The Anxious Parent

24 09 2009

In August Liza, her dad, and her stepmother welcomed a beautiful baby girl to their family. I’m told she sleeps nearly all day long and posesses a calm happy demeanor. The few times I’ve seen her I’ve been awestruck by her flawless infant skin, big eyes, and adorable rose-bud of a mouth. I’m delighted for Liza and her family and love seeing my ex husband practice his patented “one –arm baby holding” pose. But I can’t help but be struck by the difference between this baby and Liza during her infancy. Where her baby sister is calm and placid Liza came screaming into the world as a red faced ball of fury. Nothing seemed to pacify her – not slings or swings or toys or walks in the stroller. The only things that would calm her were sleeping on top of one of us, her pacifiers, or music (although even the she could be finicky – eschewing soothing ballads she seemed to prefer patter songs such as “Pick a Pocket or Two” or “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight” ). The hazy blur of her first year is punctuated by moments of utter exhausted desperation as I searched vainly for something to make her happy. I became convinced that the problem was not my fussy frantic baby – it was me. Why were other moms so good at this when I was so very very bad? This notion that resurfaced last weekend when I commented to my ex husband how lovely his sleeping baby daughter was and he jokingly replied “yeah, I guess we know where Liza’s fussiness came from huh?”. I know he was teasing but there exists a grain of truth in every jest and the truth here was clear – I was the anxious parent and I had given birth to the anxious child.

When I was pregnant I imagined myself taking to parenting like a duck to water. I’d lovingly sing my baby to sleep, we’d stroll the neighborhood where passersby would comment on how cute and good she was, I’d manage it all, going back to work handily and still finding time to come up with creative and educational ways to bond with my daughter.

Boy did reality dope slap me “upside the head’ (as we say in Maine).

My maternity leave passed in a blur of days when I could barely get myself showered, of crying hunched over my screaming child as I heard my ex husband’s car pull out of the driveway on his way to freedom each morning. “What do you WANT?” I would wail , wondering what fates had given me this baby when clearly I was supposed to have the happy smiling babies in the pampers ads. Even bringing her on simple outings gave birth to fits of worry – how far could I drive before she started screaming? Days at home stretched endlessly – could I make it through a shower without her wailing? Would she sleep more than 30 minutes at a stretch? The days and nights blurred together and I remember especially sitting with her at midnight in the rocking chair of the nursery watching the lights of my neighbor’s houses go out one by one and feeling so utterly totally alone. I tried to return to my beloved jazzercise classes, taking advantage of the free babysitting, only to get called out of class after class to retrieve my furious baby. My return to work was full of calls from her daycare a block away “she’s still crying can you come get her/hold her/ rock her? ” Honestly looking back on that first year of Liza’s life I don’t know who cried more, me or her. We tried gas drops and different formulas, let her sleep in her vibrating bouncy seat and held her until I felt as though my arm would literally fall off. I reached out to a dear friend who had a baby just two months older thinking we could spend our time commiserating about the trials of new motherhood. What a shock to my system to discover not only had she morphed into an uber-mom but her daughter was nothing like mine. While her baby spent literal hours examining the wonder of her own hand, mine discarded every new discovery within minutes as if to say “is that all you got? Come ON I’m bored here!” Instead of a comrade in arms all I found was the puzzled stare of a woman unfamiliar with the utter terror I felt at being a mom. My anxiety around Liza’s temperament grew stronger with each passing year . Surely a better parent would handle her better. Surely a better parent would be calm. Surely a better parent would not have slammed the wall over the changing table so hard in frustration that the photos on the other side of the wall came crashing down. Surely a better parent was anyone other than me. Other parents talked about bringing their children out to eat with them at any number of restaurants – I had a child who shook and hyperventilated if you brought her anywhere she “hadn’t been before,” a child who at 5 ran screaming down the block outside a bagel shop because she was convinced the steam from the bagels meant the shop was on fire. I”d love to tell you that I handled her anxiety with aplomb, calmly guiding her through new experiences and soothing her fears. I didn’t. The worse her worries got the worse my anxiety about her worries got. Like the worst kind of relationship between addict and enabler we fed off of each other in a vicious cycle. I grew used to the tightening in my chest every time I had to navigate another experience that could lead to one of her meltdowns, and the resulting sigh of relief as we got through one unscathed. Years later Kelly would tell me that one friend even expressed her sympathy that Kelly had to ‘spend time with that child.” That friend isn’t in our lives any more.

That horrible first year is now a decade in the past. Liza’s grown into a funny, talented, sarcastic young lady who shares my love of Sondheim, a passion for ice cream, and a budding fascination with HGTV. We share the same thighs, the same belly and the same walk. Together we’ve weathere d ten years of tears at the onset of new experiences — tears on the soccer field, tears at the rock climbing birthday party, tears at clowns at the circus, tears on countless school mornings , worries about fire drills and thunderstorms , tests and gym class. Ten years of crying behind my sunglasses on the way to work wondering what I’d done wrong, why all around me were parents with kids who moved easily from one thing to another, parents who didn’t live with a tension in their chest all day. Ten years of waking up praying that the morning would go smoothly. To Liza’s credit she’s worked hard, grown up, agreed to some outside help which has been a huge benefit, found her niche in acting and dance thanks to encouraging and nurturing teachers and directors, and come into a calmer more confident place in her life. Her dad and stepmom created a warm secure home for her, extended family has wrapped her in love and Kelly and my friends have hung in there with her time and time again with love and patience even when it’s been hard to understand. I’m often seized with a desire to clutch her fiercely to me as if to stop the relentless march of time . As Liza grows more mature and calmer she’s helping me do the same and we’ve found our way to a better place. But as I coo and exlaim over her adorable baby sister I’m seized with a longing to go back in time – to hold that angry squalling baby one more time and murmer in her ear that it would all be alright and that Liza and momma would get through it all and that most of all …there was nothing to worry about after all.

Peas in a Pod

Peas in a Pod


Let Us Make Bread Together

24 09 2009

Wednesday afternoon, picking up Liza from afterschool, my mind already racing on what lies ahead the quick-get-in-the-car-or-we

‘ll-be-late-for-your-ballet-class-have-you-finished-your-homework-wait-I have-to-call-the-office” cycle that all working moms will be familiar with. All sorts of perky essays on motherhood call this “the balancing act” or”the juggling act”. I call it life. I don’t have time for self examination or for cheery magazine article titles On this particular Wednesday, Liza emerges from the school carrying not just her backpack and lunchbox but a large heavy plastic bag. “Momma! We had a demonstration on making bread today and they gave us enough flour to make two loaves of bread and we’re supposed to keep one and bring one in for the food pantry on Monday! When do you want to make our bread?”

What? Bread? What? It’s as if she’s speaking Farsi so far removed from my reality is this request. Most working moms I know live in dread of those school projects that consume our precious nights and weekends — the giant posters about Ireland , the Tri Folds that have to be informative AND “colorful!” the dioramas on the habitat of the snowy owl — these are not our friends, but they are at least manageable. But bread? BREAD? You see from the time Liza was a toddler I have impressed up on her that there were three “C”s that momma should not be expected to do: “cooking, crafting, and camping”. Don’t ask kid…ain’t gonna happen. So far we’ve been able to navigate class parties by always being the reliable mom who brings the paper plates. We’ve avoided having to go to Michael’s crafts for anything other than stick on letters for the aforementioned tri-fold. And fortunately the child shares my innate dislike of sleeping anywhere we can’t handily plug in a blow dryer. But now as I look at that exuberant face as she eagerly clutches her bag of flour all I can think is…

“How. Can. I. Get. Out. Of. This?”

You see Liza’s stepmother is a championship cook, an amazing baker and crafter before whom I regularly bow down in humble admiration. All I can think is “is there a way she can do this with Jess? Jess knows how to bake bread.” I don’t want Liza to be that kid who brings in the lumpen blackened mishapen rock of dough that I am sure will surely arise from our efforts. And I want to spare us the anxiety I’m sure will arise should we try to navigate this flour laden mine field together. But the girl will not be dissuaded. “NO. Momma. I want to do it with YOU!” Sigh. OK. We decide that Mother’s Day is a good day to try this since we have no plans and can be home for the necessary three hours this project will take. I call Kelly and ask her if she can help us before she goes to work that day — figuring that if we’re going to fail at least we’ll have some laughs while we do it.

A few days later while volunteering at the pizza table at a fundraiser for Liza’s school I hear the other moms talking about the bread project and at least am relieved I”m not alone in my worry. One mom vows to us her bread machine. Another has a secret plan of using frozen bread dough instead. Kelly and I glance at each other — this DOES sound hard — yikes. I wonder aloud if I should call in my friend Susie, who can bake anything but Kelly finally says “oh how hard can it be? Let’s do it. We’ll have fun.” and Liza insists she knows what to do from the demonstration at school so off we go.

Mothers Day rolls around. After a delightful brunch prepared by Kelly and Liza we decide it’s time to face the music and give this a shot. We read and re-read the direction, Kelly runs out to buy the plastic wrap we don’t have but need to cover the dough, Liza and I set everything else out, I can’t find a one cup measure but we do find a 1/2 cup measure and figure that will have to do (such is the state of my kitchen — we have wine stoppers a plenty but nary a measuring cup in sight!). Finally we are ready. Liza decides I will read the directions, she and Kelly will measure and pour and I will stir. Here goes nothing.

“Yeast is an organism” Liza tells us confidently as we pour the packet into the bowl. I realize I’ve gone 43 years without ever making anything that calls for yeast. Finally the dough is ready to knead — we take turns pushing it out as Liza gives instructions — “Press, push turn — just once momma! Now Kelly’s turn” Something is happening in my kitchen, we’re laughing, we’re flour covered, (so is the floor at this point) but we’re doing it. We’re making bread. Together. As a family. We set the dough to rise and I say a silent Hail Mary on this Mother’s Day morning that for once let this culinary project work. I’m the mom that burns pancakes, drops hot dogs on the floor and barely manages Shake and Bake. Please Mother Mary — for Liza — let this one work. While the dough rises we work on another of Liza’s projects — a poster “All About Me” and she points out that on the list of “my family” she has included Kelly’s name for the first time. I turn away so she doesn’t see me tear up.

By golly the bread rises. We grease grandma’s old bread pans and pop it in the oven and something magical happens. The house is filled with an unfamiliar aroma. The smell of fresh bread baking. Baking, not burning! The timer dings. Liza yells “Don’t open the oven without me!” I say another silent prayer and open the door. It’s. Perfect. Golden, crusty, warm and perfect. Liza FLIES into my arms and we jump up and down — we did it! We did it! Her laughter is infectious and consumes us both. We did it as a family. Without help! We cool the bread a bit then cut some slices off our “keeper loaf” to bring to Kelly who has by now gone to work. When we deliver the still warm bread we keep exclaiming “we made BREAD! I can’t believe it!”

To lots of moms out there. This is nothing. This is a regular occurrence in their lives. But for us this was more than baking a loaf of bread. This was overcoming our worries, trusting each other, working together and amidst all the stirring, flouring, and rolling taking a big step toward becoming a real family.

Liza with our bread...

An Every Other Week Mother

24 09 2009

Thanksgiving week for most moms of nine year olds most likely includes a flurry of shopping and cooking. Perhaps board games with the family, visits from grandma, another trip to the movies for a second or third viewing of High School Musical 3, or decorating the house for the holidays. Most of my daughter’s friends have moms who are there every day of every week doing what moms do – whether they work outside the home or not — they are there in their lives every day of every week. Not my daughter. My daughter has an every-other-week mother.

Liza lives with her dad for a week at a time and then with me for a week at a time, changing houses after school every Monday. Don’t misunderstand. I am grateful beyond words that Liza is blessed with a father who packs lunches, and signs permission slips. Who can finesse a “ballet bun” in her hair on dance class days. Who takes her to the dentist and shopping for winter boots. I am grateful her stepmother provides a warm and loving home for her with the home-cooked meals that I seem incapable of producing, and craft projects and shopping trips that were truly designed to meet the mercurial whims of a tween girl. We are amicable and friendly – helping each other out when our work schedules intervene in the afterschool pickup/dance class drop off/ soccer game-to rehearsal carousel of Liza’s schedule. We have forged a new kind of family from our divorce. A family so strong that I hesitate at times to even call myself a “single mom” since I rarely if ever feel as though I am raising Liza on my own. I’m not. I’m just an Every Other Week Mother.

In high school and college I was awkward and shy. Fat and clumsy and completely baffled by the social mores of my peers I sequestered myself in the theater department where my social life consisted of the occassional cast party. But in my thirties and forties after surviving a divorce and coming out of the closet I found myself experiencing what one friend called my ‘second twenties’ On the weeks when Liza is living with her dad I find myself living a life I never lived in my all-too-serious youth. I go dancing at Women’s T dances in Ogunquit. I work a delightful second job in a friends bookstore where I’m not haunted by any major responsibilities other than correct change and ability to alphabetize. I sleep late on Sundays and read the paper over coffee with Kelly. I hit the gym at odd hours and eat meals of cheese and crackers instead of proper dinners. I send text messages to my new twenty-something friends from my “Company” cast and stay out until midnight on a work night. I put up the Christmas decorations alone with only the company of George Winston’s “December” on the cd player. I tell myself how great this is. This break. This quiet. This freedom. This….stillness of a house without Liza.

I find myself in two worlds, straddling the life lived by my childless or single friends and that lived by my friends with children. Some of my married friends with children say “I’m so jealous! I”d love a break from MY kids sometime. what fun you must have!” Others say “oh I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t go a week without my child. I can’t see HOW you can do it.” Yes. I do have fun. Yes. But every day and every night of those “off weeks” I feel a niggling in the back of my mind and an emptiness in my chest and I think “what is she doing now?” Does she miss me on those weeks when her life more typically resembles a traditional family? Does she wonder what I’m doing? How I am? Did she pass that test on state capitals? Did she practice her clarinet? Did she show her dad her loose tooth? How is her cough? How. Is. She? Every other Monday I tell her “you know you can call me ANYTIME right?” Yet the phone remains silent. I should be happy. This means she’s happy, she’s content and after all that’s what any mother wants for their child. Yet every day I hope for a call from her to show she needs me. Every day I battle with myself about calling her. More often than not when I do I call I’m often greeted with her relctant “what?” My calls intrude on a life she lives without me. A life I can not claim or encroach upon. I am unwanted and in that moment I feel like a lovestruck girl begging her crush to acknowledge her.

I’ve never been a great mother. At times I haven’t even been a good mother. But I’m her mother. An Every-Other-Week Mother. And I can only hope that, for Liza, that’s good enough.

Night Terrors

24 09 2009

Some nights you can set your clock by them. Mentally I do the math — if Liza falls asleep between 9 and 9:30 the first one should hit between 11pm and 12:30am. Should I go to sleep early and stock up on rest before the first cry comes from her room, or stay up and hope to nip the first one in the bud before falling into bed myself? Night Terrors have stalked my child from the tender age of three and made every night a waiting and watching game. “She’ll grow out of them,” pediatrician after pediatrician has assured us. She’s nine and I’m still waiting.

I remember the first times I heard those screams in the night. I’d rush in prepared to do battle with whatever demons invaded my baby’s sleep. To wrest her back from whatever dark place she had gone to. But over time I learned, through experience, through research and through just plain sleep deprivation these nightmares could not be woken from. No mother’s hug can soothe and comfort these away. I have to let her battle them on her own.

They always begin the same way. A strangled gutteral ‘NOOOOOOOOO’ from the next room, often followed by nonsense, gibberish, or the occasional phrase that makes sense “that’s mine!” “i need more!” “stay away!” . But the refrain is always the same, “no no no no no no no no no.” Sometimes a sob. Sometimes a cry that scrapes her throat raw . Often on those long nights I”ll channel my acting days and think idly “she’s hurting her vocal cords.” Has it really come to this that I can lie in my bed listening to my child scream in the next room?

Sometimes I can calm her with a light touch on the back, rearrange her covers, put on her nightime cd (“American Idol Season 2 Greatest Hits”, now worn and scratchy from nearly seven years of nonstop play) and her breathing will regulate and quiet will fall. Those are the easy nights. The nights the terrors leave her after one visit and let us both fall back to sleep. But sometimes we’re in for the long haul. They strike in 45 minute intervals, each one louder and more violent. Wild eyes that look but don’t see me, hair snarled in and matted with sweat, pajamas twisted sometimes even removed, pillows thrown from the bed, and epithets hurled. “GET OUT momma!” “COME HERE momma!” and always, always ,always, “no no no no no no no.” On those nights I know I can’t touch her or even go near her. She swings and flails, hits, throws, scratches and shrieks and all the time remains unbelievably asleep. On those nights I sit on the floor of her room and wait… wait …. wait for that magic switch to be thrown and for her to fall like a broken doll back onto her pillow in soundless sleep. My thoughts wander on those nights. “It’s colder now, i should keep a sweatshirt by my bed so I don’t freeze while I sit here.” ‘I must remember to tell my neighbors Liza had a night terror tonight so they don’t think I was beating her at 2am.” She will not remember this night. She never does. She will wake rested( her body slept after all) and wonder why her pillows are on the floor, why her nightgown is so tangled, why her throat hurts. But she will not remember the way her face twisted in anger and fear -the way black eyes shot beams of hate at me while I sat wrapped in a blanket next to her bed. She will only say “did I have one momma?” Yes honey. Yes you did.

Liza has always been a child of fears — of thunderstorms, and fire alarms, of clowns and the sound the wind makes in the trees behind our house, of big dogs, and falling off her bike. But those fears are the easy ones for momma to fight. We see them, name them, and face them together. Not so these desperate moments of the night that stalk her, invade her dreams, and drag me from my bed to sit by her side until they pass. I can not fight them for her. I can not fix them for her. I can not even name them as only she knows what forces she battles alone in the night. I can only sit, and wait , and pray. And in those dark nights at 1;30, 3:00, 4:15 I am more alone than I have ever been or ever will be as I settle in to wait out the night terrors.