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At pickup one afternoon this week, my kindergartner’s teacher asked if I could stay and chat a few minutes. I turned my kids loose on the playground, and followed the teacher inside. She talked about how he has been acting out, how he is so easily angered, how he hits and pushes and yells and threatens. How he’s been sent to the principal’s office because his level of disruption was just plain unfair to the other students. She also talked about his sweet side – how he engages with the work, helps her with various things, asks interesting questions, cooperates in joint tasks.

It was clear to me that she really sees the whole child, and wants to work with me to be his advocate. He’s not a problem, she said, but he does have problems, and we are all going to help him. She’s already spoken with his private therapist, and arranged for him to have regular pull-out sessions with the school counselor. She reads books with the class about feelings. She told me she can see that I’m doing all the right things, that this isn’t my fault. And then she looked at me with such gentleness, such concern, and said, “You must be so worried.”

Of course I started crying. Mostly with gratitude – that she understands, that she really sees him, that she’s not writing him off or giving up on him. She suggested trying some approaches that she has used successfully with autistic kids (“not that I’m saying he’s autistic,” she quickly added), some activities that can be calming & therapeutic for kids with sensory issues. She loaned me a book. She described how she would modify some expectations for him in order to build his confidence and let him experience success. I felt so hopeful about the potential for helping him this year, that maybe, even, with love and understanding and help on all sides, he could become a “regular” happy and healthy kid.

And then at back to school night, several parents accosted me with tales of my son acting out. I couldn’t tell if they innocently thought whatever they witnessed was an isolated incident, just a quirky kid getting all up someone’s grill kindergarten-style, a fun and amusing little anecdote. Or if they truly see my kid as That Kid, the jerky, out of control one, and were uncertain how to tell me this directly so instead relied on a lame, jokey delivery. What was clear was that people were noticing he’s outside the bounds of expected, acceptable behavior, even for 5 year olds. I put my best Stepford smile on and thanked each one for letting me know. “Boys,” they all laughed. “What are you gonna do?”

Good question.

I came home and told my husband, and he reminded me that we have to have faith, that we’re doing everything we can, we have support and professionals on board, and most of all that we love him. He’s right, it’s all true. So why do I feel so sick?

 

forever dimly seen

I’ve spent the summer telling myself “he’ll settle in, it just takes time” and while I still believe this to be true, it is now also clear that it will take a lot of time, and a lot of help. He’s been seeing a child psychologist for the last several weeks, and I met with her recently. The nutshell is, I’m not crazy, he’s not crazy, but he has… issues. Problems with sensory integration. Emotional development deficits. It is possible these things are contributing to his rages and his shutdowns, to his violence and aggression. She – the psychologist – is still exploring possibilities. (It is amazing to me what she can extrapolate out of a sand tray.)

Anyway the sensory stuff, even though I know about it, even though I read many of you describing your children with sensory issues, even though he has sensory-induced freakouts on a regular basis… it never once occurred to me that he has sensory integration issues. Not once. Now, of course, the hindsight makes a neat little clicking noise as it all falls into place: the faucet is too loud, the fan is too loud, the socks are too bumpy, the fleece is too scratchy, the sunscreen is too gooey, the light is too bright, the car is too fast, the peanut butter is too smelly, TAKE IT OFF GET IT OFF ME MAKE IT STOP TURN IT DOWN DON’T TOUCH ME I CAN’T EAT THAT. How did I possibly miss this? He was so obvious in his distress, so unable to cope, so much in his world was and is completely unbearable to him and I wondered why he had so many tantrums?

And the emotional deficits… you guys. He can’t recognize emotion in other people. How did I miss this?? I am a feeeeelings kind of person. I always acknowledge feelings, whether they are mine, my kids’, other peoples’. I name them, I honor them in that way only a child of the 70’s can. And he… just never connected with that. Certainly I knew he couldn’t talk about his own feelings, but I assumed that was because he was having such intense and painful emotions that he was unwilling to deal with them head-on.

Right now, I’m trying to identify and reduce his triggers, the therapist will keep working with him and trying to uncover more of the pieces contributing to the picture. I don’t know what it will look like in the end. This feels like a jigsaw puzzle without the box to refer to. I’m stomach-clenchingly afraid of what it will reveal, and at the same time relieved to know we’re in good hands and there will be more and more opportunities to help him. It is agonizing to realize what a struggle each day is for him. But I am so hopeful we will learn how to work through the challenges, that one day he will be happy, and comfortable in his skin. I have to be, right?

 

division

I saw Tree of Life yesterday, the latest film from Terrence Malick which has garnered numerous walkouts and lengthy, irate spiels from various critics. Maybe I don’t possess adequate critical chops, or am just plain simpleminded, but you guys, I was deeply moved.

It opens with with the idea that there are two ways through life, the way of grace or the way of nature, and proceeds to illustrate both paths as they were forged by a semi-fictional family in 1950’s middle America. While the plot is inarguably nebulous, if not quite non-existent, the emotional force of the film is undeniable.

As each character struggles to understand both life and senseless loss, the loving yet hurtful ways of human relationships, we see them superimposed on the lens of our collective beginning: the big bang (divine or evolutionary, take your pick) and our eternal, impossible remove from its source. We hear our own existential questions asked in whispered voiceovers as lowering sunlight plays through gnarled branches and underwater grasses sway in unseen currents. The abstraction of creation only magnifies how astonishing it truly is; that consciousness emerged from particles of dust, that life grew from light and heat, that cells divided, spheres fell into orbit around each other, and the entire universe expanded into infinite possibility.

And to my eyes, all this humbling cosmology makes the faltering, painful steps of human nature somehow more forgivable and innocent. We see a child struggling with what he perceives as his father’s cruelty (nature) and his mother’s loving acceptance (grace), and it is too easy to see them as battles of dark and light, evil and good, played out on the screen of the human psyche, but I don’t think the director means us to. We are instead meant to see how as parents, as creators, we will always be distant to the understanding of our children. They will only see us as they need to, as their own narrative circumscribes. They will ask us why, just as we ask God; and we won’t answer, not because we don’t have one, but because it is beyond our ability to contextualize the truth for them.

Well hello! I seem to be on a 3.2 posts per year trajectory here, but I’m not going to fret about that and suspect you aren’t, either. Onward.

The nutshell catch-up is: my husband got a job in another city and has been living there for two months. Once school is out and I’ve packed up the house we will move up there to be with him. This is supposedly happening in three weeks but I am not entirely certain I will be able to pull it off. It’s like that tablecloth trick. Only there is an entire house on the table.

My littlest, my boy, my baby is in a pitched battle with me to win the title of Most Freaked Out By This Crap-Assed Transition Business, but I started taking Prozac so I think he is going to win. Seriously, after years — years — of my doctor gently and less-gently suggesting it, I finally filled the prescription because I recognized that my ability to cope gracefully with Life In General is a delicate matter to begin with, and coping with A Difficult And Stressful Albeit Temporary Situation trends even further towards the nonexistent side of the equation. I was becoming a menace to all that is good and sparkly in the world and becoming one of those angry driver people and rude to customer service people and annoyed with everybody for everything all the time people, and man I hate being one of those people.

So anyway I’ve been taking it for five days and thus far can discern no effects whatsoever excepting the inability to open my eyes in the morning until half past coffee and even then they don’t really open all the way or, you know, see things for a goodly chunk of the day.

I fervently hope it kicks in the helpful chemical goods soon though, because my son’s state of freakage is really derailing my sanity and my faith in myself as a parent. I think it would be easier to work through this with and for him if I weren’t completely paralyzed by guilt. I don’t even know how to describe what is going on with him. But that such a wee person, only five years on this earth, could hold such darkness and despair is… horrifying. That he thinks he is bad, and undeserving of love is… I think the worst thing I have ever heard in my life. The psychologist says this is not outside the bounds of a developmentally appropriate reaction to a stressful situation (Dad living away from home, house in semi-packed shambles, mom frazzled and trying to keep up) and that it is certainly not my fault.

I am not convinced. But even so, even if it is my fault, I just want to know what it is. This darkness, this rage, this despair. He says when his brain turns red that he is bad. That he wants to hurt people. That he hates people. That he knows he is bad, that the red brain tells him he is bad. And that no one loves him.

He. Is. FIVE.

I want to go to sleep and wake up in a different world where my beautiful boy does not talk about red brains and hurting people. I want my beautiful boy to live in a world where he knows he is loved. Right now I am living in the world of finishing up at my job, packing up the house, wrapping up the school year, and feeding/bathing/clothing two children who need emotional anchoring in a world that has gone crazy around them. I am trying to get to that other world by being calm and loving and reassuring, but kids are smart and they know when you’re lying.

So, I’m taking it one minute at a time, hoping against hope that the Prozac will help make it true. True that I’m ok, and that things will be ok, and that the red brains are not in charge.

All y’all inspired me to finally step up though. Forgive my severely abbreviated answers; this was a hard year and I’m kind of choked up that it’s finally over.

 

1. What did you do in 2010 that you’d never done before?

Got an article published in a national magazine. Got a job working outside the home for the first time in forever. Took the kids camping. Started jogging.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

I honestly do not remember making resolutions last year. If I did, I’m sure I’ve blown them by now.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

If internets are close, then yes.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

Yes. Both of my beloved grandparents.

5. What countries did you visit?

None.

6. What would you like to have in 2011 that you lacked in 2010?

Steady employment for my husband, steady income for our family, steady nerves for me.

7. What dates from 2010 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

The dates of my grandparents’ deaths. It was somewhat expected, but really shook me nonetheless.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Landing a full-time job.

9. What was your biggest failure?

Too frequently letting my frustration/despair/moodiness infiltrate our family dynamics.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

No, but my son had a months-long medical scare that totally consumed me.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

Xanax?

12. Where did most of your money go?

Major fixes on our house. Also school tuition for the kids.

13. What did you get really excited about?

My new job. It’s a non-profit and pays kind of a laughable salary, but I am so grateful for the work, the people, and the organization’s mission. I feel more focused, more purposeful, more of a contributor.

14. What song will always remind you of 2010?

The whole Contra album by Vampire Weekend. It got a LOT of play here. Also the hymn How Great Thou Art. (From my grandma’s memorial service.)

15. Compared to this time last year, are you:
– happier or sadder? Both. The mix always changes.
– thinner or fatter? Fatter.
– richer or poorer? In terms of money, much poorer. In terms of wisdom, life lessons, love: richer.

16. What do you wish you’d done more of?

Laughed. Relaxed. Let go.

17. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Solitaire on my iPhone.

18. How did you spend Christmas?

Home, with family.

19. What was your favorite TV program?

Mad Men!

20. What were your favorite books of the year?

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, Room by Emma Donoghue, Half Baked by Alexa Stevenson, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Through the Children’s Gate by Adam Gopnik, Tinkers by Paul Harding.

21. What was your favorite music from this year?

I have no idea what is actually from this year. I mostly listen to Leonard Cohen and classical. And Vampire Weekend, Broken Bells, and a few hymns. Yeah, I know. I’m hard core.

22. What were your favorite films of the year?

Inception, Toy Story 3.

23. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

Lovely dinner with family. I turned 37.

24. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Stability.

25. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2010?

Frumpy. Definitely. Except today, New Year’s Eve! I got daring and went for the skinny jeans / schlumpy boots combo.

26. What kept you sane?

Family. Friends. Escapism (books, booze).

27. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2010.

Love matters most.

We’ve been Netflixing season one of Mad Men, and while there’s a certain shade of shame in being so late to the party, there’s also a certain glory: sinking in, with absolute trust, to something that has been guaranteed by nearly everybody to be exquisite and delicious. And I’m completely taken by it, true, and ye olde women’s studies side of me is suitably outraged as well, but the pervasive takeaway, really, when reduced to it’s purest element, is sadness. It is just so unbelievably sad, everyone living their lives of quiet desperation, in beautiful Leonard Cohen-esque hues: dark, miserable, beautiful, with the thinnest veneer of perfection.

Womanizing and objectification and gorgeous mid-century modern staging aside, the predominant theme of lies and lying liars is just painful to behold. And of course the metaphor is beautiful: the heyday of Madison Avenue was an ornate layer cake of pointed but well-frosted lies, so how better to tell the tale of infidelity to self and spouse than in the perfect vehicle of mid-century advertising?

I keep seeing the devotion to perfection in every scene. The spare starched shirts in a drawer; the cigarette cases and the tasteful glassware; the impeccable attire, hair & makeup in the empty suburban hours; the carefully chosen words and the downcast glance; the gloved hand and the guarded honor. Such a different era – now the pride is in how screwed up we are, how honest and raw we can get, how unraveled we truly are at seams of our modest – but meaningful! – existences.

This pretense is what kills me, that everyone is keeping up appearances to the point they completely lose the thread of reality. The housewife who finally admits to her analyst that she does in fact notice all the nights he “works late” and the perfume that wafts home on his clothes and the preoccupation and the disinterest in her, his ostensible prize, his hard-won wife.

At the end of the first season, I think I want to stop. It makes me wonder. It makes my skin crawl. I think of all the chances my prize has had over the years, all those hectic conferences and events, thrown in with his colleagues until all hours, wining and dining the clients and bestowing upon them every wish, every last martini and every latest call. Every laugh, every double-entendre, every blizzard grounding the flights and every last-minute hotel change I don’t know about until his return. How I have trusted the face of things. How could I suggest otherwise?

Yet. What have I offered him, my prize, in exchange for his allegiance? What is my brand, other than tired and overwrought? There is no vodka flowing through my ice sculpture. There is no party in my bed. There is no DJ, no strip tease, no high-kicking booty-shaking wunderland: there is my tired, sagging, flagging self, wanting to be heard and adored, unable to reciprocate, dead inside, wooden and still as a teak end table bearing a vase of silk flowers, impeccably dusted but ragged and frayed at the edges nonetheless.

Would I want to know? If he did? My little tableau, sad as it is, is quiet and undisturbed. Would I want the wave-tossed horrors of infidelity revealed? Would the searing truth cleanse me of my boring inanity? Would it make me into something new, something worth noticing? If I were the victim of my own inertia, if I drove him into another’s bed – I would be a good story, perhaps… but one I’d want to read?

Do you read your own story? The real one?

 

*Great Expectations

do nothing in the dark

How many blog posts start out with, “I keep sitting down to write this post but…” ?

So, it’s been a month since I’ve written, and back then in the olden days I didn’t have a job and I did have a lot of metaphoric weight perched on my shoulders. I was sick, I was hurting, anxious, not sleeping, not feeling a real connection to myself or anything in my world. Just mostly numb or uncomfortable or, paradoxically, both. And the doctor prescribed Prozac, and after much navel gazing (and a not-small amount of encouragement), I was ready to take the leap. I would do it, I would go on anti-depressants for the first time and resign myself to the idea of having a slightly hapless psyche that needed a little chemical boost, no biggie.

And then. You guys, and then! I got a job, a real job, one at an office that I drive to and that has a printer and a network and other people and pays actual money and oh my stars it has been a revelation. First, I really enjoy it. I love the people, I love our mission and what we do and how hard we do it. I love that finally I am doing something to better the world rather than to sell things and create financial gain (I mean, I still do that with my freelance work, but now I do this other, meeeeeeeaningful thing too). I love that I am stretching my brain in areas where it has lain dormant and unused. I love that I am thinking and problem solving and being smart. Yes I’m ringing my own bell here, but let me tell you how rare it has been in the last several years that I have had any opportunity to do so.

And, like these things always do, it has come at a cost. I don’t see my kids as much. I don’t hobnob with their friends’ parents at school pickup, or watch soccer practices, or help with homework. I feel disconnected from their daily life in a way I never imagined. When I come home in the evenings, whether to a pre-dinner tantrum in progress or happy squeals from the bath, their faces look new to me. Different, even. It kind of catches my breath, this oh! it’s you! feeling.

And don’t get me wrong, having this space has meant I’ve been spared most of the messes, the crying fits, the endless food prep / clean up tedium, the arguments, the icky laundry and potty detail, the sibling rivalry, the lunches to pack and shoes to find, the eternal drudgery of caring for small people. It’s meant that when I am with them I’m (mostly) graced with more patience, more focus, more appreciation for what nutty little wonders they are.

It’s also meant, as you can imagine, that my husband has picked up all the slack, while still trying to find gainful employment. He has been great at it, totally shepharding the kids around and staying on top of their details. He is the one behind this magical thing that is me coming home to a meal I didn’t cook or even think about. And it has taken it’s toll as well. He’s tired, he’s abrupt, he’s sharp-toned with the children a little too often, he feels like there are never enough hours in the day to take care of them and take care of his job search. He’s the me that I was for the last eight years. And that is hard to watch.

It’s a subterranean world, this little enclave of domesticity. It’s a world of tremendous work and energy and output, and yet our culture’s valuation of it is exactly: zero. We don’t get paid for “women’s work” whether we’re a man or a woman. I know there have been studies and even organizations devoted to the idea of paying people actual wages for the actual work of raising children and all the domestic labor associated with it. I’m not going to start clamoring for that here, but I do think it worth noting, and examining, the emotional devaluation that occurs with cultural devaluation.

Why should we need a job outside the home or at least a non-child-related job to feel good about ourselves? Why is “oh, I’m a stay at home mom” the worst answer you could give to the standard “so what do you do?” cocktail party query if you want to actually keep chatting? (And as you know we stay-at-homers have  so very many opportunities to attend cocktail parties.) Why do we need our sense of identity to be something more or other than caregiver?*

All questions that have been asked before, for many years, by many people. But it’s just a little jarring to live it. To realize, I don’t need anti-depressants. I just need to feel valued. Valuable. Why wasn’t being a full-time mom fulfilling that need? Why didn’t I feel validated until I re-entered the working world? I am very disturbed by all the implications, yes. But mostly? I’m happy. Insanely, crazy, busily happy. I am feeling valued now. I am happy. Now. And that is pretty much the bizzarrest thing ever..

 

*This is where I offer my disclaimer that of course many perfectly wonderful people are perfectly content to be stay-at-home parents and some don’t even notice or aren’t bothered by cultural condescension or even believe it exists. Of course being a SAH parent is a totally fine and wonderful thing (I did it myself for eight years!) and I am specifically not being judgy about who does what or why. Enjoy your life, however you’re living it!