Drawing a Line in the Sand

This Thanksgiving holiday, I am grateful for all the advocates in my life, and for a being a better parent today than I was exactly one year ago because of them.

Throughout our 6-year old son’s life, he has had a series of physical and emotional delays. He was a late walker, suffered from continuous colds and fevers, and at age two narrowly survived a life-threatening bone infection. On the flipside, he was playful, smart, happy and creative. He spent hours building intricate Lego structures and writing funny, imaginative story books. But simple things, like putting on socks, often seemed insurmountable for him.

As he got older, his physical setbacks became more pronounced; he refused to sleep, refused to potty train, refused to go anywhere without the stroller. His obstinacy became more explosive, and even the smallest change in his routine would set him off. Soon we were the parents fireman-carrying our kicking and screaming child home after family outings, and were too scared to go to restaurants for fear of his outbursts. At first we blamed it on the terrible twos, then the terrible threes, but as he got older and the outbursts became more erratic and unmanageable, we became fraught.

One particularly rough morning after he started kindergarten at the age of 5, he punched me in the face then ran straight through heavy street traffic. I had just taken him on his first train ride to school and somehow he had convinced himself that we were going the wrong direction by looking at the train map. I had to restrain his body as he screamed “STUPID MOMMY!” while hitting me until we finally reached our stop and he ran from the turnstiles right into rush hour traffic. As I chased him in my high heels juggling a cup of coffee, heavy laptop bag, school backpack, and purse, I realized that I had grossly underestimated the severity and danger of this situation.

The least helpful thing people did at the time was label. He’s LAZY because he won’t play. He’s BAD because he won’t listen. He’s SPOILED because you had a nanny. He’s autistic because he’s different. And the worst label of all was in my own voice: BAD MOTHER. I travel for work and leave my husband alone with the children. Is it really worth it??

I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I felt the lonely distress of a parent with a child with some kind of diasibility over these years. How many times we’ve woken up in the middle of the night wondering what people are thinking, feeling a sense of loss, alone, the unknown, or worse a loss of control. Years of psychological evaluations, possible diagnoses, therapists, babysitters, and doctors. Years of being a constant watchdog, apologizing. My heart was breaking. What values are we imparting on our son, and how are we still keeping our marriage together??

If you share these distresses of a difficult child, then you know that you cannot punish or discipline problems away. But as the parent, you will be shamed. Blamed. There will be long uncomfortable silences. Everybody will tell you to be better disciplinarians.

But what these outsiders don’t see are the many humbled moments we experienced as a parent in these desperate moments. The moments that told us what kind of discipline worked, and more importantly what didn’t. When we put him into his room, turned off the lights, shut the door and left him screaming in darkness for hours until he passed out on the floor, only to awake an hour later with night terrors that lasted 30 petrifying minutes. They didn’t see his room laid bare after we confiscated every Lego and removed his bed sheets, demanding an apology. But they also didn’t see the piles of sticker charts for good behavior that we had worked on over many, many months.

Exactly one year ago today, a school administrator sent me an email coolly stating that he had screamed so hard that he wet his pants and they had to have him sit on the bench in the hall alone for 15 minutes. We had a meeting with the principal and were informed that he had been kicked out of after care, indefinitely. His behavior would not be tolerated. My husband and I were devastated. They had drawn a line in the sand. What more could we do??

Fortunately, we did have some advocates during this difficult time. People who told us we had done everything right. That we were good parents. To keep going. That Asher was bright and wonderful and worth fighting for. And for those of you – I am ever so grateful. I tell this story because we listened to those voices and our lives are different today because of you.

This year, we made a drastic decision to move to a new neighborhood, buy/sell our house, enroll in a new public school, re-enroll in Kindergarten and have a fresh start with the fall. It’s now been one year since that very low moment labeling myself a bad mother, six months since we moved, and four months at his new school. And in these few months, his progress has been nothing short of astonishing.

He is inspired. His art teacher has inspired him to create intricate story books filled with rich color and text long into the night instead of watching TV.

He is confident. While he used to be aloof and uncomfortable climbing playground structures, now he gathers all his friends around him to learn a new “leaf game” that he has invented. He is popular.

He is proud. This morning, for the first time, he was able to put on a pair of winter gloves. Historically, we had resolved to just let his hands be cold to save the effort from another fight. But when his fingers easily slipped into place without any frustrations, he literally jumped for joy and chased me around the room with hands outstretched screaming “Freezer Boy!!”

He celebrates. Last month he had lunch with his school principal which he earned by being a star student. He talked about it for days and days and days. He felt special.

He is in control. His new school has given him tools to meet his sensory needs in the classroom to help regulate his own body. He has wobble chairs, weighted shoulder pads, snack time on demand. They allow him time to take preventative measures. Nobody is labeling him.

We still have our problems. He still needs a lot of coaxing to do little things like putting on socks. His first response to anything contrary is still anger, but his more deep-rooted frustrations have become more clearly defined so that we are now able to appropriately tackle the problems in a more positive, productive way. He puts himself to bed. MILESTONE!! He has excellent bathroom manners. It’s no longer daunting to pick him up from school because parents talk to me about parties and play dates. I realize, for the first time, he is happy. We are happy. That is a milestone.

Years of setbacks are slowly being erased. The truth is, he’s just a different boy. And he was born this way. Recently he was diagnosed with dyspraxia – a neurological disorder that results in impaired motor, memory, judgment, processing, and other cognitive skills. There is an enormous disparity with his intellectual abilities and his cognitive and motor skills which has been the root of all his frustrations. But to me it’s not a label. I know that both of my children will grow up to be attentive, clever, compassionate, empathetic, creative, confident contributors to society. We are going to give our two boys the tools they need to succeed like compassion and patience by demonstrating those behaviors in the home. Because we are good parents. 

And so, this year, I am grateful for patience, time, humor, and wine wine wine. I am grateful for the people who reminded me that I am a good parent, and for them I hope to do the same. Compassion and respect are universal truths. In fact they are the moral foregrounds by which our little enclave exists. And that is where I draw MY line in the sand.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Parents are Liars

When a parent is asked how their weekend was and they say “GREAT!” they are lying half the time. I know this because I did it this morning. Unless you are the patron saint of patience and kids screaming “NOOOOOO you DON’T say that to ME” and swiping punches in the air and throwing sharp objects at you then slamming doors for three days doesn’t bother you, and sleeping in is no longer a wish and dream, and meals aren’t avoided simply because you don’t want to clean up afterwards, then congratulations you are a parent.  Even the best of us with the best intentions get lost in a big way sometimes.

Last Friday my husband and I took a vacation day from work to take the kids to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. We wanted to expose them to something new and exciting; tigers getting their belly scratched, clowns falling off ladders, eating salty popcorn, sitting in a big amphitheater watching motorcycles weave around each other in the metal sphere of doom. We had every intention of enjoying our big day off! We bought three tickets for the circus assuming Everett would happily sit on our lap. Five elephants came out on stage and then just as quickly disappeared before a ring leader in sequins sang a terrible song that didn’t stop for 10 minutes. Everett got antsy, and was happier running down the ramp in the abandoned concessions area away from the crowd while mommy pretended to be a tiger. Never mind that there were real tigers not 100 feet away that we had paid $50 to see. Asher was over-stimulated and thrown off by the lack of focus of the show. He wanted to sit in my lap and talk gibberish. He acted like he hadn’t slept in days, and it was only 10:00am. The popcorn made him insatiably thirty. A bottle of water cost $5 and the straw wasn’t long enough to stick out the bottle mouth. In the end we got use out of one ticket. For half the show. They both screamed at intermission that they were starving but they didn’t want to eat anything. As my husband left the theater carrying a screaming Asher in a fireman’s hold, I distracted Everett with airplanes in the sky as though that were part of the big show. And that was only Friday.

We recently signed up for Sitter City in search of a babysitter for sanity breaks and had scheduled the whole day on Saturday to be home for interviews. Two were a no-call no-show, and one cancelled at the last minute. By 2:00pm the house was a mess and I felt a vague sense of panic. We went out for an early dinner thinking getting out of the house would be key. A walk in the dark to a restaurant would be fun! Asher does not understand Daylight Savings. He’s 4. He was scared. “I CAN’T SEE ANYTHIIIIING!!” At dinner, everything was thrown on the ground; toys, food, crayons, my phone. We smiled embarrassedly at restaurant customers, but not too much so because we spend enough money at this restaurant for family date night. I chugged a martini, Robby choked down dinner, and we rushed home for another two painful hours of alternating moments of sheer joy followed by welting tears of unhappiness with two zombie children. At bedtime, we were speechless.

On Sunday, we actually spent a lovely morning with my husband’s family. The kids were flirty, joyful, conversational and sweet. They ate lunch nicely at the table, they engaged with the adults. We thought this was a good sign. We thought we would let them nap in the car while I did grocery shopping. That was a mistake. By the time 4:00pm rolled around and I started my cooking for the week, these two no-nap children and a husband who has been complaining of stomach pain for 2 weeks now were just gearing up for 4 hours of hell. Asher wanted every baby toy, Everett wanted to cling on my leg while I poured a steaming hot pot of water down the sink, no television show would satiate both children, the chocolate ice cream had melted in the box because it got left out of the freezer for too long since grocery shopping, so mommy had made an empty promise. I pulled a lasagna out of the oven while Everett ran for the open oven door with extended arms. The joint screaming of the kids got louder to a pitch range that I did not know existed to human ears.

In moments like this, you are lost. You wish you could just walk away. That you could hand a bad situation over to someone and scream HELP ME. But you can’t. There is no one. You have to push through. And then at 9:00pm when the house is finally quiet, you get your husband who fell asleep in your child’s room out of sheer desperation and exhaustion and you just go to bed. You are defeated. There is nothing left to say. In the morning, the kids will wake up refreshed and happy and clueless to reality. And you tell the teachers you had a great time at the circus and Asher proudly says he saw dinosaurs. Because that’s what you do.

You know how sometimes small tasks make you feel better because you can cross them off a list? This morning after I dropped off the kids at school I threw away a few boxes of garbage, I cut off  tags from new clothes, and I cleaned out the coat closet. And you know what? I am feeling better. I have my lunches ready for the week. And I actually can’t wait to see those damn kids again when I pick them up from school at 5:30pm. I love them so much, I lie. But only half the time.

the hug