I Was a POOPCUP

Not long ago, I came across a new phrase in an article from the Scary Mommy site: POOPCUP, or “Parents of One Perfect Child Under Preschool Age.” I chuckled, because it wasn’t that long ago that my husband and I fell into that category. I distinctly remember my parents-in-law declaring that our son was a perfect child when he was a baby. He seemed never to misbehave. Delightfully affectionate, quick to learn, always obedient, never throwing tantrums — at least, when they were watching. They were convinced that he was perfect, and even occasionally mentioned this conviction to Aaron’s sister, the mother of four beautiful, amazing, active, well-disciplined children (and who is an inspiration and wonderful example). We tried to explain that he wasn’t perfect, that he had occasional fits and temper tantrums and moments of disobedience, but they rarely saw that side of him, so they continued to happily believe that Niko was perfect. And, despite those little hiccups, we privately agreed that we had this parenting thing well in hand.

Yes, when Niko was a baby, Aaron and I were blissful POOPCUPs.  We didn’t know it, of course. We thought we were very hardworking, well-scheduled parents who were generally nonjudgemental of other parents whose children were sometimes less angelic. We knew that Niko was unusually mellow and easy to teach, and we knew that his manageability had more to do with his temperament than with our own skills as parents. We also knew that much of what others saw as his amazingly calm and sweet temper was a result of our knowing when he would be at his best, and taking advantage of it. We made sure he was fed and ready to take his first nap of the day in the car on the one-hour drive to see Aaron’s parents, and we made sure we left immediately after dinner so that his evening grouchiness could happen away from everyone else. On trips to the grocery store or the mall, we took a similar approach: we went out after a nap, snack in hand, and made sure we were done before it was time for the next round of eating, sleeping, and eating again.

Despite knowing that much of Niko’s sweetness was his own lovely personality, it was hard not to take some credit for it. We’d watch sympathetically as another parent attempted to wrestle a rigid or thrashing child into a shopping cart, and then when the duo was out of sight, we’d murmur, “That must be so hard. I’m sure glad we waited till after Niko’s nap to shop.” We didn’t think we were being judgmental. But deep down, we were thinking, Too bad that mom didn’t do the same thing. Scheduling is everything!

Then we had Sofia.

Long pause for effect.

By the time Sofia arrived, we’d been noticing that our little boy, still as sweet and compliant as ever, was becoming more and more… well… active. Hyper. Distracted. He was at the age that we expect a toddler to be able to follow not just one simple direction, but two or three in a row, but not Niko. “Put your clothes in the laundry, put on your jammies, and go potty,” we’d say. He would cheerfully run off to obey, only to forget what he was supposed to do. Sometimes he’d come back to ask what we’d told him to do. Other times, he’d forget entirely and become distracted by a book, or a toy, or his reflection in the mirror. Even one simple instruction was often more than he could manage, and his sometimes almost manic hyper behavior was often more than I could manage in my enormously pregnant state.

So, when Sofia arrived, we were already starting to experience a little parental adversity. But none of that was enough to prepare us for the reality of welcoming our little girl home.

Sofia was as different from her brother as a lion is from a kangaroo. While Niko had a regularly scheduled Fussy Time for a couple of hours in the evening for about two months, Sofia was fussy all the time. Niko slept through the night before three months; Sofia still woke up several times a night at nearly eighteen months. When I was pumping and freezing milk for Niko, absolutely nothing I ate bothered him. When I was nursing Sofia, a single accidental swallow of milk or bite of cheese would magnify her constant crying to unbearable levels. Niko loved being held by absolutely anyone; Sofia hated being held by anyone but me and, occasionally, certain relatives. If I put tiny Niko in a bouncy seat while I worked in the kitchen, he’d kick his legs happily while watching me. If I put Sofia down anywhere at all, even if I was right next to her, she’d scream as if she were being tortured.

When you have just one baby who takes regular naps, eats on a schedule, and has predictable times of being fussy, it’s pretty easy to plan visits and outings to maximize on his good nature. When you have a baby who cries constantly, often even while being fed, who seems to constantly want to nurse but hates bottles and reacts painfully to every formula you try, who panics when she’s set down even for a moment, it becomes a little harder. And, when you add to that mix a toddler who has outgrown morning naps, is in constant movement, can’t remember instructions no matter how badly he tries to please you, and has to be constantly monitored because his impulsiveness often causes damage… well, it’s safe to say you’re no longer POOPCUPs.

Now we had to manage two kids, with different schedules and needs. Now we were the ones being eyed by strangers as our baby shrieked and our son ran in circles. We now understood why some kids seemed a little out of control: they simply had active bodies and exhausted parents. It turns out, much to our astonishment, that not all babies can be scheduled.

Since we’ve left the happy land of POOPCUPs, we’ve learned to cope. We often split the kids between us. Niko stays much calmer when he’s on his own with an adult, and Sofia by herself isn’t very demanding. In fact, in some ways, they’ve switched roles; Sofia is now, at three, mellow, cheerful, helpful, and capable of following directions. Niko is also cheerful and helpful — he tries to be, anyway — but no one who spent more than five minutes with him would call him mellow. We’ve learned ways to help Niko remember instructions, and ways to help him stay calm. That easily-scheduled baby is now a routine-dependent boy; depart too far from the expected progression of a day, and he becomes anxious and hyper. We’ve learned to warn him in advance when something will change, and let him know what to expect when we do something new. With Sofia’s newfound cheerfulness and a better understanding of how Niko works, life is generally a bit easier now. 

Still, no matter how many coping techniques we learn or how many management methods we adopt, and no matter how successful we may appear to observers, we now have a constant awareness that we’re just one missed snack away from those hassled parents we pitied back when we were POOPCUPs. Adding a second child has been humbling and eye-opening.

So, to all you parents out there who have children who are a bit less than perfect: it’s okay. You’re in good company. There are plenty of us out there, and we’ve got your back.

And to those still happily traversing the POOPCUP road: you’ll understand. Whether it’s after you’ve had a second child, or when your single child reaches tweens or teens, at some point, you’ll understand that even the best-parented child will have moments of imperfection, usually at an inconvenient and embarrassing moment. When that happens, the rest of us will be here, ready to listen sympathetically. We’ll have your back, too. And until then, please — don’t judge us. We’re doing our best.

Freedom

A few days ago I wrote a post about my son’s upcoming first day of kindergarten and my resulting angst. As with many parents, that first day of “real” school is a huge letting-go milestone. I wrote about my fears and worries, the difficulty of handing him over to someone else.

However, upon a few days’  worth of thoughtful consideration, I’d like to recant those statements.

Today is the day. And the truth is, now that the time is upon us, I’m finding a strange joy bubbling up from some hidden source deep within. To my surprise, I find that I’m ecstatic that my wiggly, high-energy, million-questions-a-day, Neil-Degrasse-Tyson-watching boy will be someone else’s responsibility for six and a half hours a day. I’m delighted that I will be able to focus my attention on my two-year-old, who’s sometimes overlooked in favor of her big brother — maybe she’ll finally learn the difference between pink and purple (though I’m beginning to suspect she just likes the word “purple” more than “pink”). I’m thrilled to consider the possibility of occasional quiet time at home.

In fact, to be honest, I’m nearly tremulous with anticipation at the (perhaps too optimistic) thought of getting STUFF done! I have a whole list in my mind. Ready?

  1. I will SEW! I will finish fixing both the kitchen and dining area shades, which I made a year ago but are not perfect. The dog ate the string of one, and the string of the other is threadbare and lumpy and no longer catches properly. They both need dowels added so they rise smoothly without drooping. Possibly I will make them workable before my husband gets around to ordering more modern, sturdy wooden blinds sometime in the next few months, rendering my shades redundant.
  2. More sewing! I will make adorable appliqué bird pillows for the kids’ beds, to go with their future beautiful fairytale forest bedroom. I’ve never appliquéd, nor have I ever sewn pillows, nor have I yet found a pattern. Still, it’s on my to-do list.
  3. I will perfect the garden! Weeding! Trimming! Pruning! Mulching! Fall planting! Naturally, my two-year-old will follow me about like a well-trained puppy, pulling only actual weeds, never picking up my pruning shears and definitely never using them to chop into my roll of landscape fabric.
  4. Writing! I will catch up on multiple projects. Possibly I’ll write a chapter or two in my embryonic book, or edit the already-existing chapters. Maybe I’ll do some writing for the kids. Maybe I’ll keep up on this blog. Who knows? Anything could happen.
  5. I’ll shop! JoAnne Fabric, here I come! With only one toddler, firmly secured in the cart, I will stride through the aisles like a boss. I will gracefully promenade between rows of calico with not a single pause to dash after an errant child. The glassware and faux gardening tools will have no need to fear questing fingers. We’ll shop with confidence, just me and one small person whose arms are still too short to grab for interesting paint kits.

I’m sure you get the idea. Yes, I’m still anxious about my son’s future career as an elementary school student. Yes, I’ll be thinking about him all day. I’ll miss him and wonder how he’s doing every ten minutes. Still, I can’t help thinking ahead to all the time I will have with just one child for six and a half hours, five days a week. I’m a little bit excited.

What’s more important than all that freedom I so optimistically anticipate, though, is my growing belief that all this missing each other and hours away from each other will make our time together a little less stressful and more joyful. I think that my son will benefit from a more relaxed mom, a more refreshed mom; one who, after a daily break that might feel a little too long, will be more than willing to answer endless questions about the intricate workings of octopus tentacles or ant mandibles or crystalline structures. I think that I might be a little less “touched out”, as mom lingo has it, and more welcoming of my sweet boy’s need for hugging and contact. I’m excited that I’ll see him learning and growing in kindergarten, and I’m excited for the refreshing break each day so that I can be a better mom to a boy who deserves my best.

It’s going to be a great year.

Inside Out

This week, my life is turning inside-out and upside-down. I’m viewing my future from a new, uncomfortable perspective.

What is this event that’s triggering such a torrent of emotion? My son is starting kindergarten. In three days, I’ll be depositing him in his new classroom, leaving him in the hands of a stranger. A kind, compassionate stranger with both a degree in and experience in special education — but still, to my anxious mother’s mind, a stranger.

I taught in Anchorage, Alaska for five years, three of which were in second grade. Each fall,  particularly in second grade, I watched with tactfully-hidden amusement as the parents lingered next to their little ones’ desks — giving one last hug three times, snapping photos, checking to see that supplies fit into desks. I bit my tongue to keep from telling them, Just go! They’ll be fine! I kept my amusement to myself and refrained from giving advice, knowing (in theory) how hard it is to walk away from our little ones. After my son was born, I had a bit more understanding of what it was like to leave a beloved child with someone else. But then, he was just a baby, his personality undeveloped, and our babysitter quickly became like a member of our family. I didn’t have as much difficulty leaving him as these parents did with their children.

Now, as my almost-six-year-old is entering kindergarten, I believe I finally understand what my class’s parents were going through. I think constantly about that moment three days from now, when I’ll walk away from my son and leave him till 2:30 in the afternoon. I’m nervous — terrified, to be honest — for him and for me.

My son is a quirky little boy, with foibles and idiosyncrasies in plenty. He received a  diagnosis of ADHD and began receiving special education services at his preschool in the spring. The diagnosis helps his dad and me understand some of his qualities, and he now takes medication, which makes him both easier to manage and happier. But despite these positive developments, I worry. I worry that someone he encounters won’t recognize or appreciate the curious, bright little boy disguised under his twitchy and excitable exterior. I worry that his teachers won’t be willing to try unusual methods to help him focus, like giving him extra breaks or letting him stand up to work. I worry that his busyness and impulsiveness will alienate both the adults and children at his school and prevent him from making friends.

As a teacher, I knew my own capabilities in the classroom. I knew that I worked well with many “special” kids. I tend to project a gentle, calming atmosphere. Having ADHD myself, I have an inside knowledge of what tends to work for these brains. I’ve put many hours of research into learning about the world of autism. I worked hard to find support for students for whom our regular curriculum wasn’t working. I also knew about the amazing staff in our school, and to whom I could go for advice and support for students that weren’t as easy to help. So from my perspective, I had no doubt that these small ones were going to be in good hands from that first day of school on. I knew their parents would soon relax, as they saw that their children were doing well.

As a parent, though, I find it hard to automatically accept this same knowledge. I’ve met with staff at Niko’s new school; I attended the Kindergarten Roundup with its overwhelming onslaught of information; I met his new teacher at the Open House this past week. All of these encounters were completely positive. I’ve heard rave reviews of the school from adults who have fond memories of attending there as children. Of course, I’ve also seen the excellent ratings available online. Objectively, I know that there’s every reason to trust the teachers and other staff to care for Niko and provide a good atmosphere for his education.

Still, there’s that quiet terror striking into my soul. I’m about to send my son to school. Not for three hours, three or four days a week, as we’ve been doing the past two years of preschool — no, this is the real deal. From 8:00 am to 2:30 pm, five days a week, he’ll be launching into his educational career. For six and a half hours a day, he’ll be out of my reach. He’ll be learning from someone else, subject to another person’s disciplinary methods, and influenced by another person’s opinions and beliefs.  I feel that I’m on the brink of an entry to a new world: the world of parenthood of a school-aged child, that until now I’ve only seen from the outside.

Suddenly, I’m both terrified and humbled. Finally, I know what those parents of my second-graders were feeling. I’m on the other side of the parent-teacher interaction now. It’s my turn to send my little one off into the big world of elementary school, trusting his teachers to support and guide him in ways I can’t do. I only hope I can be as brave as the parents of my second-grade students were each year, as they gave their children encouraging smiles and backed out of the classroom to leave them in my hands. Now it’s my turn to remember: Just go. He’ll be fine. It’s my turn to put on a brave face and an encouraging smile, to walk away, to let him take his first steps to growing up. It’s time to let go.

When Medication Works Too Well

There’s a fairly common thing that happens to people who take medication for mental health issues. When the medication is successful, you tend to start feeling like you don’t really have a problem. This especially happens if you share examples of how your particular problem affects you, and other people tell you bracingly, “Oh, that happens to me all the time! You’re fine!” It’s easy to start wondering if you’re overthinking this, if maybe you’re really okay after all.

This happened to me for the first time about a year and a half ago, a few months after moving to Oregon. Since I was no longer working as a teacher, my insurance had expired, and I was now using Aaron’s insurance. With the change in coverage, my copay for the medication I take for ADHD went from $20 to $60. Previously, I’d paid $40 per month for both my asthma inhaler and my ADHD meds; the new cost would be $100. Now, we’re not destitute by any means. But we do try to spend our money wisely and save where we can. It occurred to us that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t need the medication any longer since I didn’t need to maintain a classroom and manage a room full of children. I was only managing one child, a pregnancy, and a house. It would be okay, we reasoned, for me to exhibit ADHD symptoms in the safe environment of our home.

So I just stopped taking the medication. And at first, it wasn’t all that bad. I mean, it wasn’t great. A few days in, the dishes were piled up in the sink. Crumbs littered the floor. I drifted aimlessly, unable to remember what needed to be done for long enough to do it. I fed and dressed Niko and myself, but beyond that, I was in a fog. Several days after that, the trash was starting to smell when I forgot to take it out… and forgot… and forgot. Toys littered the floor, clothes lay in drifts in the bedrooms. The dishes covered the counter as well as the sink, and fruit flies moved in. Niko wore his pajamas all day, and I couldn’t think of a reason to change my own clothes. I wanted to go back onto medication, but the decision to stop taking it had coincided with my last available refill from my Alaskan doctor, and I hadn’t yet found a new provider. I couldn’t find the motivation or focus to search for a new one and make the necessary phone calls.

It got worse. About a week and a half after stopping the medication, the blackness moved in. Strattera is a medication used to treat ADHD, but since I started taking it about three or four years ago, I haven’t had a single episode of depression. (It’s worth noting that it was originally developed for depression, but test subjects found their ADHD symptoms improving instead.) Previously, I experienced it on a cycle of roughly a year from the start of one episode to the start of the next. It’s now been over five years since I’ve experienced depression (I didn’t experience it during my pregnancy with Niko or for the year and a half between his birth and the start of Strattera). I haven’t been sure that Strattera was what was keeping depression at bay — after all, that’s not what it’s marketed for — but whether or not it’s been responsible, it was about a week and a half after stopping my meds that things took a sharp turn for the worse.

It wasn’t a full-fledged episode of depression. It was just a shadow on the horizon. Just a looming cloud of black emptiness, hovering just close enough that I felt its threat. Just close enough to bring a flood of memories of the dark nothingness, the endless pit. And I completely panicked. I huddled on the couch, sobbing, my grasp on reality weakening. My son was being his ordinary self, directing a flood of happy chatter in my direction, unaware of my desperation. As I tried to cope with the waves of hopeless terror washing over me simultaneously with Niko’s needs, I was struck by a snarling, primal need to eliminate the source of irritation. I wanted him gone. Out of the picture. Permanently.

Bizarrely, it was that sudden attack of internal rage that horrified me enough to snap me briefly out of my panic attack. I pulled myself together, put Niko to bed for the night, and started texting my best friend, who lives in Alaska. I don’t remember what I said, but it was worrying enough to her that she called me seconds later (despite the fact that we almost never speak — 97% of our communication is through text). I picked up the phone up, but I couldn’t talk — I was crying too hard. Bless her heart, that girl calmed me down enough that I could tell her what had happened. She told me exactly what I needed to do — BREATHE. Tell Aaron what’s happening when you’re done talking to me, it’s ridiculous to try to protect him from your issues, he can’t support you if he doesn’t know. Find a doctor first thing tomorrow to refill your prescription, never mind the stupid money, it’s not like you’re poverty-stricken. Call me or Aaron right away if you think you’re going to hurt yourself or Niko, no matter what time it is. I love you. You’re going to be okay.

Obediently, I texted Aaron the general gist, then crawled into bed to sob myself to sleep. I woke up the next morning to my phone buzzing. Have you found a doctor yet? Oh. Right. Actually, I had a doctor, or a midwife group, to be exact. I called the office and explained what was happening. They immediately wrote a prescription and sent it to a pharmacy near their practice, where it waited for me free of charge until I could figure out how to get the new prescription costs to fit our budget — it turns out, thank God, that people move REALLY FAST to help when you mention a terrifying urge to hurt your child. Next time I saw my midwife group, I met with a social worker who gently questioned me about how I was doing, reminding me that I needed to find a general practitioner, since they specialized in births, not mental health.

And just like that, I was back on medication. The black cloud receded. The fog in my mind lifted. I cleaned the kitchen, dressed myself and Niko, and breathed a shaky sigh of relief. And then I started searching our insurance provider’s website for doctors.

Yes, sometimes medication works too well. We forget what it’s doing. We wonder if we really need it. And we forget how to cope without it. Strangely, I’m glad I had that experience, because it gives me a strong contrast between who I am unmedicated, and who I am with a bit of help. I don’t want to find myself in that place of utter desperation, ever again. And that’s why I will continue to take those nasty, gag-inducing pills every single night. I like who I am when I have medication to help me move toward my potential. I like having a fighting chance to think clearly, to focus on tasks, to remember to wash those dishes before they get crusty. I don’t like the fact that I need to take pills to keep me sane; I do appreciate being able to like myself and be myself.

So. Bottoms up. Down the hatch. Chug chug. Vive la médecine!

[Photo credit www.safemedicinedisposal.org]

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An Introvert With ADHD

I’ve long known that I’m an introvert: it’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that I can’t manage too much time around others without needing to recharge. I do best when I know in advance that human interaction is on the horizon, so I can plan for it and mentally prepare myself. A scheduled playdate for the kids or a routine meeting at work is fine; an unexpected trip to the mall or the arrival of a substitute in my classroom with a summon to an unexpected meeting might throw me for a loop.

I don’t think I’m unique in this regard. An article I just read that reviewed a recent study on introverts said that anywhere from 30% to 50% of people are introverted, so my needs for Alone Time, advance warning before interactions, and a chance to quietly recharge after People Time are all pretty normal. What’s different about my own brand of introversion, though, is that it’s accompanied by ADHD. This means that, while most introverts are content and even happy to skirt the periphery of a crowd and observe others’ interactions, it’s easy for the swirling movement of the crowd and the noise and lights that all go along with social gatherings (or trips to the mall) to become overwhelming, causing me to become agitated, irritable, or withdrawn.

An article about introversion that I just read caught my attention because many of the characteristics as described in this particular case are dead-on for my own experience, right down to the need to avoid caffeine before important events and a dread of talking on the phone. The article’s author, Alena Hall, summed it up nicely:

Little cites the theory of extraversion by Hans Eysenck and research by William Revelle of Northwestern University, explaining that introverts and extraverts naturally differ when it comes to their alertness and responsiveness to a given environment. A substance or scene that overstimulates the central nervous system of an introvert (which doesn’t take much) might cause him or her to feel overwhelmed and exhausted, rather than excited and engaged.

Interesting, huh? (If you didn’t already click the link above, click here to read the article.)

Sweet Funny Valentine

At four years old, Niko’s understanding of “Valentimes” Day is pretty sketchy. “Why is there an arrow in that heart?” he demands. I tell him that there’s a story about someone named Cupid who had a special arrow that he would shoot into people, making them love each other. “But that’s not nice. He shouldn’t shoot people. That hurts.” I explain that it’s a SPECIAL arrow that doesn’t hurt. He’s not convinced. “He shouldn’t hurt people,” he insists.

He feels a certain sense of power, I can tell, selecting Valentine cards for first his classmates, his teachers, then a few family members. He takes the responsibility very seriously, pondering each choice as if it will change lives around the world and through all of history. I have to practice my slow breathing in order to keep myself from ripping the cards from his hands and snarling, “Just let me do it!” I know my impulse is wrong. Bad mom. But I do let him make his choices despite my impatience, so there’s that.

I never experienced this holiday as a child, though I do remember looking forward to February because of the bags of cinnamon hearts you could buy. I grew up in a Christian commune, part of a group known as the Move which held as a minor part of its flexible, ever-shifting doctrine the concept that holiday celebrations were worldly and sometimes pagan and ought to be avoided if one wished to truly dedicate oneself to God. Valentine’s wasn’t actively frowned upon like Christmas and (Lord preserve us) Halloween, but neither was it encouraged or promoted in any way when I was a child. So I never decorated Valentine shoeboxes or prepared cards for an entire class or fretted over whether I, too, would receive candy and cards from friends. I don’t feel I missed anything, particularly — but it’s one more point of connection with my son that’s missing. It’s not an essential one, but sometimes I wonder how many of these disconnected experiences can build up before we have so little in common that we can’t communicate. A silly worry, maybe, but it’s there.

This anxious thought buzzes around in my head, along with Are these cards too big for the shoeboxes? Will other families send candy, or will we be the Bad Parents handing out sugar? Will Niko be able to stay calm during a classroom celebration?  and Did I remember to turn off the oven? as Niko painstakingly scrawls his name in each card. I can never think about just one thing, never truly focus on the task at hand — always my mind is busy with many ideas, questions, worries, plans, all bouncing in different directions until I simply can’t continue. Partly ADHD, partly motherhood, I guess. Luckily, I’m working with a four-year-old, and our attention spans run out at about the same time. We put the stack of cards carefully aside while he colors in another card and I help his baby sister hold a crayon on a piece of scrap paper. He peppers me with questions. “Why do we love each other on Valentimes? Is today Valentimes? Will it always be Valentimes? Can I make a card for you? I want a card that says Niko.”

I try to explain that yes, ValentiNNe’s Day (stress on the NNNNNN as a tactful pronunciation correction…) is a special day for loving each other, but really we always love each other, and that he will have lots and lots of cards that say Niko once all his classmates bring their cards to school. He isn’t entirely convinced, but he’s enjoying writing the cards, so he accepts this for now.

After school Wednesday, the day of his class’s Valentine celebration, his face shines with the aura of a child who’s had an excellent time. On his head is a red heart-festooned headband, with heart-tipped antennae bobbing on the front.He didn’t make it; he wasn’t feeling especially participatory, but he wanted to wear one, and a kind friend made one for him. He touches it carefully, with pride, telling me about his antennae that he can smell with, pointing out the heart cutouts, adjusting it on his head. Then he shows me his little mailbox, crammed full of tiny cards. His face reflects his amazement. “Look at all my cards!” His amazement grows when we open them at home, and he discovers that some of them have special treats: a deconstructable little hamburger, a Spiderman and a heart eraser, sticky gel clings, a lollipop.

My love bug
My love bug

Clearly, this holiday is going to be a favorite. Love, arrows, antennae, candy…how much better can a day get? I don’t miss celebrating it when I was little, but at the same time, I’m glad I get the chance to see the pleasure on my son’s face as he looks over his little cards and gifts, evidence that another child was thinking about him, too.

Happy almost-Valentine’s Day!

Hugging a Butterfly

Today a friend shared a link to an article on the Scary Mommy website, on my Facebook page. I read it with tears in my eyes. The author writes about the slow process of realizing their son had needs that weren’t being met; diagnosing him with ADHD; and, finally, reluctantly, starting medication for him. His reaction after his first day of medication was what made me tear up. This is what his mom wrote:

For the first time in … well, maybe his entire life, Colin seemed truly relaxed. But not in a stoned, disconnected way; more like a relieved way. Like someone who has finally been unburdened from the baggage that has unfairly saddled them for so long.

“I feel so much better, Mom,” he told me. “Why couldn’t we have done this from the start?”

His reaction was very much what my own feeling was, when I started ADHD medication. Relieved. Unburdened. And so much better. Why did I wait so long to admit I needed help? Pride, fear, and inability to see clearly and objectively from the haze of my condition. Medication isn’t for everyone with ADHD, but this story struck home to me. Beautiful.

– See more at: http://www.scarymommy.com/hugging-a-butterfly/#sthash.ZCAANp23.dpuf

Guilt Trip: In Search of Perfection

Guilt. I can’t seem to escape it. I’m not talking about shame, the sense of sorrow and regret that comes with specific wrongdoing. No, I’m talking about, in the words of Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : morbid self-reproach often manifest in marked preoccupation with the moral correctness of one’s behavior.” (A tip of the hat to my mother/English teacher for forcing us to write all those definition compositions.) In other words, I’m constantly pursued by a sense of culpability…even when I’m doing the right thing.

Example: Right now I’m writing this post, having just finished loading and starting the dishwasher, doing some much-needed photo editing work in preparation for a project, and getting lunch for the kids. I should be enjoying this short-lived bubble of peace while both children eat and I don’t have to nurse anyone, change a diaper, or field a thousand questions. But no, even though writing is my most fulfilling personal indulgence (maybe because?), I can’t truly enjoy the moment. Instead, the back of my brain is filled with a jangle of accusations. You should be finishing that tablecloth you started for the Christmas village table. Aaron’s gifts aren’t wrapped yet. The bathroom mirrors are still smudged. Why haven’t you cleaned that smear on the wall next to the high chair yet?

Even when what I’m doing is a useful chore, I’m followed by the guilt. It’s like a persistent toddler clinging to my leg, unreasonable and impossible to nudge away. Did I choose to spend some time hanging clean clothes in closets? The guilt tugs — “What about the baby clothes you still haven’t finished organizing?” Maybe I walk down the lane to retrieve the trash bins — “But look at the weeds in that garden bed! What is WRONG with you?” If I’m not careful, the million demands, each choice accompanied by anxiety about all the other undone things that I didn’t choose, can become so overwhelming that I retreat, usually into a book. Then I simply don’t finish any of it.

If possible, it was even worse when I was teaching, before I put that on hold to focus on being a mom. For one thing, I was responsible for twenty-five or thirty people, and responsible TO even more. For another thing, every choice I made to accomplish something meant that I was neglecting not just other tasks, but other people. If I spent six hours scoring my students’ writing assessments on a 6-point rubric and entering their scores into a spreadsheet that calculated their progress from the last time I did this same activity, that was six hours that I wasn’t spending with my son and husband. If, on the other hand, I spent just half an hour grading spelling tests and math timed tests and then went for a snowy walk with my family, that walk was two hours I wasn’t using to plan the next week’s lessons. There was no winning. Ever.

I’m sure that my ADHD is in part to blame for the constant awareness of ALL THE THINGS! that need to be done. But there’s more to it than that, and today I’m going to venture into the dangerous land of theology to talk about that extra dimension of anxiety and guilt. The more I think about it, the more I believe this needs to be said.

You see, I grew up in a highly religious setting, in one of a network of Christian communes, known as the Move, scattered across North America (there are a couple on other continents, as well). Some of this religious upbringing was beneficial; some, not. I’m thinking of two particular doctrines that are a common thread throughout all the groups and, I think through other fundamentalist-type churches as well: the doctrine of perfection, and the doctrine of death to self.

Perfection. It sounds so innocuous. So desirable. To the devout, the lure of being perfect in God’s eyes might be irresistible. It sounds so … well, so godly. It sounds like a worthy pursuit. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” said Jesus (Matthew 5:48), and it’s hard to argue with that. Those living in the Move, and perhaps those in similar churches, hear the message preached regularly. I heard it more times than I could count as I grew up. Here are the words of one of the church’s leaders, Buddy Cobb, taken from the same Wikipedia page I linked to above: “Therefore, what are you saved by? His life! What are you saved from by His life? Saved from living your own life; and when you live your own life you are always living in sin.” The idea is that every single aspect of a life ought to be given over to the pursuit of God; one ought to be entirely immersed in God, leaving nothing of the original sinful human.

It might be hard to see how embracing a doctrine of perfection could be harmful. But I’m here to say clearly and loudly, though with love and apologies to my family, that it is a poison. It creeps into every aspect of an otherwise healthy life, tainting good and pure choices with fear. Fear that this activity does not bring sufficient glory to God. Fear that what I’m doing might be too self-celebratory, too lacking in the edification of the spirit. Fear that the new skirt that looked so appropriate in the dressing room might be a fraction of an inch too short for the high standards of modesty, that my friendship with someone might override my “relationship with God,” that my pleasure in a school assignment done well might be a source of sinful pride. Once you become convinced that God demands absolute perfection, every action comes under scrutiny lest an accidental sin slip past, darkening your soul with a stain that must be scrubbed out through prayer and invoking of Jesus’ blood. Every choice has to be held up to the light and examined: Could I be doing something more godly, more useful, less selfish? The fear becomes all-consuming, blotting out the joy of a well-lived life.

But here’s the thing: This is not the life that Jesus lived. Jesus did not second-guess his every action. Nor did he recommend that his followers do so. He preached compassion, kindness, and living a life of purposeful goodness. Here is the context of the “Be perfect” command: Rather than adhering scrupulously to the law passed down over the course of two thousand years from Moses, Jesus asked his followers to fulfill the spirit of that law. Instead of being satisfied with refraining from murdering, his followers were told to not even insult another person. If an enemy sues you for your coat, give them your shirt also; if someone hits you in the face, offer them the other side to hit as well. Love your enemies. Be peacemakers. The whole point is not to live less of a life, but to live more. It isn’t about being restrained by a series of religious prohibitions; it is about accomplishing the original purpose of the law, to be guided toward God. Yes, Jesus said we ought to be perfect. And when, like a well-brought-up church-school student, we check Strong’s Concordance to see what the word “perfect” originally meant, we see that it means brought to its end, finished, complete, mature. Jesus was telling his followers that they should be living to fulfill their potential. I’m sorry, but Jesus did not once tell his followers to stop making their own decisions. Jesus did not say that living your own life is sin. That is a twisting and a perversion of what should have been a freeing message.

It’s especially damaging when combined with a second doctrine, that of “death to self.” This doctrine explains that the human self is miserably sinful. The only way to achieve rightness with God is by constantly denying oneself. A good rule of thumb when adhering to this doctrine is that if you like something, it’s probably your “flesh,” or human nature, guiding your desire, and you should quickly abandon it and go read your Bible for awhile. Of course, it’s a bit problematic if you happen to be a teenaged girl reading The Message, a uniquely down-to-earth and clear translation of the Bible, and you stumble upon the Song of Solomon. What could be more spiritual than reading the Bible? And what could be more fleshly than this beautiful and erotic love poem? That’s a dilemma, for sure. Anyway, the idea here is that to be perfect, we must deny ourselves. Constantly.

If you take these two doctrines seriously, you end up starving your soul of the good and beautiful things that God put into this world for our enjoyment. You like chocolate cake? Go on a chocolate fast! Feel like lingering outside to watch a lovely sunset? How trivial! Go wash the dishes and pray for stronger commitment to God! Have eyes for that cute boy? Pray all night for purity of mind. Enjoy a good romance novel? Better burn those books…No, who am I kidding, just tuck them under that loose floorboard, you can writhe in miserable contrition tomorrow when you’re done reading the last one. My point? We aren’t meant to be starved of earthly enjoyment. God did not create the earth as one giant temptation, to see how long we could go before giving in and enjoying something. I find it hard to understand how some Christian sects ever came to embrace that doctrine, considering that our founder (I’m talking about Jesus) was known for being a “wine-bibber,” enjoying a good party, and being frequently found in the company of harlots and other people of low repute. But somehow they did. I grew up being told routinely that all personal desires were wrong, and that God demanded utter perfection from me.

I know my mother will protest that she didn’t teach me this, and she’s right. My mother is an excellent example of a person who takes all this with a great big grain of salt. My parents don’t live a life of constant self-denial, nor do they fret endlessly over whether each choice they make is godly. They just live. But, as I tell them, when a child is raised communally, parents are only one source of input. When you attend three to four devotional times per day, two or three church services per week, and Scripture-infused classes at school, your parents’ practical example fades into the background and is overwhelmed by the desire to live up to all that goodness you’re bombarded with throughout the day. I know, logically, that most people, even in The Move, don’t actually take the dual messages of perfection and death to self literally or even all that seriously. If you ever stop in to the farm for breakfast when the world’s best Danish pastries are being served (crisp, light, melt-in-your mouth deliciousness), you’ll know that self-denial is not a big part of everyday life. But that doesn’t mean that the messages aren’t damaging. They are. For someone who’s grown up immersed in those messages, they’re inescapable. They are part of the blueprint of my brain. They’ve imbued my soul with a persistent stain of guilt that no amount of rightdoing will eradicate.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m responsible for my perception of the teachings, for my own internalization of them, and for my inability to shake loose from the effects. I’m not out to point fingers of blame or to minimize my own culpability here. I am here to ask that we carefully consider the end results of teaching people that one’s own desires are wrong simply by virtue of being their own desires; that God demands literal perfection and absolute freedom from sin; and that the only way to achieve perfection is to sacrifice individuality on the altar of God’s will. If the logical consummation of following a doctrine is a life tormented by anxiety and formless guilt, then there’s something wrong with that teaching. It’s time to stop systematically telling children that the only way to please God is to reject everything that makes them happy.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

First Conference

Wednesday was my first time on the parent side of the conference table. All week, and especially that day, the parent-teacher conference — an event I’ve led as a teacher countless times with minimal anxiety — loomed like a hellish nightmare. I was horribly nervous.

Now, my son is a darling child. He’s fully loaded with creativity, curiosity, and intelligence. He’s bright and articulate. He’s kind and generally obedient. Helpfulness is metaphorically his middle name. In short, he’s a joy. And his teacher is gentle, empathetic, filled with enthusiasm, and knows just how to deal with Niko and his idiosyncrasies. I couldn’t have made a better teacher-student match if I’d drafted a list of desirable qualities and conducted a search with background checks and in-depth interviews.

But. But, I’ve seen Niko with other kids, on the playground as well as instructional settings. I’ve watched as he turns in circles on his bottom while other kids gather to hear the soccer coach’s instructions. I’ve seen him rummaging through the coach’s bag while the other kids chase enthusiastically after the soccer ball. Watched him bounce eagerly up to a startled child on a playground, expecting to be welcomed into a private game.

At home, I see him make baffling switches between calmness and manic silliness. He forgets instructions halfway across the room on his way to doing what he was told. His impulsiveness can be startling and disturbing.

And I’ve listened as his teacher praises him at pickup time. “He sat quietly all the way through meeting time!” she’ll exclaim with pride. Or, “Niko lined up calmly!” Or, “He sat and did an art activity – and FINISHED it!” “He did such a good job keeping his body calm!”

What I hear as she gives this good news is, This is not typical. Usually he’s running around like a crazy wild thing. Isn’t it wonderful that he managed to have a normal moment? Now, she’s never said anything to suggest that this might be the case. But, still. I worry.

At the beginning of the year, I shared some concerns — these, and others –with Niko’s teacher. She listened and promised to watch for signs of problems. I know this is why she makes such a point of giving me a good report. But, still — I worry.

At conference time, we sit at the table as she shows me examples of his work. She discusses his academic prowess. Describes how he loves meeting time. (He does?!) Tells how adept he is with letters and sounds. How he always knows the answer whenever there’s a question. How great he is at touch-counting, and how he loves using her pointer to count objects in the room. He excels at following pictured instructions — the only child in the class with this ability.

And there’s more. I learn that he likes to stand at the whiteboard scribbling and drawing while narrating what he’s doing to the children who gather to watch. He likes to assemble objects into person or animal shapes on the floor — although when the others flock to first watch in fascination, then to contribute to the shape, he quietly walks away. (I know which parent that comes from. Not me.) He helps other children and has learned to ask before hugging.

I’m a bit puzzled. This description of an engaging, cooperative (except for the shape thing), almost charismatic child isn’t really what I expected. I think back to a day closer to the beginning of school, when I saw him throw a ball directly at another child’s chest, almost knocking him down. Then he rushed to another child and pushed her tricycle. Flung his arms around a third child unexpectedly, triggering startled tears.

“Have you seen any more of that aggressive behavior?” I ask tentatively, reminding her of the ball incident.

“Aggressive? No, never!” She’s shocked. Then ponders. “There was another little boy here at that time.” Her lips tighten, and an unfamiliar expression flits across her face — could it be a frown? It looks out of place on her cheerful, calmly-smiling face, but it’s gone almost instantly. “He’s not with us any more,” she adds. “He did a lot of hitting and pushing. Niko saw that and tried it out that day. He was just learning how to interact, and when he saw that it wasn’t a useful method, he stopped.”

Actually, I’ve been seeing changes myself: welcoming calls from other children when he arrives, sweet good-bye hugs when he leaves. He’s been bringing completed work home, telling us what he learned each day. Generally speaking, he’s acting like a typical preschooler. Not like a child with concerning problems of focus and attention. I’ve chalked this up to his teacher being an excellent manager, helping to smooth his way in the classroom. But maybe — just possibly — it’s him? Could it be that, all on his own, he’s learning to interact with others and function in a classroom? I’m not downplaying his teacher’s influence — I’ve watched her explicitly teach him how to approach others, help him find words to use. And it seems that he is learning what she’s teaching.

Why have I been so worked up about this? Well, I was diagnosed with ADHD around the age of thirty. I’ve always thought that an earlier diagnosis would have made my life a bit easier. The strategies I’ve learned as an adult to deal with my difficulties would have saved so much trouble if I’d had them when I was younger. And I’ve taught children with ADHD — many with a far more extreme case than my own. Their passage through school is not easy. A diagnosis makes it easier, because even the most hardnosed teacher is expected to help a diagnosed child by explicitly teaching time management, focus, and impulse control strategies. If all else fails, there’s medication — the approach that saved me my job and, I’m pretty sure, my sanity.

Our son just turned four. It is, to speak plainly, ridiculous to attempt a diagnosis of ADHD with a child this age. I know this. I’ve taken the requisite classes in child development and have both observed and worked with this age group. I know that inattentiveness and impulsivity are par for the course. But my anxiety about myself, combined with my realization that his behaviors were at the high end of the scale for kids in his age group, made me think the worst. I didn’t trust our brilliant, unique child to learn and adapt on his own.

Here’s what I’m now reminding myself. Niko is himself. He is not me. Even if it turns out, someday, that he has ADHD, there’s no reason to think he’ll experience it like I do. And I should know, better than anybody, that ADHD does not have to be crippling. In many cases, people with ADHD are extremely successful once they learn to channel their energy and manage their impulses. It’s unfair to project my insecurities and fears onto Niko.

Now I have a simple goal. Let Niko be Niko. Let him learn for himself what his strengths and weaknesses are, and learn how to improve his weak areas and maximize his strengths.

For all my pre-event anxiety, I guess that terrifying parent-teacher conference was a excellent use of thirty minutes.