Eva, 5, and Isa, 2, have matching shoes. They are somewhat-translucent, magenta Mary Janes with a single strawberry on each strap. The other day I was helping Isa slide into hers and she pointed out Eva’s pair, which were much bigger, explaining the smaller ones were hers because she was two and “jie jie” (older sister) was five. “But when I’m five and jie jie is two I will have the big ones,” she said.
I love that concept — that you can grow or shrink — that you can grow older and younger.
We tell Eva that she should eat healthy food so she can grow taller and taller. The conclusion she’s drawn is if you eat unhealthy food, changes happen in reverse. So, one time she told me that if I wanted to be a baby again, I could simply eat a lot of french fries.
Just like that, she’s one. Luna’s sisters, Eva and Isa, helped her blow out her birthday candle. But Luna took charge of the doljabi ceremony, which went differently than Isa’s. (The tradition is that on your first birthday you choose an item from a “destiny platter” representing a future career or life.) Isa went straight for the microphone and held on tight. Luna touched the soccer ball, and then something else, but dropped them quickly before choosing a wad of Korean money and really committing to it.
All our babies were smiley, but Luna is probably the smiliest. She’s also the picture of serenity. She’s surrounded by a sustained level of chaos in the form of her sisters at all times, but she just goes on, stuffing strawberries in her face, trying to share them, padding around on all fours, trying out new toys by putting them in her mouth, all completely unaffected by whatever screaming fits or tantrums are going on her around her. These days Luna enjoys trying to walk by cruising around, holding onto furniture, chasing our cat Caesar, and feeding herself — she has always been interested in feeding herself while her middle sister Isa still loves it when other people feed her. People have different preferences.
What I’ll remember: The feeling of newborn Luna’s wispy hair tickling my chin when she nuzzled on my chest to sleep. Her tiny Gremlin noises in those first weeks. Her dive-bombing a boob for a snack. Her simultaneous hiccup + fart situation that went on until she was about three months old. Her star turn in the most popular of the Elise Tries videos.
This is the first time since October 2014 that I have not been pregnant with, or nursing, a child. I feel a new freedom and a sentimental melancholy at once. I’m adjusting to being “just me” again and so grateful for what my body has produced, ceaselessly, for three-and-a-half years. So much production of one thing or another! I probably should take vitamins.
Eva has this exaggerated, four-year-old way of asking “what’s happening” by punching each word out: “What. Is. Happening.” She never uttered it yesterday, but it would have been appropriate for every travel snafu we ran into starting from the moment we arrived at the airport check-in counter at 10 in the morning. First, our noon flight had been pushed back by four hours. Then, I realized I left baby Luna’s passport at home, because I packed passports still thinking we were a family of four. Whoops. Then, a more severe passport snafu for her dad: Matty didn’t have six months left on his passport before its expiration date, so the airline straight up would not let him fly. The Matty situation required a lift from the embassy (which, thanks to having friends who are in consular affairs at the embassy, got him on the access list to get a new passport within hours). But even still, we had to leave him behind.
The Luna situation required calling back the driver who brought us to the airport, driving an hour+ through typical maddening Seoul traffic back HOME to get the passport, turning around and taking a train to the airport, get to the security checkpoint and have Eva’s boarding pass not clear due to a hyphen, walking her BACK to the counter on the other side of the departure hall, getting the hyphen fixed, going through security as a family of five (since Matt’s left behind, I have our helper Yani THANK GOD), then getting to the airport tram.
We had Isa in a stroller so this required an elevator. After attempts to take three different elevators — none of them air conditioned — all were out. We finally get to the gate via escalators and tram and that’s when Eva starts tantruming out because she’s hot and tired from all the walking. Our flight’s delayed another hour, Isa needs snacks, I have three-month-old baby Luna pressed on me the entire time with a look of “What. Is. Happening.” We finally get on the plane and amazing, have two empty seats next to us in our row, but before we can snag them to allow Isa and Eva to stretch out across them to sleep, Koreans rush up like they’re fleeing a war and belt themselves in them, leaving Yani stuck holding 30 pound Isa in a single seat while Isa sleeps for HALF THE FLIGHT. By the time we arrived at midnight, after first leaving the house for the airport at 9am, the girls were frayed but holding it together, I was sweatier than I’ve ever been and sleepy, Yani was just relieved to have Isa’s hot body not pressed against her and Luna was wishing she was back in the womb, I imagine.
Anyway I’m writing this down so I won’t forget yesterday. It was our first trip as a family of five and only four of us actually made it on the journey. (Yani became our fifth yesterday, and it was and is absolutely critical to our functioning.) And while we ran into annoying frustrations, it comes with the territory. (Ahem, like how our flight to leave the US and move to Seoul became several flights after the first attempt to move from our home country was aborted after we’d boarded and sat on a tarmac in Dulles for six hours. And still not nearly as bad as the night I slept in the baggage claim of DFW Airport.) Frankly it was an awesome day depending on how you look at it. But for that super long delay, we wouldn’t have had time to get Luna’s passport. But for our amazing friend at the embassy who we could just call up and get on the American Citizen Services access list, Matty wouldn’t have a new passport so fast, fast enough to get on a flight tonight to see us tomorrow.
And the destination after our arduous march was Bali — paradise! Over mango juice this morning at breakfast al fresco, Eva said to me unprompted, “Momma, Bali is so beautiful. Like 100 beautiful,” awarding imaginary points to it on her arbitrary (but valid) Eva scale.
To mark Valentine’s Day, I dug into my Evernote (where I obsessively save links of interest) and found all the reads I’d tagged with “love.” For this Mother’s Day, I dove back in and cobbled together memorable links on motherhood, a topic that teaches, inspires and challenges me every moment. While I never grew up imagining my wedding/getting married, I always knew instinctively I’d be a mom.
As I write this, I’m surrounded by the singing, stomp-running and occasional screaming of three girls under the age of five, all who call me momma. My love for them is the deepest deep, and becoming a mom made me love my own mother — and need her — even more than I always had. When I was nursing eldest daughter Eva that first week of her life, my mom would stand over me with a bowl of soup and actually feed me as I was feeding my own baby, since my hands weren’t free. To my mom, my 30 year-old body was still her responsibility to nourish, just as I was doing for Eva. I recall so vividly a magical symmetry in the three of us together in those early days of Eva’s life.
Not all of us have kids, but we all have moms, so these links are for everyone.
While Isa isn’t Korean, she WAS born in Seoul last summer, so we followed Korean tradition and did a doljabi ceremony for her.
Under the tradition, the one-year old gets a “destiny table” of items to choose from that align with various professions — stethoscope, computer mouse, pencil, money, etc. She went for the microphone without hesitation. But then followed up with her second choice, a gavel.
Following American tradition, there was an incident with fire and cake, in which she straight up took her hand and grabbed the flame. Mistakes were made.
Isa is my second daughter and as many of you know, she’s a rainbow baby, born after two miscarriages in a row. She’s been a superpower sunshine since she was born — the smiliest, snuggliest and sweetest blessing. We love her goofy tendencies: putting her full face into everything she wants to investigate (like the cats) and sniff them violently like Mary Katherine Gallagher, her ravenous appetite but shockingly slow eating, her growl and her laugh (which is a combined laugh-growl), and her obsession with putting items around her neck — necklaces, purses, headphones. Mostly headphones. We love you, Isa. You truly rock.
Yet again I was standing over several bottles of my breastmilk splayed out in a bin My bag got pulled for an extra look at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport security checkpoint, something that happens pretty often when you’re carrying lots of liquids, I guess. The Japanese security agent pointed out the milk in plastic bottles he had removed exceeded the 150ml limit. (At least I think that’s what he was saying. I don’t speak Japanese, and he kept pointing at the 150ml line on the bottle.) Then he pulled up a giant blue plastic jug that looked like one of those tanks you carry spare gasoline in. It was half-full with a swamp-colored mix of whatever previous passengers must have dumped out. He started unscrewing the lid of one of my bottles.
“Oh no, no,” I said, starting to panic. “This is MY milk. It’s from my body. I can’t dump it. I can’t.” I started doing the two-hands-squeezing-in-the-air motion, in front of my chest. I have made this hand gesture for “boob sucking” so many times that I can only remember a single trip in Asia when I didn’t do it.
He turned pink. My arm hairs were stood up. The passenger who could understand English standing nearby started cracking up.
“Oh ok ok ok ok,” the Japanese guard said, sheepishly. I packed up and scurried to the customs check.
I pass through two airports a week, nearly every week, as part of my job as a foreign correspondent. I’m also the breastfeeding mom of an infant. I love nursing, I do not love pumping. But to continue doing the former, I have to do the latter when I’m away from baby. Which means every time I travel without daughter Isabel, a milk-extracting contraption powered by batteries or an AC adapter must travel with me, along with attachments and the storage bottles and ice packs necessary to keep the milk from going bad before it’s transferred home.
As the baby gets close to turning one, a milestone at which she can drink cow’s milk instead of mine, I am preparing to stop globetrotting with my constant companion — the breast pump and the milk.
What a year we’ve had together.
There was today’s close call, when I almost had to pour out the four bottles full of “liquid gold” I’d extracted from my body with the suck-simulating device I strap myself to in between conducting interviews and other reportage.
There was the time two Beijing airport guards took out the plastic suction parts — the catalog calls them ‘breastshields’ — in front of a line of people behind us, examining them like a frog they were about to dissect for 9th grade biology class.
“We’ve never seen one of these pass through before,” one of the twenty-something year old guards said to me, of the machine.
There was the other time a Chinese guard demanded I show him all the parts of the pump, how the tubes connected to the base, and to turn it on before he let it pass.
There are the questions at security about where is the baby, to which I have to explain, good god if they baby were with me I wouldn’t have this overpriced contraption instead, would I?
Then there are the hassles I brought upon myself, due to carelessness. The first time I fired up the pump in my new home of Seoul, I blew out the pump’s power pack when I plugged it into Korea’s 220V. (The device was designed for America’s 120V.) Without that I couldn’t operate it, so a friend with military ties had to rush on to the U.S. base to buy me a new machine from the commissary.
Rule of thumb: Never leave any part at home. When I forgot to pack the critical suction cups, er, ‘breastshields,’ for a five-day trip to Beijing, I spent an entire morning on an odyssey to Chinese malls instead of reporting, because I HAD TO find parts close enough to what I needed so I could express my boobs before passing out from pressure and pain.
Which is why a photographer I’d just met had to see (and hear) my pumping from the backseat of a cramped rental car as we drove through Fukushima’s temporary housing projects. Or why I have to reluctantly link up with the clunky device while in the middle seat of a plane, a blanket thrown over me and hoping not to wake the dudes sleeping on both sides.
The day President Obama visited Hiroshima I had about 20 minutes before he arrived to express my breasts in a bathroom stall. The State Department and U.S. Embassy press wranglers rushed my milk to the kitchen of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum so it could be refrigerated until the event was over. When the museum restaurant with the fridge closed, the Japanese staff had expertly packed ice packs around the bottles to keep cool until I was done working. (The Japanese are serious about their packaging.)
Before I know it, this spinoff story of my Asia adventure, the one starring an awkwardly purring machine, will be over. Maybe I’ll miss it, most likely I won’t. And either way, I’ll always have a reminder of the year of pumping endlessly. It’s the wee one at home, who’s the real power source for the pumping.
Before I moved to Asia, my notion of freedom largely existed in the realm of figurative freedom, that is, to live in the moment and be free of worry about what was next, or what was buzzing over on my smartphone. How to live freely was notional — a mental freedom, because the other kinds were a given.
A year into this Asian life, my entire construct of freedom has changed. The areas where freedom was default — the freedom to breathe without endangering my health, the freedom to browse the Internet without hitting walls, the freedom to speak and be understood, are no longer a given.
I have come to know the challenge of not having a common language in which to communicate with sources, and just in everyday life. Korea and Japan, my coverage areas, are famously homogenous societies. In Korea, the number of “foreigners” living here is three percent. My Korean interpreter is excellent, but there is a certain captivity when having to speak through someone else’s voice; something I never understood so clearly until living this way for the past year. Would I be able to get that one interview if I were expressing myself properly, or if there were a way to do nuance when speaking through a proxy? Is there just an entire world that could be unlocked to us if we could understand what the hell was going on around us?
It is my job to monitor North Korea, but North Korean sites are more accessible from the firewalled Chinese internet than they are in Seoul, where South Korea blocks North Korean news and information sites under a Cold War-era national security law, a holdover from the time of fear that communist ideology would creep south of the border. Getting on trusted Western news sites in China, meanwhile, makes you long for the dial-up internet speeds of the early 1990s. VPNs can help, but only so long as the Chinese censors don’t kick you off of them just as you’re getting connected.
The environment. Each morning my first phone check is not for the news or my emails but instead, the levels of the harmful, invisible particulate matter, PM2.5, to decide whether I can exercise outdoors, or whether the baby gets to go out on a walk in the afternoon. On many days this year, the levels have been too high for my girls to go outdoors. “The air is bad today” coming out of the mouth of a three-year-old is quietly heartbreaking. The hacking cough sounds of a baby are even worse.
In March, my husband, daughters and my parents stayed for a long weekend in Okinawa after I finished up some reporting there. The six of us were walking to dinner (we had found a Red Lobster in Japan and I’ve never met a chain restaurant I didn’t love). My mom and my older daughter, Eva, disappeared for a few minutes. Later when they caught up with us my mom told me they had come upon a steep grassy hill and young Japanese kids were rolling down the hill. Eva found it puzzling and delightful. She tried to do it, but it took her a few attempts before she could figure it out — the girl had never rolled down a hill before, because she hasn’t grown up around enough grass or hills to do so, nor does she get to play outside that much. I was aghast; I grew up a tomboy in the suburbs, playing in creeks in the summertime and sledding down neighborhood slopes when it snowed.
This kind of existence has made me value small, yet huge, freedoms I never thought about before, and consider them more fully when deciding what to do next. Millions of people in China and India’s megacities have it far worse when it comes to pollution, and millions of children are growing up breathing the same air my children would breathe if I moved to, say, Shanghai, for a couple of years. But, I have a choice; many of their parents do not have the same choice. 99 percent of the time my parenting philosophy is kids are adaptable and flexible; they can easily fold into their families’ lives. But I feel like pollution and lifelong lung capacity falls in the one percent of instances where I should adapt to what they need, first.
Internet hassles and lost in translation moments are sort of the pleasures of a job as a foreign correspondent, challenges that shape you and mold you, over time. I find pollution far more pernicious because its effects may not be known for awhile, if ever. The privileges of my life and work so far mean I’ve never had a “I can’t have it all” moment until now. I think this is it. I want kids who get to go outside and to cover arguably the biggest global story right now. The former has outweighed the latter.
This is my morning routine, as of the past few months: Wake up around 6am to the sound of Baby Isabel murmuring and cooing in her crib. She never cries when she wakes up, she just says some stuff like, “Nnnnhn, breh, muhh, arrehh” and occasionally, “Mamamamamamamama.”
She sleeps behind us in a walk-in closet, because we’re space-limited and her sister Eva hasn’t warmed to the idea of letter her sister share a room with her yet. Anyway.
After I let Isa make her noises for a good 10 minutes so that I can slowly wake up, I or Matty go get her, and then I plant her face on my boob for feeding. She gulps down one boob, then switches to the other all while both of us are half asleep. Then I pass her off to Matty, who will burp and return her to her crib for anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour. The reason the timing is not exact is because Isa is consistently awakened later in the morning by her own poop (cause who wants to sleep with poop on their ass) or her sister. Each morning, once the sun is brightly shining, we hear the thud-thud-thud-thud-thud of three-year-old Eva, whose footsteps slow as they approach the master bedroom. She creeps in quietly wearing a mischievous grin, and knowing full well that we’re going to tell her not to wake her sister. (She always ends up somehow waking her sister.)
Then Matty does Eva’s morning get-ready-for-school routine, Isabel gets handed off to our helper, Yani, and I go back to sleep. At least I try. This is only somewhat successful depending on whether Eva decides she only wants me to do her hair before school in the morning, and what I find in my email. If I get some sort of email that wakes my brain, I’m up for the day. If neither a hair nor email incident happens, I sleep until about 9:30am.
It sounds hellish but I keep thinking that someday I will miss this routine.
My baby daughter Isabel has a bottomless appetite, it seems. Hard to know for sure since she only started eating solid foods two months ago. She prefers to feed herself, double-fisting crackers or fruit (strawberries are her favorite, though she’s recently gotten into Asian pears). That she only has two bottom teeth doesn’t deter her. A common occurrence lately is she’ll feed herself out at restaurant, and then half an hour later I’ll notice her taking some food from her fist and shoving it into her mouth. She will have had clung to that french fry or pretzel stick long past meal time, saving it for later, to eat in the cab. Perhaps it’s a primal survival hack.