Kindergarten and the Big Bad Bus

bus-878697_1920Daughter: I was in my bedroom listening to the clinking of spoons downstairs as my family finished breakfast. I was the only one getting ready for school because my sisters were still young enough to stay home. I longed to stay home with them and make up fun games to play together. Or at the very least, I longed to bring them with me. But they were not old enough for kindergarten. They did not have to ride the bus.

The bus was by far the worst part of kindergarten. There were some parts of kindergarten that I kind of liked, such as my friend Emily who sat next to me for circle time and who played with me at recess. But I did not like any part of kindergarten nearly enough to make up for how much I hated the bus. I was deathly afraid of it. It was always filled to the brim with first and second and third and fourth grade kids who pushed and yelled and stood up in the back and made the bus driver mad. It was so so SO very loud. And getting off the bus when we arrived at school was downright terrifying. I was sure every single day that I would be flattened like a piece of play-dough into the  aisle floor by the stampede of students rushing to the door. And getting back onto the bus to go home at the end of the day was just as scary with the added fear (be it irrational) that I might forget to get off at my house and be stuck on the bus alone all night.

 

Today I really did not want to ride the bus. Even more so than the day before and the day before and the day before. I stepped into my closet and shut the door. In the closet was an old wooden hope chest where my sisters and I kept our dress-up clothes. Desperate and without thinking, I opened it and climbed inside, lowering the heavy lid over myself as I curled into a ball. It was quiet and pitch black in my hiding place and I relished in the comfort of this. This was definitely my best hiding spot yet. I had tried hiding from the bus before, but only once the bus arrived and the panic set in, and then it was more like a chase than a hide – me running around to the back yard and one of my parents running after me. They hated putting me on the bus, I could tell. Sometimes one of them would drive me to school, but most of the time that was not an option.

 

I waited in my cozy hiding place feeling both nervous and hopeful. After a few minutes, I heard my dad’s footsteps coming upstairs. He opened my bedroom door and when he didn’t see me, he tried the bathroom. His footsteps started to speed up as he called down to my mom. She hurried upstairs and joined him in the search. Their footsteps were getting faster and faster, their voices more frantic. They even checked my closet, but not the hope chest.  So far so good, I thought. Maybe I wouldn’t have to ride the bus today after all.

 

Then I heard my dad say something about calling the police and my heart started pounding. I knew I couldn’t stay in my safe little cave for much longer. I heard the terror rise in my mom’s voice as she called my name over and over again and it was too much to bear, so I crawled out. I chose to relieve their panic instead of my own.  I chose to be put onto the bus crying that day.  I chose my worst fear over theirs.

 

Little Girl, Big Emotions

Daughter: The best part about growing up with sisters was having two built-in best friends. Home was always my favorite place to be and my sisters were always my favorite people to be with. We were perfectly spaced apart with a little over two years between each of us. By the time Bethany, the youngest, arrived I was a little over four years old and already the best of friends with my two-year-old sister, Jill. But Jill and I were ready to welcome another member into our circle. I adored them both. They were perfect and the three of us were perfect for each other.

But, although I never showed any major signs of jealousy, I think it was there a little bit from time to time after Bethany arrived. Or maybe jealousy isn’t the right word, but I could definitely sense a slight shift in my mother – probably due to the tiredness and overwhelm that comes with bringing a newborn home to two small children and a working husband – and it bothered me. I was so in tune with her mood that any hints of uncertainty or stress in her voice or body language immediately became uncertainty and stress of my own.

She was just as gentle, calm, and attentive as always, but nevertheless I could see and hear that she was a little extra tired and that her hands were a little extra full. I could see the tiny hesitation in her body as she pondered over how to free up her hands to fold the laundry, make a phone call, help me zipper my jacket. I could hear the occasional “um” in her voice as responding to a two and four year olds’ endless questions and requests was surely a little more complicated with a crying infant in her arms who had needs that were a bit more immediate than shoe-tying, story-reading, and fruit-peeling. There was just a small pause about her now as she adjusted to the art of mothering three – an art that she took to naturally and gracefully. But within that small pause was space enough for my ever-sensitive awareness to take note that Bethany, my precious youngest sister, must be the cause for this subtle but necessary adjustment period.

So I hit her one day when our mom left the room to use the bathroom. There she was, sweet as could be laying in her car seat looking at me. I could have been like my mother; I could have been patient and kind and calm. But I have never been very good at pausing. So I bent over and I slapped my beautiful baby sister on the top of her head. She started crying and the guilt immediately planted itself like a heavy jagged rock deep within my sternum and there it stayed. 

 

Mother of Girls

Mother: After my third daughter was born, the realization began to seep in that I would have three sets of eyes, watching me, learning what it means to move through this world as a female. As overjoyed as I was with being a mother of girls, and I truly was, I also wondered if mothers of boys had it easier simply because their offspring was the other.

It was not as if the enormity of the responsibility as role model hit me all at once, exactly. It was more like a slow drip drip into my gut.

While in the thick of caring for a young family, it becomes alarmingly easy to begin to forget oneself, one’s potential, ambitions or dreams, outside of family life. Family can become synonymous with Self.

And although I was blissfully focused on raising my daughters, (okay, it wasn’t always bliss- it was damn hard sometimes too) years turned into decades, and I would later wonder if I might have robbed them of the chance to see a mother with a career, pursuing goals outside the home, making money, earning a living. 

Sure I would eventually pursue my creative goals while they were still young, but until they were nearly grown, it never took up more than a very small space in my life.  

What if it wasn’t enough to be a female role model who was happy, had a healthy body image, a solid and loving relationship with their father?  What if I was suppressing a deeper longing for fulfillment and leaving something very critical out of the equation?

Those were questions I would ask later  – and I know it is a privilege to be able to ponder this.

 At the time though,  with a new baby girl added to our family, I just kept loving them all, and occasionally slipping away, for a few hours, a day or a weekend, to write down my thoughts. These thoughts would eventually, over the course of many years and words, lead to the birth of a creative vocation. 

Did being such a later bloomer in this way deprive my daughters of something? (because this is what mothers always ask, right? How did I do for them? Was it enough? And don’t mothers of daughters demand an answer of themselves more so than mothers of sons? Or maybe not, I don’t know. I will never know.)

And would I have done it differently for myself? 

Maybe? I don’t know.

Everything seems as it should be today, so probably not.

Does it really matter?

 

 

 

 

I Want My Mother: An Overwhelmed Preschooler’s Perspective

 

Daughter: I thought maybe if I cried loud and long enough my mother would come running back in, scoop me up, and realize this was not where I belonged. I needed her and I needed her to know that I needed her. I needed the teachers to bring my mother back in here because I felt alone and scared and did not want anything else in the world but her.

I don’t remember when or how the teachers finally succeeded in coaxing me out from under the table that first day of preschool. I don’t remember anything else about that day. But being under the table crying for my mother is something I remember vividly and I think it’s because my need for her as a highly sensitive 2.9 year-old was so primal and strong that being separated from her left a stamp in my memory.

The preschool days following my dramatic first day are mostly a blur now. I remember some things, such as the finger painting station that I liked, and circle time which made me feel squished and crowded and itchy. Mostly though, I remember the feeling of preschool. It felt big. Not always scary, but never calm and always confusing.

Among what felt like a sea of children and teachers and noise and movement, it was all I could do to keep up with what was going on. I could not make out single voices or clear instructions above the sounds of chairs being pushed in, children laughing, teachers directing, toys dropping, hands clapping, feet stomping, jackets being zippered, children being counted, faucets running, toilets flushing, doors opening, doors closing, the teacher speaking quietly – finally quietly – in my ear.

Right in my ear and I could hear her now. She asked me a question and I nodded my head because I didn’t talk in preschool. Not much anyway. My senses were too busy processing everything around me and who would even hear me anyway? My voice was soft and low and worked just fine at home, but not here. Here, everyone’s voices seemed to be loud and high-pitched and easily audible. So I saved my voice for at home, and at preschool I used my eyes and my ears. I used them so much that by the time I got home, they were all used up. I was all used up.

From Joy to Preschool: Selective Mutism

 

Mother: When Brittni was two years old, her baby sister Jill was born.  I remember the first time Brittni saw Jill, at the hospital. She was  immediately fascinated by her and seemingly full of instant sisterly love.  Jill quickly grew to adore her “big sister”.  We were all happy to be a family of four. Trips to the playground or grocery store took a bit more effort now with two little ones in tow, but everything was still quite manageable.

Often when we were out and about, strangers would comment on Brittni’s mane of deep red hair. She would grimace if they approached her to stroke her head. Sometimes I was able to intervene in time, and other times not.  Having a sensitive child makes one well aware of the boundaries many adults will cross with children that they wouldn’t consider with adults. It was an early sign of a subtle attitude of non acceptance for the child who doesn’t go along. Some adults seemed put out if Brittni rejected their advances. They viewed her as unfriendly or too fussy, but how would they have liked strangers patting them on the head?

Brittni greatly enjoyed outdoor play, so long as the temperature wasn’t too hot which would cause her porcelain white skin to break out into an itchy rash. Indoors, she colored and drew, played with  playdough, cut and taped and glued. She loved anything arts- and -crafty. She also got pleasure out of making Jill laugh, and of finding ways to let Jill in on her fun. 

These very early years bring back memories of contentment and joy. Later years do too, but these first precious years are void of the anxiety that would begin to plague Brittni when her world began to expand. For now, she was happy, confident and secure, the buffer of babyhood keeping the amplified world from closing in on her.

Brittni was just shy of three years old when she began preschool. She was my firstborn and like many new mothers, I thought this was an exciting time. I accepted without question the typical path of school for children, and preschool was the proverbial starting line. Looking back, I think my instincts told me she may not have been ready for this; why the rush in starting preschool? I could have simply waited another year, or even two. But I didn’t want to hold her back, or deprive her of whatever it was that preschool had to offer. Or was it simply that I was eager for the starting line- to delight in her new experiences and to have the world reflect back what I already knew- that my child was precious, worthy and good? Wow, if I’d known then what I know now…

After her first day, Brittni’s teacher called to inform me that she had hidden under the table for the first half hour and after being coaxed out, did not utter a word the rest of the morning. This refusal to speak at school went on for weeks, maybe longer. One evening my mother-in-law called to tell me to turn on the television. Dateline was doing a segment on a little girl with Selective Mutism.  (Selective Mutism is a childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. These children are able to speak  in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed.)  When is a three or four year old’s temporary defense mechanism considered a disorder?  And if it’s considered a disorder, then does this mean that I caused it by thrusting my child into a new and overstimulating-to-her environment too soon? This beautiful child on the Dateline show, like Brittni, was an otherwise healthy child, but easily overwhelmed in new situations. Her parents brought her to a psychiatrist who  treated her with Prozac.  A four year old on Prozac for using a defense mechanism when overwhelmed? Not my child, I thought. I would deal with this on my own, thank you. 

Life went on  normally at home. Brittni turned three years old that October of 1993. We had the usual family birthday party, with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. By afternoon, our house became a sea of activity, of eating and playing and gift giving. I stood close enough to Brittni during cake time for her to bury her face in my shoulder while the crowd sang happy birthday to her. 

In early December, baby Jill, turned one. Brittni delighted in having Jill following her around, walking now, laughing and babbling. I loved being a mother more than I had ever loved anything. Their father and I took great satisfaction in giving our little girls a happy home.

But every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I would experience cognitive dissonance as I brought Brittni to preschool. She no longer cried, and even seemed to go pretty willingly, though she was never excited to go. Her refusal to speak, though it perplexed her teachers and filled me with concern, seemed to be the mechanism that  made school tolerable for her. I kept in touch with the school’s director, who did not give off the warmest vibes.  I knew my sensitive little girl was detecting any disapproval or annoyance that might be emanating from her. 

I was continuously wondering if I should take her out of school and try again when she was a bit older, but because she was going willingly, I kept thinking that perhaps she would become more comfortable there as time went on, and begin speaking.  I also wondered  though, if the longer she went without talking at school, the more she might fear “making a scene” when she did finally utter a word. One thing I knew was that Brittni hated drawing attention to herself in a crowd.  Ironically, this defense mechanism she had adopted for school is exactly what did bring her attention, and not the positive kind. 

Temperamentally Expecting

Daughter: A year or so ago, I was reminiscing over some childhood memories with my family; the good ones, which revolve around being at home, playing outside with my sisters, our cabbage patch dolls, the old art closet, quiet library visits, free time… and the not so good ones, most of which were the simple, though often dramatic, result of my sensitive, emotionally intense, and easily overwhelmed nature. In short, I was no piece of cake daughter to raise. “Wow, I certainly didn’t make your job easy, did I?”, I said to my mom after recounting one particularly dramatic after-school meltdown. She laughed it off, but then said “You know, if you have kids, they very well may be like you”.  And that was perhaps one of the most terrifying things I had ever heard.

Of course my child might be like me; I didn’t need to hear someone say it to know that my offspring might inherit more than a few of my personality traits. But until that day I had not fully and honestly entertained this possibility. I had not truly considered that I might bring into this world a child whose very temperament makes their world feel too big, too loud, too intense, too harsh…. I think I had been hoping that, instead of having a child whose empathy is through the roof and whose list of fears is longer than the Amazon River, I might have one more like my husband, who is, in many regards, my polar opposite. My subconscious was holding onto the possibility that our child might conveniently inherit his resilient, extroverted, and adaptable nature over my thin-skinned, introverted, and easily overwhelmed one.

I realize now how selfish this is – to have a preference for specific personality traits in my child. Sure, my preferences had been partly for the child’s sake, but also for my own sake as a parent. But highly sensitive children are born every day and wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing for them to all have parents who can truly understand their unique needs and struggles and gifts? I was raised by two incredibly nurturing parents who tactfully took each curve ball I threw at them during every stage of my childhood. They navigated the rough waters of bringing up a child to whom the parenting books did not apply and they did it with love and grit and open-mindedness. I want nothing less for my own children.

I am eagerly expecting twins in a couple short months and, needless to say, I am feeling all of the feels. I am happy beyond words. I am also completely overwhelmed, as is not unusual for me, and anxious and excited, and scared and hugely grateful. And I want these two precious humans to be whoever they will be, whether that is “like me” or not. But if either or both of them are “like me”, so help me God I am as prepared as I’ll ever be with first-hand experience to help them navigate this big, loud, crazy, wonderful world.

Be Your Own Good Mother

 

Mother: Being highly sensitive is both a gift and a curse. The gift is in the fine tuned intuition and the creativity. It’s in feeling everything, the good and the bad and knowing that the body never lies. The curse is also in the feeling everything, which can overwhelm the senses. It took me well into adulthood to appreciate that I had a built- in compass for life, and even then I often ignored it or overrode it with fear, the opinions of others, or the sheer act of disconnecting from my own source of power.

But being a mother has been the ultimate lesson in mothering myself. All the things I wanted my daughters to know- about following their inner guidance, honoring their unique gifts, and forging their own paths in life, as well as self- care and simplicity, routine and courage- were the very things I needed to cultivate in myself as well.

Much of raising Brittni -and to a large extent my other daughters as well-involved  encouraging the balance of challenging sensitivities with honoring them. When do you push yourself outside of your comfort zone and when do you say no to overwhelm even if everyone around  you seems to be handling itwhatever it is?   I guess we all have to question our tyranny of shoulds- I should be able to handle that, I should go, I should do it, I should want that, I should be satisfied with this, I should, should should. And at the same time, some limitations are self imposed and beg to be tested. I think it comes down to knowing when something is our own desire or goal versus a perceived expectation from someone or something else.  If it’s a heart desire, then push yourself! If it’s someone else’s or society’s unimportant expectation? Think twice.

Also, it became quite clear that self-care- adequate sleep, a healthy diet, time in nature, alone time, and a decluttered environment -were important to my own and my children’s wellbeing. My takeaway? Be your own good mother.  And then parent from that place of abundance.

Despite the things I figured out early on though, I cannot help but look back at all that I didn’t know, or more accurately, all that I figured out along the way, sometimes late in the game.  I would do it all again in a heartbeat, this motherhood gig, with all its intensity and heartbreak and joy and miracles. I would start over with a wealth of knowledge and experience, and the wisdom of a mother who has been through it already.

Hindsight is like one of life’s cruel jokes. Here you go, it says, now you know exactly what to do! Oh, but time’s up. Sorry.

But I do get to share my journey of motherhood, from the earliest days right up to today, as my oldest daughter is expecting her daughters.  And writing it down, with all the perspective that experience allows, is the next best thing to doing it all again.

Twice the Feels

Daughter: My husband and I sat waiting to be called in for my first ultrasound, giddy and eager and at least half an hour early to our appointment. Classic cutesy new parents-to-be. Entertained by the rambunctious three year old boy gallivanting around the waiting room under the watchful but tired eyes of his father, we exchanged giggly whispers about how our baby would be that age someday.

I was just nine weeks along in my pregnancy, but so far I felt like I had been doing everything right. I was already reading parenting books and watching documentaries in my spare time. I had done hours of research into birth options and local hospitals and birthing centers. I had scheduled myself to join a “birthing circle” in a few weeks during which mothers would share their birth experiences with wide-eyed and bushy-tailed mothers-to-be. I knew I wanted a natural, un-medicated childbirth and had found myself a certified nurse-midwife who came highly recommended by the local crunchy moms on the online parenting forum I was already actively part of.

All of this preparation and organization is not my typical approach. With anything. In fact, I am pretty consistently a disorganized and last-minute kind of person. I get things done, but I get them done when they need to get done and not a moment before and certainly not in a linear, orderly fashion. But I was determined that my pregnancy was going to be the exception. I was going to be on top of things. I was going to be a proactive and thorough and responsible adult. I would not let my scattered disposition get in the way of what I envisioned would be a picture-perfect start to my journey into motherhood. None of this was easy and it pretty much meant that I had not cooked or done laundry in weeks, as trying to be on top of my mommy game while also experiencing all of the lovely first trimester nausea and fatigue took everything I had. But I was willing to do what it took and so far things were looking up.

Finally my name was called and I laid down on the table and lifted up my shirt and the technician did her thing. I was probably the zillionth pregnant woman she had seen that day as she seemed to be on automatic pilot as she quietly slid her instrument back and forth across my abdomen. My husband and I eagerly watched the screen, waiting for her to explain what we were looking at. She didn’t say much of anything until she asked me to go the bathroom to empty my bladder. Apparently I had taken my instructions to show up with a full bladder a little too seriously and was blocking her view of my uterus. When I got back she tried again. I was admittedly getting a little nervous at this point as she was still rather quiet. I looked over at my husband and he gave me a reassuring smile. Finally, in the tone one might use to ponder aloud their options for lunch, she said, “There’s two”…

Two. I could now see two shrimp-like shapes side by side. How had I not noticed that? I could not speak for several seconds and instead looked back and forth between the screen and my stomach in utter shock. How on Earth are two humans going to fit inside of me?!?”. I was busy trying to wrap my head around this seemingly impossibility when I heard my husband blurt out, “Two babies!?” as though he wanted to make sure she wasn’t just confirming my number of ovaries. The technician, who had yet to so much as smile, let out a chuckle. “Yes”, she said. “Twins.”

And that was the end of my short-lived period of feeling in control. Silly me. I should have known it wouldn’t last. Since the day I found out I am growing two humans, I have switched to a hospital with a great NICU, switched from a midwife to a doctor and then, upon learning what type of twins I am having, was transferred from that doctor to a high-risk specialist. I have learned that my due date is basically irrelevant as going past 37 weeks is not an option – and that’s if I even make it that long, which is apparently not very likely. I have transitioned from losing myself in cleverly written natural birth and parenting books to sifting my way through acronym-laden “moms of multiples” forums trying to learn all the strange lingo that is used when discussing twin pregnancies.

Suddenly my chances of needing a C-section are significantly higher. Suddenly hiring a doula and creating a birth plan seem pointless. Never mind the fact that I am about to become the size of Alaska as I approach my third trimester; I am more concerned about how the heck one goes about breastfeeding two infants.

I’ve heard parents say they made sure “everything was perfect” for their first child only to let go of this unattainable standard by the time their second child entered the picture. Well I am halfway through my first pregnancy and I think I have already gotten to that point of fully accepting imperfection. I think I took a high-speed train to the land of lower standards. I don’t know yet whether I am relieved or anxious about this fact, but, despite feeling elated and fortunate and already in love with my two little girls, I know that my days of being one step ahead of the game are already over.

Overstimulated

Mother: When Brittni was 18 months old, I took her to a Gymboree Play & Learn class. It will be fun, they said. Your child will be engaged, make friends while developing early skills, and you can relax and enjoy the time!

My daughter’s eyes widened when we walked into the brightly colored and well lit room. Fast, upbeat children’s music played as we took our seats around the red and blue parachute. A robust, bubbly blond lady led the group, singing cheerily and loudly. Babies bounced and laughed, waddling toward the lady, toward each other, toward the fun.

My baby girl clung to me and began to cry. The crying escalated to screaming. People stared. What was her problem? their looks seemed to say. The bubbly lady looked surprised, annoyed even.

I picked up my daughter, looking for a quieter spot to soothe her. But I couldn’t settler her down. Every corner was filled with color, lights and sound. It was supposed to be a blast! For most of the little people, it was. But for my baby, it was hell in living color. And I’m not gonna lie, it was rather over the top for me too.

Isn’t everything new for babies? Why do we need to create a world just to stimulate them when they are so easily stimulated already? But I was here to be social, because a friend had asked me to come with her and her child. I handed over the money and the time so my highly sensitive baby could be entertained. My mistake.