Motherhood has involved way more time spent picking my kids' noses than I ever expected. I mean, when I envisioned having kids the amount of time I speculated I'd be picking their noses was zero, so it's not hard. But still.
Of all the surprises I've had, however, the biggest one by far is just how little I get to control my children's personalities. I spent so much time reading baby books in preparation for having my first kid, and then still more after we had her. I've spent much of my life around children and babies. I thought I knew what I was getting into. And then my first child was born, and she defied absolutely everything the baby books (and my experience) prepared me for. Get your child on a schedule, they said. So I dutifully tried. And I tried. And I tried. No amount of trying to force a schedule on her was going to work against her will. Even before she was born I remember telling my husband, "I think she's going to be stubborn," because she kept cramming her butt up into my ribs in utero. I'd push her away so I wasn't getting bruised ribs and after a moment she'd push her butt into my ribs again. Over and over. So the stubbornness and strong will were not exactly a surprise, but everything I'd read made it seem like I could mold my kid, direct her and move her in certain ways.
Never. I've never been able to direct my child. The schedule we're told to get babies on? She never had a consistent schedule for more than a few days at a time. I was going crazy in her first year because I could never tell if she was going to nap for 45 minutes or 3 hours. It changed from day to day. Two naps one day, none the next. Maybe she'd only wake up twice at night (which she was still doing at well over a year) or, and I'm not exaggerating, 10 times. It was exhausting, both mentally and physically. She was so fussy, and so inconsistent about everything. I was a total wreck. And worse, I constantly felt that I was Doing It Wrong, because that's what everything I'd ever read told me. What kind of shit mom can't even get their baby to hold a consistent schedule? Why can I not soothe her? It's not this hard for other people, I thought. What's wrong with me? What's wrong with my baby? In the worst moments, I wondered if I just wasn't suited to motherhood. The whole idea had been a mistake, and I was going to ruin my kid's life because I was never meant to be a mom.
I would love to say that it's gotten easier as she's gotten older, and in some ways it has. We can communicate with her, and that's a big plus. She has, in so many ways, grown into a delightful child. She's smart, she's funny. She loves to be helpful.
But she's never easy, and even "easier" is only something I can say about some moments, some aspects of life with her.
|A sign I saw in Alaska, and which I might need.|
She climbs absolutely everything, and she's really, really good at it. We've got her in gymnastics but that's really to hone natural talent, not the driving force behind why she's good at all things physical.
I won't go on, but you get the picture. If that's what it's supposed to be like only for boys, where does my wild child fit in? And why should we define and confine children by their gender? She's got boy friends who are sweet, quiet, and biddable. (Yes, there are children out there who are like that. It's amazing.) Why should these experiences of childhood be erased just because they don't conform? Do I get a shirt that says, "I might as well have had boys"? But that might make it seem like I want my children to be other than what they are, and despite everything, I don't.
My daughter is what would have in the past be termed a hellion. A hoyden. She's even been jokingly described by the family as a demon, a monster, a psycho. I've said many times that whoever came up with the term "children should be seen and not heard" had a child like mine. The noise level, oh my gawd. The noise.
|Two snowy days last year and|
she was literally climbing walls.
These moods haven't really gotten better as she's gotten older. They've gotten slightly longer apart, so we'll have a couple of good weeks at a time, but then she'll have a month of almost maniacal misbehavior. She'll throw day-long tantrums and then wake up the next day to do it all again. When we ask her why she says, "I don't know." Well past the age when she should be growing out of these behaviors, they're getting worse rather than better. She's begun hitting and kicking, and the rage of a six-year-old is vastly different from that of an infant, no matter how terrible it was when she was a baby.
My husband has assured me all along, grimly, that she's just like him. I say 'grimly' because he's got ADHD. You might not know this, as I didn't, that it's highly genetic. One of his biggest fears has always been that he would pass it along to our kids. When the Munchkin was born it was obvious to his family that she was just like he was.
I brushed it off for a long time. This was not as flippant as that statement makes it seem, actually. Growing up in a small town, the fact that he was different was used to bully my spouse. One of the first things he told me about himself is that he's got ADHD. It became something that defined him, not just a part of who he is but the defining characteristic. I didn't want that for our daughter. I didn't want her to feel so different that it defined everything about her.
But I did a bit of research. I didn't want to not get her help, I just didn't want to prematurely diagnose her (since ADHD isn't generally addressed before the age of about 5) and I didn't want to make her feel Different. Worse. Unworthy. But I was willing to do some things as if she had ADHD, without seeking a diagnosis. Unspoken between us was the fact that going to an outdoor, nature preschool was one of the best things we could have done for our child. I've also made sure that we create outlets for her boundless energy, and even small things like getting her into our backyard (backed by a greenspace, surrounded by trees) as often as possible helps to calm her down. I've taken her out running with me on days when she seems ready to explode. I've found a series of children's yoga videos that she adores, to the point that she'll actually ask for them. (Little sister tries to do them too, and it's the most adorable thing to see them together on the mat.)
Having a second kid also threw her behavior into a new light. My second child is as different from the first as the sun from the moon. If my big girl is just like her dad, my little girl is just like me. It has forced me to confront the fact that the baby books are wrong--I'm never going to be able to mold my child. Maybe some kids are like espaliered trees but not mine. She's a force of nature. She's a river. I can help shore up her banks but I can't change the direction she flows in. This is true of both my children. And it's such a relief. I'm not doing it all wrong, and neither is she. Fuck the baby books for ever making me doubt the two of us.
Then, school started
Kindergarten, and no longer having our beloved outdoor preschool, loomed heavy in our minds. The Munchkin was so excited to be a big girl and starting big kid school. But we, her parents, were nervous. Sitting in school all day was going to be a hard transition. I did all the pre-k stuff. She did Jump Start, a week that gets the kids in the classroom before kindergarten starts. They meet the teachers and the other students, they get to learn the school and some of the routine. I met both of the kindergarten teachers and liked them, so I didn't care which one of them taught my kid. I learned that because she goes to a Title I school there are actually some amazing advantages--a small class size, for instance, and AmeriCorps volunteers to help with reading and math in small groups. Extra behavioral interventions for kids who need them. Three recesses. They even do a tiny morning meditation during the morning announcements. The principal is wonderful. The PTA (which I've joined) is chill parents who are simply invested in making sure the all the kids at our tiny school are successful. It's a great school, and we weren't worried about that.
|Apparently we have studs|
We were just worried about her behavior issues. Having our second daughter helped in so many ways, but it also made it obvious that the Munchkin's behavior issues and moods were not just a normal part of childhood. Miss Sunshine is firmly in toddler territory, but even her tantrums are nothing compared to her sister's. She can be redirected or soothed in a way that our older child can't. It has become more and more obvious that there's something major going on and that it's something we all need help with. So I started doing more serious research about ADHD. I looked up the diagnostic criteria and made a surprising discovery--that I likely also have ADHD. When I was a kid it would have been called ADD, but now it's all lumped together under the same heading but with different forms. I check pretty much all the boxes for the inattentive form of ADHD.
I say it was a surprise, but in many ways it wasn't. I've heard about this since I was a kid and have many times wondered. Maybe that's why other kids could seem to remember about things like permission slips, when I never could? (I learned to forge my dad's signature early on, so I wouldn't miss out on field trips.) Or why organization has always been so difficult for me? Or why remembering to turn in homework, or even that I had homework, was so hard for me?
It's not surprising that this could have been missed in me. I was a daydreamer, so I was quietly inattentive rather than the flashy, attention-getting hyperactivity of my child. Girls, who tend more toward the inattentive form, are distressingly under-diagnosed and don't get the help they (we) need. As with many illnesses, the gold standard in diagnosis was based on symptoms more often seen in boys. Sexism in medicine is alive and well. This was all especially true when I was younger, when ADHD was a "boys' problem".
I had wondered over the years, but none of my teachers and neither of my parents ever mentioned the possibility. Since my parents tended to dismiss my complaints of hurt and illness (sometimes with reason--I did like to play up any illness to stay home from school) I also dismissed this. My mom would just roll her eyes if I suggested it, I thought, and I'd be made to feel like a hypochondriac. So I didn't mention it to anyone. It was just a problem with me and not a disorder and, like with the parenting, it was entirely my fault if I couldn't do these things that came naturally and easily to everyone else. The problem was me.
When I mentioned this suspicion that I might have inattentive ADHD to my younger brother he said, "Oh, well that's what I've got so it wouldn't be surprising if you do too." I mentioned that it's genetic, right? A shocking number of parents learn that they've got ADHD when their child is diagnosed with it. I suspect that many, like myself, won't really do much about it (I'm not going to seek a formal diagnosis or medication because obviously I've got my life fairly stable--it would be different if things were out of control) but it is nice to know. It's nice to feel like things aren't just all my fault because I'm terrible at being human.
The more I think of it, the less I want my daughter to think that it's just a problem with her. I didn't want her to grow up feeling bullied and persecuted for being different, but even less do I want her to think that she's just wrong. How can I build confidence in my daughter if everything I do tells her that she's not wonderful just as she is?
|This helps us all.|
It's also making me think more about the ways I've found to help me manage the world. I've had to figure out ways of organization that help me do what needs to be done. I've figured out how to manage my time (mostly), my stuff (I'm getting better), and what I need to do to pay attention when it's important. My mind still wanders a lot, but I also know how to snap myself back to attention. So I'm using these things to help her out as well. Obviously not all of them will be applicable. She's a different person, and her symptoms manifest differently. There will be a lot of trial and error over the years. But I hope I'm showing her that it can be done, and that by giving her multiple ways of doing something right she will eventually figure out what works best for her. Just because something works well for someone else doesn't mean that she's wrong if it doesn't work for her.
This thinking is also helping us to modify the house to help us all out. We have hooks at her height for easy storage of her backpack, her bath robe. We have bins so that the toys can be picked up and put away easily, without taking too much time. If we make it easy for her to be organized then she will be more able to help herself.
Before kindergarten started we began the process of getting her diagnosed with ADHD. We knew she'd need the help. I'm so glad this is something we started early, because no matter what it takes a few months. She started off the school year on her best behavior but as she's gotten more comfortable her behavior has gotten wilder and wilder. If we'd waited to seek help then we'd have been frantic for answers and help. As it is, the week before Thanksgiving she went to the office at least once every day, and she had three notes sent home. She was crawling on the floor and scattering teaching materials. She was climbing on things and stacking furniture. Whenever someone asked her why she'd say, "I don't know." She was out of her own control and, frankly, it seemed to scare her.
That same week, she officially got the diagnosis. The week after her sixth birthday. We'd had forms to fill out, and one for her teacher. We discussed her issues and what we've tried at home. She behaved beautifully at the doctor's--climbing things, crawling, interrupting, humming noisily. She's obviously a bright kid (which sounds braggy, but I have as much control over that as I do any other part of her nature and I know it) but she can't hold still or stay quiet to save her life. This diagnosis was more of a relief than anything else. Now we can truly get the help she needs, the support we all need.
We've made the really difficult decision that she does need medication. She's prescribed something that won't linger in her system but will help her out for 8-10 hours a day. The first time she took it, a trial run on a day when we'd be with her, she flew into a rage that morning. She'd misbehaved and I sent her for a timeout. The week before when this had happened I'd had to chase her down and throw her in her room, at which point she'd flung the door open and run away. I had to chase her down again, kicking and screaming and clawing at me, and then hold the door closed with her throwing herself against it and kicking and continuing to scream. It was like confining a wild animal. This went on for an hour. An hour. And it wasn't the only time that day, that week.
With the medication, though? She went to her room. She wasn't happy about it but she went. No screaming. No clawing and kicking and hitting me. She stayed in her room until I told her she could come out. She listened to me when I explained what she'd done wrong, and how she could have done better. At the end she said, "Well, I'm sorry for that," and then explained her side of things. Calmly. I could not have been more shocked. I almost cried, both because it was so wonderful to be able to have a calm discussion but also because this rational little girl has been locked inside of her for so long, struggling. She knows what she should do but she gets to a point where she's not the one in control and she has no idea how to get back. She knows what she should do but she just can't do it.
We had decided that she was only going to have her medicine on school days, to help her out when she needed it the most. But last night as I was tucking her into bed I mentioned that today would be a school day and she perked up. "So I'll get my medicine?" I said yes and then asked, "Do you want to take your medicine every day?"
She hesitated for a second and then told me, "Because I'm a nice person when I take it."
You guys. That gutted me. It's only been a few weeks but she can feel such a difference in herself. It's not that she wants to be mean, or to lose control, it's that she really can't control herself. And she hates it as much as, or more than, anyone else does. She's been the one reminding me on school mornings that she needs to take her medicine. (In a spoonful of applesauce is the easiest way for her.) We worried that this would be a hard thing, but she's seeking the changes as much as we are. She already knows she behaves differently from the other kids, and she hates it. She wants to be more in control of herself. So we're giving her control over when she takes her medication. If she wants to take it every day for a while, she can be in charge of that. She's mature enough to see the difference it's making, so she's mature enough to make the choice for herself. It's not dulling who she is or changing her, it's just giving her the control she's been lacking.
It's easy to see that this is not only helping her concentrate, but also giving her a morale boost. Every day when she gets to tell me she had another great day at school her eyes are glowing. She's happy with herself, and that is priceless. ADHD is so much more than just not being able to focus, or having lots of energy. And it's been crushing her to feel like she can't do well at school, when she's been so excited about it.
I've seen the attitude that medicating kids with ADHD is somehow...a copout? The easy way? Something for pansy helicoptering Millennial libtards, or whatever word salad someone wants to put together to be insulting. I've even had someone tell me that ADHD in my child was caused by her traumatic birth, which feels awesome to be blamed for by the way. Those are all fundamental misunderstandings of this...I can't really say illness, or impediment, or learning disorder. It's a different way of experiencing the world. If medicine will help make the world a little more meaningful, a little easier to understand, then so be it.
I'm certain our stance on medication will continue to evolve as she gets older. This will be an ongoing discussion, especially as she matures. Medication is also not where this will end--there's behavioral therapy that we're going to start after the New Year. There are changes that the whole family will need to make in addition to the things we're already doing (playing at the playground every day after school, biking to and from school) to help her. We're looking into getting weighted blankets, possibly even for everyone except the little one (until she's older). We're working on calming strategies such as yoga and deep breathing. We'll continue modifying things and figuring out what works best for us.
Kids with ADHD also frequently have sensory issues. I've begun to wonder if that has played a role in some of her fussiness. When she's getting sick is often when she's been at her worst. When she was potty training I noticed that she would get angry and upset, then go to the bathroom and be calmer again. She takes off her shoes at school because she "hates shoes" (I get it, kid, I really do) and she would be naked 100% of the time if she could. She seeks stimulation in so many aspects (light, noise) that it can be startling to realize that other sensations are overwhelming for her. So we're going to explore that aspect more, and try to see in what ways we can help her out there.
The biggest thing this diagnosis has given us all is peace of mind. It's not that she's a bad kid, or we're bad parents. It's not something we're doing or not doing that's causing her behavior issues. If anyone is to blame it's the world we live in--big and noisy and overstimulating in the extreme. We can't change that but we can change our attitude. There are amazing aspects to ADHD. People with the hyperactive form tend to be incredibly perceptive, noticing everything. HusbandX has used that aspect to be really, really good at his job. I use the daydreaming to work on my writing, figuring out just how to word something. So we're going to focus on the positive aspects of who she is, and how she can use her natural talents to succeed. This diagnosis doesn't have to be something that marks her out as strange, or drags her down. It can be something that sets her apart in a good way, because she has skills that the average person doesn't. It's up to us to help her recognize what those are and how to use them.
I finally found one. A book about child rearing that I love. It was the first book I've ever read that actually described my child. This book is not ADHD specific. It's for parents of any kids who are high energy, high difficulty. It's called Raising Your Spirited Child. I nearly cried when I read it because it confirmed so many of my observations, things that went against normal parenting advice. Like, a bath before bed is a terrible idea for my kid. She's not soothed and calmed, she gets hyped up.
It really, really helped me to understand my kid better because the author goes through nine different personality traits that anyone can have, but which can be more intense in a spirited kid. It ends up like a mix-and-match book, because not all parts will be relevant to your kid. But when it is? It's life changing. Getting the confirmation that yes, your kid is just more challenging than average. No, you're not a terrible parent if you find your kid to be way too much sometimes. And she talks about ways to reframe things for yourself. Why these traits can be so difficult, but also why they can be incredibly positive. Ways you can help your kids to bring out the positive more than the negative.
If anyone else out there has a kid that's just more, even if it's just in one or two areas, I really do recommend this book. It made me wonder why I would ever want a kid who's not intense and passionate and fiery. Why would I want some insipid milksop who follows directions the first time when I could have my wild and wonderful kid who doesn't stop questioning and doesn't slow down because she feels everything all the time?
It's so nice not to feel like a failure, like you or your child is doing something wrong. If any of this resonated with you, please read the book. And feel free to pass along to me any that you've found helpful.