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The Story of the Slippers (Or Parenting Gone Weird)

Homework I gave to Mark, Ottawa, December 2018

There are two pairs of slippers at the door-sized gap in our doorless kitchen—a blue pair for Feng and a red one for me.

They’ve been there for years, having somehow survived my weekly rubber sole scrubbing and thousands of meals cooked in the kitchen—that’s pretty good for slippers that were probably bought at Dollarama. They’re falling apart now, but we pretend they’re just fine because getting new pairs would feel like a betrayal of those loyal slippers. I’m sure one of these days my in-laws will replace them behind our back, though.

Both Europeans and Asians agree on the fact you shouldn’t wear shoes in your house. I don’t even understand why some people do—I mean, it’s dirty outside, isn’t it? That said, unlike in traditional Chinese households, we don’t have a pair of slippers for each room, just these ones in the kitchen. We go barefoot anywhere else in the house.

Last weekend, Mark came back from my in-laws with a brand-new pair of red, fleece-lined slippers with a black-and-white football pattern at the tip. “I don’t want to scare you, but there’s a ball stuck to your foot,” I joked. He laughed—six-year-old kids are an easy audience.

Mark has never worn slippers at home. I remember buying him a pair of cute dog-shaped slippers in China, but he was at the stage where taking off clothes and footwear was a lot of fun so they ended up at the back of the closet pretty fast. He doesn’t like to wear flip-flops—he also has a pair of Batman-and-Joker Havaianas we brought back from Brazil—and warm slippers tend to be slippery. He doesn’t need indoor shoes anyway, it’s not cold at home and the floors are clean.

But he seemed to have adopted his new football slippers and he wore them all night.

Before he went to bed, I noticed that our slippers and his were lined up neatly at the doorway.

“Which one of you two did that?” I asked, laughing.

Mark turned around. “Oh… that’s me.”

I thought so. Feng and I just leave the slippers wherever they end up, under the table or halfway into the living room.

“That’s cute,” I said.

And also very unusual coming from Mark, the kid who has to be told three times to pick up his damn toys—I just step on a Ninja Turtle ten minutes ago and my left foot is still sore.

The following night, the shoes were lined up again—Feng’s pair, mine and Mark’s.

And suddenly, at 1 a.m., it hit me. Maybe Mark was telling us something. Maybe it was his way, subconsciously or not, to tell us he was feeling excluded, that he wanted to claim his spot in the family.

A family. A universal concept without a universal definition. Who counts as family to you? When do you become a family?

For years, my family was my parents, my siblings, my grandparents and a few selected relatives I felt close to. Feng was—is—the person I loved and I wanted him to join my family but just the two of us weren’t one in my head. Mind you, we got married in 2005 and I still look briefly confused if someone refers to me as the “wife.”

When Mark was born, I was too busy becoming a mother and adjusting to seeing Feng as a father to even consider us as family. It felt overwhelming. Besides, it was easier to think of myself as a member of my French family, an existing structure where I had a role, where I was someone’s child, where I had some responsibilities as the older kid but where there were older, wiser blood relatives who had the final say.

If we were a family, it meant that I was now one of the two people in charge of us and “us” included a needy newborn. If we were a family, it meant that I had to take care of everyone but that no one was here for me.

Kids will rock your world but at first, they kind of shatter it. I liked being a new mom but I couldn’t be a wife, a daughter, a friend, a sister, etc. at the same time. I think it was the same for Feng. We had to focus on Mark and build a new world with him, the rest could wait.

How did Mark feel? Parents are often asked if they start feeling like a mother and a father the second they see their newborn—does a kid feel like his parents’ child the moment he is held for the first time?

Mark is six now, these tough years are mostly behind us. We had plenty of time to adjust. Are we a family? Am I a good mother and a good wife? Does he feel loved? Does he understand that I love Feng and him both and that there’s enough room for everyone in my heart? Three is an odd number. It’s often Feng and I against Mark, Mark and Feng against me, Mark and I against Feng…

I spent the night analyzing the past few months. I worked a lot and I’m often the bad cop—“do your homework!” “Finish eating!” “Go to bed!” Then when I was done, I analyzed the past six years and two months. Does Mark remember these awful nights when he wouldn’t sleep and I was begging him to just let me rest for a bit? Does he remember all the arguments Feng and I had? Most of them seemed to be about Mark but really, we argued because we were exhausted and stressed out like most new parents.

The following day, I decided to have a little chat with Mark.

“I liked the way you organize the slippers at night. Why did you start doing that?”

“Dunno. I don’t like when it’s a mess downstairs.”

Hey, that’s MY line!

“Oh, okay. I thought maybe you wanted to have your own slippers and put it with ours so that you don’t feel left out.”

“Huh? Why would I feel left out? That’s just silly.”

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is called projecting.

Quick. Make a list of stuff you feel guilty about as a parent. Then fucking burn it, because chances are, your kids are just fine.

The slippers, Ottawa, December 2018
The slippers organized by Mark, Ottawa, December 2018
Note Mark left on my desk, he meant “beaucoup d”amour” (“a lot of love” in French), Ottawa, December 2018
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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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