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.