Sanctimonious Concern

There are times to call police, but there are also times to speak our concerns to each other, and there are times to check our 21st century, first-world paranoia and let it go.

In 1994, I lived in a rental house not much bigger than a breadbox with my then-husband and our baby. Next door was an even smaller rental house, barely the size of a garage.

The young woman (and I do mean young; I was 23 and she was even younger) who lived in that tiny house had a two-year-old son who seemed to perpetually surprise his mother with his presence. We chatted occasionally in our common backyard and I was left with the impression that she was flummoxed by the babyness of him. Now that he spoke and walked upright, he still hadn’t become a reasonable person, and that startled her.

One afternoon when my then-husband came in from work, he said, “You have to call CYFD on that girl next door. Her kid is playing in the car.”

I went out front and sure enough, there was my neighbor’s two-year-old son, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, turning the wheel back and forth and making those driving noises that come pre-installed on some children. I scooped him up and carried him into the house and found his mother in the kitchen, cooking dinner.

“He was playing in the car,” I told her. “That’s not safe. Actually, he really shouldn’t be out there without someone to watch him since there’s no fence.”

“Oh,” she said, looking concerned. “I thought it would be OK. I told him to stay in the yard.”

“He’s too little,” I said, “and a car isn’t a safe place to play. He could accidentally release the brake, or he could get locked in there.”

She was embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” she said, apologizing because she felt bad even though she hadn’t hurt me.

“Well, he’s fine, and it’s all good. Just remember to keep the car locked, and let me know if you need help watching him!”

I went back to my house, praying that I had done the right thing. Maybe she did need professional guidance. She seemed so profoundly clueless. On the other hand, her son was well-fed, happy, and had never had any injuries that I’d seen. Our houses were very close and I never heard any crying beyond what’s normal for a child that small.

After our conversation, I never saw my neighbor’s son outside without his mother’s supervision again and I became more and more comfortable with my decision.

Across my adult years, I’ve had lots of interaction with the child protection system, mostly as a mandated reporter but also as a victim of malicious reporting. I’m also a parent and an observer of trends and what I’ve noticed is this: people are much quicker than they used to be to call police about suspected child mistreatment.

Is that good? Yes and no. I’m happy to wave good-bye to the days when what happened to children was nobody’s business but those children’s parents. Kids whose parents hurt them or fail to keep them safe deserve better, and we need a system with the power to intervene on their behalf.

On the other hand, 911 is no one’s personal nuisance reporting number, and child protective services is not the place to call when there is mild concern, or when a parent does something that doesn’t seem like the best possible decision. I think social media drives some of this because I’ve seen (haven’t we all seen?) ridiculous statements like parents who feed their kids junk food are ruining those children’s health and should have them taken away, or women who have planned c-sections are abusive, on and on. Every parenting choice that seems less-than-ideal to the observer gets the “abusive” placard hung around its neck.

I remembered all my interactions with cops and child protective services yesterday, when I read this piece at Salon about a mother who left her child in the car for a few minutes on a 50 degree day while she ran into a store to buy that child a pair of headphones. The legal problems caused by the bystander who took video of her car and her child and subsequently called police have dominated her family’s life for two years.

This represents a major cultural shift that I’ve witnessed in my 20+ years as a parent. When my eldest children were very young, in the mid-90s, I didn’t think much of leaving my children in the car under the conditions that it was not hot out, I would be no more than a couple minutes, and I could see my car from inside the store. By the mid-2000s, when my youngest son was a toddler and pre-schooler, I felt much more anxious about doing that. I was not more concerned about kidnapping, or someone stealing my car with my child inside, or any of the supposed risks that always taking my children with me are meant to ameliorate. No, I became worried about a bystander who might call the police about “neglect.”

I did once call the police about a child left alone in a car. It was nearly 100 degrees and I stood ready to smash a window if the baby (who was sweaty, but was also laughing at the goofy faces I was making at her through the window) seemed in distress. Thankfully the police arrived less than a minute after I called and they popped the lock and put the baby in an air conditioned police car until an ambulance arrived.

There are times to call police, but there are also times to speak our concerns to each other, and there are times to check our 21st century, first-world paranoia and let it go. The police, courts, and child protection agencies really do have better things to do than indulge our sanctimonious concern over how other people are parenting. Resources are limited and children who are being beaten, molested, or starved, need those resources devoted to them. There are children out there who are being left alone for hours, not minutes.

When we see a child in immediate danger, of course we should call 911, and when we suspect genuinely neglectful or abusive behavior, it’s time to notify child protective services. In the meantime, I think we all need to get a grip, because most of the kids are OK, and most of the parents, fallible though we are, are doing just fine.

You Chose

If only we were half as powerful as we believe ourselves to be.

You took no medications and consumed nothing artificial during pregnancy. Your baby is pure and the least a mother can do is sacrifice her comfort for 9 months.

You consulted with your health care provider during pregnancy and chose to continue your anti-depressant. Your baby needs to have a mother who is well and healthy.

You chose cautiously. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

You chose disposable diapers because your baby needs your attention. How can you stay focused on her if you’re scraping poop and washing diapers?

You chose cloth because no baby of yours is going to sit in some a chemical-filled, disposable paper “garment.”

You chose elimination communication because your baby deserves better than to sit in his own waste.

You chose carefully. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

Your baby slept in her own crib right from the beginning. Babies need to learn to self-soothe, to be independent.

You co-slept, your baby nestled between his parents all night long. Babies are small and vulnerable and need their parents’ presence so they know they are safe in the world.

You chose thoughtfully. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

Your toddler rode in a stroller or wore a harness until he was four. No child of yours is going to get lost or hit by a car because her parents didn’t restrain her properly.

Your toddler was free to walk whenever he wanted. No child of yours is going to have his freedom curtailed because his parents didn’t keep their attention focused on him.

You chose judiciously. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

You took your family to church every week because children should be grounded in a faith tradition so they have a moral compass and a sense of connection.

You avoided organized religion because children should be allowed to explore a variety of world views and choose faith (or not) according to their preferences.

You chose scrupulously. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

You were a firm disciplinarian with your children. You had high expectations and you issued unpleasant consequences when your children fell short.

You avoided all forms of punishment with your children, preferring them to learn from the natural consequences of their behavior.

You chose conscientiously. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

You taught your child everything about sex. You taught him about protection, pregnancy prevention, and consent. You taught him about respect, kindness, and risk.

You taught your child that sex is something she absolutely may not even consider until after she is married. You taught her that sex is sacred and that she must protect her purity no matter what.

You chose morally. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

You kept your children at home, arranging for all their playdates to be supervised by you. You spoke to their teachers often, visited their classrooms, and joined them on all their outings.

You let your kids run the neighborhood with friends and sent them to the neighborhood school. They went to the park, the swimming pool, and the movies accompanied by people their own age.

You chose prudently. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

You saw a person at the grocery store, or heard a story on the TV news, or read about a tragedy on the internet, and thank God nothing like that is ever going to happen to your child.

If only his parents had been moral. If only her mom was conscientious. If only his dad had been more careful.

*          *          *

If only we were half as powerful as we believe ourselves to be before something bad happens to our children.

Darkness Is a Cannibal

I remember walking up the stairs to Robert’s apartment, determined to end the hateful stalemate that was immoveable, static, a mountain or a moon, and I walked up the stairs trembling and I would end it. I would end it if I died.

I remember most of it like snapshots, the way you remember things that happened when you were a very small child.

I remember the police walking up to our door, and why? Could it have been just because my daughter Abbie was at my house and her dad, Robert, was angry about that? It seems unreasonable, but then everything was unreasonable.

I remember opening the door to them, the way they stood back, one on each side of the door, hands hovering over their holstered guns. One officer asked, “Do you have any weapons?” and I answered, “We’re Mennonite,” a ridiculous answer for what felt like a ridiculous question.

I remember my stepson taking his little brother into his room, trying to protect him from seeing police in the house, and is that a memory, or is it a hope? The police said we may not close any doors, and that may be invention, too. I was underwater, breath held, heart paused, and one officer asked Abbie, “Are you OK to be here? Are you safe here?” and she glared (did she?) over his shoulder and said yes, yes, she was safe, she was fine, and they asked to see papers. They wanted to look at papers with signatures and official seals: is she mine? Is this girl flesh of my flesh? Is she my heart, my soul, my waking and dreaming life and all the hopes and heartaches I have lived? Did a judge, a lawyer, some official person declare her to be so?

Many days or weeks before, but maybe after, I called my son Jacob. It was December, his 18th birthday. “I never have to see you again, Mom. I’m never going to talk to you again. I don’t have to anymore and you can’t make me,” and the world was flat and I was flat and you were flat, too, and the phone burned to dust and someone was there, but who? Who was there? Someone held the parts together because the parts stay together and life goes and we are not flat, except we are. We are flat and so very, very sad.

Later, but not much later because I was leaning against the window in my bedroom and the window was very cold, and I rested my forehead against it and felt the coldness and the coldness kept me tethered to the flat, flat world, and Jacob was on the phone, in my ear, and his voice came out to me but it was carrying his father’s words. I don’t know most of the words anymore. I heard them 1,000, or 10,000, or maybe 1,000,000 times, if you count how often I heard them while I slept and when I made dinner and while I drove, but I don’t remember all of them. I heard them on a little silver flip-phone, and over a Palm Centro, and on a Droid X, and on a Samsung Note and occasionally even face to face. I heard them and they stabbed me all over, each one a tiny piercing needle and I cried until I was a husk of corn, stripped, withered, ugly. Wasted. Useless.

I remember walking up the stairs to Robert’s apartment, determined to end the hateful stalemate that was immoveable, static, a mountain or a moon, and I walked up the stairs trembling and I would end it. I would end it if I died. I would end it if he killed me. I hoped he would kill me. I hoped he would kill me 9 times and burn me down, flat me on the flat earth in the emptiness of life without them. I would die, I would hurt and I would die and it would be so right, so holy, a most perfect thing. I would not live without them anymore. I would not look outside to see some official person with a weapon or a clipboard come to decide about me. I would not watch for the cars with the official seals on them because he hoped I would lose not just the two children we shared, but my other children as well. I would not cry myself to sleep Jacob Abbie I want you I miss you life is empty everything hurts come home come home come home to me I love you so much and I’m flat and everything is burning and still I go to the grocery and pay the gas bill and watch cartoons with your brothers and where is the ground? Why does it buck and curl under my feet this way? I can’t love you this way. I can’t. I can’t. I’m flat. We’re all so flat; there’s nothing but the hate he cultivated and the hate has made us all flat.

I remember hearing my husband murmur to our youngest son, “Stay here with me. Mommy has to cry for awhile, but she’ll be OK,” and our little boy’s voice, angry, asking, “Why are they so mean? Why don’t they come back? Don’t they love us?” and I covered my head with pillows.

I remember walking up those apartment stairs the most. Crumbling concrete stairs, itchy gray wool socks on my feet, and a mild Albuquerque winter day, and I knocked on the door. Robert came to the door and I was ready. I would push my way in, force an end, stop the stalemate and surely one of us would die or sleep that night in a jail cell, but I would end it. I would breech this unbreechable thing with a broken jaw or a pair of handcuffs. Finally, I would see it through to the end.

All those times when he sent official people to my door: nod, nod, no sir, no weapons, yes ma’am, we have food in the kitchen, see? No sir, we don’t spank, yes ma’am we have a pediatrician. We are good, do you have that in your official papers? I am their mother, do you see here where the judge signed? Do you see where some official person with an important title said that these are people I have permission to love? Do you see this seal? This date stamp? This envelope, this name, this signature? I have no weapons, nothing useful except this phone, this hateful phone and these ears to hear and these eyes to see and my regret to keep me awake at night.

But the memories. I remember opening the door, so many times. I remember answering the phone. I remember mistakes, recriminations, allegations, and the cold, cold window against my forehead, and the world dark on the other side, and darkness is a cannibal and hate is a ravenous monster and they ate connection, cohesion, coherence, and left me with these snapshots. I moved the mountain. I breeched the unbreechable, and when I celebrate, I also cry, and I am more whole and more broken, both. I read and sleep and walk and wish that Robert could hurt, and pray to forgive. Forgive him, forgive them, forgive the nameless others, forgive me.

Because I always opened the door.

Frozen

I’m just…stuck. How did this happen, when I love my life? It’s a hard life sometimes, sure, but it’s good. It’s very, very good, so why am I not living, creating, and enjoying?

Sometimes, I get frozen.

Actually, scratch that. Often, I am frozen. I live long stretches of my life like a deer hypnotized by headlights and it’s infuriating and frustrating and as an excuse to hate myself, it’s powerful. As a good slippery place from which to descend into depression, it’s very effective, except neither self-hate nor depression is my goal.

Let’s say I just dropped Carter off at school or a play date. I come in from the garage, let the dogs out, and pour myself a cup of coffee. I’m good with all that but now it gets sticky because I need to make a decision: what should I do next? I haven’t posted to my blog in days or weeks and I want to write something, and I’m feeling some pressure because I hate that I don’t post more regularly. There’s a proposal for a column that I need to finish and I’m angry at myself because it’s an awesome idea, plus I need to make some money. There are submissions for my church’s literary magazine to be read. There’s a book for which I’ve promised a review and have only read half, a long list of emails to answer, and don’t forget my book, with its stacks of notes and half-finished chapters gathering virtual dust in their electronic folders! That’s maybe one-third of what beckons me from my office, but I assume you get the idea. It’s a mash of things, most of them fulfilling and interesting, but there is also some sense of…not exactly obligation, but my life is not as good when I don’t do these things. I am my best self in the office, when I am creating and exploring, but I also struggle in there.

I sit down at my desk and adjust my chair, put on some music, light a candle, open all the necessary tabs on my browser and…crap. The few words I’ve produced are awful. I’m feeling a little guilty because Carter wore dirty socks this morning, so maybe I should tackle the laundry. I get up and carry my coffee cup through the kitchen (need to clean! need to shop! try to ignore!) and down the hall. The green hamper outside the hall bathroom is so full, clothes and sheets and towels are poking through the little holes and things are spilling over the top. How this hamper is so full is mysterious since Carter’s room looks like a textile-factory explosion. I kick my way through the clothes so I can open the window because it doesn’t smell very nice in there.

To heck with this, I think. I’m not picking up Carter’s clothes. He can do that himself when he gets home from school. I’ll start with Brian’s and my laundry, and I head to my room.

Where I am hit over the head with the fact that my little red-headed apple didn’t fall far from this tree because every pair of socks I have worn in the past week is on the floor on my side of the bed. The bedroom hamper is no more than 5 feet from the foot of the bed (more like 4 feet, what with the over-spillage), yet I pull off my socks before I get in the bed every night and leave them on the floor. Here are more coffee cups (there are matching groups of cups on my desk and on the table next to my favorite chair in the living room), plus water glasses and a towering stack of books that belies the fact that I switched to e-readers years ago and much prefer them.

I sit down on the bed and clear a little spot on the nightstand for my coffee cup. I’ll just sort the laundry. I’ll start with that, and I’ll feel a little better. A little more in control. I get up to gather laundry baskets and discover that two of them are in my Abbie’s room, full of clean laundry she hasn’t put away yet. One is in the laundry room, full of soggy towels from Saturday when Brian gave the dogs their baths. Also, Spencer’s clothes are in the dryer and there is a load of sheets in the washer that smell musty because I ran them two days ago. I look around at the drifts of dog hair in the laundry room (which is also the dog’s “bedroom”) and decide I need to sit down and have another cup of coffee.

It all seems too much, too big, and the chatter in my head is unbearable. My folks, my sister, my ex-husband, my 10th grade English teacher, the psychiatrist I saw when I was 19, some therapists, a pastor from childhood, occasionally even my kids, all their voices bundled, amplified, and heavily distorted by my shame (except the voices of my sister and my ex-husband who would say my worst assessments of myself don’t go far enough). Except it’s all my voice. Sometimes I can drown them all out with an audiobook or loud music and actually get something done. Other times, I can’t get above the struggle. The voices are deafening and exhausting and I’m overwhelmed with guilt because I am wasting my day, my talent, or my life (Welcome to my ego; is it not an unlovely thing?).

I stir like this all day, almost every day. I feel like I’m witnessing a fight-to-the-death between my brain’s ability to focus, organize, and execute, and my life. I keep us functioning at an acceptable level: there is food in the refrigerator, clean clothes in the closets, bills paid on time(ish), and everyone gets to their appointments on time. I meet my obligations at church and in the other organizations I’m part of and I never miss a hard deadline (though the soft ones and the ones I set for myself are symbolic at best), but the rest of it is a relentless battle, and life is not what it could be. I don’t have energy for relationships, creativity, and fun because I’m exhausted from this internal fight.

But dammit, the noise! If I shut down and shut it all out (books, Netflix, web surfing), I can get a little peace but I don’t get anything done, don’t even really live my life. When I try to accomplish something, the nattering begins. I’m not good enough; why didn’t I do this sooner; who do I think I am. If I wash the window sill above the kitchen sink, I notice the horrifying state of the front yard, and if I dust the window sills in the living room, I notice the horrifying state of the backyard. Carter needs his fingernails trimmed, we’re out of milk, I told a friend I’d write a piece for her new website, on and on and on and I am tired. I’ve read the books, taken the medicine, talked to the therapists, done the programs and I’m just…stuck. How did this happen, when I love my life? It’s a hard life sometimes, sure, but it’s good. It’s very, very good, so why am I not living, creating, and enjoying?

I believe there’s a solution, but all I really know so far is this: being hard on myself is not that solution. I’ve done that and it does not work. What I haven’t done is share the struggle publicly so let’s see where that gets me. Maybe you’ve experienced the same thing and I’m not all alone in the world. Stranger things have happened.

Catching Up with Carter J

When I don’t write much about Carter for awhile, I’ll get notes from people asking how he is and what’s up with him. I told Carter about that yesterday and he asked, “So those people are kind of like my fans?”

“Yes, I guess they are,” I said, and that made him shoot out flames of happiness just like when he’s getting ready to spend the day with his grandma and grandpa or he’s accomplished something very difficult at school.

Then he gave me a long list of things he wants to tell you. There was at least ten minutes of material about Ninjago (that’s a commercial for Lego in TV form) and I’m going to make an executive decision and just distill that to this: Carter really, really likes Ninjago. The rest, though, is stuff that might interest those of us who are not pre-pubescent kids.

Carter went back to school a few weeks ago with almost none of the angst and drama that usually accompanies this transition. I was in Chicago for the first two days of school and we expected that that would drive his anxiety levels to a very high level, but he did great. For the first time ever, he walked into school on the first day with a few hugs and kisses from his dad, and no tears. He was all puffed up when I got home from my trip, telling me how he was scared but he could totally handle it and it was a good thing because some of the new kids were scared and Ms D and Ms B needed his help comforting them.

For a guy who has spent so much of his life in agony because he was crippled by anxiety and convinced he couldn’t handle things, this was a huge deal. He hasn’t had nearly enough opportunities to be proud of himself, so to see him feeling like big stuff was a real treat. Brian and I were shooting out our own flames of happiness to see him feeling so good.

The school he goes to is tiny and isn’t really divided by grade. The elementary kids are split into upper and lower grades, but movement between the two rooms (and some of the older kids move back and forth to the middle school room, too) is fluid. Carter spends the morning in the upper elementary with Ms B doing math, reading, and writing. In the afternoons, the two groups get together to do project-based work in social studies, science, and art. Once a day, he goes to work with Ms C for 30 minutes of one-on-one reading instruction.

He wanted me to be sure to tell you about his teachers, who he loves and adores. He’s been with Ms D (the lower elementary teacher) for four years now, and he and she have a special connection. It’s true love between them. Ms B is new this year, and Carter says he likes her almost as much as Ms D, which is pretty impressive since if Carter lists his favorite people in the world (something he does obsessively), Ms D gets a place the list more reliably than several members of his own family.

If your 11 year old child wears a top hat to school and doesn’t come in tears, you know that’s an extraordinary school.

This smooth transition back to school is a happy surprise after months of surprising stability. Spring is typically the time of year when Carter comes apart (pretty common among people with mood disorders) but last spring was the smoothest we’ve had in many years, which led to a better summer. Early fall is usually when we’re beginning to get back to baseline. Last year, we were more knowledgeable than ever about what Carter would need, so we increased his lithium early (When he drinks more water and sweats more as the weather heats up, his lithium blood level drops, requiring a higher dose.) and treated sleep issues aggressively. For the first time, we got the manic episode right at the front end, before it spiraled out of control.

Now that the weather is cooling off, he’s starting to be a little shaky (a sign that his lithium levels are a little high) so soon we’ll reduce his dose, but this makes us a little more optimistic.  After several nightmare springs in a row, we have hope now that if we could get the jump on mania once, we may be able to do it again.

There is only one symptom I can think of that is not dramatically improved. We haven’t seen one of those terrifying, seizure-like rages in a couple of years. His anxiety has not improved as much (and he has been struggling with anxiety-induced hives for a few weeks) but it is noticeably better. He’s had no more than the very occasional, minor breakthrough psychosis and he’s even sleeping well. Only his frequent episodes of irritability have resisted all our attempts at treatment, but with so many other successes, we have renewed hope.

The insurance continues to refuse him any occupational or physical therapy, and as a result he gets a little more knock-kneed and sway-backed every year (this is a result of his hypotonia, and the extra weight that his anti-psychotic medication brings with it doesn’t help). We won’t stop pressing them to provide these services, but I’m not optimistic.

Carter was napping during church and I was trying to get a picture of the hives on his hand. I don’t know if you can see those, but isn’t he cute???

At school, he likes math the best. He wants the books we read to him to have lots of action and danger, and it’s best if there are monsters. He’s glad you are curious about him and he hopes you’re having a very good day. Finally, he says that, if your kids have trouble with feelings like he does, he would like you to tell them that Carter says if you use your skills, take your medicine, and ask for help when you need it, maybe you’ll feel better and he hopes nobody has to go to the hospital today. 

Our kids with mental/emotional/social/behavioral issues may have lots of big problems, but they also have big hearts full of compassion. It isn’t always easy to be Carter’s mom, but it’s always easy to love him.