THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY by JAMES ZERNDT – Marilyn Armstrong

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to headphones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

KoreanWordForButterfly

There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed through lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover, and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s the wrong in her life to have a baby and probably the worst possible place she could be.

She is far from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first-person narrators, both South Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy, and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end, the pain is personal and remarkably similar for each.

There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paperback and Kindle.

MOTHERHOOD WITH BENEFITS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My English friend’s daughter, Katie, just had her first baby. She is 37 and has an established career she loves. Because she lives in England, having her baby will not affect her position at work. She gets nine-months of maternity leave and is guaranteed her job back when her leave is over.

For an American, that whole concept is amazing. Women in America are afraid to take the full legal six-weeks maternity leave for fear of negative repercussions on the job.

I’ve recently read that many women in America are choosing not to have children because motherhood would adversely affect their careers.

Women have to fight harder to establish themselves professionally and prove they are as good as the men they work with. Therefore, they don’t want to give up the gains they fought for make by having kids. They shouldn’t have to, but apparently, mothers are routinely treated with prejudice throughout corporate America.

Mothers are not viewed or treated like childless female workers or even male workers with kids. Mothers’ loyalty and commitment to their professions are always questioned.

Corporate life leaves no room for a family life. At least not for women. Mothers in the workforce have a terrible time balancing work and home life. They’re afraid to give any priority to their families, which creates tremendous stress. And hurts families.

There are other benefits Kate has as a new mother in England which American moms don’t have.

The English National Health Service, though stretched to the limit, still offers invaluable services to mothers of newborns. Kate can call an experienced midwife whenever she needs advice. When Kate was worried about nursing, a midwife with an expertise in lactation issues came to Kate’s house. She sat with Kate while she fed her daughter and offered advice and support. This would have been invaluable to me but is unheard of in America. I would have to find my own expert and pay for her services.

In addition, the midwives, as well as the GP’s in England, pay close attention to the new mother’s mental health. They are on guard for any signs of postpartum depression. This is considered a major part of postnatal care in England. Not in the U.S.

The National Health Service also offers something called the Lullaby Café, a place for new mothers to meet each other under the guidance of a trained midwife. The professional is there to answer questions, offer advice and comfort, as the voice of experience. I would have loved to have something like this when I had my first child. Mommy And Me ‘classes’ were just playgroups, not healthcare.

The new moms in my group had to compare notes and figure things out on our own. Truly the blind leading the blind. We also had to pay for our group activities, until we could form our own groups and meet in each other’s homes.

For Kate, her group experience is both free and educational.

So if you’re going to have a baby, especially if you also want a career, you’re better off if you’re British than American. Given our broken and morally corrupt healthcare system, that’s hardly a big surprise!

 

A POSITIVE PARENTING MOMENT – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I had a brief shining moment as a parent. I did something right. It felt right then and I still believe that it was right now. I even think that my daughter, Sarah, would agree.

It has to do with Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah, which took place in January of 1998. We started planning it in 1997, when Sarah was twelve. Sarah has always been a very organized, efficient person. She could reorganize her closet, on her own, when she was five. So, my brilliant idea was, why not give Sarah the lead in planning her Bat Mitzvah events! She loved the idea.

Sarah at twelve years old

I gave her the budget and off we went to the invitation lady, the potential venues, the party planner, the florist, etc. Sarah got the final word on all decisions (after some maternal prodding and advice) as long as she stayed within the budget. That got tricky, which was the point of the exercise.

I remember, at one point, she fell in love with some fancy invitations. But, she realized that if she spent the extra money there, she’d have to cut back on the party favors for her friends. It was a carefully thought out decision. She finally went with the simpler invitations and the better favors.

Invitation Sarah picked

She had to use a calculator to plan her menu. For table decorations, she decided to save money on flowers. So she used balloons and paper decorations to supplement the very basic floral treatments on each table.

It was an enjoyable as well as an educational process. Sarah took great pride in doing everything herself. She learned about budgeting, time management and other sophisticated organizational skills.

The event was beautiful and lots of fun. I think it also had more meaning for Sarah because the day’s festivities were a result of her own input and effort. She not only had a memorable coming of age party, she actually grew up a lot in the process.

Sarah at the evening party

I’m proud of Sarah for handling everything so gracefully, maturely and responsibly. I’m proud of myself for giving the reins to the soon to become Jewish “woman”. We both benefitted from the experience and Sarah blossomed. A+ for the Bat Mitzvah, A+ for parenting.

Sarah and me at the morning services at the Temple

 

 

DIFFERENT LEARNING STYLES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I didn’t know it growing up, but I have several learning disabilities, including ADD. I was actually diagnosed with ADD in my sixties. The medication works wonderfully but it keeps me from sleeping, so I can only take it once in a while.

I learned of my other learning disabilities when my son was diagnosed in college. I realized that I have been plagued by the same disabilities that he has. When I was young, I was just considered anxious and a slow learner.

David in college

From high school on, through college and law school, I had to put in way more time than my peers did to learn class material and do well in school. Here’s what I had to do to master the material I needed to know for exams. I had to underline the reading material when I read it for the first time. Then I had to go back and reread the underlining, highlighting the most important parts. Then I had to reread the highlighting and turn it into an extensive outline. That detailed outline then had to be condensed into a shorter outline that I would read over and over until I had it memorized.

I also had to take copious notes during classes. I filled several notebooks by the end of each semester. It puzzled me that often, when I read over my notes, it was as if I was reading the material for the first time. I often had no memory of parts of the class lectures.

Me in high school

It turns out that this is a symptom of a learning disability. I forget what it’s called. But it basically means that I can’t aurally absorb the content of the lecture while I’m physically taking notes on it. The act of note taking itself cancels out my ability to learn and retain what I am hearing. I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time – and remember what I was doing.

To study for a test, I went through a similar process with my notes than I did with the reading material. I had to read over my notes and highlight the key passages. I then had to go back and reread the highlighting and incorporate the information into my voluminous outline from the reading material. My master outlines were often 20-30 pages long.

Me in college

It turns out that there’s a physiological reason why I had to go through that laborious process just to learn what I needed to know for a test. Another learning disability involves short term and long term memory. Some people only need to hear or read something once or twice before that piece of information is transferred from the short term memory section of the brain to the long term memory section. For me and for my son, we have to be exposed to that piece of information maybe four or five times before our brains move it from short term to long term memory.

The good news for us, is that people like us are often better able to use the information and integrate it with other information in our brains. But it takes us longer to remember it in the first place.

Me in law school

My first husband, Larry, was at the opposite end of the spectrum learning wise. He had a mind like a sponge. He heard or read something once and he knew it. It was very frustrating for me to watch him study when we were in law school together.

Larry just listened in class. He took minimal notes, usually only jotting down a word or two to remind himself of the subject matter discussed that day. When he studied for a test, he just flipped through the text book, refreshing his memory of the material covered. He used to urge me to stop taking notes – to just listen and absorb in class. He didn’t understand that I couldn’t. I would never remember what had been discussed unless I wrote it all down.

Larry’s quick study abilities got him into trouble with his first year study group. Study groups are an essential part of the first year of law school. Five people get together and study for tests. Each person outlines one of the five first year classes for the other four. One person would have a hard time outlining all five classes. There was just too much material.

Larry in law school

Larry was assigned Torts as his subject to outline for his study group. When they met around exam time, everyone brought their ten or so page typed outlines. Everyone except Larry. He brought a single legal sheet of paper with, basically the chapter headings of the text book hand written on it. That was all he needed to study for the exam. He had ‘learned’ the material as he went along during the semester.

His fellow classmates were livid. Larry didn’t understand what their problem was. He didn’t even know how to write a detailed outline. The four other study group members had to divide up the Torts material between them and go home and outline the class themselves. Larry got an A in Torts. None of the others did. They were not happy with Larry!

So I have first hand experience with the wide range of learning styles that people can have. I am, unfortunately, on the slow end of the learning curve. But at least I now understand why. It’s not my ‘fault’. That’s just the way my brain works. I don’t beat myself up about it any more or feel bad because of it. I’m jealous of faster learners, but I accept that this is just who I am.

COME TO THINK OF IT

Getting old isn’t all that bad, come to think of it.

There was a question on my local Facebook page asking for suggestions about local pediatricians. I suddenly realized … I don’t know any pediatricians. Considering my son is 48 and my granddaughter is 21, that ought to be no big surprise … but it was. I don’t remember exactly when I became free of worrying about “kid stuff.” As long as Kaity was a child, it was still part of my world, if only indirectly. But now … it’s finished.

I’m no longer worried about the routes for school buses. I’m not looking for a great playground — or wondering how many pairs of shoes the child will need this year. I may be wondering whether or not I can afford to get her a better camera, but that’s a grown up concern. No more am I wrapped in the world of children.

Do I miss it?

Are you kidding?

I won’t be packing lunch or overseeing homework assignments. I will not have to listen to the kid lying about how he did his homework during study hall and trying to decide whether to call him on it, or say “fuck it” and move on.

I won’t need to update my résumé. I won’t be commuting to a faraway office or planning a vacation based on a two-week vacation schedule. I might not get any vacation, but on the positive side of that equation, I don’t really need a vacation. A short break to visit friends will do nicely.

I will probably only set my alarm half a dozen times during the coming year.

There are worse things than being old. Retirement. Way to go!

DOING WHAT YOU LOVE, LOVING WHAT YOU DO – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My mother was a psychologist and my father was a psychoanalyst. They both practiced as therapists. It seemed like the greatest profession and I grew up wanting to be a therapist too. You get to help people but you can be your own boss and set your own schedule. I always thought I would go to medical school, like my Dad, and become a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst.

Unfortunately, it turned out that I sucked at science. After my first year in college, I realized that I would never get good enough grades in the sciences to get into medical school. So I followed my interests and became an American Studies major, with a minor in history. Toward the end of my college career, I announced that I would become a therapist by going to social work or psychology grad school.

My father went ballistic. He was actually famous in his profession. He was devastated at the thought that his daughter would not go to medical school. ‘Just’ being a therapist, without a medical degree, was unthinkable for any daughter of his. I would have been an embarrassment.

Like a young, insecure idiot, I bowed to his wishes and gave up my dream. I realized I could go to law school if I just took the LSAT exam. So that’s what I did. I basically chose a career based on where I could go to grad school — with the least amount of hassle. I was interested in the law, but not excited. I had no idea what it meant to be a practicing lawyer, day-to-day.

I made it through law school, still not really motivated to practice law. It turned out that the only kind of law I was really interested in, found intellectually challenging, was litigation, or trial practice. But litigators had to put in crazy, unpredictable hours and my husband was already doing that. I wanted children and didn’t think I could handle a demanding career, a demanding husband, running our lives and bringing up kids. I don’t thrive on stress and hyperactivity – they sap me and overwhelm me. I ended up being overwhelmed anyway, at home, with a bi-polar husband and one child with psychological and learning issues.

So I opted for a small, general practice law firm in New York City. I did contracts, trusts and estates, some leases, etc. I was bored out of my mind. Lots of paperwork and endless bureaucracy to negotiate. Not stimulating or gratifying in any way. I couldn’t wait to get pregnant so I could quit and become a stay at home Mom. Being a Mother was the one thing I was really excited about.

It turns out that the day my son was born, two months prematurely, I found my ideal career. I loved being a Mom and managing a home for my family. I worked hard, with no weekends off and few vacations. I was never bored. I always felt challenged by whatever phase my kids were going through. I was happy and satisfied with my life style.

I never looked back or regretted my decision to leave the law for motherhood. The decision I regret was appeasing my father and not pursuing the career I really wanted, in whatever way I wanted. Had I found a career I loved, my life would have played out differently. I could have worked part-time as a psychologist while my kids grew up, like my Mom did. (At that time, part-time work or job sharing was almost non-existent in law firms). I would also have had a career to go back to when my kids left home. It would have been nice to have a job I loved to fill the empty nest years, in my 50’s and 60’s.

What is depressing to me now is that I gave up the chance to fulfill my dreams of being a therapist. And I gave it all up to assuage my father’s ego. I wish I could go back now and tell my 21-year-old self to stand up to my Dad. To just go for the life I wanted. What makes it worse is that my Dad and I had a very limited and strained relationship. He was not really involved in my life. Except to step in and put the kibosh on my career choice.

I loved my job as a home maker and Mom. But I could also have loved my job as a therapist. And, I would have never felt I missed out on a big part of life.

PARENTING CLASSES SHOULD BE MANDATORY – by ELLIN CURLEY

To get a driver’s license, you have to take a course and pass two tests, one written and one practical. To be a teacher, you need a master’s degree and years of specialized training, academic and on-the-job. To do the hardest, most important job on the planet — parenting — there are no requirements. None. Zip. No required preparation of any kind. No training. No test. You’re on your own. The first time I ever held a baby, I was six months pregnant with my first child.

I spent this past weekend with family in a house with a young mom, Jennifer, her eight-year-old daughter Jayda, and her two-year-old son Jase. I saw firsthand the tremendous advantage of training for parenthood. Jennifer had been a grade school teacher, trained in early childhood behavior and education. She is now a principal in an elementary school.

She was the best parent I’ve ever seen. She had mad skills!

jen-and-kids

Jennifer had clearly studied child development and the best ways to handle young kids. She stayed mellow whatever was going on, so she was able to use her knowledge. In nearly three days, I never saw her lose her temper — or even her cool.

She was amazingly consistent with both children. Consistency is critical and was something I could never achieve. Every time Jase did something he wasn’t supposed to, like throwing something, he got a matter of fact, short time out. No drama, no anger. When told he needed a time out, he said “Yes, Mama” and went quietly.

jase

Jennifer knew how to distract and redirect a hyper-active and sometimes antsy toddler. Jase never reached the point of meltdown and neither did anyone else. He went down for naps and to bed without fuss because Mom was gentle but firm. She made it clear that there was no negotiation possible.

She also managed to spend time with Jayda. She got the two kids to interact peacefully. There was no sibling rivalry or fights for Mom’s attention. Peace reigned for more than 48 straight hours with only a few short bouts of toddler tears. In defense of all other mothers reading this, this child was an angel with a wonderful, happy disposition. He also had other relatives around to help entertain him.

But I could see in Jennifer’s actions textbook child-rearing techniques I’d read about. I believe those techniques and knowledge let Jennifer feel confident and in control. This, in turn, allowed her to stay calm and handle situations rationally and intelligently. She spread the calm to her kids. It was awesome. Humbling to watch.

all-4

I was a good parent but I had an ideal in my head to which I was never able to attain. Jennifer embodied that ideal. I’m sure she has the innate temperament to be a wonderful mother. But I’m also sure she was helped by the practical tools her training gave her. They made it possible for her to reach the goal of most parents: to be the best parent we can be.

We can all use all the help we can get!