I’m not sure I experience grief in the traditional Kubler-Ross five stages. Rather, I think my grief has five food groups. I’m the kind of gal who uses anything I can get my hands on to stuff my feelings into oblivion. For the past week I’ve been in the fourth food group of grief: Chocolate. The fifth is probably Weight Watchers.
Since Jennifer died, I’ve been having a hard time clearing the fog from my eyes long enough to even answer my emails much less to be creative or to be a present parent. I’m going to tell you what I prayed for at the bedside of my friend, who had just overdosed herself into a coma. I prayed that I be shown a way to give my son the tools he’ll need in life to never wind up in a bed like that.
I’ve been worried lately that I’m failing at that very task. Both Scott and I have been spending too many nights with our heads in our hands- unsure how things got out of our control, unclear about how to make it better.
I was well aware of the challenges involved with adopting a child who wasn’t a newborn, particularly one who had spent a significant portion of his young life in an orphanage. Theoretically, I was prepared for the behaviors connected to early childhood trauma. But, as any parent knows, theoretical parenting is about as good as theoretical dancing. You ain’t gonna learn to do a pirouette by reading about it.
Even before we were parents, Scott and I were immediately attracted to Non-Violent Parenting, which is based on empathy and nurturing rather than judgement and control. We knew a lot of people who had gone through the parenting classes at The Echo Center and were inspired by the respectful way they interacted with their children.
We’ve been trying to practice non-violent communication with T, except we keep screwing up. For instance, I’ve been unable to keep myself from screaming at him. And then I absolutely hate myself for it. But honestly, he’s infuriating. He’s beyond infuriating. Nearly every interaction with T is a battle. It always takes us an hour to get out of the house. Scott and I get bit and spit at and hit in the face many, many times a day. An hour ago he pulled a hunk of hair out of my head and then got grossed out and asked for my help getting it out of his mouth.
And most of the people I know have been saying- why the heck don’t you discipline him? Why don’t you give him a time out?
Well, it’s complicated. We don’t punish him because instead we’re trying to empathize with the needs behind his behaviors and to help him start to identify his feelings. But the problem is that I haven’t been all that successful in figuring out his needs. I thought it would be a lot more obvious. Maybe the difficulty arises from the fact that I’ve always been someone who stuffs my feeling rather than addressing them.
So Scott and I went in last week for a private counseling session with Ruth Beaglehole, the woman behind the Echo Center and the Nonviolent Parenting movement. It was amazing. We both walked out with a big shift in our perspective. We learned that, like parenting and dancing, empathy isn’t a theoretical exercise. I intellectually understood that I was meant to be empathetic with my child. I read about trauma for a year before we adopted him; I went to Africa and saw it with my own eyes. And yet, in the moment I simply wanted him to stop acting like such a freaked-out, aggressive wierdo and just fucking sing along with the rest of the well-behaved kids at Music Together.
Ruth helped us to acknowledge the fact that his behavior is fear-based and grounded in the assumption that the world is a frightening place in which everyone he loves will abandon him. Every time we let him push us over the edge we’re confirming that assumption and re-enforcing the trauma.
I have a picture of T when he first arrived at the orphanage and I can barely look at it, it makes me so sad. He looks absolutely terrified. It’s hard for me to remember that my hilarious, charming, fierce little man is somewhere in him still that scared baby. So now every time I’m confronted with his maddening behavior, I try to access the same empathy I feel when I look at the picture. It’s hard. It’s painful. And it makes me realize how little empathy I was feeling before.
We’ve recommitted to non-violent strategies and we’ve been doing better. On Sunday we took T up to Mt. Baldy to have his first glimpse of snow. And because it was a new experience, he was anxious and controlling and combative all morning. But we were somehow able to breathe and move through it and arrive at the magical moment of him saying, “SNOW!” We even got it on film. Here it is.