Faking It

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I am afraid. Almost all the time, in the back of my head, there is a low rumble of fear: that my husband will be hurt on his drive home from a business trip; that my older daughter won’t be safe on the bus and the train; that my younger daughter will be bullied; that I will suffer from the same health problems as my parents and grandparents; that there will be war; that we will lose our health insurance; that someone will open fire on everyone I love. During the years of my younger daughter’s most intense medical drama, that fear and worry vibrated through every move I made, consciously and publicly.

These days, though, I experience fear in much the same way that I absorb nutrients — unknowingly, unaware until the worry stops, when I realize that something has released in the back of my shoulders. It seems like an instinct to be imagining the worst. Perhaps it’s a mild form of post-traumatic stress, from a time when the worry was well-founded.

Right now, though, I’m sitting in my kitchen shaking over my coffee after what appears to be an unfounded school shooting threat at the high school my older daughter attends and where, today, my younger daughter will visit for a fine arts field trip. Overnight, I slept fitfully as the police investigated. I waited to make the determination of whether to send my daughters to school and, in the end, after vague but reassuring emails from the school, I sent them off. I breathed in the scent of their shampoo and told them how dearly I loved them, and I released them into the wayward world.

My older daughter knew what was happening and trusted in my decision. My younger daughter did not know, and I opted not to tell her. As I navigated both choices consciously, based on their personalities and inclinations, I felt my hands shaking and tucked them into my sleeves. When they left, I used my shaking hands to make coffee and sit in the silence.

In a few days, I will begin a month of conscious daily writing as part of the Nano Rebels, a group of non-fiction writers participating in National Novel Writing Month. As always, I am committed to writing the story of my conscious parenting during my daughter’s years of medical uncertainty. As I took stock of myself this morning, I thought I would re-open the most recent chapter I’ve been writing, and, as always, the universe provided me with exactly what I needed. Here is an excerpt from this chapter-in-progress, in which I discuss the ways we approached our younger daughter’s preschool-aged tantrums. They were epic and, most likely, related to her constant hunger, something we wouldn’t realize for years. We’d been seeing a therapist to help us manage these violent tantrums:

[Our therapist] had taught me to sit down on the floor, cross-legged, and pull Sammi into my lap with her back against my front, firmly. Then, I had to wrap my legs around her lap and hold her hands down at her sides. If I did this right, it worked like a human straightjacket for Sammi, keeping her from banging her head, biting anything, or throwing herself backward onto the hardwood floor.

This accomplished more than just keeping Sammi safe during a rageful tantrum, which came less and less frequently as she approached age four. It also forced both Sammi and I to see that I could – and would – keep her safe. Holding her as she screamed and flailed fruitlessly felt, in many ways, a lot like the way I experienced myself at her bedside in the operating room. I was calm because I had to be calm; I was there because I was the best possible person to be with her; I did it because I was her mother and she needed me. On the floor of our living room, wrapped tightly around her as she bucked and thrashed, I was touching her with more of my body than I had even used when she was a baby growing in my womb. I felt, sometimes, as though I was pouring some kind of spiritual nutrition into her during those moments. It was composed of primal nurturing, nurturing that has at its core the protective properties of pure love.

Years later, I read about the proven health benefits of something called “the 20 second hug.” Research by the department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (http://www.reuniting.info/download/pdf/WarmContactPaper.pdf) showed that a 20 second hug between romantic partners lowed blood pressure and heart rate far more than 20 seconds of rest. In remembering the time of my parenting life when I regularly sat down and wrapped my entire body around Sammi for between one and five minutes, I recall the way that she eventually went limp, sniffled and shook with a deep sigh, and said, “I’m ready to be calm, Mommy.”

Usually by then, I, too, was calm.

 

As parents, we are often called upon to be calm for our children, to put on a “brave face” so that we don’t scare them. This is not to say that there is no place for vulnerability or honesty in our parenting; after all, children also need to see that emotions are real and deserve to be honored. Sometimes, though, as the central nervous system takes over my thoughts, being forced to be calm for my children eventually brings me the same relief it brings them. In that way, every time I can “fake it til I make it” with regard to the low hum of fear in the center of my chest, the more likely I will be able to feel that calm for real.

It’s a hard day. There will be more of them. I will sit with the fear, drink my coffee, and listen for the all clear.

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Do Not Undo My Work

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All around the country, parents are furious.

Some of them went to great lengths to have their children. They went through infertility treatments for years, day after day of injections, procedures, medications and mood swings and worry, meditating on the child they saw in their dreams. They held their breath through much of their and their partners’ pregnancies, that child’s existence suspended by threads in their hearts. They held their partners’ hands through every ultrasound, every test, every kick and wiggle. When their children finally arrived, those arrivals were the most hard-won battle they’d ever faced.

And those parents are wondering now if, one afternoon, a storm might blow the windows of their houses in, eliminate their access to electricity and running water, coat their walls in mold and make that child, that blessing they begged for, sick. And that they might be holding that child in their arms on the roof, waiting for relief that spells out that child’s survival, if it comes. And those parents, imagining the roof, the cold, the squirming frightened child, are angry.

Some parents knew their child was waiting somewhere for them, if not in the cells of their bodies, then elsewhere: in a foster home, in a pregnant woman not ready or able to care for a child, nearby or across the state or across the world. Those parents waited for years — through paperwork, through interviews, through false starts and second thoughts, through faith and desperation, until one day that baby or that toddler or that teenager joined them in their living room, forever, making them a family.

And those parents are wondering now if, one afternoon, they’ll receive a call from their child’s school about an active shooter in the area. They’ll wonder if every door will be carefully locked, if every student will be safe, if their child — their sought-after, destiny-made child — will be inside, or will the call come at recess time? They are wondering where the nearest gun shop is. They are wondering where the nearest guns are. And those parents, imagining the classrooms of frightened children, imagining their frightened children, are angry. Continue Reading…

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No Way Through It But to Do It

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She is at the kitchen counter, tongue jutted out over her top lip, pencil in an awkward grip, tears rolling down her face.

“There’s so much of this!” she says, between strangled sobs.

I chop carrots, a profile at a counter perpendicular to the one where her science book, notebook, tablet, and half-eaten bowl of cheese crackers are scattered. Her hair is in her eyes, and she keeps angrily tucking it behind her ear. I put down the knife, rinse my hands, wipe them on the back pockets of my jeans, and walk gently and slowly around the edges of the counter. I pull her hair back and wrap it into a quick ponytail, and then I kiss the top of her warm, slightly-sweaty head.

“No way through it but to do it,” I tell her.

She falls forward, her head in her arms, and cries, still gripping the pencil. I rub her back, softly, and rest my cheek on her neck to whisper in her ear, little useless things about getting a drink of water, taking a five minute break, finishing her snack. She growls and rises, determined through tears to get it done.

I straighten and make my way back toward the carrots, noting that her sister is on the couch in the next room, laptop propped on her knees, papers everywhere, water bottle cuddled against her side. She’s absentmindedly eating a package of dried seaweed, listening to music, and occasionally holding her phone up at just the right angle for a photo containing only half her face. She looks up, and I blow her a kiss. She smiles, waves, and catches it.

The battle rages on at the counter.

I wonder what made my two daughters so different: the older one go-with-the-flow, flexible, arched toward satisfaction; and the younger one frustrated, questioning, mourning, her happiness easily won but equally easily lost. Continue Reading…

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A Letter to My Friends Coping with IEPs and 504s

Dear friends,

i-see-you-worried-parentsI read every single Facebook post you share about your children.

When the school year begins and my children are worried about whether their friends will be in class with them, I see your worry scroll across the screen in a darker, more anxious tone. Will the new teacher understand your son? Will the school protect your daughter from her nut allergy? Will the one-on-one aide be reliable, communicative, loving?

I know you probably wonder if anyone whose child doesn’t need that level of support has even noticed you. Perhaps that flicker of wonder passes quickly as you walk away from the schoolyard each morning to a list of therapists and specialists to call, or perhaps it digs in more deeply as you watch other parents’ first-day-of-school photos scroll past, uncomplicated. Continue Reading…

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Padding

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She’s ok, I thought, looking at her on the couch with her water bottle and her picked-at bowl of green jello. She’s ok and she will be ok. She’s ok and she will be ok. She’s-ok-and-she-will-be-ok, she-will-be-ok, she-will-be-ok, she-will-be-ok…


Parents like me, whose children have been through medical scares or ongoing health-related issues, often talk about the long-term anxiety that follows. Certainly in the immediate aftermath — even once the drama is months behind us — the expectation that we’ll worry more about our children is palpable. After my daughter Sammi’s last major surgery, the teachers and administrators in her school were incredibly kind and as careful as they could be to accommodate her healing, even in ways that might have been fussier than necessary for her but were utterly crucial for me and my comfort level. On major milestones — when she was allowed to return to recess, when she ate her first sandwich after years of a damaged esophagus, and on the anniversaries of the surgery that healed her, friends have cheered and celebrated with me, remembered and sighed in relief at my side.

But now it has been three-and-a-half years since the biggest legitimate worries subsided. There can be no mistaking her vitality. While there were years when even strangers could look at my daughter and suspect something was not quite right, now the most they might notice is that she’s slightly shorter than her classmates. I have little on which to base my worry these days, except for history and, I must admit, mild post-traumatic stress. Continue Reading…

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