First things first: you people will never know (no matter how hard I try to tell you) what you have done for me this week. I want to respond to all your comments individually, but being emotionally overwhelmed. . .well, we’ll see.
In any case, many, many thanks. This being-separated-from-Jacob-and-Abbie is one of the most painful things I have ever experienced and your love and support is one of the things that keeps me from climbing under the bed and waiting there for death via dust bunny asphyxiation.
If I was a different kind of person, I would have come home from dropping Carter off at school this morning and said to myself, Self, there is a lot to day today and this house is very messy. I’m going to sort the laundry and, after I get a load started in the washer, I’ll clean the kitchen. When the kitchen is clean, I’m going to return some phone calls and after that, I’ll take a break and decide what to do next.
But I’m not a different kind of person; I’m a me kind of person and when I came home from dropping Carter off at school this morning I said to myself, Self, this house is a fucking disaster and I’m behind of everything so I better damn well get busy with something and I should start with those phone calls because my God, how can I expect people not to hate me when I don’t ever call them back but wait I should get some laundry started first or no, that’s not right, I should deal with the kitchen because how the hell can a person stand to live in a house with such a dirty kitchen but if I do the kitchen I should try to figure out what that stink in the refrigerator is but before I do that I really should start the laundry because, wait, does Carter have any clean underwear oh, my God did he go commando this morning and what kind of mother am I and I haven’t written a blog post in, I dunno, maybe three days so I should probably go upstairs and do that now but how can I even think about writing when there are so many other things to do and I think one of the dogs peed in the dining room so I should go get the tools and fix the gate to keep them out of there but if I was a halfway decent person who even deserved to own dogs I would have trained them not to pee in there a long time ago and I wonder how many emails I need to answer oh shit do you remember that blogger who recently said she answers every email she gets from her readers and how I thought, oh, I want to be that kind of blogger and who am I kidding I suck way too much to ever manage something like that and oh, no, I forgot I need to make those appointments for the kids and that one for myself and I should start thinking about what to write for the First Things First series and I haven’t seen Grammy since last week which figures since I’m the world’s shittiest granddaughter and I wonder what’s on TV?
At which point one of two things happens. Either I crawl into the couch with the remote control (or screw around on Twitter, or do something equally non-productive) or I buzz around trying to do everything. In either case, I accomplish nothing, which means I get further behind, which means that the following day, when I come home from dropping Carter off at school, I’m right back where I started.
When my sister and I were little girls, we fought all the time – that kind of constant, pick pick pick sibling arguing that kids seem, almost, to enjoy, but that drives parents to distraction. When we really got going my mom would sigh and say, “You girls make me tired.”
I feel that way about my brain. It makes me tired.
Actually, I have pain from my forehead, up and around the back of my head, down into my neck, and spreading across my shoulders and down to my back.
Why? Because I don’t like my kid much these days, and that’s a shitty way to be feeling.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve wished that, if my kid had to have a disability, he could have gotten one that didn’t make him so damn unlikeable, I’d be able to buy myself a new car.
That right there is a shitload of nickels, my friends. Too bad my personal nickel dispenser has fallen asleep at the switch.
We wake up in the morning and he immediately starts acting like an asshole. There’s a fight over whether or not he will take his medicine; over how long it takes to properly brush one’s teeth (I am annoyingly devoted to the notion that 8.2 seconds is not long enough to keep his teeth in his head.), and over whether or not he can wear this or that favorite shirt for the fourth day in a row.
Most days he asks me, “Can I have cookies for breakfast?” Or he asks for ice cream, or pretzels, or something we don’t have. It’s like a dance and as much as I want to sit out, I’m pulled to my feet to take the all-to-familiar steps.
“Fine, I won’t eat anything.”
“Your choice, but if your medicine makes you barf, you’re not staying home from school.” One of the medicines he takes causes Carter to throw up if he swallows it on an empty stomach. He managed to stay home several times before I figured out that he was playing me by pretending to eat breakfast.
“FINE! I’ll drink some stupid fucking milk. Can I take cookies for lunch?”
“You can take two.”
“That’s stupid. I’m taking the whole bag and you can’t stop me!”
“Two or none, you choose.”
“FINE! You’re a stupid fucking bitch asshole!”
“Go to your room until you’re ready to use your skills.” Use your skills is code for get your shit together. No, in fact, it’s code for a set of things he’s learned to do to regulate his emotions; sometimes he’s pretty good at using his skills, and sometimes he’s absolutely unwilling.
These days, he’s almost always unwilling.
On his way out of the living room and toward the stairs, he may or may not try to hit me. If he does try, I may or may not lose my as-yet-inadequately-caffeinated patience and yell at him. As he stomps up the stairs, he shouts one word per step: I. HATE. YOU. I. HATE. YOU. As he stomps, I may or may not think about my first marriage, and how this all feels awfully familiar in some ways.
From my perch on the couch, I can hear him upstairs chanting to himself, “My mom is a stupid fucking asshole asshole asshole. No cookies for me because Mom is an asshole.” Stomp stomp stomp. I sip my coffee and hope that I remembered to lock my bedroom and office doors, in case he starts feeling more destructive than usual.
I just want to make the boy some breakfast and drink my coffee while he eats. The dogs stare at me longingly from the other side of the sun room doors but I won’t let them in until after Carter has gone to school.
Eventually, he comes downstairs and apologizes for the way he was talking. He hugs me. I ask, “Do you know what you need to do next?”
“I have to eat something and take my stupid asshole medicine.”
“Yes, you need some breakfast. Do you want cereal or a smoothie?”
He may or may not start in about the cookies again. I may or may not lose my still-inadequately-caffeinated patience and yell at him. We may or may not also have noise and drama over shoes or other articles of clothing; lunch (into which I never manage to put quite the right things); face and hand washing; putting breakfast dishes away; and missing items like his agenda or water bottle.
By the time we’re ready to walk out the door and get into the car at 8:05 am, I’m having an existential crisis.
Every. fucking. day.
And this? This is, relatively speaking, pretty good. Or not good, but a long way from what we know as bad. He’s not suicidal; he’s functioning well at school. He has only the mildest of psychotic symptoms.
I can’t believe that what I’m living right now is what passes for “pretty good.” I can’t believe this is my life.
After I pick Carter up from school, we do battle about a different set of issues. He’s a little less angry in the afternoons, but a whole lot more hyper. He often has appointments after school, and he gets angry that we can’t go straight home. That wouldn’t be so bad except that, if we do go straight home, he’s still not happy.
I try to force some kind of positive interaction – anything to alter the mood, or at least remind us both for a moment that we love each other. Sometimes I am successful; often he is so determinedly miserable that I am unable to breach his emotional hull.
My head still hurts, and I don’t have a way to end this post. There is no tidy closing, no hopeful Scarlett here to say, “…after all, tomorrow is another day!”
Tomorrow is another day. Another day to fight and struggle. Another day to read articles written by people with way too much influence who say that pediatric mental illness is not real. Another day to call Carter’s psychiatrist in hopes that we can make a tiny chemical adjustment and improve things. Another day to see Carter’s psychologist and try to learn something new that will make life a little more bearable. Another day to try to do all my living during the hours when Carter is at school and after he goes to sleep, because when he is home and awake, I am under siege.
Another day to drink too much coffee and swallow too much aspirin and try try try to control my feelings because Carter is incapable of controlling his.
Brian and Carter have gone to bed, closing out a day that I’d just as soon have skipped. There was yelling today. Also some stomping on the stairs, several episodes door slamming, and, of course, the requisite cursing.
I wish I could say that all the bad behavior belonged to the small person who has good reasons for being unable to manage his feelings, but sadly, no. Brian and I took turns getting down in the dirt and acting like jerks, too.
There were always days like this, days when parenting seemed like a shit job that for which I was simultaneously over-and-under qualified.
Then Carter came and I was, suddenly, out of my depth in almost every minute.
It’s been about 4,492,800 minutes since Carter was born and I think I’ve felt lost, overwhelmed, and/or afraid during at least 4,492,350 of those minutes.
Before Carter came, we taught our kids not to use what we called “rude words.” The list of rude words included all the usuals — fuck, shit, damn, bitch, ass, and all racial/homophobic/gender slurs —plus stupid and hate. Nobody used any of those words in our house unless the kids were asleep (except the slurs; nobody uses those, ever).
Now, it’s a rare and wonderful day when Carter doesn’t call me a fucking asshole or a stupid shit head. He can stomp up the stairs, scream I hate you, and slam his bedroom door with enough drama to put any hormone-flooded fifteen-year-old to shame.
With Jacob, Abbie, and Spencer, I carefully, methodically, taught them to identify their feelings and name them. When they were tiny, I started with the four simplest: mad, sad, scared, happy. As they grew, I added more nuanced emotions: lonely, disappointed, excited. They learned to speak their own feelings and even to identify the feelings of others. One of my proudest moments was when Jacob, about 5 at the time, said, “I think you’re mad, Mommy. Is that why you’re yelling? Are you mad?” (Proud of him; not so much proud of my own yelling self.)
Now, when I name Carter’s feelings, I only escalate the situation. “Quit saying I’m angry you stupid fucking bitch!” In the moment when he says that, I hate myself for the anger that thumps in my chest.
I love him. Dear God, how I love him, my boy, my heart, my lovely and precious child. But in that moment, I can see my hand rising, feel the sting as it connects with his face. Redness and swelling and bruises.
I have never, but the wanting…God forgive me because the wanting feels like doing, and my brain knows it’s not the same but my heart is confused.
Our house was full of angry words this weekend. We added a new medicine two months ago and it worked — Carter’s agitation and anxiety (the things that drive much of his fury) decreased significantly. The medicine also made him fatigued and nauseous and caused him to have a migraine nearly everyday, so of course we had to stop.
And now I’m a stupid fucking bitch again.
Every smallest anxiety feels like life-or-death to Carter. This morning, unable to find one of his shoes, he wailed and hyperventilated as if there was a hungry, salivating tiger loose in the house. The sounds of his fear startle me, cause my blood pressure to rise, and then I am filled with anger.
And then I feel ashamed. Because I am angry at a little boy with a serious illness. I am angry at symptoms, like being angry at a child with the flu for sneezing or being angry at a child with cancer for growing a tumor.
I took him to school this morning. He cried all the way there as if the plan was to drop him into a piranha-infested river instead of at the school he loves. When he was screaming at the door, “Mommy, no! I can’t do it! I need you!”, all I could think was, “Six hours. Get that kid’s ass through that door and into the school and I’ll have six hours of freedom.”
I was far, far (far!) from the ideal mother before Carter joined us, but I was never so utterly devoid of compassion for any of my children.
I don’t know how to find it again when he bucks and struggles against me the way he does.
Four hours now. Four hours to reset myself. Four hours to find a well of patience and compassion inside me before I have to pick him up from school. This is the worst kind of counting the minutes, when I am dreading being with my own child.
Wow. Alright, based on my email inbox and a few comments, it seems I need to clear a few things up.
I love you all for being concerned. Really and truly, I do. This is meant to reassure, not scold, so please hear it in the manner in which it is intended!
Expressing my feelings is part of the healing process for me. I have spent most of my life hiding my strongest feelings and that has done nothing but make me more and more isolated, and more and more depressed. If these posts are a cry for help, it is only the help that comes from being heard. I don’t expect any of you to fix anything for me; in fact, advice is one of the things that I don’t want.
Be reassured by this: I am under the care of a psychiatrist; I am actively looking for a new therapist; Brian is well aware of my emotional state and if I need a higher level of care he will make sure that I get it; and I have my extended family and some wonderfully supportive friends who will step in and help me in any way they can should I need that.
Writing these posts, making them public, and the wonderful comments and emails that some of you write, are among the most healing experiences I have ever had. Truly, when you say, “I hear you,” or, “I have felt that, too,” I am warmed all over.
I can never thank you enough for that.
One of the things I struggle with (all the time, but even more when I am depressed) is a sort of paralysis born of feeling overwhelmed. I have a hard time seeing the parts and can only see the whole.
If I look at a room and there are dirty dishes, laundry, general clutter, dust, and a dirty floor, I see all of that at once and have a difficult time breaking it up into manageable pieces. If the whole house is a mess (as tends to happen when one is depressed) I don’t know where to start, so I do nothing.
This may seem like a housework issue, but it’s not. Or it is, but only nominally. This is about feeling hopeless and helpless, about making choices and setting standards instead of constantly struggling but getting nowhere.
So yesterday, inspired and encouraged by the wonderful feedback I got after yesterday’s post, I decided to work on cleaning up my office. I want one room that looks nice, to give me a feeling of accomplishment, and my office is the only room I don’t share with anyone, so other people won’t mess it up.
I started with the surface of the desk. Not even that, but one portion. My desk is actually a buffet table and our old kitchen table, so I started with the buffet table. That wasn’t too difficult, so I moved on to the kitchen table. I picked away at it; it took me a long time, and I felt overwhelmed even with this small task.
But I got it done! Carter is thrilled. There is an old kitchen chair across the table from my desk chair and Carter likes to sit there and color or do puzzles when I’m at my desk.
I even swept the floor and cleared off my reading chair, which made Lolly happy.
I feel pretty great about all I accomplished. It ain’t much, but it’s more than I did yesterday, and sitting here this evening, in tidy surroundings, makes me feel more peaceful.
My goal for tomorrow is to box up all the diet books in this house and get rid of them. Those things are poison for me and I don’t have to keep things that hurt me in my house. I’m ashamed to admit that I have two shelves full of diet books, but I can’t change what I did in the past. I can only learn to do something new.
Depression is a wily motherfucker. She’ll use whatever she sees to gouge me right in the soul, to suck the life out of me and make me too tired to fight her.
She sees the overflowing laundry hamper and says, “My God, if you can’t even keep up with the laundry, what good are you?”
She looks at the kids’ empty beds and tells me, “You can make all the excuses you want, but they left because you’re a lousy mother and a sad excuse for a human being.”
Depression watches me say “no” to Carter and when he gets angry, depression says, “Eventually, he’ll reject you too. Just make him the damn sandwich (or drive him to his friend’s house, or buy him a toy, or let him have another cookie) if you want to keep him.”
Depression looks in the refrigerator with me and says, “Why bother looking for something healthy? No matter what you do today, eventually you’ll eat a box of cookies and you’ll be fat and unhealthy forever.”
She sees me looking around the house, trying to decide if I should clean the kitchen or vacuum the living room, and tells me, “You think anything you do will make a difference? You’re a slob and everybody knows it. You might as well give up.”
Depression hears the kind things that people say to me and answers, “Oh, please, they don’t even know you. If they really knew you, they would never be so nice.”
She hammers away at me, pounding on the inside of my skull, until I might as well be stapled to the couch. My eyelids are heavy and my patience is short.
I act in ways that depression tells me to act.
I don’t eat healthy foods because I don’t deserve to eat in ways that make me feel good.
Because I don’t deserve to feel good.
I don’t wear pretty clothes or blow dry my hair because who is going to look at me? If I don’t try to look nice, at least I haven’t wasted my effort on something useless.
I want to believe that I am enough. I want to do something different than this. I want to live my whole life, not this tiny sliver I have allowed myself, but I don’t know how to begin.
I don’t know how to have faith that any change I make will be more than just this moment, this day, this week.
I am so, so tired. Tired of myself and tired of the constant struggle.
Tired, so tired, of the noise inside my skull, this relentless heckling that is so much meaner than any real person I have ever met.
Although, much as I am meaner to myself than any other person has ever been, I am very good at surrounding myself with people who are more willing to judge me than to love me.
Medicine helps some; therapy has helped a little. There comes a point, though, at which nothing can help me if I don’t believe that change is possible.
I sort of believe that change is possible, but I don’t know how to start believing it where it matters, down in my guts.
This article originally appeared in the Winter, 2010 issue of Brain, Child Magazine. I am reprinting it here because this is a key piece of Carter’s and my history that is missing from No Points for Style.
In the four months since Carter’s birth, I had memorized the shadows’ patterns on the ceiling of my bedroom, changing from long and bright on sunny mornings, to dim and faintly green in the late afternoon. This day, though, in late November 2002, was overcast and gray. The room was dark, the shadows barely visible. I wanted to read a book, but when I had tried that on other days, my arms shifted as I turned the pages and Carter screamed. The noise of the television disturbed him, too, as did the flickering light cast by the screen. I kept the air purifier on high because the white noise drowned out some of the sounds of barking dogs in the neighborhood and the noise made by sticks on the metal porch roof that clunked around on windy days.
Carter and I were lying on the futon under my bedroom window. The fingers of my right hand were not quite numb. I could feel a vague burning, a tingling in my fingers, and in an effort to relieve the pain, I made a fist: clench, unclench, clench. I knew—from many, many hours of lying there—that the clenching and unclenching would not help. My hips throbbed from lying in the same position—curled on my right side—for so long. I carefully, so carefully, moved my legs, trying to straighten them a little to relieve the ache there. As I moved my lower body, my upper body shifted just a bit and Carter’s mouth lost its grip on my right nipple. Eyes still closed, he was frantic, pitching his head around on the sheet, searching with his mouth for the only thing that comforted him. Pay no attention to the woman behind the breasts.
I turned over to give my right hand a chance to come to life. Carter, once he had a good grip on my left breast, sucked and swallowed for a few minutes, sighed, and began to breathe deep and slow, his body limp. I lay there with him for an hour and a half. My left hand burned. As the time crept by, I found it increasingly difficult to ignore my discomfort. My feet were ice cold; my back ached; I was thirsty. Since the futon was directly under the window, I couldn’t see anything outside except the underside of the porch cover. The harder I fought my internal blackness, the more I felt it descending on me, saw it dripping down the walls of my bedroom like roofing tar, stinking and steaming and filling every crevice and corner with my desperation. As uncomfortable as I was, the alternative was worse. I would have sooner chewed off my own arm than wake Carter if I could help it.
When he woke, calm and alert, I spent a few minutes cooing and talking to him, trying to elicit a smile. I didn’t succeed, and when he became restless and fussy, I climbed off the futon. I stretched my back and hips, felt blood moving into the places it had been restricted, and carried Carter to the bathroom to change his diaper. I tied him tightly to my chest with a baby sling and left the house. Moving fast, I walked down the street, around the block, across to the park. I tried to expel the furious energy that threatened to overtake me like a disease. The wind was cold, the sky gray and dark, and I crunched through the fallen leaves, cursing at the neighborhood dogs that barked and startled my baby. Carter screamed, quieted to crying, then fussing, then amped up to screaming again. I walked faster.
This is not what I expected.
Once upon a time, my husband, Brian, and I wanted to have a baby, the “ours” in “yours, mine, and ours.” When we married in 2000, our children—my son, Jacob; my daughter, Abbie; and Brian’s son, Spencer—stood around us while we said our vows. Having our own child seemed like a great idea, the perfect way to cement our new family; then there would be one person to whom we would all be related. How hard could it be? We only had to look to our other children to find proof of the excellence of our parenting methods.
Late one evening not long after the wedding I said to Brian, “I don’t think we should wait to have a baby. We should do it now.”
If I remember correctly, Brian’s response was, “Right on!” I shoved my diaphragm to the back of a drawer and we got on with making a baby.
Except making a baby didn’t turn out to be so easy. For eighteen months, in spite of religious temperature-taking, perfectly timed intercourse followed by hours spent lying on my back with my butt propped up on pillows, lots of peeing on sticks, and a shockingly expensive regimen of vitamins and herbs, no pregnancy. As the months wore on, I started to wear down. Sometimes I cried. Occasionally I was angry. Mostly I stumbled through the first few days of every cycle in a fog of disappointment.
On a morning in early November, 2001, six days before our scheduled visit with an infertility specialist, I forced myself from the bed, exhausted after many nights of bad sleep. With twenty minutes to myself before I had to wake the kids for school, I pulled a pregnancy test from the stash on my nightstand drawer and stumbled into the bathroom. I had long since given up any significant hope for this exercise; it was just what I did on the twelfth day after I ovulated. I went to the bathroom and peed on the stick, laid it down, and brushed my teeth.
Many times in the preceding nineteen months, I had believed (known) that I was pregnant and had been shocked when the test was negative. This time, when I saw that second line on the test, my stomach turned inside out. Dizzy, I sat down on the edge of the bed next to Brian and turned on the bedside lamp.
“Can you wake up?” I pulled the covers away from him.
He squinted at me. “What?”
We looked at the test for a few minutes, passed it back and forth. Finally, Brian started to laugh. “A baby! We’re having a baby!” we said, over and over, until the noise woke the children and we had to get them ready for school.
I’m telling you all of this now so that later, when the story gets ugly and you are tempted to think terrible things about me, you will know how very wanted Carter was, that my nose tickled in anticipation of his smell, that I could feel him in my arms when he was still smaller than a pinto bean. You need to know that I loved him even before he existed.
Who can describe the delicious feeling of a naked, slippery newborn babe? When Carter was born on that July day—at home, surrounded by my parents, my midwives, my husband, and our children—I was enchanted. His red hair smelled like rain.
Those first few days with Carter were nothing short of divine. Watching him sleep was a spiritual experience. Brian and I stayed in bed with him and took turns holding his naked body to our naked chests, loving him with our whole selves. Our older children, eight, six, and five, sat on our bed and petted Carter’s head reverently. “I can’t believe he’s our baby,” Jacob said. Together we investigated his sweet toes, his tiny bottom, the folds at his elbows. We took turns putting our faces in his hair to smell his rain smell.
By the time Carter was born, I had long believed that I was an expert on babies. I had cared for babies most of my life—as a babysitter, nanny, child care provider—and I’d already had two babies of my own. I love infants. If I can’t wheedle an invitation to the birth itself, then I’ll at least be the first person to show up after any friend’s baby is born. I’m quick to volunteer to babysit when new parents want to go out for a few hours. Through all of this, I’d developed a set of tricks that, if I kept working through them, never failed make a baby happy. I was confident in my expertise.
For Brian and me, compliments from strangers about our fabulously well-behaved children were so common that we’d almost come to expect them. “Thank you,” I would say, smiling secretly, smugly, in my deepest heart knowing that someday I would write the parenting book that would eliminate the need for any other parenting books. I tell you, we had this parenting thing knocked.
One afternoon when Carter was two weeks old, Brian took the older kids swimming. I was home alone with the baby for the first time. I left him, tightly swaddled and sound asleep after a long nursing, on our bed while I went to the kitchen to make myself something to eat. I heated my little frying pan on the stove for eggs and put bread in the toaster. From the bedroom came a sound that got me running—the terrified shriek of a baby in real danger. Carter had kicked off the blanket in which I’d swaddled him and was thrashing on the bed, screeching as if he needed people two blocks away to know…what? That he was scared? Angry? In pain? I didn’t know. I had rarely left the bed since Carter was born; he and I had spent most of our time there, me healing, him learning to nurse, a skill that had him flummoxed for the first few weeks. I learned fast that I couldn’t walk away.
I picked up my screaming baby and put him over my shoulder, patted his bottom, made shh shh shh sounds. He didn’t settle. I smelled my eggs burning and rushed down the hall with Carter in my arms to turn off the stove. I started using my happy-baby tricks. I walked with him hanging, face down, over my arm. I held him tightly, chest to chest, and swayed back and forth. We sat in the big blue recliner and rocked. I sat him in his bouncer seat on the dryer and turned it on. I put on music: rock, folk, classical, R&B. I tried nursing him, singing to him, walking in circles in the back yard, changing his diaper, leaving him naked, swaddling him, giving him a pacifier, letting him suck on my finger. I took him into the hall bathroom, which had no windows, to see if the dark would help. I would have dangled him upside down by his ankles if I’d had any reason to believe that that would work. I walked back and forth across the length of that house dozens of times, listening to his voice bounce off the walls. If I closed my eyes and concentrated, I could pretend that the sound was the air raid siren that used to sound on the roof of my high school.
Brian came home with the older children, all of them tired and hungry and sunburned, laughing hard at Jacob, whose bathing suit had slipped right off of him in the pool. I ran toward Brian, shouting so he would hear me over Carter’s screaming. “He’s been crying for hours! Can you take him for a ride to get him to sleep?”
“Holy shit,” Brian said, taking in Carter’s red, swollen face. “What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know. I’ve tried everything.”
Brian shrugged. “I can try a car ride. I don’t think it’ll work, though. He only likes you.”
“I don’t think he likes anybody,” I said.
I buckled Carter into his car seat and Brian drove away, leaving me in a blessedly quiet house. I had just finished a few chores and was hanging the bathing suits and towels up to dry when Brian came back into the house and set Carter, screaming in his car seat, on the floor in front of me.
“He screamed the whole time! Twenty minutes in the car and he didn’t even slow down!”
I carried Carter back to the bedroom and lay down with him. Finally, he consented to nurse, and then fell asleep. I lay there for twenty minutes, watching his breathing slow and even out until he was completely limp. I slid oh-so-slowly away from him, creeping off the foot of the bed without making a sound. Brian appeared at the door of the bedroom. “You did it!” he whispered. He looked a little stunned. I imagine I did, too.
Less than ten minutes later, Carter woke up, screaming.
Difficult as it was, the first three months weren’t so bad. Sure, it was awful to live with a kid who cried from morning until night, and then kept crying periodically until dawn. I hated to go anywhere in the car because Carter cried all the way from pillar to post. I believed, though, that by the time he was three months old, Carter would grow into himself, relax, get used to the world. Most babies who are high-needs in early infancy do improve at least a little around the anniversary of their conception, and if he had colic, he’d feel better after a few months. My expectation of imminent improvement kept me going.
As we moved into month four, I found it harder to convince myself that everything would soon be OK. He frequently stayed awake for ten or even twelve hours at a time. Some days (which would eventually become most days, and then all days), I couldn’t maintain my own illusions and I started to fall apart. Shocked into submission by the emotional appetites of a child whose needs were larger than any I had ever witnessed, I was focused on Carter to the point of obsession. My friends and family hammered at me to take care of myself. I should take a long bath, read a book, go for coffee with a friend, they said. They were right, of course, but I just couldn’t make myself walk away from my own, screaming baby. We visited one doctor after another after another: pediatrician, gastroenterologist, neurologist, and some whose specialties I don’t remember. They ordered tests and prescribed medicines, and Carter continued to cry.
Romantic ideals of motherhood tell us that our children bring out the best in us. True enough. I’ve done things for my kids that I never would have dreamed I was capable of doing; they’ve showed me my deep capacity to love, to value someone else’s life more than I value my own. But…
I wish there wasn’t a but.
Who can imagine feeling hatred for one’s own child? Who can imagine anger—not just a fleeting anger but a smoldering rage—toward an infant? I didn’t know it was possible until I experienced it. All parents are frustrated by the demands of parenting sometimes. Babies cry and will not be consoled; they occasionally refuse to sleep at night and need from their parents what their parents are loathe to give, like long middle-of-the-night car rides. I experienced all of those things with Jacob and Abbie. During the first two months of her life, Abbie had a habit of screaming from three to six every morning, at which point her two-year-old brother got up for the day, leaving me stranded, caring for two small children all day on just a few hours of sleep. But, as with most children, this didn’t last.
With Carter, I experienced an exhaustion broader and deeper than anything I’d ever felt, as much psychic as it was physical. By the time he was nine months old, I looked like a strung-out addict (as friends I met around that time have generously shared). I had never been more than twenty feet away from him and it showed. I held him day and night. During the day, he would rarely sleep and when I could get him to give up the fight, he was usually awake within twenty minutes unless I lay next to him, breathing on his head and giving him free access to a breast. Occasionally, he slept for awhile in the sling. He never (ever) slept spontaneously.
Most babies give something back to their parents by responding to them; when consoled, they relax; when rocked, they sleep. They learn to smile and then laugh. Carter took and took and took and rarely gave me any feedback that said I was doing something right. He didn’t smile until he was over three months old, and once he’d acquired the skill, he rarely used it. He didn’t laugh until he was almost two. All that giving without any positive feedback wiped me out. Many days, I believed that Carter hated me. On one very dark day, Brian had to talk me out of putting our baby in foster care.
When Carter was a few months old, Brian and the kids were sitting at the table eating dinner while I walked in circles around the table, bouncing Carter, grabbing a bite every time I walked past my plate. Brian’s face had the stunned and hopeless expression that he always wears in my memories of that terrible time. There wasn’t much conversation; Carter’s noise filled up every corner of the room and used up all the air. But in a lull, Spencer, my five-year-old stepson, said, “It’s a good thing we love Carter, or else we’d be banging him on the floor.”
There were other people in our world, people I expected would help us. Fact is, though, that when I told people that my baby cried twelve or fifteen hours out of twenty-four, they just didn’t believe me. I tried to tell people that my baby, who had a dry bottom and a full tummy, was still crying, and crying, and crying, and they were incredulous. “New mommy hormones,” they said. “Have you considered taking an anti-depressant?” they asked. People analyzed the way that I cared for Carter, searching for the ways that his crying was my fault. There was advice, mostly contradictory. There was criticism, sarcasm, and snark.
I don’t know why I wanted people to understand. Understanding would not have eased anything for me. In the first two years of his life, I never—even once—took a shower without listening to Carter cry from beginning to end. I even bought a sling that I could wear in the shower, but Carter was terrified of the water splashing around his head. It was not the fact of the crying that was the problem; it was the relentlessness that got to me. Day after day after week after month, he screamed. Sometimes I could think of nothing except finding a way to get out from under the noise of that kid.
By the time Carter was nineteen months old, he’d been to a dozen doctors, had a series of tests both simple and terrible, and had acquired a list of diagnoses as long as my arm, all of which made sense, none of which really explained the endless screaming: hypotonia (low muscle tone), right-sided weakness, sensory processing dysfunction, gross motor delay, fine motor delay, expressive language delay, self-regulatory disorder, pathological separation anxiety, dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), and on and on.
One day, I was at the kitchen sink washing vegetables for dinner. Carter crawled into the kitchen behind me and said, “Gruawmrth roompht.”
I didn’t know what that meant. I asked him what he wanted.
He repeated himself, but louder. “GRUAWMRTH ROOMPHT!”
I just looked at him, lost. He repeated himself one last time and then erupted in a wet, animalistic tantrum. In the time it took me to dry my hands and get across the eight feet of kitchen between us, he had a bloody nose and a huge lump on his forehead. He had hurt himself intentionally by repeatedly smashing his face into the floor.
In that moment I finally understood that mothering Carter was going to be hard, always. Something in me let go as I understood that I could stop looking for the solution, the answer, the one therapy or technique or diagnosis that would make it all OK. We could make the best of it, but it was never going to be OK.
It was hard, but he’s so wonderful and we love him so much and it’s all been worth it. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
My ass, I would. But that’s the script, isn’t it? It’s OK to tell the truth about mothering, as long as nobody tells the real truth. As long as we follow up the pain and the fear and the broken shittiness of it all with something nice, to make sure everyone knows that it was all just a passing thing, a crappy but temporary detour on the road to blissful motherhood.
I couldn’t do it. Some experiences are too big for social niceties, and I wasn’t able to tell polite lies for the sake of other people’s feelings.
I do like to teach, though, and since mothering Carter had made me an expert on the art of wearing a baby in a sling I began to teach babywearing classes. The owner of the parenting resource center where I taught asked me to lead a group for mothers of high-needs babies, and I answered with an enthusiastic yes. On a hot morning in late summer when Carter was three, I set up the classroom for our first high-needs baby group. I made a pot of tea, set out a basket of toys, and laid my handouts on the table. I was just settling into one of the couches when it occurred to me that I was a total fraud. As I sat looking out the window at moms parking cars and getting babies out of car seats, I realized that they would be looking to me for answers. They were there to ask me to solve their problems, and I had never solved my own.
Four moms and their babies came to that first group. I started by stammering something about how I’d had a high-needs baby and I knew how hard it was. And then the mothers in that room started to talk.
“Nobody believes me when I tell them how much she cries!”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him; I’m pretty sure he hates me.”
“Maybe it was a mistake to have a baby.”
“Sometimes, I imagine throwing her through a window, and I don’t think I’d ever do it, but it still scares me.”
“I must be doing something wrong. I think I’m a bad mother.”
We talked over the sound of babies crying, as fast as we could, trying to get it all said. The pain, isolation, and anger came gushing out. We used up a box of tissues and I had to dig through three cabinets to find a fresh one. We lost track of time and a group that was meant to last for an hour went for almost three.
The truth is ugly. Sometimes mothers are mired in regret over the decision to have a child. Good mothers. Normal mothers. Mothers who don’t hit or starve their children, who never lock them in the closet or leave them in the car while they go into the store. Some mothers who love their children also hate them. This unspeakable reality, this underbelly of family life, gets more horrifying the longer we hide it. There is only one thing I can do: tell the truth and hope that people who have not been where I have been will forgive me, and that people who have been there will forgive themselves.
I learned from those mothers, and from dozens of mothers since, that ugly truths are like mold: They grow best in the dark. When we throw them out into the air and sunlight, they lose some of their power. When we share them with other people, people who can hear us and maybe even understand, the ugly truths shrink. We see that they’re not the only truth, but just part of it. When I put all the ugliness that I felt out into the world, I found what had been buried under it: love. Not the sappy, sentimental love of soft-focus baby formula commercials, but the real stuff, love with teeth.
Carter is eight years old now. I love him, and being his mother is hard.
Or Why I’m Always Half Asleep When I Drop Carter Off at School
We have a poop issue in the mornings before school. Not every morning, but more than half of the time, there is panic about poop.
Carter needs to poop before he goes to school. Needs.
With a history of acute constipation that still occasionally gives him trouble, he’s understandably nervous. No one wants to sit on the toilet and scream and holler in pain at school. No, that won’t do.
Especially since there is a great deal of cussing involved. These days, I know Carter is constipated (or having “poop trouble” as he calls it) when I hear this coming from the bathroom: Stupid fucking poop you’re hurting my fucking bitch ass butthole! Get outta there aaaaaaah….. nuuuuuhhh….. bitch ass fucking shit get outta there you asshole fucker poop! Nuuuuuh…. Aaarrrgghhh…… Come outta there you fucker ass poop!
As you can see, he knows all the cuss words but doesn’t hear them enough to use them right. Hence “bitch ass” and other odd constructions.
I’m so proud.
The good people who run the tiny school in the Presbyterian church might not appreciate this. Carter knows he’d get in trouble for saying (shouting) all of that at school, but swears that there’s no way he could get the poop out any other way. And as we all know (we, who have repaired appliances, changed tires in the rain, and stepped on Lego pieces in the dark), certain situations require certain words.
We taught Jacob, Abbie, and Spencer that hate and stupid were bad words and that they were never allowed in our house, along with all the usual disallowed words. With Carter? We’re thrilled that he’s not had the opportunity to learn any racial slurs. Controlling what comes out of his mouth would require liberal applications of duct tape. Duct taping a child’s mouth shut is (I’ve heard) a bad parenting technique.
Also? There is the issue of little guys in the school bathrooms. Really, if I knew there were darkness balls or lava monsters in the bathroom, I’d want to run in, pee, and get the hell out as fast as I could, too.
Hence the daily need to poop before school. I’m pretty sure that my kid is the only one in the history of kids who regularly begs for a suppository. “Put the medicine up my butt, Mom! Please, Mom, I need the kind that will make me poop right now!” he pleads. I refuse while stirring Miralax into his milk.
Now you will understand why, on the mornings when Carter jumps into the bed with me and crows, “Mom! I pooped! A whole lot of poop!” I’m about as happy as a mom whose kid just got his Ivy League acceptance letter.
I love easy poop mornings.
But then comes the drive to school.
The troubles on the way to school don’t have anything to do with poop. Even if Carter did not successfully move his bowels before we left the house, he leaves that issue behind in favor of plain old free-floating anxiety.
About going to school.
Where he is happy.
Because anxiety is not rational.
I love to watch people try to get Carter to tell them why he’s afraid to go to school. Are the other kids mean to you? Do you have teachers who you don’t like? Is the work too hard? No, no, and no.
People want (very badly want) things to be rational. Logical. Spock is only funny because we’re all so much like him.
On the way to school I channel my inner new-age guru. Who knew I had one of those? Not I. I’ve been making fun of that shit since it made its way into the mainstream in the 80s. She’s in there somewhere, though, because I do this whole meditation, calming thing every morning as we drive.
First, he puts a bravery in his lap.
Wait, you need to know what a bravery is. I mean, other than an ordinary old bandanna. Which it most definitely is not. Have I told this story before? I can’t remember; I’ll tell it again now because really, it was one of my most inspired parenting moments. I like to tell the stories that make me sound all genius-y and inspired. They offset the flying coffee cup stories.
On one of his first days at his current school, Carter was panicking. “I can’t go! No, Mommy, don’t make me go! I can’t do it! We have to homeschool some more!” he screamed, and I knew damn well that homeschooling one more day was not an option. I thought, he needs a talisman. I have to give him something to hold.
And there it was: a bandanna hanging over my too-bright digital alarm clock.
Next? The mythology. I spun hard and fast: this was not a bandanna but a bravery, and I carried it to school on days when I was scared, as did my dad, and his mom, and countless other little boys and girls. Every person who carries it takes out all the bravery they need and puts even more back in and isn’t it all so magical and lovely?
Which is not entirely a lie because I was an anxious little girl and I totally would have carried a bravery if anyone had thought to tell me about them.
Obviously, the story of the braveries should be the truth, which is very much like the actual truth.
Besides, I left the cult of I Never Lie To My Children behind long ago, so whatever.
Someday? I will write the whole family mythology here – about the tooth fairy and her unreliable cell service, and why Santa’s elves wear brown, and the meetings that every new parent attends at the north pole. But later.
Sigh. My own distractibility makes me tired sometimes.
Anyway, when we get into the car, Carter gets one of his braveries (He used to carry one, then two, and now he stuffs his pockets full of as many as will fit.) out of his pocket and smooths it open across his lap. Then? I channel that inner new-age guru for the visualizations and breathing techniques she provides and away we drive.
Smooth the bravery on your lap, Carter. Deep breath. Slow, deep breaths. That’s good. In through your nose, good. Now slow, slow, blow out through your mouth. Close your eyes and look at your fishes. Is the fire fish playing today? Look for the rainbow fish.
I speak all monotone and soothing, just like those meditation recordings that people loved back in the day, and by the time we’re halfway there? Carter is only sort of holding himself together, barely managing to avoid hyperventilation. I, on the other hand, am in very real danger of falling asleep.
Apparently I’m pretty good at this new-age guru stuff, but only if you’re already calm.
I don’t think there’s any money on helping calm people get calmer.
When we arrive at school, there is clutching and screaming, occasionally begging. Some days it’s not so bad; other days it’s a nightmare and by the time I leave, I’m crying almost as hard as Carter is.
Within five minutes? He calms down. He feels fine.
If he has to poop while he’s there, he’ll feign a stomachache so that his teachers will call me. I’ll drive over there, take him to a bathroom at the other end of the church, and let him cuss his face off.
I’m all about the subjectivity of good parenting.
Except for duct tape. Just say no to duct tape as a parenting tool.