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Saturday, 16 July 2011

As Good as it Gets...

I've written the following story during the summer of 2009. Now my son is 26 and no longer lives with me. 

This afternoon, I took a dip in the backyard pool. I relaxed in the sun, I read a little bit and then lounging in the waterproof chaise, I dozed off. When I opened my eyes, it was 5:30 in the afternoon.  I computed in my head.  I had enjoyed eighty-five minutes of "Peace."  

There is a children's picture book called Five Minutes' Peace.  It is about a Saturday morning at the Large's home.  Mrs. Large, an elephant, needs five minutes to herself, alone.   First, she takes care of her family by preparing breakfast. Then, she heads to the bathroom to relax and have a bubble bath.  She pours herself a cup of tea and sinks in the tub to read the daily paper.  Before a minute has passed, her three kids are in the bathroom spoiling her peace.  I love the book – one of my favorites.

The moral of the story is when you have young kids you cannot even have "five minutes' peace." I am not sure if my kids remember that book, but it left a lasting impression on me. I strongly identified with Mrs. Large, and today I sympathize with all Mrs. Larges who feel that 24 hours is not enough time for a day’s work. 

But then I wonder if Mrs. Large ever thought that those years would go by so quickly and the day would come when she will miss all the commotion. Today I can have all the peace I want.  What wonderful bliss!  But deep in my heart I miss those days – The kids’ homework, the ballet classes, the late night laundry loads, the packing of the next day’s lunches, the early morning start to take the kids to their swim meets or cheerleading practices.  I often wonder how I managed to survive three kids with five years gap in between them and a husband who was absent and absolutely not involved with kids' activities.  

The early days after leaving Iran, because of the political unrest and the Islamic revolution, were challenging. My daughter was four, and I was pregnant with my second child.  Being uprooted, coming to a new country, finding our bearings, and facing many challenges was not our choice and we were not prepared for it. We had to maneuver quickly and understand different possibilities to find a path.  I guess the resilience that comes with being young helped us adjust to unfamiliar surroundings. The real difficulty for me started when I had my second child and then the third and then when the typical day-to-day struggles of American life started.  One of my critical challenges was learning how to be organized and manage my time. I hate to admit but being organized it is still my biggest inadequacy.

One day when my third child was a newborn baby and I was falling behind on my household schedule, my husband’s cousin and his family visited us from Utah.  His wife was a Mormon and they had four kids – 12, 10, 8, and 6.  They had driven all the way from Utah to Los Angeles to be with us for the weekend.  We had two busy days with seven kids around us. We are Armenians but have lived for generations in Iran and have adopted Persian cuisine, which is more sophisticated and gourmet than Armenian.
That day we didn’t make food at home and instead we went out to a Persian restaurant and then to a Mom & Pop grocery store to buy condiments and other specialties of Persian food so they could take back with them to Utah. The wife, an American, wanted to learn about Armenian culture and the preparation of food, in turn I was curious to know how she could possibly manage four kids and a demanding Armenian husband.
I cringed to ask her the question.  I thought it was only “moi” who had difficulty keeping up with so many responsibilities. Another reason preventing me from asking her how she could have the “perfect” life as I imagined: I thought she may think that I am not a capable wife. I also was not sure if my command of English was good enough for such a serious conversation. 
I have preserved that moment in my memory, like a Kodak picture, when finally, at the last minute, we were at our front lawn, saying our goodbyes and the wife was trying to get the kids in the car to return to Utah, when sheepishly, I asked her secret:  "I write down all my chores for the next day, the night before," she answered. “Huh,” I thought to myself in disbelief.  “Was it that simple?” “Would that one thing make all the difference in her life?”  Of course an organized “to do” list, is always a blessing, but there is much more into managing and nourishing a family. I started writing down my chores.  It helped, but only a little. I was still “lost in translation…” 
Finally, on my own, I figured out the secret of being a good domestic manager – it was either to have 1) an involved husband or 2) a reliable housekeeper.  Since my husband was tied up with his own survival issues fighting the daily grind, providing us a good life, the first option was out of the question, but we could afford a housekeeper. I chose to have one. 
I enjoyed seven years of full-time help. Although three of those seven years were spent dealing with sawdust, because we were busy making an addition to our existing home. Having a housekeeper helped me to keep my sanity.
Now that I am writing this, I wonder: how did I survive all those challenges? I feel I have the answer.  My secret was having a positive outlook, not sweating the small stuff, being involved with schools and the community, showing love to my family and above all, getting educated and benefitting from available resources in America.

I took classes through the PTA.  I went to seminars to learn how to manage my time and my life in general.  I picked bits and pieces here and there.  In the late eighties, Tony Robbins and Stephen Covey emerged with their self-help books, Awaken the Giant Within or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Those books were pretty helpful too.

Ask me today about “how to raise kids,” and I’ll give you a nice pitch on the subject.  But then, raising kids was another challenge. I had a really hard time knowing what kind of approach to take in many areas of child rearing – how to discipline them, how to save them from unchartered waters, and how to teach them right from wrong. 

Our lives in a new country were full of uncertainties.  Things were foreign to us and we had a lot of hesitation about American culture.  We had our fears and reservations.  It was the eighties, time for Punk culture – teenagers wearing leather jackets, ripped jeans, chains hanging from their sides, and Mohawk hairstyles with gelled spikes were common sights.  It was scary!  How could we save our kids from the cultural meltdown? The least we could do was to send them to a private school. 

We lived right across from an elementary public school on Virginia Ave in Glendale.  But we signed up our daughter at an Armenian private school in La Canada, twenty minutes away.  For the five years we lived in that home, the idea of sending my daughter to the school right across from us, not even once crossed my mind – talking about the fear of the unknown.   But when she graduated six-grade, then to her wish, she was sent to a public middle school and everything turned out right.  I learned that the public schools were safe, but the key to kids’ success was being involved with school activities.

Back in the eighties knowledge was not at our fingertips. There was no Internet to type “how to be a good parent,” or “how to raise good kids,” and voilà!: you get thousands of answers.  We were on our own. 
When my daughter was a baby, in Iran, I had read Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book on childcare, but the book was written for kids up to two years old.  I am not sure why I didn’t look into reading other books.  But let’s face it, who had the time to read. 

For my enrichment I took a course in child psychology at Glendale Community College.  I learned a few things, but nothing earth-shattering.  My best lessons came from an unlikely source – the anthology  Chicken Soup for the Soul.  Although the book was published fourteen years after we arrived in the United States, when my oldest daughter was already a high school senior, I could still apply its message.

Among many inspiring stories within the book, one was by Gloria Steinem, “The Royal Knights of Harlem,” where she tells how a teacher could make a difference in the lives of his students by initiating a chess club. Another was by Eric Butterworth about how love can conquer many unforeseen troubles.  These two simple stories reaffirmed to me the approach that I had already taken towards my kids.  They became guideposts, giving me confidence, encouragement and the strength I needed for my journey. 

The stories made me realize how important it was to elevate the self-esteem of the kids – not to criticize them. Another helpful tool were the bumper stickers that were around in the early 80s. They said : “Have you hugged your child today?” That was a powerful message. I learned from those stickers the importance of showing love to my kids. 

I hope I have succeeded in conveying the message to my children.  Today my daughter Tina, will not hang up the phone without saying “I love you…” But my oldest daughter, Meldia, is more critical of my ways.  She asks me “Mom, what kind of mother were you that you never told us what to do?”  When I hear that, I smile within. I wanted each of my kids to be their own person.  I didn’t want to influence them with my likes and dislikes or burden them with daily chores. 

I had figured out early that being a role model was more important than telling them what to do. I have a sign in my kitchen saying “Everything grows with Love.”  And I believe in it.  A refrain from a song by Beatles says it all: “Love is all you need.”

There is another refrain that from time to time plays in my head.  It is from the song “I will survive” by Gloria Gaynor – the most popular song on the charts when we arrived in the United States. The year was 1979.  You could hear the song everywhere.  You turned on the radio and it was there.  You went to the mall and it was there.  Although the song is about the personal strength a woman needs after a break-up, I have used the lyrics as a mantra to be strong and conquer all the obstacles in my path. 
          At first I was afraid                                                                              
          I was petrified
          Kept thinking I could never live…
“But I grew strong & learned how to get along…” Today my husband and I have transcended the middle and the turbulent place in our lives. Fortunately our endeavors have turned out right.  We have overcome many hurdles and now we can enjoy the fruits of our hard work and relish the fulfillment of seeing our kids becoming self-reliant adults.  We have reached our desired outcome.

Though I miss the years when my children were growing up—as every parent may because children are meant to fill our lives, I am grateful for where I am standing now.  I take great satisfaction in what I have today. I see the grass greener on my side.  My two daughters have flown the nest.  My son - my baby - is 24, still living with me.  I am dating my husband, the love of my life, and I have all the freedom to follow my dreams and to indulge into my passions.  How much better can life get?


  1. Thanks for the reading! Did you ask Meldia if she had something specific in mind regarding this "you never told us what to do"? I hope she is well and happy :)

    This is not the place to elaborate on child rearing, but I can't help commenting some points: I remember the late nights load of earthen-smudged football-clothing (especially the period of 7 years I lived alone with Malte here). I always dreamt of having a new relationship, but unfortunate mishaps kept coming in the way.

    Luckily, however, the washing machine and other machinery made it possible to have a nice home and clean clothes, and even if I know my son missed another parent there were many good things here. After a year the family were gathered and I was happy to see my son shining bright and being kind and open to all the other family members.

    When he was not so grown-up I used to read stories for him. Sometimes long stories, for hours. Especially "The Little House on the Prairies" and all the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I got the knack of skipping the more boring parts, the parts with so much religious elements which seemed strange to me and him, and later he read the books himself and said: It was boring books - didn't you skip all the boring stuff?

    During those evenings I did not feel like being disturbed all the time. Also preparing food sometimes was a nice experience, relaxing and having a nice time together.

    That was, as you say, not trying to decide for the children what to do, but to experience cooperation and love.

    I am glad you enjoy your freedom to relax and read and write! /Donald

  2. I forgot to write that I, too, miss the late loads of laundry!

  3. I'm so glad you started a blog, Catherine. It is a great way to get to know people better and to learn things, too!
    Carolyn Howard-Johnson,
    Blogging writers' resources at Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites pick,