Category Archives: la famiglia

The Next Time

Yesterday afternoon I got a phone call from the social worker at the girls’ school. This didn’t set off any alarm bells; when you have a kid with an IEP (which we do, for Eleanor and her language disorder), sometimes you get calls from the social worker to schedule or follow up on meetings. I assumed this was one of those calls.

It was not. I don't need to be saved. I can do that myself!

“I’m calling to let you know that Eleanor and another female student experienced some behavior from some boys that was making them uncomfortable,” the social worker said.

“Oh?” I said, small red-alert lights flashing in my mental peripheral vision.

“Yes, Eleanor was uncomfortable talking about it. She was embarrassed, but she was able to write it down in enough detail that we could question the boys, and they admitted the behavior.”

“What … what exactly happened?”

“It sounds like the boys were whispering things in the girls ears and making thrusting motions at the girls.”

“Oh, no.” Sinking feeling. “That’s not good.”

“Well, Eleanor was very helpful and we have encouraged her to tell an adult right away the next time something like this happens.”

“Um, how many times has this BEEN happening?!”

“There was apparently one incident last week in music class, and then again this week. We have called all the parents involved. Eleanor was very helpful.”

I got off the phone in a daze, sent off a text titled “MOTHERFUCKER” to Chad, who was out of town on business, and promptly burst into tears. Because she’s NINE. And they are already talking about  THE NEXT TIME. And of course they are, because of course there will be a next time. Of course there will be a next time that she is made uncomfortable, or worse, just by virtue of her precious, beautiful, female body.

You know it’s coming, as the mother of a daughter. I mean, as a parent of any kid, you know the time will come when your kid encounters prejudice or bias or just plain-old assholery from the world, and you won’t be there to kick the assholes back to where they came from. But especially as a mother of daughters, you know that some – maybe even most – of that ugliness will be related somehow to her femaleness, and to the seriously fucked up sexual attitudes we’ve developed in this culture. Maybe I should have been ready for it earlier, only you can’t ever be ready for it. You cannot be ready for the punch to the gut that reminds you that no, you can’t protect your daughters from it. They’re going to have to run the gauntlet themselves, just like you did.

So I managed to calm down before I went to pick the girls up from their after school program, wondering if Eleanor would want to talk about it or if she would be too embarrassed, running through all the various worst-case scenarios that my anxiety-driven demons could come up with. (Would she be permanently scarred? Unable to make eye contact? Wearing a huge scarlet A on her chest?)(Note: anxiety-driven demons are usually way, way off base. Also apparently they read too much Nathaniel Hawthorne.)

Eleanor was her usual buoyant self, chattering with her friends, forgetting her shoes, excited to see me. Anxiety levels decreasing. As we’re getting in the car, I say “I hear you had kind of a tough day today.”

“Oh, the social worker called you?”

“Yeah,” I say, like it was totally no big deal and we’re discussing the weather or something. “What happened with those boys?”

“Oh, mom, they were being totally inappropriate and saying REALLY inappropriate things and it was making me super uncomfortable. They were doing it to all the girls. Like sex stuff and penises and what boys do and making noises (she made uh-uh groans and thrusting motions while a piece of my soul slowly died), and it was gross.”

“Yuck. That sounds SUPER gross. That is not ok for those boys to do that. So who spoke up about it?”

Eleanor gave a little half grin. “I did.”

I high-fived her and told her I was so proud of her, and that she did exactly what she was supposed to do. And we talked about how sexual harassment feeds on silence and that lots of girls don’t tell people about it because they feel embarrassed and like they did something wrong or they might get in trouble, but how it’s NEVER your fault if someone makes you feel uncomfortable, and it’s not tattling to tell grown-ups about that stuff. And she said it was really weird to be in a room with three grownups (the principal, the vice-principal and the social worker) and just one kid (her) and how they kept telling her it was a “safe space” but it was totally embarrassing to talk about so finally she just wrote it down. And I told her again that the social worker had said how helpful it was that Eleanor was able to do that, and again how proud I was of her and that she did exactly the right thing.

And we went to get dinner and talk about other things, like the upcoming caucus, and weekend plans, and normal life stuff. And I came out of the evening an odd mixture of sad, angry, proud and hopeful. But like, 45% sad, 60% angry, 75% proud, and 32% hopeful. 212% feelings. THIS IS WHAT IT’S LIKE IN HERE, PEOPLE.

Hug your babies. Raise your boys to respect. Raise your girls to speak up. Hope for a better tomorrow. Cry for the hard today. Love wins.

(This post was written with Eleanor’s permission.)

Nobody said this was gonna be easy

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ” —Elizabeth Stone

messyheart

I have often said that my main experience of motherhood is one of having my heart cracked open, over and over again. In the main, this is a good thing; open-heartedness is better than the alternative, and I can state with absolute conviction that motherhood has made me a more patient, compassionate, and forgiving person. I know many functioning adults who evolve these qualities all on their own; apparently I had to spawn to get them.

But sometimes having a cracked-open heart hurts. And last night was one of those times.

Eleanor, my oldest kid, is not happy about us moving south. This didn’t exactly come as a surprise; she’s almost 10, and she’s at that weird tween crossroads where your friends and school life are starting to become more important than your family. My youngest, Sylvia (almost 7) is sad to be leaving Minnesota and her friends, but she’s also excited to get a new house, and be closer to Gramma and Grampa, and try new things. But for Eleanor, there is only sadness. The first thing she did when we told them about the move was cover her face with her hands and burst into tears. And declare that she wasn’t moving.

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Learning curve

A friend of mine posted a link to an old Anna Quindlen column about different stages of motherhood. It’s a lovely essay, all about Quindlen looking back on previous incarnations as an Anxious Mother, a Frustrated Mother, an Inexperienced Mother, an Angry Mother, etc. She talks about the various parenting books she looked to in her search for how to do it right, and the mistakes she made along the way, and how the only thing she really regrets about the early years is not being in the moment enough, not appreciating each phase along the way. It’s poignant without being sappy, wise without being sanctimonious, and lots of commenters talked about how it made them cry.

It made me cry, too, but not, I’m guessing, for quite the same reasons as most readers. This was the paragraph that did me in:

I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three almost adults, two taller than I am, one closing in fast. Three people who read the same books I do and have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed more than I like. Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by themselves.

I’ve talked here before about my unfortunate talent for projecting horrible futures for myself and my loved ones. It’s a hallmark of the anxiety-prone, and I have it in spades. I have a hard enough time controlling it even when there’s absolutely nothing going wrong, so you can imagine the vicious thought-circles I’ve been  spinning since the Hatchling got diagnosed with a language disorder. Which in my mind always looks more like A LANGUAGE DISORDER. Some things we’ve learned about the disorder since the initial diagnosis:

  • The specific disorder is called Mixed Receptive/Expressive Language Disorder. Some people can understand language just fine, but have a hard time using it themselves; some people can speak language normally, but have a hard time understanding what other people say to them. The Hatchling has problems with both.
  • Nobody knows what causes this type of disorder in its developmental form (which is to say that in some cases it can be the result of brain injury or severe neglect, but in the absence of those factors nobody knows)
  • The disorder is NOT typically associated with lower-than-average intelligence
  • The disorder IS typically associated with all kinds of academic problems, from reading and math disorders to ADHD, not to mention depression and other psychological problems stemming from the social effects of not being able to use language very well.
  • Sometimes, with early intervention, the disorder can be remediated. Sometimes, despite early intervention, it can’t.

So basically this is just super fun and full of rainbows and unicorns, except for how it totally is the opposite of that. As is often the case with issues like this, since the diagnosis we’re much more aware of the extent of the disorder. It’s like getting the diagnosis allowed us to recognize it where before we were just shoving it under the carpet, so to speak. A few weeks ago we were looking at some old family videos of the Hatchling when she was about two, and – now that we know what to look for – we could hear so clearly how apparent it was even then. The non-verbal babble, the searching for words, was all there. And now that she’s five, the difference between her language and her peers’ is getting really noticeable. She can manage simple sentences and basic exchanges back and forth, but add in any level of abstraction or more than, say, three ideas at one go and she’s pretty much lost. What makes it even trickier is that her sociability and confidence are still above normal, so she naturally tries to lead play activities and reach out to new friends wherever she meets them … friends who respond to her sunny nature positively, but are already beginning to back off a little when they realize that they can’t always understand what she’s saying.

It’s killing me, y’all. Seeing her struggle or shut down when the words are too overwhelming, seeing the changing social dynamic with her friends, it’s KILLING me. I’ve been having a hard time doing the necessary research on the disorder and treatment possibilities because I practically have a panic attack every time I think about it for too long. I find myself getting horribly jealous when friends post stories or videos about their kids learning to read or write, or doing anything advanced for their age. I fucking HATE that kind of jealousy. It’s such an ugly response to anything. And I get so paranoid about helping the Hatchling to use language appropriately that I sometimes go a little overboard. This morning I actually told her that she couldn’t pretend to be a dog because she’s a little girl and she needs to talk like a little girl. No, really. I TOLD MY KID SHE COULDN’T PRETEND TO BE A DOG. What the hell? Not to mention, how can I even spend any time whining about this when I should be focusing on helping my daughter? You know, the person who actually has the language disorder? Gah.

So what does all this have to do with me crying at one of the more innocuous sections of the Quindlen column? I think what it comes down to is the loss of my imagined future  – both immediate and distant – with my oldest daughter. For all that I attempt to live in the present moment and practice detachment, I’m only human. Just like anyone, I dream about possible futures for me and my family, and just like anyone, I base those dreams on what I know of the past and the present. You know, like I was a gifted reader so maybe my kids will be. My family is good with languages so maybe my kids will be. Given my kids heritage, I don’t imagine they’ll grow up to be Olympic athletes, for example, or accountants. Given their backgrounds, I thought, it was reasonable to expect that they’d be outgoing, do well in school, have a flair for the artistic. It’s not that I’m wedded to a certain specific future for my kids, but I thought I had a good sense of the range of possibilities, both the potential positives (honors society!) and the potential negatives (drugs!) A language disorder was, frankly, nowhere on the horizon, and I just can’t seem to orient myself to this new reality.

I wish that I could leap into the future and, like Quindlen, look back on decades of parenting foibles with an affectionate smile for my former self, and the assurance that everything turns out OK. Maybe the Hatchling will be one of the lucky ones, and we’ll be able to laugh at posts like this. Maybe someone will develop a new treatment that works wonders. Maybe living with a lifelong language disorder won’t be as awful as I think. I’d give a lot to know that it all ends well. But of course I don’t get to do that, anymore than parents of typically developing kids do. And it may be that I never get to do that. What I do get to do, what I have to work on after all, is the same thing that Quindlen advises: be in the moment. Don’t be in such a hurry. Treasure the doing it a little more, and the getting it done a little less.

And when all else fails, there’s always bourbon.

Random Tidbits of a summer evening

  1. The waking-up-early-to-meditate thing? Is not going well. Possibly because the staying-up-too-late-reading thing is still in full force. Turns out that lack of sleep makes me a raging bitch mama! Who could have foretold?
  2. Possible TMI warning: I don’t know if I’m going through peri-menopause or if my IUD isn’t working or what the hell is the matter, but I have been going through mega-crazy PMS this last week and it is getting really old. I hate how even knowing that your responses are purely irrational and hormone-overload-based does not actually help you calm the fuck down. Also, why does it have to be that the older I get, the more completely psycho my monthly cycle makes me? WHO IS THIS HELPING?
  3. One of the awesome things about having both girls obsessed with knock-knock jokes is being able to listen to them tell said jokes to each other over the nursery monitor after they’ve been put to bed. The Hatchling knows some actual knock-knock jokes, but the Sprout basically tells one “joke,” which goes like this: Knock Knock. (Who’s There?) Banana. (Banana Who?) (pause) … PUT IT IN YOUR EYE! (cackling laughter). Surreal, yet satisfying.
  4. In case there was any doubt that an academic nerd still lurks underneath this stay-at-home-mama façade, I spent approximately two hours this afternoon composing a carefully worded email explaining why I think essentialist feminism is a bunch of bunk. (Actually, pretty much essentialism full stop.) On the plus side, it’s nice that I know people with whom I can have such exchanges. On the minus side, this is time that could perhaps have been spent more profitably cleaning my incredibly dirty floors. June Cleaver, I am not.

Nine Years Ago Today …

… I went and got hitched to a man who not only took my last name but also does all the laundry and gets up in the middle of the night with the kids. I totally win. Here’s a wee retrospective of the day (note: I’ve been married so long these are scans of actual film photos. If you can imagine.)

It was a beautiful afternoon in June

Look at how cute my attendants were!

That's the smile of a woman who knows she's caught a keeper.

The Happy Couple, post-vows

That is one big fucking molehill

Anyone who’s been a parent for any time at all will tell you that it’s not like you expected it to be. I’m sure this is exactly the kind of statement that drives non-breeders crazy, but I can’t help it: some things in life require experiential knowledge, and parenting is one of them. As the oldest of six kids and a regular babysitter, I figured I had a pretty good general idea of what I was getting into with the parenting thing. I wasn’t naive enough to think I didn’t have anything to learn, but I thought I had the basics down. This, of course, is kind of like assuming you’ve nailed the basics of oil painting because you majored in art history. It’s not a totally irrational assumption, but it does happen to be a wrong one. Which is just my super smooth way of saying that if I had to condense my experience of parenting into a single sentence it would be something like, “I didn’t know it would be like this!”

The constant unexpectedness of parenting comes in all kinds of forms: positive, negative and everything in between. Some things you embrace, some you brush off, and some you run smack into like a two-foot-thick brick wall. We’re currently having a brick wall moment around these parts, because the Hatchling – my reason for starting this here blog – has recently been diagnosed with a language disorder. “What the hell is a language disorder?” you are no doubt asking. I know I sure was. There’s no pithy answer, but basically what it means for the Hatchling is that in a lot of situations, she finds it difficult or impossible to use language to communicate. Lemme just take a moment to recover from the nausea that writing that sentence produced. Okay.

So, like most impairments of this type, the diagnosis has been a long time coming. Language has never been the Hatchling’s strong suit; she babbled charmingly as a toddler, but it took a while for her to convert the babble into actual words and sentences. I worried about it in a vague way, but her pediatrician seemed to think she was fine and there was nothing I could put my finger on. We assumed it was just her way of developing and it would work itself out. When she was three (in 2009) she started preschool, and about 1/2 way through the year her teacher pulled me aside to ask if the Hatchling had done her pre-K screening yet, because she was acting kind of weird sometimes in the classroom. Again, it was nothing she could really put a finger on, but it seemed like sometimes the Hatchling didn’t understand what you were saying when you gave her instructions, or she would sort of go vacant in the middle of an activity. So we took her in for the early childhood screening session, and she passed with flying colors. I even told them ahead of time that I had some concerns about her language development, but they didn’t see anything, so whew, right? No worries. All good … except I would still occasionally have interactions with the Hatchling that would leave me vaguely anxious, feelings that I dismissed because, let’s face it, it’s not exactly unusual for me to feel vaguely anxious and mostly it’s a mountains out of molehills situation.

Then, this last winter, her completely different preschool teacher at her completely different preschool ALSO pulled me aside to express some concerns about the Hatchling. And just like everyone else, she couldn’t quite put a finger on it, there just seemed to be something a little “off” about her and had I noticed anything like that at home? And of course I had, here and there, so we agreed to get the Special Ed. teacher who serves the school to do some observations and then we’d go from there. And thus began the months-long process of observations and reports and needing further testing and doing the testing and waiting for the results and meeting about the results and the results are: Language Disorder. Significant Language Disorder. In other words, to quote the 12 page single-spaced report we got this morning, “Her language samples provided evidence of significant difficulties producing meaningful, accurate and organized language.”

I recognize that things could be a lot worse. The Hatchling could have a terminal disease, or a more severe impairment, or we could not be catching this so early, leaving her to struggle through school without knowing why. We’re fortunate to live in a state that will provide some support for the Hatchling once she starts Kindergarten, to live in a metro area where there are resources available to us we might not have elsewhere. All of this is true. But let me tell you: it still sucks a metric fuck-ton of suckage to sit in a meeting at 8:00 in the goddamn morning and be told that your kid has a level of disability which – at the very least – will make it really hard to be successful in school, not to mention any social or emotional effects it will have or might already be having. The thought that this language disorder could make the Hatchling lose her sunny outgoing friendliness … well, I’ll start crying again if I think too long about it.

If I’m honest, though, I think what I’m most worried about in this whole scenario is that I won’t come up to snuff in the parenting department. This is not my subtle way of asking for compliments on my fortitude or excellent mothering capabilities – I’m really fucking scared about it. I mean, this is the kind of situation where I’m supposed to draw on all my reserves of strength and be a pillar of support for my kid and my family, right? Only I’m not at all sure that I have any reserves, and god knows I’m plumb out of patience and temper has never really been my strong suit. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but I’m EXTREMELY verbal. Me and language are, like, super BFFs. So not only do I know bupkiss about dealing with language disorders, but I also can’t imagine a task I’m less temperamentally suited to handle. I can’t imagine anything more frustrating than having thoughts and feelings and ideas and not being able to speak them. It kills me to think this might be a life sentence for the Hatchling. I don’t want to fuck this up.

I’m trying to take a Buddhist approach. I’m trying to stay in the moment, to “expect nothing.” Buddha taught that the practice of mindfulness not only allows us to fully experience our lives, but it also enables us to respond effectively to the curveballs that life seems to enjoy throwing at our heads. This is one of the Buddhist paradoxes that really hits me where I live. All evidence to the contrary, I tend to convince myself that dwelling on past issues or trying to project into the future will somehow help me be better prepared for whatever shit comes down the pike. What it really does, of course, is just cloud my judgment and perceptions so that I’m too freaked out and preoccupied to respond to anything. Focusing on the here and now allows me to see clearly what a sweet and loving child the Hatchling is, how willing she is to embrace new experiences, how easily and quickly she makes friends, and how far she’s come with her language in the past year. It reminds me that I don’t have to climb the whole fucking mountain right this very minute – I just have to take this particular step. I find some hope in the present moment. Yeah, I didn’t know it would be like this. But then none of us ever really does.

Kids: they have weird brains

Like a lot of parents, I had certain preconceptions about what my kids would be like that have been … uh, challenged, let’s say, since I had actual kids. As a former “gifted” child and general nerd/brainiac/teacher’s pet, for example, I was sure that my kids would be nothing less than child prodigies – or at the very least, academically and artistically inclined, and certainly above average in those areas. I mean, DUH.

Such arrogance. In reality, of course, my kids – like all kids – are a mixed bag. (Not to mention being so young it’s really difficult to tell what their ultimate strengths and weaknesses will be.) Take the Hatchling. Her verbal skills, as I think I’ve mentioned here before, are not quite in line with her peers – she’s a late bloomer – but she’s been able to catch and throw just about any kind of ball since she was two. She’s pretty iffy on the concept of rhyming (Me: “does ‘cat’ rhyme with ‘dog?'” Hatchling, enthusiastically, “YEAH!!”), but she can memorize songs and movie lines in one or two takes. (Eerily so – it’s not at all unusual for her to incorporate movie lines into regular conversation, which can be unnerving if you don’t catch the reference.) She can only write a few letters, poorly, but she does drawings that are really cool and complex, and put together in a remarkably sophisticated manner for a four-year-old.

Today was another excercise in contrasts. I was trying to teach the Hatchling the classic kid’s game of “I one the sandbox.” You know, from Sesame Street. Ernie starts off with “I one the sandbox,” and Bert goes, “I two the sandbox,” and they keep going until Bert gets to “I eight the sandbox,” and Ernie is all “YOU ATE THE SANDBOX?!?!” and, you know, hilarity ensues. So I’m trying to get the Hatchling to go back and forth with me, numbering the sandboxes, and though she’s been able to count to 20 since she was two or two-and-a-half – a long time – she just could not get the hang of it with the sandbox stuff added. I’d start it off with one, and then I’d say, “what comes after one?” and she’d get flustered and say “Six!” or something, and, then I’d say, “No, you say ‘I TWO the sandbox,'” and she’d go “I 2-3-4-5-6-7” or “I have THREE sandboxes” or something equally off, and finally we just called it quits. We worked a little more this afternoon and evening on what-comes-next games with numbers and letters, so she could practice giving herself time to think, and right before bedtime I thought we’d try the game again. She still got confused by the addition of sandboxes to counting, but we persevered. Finally I got to seven-ing the sandbox. “What comes after seven?” I asked her. She thought about it. “EIGHT!” “Right!” I said. “So I said ‘I seven the sandbox,’ and now YOU say ‘I eight the sandbox.’ She frowned with concentration. “I eight the sandbox.” “YOU ATE THE SANDBOX??!!?” I said, and, y’all: she just about peed her pants with laughing. I mean, it KILLED her with the funny. We had to do it about five more times before she went to bed, and even as I was rocking her sister to sleep I could hear the Hatchling lying in her bed muttering “… ate the sandbox … heheheheheh.”

And this is still kind of crazy to me. She struggles with a simple counting pattern, but a homophone-based pun? THAT she’s right on top of. Which, I dunno, maybe that’s completely normal for a kid her age, but it isn’t what I would have expected going into this. (Though, given her grand-paternal heritage, I probably should have known that punning humor would be her native territory.) And I guess that kind of sums up my entire experience of parenting. None of this is what I expected going into it. Sometimes that really sucks (breastfeeding issues, anyone?). But often, like tonight, it means you spend the evening laughing your face off about eating sandboxes. Which is not a bad way to end the day.