The Parent He Needs

This is what the ugly thoughts do. This is how the lies start to seem true. My son’s diagnosis weaves into my own, our wounds pull each other into a dark and intimate tango.

Two Souls One Heart

On my son’s first birthday, a stomach virus knocked him flat. For the next few days, he couldn’t keep anything down. Even though he begged for the comfort of nursing, I had to ration his time on the breast. We fed him Pedialyte from a dropper. He screamed in protest until thirst overcame his resistance.

After a few days, he rallied. Small portions of pureed food stayed down. Great quantities of breast milk too. He resumed scooting all over the house and tormenting the dog. The doctor had said he’d get over it, and this seemed to hold true.

Except that he kept losing weight.

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A Frayed Knot

Aksam Gunesi mushroom nest

Sense skates over the damp oil of detangling spray. The film coats my son’s raveled mat. His head is a summer hayfield bleached gold and heavy with dew. At the tips, tendrils going to seed thin and fall away.

Down under all that flower and dust, the stalks twist into themselves. Pile up. Snarl. My fingers burrow to the base of his skull and find the nest there. I begin to brush. Starting at the ends, the gesture is one short stroke. Then another. The brush barks over the ragged rope. Its plastic bristles chatter as if scraped across a guiro’s ridged wooden belly. The boy tolerates this, gripping his nerf gun and re-reading Sunday’s comics.

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Burrowing

making-waves

He slides into bed next to me, his left side far warmer than his right.  His chilled skin  presses in as he drinks from my heat.  “Can you put your arm around me?” He asks.

“Sure, scoot down.”

A shifting.  The sheets tangle and we kick ourselves back to softness.  Dark lingers.  December morning takes her sweet time stretching awake.  We wait her out.

“It’s funny how the neck is shaped,” he says in his dreamy murmur.

“How so?”

“It’s like it’s designed exactly right so someone’s arm can fit underneath.”

He snakes a leg over my left and under my right, snaggled toes seeking the pillowed weight of my calf.  He reaches the length of me now.  This has happened.  Ten years and here, with his hair tickling my jaw, his feet lie loose across mine.

The impression of the tiny beast still marks my skin.  His infancy thrums there, a damp comma curled into my belly and chest.

Continuity hides in the wardrobe of finality.  Once a devotee of context, now I read each moment as a complete sentence, unable to catch the breath at the end (and then, and then, and then. . . )  This is parenthood’s steady (or is it sudden?) erosion of fluency.  Weariness plays tricks on perception.  Serial appears as parable and the mind finds its relief in taking this moment’s story as the only story.

Our morning drifts on like this, as if nothing waits on the other side.  I fear this blindness and cherish it too.  Of course I know my boy will prefer his own bed soon, and then his own room, and then his own place in his own world (and then, and then. . .)

Now he creaks awake into the frosted dawn, this frosted dawn, and comes padding across the distance to find my warmth.  It can’t matter that I’d rather stay soaking alone in my private dream lagoon.  It can’t matter that we’ll both grump and fumble through our mid-afternoon exhaustion.  The only thing to do is turn back the blankets and unfurl the sash of my body.  A decade since he left it, and it fits him perfectly. For this fleeting forever, we fold into one.


Image: Rob Gonsalves, “Making Waves”

Director’s Cut

film-reel

He blocks the dryer, wild eyes and a grin.  I duck, pump, shoot.  His wet boxer shorts whip past his ear and splat against the back wall of the drum.

“Oh man!” He turns and yanks a shirt from the washer tub, untwisting its rope of an arm from a pillowcase.  He cuts in front of me and pivots.  Past my block, he fakes then scores.  “Yes!” Fist in the air.

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Dousing It

tapestry

We can do so much better.  For the past few years, our patterns were stuck enough to seem hopeless. This past June, I made the choice to cultivate a more loving home.

After a long summer that included a stretch of five weeks apart, my son is back.  This is the first night of his 4th grade year that he is spending with me.  The evening coincides with a parent-teacher event.  This means my boy runs wild around the neighborhood with his pals for a few hours before I have to leave him behind.  He comes in, flushed and breathless, and parks himself in front of his video games.  I lock the door behind me.

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He is of Us, as am I

turkus mother son

. . . a discouraged child tends to focus increasingly on her anxious desire to fit in and quickly loses sight of the needs of others in the family.  Children are always trying to improve their sense of securely belonging as valuable members of the group, and they fear losing that connection.  Therefore, the more the child’s discouragement deepens, the less capable she feels of interacting with others in useful ways.  Instead, she is more likely to resort to misbehavior to connect inappropriately, to feel negatively powerful, and finally to gain at least a perverse sense of respect before giving up when her attempts fail.


– Linda Jessup and Emory Luce Baldwin, Parenting with Courage and Uncommon Sense

My boy has been back with me for a week.  During that time, I have not screamed once.   I have not stormed out to cool down.  We have been on time for camp drop off every morning without a fight.  Bug has gotten himself out of the bath, teeth brushed, and into bed before 9:00 every night without me raising my voice or lifting a finger.

On July 7, I made a commitment to heal our family.  This is a tall order.  A family is more than just one mom and it would seem that one mom alone can’t overhaul a whole family culture.  Each of us can only control ourselves.  As it turns out, this may be the concept that brings the most significant change to our family.

When children are very small and dependent on us, we can haul them out of troubling situations and put them in their cribs at specified times.  We can decide what food is in front of them.  As they get older, this control shifts.  They fight their own playground battles.  They can get up out of bed and turn the light back on.  They can snub dinner and sneak treats from the fridge behind our backs.

A parent cannot control a child.  Control is an illusion.  Dominance as a method of control is an illusion. A parent can withhold, wheedle, punish, threaten, bribe, and ignore, but even with these dangerous tools, a parent cannot control a child.

What a parent can do is model healthy choices and guide a child to build the capacity to navigate the world.

I made a commitment to learn whatever I could to strengthen our family.  The past few weeks, I have planted this commitment into the center of my days.  Between reading and journaling to reflect on the approaches I’ve taken (and might like to try), I’ve immersed myself in a 16-hour Parenting Encouragement Program class.  The process has been intense and even transformative.  That word that usually makes me roll my eyes, but in this case, “transformation” about captures what’s happening here.

My son comes off the day camp bus in a foul mood and immediately lays into me for some perceived slight, like asking him to please hand me the tablet so I can charge it.  He is furious, steaming, telling me he hates me.  These are his steps in our standard friction-filled dance, one we’ve been perfecting for years.

Now, I choose a different dance, one that improvises and responds.  First I catch my breath.  No reaction.  I ask myself quietly to note that Bug’s behavior is a textbook version of discouragement, that he is actually seeking connection and a sense of belonging through a mistaken goal of taking revenge on me.

A parent cannot control a child.  A parent can only control her own choices.

I choose my words with care.  “It seems like something is really bothering you.  I’m sorry it’s hard.  Remember that it’s not okay to call me names or hurt me.  When you are ready to talk about what’s bothering you in a less hurtful way, I am here to listen.”

He continues to simmer and spit but it’s cooling down.  I sit quietly and breathe, remembering that my son is a creative child, he’s bright and resourceful.  That he is learning, as I am.  Even in my silence, I keep my mind on the goal of encouraging him and helping him feel connected and capable.

After a little while, after we’ve moved on to the next phase of our evening, he quietly — almost distractedly — says, “You should write a bad review of that camp.”

“Really?” I say, just as casually.  “And what would I write in this review?”

Then he opens like the sky.  Something happened this morning at the high ropes course.  A misunderstanding, a punishment he felt was unfair.  We talk it through and I match his tone.  Attentive but calm, like this is any old conversation on any old day, not a huge issue.  I do not come up with a list of solutions or reprimand him for what most likely stemmed from his failure to listen to instructions.  I reflect back what I’ve heard and capture what his feelings might have been about this.  Finally, I say, “Would you like to think through what you could do if this happens again?  Or to keep something like it from happening next time?”

Bug shrugs and says “maybe,” then turns to his crafts.  He’s had enough for now.  Enough is fine.  Enough is miles ahead of where we were a month ago.  Enough is a victory.  When and if he does want to tackle the issue, I’ll be ready to help him tap his courage and find his way.

I can only control myself.  The choices I make contain the threads that stitch together this family.  When Bug and I were stumbling through our difficult 9-day stay-cation together in June, this was my commitment:

I am determined to sustain a creative, positive planning attitude for the duration of this stay-cation with my son.  This means I am equally determined to postpone any self-improvement initiative that might divert energy from our formidable endeavor.

Now I see that these two journeys — family health and personal well-being — are part of the same whole.  Indeed, they turn on the same axis.  The more skillful a parent I become, the more loving our relationship, the more encouraged my son, and the more nourishing our home.  From this place, we all grow.  In this place, we thrive.


Image: Pristine Cartera Turkus, “Mother & Child”

Nine Days

Those of us who experience ugliness in our family dynamics often prefer to remain concealed. There is less shame when one stays underground.


– Tracey Watts, “The Explosive Child” in Brain, Child Magazine

In two months, the school year ends. I’ve scheduled the vacation from work. I’ve cancelled the trip to Myrtle Beach. My son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

This is a luxury. Most working parents crave time like this, time with our over-scheduled and growing-too-fast kids. Be grateful, Smirk.

Gratitude yes, it is here. It just happens to be mixed with a shot of dread. I am mystified about how to make the nine days anything but miserable for us both.

How many parents are sitting on a locked vault of tangled up feelings? It can’t just be me.

(Maybe it is just me.)

I’m not very skilled as a parent. Loving, sure. Dedicated and creative and willing to learn. But bumbling, too. Perplexed. The issues that arise are rarely what I predict and never what I’m prepared to face. My responses miss the mark. I careen around our home, swinging between tight-lipped and screeching, in the face of my boy’s constantly shifting needs.

The loving bond that grows dense and loose in my friends’ families is, in ours, a stunted thing. At the end of our weeknights together, when Bug finally stops arguing about homework, bath time, and how many chapters we’re reading, when he finally conks out, I’m sapped. The thought of facing a mere weekend together wears me out.

Nine days?

The thing is, I’m willing to learn. I’ll eagerly dedicate these next two months to preparing for those nine days. My son is nearing tween-hood.  This may be our last best chance to cultivate the trust and connection that he’ll need as he slogs through the tar pit of adolescence. I have a stack of books. And blogs. And habits to practice both in anticipation of what might come and in response to what does. When I turn to it and start learning, it all makes sense. The way forward is clear.

Then almost as soon as it appears, that clarity begins to blur. In creep the other responsibilities. Up goes the volume on their demands. The fact is, only so much of the strife in our home is a result of “parenting” as some discrete set of techniques. Of our troubles, far more than I’d like to admit, arise from me.

I live 23-1/2 of every 24 hours in a state of low-level panic. A thirty minute cardio high is the only thing that reminds me of the world outside my hall of mirrors.

Unresolved financial concerns haunt me. How can I leverage my skills and energy to move into a higher-paying position? With this question nagging, I push harder at work. I submit a conference proposal, step up on a search committee, and get involved in the new DC undergrad internship initiative. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I stay a few feet back from the financial cliff.

The anemia of my social life concerns me. How can I give Bug a strong community of peers if I don’t build one around us? With this question tugging, I reach out to the people around me. I schedule a walk with a girlfriend, volunteer at the Unitarian church auction night, plan a weekend playdate, and put a potluck on the calendar. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I are woven into a rich and supportive community.

The paucity of my creative efforts prick at me.  So, too, the half-assed attempts at mindfulness, the chaotic closets and filthy windows, the short shrift I give to the relationship with my Mister, the public meetings I fail to attend for the condo association and local school board and VDOT as they make decisions that upend the value of my home,  the urgent call to action for racial and economic justice, the runaway bad habits of eating too much and staying up too late that destroy my sleep and mood and ability to manage any of this with grace. . .

Does growing into a better parent begin with focusing on “parenting”?

Or with 10 minutes of morning journaling? Or with a commitment to a professional development plan?

With daily exercise and 8 hours of sleep?

With a counselor?

With breath?

With less?

What heals a frayed bond between a 9-year-old boy and his mama?

We love each other, of course. All of this begins and ends in love. This hard work, these questions about how to proceed, they pull at me to build a home that can be my son’s sanctuary and his launch pad. Every question comes down to love.

In its most active, living form, what does love need? As it tries to push itself up from the root, how do we cultivate it?

This question churns under all the others. Sometimes I forget this simple truth, and the details topple me. That is when I roar until my throat fills with mud, and I am swamped with shame. That is when I want to sink into the earth.

And that is precisely when I most need to remember that my love for my son is under everything. It won’t let me sink. It catches me and helps me find my way back to the surface.

Then I — then we — get to keep on learning.

In two months, my son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

I have no idea what to do to prepare.

My son and I have nine uncertain years left together.

I have no idea what to do.

I guess I’ll do it anyway.