Darkness Is a Cannibal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because I always opened the door.

Grief Is an Emotional Tsunami and Integrity Sucks but Being Syndicated at BlogHer Is Pretty Cool so I’m Calling Today a Wash

I was doing pretty good.

No, really. I was. Not great; after a many-months long depression, I wouldn’t expect to bounce back to some kind of happy-chirpy version of myself. No only would that be unrealistic, but everyone who knows me would be bug-eyed with confusion and amazement, so that sounds a little freaky.

I’m not happy-chirpy under any circumstances. It’s the reason I’ve never had a job waiting tables.

Oh, also? I turned 40, which was hard for a few months but by the time my birthday came I was totally OK with it. I’ve always been too old for my age (not as in cool and worldly, but in that certain ultra-serious way that teachers love and other kids despise), so in a sense, I’ve been waiting around for 40 years to be the right age for myself.

So anyway, I was doing pretty good. I decided to declutter my house and deal with the dust bunnies and cobwebs, both literal and metaphorical, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. Carter and I sat in the sun to read books and my grandma finally has some new bottom teeth (she lost the old ones which made lunch an interesting affair) and we made chicken on the grill and life was moving along, much improved.

Then? A bump. Shaped, unsurprisingly, like my eldest two children and their father. The insult on the injury is the sliver of integrity I cling to lest I never sleep again. That damn integrity is like an internal Nurse Ratched that prevents me from spilling the whole sordid story right here.

Damn.

I think that on my eightieth birthday, I will quit both integrity and flossing. Stay tuned. I expect it to be very exciting.

In the midst of today’s scab-of-grief tearing pain, one of my recent posts is syndicated over at BlogHer, which is very cool. Come over, say hello, and tell me you love me.

Even if you don’t, tell me anyway.

Under Siege

My head hurts.

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.

“No.”

“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.

Another day.

I want my nickels, dammit.

The Mother I Was, the Mother I Am, and the Mother I Wish I Could Be

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.

This is not the mother I wanted to be.

Beautiful Boy

Can you see my beautiful boy? He’s not invisible, but you might have to squint a little bit to see him clearly.

You will be tempted to pity him, but rest assured that he will never make you small by pitying you.

He will show you fear in a handful of dust, but he will also offer you the bright perfection of the poetry that is his breath.

Can you see the whole under the broken? The well under the sick?

When he says, I hate myself for being different, will you agree that he is worthy of hatred?

Or will you find a way to show him that our differences are an illusion?

Will you see him? Truly see him as a bearer of the light of creation itself?

Even if he scares you?

Even if he scares your children?

Even if we have to restrict his movements to protect ourselves from him?

Will you honor his humanity on the days when he doesn’t act very human?

If the day comes when he does the unspeakable?

His name is Carter. Always and forever Carter, a name chosen with love, his dad’s middle name.

Not psycho.

Not madman.

Not freak.

Not schizo.

Carter. He is Carter.

The world says terrible things, does terrible things, to people like Carter.

He might scare you (he scares me, too).

He might make you angry (he makes me angry, too).

But there is more.

Look under the surface to the more.

I can’t protect him always. I won’t be able to take care of him forever.

I’m counting on you to see the boy (someday man) under the symptoms.

There is a beautiful boy in there.

He has an illness, but he is not an illness. His needs are different from those of most people.

His value, though, is the same.

Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother: An Exercise In Distraction

A brief list of some of the most controversial issues in the US:

Socialism.

Abortion.

Terrorism.

Gun control.

Racism.

Same-sex marriage.

Motherhood.

Yes, motherhood.

My friends, we’ve been played, duped into participating in a pretend conversation that feels very important.

When Amy Chua‘s new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was excerpted at The Wall Street Journal on January 8, the blogosphere exploded. Agreement, dissension, discussion, and rebuttal after rebuttal after rebuttal until I thought I’d be happiest if I never heard Amy Chua‘s name again in my life.

Which is more important for children, strict discipline or freedom? What do they need more to grow up strong and successful: rigidity or flexibility, firmness or gentleness?

We’re doing nothing but fussing around the edges. While we argue about whether or not kids should be allowed to go on play dates or choose to play any musical instrument they wish, millions of kids have no consistent, loving adult presence in their lives.

The conversation feels important. It has to, because we feel an obligation to children. We need to have the sense that we are grappling with the tough issues, but we’re not even touching them.

Do I approve of the way Amy Chua is raising her daughters? No, I don’t. She doesn’t approve of the way I’m raising my kids, either, so we’re even on that score.

Virtually every parenting debate in which we engage exists only on the surface, for us privileged few who have choices. I acknowledge the fear that drives some parents to push their children very hard. However, if I compare the amount of press that problem gets to the amount devoted to issues of family violence, poverty, and serious shortages of good health care and education, the equation comes back very unbalanced.

We fight, fight, fight, and over what? Issues of personal choice.

If we’re occupied with these arguments, we’re ignoring a whole lot of shit that really matters.

If we’re arguing the SAHM/WOHM debate, who is pushing for better daycare? Subsidized care? More available care? Specialized care for special needs children? Subsidies for parents who want to stay home? More flexible working conditions? Benefits for part-time workers? Take-your-child to work situations? On-site childcare?

If we’re debating about breast or bottle, who is working to make breastfeeding support more available and culturally relevant for every family? Who is taking care of the mothers who have no one to help them? Who is pushing employers to make it easier for mothers at all levels of employment to nurse their babies or pump while they work? Who is helping the women who need it with feeding issues?

When we fight about where babies should sleep, we aren’t working for economic justice so that all families have clean, safe housing. We aren’t fighting on behalf of millions of children languishing in foster care and group homes without families to call their own. Instead of supporting each other, we’ve created an environment in which mothers are afraid to ask for help because everyone has an agenda to push.

While we argue about the best ways to discipline our own kids, who is lobbying the government for better protections for abused children? For better education for all our kids? More support for parents who are overwhelmed and afraid?

I’ll tell you exactly what kids need. They need consistent discipline that is delivered in a firm, gentle way. They need to know that they are loved. They need to live in a home where they are safe, with parents or other adult caregivers whom they trust to protect them and meet their needs. They need full bellies, warm beds, and good educations.

All the rest is window dressing.

We don’t have to fuss around the edges and invent arguments. There are too many kids in the world who need all this energy that we’ve devoted to arguing about Amy Chua (and Ayelet Waldman before her and dozens of other people and issues before that).

Imagine for a moment that all the millions of words that have been written about Amy Chua in the past few weeks had been written, instead, about any other issue that affects kids.

What could we have accomplished?