Friday, October 23, 2009

Teachers and Learners

Tonight officially marks the start of the Halloween season in our town.

Ever since people decided ten or fifteen years ago that traditional trick or treating was "too dangerous" for children, it seems that every group known to mankind (at least in our area) has begun to sponsor its own festival. Fall festivals, pumpkin festivals, Halloween festivals, Howl-o ween festivals (that's for dogs and their owners), even something called "Trunk or Treat" held in church parking lots (you go car trunk to car trunk to trick or treat)--there's something for everyone, on every night, from now until November 1st. After a very stressful week I had decided to surprise my daughter with a visit to the local YMCA's festival tonight.

Her costume wasn't complete but neither of us cared. We hopped in the car and got there right at the start of the action. Being ten, she's one of the older kids who goes to these types of things, but it doesn't seem to bother her at all. I love Halloween and was looking forward to spending some time with her.

She wore a four-dollar black cape to the festival and made her way around to the various games and activities. Some she played once, others she skipped. Some she went back to over and over again. She collected her candy prizes and trinkets, placing them in the jack o' lantern bag supplied by the Y. She grinned as she tossed the football through the hoops and tried repeatedly to hit the dart board with the dart until she made it. But her favorite game was the ring toss.

The ring toss was set up with individual bottles of Powerade. The first time she played it, she missed every time. The lady working the game took pity on her and gave her a bottle of the drink anyway. By the time my kiddo made it back over there, the volunteers had wised up to the fact that if they gave a bottle to every child who came through every time, there would be no bottles left pretty quickly. So the rules had changed--you had to ring a bottle to win it.

She tried a second time and missed. After playing a few more games, we decided it was almost time to leave and that she had time to try one more game. Of course, back to the ring toss we went. This time she got it on the first try. Delighted, she chose an orange bottle. I told her it was time to go. She turned to me, excited, and said, "Please? One more time?" There was only one child in front of her. So I told her to go ahead.

The child in front of her was maybe four years old. He tried three times to toss the ring over the bottle neck and missed every time. The volunteer told him he could try again after my daughter, but he shook his head no and a slow pout came over his face. His mother tried to tell him he had to get back in line, but again he refused. The mother then asked the volunteer to give him another turn. Not knowing what else to do, the volunteer handed the child the rings--all six of them, despite three being the standard limit.

My mother and teacher bloods were boiling. One of the life lessons I have always tried to teach my children is that we don't always get what we want. We also don't always get what's fair. In addition, respect for everyone is important. This means you wait your turn, and you move on after it. I truly believe children need these limits and must be taught them to function effectively in society. Those are key core values I hold. And here was this kid--and his mother!--hogging up turn after turn while my daughter stood waiting patiently. Finally, after multiple extra attempts, the child had no more rings. He still had not won a bottle but at least moved out of my child's way.

Excited, she approached the ring toss game and nailed the bottle on the first toss. She giggled and jumped up and down before tossing the second ring, then the third. The third ring caught itself around the neck of another bottle. "Look Mom!" she cried. "I won two!" The volunteer handed her one bottle and my child happily skipped around the line away from me.

That's when I lost her for a moment. I am not a big crowd person, and for a second I found myself feeling annoyed. Where had she gone to? She knew I had said no more games. She knew it was time to go. And suddenly, I saw the black cape flutter around her, arm outstretched, bottle in hand.

She was handing it to the child who had missed his tosses.

In that moment, my first reaction was puzzlement and frustration. Why would you reward someone for taking extra turns? For taking YOUR turn? For wasting your time and being selfish? I watched her skip back over to me, watched the child's smile and that of his mother's. My ten year old said, "Okay, we can go now. I already won a couple and he hadn't. He needed it."

He needed it.

In those moments when you realize your children have internalized a lesson you want them to know, and they've internalized it better than you have, you're humbled. I thought about what my daughter said, thought about what she did, and realized that I have taught her well. But even more, she is teaching me.

What do I really need? Do I need an extra bottle of whatever? Do I need one more? Can I give it to someone who needs it more than I do? In my life I try to be charitable and kind. But clearly, this child has a gift of generosity of heart, of soul. I like to think I have impacted upon that but I also believe some of it is her spirit. It's who she is. It's the empathy and compassion she possesses, separate from me or her father. And my job is not only to teach her. It's to learn from her as well.

I hope I never forget that.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


. . .and then the day came when the risk to remain tight inside a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
Anais Nin

I'm at a crossroads.

Over the last few months, I have assumed a temporary position at work. A position that made me nervous, that I originally questioned my skills at. Since taking the position, I have found that I am more able and capable than I thought. I've been pushed in new directions and learned a lot of things, and quickly. Some days I find it thrilling, to learn new things about myself and my abilities that I haven't known. I feel pride, satisfaction, ownership in a good thing. I feel that I am making a difference in this world.

And then I have a day like today.

Actually, my day started last night, when I had trouble falling asleep. I tossed and turned before finally falling asleep an hour later. I awoke at three this morning, with my hand in vomit. Yes, vomit. Gabi, my sweet dog, had thrown up on the bed. Thrown up, more specifically, on me. In typical form, Gabi was just fine. I was the one who spent twenty minutes in the bathroom, first trying to figure out if i could have possibly thrown up myself and not known it. Once I ruled that out, then it was on to cleaning up myself, and the mess.

When my alarm went off, I realized I had slept through three snoozes and had about ten minutes to get ready for work.

My printer and email were down at work; I had new students starting; the floors were not clean; my plans were fuzzy and my head hurt and my nose was running and I was feeling like crap. The day turned unseasonably warm and I was sweating, the kids were sweating, the teachers were sweating. By the time I left work to take my daughter to an appointment, I was thoroughly on my way to a terrible, horrible, no-good, VERY bad day.

Once home, I took some ibuprofen for my head and buried myself under the covers. The thoughts and pain from Sunday's visit with my son came back as I lay there, trying to figure out what in the hell I was doing. What was I doing in bed? What was I doing as a mother? As a wife? As a person? What the hell was I doing with my life?

I've become painfully aware in the last month that I am an extremely passive person. Almost everything that exists in my life has come into place by accident. Things happen TO me; I don't make conscious choices to make them happen. I stumbled into motherhood; I stumbled into my current position. And I've been trying to figure out when and how I'm going to stop stumbling.

It is critical to me to make a difference in this world. It is also critical to me to be a good mother to my children. Trying to find a balance between those two leaves me feeling as though I walk an unending tightrope, and that I never fulfill either role to the best of my ability. So what to do? Actively pursue the opportunity to stay in the position I'm in? Or step back into the old, comfortable zone and recommit my energy to my family? Do I take this chance to further my education, my career, both, or neither? What DO I want?

When I opened up my email today and read the quote above by Anais Nin, it struck me heavily. At some point, stepping into my light has got to become less scary the staying out of it. At some point, I have to be willing to become what I'm supposed to be. As Nelson Mandela once said, it is not our darkness that frightens us; it is the thought of become more brilliant than our wildest dreams. I want to come into my own. I want to blossom and be brilliant and be whoever it is that I'm meant to be. The problem is that I still haven't figured it out yet. In the words of Bono--who sang it so beautifully at the concert I attended Sunday night--I still haven't found what I'm looking for. And sometimes I wonder if I ever will.

So if you've seen it, could you send it over this way?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mothers and daughters

Today, as I opened up my email, the first one to appear was from my mom. It was something she had forwarded to me, in her usual fashion, to remind me that she's thinking of me and loves me. She knows the last several months have been very difficult for me. She has listened to me talk over and over again about my kids, my husband, my job. She's offered advice that usually falls in the realm of, "I'm worried about you," and "Take care of yourself." She's a terrific mom.

She wasn't always that way, though. I remember as a child that she was very tightly wound. A teacher herself, she always warned me, "Don't ever go into teaching!" My mother was a perfectionist in every aspect of her life, one of those moms who went through the early treacherous waters of trying to balance a career and a family. Her career was very important to her. Not that she enjoy it, mind you, but that she was good at it. That she got everything done and done well. We had family dinners every night, extracurricular activities, and a relatively spotless (compared to mine, anyway!) house. What we didn't have was strong connections. I knew my parents loved me, in a logical kind of "well, of course they love their children because that's what parents do" way. But I often didn't feel it.

My mom grew up as an only child of two parents who also balanced work and family. She was frequently left to care for the house and cook dinner at an early age so that her parents could run the family business. Her parents were not affectionate, whereas my mother was a child who desperately needed affection. It's my own speculation, but I believe this combination led her to develop an extremely strong work ethic along with an intense sense of loneliness. She often commented as I grew up about how she never wanted me to be an only child. And I wasn't--I have one brother, two years younger.

It was critically important to my mother that she do more for us than was done for her as a child. And she tried to be more nurturing, more loving. Before the days where books on parenting were a dime a dozen, she ventured into uncharted territory and worked hard to make changes. But like so many things in life, we often fall back to the patterns of what we know. I would describe my own childhood as lonely and isolated; of one filled with feelings of misunderstanding and depression. There were traumatic events of which I didn't feel that I could disclose to my parents, which only led to more separation. It was hard on me and I know it had to be hard on my mother. She had envisioned such a different connection with me, her only daughter. I know this now because of being a mother myself. But as a child, I could have never understood it, never understood her fear and desperation and want for something different for both of us.

As we grow into adults, the gift of perspective is one that reconnects us with our parents and rejoins that which was once tentative. I can't point to a specific time when I came to realize my mother was a person, just trying her best, like me. I can recall, however, many points in the last several years where I have been taught lessons in humility in my own life, moments where I have made mistakes that I would have so quickly called my mother on. But now, instead of calling my mother on her mistakes, I call her to discuss MY mistakes. And always the question I ask is, "How do I live with myself when I make these mistakes?"

I don't believe that age necessarily brings wisdom. Instead, I believe that reflections over our own experiences makes us more wise, more worldly. My mother left teaching many years ago to find her own calling--that of a social worker. I was a teenager when she took the courageous step to leave a career she excelled in to follow the path she had always longed for. And she excels now. Her work is a tremendous source of satisfaction and pride for her. And I am proud of her, likewise. Her wisdom is not a logical, grounded one. Instead, it is one that calls from the heart, the soul. A wisdom that I truly believe is uniquely hers, and I am blessed to receive it and connect with it.

On a recent visit with my mom and dad, she made a statement to me that gave me great pause. She told me I was her best friend. Part of me was afraid; it's a huge undertaking to be someone's best friend, much less your own mother's! But part of me was tremendously honored and humbled. I spent the first twenty years of my life finding faults in my mom, and the last twenty growing to understand her. She's a complex human being. She is different than me in so many ways. But at the end of the day, she is a nurturing, loving woman who cares for her daughter in a way that so many people never experience. As my mom has grown in her capacity of a mother, I have grown in my capacity as a person, and thus in my appreciation of her. Her heart is one of the biggest I've ever known. She has taught me to love and to trust and to believe in and nurture myself and others. And if she's this great of a mom now, just think how fabulous she'll be in another ten years!

My goal as a mom myself is to have the kind of relationship with my children that I have with my mother now. Even if I'm halfway successful, they'll be far better off than most. When I think of my relationship with my mom, I'm reminded of the phrase, "Life is a journey, not a destination." My, what a journey it has been, and how lucky I have been to take it with you.

Thanks, Mom. I love you.

Monday, October 12, 2009

New Days and Fire Safety

Well, after mulling over yesterday's depression, I realized that it's time to make some efforts to get back into the swing of life. It's almost fall break here (we get a fall break--we NEVER got one when I was a kid!) and my daughter will go to work with me on Thursday to hang out with my class. She will love that--she loves being in the role of teacher's assistant (though she'd be happy to assume the role of a teacher!)--and we should have a terrific time. On Friday, we'll see my son, and then we'll head off to a pumpkin patch for the afternoon. My daughter is at that in-between age where pumpkin patches are almost not fun but still just a bit interesting. So we'll go one more year.

As much as I dreaded the onslaught of Monday, today was a very productive day. It's damp and chilly here, but my preschoolers were ready for learning and fun, and that's what we had. We spent the morning engaging in a million different activities and read a great book together. We sang songs and talked about how some of our teachers were moving on to new schools (we have student teachers who rotate through). We talked about the visit from a firefighter we'll be having on Wednesday. The children were excited to hear that one of our dads will be bringing his firefighter gear and telling us all about it.

A year ago, our school had new fire alarms installed. The regular, loud, high-pitched noise was replaced with an inhuman screeching frequency that I swear makes my ears bleed internally. I've never heard a noise as painful as that one. Of course, the reaction to a noise like that for most kids is to run the other way--and quite frequently, that doesn't mean OUT of the building.

We have specifics that we follow for fire safety. When you hear the bell, you get a teacher's hand, and you walk out a specific set of doors. We walk a safe distance, then the lead teacher calls the roll to ensure every child is present. Obviously, there are some things we have to watch out for--the kid covered in paint who wants to take of his smock, the little one on the toilet when the alarm goes off, the child who wants to grab a coat because it's cold/wet/whatever outside. Generally, though, we make it through unscathed.

Our first fire drill this year occurred a few weeks ago. Instead of ringing the inhuman, ear-bleeding bell, I decided I wanted the children to remain unscarred a little longer. We rang a small hand-sized bell and practiced going outside together and calling roll. We talked about why we practice going outside in case there is a fire, and that if there really was a fire a very loud bell would go off. But knowing I had some children in tears just from this minute practice session, I decided we needed some help.

Enter our prize firefighter. This dad is awesome and has volunteered to help every year. He brings his gear, goes over stop drop and roll, talks about fire safety, and then he suits up. One thing research has shown us is that for children who are in frightening situations such as fires, being familiar with what a firefighter in uniform looks like can be lifesaving. If you've never seen a firefighter fully geared up, with his or her oxygen tank on, it looks like a space alien and sounds like Darth Vadar. If I were a kid, I'd be hiding under my bed too. It's critical for kids to know that the nightmare they're facing isn't the guy in the scary suit making the weird sucking noise--it's what will happen if they hide from him.

Our firefighter dad will invite the children to touch his gear and listen to the sounds it makes. He'll help them understand that firefighters are just grown ups trying to help, and it's okay to go to them. If you happen to be reading this and your child hasn't had the experience of seeing a firefighter geared up, it's something I highly recommend doing for any child over two.

Work is a safe escape for me. Despite the pressure and sadness the weekend sometimes brings, I can honestly say I enjoy my work tremendously. I enjoy learning as much as I do teaching, and I learn something new every day. Sometimes I learn from my college students and sometimes I learn from my preschool children; sometimes I learn from my colleagues and sometimes I learn from the children's families. But I can't ever complain that my job is boring. And God willing, none of my students can complain that my classroom sucks, either.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


It's been a season of change so far.

I started a new position in August, and while I'm still working out of the same office and building, still teaching the same courses, this new position requires me to make use of skills I didn't even know I had. I've been stretched in some new, uncomfortable, scary, yet exciting ways. I worry that I will inherently fail, and that when decisions are made about the permanency of this position in the new year, I'll be passed over for it. I also worry that I'm getting myself in too deep, that this isn't what I want.

My husband passed the bar exam after the first try. I never doubted his intelligence, although I think at times we have both doubted his drive. He has now been sworn in as an official attorney. He is currently maintaining his old job but beginning to look for new ones. I am tremendously proud of him. He has overcome numerous obstacles and achieved a goal that was once just a dream for him.

After much debate, our daughter started therapy to help her deal with all of the confusion she feels surrounding her brother and her biological family. It has been a hard fall; her nightmares plague her so frequently that we are both pressed for sleep. Often, she escapes to her room after the school day to catch up on the sleep she is missing at night. Nights come with sounds and fears and worries, but afternoons are warm and lovely and cozy under covers, knowing the light is still near, and so are her mom and dad.

And then there is my son.

A mix of contradictions, this young adolescent--a boy who misses me as much as I miss him; who needs the comfort of knowing exactly who will be coming and when and what time he will be talking to me and what I will bring him and who will make sure that he has what he needs and yet strives to be separate and independent from us. This fall has shown the tip of the iceberg in treatment. So thick is the armour of an attachment-disordered child that after four months he is just developing kinks in it. He has shown a pinch of the anger underneath the surface; the storytelling that makes no sense and has no focus; the manipulation of breaking the rules that always follows the pattern of safety in numbers. The tossing of his hands over his face as he exclaims through tears, "I give up! You just never understand!"

No I don't. I don't understand why you are like this. I don't understand why the doctors can't figure it out and give us a magic fix for you. I don't understand why my love has never been enough and never will be. I don't understand--at least in my heart--why adults choose to victimize children while they're in utero; why parents can't or won't put a baby ahead of everything else. And I can't explain it to you. I know all of the logic behind it and I understand the studies and the research and I can even read statistics and data analysis. But none of that fixes anything, does it?

I find myself struggling this fall to maintain outwardly. I want to curl up inside, like my daughter, cozy and snug in my blanket and away from all of the nightmare. To let the outside world move past me while I sleep, snug until some figurative springtime arrives and I have the sun and the warmth and the hope of the living again. But I have to go back to work on Mondays; there are appointments to be kept and chores to be done and lives to maintain.

The dark has always been my friend, my comforter. The same dark that frightens my child has removed my fear and comforted me. It is the day, the light, that arouses fear. The light that from which I cannot hide because I have to continue, one foot after the other, to make sense of the nonsensical and find peace where there is none. The light that brings with it commitments and obligations I cannot escape from. The day that brings with it the inevitable fact that I am struggling with a life so different from what I had always planned.

Did I mention I don't do well with change?

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Story of Gabi

When I began writing this blog, I wanted to relieve some of the inner turmoil that I feel as well as get back in touch with my desire to write. As a child, I wrote frequently--poetry, fiction, journaling--to express myself and to release my feelings. I view this blog as an opportunity to express my feelings about a wide variety of subjects in a relatively safe forum. And for several days I've felt the need to tell a story. And in my mind, I call it the story of Gabi.

You see, I had always assumed I would grow up to be a mom. I had plans, too. I was going to get married at 25 (practically ancient and extremely mature when you're a teenager) and have one (yes, count 'em, one) baby at age thirty, after which my happy little family would be complete.

I met my husband at age 27. I was running late on the timeline, but that was okay, because I still had time to have children--we could just speed everything else up, right? We married three weeks after my 30th birthday and became "parents" fifteen months later when our sweet baby boy arrived--at age three and a half. Two months after that, we were parents again, this time of a beautiful 22 month old girl. Did I mention the move halfway across the country right before the children? And the new jobs? Needless to say, it was a stressful time.

During that time, I clung to the one constant in my life, the one who had been there for fourteen years--my mixed-breed dog, Amanda. Ten years before, my brother had brought Amanda home from the shelter on the day before she was to be put to sleep. After about a year, he decided he no longer wanted her, but it was too late; I was in love. Amanda was my companion from that time until the day she died.

Amanda saw me through a lot of changes when I moved. New jobs, new family, new houses. She would wag her tail and lick my hand and curl up with me on the bed. She was gentle with the kids and a great companion. She instinctively knew when I needed her and could sense my emotions. Without that dog, I don't know if I could have adjusted to all the changes going on in my life. She was, in the truest and most honest form, a loving friend, and I adored her.

When her kidneys began to fail at the age of sixteen, I was devastated but not surprised. I let a vet who worked for a large company convince me to keep her alive on all sorts of medication, even though in my heart I knew she was suffering. It's my one regret, that I let that sweet animal suffer longer than need be. As her kidneys worsened, I finally took her to a small, local vet who was honest with me. My companion of seventeen years was dying. She was in pain. It hurt her to be touched and some days she could barely stand. The vet compassionately explained to me that he had owned a dog in the same condition and his biggest regret was letting his dog suffer too long. And I knew the time had come. I was there when he put her to sleep, and I know her last moments were peaceful and comforting as I held her body until she was no longer breathing.

Losing a loved one is a process that can't be explained. Trying to explain the loss of a pet to a person who has never felt a connection to an animal is next to impossible. The emptiness inside was overwhelming. I cried for days, randomly calling friends and family for comfort. I knew I couldn't replace Amanda, nor did I want to. But after a month, it became clear we needed a dog.

First, it was the mice. Never in our entire time in this house have we had a problem with mice. Never, that is, until Amanda died. Then the little critters seemed to invade from every angle. As much as I hate mice, my husband despises them even more. Traps were set all over the house; everyone wore shoes day and night; and one morning I heard one of the little devils run through the hallway, under my door, and under my bed. The very thought made my skin crawl.

But of course, the final straw in getting a new dog was I needed one. I missed having a pet. I missed the companionship of an animal. So my husband and I discussed it and decided upon the following criteria: the dog would be small; it would be housetrained; it would be female; and it would be short haired.

So off I went to the local pound. As I scouted around, my heart ached for every animal, and none fit our criteria. In addition, I began to have additional concerns--how would I have a guarantee this dog wouldn't hurt one of my children?

My second visit took me to a no-kill rescue shelter in our town. I described the kind of dog I was looking for to the volunteer at the desk, and she quickly paired me with a small female poodle who looked kind of like a big attack rat. I sat and played with her (or attempted to) for several minutes as my heart sank. What was I doing here? My connection to Amanda had been so easy, so natural. This dog looked at me like I was a speck of dust in her world, and it was time for a swiffer. I decided it was time to go. My disappointment hung heavily in my heart. I had really thought I would be coming home with a dog that day. I thanked the volunteer at the desk and turned to leave. That's when another volunteer stepped out of the back.

In her hands--I can't even say arms, because the creature was so tiny--was a curly, black-haired puppy that had just been transferred to the shelter from a local pound. She had arrived that day, a mop-haired mess, with eyes so black they blended right into her coat. Her chin sported a white goatee. She was quite likely poodle, although it was hard to say under all of the shaggy hair that covered her body. She hardly met our criteria--furry fuzzy and in no way housebroken--but suddenly that didn't seem to matter. It didn't matter at all.

She was, in fact, perfect. And at that moment I fell in love. Again.

The volunteer explained to me that the puppy hadn't been medically evaluated yet so I couldn't take her home. I said that was okay, I could wait. She stated that it may take a few days for her to be cleared, to be spayed and receive her shots and that the shelter didn't put holds on dogs. I said that was fine too. I had a phone and I could call each day to check on her. However long it took. Because that puppy was supposed to be with me.

So that's what I did. I called that shelter every day for a week until they knew me by voice and knew the time I was coming to get her and called me when another young lady expressed an interest in the dog so I could get there before her. My daughter and I arrived five minutes before the other woman and were ushered into a back room to complete paperwork. It was somewhat like a spy mission! As I completed the paperwork, the volunteer handed the puppy over to my daughter, who got the first kiss. Then there were three of us in love.

When I had told the kids about this puppy, I hadn't made up my mind about a name. I was torn between two that I really loved--Sophie and Gabriella. Since I have never had a biological child of my own, I had never had the opportunity to name a child. I hadn't even gotten to name my last dog--my brother had named her after a girl he had liked in high school. In the end, I left the decision to my children, and they decided on Gabriela. It only took a day for us to begin to call her Gabi.

She was five months old, had kennel cough, worms, and weighed four pounds. She had been found on the street, a stray, and picked up by the pound in a neighboring town. The volunteers at the no-kill shelter had then taken her and brought her to their shelter. And now she was ours.

It took several months to get Gabi healthy. In the meantime she came to work with me every day. She went to the dog park to learn to play with other dogs and spent a lot of time interacting with our family. We found out she is smart, outgoing, loves other animals, and all people. She loves to play and squeaky toys are her absolute favorite. She's in so many ways the complete antithesis of Amanda, who never liked to play--when given a squeaky toy, she would politely shake it once in her mouth, then put it down and go back to sleep.

I still miss Amanda at times. My son mentioned her the other day and we reminisced on her sweetness and loyalty. But I have faith in God that Amanda's sweet and loyal nature has not gone unrewarded. And our blessing in the meantime has been a tiny, eight pound feisty girl who lightens up each day in our house. The story of Gabi is, to me, one about life and love, about faith and healing. Gabi is a living, breathing reminder of the fact that we are all inextricably linked to one another, and that somehow what we need will find us when we need it, if we are open to it, if we believe. That no door is ever shut without the opening of a window. That if we let ourselves, our hands will be held even in the darkest of moments.

Or our face will be licked by a tiny toy poodle mix, answering to the name of Gabi.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


I just got back from visiting my son.

He's currently in a residential facility that focuses on anger management. His outbursts at home created a situation that made it impossible for him to stay with us. Without getting in to details, the best option for him--and for our family--was a residential treatment center.

He's twelve.

When he was first hospitalized, the days were a blur to me...getting paperwork finished, making sure he had everything he needed, filling my waking moments with everything that had to be done. And in between, tears. But once things settled into a routine, the guilt came. In huge waves, it would crash over me, haunting me. Why was I not enough for him? Could his birth mother have met his needs had he stayed with her? Was the bond he needed from her greater than the neglect he suffered at her hands? Had I put my faith in the wrong therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, teachers? I'm an educated person. Why didn't I see this coming?

After his hospitalization, he did come home for a short time. He tried so hard to be able to live a normal "kid" life. He tried to be successful and to do what he needed to do, to avoid confrontation, to use some of the skills he had learned. But it was too much for him. Two months of intervention cannot undo a lifetime of illness, of thinking gone wrong, of ideas of victimization and powerlessness. And so we made a difficult choice. We placed him into a residential facility where he could receive around the clock intervention and begin to learn to lean on someone other than me--to lean on himself.

Most days I carry on my life like any other parent. I feed my dog, dress for work, take my younger one to school. I work a full day and dedicated myself fully to my job. I spend my off time with my daughter and husband, or playing with my dog, or cleaning my house, or watching a little TV. But lately, I'm distinctly aware of the emptiness in my gut. The emptiness of missing my oldest child, the one to whom my presence has been as necessary as air itself to survive.

So I sat with him today in the visiting room. You have to be eighteen to visit, so his sister can't. He brought me a couple of coloring pages he had done for her and I promised I would pass them on. He presented me with a beautiful sketch of a heart surrounded by angel wings. I praised his artistic ability (one of his many talents) and thanked him for the gift. He perused the collector's cards he had asked me to bring him and thanked me for them. And then we made small talk--about the weather, work, my husband's schedule, the dog.

Small talk moments are the ones I hate the most. I found myself sitting there, uncomfortable, not knowing what to say to my own child. What I want to say and can say are two different things. I have a responsibility to this child not to add to his burden. Not to create more worry, more stress. But what I wanted to say was this: I love you. I miss you every moment. Even when I am not consciously aware of the ache in my heart it is there, always, missing you and your spirit. I grieve for you. I want to take every wound upon myself and heal it, or live with it, so that you don't have to. I want to hold you in my arms and tell you everything will be all right. I want to desperately, desperately believe that, despite statistics and research and stories that tell me otherwise. I want to give you the life that you deserved from the moment of your conception. I want to erase all of the pain and dysfunction and disability and illness, so only your soul shines through. So you are free to be the person I glimpse inside this tortured boy.

But I didn't. I bought him a Dr. Pepper and a candy bar, chatted about weather and his collector cards, assured him I was only tired when he said I looked sad. I promised I would be back tomorrow for family therapy and that I would pass his love on to his sister, father, and the dog. And I gave him a hug and told him I loved him.

Then I went back to being a regular mom, picking up groceries and running my errands and typing this blog.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The True Cost of a Fifth Grade Social

My ten year old needs money.

In the worst way, too. You see, there's a fifth-grade social tonight in our town and it costs ten dollars to get in. Our family policy is that mom and dad will pay half of the entrance price for school sponsored activities such as this, and the kids need to come up with the other half. She receives a five dollar allowance each week if she completes her chores without being asked--and yes, I know some child specialists frown on that, but I have my reasons--and she's known about this social for two weeks. Her allowance is broken down to one dollar into savings, another to charity or church, and three to do with as she wishes.

She has been gathering pennnies and quarters around her room for the last week. Instead of just doing her stuff for two weeks, she still lives in the world of magical thinking and planning; the world where five bucks shows up on your sidewalk an hour before you need it. Today, as she spent her time playing on the computer, watching television, and talking on the phone, she seemed oblivious to the fact that she was still lacking in funds.

She has four chores to do each day, altogether taking approximately ten to fifteen minutes to complete. The agreement is that for her to receive allowance, she needs to get her stuff done before she does anything else--phone, computer, tv, friends, etc. And yet at four this afternoon, she was lounging on the phone, trying to find out the time of the social from a friend.

She knew the rules. She knew the consequences, even if she didn't want to accept them. And when she saw my face, she got off the phone.

"I'm taking care of my stuff right now," she said.

"It's too late," I said.

I heard her begin to cry and I left the room.

My daughter is an incredibly bright little girl. She is sweet and smart and loving. But she is the most disorganized and procrastinating person I've ever met. I wonder if she'll end up on that show Hoarders one day because she can't seem to part with anything. For as long as I've known her, I could always tell where she was because she leaves a path in her wake. I remember being similar as a child in the sense that I was not a good organizer. I still suck at it and I still procrastinate. But certain things we don't procrastinate on. Certain thing--such as central areas of the house, picking up one's own stuff, running errands that have to be completed, and caring for one another--are expected and routine.

My mother was the kind of parent who would have gone crazy with this child's behavior. She could barely tolerate MY mess, and mine was so much less than my daughter's. Disorganization is my mother's biggest pet peeve, and has been her entire life, I think. To this day, whenever we visit, she is constantly rearranging things. Order makes her feel comfortable in her home, and I get that. Disorganization makes her feel nutty. Screaming, yelling, punishments, constant nagging were part of her repertoire when things were out of order. But the worst I remember is my perception of her disappointment--that I wasn't good enough for her. That I couldn't do it right, and even when I tried, I failed. I spent a large part of my childhood feeling disengaged from my parents and as though I was a disappointment to them. Whether it was cleaning my room or completing my chores or even my weight--from my perspective, I let everyone down. It took me a long time of healing and many years as an adult to understand that most parents--including my own--do the best they know how to do at the time. Sometimes we excel and sometimes we don't. But most of us keep on trying, determined to do better by our children than was done by us.

Which brings me back to the child at hand. This child is one that I could spend my day nagging. That I could take away all privileges until everything is done to my satisfaction. That I could bribe with extra rewards for appropriate behavior. But I choose not to. I chose to let her choose what would happen tonight. And my gut tells me that if she makes this choice enough, she won't make it again.

Parenting is tough stuff and definitely not for the faint of heart. Parenting children with special needs or rough starts in life can be even tougher. I understand her need to keep things, so I shut her bedroom door and wait for opportunities like this one to rear their heads and motivate room cleaning. There's too many other things to think about, to worry about, to insist upon. With children like mine, consistency and structure are super important. When they were young, we followed a schedule to the letter and it helped them internalize some structure and feel some safety that they had never had before. As they have gotten older, the structure has loosened but we tighten it again when it's feeling too loose and there are problems arising. But another thing that I've learned is that compassion and trust are just as important. I can't expect any person, much less a child, to respect my opinion when the need for rules overrides everything else. Listening to my daughter's honest tears earlier was painful. I hurt in my gut. I wanted to say, "Why did you do this? Why would you make this choice? You KNEW what would happen and you're smart enough to keep it from happening!" But the answer to that is that she's just a kid. And she's impulsive and not the best planner. She struggles with disorganization and magical thinking. We talked about it. We commiserated over the choice she made. We snuggled and watched a little tv.

So instead of a social with her friends, she's doing her chores and hanging with me. We'll pick up something for dinner and watch some tv and enjoy each other's company. I'm definitely not as cool as a social. But I can hear her, independently, completing her chores as I write this. And I'm proud of her, either way. Because even though she demonstrated some irresponsibility three hours ago, now she's demonstrating character--and to me, that rocks.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Unfluffy Superheros

When I began this blog, I never imagined I would spend so much time writing about certain TV shows. Granted this is only my sixth entry, but I think Criminal Intent shows up in maybe half of them so far. If you've actually bothered to read any of this blog, you are probably thinking right about now, "This girl needs a life!"

I am proud to say that unlike some blogs out there, mine is not completely dedicated to fictional characters or the real life actors who play them. However, escapism is a powerful thing for some people, and if I'm itching to escape for a little while, I like to do so with characters that make me think. I've mentioned before that I'm a huge fan of Law and Order Criminal Intent, but I didn't start out that way. Initially I hated the show--the setup, the actors, the scripts, everything left me cold. Then sometime a couple years ago I was cleaning the bedroom and flipped it on...and started following the show.

The character of Bobby Goren is one that most people either love or can't stand. He comes across as arrogant and manipulative. He's goofy and awkward and knows everything about everything. And to most women, he's not even good looking. That's what I hear from my friends who can't stand him. I remember, in the recesses of my mind, feeling that way at one time too, until I got to see the character develop. Until I got to understand the back story. Until I saw the loyalty between the partners. Until the scripts captivated my attention and it all wove together and it clicked with something inside me. This is a character who is extremely flawed. He's a superhero who's not super or a hero--he's an ordinary guy with his own quirks, his own strengths and weaknesses. Just like me. And that's why I love him so...because I understand his point of view. It's not the strengths of the character that draw me in; it's the human nature of his weaknesses and his fears that make him identifiable, and that he is able to proceed despite those weaknesses and make the world better. (Thank you, quality writers!)

Most of the internet world at this point--and certainly Criminal Intent fans--have heard by now that USA plans to dump Bobby, Alex, and Captain Ross somewhere other than the major case squad in the spring. It all boils down to money and obviously it's a lot cheaper to pay the new guy a lower salary than the guy (or in this case, a guy and a girl) who's worked for you for eight years. I get basic economics. But what I don't get is the statement USA network has made regarding their desire to have "lighter fare" on their network. Apparently the depth of character that makes Goren (as well as his partner Eames) so appealing is too dark for most viewers, at least according to USA.

Some fans, in vehement protest of the above attitude and in support of the show, have sent postcards and emails begging the network to reconsider. My favorite idea came from one blogger who intends to inundate the network with jars of marshmallow fluff at the beginning of filming this month, in protest of "fluffing" the show. I'm curious as to exactly how many jars of fluff they'll receive, and what they will do with them. Will they donate them to a food pantry? Or go home and eat a lot of s'mores and nutterfluffer sandwiches?

I'm disturbed by the fact that I'm now in an age bracket that doesn't influence network decisions. But I'm also disturbed by the apparent idea that so many Americans can't handle anything but "feel good" tv, or simple scripts, or no script at all. That what we watch and what we want to watch needs to be written in a way that the depth of the character doesn't matter. That life as you or I experience it doesn't happen on television--it only happens to us.

Knowing that a character has a drug addict for a brother, a hospitalized schizophrenic for a mother, and no father to speak of; knowing that for some unannounced reason he's unable to sustain intimate relationships (hmm); knowing he puts 100% of himself in his job so that he can be successful at something in life; to me, that's a superhero. I know people like him, who against all odds, succeed in this world. It's every hope and prayer for my son, isn't it? Despite the realities of a life that could have produced a complete loser, this guy Goren chooses to get up every morning and do his job and make the world a better place. He's got strong morals and is a decent person. No, he's not action-packed, fast moving, lean, mean, hot, and twenty-something. He's not snagging the babe at the end of every show. But I get him. I get Goren's character and motivation and pain and struggle and depth.

And shame on USA for letting him go.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Bonding and Outrage

As I logged on to aol this evening, an article caught my eye. The catch line was something along the lines of "Mom's decision angers many", then proceeded to note that an adoptive mother returned her adopted eighteen month old after a year. Having a keen sense of deja-vu, I clicked and read the article.

Apparently the mother in question (and apparently the father, although no one mentions him) filed to adopt an infant that was abandoned literally on the side of the road. After a year of attempting to bond with the child, the parents realized that they were not successful and chose to return the baby, now eighteen months. The reporter clearly had some extreme reactions to the parents' choices--including comments such as, "What exactly could an eighteen-month old baby do that would inhibit bonding?"

I don't know about the child in question. But I know about my own. I know his fragile disposition, his neediness, his inability to play independently or even constructively. I know the chronic crying sprees where nothing is comforting, the fear in his eyes of every potential misstep, the lack of responsiveness to any of my inherent nurturing instincts. And I know it gets worse as he gets older.

Every challenge I have faced with my son has made me question my abilities as a parent. If it weren't for my daughter I would be convinced that despite my master's degree in early childhood education, despite my experience working with hundreds of kids with diverse backgrounds and needs, despite teaching at-risk children who lived lives I can only imagine in my nightmares, I would be convinced I am a bad mother. Good mothers have a loving relationship with their children. Good mothers don't pray for their screaming child to fall asleep so that everyone can rest. Good mothers are supportive and caring and never have negative thoughts about their children. Good mothers know what to do when children veer off course.

My list of traits that define good mothering is rather extensive and certainly the list above is not exhaustive. It has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion that my definition of a good mother is not only high, but rather unachievable. As an educator, I realize this on a logical level. Of course all parents make mistakes. We often don't know how to meet unrecognizable or nonverbal needs. We struggle to help children make good choices, and yes, even the most excellent parents I know occasionally have a negative thought about their kids.

What makes their experiences so different than mine? It's what I share with the mother who has angered many--the lack of bonding with my child. My son is, to some degree, unable to form a stable emotional bond. Not only with me, but with anyone. It took me years to figure out that it wasn't because of me and some fault in my parenting that kept him from attaching. The fact that he needed me--to know where I was, when I would be back, who I would be with, at all times--was not the same as him being comfortable with me. Neediness that is neverending can easily become an albatross around the comforter's neck. An infant's neediness is fundamental and understanding. And it lasts for awhile, then the infant develops skills that allow him to become less needy, more independent. My son is, for all intents and purposes, emotionally an infant. At age twelve, he needs constant reassurance that I am in the same space as him, that I am safe, that I am predictable. And he wears that albatross as well--it is a heavy weight that binds the two of us together.

I would not trade one minute of my life with my child. He is smart and funny and a tremendous blessing. He is someone, in his good moments, who exhibits an amazing capacity for empathy and compassion. I cannot begin to imagine my life without him, nor would I want to. My son has taught me so many lessons about life, about love, about myself. But I grieve for the child he could have been, had he been given the start in life that every baby deserves...a loving, responsive adult who could nurture his needs from day one.

I pray that eighteen-month old finds the right family to love him, to nurture him, to grow his brain and his body and his soul. Every child deserves to have those needs met--it is our right as human beings to be loved and nurtured and treated with dignity. But I also pray for the parents who made a heartwrenching give a child whose needs they knew they weren't meeting to another family. To give him a second chance to bond and grow. I clearly don't live in the hearts and minds of those parents, but I would imagine this decision was a torturous one for them. No matter what, the decision to give up a child is a painful one. But knowing that children must, MUST bond with a caregiver before age three to have secure attachments, I can't find fault with parents who know they are unable to achieve that task and make a moral decision to give a child another chance. God willing, that toddler will find a loving home--and loving arms--to help him bond.