Try Hard

T was sitting alone on the side of the tennis court, legs and arms pretzeled together to make himself as small as possible. I walked onto the court with C’s balance bike and passed Z. “He just said he failed,” Z muttered to me. “Seriously?” my heart stuttered. I walked on a few steps towards C. “He said that exact word?” I called back over my shoulder. “Yes.”

Z and I decided, oh ok….I decided that T wasn’t allowed to ride his balance bike anymore. He had to practice with the two wheeler or not ride at all. Trying new things is hard for him. He wants to get everything right the first time.

When he gets frustrated I remind him of the three things he needs to do in this life in order to make us proud. Three things. That is it. He must be kind. He must try hard. He must treat girls the same way he treats boys. He does those things and we will be proud of him no matter what.

I approached him. He turned his back. “I need some alone time.” “Ok. You can have some alone time. Then we need to talk.”

A few minutes later I led him off of the court. He chose to crawl under a towering pine, the lowest branches were high enough to form a private hideout as the boughs draped to the ground. “T. Look at me. You did not fail. Did you try?” He looked everywhere but at me. “Yes,” he sighed in exasperation. “Listen, what will make your father and I proud? What three things?” He folded his arms and looked away and I repeated the three items. “You did it. You tried. So you didn’t ride the bike on your own. So what? You aren’t going to magically do it. Everything takes practice. It is because you tried that you didn’t fail.” He started to roll his eyes and caught himself. “Before we go home you have to try one more time. You can’t leave here thinking you failed. Because the only way to fail is to not try.” He stared at me. “I’ll tell you what. You try again and I’ll give you a marshmallow before lunch.” He perked up. “How about five marshmallows? Because I’m five.” “How about one marshmallow….and five mini M&Ms.” “Yes.”

He did try. He didn’t learn to ride a two wheeler today, but he tried. And Z and I were proud of him.

He’s off to kindergarten tomorrow, which colored the whole bike conversation.

He’s off to kindergarten and I will not be there to talk to him in the shade of a grand pine tree. I will not be able to encourage him and support him in the moments when he feels like he has failed. Or when he is scared. Or when he is hurt. Tomorrow is one of the many small separations that will continue until he is his own man. That trajectory is right, it is what we all want for our children. But the selfish part of me is mourning. It doesn’t want to let him go. Or expose him to the cruelty of the world.

I’ve been wallowing today. Head bent, I wept in the car before pulling myself together to head into Wegman’s. This afternoon my heaving sobs drew Z to the kitchen as I swept the floor. In a sabotaging act of indulgence I’ve been listening to This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush. Hell, I’ve even been watching the damn scene in She’s Having a Baby where it is used.

He needs to grow up. I need to grow up. My heart is breaking.

This evening we talked about failing again. I changed tactics. “It’s ok to fail, you know.” I told him after he brushed his teeth before bed. “I fail all the time.” “Really?” he asked doubtfully. “You fail?” I laughed. And appreciated his confidence in me. “Oh baby, I fail every day. I fail many times every day.” “How?” “Well, every time I get mad at you and yell. Daddy fails too, when he gets mad and yells.” He looked thoughtful. “You know what? Nothing new is created without failure. People fail and fail until they get it right. Nothing good happens without putting yourself out there and failing.”

So I was giving him the opposite message that I did in the morning. Well, I failed during that conversation and was trying to get it right.

“A couple of years ago we got Daddy’s car. Do you know it is different from Mommy’s car and I didn’t know how to drive it? I had to learn. And I failed and I failed. Do you know how long it took me to learn?” “No.” “More than a year! Can you believe it?” “How is it different?”

Ok. Maybe he didn’t get the message tonight. But Z and I will continue to have the conversation with him.

Tomorrow is a day T and I let go of each other a little. It is also a day of excitement and adventure. I am proud of my small man. He is trying to figure out his place in this tricky world. I am trying to figure out how to be there to catch him when he stumbles while also giving him room to grow.

I just pray I make it back to the car after dropping him off before my tears come.

bike learning

His first try on two wheels.

k and t parking lot

My boy and me.

crazy t

He is going to rock kindergarten. In that exact outfit. Just realized that is what I laid out for him…

Moments of Engagement

When I find out a couple is splitting up I panic. Being married is like being in a club. Marriage can be awesome, but it is also constant work and sometimes it really sucks. When someone else’s marriage ends, even if that person is a stranger or a celebrity it is frightening. If that person can’t make it, how will Z and I? Marriage is the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done. But there is strength in numbers. Because the knowledge that it could suddenly go south looms large.

When someone loses their battle with mental illness it feels the same way. When a talented, beloved, financially secure, success loses his battle with mental illness it is debilitating. A week and a half later and he is still in my thoughts for much of the day.The pain that his wife and children and close friends are in is so overwhelming it nauseates me. I mourn him. He was a  stranger, but I also welcomed into my home regularly through the television. He never knew me. I mistakenly thought I knew him.

I didn’t know him, but I know his disease intimately. I understand the hopelessness that led to his decision. The fog so dense it physically weighs you down, the agony of moving through another day, the feeling of utter uselessness, knowing with clarity that your loved ones would be infinitely better off without you as a weight around their neck.

The chance for another episode of severe depression is greater for me compared to the general population because of my history. I look at my sons, my reasons for working so hard to be well, and I know if I became depressed again there wouldn’t be a damn thing I could do to prevent it. Manage it, yes. I am lucky enough to have a deep support system. But I cannot control my mental illness. I cannot will it away with sheer force or moxie or by pulling myself up by those bootstraps. More than 20 years with an anxiety disorder has taught me that much.

I am not depressed right now, but this news has settled over me like a heavy blanket, making it harder to take a deep breath, or engage in the word that feels fuzzy and just out of my reach. My constant companion, my anxiety has been more present. I worry. I worry about him, about where he is now, about if our souls go on, about what, if anything, comes after life. I worry about me, about my friends who suffer from mental illness, about my family who puts up with so much to help guide me through this life, about my still innocent sons who don’t understand mental illness, who shouldn’t have to understand it for a long time, but who will become very familiar with because of me. I feel guilt for the burden I am.

There have been moments of engagement over the last week and a half. I am holding on tightly to them. They aren’t always what I expect will snap me out of the darkness I feel.

Saturday morning I was dressing when C started screaming and crying downstairs. I knew he was probably ok, but the small part of me that imagined blood and destruction won out. I pelted down the stairs naked from the waist down and as I ran past the front door with the windows along its side I felt pretty damn sure no one would be ringing the bell at 10:30 on a Saturday morning. C was fine. Pissed at his brother, but fine. As I walked away from the boys the doorbell rang. The utter absurdity of the situation shook me out of my stupor.

The adrenaline rush of being stung by a bee just as I was finishing a particularly good run strangely made me feel joy.

The panic surrounding C when he pooped in his underwear while we were at friends’ for a cook out frustrated the hell out of me, but engaged me fully.

Reading the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book to T and watching his delight as he used his imagination to see what I was reading filled me with pure happiness.

My sweet, wonderful, hard working, speech delayed C looked up at me this morning as he said, “You go run?” His talking is enough to help me shake off the cloud of unease, but his recognition that running is part of who I am (after a life on non-exercise) made me proud.

So I hold on to those moments. I will mourn an extraordinary life lost as long as I need to. My lack of faith in religion will not stop me from hypocritically praying that the depression will never reoccur in my life. I get up every morning for my boys. I dress them and feed them and sometime even manage to take them to the zoo. They need me. And they motivate me to fight against the anxiety and the threat of depression. By needing me they have given me a priceless gift. The reason to live my life instead of hiding from it.

leonard men beach 2012

These three guys. I want to be my best for each one of them.

ice cream mess

A moment of delight from several weeks ago. He even managed to get ice cream in his eye. What a nut.

t jumps off diving board

One of the best moments of our vacation. It was so hard for my guy, who is anxious himself, to screw up the courage to jump.

Thank You, Mr. Rome

When I was in high school a million years ago I was a drama kid. By which I mean I was a huge dork. But our theater program was so incredible that I didn’t give a single fuck that the popular kids made fun of me and my friends. I really do not mean to be unkind, but they seemed boring to me. And often really mean. I’m sorry popular kids at Robinson in the early 90s, but I watched you be pretty awful to the others and it grossed me out.

The theater dorks, or the drama fags as we were so charmingly called, were not perfect. We did not escape petty behavior or meanness or heartbreak. I think back to some of the hurtful and stupid shit I did back then and I squirm with regret. But mostly we watched out for each other. We loved each other and tried to help each other through the mess of high school and growing up.

Our fearless leader was Mr. Rome.

We spent a crazy amount of time with Mr. Rome. He taught a bunch of misfits everything about the theater. He arranged an annual series of field trips to Arena Stage in DC. We saw four shows a year for $10 each. What we really saw was what we were trying to do in high school happening in real life.

Mr. Rome wasn’t without fault, no teacher is. He had favorites, kids he didn’t get along with so well. But overall I think he did an overwhelming amount of good. He taught us discipline. He was there for us when we were struggling personally. He had vision and put on terrific shows. He made us feel like we were part of something. He took a ragtag group and gave up purpose. He helped us create. We made magic. We made lifelong friends. We worked hard. We cared. A group of snot nosed teenagers cared deeply.

Some of us have pursued careers in theater. Most of us haven’t. But what he taught us was so much more than drama. We learned teamwork. We made time for play while we worked our asses off. We learned how to be small cogs in something much bigger than ourselves.

A lot of us actually lettered in drama through ITS membership. Seriously. I still have mine. Never had the balls to get a letterman jacket, but the letter itself cracked me up and made me proud at the same time.

Tomorrow night there is a retirement party for Mr. Rome at our old school. It just so happens that my family is headed home to Syracuse tomorrow. So Z is going to drop me off along I81 in Virginia and our friend K will pick me up. K and I will head up to Robinson to attend the party.

Our friend K. The guy I met when I was a 14 year old freshman. He and I were pretty good friends in high school. He was 2 years older and cool (well, cool for drama) but he didn’t know it. He was talented and eccentric in a very authentic way. Hell, he is still eccentric in a very authentic way today. He and a guy named Zeke were college freshman together at North Carolina School of the Arts. After graduation they were struggling set designers and roommates in Brooklyn. And on June 14th, 1998 I met K’s roommate. Married him September 3rd, 2000. K was the best man. He is still our best man.

So tomorrow K and I will go thank Mr. Rome for everything he did for us. I can’t speak for what K will say. Hell, I don’t even know if Mr. Rome will remember me (although I like to think I am the only ITS president he worked with who actually bankrupted our little chapter which surely made a lasting impression). But even if he has no idea who I am I will thank him. For teaching me teamwork and hard work and setting crazy goals and meeting them. For helping me to meet a friend so close he is my family more than 20 years later. For being a big part of the reason I was lucky enough to love high school. For touch the lives of so many kids just like me.

Happy retirement, Mr. Rome. Mazel tov.

Karen and Mr. Rome

1994. Fall of my senior year. Working on Stage Door. Pretty sure I was assistant director on this one.

Dining Out

Last night my parents took us out to a very nice restaurant for dinner. Going out to a fast food joint with the boys makes me anxious. So as much as I was looking forward to a really delicious meal, I was a wee bit worried (by which I mean my stomach was clenched in fear) about the behavior of the two young men in my life.

Sometimes those boys surprise me. Ok, so Z took C for a quick walk outside before the meal came, and Z and I tag teamed the two mid-meal trips to the bathroom. But other than that it was smooth sailing. Star Wars stickers worked their magic yet again.

Near the end of the meal a friend of my parent’s walked by the table. She has young grandchildren, so she bent down to chat with T. He is a bit of a rambler when he gets going and dude was on a tear. “Do you know what? Well, tomorrow is going to be me and Charlie’s birthday. But, but, but…tomorrow isn’t really me and Charlie’s birthday. But we get our birthday with Grandma and Grandpa tomorrow. And we are, um, we are, uhhh, we are going to have presents. And a cake. I want a….Star Wars Angry Bird cake. And we are getting presents! I want Star Wars legos. I want a Chewbacca figure. I saw it at the Lego store. The Chewbacca figure, well, it has a slot, not a put on head. Like the Gamorrean guard. They are the only two with a slot, not a put on head. But we already have the Gamorrean guard. And I want a big Star Wars Angry Birds play set. A big one.”

This lovely woman was a total sport. She just let him talk and murmured little hmmms and yeses at all the right places.

T paused for a second, took a deep breath, and looked her square in the face.

“I just farted.”

He is totally my child.

T in the pool

Loving the pool with Daddy. Photo by Ellie Leonardsmith Photography.

popsicle love at floyd fest

T and Z went to Floyd Fest. First music festival for T.

playing at Floyd fest

He had a really good time.

IUD Inside

Last month’s Hobby Lobby ruling by the Supreme Court filled me with such blinding rage that I have been unable to write about it (or even think about it) in a reasonable manner. And railing at the universe with vitriol and bitterness is useless. It turns into preaching to the choir. If any of us hope to effect change that is one lousy way to do it.

So let me get this off my chest and I’ll be able to move on.

Ugh, I can’t do it. I can’t curse out the members of SCOTUS who formed the majority of the ruling or Hobby Lobby in writing. It would be irresponsible because it would basically invalidate everything else I say.

But I AM DOING IT IN MY MIND.

Okey doke. I do feel a tiny bit better. You know what else has made me feel better? Buying this T-shirt.

Why am I so upset? Obviously, an employer rather than a medical professional making health care decisions that only affect women is a big problem for me. But leaving that for a moment, what scares the living shit out of me is how this court values the rights of the few over the many. Business owners are not a majority in our country. They tend to be more powerful and wealthy than the general population. And in this ruling their wants were given more weight.

The ruling is un-American.

Imagine for a moment that Christian business owners were not the ones who brought the law suit, rather a group of Muslim business owners who disliked birth control being a component of the company healthcare plan. Do you believe for a second the ruling would have been the same?

Certain business owners do not want to pay for birth control, either all of it or some of it. But you know what? They aren’t paying for it at all. Health care is not some benevolent gift granted to workers by a company. It is compensation for services rendered. The idea that a company can dictate how any part of a compensation package is spent, especially based on religious ideology, is mind boggling. Could a closely held company run by a devout Jew ban employees from purchasing pork with money they earned in his or her employ? Could LBGT community members be denied jobs based on sexual orientation?

Those examples seem extreme, but no more extreme than the ruling handed down on June 30th. My shock that day was complete. I did not believe for a moment that the ruling could possible go the way that it did.

Fifty years from now when this court is considered by historians the majority opinion will be judged harshly.

Would you like to know why I choose an IUD as birth control?

Because my husband and I enjoy having sex and we cannot afford another baby. Because I have been on hormonal birth control to manage severe menstrual cramps since before I was sexually active. Because I had a D&C five days postpartum after delivering our first son to stem the horrifying bleeding caused by a piece of left behind placenta and I hemorrhaged six hours after the birth of our second son and menstrual bleeding now scares the hell out of me and exacerbates my anxiety disorder. The tiniest blood clot makes me seize up with terror. What does that have to do with anything? A side effect of the Mirena IUD is a much lighter flow. My reasons are complex and simple, much like the choices any woman makes about her reproductive health and life.

To have that choice compromised by an employer is unconscionable. The women who work for Hobby Lobby are hourly and low wage employees. They cannot just get another job. Low wage retail is a shitty existence. They would get out if they could. The women with the least power are the ones getting screwed. Un-American. Shameful. Frightening.

So what does an outraged feminist do? This one makes a t-shirt. And wears it in pubic with pride. My tiny action might not make any difference at all. I usually wouldn’t advertise my private choices on my t-shirt. But this one matters. I am not ashamed of my IUD. I’m grateful for it. And I’m pissed that I need to be grateful to my husband’s employer for not objecting to it.

photo (45)

Bam. The IUD is right in there doing its thing. Hope the folks I passed by at Target and at the Children’s Science Museum yesterday enjoyed it as much as I do.

 

How To Use Photoshop

Last weekend we had a mini reunion with Z’s side of the family. One of Z’s sisters is a professional photographer so a photo shoot is always part of our gatherings.

Before we had kids I really dreaded the photo shoots. My anxiety disorder comes with a side of self loathing that is so obsessive it is its own type of narcissism. I am sure everyone who sees me is overwhelmed with pity and disgust. As I’ve learned to manage the disorder I’ve come to the realization that most people are not wasting their time thinking about me at all. Score one for therapy.

Anxiety disorder aside, I don’t think my discomfort is unusual when it comes to having my photo taken. For 37 years I’ve been bombarded with images of female beauty heavy with subtext that both says I must strive to achieve perfection and implies that I never will. For 37 or 27 or 17 or 57 years you have received the same message. If you have enough self confidence to ignore popular culture and advertising, I admire you. I also think you are very much in the minority.

Since I started running a year ago I’ve been Instagraming post-run selfies using no filter. I’m proud of my running, I feel strong and more comfortable in my body. I also think we don’t see enough pictures of real women. Women who are careening towards middle age, who have forehead wrinkles and freckles that are fast becoming age spots, who are sweaty and red faced after working hard, who are not wearing a lick of makeup. So I post those pictures myself. I post pictures of the woman my boys see every day to combat the images of perfect women who do not exist.

sweaty run

I try to be satisfied with who I am. I try to not focus on who I’m not. Do I succeed? Well, not very often. But I try, and that is what matters.

And having my boys has changed everything. I want pictures of our family. I’m grateful that my sister-in-law is such a talent and that she shares her gift so generously. Her nature shots are lovely, but I prefer her work with people. I don’t know much about photography, but it stuns me how she can photograph humans with such compassion. She brings out the best in her subjects. Joy and humor and beauty radiate from her shots.

She edits her work like any photographer who shoots digitally. What she doesn’t do is use photoshop to achieve perfection. As an avid mommy blog reader, I’ve seen a lot of tutorials on how to photograph your kids over the years. So many of them are primers on how to airbrush the hell out of your children. How to remove the baby acne or uneven skin tone or even scrapes and bruises.

Why do we do this to our kids? Why do we show them that they aren’t good enough from the day that they are born? Why do we need to fix them rather than enjoy who they are? Perfection is not only impossible to achieve, it is flat out boring.

Looking at photoshopped images of models is bad enough for our collective self esteem. What will photoshopping our kids to look like a J Crew kids catalogue lead to?

That photo shoot this weekend? My sister-in-law was able to execute an idea she’d seen online that would have been impossible without the magic of photo manipulation. But she fooled around with a cardboard box, rather than the faces of the kids inside that box. And the picture captures exactly who the five cousins in our family are. She created a picture our family will always love.

boxed up cousins

Photoshop used for good rather than evil.

Photo by Ellie Leonardsmith Photography.

Navigating Early Intervention

“Do you know how lucky we are?” Z asked me as we drove toward the school where we would receive the results from C’s Early Intervention Evaluation. “Seven highly trained adults. Seven. Gave him their full attention for two and a half hours this morning.”

“I know. I know you are right. I know.”

“We are so lucky, so privileged to have access to this kind of help for him.”

“Yes. We are.”

I had told him I was sick to my stomach over getting the results of the evaluation. We spent the morning sitting behind a two way mirror observing his test while answering hundreds of questions about him.

We watched the meltdown he had an hour into the test. They redirected him and got him back on track. We watched as he was able to focus. We watched him eat his snack and get back to testing and we watched him fade until he was asked if he was all done. “All done.” he replied firmly.

Midway through the process one of the evaluators came into the observation room and mentioned Sensory Issues and I froze as dread crept up my spine. After she left I found myself standing and delivering a wild and nonsensical monologue to another woman in the room that touched on over-diagnosis and over-medication of ADHD (not even the reason we were there) and how if you look at any kid long enough you start to see something wrong with them.

Before the outburst I’d told myself I’d stay cool. We were doing what was best for C and that is what mattered. This whole thing was not a value judgment on him or on our parenting.

And yet, suddenly I was the parent who did not want to hear it.

Looking back on the last year I realized I never wanted to hear it. Every time I explained to someone that C received speech therapy I would casually explain that he had terrible ear infections and health problems when his speech should have been developing. I’d slip in that he tested normal in all other areas. Except I’m realizing now I wasn’t casual at all. I’m sure that I seemed oblivious and petty and desperate.

The emotions aren’t new. The fear, guilt, defensiveness, and worry. How could I not be able to teach my kid to meet developmental milestones? What is wrong with my parenting? Is this my fault? And there is a stigma for services. How the hell do I get over my own embarrassment so I can teach C he has nothing to be ashamed of?

—————————————–

In New York the Early Intervention provider switches from the state for two year olds to the local school system for three year olds. So another set of standardized tests are performed. During the week leading up to the test he was observed in his preschool classroom. Wednesday a Professor from SU and two of her graduate students spent an hour and a half in our home watching C play and asking me tons of questions. Thursday he had a three hour block, just him and the testers. He didn’t make it to three hours. After two and a half little man was so exhausted he napped for nearly three hours in the afternoon.

This process is important. But man, it is overwhelming both for him and for Z and me. Watching your not-quite-three year old be put through a multi-hour standardized test sucks even if there are some play breaks. By the end it just felt unfair and cruel.

—————————————–

Z and I sat at the head of a conference table, surrounded by the seven professionals who tested our boy and listened to the results. Most of which were in the normal range. But there were new concerns about coping when he becomes frustrated. The only area he scored below normal was the emotional piece, the area he’d had the highest score in the fall.

In the past year his speech has exploded. We were shocked to find he scored average and slightly above average in the two speech components. His clarity is poor enough that we think the school system will grant continued service and we hope they do. He is not at the same level with his peers concerning speech no matter what the tests say. A year later we have learned Early Intervention works. It works. His therapist has been amazing with him. His improvement is due to many factors, but she is one of the most significant.

During the meeting it was clear I was struggling. When his low emotional score was disclosed I couldn’t help myself, I asked what I’d done wrong. How could he have improved so much in one section while falling behind in another?

One of the kind evaluators pointed out that these areas of development do not progress in a straight line. There are fits and starts.

Hopefully C will continue the speech therapy. It is up to us to decide what to do about the other piece. Do we want to see how he does for a year without extra services? Do we want to just deal with this now?

Z and I are on the same page. We want what is best for our beautiful and wonderful and loving boy. I was sure he’d qualify for speech and nothing else. I know my kid. I know him.

It is awful to spend a morning learning that your child, your heart, your love, hell — your job is struggling in an area and you were completely oblivious. The doubt has crept in, if I didn’t know this about him what else am I missing? Does he deserve better than me? Is this the ultimate stay at home mom job evaluation and did I just fail?

Z was right when we drove to the meeting. We are so lucky. C is so lucky. Yes, these services are free. But the process is involved. We have the resources to send our boys to a preschool that made us aware of Early Intervention and helped guide us through it. How many parents out there don’t have the resources or time or knowledge to discover that this is an option? How many parents are so busy working to provide a home and enough food for their child that they don’t know there is an issue with the kid until he or she reaches kindergarten? How to we help get these resources into the hands of families that need them every bit as much as we do?

I don’t know. But I do know that I need to be grateful. I must stop wallowing about how hard this is for me. It is a waste of time to obsess over my failings as a mother. C needs help. Z and I will make sure that he gets it.

beautiful c

This boy. He’s going to be more than fine. Photo by Ellie Leonardsmith.