In the family where I grew up, sacrifice was imperative. What had started out as an idyllic childhood for me, and, I have heard, a happy time for my parents, slowly became a time of hardship: emotional, psychological, and financial.
In upstate New York, where I was born, I built igloos and snowmen in the winter, coming inside to hot chocolate, and I ran through the grass naked and swam in the lake in front of our house in the summer. But we left it all behind--moving my dad, mom, little brother, me, and our nanny--to South Florida, for what we believed would be like taking a permanent vacation.
For a while it was. I made friends easily, both in the neighborhood and at school. I had the hot-pink bedroom and waterbed that I dreamed of. I could wear my favorite Dr. Seuss T-shirt and overalls for days and stand in front of our typical 80s wall of mirrors and sing David Bowie and Moody Blues songs at the top of my lungs, easing the fact that I was becoming unconsciously aware that I was not the most special girl in the world. I was growing up, and some hidden part of me began to realize that the world did not revolve around me.
But soon after my eighth birthday, my parents split. My dad had become so violently addicted to drugs that he abandoned us. I would only see him a handful of times over the next ten years as he struggled with his addiction.
That left my mom, who, after fourteen years of marriage, had to find us more affordable places to live. With no child support and just a teacher's salary, it was a struggle. As I got older, I became more aware of our financial limitations, and embarrassed by them in the face of the much wealthier kids I went to school with.
When I was thirteen, I went to my best friend's bat mitzvah. The dress I wore was a black-velvet clearance item from Ross, and the gift I'd brought for my friend was a twenty-dollar silver ring. I knew it was all wrong when I got to the party and saw the delicate diamond earrings in her other friends' ears, and the pale-pink lipgloss on their lips, and the thick envelopes of cash being passed to my friend; not to mention the venue itself, with its polished dance floor, tables with centerpieces, and a D.J.
By high school I'd grown resentful of my mother for not being able to provide my brother and me with a lifestyle equal to that of my friends', and for not, at the very least, recognizing how critical this was for me in terms of my social standing. I also, of course, suffered the ramifications of having an absentee father. My self-esteem was low, I was angry, and my mom was an easy target. We began to fight. A lot. We yelled at one another or ignored one another more often than we spoke. I told myself she didn't love me. Home was a hostile environment, and I took every opportunity to escape it.
I took little notice of the sacrifice she'd made when she asked her then-boyfriend Jim to move out. Jim had lived with us for a year. He'd never had children of his own, and it was clear, every day, that my brother and I were irritants. When he spoke to us, it was only to correct our table manners or tell us to be quiet.
One night he'd gone out, and then returned because he'd forgotten something. By then I'd already locked all the doors. He went around to the back sliding-glass door and tried that. That was locked too. I watched him from the other side of the glass as he pulled at the handle. "Open it. Shannon, open it," he seethed through gritted teeth. It wasn't entirely a conscious decision at the time, but more primal. I wouldn't open the door--no matter what. The angrier he got, the more I smiled. Eventually he left in a huff. A few weeks later, my brother and I went off to New Jersey to visit my grandparents, as we did every summer, and when we returned, Jim was gone, never to be heard from again.
I also didn't fully appreciate the time that, for my sixteenth birthday (even though I didn't deserve it), my mom surprised me with a limo and reservations for me and a few friends at a posh French restaurant downtown. We ordered escargot and then spit it out into our napkins. We ordered every dessert on the menu--crepes, and mousses, and truffles. Another patron even sent over a bottle of champagne, and the wait staff didn't bother to I.D. us, so we polished it off. I couldn't have even imagined a birthday party so decadent. She had gone out of her way to spoil me.
There were countless other ways, too: the effort she made to stay involved in my school, the money she scraped together to make sure that my brother and I got the item we wanted most each Christmas, the time she took to make each birthday party special.
Of course, it was complicated, though. I didn't always appreciate her, nor her me. I suffered from low self-esteem for years. I made bad choices. We all struggled personally at times.
And so it was that, from my fractured family life, I'd decided on a couple of things: to be a good mother is to sacrifice and I would not repeat the mistakes of my past nor allow my children to struggle the way that I had.
I married young, at twenty-two (almost twenty-three), a teacher who later became a writer. We share creative interests, academic interests, religious philosophies, and the same basic moral compass. We waited until we'd finished graduate school and I'd found a new job to have a baby, a girl, Violet, whom we named after Violet Baudelaire, a character in one of the Lemony Snicket books.
I loved being pregnant with her. I was drowsy most of the time (something that is unusual for me), and I was pampered by my husband, who ran out at all hours, in that stereotypical way, to get me anything I wanted to eat, which was almost always ice cream. I found that people treated me differently, too--they seemed to always compliment me on my looks and let me skip ahead in line or offer me the last open seat in the movie theater. I had not one but two baby showers. I had a room in my old 1920s house all set to go for a nursery, and I was getting this gorgeous antique-white iron crib and this whimsical bird chandelier and a warm pink rug and an overstuffed rocker. The few baby gowns I had so far were from boutiques and had delicate little flowers on them. I was so pleased with myself. It was perfection.
At seventeen weeks, the tech doing my ultrasound noticed something that was "off" and had the doctor come in to speak to us. He said there was a large area of lymphatic fluid on her left side that was not being absorbed as it should, and we'd have to keep an eye on it. After that, I became a high-risk pregnancy, and there were more frequent ultrasounds.
I didn't become alarmed until over the next several weeks the sac of fluid began to grow as she grew. It became less and less likely that it was an issue that would go away. The worst part was that none of the doctors were familiar with it. They believed it was a lymphangioma, but no one had any experience with it. I met with a handful of doctors and was told that she'd have to be delivered via cesarean, in case of a rupture; that she would need an MRI as soon as she was born, so she'd have to be put under; that she might need a blood transfusion; and that many tests would have to be done in addition to surgery to make sure the lymphangioma was not attached to her brain or spinal cord. Being that they didn't know how this would affect her developmentally, the situation was less than perfect. I felt what I'd imagined slip away, and I was brought to tears.
She had surgery once at four months and again at eighteen months, and over the course of that time, I hovered over her. If I saw her reaching for a toy, I'd grab it as fast as I could and give it to her. If she cried, I sang her favorite song, "Skinna Marinky Dinky Dink," even though I hated it. I went to every pediatrician appointment with a long list of questions. When she was first born, if I heard her cough in her bassinet, I thought she was going to die. When it took her longer to walk than other babies I knew, I thought something must be wrong with her. Once, when she was twenty months old, she fell on the playground step and bit into her tongue, causing blood to gush down her chin. I ran with her in my arms at top speed back to the house, yelling for Ryan to call an ambulance. (Fortunately, he had more sense and we just gave her a washcloth and drove to her pediatrician.)
Very early it was clear that Violet had no intellectual or physical delays, so I began to back off and give her a little more freedom. Then, when she was three, I discovered RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers), founded by early childhood educator Magda Gerber, and now largely taught by RIE instructors Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury. In a nutshell, the RIE approach is to respect children; to see them as whole, fully formed, beings, from infancy; to accept them fully; to disengage from power struggles and yet set firm boundaries; to use natural consequences; to be a calm, benevolent leader; and to not interfere or use bribes or consequences to manipulate them.
I wanted so many things for Violet. Top of that list was, and still is, to be happy and confident. I don't want her to ever worry that she isn't loved. I don't want her to struggle the way that I did, and that would mean that I would have to undo some of the patterns that I'd learned from my own childhood and carried with me into adulthood.
So I threw myself in full force. I read as many blogs as I could on Janet Lansbury's website. I bought the books she'd authored, and even read some of the books that she recommended. I also poured over Lisa Sunbury's site. Once I felt I had a good basis for understanding, I started making some changes.
First, I stopped doing time-out. According to RIE, the idea here is that by sending a kid who is demonstrating strong emotions into time-out, you are shaming her and teaching her that you would prefer that she repress her feelings rather than share them. Well, as someone who went through much of her life repressing her feelings, the decision to abolish time-out came easily. I'll never forget the huge grin that Violet got on her face when we said we weren't doing time-out anymore, and how she made sure to brag about it to all her friends at preschool.
Next, I turned off the TV, which is believed to be too much of a passive activity, is believed to negatively affect children cognitively, and to send negative messages. Then I got rid of some of the toys that she received--of the blinking-light, talking variety, as they are believed to discourage children from using their imagination and are robbing them of the chance to discover how to do something on their own. I taught myself how to give her the language to express her emotions; I stopped saying "please" and "okay?" at the end of my sentences in an effort to sound more authoritative; and I taught myself to give more specific compliments, rather than just saying "good job."
Shortly thereafter, I enrolled her in a Waldorf school, which, although not specifically sanctioned by RIE, follows many of the same principles. I felt the environment was idyllic for a three- and then four-year-old because she spent her time baking bread, making lentil soup, playing with open-ended wooden toys, doing light chores and free-form art, and playing outside three times a day.
The calm-authority component proved to be more of a challenge for me. Intense by nature, and having come from a home where there was a lot of yelling, I often was just going through the motions of acknowledging her feelings and racking my brain, trying to think of a natural consequence for running away from me at the store and hiding somewhere until I almost had a heart attack.
At first, I felt things went well. If nothing else, I was buoyed by my own self-righteousness. But soon I ran into trouble. Violet took a really long time to potty train--longer than anyone else I knew. I started going to therapy, for myself, because I believed I had wounded her in some deep psychological way. At my therapist's behest, I sent her to a behavioral therapist who specialized in kids Violet's age, to evaluate her. Her diagnosis was that Violet was very intelligent, and perfectly normal. After that, also at my therapist's suggestion, I sent her to a psychiatrist. I was sure that he was going to tell me that she had some kind of anxiety disorder or mood disorder or was wounded by me. But he didn't. As with the previous specialist, he said that she was very intelligent and seemed well-adjusted.
While I found that all those tools had given Violet a high emotional intelligence, she was still prone to fits of rage, where she would yell and hit, seemingly over small things. Even though I'd taught myself how to disengage from a power struggle, it seemed that, no matter what, most things still were.
That's when I reached out to the RIE experts. I consulted with Janet Lansbury herself three times. I consulted with Lisa Sunbury twice. And I consulted with Davina Muse, LMHC, of Simplicity Parenting, twice. Janet said that I might not be calm enough when I am disciplining, and that if I am angry, she can see right through that. When I told her that Violet was a very picky eater, Janet suggested that I make whatever dinner I want to make and calmly state that "this is dinner," and she can eat it or not. I did this for a very long time, and Violet just went to bed hungry every night. As far as the potty training went, the consensus was that I drop the whole subject altogether because I am creating a power struggle, and that she would "get it" when she was ready. Janet even went so far as to suggest that I offer diapers to show that I am on her side, and say that she can wear them as long as she wants, that I know that she will tell me when she is ready. Well, Violet chose to wear them until she was three-and-a-half, and she was perfectly comfortable in them and showed no signs of wanting to use the bathroom. The only reason she took them off at all is because she had to for school, and in order to do that I had to bribe her (reward her).
Davina (God bless Davina) told me that because Violet was separated from me during such critical times in her babyhood--four months and eighteen months (the two times she had surgery)--she has a deep psychological wound and desperately needs my attention to close the gap between us, more attention than other kids may need.
And that's not all. Partly because I wanted to, because it gave me the illusion of being a perfect mother, and partly because I felt guilty for my shortcomings (and I realize those two are probably related), I went out of my way in other areas too. To help make dinnertime less stressful for her, once I'd talked to a well-respected nutritionist, I had her pick out dishes from cookbooks, go grocery shopping with me, and help me prepare the meal. Needless to say, she never touched those meals. Then I started serving things family-style, and I put many of the things she liked in little bowls, along with some of the dinner that I prepared. Once again, the dinner I prepared was never touched.
Per RIE, I tried to observe when she played so that I wasn't inserting myself, interrupting her, or showing her how to do something that she could discover on her own how to do. Of course, I also had to make sure I gave her enough one-on-one time every day, and during that time, I had to let her direct me. When we did art together, I had to encourage the process, not the finished product, and do as little as possible if she asked me to draw or color, so as not to make her feel like mine was better or that there was one right way. True to form, Violet wants me to do the voices for the toys myself when we play together, and she always, always wants me to show her how to draw something or mold something out of clay, and feels I am being unfair if I don't.
I made homemade banana bread every weekend so she could have it for breakfast. I put her bath towel in the dryer while she was in the bath so that she could be warmed up when she got out of the tub. I put her bathrobe on the back of her chair at night so that she could put it on in the morning because she often said she was cold when she first woke up. For her fourth birthday I hired a face painter, for her fifth birthday she had an ice-skating party, and for her sixth birthday she had a Pinkalicious party with homemade crowns, wands, and tutus. Of course, I made all the cakes myself, from scratch, save one.
I bought into all of this. Violet is everything to me, and if making these changes in myself and doggedly pursuing these paths as I have been for as long as I live are the keys to making her happy and self-confident and protecting her from the difficulties I endured in my childhood and adolescence, then so be it. There was no fee too high or resource I wouldn't avail myself of. Even if I was growing more and more frustrated. Even if I started to feel exhausted by the rigidity of this philosophy. Even if I was feeling like a failure. Even if I was starting to suspect that this philosophy put all the blame on the mother and never accounted for the fact that maybe it wasn't my fault--and that I had needs too. Maybe she was just not listening or was hitting or was running away from me because she could, and because she wanted to--and maybe it didn't go much deeper than that.
A few days ago, Violet drew a picture of a rainbow with clouds and two little girls in pink. She showed me the picture proudly when she was done, and I, remembering my training, said, "How colorful. Very creative, Violet." Violet scrunched up her little brow and frowned. She looked back at me, and in a complete deadpan, she said, "Just say 'good job,' Mom. Just. Say. Good. Job. That's what I want to hear." I couldn't help but laugh. It was unexpected how effortlessly she saw right through me, and I was also laughing because it was a relief.
Then, just yesterday, we were driving home from school, and she pulls out this old cellphone of Ryan's that she's pilfered out of the cabinet, secretly charged, and brought with her to school, and she plays this song with the lyrics, If I roar like a lion, does it make me a lion? If I bark like a dog, does it make me a dog? If I hiss like a snake, does it make me a snake? No, no, no, no. I'm so much more than you can see. I have life inside of me that makes me move, feel, and love. I can act a certain way, and do all kinds of things, but in the end, I'm me. I'm me. I'm me.
And so finally--finally--I am ready to hear it. She is so much more than the challenging behavior. She is also my girl who likes to cuddle with me. She is also my girl who still likes to be held. She is also the adventurer who will leap fearlessly off of swings, climbing structures, and trees. She's the explorer who likes to go through the woods and collect pine cones and rocks for her treasure box. She is my lover of insects and all things creepy-crawly. She is the girl who asks the most no-nonsense questions. She is the one student in class who will do the creative project differently than anyone else. And she is the great big sister to three-year-old Harper, and I often catch her wrapping her arm lovingly around her sister, kissing her on the head, and saying, in what I can only imagine is something I say, "C'mon, honey. Let's go play."
Just like she said, "Just say good job," her singing that song to me is a clear message: I'm not perfect, but I'm me. And by extension, I'm not perfect either. She's got the loving home, two parents, doting grandparents, and an extended family who loves her, and all the toys and clothes she needs too. And that's gotta count for something--but it doesn't count for everything. I won't be able to protect her from all hurts, and I won't play a role in all of her negative experiences. But what I do know is that it's the acceptance--of myself and of her, imperfections and all--that matters most.