There is a song I love called “Words” by a singer/songwriter named Gregory Alan Isakov. In it he talks about how words are so much more meaningful at night time. They seem to take on greater significance because they aren’t drowned out by the din and commotion of the day. So he’s telling the girl he loves to listen to the song at night when words mean more. It’s a beautiful song and has been on my mind a lot lately. I feel like I can’t quiet my head enough to find those peaceful moments of joy in the everyday happenings of life.
Maybe it’s the August factor. The kids are at each other’s throats. My patience got bumped out of the open tailgate of my rickety sanity some time around the end of July. There is quite a lot happening to make it tough to focus on those pure moments of joy. This world actually counts on us being distracted, I think, as a way to function. But that’s probably part of the reason we are all walking around feeling like we need antidepressants. The less we can focus on the true beauty, the more hollow living feels. And I’m guilty of it, too. I sometimes struggle to focus on what is right in front of me.
Scott and I are approaching our anniversary on Saturday. Twelve years, and we’ve created these kids, built a home, and defined our love through every word we’ve ever spoken to one another, discouraging or kind, spiteful or loving. Everything we have is built of a million little moments. I was thinking about what it would sound like if we were to take all the words we’ve ever said and listened to them at once. I laughed aloud, because I was imagining how there would probably be a heavy dose of yelling, sarcasm, and laughing, but then also weird voices while we are reading stories to the kids, and does belching get included? I guess that’s a compliment of sorts… Anyway, we like to keep it real around here. But would there be harmony threaded through it all?
It also occurred to me that we both forget to tell one another that we “see” each other. I don’t mean like, “You look really pretty in that dress,” or “Nice hair cut!” but we forget to remind one another of what drew us together when we first met to make this life possible. Telling your spouse that you “see” them is what will make the difference in a “meh”rriage and a marriage (You’re welcome to use that if you’re cool enough to pull it off). Recognizing their goodness, their inner beauty, is even more important than acknowledging superficial appearances because hair falls out or turns gray, those crow’s feet show up on everyone and laugh (or frown) lines deepen. That inner beauty stays high and tight.
Scott is not one for flashy gifts or extravagant displays of affection, but he has been known to take a minute to write me a note on a few of these momentous occasions to tell me just how he “sees” me. I have them saved them through the years. Besides the kids and our life together, these are the most precious tangible things I have from him. Probably not surprising, my score was a bit heavy on the “Words of Affirmation” section of the book “The Five Love Languages.” But I would be hard-pressed to believe that there is anyone out there who wouldn’t feel truly loved after being recognized for their inner beauty. So imagine if we took the time to say those things more often.
Now taking this theory a step further with my darling (however maddening) children, I realized they probably need to be shown the same. After all, we only know ourselves by the reflection of others’ perceptions of us. That’s what this whole “living with other human beings” thing is about. The past few days have been filled with a lot of whining, eye-rolling, hiding in closets, crying, and the kids have been acting up too. But after realizing how important it is to be really seen and acknowledged, I took a minute with each of them at bed time, when it was quiet and I had their full attention, to tell them how much I love them and one special thing about each of them. I received three long, tender, heartfelt hugs. I think we can start tomorrow on a better foot, maybe just by using our words to bring true beauty into focus.
“He’s just so shy…His confidence is so poor…I see this often…His test scores just aren’t where they should be. I just think you’d be wise to have him evaluated.” I could hear the words coming from Luke’s teacher’s mouth. I even half-expected to hear them, and much sooner than second grade. I have always known Luke was a little different from my other two kids. He just takes longer to do everything. He didn’t walk until he was sixteen months old. He didn’t have much to say until he was past two years old, but then he wouldn’t stop–at least at home. He is so sensitive. He panics when there is too much commotion in a room. So I have always worried more for Luke and been more protective of him. But after my parent-teacher conferences this past November, I became scared for him.
I cried as soon as I closed my car door after leaving the school. I called Scott who was still at work and yelled at him irrationally for not being there with me. I felt frustrated by my ignorance, for not knowing what was wrong with our son and for not doing something about it sooner. His teacher hadn’t said exactly what she thought, but the implication was loud and clear; something was wrong with him, or at least that’s how I understood it. Scott calmed me down. “We will get him whatever he needs. It’s going to be okay.”
The most overwhelming part of it was knowing where to start finding help. Since all the doctors’ offices were closed at that hour, I began by googling his “symptoms.” “Poor confidence, overly shy, sensitive to too much stimulation, low standardized test scores.” Everything pointed to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I know children who are on the spectrum and I could honestly say that some of the things Luke did made me wonder. Still, I couldn’t be positive of anything. I didn’t think that I, armed with Google’s search browser, was any kind of expert on these things.
Next, I called a very good friend who had opened up to me just before conferences about how she had been taking her daughter to a child psychologist. She told me we needed to start with our pediatrician to get a referral to go to a psychologist. Okay, so I would need to wait until the morning. I barely slept that night. And let me be clear, if you find out that you need to have your child tested for anything, the theme of your life will become “Hurry Up and Wait.” And while you wait, you will agonize over everything you’ve ever done to yourself or your child since his or her conception. You will fill your spare minutes wondering about insane things. “Maybe it was something I ate during my pregnancy–the doctor warned me about nitrates, but I had to eat that turkey sandwich, didn’t I?” “Maybe I just had the boys too close; I couldn’t give Luke all the attention he needed.” It’s funny because my answer was staring me in the face just by wondering all of these crazy things. I just didn’t understand it yet. But I’ll get to that later.
At our appointment with Luke’s pediatrician, the doctor spent about twenty minutes asking questions about his temperament, the feedback from his teacher that prompted our visit, our family life at home, etc. We left the office with a stack of business cards for child psychologists, and I, with more questions than when we had walked in the door.
All the psychologists recommended were well-accredited. I began calling each of them to see when we could get Luke in for testing and each one told us the test would take around eight hours. Some of the psychologists split the test into four two-hour increments each on a different day. Others liked to do the test over the course of a single day with mini breaks between sections. None of them could see us for at least another month. More waiting.
We chose one based on reviews from two other parents we knew who took their children to her. She also happened to be the one who would be able to start the test the soonest which was still after the first of the year. I tried to stay upbeat. I got through Christmas keeping busy. I hung stockings by the fireplace and our ornaments on the tree. I baked dozens of cookies. I had my Christmas cards out the first week of December. I was doing everything I could to help the time pass quickly until that first appointment. I promised myself I wouldn’t search the internet anymore. Sometimes it was just scary what came up. Luke’s gloomy attitude toward school continued in spite of many of his classmates inviting him over for play dates or us inviting them to our house. I didn’t think his social life was suffering. He just seemed worked up on Sunday nights before bedtime, dreading the next morning and usually slunk into the car each day after school like he hated the past eight hours of his life.
Finally, the day came. We drove down the cold, gray road and he was very still in the back seat with wide eyes. “You all right, buddy?” I asked as cheerfully as I could. He met my eyes in the mirror and didn’t say anything, just nodded unconvincingly. We arrived at the office. She was with another child. We made ourselves at home on the sofas buried in emoji pillows and the tables covered with puzzles and toys. When the door opened, we met Luke’s doctor. She was warm and welcoming, empathetic, and a little quirky. Luke connected with her immediately which was good because I had to be out of the room for the testing. I was worried that Luke would flip, so I stayed for a while.
Every Saturday for four weeks we did Luke’s testing. He didn’t mind at all. He said the tests were like puzzles. Sometimes they were really tough, but the therapist reminded him that they are supposed to be. She had gained his trust quickly which is hard to do with Luke. The results took another six weeks from the date of his last test. That wait was nerve-wracking, but it was a very comprehensive test with loads of information to process. Finally at the end of March, I sat down with Luke’s doctor and she handed me a stack of papers, forty-two pages, to be exact, detailing Luke’s test results.
“Let me cut to the chase,” she said. “Luke is not on the spectrum. He has moderate General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I felt my body sag with a mixture of relief and understanding. Before I had sworn off online research, I had been reading about anxiety disorders and Luke’s behavior seemed to match many of the stories I had read. I was also prepared for the other news, that he might be on the Austism Spectrum, but in my heart, I didn’t believe that was the issue. Still, I reminded myself constantly, they’re all just labels and every person is so unique. We would meet whatever challenges we needed to, head-on, one step at a time.
Dr. Linda explained that there were all sorts of coping strategies we would work on with Luke that could be used in any situation, whether his anxiety spiked at home, in public, or at school. He also qualified for a 504, which is basically an accommodation plan that is established between us and the school administration to help him get through his school days as needed. She noticed a few of his triggers when his anxiety kicked in full force were when he was being asked to do many things at once like having to remember multiple step directions, when he’s being rushed, and when there are a lot of distractions preventing him from focusing. He also has many worries that hold him back from trying new things. He’s never been a risk-taking kid. He’s not the kid raising his hand to volunteer in class or assist the magician in a magic show. Luke is our silent observer. Everything Dr. Linda was telling me made perfect sense.
Our plan of attack against Luke’s anxiety is a multi-dimensional one. We meet with his therapist every other week for one hour and she gives new “tools” to deal with his worries. We also met with the school counselor and principal to come up with his accommodation plan, allowing him to utilize the resources available at the school. But the very first thing we had to do was help Luke understand where his anxiety comes from. And THIS is the main reason I decided to share this really personal information with all of you.
We were sitting in Dr. Linda’s office. She handed me a clipboard with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil. Luke was having a tough time with his session that day. His eyes kept welling up and he didn’t want to answer any questions. Dr. Linda kept reminding him that all of his feelings are normal. Even the “cold, prickly” ones. She changed directions on him after this.
“Luke, where do you get those cute dimples?” Luke tried not to smile but didn’t answer.
“From his dad,” I said.
“And Mom, where does Luke get his big, hazel eyes?” Dr. Linda went on. Luke piped up, “From my mom,” he said softly.
“Luke, if you got those things from your mom and dad, don’t you think your worries might come from somewhere else in your family. Where do you think your anxiety comes from?” She kind of pointed the question at me now. “Mom, can you take that paper and pencil and write a list of all of the people in your family who deal with anxiety?
Within moments, I wrote at least a half a dozen names on the list, myself included, of all of the people in our family who battle anxiety. I handed her the paper. Her next words shifted the world on its axis for me.
“You see, Luke, it’s not your fault. Mom, it’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s ‘fault’ that you deal with anxiety. It is the way God made your brain. He gave you all a heaping dose of anxiety. All of our brains are made differently. The reason we are here is to understand that our worries, our fears are just feelings–just like happiness, anger, even hunger! But you feel the worry thoughts more strongly. It’s just the way God made you. We are going to learn a whole bunch of tools to help us get through those feelings when they happen…Luke, do you understand what I’m saying?”
He sat up straighter on the couch and I could hear his little voice quivering. “I didn’t know it wasn’t my fault,” he said. My eyes filled with tears. I tried to blink them back. Dr. Linda smiled at both of us.
“It’s not anyone’s fault,” she said to both of us.
We are now about three months into Luke’s (and consequently MY) therapy. Since we’ve begun, Luke has done things I never imagined him doing before. He volunteered to be a helper during a presentation at a field trip at the end of the school year. He has jumped off the back of a boat and a dock into a lake without any coaxing. We went to the zoo one day on one of the busiest days of the year and he didn’t cling to my side for one second. I don’t know if everyone experiences these kinds of changes just over a few months of therapy, but I will testify to how powerful the whole experience has been for him and our family.
I decided to open up about this because maybe you or your child are going through similar things. Maybe it’s not anxiety, but anger, depression or any other of the “cold, prickly” emotions that we hate facing. There is such a stigma in our world about mental health. But if I ever had any doubts, I am now a firm believer in the power of working through your issues with a professional mental health provider. Chances are that your kids are on summer break. This is a great time to schedule an appointment and get in before the new school year starts.
It is a bit of a journey into the unknown, and coming from someone who is severely uncomfortable with the unknown, I understand your worry, but it’s so worth it. I know for some people it’s an issue of expense. If your insurance doesn’t cover much or any of the expense involved, there are less expensive or even free resources for these services. Talk to your pediatrician or family doctor for a push in the right direction for your situation.
It isn’t always convenient to do these things, but I try to look at the bigger picture. We are prioritizing Luke’s mental health now while he’s young so that as he grows into a young man, he will hopefully have a better handle on his emotions and won’t be seeking out self-destructive ways of coping with them later. I would encourage you to do the same for your child. It’s not your fault, but you can do things to make life’s tough stuff easier to deal with.
“Mom, is it cooler to be a girl than it is to be a boy?”
I looked up from the stove where I had been making dinner. Noah was looking at me with his big hazel eyes and the question was asked in complete earnestness. “What do you mean, buddy?” I asked.
“Well, it’s just that whenever you watch t.v. or see the clothes people wear- like t-shirts that say ‘Fight like a Girl,’ or whatever, it feels like people think girls are more special than boys. There are songs about girls being stronger than boys and it seems like everyone thinks girls are more important. I mean, I thought we are the same.”
“Oh, Noah…Yes you’re right, God loves boys and girls the same amount. And we should all treat each other with love and kindness. But for a long time, some people thought girls were actually less special that boys. They thought our words and our thoughts were not as important. The leaders of the world didn’t let women vote, they didn’t think women should get paid the same amount of money for working the same jobs as men. So a lot of that is changing now. But the bad part is that some women think it’s their turn to treat men like they are less special or important than women to make up for all those bad years. It’s not right. Because God loves us all the same so we should all respect each other the same. Does that make sense?”
“I guess so,” he said, clearly unconvinced, looking slightly dejected, and walked back to the den to watch cartoons with this brother and sister.
I actually wanted to cry for him. I have wondered so many times lately, how I am going to be able to raise sons with positive self-worth in a time where the reputation of men is tarnished by the news, peppered with the stories of men who have committed horrific acts against women. In recent months, countless women have stepped forward, with jaw-dropping accounts of injustice committed by men. The #MeToo movement, and others like it, seek to bring these victims’ voices to the forefront and justice to those who have wronged them.
Of course I am fully behind the concept of all people being treated with respect and dignity. But I have to agree with Noah, it is starting to feel like the scales are tipping the other way. I have sat down to watch shows with the kids and the men on these newer kids’ sitcoms are made to be complete imbeciles. The fathers are always portrayed as these ditzy losers who are only capable of slapstick and dumb jokes. Why are we not giving our boys positive role models to look up to? The world needs less Homer Simpsons and more Jack Pearsons.
We, as mothers, have not only an opportunity, but a responsibility to show our sons how to respect women but also remind them of their self-worth. And we are not going to be able to do that very effectively if we are constantly screaming “Girl power!” or “Men suck!” Because let’s be real for a minute; it’s not just men. There are just people in this world, men and women, who are making poor choices by disrespecting the opposite sex.
Even though I’m trying hard not to let time pass any faster than it has, I sometimes think about when Noah and Luke will be young men and want to ask girls out on dates. I am hopeful that I will be able to impress upon them the social graces to know to ask respectfully. I also pray that they aren’t afraid to ask because of society trying so hard to emasculate them.
I was at a get-together just this weekend talking to a friend about all of this and she told me she has the same concerns for her kids. She said that her husband does the majority of the cooking and household tasks and she reminds her kids constantly that they have a very involved and helpful dad. This is what we need to be doing, ladies! While we all need a minute to vent about our husbands, let’s try harder to raise up these guys, especially to our children. And men, it helps if you give us reason to feel inspired to sing your praises.
The media is not ever going to be quick to report the happy news of the world. The most sensational, best-selling news stories are the ones that make your skin crawl. Thankfully, most young kids are not really watching the news as their window to the world. They are, however, watching us. So the responsibility falls on us as mothers and fathers to show our children the goodness in the world and it starts at home. We need to be loving to our spouses. We need to be fair to them. We need to stop passing blame and start taking responsibility for our part in it all. The score-keeping game that so many couples engage in is harmful not only to our marriages, but to our children’s perception of the world because we are shaping it right here, right now.
Frustrated by the layer of chaos accumulating on our dining room table turned collect-all-life’s-odds-and-ends holder, I began to make piles of the kids’ school work. I got to Grace’s pile and a lump formed in my throat. My boys’ papers are more refined, black and white, and resemble what you think of when you see “school work.” Grace’s papers are smudged with finger prints, paint, crayon doodles, and her name scrawled on the back of everything in big capital letters. I scooped up the mementos of her last year of preschool and took them to the basement to put them into a special box that I have for each of the kids’ most precious school work. And as I closed the lid, the tears started pouring down my face. My last baby is almost done with preschool.
As if this weren’t sad enough, we will also be saying so long to two of the best human beings I have ever had the honor of calling my children’s teachers since we have no more kids going through the school after Grace. Mrs. Leslie and Mrs. Shannon have been a shining light in our kids’ education. I know it’s just “preschool,” to some, but they have set a foundation for our kids teaching them so many of the basics like writing their names, counting, sorting and pre-reading but more importantly, what it means to follow directions, how to be “bucket-fillers”–how to be a friend to all.
I cannot believe after this month we will be parting ways and never again will I see Ms. Shannon’s beaming smile from the drop-off door or hear Mrs. Leslie singing the line-up song to our kids. We won’t have another Muffins for Moms day or field trip to Turtle Creek. I know we have so many other wonderful memories ahead of us, but these years with our kids’ in Mrs. Leslie and Mrs. Shannon’s class were magical (Oh! And Mrs. Candice when you subbed too!).
I just wanted to take a moment to say a special thank you to you on Teacher Appreciation day and to tell you, there should really be Exemplary Human Appreciation Day where you are the standard. We will always hold a special place in our hearts for you. So if you see me burst into tears on May 23, I hope you know,
it’s not just about my baby growing up. You will be missed greatly! But I know your future students will love you just as much as we do.
As wedding season is upon us, and I happen to personally know a few couples whose marriages are ending, I’ve been feeling very introspective about all of this marriage business.
When Scott and I went through our marriage prep classes, I thought I understood what “weathering difficult times“ meant. I anticipated arguments about who did the dishes last, why the house is so messy, or where did all the all the money go? What I did not understand yet were the arguments about feeling unappreciated. The arguments about feeling invalidated. I didn’t understand how being married to the person that you love, that you could ever feel alone even when you’re in the same room or how you could feel invisible for weeks at a time.
There are arguments we’ve had when I felt like I didn’t even know the person standing opposite of me. His face wasn’t the Scott I knew, but a stranger’s. How could that be the man I promised my life to? And I’m sure he has thought, “Who is this psychopath that I sleep next to?”
So why do it? Why even get mixed up in such messy business as holy matrimony? It’s definitely a lot of trouble and requires compromise to the point that you’re not even sure of what you wanted in the first place. Staying single, or becoming single again, you can live your life on your own terms, guilt free.
Now here is the truth, many days I don’t know why we stay married. I’d like to say it’s love more than an obligation or commitment, but I don’t know that it’s that simple. So I can understand why some people decide to call it quits. If you don’t have it in you to give your all and then a little more, then you’re done.
I think it’s actually that thing I’m always coming back to: Grace. I pray for my best efforts to be enough every day and somehow they are but it’s actually because of grace. It’s because what I bring to our marriage will actually never be enough, but grace makes it enough. The score will never be tied with any couple. One will always do something more or less than the other. I will always tell Scott I love him more than he tells me, but he will always be more financially responsible for us. I will always care less about how clean the floors are but he will always worry less about all the what ifs of life.
It’s our grace that we give to each other that keeps us waking up ready to make the same commitment. It’s never going to look perfect. In fact it’s usually ugly. We’ve both done so much to break this thing. But here we are, bruised and broken, but full of grace for one another.
I’ve often heard people say that raising kids is the hardest job there is. I would argue that it’s actually staying married because you will always be willing to forgive your kids. You will love them unconditionally. It takes a lot more effort to love your spouse that way. You never loved them as an innocent baby. They are not your flesh and blood. It is more work to dig deep and find that motivation to keep going when every fiber of your being is asking “Why? What’s in this for me?”
So if you’re thinking of taking that leap into the unknown, to buy the rings and register for some fancy dishes, those things are your consolation prize for the most difficult journey you’ve ever embarked on. You should know that it’s going to be messy. Bru
tally messy. That island of plastic garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean will actually look more appealing some days. But out of it comes the most beautiful imperfect kind of love you will ever know. It’s full of holes and cracks. But it can be solid and true if you give it grace.