In a moment of pure exasperation and frustration yesterday, I texted Scott “I have had it with Parker. This is not the kid who’s supposed to be bringing me to tears on a daily basis.” But she is. She has been so difficult lately – talking back to the point of nonsense at times “Well fine, I’m not going to wear pants at ALL and you can’t either!” (As an aside, I did end up wearing pants that day – all of my cute underwear was in the wash.) She has also been behaving erratically – overly hyper, followed by tears, followed by manic laughter. I actually asked her psychologist yesterday – with complete seriousness – if there was a chance that Parker was bipolar. She assured me that she wasn’t, added that Parker was going through a tough time and acknowledged that something needed to change. This was after Parker had hit her repeatedly during their session and then pushed her as they walked down the last step from her office to the waiting room.
I half-joke that she’s bipolar, but that is a real fear for me. It’s something I have grabbed onto and have had trouble letting go of. Like when you’re having a great time waterskiing, but then you fall and you’re supposed to let go of the tow-rope or risk being dragged. But when you’re there, when you feel yourself falling, you’re not sure which is worse – which is the bigger, more dangerous risk – letting go or being dragged. That’s where I am now. I feel myself falling and I am wondering where the greater risk of injury rests, where is the safer place to be when I feel the wind and the water both swirling around me?
Giving my children structure and boundaries is something that they desperately need – specifically with all of the issues they have both been wired with – Parker’s Sensory Processing Disorder means that she feels more comfortable in small places where she can feel the walls around her. I mean that both literally and figuratively. She is still in her toddler bed – converted from her crib almost exactly three years ago, a few days after her second birthday. I have gently asked her if she wanted to have a twin bed in her room (as she has seen that most of her friends do when she goes to their houses on play dates) not because I am in any rush to get her out of the bed she’s in, but to ensure that she doesn’t feel as if we won’t let her get a bigger bed, but she has said that she likes her bed the way it is. Not only are there close quarters there, but she has surrounded herself with about twenty stuffed animals and dolls and sleeps under a weighted blanket. She has cocooned herself into a warm, safe place.
In a more figurative sense, the best way I can explain it is to say that Parker feels the need to push against the walls around her in order to feel secure in the knowledge that they’re actually there. It’s something like when you close the door behind you when leaving home and then jiggle the handle to ensure that the door is properly locked. But I am not a door, and I am not a sturdy enough wall that I can be sure that I will not fall eventually if she continues to push against me. I am not made of brick or stone or even sheetrock. Maybe cardboard with a bunch of those foam peanuts stuck to it? I can see now that I’ve taken this metaphor too far.
And here is the real problem – I am absolutely petrified to give Parker exactly what she needs from me – those walls and boundaries.
When she is hysterical, or disrespectful, or just testing me, I need to be firm with her and put up those walls for her to push against. I need to be neutral and non-reactive to her outbursts. I need to put my headphones in my ears and ignore her when she is having a meltdown until it passes and she is able to control herself. And then I need to be stone-faced but fair as I calmly discuss her behavior with her and the consequences of her actions. All of these things have been told to me repeatedly by people who are experts in their field – behaviorists and therapists and psychologists.
And all I want to do is hug her and cry with her and apologize for being so cold to her. I want to pass on all of what feels to me like “mean mother” responsibility to someone who can more successfully dole it out – someone with more strength…and fewer scars.
Because every time I look in that rearview mirror and see her tear-stained face, I remember being that little girl. I remember how it felt to be so close to my mother and yet feel the miles between us – a gap which I would never be able to close. I have felt the emptiness that a loneliness you fear you may never be without can bring. Sometimes I am still in that place even now.
I have spent the last decade of my life, more passionately since I became a mother myself, consciously attempting to be as far away from the mother and woman and person that my mother was to me and everyone around her. I am sure that there is a happy medium between being a pushover without any discernible boundaries for her children and the behavior of a sociopath with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Unfortunately, I have not yet found what it feels like to live in the space between those two extreme swings of the pendulum, so it often feels like I am living at one end or the other – uncomfortable in both places.
How much our childhoods and experiences shape us as parents is breathtaking. The shades of gray are numerous and overwhelming and it is a daunting task to sift through them. How can I continue on my quest to ensure that the scars of my childhood are not inflicted on my children while still giving them what they need? Am I being selfish in looking at how all of this makes me feel?
One of the things that I know sets me apart from my mother is our views on how we handle parenting. I am constantly questioning whether or not I’m doing a good enough job, wondering how I can do better, consulting therapists and books and teachers on how I can improve on this quest. I am constantly doubting myself – whether I am doing right by my kids, whether or not I am doing too much of something, or not enough of another thing. I want to continually evolve and get better.
My mother spent my entire childhood and adult life repeatedly telling me how lucky I was to have her as my mother, reminding me that any failures I had or any punishment she was so quick to dole out were well-deserved and appropriate for the actions or “crimes” she felt I had committed. Like the time I was eight or nine and I complained about not getting something I wanted – a shirt or a book or something of that nature – and so she screamed at me that I was unappreciative for what I had and how lucky I was. In my opinion, this was not an inappropriate or overly harsh reaction to a kid whining about wanting more or not liking what she had. It was when she put me in the car and drove me to Brownsville in Brooklyn the place where my grandmother and great grandmother had once lived in the tenements there in the 1930’s – and a place akin to Compton – and told me she was going to leave me there “to learn what it really felt like to not have what you wanted”. I remember being petrified and crying hysterically with those great gasps and gulps that leave you out of breath with your chest heaving – begging her to take me home, that I would be “good” and not ask her for anything ever again and that I would appreciate what I had and how wrong I was (I always had to assure her of how wrong I was and how right she was). She benevolently allowed me to come home that day, but wouldn’t let me out of the laundry room until the next morning. I slept on the washing machine that night because the floor was too cold, and covered myself with a couple of the towels that had not yet been washed and used them as blankets.
The next day when she let me out to get dressed to go to school, I thanked her for teaching me a lesson.
I thanked her.
While I can rationalize to myself that I will never go to those lengths of abuse or mistreatment of my children, how does a person recover from what is essentially Stockholm Syndrome of sorts and learn to recognize what is healthy, and reasonable, and necessary after that type of example is the only one ever known?
How do I know when the pendulum has swung too far?