Emotions in Teens: “We have observed instances of self-harm”

“This is the school psychologist at your daughter’s school”, the voice mail said.  It went on: “I wanted to bring to your attention that your daughter’s coach and the athletic director has brought it to my attention that they observed instances of self-harm with your daughter.”

“Self-harm”, self-harm.  It rhymed with “arm” and I could visually see my daughter’s forearm, that I had noticed weeks ago, slashed with cut marks from the wrist all the way up to the elbow crease.

Yes, we had observed the same, and we had discussed it with her a few weeks back.  Such a tough subject to even raise, but so obviously important to address.  It’s not something you ignore; it’s not something you hope will just go away.  We had noticed it, as well as other clues and cues, which she admitted to leaving behind for us to see: bloodied tissues stuffed into a bag on her windowsill, a small box containing a few blades, and then – in the same bag – a bottle of ibuprofen.

Recently, I caught up with an old colleague, a widower and single dad to 3 teenage girls.  When I asked how the girls were, his second update was: “by now, they’ve all cut themselves.  Their teachers and coaches say they see it all the time in girls their ages.  They even did it before their mom passed.”
He seemed nonchalant about it, very matter-of-fact.  Really?  All the girls engage in this behavior?  It is more the norm than the anomaly?

Whether common or uncommon, it is serious.  My partner and I tried to talk to our daughter about this behavior immediately.  But, what do we ask?  “Dear, what’s wrong?”  And, what do we say?  “You know we are always here for you.”  And also: “Why?”

Our girl had a hard time putting words to her feelings.  There were more tears than complete sentences.  She seemed dark and a bit confused.  She seemed flustered and upset.  She seemed upset that we couldn’t easily translate her feelings into words for her.  We let her know we wanted to help: help her identify her feelings, help her untangle the feelings, help her pinpoint “what’s wrong” and maybe even help her find ways to maybe even fix what felt “wrong”.  “Could we help you do that?”  She agreed.  Yes, she wanted to feel better.  Yes, she wanted to lift this heavy load.  Yes, she wanted the dark to become light.

We offered to start by asking her doctor for resources.  She had her annual physical coming up, and she would have the chance to have one-on-one time with her doctor.  To be sure, pediatricians to teenagers would have suggestions for resources for young people who grapple with these feelings.  She sounded open to broaching the topic with her doctor.
She also had a school counselor/psychologist she could talk to.  We are lucky to be one of the few schools in our district with a full-time school psychologist on campus.  Being on the more shy side, we weren’t sure whether she would initiate reaching out to the school counselor/psychologist.  Should we insist that she did?

It turns out that she didn’t have to.  Soon after, this instance, our daughter brought home paperwork for us to sign, authorizing her to miss limited class time, as necessary, for her to meet the school psychologist.  Part of ones treatment is owning it for oneself.  And, so, in addition to her individual therapy, we also enlisted in family therapy at a local public agency offering services for up to 3 months on a sliding scale basis.  We had found that very few private practices were accepting new clients, and none within our insurance network could accommodate us, so we were so grateful for this agency that was suggested to us by the school.  Our time at family therapy elevated new ways to communicate and hear one another’s concerns, and we also came up with strategies to better connect moving forward.  It built great foundation for us as we worked our way through the teen years, together.

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I wrote all of the above almost four years ago, to the day, when our first daughter was a freshman in high school.  We did not see it as a blessing then, but we do now.  I am ever grateful for the incident, that gave us time to pause, reflect, and work together.  As I re-read and finally post this, our second-born is now a freshman in high school.  Although these two are very different individuals, there are certain points in our life cycles that are common.  This reflection point seems to be one of them.  I have a feeling I’ll have more to share on this before too long.  

Thank you for reading.

It’s about the moments, not the milestones

I think about missing milestones, not being “there” for those moments. This week, my boy went skiing for the first time without us (he nailed it, of course; he’s a natural). Today, my biggest girl is touring a possible college campus for next year with her dad.  I had to stay back to shuffle the others to their activities, but – oh! – how I wish I was there.  In June, I have to miss my younger girls promotion ceremony, which commemorates her transition from 8th grade to high school (it’s a work thing; my heart is aching because I have to miss. I hate it.).

I come back to a feeling – a pretty strong bond – I share with the kids. At least: I believe we have that bond. Even though I miss things (i.e. events), my eldest comes home excitedly and says “oh my goodness I have so many things to show/tell you.” My second girl sends photos to me from when she is hanging with friends. My Big Boy, while I’m nursing the Li’l Boy to sleep in the bed underneath, will peer over the bunk bed rail and say “mama, can we talk?” And he’ll proceed to tell me about his dream from the other night or thoughts from the day.

So, I guess we’re still tight. Even though I miss events. We still have our moments.

Dear Portland: Where do we go now?

It has been so, so hard to process last week’s events in the City of Roses.  There are some who have defended the white supremacist Jeremy Joseph Christian.  We have gathered to memorialize the two men that were slain; we consider them heroes.  One of the victim’s last words were: “Please tell everyone on this train that I love them.”  And, the surviving victim encourages us to focus our attention on the teen women who were the subjects of the attack: “We need to remember that this is about those little girls.”

Racism and hate is nothing new to Portland.  It now the time that we will acknowledge this history?  How are we to move on and grow closer after this?  Are we a community divided, whether overtly or subtly?  Are we less progressive than we thought?

In the name of our children: how do we work to build networks of compassion and inclusion?  How do we discuss these current events with our youngest community members?  How do we insist, in the name of the generations that will be after us, that we disable networks of hate and violence?  How do we cross boundaries to strengthen the deepest threads of our community’s fabric and how do we dismantle the institutional barriers that oppress us?

For me, I found some grounding in this statement from a Portland-based community organization: the road is long and journey will be difficult; we must remain steadfast in our commitment for progress and equity.

Mother’s Day Reflections – 2017

Our traditions for Mother’s Day continue: breakfast in bed followed by a family hike.  Toward the end of our hike yesterday afternoon, I realized that I was starting to feel antsy, the Sunday blues starting to set in: Do we have enough groceries for the week? Do we have clean clothes? What are the schedule commitments and any special arrangements that need to be made? The list goes on.  One friend commented on Saturday that she had done all the grocery shopping and laundry already so she didn’t need to worry on Sunday.

Why can’t we have a Mother’s Day on a Saturday?  I feel like I could relax a bit more if I didn’t have to start stressing about the next week on that holiday.  I think 25% of my day on Mother’s Day is eroded by those Sunday worries that start to eat into my Sunday afternoon.

I’m missing the point?  Should I put the responsibility of the chores onto my kids and partner on Mother’s Day Sundays and let myself go worry-free?  Well: been there, done that.  I’ve done it a few different ways: refuse chores for the few days before and after Mother’s Day to see if they will get done for me, how and when I like them done.  This works fine: the kids fold laundry and clean the sink, and it is what it is.  But, let’s face it: no one does it quite like Mom.   Also: I mind it so much less if I have the time to get the chores done and if I get oodles of love for it!

Last night, in the last moments of Mother’s Day 2017, I did the dishes and scrubbed the sink.  My heart felt light.  I am happy doing the things that I do for my family, it’s what I do.  I can’t help it.  And, to me, the contribution they bring to my day is acknowledgement and full appreciation for all it is that I do.  Says one of my kids: “thank you so much for making us food, doing our laundry, cleaning our bathrooms and more.”  (not that I do it ALL, mind you.  These kids DO have chores!) and says another “There’s so much that you do for our family that goes unnoticed…. ” and “P.S. We didn’t pick out a gift for you, but if you want me to do a really gross chore, I’ll do it!”

In the meantime, I think I might just switch our family’s celebration to a Mama’s Day Eve to offset a bit of that Sunday evening stress that usually accompanies the event!

“He has trouble with transitions”

When I rang the doorbell at my son's friend's house, I immediately heard his screeching from the other side of the door.  The 2-hour playdate was culminating in fits of "I don't want to go!" and "Can't I just borrow this toy?", clutching at a light saber.  Apologetically, I said to the friend's mom: "He has trouble with transitions."

Again it happens when this same friend came to our house for a playdate.  The mom rang our doorbell, and my boy's response was identical: "No, I want him to stay forever!" and "I want to go home with him."

I apologized through the squirming and I talked through the screaming: "Thank you for coming over!"  The other mom understood.  And, most other parents do.  My child is not the only one who has "trouble with transitions".  Mostly, it's leaving friends' homes or having to watch a friend leave.  Often times, to ease the transition, there is some compromise bribe: "We have to leave now, but you can have extra lights-on time in bed tonight" or "He has to leave now, but you can have a little treat."  Transitions like leaving school are never very bad, although drop-offs tend to be clingy and sensitive.

Does your child have "trouble with transitions" and what does that mean for you?  What are the ways you deal with the transitions?  I don't feel wonderful about offering the "compromises" but maybe you have other great ideas for me?

Reorganizing your dreams through a divorce

I've been quiet here, because for the past six months I've been in the throes of divorce. I think I knew even in the months leading up to the decision what I would eventually do, so for a long time beforehand I was afraid to say anything because everyone who knows me knows I wear my heart on my sleeve and everything I write.

There has been a lot of hard in this process, and it's far from done. But I think one of the worst parts has been to reorganize my dreams; for myself, for my family unit, for my boys. I've done such expansive and heedless things as write a piece on how I don't plan for divorce with my finances (I still stand behind that post); I've written extensively about what some people call "radical domesticity" and been one of the subjects of a book about it. I know I've said a dozen or a thousand times that I've chosen in the past several years to let my husband take the primary breadwinner role — his work was intense, too, serving in the Army in Kuwait for three years — and lead a life that's low on luxuries so I could spend time with the kids, at home, with my writing. (Really, the ultimate luxury.) I've loved how much I could shape the environment for my kids, especially my oldest, who I've unschooled for much of the past three years to help find him a place he can truly belong.

Now I have to find a way to navigate the life I want with a distinctly different set of resources.

Continue reading “Reorganizing your dreams through a divorce”

“Mama, you never keep promises”

"Mama, you never keep promises," she says.

You know what hurts most about being a working-poor single mama of three remarkable girls who deserve to receive everything life has to offer? It's not necessarily the political or policy issues that work against me. Or even the need to defend myself while simultaneously doubting myself. It's those words.

I do keep the promise of good food, a comfy bed, a trip to the doctor when they need it. But those are non-negotiable items in the contract of motherhood: I meet their basic needs no matter what it takes. And as oft I can I give them an ice cream cone, a day at the beach, a guinea pig, even. Those are childhood entitlements, so I consider them basic needs, as well, though they have no idea how challenging it is to provide them.

But the day at an amusement park, the weekend camping, the lessons in whatever interests them or the big gift they really really want, well, those are un-kept promises, it's true. Actually, I don't promise them, I typically tell them "Someday I will make this happen for you when I can." So they want them. From me. Because I'm mama. This is the part I think is hard to understand for anyone else outside this fishbowl. It means that even the most simple things for me are left undone – a yoga class, an hour walk, a doctor visit – because they all have a concrete cost that's just too hard to justify. To me they are not fixed expenses or basic needs. Yes, I would love to focus on my art, take care of my body, take care of my heart.  Of course that makes sense to me.  But in the balancing sheet of the life and sacrifice of single motherhood, it just doesn't make sense to move dollars into your children's 'expense' column, even though they go into your 'income' column.  It just doesn't feel right.

I'm left with little emotional bandwidth to do much else as my own dreams quickly diminish in the rear-view mirror on our journey.  I make compromises to my heart that anyone looking inside might find unimaginable, but they don't see the internal accounting in my head. Yet even still, I'm left with those words, so innocently spoken as mere fact from her perspective.  I'm meeting the basics, yes, yet there's still more because you teach your kids to dream, and childhood is magic; they deserve *that* childhood entitlement even more than anything else.  Yet, it's also true too that I have been home teaching my youngest girl (and one more though he recently moved away) for months now because I just couldn't fathom sacrificing the gift of time and focus that my prior professional life stole from me with my first two.  And she just sat down and read her first book to me, at age 4, with a look on her face of having conquered the tallest mountain and an air of confidence that displayed to me *of course* she conquered the tallest mountain.  I gave her hope and knowledge.

That's how it balances out and I pray that someday all three of my girls will have the graceful gift of perspective to see this.  Someday, with any luck, my girls will know this struggle to be present for them right now is the greatest gift of all.  It sure is hard when you're raising your kids alone.  I want to be someone who keeps promises.

When we fight: Kids say the darndest things

This morning, my boy woke up on the wrong side of the bed.  He didn't want breakfast, he didn't want to get dressed, he didn't want to go to school.  He was sour, through and through.  He was wearing on his dad's patience with every "no" and refusal.  Negativity rose further to physical manifestations.  Our boy threw a dish rag at his dad.  And, to climax: "I don't want you to be my dad anymore!"

I wanted to give our boy & his dad some time to cool off.  I said to our boy, "That isn't loving or kind," which is sometimes my auto-response to negative comments or behavior.  

Kids say the darndest things, even things like "I hate you, Mama".  Many times, these statements are made in the heat of a moment; they are things they might not really mean.

Before long, and before we were heading to school, our boy went to his dad to apologize.  "I'm sorry, Dad".  And, his dad to him, "I'm sorry, too.  I was just frustrated."

No doubt these moments happen in your household, too.  How do you diffuse the situation and close the loop?  How do you make amends?

Resolutions: do you make them? what about the kids?

As I sift through the archives, I am nostalgic reading our resolutions of yesteryear.  From Sarah, "New Decade, New Resolutions" (circa 2010) featuring writing letters, having conversations, generally stopping to smell the roses.  Two years prior, we were thinking similar themes, "Mama Resolutions for 2008", including reading more and spending more quality time with the spouse.  Some years, we focus on more healthy eating as a resolution (circa 2009), or some years we talk about new resolutions as new life-long commitments.

At the moment, I am not sure.  In years past, I would take out my list of resolutions from last year, cross out the year on top and replace it with the new year date ("read book, learn new piano song, diversify fitness regimen").  I think I shouldn't even think about resolutions anymore for fear that they will continue on unfulfilled.

What about the kids?  Are you starting to talk to them about setting new goals and meeting them?  Is there a lot of resolution-talk in your household?

How to be a Proper Play-Date Host

My preschooler, now in summer session with limited daycare, is fully on the play-date circuit.  With new friends circling through the house and with him going to different friends' homes, I am noticing trends.  Little folks get possessive and territorial, it is hard to share!  This is normal, I realize, but I often run out of ways to mediate.  When we host, I let the boy know that he needs to put things away if he absolutely cannot share.  Everything else is fair game.

At his friend's house the other day, there was a squabble over a particularly shiny race car.  The host boy ran to his parent for assistance.  His parent said: "You're the host.  Let your friend play with it."  It wasn't the answer the boy was hoping to hear.

I've never used the comment: "Be a good host" with the connotation that he should let the other friend have the toy/turn.  Perhaps I'm not a good host.  What are the elements for our youngest folks, the preschool set, to be the "proper play date host"?