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Mom learns she has everything and nothing to do with her children’s behavior

This just in!

Bay Area mother discovers that the behavior of her sons has everything and nothing to do with her.

Stephanie Mackley—known for her essays on feminism, parenting, and dark-ish, somewhat funny forays into the meaning of life—has recently found her footing again, after a hell-raising summer and first few weeks back to school.

This is what it looked like when Mackley found freedom and relief from the relentless demands of her lovely and very intense children. Photo by Pam Link.

Back in July of 2017, Mackley wrote about a recent experience of accessing deep “chambers of knowing” inside herself, wherein she could “see and understand all of the things.” Coincidentally, within days of writing that blog post, Mackley found herself deep in a pit of not knowing anything at all, after weeks of frequent and unrelenting bursts of sibling fighting in her home. Her two sons, Jo, 8, and Cal, 4, could routinely be found in their bedroom or the basement “super room” screaming, “NOT FAIR” or crying after one of their many bouts of hitting, kicking or teasing each other.

“It reminded me of the days when Cal was a baby, when I could never really get anything done because I had to watch him all the time and make sure he wasn’t going to fall down the stairs or something,” Mackley reported. “I could barely make dinner for all of the fights I was having to break up. And after a while, I just started fantasizing about a small cabin in the forest where I could go and live by myself.”

Neighbors and friends all expected Mackley’s situation to improve when the school year started, giving her a much needed break from the increased parenting duties that unstructured summers often bring. Mackley’s husband of 12 years, AJ, said that things did get better in terms of the sibling fights once school started, “but then Jo started wailing and resisting most any time we asked him to do something like put on his shoes or brush his teeth. And Cal, well, he’s 4, so tantrums are a pretty regular thing for him just developmentally.”

While the new school year did provide a few hours per week for Mackley to rest at her home alone, she still felt significant despair and exhaustion over her sons’ daily outbursts and continued, albeit less frequent, sibling fighting.

As of October 4, 2017, Mackley reported having nearly two weeks of feeling a sense of parenting mastery that “couldn’t have come sooner.” She says that even though she can still be up to her eyeballs in sibling fighting, Cal’s tantrums and Jo’s whining and resistance, she has discovered a new and important aspect of her parenting strategy.

“I have to just feel my feelings,” she said. “I think over the summer, having so few breaks and watching the kids fight so much, I was just wallowing in buckets of sadness and disappointment and shame. I mean, what does it mean about me that my kids are fighting like this? I must be a terrible mother if they behave this way. And why did I get these kids, these really hard and tricky kids—they don’t act like all the ‘easy kids’ I see everywhere else. Not to mention seeing them hurt each other on purpose. Day after day, they do that crap even though I demonstrate otherwise and tell them its not okay and enforce clear boundaries. So, what the fuck?!”

In the end, Mackley reported that she’s found it helpful to track her own feelings when she is taking care of her sons, and sometimes, when things are particularly hard, she’ll leave the boys on their own and go to another room to cry. “When I reach a particular limit of frustration or upset, and I feel the need to cry, I just do it. I’ll go in the other room and bawl for like 5 or 10 minutes, however long it takes to just feel the full horror and sadness of the particular moment. I don’t do it in a manipulative way. I just let the boys know that I’m feeling too sad to keep helping them, and usually, while I’m sobbing on the couch, I can hear them solving their own problem in the other room.”

“Yeah, there’s been a lot of crying in our house,” AJ confirms. “I’m not always sure what to think about it, but Stephanie does seem calmer with the boys when things get tricky.”

Mackley, 38, also routinely engages in a practice called “listening,” when she calls one of a handful of friends who are also familiar with the practice, in order to speak frankly about what’s going on.

“I think of it as barfing up my feelings, really. Parenting these kids just triggers me so much sometimes. So after a hard day, I just need about 7 minutes to say all of the horrible things I’m thinking. And I don’t need advice, I literally just need someone to listen and maybe say ‘uh huh.’ They set a timer and tell me when the 7 minutes are over, and that’s pretty much it. Then all that crap I was thinking and feeling is out of my system, and I feel a little less bogged down, like I actually did something to help myself,” Mackley said.

She says that typically, the listening practice is exchanged, so the other person on the line often takes a turn to talk while Mackley listens.

“Between the crying and the listening time, I find that the kids inevitable drama doesn’t get to me so much–I feel way less invested in getting the fighting or upset to stop, and can focus instead on setting the boundary or consequence or helping them solve the problem or whatever they’re needing at the time.”

Mackley also reports that drinking beer, wine or gin and tonics is also an important part of her coping strategy, and that time away from the kids entirely, is also “insanely important.” But she maintains that her new focus on feeling her feelings has been “a real game changer.”

“It just clears out the fog and helps me remember that I actually do know how to be a decent parent. And it reminds me that my boys are totally separate from me, you know? They’re just kids doing their kid thing, and I’m just here to be the alpha, and set the limits and help them learn to solve problems. Their neanderthal crap doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It’s just their little immature brains figuring shit out. Since I’m actually taking care of my feelings, I’m just calmer and more relaxed, and I think they can feel that. I mean, it’s way nicer for me this way. Instead of feeling like a soldier with PTSD, I’m just a mom, doing her best to help her kids learn to be decent human beings.”

Chambers of knowing

Is it normal to feel, at the age of 38, like you are just starting to figure out how to live a good, satisfying human life?

Since coming out of my reproductive coma, I’ve been wandering into a particular state in which I feel like I can see and understand all of the things.

Or most of the things.

Or at least some of the things.

Like last week when we were with our friends March and Dev and she said something about AJ, I don’t even remember what it was, but suddenly this little chamber of knowledge just burst open, and I realized that all of the hurtful things AJ has done since we had Jo, essentially none of them were done with malice in his heart. He hasn’t been actively trying to destroy me all this time. Dare I say he has wanted to be helpful the vast majority of the time.

I’ve had little whiffs of that truth before, but nothing like this – just standing in the middle of it, all the time in the world to look around, touch, breathe, get my bearings.

Photo by Dave Morris
Photo by Dave Morris

Knowing what I suddenly knew in that space let me look back and rewrite memories that fueled resentment in me for a long time.

Back when Jo was a baby, when AJ would be angry about the way I would ask for help, and when I would feel horribly misunderstood and eventually despondent – that whole sad, missed connection song and dance wasn’t driven by AJs repeated desire to abandon me. In fact, as my friend Zelda aptly pointed out, “He hasn’t ever experienced mental illness before.” By jove! I don’t think he has. I remember asking him, between post-coital drags on a cigarette back in our early 20s, if he had ever been depressed.

After a long silence, he said “I don’t think so.”

I don’t either.

Oh! The inescapable tragedy of a relationship with another human being. They come into the whole damn thing with this wholly Other set of understandings of how things should or shouldn’t be. So then it’s perfectly natural that after you make a baby with said person and find yourself in the midst of obliteration by motherhood and post-partum hormones, that you would feel desperate and scared and ask him for lots of help. But maybe, probably, you didn’t always ask nicely or politely – maybe, probably, because you were at the bottom of a hormonal well and maybe, probably because you were raised on a steady diet of co-dependence and so you were angry that you had to ask for help at all because he should have noticed you were hungry or tired or desperate for something. And then, perhaps he thought, “This way I’m being treated is really rude and impolite, and I don’t want to be treated this way and therefore I will call a great deal of attention to it, so that maybe it will stop.” And then it makes sense that you would tire of even asking for help, because of the argument and criticism that would ensue.

And so, there we found ourselves. For quite some time. Me in a state of painful despondency that pickled into anger and resentment. He in some other sort of state that also pickled into anger and resentment.

It is hard to have a relationship and then a baby with a whole other human person.

Ugh. Just writing it all out like that I already lost the feeling of clarity I started with. I think what I was trying to say was that I’m finally learning how to live my life.

Like, how is it that some people just seem to know how to spend a weekend? How is it that some people aren’t tugged into existential dread every time they face an expanse of free time?

To me, something about free time evokes the terror of space. Limitless airless air on every possible side of you, going on into black nothing forever and ever. And there you are, just floating. Alone. Forever.

But this weekend, another one of those little chambers of knowing something just burst open. And I was relaxing like a normal person on the weekend. I puttered. I painted. I drank some wine and watched a caterpillar.

Is it possible we just have these little pockets inside ourselves that know all the things we need to know and they’re just patiently waiting for us, like that cave in France with all of the prehistoric paintings on the walls? Those boys were just playing and wandering, with all the freedom and ease particular to boyhood. And boom. They find themselves deep inside with all these answers that were painted foreverago and now they’re just right in front of them.

Is it the same for us? Little chambers, caves, spaces with dust hanging in the air. Just existing, all this time. With the things we need inside.

 

Join the feminist picture book revolution with this free tool

Yo ladies and gents! Are you ready for your DIY summer project? All you need is 5 minutes and a commitment to gender equity!

So stop stirring your artisinal, small batch, organic playdough, and go load some locally-sourced, recycled paper into your printer. Cause we need you for the revolution.

Read on.

“Protagonism is Propaganda that protects and perpetuates privilege.”

Jill Soloway, my living, breathing spirit animal said this.

It, in addition to every other thing she says in this manifesto, has given voice, clarity and purpose to feminist frustrations that got turned up to a steady boil since I pushed out my first baby.

I switch pronouns in most every picture book, I have long, difficult discussions with AW about the sexist way we divvy up domestic chores, I tell the boys why certain stories they read make me angry, because they are using sexist or racist or classist or homophobic stereotypes. “Maybe we should call the male character the ‘the farmer’s husband’ since women and men can both be farmers and husbands and wives. Let’s think of some we know…”

I challenge their assumption that the person riding the motorcycle is male. I consider that all of this is working when Jo and I have an exchange about a silver Toyota passing us on the freeway.

Me: He’s driving waaay too fast!

Jo: Or she!!!

And so it has been that raising my children has made me ever more aware of patriarchy, of sexism, of the million ways that He and Him and His is the universal default for every person or creature seen in the world or shown in a story.

And so it has been that I’ve had the idea to make this for almost exactly 7 years, and finally spent the 10 minutes it took this afternoon.

Behold! This magical feminist pronoun switcher tool can empower any person anywhere to join the protagonist revolution.

 

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Since a shocking majority of published picture books feature male characters, you can just close your eyes at your kids’ bookshelf and grab one. Then, simply print, cut, paste and voila! You just created your first piece of feminist protagonist propaganda! It can be tipped into the tiny, pliable minds of children everywhere.

Not only will you be saved from having to remember to change pronouns on every page, your child will soon set the perfect stage for a conversation about unfairness and and feminism when she asks you why you changed the words in so many of her picture books.

Welcome to the revolution.

Sidewalk candy or My son is not horrible at all

Typically, I wouldn’t smile after I told you this story.

If I were being typical, I would finish it up with an exasperated guffaw that means, “Aren’t they insane? Don’t you just dream about being in a silent room alone, eating grapes?”

But because of a particularly brilliant session with my new therapist counselor person and a video I watched months ago and remembering some things about being a human and a mother that I had forgotten and basically every single thing that has happened to me before now, I’m not being my typical self.

I know I’m not being my typical self because when I think about Jo picking up the piece of red sour ribbon candy off the sidewalk, I feel a rush of delight.

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I realize that this is just a red ribbon and not red ribbon candy. For reasons you will soon understand, I don’t have the piece of red ribbon candy anymore.

 

He held it up and asked if he could have it. There was hope in his eyes because sometimes I let him eat things off of the ground or the sidewalk, because maybe it will build his immunity. But this particular thing, this ribbon dipped in sour sugar, it was all alone, just soaking up whatever terrible things might have passed by, and I didn’t want Jo to eat it.

So I told him – with my warm but firm tone that I’m working on – that he could not have the candy. I told him that sometimes grown ups put drugs in candy. I internally cringed when I heard this justification come out of my mouth, but 7-year-olds like really good reasons, and I was grasping to give him one.

He stomped his foot and screamed his tight, high-pitched way that basically means, you’re the worst mom I’ve ever had. It also means, “I might do something really fucked up right now that will publicly embarrass and potentially injure you or something nearby.”

Instead of steeling up and getting harder, the way most humans do when they feel the threat of imminent danger, I said something like, “I know it really sucks that you can’t have it. I’m sorry.”

He screamed again, and gave me his death-y-est death glare, and tightened his fist around the candy. I just looked at him – with that warm but firm look I’m working on. Then I kept on looking.

And then he let out this deeper roar and flung that piece of candy as far away as he could. It soared in a floppy red arc right onto the roof of the apartments next to us. Then Jo hopped back on his scooter, and I walked behind him, imagining how good it felt to throw that candy into oblivion, where no one could ever have it, ever.

The whole red ribbon candy story could have turned out differently. I could have gone all steely disciplinarian, like I tend to, and then Jo would have gotten angrier, and thrown the candy at me, or kicked my leg or something. And then I would have yelled some horrible thing at him because I was so mad about what a horrible kid he was being. Imagine a little Tasmanian devil tornado of horrible sucking both of us right up.

But the tornado did not happen, and we got to keep walking down the sidewalk, towards home, and after that, towards more sidewalks with their abandoned candies, towards more chances to break each other or not.

***

Thank you to Miranda July, whose writing in this book and this book inspired my writing here.

I’d choose anaphylaxis over depression any day of the week and twice on Sundays

A couple weeks ago, I was doing what I usually do on a Monday morning: sitting in a room full of upholstered chairs with other allergy sufferers, applying ice packs to my arms while waiting the mandatory 30 minutes after getting my allergy shots. I often bring a book to read, but this time I was huddled over my phone, getting all teary-eyed over a text AJ had sent:

AJText

I’m gonna let our wack-a-doo nickname slide for now and cut to the chase. For me, there is no more sublime feeling than AJ’s empathetic response when I finally break down and tell him that I’m depressed. Is there any larger comfort than this: to have a person you love respond with caring and softness when you admit to them that you’re struggling with the feeling you hate the most in the whole world? (No, I don’t think there is.)

I’ve admitted depression to AJ a handful of times over the course of our relationship, and this time, like all the others, it fell out of my mouth like defeat. If I’m telling him, it means it’s true. And I never want it to be true. Despite the fact that I know depression well, I will still run and hide when I feel it again, like a child convinced that if she can’t see it, it isn’t there.

For most of January and February and March of this year, I felt it nibbling around the edges, but I’d try to rationalize it away. It was just the rain, the winter, the Trump presidency, my lack of creative inspiration. Finally, though, I blurted it out to Aaron while he stirred something at the stove and I cried a little bit, and then we got distracted by something and it was over. Until I checked my text messages in the allergy clinic waiting room.

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Photo by Kevin Moreira

The ice was numbing the dull pain in my arm, and I sat there soaking in the relief that comes when someone you love really sees you. As I blinked through tears and started to text him back, a soft wheeze caught in my throat and made me cough. Oh, the familiar rasp of asthma. It intensified even after I dosed up on my inhaler. My throat started to thicken and itch. My nose congested. My face felt unbearably hot. All this in the space of a minute.

I walked into the nurses’ room and told the first one I saw that I was wheezing quite a bit. She calmly said, “Let’s find a room for you.” By her tone, I expected to wait.

I no sooner entered the room that a blood pressure cuff was slapped on my arm and a pulse/blood oxygen thing on my finger. In the next moment, the doctor walked in, and after I listed off all my symptoms, she asked me to please take off my pants and get on the table. She requested .5 somethings of Epinepherine and the nurse’s eyes widened. She had .3 waiting in the syringe already, and dove it back in to suck up another .2 before injecting it into the meaty part of my left thigh.

After I put my pants back on, I was presented with a tray full of little plastic ups with various pills and potions, all of which I sucked down. I then proceeded to “feel like I had drunk 10-15 cups of coffee” just as the doctor explained I would, and the nurse kept me company and took my blood pressure and pulse every 5 minutes.

“When you walked up to me, your face and neck were completely red,” she said. “Some people get really blotchy when they go into anaphylactic shock, and some people get flushed like you did.”

The doctor came back, and ordered another shot of Epinepherine for my virgin thigh, since she wasn’t pleased with my continued wheezing. Once I was re-pantsed, and the nurse deemed me stable enough to leave alone for 10 minutes, I sat in my chair, uncontrollably shaking on my now 20-30 cups of coffee, and checked out the anatomical ear, nose and throat poster next to me. It turns out that the laryngoscopic view of a larynx looks pretty vaginal.

anatomy-of-larynx-53-638
See?

As I sat there, wired as a Christmas tree next to the vaginal larynx poster, I couldn’t help but compare the satisfaction of this medical experience to the deep uncertainty of my own depression.

Thirty minutes ago, I had some physical symptoms for a single minute, walked a few feet and told a nurse about it, and was whisked into a room where I was given all of the help I needed, immediately.

For the last few months (and on and off my whole life) I’ve been struggling to understand, talk about and address my bouts with depression.

Even though it has come and gone dozens of times since my first real depressive winter as a 13 year old, I still feel like I barely know it at all. And it’s hard to talk to other people about something you hardly understand. It comes and goes mysteriously, a shape-shifter, each time with a slightly different texture, weight and character. The closest I’d come to explaining it with a friend recently, when he’d asked me how I was doing, was to admit, “Somewhere between fine and mentally ill.”

And after admitting depression, you rarely get whisked away to a room for effective and immediate treatment. More commonly, people get uncomfortable, nervous, or offer unhelpful advice. So you learn again and again that depression is something that scares people, and you have a short list of confidants—often others who experience it too.

The two times I have sought medical help for it, I was prescribed Zoloft by my OB. It worked a treat the first time, but she never followed up with me about how and when to decrease and come off my dose, so I figured that out alone. The second time, she referred me to a psychiatrist for the anxiety side effects I was experiencing. Riddled with depression, anxiety, a baby and 3-year-old, I called all 5 numbers on the referrals list she emailed me—3 were out of practice and the other 2 had no availability.

I must have called 30 different psychiatrists that I found online before I found one who could see me and took insurance. Once I finally sat in her office, she asked all the right questions and adjusted my dose so that both the anxiety and depression lifted. It was a hard won victory.

Hardly the direct simplicity of my bout with anaphylaxis.

The nurse at the allergy clinic said I could leave once the epinephrine had worn off, as long as none of my symptoms returned. So less than an hour later, I walked out of the old vagina larynx room, and away from the fastest and most effective and satisfying medical treatment of my life. I drove home, breathing easily through my open lungs, that dull, familiar pull of depression in the background, and AJ’s text still unanswered.

Is your kid a hitter, kicker, or biter? Read this.

Watching your kid hit, kick, bite, headbutt, hair-pull, or in any way hurt another person is pretty much the worst.

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Photo by Ralph Hogaboom

Even worse than the worst: when your kid keeps doing all that crap for months, years even, despite doing every damn thing you can think of to get it to stop.

This was my kid, Jo. He dabbled in some hitting and kicking when he was 2. And as a 3- and 4-year-old, he developed a diverse and relentless repertoire of aggressions. Imagine spontaneous and seemingly unmotivated bursts of pre-school-sized cage fighting.

It drove me straight to My Wit’s End and left me there for a long, long time.

Jo is now 7. He’s a smart, emotional, kind, fiery, empathetic child. Truth be told, he still sometimes lashes out, mostly at his little brother or when he feels some deep injustice. But the Jo of today is Nothing like the psychopath I had imagined was in our future 3 years ago. That nightmare time of his 3rd and 4th year is OVER. Jo’s transformation is a miracle to me.

How did we get here?

I’ll tell you.

I kept him alive so his brain could develop.

I tried really, really hard (sometimes successfully!) not to shame him.

And I ranted and raved to a select a few friends who would listen without judging or giving me advice.

That’s pretty much it.

I know that’s not the miracle fix you want. Because going through this is hell, and when it’s happening, you just want to make it stop, instantly and forever.

I know this desperation because I’ve been there, imagined the worst, tried a million things, read more advice books than I ever should (this was the best one), and cried on countless shoulders.

I wish, back then, someone had sat me down on a soft chair in a warm room, wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, and told me these things:

  1. The hitting, kicking, biting, or whatever means literally nothing about who your child is as a person or who she is going to become.
  2. It also has nothing to do with how good of a parent you are. I repeat: nothing.
  3. Your kiddo is quite literally exploring a world of cause and effect “What will that kid do when I bang my hand on his shoulder like this?” He is also exploring ways to say “no” or “NO!!!!” or “I don’t like you.” He will learn other ways.
  4. Don’t take on the shame that other people rain down upon you and your kid. You’re both doing your effing best.
  5. Focus your energy on keeping people safe. In the meantime, her brain will continue developing into a brain that makes more socially acceptable choices. Really. It will.
  6. Make sure you’re clear with him that you cannot and won’t let him hurt other kids.
  7. Keep loving her and letting her know with your energy in those biting-hitting-kicking-hurting moments that you know she’s a good kid who doesn’t want to hurt other kids. (She may want the shovel now, or she may want that kid to give her some space, or she may be curious what happens when she bites his foot, but her primary goal is not to hurt other kids.)
  8. Vent to a select few who don’t judge but just listen about how horrible this all makes you feel. This is crucial, since there is no end to the humiliation and shaming and judgement that we parents of hitter-biter-kicker-hurters carry around. Venting let me offload all my horrible scary feelings, and I would emerge lighter and a little more ready for the next brawl.
  9. Circle back around and read #5 again. Good old fashioned brain development is on your side.
  10. I’ve been there, and it was awful. My son is older now and barely ever does that stuff any more. He is a delight. And your kid is too.

On hope lying dormant, then sprouting

It’s been a long time. I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing here, and my overall happiness factor has suffered as a result. This is a time when my overall happiness factor needs bolstering, given the doldrums of winter and staring daily into the belly of the beast of our current president. It’s hard at times like these to remember that somewhere, beneath the surface, is creativity and life and hope.

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Photo by Steven Depolo

This has been a really tricky time for me. Feeling seasonally depressed, creatively deflated, politically afraid and disoriented. Not to mention the fact that the two glorious humans I co-created are growing ever bigger and more complex by the day.

Cal has hit the peak of 3-and-a-half-ness. Oh sweet heaven above. This is a challenging age.

Lucky for me, a teacher of mine, from way back when Jo was an erratic, tantrumy 3 and 4 year old, gave a talk at our preschool. She reminded me of some stuff I knew once. Like how little kid brains are constantly trying to make sure they’re connected to our adult brains, and how when they’re feeling not connected or overwhelmed, their brains can freak out in the form of a tantrum. And during the tantrum, it’s the opposite of helpful to enforce or discuss rules, since their brains have gone all reptilian and they can’t even access the reasoning part of their brain anyway. She also reminded me of this: if a kid is headed towards a tantrum, the best long term choice for all involved is to walk straight into it with them. I know this goes against every natural human instinct in the book, especially when you’re Just So Sick of that whiny, little 3-year-old voice. But I’ve been trying that thing I used to do–the equivalent of walking straight into a hurricane–and it effing works.

I actually just read my own blog post that I wrote 2 and a half years ago as a tutorial. It’s both a shock and an embarrassment to find that not only did I have some pretty refined strategies for how to handle tantrums once, I actually wrote a step-by-step guide about it. Fast forward a couple years, and that same grounded parent and writer is at her wits end with this little person, with scarcely a clue for how to cope.

Well, thanks internet, for preserving a former version of myself who knew what she was doing. There I was, beneath the years, like a bulb sleeping under the frozen ground. Just waiting to be remembered.

Women’s March or Bust

Well everyone, I’m on the move today. My sister and I are perched at the airport, bound for DC.

Just after the election, she said, “I would be honored if you would go to the Women’s March with me.” And this is my older sister, who I will forever try to be as cool as, whose love and approval makes me blossom like a tender spring flower. So I instantly said yes, of course, and here we are.

I’ll try to put some updates on Instagram if you crave to know what we’re up to.

To respect and equality for all people everywhere.

DC bound, and now officially ready, thanks to @zoebeeblue #womensmarch

A post shared by An Honest Mom (@anhonestmom) on

Motherhood, trauma, and a washing machine

On New Years Day, I sat in the hard shell of a chair at the laundromat. I alternately felt fine and so broken that I wondered if any of the other launderers could tell. Did they see how my insides trembled as I struggled to get the washing machine handle to lock? Finally, the metal latch clacked into place, and my wavering insides smoothed down a little.

Photo by Kristen M.
Photo by Kristen M.

As the extra capacity washer swooshed our soapy rug around and around, I wondered if this could be considered a nervous breakdown.

For lots of us, the holidays represent a kind of emotional crescendo–family who we usually don’t see swoop into our lives, there’s all this uninterrupted time with our own kids, our partners. We’re suddenly unconstrained by the repetition of work and school schedules.

In this soupy December mix of people and time, two things rose to the surface again and again, not unlike the soapy rug, falling, rising, falling.

  1. I feel like an outsider in my house. AJ and Jo and Cal all seem to have an emotional shorthand, a way they just get each other. I’m not in that club. I don’t love wrestling with flailing limbs or kicking balls hard and fast or watching sports. I like to walk unflinching and straight into emotional conversations, for example. I’m not great at having big talks all sideways, where you’re not making eye contact and also playing basketball. These are just a few of the things.
  2. I get triggered as hell when my kids hit each other. Especially when Jo hits Cal. And then I start buying into this story I have about how they are bad kids, and I am a failed mother. It’s a real horror show.

After a good-old fashioned holiday break, getting wholloped by the old 1. and 2. again and again, I kinda lost it one day after Cal did some hitting and screaming at a new friend’s house. While the mother mercifully told me that it was all developmentally appropriate, I collapsed on the inside.

Fear reached back to that trickiest time when Jo was 3. Then it sloshed forward and swept over me. Falling, rising, falling. All the hitting and kicking. Crying and screaming. Friends leaving. Nasty looks and words from strangers. Shame is a powerful currency, and it was generously paid out to me during that time.

After Cal’s ill-fated playdate, I sent a distress signal to AJ, and by the time he got home, the most basic tasks felt mysterious and overwhelming. I could feel the rules that hold things together slipping away, my grasp on what to do next, how to do the tasks that need doing.

Days later, after the rules slid back into place back again, I kept finding things in weird places–my coat hung up with my shirts in the closet instead of on the hook by the door, playdough in the kitchen cabinet with the peanut butter.

My friend Clio told me that she thought it sounded like PTSD. The validation of that diagnosis helped.  Motherhood can be a traumatic event.

From my broken open, PTSD place, the 1. and the 2. demanded my attention.

As for #1: AJ, Jo, and Cal and their shared interests and maleness have a very strong gravitational pull. I’ve been orbiting around them more often than exerting my own gravity. So in the past few days I’ve been building up the bulk of my own planet.

Instead of the typical pillow fight, wrestle fest after dinner, I set up watercolors, because I like to paint. I’ve always told myself the story that my sons don’t like art, and just make a mess, so its not worth the trouble. I was wrong.

I’m also discovering the subtle hues of what works for me in terms of physical play with my boys. I hate flailing limbs, fast smacks, big crashes near my body. But I like close, squeezey wrestling and laying on my back with Cal airplane style balancing on my feet. So it’s not that I only want to sit and do arts and crafts. But if I’m gonna hang with my boys and their physical play, I need fewer flailing limbs, damnit.

As for the #2: I wrote a sign that says “Jo and Cal are good and capable,” because it is exactly this point on which I falter when they are slugging it out. When I can step between them and stop the hitting from this place, this knowing of their goodness and capability, I stay much more solid and clear instead of turning into a shame monster.

I want to be careful not to write this like a problem solved, because it’s not. Like all problems, there’s a rise and a fall. A circling. But I am moving forward in solid ways. My coat is hanging on its hook, the play dough in its smudged plastic tub. And I’m settling into what it feels like to exert my own gravity. I’m a planet of my own.

Christian, Muslim, Trump-supporting, Pantsuit-wearing, Black, White Family Talks Politics Over Christmas

My parents are conservative Christians who voted for Donald Trump. My brother-in-law is a Sudanese Muslim immigrant who voted Hilary. My sister and I are liberal feminists. Despite the fact that just about every political fault line runs through our small family, we chose to be together this Christmas, and we’ve been talking politics.

Any other time in my life, I would have run screaming from a political conversation with my family. We’ve shied away from triggering topics for years, initially because my sister and I grew away from our conservative, Christian upbringing and more recently, since my sister’s interracial, inter-religious marriage. We all spent 2 weeks in Khartoum for her wedding, and despite our worries that my father might simply drop dead of fear and anxiety, the trip was a smashing success. My parents returned home to their small Southwest town with the glow and enthusiasm of the recently converted.

Our family dynamic is held together by keeping things light, by avoiding the murky waters of political disagreement.
So when I checked my phone the morning after the election, I was surprised to see that my Mom had sent a text to all of us.
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This exchange started the first conversation we’d all had about the election, ever, and it was so not awful that we agreed to follow up later with a video call.

As the time for the call approached, I wondered how we’d manage to broach the subject again, but the mission was clear from our sober hellos.

“I hardly told anyone who I was voting for,” my mom admitted. She knew full well the shaming she’d receive in her town full of Hillary signs, so she kept her mouth shut.

She hadn’t liked many things Trump said during the campaign, and disagreed with some of his ideas, but her concern for the national debt and economy ultimately sided her with him. We all let that sink in. My sister and I had been hoping that maybe my mom hadn’t voted Trump, since she once mentioned not wanting to vote for either candidate.

Through tears, my sister asked my mom if she remembered a day from our childhood when we were playing in our driveway and some boys biked by and taunted us. We ran inside, crying and scared. Mom packed us immediately into the car, and drove up the street, fuming. As she towered over those boys, booming grown up words about how wrong they’d been, we felt valuable, protected, safe.

My sister continued, “This feels like the opposite of that. A betrayal. You had a chance to protect our family, and you chose not to.”

I saw those words hit my mother. It hurts to remember her soft, sad face as she apologized. She hadn’t thought that the safety of her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter were at stake in this election. My dad reassured us that congress would keep Trump in check, that law enforcement would keep people safe.

“I hope you’re right,” was my brother-in-law’s solemn reply.

My dad was concerned. “Has anything happened? Have you been mistreated since the election?”
Though my sister’s family has not yet been the target of a post-election hate crime, she explained their fear. She said her family is mistreated in little ways all the time.

“What little ways?” Dad asked.

My sister explained how people will yell “Go home!” out their car windows at her mother-in-law who covers her head. How my sister was the one to fill out rental applications during their apartment search, since landlords often don’t reply when they see her husband’s Sudanese name.

My parents were shocked. They had no idea that my brother-in-law and his family are often targets of racism and Islamophobia.

They’ve been slowly absorbing those facts and have been asking my sister and I what they can do to help. They’ve been Facetiming my brother-in-law’s parents in Phoenix to see how they’re doing. And we’re continuing, tentatively, to explore this vast new terrain of political discussion.

It’s been isolating to feel this upsurgence of family closeness in the wake of an election that demonstrates how bitterly divided we are as a country. As my friends gather in corners at work to shake their heads and muse about what Republicans could possibly be thinking, I wince, because they’re looking down their noses at my people. I may not agree with their vote, but they are still my people, and we are doing the vulnerable and difficult work of trying to understand each other.

All those years, by keeping things light, we were trying to protect our ties from weakening. But we’re starting to see that there’s enough love and trust between us to make the risks of knowing each other worthwhile.

This week, I inflated the air mattress and picked my parents up from the airport. As always, their eyes twinkled at the sight of me. They scooped my two sons into their arms, and we tumbled into the easy grace of family who have long loved each other.

We still disagree. There are still sharp frustrations and betrayals among us. My sister and her family are still upset and scared, and I’m afraid for them and the fate of our country. My dad continues to reassure us of his confidence in the system, and my mom is pensive, and reaching out more often to my sister. And for the first time, I feel safe talking to my parents about who I am and what I think, and I’m curious to learn more about who they are.

It turns out that we don’t know each other as well as we thought. Ours is not a family of of deplorables or elitists, immoral bleeding hearts or extremist idiots. And I’d venture to guess that yours isn’t either.