Motherhood is a Relationship

Motherhood is a Relationship


Once upon a time, way back in The Olden Days, when Mark Wahlberg was Marky Mark, the Cold War was just ended, and Rodney King was wondering why we couldn’t all just get along, I wanted to have a baby.

So have a baby I did, and less than two years later I had another, and while I wasn’t naïve enough to think that raising children would be easy, neither did I recognize the potential for gut-wrenching agony in the whole enterprise.

Thank God I didn’t know then what I know now.

I was young and insecure and married to the wrong man, so it’s not like I started parenting strong, and I felt all the social pressures that many new moms feel: am I doing enough? Have I given them the best? I loved my kids deeply (they were very easy to love), but I was tormented by anxiety over whether or not I was a good mom, in spite of the fact that they were healthy and happy.

I experienced no real counter-pressure to this angst. The books, magazines, and websites that would deliver new messages about good enough parenting hadn’t begun to show up, and I wasn’t strong or self-aware enough to intuit it myself.

Here’s the problem: I thought of mothering as an endeavor, a thing to do. Growing up as I did in the wake of Women’s Liberation, I heard pundits talk about whether women should have paid employment or stay home with their kids. Gloria Steinem said that every mother is a working mother. Oprah said stay-at-home-moms are the hardest working people in the world.

So there I was, in a cracker box house with two breathtakingly wonderful babies, and I figured those babies were mine to keep perfect or destroy. I could do a good job, or I could botch it.

Raising children is, like life, nothing if not complex, and during 1997 I went from married, stay-at-home-mom to working, college student, single mom. I was wracked anew with anxiety over my kids’ well being. I felt guilty over divorcing their dad, and even guiltier over being relieved at the end of that ugly, painful marriage.

In the meantime, I enjoyed my work and loved my classes. In choosing courses and writing papers, I was drawn to topics of motherhood over and over again, and as I read fiction, poetry, memoir, and sociological research, I examined my own experience of mothering and being mothered.

In all that examination of motherhood, I started to see both my mom and myself, and our maternal roles, in new ways. Mothers serve children, but mothers are not their children’s servants. There is work involved in caring for and raising children, but motherhood is not really about the work.

My best memories of my mom, and the times when I knew I was at my best as a mom, had to do not with the work of mothering, but with our relationships. When I came in from school and told my mom how my first boyfriend had gone out and found himself a new girlfriend without informing me, she was aghast and furious (the best possible response) and sat next to me on the couch, passing me a nearly endless succession of tissues while I cried. When I was four, she did my hair up in rollers at my request. After she took the rollers out she brushed my hair hard and said, “Oh, this isn’t good at all. You’re very glamorous but you don’t look like my little Adrienne like this,” and I felt special and extraordinary because my mom liked me best the way I was.

Likewise, with my own children, the best experiences have been the ones when we’re together without an agenda: reading stories with wacky voices, deep conversations on long drives, impromptu dancing in the kitchen, or lounging in bed with our dogs.

Motherhood has lots of work attached to it, of course. There is school registration to do and clarinet lessons to be arranged and soccer cleats to buy. There are books about discipline to be read and decisions to be made and the endless harassing of children to clean their rooms, come home by curfew, and empty the dishwasher. If there is a child with special needs in the mix, there is infinitely more work to be done.

Even with all that work, motherhood is first and foremost a relationship, and how lucky for us, that we get to know these people we brought into our families. I have never met people more fascinating than the ones who call me mom.

Twenty years into this thing we call motherhood, I’ve had lots of time to contemplate my reasons for becoming a mother when I was so very young and unprepared for it. Some of those reasons were selfish or morally ambiguous and aren’t nice to consider, but the motivation at the bottom of all of them, the one that came from my best self, was this: I was curious. I wanted to know what my children would be like, who they would be in the world. I wanted to experience the kind of relationships motherhood would bring.

There has been more pain in motherhood than I could have contemplated, and I’m convinced that, had I known, I’d never have done it. Thank God I didn’t know, because the world without these people who are my children would be a much emptier place. My relationships with my mother and my children are at the center of my life, and good relationships are the foundation of a good life.

I wouldn’t trade any of them.

Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the early hours of the morning, just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style [].

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In early July, my eldest son, Jacob, called to say he couldn’t make it for my dad’s birthday party at the end of the month because his boss wouldn’t give him the time off. He had moved from Albuquerque to a small town in northern Wyoming almost a year earlier and I’d only seen him once since.

“Oh, man. That sucks. I was so excited to see you,” I said, trying hard to express my disappointment without laying any guilt on him. We chatted for awhile and when I hung up the phone, crushed because I ached to put my arms around him, to put my head on his shoulder the way he rested his head on mine for the first 13 years of his life when I knew him so well I felt like I could read his mind.

He said he couldn’t come and then, two days before my dad’s birthday, I looked out the window and Jacob’s truck was in my driveway. I ran through the house and out the front door and then I was hugging him, gorging on the feel of him, squeaking in his ear like a pre-teen girl, “You’re here! I can’t believe you’re here! You said you couldn’t come!”

I pulled away from him and he shrugged. “I thought it would be fun to surprise you. You really didn’t know?”

“I really didn’t, and I was so sad,” and I squeezed him again, making him laugh.

During the six days of his visit, I made Jacob a little nutty with my desire to hang onto him. Hungry for his presence, I wanted to hug him, sit next to him, be near him. He’s 21 years old, so the fact that he’s moved away and into a life of his own is normal, but the story of our relationship isn’t one of a son who lives with his mother until he’s grown and ready to move away. Jacob hasn’t lived with me since he was 13, when he left my house in a storm of fury and pain to live full-time with his dad. For the next five years we rarely spoke or saw each other as Jacob’s dad exploited my parental weakness during a time of crisis in my life and taught Jacob to hate me.

I remember a phone call soon after Jacob’s 18th birthday and I was resting my hot forehead against the cold window of my bedroom, tears rolling down my face and neck and into the collar of my shirt and I was silent. I will hear his pain I said to myself as he spoke his anguish to me. I don’t ever have to see you again. I don’t have a mom. You never loved me. Do you hear me? Are you listening? Do you know that I hate you? You will never see me again.

I hear you, I said. I’m listening, I said, and the cold window against my forehead was a lie because the world was burning and I burned with the world until I was a heap of ashes on the floor in front of the cold window, my pain the only solid thing left of me.

Two weeks after the phone call that burned me to the ground, another phone call, this one asking for help. “I don’t know what to do, Mom. I failed most of my classes last semester and I can’t find a job. I was afraid I’d end up working in fast food forever, and now I can’t even get some shitty job frying burgers.” I heard the tears and fear in his voice and I prayed before each word I spoke: I’ll help you. We’ll find a way for you to get your high school diploma that isn’t so hard. I love you I love you I love you. I didn’t tell him that the only thing I wanted in this life was to be his mother again.

I hate navigating large bureaucracies and Job Corps registration isn’t a quick or easy process, but I enjoyed it because it meant time with Jacob. As we gathered the paperwork that Job Corps required, I savored teaching Jacob how to create a home filing system. We shopped for shower shoes and toiletries and I never once checked my checking account balance, so thrilled was I to do this most ordinary of parental tasks. I was so filled with joy I was nearly giddy and I had to remind myself to match his mood, lest I annoy him so much that he would decide to ask his dad for help instead of me.

I don’t know why he lay down his bitter anger that day to call me; I’ve never asked. I only know that we explored his options together and, when he chose Job Corps as a place to finish high school and get some job training, he let me help him register for their residential program. We nurtured our nascent relationship on a dozen thirty-minute drives to the campus, talking about books, music, and his future, but never his anger. Never my pain. We didn’t talk about us, or the five preceding years when we scarcely spoke at all.

During Jacob’s visit at the end of July, I wanted to insist that he spend all of his time with me, but this is a family, and families are better when they’re made up of volunteers, not hostages, so I controlled my urges to beg and demand. We went out to dinner, celebrated my dad’s birthday, and spent a couple of long afternoons working at our respective computers at my dining room table. I was ebullient when I was with him and melancholic when he spent time with his friends, but I tried to remember that 21 year olds want to spend time with their friends and that’s a normal thing, not a rejection of me. The years without him have left me scorched and shriveled and Jacob’s presence is like water, but it’s not his job to heal me. I mourn over the years we lost and the relationship I wished we would have, but if I turn my grief into his guilt, I’d shift a burden to the young man whose burdens I want to ease. I’d not see our relationship become a malignant thing again, as it was during his teens.

After six days in Albuquerque, Jacob returned to Wyoming. I hugged him three times as he tried to leave and I ached to keep him here, but I didn’t beg because no matter her feelings, the parent of a grown child doesn’t have that right. I urged him to be careful, to drive safely, and there was a pleading note in my voice because I’ve lost too much time with him to lose more.

We talk on the phone a few times a month and if the conversations are uneasy sometimes, it’s because we don’t know each other as well as we’d like, not because there is acerbity under the surface. Discomfort and unfamiliarity are better than bitterness, but it isn’t the ease and intimacy most parents would hope to have with an adult child. When Jacob calls or texts me, I always feel a thrill. In between the calls and texts and all-too-rare visits, I miss him, and I have learned to live with the missing. I’ve become accustomed to the grief for the years we lost and the relationship we might have had. I hold the grief in one hand and my tremendous gratitude for the gift of being his mom in the other, and most of the time the two balance.

Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the early hours of the morning, just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style

Photo: Casey Frye




At my son Carter’s last visit with his psychiatrist, he answered all of Dr. S’s usual questions: Was he sleeping? How was his mood? Did he see or hear anything that other people didn’t?

He answered her and as always filled in the gaps in conversation with chatter about his hobbies and his dogs. He told Dr. S about plans for his 13th birthday the following weekend, launching into an extensive list of the gifts he hoped to receive, but Dr. S has known Carter for a long time and has learned how to interrupt him gently to get the information she needs. At the end of the appointment, she ran Carter through a brief neurological exam (all normal), ordered labs (standard), and said, “Well, it seems like you’re doing really well, dude. I think you can come back in three months.”

Carter whooped. “Three months! Yes! Mom, can I have your phone?” and he charged out of Dr. S’s office and down the hall while he tapped at the phone screen, trying to connect to any family member so he could spread the good news.

I smiled at Dr. S, saying, “He’s never gone three months before.”

Dr. S returned my smile with her gentle one and said, “He’s come a long way.”

Once in the car, Carter called my dad, my mom, his own dad, then his dad’s mom. I don’t think any of the people he called were clear on what Carter was telling them, but they understood his excitement and congratulated him.

Elated as he was, I’m not sure even Carter understands how momentous this is. It’s true that he’s never gone three months between visits with Dr. S, and that Dr. S has been his psychiatrist for seven years, but what he doesn’t remember is that he’s never gone three months in his life without seeing at least one doctor. There were months when he saw multiple doctors and weeks when he had three or more appointments. There were days in his first six years when I drove him to more than one appointment as we tried to identify the causes of his frequent vomiting episodes, his sleeplessness, and his unrelenting terror. Later, there were weeks when I spoke to Dr. S every single day as we struggled to keep Carter out of the hospital and safe while he rocketed between suicidal depression and overwhelming mania.

I remember those years in the haziest of ways and if I didn’t have files overflowing with reports and assessments from doctors, psychologists, and schools, plus my own journal and blog entries, my memory would make everything smaller, more manageable. Carter screamed like a child afire almost from birth. He was beset by physical and emotional challenges whose causes we wouldn’t begin to understand for years, and the fear and sleeplessness we endured came within a breath of killing me and destroying our family. Carter suffered, and I suffered with him.

My primary occupation during that time was wishing. I wished that my child was well. I wished, if he couldn’t be well, that whatever was wrong was something visible and easy to identify so someone would name it and ease his suffering. I wished the unbearable and dangerous lives we were living would either improve or end because I couldn’t imagine continuing on for years as we were living then. I lost any hope I’d had that things would ever be better.

There is a suffering worse than one’s own, and that is to see one’s child suffer and be unable to help. When Carter was overwhelmed by rage or anxiety; when he was moaning over the pain of a migraine; when he was begging me to kill him or trying to throw himself from the car on the freeway; when he was screaming all the way to school from terror; when he clung to my neck and begged me to make him feel better; when he lashed out at me and demanded I let him kill himself; in every traumatic and terrifying moment I prayed God, put this in me. Take it out of him and put it in me and give my little boy life. The human heart can break, and break again, and again, and again, and eventually there descends a kind of numbness, which is a horror in itself because it seems to indicate the death of one’s empathy.

Eventually, we landed in the office of a developmental pediatrician who heard my concerns and understood the gravity of our situation. He prescribed medication to help Carter sleep and I am not speaking hyperbolically when I say that he saved our lives with those little pink pills. By the summer he turned six, it was apparent that Carter needed a higher level of care than a developmental pediatrician could provide and we were transferred into the capable hands of Dr. S.

The worst (please, I beg, let it have been the worst) was still ahead of us, but we have never since then been alone. Now that Carter has been relatively stable for several years, I have had some time to recover, and although I have a hard time remembering those impossibly difficult years, I know they changed me. I don’t recognize pre-2002 Adrienne. I am stronger in some places than I was then, and irredeemably broken in others. I’ve been refined by fire.

My family lives now with a tenuousness I couldn’t have borne before. When people ask me what I think the future holds, I can only shrug. Carter may live with us at home, or he might be killed by police who don’t understand his behavior and interpret it as aggressive. He might hold a job and live in a group home or he might take his own life, as so many people with his diagnosis do. He could stay fairly stable for the rest of his life, or he could go off his medicine and become acutely psychotic, maybe going to prison for some crime committed when he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I can’t predict and I don’t try. I do my best, in each day, to help Carter experience success and find some joy. That has to be enough.

Photo: Matt Benson/Unsplash

An Ordinary Adventure

An Ordinary Adventure


My co-worker was miserable about his ambivalence regarding children. His relationship with his girlfriend was getting serious, but she wanted to have kids someday and he thought a childfree life might suit him better.

I was 27-years old, a newly divorced mom of two very small children and quite enamored of those children. I was also exhausted by a life that felt relentless: I woke the children at 6 am on the weekdays, and they woke me at 6 am on the weekends. I drove them to daycare, went to work, went to my classes at the university, picked the kids up at daycare, fed-bathed-sang to them, and when they were asleep I studied until I was too tired to hold my head up anymore and I went to bed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Do the laundry and cleaning on Saturday, go to church and do the yard work on Sunday, study in every available minute, try to blend parenting and schoolwork by reading Hamlet to my kids in between performances of Are You My Mother? and Green Eggs and Ham. I tried to shoehorn a bit of a social life into the few evenings the kids spent with their dad.

My co-worker, feeling like he was at a point in his relationship where he had to make a decision about children right away, was a little frantic when he asked me, “If I don’t have kids, will I be missing out? Will I be cheating myself somehow?”

I broke into laughter, which I regretted immediately. I could see that he was struggling with a major life decision and I didn’t want to make light of it, but the answer seemed so clear to me at the time.

When I pulled myself together, I said, “Yes, if you don’t have kids, you’ll be missing out. If you do have kids, you’ll also be missing out. Whatever you choose, you’ll miss out on some big, amazing things.”

“But you love your kids so much. The way you talk about them, it’s like they’re magic or something.”

“Oh, they’re magic. I didn’t know I could love anyone like I love them, but look: my relationship with their dad failed and leaving was agonizing because divorce is hard on kids. I wouldn’t trade them for any amount of money, but being broke with kids is a hell of a lot harder than being broke on your own. I don’t know; I don’t think you can really compare two lives this way.” I trailed off because I did adore my kids and never thought of them as burdens or mistakes, but it seemed a dangerous mental door to open.

*   *   *

When we were little girls, my sister and I would try to press our mom into expressing some hint that one of us was favored over the other, each of us hoping fervently that she was the one, the best one, the most important. Even now, when I call her, I respond to my mom’s hello by saying, “Hola, Mamasita! It’s your older, better daughter!”

The question we asked, to try to pry the secret of who was best loved from her, was, “If we were drowning (or burning, or being attacked by a bear, or otherwise being killed), and you could only save one of us, who would you save?”

Her unvarying response was, “I’d sooner die trying to save you both than make a choice like that.” The answer was not as satisfying as hearing that I was her favorite, but it was reassuring nevertheless. She wouldn’t choose me over my sister, but neither would she choose my sister over me. Inexplicably, she would choose us over herself, a thing I would not appreciate until I was newly pregnant with my first child and was nearly hit by a car in a parking lot. I slammed my fists down on the trunk of the car that was backing towards me, startling the driver into hitting the brakes, then screamed at her for almost murdering my baby (a seven-week fetus no bigger than a pinto bean) while my then-husband dragged me away.

I was pleased and surprised, and not a little relieved, to know of myself that I was capable of loving someone more than myself, but I never wanted to be the self-sacrificial mom. I didn’t hope I’d be the one who gave everything up, ignored her own needs, or let her life grow hollow while she fed the children everything about her that mattered.

*   *   *

My co-worker, still at sea and still trying to find his way to a decision about whether he would be a father someday, was frustrated with my inability to tell him if not having children would be a tragedy. He emailed me the evening after our conversations and said, “They bring out the best in you, right? Will I live my whole life, never being my best, if I don’t have kids?”

I couldn’t answer that question either, but I know that being a parent has showed me all the extremes of myself, good and bad. First I discovered my vast capacity for patience, and then I ran up against its limits. I found that I am a fierce advocate for my kids, and then I found that I may go too far before I knew what I was doing and sever essential relationships.

In short, my kids showed me my humanity. I thought having a child would make me something very different from myself: that I would know more, feel different, that somehow Adrienne as mom would be a new person entirely, with none of the challenges and maladaptive behaviors that plagued Adrienne as person without children. My children would be my redemption. As a mom, I would be worthier, better, nearly perfect.

*   *   *

Children should never be born with a job. It is unfair to conceive or adopt a child in the hopes that child will save a relationship, or be the person who finally loves us, or redeem us, or bring out the best in us. Those are enormous responsibilities to hang on a wee babe.

I had no conscious idea when I had my children that I hoped they would change me. It took years of self-reflection to understand that I had expectations of my children before they were born. Having a child is both cataclysmic and utterly ordinary, an experience that changes us in surprising ways, but never in all ways. Under the surface, I hoped having children would making me someone new, but I found (unsurprisingly) that once I had children I was still me, with kids.

I don’t know what my co-worker eventually decided. We were both students at the time, making the frequent job changes that some adult students make as our marketplace value shifts. I hope, whatever he chose, that he’s very happy, and that he remembers our talk as often as I do. When I feel like the worst parent ever, our conversation reminds me that my worst moments don’t tell the whole story of my life any more than my best moments do. I’m glad to know I’d rather die trying to save all my children than choose just one. I’m relieved that, in spite of my secret desire for my kids to save me from myself and the selfishness that lies beneath, I love them with an intensity that surprises me. Being a parent has showed me the worst of myself, but it’s also revealed the best in me. That doesn’t mean it’s better to have children than not, but it’s good to live a life in which I love some people with such ferocity it occasionally takes my breath away.

Photo: Olivia Henry

Terrified: When Anxious Kids Face Surgery

Terrified: When Anxious Kids Face Surgery


He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t throwing a tantrum. He was in a state of life-or-death terror.


How terrified is a child who needs to control all things that happen to his body, when he finds out that he is going to a hospital and given medicine to make him go to sleep so deeply that he won’t wake up no matter what happens, and that while he sleeps a doctor will prop his mouth open and do surgery on half of his teeth? How much more afraid is that child when he finds out that neither his mom nor his dad will be in the room with him and that he will be there, unconscious and helpless, in a room full of strangers?

I’ll tell you how terrified: that child will be approximately as afraid as is possible. That child will turn pale and clammy, vomit repeatedly, succumb to a migraine, and stay awake most of the night screaming and begging his parents not to make him go. His fear will spiral so far out of control he’ll require two nebulizer treatments to ease the asthma attack caused by his fear, but he’ll have to pause those breathing treatments to run to the bathroom because his guts will be in revolt.

When I called ahead to the outpatient surgery center a few days before my son Carter, seven-years-old at the time, was scheduled to have his teeth fixed, I asked to speak to one of the prep room nurses. After I made sure she would be there the morning we were coming, I told her, “Carter has extreme anxiety disorder. He’s probably going to need a dose of Versed as soon as we get there. You’ll know him when you see him; he’s a little guy for his age with red hair. He’ll probably be screaming his face off.”

The nurse replied, “All kids are afraid of surgery, you know.”

I gritted my teeth. I did not say, no shit, you wizard. I said, “Yes, I know. I have three older children who have none of these issues, but Carter really will be more afraid than most kids.”

“Don’t you worry, Mrs. Jones. We can handle him. We’re used to dealing with scared kids.”

Unwilling to argue, I thanked her and hung up. When I recounted the exchange to my husband he said, “Hey, you never know. Maybe the nurse will turn out to be the first person he’s ever met who can talk him out of being afraid.” We laughed, bitterly. How many people have assumed they could force our son to pull himself together?

We arrived at the hospital and by the time we walked through the doors of the surgery center I was soaked with sweat. Moving Carter from the car, across the parking lot, though the hospital’s main lobby (with its throng of staring people), down several corridors, and into the surgical waiting area had been a workout no gym could provide. He kicked, bit, spat, flailed, and most of all, he screamed. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t throwing a tantrum. He was in a state of life-or-death terror. I’m sure that if we could have measured his stress hormones, the levels would have been comparable to a person who’s been run up a tree by a grizzly bear, only to find that grizzly bears can climb.

We entered the prep area and the nurse I’d spoken to the week before came right over to us. “He needs a dose of Versed right away,” I panted.

“Oh, I don’t know about that. Let’s see,” and she took Carter from me, who, in his flailing, caught her ear with a fist and knocked off her glasses.

She put his feet on the ground, knelt, grabbed his shoulders, and gave them a little shake. She put on a super serious, I-don’t-take-this-kind-of-shit-from-kids-like-you voice and said, “You stop that right now, young man. We won’t have any of that here.”

I was half hysterical by this time, frantic for someone to give my son some medicine to ease his panic, but also disgusted by this know-it-all-nurse (did she think that I don’t also possess a fierce, I-don’t-take-this-kind-of-shit voice?) and eager to watch her roll out everything in her bag of tricks before she finally had to admit I was right. I knew she’d get bruised, maybe even bloodied, in the process, and that every other patient in the prep area would be disturbed, but what were my options, really? She had the key to the med cart, not me, so I asked which bay was ours and I went to sit down in the chair by the gurney.

The nurse wrestled a still screaming Carter onto the gurney and told him to take off his clothes. When she let go of him to get a gown, he scrambled off the bed and bolted for the door. I let her bring him back, but his red face, covered in snot and tears, foiled my resolve to let her handle this her own way and when he grabbed for me I hissed at her, “Give him some Versed. Now.”

She wouldn’t. I assume she had her identity wound up in this process, something like I am a nurse who is very, very good with kids and I can always make them calm down before surgery because she was tenacious. He had torn the sheets off the gurney, bolted for the door three times, pulled the nurse’s hair, and bruised us both, but it wasn’t until he bit her that she sighed and went for the Versed.

She came back with the syringe of pink liquid and said, “This is a big dose. He’ll be asleep in ten minutes and then you can relax until it’s time for him to go back.”

I cracked up, and loudly. I couldn’t help it, since I was on the ragged edge myself after a nearly sleepless night and the horrors of watching my child in so much pain for hours. “That won’t put him to sleep,” I said.

“Oh, it’ll definitely put him to sleep. I’ve never had a child who didn’t doze off with this dose of Versed.”

“Then you’ve never given it to a child who was quite this afraid.”

“Well,” said the nurse, “We’ll just see. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

She returned in ten minutes to find my son wide awake, though much calmer. He let me help him out of his clothes and into the gown. He was willing to wear the cap to cover his hair as long as his teddy bear and I each wore one, so I tucked my hair into one and he even smiled a little. When the anesthesiologist came to insert his IV, he had to give Carter a little more Versed because he panicked at the sight of the catheter. “Wow,” said the anesthesiologist, “with this dose, he’s had the max safe dose for his weight. He was the one screaming out here earlier? I can’t believe he’s still awake.”

“He has severe anxiety disorder,” I said. “That Versed has to compete with a huge quantity of stress hormones and nature is always more powerful than medicine.”

“No kidding,” said the anesthesiologist. “If he has to come in again, you should call ahead and let us know about his anxiety disorder. We could meet you at the door with some medicine to calm him down.”

20 Favorite Quotes From Brain, Child Writers

20 Favorite Quotes From Brain, Child Writers


Never Wish Happiness for Your Children

By Adrienne Jones

“The trouble with that kind of thinking is, a child is a person, not a soufflé, and ultimately we come to the place where we can’t control everything. Or anything. Our children are themselves.”



Brave Enough

By Jennifer Palmer

She was mine, this sweet baby girl, but she belonged to others, too.



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By Robin Schoenthaler

Then along came adolescence, and my side-by-side parenting began to wane. I noticed it first at the mall, trailing behind the kids like a geisha. And every day it happens more: I find myself hanging back or stepping backwards, turning to move behind them, letting them go forward, out in front. I’m becoming a parent who pivots, scrambling to get out of the way.


The Richest Person in the World

By Adrienne Jones

Well, maybe he’s the second richest person in the world and I’m the richest, because I get to be his mom.




Open and Closed

By Catherine Newman

When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality.


Because I Will Always Do It Again

By Jon Sponaas

“Though I can’t, in a general way, believe much of anything, I especially couldn’t believe that you were IN your mom’s tummy, floating around in that complicated liquid…”



The Days Are Long/The Years Are Short

By Lauren Apfel and Lisa Heffernan

With my nest soon completely empty, I face the day that has loomed before me from the moment I became a mother. I am facing three distinct losses, that of their childhood selves, of my identity as their mother and, most painfully, of the daily intimacy that was our life together.


Baby Weight

By Cheryl Strayed

There aren’t words to adequately describe the love I felt for my son. It was, by far, the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. To love this way. To become, in an instant, a baby person.



This is Adolescence: 16

By Marcelle Soviero

Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next.



How to Smoke Salmon

By Ann Hood

The sadness that comes from your first child leaving home is, of course, not the saddest thing of all. But the ache, the sense that something is missing, the way you keep looking up, expecting him to burst through the door in his size 13 shoes, it is real.


On Shame and Parenting

By Adrienne Jones

I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.



I’m Not Sorry for Yelling

By Jennifer Berney

Now that I’m a parent, I want my kids to know anger as a normal part of daily life.



Family Motto: More Love is More Love

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

While it’s really hard to explain adoption to a five-year-old—and at times, I fear what the conversations will be with a ten- or fifteen-year-old—the notion that guides me is this: more love is more love.



She loves Me She Loves Me Not

By Karen Dempsey

Liddy would cup my cheeks and pull my face to hers as if she were breathing me in. “Oh, my mommy,” she’d whisper. “I love that you be my mommy.”




Loving Kip

By Jamie Johnson

It’s because Kip isn’t a face, or a name, or a gender. Kip is a person. And it’s Kip, not the “he” or “she” that I love to death. His soul is still the same.



love-you-the-same1 I Love you The Same But Different
By Rachel Pieh Jones

I love all my children the same. But I don’t love all my children the same. I love them all the same amount. Endlessly, to the moon and back, from Djibouti to Minnesota and back, forever and no matter what. But I don’t love them all in the same way. I don’t know why this realization surprised me. I mean, of course I don’t love them all in the same way. They are unique individuals and I have a unique, individual relationship with each one.


Bury My Son Before I Die

By Joanne De Simone

It goes against everything we believe about motherhood, but I’d rather bury my child than leave him behind.



Armageddon Mama
By Tracy Mayor

Beyond that, in the spirit of planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I guess the most moral thing I can do right now as a parent is to raise my kids to be in some way part of a solution. Not just recyclers or composters or occasional car-campers, but innovators, problem-solvers, team players, good citizens of the world. Non-assholes.


MAMA: Mothers Against More Activities

By Francie Arenson Dickman

I’m not sure when doing nothing after school fell out of favor. As a kid, I was a pro at nothing. We all were.



Till Death Did They Part
By Molly Krause

When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.



Regret Is Poison

Regret Is Poison


My guilt over the childhood I gave them is sometimes like a bundle of cinderblocks I drag behind me.


Recently, I went to the ER with sciatica so bad I couldn’t stop howling from the pain. My left leg felt like it was in a vice from my hip to the top of my foot, the result of weeks and weeks of lower back spasms and pain that I get whenever I’m stressed. Eventually, those spasms irritated my sciatic nerve severely enough to put me on the bed, wailing and writing with pain.

When I later described this miserable episode to a friend, she asked, “Why did you wait so long to go to the doctor if you’d been in pain for more than a month?”

Without thought, I responded, “I deserve the pain.”

I’m not always aware of it, but there’s a part of me that believes that I deserve to suffer.

Pregnant with my first child in 1993, I dreamed of all the ways I would give my baby a better childhood than I had, free of the emotional turmoil and traumas that impeded my own parents’ desires for a peaceful, happy family life.

I can’t possibly overstate the naïveté of my 22-year-old pregnant self, going for long walks in downtown Albuquerque, meditating on the wonderful life I would create for my family.

Now, as my three eldest children round the corner out of adolescence and into adulthood and my youngest is just a few months from becoming a teenager, my guilt over the childhood I gave them is sometimes like a bundle of cinderblocks I drag behind me on chains.

When I descend into this nasty spiral of regret and shame, therapists and spiritual advisers and friends urge me to focus on the good parts, the things I did well, and of course there are memories like that. There were hours and hours spent cuddled together on the couch reading books; the mornings they came into my bed and enjoyed talking so long that we had to rush to get to school on time; the fancy lunches out we had every year after school registration. There were happy Christmas mornings and joyful birthday parties and jokes and games. There was my advocacy for my youngest child’s educational and healthcare needs, my efforts to co-parent effectively with my eldest children’s dad, and my presence with a cool cloth and soothing words when any of my kids was ill or injured.

But often, the damage done by my many poor decisions, mistakes, and missteps looms so large that there aren’t enough kitchen dance party memories to drown them out. They clatter noisily in my skull, paralyzing me emotionally. For every backyard picnic, there were mornings when I was too depressed to wake my kids with anything but the most cursory interaction. For each hour I lovingly tended them when they were ill or injured, there were more hours when I emotionally neglected my three eldest children because I was overwhelmed by their youngest brother’s special needs. For all the depth of love I felt for them, there is the agonizing fact of my two eldest kids’ alienation from me, and my inability to break that stalemate for years.

Sometimes, the guilt and regret bring me to my knees, begging for another chance, a rewind, a do-over.

The universe never grants do-overs, of course. It is a terrible truth of time that it moves ever forward, impervious to human sorrow. I can no more fix what I’ve broken than change the course of the ocean tides. The curious thing is, among the painful experiences of my children’s lives, there were things I did wrong and things that happened to us over which I had no control, yet I feel equally guilty for all the things that hurt them.

I know my regret is worse than useless. It is emotional poison, and the more I punish myself for the mistakes of the past, the less effective I am as a parent in the present, exacerbating problems instead of easing them. Whatever I may or may not deserve, allowing myself to be emotionally incapacitated and physically damaged by my own regret does nothing to help anyone, my children included. However much I flagellate myself, the past is apathetic and unmoving.

Ultimately, in these episodes of pathological retrospection, I reach a place where my regret is so destructive that I regret my regret, sort of like emotional compound interest, a thing that can only grow.

My task now is to give up all hope of a better past because time is relentless, and while some deep and ugly part of me believes I deserve suffer, I know that’s not true. In any case, whatever I do or don’t deserve, my kids still want me to show up for them, to be my best self in my relationships with them.

My friend, after I told her that I deserved the pain (and after I cried for a long time) asked me, “Is there anything your kids could do that would make you think they should just hurt like hell for the rest of their lives?”

“No,” I said, “nothing.”

“So?” she said.

So indeed.


Photo: Blake Verdoorn



Carter 2013

I got very tired of telling people that I do know the difference between a child with an active imagination and one who has come untethered from reality.


I stopped the car at the bottom of a long freeway exit ramp, waiting for the left turn arrow. Carter loves that intersection, home of a small coterie of prairie dogs, and he watched the hill on our left, hoping to see the critters poke their noses out of their holes.

This day, though, it was not prairie dogs that grabbed our attention but a young man, his face and hands dark from sun and dirt, his jacket and pants soiled in a way that can only come from living rough. The man was involved in a discussion, gesticulating and shouting, occasionally laughing, his conversation partner invisible to us.

Carter, eight-and-a-half years old at the time, was twisting his hair with his right hand. He watched the man for a moment, then said, “I think he’s talking to his little guys.” Little guys is what Carter calls all of his visual hallucinations, in spite of the fact that many of them aren’t little at all. The first ones, though, were quite small, an army of tiny, terrifying warriors who populated the stairs in our house. The name little guys stuck, even when some of the hallucinations were gorillas in the bushes of our backyard or amorphous beings he called darkness balls that hid under furniture but could fill whole rooms or cover the sky.

“Yes, I think he’s probably talking to little guys,” I said. I didn’t tell him that, when I see a person like this, a person who is in the grip of florid psychosis, I engage in an internal battle, trying hard not to view that person’s life as my son’s inevitable future. I give them fresh socks, lip balm, and gift cards to fast food restaurants. I write furious letters to lawmakers, begging them to protect these sick, vulnerable people, to provide funding for the programs that would restore their dignity. I pray and pray and pray that I will find ways keep my son safe and healthy; that he will stay alive; that he will sleep each night of his life in a bed; that the bed never be a cot in a prison cell; that wherever he goes and whatever mental illness may do to him, he knows he is beloved.

“He doesn’t have the right kind of medicine to make the little guys go away,” Carter said. Frowning, he whispered, “I feel sad about that.”

I feel sad about that too.

Carter was seven when his therapist told me that Carter was experiencing some delusions and maybe some hallucinations, too, though he’d been unable to asses the depth and breadth of his psychosis. I was aghast because, devastating as Carter’s mental illness had already revealed itself to be, psychosis seemed a horror beyond anything we’d imagined so far.

Psychosis is a disorder of thought, a profound disturbance in one’s perception and understanding of reality characterized by two primary experiences. Hallucinations may involve any of the senses and cause a person to feel, see, or hear things that aren’t real. Delusions are strong beliefs that aren’t true and that most people of the same culture would deem irrational.

My husband and I had a tortuous process in the first months after we knew our young son was psychotic. First, we discovered we had been disciplining Carter for things he did in the throes of delusions, things he believed were protecting his family. For months, we had been beside ourselves with frustration because Carter wouldn’t stop spitting on the stairs. He didn’t spit anywhere else, but every time he went up or down the stairs, he spit several times. As it turned out, one of his delusions was that he had super spit, and he spit on the stairs to protect us from the vicious warriors who hung out there and threatened to hurt us with the weapons they carried.

Are you sure he doesn’t just have a vivid imagination?

Did a doctor tell you that or is it just what it seems like to you?

I got very tired of telling people that I do know the difference between a child with an active imagination and one who has come untethered from reality. I got tired, too, of explaining to people that there is no part of me that wished for my child to be so ill that he couldn’t play in the backyard because there were gorillas in the bushes and darkness balls covering the sky. Mostly, I was weary defending myself, as if I had driven my little boy to a drunken doc-in-the-box for the biggest diagnoses he could think of instead of taking him to a university-affiliated, board-certified pediatric psychiatrist.

It’s been a little over five years since Carter’s therapist made the word psychosis a regular part of our family’s vocabulary, and in general we’ve been fortunate. If we can keep Carter sleeping all night, every night, and if we don’t let his anxiety spiral out of control, and if we identify manic episodes in their earliest stages and manage them, Carter rarely experiences hallucinations. His delusions break through more readily but so far, there’s been nothing dangerous, nothing that requires hospitalization.

There are so many ifs, though. I imagine that man at the freeway off-ramp has some people who love him, living with their own terrible ifs and, much worse, a host of if-onlys. I can only put my head down, do the best I know how to do for my son today, and pray we continue to be fortunate.



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He had ample opportunity to hate me, but he didn’t. He stuck with me until I learned to be a good stepmom.


Brian and I married 13 days after Brian’s son Spencer turned three. On an evening soon after our wedding, Brian and I were entwined on the couch when Spencer asked me, “Can I call you Mommy?”

“Oh, Spency-bird, that’s so sweet you want to call me Mommy. It makes me happy, but Mommy is a special name for your own mom. You can call me Adrienne, or you can make up a different special name to call me, OK?”

Spencer considered for a minute, pooching out his lips the way he did when he was thinking hard, then cackled, “I’ll call you Carrot!”

We all laughed and Spencer called me Carrot for a day or two before he forgot about it and returned to calling me Adrienne.

I begin with that story so that, when I tell you the next story about how radically I overstepped every reasonable step-parenting boundary, you’ll know it wasn’t because I didn’t care about Spencer’s mom’s feelings.

 *     *     *

A few weeks after Brian and I married, I took Spencer to daycare and when we got to his classroom, the teacher was sitting at the desk, staring into space while the children watched cartoons. She neither greeted Spencer nor looked in our direction so I gathered Spencer up, stomped out, and called both of Spencer’s parents at work and said we had to find a new daycare immediately.

Brian agreed readily enough, but Spencer’s mom was less eager. “We work weird hours,” she said. “We need evening and weekend care sometimes and that’s the only daycare that offers it.”

“Well, I don’t work weird hours so there’s no more need for that,” I said, and remembering that conversation, I feel my face get hot with shame.

I tell you that story so that, when I tell you a story about Spencer’s mom, you won’t think I blame her for what came after. I’d hate you to think I believe myself innocent.

*     *     *

When Spencer was four, his preschool teacher asked each child’s parents to bring in a family photo. Brian sent Spencer to school with a copy of the studio portrait we’d had taken on our wedding day of the two of us with Spencer and my two children.

That evening, Spencer’s mom called to tell Brian that we had to come to her apartment right away. When we arrived, she slammed our studio portrait down on her dining table and said, “This isn’t Spencer’s family.” Next to our wedding picture, she laid a portrait of herself, Brian, and Spencer, taken when Spencer was a baby. “This is Spencer’s family. We can get a new portrait with all six of us if you want but this,” she indicated our wedding day photo, “will never be his family.”

I tell you that story so that, when I tell you how badly I messed everything up, you won’t think I was the only one making mistakes.

 *     *     *

I resented many people, especially Spencer’s mom for her intrusions into our lives and my husband for not putting a stop to it. Instead of handling my feelings as an adult does, I was petulant and unkind. Worse, I chose a child as my target. I was impatient with Spencer and dismissive of his feelings. If he said his bath was too cold, I told him he was fine. When his mom was late to pick him up, I let my unhappiness about that situation bleed into our time together. When the kids argued, I was quick to assume Spencer was at fault.

Eventually, as I treated Spencer evermore harshly, his behavior deteriorated. A child will live up or down to a caregiver’s expectations, and I was setting a very low bar for him. We churned against each other, me trying to discipline him with ever sterner correction, him doing as he pleased because he couldn’t make me happy so why try?

I tell you that because, as shameful as it is, the truth is inescapable, and because Spencer deserved better.

 *     *     *

I heard or read somewhere that you can induce warmth for a person by faking affection, so when Spencer was seven I decided I would smile and request a hug every time I saw him. This wasn’t without its amusing moments, as a surprised Spencer was greeted with a hug whenever he moved around the house.

It worked, and thank God because had it not, I’m quite sure we wouldn’t be a family anymore. The more often I hugged him and smiled at him, the more willing I was to give him the benefit of the doubt, or to let little things slide, or to pour his milk instead of insisting he do it himself. I set aside some spaghetti sauce before I added the zucchini because I knew he hated it and let him stay in the bathtub until his fingers pruned because I like the sound of him chattering to his bath toys.

I tell you that story because you might know someone who you wish you could feel more warmly toward.

 *     *     *

This summer, Spencer will turn 18. In spite of our expectation based on his diminutive size in his early years, he’s grown to six feet tall. He’s gracious, kind, and intelligent, and our relationship is among the most vital in my life. I admire his steadfastness and his peaceful spirit and I am grateful down to my toes for his presence in my life. He had ample opportunity to hate me, but he didn’t. He stuck with me until I learned to be a good stepmom.

I love him.

I tell you that because it’s true.

The Judgment That Wasn’t

The Judgment That Wasn’t

toddler Abbie

We make choices about thousands of things for our children, and none is as important as seeing them, knowing them, and loving them.


I cringe a little when I’m with a group of moms and the hot baby topics come up. You know the ones: breast or bottle; home or hospital; disposable or cloth. The decisions that, when we are parenting brand new people, are so vital and consuming. We fret over them. We go to playgroups where all the moms do the same things we do, and discuss them, and defend them, and it all feels so important.

Now, from the distance and experience of many years as a mom, I know these conversations by heart, and I know the defensiveness that comes if I reveal that I had my youngest child at home, or that I breastfed and used cloth diapers for all three of my babies. Immediately, the explanations begin to pour out as moms defend their need for a C-section or an epidural. They explain their inability to breastfeed and I want to shrink into a corner because I hate that our culture has done this to us. I hate that we feel we must defend ourselves so much that we engage in these wars.

My home birth is not a judgment of anyone else’s birthing choices. In fact, I wouldn’t describe myself as a home birth advocate at all. I am an advocate for every pregnant woman and her family having access to the best possible medical care and the birthing environment that is safest and most comfortable for her and her baby. I’m not an advocate for breastfeeding as much as I’m in favor of babies being fed. I want all the babies to have their milk delivered to them while they are snug in the arms of someone who knows they are feeding a miracle. As to the diapers, I didn’t choose cloth for any noble reason. I was too poor when my first two children were born to buy disposable diapers, and by the time my youngest was born I was used to it.

We have become a culture that questions every decision a parent makes, from where they are born to whether or not they should be allowed to walk to the park to how involved parents are when their children are at college. We judge each other and we judge celebrity parents and when something goes wrong, we immediately look to the parents to find a place to lay blame. Likewise, when a child gets accepted to a great university or lands a dream job, we congratulate the parents, assuming they must have done well to produce such a successful person.

The problem with all of this is our children are not products and we are not half as powerful as we believe ourselves to be. I wish the whole world could take a collective deep breath about kids, take two steps back, and re-evaluate everything.

Parenting matters. Good parenting is vital to a child’s healthy development. They need to be safe and loved. Every child needs at least one person who thinks he or she is absolutely the best person who has ever happened in the history of people. Babies need full tummies and dry bottoms, and toddlers need someone to patiently teach them to use a toilet. Preschoolers need someone to read them stories and let them help in the kitchen even though they make a mess. Grade schoolers need reassurance that even though they are beginning to move into the world, away from their families, they will return home to the same loving arms that embraced them when they were small and helpless. Teens need to learn so many things, I’m amazed most of them manage to fit it all into the few years they have, and they need parents who will still receive them with those loving arms when the world is overwhelming. Small children need a great deal of care, and older children need a great deal of guidance, and while it’s a big responsibility, there is no single decision that will make or break a child.

When my second child, my daughter Abbie, was three months old, I became very depressed and needed to take anti-depressants. It was 1996 and my psychiatrist and Abbie’s pediatrician insisted I must wean her before I took the medicine. I was devastated at the thought of giving her formula, but I was very sick and I knew my children needed me to be well and happy, so bought some bottles and formula and weaned my daughter.

I made a good decision based on the best information available at the time, but I was terribly ashamed. I was embarrassed to give my baby a bottle in public, as if the way I fed her said something about my character. Of course, in our culture of hyper-awareness and judgment, we assume that how we feed our babies does speak to our character. I beat myself up for years for weaning Abbie so young, even as the girl herself stood before me, shining and healthy.

As my children grew, life got very complicated. I divorced their dad, then remarried and my kids gained a new stepdad and stepbrother. I had their youngest brother who has multiple disabilities, and finally my eldest two children’s dad alienated them from me and robbed us of five years together. By then it was almost too late, but I finally understood that the only thing that truly matters is the relationship. We make choices about thousands of things for our children, and none is as important as seeing them, knowing them, and loving them. Good education is important, and feeding our kids well protects their health, but what they need most is loving parents who are interested in them, curious about them, and willing to be their safety and warmth in an unpredictable world.

I took too long, was too focused for years on doing parenting the “right” way, and beating myself up because I could never meet the false standards I created for myself. I am fortunate to share my life with my children and I wish I’d known sooner that I could set aside the weight of responsibility sometimes and simply be with and know them. I’m glad to know it now.




My 12-year-old son, his pediatric psychiatrist, my husband, and I recently embarked upon a project known in mental health circles as a med change. Every person with mental illness, and every caregiver of same, shudders at that two-word phrase. A med change is always undertaken with hopes of some kind of improvement (in my son Carter’s case, we hoped for decreased side-effects), but med change usually makes things worse before it makes things better.

The psychiatrist, Dr. S., and I decided we would accomplish the med change via a process called cross titration, meaning we would slowly introduce a new antipsychotic medicine as we gradually decreased the old one, in hopes we could avoid a reappearance of the monstrous and terrifying symptoms the old drug has kept (mostly) in abeyance for three years.

Carter was a grudging participant in the whole process. He remains traumatized by the years when his mental illness was acutely symptomatic. Moreover, he tends to impart talismanic power to his medicine, overestimating their role in his stability and underestimating his own hard work in learning and applying skills that help him cope with his challenges. Unfortunately, the particular side effect we were trying to alleviate is a serious one, and just like a parent who must buckle a screaming baby into the car seat he hates, we adults were forced to take the long view and make a change Carter resisted.

Just like the phrase med change sends a shudder up the spine of every person who has, or loves someone who has, mental illness, we also carry the terrible knowledge of the dreadful inadequacy of our mental health care system, of the knife blade we are always teetering upon. My son’s pediatric psychiatrist is brilliant and kind. She strikes exactly the right balance between respecting the gravity of my son’s illness, and also respecting the dangers of the medications she prescribes to control that illness. Together, we seek to give him the minimum effective number and dose of medicines.

With that goal in mind, when Carter and I arrived for an appointment with Dr. S. two weeks ago, we decided to continue reducing the old medicine, and keep the new medicine at the starting dose. He had tolerated the change quite well up to that point, and his dose of the old medicine had dwindled to almost nothing, so we decided to find out if the small dose of the new medicine would be enough. After all, if it didn’t work, we could always call Dr. S. and make a quick adjustment.

Enter a confluence of five potentially disastrous factors, namely Carter’s sudden and rising instability; the holidays and difficulty contacting Dr. S; the practice of medicine by checklist and cover-your-ass reactivity; my pervasive naïveté about the value of sharing all available information; and one stranger.

It went like so: I called Dr. S. She, under the time constraints of her large caseload and the imminent holidays, had one of the physician’s assistants in the university clinic where Carter sees her for appointments, triage her phone calls. When the PA called me, she said, “The notes from the receptionist say you want to increase one of Carter’s medications. Why is that?”

And I, lulled into false confidence in this stranger because she was acting as emissary to our beloved Dr. S., told her everything, including what Carter had told me a few days before about wishing he would die, but being too afraid of pain and blood to do anything to cause his own death.

Does that sound like a crisis that requires immediate action on the part of a team of highly skilled medical professionals? Does it seem reckless and appalling that, instead of rushing my child into the arms of doctors and nurses, I sat with Carter for an hour, listening to him yell and cry, then helped him into the shower for a hot soak before I gave him his medicine and sat with him until he fell asleep? Probably. Except that a visit to the ER for a psychiatric emergency is not like going to the ER for other medical problems.

I have seen things in psychiatric ERs that should curl anyone’s toes, both when I took my own child for evaluation and when I have accompanied friends whose children were in crisis. I went with my friend, whose child was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder by leading pediatric psychiatrists and psychologists at a prestigious medical center after extensive evaluation and who was at the time acutely psychotic, to the ER, only to hear the nurse (who had spent ten minutes with her child) tell her that all her daughter’s problems were due to lack of discipline. I saw another friend walk out of the ER, defeated, after the staff told her to give her son a double dose of Benadryl to make him sleep. He had, that afternoon, tried to choke his baby brother in his crib while my friend brushed her teeth. My husband and I took Carter to the ER after he spent 9 hours helplessly cycling between paranoid rage and suicidal depression from which we could not calm him. When we finally saw a doctor, he scolded us for waiting as long as we had to see the outpatient psychiatrist, when in fact we were in month 3 of the 4 month wait that every new patient endured from the moment of first contact with the outpatient clinic until the time of the first appointment. We were sent home with instructions to give Benadryl for sleep and to keep our appointment at the outpatient clinic 4 weeks hence.

Don’t misunderstand. There are times when the ER is the only appropriate place to go, and there are times when the ER is helpful and even life saving, but based on our experiences, it is a solution of last resort.

So it was that when I spoke to the PA and informed her of the things my son had said about wishing to be dead, and she told me that I must take him to the ER immediately, I balked. I was horrified at the idea of subjecting my scared and fragile son to the staff of the ER, who are sometimes very kind but often brusque and even cruel. I am also cognizant of the criteria for psychiatric admission. Here in New Mexico, where psychiatric beds are extremely scarce, no one gets a bed who is not obviously and gravely ill, and sometimes even then people are sent home.

When I resisted the idea of taking my son to the ER, the PA informed me that she was a mandated reporter, meaning that a report to the child protection division of the Department of Health and Human Services would be in order if I did not “take my son’s health seriously” (her words) and act immediately.

I hung up the phone and tried to decide which would be more traumatic for my son: a visit to the ER, or a visit from CPS, which could result in a forced visit to the ER? Either way, we would be wasting resources, taking time away from some other child whose parents could not keep him or her safe at home. Either way, my son would not be hospitalized. Either way, my son would have to hear me lay out a list of symptoms, behaviors, and plans for protection that he is loathe to explore with strangers. Either way, we would lose.

My husband and I decided to stay loose and wait for a call from Dr. S. I paced the house, phone in hand, and silently raged at a system of care that is so callous. I am my son’s mother, except not quite. When I decide that my son is safe at home, any medical professional with whom I speak may decide that I am wrong and invite an official investigation of my capacity as a parent. When I decide that my son is not safe at home, the system of psychiatric care in my community may decide that whether he’s safe or not, I must keep him home and hope for the best.

Dr. S. called me back, and she, the doctor who knows my son, who knows my family, who knows how many locks we have in our house and how willing I am to stay up all night and supervise Carter if that is what’s necessary to keep him safe, called in the needed medicines to our pharmacy. She made clear that the decision to go to the ER or not lay with me and my husband, and that there would be a doctor on call at the clinic while she was on vacation. She could have called me back much sooner if there was not a dangerous shortage of psychiatric care providers and her caseload was more reasonable. We could avoid so much heartache if we took mental health care as seriously as we do cardiac and orthopedic and almost every other kind of care.

And imagine, if you will, the families out there, thousands of them, who have no Dr. S. Imagine standing on the knife edge with no one to catch you on either side. Imagine.


Photo by Scott Boruchov

Editors’ Picks: Some of Our Favorites from 2014

Editors’ Picks: Some of Our Favorites from 2014


On Shame and Parenting

onshameand parentingBy Adrienne Jones

I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.




Brave Enough

sunsetBy Jennifer Palmer

She was mine, this sweet baby girl, but she belonged to others, too.





For Life

For LifeBy Sarah Kilch Gaffney

We named her Zoe because it means “life” and we could think of no meaning more fitting for our child.





This is Adolescence: 16

This is 16 artBy Marcelle Soviero

Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next.





Till Death Did They Part

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 12.57.07 PMBy Molly Krause

When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.




Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 5.04.33 PMBy Dawn Davies

At 6:15 a.m., take the children downstairs for breakfast because, even though you are exhausted, the onus is on you. It is always on you.





My Daughter at the Blue Venus

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 12.03.52 PMBy P.L. Lowe

She tells me she is not allowed to give lap dances or blowjobs. She smiles kindly, reassuringly, as she tells me this, as if I have been waiting for this exact information, secretly hoping she will divulge such details to assuage my motherly worries.




Bury My Son Before I Die

Bury My Son Before I DieBy Joanne De Simone

It goes against everything we believe about motherhood, but I’d rather bury my child than leave him behind.





The Boob Tube

boobtubeBy Susan Vaughan Moshofsky

On my second day in the hospital, the nurse worried that Rachel was getting little, if any, milk, so she suggested formula supplementation. I refused, determined to succeed. New mom though I was, I knew that supplementing was the Dark Side.




Jacob & Abbie winter 1998

My ex-husband didn’t protect our children from a bad parent; he denied them the comfort and security of strong bonds with both parents.


I lived underwater for five years (though it could have been 4, or maybe 6) when my two eldest children were with their dad, and not just with their dad but refusing almost all contact with me. The first of those years were hopelessly blurred by my youngest son’s burgeoning mental illness; the last years were muddled by grief, punctuated with occasional episodes of ugly, helpless rage.

I felt, almost always, as if I would die of their absence, that I would never learn to breathe in the vacuum that was the space they’d once occupied in my life. I thrashed and struggled against it, but a vacuum offers no resistance so I fell and fell, alone, tumbling in misery and barely resisting the chasm of bitterness.

People told me (repeatedly, unceasingly) that they would be back, that my children would recognize what their dad had done and come back to me, and when they did all would be as if they had never been stolen.

Those people were wrong, of course, though I don’t blame them for trying to give me hope. They wanted to ease my grief with expectations that my family could be put back together as if it had never been torn. I knew better, but I couldn’t tell those people that lest they redouble their efforts.

My friends’ endless entreaties to think positive and keep the hope alive served to keep me isolated with my pain. When life goes really, really wrong—when it diverges dramatically from even the most equivocal of expectations—the disorientation is powerful. Gravity works sideways and the sky turns yellow. Eating made me hungry and sleeping made me tired. Worse, sometimes I was OK, even a little happy, and then I would arrive back in myself with a spine-crumbling thump because what kind of mother, what horrid, heartless person would dare feel any happiness when her children had rejected her so violently? My truncated motherhood felt impossible, unnatural. Wrong.

My expectation was that I would raise my children from childhood, through adolescence, and all the way until they were grown. I expected that I would always love them and they would always love me, and if (when) we hit bumps in the road, that we would come out on the other side, perhaps battered, but bound to each other.

Instead, we ran into one of those bumps and it was infinitely more sinister than the bumps I had imagined: when my two eldest children were six and 8 years old, their younger brother was born. He roared into the world with cacophony and chaos in his wake, with problems that wouldn’t be fully diagnosed until he was 7, and my inability to cope in any reasonable way with their brother meant my other children were stranded on the cusp of adolescence without a mother. I was there, making the dental appointments and going to the parent/teacher conferences and supervising homework, but I wasn’t present with them the way I had been. As we rounded the corner into the third year of my youngest son’s life, I lost my emotional footing and I came apart. I was living the biggest crisis I had ever experienced up to that point and I crumbled.

At this part of the story, kind and well-meaning friends tell me that I did the best I could under very challenging circumstances. Yes, I did. I tried hard and did the best I could. That’s not the same as being innocent.

Soon after my youngest son was born, my older children’s father got married, and a few years after that, his wife left him, and as I was coming apart under the weight of anxiety over my sick child, he was coming apart from the pain of rejection. His response to that pain included taking our children away from me, putting into action his desire of many years to have our children all to himself.

Amy J. L. Baker, Ph.D, author of eight books and noted researcher in the fields of parent child relationships and emotional abuse of children, defines parental alienation as a dynamic in which children are manipulated by one parent to reject the other parent. The comparison that rings most true in our situation is to a cult, where the alienating parent is the cult leader and the children are unwitting acolytes, anxious for the approval of the alienator.

I didn’t know any of that in the beginning. I only knew that the accusations my children hurled at me grew ever further from reality, so that all my real failings as a human and a mother grew in magnitude until I could scarcely recognize myself in the narrative.

During those years, I went every August to the children’s schools, divorce decree and custody agreement in hand, to prove to the school that I was their mother and to add my contact information to their files, information their dad habitually left off when he registered them. Because of that, and because my kids’ dad let our daughter stay home from school at least one day each week, I found myself facing action from the school district who said they would send me to truancy court and fine me for educational neglect. One more absence and you’ll be in front of the judge, they said to me in February 2012.

When I got that notice I drove to my ex-husband’s apartment, and this day of all days I remember with stark clarity: walking up the crumbling concrete stairs, the blue sky and sharp, clear air that means winter on the high desert southwest, the deep breath I took as I knocked on the door. I would leave in a police car or an ambulance; I would go away in a body bag or I would walk out with my daughter. I entertained no other options. I would end the hateful stalemate and this day would be the last day, the end of hope or the end of the impasse.

He said I could take her with me, on condition that I not put her on medicine. Among the many narratives he used to drive his alienation was that I wanted to “drug” all my children, but I bristled at the notion of his permission for anything.

My daughter and I came home and we were a stark contrast, me buoyant with relief and joy at having her home, she as angry as ever at me, and doubly so because she was now forced to live with people with whom she didn’t want relationships and who she didn’t know.

Except slowly, the reality-mom began to loom larger in her life than the alienator-created-mom, and two months after she came home she said to me one night, “You know, you don’t actually yell much. I don’t think you’ve yelled since I came home. For a long time, it seemed like nobody did anything except yell at your house. I don’t know if that’s what I really remember or just what we always said, though.”

For all the pain I suffered, my children are damaged in infinitely worse ways. To gaslight a child until he or she views reality in ways that please an adult creates massive and unspeakable wounds, a distrust of self and others that may never be healed.

We were not made stronger by alienation. My ex-husband didn’t protect our children from a bad parent; he denied them the comfort and security of strong bonds with both parents. To all parents I say, in the absence of abuse the only right thing to do is to actively support the children’s relationships with their other parent.

To alienated parents I say, as long as our children are alive there is hope.

Why My Son Doesn’t Know He’s Mentally Ill

Why My Son Doesn’t Know He’s Mentally Ill

Mental Illness Cloud-1

Language is powerful, and the longer I can protect my son from some of the hurtful language I hear everyday, the better.


There was a moment, during a recent panel discussion for parents of children with special needs, when I panicked because my son does not know all the official names of his diagnoses.

During that moment, one parent said that she had not yet told her young son the names of the things that made him different from most other kids, and another parent scolded, saying, “Children know when they’re different. You have to tell your child now.” I felt cold for a moment, because I am a person who hears scolding and takes it into myself even when it is neither pointed at me nor true.

Outside of that moment when I doubted myself briefly (and so many other moments, because raising a child with severe mental illness and intellectual disability is even more baffling than raising a child who is developing typically), I am confident I have given my son the language he needs to speak of his unusual experiences of the world. He can speak of having a hard time with his feelings, of using strategies and needing help from people and medicine to manage them. He talks about how learning takes extra time and how he needs his special school where he gets to work at his own pace and the teachers are very patient with him. He knows that sometimes, he sees, hears, feels, and believes things that other people don’t, and that when reality gets slippery this way, he needs to talk to his psychiatrist and psychologist because this is a medical problem, and he needs help to put reality back where it belongs.

Words he does not know apply to him: mentally ill, bipolar, psychotic.

The first problem is the casual use of words for psychiatric diagnoses that we hear all the time. Moody or unpredictable people are referred to as bipolar. Angry people who act like jerks are called psychotic or psycho. Nations are said to have schizophrenic relationships with other nations. Spree killers are proclaimed to be mentally ill before we know anything about them, sometimes even their names.

Then, there’s the news. Oh, the news. In the US, we speak far too rarely about the crisis in our mental health care system, but when we do, talking heads refer to The Mentally Ill as if they were some massive, homogenous group of people whose needs we must meet lest they shoot us all. In fact, people with mental illness are all around us, dealing with challenges that range from very mild to profound, and our obligation to help them meet their needs for treatment have almost everything to do with being decent people and only a tiny bit with preventing violence.

Finally there are the depictions of people with mental illness in entertainment. Recently, the ABC sitcom Modern Family featured an episode in which the character Claire made a haunted house whose theme was “scary insane asylum” all for viewers’ amusement, and all based on the assumption that people with mental illness are not real people, and they certainly aren’t at home on a Wednesday evening, watching TV. We see again and again in media the same tired tropes: the psycho, the schizo, the madman, the crazed animal, the lunatic, the monster.

I can’t bear for my son to see himself reflected in any of this, so we speak instead of difficulties, challenges, and issues. He knows that everyone has difficulties, and that his specific difficulties are of a sort that requires help from doctors. He knows there was an accident in his brain before he was born and that it makes some things harder for him. Most importantly, he knows that his difficulties are not the most important things about him. His humor, generosity, gentleness, and curiosity are much more interesting than the ways his brain sometimes misfires.

I’m probably protecting myself as much as I’m protecting him. He doesn’t remember the rage he experienced in 2009 that lasted over 10 hours, and during the first hour of which I peeled him off a smaller child who he was trying to choke to death. I don’t want him to catch the evening news after another mass shooting and wonder, as I do, could that be our future? Am I watching myself ten years from now? What will they say about him, about us, about our family?

My son does not deserve to be afraid of himself. He doesn’t deserve to see ridiculous, cartoonish caricatures of people with the same diagnoses he has. He doesn’t deserve to live a life that’s shrouded in stigma around an illness he has because a freak accident damaged his brain before his birth. He doesn’t deserve to live in fear that he won’t be able to access necessary medical treatment because in the US, we have flat refused to prioritize treatment for people who have illnesses whose symptoms manifest in thoughts, moods, and behaviors.

Because of all that, my son doesn’t know he is mentally ill. He doesn’t know that his doctors write the words “bipolar with psychotic features” under his name when they communicate with each other or our insurance company. It’s not because we’re pretending that he’s a typically developing child and everything is fine; it’s because language is powerful, and the longer I can protect my son from some of the hurtful language I hear everyday, the better.


Illustrations by Christine Juneau

On Shame and Parenting

On Shame and Parenting

onshameand parenting

I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.


On the first day of sixth grade, I entered the school cafeteria for lunch. It was huge, noisy, and smelled like early-puberty sweat and sour milk. The kids were talking, all of them, and I knew they didn’t want me. All the evidence of this was generated by my own guts, which hunched and lurched under their burden of shame. I went to the library and read books during my lunch period for most of my 3 years in middle school.

Later, a girl with a lumpy blonde ponytail and electric blue eyeshadow said, “Why don’t you just kill yourself? Nobody even likes you so why do you bother?” I knew she was right.

Of the raw materials from which loneliness may be built, shame is the most robust. It is the bedrock foundation on which a lifetime of loneliness is best erected. My structure of loneliness was large and strong, a carefully tended prison. I sought evidence to justify its continued existence and rarely left it.

When I was grown, but barely, I met a man. He said he would have me, as a favor. My job would be to tend the shame, to use it to make myself worthy of him. My gratitude for his occasional visits to my isolated world would help me deserve him.

In quick succession came two babies, howling and burning with the rarest human perfection and they seemed to me like a new breed, something different on planet earth, people of flesh, yes, but also of starlight and the night desert and mystery.

The man, entranced, looked into the small, dimpled face of our first child and asked, “Do you think our parents felt like this about us?” The question startled me, made me question all my carefully maintained assumptions about myself and my place in this world.

Alas, a moment of clarity, however piercing, is rarely enough to change the course of an emotional life, so I parented from the place of shame-grown loneliness that was the only home I knew.

My babies were so magnificent, do you see? A mistake of the universe, to give these small, fleshy bits of perfection to a mother so unworthy, a cosmic gaffe that dazzled me with my great good fortune and terrified me because I knew I would ruin them. I would be the person who exploded The Pieta or shredded The Starry Night.

From this emotional place, I mothered those children. I washed their diapers and hung them on a line to dry and kissed them and fed them oatmeal from a yellow plastic spoon. I loved them loved them loved them.

Except…do you know this about shame? It makes life into playacting and my love for my children was as real as mountains and gravity, but I was shaky in the middle of myself. Worse than shaky; I was ephemeral and not quite real. I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.

When the man who said he would have me as a favor began to hate our lives together, he said I will take these babies. No judge would let someone like you keep children! I’ll take them and you will never see them! And I cried and cried because of course, of course he would have them. Of course anyone could see I should not be their mother. Of course I was not worthy.

Except everyone has limits, even one as demoralized as I was. Unable to act in any meaningful way on my own behalf, I began to wish for a solid reason to leave the man who said he would have me as a favor. I prayed he would cheat or hit so I could propel myself out and away.

The man and I danced around each other during the final year we were married, each hoping the other would leave, each waiting for the other to offer a good enough excuse to move on. If I cast my mind back to the feelings of that dark, strange time, they are filled with fear for our children, and fear of being away from them. I was afraid he would take them away from me, even though I knew he couldn’t. All fear, a black and red haze of dread, and the ever-present loneliness and self-loathing. The inside of my head was filled with a relentless drumbeat of How could I? How could I have children with this man? How could I be so selfish as to want out? How dare I?

How does a mind change? How do feelings, well entrenched and carefully tended over a lifetime, transform? I can only guess. Maybe God whispered in my ear. Maybe my anger grew until it was strong enough to out-shout my shame. Maybe I began to believe in some tiny corner of myself that I was born with all the innate value with which my perfect children were born. Maybe all three.

Or maybe none of those. Maybe I just got sick to death of being treated like crap. Whatever the reason, when he came to me on the final day and shouted, “I don’t love you. You disgust me! I’m leaving,” I said, “Fine. Go.”

The next day, I was putting clean sheets away in the drawer in the hall. My kids were playing in some unorganized way, jumping and giggling and horsing around, and I was knocked back by an understanding. I never have to let anyone treat me like that again. I am done with that. I sat down hard on the floor of the hall between the kids’ bedrooms and started to cry. The children were there, worried. “Mommy, what’s wrong? Do you have a ya ya? Where’s your ya ya? I’ll kiss it for you!” chattered my son while my daughter kissed my face and brought me tissues.

“Happy tears!” I said. “Sometimes grown ups are weird and they cry when they’re happy. Isn’t that funny?” They agreed that it was very funny, and we laughed, and we sang a song, and when we got up off the floor I put my wedding ring in a box and never looked at it again.


Photo by Scott Boruchov

The Family I Thought We Would Be

The Family I Thought We Would Be


Figuring out the expectations and realities of merging two families.


I’ve been married to Brian for fourteen years and 24 days. We were both 2 years out of our first marriages. The joke we told for ages was that he had a mildly pleasant marriage and a dreadful divorce, while I had a dreadful marriage and a mildly pleasant divorce. There was a kind of buoyancy to our early relationship, as if we weren’t only newly in love, but also recently released from prison. I might have taken that as a sign that we weren’t ready if I wasn’t so delighted to be with him.

In the summer of 2000, when we married, we had between us three children. My son Jacob was 6 and my daughter Abbie was 4. Brian’s son Spencer was 3. They were bright, charming, delightful children, and Brian and I knew just the kind of family we would make together.

Ay de mi, can I even bear to tell you about us and how we thought it would be?

Our family, we decided, would be just like a traditional nuclear family, except our children would spend some of their time with their other parents. Brian and I would love all the children the same, and treat them the same, but we would never make the mistake of expecting the same from them. We would never put any of them in a position to feel torn between mother and stepmother, or father and stepfather. We would hold ourselves to a very high standard, and expect nothing of the children except a moderate level of respect.

It was all a very Dr. Phil-esque kind of self-abnegation that began to implode almost immediately. Our plans and expectations contained no acknowledgement that we were human, and newlywed. We failed to predict the deep influence our children’s other parents and our extended families would have on our fledgling familial unit and all the complex relationships therein. We were so blinded by early love and outrageous optimism that we scarcely registered we parented orthogonally to one another and our children would notice that.

But love! Oh, love!

Brian and Spencer moved into the house that my ex-husband and I had bought a year before we divorced and we started being a family together. It took us about 4.2 minutes to run into the first wall, which was sleep for the kids. I was very strict about bedtime and naps, and Brian and his ex-wife had always been a bit flummoxed about how to get Spencer to bed so they usually bribed him with food. Actually, my strictness and Brian’s laxity were the sparks that ignited dozens of arguments. I expected he would see the superiority of my methods and change. Brian thought his son was just fine and I should lighten up. Spencer couldn’t understand why this strange woman in his life was being so mean and making him go to bed when it wasn’t even dark out yet.

We went on like that, five sets of expectations banging against each other and the walls, all of us hoping to have our needs met, and neither Brian nor I precisely sure how to make that happen.

In the meantime, other people had expectations, too. Brian’s ex-wife seemed to take his remarriage personally and my involvement in Spencer’s life as a personal insult. My ex-husband didn’t seem especially bothered but he stopped paying child support almost immediately. My parents and Brian’s parents had pre-existing relationships with their grandchildren and we couldn’t seem to communicate in any gentle way that none of them could lavish gifts on one or two children and leave another out. My in-laws didn’t much like me, and my parents didn’t really understand my husband, and the messier it all got, the more defensive and unpleasant Brian and I were with each other, the children, and everyone.

I could draw a map of all the expectations, resentments, and hurts that travelled among us but it would be nothing but an unintelligible tangle of lines before I was half finished. I was happy to resent my father-in-law, and miserably ashamed to find that I resented my stepson. It felt hopeless and ugly and I couldn’t imagine we’d ever find our way our. It almost finished our family, except for once Brian’s and my mutual stubbornness worked for good instead of ill and we hung on.

We’d been married for about four years and I was reading a memoir by a woman who had several sisters, and she confessed that while she loved all of them, she really only liked one sister. I had an epiphany. “Brian,” I said, “I don’t love Spencer the same way I love my kids.”

These would have been fighting words in the first year of our marriage, but Brian responded, “No, I don’t love Jacob and Abbie the same way I love Spencer.”

We stayed up most of the night that night, discussing what this meant for us, and how this revelation (it really seemed like a revelation, though now it all appears very simple and obvious) would change our family, and what we might do differently to make life better. That night was mostly about relieving one another of responsibilities and expectations. We determined that we would stop trying to parent each other’s children and act more like friendly aunts or uncles: we would stop negotiating with each other’s ex-spouses and parents; we would, basically, retreat to our corners and hush up, except we would keep talking to each other.

When I was a little girl, my parents used to take my sister and me backpacking, and I loved the feeling I had when I took off my heavy backpack. The release of pressure made me feel like I was floating just above the ground, and the feeling I had in the weeks after Brian and I admitted our family wasn’t working out quite like we’d expected was psychically similar. I was so relieved I was nearly giddy.

We’d done a fair amount of damage in our floundering and confusion, and there have been more (and much bigger) roadblocks on the journey than blending our families turned out to be, but damn, I’m glad I’m not on this scary road without Brian and Spencer. We had to start from scratch and define for ourselves how our relationships would work, but I’ve decided in the meantime that relationships work better that way anyhow.

Parents in Pain, Parents Ashamed

Parents in Pain, Parents Ashamed


Start from this truth: I love my children with the heat and light of the sun. They are the most fascinating and wonderful people I know. I do not love them all the same, but I love none of them less, whether they have developed typically or are disabled. They are both my home and my grandest adventure.

Even in the presence of this enormous love, there has also been pain so deep it became desperation, despondency, and terror. In the special needs community, there is a loud message that says parents (or other caregivers) of people with disabilities may not express these feelings. We are told that our pain is self-pity, our grief is unwarranted and unkind, and hate of our children’s disabilities is akin to hate for our children.

To be really clear, this is codswallop. Piffle. Crapola. Balderdash. Rubbish. Hogwash. Bollocks. Nonsense. Muddle-headed gibberish. Feelings are morally neutral, neither bad nor good, holy or evil. Feelings are part of being human and my feelings belong to me. No person may declare my feelings wrong.

In this alternate reality, a caregiver’s pain doesn’t much matter, and may be totally invalidated, because the pain of a child with a disability is infinitely worse. Being the parent of a child with mental illness, or cerebral palsy, or autism, or Down’s syndrome, or any other disability may be painful, but since the struggles of the person with the diagnosis are greater, the caregiver’s (usually a parent) pain is null, or worse, it could be called out as self-pity.

Again: codswallop. Piffle. Crapola. Balderdash. Rubbish. Hogwash. Bollocks. Nonsense. Muddle-headed gibberish.

In what my family will forever refer to as The Bad Years (the first eight or so years of my youngest son’s life), I was a tumble of hectic anguish. My pain cascaded out of my face and into the lap of every adult with whom I talked because I was far, far too wrecked to be able to put on a social face and pretend to be OK.

I was greeted mostly with platitudes and scolding. Platitudes hurt because they minimize or invalidate reality. When someone said God never gives us more than we can handle, I heard people telling me I was fine, that if I was in pain it was because I was being a wimp. When I was scolded with statements like you really just have to learn to accept this or you should be grateful he’s alive, I felt deeply ashamed (and what is it about pain that causes people to assume that there is not also gratitude?), which only compounded my agony.

And I want to tell you this: sometimes, during the years 2009-2011, I was in serious trouble. Very, very serious trouble, close to doing terrible things that would have put my family’s name all over the internet and most newspapers in the US and even internationally. I felt hopeless, desperate, and completely alone.

All the scolding had done its job. It silenced me. Even when I feared I would do the worst possible thing, I could not speak it. The feeling, I believed, made me evil, and I wanted to hide that evil. I hoped I could pretend it was not as it was. My family was very nearly destroyed by that silence.

Return, if you will, to the fact that I love all of my children, and Carter, my youngest and my child with disabilities, not one iota less than the others. I was in agony largely because he was suffering and he is my child and I could not ease his pain. He was a whirling dervish of misery and rage. He was sleepless, aggressive, and terrified and in spite of every effort, his torment continued, day and night, for years.

I was also entirely irrational by that time. I wanted to be a good mother. I could sometimes playact at being a good mother, but I was not OK. Years of extreme sleep deprivation take their toll. Years of fear take their toll. Imagine your worst experience with any of your children. For me, before Carter, it was when my daughter Abbie was a toddler and was sick with pneumonia. She was so miserable and fretful for four days that she only slept a few minutes at a time, and only when she lay on top of me. Her fever would spike to 105 and when I gave her antibiotics and acetaminophen, she would vomit it all over me, which in turn caused her nose to gush blood. It was a very hard 4 days.

Now imagine parenting with that level of intensity and fear (except infinitely more fear, because we had no real idea what was wrong with our child) for nine years. It changed me. It destroyed me. I am OK now, but I am not the person I was before my son’s disabilities tore me off my foundation. I am not stronger.

Eventually, I fell into the arms of some parenting support groups (online and in real life) and there, I spilled my tale of woe. It’s awful, so hard, how will we survive? He’s so sick and we never sleep and the medical and educational systems meant to help him don’t, and I can’t go on. I’m in agony. Returned to me, finally, was affirmation. Understanding. Yes, this is awful. So hard. We hear you. We understand you. You are not bad or evil. You are not alone.

I even spilled the darkest of truths, that at that time I wished I’d not had Carter. No one gasped. No one paled. No one misunderstood me and thought I wished this because Carter had disrupted my life. They understood that my beloved son suffered and it felt so damn unfair, so cruel. I felt selfish for choosing to have another child. How could I have created this person if his existence was nothing but torment?

There were no platitudes. No “he is here to test your strength” (he is himself, not my test), or “he is here to make you a better person” (he is himself, not my personal self-improvement exercise), or “God never gives you more than you can handle” (he is himself, not God’s telegram by which God’s confidence in me is communicated).

No one chastised me for my pain and anger. Never were the words self-pity used; never was I admonished to accept my son just as he is. There was simply hearing. There was kindness and understanding.

It may seem paradoxical (although it’s not), but it was finally being heard that enabled me to move away from depression, helplessness, and yes, self-pity, into a place of acceptance. That acceptance is not acquiescence and it doesn’t mean I’m happy my son’s brain was damaged before his birth, but it does mean that I no longer flail against it.

It was kindness, not condemnation that saved me. It was kindness that brought me back to peace and hope. It was kindness that helped me to be (however imperfectly) the mother to my son that I want to be.

My hope is that the special needs community of caregivers, loved ones, and people with disabilities will begin to make space for respectful expression of all feelings, including the darkest and scariest ones. A parent in pain does not have to be a parent ashamed.


Photo by Scott Boruchov

Family Mythology

Family Mythology

tooth fairy signed

The first time we forgot to fulfill our tooth fairy duties, I declared that the tooth fairy is really quite old and sometimes she gets too tired to finish her rounds in one night. The disappointed, gap-mouthed child took this in stride, declaring that any fairy old enough to have gathered even his own grandmother’s teeth was surely very old indeed.

The next time we forgot to trade a tooth for money (this became frustratingly habitual), I distracted my tearful, toothless daughter by announcing that the tooth fairy was getting a bit confused in her advanced age, and perhaps she left the money in the wrong place and forgot the tooth? The kids and I went on a treasure hunt, peeking under every cushion in the house while my husband slipped a dollar under a mattress and encouraged our daughter to look there.

After this routine played out several times (I’d guess the tooth fairy had a 50% success rate of actually removing a tooth from under a pillow and replacing it with a dollar), my kids began to lament the tooth fairy tradition, because surely, if she was so confused now, would she even know what teeth were by the time their children lost teeth? Spencer, four at the time, piped up that perhaps he could become the new tooth fairy when he was all grown up! Jacob and Abbie, then 6 and 8, sagely informed Spencer that he was a person, not a fairy, and the only hope for a tooth fairy in the future would be a new fairy, though they applauded his sense of duty to future generations.

Around the same time that our three eldest children were losing many teeth, we were preparing for the arrival of our youngest son. My husband, our kids, and I were walking across the parking lot of a big box store that supplies every possible infant need. I was massively pregnant and wearing the awful yellow t-shirt and navy blue shorts that made me look like a weeble-wobble gone wrong, but were the only things I could bear to wear in the July heat.

“Why are we here?” asked Jacob, our eldest. “This store is so boring! Doesn’t the baby have enough clothes by now?”

My husband waggled his eyebrows, then looked at the children seriously and said, “Oh, we’re not here to shop. This is where they keep the baby spanking machine. You know, in case the baby is naughty.”

The two older kids looked amused and exaggeratedly horrified and Spencer, almost five and not yet adept at recognizing fiction when we tossed it about, looked at me, concerned. I gave him a big wink and said, “Oh, yes, this is where they keep the baby spanking machine now. When you guys were small, we had to drive all the way across town so this is very convenient!”

Less than a week later, our youngest child Carter arrived in the world and the kids were crouched around me on the bed, petting his head. So new! So small! So magic! I settled Spencer cross-legged and laid the baby in his arms and Spencer looked at his face and gazed at the wee, wrinkly fingers and told him, “You’re kind of lucky because we don’t hit in our family. The baby spanking machine isn’t even real.”

In some essential way, we built our family identity on these fabrications, both on the stories themselves and the habits of creating and maintaining them. Some of the stories came pre-installed: hiccups come from the toy box, and if anyone starts eating before the family says grace that person will suffer a stomachache, both of which came from my mother’s side of the family. Most we made up on the fly, sometimes to protect our parental butts as in the case of the tooth fairy, some just because. Some we made sure the kids knew were inventions because they would be scary otherwise (I never actually wanted my kids to think we were going to spank anyone), and some we told quite seriously.

I love the mythologies of childhood, and I wanted them for all the time. For several years, I had all my kids absolutely convinced that UPS delivery people are Santa’s elves, and not only do they deliver the Christmas gifts so Santa doesn’t exhaust himself on Christmas Eve, but they’re out in the world finding out what kinds of things kids would like to have for Christmas. At least two UPS delivery carriers deserve thanks from me for playing along when one of my kids announced their Christmas desires to them.

When I met my husband Brian, my children were four and 6 and his son was 2. Brian was adamant that he would never lie to his son. Noble in theory, but I was aghast. “What about all the magic lies? And the fun ones? And the ones that save them from getting their hearts broken too young?”

Eventually, we agreed, because kids make storytelling so easy, and so often start the stories themselves. When friends lost their baby to SIDS, Spencer was so deeply sad for the parents, he drew pictures and described scenarios in which he flew a spaceship to heaven and brought the baby home to his grieving parents. I listened to my kids spinning wild fabrications for each other, and listened to them go along with those stories because so what if a story is not factual? Strict adherence to facts is not necessarily what makes a story true, and I hope all our mythologies tell some truth of our family.

If you come to our house for dinner, and you accidentally pass a little gas at the table, we’ll remind you to be careful not to step on the ducks. I hope you’ll play along.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Proud Enough to Bust

Proud Enough to Bust

proudtobustMay, 2014: Elementary School Graduation at SRS

I walked with my family down the aisle of the sanctuary of the church that houses my youngest son’s school (I’ll call it SRS, The School for Remarkable Students). We took our seats on the long pew behind a dozen students who were tussling like puppies, crowded together and as physical and comfortable in each other’s presence as happy siblings.

The teachers took their turns at the podium, passing out awards and speaking kind words about their students, and each student in turn walked to the front, some with heads bowed and hands shoved deep in pockets, some pumping fists and shouting their excitement. The students in the pew cheered and hollered for their classmates.

When the clapping and cheering was finished, my son Carter brought his certificate of elementary school graduation to me and we marveled over it. “I did it, Mom!”


July, 2013: First Day of Fifth Grade at SRS

Carter was anxious about the first day of school, but not so much that he couldn’t walk to the door by himself. He would be the Big Man on Campus, the elementary student who had been at his SRS the longest. He spoke firmly to me about his important work setting an example for newer, younger students. “Mrs. D is counting on me,” he said, “and I could never let her down, especially since it’s my last year with her before I go to the middle school room.”


February, 2010: Carter’s First Day at SRS

“Mommy, Mommy, please! Mommy, promise me it’s not like the other school! Promise you’ll come get me if I need you! Please Mommy, I’m scared!”

“Babe, I promise it’s different. It’s especially for kids like you who have a hard time with some things. Everything is different here.”

Mrs. M, the school principal, met us at the door when she heard Carter crying. “Aw, honey. This is really hard, I know. Lots of the kids have a hard time at first and we’re all going to help you.”

I hugged and kissed him and although he was still crying hard, he allowed Mrs. M to lead him into the classroom. She looked at me from the classroom door and said, “Call me in an hour.”

An hour later, I called her from the parking lot. I’d been unable to drive away.


December, 2009: Homeschooling

“You have to kill me! Kill me, Mommy! Call the police and tell them to kill me!”

I was crouched on my knees over Carter, trying to restrain him without hurting either one of us. His face bled into the couch cushions because he had slammed it against the stairs until his nose bled, his lip was split, and he’d raised a giant blue lump on his hairline.

Carter cried under me for an hour, shrieking for long, wordless minutes. Tears dripped off the end of my nose and onto the back of his head and my muscles trembled from holding my static position for so long. As his rage finally began to burn out, he turned his head and looked into my eyes. Cold and low, he said, “Someday I’m going to kill myself and there won’t be anything you can do about it.”

I made my firm Mom face, the one that caused my three older children to straighten their spines in a hurry, and said, “I will never let you do that. I will always keep you safe no matter what.”


September, 2009: Carter’s Last Day at Public School

Carter screamed. I put him in the car to drive him to the 14th day of school of his first grade year and he screamed.

The day before, he had screamed.

The day before that, he had screamed.

Every day, he screamed. His regular education teacher sent him to his special education teacher because he wouldn’t (couldn’t) stop screaming, and the special education teacher (I overheard her from the hall) told him, “You stop that right now! There is nothing wrong with you!”

The special education teacher sent him to the nurse because he wouldn’t (couldn’t) stop screaming, and the nurse in turn sent him to the principal.

They all (the teachers, the nurse, the principal, the social worker, other people sent to tell me things in stern voices) told me that I must not baby him. I must drop him off on time and I may not pick him up before the final bell, or I would again be referred to truancy court, to which parents are sent after some specific number of absences, no matter the cause.

Except finally, in spite of those threats, the screaming was too much, Carter’s anguish unbearable, and I turned the car around and took him home.


March, 2009: Parent Teacher Conference Day

I had a letter in my purse that informed me, in formal language, that I would soon be referred to truancy court for Carter’s excessive absences. Also in my purse were copies of letters from doctors documenting the cause of those absences: one each from his pediatrician, psychiatrist, gastroenterologist, and psychologist. I had sent each of those letters to everyone at the school. Nevertheless, it seemed I would be facing a judge.

With those letters tucked into my purse, Carter and I headed to the public school to meet with his teacher to discuss his progress during his second trip through kindergarten. On the way, Carter collapsed into a migraine as he did most days back then, and as he moaned over the little bucket we kept in the backseat for that purpose, I decided we would proceed to the conference as planned.

I bundled Carter into the classroom and tucked him in with a blanket and pillow (we were always prepared for illness back then) and his bucket.

I sat across from the teacher and her aide. “Don’t you want to reschedule?” asked the teacher.

“This happens almost everyday,” I answered, dabbing at Carter’s mouth with a wipe. He vomited some more and cried.

“Well, maybe we can talk on the phone or something,” said the teacher. “He should probably be at home.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” I said, and put the truancy letter from the district on her desk.

I picked up my weeping, wretched son and made my way to the door. As I rounded the corner, the teacher said to her aide, “I guess she was telling the truth after all.”


August, 2007: Carter’s First Day of Kindergarten

My husband and I stood on the playground with Carter and all the other parents and their excited 5-year-olds, waiting for the first bell. Carter looked handsome and adult in his khaki shorts and new sneakers.

The teacher came to the door and smiled, “Children, welcome! Wow, look at you, ready for your first day of school! Give your moms and dads hugs and kisses and we’ll all line up and go to class.”

Carter hugged and kissed us and trotted off to line up with the other kids. He walked into his new classroom behind a little girl wearing a sparkly pink backpack and he turned, just once, to wave to us.


May, 2014: Elementary School Graduation

The graduation evening was long and by the time Carter and my husband and I got into the car, Carter was yawning. He buckled himself into his seat and was quiet for a few minutes.

“Carter?” I asked, “How are you feeling? Are you happy?”

“Yeah,” he said, “I’m so proud I could bust.”

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Never Wish Happiness For Your Children

Never Wish Happiness For Your Children

AdrienneJones1Growing up is hard.

Parenting people who are on the cusp of adulthood sometimes feels even harder.

In my family, it’s been a couple generations since anyone transitioned to adulthood with any kind of finesse. My parents walked in their high school graduation ceremonies, moved on to college the following September, and finished their undergraduate degrees four years later. They married, earned graduate degrees, began careers, and had children in ways and at times that reflected planning.

I didn’t plan my adulthood as much as I flopped and floundered my way into it, graduating late from an alternative high school, grabbing a job here, a few college classes there, and pausing a couple times to have a baby.

The three eldest of my 4 children have or will graduate from high school late and in non-traditional ways. College? We’ll see. Careers? They don’t know what they want yet. My 20-year-old son makes a good living after graduating from Job Corps and is saving money to move to a city where he can better pursue a music career. My 18-year-old daughter and 16-year-old stepson are still casting about, frustrated and angry. Their complaints about the neighborhood high school are legitimate (as are their concerns about the job market and economy), but the alternatives we’ve offered have been met with responses ranging from indifference to derision.

In 1998, when I was a young, single mother of two small children, I was concerned (panicked is probably a more accurate word) about how my eldest son, Jacob, was doing in kindergarten. He was spacey, bored, and behind academically. He didn’t have friends and couldn’t stay on task the way most children his age were able to do.  When the teachers laid each of the children down on a piece of butcher paper and outlined them and instructed the kids to decorate their outline drawings, all the other kids drew shirts, shorts, hair, and shoes. My son drew ribs, a liver, heart, phalanges, and where the other children put a face, my son drew a brain and his best approximation of the sinuses.

When I saw that picture on parents’ night I was full of pride. The teachers, however, were less impressed with Jacob’s interest in human anatomy and more concerned with the fact that he didn’t yet read and seemed uninterested in academic essentials, the kinds of things that are learned while seated in a chair, pencil in one hand.

The next day at work, I was wringing my hands about Jacob’s kindergarten experience and I said to my co-worker Mary, “I just want my kids to be happy!” Mary, a retired elementary school teacher, poet, mother of adult children, and gentlest person ever, startled me by grabbing my shoulders and saying, “Never wish happiness for your children. Never! Teach skills.”

In parenting, as in most life endeavors, we look to the results as proof of a job well (or poorly) done. Good parenting will result in children who do well in school, enter successful careers, and live lives filled with wonderful relationships. Poor parenting produces criminality, drug addiction, or whatever bogeyman we have living in our personal parental-results closets.

The trouble with that kind of thinking is, a child is a person, not a soufflé, and ultimately we come to the place where we can’t control everything. Or anything. Our children are themselves. I don’t get to take the credit for Jacob’s amazing creativity, but neither do I have to take the blame for the fact that academics have always been somewhat challenging for him.

I am responsible for all my own parenting behavior: some excellent, some dreadful, and mostly pretty ordinary. The results, though? There really aren’t any. People aren’t products. My children’s lives are not a culmination of my efforts as a parent. Their lives are their own.

What my co-worker recognized when she told me to teach skills to my children was that I had my self-worth wrapped up in my children’s happiness and success and she wanted to set me on a different path. It’s a terrible lesson to learn because it means we’re nowhere near as powerful as we’d like to be. When my children were small, I hoped that if I fed them right, used the best car seats, read them enough books, sent them to the right schools, struck the right balance between helping them and letting them solve their own problems, and so on, that they would grow up to be responsible, happy, successful people.

It ain’t necessarily so. What means responsible, happy, and successful to me is not necessarily what my kids want for themselves, just as what I wanted for my life (when I finally got around to figuring that out) was not what my parents wanted for themselves.

When my children, the “products” of all my efforts, seem to be spinning and struggling and I am busy flagellating myself for the dreadful job I must have done to create so much sturm and drang in these people, I cling to Mary’s words. I did my best to teach skills.

I didn’t know, before children, that the hardest part about loving them would be stepping back. “Some of us think holding on makes us strong,” wrote Hermann Hesse, “but sometimes it is letting go.”

The Richest Person in the World

The Richest Person in the World

By Adrienne Jones

Jones_BMMom! I have an idea for Valentine’s Day. Let’s get candy coins. You know, those chocolate ones? Then I’ll give them to everyone because I have so many people to love and that makes me the richest person in the whole world. Get it? I’ll give them candy money because I’m so rich!


Mom? Is that a good idea?

Mom! Why are you crying?!?

I’m about the least sentimental person this side of Spock, but those words from my 11-year-old son’s mouth hit me right in my middle. I’m the richest person in the world because I have so many people to love from any child would be wonderful. From this particular little boy, it is miraculous.

Carter was born the very unhappiest baby who grew into the very unhappiest toddler and the very most anxious preschooler. By the time he started school, he had a list of diagnoses as long as his arm, none of which seemed precisely right, and although some of those diagnoses were very big, adult, and scary, they didn’t quite capture the long crisis our lives had become. A few months before Carter turned 7, I had begun to lose hope that he would ever experience any happiness more meaningful than the momentary excitement of a new toy.

What we know now but didn’t then was that Carter suffered a prenatal hypoxic brain injury that impacted his brain from stem to stern. He has a sleep disorder so severe that, when unmedicated, he sleeps every other night, only succumbing to slumber when his body is finally powerless against overwhelming exhaustion. He has hypotonia (low muscle tone) and is weaker on the right side of his body than his left.

In spite of all that, the most arresting reality of life for Carter and all of us who love him was, he was miserable. He suffered seizure-like rages during which he begged me to kill him or have him arrested. He tried to throw himself out of the car on the freeway. I restrained him when he tried to hurt himself and dragged him off of other children when he tried to kill them. My husband and I slept in shifts so we could supervise our wakeful, terrified son. Carter lived like a dervish: never playing, never sitting, rarely smiling. He was a blur of disorganized, frenetic activity, terrified of everything and enjoying nothing.

These days, Carter gives me full permission to tell the stories of those years in any way I like, but he rarely discusses it himself. He can’t bear to think about it. By that fall, he had developed psychotic symptoms, we had removed him from public school because the staff wouldn’t stop punishing him for crying all day, and finally, we got an appointment with a pediatric psychiatrist.

That pediatric psychiatrist was Dr. S, and we had a good many more chaotic months and terrifying experiences ahead of us, but it was a turning point nevertheless. She was not the first professional to listen to us and take Carter’s problems seriously (though there were plenty who scoffed and dismissed me as an over-anxious mother), but she was the first one who took us seriously who was also qualified to help. It took months to find a drug combination that helped Carter sleep and eased his psychosis and rages, but knowing Dr. S was there, working with us, caring about Carter, and available by phone gave me hope.

Then came D, a new therapist, a young guy who looked at my son and saw not a diagnostic puzzle to be solved or a series of symptoms to be squelched, but a child with whom he could develop a relationship. Carter, always a cautious soul who loves his inner circle completely but is very careful about who he allows into that circle, trusted D in a matter of weeks. D was the one to break the news to me that Carter was delusional and hallucinating, and he was the person who stayed on the phone with me for an hour while I cried over this information. Through the fall and winter of 2009 and into the early months of 2010, he answered my questions, lent me books, and lit up with genuine happiness when he greeted Carter. He assured me over and over that, should we need to hospitalize Carter, he would spend time with him every day, and while we never did have to admit our little boy, the knowledge that D would be next to us if that happened was immensely reassuring.

As we began the slow, uncertain journey to stability (an improvement we were never quite confident about until Carter’s illness had been receding for over a year), we were gradually adding new people to our lives. First came a small support group for parents of children with serious mental illness (never underestimate the power of the presence of people who understand your experience). Next, a new school for Carter, a tiny community of children with special needs and their dedicated teachers where my son feels safe and confident enough to learn, and where he has developed his first genuine friendships. Finally, a new faith community, where most people don’t really understand but everyone is willing to listen. Soon, we’ll embark on a brand new adventure when Carter becomes a Special Olympics athlete.

Perhaps all of that sounds a little flippant, like an old fairy tale where everything was dark and scary and suddenly the sun came out and surprise! Everything is wonderful again! In fact, the road to the relative stability we enjoy has been bumpy and profoundly difficult. Our lives are, and will remain, more challenging than they would have been had Carter’s brain not been injured. In spite of all that, Carter really is the richest person in the world because he has so many people to love.

Well, maybe he’s the second richest person in the world and I’m the richest, because I get to be his mom. I got to help him buy chocolate coins and make Valentine’s cards for all the people he loves and who love him in return, and for the mom of the boy who was once filled with little except fear and rage, well…

I think I have something in my eye.

Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the early hours of the morning, just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style [].

Parenting Multiple Children, When One Has Special Needs

Parenting Multiple Children, When One Has Special Needs

By Adrienne Jones

0-13I was in the waiting room at my youngest son Carter’s therapist’s office in January 2011 when my cell phone rang. I answered and heard the voice of Jacob, my 18-year-old son, his voice choked with fear and pain, telling me that he couldn’t find a job. “I put in tons of applications and I didn’t even get a single interview! You know how bad I’m doing at school, but I really, really tried last semester, Mom. I don’t even think I can graduate this year. I’m going to end up working at fast food restaurants my whole life.”

He began to cry, and I was broken hearted at the despondency in his voice. I wanted nothing but to sit down next to him and reassure him, then help him explore options. I wanted to be with him, to be his mom.

Just as I began murmuring words of love and support (You are smart. We’ll find something. I’m here to help you.), Carter’s therapist tapped me on the shoulder. He had the look on his face that I dread, the one that tells me life has to pause for awhile so I can keep my youngest son safe. My littlest child, the one whose brain got broken before he was born, the one who we all love deeply but who needs much more than we can give.

The one who stole two kids’ mom and one kids’ stepmom.

When Carter’s therapist tapped my shoulder, I froze for a second. This child, or that one? I cannot meet both needs, yet both needs are urgent.

“Jacob, I’m so sorry, but I have to call you back. I’m at Carter’s appointment and his therapist needs to talk to me.”

“Whatever, Mom,” and the phone was dead in my ear.

I’m not quite sure when Jacob’s patience ran out. He was eight when Carter was born and as Carter cried through his first year, Jacob was frustrated. While Carter cried through his second year, he began to get angry. When I began to crumble emotionally during Carter’s third year, Jacob began to develop a resentment that only grew as his brother got sicker and I was less and less available for homework help, dinner cooking, and even simple conversation.

These days, I take Carter to about 100 appointments a year, including lab draws. In his early years, I took him to three times as many, often dragging another child (or 2, or 3) along with me because babysitters were in short supply. They rode to appointments to the sound of their brother’s screams, they sat in boring waiting rooms and tried to occupy themselves with books and games, and they rode home while their brother continued to howl in his carseat.

They asked me for help with homework and I tried to give explanations, Carter in a sling on my chest and wailing so loudly that I had to shout my descriptions of what adverbs do or how to solve for x.

I was at the psychiatrist’s office with Carter when my daughter Abbie (13 at the time) called me from home. “Mom, I think I broke my leg! Please, can you come home Mommy? Please? I really need you,” she begged from the place in our driveway where she had fallen.

Of course I went to her, but her pleading had torn something in me. A child who is hurt should not have to beg for her mother’s presence; her mother should come running. Her fear that I might not come shocked me.

Parenting multiple children tears parents in many directions sometimes, even if all the children are healthy and developing typically. When one or more of the children has out-size needs, though, the parents must make out-size decisions, and the children must make out-size sacrifices (often unknowingly and unwillingly).

During his first three years, Carter was virtually inconsolable by anyone but me (and even with me, he cried hour after everlasting hour), so my older kids missed my presence at their plays, band concerts, and games. I skipped Parents’ Night at school, or left early because Carter was disruptive with his screaming.

During Carter’s preschool and early school years, they missed having a mom because I was exhausted to the point of near collapse for weeks and months at a time. They stayed home alone too often because it was better than dragging them along to yet more long, boring appointments. Throughout it all, they lost sleep because Carter has severe sleep issues and until recently (and sometimes, even now) he was never awake and quiet at the same time.

Carter has been relatively stable for almost three years now, and in that time I have begun working to repair my relationships with my other children, but much damage, much of it likely irreparable, has been done. They lost their mom during some crucial years of childhood, and while I always made sure they had food and clothes, got to school on time, and saw the doctor and the dentist, I was not nearly as available to them as I was before their brother came.

People often reassure me that kids are resilient; that there are benefits to having a sibling with special needs that have yet to reveal themselves. Perhaps. I hope so.

But I also know that sometimes, the fallout from a family crisis reaches very far, much further than we can imagine when we are in the midst of the crisis. I don’t know the solution; even now, thinking back on those years, I don’t know what I could have done differently. I only hoped I could meet all my kids basic needs and keep Carter alive, and by those very basic standards I’ve been successful.

All I can say to Jacob and Abbie and my stepson Spencer is, yes, it was hard, and it’s still hard. I hear your pain, and if I can help you heal, I want to do that.

And still, even now, I have to take Carter to his appointments. I have to stay with him most of the time so that his emotional life is steady. If I can help heal you, I have to do it in the in-between. There is more of that now, but it is still the in-between.

I failed, but I promise I tried to choose all of you.

Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the early hours of the morning, just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style [].

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