Category Archives: Family

My Cloud, My Blues and My Parents

jkw blue eyesIt was summertime in East Tennessee, early evening. The driveway had finally cooled off enough for me to sit without burning my skin. The rest of my family was inside, but I was feeling blue again and wandered outside to be alone.

I was eight years old. By then, “my blues,” weren’t new, but I didn’t call them “my blues” yet. And that was the problem: I didn’t call them anything, and I needed to if I was going to be able to explain them to my parents. So I sat in the driveway and brainstormed.

Like many eight-year-olds, the most intense sadness I experienced on a frequent basis was that of being homesick. Perhaps that’s why my first idea was to tell my parents that I “felt homesick even when I’m home.” That would convey that I often felt really, really sad even when I had no reason to, wouldn’t it?

But maybe they wouldn’t understand that “homesick” meant “sad.” Maybe grown-ups didn’t remember what “homesick” was.  I kept thinking.

Earlier that day, my little brother and I had watched an episode of Winnie the Poo in which Eeyore was followed around by a dark raincloud. He would try to dodge it, try to fake it out, and try to spin away, but the raincloud stuck with him, blocking only his portion of the sunshine. That’s sort of how I felt, I thought. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was sunny and that I had plenty of things to be happy about; it was that this stupid cloud wouldn’t leave me alone, and I couldn’t feel the sunshine. Sometimes I would tell myself to fake it–answer questions about my day cheerfully, try not to get so annoyed so easily at my brother, just pretend to be happier. But every time I tried that, I felt mortified. Surely everyone could see the cloud. I felt fake and fake felt silly.

Ok, I decided, my parents would be able to understand the cloud. I got up and dusted the tar bits off the back of my legs.

It turned out my parents would have understood no matter how I explained it. They’re clinical psychologists, for goodness’ sake. But I was expecting some confusion. I thought I needed to buck up for a potentially embarrassing conversation. (It was weird, I knew, to compare myself to a melancholic cartoon character.)

My parents were in the living room: Dad playing his guitar, Mom reading. I sat on the floor facing them. “Mom? Dad?” They looked up, though Dad kept strumming.

I took a breath. “I always feel homesick, even when I’m at home!” I blurted.

Dangit! That wasn’t what I meant to say! I was supposed to use the cloud metaphor! Ok, ok, I’ll just start over, I thought. “Wait, wait…actually….it’s like this cloud I saw on Winnie the Poo…”  

When I had finished with the cloud, my parents looked surprisingly nonplussed. This couldn’t be good, I thought. They must not have gotten it. If they knew what I was trying to say—that I felt like a sad donkeysurely they’d look concerned. My metaphor must have failed. I needed a new one.  I had to improvise.

“Okay, or…it’s like if something ever tries to make my heart happy, my  heart can’t float up. I mean, it tries to, but it’s like… giant, ugly gray hands…yeah, gray hands, with lots of warts…they reach up from my stomach and grab my heart and pull it back down! So see, my heart can’t float up and I can’t be happy. That’s the problem.”  

Ok, that was it. That was my best shot. I looked up from my hands in my lap–hands I had been imagining as those gray, warty hands.

Now, my parents did look concerned. They get it now, I thought. In retrospect, perhaps they were mostly alarmed by the graphic quality of my metaphors. But I felt like I had gotten somewhere. I had spoken out loud of my blues, so they were no longer my private weight. Sure, by describing them to my parents I had made them real (doing so had been a worry of mine) but they were real enough to me already, I figured.  And I was sick of them and I was scared of them. I wanted my parents’ help.

It is difficult for me to say (though not difficult for me to imagine) precisely how different and how much more difficult my life would have been if my parents had not been overwhelmingly eager to help. When I say this, please note what I am not saying: I am not saying that my life would have been different if my parents had not been clinical psychologists. That summer did not mark the moment in which my parents became my therapists. (That moment never has and never will arrive.) It marked the moment in which my parents fully realized that I, their daughter, needed them, my parents, to help me cope with a unique challenge.

__________________________________________________

I have tried and given up writing this piece many times. Each time, I finish the section above, read it a few times over trying to squeeze out some momentum, and then I get up from my desk.

This process repeated itself until I finally realized why the two sections–the Day of the Metaphors and everything after it–have posed such uneven challenges for me. The answer, I think, is this: Surely no one, especially people whom I know and love, would blame eight-year-old me. No one would have told eight-year-old me to be ashamed.

Up until the Day of the Metaphors, I was a victim: a little kid who was being bullied by her own brain chemistry. If you don’t agree with my characterization of the “bully,” remember that until the day I tried to name it, the “bully’s” identity wasn’t yet the point anyway. The point was that I felt so sad so much of the time, and could not figure out why. Whether or not one agrees that brain chemistry was the bully, most people feel sympathy for a kid who feels bullied, no matter what the cause.

But, that day, I chose to exchange my victimhood–and its freedom from culpability–for answers, or at least for help seeking answers. I traded in passive innocence for active agency.  Asking my parents for help was the first of many decisions I would make about my mental health. And there it is–why everything after that moment is so much harder for me to write about. Decisions are much easier to judge than feelings. And what medium is more open to silent, scathing criticism than a blog post? (Those silent judgments, the ones to which I will never have the opportunity to respond, are the ones that intimidate me the most, far more than anonymous vitriol from Internet Crazies.)

But I decided to write this post anyway, and here is why: I do not feel required to write more than this post. That is, I do not feel obligated to expose the decisions I have made about my mental health to public debate or discussion. After all, my personal history–the body of decisions I have made–is not the point. The point is this: I believe that parents can be the most helpful allies any child or adolescent has when making decisions about and confronting the many challenges of mental health. Being an ally does not require field-specific knowledge or experience. When a child breaks her arm, a parent does not need to know how to reset the bone in order to be a good parent. A good parent just needs to accept that the bone is broken and be willing to help the child receive appropriate medical care. The same principles apply to mental health.

Perhaps it is a cop-out for me to simply make these assertions about the importance of parental support without providing examples from my own life to prove the point. That has, after all, been the approach I have taken with the rest of these essays. But any guilt I feel for shortchanging the evidentiary backbone of this essay is assuaged by my belief that while our individual stories may be entertaining or even useful to others, they are ours to give; we don’t owe them to anyone. Perhaps you are comfortable relating some but not all aspects of your physical health to others. Maybe you’ll mention a dentist appointment but call a colonoscopy a “check-up.” Mental health works the same way, whether or not it should.

Besides, the length of this essay is already violating every rule of online blogs. Still, perhaps I will return to this subject later. I do feel I’ve opened a bit of a pandora’s box here, but that lid was always bound to blow. This is a website co-authored by a clinical psychologist and her….let’s call it “emotionally complicated”…daughter; mental health was bound to come up.

And for now, I’m going to call that enough.

 

How to Make Sure Your Daughter Doesn’t Hate You for Leaving Her Alone in the Dark for Several Hours

Pouting Jennie In Pink Dress

If I’m honest, it was probably my fault. I probably told her practice was at a different field. And that’s probably why—an hour after practice ended—my mom still wasn’t there to pick me up.

Before heading toward the parking lot, I had disappeared into the woods by the field to look for my ball. By the time I emerged, everyone was gone. So there I was: just an eleven year-old with a soccer ball and an empty water bottle. The other field was an hour and a half away. The sun was going down.

I made a couple dandelion necklaces. I took some shots on goal. I practiced my handstand. When it was finally totally dark, I climbed into a tubular slide next to the field. Yeah, I’d be alright in there. It was what Kevin McAlister would do, definitely.

By the time Mom finally got there—two hours after practice had ended—I understood that I had something special going. My mother, I reasoned, was at least somewhat at fault here. Sure, maybe I told her the wrong field, but aren’t moms supposed to know things anyway? Or couldn’t she have called my babysitter who had dropped me off?

The minivan wound into the parking lot. I could see her look of concern through the windshield. My moment was approaching. I had to make the right moves. Say the right things. Sigh the right sighs.

I opened the front door, tossed my stuff into the back.

“Sweetheart, I am so, so sorry,” she said. “I thought your practice was at Watt Road!”

I slouched down into the seat, wrapping my arms around my knees. “Nope, it was here.”

I had been hiding in a slide. I had to remember that I had been hiding in a slide.

“I was hiding in a slide, Mom, for two hours.

She looked ready to cry.

——

PAUSE

So, reader, you think I was being a bit manipulative, don’t you? You think I sensed that my mother had a committed the weighty mom sin of Leaving Your Daughter in the Dark for an Extended Period of Time, and that I was intentionally pulling on her guilt strings?

Well, okay, so maybe I was. But please understand; I don’t remember many times in which my mother had clearly screwed up. So perhaps you might forgive me for wanting to explore this new relationship dynamic? Besides, my admittedly puckish reaction was preferable (to both her and me) to becoming terror-stricken in the solitude of my slide. And that could have been my reaction, which was, of course, my point. So let’s continue.

——

Mom gripped the steering wheel with both hands. She looked almost physically uncomfortable. Her eyebrows were furrowed too close together and her forehead was too crinkly. Maybe I should cut her a break, I thought.

So, I started to say, “But it’s okay, Mom.” I was going to just let it go, really. I was going to be gracious.

But then she said it. “Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”

Well. Ah.

I didn’t move. Just my eyeballs swung to the left. I thought just a moment. Inspiration didn’t take long.

“I want a donut.”

“A donut?”

“Pink frosting. Rainbow sprinkles.”

We drove to Dunkin Donuts. Mom handed the man in the drive-thru window 32 cents. The man handed her my donut.

And I was so pleased with myself.

——

Whenever I have to apologize to someone, I think about that donut. Okay, I think about the conversation preceding the donut. If you distill the situation to its essence, this is what happened:

  1. I made a mistake, an irritating mistake, but an understandable mistake, especially for an 11-year-old.
  2. I did not acknowledge my mistake, though I should have.
  3. Mom made a mistake.
  4. Mom apologized for her mistake, sincerely and without trying to share the blame, even though she would have had a strong case.
  5. I forgave Mom.
  6. I got a donut.

You’ll note that the donut actually came after the forgiveness, and so for this story, it’s not really that important. What was important was having Mom role model how to apologize to someone.

Because kids are of still-developing intellect and often don’t have all the information, I imagine it’s quite easy for parents to fudge when they should rightfully apologize. Other times, parents might easily insist that much of the blame is owed to their children. Mom could definitely have taken the latter route.

But she didn’t. She knew I had told her the wrong field. She also knew I knew that. But she apologized, and she bought me a donut.

I’m sure I received many lessons on how to apologize to someone, but none were as impactful as the Donut Mea Culpa. Issuing sincere, humble apologies must be one of those skills that is “easier said than done.” Mom demonstrated an important fact about all of those “easier said than done” life skills as they relate to parenting: If it’s easier said than done, it had better be seen to be done. We learn best from example, and someone has to set the example. Also, sprinkles don’t hurt.

A note about the accompanying picture: I was not that young when my mother left me at the soccer field. I do, however, imagine that I had a similar facial expression (“Really, Mom??”) when she finally showed up. 

 

 

 

The Three-Year Sex Ed. Seminar: Reflections on my mother’s approach to the “birds and the bees”

sex-ed-blog-picPrepare yourself. If you know my mother, this may come as a shock. But I never got “the talk.”

That’s right. For all her preaching about the importance of having “frank conversations with your daughters about sex” my mom never actually sat her own daughter down and said, “Here are the facts of life, Jen.”

Now, I can just see all of you avoidance-loving parents getting excited, so I’ll end the gag. I didn’t get “the talk.” I got a whole damn lecture series.

Between the fourth and sixth grades, I had the unique privilege of attending three sex ed. classes—all taught by my mother. She didn’t tell me ahead of time that this was going to be a new annual tradition. It was just that every time I walked into a sex ed. class, there she was. And every time, I would close my eyes and pray for a dissociative episode.

Each course was tailored to the appropriate age group. During her visit to my Girl Scout troop (fourth grade), we only made it to the period talk. I have a vivid memory of my mother holding up a tampon and asking the group, “So, girls, where do you think this goes?” You think it’s an easy question now, but to a nine-year-old, it’s definitely multiple-choice.

The fifth grade course was similarly circumspect. I attended public school in Tennessee, so there were clear boundaries as to how much she was supposed to tell us. When she explained how babies were born, a freckly boy was skeptical: “But how does something as big as a watermelon come out of something as small as a lemon?” I felt strangely validated by his question (odd, in retrospect, as I’ve only ever been the “watermelon”).

A few weeks into sixth grade, I was looking through kitchen drawers for 3×5 notecards, needed for a project. I finally found a set (shocking, as our house was never very organized), but when I flipped the first one over, I saw it had already been written on. Scrawled, in all capital letters, was:

WHAT IS A BLOW JOB???

I slid the notecard back in the drawer. And—I hope this gives you an idea of how desensitized I was by this point—I forgot about it.

Later that week, I found myself seated in a large circle along with the rest of the middle school population of my church and their parents. Everyone seemed kind of twitchy. I really should have recognized where things were headed.

Our church was a lefty-liberal, anything goes kind of church. If I had to guess, I’d say this was her favorite class to teach because she wasn’t supposed to hold anything back.

Mom began by asking everyone (“parents too!”) to write down a question they had about sex, dating, and/or the body on notecards which were then deposited in the only available vessel: a collection plate. Then we passed the plate around and everyone took out a card to share out loud so that we could have “an open conversation about each.”

When it was my turn to share, I unfolded my card. Scrawled, in all capital letters:

WHAT IS A BLOW JOB???

Well, of course.

Mom smiled. “Now that’s a good question!” Oh, I was onto her game now.

In the car, after the class, I told her, “The all-caps handwriting was a nice touch, Mom.” My mother’s handwriting is distinctly old school—I mean like people used to learn, in old schools. It’s easily recognizable. She laughed, and offered me a banana leftover from the condom demonstration. And then we went home.

So, if you have any questions, please, send me a notecard. I’ve got all the answers.

 

 

 

 

One fine afternoon, my little brother peed on me from a second-story window.

Noah and JennieI was leaning against the house, worn out from my efforts to “become ambidextrous” by running circles in the driveway while dribbling a basketball with my left hand. Two stories up, Noah (five-years-old) saw his window of opportunity. So he cranked it open and let loose.

As he gleefully pulled up his pants, I ran from door to door, only to discover that he had already locked each. This was a premeditated attack. I was pissed, so to speak—so hot with rage that urine was evaporating from my clothing.

To be fair, Noah almost certainly had a reason for wanting to pee on me, but neither of us can remember what it was. In fact, aside from his impressive aim and foresight, that’s the real kicker of this story: It wasn’t that unusual. It was theatrically special, to be sure, but thematically speaking, it was hardly one-of-a-kind. Noah and I spent much of our respective childhoods engaged in nearly constant combat.

I suspect that many of the factors contributing to our discontent would be familiar to siblings of other families. As adults, we agree (look at that!) that the following played the largest roles:

  1. We were close enough (four years) in age to be competitive with each other—in conflict, not just play—but not close enough in age to be easy friends. As the oldest, our sister Rachel was the natural peacemaker and moral arbiter.
  1. We both frequently assumed the other was out to get us, and we were both frequently right. These facts tended to perpetuate each other so that once bickering became our default mode of interaction, it was difficult to break the cycle.

Our relationship was quite a challenge to our poor, beleaguered parents. My mother would frequently tell me that things would get better as we got older. She and her own brother used to bicker all the time when they were little, she’d say, but now they’re best friends. So, maybe, I thought.

Most of the time, our parents were forced into the role of referees. When two of your offspring are at each other’s throats, there isn’t really another option. Their goal, I’m sure, was to be neutral, but here’s the problem with that: A referee can never make a neutral call. Any intervention will be or will be perceived to be in favor of one child or the other. Even if both children are reprimanded and disciplined, someone will maintain that justice mandated a harsher penalty for someone else.

For this reason, the conversations I had with my parents outside of the moments of immediate conflict mediation were the most helpful in learning how to have a better relationship with my brother. These conversations achieved two objectives:

They helped me view my relationship with Noah less as a battlefield and more as an opportunity to grow.

My natural tendency was to view any interaction I had with Noah, especially those in which he was driving me crazy, as conflict—ergo, as a personal assault. The trick for my parents, I think, was to avoid disputing my claims that he was being annoying and focus on helping me focus on myself. They would say something like, “Yes, we see he’s being obnoxious. We’ll deal with that. You focus on not letting him get to you.” For me, this allowed the high road to actually feel like the high road, and not like retreat.

I should emphasize that hearing my parents say that they would deal with Noah’s problematic behavior, and trusting that they would keep their word, was absolutely critical. Like a lot of kids, I had very strong opinions about what was just and unjust. When I felt wronged, I wanted to know that someone would address the cause.

My parents helped me remember that my little brother was just a kid: a little boy who was, developmentally speaking, not actually my equal.

I needed a lot of reminding that Noah was not my equal in age or maturity, and therefore hardly a worthwhile adversary. Aside from occasional spurts of infuriating but impressive creativity (peeing on me, pretending that he had eaten my hamster, hiding my life savings in a shoe for six years, etc.), most of what he did could be classified as classic little brother impishness.

The problem, of course, was that I too was “just a kid,” so kid-like annoyingness was perfectly capable of getting under my skin—unless I focused really hard on being less of a kid than he was.

So, my parents explained, the secret was to remember to view him as “just a little boy,” four years my junior. The more I thought about that, especially in moments when I wasn’t already mad enough to spit, the more likely I was to remember to focus on monitoring my reactiveness when he ticked me off.

So did it work?

In some areas of life, I’m pretty sure that I was less challenging than most daughters. I’ve always been great about eating my fruits and vegetables, for instance, and I became keen on making my bed at a very young age.

But as for my relationship with my brother, I am 99% certain that I made nothing easy for my parents. But, Noah and I ended up okay. When we’re together (not all that often, as we live in different states now), we enjoy each other, and we spend a minimal amount of time bickering. He knows I love him and am proud of him. He also knows I wish I had been less hard on him growing up.

But I want to be honest here. I joke about our childhood conflicts because it’s my tendency to joke about most things, and because, thanks to Noah, many of these conflicts have quite a bit comedic potential. But I hope that my joking does not disguise that I do sincerely wish things had been different between us.

I say this not to be sentimental, but because I want to convey my belief that while things do often get better once combative siblings have grown up, I hope most siblings don’t give up on the time they spend growing up.

From personal experience, I know that takes a lot of parental effort. It requires parents to not only be the referee, but the coach and cheerleader of both teams. As a once tyrannical older sister, now softened in my old age, I hope I’ve offered some encouragement.