I was in line at the coffee shop the other day eagerly awaiting my caffeine fix, when I overheard a couple of moms chatting. One of them was describing the behavior of a child in her daughter’s class. The behavior sounded similar to T’s, so of course my ears perked up. The woman said, “Some days being a mom is, like, SO hard, but then I have to remember to be grateful. I mean, I could have a kid with special needs or something.”

I had to fight the impulse to go over to her and say, You should be so lucky to have a kid as kind and loving and remarkable and hilarious as my kid with special needs. What the hell kind of thing is that to be grateful for?

I’ve never been a fan of the sentiment that we should be grateful because there’s always someone worse off. When I was a kid, my father used to say (usually in response to tearful begging for a pair of Guess jeans or tickets to the Like A Virgin tour), “I cried when I had no shoes, until I saw the man who had no feet.” Even then it used to get on my nerves, and not only because I had to get the lame knock-off jeans. I didn’t agree on principle. I don’t want to derive my gratitude from the suffering of others. I don’t want to perk right up because some poor guy doesn’t have feet. What kind of way is that to think?

Not that I’m some Dalai Llama of gratitude. In fact, I woke up today swamped with self-loathing. There wasn’t any particular reason, it’s just my nasty demon rearing its ugly head. I could barely look in the mirror and I just couldn’t shake it. I put on my running shoes anyway, then spent almost every step of my run with my legs feeling like lead, cursing the fact that 4 miles never seems to get any easier.

And then for a few minutes I found myself keeping pace with a burn victim whose scars were so severe that half of his entire body looked like a melted candle. I found myself feeling grateful. But not because, as my dad would put it, I cried when I was mildly depressed and had a fat ass, until I saw the man who had half-a-face. Rather, I felt grateful to all the rest of the souls dragging themselves, fat asses and scars and no shoes and no feet and all, around that track at 6am. Who knows what those people are facing; what kind of heroism I’m witnessing every day without even knowing it.

I thought of the burned man- I’ll just borrow your strength today and I’ll make it the rest of the way around. Some morning when I’m feeling like the wind, I’ll loan my strength to someone else who’s out here limping.

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I Broke The Baby

In the past four months or so, we’ve seen a dramatic change in T’s trauma-related behaviors. I think some of the transformation has to do with language acquisition. It helps that he’s often able to name the big feelings and to identify when he’s gone off the rails. There have been a few times lately that I had to contain him in public and he was able to say, I’m having a hard time.

For those of you not dealing with violent behaviors, when I say contain him, I mean I sit behind him holding his arms and his head (so he can’t bite) and I wrap my legs around his. I’ll tell you this about containing him- It’s horrible. It feels horrible; it looks horrible; people stare at you like you’re a monster. Purely for safety reasons, we used to have to contain him up to ten times a day. I regularly had bite marks on my chest and up and down my arms.

This is no longer the case (I say, doing a jig of glee). We now go days without a crazy violent tantrum. We can take him to the park, to the museum, to birthday parties. I don’t have to hover a foot away when he’s playing with other kids.

It’s a huge effort for him to control his aggressive impulses. Things that are a given for many kids are a true achievement for him. I see in his face how hard he’s trying and it can bring tears to my eyes. Both because I’m amazed at his resilience and because I still sometimes feel so helpless and sad in the face of all the pain he’s weathered in his short life.

In fact, his behavior is so much better that I can easily forget everything I know about his sensitivity to sensory input. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s easy to do when you’re having fun. There have been a couple of times in the past few weeks that I have seen the signs of dysregulation and let it slide. Last Sunday, Scott was out of town and T and I were having a big adventure day: museum, party, carousel. We ate about twelve gluten-free cupcakes. It was awesome. And it was WAY too much. He actually wound up so dysregulated at the end of the day that he was literally shaking and his eyes were rolling back in his head. I imagined I could see the smoke coming out of his ears from the short circuiting. I called Scott and said, I broke the baby. Luckily, the baby reset. But, man, did I feel like a jerk.

When his dysregulation gets that profound, I can clearly see its physiological component. The neurological aspect of T’s challenges is obviously an important thing to remember in our difficult moments, but I’m learning that it’s equally important to remember when things are going well. I’m not a person who’s generally known for my wonderfully balanced emotional life, so parenting T is a constant opportunity to exercise some underutilized muscles. Yet again, my kid is giving me every lesson I need.

A Non-Post

Scott is on the road and T is napping and I’m wiped. I was about to sit down and write a post about teaching writing (which I’ve been privileged to do a bit of lately), but I gotta say screw it. I’m going to lie down and read a book instead. Not because I don’t love you- rather because I can’t afford botox and I think I aged about seventeen years this morning alone.

Consider it a zen koan mommy self-care post. The meaning lies in what’s missing.

Next week, I’ll tell you about teaching or something else equally scintillating. Promise. In the meantime, here’s a picture of Scott and T at the UC Riverside Palm Desert MFA program, where I taught last week. Didn’t suck a bit.

And here’s my current musical obsession: Father John Misty. Take a moment of self-care and listen to this kick-ass song…


T keeps wanting to hear the stories of our scars. His favorite is “How Dad’s Tooth Turned to Gold.” He also wants to incessantly recount the details of his own injuries. He walked into a closed sliding glass door on Memorial Day (he’s fine) and the narrative has practically become a Homeric epic in the retelling. I can’t tell if it’s the hurt or the healing that fascinates him more.

Last week, I got lost on a hike, wound up on a dead-end trail and had to off-road my way down an embankment. I emerged, covered in burrs, behind a tall fence. I had the little twinge of anxiety that I always get when I have to scale a fence- remembering the time a jagged end of chain link ripped my hand open as a child. I can still recall what I was wearing.

It took me a minute to realize that never happened to me. It happened to my father.

I used to ask him over and over again to tell me how he got the thin white scar that bisected his palm and ran halfway down his forearm. I heard the story so many times it became almost as much a part of my own body as it was his. In my dreams, it was me trying to hold my torn hand together with my blood-soaked t-shirt.

If I think about it for more than a second, I remember that, of course, that scar is my father’s scar. The scars on my forearms are from a different injury entirely. But if the memory comes to me in a floating moment of fear, as I wedge my sneaker into a diamond of chain link and grab for the top to pull myself over, the boundaries can sometimes blur between my body and my father’s body. I can remember the story as if it were my own.

It’s one of my greatest fears that T will somehow absorb the injuries done to my body long before he was ever born. That my hurt will become his, in spite of my best efforts to give him a whole new world. In some ways, I think that the legacy of our parents’ pain is unavoidable.

But I hope that Scott and I can also pass on a legacy of healing. So that at least T will see that when you wind up with a bloody hole where your tooth used to be, you can sometimes replace it with a gold one that glints in the sunlight when you smile.