Fine, sorry, I misled you with that title. Trust me, you would’ve been disappointed anyway — it’s the nature of clickbait. But you’re already here, killing time at work or counting down hours at home, so just hang on a second. See, I’m frustrated too, in my own, impotent way. What I need is for you to read my words, cut through the flesh and boil down the blubber, oil the lamps and illuminate these crevices inside my brain, inside all our brains.
No, I didn’t secretly work my way through college as a high-class call girl, nor am I here to bestow the 18 Rules to a Happy Marriage. What I want to tell you is that once, driving in the car with my daughter, she scratched her head, examined her fingernails, and said more to the air than me, “I like the smell of my own dandruff. I know it’s weird, but I do. It smells good to me.” I want to shake you and scream that this is the fascinating stuff — not the dandruff, precisely, but the weird little secrets we tote around inside to keep life manageable. Because I understand what she meant, even if my specifics are a little different, and yours too.
When I submit a personal essay, hoping for publication, I’m aware as often as not that I may as well be hollering down a well. Where’s the hook? It’s just my story. But I’m sick of the fantastical; sick of distance. I’m sick of oxfords and rolled-up jeans, of hands proffering field-fresh flowers; I’m sick of inspirational quotes and do-or-don’t lists; sick of dreamworld photo shoots and filtered Instagrams. I’m sick of you, and god knows, sick of me, too.
In our crush to share everything, we’ve moved awfully close to sharing nothing, or at least nothing real. A personal story is no longer enough; we now require outsized versions of ourselves to entice an oversaturated, unimpressed, easily distracted audience. The quest for relatability has become something to sneer at, a sign of weakness. But while a story about someone’s date with a porn star may titillate, will it resonate beyond an initial read? I doubt it.
I remember a Granta short story I read years ago, before children, before social media became standard fare. The author, the title, the details, all irretrievably submerged, but still I carry this scene in my mind: a father, an ill-fitting diaper, a miraculous, one-handed dive to catch baby poop as it spirals toward the ground. What strikes me now is what struck me then: the utter believability of the internal dialogue, how, even as the excrement steams in one open palm, the father begins reformulating the story for later, how he’ll tell it, how his friends will receive it, the teary-eyed laughter over beers as he reenacts the save.
For me, this is all there is. What interests me is the intensely personal, the things we don’t talk about, the strange sense of accomplishment I get cleaning my youngest son’s face in the morning. How do you say, why would you ever say you’ll miss picking dried boogers out of another person’s nose? But there it is: “Blow — that’s not a blow! GOOD, that’s it! Here, look up. Now go eat.” The squeeze of the bottom, the kiss on the nose, the claim to another, dis-missed! The remarkable in the mundane. The remarkable is the mundane.
Take a look at Roger Angell’s “This Old Man: Life in the Nineties” for a recent, stunning example of the power of the personal. You won’t find any shocking revelations, no grand plot twists, only a life, but you will see your own reflection in the remembrances of a 93-year-old man. And you will click on this link, literally or figuratively, for years to come.
I keep circling back to basics — the shedding, secreting, excreting of all that’s unnecessary — how necessary the unnecessary is to my life. The sweaty neck of an 8-year-old boy, on tiptoe at the kitchen faucet before dinner; the stench of a teenage fart, trapped amid hysterical laughter inside a closed car; the oily hair and morning breath, the musky pits and oozing zits of careless youth; the dog’s fish breath, the slightly sour smell clinging to my fingers as I wipe eye gunk from his open, whitening face. I know it’s weird, but it all smells good to me.
Yesterday, cleaning up the back yard, I found a piece of perfectly patterned dog poop. I imagined tiny, overalled workmen, shouting over one another, “‘Behind you! On your right!” in Floyd’s bowels, engineering my daughter’s missing sock into an impromptu sausage casing, an intestinal assembly line charged with keeping flower, stripes, and colors intact.
It made me chuckle, and for a second I thought about taking a picture. But who wants to hear about the poop in your own backyard? I guess not most of us. So I scooped it into a bag, scoured the lawn for landmines, and moved on to the next pile.
Name one thing gay marriage could possibly open the door to that would be more depraved than thrice-wed, craven-mouthed Charlie Sheen down on one rickety knee, proposing to “best friend and soulmate,” 24-yr-old porn star Someone Something-or-Other.
I am worried. Worried about the Olympics, the possibility of a terrorist attack. Worried about Philip Seymour Hoffman, already dead, I know. Worried about Dylan Farrow, and worried that it doesn’t undo Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. Worried at my desk, pausing instinctively as I hear too many sirens, an animal frozen by scent, imagining my children hidden in a school broom closet just down the hill, just out of reach.
Yet I’m oddly unworried, floating backward on this conveyer belt into what I’m told will be a “very loud” machine, an MRI for these headaches that plague me each day. The sounds are loud, unbelievably so, but I feel good, safe in a moment where all I can do is surrender to stillness, close my eyes and breathe.
On the drive to this antiseptic office complex, miles up the highway, I peek at my phone and see that my daughter has left a trembly, breathy voicemail, then a panicky, all-caps text (the teenage equivalent of screaming “MOMMY!”), about a group video project she’s accidentally left at home, “in the computer, or somewhere around there.” It’s due next period.
I realize I’ve taken the wrong exit, distracted, in rush hour traffic, and my underarms begin to sweat. I worry that my daughter’s grade will be docked, worry more that her partner’s grade will be docked. I worry that I can’t bail her out this time, worry that saving her so many times before is the reason for this latest irresponsibility. I worry that I’m beginning to stink, that I forgot to bring cash for the pay lot, that I’ll be late for my appointment window. And then it hits me: I am actually looking forward to this MRI.
I’m not being flippant. I don’t want anything to be wrong with me, I don’t think MRIs are funny, and I would never discount the experiences of those who’ve undergone diagnostic procedures with devastating results. But right now, I relish the idea of relinquishing control, abdicating responsibility, being temporarily out of commission.
When the kids were little (the oldest was six when our fourth was born), I used to fantasize about being hospitalized. Not for anything serious, just a minor accident, maybe the painless removal of some obscure, unnecessary organ — anything to get away, somewhere I couldn’t conceivably be expected to look after anyone else — vacation, minus the guilt.
Things have changed a lot since those days. For new stay-at-home moms, there’s still the Sisyphean monotony of feeding, dressing, changing, bathing, soothing, and bedding an infant, but for all of us, it’s not so isolating now, with smartphones and Facebook, Twitter and mom blogs connecting frustrated, flabbergasted, fawning mothers the world over. It’s never been the sort of job you would telephone about anyway: “Hey! What’s up? I’m goo— look, here’s the thing: I’d rather chop off my own head than spoon one more bite of clumpy rice cereal into a slobbering maw.” But you can say exactly that on the internet, as its sole basis for existence is connection, assuring us with the tap of a screen and the prayer of anonymity that we are not alone.
This has opened up the world in ways that are sometimes wonderful — I helped fund surgery for a child I previously would never have known existed — but often not so great — I learned about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, the bathroom floor and the needle in his arm, before half his relatives had been notified.
It’s tough to know what’s worth passing on, things that would normally exist in the realm of personal triumphs or tragedies. I was moved yesterday, clicking on an image from Anne Frank’s rediscovered toys, a simple tin of colorful marbles. It felt significant, a poignant stand-in for innocence lost then regained through the power of prose. But do I feel a similar need to leaf through the details of Paul Walker’s will, discover what Hoffman ate for lunch the day he died, or watch a viral clip of a hotel maid, surprised by a generous tip, bills splayed beneath a lifted top sheet for maximum titillation? Sometimes even the good things I don’t want to know.
I try to breathe evenly through my nose, and I think of my husband, how the atonal droning of the MRI sounds like the avant garde music he loves and I loathe, how I could make him a mixed tape of my brain scan for Valentine’s, how years of heated art-or-noise arguments resurface here, in a tube, where I’m fighting only the urge to laugh. Would it show up on a technician’s screen, my amusement, this history inside my head? So many things that can never be known, about Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Walker, about Anne Frank and me, no matter how much we choose to share or who pores over images of our brains.
My right ear mimics the machine’s bleeps and grinds, echoing in staticky feedback; my hearing on this side is distorted, like a dial stuck between radio stations, but this doesn’t concern me. Instead, I remember the ugly yellow polka-dot glider stationed in the upstairs hall, the hardened, curdy spitup I cleaned from its blond wood slats the day before we set it on the curb, relieved and ready to move on to the next phase. How an inconsolable baby, in the endless black of a newborn night, squawked with such force and determination that my right ear turned to fuzz and I cried, exhausted, convinced of a brain tumor that would leave my children motherless.
I worried then, shushing and rubbing this tiny infant’s back, how I’d ever pump enough milk to sustain her after I’d gone. I worried she’d go hungry even as she spewed chalky milk over my shoulder, down the unseen back of the glider. I worried, sniffing her skull, aching for the things I’d miss, until we both fell asleep, upright. And I dreamed of a nurse pull cord, just down the bed, just out of reach.
"I’m just now getting in the Christmas spirit, Mom — you know? I feel like it should be Christmas now."
It’s mid-January, in the car, and I nod at my oldest daughter — I do know. She starts singing a Christmas song, willing time backwards, and I try to join in, but it’s a Justin Bieber song I know nothing about except that he says “shawty” a lot. She gives me a look as I trail off, and I can’t tell if she’s mad or making fun of me. The teenage years have dropped over us like a heavy blanket, insular and suffocating, and I’d like to kick them off, screaming.
"So what does ‘shawty’ mean, anyway?" I say, to prove I’m still participating. I’m familiar now with this daily log walk between riverbanks, between nosy and not listening, caring too much and not caring enough. "Um, I don’t know. It’s just like saying ‘honey’ or something, like he likes her or whatever." Aud leans over, pulling the tangled fishing line of headphones from her new bag, a Christmas gift with a print of a black cat and the word "noir" stamped above it. She toted it around for nearly a month before asking what the word meant, another weird characteristic of the age, curious about everything and nothing. I see that we’re done, so I try the backseat.
"Hey Sadie, I saw they’re making a new show about ‘The Wizard of Oz’, a series, like about Dorothy? But it’s supposed to be kind of dark…probably not for you anyway." She’s 11, and still interested. "Who plays Dorothy again? I forget her name." "You mean the movie? Judy Garland! She’s great — isn’t she great? Don’t you like her?"
Too polite yet to roll her eyes, she offers a noncommittal, “Yeah, I guess. Is she dead?” ”Oh, yeah,” I say, “dead for a long time. She tried so hard, though, worked really hard to please, but she had kind of a rough life — lots of drugs and alcohol, studio people always telling her she was too fat, not pretty enough, gross stuff like that.” I glance sideways at Aud, who harbors acting ambitions, to see if my cautions register, but she’s staring at herself in the sideview mirror and mouthing lyrics to some unheard song, the star of her own mind video.
"How old was she, though? Like old?" asks Sadie. I tell her I’m not sure, maybe late 50s, so she seizes my phone with that strange modern fervor for instantly proving people wrong, and discovers that Garland died just 12 days after her 47th birthday. She does some calculations and raises an eyebrow, laughing: "So Mommy, that makes her just 18 days older than you when she died!”
This stings more than it should, and I feel a ridiculous kinship with the deceased, as Sadie goes on to report that Ray Bolger, Scarecrow to Garland’s Dorothy, shook his head and sighed at her funeral: “She just plain wore out.” I consider this for my tombstone, and immediately begin to cheer up.
"Oh, Mommy! You used to sing that song to me all the time when we were little. Remember? You used to sing it all the time!" Fudge is nodding in the very back, pleased by his contribution to the conversation. He’s eight, the baby, and used to being left out. "Oh yeah!" I say. “You mean ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’? I did used to sing that a lot — I’d forgotten!”
And I had. The little one always gets the shaft in a big family. I hardly read to him anymore, much less sing to him every night as I tuck him in. I feel the usual twist of guilt in my chest — I’ll do better! — but I already know it’s a lie. Our life is jam-packed, and songs will always be the first to go.
"Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", as sung by Judy Garland, is one of the clearest-eyed songs around, nothing like the cheery pop versions you’ll hear today, the difference between Joni MItchell and Amy Grant singing "Paved Paradise". Garland sings about loss and longing, change and inevitability, and if you watch her, she wears an almost flat expression, resigned but not dejected. She’s comforting a child, but they both know it’s fantasy. There’s not a smile in sight.
And that’s the way it is, kids. Fast, difficult, special even when it’s not. The myth of a trouble-free future is no more real than the myth of an untroubled past. It’s all slightly out of key, misremembered lyrics, a soothing hand in the dark.
So give me one more second before you go, shawties. Because I thought I was plain wore out, but it turns out I’m just now getting in the spirit.
Creepiest middle-of-the-night experience ever. Wake up a little before 4:00 a.m. and head to the bathroom, where gradually it dawns on me I’m hearing a man’s deep, droning voice somewhere inside my house. It’s deathly still otherwise, pitch black, everyone asleep but me.
I feel my way down the hall, then down the stairs, cold with fear but unable to resist moving toward the sound. I lean around the kitchen doorway, and there, across the open floor plan, above the living room fireplace, on a TV that was decidedly turned off before bed, is a silver-combed man, Southern and insistent, in an outdated blue suit, a deeper blue curtain drawn behind him, sitting at a desk cleared of all but a single, old-fashioned table microphone.
He’s pointing one thick, bullying finger at what seems to be me, quoting fiery scripture on accountability and thundering on about condemnation. I stare up at him, powerless and terrified, the accused before the judge, when the screen goes suddenly black, then just as suddenly back to the man, black and to the man again, as if he’s willing himself there, conjuring this court and conviction into my living room.
My eye catches movement over the sofa back — is that a head? — a child? But no, no child would dare lie in the dark here like this, alone with this harbinger of doom. Unless they were possessed…a possessed child, maybe?
Oh — no, it’s only Floyd. Thank God for Floyd, though I notice with alarm he seems just as scared as me. My brain kicks in and I begin searching for the remote, the man shouting above us then silenced, shouting then silenced. And at last, I understand.
"MOVE, Floyd!!!" I yell, shoving at him, digging through fat and fur until finally I locate the remote underneath his rear. Once the house is quiet, I start to feel sorry for him, so I go back and give him a reassuring hug, whispering that the mean man’s all gone now. He settles in, and I head back up the silent staircase, accountable to no one.
Why I give my middle-school-aged daughter a little freedom: so she and a friend can buy ugly frosted lipstick at the CVS with their own money; get yelled at by the manager of Ted’s Montana Grill for spinning around and around in the revolving door entrance like Will Ferrell in “Elf”; spend an hour filming a 2-minute music video in city street settings; notice that salespeople are rude when they’re empty-handed and nice when they’re carrying store bags; get told off by an old lady for sitting and blocking the staircase at Starbucks; and slide into the backseat at our meeting spot, smelling of sun and tic tacs and floral hand sanitizer, spilling over each other to share the tales of learning to be human.
1. The diaper goes on the baby’s bottom, forwards or backwards, but forwards is better.
2. You can buy “nighttime” diapers if you want, but your ass is getting up either way.
3. You can use one of those baby wipe warmers, but warm things near private parts make most people need to pee, and a cold retracted penis might not be a bad thing.
4. No one knows if your baby is gassy, but everyone will say, “Maybe he’s gassy!” because it’s not something they can help you with.
5. Mylicon Infant Gas Drops are made from the tears of laughter of Johnson & Johnson senior executives.
6. If your baby falls off the bed, reframe it in terms of “Free Range Parenting”.
7. You can sterilize your baby’s pacifiers, but dogs’ mouths are supposedly cleaner than humans’, so you could just thank them for finding it and pick off the larger hairs.
8. You can put “Shhh! Baby Sleeping!” signs on doors and speak in stage whispers during nap time, but only if you want to spend the next five years tiptoeing around like Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
9. You can stick your finger in a baby’s diaper to see if it’s clean, but you can only do this once.
10. You could wake the baby up to see if he’s hungry, or you could shave your dog’s fur to see if he’s cold.
11. You could twist the umbilical cord into a dried “keepsake heart” for the baby’s nursery, or you could dress in witches’ clothing and post “keep away” notices for all normal people.
We’re backing into this thing. Last night, the girls and I watched “Clueless”, this afternoon, “Emma”. By Friday, I anticipate reading Jane Austen aloud, girls needlepointing on stands by the fire, all of us leaping up, flustered, smoothing dresses and pinching cheeks and fluffing pillows, as the UPS man rings the bell unannounced.
As the ER doctor wriggled my index fingernail free of the nail bed with pliers, he asked if I worked with my right hand.
"Well, I like to write," I said.
"Eh? So what kind of things do you write? What’s your writing style?” he asked.
"Oh…I don’t know," I said, "mainly just parenting essays, sometimes funny."
"Sort of like Erma Bombeck?" he suggested.
"Um, I guess." I said.
I wanted to be prepared, should such a question ever come up again, so I jotted down some “writing style” slogans at 4:07 a.m., after being awoken by the pulsing, strobe-lit rave in the tip of my finger:
Mary Beth Holcomb: Sort of Like Erma Bombeck
Erma Bombeck, Now with 30% Less Mom Hair!
Erma Bombeck: The Martini Years
Are You There Erma Bombeck? It’s Me, Mary Beth.
Erma Bombeck if She Carried a Dull Swiss Army Knife and Didn’t Know How to Use the Tools
Erma Bombeck: Laughter is the Best Medicine (Outside of Gin and Pain Pills)
Erma Bombeck: If LIfe Gives Us 10 Fingernails, How Did I Wind Up With 9?
Erma Bombeck, Minus the Good Housekeeping with Water Glass Ring Stains
Look Again, Erma Bombeck, this knife is ENGRAVED.
Erma Bombeck With Irreverent Cussing
Erma Bombeck: Watch My Four Kids for an Hour Then Tell Me to Keep My Dominant Hand Completely Dry for a Week
Erma Bombeck: Is That a Pulpy Flesh Flap Where My Nail is Supposed to Be, or Are You Really Interested in My Kids’ Names and Ages?
Do you think that somewhere, a slight, middled-aged woman wearing a Christmas sweater, tan slacks, and knee high pantyhose just gasped, checking over her shoulder to make sure the children weren’t watching, then pressed her lips together, inhaled w/a small, strength-gathering nod, and clicked on the headline, “Brian Boitano Announces He is Gay”?
Saturday evening, Thanksgiving Break, doing my damnedest to stay “grateful” while cleaning a newly-discovered mound of partially-dried, electric-yellow bile crusting over the back right corner of the non-removable wool seat cushion. I marvel, between reluctant dabs and cursed mutterings, at Annie’s stamina. Even at death’s door, barely able to lift her own head, she’d hauled herself onto a pricey armchair before voiding the contents of her stomach.
“At least she’s alive” I tell myself, ignoring my brain’s smartass rejoinder: “Too bad about sending the kids to college!” Indeed, the vet assured us Annie will recover, as the front desk receptionist swiped a four digit fee onto my Visa.
We’d spent all Thanksgiving morning cooking and cleaning, prepping for an evening feast at Rick’s mother’s. I won’t point fingers, but RICK accidentally left out an overflowing trash can when we left for the suburbs. If you made up a list of “Most Toxic Items For Dogs” it would look a whole lot like this trash bag — raw turkey skin, splintering bones, damp coffee grounds, razor-edged cans, powdery chocolate wrappers, and so on.
When we returned after dark, it was like turning on the lights in some grisly detective drama; there’d been a violent struggle throughout the downstairs, but the villain had prevailed, devouring nearly everything in the can, including packaging. Floyd and Bobo cowered in the corner like traumatized witnesses in the back of an ambulance. Annie, on the other hand, lay stretched and sated on her side, Jabba the Hutt in an opium den. We decided to wing it, cleaning the floors and bidding her goodnight.
Predictably, the next morning presented a fresh new crime scene, with strategically-spaced land mines of vomit on hardwoods, beneath tables, under chairs, over the sides of dog beds, and camouflaged in busy rug patterns. Outside, at least, was gorgeous, so we opened up the house and cleaned again, leaving the dogs to the front yard. Annie lounged all afternoon, sleeping it off we hoped. She’s never been one for exercise, but as day bled into night and her lethargy didn’t lift, a creeping worry set in. Then the unthinkable happened: she did not eat dinner.
I lay awake half the night, checking on her several times. By morning I admitted defeat, slamming a cup of coffee and driving her up the highway to the emergency clinic. It was really no surprise, as our kids and dogs years ago held a secret meeting where they swore to demand urgent medical attention exclusively on holidays and weekends.
I learned several interesting things during our visit. First, Annie’d put on 10 pounds since her last weigh-in, roughly the equivalent of a human gaining 70 pounds in five minutes. I knew she was rotund in her wormlike way, but I wasn’t prepared for the technician to shout, “SERIOUSLY? Is that even POSSIBLE?” when reading the scales. In our defense, Annie’s been on the same sensible diet since we got her, but it’s hard to control for variables like large pepperoni jalapeño pizzas stolen off kitchen counters or generous slices of chocolate layer cake snatched on self-initiated “walks”.
More fascinating still was when the vet, who looked all of 15, came in to discuss Annie’s x-rays. “Of course you’ll know about the air rifle, then?” he asked in a lilting Irish accent, nodding encouragingly. “Excuse me?” I said. “You REALLY don’t know? ” he said, suddenly animated. “Why, she’s been shot by an air rifle — TWICE — look here! They’re still inside her!” He tapped the film for emphasis, drawing finger circles around the pellets. “Nasty ones, too!” he added, folding arms across his scrubs and swaying foot to foot.
I felt it first in my eyes, then my cheeks, and before I knew it I was laughing, so hard it came out silent, so hard the vet crinkled his eyes and laughed too. I gave his back an awkward pat and wiped my eyes, apologizing, though in truth I wasn’t all that sorry. I just couldn’t stop imagining Annie, in a tight little Peter Rabbit coat, rooting around a garden, lifting a pie off a windowsill, sliding a steak off a grill, while some bearded, overalled crabapple of a man chased her with a hoe, or in this case an air rifle, zeroing in on her ample rear as it disappeared under chicken-wire.
For some crazy reason it made me proud — “I like your lapdog. My dog’s been shot.” I laughed for the old-fashioned dogness of her, unrepentant in her roaming and snuffling and gorging and scrounging ways. I laughed because Annie never has and never will give a shit, and she’ll outlive any old Mr. McGregor, maybe outlive us all. And I laughed because I got to bring her home, and just this once, put her to bed without any supper.
Thanksgiving morning, Fudge pads in, early. He plops down on my sleeping body, sniffling and situating until most of his weight rests on my bladder, coughing into my face and settling in. He guides my limp arm over his back and bottom, squeezing my hand to signal I should rub. Rick sighs and rolls out of bed as Sadie wanders in, rubbing her eyes and trailing a queen-size blanket, a mound of stuffed animals spilling over her arms.
She climbs up and stage whispers “HAPPY THANKSGIVING” in a way that’s louder than her normal voice, and Fudge rolls over to tell her he said it first. Sadie wants to know how I responded, insisting I committed at some point last night to saying “Same to you” but not “Happy Thanksgiving” to anyone who got to me before her.
I pretend to be sleeping, even though my pillow has vanished and the middle of the bed inexplicably no longer has covers. The first hint of coffee mingles with dust mites in the light sliver above me, and Sadie gasps and sits up, pounding the night light on the clock, worried we’ll miss the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.
I give up, getting up to pee, and I can tell by the sound Rick’s feet make in the hallway he’s trying not to slop mugs of hot coffee. I brush my teeth and they all disappear downstairs, then Rick’s yelling back up, asking where I’ve put the bag of bandaids I bought the other day — a Saran wrap accident I can’t quite follow. I check in on Audrey, curled in headphones over her iPhone, already immersed in text chatter with friends. Brooks will sleep for hours. Fudge rushes in, wild-haired and chapped-lipped, to announce the parade’s start. The dogs lift hopeful heads as I enter the kitchen, but it’s not my job to feed them, and it’s too cold to walk just yet.
Rick will build a fire, and we’ll cook and putter and sip and lounge until Sadie gets bored and Fudge falls off the back of the couch, until Aud picks a fight and Brooks turns cynical, until Rick claims I’m not helping and I get mad over dirty dishes. Until we forget why we’re thankful, a luxury we can afford, because we’ve got it all.
It’s funny the things that now fill me w/murderous rage. Me: “Ugh. I have to go to the GROCERY.” Rick: “Well, that’s kinda fun. You just walk the aisles, pick out some foo—what?” Me: “I will fucking KILL you if you ever say that shit again.”
Things I no longer process as weird: 1) someone talking to me about homework and dinner as they methodically empty the laundry basket onto the bed, tuck hair under a tight knit cap, struggle to curl into a small enough ball to squeeze all the way underneath the basket, then pop just a head out to interrupt: “Look. I’m a turtle.” 2) someone pretending my butt is a guitar, strumming then thumping it while loudly singing as I stand on tiptoe trying to reach the only clean towel off the closet shelf; 3) someone wandering in and turning over the same laundry basket, yelling for me to “come here — QUICK!” so I can watch as they balance inside the end of the now precariously leaning basket, arms spread Kate Winslet-wide, humming Celine Dion.
Aud and I pull up at a red light next to a tastefully beribboned Rolls Royce, new bride and groom perched rather stiffly in the back. Because a)we’re classy and b)the timing was just too perfect, we roll down all the windows and crank up “Single Ladies” as loud as it will go.
We could debate the merits of “Silly Love Songs” (though we’re probably on the same side), but for anyone who’d argue the value of the arts, name one thing lovelier than the instant sound of a diving board’s bounce, the shouts and whistles and muffled pitches of summertime chatter; the smell of chlorine and suntans and vinyl-strapped poolside chairs; the sight of smooth, artificially-tinged water parting then folding back on itself to the rhythmic rise and fall of your dad’s submerged shoulders, as you cling to his neck, delighted, commanding him to ferry you faster, faster, into the deep end.
Night before Halloween. Fudge can not sleep. 442nd request from the top of the stairs: Fudge: “Mama? MAaaaaMaaaah. MAMA!” Me: “What IS IT NOW? If you don’t go to sleep, there will BE NO HALLOWEEN!!!” Fudge: “Okay, but Mama? What time is my alarm USUALLY set for?” Me: “What? I don’t know. What? …6:45, I think, why?” Fudge: “Can you wake me up early? I need to get up early. So, at, like, 6:43? Yeah. I need you to wake me up at 6:43. I’ve got things to do.”
There it is again, in my Facebook feed, another meme, the latest version of “In my day we didn’t have ADHD. We had parents who weren’t afraid to discipline, and kids who were sent outside to play until the lights came on.” Here I am again, trying to refrain from commenting, to keep from feeling insulted, to remember they haven’t seen what I see.
Generally, two lines of attack are reserved for us, the parents of children diagnosed with ADHD. Either we’re too lazy to discipline, to teach our children when to sit down, stay still, and listen up, or we’re unreasonably demanding, expecting miniature child-zombies who sit quietly and never exercise outdoors. I’m delighted to report my family life fits neither of these profiles.
My husband and I have always been pretty strict with our four kids in terms of public behavior — we’ve (hopefully) raised them to be polite and respectful in restaurants and stores. Fussy babies were soothed on sidewalks, tantrumy toddlers removed to outside benches, sullen tweens instructed to wait in the car. Outside such confines, we’ve advocated a kids-be-kids approach; plays, games, and lemonade stands; skateboarding, tree-climbing, and trampoline-jumping; we’d rather risk the occasional ER visit than protect our kids from the largely benign “dangers” of experimentation. And to be honest, I think we’re pretty good at our job. We know when to let our kids sing and shout and act silly; we know when it’s time to make them settle down. We aren’t the kind of parents who deal with the overblown drama of ADHD. Except, of course, we are.
I’d love to pretend I wasn’t judgmental about behavioral issues before our experience, but it’s not true. I’d more than once asserted that “some” kids just needed firmly delineated lines, and I’d smugly assumed I’d never resort to “drugging” my own children. But the remarkable, wonderful thing about parenting is how often it manages to flick you off your pedestal. As a friend recently mea culpaed: that pain-in-the-neck kindergartner in her daughter’s class last year? Happy as a clam, sharing lunch in the cafeteria with his father, who it turned out had been deployed the last 12 months. That stranger’s kid I dissed on Facebook for behaving poorly at the pool? Wound up being the child of acquaintances, warm and generous people who had their daughter send me an apology letter. But the shame was all mine. Because guess what? All kids act bratty sometimes, even yours and mine; it’s part of growing up, of learning to navigate society. Our job is to facilitate such growth through correction and encouragement, not to undermine it with condemnation and finger-pointing. Imagine someone isolating one of your frustrated explosions, say, when your kid’s asked the same question 90 times in the car before you’ve even set foot in the grocery. To a passerby in the cereal aisle, you sound like a real jerk: “All that poor child did was ask for a box of Cap’n Crunch, and his mom totally flew off the handle!” The point, of course, is that it’s impossible to know the breadth of a situation when we’re only glimpsing moments. Unless someone’s being beaten or seriously threatened, it’s probably prudent to withhold judgment, because it’s entirely possible you have no idea what you’re talking about. Sometimes, it’s bad parenting. Sometimes, it’s just a bad day. And sometimes, it’s beyond either. So here’s Aud’s story (told with her permission), our story, and my little plea for caution when playing the blame game.
Our daughter was diagnosed last year with ADHD, inattentive type. She has trouble staying focused and shifting between tasks, difficulty organizing and prioritizing, problems following multi-step instructions, and a tendency to skip over details or make careless mistakes in assignments. Taken individually, these hurdles might not sound terribly unusual to parents of middle-school-aged children; your son’s locker is a disaster, your daughter starts a project the night before it’s due. But grouped, these obstacles form a more serious barrier to learning. It reminds me of the time I attempted to learn to ski, in 12 inches of fresh powder, with a group of friends who already knew how; I would fall, dig around for my lost skis, pound off the snow and ice, struggle to get upright and back into them, then restart my slow descent. By the time I made it to the spot where my friends waited, rested and impatient, I was out of breath and exhausted. But the second they saw me approaching, they’d turn to continue their runs, effortlessly outpacing me. Then I’d fall again. And so it continued, until I began furiously waving them on, demoralized and ready to cry. I would never learn. Everyone but me could do it. I was an embarrassment. This is ADHD thinking.
Let me say here that I understand people’s reservations. ADHD may well be overdiagnosed. I concede that it’s a bit of a catchall term, with a number of nonspecific, frankly somewhat subjective “symptoms”. This isn’t to say there are not standardized testing methods and strict guidelines, but still, the diagnosis is not as concise and therefore not always as reliable as, say, the detection of a cancer. Kids with a wide variety and intensity of issues fall within the ADHD spectrum, but there aren’t neatly laid-out “stages” of the disorder as you’d find with our cancer example. To complicate matters, ADHD is regularly accompanied by other conditions, such as anxiety or depression, OCD or sleep disorders, and, as in my daughter’s case, it can be extremely difficult to distinguish the horse from the cart (is the anxiety prompting the inattention, or is the attention fueling the anxiety?). There are arguments over whether some ADHD “symptoms” are not just maturation issues that will sort themselves out with time, or environmentally-based difficulties, the natural byproducts of dysfunctional parenting and/or non-supportive surroundings. There have been calls to throw out the term “ADHD” altogether as too broad and too vague to be useful without inviting abuse. If we can’t say precisely what makes a person ADHD, the logic goes, then anyone can be ADHD. These are all points worth discussing, points I’m neither qualified nor inclined to hash out here. Of course we should safeguard against unscrupulous doctors doling out unnecessary pharmaceuticals to overeager parents. It should be, and in our experience, is difficult to acquire and sustain a prescription. Fine by me if someone figures out how to break down this disorder into more refined, regimented subcategories. For now, though, my daughter falls under the umbrella of ADHD, and for that, I won’t apologize.
Personally, I don’t give a damn if we call her condition “Lunar Mood Ring Syndrome”. It doesn’t make her suffering a shred less real, a smidgen less legitimate. And it doesn’t change the fact that ADHD meds have helped her tremendously. I am deeply empathetic with societal reluctance to medicate children. In fact, the idea initially terrified me. For us, though, there simply came a point where it seemed selfish not to try the drugs.
As far back as 2nd grade, I remember instances of teachers remarking on something unusual about Aud’s learning style, the way she processed, or sometimes didn’t process material. Some things came easily - the lyrics to a song, a script in a play, the plot of a novel; whereas others - the locations of countries on a map, verb tenses in a foreign language, mathematical equations, seemed virtually impossible for her to retain. An early elementary Spanish teacher described it as a “window shade being drawn” whenever he spoke to her in class. The next year, a different teacher showed us her unusual results from a spatial location quiz, where students had been asked to position items on a piece of paper (ex. draw a rectangle in the upper left quadrant). The requests increased in complexity as the test wore on, but for Aud, it didn’t seem to matter. Nearly every task was wrong. Nothing made sense.
It wasn’t as if Aud was slow; she was bright as a button, which made the “holes” all the more maddening. She could hold her own in any debate, write short stories in her sleep, come up with witty retorts on the spot. Her intellect and her work product just didn’t match up. Nor was she lazy. She would (finally, painstakingly) memorize items for a test, then inexplicably, a mere 12 hours later, be wholly unable to access these answers. It pains me to think of the times I said “Just pay attention!” or “You’re not trying!” because she was desperately struggling to do both. As far as she was concerned, I was really saying, “Why are you too stupid to get this?” By fifth grade, we took her for extensive (and expensive) testing to try and figure out what was going on. The testing came back inconclusive, a generalized “math disorder” with results indicative, but not definitive, of attention issues. It was strongly recommended we retest in a year or two.
We finished elementary school without much incident, then junior high hit with the force of a nuclear bomb. Small daily failures mounted, as did my daughter’s dread surrounding the school day. Multitasking skills, such as listening to lectures while simultaneously taking notes, proved nearly insurmountable for Aud, so she’d simply shut down, accomplishing neither. Thus began a cycle of frustrated intentions, aborted attempts, reactionary checking out, and full-blown panic. The harder she tried to concentrate on one thing, the more her brain focused on what she was missing. Anxiety smothered curiosity.
For nearly a year, we did everything we could think of to shake off the weight. We hired math tutors and organizational tutors. Teachers worked one-on-one with Aud in after-school sessions. School counselors listened and offered encouragement. Friends soothed tears in the girl’s bathroom. Her piano instructor stopped mid-lesson to teach breathing and relaxation techniques. I took her to mother/daughter sessions with a yoga instructor. My husband took her running. We considered hiring a “Life Coach”, the sort of thing we would have snorted at in our old life. Nothing helped.
Countless hours, sobs, words of support and frustration passed across our kitchen table, sprawled on our bed, parked in our driveway, the ignition long-since turned off. Desperation, self-loathing, and hopelessness for her; determination, aching worry, and helplessness for us. Our other children suffered, too. We had no time for pedestrian tales of their days, no time for basic homework help, no time for pre-bedtime stories. When one kid is drowning, you can’t worry about perfecting another kid’s strokes. The days fell into a pattern. She’d be tense, moody, silent on the way to school, fretting about the day before it began. I’d fight rising panic on the way to afternoon carpool, squinting to see her expression, searching for body language clues as she approached the car. The flood of tears, the gush of words, usually began before the door fully closed. She would never learn. Everyone but her could do it. She was an embarrassment.
I began to dread teachers, their purposeful strides toward the carpool lane, their hushed tones at the window, their concerned emails and well-meaning phone calls. I already knew what they wanted, found it nearly unbearable to rehash Aud’s day, to hear of the panicked breathing, the distressed expression, the inability to take in their words. Her homebase teacher’s eyes were soft, almost pleading, when she finally said, “She shouldn’t have to work this hard.”
Things had gotten out of hand, yet I’d steadfastly refused to even consider medication. Why? It’s true I worried about side effects on her growing, hormonally-charged body — I still do. But in retrospect, I have to acknowledge that the stigma of ADHD as some sort of con game, a “lazy” way out, played a huge part in the delay. I loathed the pop-a-pill ignominy of it, thought of it as giving up somehow, avoidance rather than confrontation. It’s horrifying to me that I let my pride prevent me from seeking out the help my child needed, help it was my sole job to demand. I’d let her sink down in Georgia red clay, caked and cracking, dabbing with a sponge when I needed a pressure washer.
We found a psychologist, conservative in her approach and indisputably ethical, with whom Audrey developed an immediate, easy rapport. We took her to be retested (again at great expense). Her anxiety levels were off the charts, so much so that they overshadowed clinically significant ADHD red flags. The results were murkier than we had hoped. Either it was an anxiety disorder at root, or the ADHD had elevated anxiety to the point that it now eclipsed the original affliction.
The dreaded subjectivity had come into play, a hallmark of ADHD criticism. In the end, it was indeed a bit of a judgment call. The clinical observations of her psychologist, the personal observations of her parents, the self-reflective observations of the patient, all pointed to attention as the primary culprit. By this point it was nearly summer, which gave us time to reflect on next steps while continuing intensive therapy. Aud’s anxiety subsided, not all at once, but progressively, and significantly we felt, with the retreat of the school year. A few weeks into summer, our old daughter reemerged, happy, funny, free. We agreed to try ADHD medication at the start of the new school year.
The turnaround has been monumental. This year, as an 8th grader, Audrey is making A’s — high A’s, for the most part, and more importantly, she seems to enjoy school (as much as an 8th grader can) again. The dread has vanished. While I don’t attribute this solely to pharmaceuticals, I’d be a fool to deny they’ve helped. They aren’t magic, but they’re another tool in her arsenal. I often think that for her, more than anything, the medication, the diagnosis, signified hope. Giving a name to her condition gave her a way out. She could learn. She could do it. She didn’t need to feel embarrassment.
So she’s seized this momentum, laboring impressively, and with ever-increasing confidence. The first few weeks she seemed tentative, “I got a 93 — but Mom, seriously, it was just an easy test,” as if acknowledging firm ground would cause it to sink beneath her. With every triumph, though, she’s learning to trust her weight. It’s true there are still fissures, but somehow they no longer threaten to crack open and swallow her whole. Regular therapy sessions, dedicated study habits, improved organizational routines, committed teachers, devoted parents, and yes, pills, keep the earth solid, at least for now.
I don’t care if I change your mind about ADHD, but I’d like to think you might pause in the future before openly calling blanket bullshit on any psychiatric disorder. And I’d ask that you check that flicker of an eye roll I sometimes detect when I tell people my daughter has ADHD. She’s “earned” this diagnosis, and she deserves your respect.
But for those who must, go ahead and tell her she’s a phony, tell me I’m a bad parent, tell us this isn’t real. I’ll only hear an 8th grade girl, dancing and singing along to a Taylor Swift song behind her closed bedroom door:
"Well you can take me down, with just one single blow,