Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sacred Classrooms

This morning I sent my three children off to their three different schools. As I suspect every parent across America did, I kissed each of them a few extra times and hugged them longer and harder than on other mornings. Usually, I yell, “I love you – have a wonderful day…!” as they run or bike away from me. Today, I could hardly let go of my tight grip on their arms as I paused for eye contact, this time saying, “do you know how much I love you?” This morning wasn’t like other mornings, for this country seems to have forever changed since 20 impossibly beautiful and innocent six and seven year-old children were slaughtered last Friday in their first grade classroom, a sacred place. Six heroic educators died trying to shield the children.

My youngest child (Truman) is a first-grader who attends a two-classroom K-3 school also located in an idyllic country setting. Truman turned seven in September. Last week, he finally lost that pesky front tooth which had been hanging on too long. Now he has that incredibly cute toothless gap which symbolizes first grade and, for me, has always represented the sweet innocence of the age. He believes in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Other than the occasional conflict over Legos, he knows only peace and love in the world. As Andy and I discussed and debated how to approach our children with the news of Newtown, CT, we could not imagine telling our boy that other first-graders were not safe in their classrooms. I remembered a conversation with Truman last summer as I was prepping him for a PG rated animated film with some “bad guys.” Wondering whether the movie would feel too scary for him to see, I said to him, “you know that all of the bad guys are only pretend….” He interrupted me with, “of course I do, Mommy – bad guys aren’t real; they don’t really exist!” Had I been prepared for that response, I might have handled it differently. His innocence stunned and momentarily threw me. We were driving. I said nothing.

My middle child, Jukie is 11 years old. I hope that he will only ever know peace and love in the world. Living always in the moment, Jukie loves and trusts everyone. Today, I am grateful to know his world. When I spend time with Jukie, I enter his reality. I lie in the backyard with him and watch the wind blow the leaves in the trees. I go through our routine of things-that-make-Jukie-laugh and watch him fall over with infectious Jukie giggles. I spin him on the tire swing. We sit and look eye to eye. I wonder what he is thinking and imagine that he is wondering the same about me. I will never have to tell him anything of the tragic events of last week.

 Geneva, my oldest, is a sweet and thoughtful 15 year-old who currently straddles childhood and adulthood with tremendous grace. Sometimes I step back and watch her interact with others, marveling at the mature, composed young woman I see. Other times I find myself attending to grass stains on the knees of her jeans. As she is our firstborn, she is the child with whom we tried to get everything with parenthood “right.” We protected her innocence by limiting media exposure and other worldly influences. We protected her little body by giving her only healthy food. I recall even feeling a bit wistful at the introduction of solid foods at the age of six months, for she had been exclusively breastfed until that point. I realized that I wasn’t always going to be able to control everything she ate. When she was in 2nd grade she once asked me, “Mommy, have you ever used a curse word around me? And was I adjacent to you when you did?” Of course I remember this conversation perfectly, in part because I have been repeating and laughing about it ever since, and partly because those who know me well found this question a bit surprising. My brother jokingly commented at the time, “wow – she doesn’t really know you at ALL, does she?” All of this shielding came from wanting to believe that I could protect her from the world even as I knew I could not.

While our family stayed away from stories and images from Newtown, CT over the weekend, I did watch the memorial service at which President Obama spoke. I think he spoke for every parent when he said:

You know, someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around …With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves, our child, is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice, and every parent knows there’s nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet we also know that with that child’s very first step and each step after that, they are separating from us, that we won’t – that we can’t always be there for them.
As much as I would like to believe in the illusion that I can keep my children safe at all times, I must admit that I can’t always protect them. We parents cannot hold on so tightly that we don’t allow our kids to go experience the world. Our job, after all is to provide a solid foundation of love, nurturance and protection when our children are young so that they grow into competent, capable and independent young adults… who leave us -- one of life’s greatest ironies.

It so happened that before Geneva arrived home from school last Friday, she had heard about the shootings from a friend. Neither she nor I had discussed it with one another, each attempting to protect the other. Two days passed before I realized that she had already heard the terrible news. Truman knows nothing of the tragic event, and I have no plans to tell him. I will cross my fingers that he doesn’t hear it from a classmate. Jukie will continue to hop on the school bus each morning, happily oblivious to any potential dangers in the world. I will remind myself that the world is filled with love and beauty, that violence is the exception, and that I am doing my best to raise kind and generous children whose existence makes the world a better place.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Voice Lessons

"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do. "

~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt knew something about fear. Although she lived a remarkable life as an outspoken First Lady of the United States and great humanitarian, later serving as the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, she began life as an extremely quiet, sensitive child. And perhaps in part due to her difficult childhood (she was orphaned by the age of ten), she learned that “fear is something to be moved through,” as she famously said.

Like just about anyone who reads anything about E.R., I’ve always had great respect and even a certain about of awe for this remarkable, trail blazing woman who cared deeply about social justice and worked to improve the lives of the underprivileged throughout her own life. She found the strength to live a life truly “before her time” with grit and tenacity, overcoming the betrayal and later death of her husband and a lifetime of depression.

When I was a young woman facing daunting choices such as moving to Europe by myself (in an era before cell phones and social media), or leaving my friends and family in the Midwest to follow my heart to California, I always thought of Eleanor. In her writings and the way in which she lived her life, she taught us her “secret”: fears are to be faced head on – be afraid, but do it anyway.

Every one of us is afraid to do something. Childhood in particular can feel like a scary time as kids are regularly asked to do things that frighten them, like walk into an unfamiliar classroom, dunk their heads under water, or ride their bikes for the first time with the training wheels removed. While most adults forget how it feels to be outside our comfort zones, children live outside their comfort zones throughout their childhoods. As parents, we seek to protect our children, for we mommies suffer whenever any of our children suffer. Mommies would rather shoulder their children’s burdens, shield them from their fears, and solve their problems. I made such a mistake as I tried to help my son Truman with his paralyzing fear: speaking. Mostly, I spoke for him when he was unable.  

But that’s not what Eleanor advised. She did not say, you must have your mommy do the thing you think you cannot do. She did not say that you must have your mommy look your fear in the face! That sounds ridiculous, but don’t we sometimes err when we try to “help” our kids avoid the hard stuff?

Last summer, as Truman contemplated his quiet, limited world with Selective Mutism, I started to see signs that he was ready to challenge himself, to work on facing his greatest fears. He started experimenting with talking to adults he didn’t know (which was, perhaps surprisingly, easier than talking to those he knew). He began “slipping” and occasionally blurting out an excited utterance: “Whoa!” And most of all, Truman told us how much he wanted to be able to talk, to be free of his fear. Soon Truman’s desire to talk grew stronger than his fear of talking.  

While attending Camp Courageous, a summer camp designed for kids with Selective Mutism, Truman spent just one fairy-tale week practicing interacting with other kids and adults, ordering at restaurants, speaking to the woman cutting his hair, chatting with the man ringing up our groceries and taking advantage of every other opportunity that arose. I watched his confidence grow with each successful attempt. He would tell me, “all the kids at camp have my problem! They’re just like me!” His camp therapists gently prodded the kids through their speaking exposures with such a sense of fun and joy that the kids sometimes forgot they were afraid. And then they talked.

Truman and I spent the remainder of the summer practicing his new skills and talking a lot about fear and courage. Truman defines courage as, “being afraid and doing it anyway.” My brave kid began the summer a silent kindergartner and ended it a LOUD, confident first grader. As I picked him up from his first day of school, a fellow classmate came up to me and said, “Truman is now the loudest kid in the class!”

After spending most of his six years watchful and silent with nearly every adult he encountered, Truman recently declared, “I’m over my ‘talking problem’!” I would call the recovery of his voice a miracle - and I have certainly wished for such a miracle - but all of the credit belongs to a brave boy named Truman, a boy who speaks freely. Each Friday, as I work in Truman’s classroom, I watch him speak without hesitation, even raising his hand to speak! Last week, he blurted out, out of turn and then sheepishly glanced my direction. I gave him a misty-eyed wink. And he gave me a slight, knowing nod.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Silent Strength

Today I had one of those moments every mommy dreads. I took my six year-old son, Truman, to camp and left him watching me with all the stoicism he could muster. I don’t think he bought my confident fa├žade, and I caught a glimpse of his lower lip trembling, thus betraying his own brave veneer.

Truman struggles with a form of social anxiety called Selective Mutism.  That means he finds it nearly impossible to speak to people he doesn’t know.  People often confuse SM with shyness, though they are not the same.  One might describe SM as shyness on steroids. Someone with SM has a true phobia of speaking; s/he does not willfully refuse to speak. And while people often outgrow shyness, those with SM need treatment to overcome their anxiety and learn to speak in any environment or circumstance.  As is typical of kids with SM, when Truman is at ease in the company of family and friends, he speaks, yells, and carries on in all sorts of silly ways, just as any other child would. In fact, if one were to observe Truman playing with close friends, you would never guess that the confident, LOUD boy directing his friends’ play, shouting, “you and I can both play 'kings' and this whole yard is our kingdom,” cannot bring himself to even whisper when he is in a less familiar environment or even in his own school classroom. So even though Truman often gets corrected for yelling too much at his school picnic tables over lunch, he typically will not say a single word in the classroom to his teacher or to most of his peers – that is, until recess with his three good buddies when he lets all of his pent-up speech FLY out of his mouth as if to say, “I do have a voice! And I will use it! Hear me NOW!”  Truman desperately wants to speak freely, telling me, "I always talk in my dreams."  

Since I have always been drawn to psychology, I have spent years thinking about the causes of my boy’s SM.  And I’m convinced that Truman is experiencing the “perfect storm” of circumstances which likely contribute to and cause this anxiety. 

Truman’s older brother, Jukie cannot speak.  What must it feel like to live with a big brother who is unable to talk?  Although I expected Truman to grow up accepting Jukie just as he is, instead Truman regularly asks many questions about Jukie: “What is Jukie thinking?” “How does Jukie feel when he wants something and we don’t know what that is?” “Why can’t Jukie talk?” Those are all questions that I have been answering for years and for which no answers truly exist. Surely, part of Truman wishes for some of the perceived attention silent Jukie receives. And perhaps this unconscious competition is what sibling rivalry looks like in our family.

Clearly, selective mutism is hard-wired into one’s DNA. Interestingly, many people with Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome who are able to speak also struggle with SM. Like his daddy and me, Truman is a carrier of the SLOS mutation. Researchers are only just beginning to learn ways in which carriers of the syndrome may be impacted in similar ways to those born with the syndrome. We SLO parents have often noted that our children who are carriers are almost as similar to each other’s carrier children as our kids with SLO are to each other.

Truman comes from a long line of anxious people. (Then again, who doesn’t?) Helping my kids learn to manage their feelings and anxiety is something I have been doing for fourteen years. By happy chance, I have had plenty of practice in handling my own anxiety. How fortunate! 

And so today begins Day One of Camp Courageous, a summer camp designed specifically for kids with SM. Even though a big part of Truman was excited to attend a fun summer camp, he had trouble sleeping last night and also told me during our long drive this morning that his tummy hurt. He said, “maybe it would be better if I just stayed with you with my head in your lap.” Now this is a heart-melting request to any Mommy. But I assured him that I knew he could handle the day, and we walked toward the camp together.  He squeezed my hand extra tightly and paused to look at me before we entered the room. Neither of us said a word during that five-second pause. And then Truman stepped through the door, gently pulling me along with him. Saying goodbye felt a lot like dropping him off on his first day of kindergarten – a mixture of sadness, fear and excitement – for both child and parent.

Part of the art of mothering includes knowing when to give a child a gentle push into a situation that challenges him. I know that Truman needs not only to overcome his social anxiety, but also to feel the sense of mastery that accompanies such an accomplishment. I know that I can no longer speak for Truman. I know that he needs to find his own voice. I know that “protecting” him from this scary journey would also prevent him from tackling this challenge. And so I hugged my sweet boy goodbye, saving my few tears until I rounded the corner. 

I feel Truman’s bravery and confidence transferring to me this morning. If he can face this daunting week, then I can find the strength to let him go off into this arena without his Mommy. I excitedly look forward to Truman using his newfound voice, something I will absolutely never take for granted.