Sensory Overload

I am standing in the shower, trying to concentrate on the sensation of water on my skin. I am trying to settle my mind for just a moment. And to breathe.

It is an exercise in futility, because the screaming from my bedroom is impossible to ignore. It is a biological imperative—screams of anguish should be hard to ignore. But it has been over an hour and I have expended every reserve of patience I have. I am out of tools. I am also sweaty. So I am in the shower.

I step out of the shower and get dressed as the screaming continues. When she screams at me to hold her, I say I would be glad to once my clothes are on. When I reach down she scoots away like a wounded animal. Just as she has for the last hour every time I approach. Except for the times she punched me first.

I tell her I am going downstairs and ask if she would like to join me. I am testing the waters to see where we are in the tantrum. Can she hear me and respond out of her logic centers or are we still too far gone? Will she let me touch her yet?

This rage started because we tried to get dressed for the morning. I carefully chose a shirt and skirt that I thought were sufficiently soft and easy to put on, but when her sensory issues collided with her need to be independent and she ran into trouble pulling the shirt over her head, the screaming started. And then the swearing.

She learned the word sometime back before Christmas, and six months later, we still cannot get her to stop. We have tried positive reinforcement, we have tried negative reinforcement, we have tried bribery, but absolutely nothing has worked. The only mercy is that she hasn’t said it at preschool yet. I am counting the days until the school year is over and praying that we can get it under control before the fall. But she has yelled it loud enough for the neighbors to hear and said it at church. It is embarrassing and depressing and triggers all my anxieties about being a failure as a parent.

When she goes into these spirals, she throws punches when I come near, all the while begging for help and for a hug. On every approach, she punches again and runs away, then wails “Why won’t anybody hug me?” and screams for a hug again. When I speak at all, she screams to shut up.

So there is nothing I can do or say to end it. When it abates, 20, 30, 80 minutes later, we are both raw and exhausted. Sometimes a new round of hysteria begins when she discovers that her nose is stuffy or her head hurts from an hour of crying so hard that she gags.

I have never felt so helpless in all my life.

Because my daughter looks perfectly normal, because she is adorable and charming and rascally when she is not having a sensory meltdown, you would never know that she is not neurotypical. Until recently, even I didn’t really grasp that this very likely not something she will grow out of, but an actual brain function that she will be learning to work around for all of her life. We are still trying to figure out what this is—this thing that makes her so tightly wound and sensitive. Short of a brain scan, we might never have a definitive name for it.

We don’t know for certain, but in all likelihood, much of this is probably a result of her prenatal exposures. The stimulants coursing through the bloodstream my daughter shared with her birth mother shaped the way her neurons and brain developed. Not that any of this matters because what’s done is done, but it helps us to understand that she cannot help it. She is, in many ways, like a raw nerve, unable to regulate her responses to stimulus. Every tiny irritant registers as pain. Everything registers as a 10.

I trust that it won’t always be this way. She will not always be lost for an hour in her own vortex. We will learn tricks to teach her how to self-regulate better. But on days like today—a sunny Saturday where I just want to get outside with my children before it is too hot—it is not even 11 am, and I feel like I need a drink and a nap and a vacation. And she is still half dressed and in despair.

The effort of maintaining equanimity while your child is punching you and swearing at you and refusing touch, while writhing on the floor in emotional anguish, the victim of her own overloaded sensory system, leaves me feeling wrung out. Today I cried too. Because I felt helpless. Because it hurts to see her so helpless and frightened by her own emotions. Because I know we will probably do all this again tomorrow, or maybe in an hour.

For now, these meltdowns usually only happen at home. We had our first one in public this week, beginning in the waiting room of a psychology practice, then taking the show on the road to the parking lot, the car, and home. The only mercy is that the parents in the waiting room could at least hypothesize that I was there because I am trying to do something about it. In a few weeks, we start a parent training program where we will be interacting with our child behind a two-way mirror for an hour each week while a child psychologist watches and gives us feedback in real time. This feels about as naked as you can be without actually removing your clothes. To be honest, I’d rather be physically naked, which is saying something considering how I feel about swimwear. But we have reached the absolute limit of our skill set as parents and we need help to navigate this new territory. So psychological streaking it is.

After I am done crying, I do the only thing I haven’t tried yet. I pick her up and take her outside. It isn’t a calculated move. It is a desperate one. But the change of venue is a little bit of a jolt. She sits down on the driveway, still screaming, but quieter. She finds a rusty nail on the ground and asks what it is. I tell her to give it to her dad, and for the first time in over an hour, she doesn’t respond by telling me to shut up. She says she’s going to step on it. I tell her why that is not a good idea. She is still whimpering and not fully rational yet, but we are getting there. She takes it to her dad and listens as he explains what kind of a nail it is.

Soon she tells me she is hungry. I offer her a snack that she likes and will quickly stoke her blood sugar, which by now is also probably part of the problem since breakfast was hours ago.

She still is only wearing a skirt and a pair of underpants. She is calm now, but I am wary of what other minefields lay ahead. We still need to put on a shirt. And shoes. And God forbid if we need to get into a car seat. Any of these things could undo the peace I have been fighting to find over the last 90 minutes—the peace of her now contentedly humming and eating a granola bar, topless.

Her voice is happy again. “Mama, I love you!” she calls out from the dining room. When she is done eating, I ask her if she is ready to try for a shirt again. She takes my hand and says she is. As we walk up the stairs, we rehearse: “and if it feels bad, what can we say?” She runs through an array of cheerful, even-tempered responses “Not this one, Mom. Or this is uncomfortable. Or I don’t like this.” She runs to pick up a shirt that she had hurled on the floor half an hour earlier, “I know a good one!” She asks “Can you help me please?” and stands in front of me. We pull on the shirt and I check in, “It feels ok? This is a good one?” It is. She smiles, throws her arms around me, and curls up in my lap. I say “Now you’re ready for that hug?” She nestles in and squeezes me tightly.

We walk back downstairs, slip on some shoes, and she takes my hand as we walk outside.

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Hilarious in hindsight.

I was remembering this day recently. When I tell this story, I’m usually in tears, laughing by the end. So maybe this will make you laugh today too.

Four years ago, we were moving from Florida to Washington State. Before leaving Florida, we sold one car and shipped our other car, a small hatchback with a manual transmission. Shipping a car across country is an incredibly shady business. The costs can vary wildly and involve a lot of last minute phone calls about which sketchy parking lot by the railroad tracks Dimitri, your driver, has chosen for your meeting. Picking up your car also feels illicit. Our drivers have always been Russian, and true to every spy movie trope, a heavily accented voice on the other end of the line saying “we meet twenty minutes?” feels vaguely sinister. So you meet in another potholed parking lot in twenty minutes, you hand over a wad of cash and he hands you the keys. And sometimes, you check to make sure there isn’t a block of cocaine hidden beneath the seat just in case.

So, we arrive in Washington and rent a car until Dimitri calls to say he is twenty minutes away from the tracks.

Matt was scheduled to leave for deployment two weeks after we arrived, so we carefully timed the arrival of our household goods shipment, which we had last seen being loaded onto the truck in a torrential downpour eight months before, to allow him time to help me unpack before he left for three months. But the call comes: our moving van has broken down somewhere in the Midwest and we find ourselves camping out on air mattresses for far longer than planned. When the truck finally makes it to us, Matt has about five days. Meanwhile, Dimitri has yet to call. Matt starts sweating because he’d packed all of the uniforms he needs for deployment in the car, thinking that surely it would arrive well before the household goods. Surely.

Still no call.

Finally, with about 48 hours before he is scheduled to leave, we learn our driver had an accident in Colorado. He nearly lost a finger during a delivery and now OSHA rules prevent him from driving as many hours as a day as he usually would, so he is nowhere near Washington yet. I picture him at the wheel of the transport, a cigarette dangling from his lip as he adjusts the bloody bandages on his mangled hand.

With less than 24 hours to spare, we get the call. He’ll make it to Portland tonight but no farther. We are four and a half hours from Portland. Matt’s flight is out of Seattle at six the next morning. We pile the girls in the car, along with the dog we’d just gotten two days before, and drive the four and a half hours.

We meet Dimitri in a damp, gravelly parking lot. I don’t get a good look at his bandages. We get the car and caravan the two and a half hours back up to Seattle for the night.

Our friends (who are not home) have given us the garage code to their house. By the time we get through the door, we are all exhausted. After seven hours in the car, the children are spent. Our new dog walks in and pees right in the middle of the hall carpet. I search the cabinets for carpet cleaner. Matt switches the car seats from the rental into our car and we all collapse into one queen sized bed, not because it was the only one, but because my children cannot sleep anywhere but on top of me.

Matt leaves in the dark the next morning for his six am flight. The girls and I wake up, completely dazed, but I am a fearless navy wife. I will make the best of this. I have arranged to meet my friend Kelsey, who last knew me as a moderately together childless person, to walk around Greenlake in Seattle. This will be great. I will revisit an old favorite spot, we will catch up. I am a fearless navy wife, look at me making the best of things. I load the dog and the children into the car, discovering that the dog will not fit next to the suitcase and Rubbermaid tub in the back, so I pile those on the passenger seat, then buckle the passenger seatbelt to shut up the infernal beeping.

Now might be a good time to remind you that little Lou was a Velcro baby. At this stage of life, if I was not touching her, she was screaming like she was engulfed in flames. You may also recall this car has a manual transmission. But I am a fearless navy wife. I can drive a stick shift car in the city with my right hand in the back seat.

I find a parking spot and open the rooftop box to get out the bike trailer that doubles as a stroller. Lou, and as a consequence, MC is screaming inside the car. Unlike a jogging stroller, you take the wheels and handlebar off when you collapse this thing. As I place all the components of the stroller on the sidewalk I remember something. I have never collapsed nor put the bike trailer together myself. Matt, who is now on an airplane to Japan, always did it. But I am a fearless navy wife. I can do this. Surely there is a YouTube video to show me. And lo, there is. I assemble the stroller triumphantly. I free the screaming children from the car and strap them in. I get the dog into her harness and then realize that I would like coffee and maybe some of us might need breakfast. The dog goes back into the car. I get coffee and snacks, then get the dog back out of the car and back into her harness and leash. I then realize I cannot hold a coffee cup and a leash and a stroller and that bike trailers do not have cup holders.

I may be sweating slightly.

Kelsey arrives. She is beautiful and kind and after years of not seeing each other, I ask “um, can you walk my dog?” I used to be something of a mentor to her when she was in high school and I was not the living embodiment of a train wreck. Those days are clearly over.

We start to walk the 2.8 miles around the lake. Lou, who you may recall, screams if we are not touching, starts screaming. We stop, I transfer her to the ergo. MC climbs out of the stroller and covers her new sneakers in mud. But we’re doing it. Fearless navy wife, making the best of things.

And then I feel it. The flooding sensation that tells me I need to get to a bathroom immediately because this month Eve is not kind, she is vengeful. Mercifully we are not far from the one public restroom on the lake path. I look at Kelsey, who is already walking my dog, and ask her if she can watch my child too. Naturally, MC does not want to stay with her, so she follows me in the stall. Lou is asleep in the ergo, so I try to peer around her body to surreptitiously clean myself up without prompting too many questions from MC about the female reproductive system and no that thing I am unwrapping is not a cheese stick, ok, let’s go and wash our hands now!

We make it around the lake. Victory is secured when I dismantle the bike trailer without a YouTube video and get diapers changed and everyone back in the car. I apologize profusely to Kelsey for being such a mess. I will later make it up to her by taking her to a couple of rock concerts when I am marginally less disastrous.

I am a fearless navy wife, making the best of it, so I decide we will now ACCOMPLISH SOMETHING (memo to self: survival itself really would have been sufficient, but you do you, sister). We drive to U Village mall to go to the fancy maternity store where I bought the diaper bag that is now falling apart. U Village parking is always a nightmare, but I have the added constraint of needing to find shade because, though it is a mild day, I have a dog in the car, and this is Seattle. Someone will break my window if they think my dog is overheating. I also have a rooftop box that I need to not forget is on the car when I roll into a parking garage. I find a nice covered spot in an area with sufficient clearance for my rooftop box, because, small mercies, this is Seattle after all. Such spaces exist. I crack the windows. I load Lou into the ergo, I empty the diaper bag, and the three of us set off to the fancy maternity store.

“Ummm, so when did you buy this?” the clerk asks me. This I know! Lou is seven months old! I bought it when we flew here from Florida on two hours’ notice to adopt her. What a great time that was! Seven months ago. I bought it seven months ago. “Do you have a receipt?” Well, no. I do not. I have moved twice since then and most of my stuff is still in boxes and piles and yeah, no. I have every adoption document from that week, but not a diaper bag receipt. “So, for purchases longer than three months ago, you’re gonna have to contact the manufacturer.”

Woman. Have you no mercy? You still have this bag in stock. I see it there, on the shelf. And there, in a different color. If I had lied and said I bought this three months ago but I don’t have the receipt right now you would be giving me a new one. I am a fearless navy wife. But I am a fearless navy wife who just said goodbye to her husband for three months and I am about to go back to a house that is a disaster and I really don’t know many people there yet because I just got here two weeks ago. And do you understand that I had to go to Portland last night because the dude driving our car across country almost lost a finger and if he hadn’t I’d be home right now, not trying to solve something so I can not feel like all the waves are crashing over me and I am powerless? Can you see this baby needs to be touching me 24 hours a day so the only way I am going to unpack that house is with her strapped to me? And this kid, who just started her third preschool in a year and looks gorgeous but is falling apart? And I have this new dog who right now is eating a pack of Madelines that I did not hide well enough in the car and sister, please. If you understood the geyser of uterine lining that is issuing forth from my body right now, I am like 98 percent sure you could make this happen for me. I know I am a fearless navy wife, but throw me a freaking bone here.

“Ok, thanks,” I say. The tears are coming. But I will not be defeated. I will make a plan. I will conquer. I look at MC and say, my voice wavering, “Come on, girls! We are going to Hanna Andersson and buying matching pajamas! I don’t care how much they cost.” So we do. Purple with white and yellow daisies.

Then we march back to the car, I buckle everyone in, scoop up the wrappers from the snacks the dog stole, and head north.

About 30 minutes down the road, Lou is wailing. I drive with my hand on her head, only taking it off to shift gears, which, in traffic, is far more than she can tolerate. Annoyed by her sister’s cries, MC starts screaming at the top of her lungs. Somewhere near the outlets where the speed limit mercifully goes back up to 70, I lose it and let loose with a pure, guttural scream of my own. MC stops. “There,” I say, “did that fix it?” Her small voice wobbles back, “noooo.” “Ok,” I say, softening, “then can we please not scream?”

I am fearless navy wife, but come on people. This has been a day.

We make it home, to the piles and chaos.

We survive. Probably thanks to the matching pajamas.

More Tears.

It happened again last night. The Olympics made me cry. Thank goodness they’re nearing an end or I might need therapy.

This time, it was Women’s Figure Skating.

I stayed up way past my bedtime last night to see if Mirai Nagasu, for whom I have a special mile-wide soft spot, would land her triple axel again. I stayed to watch the Russian skaters duke it out for the gold. But for me, the can’t miss moment belonged to Gabrielle Daleman from Canada.

Sitting in my bed in the dark, I watched her fall. And fall again. And again. A few weeks ago, I wiped out while running, so I know exactly how much it hurts to fall. But she popped up and kept going. Again and again. I know, this is the Olympics and that’s just what you do. But it is not always what I do, so I am always inspired by this kind of relentless grit. She hung on like this through the longest four minutes I think I’ve ever witnessed.

In those four minutes though, something almost magical happened. This massive arena, filled with people from all over the world, somehow knew what they had to do. First they began clapping along to the beat. Then it was giving the kind of applause Gabrielle Daleman usually gets for nailing her jumps each time she got back up. In those minutes, it seemed like every person in that area silently understood their one job: LIFT HER UP. They wanted her to know she was not alone. They wanted her to know they were on her side. Their applause seemed to say “We see you working so hard. Hold on.”

I felt it too, sitting in the dark, on the other side of the globe. It was beautiful. It reminded me what we humans are capable of when we really see each other.

So this morning, as reporters discuss the skill and artistry of the skaters who made it to the medal stand, my Olympic hero is Gabrielle Daleman, the woman who, for four minutes last night showed me what grit looks like and gave me a tiny glimpse of a better world.

Scars

Note: I started writing this last week. I have spent days trying to force my words into the template of “share authentic struggle, but end on inspirational note so we’re brought to the edge of discomfort but don’t have to sit with it too long.” After more than a week of wrestling, I still can’t make it fit. This probably because the struggle isn’t over. We are still in the weeds over here. Sometimes pain just goes on for a while. So here it is, inspirational ending TBD.

Everyone in my house is kind of a mess right now.

Matt has been out of town for two weeks and as they do whenever he leaves, the girls are riding a rollercoaster of emotions. It has been almost two years since he returned from his last deployment, but his absence—be it 24 hours or two weeks—reopens old wounds every single time.

Outside of military circles, we don’t like to talk about the psychic toll long deployments have on our children. It is the unwritten code—don’t talk about how hard it really is beyond the circle of trust. So it is the poorly-hidden family secret: we quietly confess how our kids can’t sleep or worry constantly or act out, but we put a shine on the pain when talking to people on the outside. We save them from the uncomfortable truth: much of the weight of military service is borne on the narrow shoulders of those too young to have signed up for it themselves. It’s a painful problem without easy solutions and nobody likes those.

So we fill the echo chamber with promises of how this is going to make our kids resilient. “Military kids are so tough,” is the salve we use to soften the ache of watching kids struggle with yet another move or a deployment. “It makes them resilient, right?” people say. Everyone nods, relieved to have settled upon this bright side.

But really? This is bullshit.

This life is hard on our kids. We are not making them tough by teaching them to buck up under this weight. We are teaching them how to be inauthentic about their pain.

Resiliency is awesome. I want my kids to learn how to survive a challenging homework assignment or a lost game or a friend who hurts their feelings. We work on learning to bounce back from these kinds of things every day. But when it comes to being resilient in the face of the real pain of a parent missing entire seasons of life or the longing for their old school where everyone knew their name, the long-off promise of a stronger character is small comfort.

When you realize that your child doesn’t know how to make friends because she has never had the luxury of keeping one for more than a year, you might be inclined to tell resiliency to go fuck itself. The promise of being strong someday doesn’t keep the hot tears from burning behind your own eyes when she sobs that it isn’t fair her dad is traveling again because “he said when we moved here he wouldn’t be going away anymore.” Or when he does come home and she collapses in tears when he forgets to hug her before leaving for work the next day.

My husband has not been on a trip longer than two weeks in the last two years, but our family is still healing from the scars deployment left behind. We’ve got some good therapists, so I believe that my girls will be healed someday. But that day is not today.

So right now, I’m not interested in bright sides.

I also worry that the habit of perpetual bright-siding our way out of pain sets up terrible emotional habits for our kids. I do not want to teach my daughters to cover over their own hurt to keep other people from feeling uncomfortable. It is emotionally isolating to pretend we’re ok when we’re not. My children don’t want to hear how tough they are when they are hurting or why they should be proud of their dad. Their pain is raw and deep. They feel alone. We need to give them permission to say out loud “this is hard” and “this hurts” and “I don’t know how to navigate this grief.”

Before I had kids, I was determined to not be a whiny navy wife. I put on a happy face through delayed homecomings and missed holidays and that time Matt got to spend our anniversary at our favorite restaurant in DC with his boss, who dragged him there on a last minute trip. It could always be worse, right?

We’re fine. I’m fine. It’s all fine.

Only it wasn’t. I wasn’t being honest with myself or anyone else about the toll it was taking to keep up the pretense. When my first daughter came along, I finally gave myself permission to tell the truth. This life? It’s hard. We adults have learned to adapt and take the long view, but our sweet tender children just cannot. It is beyond their developmental capabilities. So it changes them and the ache of watching that process will send you to your knees.

This latest trip has been the hardest one for quite a while. A few nights ago, my older daughter came to me sobbing. “I’m having a volcano moment” is our code for when she has been stuffing her emotions until they all come exploding out. Dad was gone. A favorite friend is moving. It’s not fair. “I just miss him,” she whispered between choking sobs.

I asked her if when her dad is gone, it felt like all the hard feelings of deployment come bubbling to the surface and she nodded. I said, “it’s like something that you thought was healed starts to hurt again?” She said, “It’s like Harry Potter’s scar.” When Voldemort tried to kill Harry, the attack left a lightning bolt-shaped scar on Harry’s head. The initial wound had healed, but whenever Voldemort was near, the scar would ache and sometimes, it sent him reeling in agony. “And when Dad leaves, it is like Voldemort is near?” I asked.

For my child, what she is experiencing is the hardest thing she can imagine. It IS her worst case scenario. I can tell her about other people who are suffering. I can teach her to count her blessings. But she is also still a child. It is unfair of me to expect her to put on a perspective that is beyond her developmental abilities. I also don’t want to teach her that our job as women is to mask our pain. This is her scar aching, reminding her of old wounds and warning her of more pain to come. I want her to learn to listen to her own voice, not to silence it.

So tonight, we won’t talk about how her dad is serving his country, or about freedom or about honor or about sacrifice. Tonight, we will hold each other. We will weep together and say out loud that this is so hard. We will give voice to the pain. We won’t pretend we are ok. We won’t worry about how this looks.

When we are done, we will take a deep breath. And then? I guess we will learn how to live with the scars.

Choose Your Own Advent(ure)

(Note: I meant to post this last night, but in the spirit of what you’ll see below, that didn’t quite happen.)
Tonight is the tenth night of Advent. Ready or not, Christmas is two weeks away—a reality that feels like a lifetime away to my children, but like the headlights of a rapidly closing eighteen wheeler to me. The first casualty of the Advent season in our house this year has been the Jesse Tree. For the uninitiated, a Jesse Tree is like an advent calendar of readings and ornaments that tell the story of Jesus. I believe it was created for families who have an annual panic attack that they are failing at spiritually educating their children because they pulled out the nativity set and their toddler seems to have forgotten the baby’s name.
Every year, I unpack the book and ornaments feeling a small sense of doom. Many days the only Jesus the Jesse Tree brings to my life is the thought, “Jesus, this damn tree!”
Last week, when we clocked in at a solid six days behind on the countdown to Christmas, we moved into crunch mode. The first night, we zipped through the creation and the fall of man. Midweek, we consolidated the flood with Abraham in the desert, then whipped up an Issac and Jocob’s Ladder combo platter the next night. If we continue to plow through our crunch time schedule, we should be caught up by tonight.
I can’t be sure, of course, but I suspect that we just might be missing the whole intent of this exercise.
December always manages to take me by surprise. Somewhere in the midst of outfitting everyone with winter coats and appropriate footwear and finding a school photo package that doesn’t cost as much as a month of ballet lessons, I lose track of the date. This year, the first days of December coincided with a sick kid, a lice scare, and Matt’s annual weekend with friends in Vegas. So it is no surprise that the Advent flame is off to a sputtering start.
As a child, I savored Advent. I couldn’t wait for my dad to install those 80s era plastic candles in all the bedroom windows. I would keep mine plugged in all night long, despite my parents’ objections. I loved the expectant waiting—not just for presents, but for that one night a year when went to church in the dark. We would crunch across the icy parking lot in our slippery church shoes toward the glowing windows. Inside, it was warm and twinkly. The organ would shiver through my favorite minor chords and pealed forth the notes of sounding joy. And then came the hush as the sanctuary was transformed from darkness to light, one candle at a time.
Maybe this is why I bother to drag out this little tree out every year, even though it sometimes feels like one more thing. One more thing we have to cram into busy nights. One more thing that my children will fight over. One more thing to make me feel like I’m failing to do.
As much as it is one more thing, though, it is also the kind of more that I want—unfolding, expectant, still.
When my girls remember this time, I want them to remember the magical glow of a candlelit sanctuary. I want them to remember the ritual of dragging a dead tree into the living room, dressing it up, and willing it to not die altogether before New Year’s Eve because it smells better than plastic and that is enough of a reason. I want them to know the stillness of a snowy night. I want them to slow down and sit in wonder of this beautiful, weird story of a God who taught us love by giving us his son, born of flesh in a stinky barn. I want them to know they can be a mess and fail and still be invited to the party at the manger.
So tonight over leftovers, we will pick a third grade science fair topic and hopefully get to the promised land and Ruth before the fighting starts. If not? Well, there’s always tomorrow.

 

 

On a Roll

Yesterday there was an awards assembly at my daughter’s elementary school. She did not receive an award. It should not have been a particularly memorable day.
But she did remember it. She remembered her friends’ entire class made the honor roll. She also remembered that in her class, only two kids didn’t make it: that one kid who gets sent to the principal’s office a lot who has been calling her Mustache Girl all year—and her.
She was embarrassed and felt like the entire third, fourth, and fifth grade were witnesses to her shame. As I looked over her report card yesterday afternoon, she apologized for not doing better.
She is eight years old.
Feeling this defeated by school so early into her formal education is soul-crushing for both of us.
We talked about the other things her report card told us. That she is working hard. That she is reading at a fifth grade level. That she is imaginative and articulate. But they don’t hand out certificates for any of those things at the awards assembly.
I told her that the only thing that ever matters to me is whether she is trying hard, and that I missed the honor roll because of my math grade many times too. I know how she feels.
People always assumed I was smart in high school. My friends were all the smart kids. I worked hard, but routinely bombed my math tests. All of my friends were on the honor roll. I would study their names printed in the local paper: the registry of official smart kids. When my name was not among them, I felt like an imposter. Everyone thought I was one of them, but the official registry was there in the Observer Tribune and I was not on it.
I know my child. She is always going to have to work hard at school. None of what they measure there is going to come easily to her. Her gifts are not on the curriculum. This is in part why I’m telling her at eight that I do not give a flying fig about the honor roll. But I cannot take away the hot humiliation of watching everyone else be recognized when she is not.
Next time the awards assembly rolls around, I think we might have our own assembly at home. We will honor how hard she has been working to make her sweet lefty letters tidy and uniform. We will recognize her months spent going to Occupational Therapy, sacrificing precious playground time with her friends on Monday afternoons and being dragged out of her warm bed for 7 am appointments on Tuesdays. We will recognize greatness in adjusting to new schools and new houses and prolonged family separations. On our honor roll, you get a certificate for attending therapy sessions to help you overcome anxiety and for learning the lifelong skill of talking about your problems instead of burying them. We will issue certificates for overcoming a vomit phobia and entering the lunchroom without the crippling fear that plagued you for your whole second grade year. Our honor roll will notice kids who run for student council and try new, scary things. Our honor roll will celebrate constant sketching and learning to play the piano and being faster than almost all of the boys on the playground. We will be the honor roll of “you could have just hit your sister but you didn’t” and “that assignment took three times as long as it was supposed to but you didn’t give up.” We will honor kindness and perseverance and effort and all the things we hope will turn young people into healthy, functioning adults one day.
Let me know if you have an extraordinary, outside the lines kid who wants to join us.
Refreshments and playground time to follow.

Greetings from Fail City!

I had such plans for this summer. Plans for daily workbooks to keep school skills sharp and trips to interesting places and art projects and very little tv. I would exercise and maybe read something that didn’t have a URL.

Then we bought a house and much like my herb garden, it all went to seed.

The girls fought endlessly. There was more TV than I want to confess to in a public space. The news cycle was a relentless stream of misery that I felt compelled to stay engaged in, so the pile of books on my bedside table is good and dusty now. MC lost interest in her Star Wars math and reading workbooks in mid-July and I didn’t have the energy to try and re-engage her in them.

In the new house, where the chaos of moving has just barely begun to abate, my independent sleepers became fearful ones again and have been finding their way into my bed more nights than not.

The Y remains my Brigadoon–the amount of cajoling and bribery it took to get my kids into the door of the childcare rooms meant we just never got there.

And in the last week of summer, I found myself flat on my back with a fever which was then replaced by a hacking cough.

This was not the summer I had planned.

My dad spent this whole summer recovering from a hospitalization this spring that left him so weak he could not walk for a while. This was not the summer he had planned, either. But as the old cliche goes, we have to play the hand we’re dealt. And a lot of us would never get in the game of adulthood/parenthood/marriage/work/aging if we had any idea of what was ahead for us. I think most of us would just lay down and give up. It’s hard stuff that you just have figure out once you’re eyeball deep in it.

The thing I’m spending this particular season of my adulthood trying to learn is how to give myself some grace. I could look at all the ways I failed this summer–an easy target, as they are plentiful–or I could try to look at myself the way I would a friend.

A friend would say: you did your best. You really tried–I saw it. Moving is exhausting, even when it is just around the corner. Your kids have always been tricky sleepers, so it’s not surprising a move has them all jumbled. You’ll get them back to their beds soon.

A friend would say: It’s ok your kids watched all that TV. Remember when we did that as kids? Glitter Force is surely no less edifying that the Dukes of Hazzard and the A Team and Voltron. I know it isn’t what you wanted to do, but this alone does not make you a bad parent. They will not be permanently scarred from a summer of too much TV.

A friend would say: The workbooks didn’t work out. So what? You know what did? Weekly therapy to help address her anxiety and OT to help her with her handwriting.

There was no vacation. But there was that one perfect morning when we woke up and went to the beach so early and the girls chased crabs as they skittered across the sand. We wrung every last dollar out of that August pool membership. We made it to be with my dad for Father’s Day and his 80th birthday, and as I sat around with my family a few weeks ago, I had the thought “I really LIKE these people.”

I did not let summer slip by without eating plenty of basil and watermelon and tomatoes and corn and Jersey peaches. I unlocked the key to making zucchini into something delicious. My kids chased fireflies and ate s’mores and had days where their skin was coated in alternating layers of sunscreen and chlorine and sand and dirt and ice cream.

This was not the summer I planned, but as far as summers go, it did not suck.

A friend would say: You did your best and your best is enough.

So that is what I am telling myself too. Math workbooks and missed workouts be damned.