Seeing the Positives

Tomorrow was supposed to be Sunshine’s first day of second grade. Her school decided in July to push the school year back one week, starting the day after Labor Day instead. It reminds me of my own childhood, during which school always began the Tuesday after “the last weekend of summer.”

This decision is unlikely to permanent. The shift this year is due entirely to the pandemic. It allowed their faculty to better prepare for the upcoming year, one that will begin online.

We spent much of the summer in anxious anticipation for whatever decision the school would make. She attends a charter school, so when the primary sponsoring district made a decision, we wondered if her school would make the same one.

Sunshine and I take frequent walks together. I asked her, “What do you want to happen?”

She wondered about another school day at home and missing her friends. She said she wanted to know who her teacher was. She heard she was going to get a school-issued device. She was excited about that.

She never said she was upset about the possibility of staying home. She never railed against it.

She understood the strangeness of our situation.

Saint Daddy and I have told her repeatedly, “This isn’t something that happens. It’s never happened like this before. That’s why it’s so hard to decide what to do. No one’s ever had to decide what to do like this before.”

This is temporary. It is not ideal. It is temporary.

Sunshine, at seven-years-old, knows that.

So while I can sit here and explain, in detail, why I wish Sunshine would be starting school tomorrow in her teacher’s famous farm-themed classroom, there are so many reasons for why I am glad she is not.

Primarily, this pandemic thing is not being well-handled on a national level. Every one has different rules and no one is following them and the nation is not coming together with care for the community. Schools have opened in some states and, predictably, cases have risen drastically in many of them.

I do not want my beautiful Sunshine to be part of the great national experiment to see if kids are completely immune, simply carriers, or in danger of dying.

But beyond the notion of getting sick, there are other concerns.

Do I want Sunshine to be required to wear her pretty floral rainbow mask for nine hours a day? Do I want her to go to school for two weeks and then be forced to stay home for two while part of the building quarantines and her teachers scramble to figure out how to educate her the way that they valiantly did in the spring? Do I want her to not be able to whisper in a friend’s ear? Do I want her to not be allowed a hug if she needs it?

Do I want Sunshine’s teachers to be at risk? Do I want them to worry about their families? Do I want them to become front-line workers in a world where we said “if you can work from home, then you should”? Because they can and they should. Do I want them to have to plan to educate half of their students at home and half of them at school? Their jobs are hard enough. Do I want them to do more?

Are my reasons for why I want Sunshine at school enough for all of that?

I do not think they are.

Tomorrow, instead of her first day of school, I am taking Sunshine back to her school for the first time since March. We have an evening appointment to meet her teacher one-on-one so Sunshine knows who she will be. We will wear masks and there will be temperature checks. We are going to pick up her school-issued supplies and learn more about her schedule. We are going to hear the plan that the school has laid out to ensure that their students are receiving the best education they can given the circumstances.

She goes to a good school. I trust them to do the right thing for my daughter.

Then we will come home and I will use our new knowledge to spend part of the later days this week to set up her learning space, combining our supplies and the school’s supplies, plugging in her device, providing adequate light, and packaging up all of my hopes.

In the spring, Sunshine completed her school work on her tablet while sitting at a TV tray against the wall of my bedroom. She was three feet away from where I sat on my bed to do my own work.

It all felt so temporary, and that was enough.

But this is real. This might last. And she needs a real setup.

It will be hard. I will have to stay on my targets while keeping her on hers. Saint Daddy will take care of Sleepy and Grumpy. I will handle Sunshine. It will be hard.

It will be lonely and trying and difficult.

But there is value here. There is a beautiful resilience in children. Just think of how flexible our children will be. Just think of what they will gain.

Are there deficits? Of course! But what about the assets?

What about this experience will help our children grow and change in miraculously beautiful ways?

Maybe I am too hopeful.

Maybe if I lost hope, I would lose everything.

What I will always know is that, as Sunshine’s mother, I have the power to sway her thoughts to the positive or the negative.

I choose to focus on this adventure with fewer thoughts about why it might not work and more about what might make this a magical time for her and for Grumpy and Sleepy who have been surrounded by their entire family for the last six months.

They know nothing of pandemics. They have to wear a mask sometimes. But they have lost all sense of that not being a normal thing.

They have gained so much, though. From focused attention to more time to play with their sister. From consistency to laughter.

For them, it has been all positives.

That is where I will set my sights for Sunshine.

On the positive.

Why Sunshine Needs to be in School

I have been pondering this school year quite a bit lately. I recognize that this does not make me unique. This is what parents have been doing. All of them. Schools closed abruptly in March. One day, we packed our children off to school, backpacks and lunchboxes and normalcy. We sent them to teachers who had loved them and cared for them and brought so much to their lives. Later that day, our children came home with the supplies they would need in case school did not open again until September.

It happened so suddenly.

My best friend was here the first weekend in March. It was a strangely normal time for us when compared to how the next few weeks went. We went for a ride on a historic train, visited a train museum with our kids, ate dinner at a brewpub, and grabbed breakfast at my favorite local spot the next day. We talked a little about how the new corona virus was spreading. We parted company without much more thought.

Two weeks later, Sunshine came home from school and did not go back again. She came off the bus and never went back on it. She was home. Permanently.

As was I.

When schools closed, I began working from home. Suddenly, we became a family of five who never left the house. Saint Daddy has been working from home for seven years. Sleepy and Grumpy have been home with him full-time since birth (yes, I know… how does he do it? That is why he is a saint!).

But me and Sunshine? We have not been home.

And then we were.

Here we are again. Sunshine’s school, like all of the schools in our county, is completely virtual until October. No one would be surprised if it were to be closed longer.

But Sunshine needs school.

Less than a year ago, Sunshine was seeing a therapist because her anxiety could not be contained. We both cried a lot. My heart broke every day as she battled hidden demons that told her that she would be left alone and abandoned and uncared for. She was being seen for individual sessions once a week and participating in group sessions twice a month with other anxious little girls.

Then Saint Daddy and I pulled her from her school and sent her to another one, and everything changed. Everything.

Two months later, her therapist discharged her.

Sunshine’s school changed her life. Sunshine’s teacher changed her life. I do not know what it was about that classroom, but Sunshine loved school and learning again. Sunshine felt safe and comforted there. Sunshine looked forward to school. She stopped begging for mental health days. She got excited about going to school. She even loved her 45 minutes each way bus rides.

I do not want to say that her school cured her mental health problems, but it certainly eased it.

Sunshine is incredibly social. I do not know where she gets that. Saint Daddy and I prefer much more silence than she does. She can make friends anywhere that she goes.

Her new school was no different. Sunshine made friends on that playground on the very first day. She was nervous before she went, but she came back from school with a smile on her face. The shift was almost immediate.

Sunshine’s emotional health depends heavily on her social well-being. I know that.

She lost that almost immediately when the school year ended abruptly in March. I saw it in her. She became less focused and less interested in accomplishing tasks. She is smart and determined, but she began to fall apart without the social interaction she got at school.

Two weeks after her school closed, Sunshine asked if she could see her therapist again. She wanted to know if she could see her in person, and when I told her that her therapist was only taking virtual appointments through Zoom, she changed her mind. Sunshine did not want a virtual appointment. Sunshine wanted to be with someone who would listen and talk about her.

You see, Sunshine has had plenty of virtual social interaction. She had Zoom sessions with her classmates and teacher. She spent countless hours on Kids Messenger with my best friend’s son and her grandmother and her cousins.

But it was not the same. Not for Sunshine. That is not surprising. I am not even half as social as Sunshine, and it was not the same for me either.

Sunshine needs to be in school. She needs to be there because she needs to be around other adults who care about her. She needs to be around her peers. She needs to feel loved in order to focus. She has a high level of emotional need when it comes to her ability to learn and grow.

That is the thing about schools. They provide so much beyond what they were initially designed to provide.

Schools provide safety, security, and friendship.

That does not even go into the number of children who rely upon schools for the only food, warmth, and love that they will receive each day.

Schools are pivotal for the emotional well-being of so many children. Sunshine is no different. Her school changed her life, and I wish she were going back to it as planned next week.

But she is not. I worry about what that will mean for her as I know many parents are worrying about what that will mean for their own children.

Something that I know about kids, though, is that they are much more flexible and adaptable than adults. Sunshine will find her footing, I am sure. I just hope that I can figure out how to help her get there.

When Saint Daddy Stopped Wearing His Wedding Ring

It has been a long time. Too long. I will not mention it more than that.

There was something behind the silence.

In a post last September, I mentioned that Saint Daddy had spent most of a night in the hospital. It was a quick line that resulted in a call from my sister and a text from my mother-in-law and worry.

I wish I could say that my reassurances then were all that it took to heal Saint Daddy. I wish I could say a night in the hospital provided an answer to a quick question.

But the question was not quick and the answer is still a little too vague to be considered decisive.

That trip to the hospital came after months of struggles. It came after kidney pain and chest pain and shoulder pain. It came after visits with specialists.

That trip to the hospital preceded months of struggles. It came before back pain and stomach pain and foot pain. It came before visits with specialists and scary possibilities.

Saint Daddy is the star around which my entire universe spins. He is the foundation upon which I rest my feet and the air that I breathe. I am a strong, independent woman who needs her husband to be well and whole and there. When the entire world is on fire, and we all know 2020 has been on fire, Saint Daddy has a way of putting a protective shield around our home and keeping my heart safe.

He is a miracle worker. He is a saint.

I need him.

The thing with needing to see specialists is that it can take a while between appointments, longer for a good doctor. You know the difference. There was a lot of waiting. The thing with having a myriad of symptoms primarily related to pain is that it could be anything. Sometimes, they tell you it is nothing. Even though you know, you know, you know it must be something.

Saint Daddy was put on medications to treat symptoms that only really seemed to make others worse.

In November, a specialist suggested a few life-altering possibilities for Saint Daddy’s issues. Things that would affect quality of life significantly and life expectancy as well. Then he waited until January to see a doctor who told him nothing new and gave him a another prescription to treat symptoms. He continued to worsen. I continued to worry. We struggled.

I wanted to curl up inside of him and be protected. He needed space and answers and time.

I am going to be forever grateful to those who supported us during those early months in 2020. My cousin’s wife who let me cry to her and validated my feelings. My sister who picked up the phone every time I called. My mom who talked me off a ledge. My other sister who came to watch Sleepy and Grumpy for Saint Daddy one day. Forever grateful. Eternally grateful. For kindness and friendship and support.

There was darkness in those months and these people were able to bring light into our lives.

In early March, a new doctor gave us something miraculous: hope. She took so much off the table. Saint Daddy stopped taking medications.

Saint Daddy will always be sick. His medical team has not pinpointed everything that he deals with, but they have helped so much.

We have come to terms with it. It is just part of his life. It is awful, but fighting it will not change its existence. It will just wear us down.

A few weeks ago, Saint Daddy took off his wedding ring and he decided not to put it back on.

For months, he had been struggling to get it over his knuckle.

His sickness has caused arthritis in many of his joints. It has deprived him of the ability to run, which is one of his favorite forms of exercise. It has taken away his ability to sleep most nights. It has changed what he can eat and when he can eat it. It has made so much about living in his body more difficult. And it has prevented him from putting his wedding ring back on.

He told me about a week before he officially decided not to wear it anymore.

I know that you’re not going to want to hear this...

I froze.

I don’t think I can wear my ring anymore.

Oh…

I suggested silicone rings that will flex over the knuckle and rest on his unaffected lower finger. He bought a pack of them and put his wedding ring in the lockbox with our important documents.

I knew it was coming, yet…

There was something about that first time seeing Saint Daddy with a band of silicone around his finger that became tangible evidence of the permanence of his sickness.

This is not just the last year. It is not a culminating moment. It is not over.

From now on, Saint Daddy will be sick, and that silicone around his finger will remind me of that over and over again.

Some days are good days. Some days he feels okay. We hold on to those days. We hold on to each other.

In our vows, we said, in sickness and in health. I remember. I wish it were not this way, but what I have of this man, this wonderful man, is the best part of my life. I will love Saint Daddy through anything and in any way.

Sometimes that means that he needs to curl up inside of me and be protected.

With a silicone wedding band and all of my love…

Thanks For Your Texts

I saw your text. I am sure I did. Well, I saw that you had texted me. Maybe I opened it. I cannot really remember. I know I did not respond.

I want to apologize, but I was once told that an apology is only sincere when it is accompanied by a plan to do better.

I probably will not do better.

I mean, I will sometimes. I will most of the time in fact.

But I cannot promise that I will do better all of the time, which brings me to this post.

I cannot promise to always be better. Because I am not always better.

October is tough every year for some reason. If I had to rank my toughest months to get through, February and October would consistently be near the top.

I understand February. The days are dreary and cold. It is the depths of winter.

But October? October is lovely. The trees are beautiful, the mums are nostalgic, and we celebrate so much in October. Our anniversary, Saint Daddy’s birthday, and Sunshine’s second favorite holiday, Halloween. I have no complaints against October truly.

Except that every October, I spiral.

This October was no exception.

I felt the weight of my days. I literally psyched myself up before leaving my car in the morning. “You can do this,” I said this morning as I turned off the ignition and grabbed my bag on my way into the building. “I believe in you.”

Good. Great. The first step is the hardest one. I can do all of the others.

But at the end of the day, I am spent. I faked it until I survived it. I pretended and smiled and fought the good fight.

And occasionally, I cried.

I cried because it is hard and I am so tired and I feel unappreciated and unnoticed and unsupported and a million other things that, were it not October, I might not have felt at all. I certainly would not have felt them so deeply.

But there is something about October. Something about these cooler, shorter days. Something about the way they blur into each other. Something about the most beautiful fall days that makes me feel disconnected, discouraged, disengaged.

So yeah, I saw your text. And yours. And yours too. I read it or maybe I did not but I will. I saw your email as well and her email and that one over there. I saw it. I saw that you called. I might even have seen your smoke signals, read your card, seen your love.

But I, shamefully, was too deep in my head to respond. I had too much going on to act, to react, to reciprocate.

I get it. It is awful of me. You deserve better. That is something I apologize for. I am constantly trying to do better by you, by all of you. I want to be the best I can be, the one you can rely on, the one you can trust to respond.

But my muck is too deep sometimes and self care occasionally means seeing your text and saying nothing. Self care sometimes means leaving the conversation when it is not quite over. Self care sometimes means hiding a little so I can find myself.

There are limits. If you really did need me, I would have been there. If your text said “I have a problem,” I would not hesitate because I am a loyal and dedicated friend.

But my lack of text back said “I have a problem.” I hope you understand.

October is ending. I will read your texts, all of them. Has too much time gone by that I can no longer respond? Probably.

But know, please know, that, even when I say nothing, your texts might be the lifeline I need to help me remember that my muck is not something I need to wade alone.

So thanks for your texts.

Thanks for you.

Sunny School Days

Sunshine brought her class to the dinner table on Friday. Well, not to the dinner table. She walked them by the dinner table to the living room so they could eat in the cafeteria with the other students while Miss Sunshine ate with Mrs. Momma and Principal Saint Daddy.

At one point, one of the children in her class said the word “poop,” and Miss Sunshine had her write a note home to her mommy about how sorry she was about her behavior. Another student had to do the same for farting in the music teacher’s face.

I would apologize for the crude actions of Miss Sunshine’s students, but she already had them do that.

Sunshine starting playing school again on Wednesday.

I say “again” because she used to play school. I have pictures of Sunshine trying to teach Grumpy and Sleepy last September. By October of 2018, she had stopped.

I should have known then, but I guess I did not really notice. Not until I saw Sunshine playing school again. Then I remembered that Sunshine loved school until her belly started to hurt. Sunshine pretended to be at school regularly until she started begging to stay home. Briefly, she wanted to teach elementary school until she asked why she had to go at all.

There was a shift in Sunshine that I did not notice until it shifted back.

Many have asked me about Sunshine’s transition to her new school. I have responded as briefly as possible, but I have wanted to gush.

Sunshine loves her new bus rides. They are pretty long, but the girls she sits near are nice and the atmosphere is less chaotic and she is allowed to play with small toys, read a book, and drink some water.

Sunshine loves her new classroom. It is decorated like a tree house, and she sits nearest to a sweet girl who makes her laugh. They won a door decorating contest last week, and Sunshine contributed “kindness” to it.

Sunshine loves her new playground. There is a climbing area and a place to play hopscotch. On Wednesday, she played dinosaurs with one of her classmates and they giggled the whole time.

Sunshine loves the games they play in math class. She loves the fact that one of her classmates has the same headphones that she has. She loves that she did not take a test all week. She loves that her teacher is nice.

Sunshine is happy.

She had a moment on Wednesday morning when the new had worn off and she asked to stay home. She did not know anyone’s name. She felt anxiety creeping in and she did not understand why she had to go to school whole Grumpy and Sleepy were able to stay at home.

That afternoon, Sunshine ran off the bus with a smile on her face and she told me all about the girl who made her laugh and the girl who played dinosaurs with her and she forgot that she did not like school.

She played school that evening.

She had the time and the energy and the desire to play school.

On Friday, a colleague told me that I am right that there are times that we cannot know. We cannot know if we are doing what is right for our children. We make a plan and we cannot go back and sometimes we think about the other path, the one we did not take.

I wondered for a while about this path, the one I moved Sunshine to. I wondered for all of last year if Sunshine belonged at the school we chose for her this year instead of where she was. I contemplated the decision we had made to not send her there for kindergarten. I wondered.

Looking back, it reminded me of another decision I made. In 2011, I interviewed for and was offered a position in another state. It was a wonderful opportunity that would have moved my career ahead much more quickly. It would have been a great move for me. When the offer came in, I rejected it. I felt that my story at the time was not yet finished. I spent the next three years wondering if I had made the right decision. I worried that Saint Daddy was angry with me about it because I made a decision that he did not understand, could not understand.

In 2014, I interviewed for and was offered my current position, and I never thought about that other position, that missed opportunity, again. If I had taken that position in another state, I would not be here, and here is where I belong, with a company I believe in and colleagues that I both respect and admire.

I know, with Sunshine playing school again, that I will not wonder about what could be, the path we did not take.

Much like my professional path is correct now, so is Sunshine’s schooling path.

I know the reason I spent three years thinking about a position I did not really want is because my anxiety convinces me that I can mess up everything. It tells me that even the smallest choices can ruin everything. It says that some decisions cannot be reversed and that my whole life will be in shambles forever because I did something wrong.

But sometimes, my anxiety shuts up. Sometimes, even my anxiety is not sure how to rile me up. Sometimes, my anxiety is not even sure what I have to be afraid of.

Sunshine playing school made my anxiety shut up. No easy feat.

So how is Sunshine doing at her new school? Perfectly.

School Blues

Tomorrow begins the fifth week of school for Sunshine. She has been doing well. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I began drafting a post about how her teacher was sensitive to her anxiety. It was going so well. When Sunshine forgot her “getting to know me” project after Saint Daddy spent a night in the hospital and we rushed around to get everything together in the morning, I expected her to spend our entire drive home from school hysterically yelling at me, something she does when she feels anxious. She did not. Her teacher said that it was okay and that other kids also forgot theirs. However she had handled the situation with Sunshine was the right way. A week later, her teacher emailed Saint Daddy and me to tell us that Sunshine seemed anxious about time limits because she wanted to be perfect and time limits sometimes prevented perfection. She said she talked to Sunshine about it. I told her about Sunshine’s anxiety diagnosis and thanked her for taking such good care of our girl.

Tomorrow begins the fifth week of school for Sunshine, and I wrote down the supply list for first grade at another school today.

Sunshine will be starting the sixth week of school somewhere else with a new teacher and new friends and new school supplies.

The last week moved quickly in a whirlwind of what should we do and how should we proceed and what if we are making a mistake. It is hard to believe that it all happened in a week. For some, our reasons might not be enough. For us, they are everything.

Sunshine is happy enough at school. We are happy enough with her school. Yet…

Last Monday, Sunshine came home from school with a nearly full lunch box. She takes the bus to and from school on Mondays at her own request. She is gone from 7:30 am to nearly 5:30 pm on Mondays. Her official drop off time, according to the bus company and the school, is 4:41 pm. She has never been home that early. In that amount of time, nearly ten hours, Sunshine ate one cheese stick and two graham crackers. She returned home with pita chips, hummus, blackberries, crackers, a bite-sized Kit-Kat, and a pre-packaged rice crispy treat in her school bag. We send more than enough food so she will never go hungry. We questioned her about this. She said she was not allowed to eat her rice crispy treat because it was too sugary. No alternative was provided. No note came home. She said they were late getting to lunch, a scheduled twenty minute daily activity that takes place in another building. She said that she only had time to eat her cheese stick. My six year old consumed one cheese stick and two graham crackers all day. We received no adult communication. We received a hungry child.

Hungry kids are not learning kids.

We had an issue last year with lunch. We learned that the kids were being made to stand quietly in the hall until they were all silent before they would move on to lunch. We cried out against these group punishments that prevented Sunshine from eating a balanced meal. The teacher swore it was not what Sunshine claimed. It happened again and again.

We had enough.

We know nothing about what Sunshine is doing at school. We know that group punishments are regular occurrences. We know that naughty kids can lose recess and other privileges for their whole class. We know that Sunshine is not a naughty kid. At least we assume so because no communication comes home to the contrary.

Sunshine’s headphones broke at school. Sunshine said she needed new ones. I said, “Is there a note from your teacher?” No, but I need them by Monday because we use them every day.

The hunger, though, that was the final straw. The nail that wrecked that camel’s coffin.

We had enough.

Saint Daddy looked into rentals to move into so we could send Sunshine to another school district. He found one and even sent a message to a realtor.

We contacted a charter school that we had considered when Sunshine was four years old. Saint Daddy wanted to know if they had space for a first grader. They did.

We applied immediately. We toured the school. We provided notarized copies of paperwork. Saint Daddy called the bus company about changing Sunshine’s pick up and drop off routines.

This has not been an easy week for me. I was confronted by an unknown that I could not tackle easily.

At Sunshine’s therapy on Tuesday, her therapist questioned why we decided to move her. And I said, “my heart tells me she’s not in the right place.”

And that was it. My heart said that Sunshine needed more that what we were giving her. I could feel it deeply. Sunshine’s school is not right for her or for our family. I could feel it every time something came home with her name spelled incorrectly on it. Her name is not Sunshyne. It is a common name with a common spelling, and not caring enough to know it shouts lack of care clearly and effectively.

My best friend asked if I had considered the impact that Sunshine’s school had on her mental health. She said that she knew that Sunshine was always a little worried but that school seemed to exasperate it. That something about her school kicked her anxiety into overdrive. As her year progressed, her struggles became more pronounced.

Had I considered?

I knew. Sunshine’s school boasts a long school day and a long school year. Those things are lovely on paper, but by the time she returns home after a long day at school, she has time to eat dinner, take a bath, and go to bed. If there is homework, her time is even more stretched.

She is six.

It is too much.

I knew all of that. I knew it in my heart and I tried not to focus on it because I was not sure of the alternatives.

I fretted. I lost sleep. I felt agitated and overwhelmed.

Even when Sunshine was accepted to the new school, I worried. She would go, but honestly, I had never been to the school. Could I put my six year old on a bus to a place I had never seen? What kind of mother would do that? I was not that mother.

What if I was making the wrong call? What if her new school was more wrong for her than her current school? What if I do this and she hates it? What if she does not want to go? She already has anxiety. What if I set her off by forcing her to do something she would never want, could never want? Her best friend in the whole world is at her current school, and while they are no longer in the same class, they see each other in the hall. How would she feel if I took that away from her?

So I asked. “How would you feel if Daddy and I put you in a different school?”

She did not hesitate. That sounds fun!

I was astounded. I expected more trepidation.

Her excitement over the prospect did much to assuage my fears. If Sunshine felt ready, maybe it really was right.

We did tour the school. They have a butterfly garden and sensory pathway; an outdoor classroom and grandparent luncheons. Their programs are on point. Sunshine will participate in a pageant at the end of this year. They offer piano and drama lessons after school for a small fee. And Sunshine was thrilled to learn that there are not any uniforms. I was thrilled to learn that she would be home from school earlier than she is now, even by taking the bus. Lunch and recess are also longer, despite the shorter school day.

There are still so many questions for which I do not have any answers. I spent this week with my mind racing, hoping that I would somehow find the right answers to know that we were making the choice that would save Sunshine.

There is no way to know.

For now, we move forward.

Sunshine has one week left at her current school. Her new school would have taken her tomorrow, but we decided to give her a week to ease into it. Plus, Saint Daddy will take her to Back to School Night to meet her new teacher this week. An event that Sunshine’s current teacher did not notify us about at her current school, besides when Sunshine mentioned we were supposed to be at the school at 6:00 that day.

How can a mother know that she is making the right decision for her children? Is there a way to feel fully safe that you chose correctly?

I suppose there is not. When anxiety is at play, that brings hours of struggle, hours of worry, over sometimes the simplest decisions.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I am right. Whatever it is, Sunshine is at the foreground of my thoughts, and that, I feel, is the best that I can do for her.

When Sunshine Was Diagnosed With Mental Illness

Sunshine was sick for December. Not just sick in December. She spent the month in various stages of sickness. She said, “I don’t feel like myself” on our Nutcracker date, prompting us to leave a little before the end of the second act. She did not eat much for days at a time. She vomited without having a fever. She seemed better for a day or two. Then, she vomited again. She missed four days of school during the two and a half weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. At one point, she even developed a limp because she was experiencing leg pain that I at first attributed to growing pains.

She saw the pediatrician four times. She did not have the flu. She did not have strep throat. She did not have a fever, but she definitely had a virus. Viruses, Saint Daddy and I learned, can sometimes cause pain in the major joints, like the hips. No one else appeared sick until Sleepy vomited for twenty minutes and we celebrated the fact that Sunshine was contagious. Being contagious meant she would recover, even if it was taking a long time.

Shortly after this illness passed, we noticed that Sunshine felt sick regularly. At least three days a week, she did not want to go to school because she felt sick. Sunshine felt sick while we ate dinner. Sunshine felt sick as we prepared to leave the house. Sunshine felt sick around bedtime. Sunshine felt sick.

Then the nightmares came. Sunshine had a terrible dream that someone tried to kill her. It kept her up for a couple of nights with horrific “maginations.” She imagined that a man with a gun crawled into her bedroom window and took her away before Saint Daddy or I could stop him. She wanted to know how Daddy could save her if he was all the way across the hall. She imagined that someone was hiding under her bed, waiting to kill her. She imagined that no one would be able to protect her.

We bought her a new nightlight that projected beautiful stars across her ceiling. We gave her a sound machine. We even let her pick out a scary demon statue that she said would scare anyone away. It was her suggestion. He faces the window she is most afraid of. She calls him Mr. Scarypants.

These things helped for brief amounts of time. Inevitably, their usefulness would wear off and she would be imagining something even more horrific.

Sunshine’s fears increased as the year continued to progress. She stopped eating some of her favorite foods after she felt sick shortly after their consumption. Bananas, an absolute favorite, are a no-go for her now. She became afraid of the dark, of corners where spiders may lurk, of water being poured over her head, of walking within a foot of grates in the street. She refused to let us leave her room at night without a fight.

She associated “Sucker” by the Jonas Brothers with a particular magination about her swim instructor being a zombie and required that it be turned off if it ever played, and I do not know if you have noticed, but that gets played a lot.

About six weeks ago, Sunshine came to the living room where Saint Daddy and I were watching television after getting our babies in bed. She had a magination that she did not want to tell me about. She said it would make me scared too, and she did not want me to be scared. She was crying and wanted me to cuddle with her some more.

I followed Sunshine to her room. With her sound machine going and her stars projected on the ceiling, Sunshine gripped me and told me her magination. Someone had come into the house and had lined us up by age and had killed Daddy and then Mommy and they were going to kill her next and each of the brothers. She ran to me.

I felt grateful because she knew that she could come to me. I stayed with her that night, letting her feel my presence and know that I would always be there, choking on my tears, aware of my shortcomings.

It was that night that I knew, without any doubt in my mind, that Sunshine needed help. She was not going to get better going the way that we were going. She had spent eight months getting progressively worse, and I needed to do something. I needed to help her in ways I was never really helped.

Sunshine was formally diagnosed with anxiety in a therapist’s office on July 8. Her therapist noted that Sunshine is particularly afraid of being separated from me and that these fears manifest in recurring intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and a growing number of fears.

In my last post, I wrote about my diagnosis, but it was not that easy as a mother to admit that I could not save Sunshine on my own. I had tried. I knew what it was. I saw in her so many of the same issues that I saw in myself. The recurring belly aches, the incessant fears, the sleeplessness, the hesitation. I knew I had passed these to her in my blood. I wanted so badly to be the one who could help her figure out how to manage them.

But Sunshine and I are different people. She is an extrovert. She thrives on social interaction. She spends much less time in self-reflection that I did, even at her age. Sunshine needed help, and I, her mother who wanted to save her, got it for her. In many ways, my personal experience with anxiety helped me to know that the only way that I could help my daughter was to find someone else who could do it for me.

Sunshine did not let me out of the room for her first two sessions with her therapist. She was worried about where I might go while she was in this strange new place with this strange new adult who asked so many questions.

During the third session, Sunshine relinquished her grip on me and let me sit in the waiting room.

Her therapist has been amazing. She has helped Sunshine to evaluate good and bad emotions. She has her focusing on ways to lessen her fears as they happen. They talked about making scary things funny, like Harry Potter does in Prisoner of Azkaban.¬†She taught Sunshine belly breathing, which Sunshine asked to do while listening to “Sucker” play on her therapist’s phone. Sunshine imagined that her swim instructor was a smiling zombie that was going to save the world, not hurt people.

They have worked through so much in so little time.

Today, on the way home from therapy, “Sucker” came on the radio. I did not realize what song it was until the chorus began to play. Sunshine did not yell about the song. In fact, she sang along with it and yelled at me when I changed the station when I realized what we were listening to. When we stopped at the store to pick up a few things, Sunshine walked on a grate. In fact, she stood on it long enough for me to snap a picture for Saint Daddy. “It’s not even scary, Mom!” she said.

Sunshine’s bedtime routine has also improved. She sleeps with a picture of the two of us nearby in case she feels lonely. She keeps a large book to use to practice belly breathing if the maginations come, but they are not coming, not like they were. We play lullabies instead of white noise (this was actually a friend’s suggestion, but her therapist said it was a suggestion that she often gives herself).

Sunshine is still afraid. I do not count her as cured or anything, but I am so grateful for her diagnosis. In many ways, Sunshine’s diagnosis has changed her life.

I pray that this experience helps Sunshine to understand her mental health in ways that I never could at her age.

As we were leaving her appointment today, her therapist told Sunshine, “Remember, you can’t make all your fears go away, but you can learn to not be afraid of the ones you can’t control.”

I am so happy to have found this woman who has helped my baby to learn what to do about the fears that she cannot control.

When I Was Diagnosed With Mental Illness

As a child, I was often sick on major holidays. I felt nauseated as we prepared for Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house. I was not quite myself on Easter Sunday. It was a pattern that I had come to accept. Sometimes, I would power through. Holidays were special, important, not-to-be-missed. Sometimes, I spent Thanksgiving afternoon napping in Grandma’s bed, surrounded by my extended family members’ coats.

Remarkably, I often felt much better by the evening. We would go home, the guests would leave, and I would be ready to enjoy what remained of the day.

As a child, I often felt sick on my birthday. I often felt sick when my family made their once yearly trip to my dad’s favorite restaurant for a big family dinner. I often felt sick in the days leading up to vacation. I often felt sick on the first day of school. I often felt sick when we went to the theater on the Saturday after Thanksgiving for a family movie. I often felt sick when Grandma picked me up for a night at the symphony. I often felt sick.

I felt sick. My belly hurt. I felt sick.

Many years would pass before I knew why that pattern existed for me. As a child, though, I just felt sick.

I rested my head on the coolness of the glass in the backseat of my mom’s mini-van. I wanted to lay down. I wanted to sleep. I felt sick.

In an effort to not be a bother, sometimes I told my mom, but I usually kept quiet. I have spent much of my life going out of my way to not be a nuisance to those whose affections I crave.

I did not know why it was, but I felt sick.

I suffered from recurring nightmares that I never spoke about either. I dreamed that my parents, surrounded by their multitudes of children, would take us somewhere fun. A festival, a fair, an amusement park, the mall. And when it was time to go, they rounded everyone up, put them in the car, and drove home. I was left behind. I believed they would come back, but time would pass and they would not. I would be there on my own, entirely forgotten, because I was easy to forget, to ignore.

I would wake from these dreams in a panic. They were so real. I could not quiet my brain. In an effort to not be a bother, I told no one, not even my mom. Instead, I went to my brothers’ room, their floor covered in linoleum, crawled under their bunkbed and let the cool floor take some of the edge off my fears. I would lay there like that until the grayness of morning began to spread throughout their room, and I would go about my day, pretending that I did not believe that I was so easily forgotten, so easily left behind.

I had terrible thoughts. I once imagined biting my little brother’s ear off. Not maliciously. It was an accident. We were playing. I did not know what to do. I was afraid of how my mom would react, so I took his little ear, placed it in the bathroom waste basket, covered it with toilet paper, and hoped my mom would not notice.

This vision comes to me still, even though that baby brother is now a grown man with children of his own. I am haunted by it and others like it. Some worse, some better. Always constantly with me.

I dealt with my first “prolonged illness” when I was fifteen years old. It began in the summer. I was reading eight different books for Honors English 11. I was overwhelmed because school would begin in four weeks, and I had three books left to read. I went to a friend’s birthday party, and of course, I felt sick. Because that is what I do. I feel sick. I had decided that I was dying. This was no ordinary sickness. This one would probably kill me.

I stopped sleeping at night. I ate poorly. I was sick for months. I suffered from constant tension headaches, my thoughts raced, I felt I was always no the verge of vomiting. I needed to escape, but there was nowhere to go. Wherever I went, this illness came with me.

I told my parents that I needed help, and they told me it was all in my head. They told me it would be fine. They told me that I was just a kid and kids have nothing at all to worry about. They told me it was nothing. Nothing at all.

Just feel better.

And it went away. Not quickly. Slowly, over time, I felt better.

I dealt with my second “prolonged illness” when I was seventeen years old. I did not believe that I was dying, but I did believe that I would never recover. I believed that the way I felt was the way that I would always feel. Sleep came in fits and spurts. I ate only what appealed to me, which was mostly potato chips. I cried a lot. I cried often. I was irritable, moody, and completely wrecked.

I told my mom that I was afraid, and she sent me to my pastor’s wife for comfort. It was the best she could do for me.

Saint Daddy was there that time. He held me through it. It was hard, but I knew, because of that experience, that he would always be the one for me. Who else would love me through a complete mental breakdown?

These prolonged illnesses came a few more times.

About two months after Saint Daddy and I got married, one began. My boss had told me that he had received a complaint after someone did not get me to agree to her terms. He did not believe the complaint, but he wanted me to be on my best behavior to prove that I was not what the complainer had said. When I entered my first meeting the next day, I felt sick.

I had to go home.

I left for the day and rested on the couch. Miraculously, I felt almost entirely recovered as soon as I walked into the sanctuary of my home.

Weeks went by as I suffered daily with frequent runs to the bathroom in case I vomited, which I never did. I slept less. I felt like I could not find my footing. I was drowning. I could not rise above it.

By this point, at the age of 22, I knew what I had. It was not a prolonged illness. It was panic disorder. I was not physically sick so much as I was experiencing physical responses to being mentally sick. I knew by this point that all along I had been dealing with anxiety. That I had a disorder that made me susceptible to panic disorder. I knew then that I could have been helped, that I needed help, and that it is okay to not suffer through it in silence.

I did not have a diagnosis, but I knew.

After a month, Saint Daddy urged me to call my doctor and talk about getting myself some help.

Within a few days, I had been formally diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder.

My treatment was to take up exercise, to give up caffeine, to cut back on alcohol, to talk about it, and to take a little pill once a day.

I took up running. I gave up coffee. I held onto my wine. I became so much more open about my experiences. And I took that little pill every day for a year.

Thank God for that little pill. It helped me to set myself to rights. It was not a miracle, but it was like someone had thrown me a life preserver as I tossed in the turbulent sea of mental illness.

And suddenly, with that diagnosis, I felt that it could be okay. For the first time in my life, someone with real knowledge in that sphere said, “This is a real thing you are dealing with.” It was not “all in my head,” even if it was in my head.

I was sick, but I was not actually sick.

In the last ten years, I have had other bouts of panic disorder. But I have talked about them. I have learned to cope better so that they last less time. I experience symptoms of my GAD almost every day.

But one of the best things that happened to me was being given a name for why I felt sick on special occasions and why I could not push aside visions of terrible things that came to my mind.

My mental illness was normal for me, even if it is not normal for the world.

My diagnosis changed my life.

Sunshine’s Summer Swimming Sessions

Sunshine is taking swim lessons right now. She has always been terrified of the water. Absolutely. 100%. No doubt about it. Terrified.

We have been swimming, and even with her trusty Puddle Jumper there to protect her, she would cling to me or simply choose to sit on the steps. She has always been content to watch her friends have fun frolicking in the water.

Saint Daddy and I recognized that she needed lessons a few years ago, and we signed her up for lessons at a new area swim school a few months after her brothers were born.

The lessons were okay, I suppose. After a few weeks of twice weekly lessons, Sunshine was not terrified but she was also no more willing to move away from the steps of the pool at her best friend’s house.

Now that she is six, we knew it was time to try again. So we signed her up for the best lessons to be had. Everyone says so. People come from counties around for these swim lessons. This method was developed here and has been imitated throughout the region.

Sunshine’s lessons began on Monday morning. They last for an hour and occur every morning.

She was nervous on Monday morning. She did not eat much breakfast because her belly hurt, which she often says when her anxiety is piqued. It is the only way she knows how to describe her feelings. I hear her clearly when she says it. She is really saying, “I’m scared.”

I convinced her to put on her bathing suit, and we drove over to the local college’s pool together.

She sat next to me on their bleachers, pretending to not be scared. But I knew. Her fear was palpable, and I was nervous for her. When they called her name, I squeazed her hand and promised her that she would be okay.

Sunshine followed the other children down to the pool, away from their parents. I knew that many of those children had more experience than Sunshine, but I also knew we were in the right place.

I watched from afar as Sunshine was evaluated and then shifted to another area of the pool. She was not ready for whatever they had put her in initially. I was not surprised to see that. She hates even getting her face wet during bathtime.

I watched her, and each time her instructor turned his back on her, she climbed out of the pool. I watched her pull away from him as he tried to bring her back in and another instructor had to pick her up and hand her to him. I watched as she gripped his neck when he tried to have her bob into the water. I watched as he pried Sunshine’s tiny arms from his own so he could give another kid his time.

When that first lesson was over, Sunshine came to me in tears. It was too hard. She was too scared. She did not want to go back.

We walked out to the car. I opened the back hatch and placed Sunshine in the trunk space. “Tell me about it,” I said.

Sunshine said that swim lessons are a big thumbs down. The other kids were better. She was so scared. Her instructor was nice, but he kept asking her to float and she did not know how and she would never know how. I held her cold, wet self for a few minutes and we got into the car.

“I don’t want to go back tomorrow,” she announced a few miles into our drive home.

You have to…

I turned down the radio, rolled up the windows, and slowed down the car.

“Listen, baby,” I began. “I know it’s hard, but… Do you remember the first time you read Big Pig on a Dig? Do you remember how hard you thought that was? Do you remember how you yelled because you didn’t think ‘ground’ made any sense? Do you remember?”

Yeah…

“Do you remember how it felt when you figured it out? You read the whole book and you felt awesome?”

Silence.

“There are going to be thousands of things in your life that you think are too hard. Things that seem impossible or really scary. Things you are convinced you can’t do. But you’re going to work at those things. You’re going to practice. And one day, you’ll do them and you will realize that they are not so bad. Because you can do that scary thing, and just like reading Big Pig on a Dig, you’re going to be so happy with yourself once you see what you can do.”

But…

“This happens to everyone, baby. We all get scared sometimes. Mommy has this thing. I have never really named it for you. It’s called anxiety. It tells me that things will be too hard and that they won’t be worth it and that I can’t do them anyway. But I can. I just have to tell my head to let me do it. That’s what I want you to do, baby. I want you to tell your head that you can do this. Because I know you can. I know it’s not too hard for you. Your teacher won’t let it be too hard for you. You’ll do it. So will you go back tomorrow and try?”

Okay…

She did not seem entirely convinced, but she did not fuss in the morning when we returned.

It took her instructor a few minutes to convince Sunshine to get into the water, but he did. Somehow. And once she was in, she stayed in there with her group for the remainder of the class.

After class was over, there were no tears.

I again sat her in the trunk. She said that she hated bobs but that class was a thumb to the side. Maybe it would be a diagonal up tomorrow, she said.

On day three, she was the first member of her group to get into the pool.

On day four, she began to practice bobbing with her group members while they waited for their instructor, who was working with other students.

When she joined me on the bleachers she announced that class was “finally fun today.”

When I sat her in the trunk on day four for our post-swim class ritual, she told me that her instructor told her he was proud of her and that she thinks she could probably bob for five (seconds) during the next class.

Outside of class, Sunshine’s baths have become much more pleasant. She puts her face in the water. She does not scream when the water runs down her face. She told Saint Daddy that she wished our tub was deeper so she could swim in it like she can swim at swim class.

Within class, she has become far more confident. She bobbed up and down enough times for me to get a video for Saint Daddy. She laughed with the other kids. She put herself into the pool.

She will most likely never request to join a swim team, but she is not terrified of the water. Maybe, just maybe, she will play with the other kids the next time we go to a pool.

Sunshine’s swim lessons are a great example of how facing the scary thing makes us better versions of ourselves.

My anxiety has told me thousands of times that it would be better to not go again tomorrow than to keep trying. My anxiety has told me to quit and stop making a fool of myself. My anxiety has told me that I am not worth the improvement.

But I am. Sunshine is. We all are.

I know I gave Sunshine my mental illness. I passed it to her in my breastmilk. I did not mean to, but I did.

I hope that she hears the lessons that I have learned and can learn from some of them so she does not have to spend so much time figuring it all out on her own. If she cannot learn from me, at least I can say that I will always be there to love her though it.

I disappoint Sunshine a few times a week. That is a conservative estimate. Sometimes, I disappoint her multiple times in a single day.

She yells at me.

She tells me I am rude and that I am ruining her life and that I obviously do not love her.

I let her yell as best as I can. I do not let her get a rise out of me.

Most importantly, I do not bend.

That is what all of the yelling is for. She wants me to bend, and I never do.

Growing up, my mom often said, “If I’m making you happy all of the time, I’m not doing my job right.”

I think of that every time I anger Sunshine with my “no” or my “not today.