Posts Tagged parenting

When You’re Trapped Between Work and Family: A Writer’s Doubts

This morning, I really, really wanted to chew a head off, or at a minimum, a hand. This is the absolute bane of all small business owners, particularly artists and writers: setting up a new business. Yeah, yeah, it’s exciting and I’m grateful and, well, yada, yada. But when three children are yowling, busting heads and basically working through their Ophelia, Hamlet and Polonius routine and the man is conducting scientific experiments in the kitchen, the whole process of arranging a freaking PayPal button on WordPress becomes more a bloodletting experience than anything else.

Unsex me now, I’m screaming inside . . . aw crap. I’m mixing up Macbeth and Hamlet. Did I mention that my fourth grader has chosen the latter as her topic for a book report? And somehow, in this vast library of ours, we’ve lost all five copies of said Hamlet? Right. It’s completely disconnected to my efforts to install a freaking PayPal button on WordPress (for autographed, pre-release copies of Ripple), except that while glaring at JavaScript and Text Edit and related noxious, horrifying thingies on the Mac, the fourth-grader mentioned that maybe we could go to the library.

And no decent mom refuses to take a child to the library, right? Right, but only after I get my new page set up on WordPress: this one. But right now, I gotta confess something: I’m not feeling like a decent mom. I’m trying, but I’m also working as hard as I used to work when I practiced law. Don’t get me wrong: this time around, I love my job, but I’m getting too obsessed with line edits, double spaces after periods (damn my eyes, I’m switching to single spaces), proof copies, mailing advance reviewer copies, and a plethora of other small details.

Front and Back Cover

You see, even though I’m self-publishing, I refuse to compromise quality. I’m rolling the dice on my own name and reputation, and it’s not like I can blame a secretary or intern or junior associate or asshole client if anything gets messed up. This book must look as good as anything that is traditionally published.

And you know what’s getting sacrificed right now? Sigh. Yep. My family. Or as Helen realizes in Ripple:

 Excellence may not be about making beds and cooking brownies, but excellence was about more than rising to the top of your profession. She’d fucked up. She hadn’t meant to. She really hadn’t meant to hurt her daughter, but she had. Her own excellence had been achieved by sacrificing her family and now she was paying the price for it. No, now Phoebe was paying the price for it, she realized, and she winced.

 Sometimes fiction mirrors life; other times, life mirrors fiction. All I know is that I need to find a balance, somehow. It doesn’t mean that I should give up trying to create the best product I can, but I need to try harder here on the home front. These twelve and fourteen hour days, after all, are nothing to be proud of—not when those hours take too much time away from my children.

How do you all do it, your working moms and dads? Do you feel trapped between work and home? As if you constantly fail work or family at the expense of the other?

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The Mendacity of a Zero Tolerance Bullying Policy

Here is what’s going down in my daughter’s life . . . to protect the privacy of all participants, I’m using initials instead of names, and in some cases have switched initials up.

Dear School Board Rep. MM:

Re: bullying of MEF

I am attaching the e-mail I sent to the principal at TCES. My daughter, MEF, a 4th grader in Ms. GB’s class, has been subjected to bullying all year, which has now culminated in assault. We are considering contacting the police and we certainly will do the same if another hand is laid on my daughter. One of the children involved in the assault has been harassing MEF since second grade. At that point, Ms. Principal S switched my daughter into a different class. In this case, that will not be a satisfactory resolution.

TCES has a so-called zero tolerance bullying policy, which as far as I can tell simply protects the strong from serious repercussions. Given the increase of teenage and even pre teenager suicide that results from bullying, I am very concerned that the school isn’t doing more. While my daughter is not as of yet demonstrating signs of depression, she is showing an increasing desperation and sense of isolation. To date, she has tried to stand up to the children who have been hurting her, and somehow this has led her teacher to argue that MEF gives out almost as well as she gets. I find this more frightening than laughable.



 From: ELF
Subject: bullying
Date: November 15, 2012 4:04:51 PM EST
CC. Principal S

Hello GB:

As we mentioned during our Parent-Teacher Conference earlier this month, we are concerned about KZ’s bullying of MEF. This has been occurring all year and today, it culminated with my daughter racing off the bus in tears. Apparently at recess, MEF was sitting alone and playing a game. Three boys (AK L, DG and KZ) marched over and spat at her (which they also did yesterday). One of them ran up and called her a “Guana [sic] Pig” and “Ninja Pig” and when two girls tried to intervene, KZ pushed MEF, causing her to fall down. AK kept calling MEF these nasty names; then DG shoved and pushed MEF into playground equipment. MEF tried to chase them away, and they screamed, “Leave foul beast.” At some point, AK said, “I hope your little ‘sister’ dies” (referring sarcastically to my son TJF, who tried to stand up for his sister during recess yesterday). At some point during this, MEF called KZ a “stupid idiot.”

At the end of this, KZ told MEF that she’d better not tell on him, or else he would tell on her and say that she was bullying him. This, of all the things I’ve heard from MEF, disgusts me the most. She admits to calling KZ a “stupid idiot” only after she was shoved, pushed, called epithets, struck, made fun of and basically tortured.

I do not want to hear what I heard earlier this year: that “boys will be boys.” No. You have a zero tolerance bullying policy. Let’s go ahead and see that policy in force.

Let me be clear: this is a clear pattern of bullying. We have spoken with you regarding DG, Ms. Principal S. In second grade, we switched MEF to a different class after he sexually harassed her. I don’t want him to ever lay a hand on my daughter again and I don’t know how else to make this clear. And Ms. GB, this is at least the fourth time I’ve raised the issue of bullying, either in writing or in person, this year. MEF loves being in Ms. GB’s class. At this point, if anyone is moved, it must be the perpetrators and not the victim.

I would appreciate if this e-mail is forwarded to the parents of all involved children. And Husband and I request an action plan.



Mr. Vice Principal PBJ:

Thank you for calling me earlier. I’ve received the rest of the story.

MEF just got home from school and told me she was afraid to answer your question about pushing. To your “leading question” of, “Do you think it’s okay that you pushed the boys,” she didn’t answer what she was really thinking. At that point, she’d given up. It isn’t polite to argue with adults, mom.  What she said to me was, “I was trying to protect myself from them. I wouldn’t survive if I didn’t fight back. Especially when they’re spitting at me and calling me bad words. But I didn’t bother telling Mr. PBJ that because he didn’t want to hear it. They don’t really care. Why can’t you just transfer me to a different school, anyway?”

At school today, Ms. GB caught AK and KZ (I think) while they were spitting at MEF. (to MEF’s tremendous relief, Ms. GB gave them a serious rebuke). AK was also bragging that he’d lied and told you that MEF had hit AK (which is nonsense). AK thinks it’s hilarious that he’s pulled one over on you and has somehow convinced you that MEF has bullied THEM. I refer, as exhibit 1, to MEF’s near-perfect behavior record. Seriously. Go ask all her prior teachers.

Oh, and one other thing MEF did not tell you: she has tried to defend herself physically in the past. One day she hit KZ, in the stomach, at recess when he was bullying her. He laughed at her and called her a “weakling.” I fear that she will try to protect herself and will suffer harm at the hands of these boys, who are much bigger, stronger and heavier than her.

What’s happening here is a small, sweet kid is trying, really, really hard to take matters into her own hands. She is trying to create a safe space for herself. When she tried to do that and enjoy some peace, the boys invaded her space (a situation that seemed laughable to you because it involved a make-believe “command center”), spat at her, called her a PIG . . . and then she’s in trouble for pushing them? This is nonsense. Unlike some of the kids in her class, she is not a violent kid, but she’s trying to do her best “to survive,” as she put it. If you don’t act soon, someone is going to get hurt. Please work with me to keep my child safe. I am not satisfied with your response.



On Nov 16, 2012, at 4:54 PM, PBJ wrote:

Good Afternoon ELF,

I am sorry that MEF has the perception that we do not care about what she said because we do.  As I said on the phone, our goal is to make TCES an inviting, safe space for all of our children.   We have begun taking steps to address the concerns we uncovered today and will continue to do so.   I would be happy talk with you further about this either on the phone, or, if you prefer, we can meet next week.  Please let me know how you would like to proceed.  I expect I will be here for at least another thirty minutes, if you would like me to call you tonight please let me know.


We won’t stop.

ELF      Date:   November 16, 2012 5:01:24 PM EST

To:       PBJ

I’m far too upset–in tears– to speak to anyone more tonight.


I wasn’t exaggerating. Before I’d typed this, I’d asked all three children to go outside for 15 minutes.  So I could cry.  I needed to break down, feel weak, feel this, for just 15 minutes.  Then I got my shit together, which really only happened when my husband walked across the threshold.

After I took a run, I calmed down and got back on the computer.  A friend of mine sent me a note last night.  She told me a pretty haunting story about a bully named KZ (the same KZ) who tortured one of her son’s friends so badly last year that the child transferred to another school. Yep.  The victim transferred to another school.  My friend added that she heaved a sigh of relief when finding that KZ was not in her child’s class this year. “My son is happy again.”

KZ has chosen another victim: my daughter. His parents don’t or won’t intervene. Meanwhile, the school has erected a smattering of anti-bullying signs around the hallways—the same hallways KZ prowls, searching for victims. 

He preys on the sweet kids. The ones who wear glasses, or are a little bit unique, or aren’t surrounded by a posse at all times. And he’ll keep on hunting until the school stops him. You know what sort of thing happens when the school bureaucrats don’t act?  Kids take their own lives, or they bring a gun into school and . . . well.  Columbine.

What do we do?  I’ve prayed on this a lot.  I’ve prayed for the Holy Spirit to fill me; I’ve asked Him for peace and love and I’m still praying, and pretty damn confused.  I know one thing for sure.  I will not go along with the blanket of secrecy that the school uses to shroud the misdeeds of out of control students.  I will fight, and I will not stop until my daughter is safe. So help me God.







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A Hail Mary Pass Thrown into Swirling Gust of Wind: Medicating AD/HD

I paced back and forth in front of my son’s first grade classroom, waiting for his teacher to finish talking to another child’s parents.  My husband tries to come to as many parent-teacher conferences as work permits, but I’d scheduled this one for 10 A.M. on Election Day, so I was going into the breach solo.  And while I didn’t want to feel scared and worried and a little sick to my stomach, I did.

Too often, these conferences hadn’t gone well in the past.  At the very first one, when Ben was still in preschool, his teacher glared at me with this serious, disapproving look.  “You know, you’d better get a handle on this sooner than later, when there’s still time.  Otherwise, he’s going to end up in jail.”

I glanced at my husband in shock.  “Jail?”  I gasped.

“Jail,” she repeated.  “At this rate, with this much oppositional behavior, this much anger, jail.”

In case you’re wondering, we switched preschools after that.

Things got worse before they got better.  When Ben was in kindergarten, I would jump when the phone rang.  If it wasn’t the school calling, I breathed a sigh of relief.  When I visited Ben at school for lunch, his classmates told me that my dear son was “bad.”  As I have written here, this hurt like hell.  I felt powerless and not a little clueless.  The last thing I wanted to turn to was the medicine cabinet.

But we did it anyway, both for our son’s sake, and for our own.  The payoff was not immediate because we had him on too low of a dose: 10 mg of Metadate, which is a generic form of Ritalin.  But once we got the dosage right (20 mg), the turnaround was immediate.

And yet, as I stood in front of Mrs. X, I wasn’t sure.  It had been about three weeks since we’d increased Ben’s dose, and we hadn’t heard from her except for one phone call, which I received the day after we increased Ben’s dose.  It had been a really weird call.  Mrs. X called for the sole reason of telling me that Ben had behaved well all day.  Was this an anomaly, or a new beginning for our troubled six-year old?

Before I even sat down in front of Mrs. X, I knew the answer was the latter: Ben had gotten a fresh start.  A redo, a do-over.  “You know, I’ve been looking forward to this meeting,” beamed Mrs. X.  “It’s been like night and day, like a sun rising, ever since you made the brave step of getting him the help he needed.”

“Really?”  I couldn’t breathe so I tried to sit down without smashing my knees into the tiny table in front of me.  I’m clumsy like that.

“Yes.  Really.  The transformation has been the biggest one I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of AD/HD kids.  Sometimes the meds help a little.  Sometimes a lot.  In his case, he’s gone from . . .”  Mrs. X paused to find a tactful way to say it.  “Well, from struggling, to being helpful, and attentive, and funny and . . . oh so kind.  I mean, he was always sweet and affectionate, but my gosh.  Now he gives me flowers, tells me how much he loves me—“

—“He’s always been so affectionate and sweet,” I murmured, my heart hurting.

She nodded.  “The great thing is that you made this change for him early in the year.  So his classmates won’t always remember him getting in trouble.  I mean, they all struggled to figure out the rules in the beginning, so he didn’t stick out as much in their minds.  And now he’s getting along with his classmates.  He’s funny and well-liked and . . .”  Her voice trailed off and she smiled at me.

Some decisions, when viewed from hindsight, seem obvious.  Other ones seem divinely inspired, like small miracles.  But the decision to medicate our son was more like a Hail-Mary pass thrown into a swirling gust of wind: a combination of savvy quarterbacking, divine guidance and a tad of blind luck all in one.




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Friday Photos: Harnessing Anger and Seeking Comfort

For the first of this week’s Friday Photos, I offer a few words on anger. I wrote this after the Penn State sanctions came down and I felt burned by my anger. So I stopped, and waited and thought about it.  Anger solves nothing, unless it is harnessed for good.  And if it is not harnessed in the service of good, it can destroy the better parts in us.

I wrote this second poster up when I was feeling like hell earlier in the week.  It wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but something in my world felt like it was crashing down on me and despair hunted me down like a rampaging werewolf.  I called my children to my side and told them that I was sad.  “I need a hug, love,” I murmured to my blue-eyed daughter.  “I’m fine, but I’m sad.”

“Oh,” she replied, a concerned eye on me.  “Here Mom!”  She flung her little self around me and her brothers soon joined the dog pile.  Within a few minutes, the dark clouds abated.  I loved.  And I knew I was loved.  All because of a simple hug.  I guess you could call this a coping mechanism.

What helps you cope with anger?  How about sadness or grief?  Is it easy for you to ask for help when you’re sad?

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Spring Break is a Misnomer

Monday morning. 7 a.m.  EST.  Sparrows chirp outside my window.  It’s too early for damn chirping birds.

“Mom, you gotta wake up. Ben and I had a food fight,” Jim urges in his shatter-glass voice.

“Huh? What? Why? You what?”

“Threw Frosted Flakes on each others’ heads.”

“Huh? What? Why?” I groan, shifting my weight off my throbbing hip, “Why?”

“I don’t know. Sorry mom.”

Spring Break?  Spring Break is a misnomer.  I break out the vacuum cleaner and gripe until Ben wraps his arms around he and with a soulful look in his eyes exclaims, “I love you Mama! I’m sorry!” My mouth turns up, first on the left side, and then on the right. I grin and hug him back.

2:53 p.m. “For the seventh time, get in the truck NOW.” I holler, exasperated. I do not answer Jim’s question about our trip to the dentist. I am too busy avoiding the colorful line of bicycles parked in the middle of the driveway. Damn. One of these days I am going to take out the mailbox. I contemplate if taking three kids to the dentist on a azure-blue sky Spring day is such a sane idea.

4:37 p.m. My husband stands in front of the kitchen sink with paper towels and a plastic container.  “Did you know what they were doing outside, El?” I make my face look innocent and mumble, “No?” Madeline runs into the kitchen yelling, “Ew, get the boys away from me! They reek of suntan lotion.” Travis sets his suit jacket down and shakes his head. “Um, they sprayed suntan lotion all over one another and all over your truck. So now they’re going to clean it.” I say very little but I ask my husband for a hug and I curl into him and he rests his head on my shoulder and we still fit just right.

7:30 p.m. We walk the children until they drop, or so we threaten. It only takes an hour of walking and as we patter along, we reminisce about the time a couple of years ago the boys broke out the Ben-Gay. Unfortunately they did not wash their hands before they used the bathroom and then raced, yowling like cats into the bathtub.

11 p.m. I lay beside my husband and with much tenderness we talk about his day and modern politics and the media.  And he tickles me the whole time he talks in his rolling, gentle voice until he has no more words and then he just lays beside me and I listen to his heart beat and feel his fingers on my neck and I thank God for the small things. But wait! This is too peaceful.

Tuesday morning. 7 a.m. “Mama! You gotta wake up. The bottom of the bucket broke and . . .” My head jerks up. I remember the time Ben and Jim sunk the titanic in the downstairs bathroom sink and the water exploded into a maelstrom of suds and mess and spilled on the floor. And then I smile, relieved. My daughter is talking about the blue bucket hanging from the maple tree, which contains a potion of some sorts. I grumble, “Come wake me in an hour. It’s too early.”

8:05 a.m. The garage door slams. My eyes flip wide open. I hear the sound of children laughing and yelling. I walk to the windowMy Jim, smirking and peer through the blinds and try to make sense of what I see. Three children run up and down the sidewalk in front of my home pulling suitcases. And then I look more closely. I recognize those children. They look a hell of a lot like me. And then one of them spots me and smirks at me. He is of course one of my children.

Spring Break is indeed a misnomer.

© April 3, 2012

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No Tears Fall

Words rush and flit about like butterflies that would not be caught.  Slow down you think too fast.  Something hurts but I am the one running now.  It’s a dream.  I line up at the starting line and a man sneers at anyone who takes 5 hours to run a marathon.  Inadequate.  No!  I run, and Ben runs in front of me, too fast.  Slow down son.  He won’t.  Dimples and grins and laughing, so wild and free and fleet . . . he runs.

We run to a bridge 8 inches wide; a balance beam for gymnasts, but I am not.  I peer into a gorge and the water rushes beneath me.  My chest feels cold and numb from fear.  I get down on my hands and knees and I crawl, barely in control of my fear oh please Ben come back to me.  “Someone help me!”  I cry.  And someone does.  He is strong and fast.  His chest is wide; his hair, jet-black.  He runs 3-hour marathons and he leaps over my supine figure and runs abreast of Ben.  Ben is in good hands.  I made the call.  He is safe now.

But I am not.  I am not safe.  The muddy water tosses and churns beneath me now and the sun has gone down and it is dark and cold and I am alone and still no tears will fall.  Two years into psychotherapy and no tears will fall.  No one raced ahead to catch Little El before she slipped off her family’s rickety beam bridge and she fell, so many years ago, into the depths. 

Every morning, and every night I glare at the mirror, at these cheeks too red and too thick and I repeat, “I am of great value.”  These words stick in my throat and I try to believe it when I say it.  And when I believe it, even for a fleeting moment, I want to cry and I don’t know why.

Now I am my own surgeon, my own master and my own healer.  It’s like handing the keys to the Ferrari to a 16-year boy and expecting him to drive 55.  The child, my child, heads at breakneck speed straight for the massive oak tree and the parent I am to my own child shrugs and walks away and whispers, “You’ll be okay darling,” with the tune from “Cat’s in the Cradle” playing in the background.

Mom’s paintings weren’t Rembrandts but they were a part of me for too long, wrapped inside my identity like a confusing coil or a trawling net, sucking up everything in its path.  Closure.  It’s over.  Is it over?  They’re gone now.  My parents.  Her paintings.  Their hands and words and all of the slashes . . . I took a bat to them and smashed them all up and my hands and my back hurt when I was done.  And still, there are no tears.

When your mom dies I hope you can grieve for her.  It is so damn hard to grieve for someone who lives and while living haunts and hurts you.  There is no real way to bid farewell.  Just time. They say tears fall not in heaven but this holding pattern is no heaven.  The minutes and hours and days and years will pass and the wounds will coalesce but first, dear God, first please let me cry.

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Two More Words about My Son: It’s Time

It was 6 o’clock.  Ben sat at the kitchen table in his pajamas.  As punishment for throwing rocks and biting another kid, he had spread mulch outside and then received an early bath.  I glanced at my husband and said, “I am going for a run.  You got the phone?  Dr. Myers should call on my cell phone.”  My almost bald, still-handsome, barrel-chested man nodded at me and asked, “You told her it’s time?  Are you okay?”  I shook my head and leaned in for a hug and he held me tight.

I pulled on my white Brooks running shoes with the green stripes and thought about running and about what one of my friends had just said to me.  She had said, “I love you,” and I couldn’t respond.  I felt like I couldn’t say “I love you” back because I was not worthy of loving anyone.  I was a failure as a mom.  When I didn’t respond, she added, “I know you can’t digest this right now but you will sort it out while you’re running.”  I felt too cruddy even to run so at first I walked and I missed my family so I opened the laundry room door and called, “Anyone want to walk with me?”

My daughter ran outside and pulled on her white running shoes with the pink stripes.  She walked by my side on this sunny, spring evening and she talked.  Like any 8-year old, she has a lot to talk about and I am accustomed to listening but last night, I could not process her words.  She stopped talking and asked me, “Mom, are you distracted?”  I smiled.   In that moment I heard a cardinal sing and saw the pink and yellow and green blossoms and I realized that everything outside my own mind just looked and  sounded like so much static.

“Yes, sweetie, I am sorry.  I have a lot on my mind.”  Madeline rubbed my back with her reassuring little hand that no longer bears a cyst.  “You’re upset about Ben, aren’t you?”  I nodded and gritted my teeth so that I would not lose my composure.  She continued, “Don’t worry Mom, it’s going to be okay.”  I smiled and wrapped my arm around her shoulders.  “Thank you sweetie.  And please do not worry about me.  I will be okay.”  I never got to be a child so I try very hard not to lean on my own children.  We finished our walk and then I went on a run and as I ran I tried to assemble and digest the thoughts swirling in my mind.

It had been a good morning but it fell apart at noon.  The phone rang and I hung up on the other line and picked it up because the caller ID announced Terra Centre Elementary School.  I cringe when the school calls.  It is never good news.

The secretary patched me through to the Vice Principal while I squirmed.  The VP is a man who has a gentle voice and kids of his own and one of my friends nicknamed him PBJ because that’s what his name sounds like if you say it fast.  “Your son is here with me, Ms. Farris.”  I held my breath and tried to ask why.  “Well, he has calmed down some now, but for a while,” and PBJ paused to wipe his eyes, or so I imagined, “He was climbing all over the chairs.  I think maybe he was nervous?  It was strange.  Now he is sitting here beside me eating his lunch and he is helping me count the minutes he’s behaved.  Anyway, he and another boy pushed one another and apparently, Ben then proceeded to bite the boy in the finger.”

My world and his words faded as if the phone receiver had turned into a kaleidoscope of confusing noises.  I screamed one of Munch’s silent screams and I whispered, “He did what?”  And PBJ’s voice rolled and swelled and beat along and then he asked me if I wanted to speak to my son and I saw Ben’s little body and his dimples and his crazy-sweet, out-of-control smile and it was more than I could bear, this mashed-up mix of maternal love and fear and anger so I said, No,” and hit the red button on the phone and waited for PBJ’s voice to stop repeating himself in my head.  It’s time.

I called my friend back and she said a lot of sage and kind things to me but all I really heard her say was the same thing I was saying to myself: “It’s time, El.”  I thanked her and then I called my pediatrician’s office and left them a message and waited for the minutes to drift past but I kept getting lost in between the past and the future and I couldn’t figure out where I needed to be.  All I knew is that I wanted to hold my son and yell at him and hug him and promise him, if only someone would promise me, that he was going to be okay.

Then the phone rang.  It was the school again and it was three minutes past three and dutifully I picked up the damn phone.  The secretary patched me through to the Principal.  She is a woman with a voice as deep as her girth is wide, and she speaks really slow, which was good in this case, because she had Ben beside her and they were talking about the Golden Gate Bridge but that wasn’t really what they were talking about.  “I don’t understand what you are saying!”  My voice fractured and erupted and finally broke.  And I stopped trying to speak because I was weeping too damn hard.  “He threw rocks at a safety patrol,” Ms. Sims explained in her steady voice, “And you need to pick him up.”

Ten minutes later, I wore my aviator sunglasses and hoped that no one would glimpse my tear-stained face.  I have not cried in front my closest friends.  I don’t cry.  Except I was crying.

A teacher whom I like very much stopped me in the hallway and she couldn’t see that I was crying so she asked me, with great cheer, how I was doing, and I tried to tell her that Ben had thrown rocks at the safety patrol, and Ms. T. laughed.

Then my son and his brother and sister spotted me and they sprinted toward me and slammed into me in one big heap of elbows and knees and messy hair and lopsided smiles.  Behind them emerged the principal and she said nothing.  She walked directly at me and then she enveloped me in this hug that makes me wanna cry all over again because her huge arms swallowed my smaller body like a whale eating Jonah and she held onto me for a long time.  Just long enough, if ever is long enough when you’re a mother at her wit’s end.  And I said to her “It’s time,” and she understood.

Five minutes later, I walked aside my 8-year-old going on 28 and then I heard the noise of pebbles pelting steel.  Jim jumped up and down and then, I swear to you I what I am about to say is true, I saw Ben take a handful of gravel rocks and heave them at the gray SUV parked next to my black crossover.  I laughed and cried and friends, I screamed, I did, at this man-child of mine, and I picked him up and swatted him and he looked sad and then he smiled at me and said he was sorry.  And he kissed me and sucked his thumb and leaned in against me until I hugged him and told him I loved him.  It’s time.

It’s time.

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Petals Running Across the Street

Petals at Rest

The March wind blew and Ben squealed with delight. “Look, Jim, the petals are running!”  Ben’s voice carried at 120 decibels and I gripped Ben’s hand and while the breeze rustled my older son’s wavy, dark blond hair, my throat ached and I worried that my youngest child would scream about the petals for the rest of the morning.  So I held his little hand and watched the petals running and part of my brain laughed with Ben; and yet, I lectured him in a stentorian tone that he needed to “behave in class.”

“Dolly!”  Ben spotted the neighbors tan, nondescript new not-puppy and raced across the street after her.  My neighbor is my age but she manages to look like a grown up every time I see her and today was no different.  It’s hard to explain but when I am near her I realize I never really grew up.  I don’t know why.  She always knows what to say and when to say it and yet I stood beside her and another mom and wanted to cry, “Watch the petals run,” but Ben yelled it for me.  She nodded, cheekbones set in a kind but serious way and she took the leash for Dolly from her daughter and never lost a beat in the conversation she was having with another mom.

“BUS!!!!”  Screamed a sixth grade girl at the top of her lungs.  She does this every damn morning, and it makes sense when the bus arrives early and the safety patrol needs to sprint two blocks to catch the bus but on mornings like this when we’re all standing two feet away it makes no sense so I tightened my jaw and hugged first my daughter, and then my eldest son, and then I came to Ben.  He was turned the wrong way and hopped up and down and the wind kicked up again and he watched the petals running . . .

“Ben.  Ben.  Look at me, Ben!”  I leaned over and cupped his face between my adult-size small hands Tulip Tree in Bloomand his eyes followed the petals while my eyes followed the sun glinting off the massive tulip tree between my house and our neighbor’s colonial “Five, four and a door.”  The tulip tree’s leaves were blooming today, not yellow, but the lightest shade of green I’d ever seen and it looked and felt so damn gorgeous against the clear blue morning sky . . . I tore my eyes away and focused on my son.  “Ben!  Look at me, Ben.”  One eye shifted to me and the other eye followed the petals.  “I need you to pay attention hun.  And give me a hug.”  I gripped his shoulders and propelled him from the back of the line toward the bus and I waved at him but he didn’t wave back because he didn’t see me.  He only saw the running petals.

My neighbors spoke to one another in quiet, grown-up tones and one of them mentioned the brisk wind and all I wanted to do was watch the petals running.  I shoved my hands into the pocket of my old jeans that fit just right and the wind gusted and the petals careened in a circle dance in the middle of the street.  Then about Running Petals25 petals rolled end over end from the other side of the street toward my house and it could have been a team of cheerleaders performing cartwheels until the petals glided to a resting position beside the white, concrete curb.

I smiled.  The wind blew again but I did not feel cold.  Ten more soft pink-white petals danced up and down like horses prancing with delicate, shod feet in a dressage competition.  I don’t know how you make a horse dance like that but I know now that soft, pretty petals from a massive cherry tree will dance and run across the street all morning if the wind blows just right.

And about a mile away, a 5-year old named Ben is sitting in class, grinning with mad élan, as he imagines petals running across a dark grey, almost black asphalt street.

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One More Word? Yes, He is My Son

This afternoon, I walked away from the lunch table at my son’s school and a woman’s voice followed me.  “Is that your son?” I held the back of my hand up.  Was it rude of me?  I didn’t care.  Not one more word.  I had heard enough.  She had already tried to talk to me and I had ignored her, this Spanish “lunch lady” with the wide cheekbones and the light in her brown eyes.  I had already heard about it.  Ben, 5, had crawled under the table and kissed a girl in his class and yet another freaking note had come home from school that day.  But when I asked my child why he kissed this girl, he asked me a question.  “Mom, why did you give me a pink thermos?  All the kids made fun of me.”  I had stared at him, astonished, and felt relieved as he added, “And Rachel defended me.  She told them to stop making fun of me.”  After I took it all in, I smiled.  “So you kissed her?”

The notes and phone calls keep coming like junk mail or telemarketers who call at dinnertime.  Yesterday he got sent to the Vice Principal’s Office after he used his finger to shoot another kid.  The school has a no-tolerance policy for fake-finger guns.  And my son distracted all his classmates.  His table tattled on him because if he got them in trouble, they wouldn’t earn enough points to receive lollipops.  And he called a boy on his bus a “diaper head” on the way home from school.  He had a very, very bad day.  So my husband made him spread mulch as punishment, and I insisted that my dimpled mess of a son apologize to each and every soul he hurt first thing in the morning.  And I planned to show up unannounced for lunch.

And I did.  I entered the school and immediately I spotted a little guy with baggy jean shorts, skinny legs, massive calves and a rust-colored long-sleeved t-shirt.  He wore a vacant, frightened stare on his face.  I tried to breathe but his fear and pain were palpable and it hurt me to see this little boy because he is mine.

Then he saw me.  And hope entered his eyes.  He tried to smile and then looked behind him for his teacher.  He took his odd little hop, skip and dance-step and followed me with his eyes as I circled behind him to check into the office.  He did not scream “Mama” out loud but his entire body leaned toward me, into me, as if we were the opposing poles of a magnet.  I winked at my man-child and barked at his teacher, “Where will you be next?”  She told me that they had lunch in fourteen minutes.

A minute later, I caught up to Ben.  Standing in the elementary school hallway by the bathrooms, he appeared lost and so little, and so did his tiny classmates.  I felt their confusion and uncertainty and fear and I wanted to put their inchoate voices out of my mind.  A little boy spoke.  “Ben’s Mom?”

I nodded genially.  “Yes.”

“Ben is bad.”  Then another little boy exclaimed, “Ben is bad!”

A female creature heard that I was Ben’s mom and she said, “You’re Ben’s Mom?”  I tried to say I was and she cried, “Ben is bad!”

A darkness descended and my vision blurred.  I imagined my hand slamming through the glass window and blood dripped.  I closed my eyes and I counted to ten and I tried to think but I spoke without thinking.  I was running on reflex and running from anger and deep-seated rage at what happened to Little El.  She was “bad.”  She was very very bad.  Not my son.  “No, Ben is not bad.”

“Yes he is,” argued another little girl.  “He always gets in trouble.”

The glass is shattering and Little El screams.  Shhh.  It is okay sweetie.  I am holding you.  “Perhaps he does bad things sometimes, but he is punished, was—“

Another boy chimed in before I could finish explaining that actions have consequences in our home.  “Ben is always bad.  Are you Ben’s Mom?”  I shake my head in frustration and try to answer but shards of glass are stabbing me.

His teacher walks toward me and starts to correct one of the boys.  Before she can start in on me, I mumble, “Did he do anything wrong today?”

“No, not at all.  In fact, he apologized to the entire class this morning, first thing.”  His teacher is a veteran, and she does not put up with much, so when another kid interrupts and starts to tell Ben’s Mom that Ben is bad, she shakes her head at him, but my voice carries.  “Right, so at least 5 kids have already told me that Ben is bad.”  The teacher shakes her head and scoffs.  “We don’t use that word.  We say he is weak.”

“My SON IS NOT WEAK.”  I am not yelling but my body is torn.  It’s like my heart is bursting out of my chest.  Ben often tells me that he loves me so much his heart is bursting with love.  I feel that now for him.  My son raises his hand, and speaks with outrage, “Jason says my Mom is mean.”  I glare at Jason and then I recall that he is 5 and I try, very hard, to smile and I do, sort of smile.  It’s funny.  I smile so often, so easily, most days but now my heart hurts too much.  But I smile anyway.

His teacher finds me in the lunchroom and she grabs my hands and she promises me that she didn’t mean he was weak and I believe her, I think.  I tell her how hard we are trying, but all I want to do is buy Ben his pretzel.  And I want the glass to stop breaking.  And I buy our pretzels and we eat and I hug my man-child and he sits on my lap and the time passes.

That’s when it happens.  She asks me if Ben is my son, and I can’t take anymore, but one thing I am not is rude.  I stop.  I turn.  And I look her in the eyes and I respond, proud but grim, “Yes, yes he is my son.”

She smiles.  Her eyes are full of light.  “I love your son.  He is a lovely boy.”  My chest stops aching.  The glass stops breaking.  And she keeps talking to me, “He has such a sweet soul and the girls will love him.  A sweet boy—your boy.”  I hold his lunch box and for the first time in an hour, I feel warm.  “Thank you.  That means so much to me.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Yes, he is my son.”  I leave the lunchroom and I tell my son again how much I love him and I go home and wait for him to return to me.

© March 23, 2012 E. L. Farris

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Magic Pills, Lies and Children

If you could take a magic pill that would make it all better, would you?  Or if you could give your troubled, or autistic, or ADHD child a magic pill that would fix all her troubles, would you?  Would you wave a magic wand, pharmaceutical-based or otherwise, to smooth out the bumps in your child’s rocky ride?  Or do you wait, arms wide open, to catch him when he fails again?

Magic pills and fairy wands frighten me.  My mother built a matchbox house of lies out of my childhood, and it confused me so deeply, I became unable to perceive the difference between waking and dreaming.  I don’t know what I hated and feared more: the way she helped abuse me, or the lies she told me to pretend that I lived a in a perfect home worthy of a fairytale.  Mom’s mendacity confused the hell out of me.  She fucked with the metaphysical fabric of my perception and rendered my reason ineffectual.

It was her version of feeding me a magic pill.  It got so bad, so fractured, so intellectually paralyzing, that from the age 8 to the time I got out of there, I would sit outside and stare at the clouds and wonder if the world existed, and I was pretty fucking sure it did not.  Everything I saw with my own eyes was a mirage; it existed only in the dream of an already dead child.  And it saddened me to no end to think that I had died before I got to be alive.  I was a ghost; a dead girl; caught or stuck in the clutches of a hell I was not even allowed to name.  It pained me, this cold-hearted certainty that if I closed my eyes and fell asleep, that I would awaken to a darkness devoid of light, love and humanity.  Ironically, that was my reality: a home without light.  I wish I knew then what I know now, because I could have trusted my own observations and thought processes.

Which brings us to the here and the now.  I know the difference between right and wrong; I can discern real from imaginary.  Indubitably, I exist.  I am alive.  Of these things I am certain, and I say this soberly and seriously: as a parent, I do not want to offer my child a magic potion that will transform his existence into a kaleidoscopic fantasy.  I don’t want to feed him lies.  I do not want to alter his perceptions or protect her from seeing the real pain he is in when he bleeds.

And yet it hurts to watch her cry!  My daughter staggered off the bus today, as if carrying a 50-pound stone on her back.  She hugged me too long and too tight.  “What hurts you so?” I replied, as I hugged her too long and too tight in response.  Then she told me, “A boy, a patrol, sang this song to me on the bus, and he wouldn’t stop.  It went:

Girls go to Jupiter to get stupider

Boys go to college to get smarter.

I gritted my teeth.  “This is bullshit!”  I growled.  She nodded.  “It is bullshit.”  And I talked with her, and I gave her some advice, but I cannot fix it.  She must find her way through this one and I will watch and wait.

   A P.E. Teacher sent my youngest son into a dark hallway for a long timeout because he got over excited and stood, rather than sat, on his scooter.  How scared was he?  How lonely?  Why must this happen, these troubles and difficulties, day after day?  This sweet youngest child of mine suffers from ADHD.  His teachers complain about his behavior almost every day, and yet he tries, we try, so hard to help him behave better.  He’s a tiny, cute guy, not yet 6, and we’ve been advised to put him on Ritalin.  This is a magic drug, a potion, an automatic fix, and yet, and yet . . . I hesitate.  Magic pills and potions fix nothing, really, do they?

   Or do they?  The antidepressants I ingest let me live again; they fix all the busted circuitry in my brain and help me process feelings that for years were numbed out and buried.  The anti-seizure medication keeps me alive; without it, I suffer debilitating grand mal seizures that destroy my ability to write.  It would be self-destructive for me to stop taking either of these medications.

But what about my youngest son?  Or my daughter, who also suffers from ADHD?  Am I hurting them by not medicating them?  Or would I take away that very thing my mother took from me if I offered them Ritalin: an unvarnished, truthful glimpse of reality?  In altering their behavior, will I alter their reality as well?  Will the drugs change them?  Will Ritalin change their perception and experience of their world?  Is a medicated child with ADHD the same child?  And as parents, do we protect our offspring best by drugging them or is it better to let them navigate through rock-strewn fields and fall and bleed, only to rise again?

I do not know dear reader.  I do not know.  But I know I exist.  I know my children live.  And I know, oh yes I know, that my love for them is real.  Oh, how I know.  And tonight, this is enough.

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