I wrote this essay six years ago, before my daughter was diagnosed with autism and my google searches for “toddler anxiety” and “what am I doing wrong as a mother” came to an end (mostly). But as I prepare to launch my ten-year-old into a new school for fifth grade, I dug it out of the archives because it still gets to the heart of my contortions of fear and worry and guilt and pride for my children. I was also inspired by this heart-string-tugging story making the rounds today.
Pray with me, will you pilgrims? For every child who doesn’t fit in, and for every person who can show them a little bit of patience and kindness, and for every parent who is worrying that they’ve done everything wrong.
My four-year-old sailed off the deep end sometime around last Monday. Her teacher stopped me at the door after I dropped her off (late, again, we couldn’t find the only shoes that would do). I could already hear her crying upstairs—screaming, actually, and pounding her foot. “It’s the squirrel song,” the teacher said. Say no more, I thought; the squirrel song gets her every time.
“Have you had a chance to talk to her pediatrician about her anxiety?” she asked. She’s been fidgeting, rocking back and forth, zoning out, “picking fights,” dissolving into a puddle of tears at the slightest provocation. I assured her I’d call the pediatrician.
It’ll be months before we can get her in to see the specialist he recommends, so I did what modern mothers do: After the children went to sleep, I googled “anxiety in toddlers,” which led me to a page listing the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in children: a tendency toward perfectionism and stubbornness; disproportionate reactions of anger and guilt; a tendency to be disruptive; a hyper-active fantasy life; excessive religiosity.
Does this describe my daughter? Pretty much. But it’s an even more accurate description of me.
Reading this I remembered the first time I submitted a piece of writing about faith for a workshop. Someone wrote in the margins: this doesn’t sound like religion; it sounds like obsessive-compulsive disorder. I guess they’d been reading the DSM-IV.
I was a very religious child, even though my parents were not. I was also anxious, prone to bouts of melancholy, and had at least two panic attacks so intense they left my face numb. My fantasy life was so hyper-active that I convinced myself I was in a serious relationship with Martin Gore from Depeche Mode (he’s the little blonde one who favored leather skirts and dog collars). I was devastated when I found out he was married with children. I sat on my best friend’s bathroom floor and cried. I knew it was crazy, but it had all seemed so real. It was scary.
I still have the ability and the desire to get completely lost in a world of my own creation, for better or worse. I’m a writer.Most of the time I can convince myself that it doesn’t bother me that my children might be different or even weird. I think it’s cool that they’re being raised by writers, sharing meals and conversations with philosophers, poets, and artists every day. I was, perhaps, more okay with it when I thought her little brother would be the mellow, unflappable child—when I thought my daughter was a (much beloved) fluke. But now he seems every bit as frenetic and demanding as his sister, and I—prone to disproportionate reactions—am wondering if he’s headed down the same road, and if our problem is one of nature or nurture.
In short, I’m wondering if I’m making my kids crazy.
Because sometimes, when I pick up my daughter from her little pre-school, I stand at the fence and watch her on the playground. Usually she’s alone, riding aimlessly on a tricycle, or talking to the teachers on one of the benches while the other girls play house on the jungle gym and the boys destroy stuff in the sandbox. Any sort of pride I might take in my life choices is easily trumped by this image of my beloved child, alone and misunderstood.
Times like these, art be damned, I don’t want my kids to be weird. Or crazy. I want them to be happy.
My daughter befriended a German composer in residence at the artists’ community where I work, and he sent her, as a gift upon his departure, the book Frederick by Leo Lionni. In it, a family of mice is busy preparing for winter, gathering corn and nuts, wheat and straw. All except Frederick. All he does is daydream, stare at the colors in the meadow, study the light of the sun. The other mice gather food; he collects words.
When they’ve eaten through winter’s stores and exhausted their conversations, it’s Frederick who saves them from the cold and drear. Frederick, who studied the sun, can help them to imagine again its warmth. He’s an artist.
In dark moments, when practicality has run its course, it’s the artist who brings hope. What a wonderful gift. It was intended for her, but it came just in time for me.
My children may not grow up to be artists–I wouldn’t even wish it on them–but I hope that growing up among them will be more blessing than curse. Their parents may not always attend to the practical. We live hand to mouth. We run late. But we also study the sun and the meadows; we collect words.