Right now, millions of people in the US cannot access needed mental health care. My daughter is one of those people, and her life is at risk.
My 17 year old daughter, Abbie, broke her leg the other day; a bad break in her femur. She was in terrible pain, begging me to make it stop, to help her feel better, so I took her to the emergency room. We went there, and we waited for 6 hours, and finally a Bone Health Specialist came and told us that we should go home and make an appointment to see an orthopedist.
“I can’t take her home like this!” I said. “She’s in too much pain, and she can’t walk! Can she at least have some medicine for the pain?”
The Bone Health Specialist was aghast. “A doctor can’t prescribe medicine without seeing the patient. That would be unethical!”
I brought Abbie home and made her as comfortable as I could before I got on the phone. I called every orthopedist whose number I could find. Many of them didn’t return my calls, and of those that did, more than half told me that they were not accepting new patients, and the few who I spoke to who were accepting new patients made appointments 4-6 weeks in the future or put her on waiting lists that were months long.
* * *
Oh, wait, no, sorry. I got a little confused for a second there. Actually, I took Abbie to the ER for an asthma attack. She was terrified, begging me to help her breathe, so I took her in hopes of getting her some relief and making sure she didn’t die. We went there, and we waited for 6 hours, and finally a Breathing Specialist came and told us we should go home and make an appointment to see a pulmonologist.
“I can’t take her home like this!” I said. “She can barely breathe, and she could die! Can she at least have a nebulizer treatment?”
The Breathing the Air Specialist was aghast. “A doctor can’t prescribe medicine without seeing the patient. That would be unethical!”
I brought Abbie home and gave her every kind of over-the-counter medicine I could think of to help her breathe better before I got on the phone……
* * *
Oops, no, wait, it was diabetic shock, and after we waited we saw a Blood Sugar and Insulin Specialist who told us to go home and make an appointment with an endocrinologist……
* * *
Gosh, sorry, I just don’t know where my head is. I took her to the ER because she was in a car accident and she was unconscious from head trauma, and after we waited we saw a Consciousness Restoration Specialist who told us to go home and make an appointment with a trauma surgeon……
* * *
Or wait, no, I did take my daughter to the ER, and we did wait for hours, but what was really wrong was depression. She felt suicidal. I had already called more than 30 psychiatrists by the time we went, and had already discovered that I could not get her an appointment in a reasonable amount of time. 6 weeks, 2 months, 3 months, we’ll add you to the waiting list…and in the meantime my daughter begged, “Please, Mom, can’t you make it stop? I just want it to stop!”
It is always awful to witness one’s own child suffering. From a baby’s first cold, there are few things in life that feel worse. Part of the way I endured excruciating pain after a surgery in 2007 (a stitch had slipped and I was bleeding internally) was to chant over and over to myself, better me than one of my kids, better me than one of my kids. But when there is treatment for what ails that child; when we know exactly what would bring some relief but we cannot deliver it despite our best and biggest efforts, there is an extraordinary anger that could change the path the moon travels in the sky if only I could figure out where to point it.
I took Abbie to Kaseman Presbyterian in Albuquerque because it is one of two hospitals in the city that has a psychiatric emergency department. I took her to the ER because, as I have been busy trying to get her an appointment with a psychiatrist, she has gotten more depressed. When left untreated, illnesses more serious than common viruses have a tendency to get worse. Untreated diabetes causes organ damage (or death); untreated asthma causes scarring in the lungs (or death); untreated depression causes more acute depression (or death).
We waited some 6 hours at the ER and finally we saw a Behavioral Health Specialist (BHS). She interviewed Abbie, and then she spoke to me. “She’s clearly very depressed,” said the BHS, “but she doesn’t meet the criteria for admission. She has some suicidal ideas, and she knows what she would do if she decided to end her life, but she hasn’t definitely decided to do it. Criteria for admission is an immediate suicide plan or extreme psychosis. You should take her home and make an appointment with a psychiatrist.”
“Won’t she see a psychiatrist today?” I asked.
“No, there are no psychiatrists in the emergency department.”
There are no psychiatrists in the psychiatric emergency department.
There are NO psychiatrists in the PSYCHIATRIC EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT.
“I can’t take her home without a prescription or an appointment or something,” I said.
The BHS looked horrified. “She can’t have a prescription. No doctor will write a prescription without seeing the patient. That would be unethical!”
Let’s talk about ethics.
Let’s talk about the ethics of insurance companies that reimburse so little for mental health treatment that hospitals have no incentive to keep their psychiatric units open.
Let’s talk about the ethics of a mental health funding system that pays psychiatrists less than most other doctors so medical students enter other specialties in hopes of paying off their student loans before they reach retirement age.
Let’s talk about the ethics of having a psychiatric emergency room with no psychiatrists in it, ever.
Let’s talk about the ethics of naming psychiatric care “behavioral health care,” as if the issues were in one’s actions instead of in one’s brain.
What about my ethics? How ethical is it for me, as a parent, not to get my daughter the medical care she needs? It doesn’t feel quite ethical to go to sleep at night, posing as it does the risk that she may hurt herself when I am unavailable to supervise. No, that doesn’t feel ethically sound at all.
When Abbie dislocated her knee at school 18 months ago, an ambulance transported her from there to the ER. At the ER, they put her knee in place, put a brace on her, gave her a dose of pain medicine and a prescription for pain medicine to take at home, and we walked out with a follow-up appointment with an orthopedist for the very next day.
There is no equivalent care for a dislocated mind. There is no method to deliver care immediately to a person who is suffering deeply but who has not quite gotten to the place where she seals the garage, or swallows the pills, or puts a blade to a vital artery.
By all means, let’s talk about ethics. Let’s talk about the ethics of a mental health care system that meets the needs of such a small minority of suffering people that suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens and young adults in the US, in spite of the fact that most people with mental illness can be successfully treated with appropriate care, and 90% of people who complete suicide have a diagnosable mental illness at the time of their deaths.
I sure am glad the doctor who “treated” my daughter the other night got to protect his ethics. Now how about we get busy protecting people’s lives? How about we talk about systemic ethics? How about we talk about treating suffering that originates in the brain the same way we treat suffering that originates in the heart, the liver, and the bones?
How about someone out there with a prescription pad helps me keep my daughter alive? How about we all start treating this like the emergency that it is?
My daughter will get the treatment she needs. I found someone to see her in two weeks (still an outrageous amount of time, but we’ll manage), and in the meantime we’ll do what we have to do to keep her safe, somehow.
The same cannot be said of the nearly 40,000 Americans who will end their own lives this year.
There are no disposable people, but we sure as hell act as if there are.
Real happiness is nothing like what we see on TV. That happiness comes from big houses and children who go to Ivy League colleges and beautiful dresses that drape gracefully over slender hips. For me, it is some mysterious combination of praying, serving, loving people, and creativity.
I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder when I was 18, and even at that early age the diagnosis had been a long time coming. Near as I can remember (and depression + many years have done their work on my memory), I had my first serious episode of depression when I was 8 or 9 and by the time I started middle school I was dysthymic (mildly depressed) most of the time with 2-3 episodes of major depression every year.
After I was diagnosed I saw a psychiatrist, Dr A, for about a year. This was back in the olden days when psychiatrists did therapy, so in addition to handing me a monthly slip of paper that I exchanged at the pharmacy for a tiny bottle of green and white pills (Prozac was the only SSRI on the market at that time), Dr A and I therapized together.
Most of our therapy hours were a total wash because Dr A was a big fan of sports metaphors and I am allergic to games played in groups. He constantly exhorted me to “do an end run around” whatever problem I was experiencing, the meaning of which was a mystery to me until the invention of Google many years later.
Our time together was not entirely neutral, though. Once, when I wailed about my desire to just be happy, Dr A informed me that no one is really happy, and the best most people can hope for is occasional contentment. True happiness, he said, is mostly a myth, except for special occasions like one’s wedding day or winning a game, which left me out of the running for happiness entirely since I had no boyfriend and played no games.
Dr A wasn’t a bad guy, but he definitely missed his calling. I’m sure he would have been an excellent orthopedist or podiatrist, but as a person whose job was to help people find a way to be their best selves, he pretty much sucked.
Well, except for those green and white pills. They kept me hobbling along in a state something short of suicidal until Zoloft (which worked much better for me and which I took for over 15 years) came onto the market, so for that, I am grateful.
What Dr A didn’t know was that, while I suffered from many wrong-headed thoughts and ideas, over-high expectations were not among them. In fact, the most destructive belief I have been carrying around during my time here on planet earth is the one that says I’m no good, not worthy, incapable (yes, that’s all one idea, but there’s no word that grabs it all at once). My parents both came to parenthood with the belief that self-confidence was ugly and to believe oneself to be special was a sin (ideas they learned from their own parents), so instead of appropriate humility (I am special, and you are special, and each of us has something extraordinary to offer and receive from the other.), I learned to hide. I learned to hate myself, and I learned to believe that I deserved no better than whatever came my way by chance or accident.
Dr A didn’t do a thing to disabuse me of those beliefs, which seems to me now a tragic lost opportunity, but shit happens, and Dr A was just a guy who went to medical school and then did his residency in psychiatry. He didn’t know that when I said “happy,” I didn’t mean I wanted a life of nonstop orgasms. I just wanted to feel like I belonged in my own life. I wanted to feel needed and wanted by the people I loved. Most of all, I wanted the inside of my head to be a less dangerous place.
I haven’t seen Dr A in something like 23 years now, but if I remembered his name I would write him a letter and tell him he was wrong, and I hope he has discovered the truth: happiness is a real thing, and ordinary people can experience it.
Which, can I just tell you? This is not something I ever expected to say. Ever. To be clear: major depressive episodes aside, I have not generally been a miserable person, and I have heard the tempting call of bitterness and resisted. I’ve been content for decent stretches of time. What I haven’t been until this past year (and definitely not the whole year; it seems to me that this is something that actually takes practice) is happy.
I meet none of the qualifications that I would expect a happy person to meet. I’m not rich (in fact, paying the bills is often a challenge) nor do I have a successful career. I’m not thin, my house is a mess, my sister and I don’t speak, and one of the dogs chewed a hole in the couch. Life isn’t easy. Carter is stable but he remains (will always remain) seriously ill. My trichotillomania hasn’t improved, I continue to grieve for the years I lost with my two eldest children, and I still miss Jacob with a breathtaking intensity that leads me to drag his baby blanket out of the cupboard in the middle of the night and hold it under my chin while I cry.
And yet, in the midst of it all, this happiness. When I started to feel happy a year ago, I was sure it was nothing but a product of Abbie’s return and that it would dissipate like thunderclouds when the excitement of her return passed, but no. It has remained.
How cliché, to say that when I wake in the morning I am eager for the day, but it’s true. All of it, everything, is more vivid. The books I read are better, time with Brian is more joyful, hours at a table with friends absorb me completely. The music and the sky and the feel of a freshly made bed are all much muchier. They have regained their muchness. At church, in groups, and during meetings, I am more present. When people I care about suffer, I experience their pain with them (which is apparently a part of happiness; who knew?) and feel deep sympathy. The love I feel for my kids is more open. The concerns I have for them cripple me a little less and when I pray for them I open my hands both figuratively and literally. God is God of all, my kids included.
What I know now is this: happiness is not an accident, but neither is it a goal toward which I may work because I am so confused about what will make me happy. It is nothing like the happiness we see on TV that comes from big houses and children who go to Ivy League colleges and beautiful dresses that drape gracefully over slender hips. For me, it is some mysterious combination of praying, serving, loving people, and creativity. Oh, and the right drugs; don’t forget about those, though don’t overestimate them, either. It’s a rearranging of priorities and the release of some expectations that prevented me from laughing as long and as often as I need to. Happiness is somewhere inside the act of showing up and to hell with doing it with style or finesse (no points for those, anyhow).
It is not, as I had long expected, the product of ignoring injustice in the world, or becoming immune to it. Happiness does not preclude advocacy. It doesn’t come from being very, very good (clean! on time! frugal! organized! efficient!), or from external success or approval. I think maybe happiness has a great deal to do with letting my freak flag fly. God made me this person, the girl I was and the woman I am. If God wanted me to be some other person, God would have made me another person. So simple, and so very difficult.
There is so much more, a thousand more fears to surrender, relationships to heal, and anger to repent. There is a mountain of shame to…what? I have no idea yet what one does with that toxic stuff, though I am sometimes able to see it for what it is, rather than simply accepting its definition of me.
But now I know this: I get to be happy in the meantime. I don’t have to wait for all the anger, shame, fear, and heartache to go away to be happy because I can be happy today. Not nonstop-orgasm happy, not nothing-ever-hurts happy, not everything-is-perfect-forever happy, but I-belong-in-my-life happy.
I’ll take it.
Hey, did you hear? I’m going to be on The Ricki Lake Show. For real! The Ricki Lake Show: Inside Childhood Mental Illness (if you click on that link, you can watch the promo) will air on Wednesday, February 6, 2013. Check your local listings or use the “where to watch” link at The Ricki Lake Show page to find out what time and channel it’s on in your area.
I’m not talking about the regular rules that our parents speak aloud – no running in the house; don’t sing at the dinner table; if you wear your tap shoes in the house you’ll scratch the floors and you don’t want to know what will happen next, young lady!
I’m talking about the underneath rules, the ones that make it impossible to get along with your in-laws because you don’t know their rules and they don’t understand why you don’t know them because they make so much goddamn sense and everybody knows this is how people with an ounce of common sense/human decency/intelligence behave and what the hell is the matter with you?. They are so deeply ingrained that we can’t see them without a shock of some kind – a family crisis like an addiction, divorce, or someone deciding to go to therapy.
The most important rules in the family in which I grew up are tightly related:
Thou shalt not be needy.
Thou shalt not seek attention.
Thou shalt not feel sorry for thyself.
Thou shalt blame thyself for all things.
Thou shalt solve all problems with guilt and shame.
Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret.
Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of others’ misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret. (See previous rule, “blame thyself for all things.”)
Thou shalt cultivate shame vigorously, hanging thyself on all available hooks.
Of course, these are not the rules my parents intended to teach me, but they’re the rules I learned.
Hence, I don’t know how to talk about my marriage to Robert because I don’t have much practice. If your familial tradition causes you to scream internally, it’s all your fault how could you do this you are such a goddamn loser what a waste why couldn’t you make it work what is wrong with you, it’s damn hard to take a step back and start sorting out the parts that are not your fault.
I’ve been sitting on this story for weeks, unable to find my way in. The internal screeching is loud, insisting that I rise above; take the high road; be the bigger person.
Also, every time I think of something that happened in our marriage that hurt me, I think of something that I did that, somehow, caused me to deserve it. This should probably come as no surprise since that’s how Robert and I fought when we were married, except that back then I was saved the effort of thinking of the thing I did that was worse than the thing he did because he did that part for me.
Clear as mud? Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me, either. How could it? I make sense of my life with words and stories and I have denied myself this story until now.
Since Robert moved out on July 4, 1997, I have carefully engineered a neutral narrative of the relationship that was central to my early adulthood. I have said, “We were far too young to get married,” “We brought out the worst in each other,” and “We didn’t have the tools we needed to make our marriage work.” I’ve spoken about my first marriage as if it happened to someone else; stripped it of its emotion and meaning.
To be clear, I am in favor of dignity and integrity. I’m proud that, post-breakup, I didn’t go out and talk trash about Robert to everyone who would listen. The cost, though, was the truth. In telling the story of our marriage in neutral terms over and over again, I denied myself the healing that comes from telling my story. My truth.
And you know what I say about he truth: it ain’t about the facts.
My story doesn’t match Robert’s, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It only makes it mine, if I will claim it.
My story begins with the rules that shaped my psyche. To say that I arrived at my first wedding (all of 22 years old) with low self-esteem would be an egregious understatement. More like the weight of my shame was roughly equal to that of a Volkswagen I wore strapped to my back.
I viewed my life not as something to be lived, experienced, and enjoyed, but as an exercise in contrition. Every moment was an apology for my very existence; every aspect of myself (body, mind, spirit) in dire need of reformation.
Robert concurred, which probably explains why our marriage sort of worked in the beginning. We agreed that I was broken and he was the savior who could have married a better woman but chose me instead. Repairing my faults – depression; tendency to gain weight (though at the time we married I had never been truly fat); messy habits; inability to cook; love of books and reading; devotion to made-for-TV movies; interest in politics; affection for very long showers; desire for education; and refusal to even try to understand why Robert and so many others thought Seinfeld was funny – would be my project. By conquering them I could become, if not worthy, at least acceptable.
So we moved into our lives, the contract signed and sealed but unacknowledged. My flaws were my demons to conquer if I was to earn my place in the home of the man who deigned to marry me.
He had done me a great favor by marrying me, so I set out to make the best of it.
And then there was this:
I had finally done something right, after all.
Robert and I both fell extravagantly, unreservedly in love with our Tooter (no one called him Jacob until he was three). He was pure light, all soft-sleepy sweetness and milk-drunk joy.
Our love for him was so large, it erased everything else. For a time, I was (almost) everything that Robert and I thought I should be.
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.