Friday, March 26, 2021

When My Son's Therapist Told Me, "It's Not Your Fault".

 Mom guilt. It’s that voice that follows me around like a whiny toddler, constantly talking. You could do better. Why did you handle it that way? Shouldn’t he be reading more? Aren’t they on screens too much? Then the boss statement: You’re a bad mom. It’s your fault.

I’ve struggled with guilt for as long as I can remember. As a child, a minor mistake would lead to beating myself up for weeks. My parents never made me feel this way; maybe I was born with an overactive conscience, stoked by my old-fashioned fire and brimstone Catholic Church and school. I’ve worked on (and am currently working on) guilt with a therapist. According to her, I am an empath. I have an excess of empathy, and while a good quality, having a lot of empathy can lead to being taken advantage of and feeling guilty when you can’t meet the needs of others.

Now that I’m a parent, the guilt has adopted an edge of urgency and linked up with preexisting anxiety. After all, what has higher stakes than having responsibility for another human being’s life, upbringing, well-being, and future? What if I’m screwing up my children’s lives? If I listed all the reasons I feel guilty in parenting, this would be a novel instead of a blog post. I am a special needs parent, which (and I can only speak for myself) brings the guilt to a whole new level. The six-year journey to find an accurate diagnosis and treatment for my oldest son filled me with self-doubt and self-blame. As it turned out it was a medical problem rather than a behavioral one. I learned from this experience to trust my own instincts and most importantly, trust God. This is a lesson I’m still learning, though.

In addition to two kids with special needs, I also have my own set of mental and physical health problems, leaving me feeling like I’m slogging through Jell-o while the rest of the world is running a marathon. Some days, I’m stuck in bed and the kids spend most of their day playing video games. They’re interacting, playing online with their friends, and being creative, I reason. Still, I lay there with the guilt heavier than my weighted blanket. I make the most of the good days – I clean, I play, I homeschool – but I don’t often give myself credit for these things. While I’m lesson planning and teaching my kids, the questions run in my mind. Am I teaching them enough? Am I teaching them what they should be learning? Why aren’t my kids motivated in school? Will they develop a strong work ethic, and if not, is it my fault? When I’m playing, I feel guilty for not enjoying it. Now that my eight-year-old is moving away from pretend play, I feel guilty that he’s following his brother’s obsession with video games. If I didn’t force them outside for walks and the trampoline, they would play all day every day. I was the mom who was going to have a firm handle on screen time. Since the pandemic I feel like the term “screen time limit” is rather loose in our house. Excessive screen time for them leads to excessive guilt for me. Of course, there’s also the questions that come with having children with special needs. Is it wrong to medicate? What will people think? Should we have medicated sooner? Is he getting enough therapy? Too much? Is it my fault is behind in reading? Is it my fault?

I had a conversation with my youngest son’s therapist around Christmas time. After discussing E’s ups and downs, she asked, “How are you doing?” She knows I struggle with depression and she’s well aware of the extra stress special needs parenting (parenting in general, really) bestows. I told her a little about the parenting guilt weighing me down. I’ll never forget what she said.

“Just because your children have struggles doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom, and just because you’re telling yourself you’re a bad mom doesn’t make it true. I want you to change the narrative on this. You’re telling yourself it’s your fault, and it’s not your fault, Kat. It’s not your fault.”

I was glad we were on the phone so she couldn’t see my eyes tear up. I needed to hear those words. You see, in the past I’ve felt blame directed at me by previous therapists.

“Do you display a lot of anxiety? Do the kids hear you sort of fretting? Kids can pick up on the anxiety temperature in the room even when it’s subtle,” one therapist told me. What I heard was, “It’s your fault.”

“Is there a lot of talk about depression in your house?” another asked me. “Like, does he pick up on it a lot?”

These are just two examples. My conversation with E’s therapist that day reminded me of the time A’s current therapist told me, “In my experience, the parents who’s fault it is are not the parents who bring their kids to therapy.”

I’d like to tell you than the words, “It’s not your fault, Kat”, a salve to my psyche, corrected my thinking and sent guilt packing. Of course, it’s not that easy, but I do recall those words when I need to, keeping them tucked in my arsenal to battle the guilt. Chances are, I’ll never stop wrestling with guilt. It’s not all bad; guilt can nudge us in the right direction when we’ve slipped up. But excessive guilt only tears us down, makes us feel inadequate, and tempts us to give up. After all, if we suck that badly, why even try to do better? What I’m learning is to give myself more grace than criticism. I am not a perfect parent. I make mistakes, fall short some days, and don’t always handle things the right way. But I’m still trying. I’m still showing up.

If you’re a special needs parent and even if you’re not, if no one has told you, I want you to know it’s not your fault. Some days your best will be a clean house, a home cooked meal, and a family game night. Some days your best will be a Minecraft marathon and meals out of a box. It’s all okay. At the end of the day, if you love and care about your kids and make the best decisions that you can with the information that you have, you’re a good parent. You’re a good person. If your kids struggle – with mental health issues, behavioral problems, or regular life stuff, please know that you’re doing the best you can. You’re not alone and it’s not your fault.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Just Yesterday

 

“I’m too old for that, Mom,” my youngest son said when I suggested a game of pretend play we enjoy together.

“But you weren’t too old for it yesterday,” I said. It was true; literally just yesterday we’d played the game, giving different voices to stuffed animals and deeming them good or bad guys.

“Well, I’m too old for it today,” he declared.

I felt a pang. Believe me, there have been times, in fact just yesterday, when I’ve become bored and restless with the hostage situation that pretend play often becomes. The constant “Mom can you play with me,” and “No, keep playing,” when I so much as go to the bathroom can be wearing. Yet was this the last time? Was pretend play really ending? Although I enjoy spending time with my children and I’m fairly good at enjoying the moments, seizing the day, and all that, pretend play can become monotonous. The pressure to entertain is real. Some part of me has been waiting for this day – the day my children didn’t crave quite so much pretend play. Even my eleven-year-old will still occasionally humor me with Mrs. Antbottom – a game I invented when he was five. It’s infrequent now, though. But we’ve found other ways to connect. We watch shows together, have long talks, and make videos. With E, though, I thought I had more time. I mean, he’s eight.

As our children grow, we pay a lot of attention to the firsts – first smile, first steps, first day of school. Living with autism, E’s first are that much more hard won and celebrated. The lasts, though; the lasts I’ve never been prepared for. Often, I don’t even see them coming, but it’s usually long before I’m ready. The last time I nursed E, I didn’t know to savor each little swallow and his little fist against my skin. I didn’t dwell on the solid weight of him in my arms. If I’m being truthful, I was probably distracted. That’s normal. But, oh, I wish I’d know. I wish I’d lingered – stared into his little face. I didn’t know it would be the last time I’d nurse him. I didn’t know it would be the last time I’d nurse, period. In fact, I assumed he wouldn’t be my last baby. Three miscarriages followed after E, and we finally decided we were content with two.

I’ve made peace with this decision, I think. Most days, I think I have. Still, every one of E’s birthday brings with it an onslaught of bitter-sweet emotion, because each birthday is a last. December 10th, 2020 was the last time we’ll celebrate an eighth birthday. For some reason, I didn’t expect the strong emotions arriving on the eves of birthdays.

E is growing more independent each day. This is a cause for celebration for a neurotypical child, but there’s an extra level of elation when a child is neurodiverse. I’d be lying, though, if I said growing pains don’t come with levels of loss. Last week when I picked E up from his homeschool co-op I ran into the building to use the bathroom.

“Oh my gosh, Mom,” he said when we got to the car, “why’d you come in the building? That was super embarrassing.”

My thought was, already? It seems like just yesterday I couldn’t leave the house without peeling toddlers from my leg, driving away with guilt even though I knew they’d be fine. Just yesterday I’d get an extra-long hug and a wiped away tear at school drop off. Now, he’s embarrassed by me. Normal? Yes. Easy? No.

At Christmas, he wanted every Hot Wheels set ever invented. Now, he plays with them less and less. Is pretend play really coming to an end? Maybe he was just having a “too cool for school” day. Maybe he really is moving on. It happens, even if it is sooner than I accepted. It’s not that he needs me less that’s hard; it’s that he wants me less.

I won’t be the sweet grandma in the grocery store warning you to “enjoy every moment”. It’s not possible, in parenting. I will say that slowing down the precious moments is like harnessing the wind. Sometimes they seem endless – until they’re in our rear-view mirror. While we’re busy focusing on the firsts, let’s allow ourselves both celebration and nostalgia when the lasts come.

I know as E grows, I’ll continue to celebrate his milestones. He’s my last baby, so I’ll also cling that much harder to his lasts. Still, I’m excited to witness the person he’s becoming, even if my stuffed animal voices have been downgraded to “cringy” category. He’ll come back around, and as he grows, we’ll find new ways to connect and spend time together. The lasts will come, but I have to remind myself that every last is a new first.

Friday, October 23, 2020

This Is Eleven

 "Eleven is hard," my friend said as we sat across from each other at a picnic table at the park. "Nobody talks about eleven."

We both gazed thoughtfully at our boys playing. Except they weren't playing, not really. They were walking and talking, the previously coveted play structures forgotten. Occasionally, they would take a seat on the swings to continue their conversation.

Meanwhile, my friend and I continued our own conversation. This is my first time having an eleven-year-old. Her son is her fourth and youngest, so she's definitely a veteran to my naivete. We were discussing the recent changes in our boys, who've been friends since first grade and were going into sixth together. The conversation reassured me. I'm not alone. It was also a good reminder that the changes in my eleven-year-old, some amusing, some bewildering, and some down right irritating, are a normal part of development. She was right, though. We don't really talk about eleven as being a transitional year. Oh, sure, it's a big deal to start middle school, although our boys are homeschooled and attend a k-12 coop twice per week, making the transition less arduous. But while everyone shares the drama and ups and downs of the teenage years, eleven gets lost in the shuffle. Even talk about preteen years is more general, focusing on a wide period of time in which many changes happen. Then there's the topic of puberty. But, eleven itself? Nobody talks about eleven.

Let's talk about eleven. Eleven is shrugged off hugs and slammed doors. Eleven is holing up in a bedroom and shunning family time. Eleven is deep philosophical conversations one minute and stomping and whining the next. Eleven is a preference for friends over parents and siblings, and often in our current climate, a preference for online interaction. Elven is still needing Mom to snuggle you to sleep, but finding her utterly annoying by day. Eleven is the internal struggle between childhood and young adulthood. It's a desire to shed immaturity but also a longing for the simpler days of early childhood. Eleven is vacillating on whether or not to dress up for Halloween, and wanting to make sure the potential costume is cool and not babyish. 

My eleven-year-old still enjoys building with blocks and pretend play, but he probably won't tell you that. He used to ask me to play with him constantly (see: I want to Murder Mrs. Antbottom ). I thought those days would never end, and they haven't entirely. We still play Mrs. Antbottom, but not every day, and not even every week. When we do play, it's less than an hour before he wants to head back to his room and see if his friends are online. Mere months ago he enjoyed and even asked to play family board games. Now board games involve much eye rolling. Family movie night is now boring. He spends a lot more time in his room and often responds to a knock with a dramatic sigh and an annoyed, "WHAT?" He has taken to staying up way too late and sleeping the morning away.

Yet, when night comes we say prayers and do our devotional together. I think he values this quiet time together as much as I do. I still read to him and sometimes he does not want me to leave his room until he's asleep. Eleven is nothing if not a paradox. At night, we have our talks and he shares whatever is bothering him. A disagreement with friends can have him down for weeks. Yet he also jokes a lot. Laughter and  happy screaming flows from his room when he plays games with friends. He can teach himself coding and video editing, yet he acts helpless when he's asked to write a paper about a topic that doesn't interest him. When it comes to matters of politics, controversy, and what's going on in the world, he has informed opinions and he doesn't care who disagrees with him. Unlike some middle schoolers, he feels no need to fit in. He's also become more aware of his body. He feels showers are optional, yet he will exercise and make healthy food choices without prompting. 

This new stage is a little confusing, inconsistent, and bittersweet. I love watching him grow and explore, and find his own identity and independence. I feel a little bit of loss, though. I miss that chubby little hand always searching for mine. I miss the unprompted hugs and sticky kisses. I even miss the endless sometimes exhausting chorus of, "Mom, can you play with me?" But I know these changes are all necessary for his development. We've entered uncharted territory. In many places - friendships, for example - I used to be a moderator where I am now an observer. Still, he asks for my advice. I think he values at least some of my opinions. He's still my little boy, though I can't say that to him without his face turning crimson. This is new. This is scary. This is exciting. This is eleven.

Monday, June 22, 2020

An Open Letter To Everyone Else's Mom

On this wild parenting journey, I'm all for us parents, and especially us moms, sticking together. I'm also all for staying in your own parenting lane and respecting that we all parent differently. However, there is one woman whose parenting I have to question. I've never met her, but my eleven-year-old son has a lot to say about her. I have a giant bone to pick with her. I usually find open letters kind of melodramatic, no offence to their writers, but I feel like I can't let this go any longer. So, here it goes.

Dear EveryoneElse's Mom,

We don't know each other. I'm not sure what you look like or if I've spotted you in the school drop off lane. Probably not, since I'm usually skating in just under the bell while you're always early. Or so I've heard. I've heard a lot about you, actually. My eleven-year old loves to sing your praises, and I've  gotta say, EveryoneElse's mom, you're wreaking it for the rest of us.

I tell my son to empty the dishwasher and take the garbage out before playing with his friends online, and what does he tell me?

*Dramatic tween sigh. "EveryoneElse'sMom lets them play on the computer without doing chores. In fact EveryoneElse'sMom doesn't even make their kids do any chores at all."

Oh, and about the computer, according to A, you  don't implement any screen time limits. Not only that, you let your kids stay up until 2 A.M. playing video games. Oh, but that's not all. A. tells me that EveryoneElse'sMom gives them a cell phone.

Listen, EveryoneElse's mom, this is your business, okay? I'm just really sick of hearing from my son how great you are, how you are so much less strict than myself, and how you don't have so many rules. You let your kids watch whatever they want on YouTube, you dole out limitless snacks, and you always say yes to playdates no matter how tired you are. You're the perfect mom, aren't you?

Apparently, your child, EveryoneElse, gets more allowance than my kids. You're call, EveryoneElse's mom. But, your making me look bad.

I wonder about you late at night when insomnia comes to call. Then I start comparing myself to you. I think to myself, EveryoneElse's mom keeps their house clean, works out everyday, and still has sufficient time to spend with their children. EveryoneElse's mom follows through with summer learning, weaving fun through lesson plans so her children hardly know they're working. 

EveryoneElse's mom, you cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner from scratch seven days a week, don't you? You serve fruit and veggies with every meal, and your kids eat them. In fact, I bet your entire family eats the same meal. You have infinite patience. You never yell. You save all of your kids' school papers and keep them organized in a chronological filing system. You're always put together. The floor of your mini van is visible. You have a group of equally polished mom friends and you maintain a social life and self-care regimen without taking any time away from your children.

Look, EveryoneElse's Mom, the truth is I wish I could be more like you. I compare myself to you. I wonder how you do it. How you make it look so easy. I just wish sometimes you could be a little bit more like NooneElse's mom.

I've heard a lot about her, too. Apparently, NooneElse's mom makes them do so many chores around the house. NooneElse's mom nags them every day to clean their room. I mean, maybe if he'd just do it, she wouldn't have to keep reminding him to transfer his 87 cups from his dresser to the kitchen sink, or even better, the dishwasher. I feel you, sister.

NooneElse's mom is late frequently. Her house is messy. She makes her children read every day. Except on the days when she just can't have one more argument. NooneElse's mom serves too much mac and cheese. NooneElse's mom limits screen time. Except for the days when she's struggling with depression and can't even with her kids. On those days, she wallows in guilt while her kids slay zombies in Minecraft.

NoonElse's mom keeps a running list of parenting mistakes in her head. She can rattle them off for you, but she avoids focusing on her successes. Her kids have meltdowns in public. NooneElse's mom sweats her way through grocery shopping and still forgets several items. NooneElse's mom is late more often than she's on time. She forgets to return important papers to school. She makes her kids write thank you cards but then forgets to send them. NoneElse's mom lets her laundry pile up. Her house is well lived-in. She'd do anything for her kids, but sometimes she puts headphones in so she can escape. NooneElse's mom hides from her kids. NooneElse's mom gets weary of playing cars. NooneElse's mom has days when she yells too often. NooneElse's mom loses her patience. NooneElse's mom needs a break.

I mean, that's a lady I can relate to. Some days, I'm like you, EveryoneElse's mom. Some days I have make up on, I schedule appointments and keep them, and I spend endless hours engaged in creative play. Sometimes, like you, I let my kids have too much screen time.

Other days, I'm more like NononeElse's mom. But most days? Most days I'm somewhere in between. The point I've reached, EveryoneElse's mom, is that I'm going to stop comparing myself to you, even when my kids do it. I'm not EeryoneElse's mom, I'm their mom, and that's good enough.

Sincerely,

Good Enough Mom

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Are You Social Distancing "Correctly'?

 Apparently, some discrepancies have been floating around on social media. I know, who would've expected such a thing. Questions and even arguments (again, on social media?!) abound on the correct way to social distance. Most of us can agree on the basics. Wash your hands. Don't leave your house except for essentials. Work from home if you can. Keep six feet of distance. These are the rules. But, beyond that, how do you now if your getting an A in social distancing? Don't worry, here at Killing June Cleaver, we've got you covered. Here are the top ways you know you're social distancing correctly.

1. You're husband went to the grocery store and when he walks in you scream, "Do not set those bags down!" as you run at him with disinfecting wipes. You then yell at him to strip off his clothes. He thinks you're being suggestive. You're not. AT ALL.

2. Yesterday, you had an entire conversation with Alexa. You felt bonded to her, until you guys had a big argument this morning. You tried giving her the silent treatment, but only lasted three minutes. Now you two are back on speaking terms.

3. You saw a spider and instead of screaming and killing it, you tried to make friends with it.

4. You find yourself staring out the window for long periods of time, like a dog.

5. Speaking of dogs, your dogs have now become the main part of your social network. Fine. That was always the case.

6. You have clinked glasses and given virtual hugs over Zoom or video chat. You washed your hands afterwards.

7. You've hidden in the bathroom, the bedroom, the closet, and the garage to get a moment away.

8. Your son has developed an unhealthy, codependent, love-hate relationship with the Xbox.

9. Your kids are training for a career in WWF cage fighting.

10. You are obsessed with Tiger King. You find yourself asking your husband, "Do you think Carol fed her husband to the tigers?"

11. You saw your neighbor walking the dog on the other side of the street and you waved longingly.

12. You wonder if Target thinks you broke up with it.

13. You say some combination of the following multiple times a day: "We're stuck in this house together and we WILL make the best of it!" "Stop fighting!" "Turn off the Xbox!" "I'm throwing the Xbox outside!" "I need a minute. Can you give me a minute? ONE MINUTE!"

14. You go through phases of obsessively cleaning and throwing up your hands.

15. You're keeping up on laundry for the first time in... ever.

16. Your April calender consists of a series of X's.

17. A phone scammer called and you asked him all about his wife, his kids, his pets, and how he likes his life as a phone scammer. You wouldn't let him get off the phone. Then you realized it was a recording.

18. E learning is making you pull your hair out.

19. If you hear the words, "I'm bored" one more time you are going run out into the street... no wait... driveway screaming.

20. You've made a recording of yourself saying, "No, you can't see your friends. We're social distancing." You play it on repeat.


If you can relate to any of the above, congratulations! You're social distancing correctly, no matter what Cheryl from the internet says. Please add your own social distancing habits in the comments.


Monday, March 30, 2020

The Voice of Reason Sneak Peak II


Amy stared at him. Everything froze. The air evaporated. “Are you honestly telling me to have your brother locked up in a mental ward?” She shivered.

“No.” Jason took her small hands in his large, calloused ones and squeezed gently. “I’m asking you, begging you as his brother to have him locked up. Right now, it’s the only way to save him.” He dragged a sleeve across his eyes.

Amy turned away from him and cracked Josh’s door open. He remained at the window muttering to himself, or to someone created by his mind.

There in the cold hospital hallway Amy Everett knew a heart could literally shatter, because hers did. “I swear to you,” she whispered, “I’ll find a way to bring you back to me.”

Straightening her spine, she eased the door shut and turned back to Jason. She nodded, not trusting her voice. Somehow, she had to wait to break down. She’d need her strength when she told Caleb Daddy couldn’t come home after all. It was her turn to be the strong one, no matter how impossible.

Jason took her hand and led her back to Dr Jefferson’s office. They didn’t speak. There was nothing more to say. Amy raised her hand to knock but it was shaking too badly. Jason rapped on the door with his free hand.

“Enter.” Dr Jefferson looked up from whatever he was writing, an unmistakable shadow passing over his face.

“Okay,” Amy said. “I’ll do it. I’ll sign Josh into the . . . into the mental ward. Please help him.”

She sank into the chair facing the desk before her legs gave out. Jason sat next to her. His hand made circles on her back. She wished he’d stop. It was taking everything she had not to dissolve into a heaping pile of sobs.

Dr Jefferson’s face softened. “You’re doing the right thing. We’ll take good care of him.” He pushed his chair back to a beige filing cabinet against the back wall and fumbled with his key ring. Everything was locked up. They might as well lock her up too. She didn’t want to go back out into the world without Josh.

But she had to think of Caleb. How would she stay together for him? How could they survive without their family’s foundation? Josh was the one who made her world make sense. If his world didn’t make sense, hers didn’t either.

“Can I still come and see him?”

Dr Jefferson pulled out a thick file folder. “Yes, of course. This isn’t a prison, Amy.”

Prison.

The doctor slid a pen and paper across the desk to her.

The words “involuntary commitment” blurred as tears, just as involuntary, filled her eyes and dripped onto the paper. Amy picked up the pen and scrawled her signature.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Voice of Reason Sneak Peak


Chapter 1


June 25, 1979



J

osh Everett was twenty-one years old the first time the voices spoke to him.

That ordinary summer morning, he ran a comb through his shaggy, almost shoulder-length black hair as he checked his reflection in the small bathroom mirror. Later, he’d wish he’d looked harder; stared into the pool of his own eyes, attempting to see straight into his brain. Maybe if he’d watched closely enough he would’ve seen it happen; something misfiring deep within the recesses of his brain, an almost imperceptible ripple in the calm waters, a subtle precursor to the storm.

He hurried downstairs toward the aroma of coffee floating up to greet him. At the threshold of the tiny kitchen, he paused to take in the scene. Amy stood at the stove with her back to him. His wife’s long brown hair was secured behind her in a messy ponytail and one of his t-shirts almost swallowed her small frame.  He watched her  frying eggs, humming along with the sizzling of the oil in the pan. She scooped an egg onto a plate with a pancake and turned to slide it onto Caleb’s highchair tray. The baby pounded the tray with squeals of excitement, his thick dark curls bouncing on his head. At one and a half he still hadn’t uttered a discernable word, but he was always making noise and smiling.

Amy caught sight of Josh and broke into a grin. She made him feel ten feet tall just by the way she lit up when he entered a room. “Good morning, handsome,” she said. “Have a seat. I hope Mrs Crofsky’s hens next door keep the eggs coming.”

Instead, he walked up to her and snaked his arms around her from behind, kissing her slender neck.

She gasped. “Stop that! You’ll make me burn the eggs. I’m trying to actually cook them right this time.”

“It’d be worth it.” He inhaled her strawberry scent before turning to greet his son, bending down to his level and ruffling his hair. “Morning, Caleb. High five.” Josh held up his large hand. Caleb giggled and instead reached up with a sticky hand to tug Josh’s hair.

“Oww.” Josh pulled back making Caleb giggle harder. The baby lifted a piece of pancake as a peace offering and Josh bent his head and let him feed it to him. “Mmm,” he said wiggling his eyebrows in exaggeration. “Mama’s such a good cook it tastes delicious even with slobber on it.”

Amy laughed and swatted him with a dish towel. “Sit down and you’ll get your own. Slobber free.”

Taking a seat at the narrow breakfast bar next to Caleb’s highchair, he ran his hand over the distressed wood that he’d constructed with his own hands.

“Smells great,” he told Amy as he picked up the knife and fork and began meticulously cutting his meal. Amy always laughed at his quirk of cutting up all his food before he ate it.

“It’s like you’ve been practicing for fatherhood your whole life,” she’d tell him, and as silly as it was, he liked the thought that somewhere in his subconscious he’d spent his life getting ready for Caleb. He poked one of the egg yolks, letting the yellow bleed across the red plate. Then it happened. A low, unfamiliar voice spoke.