many rebirths or eggs he has gained on a platform. Yet he skips his lunch as he buries his head into YouTube videos.
I am always agitated that he takes the many things he has in his life for granted. Only till that moment of shouting to the top of my voice could I grasp the image a bartender on a train we took from Switzerland to Austria two years ago. He tried to demonstrate when talking about raising his sons: he cracked open a wine bottle and said, “sometimes I just want to do this to them”. I then had that feeling. A free thinker I am, I secretly screamed through the chaotic thoughts in my head, “Oh God, what can I do? Am I not a good enough mother? I’ve tried my best with all I can! What did I do wrongly? Just tell me!”
Till that moment, I had thought we had been doing so well through COVID-19 as we were able to make the best out of it, from more family time together to camping trips, on life side, to the clients I helped to the book deal I got, on work side. And just when the world rejoiced with the news about the vaccine, the silently growing balloon in me burst.
When virtual schooling started in March, my son managed it well. However, since school started again, online still, in September, he would half listen to the teachers and play. He would half do his homework and watch YouTube. He became a walking body that only craves for games. I tried having brain-based conversations with him and using coaching techniques from my profession and they only worked for the next few days before things were back to where they started. He also covered up about the amount of time he played when not watched. My husband, a software engineer, traced his digital footprint, uncovered the lies, couldn’t help it and the right next day, angrily moved his work station next to our son, despite my objection that it was not the right way. And of course, it didn’t work either. Then one day, heated up again by his playing over the hour, like many times before, my husband banned our son from all kinds of games and deleted them all on iPad without talking to him. What often happens after is he is really upset, complains he is bored, keeps lying down on the sofa or the bed like a soulless body and does everything with a downward looking face. Then we talk about it and the plan for him to make changes, but back to overplaying soon he is. It’s like we can’t move a mountain.
That afternoon, the afternoon I showed my full rage, we had just literally had a conversation about his game playing schedule, and just before he used the iPad for IXL, my husband told him, “No game today after IXL as usual, because you have been playing a lot during school time.” He agreed, yet before dinner when my husband checked the iPad, it turned out he did IXL for one minute and played for 30 minutes. I was not sure if the one week of being banned had made him that hungry for the games. Nevertheless, I felt extremely betrayed. And the volcano of self-blaming and yelling erupted from there.
After cooking, I still called him for dinner. He quietly took the food, chewed, his eyes welled with tears. “Deserve him right. I don’t care,” I told myself, showing no emotional response to whatever going in his mind. When our daughter called him to watch her dance, he paid attention. Often, he wouldn’t much bother but he was aware of his wrong doing and wanted to redeem in some way. After finishing dinner, he taught her to play piano and she called me to come and see how she could manage to create the music without having to lift up her fingers. I did and gave her some encouragement. He came closer to me and gave me a hug.
I felt better. The rage in me subsided and my logic brain could gain back its energy for clear thinking. The madness started to evaporate. The disappointment seemed to fade away. My whole being began to see some light and I learnt to trust again in the power of coaching and being patient. I also realized that it was not coaching that was the problem but it was the lack of follow up from my end. With my clients, I was religious, but with my son, I didn’t demonstrate the same commitment.
Later when we were in the bed to put my daughter to sleep, I asked him if he told his teacher that he would not study and just play game. “If I play games only, I won’t have education and my body will be numb,” he said. I asked him to call my husband in for a conversation, a proper one. My husband used to walk away or was ignorant whenever it came to a family talk about hard topics that cause us tension. “I have talked to him too many times so that was why I didn’t bother anymore,” he told me when I questioned him a day earlier why he was totally silent at my request for a chat that both he and I should show up. This is another layer in our family life where my husband often chose to walk away or stay silent if he didn’t agree with something. Stonewalling it is. Although it’s getting better after over two years when I have done a great deal of brainwork and also plucked up my courage to make the request for him to respond, part of it is still there.
Anyway, he came. And I started my coaching conversation with our son, my husband sitting nearby listening.
“The problem is I can’t remember. There are too many things,” our son said.
“That’s not the problem. I observed you and you keep playing while your teachers are lecturing or in the middle of doing homework,” my husband said with a firm voice.
“Ok, so now please fill in this sentence for me: I’d really want to… but…” I told our son.
“I really want to have a balance lifestyle with 60% of study and 40% of play but I keep getting distracted.”
“By the end of the school year, in June, when you look back at what you achieve in this area, what would that be?”
“I’d get A or A+ and I have a good foundation of a balanced life for my new school.”
“How would you feel when you achieve that?”
“Happy and relaxed.”
“And how important is solving this problem to you, from one to ten?”
“How committed are you to solving it?”
“So in June looking back, what are the things you have done to have that balanced life?”
“I will use Zoom in iPad because I can’t access the websites there easily.”
“How about the games on iPad?”
“I will delete them all, except for Picotank because if I delete it, I will lose all of my progress.”
“I’ve deleted all of them,” my husband chimed in. I was agitated as again, he didn’t consult our son or at least informed him.
“Oh, I may not lose my progress so it’s fine.”
“And what else would you do?”
“When I have to use my computer for homework, I will close Gmail and chat box.”
“So how do you plan for your play time?
“I will follow the plan you and I talked yesterday. I will play from 11.20–11.45 am after my lunch, and from 4.30–5pm after I do IXL.”
“How about the break times? What if you are bored and you just open the game web sites?”
“I’d do something during the break. Oh, my teachers told us to exercise like jumping jack. So I will exercise, eat fruit, play piano, read a book, or do Singapore math.”
“It seems there’re a lot of things. What would you like to try tomorrow?”
“Because I have a few breaks. I will do jumping jack and play piano and do Singapore math. I often have three breaks.”
“So when do you think you will implement this plan?”
“Can you share with me again about your plan?”
“I will use iPad for Zoom so I can’t access web sites and can focus more. I will play only from 11.20–11.45am and 4.30–5pm.”
“How about your breaks?”
“Yeah, I will do something else that’s helpful.”
At that point when we were summarizing, my husband left the room. I felt a bit mad but it didn’t matter that much as our son now had a plan, and I would talk to my husband later on about how we should approach conversations in an effective way in the future.
“So from tomorrow, we will help you by doing a daily review like the calendar invites I sent dad and you earlier?”
We said each other good night and he darted to his room. Being really exhausted, I slept well that night. I set the alarm for 5.30am so I could have an early meal for a surgery in the afternoon but I couldn’t wake up.
It was 7.30am when I could finally move myself off the bed, running my morning errands and preparing lunch box and snacks for my daughter. Something was still unsettled in me and it started to grow.
“Please know that I want to see action and results. No more talking. No more ‘I know’!” I suddenly snapped at my son when he was having his breakfast. His happy face sank.
“I don’t want to talk to you like this but my patience really has its limit!” I snapped again.
After breakfast, he went to his room with the iPad. I was in the living room, not being able to concentrate. When my husband returned home from dropping off our daughter at her school, I had to let it out.
“Yesterday, when we were at the end of the conversation, you left!”
“I only listened, so when it nearly ended, I leave.”
“And when our son was talking about the solution, you dug into the problem and that was not helpful.”
“Of course, we asked him what the problem he thought he had so we could help him but he didn’t know, so I had to share my observation.”
“Do you notice that I asked him one question that helped him to articulate his problem. It’s ‘Can you please fill in this sentence: I really want to… but…’?”
He didn’t answer.
“And please don’t be angry when I share this. Last time, when I mentioned about how the brain works, you judged me that I was nerdy. Without reading books and all the training, I couldn’t have been who I am today, serving my clients and managing myself during that time when you stonewalled me. So I felt really hurt and not respected. You never read books and it’s me who keeps learning and then shares, and you just reject it. I’ve struggled a lot myself in helping our son,” I sobbed.
“I talked to you many times but you didn’t listen or at least talked about it together. You just did it your way. If we can’t talk with each other then we will need to hire an expert, a family counsellor so everyone can truly understand each other.”
“I have changed. Why do you keep digging into the past? And see, who is the one who follows up with him. Look at all the plans you created with him. It’s me who follows up.”
“But you follow up like you were a police. I know you have changed but I just wanted to let you know that so the next time, we would need to talk first.”
“OK. So I will let you handle the conversation. You have the skill and experience. I will just play the role of supporting the plan.”
“But I want you to sit in the conversation so you have the context, and your presence shows that we both consider it important and we are there to help him.”
“But I shouldn’t be part of the conversation. And you kept asking me how I thought.”
“OK, the purpose of this conversation right now is moving forward, how can we have an effective and respectful conversation,” I clarified and affirmed. “So what do you think we should do to achieve that goal?”
“I’ll let you coach him and I will listen and I will contribute when you talk about the plan to see how I can support.”
“That sounds good to me. And we will set up the recurring time to review with him and support him in making the change. I sent the calendar invite and does it work for you?”
“Sure, 5 minutes during break time is doable.”
Then he headed to his desk and I was back to mine. My head was lighter as the big resentment about his walking away from conversations was gone, but something still felt unsettled. While I hadn’t figured it out, I got a call from the hospital telling me that I could come right then, instead of waiting till 5.15pm. I went to the room and asked my husband if he could manage to bring me there right away. After 15 minutes, he gave me the green light while going to get the car. I went into the bathroom to change and when I washed my face, I wept badly. All of the emotional wounds a few years ago that I did a great deal of brain work on to overcome returned. “I wasn’t loved. My husband stonewalled me. He didn’t respect me. He didn’t love me. I was all by myself. I’m never enough for my son. No one understands me. No one loves me. No one cares about me. My dad abandoned me. I wasn’t loved. I wasn’t cared about. No one loves me.”
I was self-pitying big time. The emotional pain from my childhood still once in a while hit me that hard. I was aware that I was in my own head with the negativity cyclone and I wanted to get out of it, so I could have my body and mind ready for the surgery which I had been delaying for two years. But I couldn’t. It was too hard. I tried different things. I listed all of the things I was grateful for. That didn’t work. I told myself, “My husband has changed. He now shows more love to me and he communicates instead of keeping quiet when he doesn’t agree. We have a plan with our son and this time, I will make sure I follow up.” This didn’t work either.
My brain was working hard to search for that one golden thought that could just simply lift me up, out of the darkness of my own creation. I pictured the image of my husband parking the car at the entrance of our building waiting for me and that thought struck me, “Everybody gets ready for me. My doctor, the nurses, the hospital. And my husband. He had a meeting but he rescheduled it to drive me there. So I have to get ready myself.”
I cleaned up my face a few times. The water felt so soothing. I was alive. Saying goodbye to my son, I left the apartment.
On the car, I didn’t talk much. I still resented him. Then he talked about the road while I tried to connect with my breaths with a hope I could open my heart and talk. I did. Better and better I felt.
The hospital was not that scary as I thought. Everybody I met, from the registration lady to the nurses were all pleasant and calm and cheerful. “I love this place and these people,” I thought and I told them too. The room was clean and bright. It reminded me of the time I delivered my kids back in Singapore, a loving memory. While waiting for the nurse who would take me to the operating theatre, I journaled about all that had happened till that moment. The fog in my head dissolved further and my heart was lighter. I enjoyed that quiet time by myself. I was in the hospital but it was like I had my own long overdue vacation, free of responsibilities and being taken care of.
Soon the nurse came and brought me to the theatre. I was put to sleep and the surgery went well. Back to the room, I was given apple juice, a muffin, crackers, and a tuna sandwich. I gulped down the juice and devoured the sandwich. I was starving and thirsty. The nurse gave me the instruction, measured a few things and called my husband to pick me up.
“You kids come too. You shouldn’t have your kids come. It’s dangerous!” said the nurse. “He brought the kids inside and we told him to go back to the car.” She continued, with a compliment added after I put on my clothes, “You are so trendy!”
“Thank you. Yeah, I didn’t know that my husband would bring them either. But I suppose he had no choice as we had nobody else at home.”
Another nurse brought me downstairs. On the way, she told me she was from Jamaica and she wished she could travel the world some soon day. “When you save enough for one country, just go. Don’t wait. And then you will have the money for the next. I’m sure!” I told her. I was in a good mood. I realized I could say it as I had travelled to five continents. Some quiet gratitude slipped into my mind that was getting happier and remembered to spot for the good stuff. I was reminded as well that I was so lucky to get the surgery done a day before a big snowstorm came. Just then, I saw my husband already park the car at the pick-up area, the kids waving their hands inside. I felt loved, as if it was the first time I had been truly loved in my life.
On the way back, my son asked, “Do you feel surprised that I come?”
“Yes, I thought dad would keep you both at home.”
“I asked him if he wanted to come and he said ‘if you and mom feel happy then I’ll come’ and I said of course. So he came!” said my husband.
I gave the kids the apple juice and the muffin I brought back. Those were not the food I’d consume but mom was back from a hospital and should give her hungry kids something to eat, shouldn’t she?
Getting home, the apartment suddenly ran out of hot water for us to shower. So I went downstairs to tell the doorman who was kind enough calling the maintenance team to come and fix. And being back to the lift, I bumped into my neighbor.
“Did you hear me yell yesterday?” I asked her.
“I yell a lot too,” she said. “It’s crazy.”
“Yeah, my son played games and we can’t control his playing. And that’s why I was so mad.”
“My daughter too. She used to be among the top in her class, and now she is like this,” she murmured, lowering her hand down to her knee. “And my little one, oh, I have to be with her all the time for the online school.”
“Are you doing OK?” I asked.
“Meditation and journaling help me a lot.”
“We should speak more some time,” she said, before we waved goodbye.
I felt better. It turned out my son was not that bad. It’s a common thing. It turned out I was not a bad mom either.
Back to the apartment, the maintenance team hadn’t arrived so I told my family that we would just have dinner first and shower later. Like a great plan, after he had the food, my husband checked the water and it was back. “Let me wash the dish tomorrow. Can you shower for Tutti? I just want to rest today,” I asked my husband and he agreed. The happiness in me went up one more level. I was grateful. The shower cleansed my body and also stripped away the weeds in my head.
The book I bought two days earlier also arrived and in ten minutes, I skimmed through it. In one of the pages, it said, “Life is difficult but you are loved.” I showed it to my husband and told him, “This captured my life yesterday and today.”
That night, when we went to bed, I had a review with my son.
“So what have you achieved with your plan today? And what worked?”
“I used iPad for Zoom, and mom, you know what, it passed by so fast because I could really focus!”
“I am glad to hear. Congratulations that you’ve been able to make a bit of progress.”
“And I played from 11.20–1145 in the morning. In the afternoon, I couldn’t as I went with dad to pick up Tutti and then we went to see you.”
“How about the breaks? What did you do?”
“Oh, I played piano, I ran around a bit and I did a bit of Singapore math. And mom, I got 14 rebirths in my game!”
“Congratulations! What helped to have that many?”
“I guess I have brain breaks so I have the energy.”
“So having brain breaks help you focus on your games and using iPad without web sites help you focus on the lectures on Zoom?”
“Would you continue to do it tomorrow?”
“How committed are you to your plan and goal?”
“1000!” he said. “Shall we do three things mom?”
We often do a so-called happiness exercise where the kids share about the three things that make them feel happy about during the day.
“Sure. Tell me the three things that make you feel happy today.”
“I followed my plan. Seeing you at the hospital. And I’ve learnt valuable lessons.”
“What are the valuable lessons?”
“Never take things for granted. I’m sleepy mom. I’d better go to sleep now.”
My daughter had already fallen asleep on my arm while my son left the room.
The love I felt I had for my son, my husband and my daughter was burning bright in my heart, like the red sky behind the leafless tree in the Liberty State Park we saw over the weekend biking and running together. As love settled in, fear, shame, anger had to leave. My logic brain was wiggling back into life.
No, I don’t have to quit my work. I just need ten to fifteen minutes a day with my son, consistently and truly present. I believe in him. He’s a really nice boy indeed. I believe in my husband. He’s the one and only. I believe in my daughter, as I always do.
Beyond the balcony was the pure beauty of calmness and whiteness that wouldn’t have been a reality without an earlier snowstorm. The hurricane in my head was also over. The wound in the past hit me deeply once in a while but I knew each time it gets hold of me, I bounce back and get hold of it better, as long as I keep treasuring the little moments of happiness and replacing the weeds with the flowers in my brain each day.
“Life is difficult but you are loved,” is what I brought into my sleep that night.
*Amy Nguyen is working on a book about her journey of training her mom’s brain to have her all from more peaceful parenting to more solid relationships to successful career pivot and entrepreneurship. Subscribe to her weekly Happier YOU Letter for weekly happiness-fuelled stories and brain-based tips to uplevel your happiness in both work and life.