first grade

I became a helicopter mom in the first grade. Okay, obviously I did not become a mother in the first grade, and we all know there were no helicopter moms in the 80’s, but the foundation was definitely laid that year. My destiny was determined by a series of unfortunate events and a skewed sense of reality.

You know how you have those weird memories of your childhood that are just a perfect snapshot, detailing every tiny nuance? If you ask me to provide that amount of detail about what I had for breakfast just this morning it would be impossible. Ask about the first grade Christmas gift exchange party of 1983, and I’ve got you. I think I’ve recounted parts of this story before, but my perspective on it has certainly changed over the past few years.

My first grade year started with Ms. Pam. She must have been pretty pregnant already, because by Christmas she was out on maternity leave. Miss Kelly came in as a long-term sub, and I’m just now realizing that these are the only two teachers I ever had that went by their first names. It must have been their youth. A short time before the holidays, I’m sure there was some announcement about a Christmas party complete with gift exchange. I remember drawing names for a fellow student to buy for, and the rule of a maximum price tag on the gift. I’m 99% sure my mom and I did the shopping the night before the party. I have no idea what I bought my classmate, or even Miss Kelly, but the gift for Ms. Pam is etched in my brain forever.

We wandered the aisles of Walmart for quite a while, searching for the perfect gift for Ms. Pam. I remember my mom asking me repeatedly how much we were allowed to spend on the gifts and my response being somewhere between $.50 and $5. I don’t know. It was certainly difficult to find something suitable in that price range. I’m sure I had the details wrong, whatever the number I came up with, because I just remember it being quite the ordeal to find that perfect gift.  Finally I found a tiny red candle that was in a white ceramic dish and smelled strongly of cinnamon. I think it had a lid with a heart or angel on top of it, but that part’s a little fuzzy. I remember being really excited to take it to the party and bestow it upon my teacher. I think she was the first pregnant woman I really knew, and she was magical to me.

The next day at the party, once all the gifts were exchanged and kids were bouncing around on sugar highs, I overheard the two teachers talking in concerned teacher voices. Being the ever curious child I was, I listened in to the conversation without their knowing. After hearing bits and pieces of their chat, I realized they were talking about me and the gifts I had brought to the exchange. Ms. Pam had received some very generous gifts, that even my six year old brain had deduced were NOT within the set price range- a handmade baby blanket being the one that stands out most. They were questioning my homelife and wondering what was going on and the stability of my family.

Well into my adulthood, whenever I recalled this memory I would get the same pit in my stomach. I felt embarrassed- less than the other kids, and that same red hot feeling of shame would wash over me. I hated those teachers. I hated them for making me feel like my gift was less than the others that they received. I hated that my mom wasn’t at that party when so many of the other moms were, and that I was left to just feel those feelings all alone. Later, I hated that she didn’t know the details and expected a six year old to know and how that ended up causing me a lot of hurt. And I still hate the smell of cinnamon candles.

A few years ago, when I looked back on that conversation between two teachers, I realized that they weren’t gossipping about a kid who couldn’t afford to bring a decent gift for the teacher.  They were having one of those conversations that concerned adults do when something seems off about a kid. They weren’t aware that I had misunderstood the rules of the exchange and told my mom that we couldn’t spend more on the teacher. They picked up on the fact that my mom, who was working no less than two jobs to support our severely messed up family, was most definitely not in tune with the goings on in the first grade. They saw past the precocious teacher’s pet and found a hurting little girl who was living in a world of alcoholism and abuse from a dad that wasn’t fit to care for a child, and a mom who was working so hard to put food on the table she didn’t have a clue about much of anything that was going on in my life.

Something happened to me in that stupid party, and for years and years of class parties and school events without a parent in sight after that. As seems to be the case with much of my generation, I swung so far in the opposite direction it might have become a little unbalanced. When my kids entered school, I was present for every single possible moment. I was working part-time, but I made sure that I was always there for every meet the teacher, class party, ice cream social, drop-off-to-pick-up moment. I would break laws to make sure I was one of the first parents to the pick up line and that no child would ever be forgotten or picked up late on my watch. Once I went to work full-time, I made sure Jim was on the same page. I would call him (and still sometimes do, much to his annoyance) to make sure he didn’t get so busy in his day that he lost track of time. When they were in daycare, I was a mess. I was neurotic to the point that I eventually quit working full time and became a work from home mom. The decision wasn’t consciously made because of my issues (Jordan really struggled in daycare,) but I’m pretty sure my neurosis did not help my children in any way. Once I was a full-time mom I volunteered in classrooms, chaperoned field trips, dropped off forgotten items, brought in birthday lunches and cupcakes, provided the BEST teacher gifts for every holiday and teacher appreciation day, did much of the work on science fair projects and on and on and on.  I got a little better in middle school, but I still volunteered more than the average parent. And then somewhere along the way, I just got really tired.

More recently than I’d like to admit, I realized that my behavior was just not okay. My kids don’t have the ability to grow if I don’t let them out of this tiny little pot I planted them in. They don’t live in a home where dad is abusive and mom can’t manage to take on any more responsibility. They are nurtured. They have security and stability. They just need more room to grow. Now I fear that my hovering tendencies have done too much damage and they will never leave this nest fully developed. Whenever I want to claw my eyes out in frustration that they seem unable to fully take responsibility for much of anything, I blame myself on a whole new level. Mom-Guilt is the actual freaking worst! Somehow we will all find our way through this, of that I am ultimately determined, but I’ve got to tell you- this really really sucks. Find a balance people. As early as you possibly can- find a freaking balance somewhere between that little girl at the gift exchange and wherever the heck we are right now. 🙂

 

 

reflections, eighteen

The past number of years, the exact amount I’m not even sure of – however long I’ve been writing- I sit down on a quiet December morning and write this post.  Just like this, I sit by the glow of my Christmas tree while everyone else is quietly, peacefully in their spot, and I write my reflection on the year as it wraps up. Many of these get filed away in the “my eyes only” folder. I’m not sure yet which folder this will get filed in – “public consumption”, “maybe later”, or “my eyes only” are the options.  It seems these days, “maybe later” is the winner, and later never actually comes. The day to day ramblings about the details of our lives became so personal that it seemed irreverent to just throw it out there for “public consumption” even though “in real life” I’m once again becoming about as public consumption as you can get. My time of hibernation and my “I can do it myself” attitude has drawn to a close this year, and I’ve never felt so free.

It feels right to just spaghetti throw this time of our lives against the wall of life and hope that it’s done enough to stick. Even as I type that, I know it’s not. So many things were begun in this year that are still incubating in our lives. It only feels right to note life’s benchmarks in their beginning stages, so I can look back and remember my thoughts as they were developing. This was not an easy year; in fact, it was the hardest I’ve ever survived. Jim and I have regularly alluded to this in vague facebook posts stating “so grateful to have the people we do supporting us as we face the hardest time of our life” and so on. We throw it around casually in conversations, “this is the hardest year EVER.” That’s really saying something, considering our life together has rarely been easy. We chose the least travelled path, and that thing’s a bitch to navigate.

This year began on its heels for me – as a daughter, as an adult, and as a mother. Days before Christmas 2017, I said goodbye to my mother for what looks to be the last time. I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with my parents since I was about 12 or 13, which has only grown more toxic over time. My parents are good people; this is not about them not being good people. We are just not good together. I bring out the worst in them, and I don’t like who I am when I am caught in the dysfunction that is our relationship. After years of back and forth and uncertainty, on a rainy December day that was everything Christmas in Seattle, my mother’s last words to me were “you’re just a fucked up person with a fucked up brain and that’s all you’ll ever be.” I returned some nasty comment akin to “well you gave me this brain” and hung up the phone ashamed of what I’d just said, but sure of one thing: I really was done. No two people should bring those things out in one another- not over the course of twenty years of adult relationship. Despite our efforts, it seems we will never be able to heal a relationship that I’m not even sure how it became so damaged.

I was not an easy child. Actually, I think I was a pretty easy kid. I was most definitely not an easy adolescent. Life happened – abuse, divorce, moving ten or more times in so many years, more abuse, loss and so on. By the end of high school, I was falling apart mentally and emotionally and no one knew how much- definitely not me and probably not my mother. I was sent away to a place that hoped to provide some kind of guidance and future for a life that otherwise would have probably ended in drug abuse or suicide on my part. My parent’s last ditch effort at hope for a productive life ended up being a cult that eventually just did more damage in different ways.  By the time I was a functioning adult, the road between my mother and I was so full of potholes and dead ends, I’m not sure it ever had a chance of repair. We most definitely do not have the tools to make it so 1500 miles apart. I am a constant disappointment to my parents, and somehow they always seem to think I blame them for it. If I’m being honest with myself, it’s an enigma that I just don’t have the energy to unravel right now. It was better to just throw in the towel than continue to hurt one another to the depths that we did in almost every conversation we were having.  A day or two after that last phone call, I sent an email explaining this the best I could at the time. I described what I hoped would become a new way of relating for us- the “terms,” so to speak, of what an adult relationship could be for us. I never heard anything back. Message received. Twenty-Eighteen has been a year of mourning that loss, and discovery of the freedom that it weirdly brings in my life. It’s a double-edged knife that cuts and heals at the same time. I hate it, but it is truth. Just as so much in our life right now, it is in process…

A few months into the year, we began facing our next hurdle.  As I was looking back at my own teenage turmoil, Elle’s was also hitting its stride. Fifteen seems to be the witching year for the women in this family. Hormones, trauma, really shitty brain chemistry…I guess we didn’t stand a chance.  In April this year, Elle was admitted to our local Children’s Hospital in the Adolescent Behavioral Health unit, also affectionately known in our dark humor household, as the nuthouse.  She tried to commit suicide. Saying those words still takes the breath out of my lungs. My bubbly, sparkly, always shining child was hiding a pain that no one, not even her mother that knew all of her secrets (or so I thought,) knew about. When puberty kicked in for Elle, so did memories of a years-long childhood sexual abuse that we had no idea the magnitude of. Its affects on her was twisting a web in her mind that none of us could fathom, and the dark corner of her mind was starting to creep into places that we were oh so unaware of. What seemed to be the typical ups and downs of teenage hormones and attitudes began spinning out of control so quickly we couldn’t catch our breath- none of us. The day she came to me and told me we needed to go to the hospital is etched in my memory as only trauma can be. The sight of your child in the room of a children’s hospital wing that looks more like a prison cell with a bed in it than the weirdly comforting bed for sick people, will leave you shattered in a way I can’t describe.

It took Jim and I two days to tell anyone the depth of what was happening to our little girl. We could not bring ourselves to say the words out loud. He cried first- for a full day, and as soon as I knew he was okay, I cried. For mind-numbing hours we just sat and cried and questioned. How had we missed this? Why didn’t we know? What had we done wrong? How had we failed her? The feeling driving away from the hospital, leaving your baby in the care of someone that isn’t you, and not knowing for how long or what will happen next, is excruciating. It is a hot poker stabbed so violently into your bleeding gut that your mind can’t even compute the pain in words that could ever be uttered; and much worse, you know that no matter how much you are hurting in that moment, she is hurting more. It is literal hell on earth.

Eight months later, she glows again. She shimmers and shines and laughs and… she cries. She cries real tears- tears that communicate real feelings, real pain, real sorrow, sometimes even real joy. She is no longer dull on the inside, unable to face the feelings that consume her but make no sense. As much as I love hearing that belly laugh again, I love seeing the tears. It means she is allowing herself to feel. She is alive.

Oh, she makes teenager decisions that have greyed my hair ten years’ worth in six months. She is me. My mother always told me she would be – spoken as a curse and a revenge for the hours of worry and heartbreak that I caused her. She defies, she challenges, she is wild and free and stubborn and obstinate. She is me. Oh Lord, is she me. And she is Jim, thank all that is good and holy, she has just enough of him to keep me from killing her myself. And I. love. every. minute. Oh sure, there are days I ache for peace. For one moment, I just wish I could have peace- peace of which I haven’t experienced since… I don’t even remember. This is my new normal. Teenagers, they give you no peace. But I will savor the moments. I won’t allow my heart to grow so hard against them that I no longer have the strength to care. I’ll never throw in the towel for my kids. I’d rather have chaos and heartbreak than peace ever again, if that’s what it takes to be their mom. I’ll never give up on them. Never.

In the midst of the giant things, life has remained steady in the small moments. The day in and day out of monotony. As I began working full-time for the first time since my kids were tiny, things shifted in a way that we couldn’t have imagined. Jim’s role as “Mr. Mom” (I do SO hate that term!) Jim’s ever-evolving role as Dad has had him handling all the doctor’s appointments, to the tune of two days a week usually. It has taken his attention from work more than we like, so I recently moved to part-time. If this doesn’t go well, we are resigned that our family of “extra needs” just wasn’t cut out to have a working mom for now.  We’ll know for sure in a few months where that’s going.  For now, I am beyond fortunate to work for a company that has made a way for me to make this work. I can’t begin to describe how grateful we are. But I hate working. I’m a mom to the core of me, and even though my kids need me far less than they ever have as their caregiver, they need me so much more than ever as their partner. This is the time in their lives that I want to be there to walk alongside them as they navigate life. However that works out, I’m hopeful that this season of life is at a great turning point for them- for all of us.

Jordan… oh this kid. He has been a champ this year considering all that has transpired. I’ve gone from doing every little thing for him to shouting orders from my desk in between phone calls as he gets ready for school. (I work from home, but am chained to my phone/desk during my work hours.) He is embracing growing into his new responsibility about as much as you’d expect…begrudgingly. And yet, he succeeds. This kid, who relied on a regimented schedule the military would be envious of, is learning to go with the flow. A phone call ten minutes before school lets out that he’s going to have to take the bus home no longer results in a meltdown. He takes the bus. This kid who needed help getting his pants on in the morning now fully dresses himself AND TIES HIS SHOES (most of the time.) This kid…this kid is going to be okay.  He is a quiet storm, but I think in a good way. This year, the focus will be on him. Puberty is going to begin at any second. I feel it brewing, and I am terrified. Please be thinking of him this year…God help us I’m not sure I’ve ever been more scared of anything. hahaha.

Twenty-Eighteen was a hard one- in ways I’m sure I still don’t even recognize. The one thing that it brought me, its gift to me that I didn’t even realize I wanted or needed, is my need for my people. We had been visiting Elle during our one-hour of visitation on the second or third day she was admitted in the hospital. In the car ride home, I looked at Jim and asked if he’d talked to anyone yet. We both expressed how we didn’t even know who to turn to. It’s not that we didn’t have people in our lives that we could talk to- my best friend of over twenty years lives ten minutes away, she would have been here in five if I had called her. My in-laws are minutes away as well. We have a tribe, and they are dear to us. We just forgot how to need them. We have been fighting battle after battle for our sixteen years of marriage. It has NEVER been easy. I don’t know what the hell we’re doing wrong, but we don’t ever choose the easy road. Somehow along the way, we linked our arms together, put our heads down to charge into battle, and never looked up. We were fighting alone, the only way we knew how. For the past several months, I have slowly started to look up, and what’s even better, around. My people, the ones that matter- the ones that have been through countless battles with me before, they’re still here. Still ready to link their arms with mine and hold me up when I can’t stand any longer. They are a gift of which I can’t comprehend. They are truly my tribe.

It may have taken literal hell on earth to remind me of what true, unconditional love and friendship means this year, but I will never take it for granted again. We all go through battles in our lives, and we all do it in our own way, but I don’t think we should ever do it alone. We may have to cut away the things that weigh us down to make room for the things that move us forward, but I think that’s okay. It’s scary and hurtful and HARD, and I admittedly don’t understand the whole of what that means right now, but for now…it’s healthy and right.

As I look forward, I hope twenty-nineteen is kinder and more gentle to us. I am hoping for new life. As those around me assign a word for their new year, a goal that they plan to achieve or a principal to live by, I assign a hope. Sometimes you don’t have the energy for a goal, but hope never fails.