Category Archives: Parenting

School Days

The new school year has begun.

My schedule will be similar to last year’s: my daughter, now in tenth grade, will have two classes on the high school campus and I will be teaching the other four at home. It worked very well for her last year, and I hope this year will go well for her too.

For me, it can be a rollercoaster of doubt: when should I push her to work during a bad headache day and when should I encourage her to relax? What do I do when I feel we are not accomplishing enough in the home subjects? How do I squelch my defensiveness and stress when dealing with the district, as she continues to fall through the cracks at times?

I’ve written before about how it feels to be a parent who is identified as a dually diagnosed person. In a society where mothers are already blamed for many things, I often feel that I have a target painted on my chest: anything imperfect in her life, her performance or her well-being means I have done something wrong. At best, it means that I’m on the right track but just not working hard enough.

As I write this, I’m in the library while she’s in class. These gaps in my day, absent during summer, will be a welcome opportunity to write more. It’s important that I do this; I need to remember who I am and what my duty is.

It’s easy for me to get caught up in the school stuff and forget that my deepest duty is to remain present in my life, and therefore in hers. Everything else follows from this. Keeping my recovery strong–and keeping my creativity exercised so the dark stuff doesn’t build up and seep out in a destructive way.

Instead of running from stress, resentment and fear, I need to seek their opposites in an active way. Fighting them only exhausts me more; I have learned this by now. Fighting them and trying to force myself to be “good” will back me into a corner eventually, from which the addict I am will lash out with sick behavior.

Instead of fighting, I need to seek the opposites of whatever resentment, fear, or stress I feel. Doing whatever I must do to give myself exposure to faith, acceptance, and love makes the difference between seeing my daily life as a sentence of exhausting stress and deprivation and seeing it as–well, life.

Acceptance also means trying to stay clear about what’s within my power and what is not. My daughter is fifteen now, and in the past year alone her consciousness is expanding in a way that awes me. She is beginning to go where I cannot follow, as children do when they grow up. I can’t forget this.

As usual, I need balance. A balance that lets me do what she needs, in a spirit of love and willing service, but keep in close touch with my own inner world. My inner world of darkness, and light, and words that form my true home. During the summer my creativity fell to the siren call of what-does-it-matter; everything I wanted to write seemed trite to me. I can’t tell you how many poem scraps and essays in the making I have sitting around.

If I’m going to make this school year a good one, I (weirdly enough) need regular access to a version of myself very different from the good school mom. I need the writer who, laughing with abandon, slashes open her skin and lets a poem bleed out. Who paints designs on her face with the blood and dances around the fire as the debris of not-good-enough burns.

I will remember: I am myself. I am a woman, a mother, a poet, an addict, a human. I am a consciousness, existing because I exist. I am enough, my daughter is enough, and anyone who thinks we’re not is cordially invited to go fuck themselves.

Cephalopod Mother’s Day

I am not an octopus.

I’ve heard of “tiger moms” and “helicopter moms.” Today I want to talk about “octopus moms” and why I’m not one–and why this sometimes makes me feel guilty. For on this Mother’s Day, as many mothers do, I find myself thinking about what kind of mother I am.

The female octopus, after her eggs are fertilized by a mate, finds a cave or other sheltered place to lay them. For the months of their gestation, she guards them constantly. At last, they hatch and release the tiny baby octopi into the sea. The mother remains behind in the cave–and promptly dies, because she hasn’t eaten anything during the entire process.

No, I don’t have what it takes to be an octopus. It’s not that I wouldn’t cheerfully step in front of a bullet for my child–I would, as would most of us. It’s not that I wouldn’t go hungry if my child needed food; of course I would.

But the octopus style of parenting–pouring all of oneself into raising a child, putting one’s own needs aside for a couple of decades–isn’t suited to me. In past decades it was the norm; today things are a bit looser, but being a mother is still about sacrifice.

I don’t think I’m alone (I write that often, but that’s part of what Not This Song is about) in the humbling knowledge that I can only go so far along the path of devoted self-sacrifice. Where doing things for oneself is a healthful and good choice for some mothers, for us it’s a necessity. As are medical care, times for healing, and other help that might interfere with the uninterrupted pursuit of what’s best for the children we love.

If I were actually an octopus, do you know what would happen? There, in that cave, I would try to guard my eggs until they hatch. I would do my very best. But I’d die too early. I wouldn’t have the strength to last until the end without nourishment. My decaying body would lie in the cave, attracting scavengers, and my half-developed offspring would be–well, lunch.

Octopi have no choice; their instincts drive them to act as they do, just as ours drive us to try. But I have choices, and I make them constantly. I look for balance. Sometimes I have to seek it because I’m an imperfect person and have fallen prey to selfishness or laziness; other times I must seek it because it truly will make me a better mother and the alternative will make me a worse one.

I went back to school when my daughter was two, because I needed “food.” I go to meetings, and conventions, and write, and read, and play mindless games, because I need “food” and rest. I do lots of things when I could be focusing on her schooling, or her physical needs, or just generally living in the I Am a Mother reality full-time.

Last year on Mother’s Day, in Calla Lilies, I wrote about mothers who are in rehab, or hospitals, or prison on Mother’s Day. I wrote about the pain of being in that situation, and the privilege of having it be different now. Of the mothers still there, I wrote “I know better than to judge your love for your children based on where you are.”

I do know. I believe we are all doing our best–even those who have done things that, objectively, mean their best kind of sucks right now. Perhaps they’re the metaphorical octopi who lacked the strength to make it, and didn’t know where to seek food. Their spirit died in that cave, or they fled the cave in terror of death. But that doesn’t mean they never tried.

I want to believe that, if my daughter is ever a mother herself, reading this will help her forgive herself for any imperfections and give herself permission to nourish herself as much as she needs, without comparing herself to others. This, like everything I write, is a love letter to her. Today, it’s also for all mothers and future mothers everywhere.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of us–and to the cephalopod mothers, I wish you some kind of joy or pleasure borne on the ocean currents.

Guilting the Lily

When is it okay to be happy?
When is it allowed to put aside every regret, every unpaid bill, and every worry about a loved one and enjoy a moment?
When is it all right to have a good day even when my partner, child, mother, or another close to me is miserable?

Call it codependency, call it oversensitivity, call it enmeshment or any other psychological term–by any name, it’s operating for me and I need to be aware of it. I’m acting on a core belief that it is not okay for me to be feeling good in the presence of a loved one who is not.

The level of depression I’m dealing with lately makes it quite vital that I find moments of pleasure and joy where I can. I’ve often written about the importance of this for all of us, and the importance of being willing to think and act outside of the box to do so. But as soon as I become aware that a family member has a headache, or is dealing with hyperanxiety, or had a rotten commute, I stop practicing what I preach.

I feel guilty if I want to play music while I do the dishes. I feel guilty when I take time to sit down and write. I feel guilty when I savor the relatively new sensation of climbing stairs with ease, and then remember that someone I love can’t do that so well.

Intellectually, I know that taking good care of myself will let me be more effective in helping others. Intellectually, I know that joining someone in the emotional pit won’t help them get out. I know it’s better to visit on the edge, offering them support and company if they want it, but still experiencing the air and sun. But my deeper complexes are responding to very old programming, and when these situations happen I feel the energy just drain out of me. It happens so fast I don’t have a chance to question it; the energy has gone and I am stuck with trying to get it back.

On some level, I seem to believe that the best way to show that I care about someone is to refrain from displaying any state that is in contrast–to refrain from being energetic if someone is tired, or from being happy if someone feels down. Do I think they would feel insulted, or feel that I don’t care? Do I think I need permission from a committee to feel good?

My spouse and I have some worries right now; the kind that aren’t quickly resolvable and are a constant presence. I realize that I’ve been operating on this idea that if, at any time, I act happy or joyful, it means I am not taking our situation seriously. That I’m being childish and irresponsible. It pushes many of my emotional buttons about having a disability and about being unable to contribute to our finances for several years.

These kind of thought paths are more dangerous for me than I might assume at first. When I get this feeling of guilt/energy drain, it triggers a kind of cascade: every worry I have kind of falls on my head. What about this? What about that? You haven’t thought about this problem in several days. How could you be so self-centered? Oh, God, remember this problem? You are so screwed.

There’s a set of techniques called cognitive-behavioral therapy that specialize in naming and questioning the inaccurate beliefs we operate on. They’re not a cure-all, but they are useful for some things. My main issue with them has usually been that they take discipline and consistent work to have their best effect. (One basic source to learn more is the book Feeling Good by David Burns.)

What I have done today in writing this is name some core beliefs. There are several techniques I might use to start questioning these, and I need to have the humility to try some of them. One of my favorites is called the downward-arrow technique, or the “What Would That Mean”? It works with if-then statements, like this:

If I act happy around my family when they’re not, they’ll think I don’t care enough.
What would that mean?
They will think I’m a bad mother/wife/whatever.
What would that mean?
That would mean I’m a bad mother/wife/whatever. (aha! I’ve identified a part of me that assumes that a judgment like this made by them must be true.)
Anyway, suppose I am a “bad” mother/wife/whatever. What would that mean? That I’m a bad person.
What would that mean?
Umm…well, that I’m bad. That I shouldn’t be the way I am. That I deserve bad things, not good things.

And it could go on and on. It always ends up at a very fundamental place of feeling unworthy, or catastrophic thinking. “If I don’t get an A on the test” ends up at “Life is not worth living.” Then we can look at that deep belief and ask where it came from and how it’s influencing us.

This kind of thought questioning doesn’t fix us. If it did, I’d be good to go by now. But, as I said, it can be useful for me to do when I see myself responding this way. I need to question the voice that tell me to censor, drain or stifle myself. Especially when I’m already depressed. A black hole gets bigger when it consumes nearby material–why throw anything its way when I don’t have to?

The questions about whether I, or any of us, deserve joy while coexisting with others in this world who suffer are bigger than today’s topic. The questions strike at our deepest feelings of despair and shame, and I know I am not the only one who wrestles with them. But right now, I think it’s best to table the question of worthiness and continue my campaign for survival.

To Be Loved By Me

When my daughter was three or four, she learned about death. She was a fortunate child–she learned about it when her goldfish died, and when we found a dead squirrel in the street. Things like that. I explained about what death was on a physical level, and shared my own beliefs as best I could.

I told her that when we die, our spirits leave our bodies, and those bodies are not us anymore. I told her that what happens to our spirits after death is a great mystery, and people have had many different ideas about it. I told her that I, personally, believe that our spirits do go to some destination after leaving this plane, but I don’t know exactly what it is like.

She chose to cope with this new existential knowledge by acting out skits involving death over and over. She’d be a little wolf or other wild animal and portray the entire life cycle, and I would have to be the third-person narrator or loved one. I’d have to welcome her when she was born and watch her grow, and eventually she’d say “And now pretend that it came my time to die,” and she’d curl up on the floor and close her eyes, and she’d say “Now pretend I’m dead,” and I’d have to say goodbye. “I’m sad and I’ll miss her being here, but I hope her spirit has fun on the next level.” Then she’d start over.

It wasn’t always easy, but it’s not as if pretending she was dead was a new thing for me. I don’t know how common this is for parents, but since she was born she’s met her end in countless ways inside my head. My imagination creates catastrophe as its default activity, running a loop of fear and paranoia just under the surface of my consciousness, breaking through at the edge of sleep or any other time my defenses get low. I wrote about this more fully in Phantasy.

To be loved by me is to die. Over and over, quickly or slowly, death upon death in a sheaf of universes created by this mind of mine. To be important to me is to be cruel, abandoning, deceitful or mocking in an eternal and multiplying series of imaginary dramas. To be a presence in my life is to be present in dangerous scenarios and epics spanning space and time, their only commonality being that I am somehow central.

How easy it would be to condemn my mind and imagination for this darkness and this inward focus. But I must not, for the same reasons I must not condemn anything else about myself–I can’t afford to. I have a commitment to life, and staying on the side of life means not allowing shame to push me too far toward the enemy.

I try to remember that being loved by me also means being seen with a gaze that looks beyond the obvious and an imagination that accesses beauty and depth in people. To be important to me is to be endowed with mystical, archetypal qualities and never ordinary. To be present in my life is to join me in exciting adventures, and to be my comrade in arms in a sheath of positive or transcendent experiences too.

As usual, I write this so that any who share some of these experiences know they are not alone. How many other people think the way I think, willingly or not? How many find it hard to let intimacy into their lives because of a constantly running broadcast of calamity within? Does anyone else have a mental landscape like mine? The more I study myself and my past, the more observing ego I have about this level of consciousness and what it’s up to. I learn more of the story of myself; not bad, not good; just a story.

Bookstore Sans Filter

Today I got to spend a couple hours in my local big-chain bookstore, perusing the newest science fiction books, writers’ magazines and anything else catching my eye. As has happened so many times before, I found myself looking at the self-help, addiction & recovery, and parenting sections with profound ambivalence. It’s really easy for me to get overwhelmed in any public place with much stimuli, but these sections get to me.

The self-help section–well, I have read some lovely books by self-help writers in my time, but when I look at a huge spread of currently popular books they seem to be giving off several basic messages.

1) You are not good enough, but if you do everything just like me you might be someday.
2) Whatever you’ve been doing is wrong, even if I recommended it last year.
3) Whatever difficulty you are experiencing in your life is 100% due to your bad attitude. Often, in the guise of encouraging higher self-esteem, the message is that what is wrong with you is that you haven’t worked hard enough on your self-esteem, inner healing, etc.

Then I move on to the parenting section; or, as I once described it to a friend, the “You’re a Bad Parent” section. There I can see why every parenting decision I have ever made, apart from a few no-brainers (don’t hit, don’t drop on head, don’t molest) is wrong. Any area of any controversy has books representing both or all sides of the argument, so no matter what I did someone was always screaming at me in print about it.

Again, I don’t mean to say there isn’t a wealth of wonderful, important information out there. It’s just that I need a thick skin to wade through it all to what helps me. There seem to be some basic messages calling from the shelf, especially about parenting a child with any kind of special needs:

1) Your child’s diagnosis or treatment is wrong, and if you don’t do what I say (which is the opposite of the book next to me) they will die, fail, end up on the street, etc. and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT.
2) Oh, you say there’s nothing wrong with your child? Oh, you’re just not attentive enough.
3) This world is a scary, dysfunctional place, and it’s up to you to protect your child from it…and if you let your child near any media, nonorganic food or item of clothing that costs less than an imported alpaca you are a horrible person.
4) You are solely responsible for helping your child succeed in this world…at age eighteen, your finished product will pop into this world with a destiny formed and determined by you, never to develop or grow again.

Then, as I tend to do, I drift over to the addiction and recovery section to see if there’s anything new and interesting. I like the fact that the topic gets its own bookstore section now; that there is such a wealth of material being written. What tends to make me tense is the adversarial attitude of many writers or editors. I’m too tired and lazy to go into this deeply, with specific names, titles and critiques, but my fellow addicts who like reading probably know what I am talking about. It’s a back-and-forth between two extremist camps:

1) We follow or promote a certain popular path to recovery, and that path is THE path. Anyone who doesn’t want to do it, or has tried it and is choosing something else, must be in denial or just not be ready.
2) We do not follow or promote this path, and those who do are idiots and sheep. This path doesn’t work, and there’s a giant conspiracy going on to make people think it does. Buy our book and find out the REAL way to recover.

It makes me tired. Isn’t black-and-white thinking one of our common problems?

So, I flee to the poetry section and the writers’ magazines (trying to drown out the voice interpreting their content as warnings about how many writers are out there, how little my work matters, etc.) and when I am done, when my brain cannot hold one more iota of thought or resist one more onslaught of insecurity, I come home to my last resting place: the science fiction aisle.

I don’t need extra reasons to love something I have loved since I was old enough to get books from the library, but today reminds me of one: this section asks nothing of me. It doesn’t tell me how to help my kid, or manage my weight, or improve my marriage. It doesn’t suggest I submit my writing to eight thousand magazines for only $25 each, or bombard me with writing tips that make my head spin.

It only wants to tell me stories.

Calla Lilies

My daughter brought me calla lilies on Mother’s Day.

It was three years ago, and instead of carrying them into my room or proudly displaying them on the breakfast table she held onto them tightly during a long car ride.

She and her father signed in and had the bouquet inspected, then waited while I was notified that my visitors were there. Only then did she get to give them to me. Only then did she get to be hugged, and hear how beautiful they were, and see me read the little poem she wrote on the homemade card shaped like a butterfly.

That is Mother’s Day in rehab, and I can never see calla lilies without thinking about that day. I wasn’t the only one getting cards and flowers, and I wasn’t the only one to gaze at them with a mixture of emotions too tangled to articulate.

Mother’s Day is hailed by therapists as one of the most stressful days of the year for a reason–none of us is without feelings on the subject of the mother we had and/or the mother we are. Told by commercials and companies how we should feel about our mothers and children, we writhe in discomfort with our more complicated internal landscape.

Complicated it may be, but it’s a pretty fair bet that being institutionalized isn’t in any of our personal “what kind of mother I want to be” manifestos. It kind of kicks things up a notch in terms of regret.

After that day’s visit was over, I looked at the smooth whiteness of the lilies on my nightstand with a kind of doubled vision, seeming to see bouquets like it in many other places. I knew that many children wouldn’t get to deliver one at all due to the rules of the rehab, or hospital, or prison their mother was currently inhabiting.

I’m happy to be at home on Mother’s Day this year. Didn’t get any lilies. Don’t want any. But she can give me flowers, or a hug, or a thorough trouncing in Mario Kart, any time she wants to, because I am here.

Mothers who can’t be at home today, I remember you. I know better than to judge your love for your children based solely on where you are. Don’t give up.

Children, fathers, grandparents and all who visit, I remember you. Thank you for your love and effort.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Expecto Patronum

As I’ve written about before on Not This Song, the already complicated job of being a parent is made more complicated when the parent lives with a mental illness. I’m not the only one who thinks so: there’s a relatively new site called Crazy Good Parent that does a great job of mixing facts, humor, empathy and realism when talking about these issues. This month I contributed this piece to a series on communicating with your children about these tricky topics. Check it (and the rest of the site) out!