Tuesday, October 31, 2017

fear-based life

Putting Dash to bed has been an ordeal lately, an up-to-two-hour affair involving multiple requests for milk (yes, after he's brushed his teeth; I judge me too!) and kisses from whichever mom isn't in the room. He wants "one more book." He wants to sleep on the floor. No, wait, he wants to sleep on the bed. No, the floor. He wants "that pillow." No "my pillow," which might look like that pillow, but is in fact inexplicably different.

He wants "Dinosaur Boom Boom," a game I used to play when he was a baby, which has recently enjoyed a revival. He lays down and I hold his legs and chant "Boom boom, boom boom, dinosaur walking, dinosaur walking. Swish swish, swish swish, dinosaur dancing, dinosaur dancing." Etc. Recently he added a part where he kind of kicks me in the face. Good times.

He has successfully sleep-trained me.
He is, as you may have gleaned based on the behaviors described above, 2.75 years old. My emotions swing along with his, from charmed to exasperated to near tears as I contemplate what it means to be the kind of person whose toddler doesn't fall asleep until 9:47 pm. Surely it's because I haven't read enough parenting books or been tough enough or kind enough or created a sufficiently predictable routine.

(Sidebar: Yesterday I was part of a work email exchange about using strength-based language when it comes to describing the kids we serve. Except I learned that "serve" is not the most strength-based word, because it smacks of missionary language and savior complexes. My first thought was OMG, I am THE WORST at strength-based thinking! I tried to amend that to I am willing to learn! But as I shared with my therapist later, I always worry that if I'm not asking myself "Cheryl, are you a piece of shit?" then I won't even bother trying at life. I don't actually think I'm a piece of shit. If that was true, I wouldn't be able to maintain healthy relationships or apply for jobs or blog. But I am convinced--especially when under-caffeinated--that I must maintain constant vigilance or I will tumble down a slippery slope made of peanut butter cups, and land in the shit pile that is my true destiny. I'm working on it.)

Anyway, I have varying degrees of empathy for Dash's bedtime shenanigans. One more book? Sure, kid. Reading is fundamental. Throwing books off the shelf and biting Mommy's leg? Not so much.

Last night he was heavy-lidded and SO. CLOSE. TO. SLEEP. He sat up and said, in a small sad voice, "Mommeeeee."

"What is it?"

"Scary masks."

Contemplative little monkey, refusing his monkey head (which isn't a mask, but why risk mask-adjacency?)
Two weekends ago, AK's dad invited us to a Halloween festival in Orange County. We imagined a fun day in the park with Nana and Papa. But it turned out her dad couldn't even go--he just thought we'd enjoy it. And it wasn't a park so much as the parking lot of Tarbell Realtors, with some bounce houses and stickers. And when Dash spotted a seven-year-old in a Scream mask and hood, he leapt toward me, burst into tears and clung to me like the monkey he's dressing as for Halloween.

His fear was as abject and visceral as my need to comfort him. I wondered if that made me a little fucked-up--to take such pleasure in hugging my kid when he was so sad. Do I want him to be miserable? But I'm going to try not to overthink this one. My most important job as a parent is to keep him safe, and I will fail at it. The world is full of war and disease and unprotected left turns, so if I can be a hero in the wake of this one made-up danger, I'll take it. I'll milk the hell out it.

Drew thinks this mask is scary too.
Two more Halloween parties this past weekend solidified the scary-mask thing. He also finds puppets and animatronic toys highly suspect, and I agree that moving things that are not quite human are fucking terrifying. But I was surprised to hear they were haunting his thoughts after the fact, which feels like a more adult category of fear.

My heart sank a little. Do anxious cycling thoughts set in so young? I was a scaredy-cat kid, and managing fear has been a major theme of my adult life. Temperament-wise, Dash seems to be outgoing but cautious, not the first kid to jump off the top of the slide, but not the last. But if ghoulish masks were floating through his mind--more terrifying because you can't just step away from your own thoughts, because that kind of fear doesn't recede on November 1--it was a new category. And I could relate.

"I know masks are scary, but they can't hurt you, and Mommy and Mama will always do our best to keep you safe," I said, trying to walk that line between validating and fanning the flames. "Let's try to think of something happier."

I proceeded to lead an ad hoc visualization exercise, dreaming up the toddler equivalent of a walk through a calming meadow. "Let's imagine we're on a train with all your friends. With Patrick and Wendell and Serenity."

"And Claire," he said. (Claire is an older kid at daycare. The other day he announced that he'd hit her, and she'd hit him. "How did you feel when that happened?" I asked. "I like it," he said, and I had no answer.)

"And a bunch of dogs and cats, and our big train is going by the ocean," I said.

During this time, I was hugging him but also stretching out my arm to text my friend Holly and look at Facebook, because I suck a little. But my therapist and I have also talked about how being a slightly distracted parent frees kids up to become themselves without feeling a bunch of pressure. So let's call that a strength.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

dirty john and the domestic sphere

Yesterday I cleaned the house while AK took Dash to Orange County for some tia time, and I binge-listened to the L.A. Times’ Dirty John podcast. I’m one of those true crime podcast junkies: I was into both seasons of Serial, I squeal and laugh along with the sloppy-funny hosts of My Favorite Murder every week, and I loved falling deep into the Southern gothic tragedy of S-Town.

Orange (County) is the new noir. (Photo credit: Christina House, L.A. Times.)
At first Dirty John seemed like a well reported but relatively unremarkable imitation of other true-crime cultural phenomena, right down to the Making a Murderer-esque soundtrack. The title character is not an affable possible innocent a la Serial’s Adnan, nor a tortured genius like S-Town’s John B. McLemore. Dirty John is a fairly typical conman with some power and anger issues, who has perhaps seen too many mob movies. It’s not that I don’t think literal psychopaths are interesting (if my not-completely-scientific study of My Favorite Murder is any indication, the equation for psychopathy seems to be horrific childhood abuse plus head injury, which is reason #493 Dash doesn’t get to play football). It’s that psychopaths are kind of defined by their immunity to outside influence, and I’m interested in the ways people are shaped by culture, systems and family.

Debra Newell, part of the interesting part. (Photo credit: L.A. Times.)
Then I realized that Dirty John was not the interesting part of Dirty John. (Some vague spoiler-esque comments follow, but I won’t reveal any major plot points.) Having worked with formerly incarcerated people for a few years, I thought a lot about the injustice of the justice system and the humanity of criminals. To the point that every now and then, I’d be surprised all over again by the realization that Victims are real people too. My Favorite Murder—in its tripping-over-its-own feet, non-didactic way—does a good job reminding its audience of this. Also that victims of violent crimes are disproportionately female. Also that they are sometimes as fucked up as anyone.

At first I thought Maybe I’m unimpressed by Dirty John because it’s about one psycho asshole, and it doesn’t reveal anything about a system or a culture. Then I realized Duh, the system at work here is the family system he insinuated himself into. And maybe I think of family as uninteresting because I’ve been taught to devalue the domestic sphere.

Once I shifted my focus, I was fascinated. Debra Newell, an Orange County interior designer who’d had chronic bad luck with men, is the mother of two daughters with the most intense SoCal upspeak you’ll ever here: Jacquelyn, who takes no shit, and sweetheart Terra, who seems a little dumb, who lives for dogs and The Walking Dead.

Long ago, Debra’s sister was murdered by her controlling ex-husband. Debra’s Christian mother decided to forgive her son-in-law and even testified on his behalf in court. This family culture of forgiveness seems to impact Debra’s willingness to “see the good” in Dirty John long after most people would have given him the boot. Without revealing the ending, I will say that Jacquelyn may not be the only family member who realizes that forgiveness can be a slippery slope to victimhood.

Georgia and Karen staying sexy and not getting murdered. (Photo credit: Entertainment Weekly.)
Almost a month after leaving Homeboy, I’m still processing my time there. I’ve complained—both good-naturedly and seriously—about our lack of systems, and how we haven’t totally realized you can’t run an $18 million organization like a one-man-show in the back of a church. But Homeboy’s reluctance around rules goes beyond nonprofit growing pains. I also witnessed how sometimes our mantra that “You’re not the worst thing you’ve ever done” got flipped into “You can keep treating people poorly with no consequences.”

I don’t personally know where or how to draw the line. But I know that empathy for perpetrators (who inevitably were victims first) can’t carry more weight than empathy for victims. Or maybe that we can love perpetrators all we want—deeply and truly—but only victims should be in the business of deciding what’s forgivable and when.

The domestic sphere. But imagine that instead of rolling dough, I'm microwaving mac n cheese.
I was thinking about family systems in a less dramatic way (though it felt very dramatic at the time, largely because I missed a dose of Effexor) on Monday night, when Dash was losing his shit over the fact that I wouldn’t give him a third bottle of milk before bed. He kept yelling, “I need milk! I’m talking to you, Mommy!” His face was red and puffy. He sobbed and pounded on his bedroom door. I held my ground because I think that’s a thing I need to do more, but wondered as always: Really? Is this the hill I’m going to die on? 

I offered water and applesauce and goldfish crackers. I kept my voice calm and may have literally said at one point, “There’s no way out of pain but through it, but I am here with you.” I fought the urge to cry and make it all about me, and encourage him to take care of my feelings, the way my mom sometimes did, unintentionally, to me. He continued to rage, tragically and adorably. I felt like shit.

Last week AK and I debated the merits of timeouts, or lack thereof. She knows more about child psychology and development than I do, and sometimes that makes me feel like a loser, although no one but me is stopping me from reading a few childcare books.

I started feeling that by discouraging me from giving Dash a timeout for biting me, she was taking his side and leaving me to take care of myself. My therapist rightly pointed out that I was casting AK in the role of my mom, who I believed always took my younger sister’s side. Cathy was smaller and needier, and I was up shit creek, as far as I was concerned. (This is why I pay my therapist the big sliding-scale bucks.)

Of course that was my highly biased, sibling rivalry-influenced child-view of things. My mom loved me like crazy, and certainly didn’t turn me out on the streets as soon as my sister came along when I was three. But a piece of me still totally believes that’s how it was, and that part was wild and desperate on Monday night as I threw myself under the bus for a wild and desperate little kid.

First, second and third.
But we heal the damage of past relationships through current ones. I hope that Dash’s cheery, utterly forgiving (forgiveness at its best) greeting the next morning helped both of us heal. He realized that the person who wouldn’t give him a third bottle of milk—the person who couldn’t or wouldn’t magically make him feel better—was still there for him. I realized that his needs wouldn’t kill me.

I won’t give away the ending of Dirty John, but I’ll say this: It’s very satisfying. Debra and her family reclaim the narrative for themselves, along with a cameo from a truly badass junior lifeguard named Skylar and a miniature Australian shepherd named Cash.