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Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, parenting

Airplanes

August 20, 2017
plane

By Billie Hinton

1961

I’m being held in the arms of someone while my mother and father board a plane. We’re on the tarmac and they walk away and up the steep steel stairway into what appears to be a black hole. I push away from the chest I’m held up against, straining to follow the two people I know best in this world. The stairs roll away and the black hole closes and the plane moves away, slow and then fast. The black hole opens up inside of me; everything I know slips into the distance with that plane. I stop pushing and cave in to the chest, allow myself to be held, hot tears soaking into fabric that does not smell like anything familiar.

1985

In his small office my therapist sits too close for comfort, my knees and his a few inches apart. I find solace in the large window that looks out to trees and flowering shrubs. The wash of light through blinds is an escape hatch. He asks for my earliest memory. I tell about watching my parents leave in an airplane. He asks if I felt comfort with the person I was left with and I tell him I don’t know who that person was. It seems unfathomable that my parents left me with a stranger. How did you calm yourself? he asks and I tell him, I didn’t. I still don’t.

1988

In the office of my therapist, I write the final check for the final therapy session. His office feels larger now. The check number is 2001 and he comments that it has been an odyssey. I am moving to Texas to attend graduate school in clinical social work, inconsolable at saying goodbye to a man who has sat across from me several times each week for several years, knees inches away, wearing Birkenstocks which at one point I mocked, but have come now to love. After I leave I meet friends for lunch, still bereft at the loss of my thrice-weekly sessions, tears sliding down my cheeks at random between bites of food. One gives me his wristwatch to wear while we sit in the sun with take-out containers and iced tea in plastic cups. Comfort. Continue Reading…

Addiction, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, parenting

Poison In My Home

July 16, 2017
poison

By Kirsten Wasson

There is poison in my home. And the poison is my son.  My one and only child—Jonah, my soulful-eyed, shy-smiling son who paints landscapes of rocks that seem to have opinions, empty shimmering roads, and mounds of land floating in green fields rippling on the canvas. My son, an actor-hopeful who, with no help from anyone managed to get himself a manager for acting, a contract with L.A. Models. Jonah, my only living family–only child of an only child of only children, my blood, heart, and soul. My poisoned and poisonous son.

Maybe the poison is the reason my hands are shaking. Maybe it’s the reason I walk around and around my apartment like an addict looking for where he hid his last pill. Maybe the poison is the reason I keep wanting to get to CVS to buy bleach and then wash my son’s dingy gray-white  shirts; I want to make something clean.

It is the week of Thanksgiving.

It’s been exactly a year since Jonah came to the full realization that all the memories and dreams about his father touching him when he was about 3 are accurate. A year ago, Jonah flew to Syracuse, New York for Thanksgiving at his dad and stepmom’s house. He spent three days there. Then he got back on the plane, and ordered a drink–after having been stone cold sober for two years and eight months. Working the steps in a rehab, and then a sober living community, and then moving on, out into a relationship with Anna, and working in a rehab. After all that, he just got on the plane and ordered a drink.

Jonah didn’t tell me about the drink on the plane; he told Anna, and said that he thought he was able to have a drink with her now and then. She was naïve; she didn’t understand addiction. She loved Jonah. He said he wanted to be able to have the occasional drink with her, that he’d decided he could drink like a “regular person.”  And so, Anna drank like the regular person she was, while he drank like an addict, keeping bottles in his backpack and on the grounds of their apartment complex. He was also consuming pot most of the day, though she didn’t know.

One night Jonah got furiously angry at something small and then furiously sad at something small and, Anna told me later, he said in a wild, quiet voice that he’d realized in Syracuse that his dad had molested him. “I knew it when I got in the car with him at the airport.  When I looked in his eyes.”

Anna repeated this to me a month and a half later; she called me just as I was getting into the elevator at school in Westwood where I taught English as a Second Language.

“I have to talk to you.” Anna’s usually low, gravelly voice was squeaking.

“Hold on. I’m getting into the elevator. Is Jonah OK?”

“Not really. Call me back.”

I rode the elevator down, imagining he’d lost his job as an R.A. at the rehab, or they’d gotten into a bad fight. I walked out of the building and across the alley to the Westwood Village Memorial Cemetery where there were benches for me to sit, and where no one but the dead could hear the conversation. Anna started with some background, about having been at her wit’s end with his recent behavior–mood swings, violent nightmares, and general erratic behavior.

“And he’s drinking. All the time.”

“What?! When?” I was shocked. He was, as far as I knew, completely sober.

“Since Thanksgiving.  Since Syracuse.”

“What?!”

“Kirsten, that’s not even the point. Jonah told me something. Those nightmares he’s having…they’re about something…that happened to him.”

It was about 4:30 on a hot L.A. February afternoon, and the graveyard was just getting cool, as the sun lowered and the sprinklers came on. I stood up and walked to a spot near the wall of famous dead, Marilyn Monroe among them. It had surprised me that Marilyn didn’t have a mausoleum in the cemetery; just one square in a bank of lost lives. But she did, every day, have fresh flowers, jammed into the alabaster cup by her name and dates.

“I don’t know what you are saying.”

“Jonah made me promise not to tell you.”

“I’m sure he did, but I need you to tell me.” I could feel that she wanted to tell me but felt loyal to Jonah. Anna and I did like each other and, to some extent, trusted one another.

“The dreams about being hurt. When he was little. Those are real.”

I remembered an awkward conversation with Anna a few months earlier; Jonah was working the night shift at the rehab center, and she and I went to a movie and had Chinese food.  She seemed both listless and worried, not like her usual tough, lively self.  She told me that Jonah had bad dreams about being chased or attacked, and would wake up flailing his arms, even trying to hit her. I listened but couldn’t really hear it, and I shelved it in some drawer of my brain. But now I remembered the conversation, my own uncomfortable-ness, and my thinking Anna was whining.

“Someone hurt him?” That made sense. Nine years of wondering why my son was so troubled, so angry, and a drug addict in and out of four rehabs. I had a cold, clarifying feeling I’d just been slipped a piece of paper with an essential clue. I got off the bench and started to stride across the graves, their wet, glistening grass.

“Was he…abused? Like, molested?”

“Yes. And he knows who.”

For a second I thought. “His dad. Is it Art?” A bizarre conclusion, but I was spinning, and reaching toward what made no sense, and what might just make perfect sense.

She was quiet.

“If it was his dad, Anna, then say nothing.”

Anna said nothing.

It felt like a thin, silver snake slithered inside my bloodstream, moving from my head, down my neck, into my heart cavity. Around me, the sprinklers were shuddering, rhythmically spraying into the air. The bottom 4 inches of my slacks were soaked. I was shocked, but not that surprised that Art had molested our son. I couldn’t have known back when it was happening because it didn’t happen when Art and I were still in the house together. I realized that, tried assuring myself with the idea that because I didn’t know, this was not as horrible as it was.

Here’s the “sense” it made: my ex-husband had been emotionally sadistic to me, and our sex life consisted of me tolerating a number of things I hated. I never once climaxed with him in ten years, and he didn’t care; I was, he told me, “frigid.”  There was also the glaring fact that Jonah had had a lot of intense tantrums from three to four whenever Art came to pick him up. I had thought the tantrums were about the divorce and separation anxiety. My therapist said it was normal. More things fell into place, including the baby talk Jonah used after returning to my house.

Three weeks after Anna told me, I brought it up with Jonah, despite Anna’s request that I not. I had to hear it from my son’s mouth, and know what he was feeling. We were in Woodland Hills, sitting on a bench outside of Trader Joe’s.

“Please don’t be mad at Anna, but she told me what you remembered. Or realized. About your childhood. When you were little.”

Jonah stood up, walked stiffly and swiftly around the bench. “I can’t fucking believe she told you that.” Then he threw himself on the bench. He looked away from me, down Ventura Boulevard, his long legs crossed at the ankles, his arms folded in a white t-shirt, his profile so defined: large forehead, long eye-lashes, full lips, and strong jaw. So like my mother’s, I often thought.  Without turning toward me, he said,

“Well so now that you know. Can you imagine that Dad would do that?”

“I can.”

He asked me a few questions about why I could, and I told him, without too many details. Still not looking at me, Jonah commanded: “Do not say a single word to Dad. Not a word. I would lose it. And become crazy.”

“Okay, Jonah,” I nodded.

A few days later, I found a therapist specializing in trauma, and Jonah saw her for a few visits and then stopped. She’d told him she needed him to be sober. Jonah was drinking, and also—although Anna didn’t know nor did I, imbibing pot all day.  By May, he’d lost his job at the rehab, and Anna had thrown him out. I didn’t blame her; he was yelling all the time, and punched a few holes in their walls. He was driving drunk.  He was poisoned and poisonous.

A funny thing about Jonah is that he always gets work, and always works hard. So, he got a certificate as a security guard, faked the drug test somehow, and got a job at L’Hermitage, a luxury hotel in Beverly Hills.  For four months, he lived in air b’ and b’s with four beds in a room or hostels, and worked nights at the L’Hermitage. When he spotted a celebrity, he’d text me. Escorted Tom Cruise and crew down elevator. Seemed nice. A lot of fillers in that face.” I’d get messages on my phone under my pillow as I was falling asleep. “Saw Cher fall down in the hall. Completely drunk. Pretty like a ghost.” I’d squeeze the phone in my palm until it started to sweat. My boy. At least he’s in touch. He is working. My son was damaged and in pain and I could do nothing.

Jonah was twenty-four years old, financially self-sufficient. I couldn’t make him go back to rehab, and he wasn’t even admitting that the drinking and pot were a problem.  I thought about Jonah all the time during that summer and saw him every few weeks. His affect ranged from forced smiles, “It’s all good, Mom,” to raging about Anna to crying about her. He shut me down when I brought up the molestation. He lost his contract with his modeling agency, and his acting manager was clearly almost done with Jonah because he missed appointments, and probably his auditions were lousy.

After years and years of therapy and Al-Anon, I know I can’t guide my son. I kept mumbling to myself the one Al-Anon slogan I could almost stomach, “Let Go and Let God.” Sometimes I prayed. Sometimes I hoped he’d get caught driving high and go to jail. Sometimes I thought about buying a gun and getting on a plane to Syracuse. I mean really thought about it. I looked up gun shops and the rules about purchasing a weapon in California.

In October I went to Chicago for a work conference, and let Jonah stay in my apartment and use my car; I was still thinking I should do things to help him. I was still in denial.  When I called to see how things were going, he screamed at me for checking up on him.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?! Leave me alone, Mom!”

“I’m worried about you driving when you’re tired and…maybe high?”

“I have a life, Mom. Or I’m trying to. Leave me the fuck alone.” He hung up.

I realized I’d made a mistake by letting him stay in my place and use my car, but all I could do was to ask God, who I wasn’t sure I believed in, to not let Jonah die.

When I returned, my apartment was a mess. Mad, worried, but not yet aware that Jonah’s life was close to imploding, I swept and swabbed and folded laundry. And then I found the piece of paper stuck in the couch that listed the drugs he’d bought, how much they cost, and the days he’d bought them. I recognized “Ox” for Oxycotin, but didn’t know “Roxies,” “Norco,” or “Girlfriend.”  He was doing opiates and cocaine.

***

Lucky to be alive, my son. Jonah does not feel lucky. He feels, he told me recently, “tainted.” I never heard him use that word before, and it’s not one I’d imagine him using. “I never feel clean, Mom. No one knows what I really look like–on the inside.”  I wanted to tell him he was beautiful and clean and good on the inside, but I don’t know what it feels like to be molested by a parent when you’re three years old. I don’t know how you carry a secret—one that you don’t even know the meaning of—for years, then find it inside dark dreams and feel it within yourself like a heavy, aching weight that will not let you go.

***

When, in late October after my Chicago trip, I told him I had found the scrap of paper, he shut me down. Into my cell phone I spoke sharply but still trying to sound like a person who understood him, telling him I knew he was doing pills and cocaine.

“I think you probably want me to know, Jonah. You left that paper for me to find…don’t you think?

“I fucking did not. You think you are so fucking smart. Have me all figured out. You don’t even know what that paper meant.”

“I looked up the things I didn’t know.”

“Aren’t you a genius, Mother.”  I don’t know who hung up first.

Every day I worried. Every day I tried to lead the life of the normal. I succeeded about twenty percent of the time. Most days I floated blankly through my new job as a counselor at a high school, then grocery shopping, yoga, talking to friends on the phone, making dinner, lying on the couch for hours watching tv. I got especially attached to “American Horror Story,” where the evil spirits, self-mutilation, and toxicity resonated.

Then in the middle of November, we had a conversation about his “tapering off.” Jonah called around ten one night from L’Hermitage on his cigarette break. I was still up, very alert, as I’d been waiting for months for this call.

“I know I can’t do this any longer, Mom.  I want to stop the opiates. I know I can; I did it before, right?! I’ll taper off. I am tapering off, actually.”

“Right. But before–you were in rehab, taking suboxone, that helped with the cravings, and you had around-the-clock professional care.”

“I want to quit, Mom. I’m already down to half of what I was using the last few months.”

Wanting to believe him, I said he could stay at my house the week of Thanksgiving—for 6 nights. During that time he would decide if he were going to go to rehab again or not. Monday he’d have to leave—for rehab or back to one of crappy hostels where he’d been staying.

The first few days I cleaned up his addled messes around my apartment after he left for work at noon, and then watched my favorite show. Scenes of carnage and violence—a decapitated witch spewing racist epithets, a couple having sex in a filthy hotel room, both aware of a stinking corpse in the bathtub, a woman gouging out her own eyes with a kitchen knife—these scenes kept me steady.

On Thanksgiving, Jonah and I went out to dinner. We both dressed up.

His pants wouldn’t stay up because he’d lost so much weight. I gave him my belt. I drove us  to a place I’d seen in a local magazine that looked classy and funky. The waitress flirted with him–as every waitress has ever done since Jonah was around nineteen. Jonah was warm and funny and sweet to me. He asked me about work, and whether I ever thought I’d meet the right man and how much that mattered to me. I didn’t flinch when he ordered a beer. And then I ordered a glass of wine. My salmon was perfectly grilled. On the way out, I asked the flirty waitress to take a photo of us.

It was like getting to see the sunlight after months inside somewhere cold and dark. I bathed in the strange grace of our being out to dinner together–a mother and son on a holiday–a bath made of milk and honey and normalcy. For the hour and a half we were out together, I did not think about whether Jonah would choose to go to rehab. I did not think about the fact that this was the anniversary of his recognizing that his father had molested him, and his starting to use again.

He had the couch, and I went to sleep in my bed for a few hours. I woke to hear the TV blaring.  I came out, and Jonah had fallen sleep in his clothes on the top of the sheets and blanket I’d left for him. His phone was right by my foot. I turned off the TV, and unlocked his phone; his password was his birthday. So I saw then, that earlier the same day he’d contacted someone to buy “chrissy.” That, I found out online–back in my bedroom–was crystal meth. And from what I could see on his phone, he’d been doing it for months.

I should have known: the weight loss, the staying up all night driving around after the hotel job, a certain hollow look in his eye. I should have noticed that hollow look. But he’d had not that look before, because he’d never done meth before. I pulled the covers off my bed and lay down in a hard nest on the floor next to my son. He was completely still on the couch.  I listened  to him breathe, thought of him breathing in his crib at two. Sometimes I slept on the floor next to him back then. His breathing calmed me, and I didn’t want to sleep next to Art. Now Jonah was sweating, and occasionally moaning. Eventually I went back to my bed because I saw we were both ghosts of our former selves, and if I were going to be the parent I better get sleep.

And although I intended to confront him in the morning. I could not. I thought he might run away if he knew I’d discovered the crystal meth. I needed time to think, to talk to someone else. There were three days until Monday. So I let him sleep late, shower, go to work. “Bye, Mom. See you tonight.”

Jonah leaves my apartment with a furtiveness that makes me nauseous. I feel the wet heat coming out my eyes. Then I pick up Jonah’s clothes, turn his pockets inside out. I look in his toiletry bag but find only toothpaste and floss. There is poison in my house, and the poison is my son, his pain, his attempt to numb his pain. My blood, my heart and soul. Now I know: My meth-addicted son. I walk around and around my apartment like an addict looking for his last bit of dope, last sources of known relief. My poisoned and poisonous boy.

Kirsten Wasson works as a college counselor at a high school in Los Angeles; four years ago she left a job as an English professor in Ithaca, New York, to move to LA and begin her life over at the age of 50. For many years she wrote a blog about the experience (www.lostandlaughinginla.wordpress.com), and she is now finishing a memoir on the subject. Kirsten has previously published a book of poetry with Antrim House Press, and her non-fiction pieces appeared in The Ithaca Times for ten years. Active in the L.A. storytelling scene, she recently won a “Best Of 2016” at the SHINE storytelling venue in Santa Monica.

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Fatherhood, Guest Posts, parenting

My Age of Fatherhood

June 28, 2017

By Vincent J. Fitzgerald

Parenthood was the furthest thing on my mind when you were thrust upon me, but I undertook the charge, and its grown-up responsibilities, because part of me desired to be a grown up. You were fragile, vulnerable, and needed me close. Fatherhood was the first time in my life someone needed me to survive, and although often confounded by its tasks, I adapted, and was saved from reckless games my peers played. I never looked back, fixed my eyes on you, and hoped your future bright.

Divorce darkened that future for a while, but I remained a steady presence during the death of our family. Infidelity and deception devastated you, and although you had grown some, you still needed my shoulder to provide your tears a place to land. The whole affair rocked you at peak suggestibility, and although my wounds were also deep, I ignored them to ensure I tended to yours.

You had been hospitalized for a million days during which I prayed for your return. The moment you felt the victory of verdure, we imploded, and I feared you would return to where people never smiled, and medicine was measured by voltage. It was more worry than could fit in me, but mine was a malleable mind, and it expanded to the point of burst synapse. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, parenting

When Mommy Hurts

June 23, 2017
pain

By Carrie Kempisty

I sit draped in a thin, blue sheet. Waiting. Chill bumps cover my bare legs and feet dangling from the crinkle-papered exam table. The tests have been run; I’ve been poked and prodded. My brain spins in circles of anticipation, like an airplane without clearance to land. The sudden, mysterious, physical pain that has been slowly crippling my body may, after today, have a name. Up to now, I’d mentally escaped inside a self-protecting, impenetrable bubble that’s been relentlessly bombarded on all sides. Fears, potential disaster, over reaction, denial, and sadness have all threatened to burst through the protective barrier.

My two young children used to ask me if I could play. Now they ask if I hurt, which I vehemently deny. This seemingly overnight change in my physical well-being has been frightening for all of us. I am an active, fit, energetic stay-at-home mom. I don’t often skip days of going to the gym to lift weights, run, or swim laps. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed a healthy dose of competition in running, biking, and swimming events. I was a personal fitness trainer for over ten years before I became a mother. It was hard enough to admit my pain to my athletic husband. How can I admit to my children that their mother has suddenly become less than the energized, non-stop, cheer and activity leader they’ve always known? Where’s the line between protecting them from witnessing my pain and outright lying to them? Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parenting

Purple Ball Day

June 16, 2017
purple

By Maureen Langloss

One April several years ago, the grocery store near my daughter’s school displayed a bouquet of plastic balls in all shapes and sizes. Spring in round, inflatable form. A particular purple ball caught my eye as I passed to pick Ainsley up from kindergarten. Purple was Ainsley’s favorite color, her only color. The ball registered that first day. Enormous and impractical and unstore-able. I desired it the second. By the third, I was imagining it in my daughter’s tiny, growing hands. On the fourth, I couldn’t sleep with worry that this ball would be gone before I got to it, purchased by someone who wanted it more. But there it was still in the store window the next afternoon, practically glowing. Screaming “AAAHHHHHHHHH.”

I zipped the ball into a giant canvas bag, much like a magician hides the egg in his mouth. Ainsley filled to the brim with curiosity when she saw me carrying it. I opened the bag slowly, with great ceremony, as she peered inside.

“It’s Purple Ball Day!” I announced.

“Purple Ball Day!” she shrieked, like she already knew what that meant. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parenting, Tough Conversations

Bedtime

June 7, 2017
bedtime

By Kristin Wagner

When I say goodnight to Christopher, I curl up next to him in his tiny bed. We listen to the first half of the nursery rhyme CD we’ve played every night for the last six years. I stay cuddled with him until the end of “The Three Little Kittens”; I use my hand as a puppet version of the disappointed mother cat mouthing the words, “And you shall have no pie” then I use my hand to kiss his cheeks as I tell him I love him and sneak over to Nicholas’s bed.

I rub Nicholas’s back and talk with him about his day until “The Wheels on the Bus” finishes up. We have a ritual of conversation that is identical every night, and is repeated on days when he feels most anxious or sad. I ruffle his hair and say, “I love you. Sweet dreams and good night. I’ll see you in the morning,” which he then repeats verbatim, “I love you. Sweet dreams and good night. He asks me, “Are you staying up?” “Yep.” I then wander back over to Christopher for one last hug before I turn on the seven minute CD. As a final reassurance Christopher often throws an arm around my neck tightly then releases me with a sweet but sassy, “You can go now.” Sometimes he has already fallen asleep and I sneak a kiss on his forehead then tiptoe away.

One night, when Nicholas was nine and Christopher was seven, I went to give Christopher his last hug. He perched a little stuffed owl named Syrup on my nose and said in Syrup’s high voice, “Hi, how are you today?”

That moment fell over me in a sort of crushing happiness that felt a little unfamiliar and scary. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parenting

What Makes A Good Mother?

May 1, 2017

By Robin Rivera

Some of us are naturally drawn to children and mothering leaving the rest of us wondering where this domestic gene came from, and why didn’t I get it. It’s not fun to me to stay home and cook and clean and change diapers. Well at first it was because it felt like playing house folding all the tiny laundry… until shit got real!

Nights awake crying, college deadlines, welfare deadlines, dating nightmares, lack of sleep, and of the most challenging… Facing childhood trauma when I look into the face of my hysterical child feeling ever ounce of terror I used to feel as a child. I have worked so hard to learn a healthier way to nurture my child especially through difficult times. But when the rubber hits the road I gotta tell you, I tend to fall apart Inside.

I sometimes lose my temper and fear I am the monster I’ve been dedicated to shielding my daughter from. I shame myself for being ill equipped to be a mother. I tell myself I’m damaged, and I can’t do it. In those moments I feel devastated like I’ve failed my life’s mission by breaking down when she needs me.

But this is the dance. The dance through trauma, the dance of life. I pick myself up off the ground, usually after calling a trusted friend, and I do my very best to nurture the aftermath of a storm. I hold my daughter and validate her feelings, I admit my wrong within minutes, we make a plan of how to support each other better the next time, and we express love. That’s the best I can do with this healing heart of mine. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parenting, Sexual Assault/Rape

The Conversation We’re Not Having With Our Sons

March 26, 2017

By Amy Hatvany

I don’t remember my parents talking to me about sex, other than making it clear that opening my legs to a boy before I got married was a sin. What I do remember is thinking that I was a lesbian because I masturbated—I knew girls who touch other girls were gay, so if I touched myself, didn’t that mean the same thing? I was confused, ill-informed, and scared, so I shoplifted a Penthouse Letters magazine when I was in middle school, desperate to understand my own body and if the raging, hormonal urges that sometimes took me over were normal. But instead of validation, what I found were graphic stories of women who submitted to men’s forceful, probing mouths, fingers, and dicks. These women protested at first—some of them even said no—but soon found themselves swooning, powerless to resist the “pleasure” of violation.

Years later, I would wonder if what I learned about consent from these descriptions—that it was a man’s job to make a woman realize what she really wanted; that her “no” was simply waiting to be turned into a yes—was part of what kept me from telling anyone about the boy who unzipped his jeans and jammed his erection into the back of my throat when we were sitting together in the front seat of his car. I was on the edge of fifteen, and he was older, someone I knew, someone I’d had a crush on, and so I didn’t fight, I didn’t try to stop him. I only endured, waiting for the pain and paralyzing terror of what he was doing to loosen its vice-like grip on my chest. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parenting

Foghorns

March 13, 2017
foster

By Emma Margraf

I might have shown more empathy. I might have been contrite. Parents should fall on their swords for the sake of their children but that’s not what I did. I stared at the stained, varnished surface of the table in the courtroom, calmed by the pot candy I’d eaten on the drive to the courthouse that kicked in just as our case was called. Now my long time foster daughter Jane, the plaintiff, and I, the defendant, sat at identical varnished tables.

Jane’s girlfriend’s mother, a woman I hardly knew, was sitting next to Jane and whispering in her ear. My own mother hadn’t liked Bella’s mother since early on. At 19, Bella lived at home, and when she went out of town her mother called Jane to come over to their house anyway because she said she was lonely, and missed Jane. They had ice cream. My mother thought this was weird, but I shrugged it off. I didn’t want to judge.

My father is a sailor, and I grew up on boats. In our parts of the water you spent a lot of time submerged in fog. You can find yourself completely without sight, the fog so thick that you can only see a few feet in front of you. To get where you need to go you rely on GPS systems and foghorns. The foghorn is a required element of boat life; ships sound them on a regular basis to warn other vessels of their presence. Large ships are a huge danger to smaller boats in the fog; but when you hear the sound you know where to avoid going. They are loud, they are startling, but you should always expect them as possible. That was never easy for me. Even in deep fog, I was surprised to hear them. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, parenting

A Visit From My Retired Parents Helped Reset My Anxiety Clock

February 23, 2017

By Marilyn Maloney

I’ve been riding a knife edge for too long. I have always worried, mostly about nothing, death, being alone when I’m old, some odd pain that could be a blood clot. Or not.

My daughter has been having more seizures lately. She is nine and lives with Leukodystrophy, causing her cerebral palsy, seizures, impaired swallowing, and overall low muscle tone. Researchers suspect they have found the genetic cause, and will tell us as soon as they prove their suspicions. Four long years have gone by since their discovery, and Maddy has developed daily seizures that can last up to a minute. Lately they have increased in intensity. Instead of a barely noticeable eye flutter, they come with a grimace and outstretched arm.

My son wakes up sniffling, followed by the telltale cough. His eczema puts his IgE levels 50 times higher than they should be, so the blood tests say he’s allergic to everything except cocoa. This year he developed asthma. The ER had a teddy bear on his bed when he was admitted, and “Jack” the bear sleeps with him now.

We pump Jimmy full of five different medications when the cough shows up, following his Asthma Action Plan from the Immunologist. Steroid inhaler each morning and night, steroid nasal spray and Zyrtec before school, albuterol before recess, and we pray we never need the Epi-pen. I label all his foods and send him “emergency snacks” in case he ever forgets his lunch. He has a pre-K crush on the school nurse. And the teachers like him, so he already ran out of emergency cookies. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parenting, Special Needs

Touch Down

January 13, 2017
down

By Angela Dawson

Larry was making the most of his freedom.

After three hours cooped up and airborne, he relished the opportunity to stand on his own two tottering feet. My husband queued at the hire car counter; Larry wandered wherever he fancied. We took turns, his siblings and I, being his shadow. We held a hand, or let him roam free, always one step behind.

As I scurried after him, I caught sight of John and his mother. We’d met on the plane earlier. Inveterate travellers, they’d spent seven weeks in Australia at the start of the year. They’d feared the marathon flight—he gets terrible pain in his back if he sits too long—but being chair-crammed for twenty-four hours troubled him none.

Each year, they visit The White Isle to spend time with the mother’s cousin who, decades before, came for a spell, fell in love and married a native Ibicencan. After his death several years ago, a Brazilian captured her heart. The cousin and the Brazilian used to run a farm, but now cherish the space and the slowed down pace. It sounded idyllic. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, parenting

Always

January 4, 2017
tantrums

By Kristi Rabe

I’m not your typical writer. I had a great childhood. Yes, I was odd and the entire school made sure I was keenly aware of that fact. I was ridiculed and bullied, but I had a great family. We weren’t well off, but every summer there were campouts and vacations. Every Christmas and birthday was made magical by my parents and every night we sat together as a family and ate dinner and talked. My parents taught me the importance of family, so that all I ever wanted as a little girl was to be a mom – not just any mom. I wanted ten kids. However, after my oldest son was born in 1995, I faced 7 years of infertility, an emergency hysterectomy, 3 failed adoptions, and a divorce. Life never really goes as planned.

My youngest son was born June 6, 2006. I’ve learned the importance of saying it this way. Like spelling my last name before saying it, stating the month, day, and year instead of abbreviating with 6/6/06 usually saves the awkward conversations of Satan and wide eyes of worry and fear. You’d think in this day and age, such a thing wouldn’t be so controversial, but it is and I admit at times I’ll say it short hand to fuck with someone. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parenting, The Hard Stuff

To Tell A Happy Story

December 30, 2016

By Steve Edwards

Early on there were nights I thought my son might die, and I thought it might be better for us all if he did. If on those nights his crying ebbed and his breathing stilled, I would lie in bed waiting, listening, the way you lie and wait and listen if you suspect an intruder in the home. I imagined Rebecca at the funeral, out of her mind with grief, and how in the days that followed sorrow would be all we knew, until one day—years later, perhaps—we would have made our peace with what had been taken from us. I kept this to myself and it skewered me because I loved my son like nothing else.

Had he been born with some physical problem? Some incurable disease? No. Aside from mild jaundice and a hemangioma, the doctors pronounced him perfectly fit and we brought him home to begin the life we had been imagining for so long. The life of a happy, healthy, and loving family.

The trouble started that first week when Rebecca’s milk didn’t come in. We bought the special nursing pillow, the pumps and bottles. We went to a lactation consultant. Maybe our son wasn’t sucking right, getting a good seal. Or maybe Rebecca needed to pump more often. Or maybe, the consultant finally suggested, Rebecca was suffering post-partum depression and wasn’t trying hard enough. Not ten days before, Rebecca had had a completely natural childbirth—not so much as an aspirin crossed her lips during labor or delivery—and it wasn’t painful, she assured me, but joyful, full of love. And even that first night in the hospital, when our son couldn’t stop crying and we didn’t have a pacifier: I stood by his crib and let him suck the tip of my thumb for over an hour because somewhere in our copious preparations we had read that this might comfort an infant. My wife and I are people who try our hearts out. But you can’t try to make milk come in. It comes or it doesn’t.

When our son began experiencing colic-like symptoms—“inconsolable crying, distress, irritability, sleeplessness”—our pediatrician told us we had gotten unlucky but that it would pass. We tried to laugh it off. We smiled through our tiredness and the well-meaning comments and teases from family, friends, elderly checkers at the grocery store: about how hard it is, how it would get better with time. We looked forward to when he would surprise us by sleeping the night.

As the first wearying, wondrous days of his life turned into weeks and months, an edge crept into his voice. He started screaming. He screamed every day, screamed, at such a high pitch and volume that if he screamed as I held him on my shoulder after a feeding, my ears would ring for hours. He was a shrill, writhing knot of muscle. Still too young to lift himself up on his arms, he somehow found the strength to buck his entire body away from us. We laid him on the changing table, on a blanket on the floor, on a couch cushion, on a chair, and we turned on ceiling fans, radio static, music soft and loud, and always—his face puckered and red, his tiny hands curled into fists—he wailed. Often without shedding tears. During the first snowstorm of his life, I rushed him outside thinking the dizzying zigzag of snowflakes might calm him down. It didn’t work. Nothing worked. In our exhaustion and fear, Rebecca and I argued bitterly until we lost even the words to say why we were mad or what was happening to us. Or to him. Or what we should do now. We were attached parents—devoted, gentle—and we never once touched our son in a way that wasn’t loving. But as three months turned to six, nine, and twelve, an instinctual, insuppressible rage sometimes welled up in me, and I slammed doors, kicked over chairs. On bad nights it took everything I had not to bend down and scream shut up into his little face. Not to fling him across the room.

At the doctor’s office we put on a brave front and did not complain. Down deep, of course, we were incredibly scared. After having dragged ourselves in multiple times for vaccinations and well-checks that provided no remedy or respite, we debated: Should we go again? Will they be able to tell us anything this time? Are we going too often? Finally, we brought in a cellphone video of his screaming, evidence that to us clearly meant something was wrong. Nonsense, our pediatrician said. He’s going through a “screechy” phase. Stretching out his vocal chords. The footage of his full-body convulsions on our changing table at home didn’t alarm her in the least. She prescribed an antacid and said we could try to make him “a little happier.” He was still steadily gaining weight after all. And after doling out a few final pieces of advice, she quickly excused herself.

On our way home that day, Rebecca wept in the car and said she felt like an abuser. We could not save him.

For our own survival, we fell into shifts. Since Rebecca took care of so much during the day (feedings, laundry, dishes, bills, her own work as an editor) while I taught my writing classes at the University of Nebraska, I picked up the slack at night. When his crying started at one, two, three in the morning, I rose and went to him. I changed his diaper. I tightened his swaddle blankets. I rubbed his little back. If he had spit out his pacifier, I put it back in his mouth. I held him in my arms and sang in a whisper. And always my mind went down the ever-growing checklist of what could be wrong. Was he hungry? Thirsty? Was he too cold? Too hot? Did we need a white-noise machine to imitate the sound inside the womb? Did we need to let him cry it out? Was he napping too much during the day? Was he overstimulated? Was he just fussy? Spoiled? Trying to manipulate us? In those moments in the darkness, alone with my son, I blamed myself for never having an answer that helped him.

Other men pulled off fatherhood with such grace and humor, and with multiple kids: the difference, I thought, had to have been me. Our son’s crying was a problem because I wasn’t patient enough. Because I wasn’t man enough. The thought that he might die, that it might be better for us all if he died: I saw it as a personal flaw, and the night shifts were my penance. Sometimes he slept for an hour or two between crying jags. Other times it was only ten minutes. Rebecca would roll over, drowsily ask if I needed help. But if the two of us got involved, half-asleep and tense, it could lead to a fight, and that was the last thing we needed. I would tell her I was already up, that everything was fine, that she should rest. To keep myself awake I shouted into my pillow, punched myself in the thigh. Whatever it took. Again and again, over weeks and months that slowly turned into a year, then two, I rose in the night and went to our son.

***

Through it all we were compulsive about documenting his good times. We kept a camera with us and were ready at a moment’s notice when any smile, like a ray of sunlight, passed over his face. To tell a happy story about our child, even if slightly fictional: we needed that. For all of his desperation and pain, he was still an incredibly beautiful boy. Dark blue eyes and soft honey-blonde curls. Chubby dumpling cheeks inherited from Rebecca’s Polish family. He was the baby strangers at the grocery store, men and women alike, stopped in their tracks to coo over, who people called a little doll. Rebecca organized our pictures of him on Facebook to share with friends and family, and in any spare moment of downtime she and I found ourselves scrolling through them, hungry for the lives of wonder and enchantment the pictures suggested.

And, yes, there were the rare good days: the times we put him in the stroller and, one foot in front of the other, walked the neighborhood. There were the days we stopped to chat with friends down the street about Nebraska football or the weather. He would sleep a bit, then wake and keenly take in the world, and even play peekaboo and giggle a little. We began to wonder if it were all in our heads.

I remember one day we came home at dusk to the sound of a robin chirping in the maple tree in our yard, and that sound—those gurgling chirps—lifted me out of myself, out of my pain, out of despair.

Other days I managed to write for an hour or two, or garden in the backyard, or cook Rebecca a nice meal and chat with her in the evening as we watched television. For those few hours his screaming and screeching, his terrible sleep, as well as his new symptoms—the eczema scarring both his cheeks and forehead, his distended belly and disgusting bowel movements—belonged to a distant, harmless past. On the good days we were as optimistic as we had been on the night he was born.

Unfortunately, there was no method for inducing one of those infrequent good days. What calmed him on one occasion could provoke him on the next. If one thing went wrong—if none of our bottles were clean and we had to wash one before feeding him, and, if in the time it took us to wash the bottle he started to cry—nothing brought him back. Theories about his pain dominated our talk. We got different brands of diapers. We changed formulas. Changed detergents. We got him softer sheets and an organic mattress pad. We put him to sleep in his crib in his room, in a swing, in a co-sleeper by our bed. We put him to bed early, kept him up late. Fed him vitamins, a probiotic. Every minute of every day was consumed by the most basic of necessities: getting him to eat, getting him to sleep, getting him to stop crying. Like wild animals—like wolves frantic over a wounded body in the pack, faced with blood, raw bone—we circled and paced around our helpless child. We kept a vigilant watch for clues, for answers that never came.

In the meantime, in our hour of need, Rebecca’s job—our main source of income while I was in grad school, and which allowed her to work from home and be with the baby full-time—was slashed by two-thirds. Friends fell away. Certain academic mentors shunned, admonished, or ignored us. Only a chosen few understood our predicament: we were not sleeping; we had no money. Then after my graduation and a year spent working as a lecturer, my job, too, was cut. We were grief-stricken, exhausted, broke, burdened with student loans coming due, and fearful about the credit card debt we were racking up in order to pay for diapers and groceries. During the twenty-minute spurts of his nap times, I tapped out cover letters to schools in far off California and New England, and waded through the bureaucratic hell of unemployment. My caseworker, a former teacher himself, told me that in this economy I would be better off if the letters behind my name were GED instead of PhD.

Rebecca and I talked about how many months we had before we would have to ask my parents if they could put us up in their basement. They lived five hundred miles away in Indiana, and the job prospects there were worse than in Nebraska. Rebecca’s father was out of the picture, and her mother passed away twenty years before, taken too young by breast cancer. We cashed in the small investments we had worked hard to accumulate and lived in fear of what new bills might arrive in the mail.

This was not how our lives were supposed to turn out. I should have had a job to support us, to at least get us the essentials. Rebecca should have had the chance to be the mother that she herself had only known for so long, the chance to be healed by love and loving. Our son should have known so many things: calm and comfort, the warmth of our arms, the wonder of a budding consciousness.

When we first decided to have him I had been scared of everything that could go wrong: with his health, with Rebecca’s health, with money and jobs. I did not know what kind of father I would be, and I worried I would lose my writing, my sense of self. I was anxious, too, over the fact that part of bringing a child into the world meant offering that child—and also myself, Rebecca—to the infinite variety of suffering life devises for us all. On our walks around the neighborhood with our dog, as we held hands and talked and made plans, I had a hard time imagining how I would feel as a father, and what would be different. In the mornings, as we laid in bed together—as I held Rebecca and cradled an arm around her growing belly—I wondered if I had made a huge mistake, if I would be found out as a fraud. At the same time, I knew how much Rebecca wanted this. Every night I watched her as she sat with her laptop, reading books on natural childbirth, buying baby clothes and slippers and BPA-free baby bottles, combing websites for tips, and making lists of all the other things we would need. Each time UPS brought a box to the door, she opened it and pulled out a prize to show me: alphabet flashcards to hang on his wall, a wrap for carrying him around, Sophie the teething giraffe.

If anything gave me the courage to face my fears about fatherhood it was the joy Rebecca felt preparing for his arrival. It was contagious. I began to imagine him, his soft weight on my shoulder some Saturday in the fall as I watched a college football game, the sighing up and down of his breath.

But that scene never played out. In the first eighteen months of his life, he fell asleep in our arms exactly three times (and then only out of exhaustion). I became angry, sullen, withdrawn. Jittery and lacking a good reaction time due to the sleep deprivation, Rebecca didn’t feel safe on the road and stopped driving. Our walks with the dog got fewer and farther between. The toys and trinkets we bought before our son was born stayed in their boxes or were played with once and set aside. The night’s adrenaline-spiked confusion left us hung over and wanting only to be alone between work and caretaking shifts, and in the mornings we did not hold each other. Instead we gradually became a family of shut-ins who only left the house when absolutely necessary, for work, groceries, the doctor. Any leftover energy went right back into our son’s care.

***

Two months before his second birthday, I landed a phone interview with a school in New England and needed the house to myself for a few hours. Rebecca took him to the zoo. There was a train at the zoo, and she wanted to treat him to his first ride. But before they got to the train, he went ashen and started crying. She took him to the bathroom to change his diaper, and once she got his pants down he panicked, started screaming. Afraid of what the other women in the bathroom would think, she hurriedly pulled his clothes on and brought him out into the light of day. She took him to a park bench, held him, rocked him, offered him a sip of water, some animal crackers. He was confused and shrieking, and several times he tried to run away from her but she held him tight, spoke to him in as soothing a voice as she could manage. Finally, when he still did not calm down, she walked him to the car, buckled him into his car seat, and drove around town, in tears herself, until she was sure my interview was over.

“I can’t take my son to the zoo? To ride the goddamned train?” Back home she came in the door, angrier and more frantic than I had ever seen her. “I’m calling Tricia.” Tricia was our new pediatrician, a woman I had known from one of my writing classes at school. She was writing a novel set on a ranch in western Nebraska.

“What’s she supposed to do?” I said.

“She can get us a bed at Children’s Hospital in Omaha. I’m calling her. I don’t care if it’s the ER. We’re going.”

“Hon—”

“We’re going.”

She stormed off to the bedroom to call Tricia, and I looked at our son where he sat on the floor. His eyes were puffy and red. He seemed a little dazed, out of it. Rebecca had convinced herself he had celiac or an intestinal blockage, something with the gut, and she wanted an endoscopy performed. I edged away from that. The thought of surgery scared me: a masked doctor leaning over our precious child.

I picked him up, stood in the doorway.

“Yes. Okay,” Rebecca said.

She shouldered past me to the kitchen and wrote something on a piece of paper. I shifted him uneasily from one arm to the other. He was heavy, awkward. Finally she hung up the phone and turned to me.

“We’ve got a bed.”

“For when?”

“Tonight.” She went back to the bedroom, began packing an overnight bag for the three of us. “They may scope him.”

I said I didn’t understand. If he needed an endoscopy why hadn’t Tricia ordered one before? What had changed? He had a meltdown at the zoo? He had meltdowns every day. And what the hell were the doctors supposed to tell us that they had not already told us? No matter the symptoms we described or the photos and videos we brought in, he was meeting his physical and developmental milestones. And what if the scope proved as inconclusive as everything else had? What then?

“I don’t care,” Rebecca said.

There was a fierceness in her voice—she had made up her mind and nothing was going to change it. So I said nothing more. It was lunchtime anyway. I put him in his high chair, set about making his milk, dumping applesauce in a bowl. Rebecca put our bags by the door. The house was quiet.

All afternoon I worried about what would happen at the hospital. And if they didn’t find anything wrong with him, what would they think of us for having brought him in? Out of my confusion the only reasonable thing seemed to talk to Tricia myself, to make sure we were in the right. So before we left for the hospital, I put in the call. I asked point blank if she thought an endoscopy was necessary. No, she said, frankly, she did not. “Then why even get us a bed for the night?” I asked.

“For Mom’s peace of mind.”

“What?”

“Well, if we can make Mom feel better,” she said, “that’s probably what we should do. We should make Mom feel better.”

I thanked her and hung up the phone, feeling sick to my stomach. She thought it was Rebecca—thought it was us. Part of me thought it was us, too. We were first-time parents without family nearby. We were under a tremendous amount of strain because of money. And even though we both feared something was wrong, he did have his good days. But I still could not get clear of the fact that if it were all in our heads, why could he not sleep for more than a few hours at a time? Why was he so fussy? Why did he shriek? Why was his belly distended? Why the alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea? And why, no matter how we worked at his care, could we not comfort him?

When it was time for us to go to the hospital, we prepared—as we had learned to— down to the smallest detail. We packed the car with snacks, sippy cups, diapers, multiple changes of clothes, pillows, blankets, baby books, books to read, magazines, the iPod, Rebecca’s laptop. On our way out of town, we picked up sandwiches and drove north to the interstate under an indelible powder-blue sky. Instead of our normal route, I took an ill-advised shortcut that ended in a barricade of flickering ROAD CLOSED signs. Rebecca stared out the window, silent, as I turned us around. We snaked through side-streets and made our way to the outskirts of town, where houses and gas stations gave way to hot green cornfields rippling in the breeze. Up ahead, a grain elevator towered over a set of railroad tracks. No sooner had I spotted the crossing than bells sounded, red lights flashed. Here came the train—a freighter loaded with coal from Wyoming. It was huge and moving at a steady clip, and the roar as it approached and pounded down the tracks ate up every other sound. I pulled over to the side of the road, cut the engine. The rattling and clunking of its cars, the grinding screech of steel on steel: I felt it pulsing through me, from the hollow of my chest to the tips of my fingers. I thought maybe getting stopped like this, a second time, was a sign. Maybe we shouldn’t go. In the passenger’s seat, Rebecca looked pale and overtired, as though that morning’s flood of anger and determination had receded into the deep channel of weariness from which it had spilled. I asked her what she wanted to do. She shrugged, said she didn’t know. In back, in his car seat, our son turned a Dr. Seuss book over and over in his little hands. I loved him so much. He was sick, and I did not want him to be sick.

I started the car and drove us home.

Steve Edwards is author of the memoir BREAKING INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY, the story of his seven months as caretaker of a backcountry homestead along the Rogue River in Oregon. His writing can be found in Orion Magazine, The Rumpus, Electric Literature and elsewhere. He lives in Massachusetts.

What’s Jen Pastiloff’s workshop all about anyway? It’s about being human. Connecting. Finding your voice. Not being an asshole. Singing out loud. Sharing your fears. Bearing witness. Telling your fears to fuck off & fly. Listening. Moving your body. Laughing. Crying. Finding comfort. Offering comfort. Letting go. Creating.
Next one after this is NYC Feb 4 at Pure Yoga West. You don’t need to be a yogi at all. Just be a human. Click photo to book.

 

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. June 17-24 OR Sep 9-16. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, parenting

From The Quiet Corner

December 26, 2016

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

How many times when kids are young do parents essentially shake off their child’s upset? “You fell? You got up! You’re worried? You’re awesome!” We aim to bolster self-esteem; we keen toward reassurance.

The other day, my daughter asked why Trump won. We were walking to her gymnastics practice. “You know, our country really doesn’t agree about how to make things better,” I told her. “So, sometimes the great person wins and sometimes someone wins we don’t agree with. Everyone wants the world to be better,” I assured her.

“I was really looking forward to telling my kids that when I was eight turning nine in 2016, we elected our first girl President,” she said.

“I know, me too,” I replied. “I was looking forward to your kids hearing that. I do think we’re going to get a girl President.”

“Maybe I will be the first girl President!” Continue Reading…