Tagged Agnes

What do you do when non of the traditional parenting advice works for you? Managing ADHD and non-neuro-typical kids

Raising a Neuro-Typical vs. a Non-Neuro-Typical Child

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I have two beautiful, loving, bright little boys. As with many families with two or more children, one of my children is more challenging than the other. However, unlike most families, my oldest son has ADHD, and the other does not. In raising them, my husband jokes that we could send our youngest child off to boarding school, pick him up when he turned 18, and he would turn out just fine. Before my older child received his ADHD diagnosis, we were often left scratching our heads at the end of the day, unsure of how to exactly parent him. Most parenting methods simply did not work with him.

What do you do when non of the traditional parenting advice works for you? Managing ADHD and non-neuro-typical kids

Child Psychologists, C.B. McNeil and T.L. Hembree-Kigin, describe the difference between a neurotypical and a child with ADHD, when they write:

Suppose a child with ADHD and a classmate are both eating pudding and become silly. They make pudding mustaches and pudding earrings. You respond like most parents by saying, “That’s disgusting. You’re supposed to eat pudding, not play in it.” How will the calmer classmate feel? He will probably feel sorry that he disappointed you, and he will immediately wipe the pudding off of his face. Yet, when you use exactly the same parenting strategy with the child who has ADHD, what happens? He laughs, makes a pudding beard on his face, and throws his pudding at you. So for the average child, criticism is a very effective deterrent. That child will probably never put pudding on his face in your house again. But, for the child with ADHD, the criticism is like the tall glass of water for a thirsty person. He was under-aroused and the criticism provided the stimulation he needed to feel better. Rather than being a deterrent, the criticism was actually a reward.*

While I have never had a “pudding” experience, the psychologists summed up the experience of parenting my two children perfectly. My youngest child misbehaves, but he reacts to my behavioral corrections, frustration or disappointment. My oldest child often escalated his behavior when I tried to correct him or got upset. The old standby of positive and negative consequences either didn’t fully do the trick or took much longer to work than with my other child. For my oldest child, I read countless parenting books (123 Magic, Love and Logic, the Difficult Child, etc.). I read blogs and attended parenting lectures. Afterwards, I would leave each lecture thinking that I had tried all the old tricks and followed the advice of therapists, but my son seemed to be able to outsmart all parenting advice. He also pushed almost every limit, and he didn’t seem to learn from negative experiences or consequences (Why not touch that hot grill or jump out of a parked car’s window head first?). My youngest son tests limits, but he doesn’t test every limit over and over again. He also occasionally throws fits, but he doesn’t frequently throw such extreme fits that it sounds like someone is beating him. When he plays with friends, he doesn’t get so overly excited that he cannot calm himself down. As for the parenting books and therapist blogs, most of the parenting tricks work on my youngest son. In fact, I rarely need to do any research. I can just parent him. I love both my children with all of my heart. I am in awe of them and their individual strengths every day. However, I can say that parenting my oldest child has taught me a lot of humility in ways that parenting my younger child never will.

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Perhaps the most difficult part about parenting my two children is the disparate ways that people react to them. When my oldest son was between the ages of 2 and 5, I rarely left the house without someone remarking, “Boy, you’ve got your hands full,” or “You must be tired at the end of the day.” I didn’t mind the comments, but viewed their remarks as coming from a place of sympathy. In truth, I did feel tired at the end of the day, and I did have my hands full. I did mind the people who judged my parenting by my oldest son’s behavior. Teachers asked me, “Have you ever disciplined your son?” or “Has your child ever had any structure?” Other people asked, “Have you ever tried telling him about inside voices and outside voices?” A well-meaning friend even offered, “Give him to me for a week. I think I could straighten him out.” In reality, we live by routine in my house, not because I am a particularly structured or organized person (in fact, I’m quite the opposite), but because my oldest son behaves much better when there is a routine. We have a morning routine prior to school, an afternoon routine and a bedtime routine with free time scheduled within each. For my older son, I have made behavior charts to encourage positive behaviors and given far more negative consequences (time-outs and taking away toys or television privileges) than I ever have created for my younger son. I also talked about inside voices and outside voices with him frequently (something I have never even had to mention to my younger son). In general, my oldest son acts pretty well at home. His main behavioral problems occur when he is over-stimulated, bored, around a lot of children, or in a new situation. Knowing this, I used role-play with him, demonstrating different ways to act when children wouldn’t share their toys, when he felt angry with a friend or when he felt overwhelmed. When we began therapy, the therapists were impressed with the amount of things my husband and I had tried.

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With my youngest child, I generally receive positive feedback from both strangers and friends. I also rarely hear anything negative about him from teachers. His preschool teacher loved having him in class so much that she cried when I told her that he would be leaving preschool early last summer because we were going on vacation. People also rarely comment on my ability to parent him or give me advice about how to raise him. No one has ever offered to take him off my hands for a week, so they could parent him better than I did. While most parents probably would attribute their child’s good behavior to their parenting abilities, I don’t pat myself on the back for my youngest son’s good behavior. I feel much more successful as a parent when my older son behaves well in circumstances that are difficult for him to manage. That is when I know my husband and I have truly done our jobs as parents.

In the last year, since my son received his diagnosis, I now have a new lens through which to view his behavior. Because ADHD is often an inherited condition, I have stopped blaming my child’s impulsivity, hyperactivity, low frustration tolerance, or loudness on my own failed parenting skills. Instead, I try to provide him with tools to manage his own behavior. A year of family therapy has taught me that I couldn’t have intuited a lot of the parenting skills we needed to use with my son. Have you ever narrated your child’s play, step by step, in a neutral voice, to encourage self-talk and awareness? That was not something I would have initiated on my own. We also have to ignore a lot of non-harmful, attention-seeking behaviors that others probably would not, and praise my son when he behaves like your average, neuro-typical kid. A friend with a child, who also has ADHD, recommended Ross W. Greene’s book, The Explosive Child. Of all books, that one has helped the most, because it begins with the notion that all children want to act “good,” they just don’t always have the necessary skills to make the right choices in a given moment. Both my boys want to behave well, but my child with ADHD simply needs a little more guidance and coaching.

*C.B. McNeil, T.L. Hembree-Kigin, Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, Issues in Clinical Psychology, DOI 10.1007/978-0-387-88639-8_15, Copywrite Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Ever worry about MRSA? Check out this family's journey with MRSA.

MRSA: It’s Not Just in Hospitals Now

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It started as a bump on my youngest son’s back not far from his belt line. “What’s that?” my husband asked, always the more vigilant of the two of us. I looked at the innocuous looking bump, and replied, “I don’t know, a spider bite maybe. Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it’s nothing.” The next day, the area surrounding the bump began to fill with pus, turned red and felt hot to the touch.

Ever worry about MRSA? Check out this family's journey with MRSA.

 

Luckily, my doctor’s office runs a weekend clinic, so I brought him in for an appointment. I thought it was a bug bite that had gotten infected. The doctor confirmed my suspicions, telling me that it was a run of the mill staph infection. She advised me to place warm compresses on the area three times a day, apply hydrogen peroxide and a prescribed antibiotic ointment. She told me to keep the area covered. Because staph is everywhere, she told me that as long as I kept the area covered, my son would be safe to go back to school and out in public.

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(photos of MRSA on a girl’s leg,the first shows the infection after the first round of antibiotics didn’t work, and the second is when the infection began, courtesy of Wiki commons)

As an aside, I have to admit that staph infections have been a long-term fear of mine. As a family, we have dealt with lice (when the shampoo and combing failed to eradicate the problem, I just shaved my boys’ heads), stomach viruses, the croup, amoebic dysentery, rsv, asthma and allergies. Personally, I have had scabies, ringworm, and an invasion of bird mites in a home that my husband and I rented. Aside from dangerous illnesses like cancer or brain aneurysms, staph infections have always been one of my biggest fears. When I was in high school, I first learned about staph infections from my sister’s friend, who spent almost a year battling one that had set up shop in her armpit. In my 20’s, I ran into a friend at the bookstore, who had acquired staph while surfing. She said that she had tried almost every antibiotic, but she simply could not get rid of the infection. After many months, she had apparently just found the right antibiotic to take care of her problem.

Then, there were the newspaper articles. In 2012, the New York Times published an article about a 12 year old boy, who got a cut on his arm playing basketball, dying a few days later from a staph infection. There were also stories of MRSA circulating around athletic locker rooms, maiming or killing both professional and high school football players. All of the news terrified me.

However, my son’s initial infection responded well to the antibiotic cream and cleared up fairly quickly, easing my fears. Then, it spread to his skinned knee. I was able to see his primary care physician, who confirmed that the staph infection had spread. While she wasn’t able to take a culture, she said that she strongly suspected MRSA because of the speed of transmission. She told me that while the infection sounded scary, that she treated kids frequently with staph infections and that I shouldn’t panic. She prescribed an oral antibiotic in addition to the antibiotic ointment. She said that sometimes people have one incident with staph, and they don’t have another. Other times, it gets spread between family members or reoccurs in the same child. She told me to replace all of our soap with an anti-bacterial soap and to continue the hot compresses three times a day. The nurse told me to stop using the hydrogen peroxide, because she found it damaged healthy skin and did more harm than good.

The staph infection after it had spread to me son's knee.
The staph infection after it had spread to me son’s knee.

I immediately went to the grocery store and bought Clorox wipes, Lysol, antibacterial soap, lots of antibacterial hand wash, Clorox spray, medical gloves, bandages and lots of band aids. At home, I put away our environmentally safe cleaners, our nice smelling olive oil soaps and anything that wouldn’t kill the bacteria. Luckily, my son’s infection responded well to the antibiotics, and his infection is almost gone after only a week. As a family, we have also been taking precautions like putting antibiotic ointment in all of our nostrils twice a day to defeat colonies of staph that may be living in our nostrils. We may never know whether or not my son had MRSA or just a staph infection, but hopefully we will not have any more outbreaks. That said, I will not view any cut, abrasion or bug bite in the same way again.

Helpful Links:

NIH Staph Infections

Web MD Staph Infections

The Procrastinator's Guide to the End of the Summer

The Procrastinator’s Guide to the End of Summer

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When school ended and summer stretched out endlessly before me, I had a vision of how my family would wind down our summer.

The Procrastinator's Guide to the End of the Summer

Two weeks before we started school, we would strictly adhere to my boys’ 8 o’clock bedtime. A week before starting classes, we would resume our 6 a.m. wake-up schedule. I even considered instituting a 15 minute “homework” time in the early afternoon, so that the transition between complete freedom and structure wouldn’t be so jarring. Then, August came a little sooner than I expected.
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We decided to spend our last days of summer in the Canyonlands of northwest Texas. For the past 20 years, the area has experienced intermittent drought. With only 7 inches of rain, 2011 was the driest year in recorded history. A local friend told me they were only 20 years into a 40 year dry cycle. Others began to talk about the desertification of the southwest. The dependable creek, where I spent my youth fishing, went dry–a cracked and hollow ghost of its former self. This year, however, El Niño brought spring and summer rains. The yellowed grass ran green against the pink canyon walls. Sunflowers, blue spiderwort, yellow evening-primrose, canyon tea, buffalo grass, Russian thistles, and yucca filled the canyon floor. The area teemed with wildlife. We saw mule deer, frogs, grasshoppers, cottontail rabbits, and evidence of raccoons, pack rats, and skunks. There were even reported sightings of beavers in the creek. My kids fished, swam and wandered into the “wilderness” alone, a luxury they do not have in the city. We had campfires and s’mores and dinner parties with friends. My children made homes for grasshoppers and minnows. They collected sherds of Native American pottery and flint from a dirt road leading up to the rim of the canyon.
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In this unpredictable space, we don’t know many things. On our walks, we don’t know if we’ll see deer, lightning bugs, rabbits, or a snake. The children peeking under rocks could find a toad, a black widow, a lizard or a centipede. Next year could bring rain with full creeks and springs, but it could also bring more drought, more dryness, yellowed land, and parched earth. The only certainty we have is how beautiful our surroundings are now. While we know that school will begin in one week, the need to plan, to worry, and to prepare becomes eclipsed by our desire to appreciate nature. We watch the green herons skim across the creek to catch perch or catfish. The Mississippi Kites circle high above the canyon without any indication of their future migration to South America. We also swim, canoe, catch minnows and bugs, savoring our last few days in the canyon without a hint of our own trajectory south, or the world that we ordinarily inhabit with bedtimes and order, traffic and schedules, and our own carefully constructed routine.

Coming to Terms with ADHD

Coming to Terms with ADHD

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Okay. I’ll admit it. Prior to having children, I didn’t really believe in ADHD.

Coming to Terms with ADHD

I thought that ADHD was either grossly over-diagnosed or that it was simply children’s reactions to being placed in unnatural environments with unrealistic and developmentally inappropriate expectations. After all, many schools limit recess time to 20 minutes a day. Under the pressure of testing, public schools have largely pushed academic learning and a more sedentary lifestyle on children at younger and younger ages. At home, children spend less time playing outside and more time indoors watching television or playing video games. In my naïve view, children, deprived of an outlet for their energy, would naturally act out.

The news media often corroborates this notion that ADHD is either a product of our current society or a syndrome invented by the pharmaceutical industry rather than a true neurological difference. In a 2014 Guardian article, Dr. Bruce Perry claimed that ADHD was not a real disease. “Part of what happens,” he A mom who confronted her ADHD skepticism.stated, “is if you have an anxious, overwhelmed parent, that is contagious. When a child is struggling, the adults around them are easily disregulated too. This negative feedback process between the frustrated teacher or parent and disregulated child can escalate out of control.” In the Psychological Today article, “Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD,” Marilyn Wedge discusses how French psychiatrists, unlike their colleagues in the U.S., view ADHD as having social/emotional causes rather than neuro-biological ones. As a result, the French treat ADHD through psychotherapy rather than medicine. Other articles point to diet as a cause for hyperactive behavior. Many commenters on blogs or editorials view ADHD as the product of an undisciplined generation of children. They claim that if parents simply disciplined their children more or spanked them, then those children wouldn’t act so out of control. Finally, even psychologists, who believe in ADHD, question the dramatic increase in the number of children diagnosed with the syndrome after pharmaceutical companies began heavily advertising ADHD medications on television, radio or in magazines.

Thus, I too questioned the prevalence of ADHD. I viewed the syndrome as more of a behavioral problem than something stemming from neuro-biological differences. Then, I had my son, Sam. He was a happy, fat, wonderful baby (of course, all babies are wonderful). I breastfed him until he was over a year old. When he started eating solids, we limited sugar and fed him primarily whole foods. Except for plane or car trips, we didn’t allow him to watch television or play video games. Because we live in a moderate climate, he played outside almost every day. Yet, at 22 months, my son, like most toddlers, started having behavioral difficulties. Unlike most toddlers, my son didn’t grow out of many of the challenging behaviors, and those challenging behaviors seemed more extreme than those in other children. I attributed his behavior to the terrible twos and threes. Because I also blamed myself for Sam’s behavior, I read almost any kind of parenting book available about strong-willed and spirited children. However, none of the advice I read in therapists’ books really worked with my son. When Sam was four years old, I had an easier time parenting him, but he was still more challenging to raise than my younger son. Most people described him as having a lot of energy.

A mom facing her ADHD skepticism.After a tumultuous first semester in a traditional kindergarten, which I documented in my first blog post, I decided to take Sam to a specialist. After two days of extensive testing, including brain scans, the neuropsychologist diagnosed Sam with ADHD. In our follow-up appointment, the neuropsychologist spent over an hour describing how ADHD affects a child’s executive functions and how the frontal lobe develops differently in children with ADHD. My husband, who also attended the meeting, said that the neuropsychologist could have been describing him as a child. However, because psychologists did not diagnose children as having ADHD at the time, my husband was simply called “stupid”, “bad”, or “un-teachable.” My husband, who completed a master’s degree in his second language, obviously does not have any cognitive deficits. However, he does have problems with following directions, planning activities, listening, sitting still and solving problems. He has many strengths, but he also probably has undiagnosed ADHD. In some instances, ADHD helps him to hyper-focus on things he likes to do, but it also hinders his abilities in other areas.

Listening to the neuropsychologist, I also began to think about my mother’s first cousin, who was always described as a “wild child.” I only knew him as an adult, but he had boundless energy, couldn’t sit still, talked very loudly and with a lot of profanity, and slept very little. He was also a very intelligent, sweet and caring man, who became a wonderful father, husband, entrepreneur, and outdoorsman. His path to adulthood was not easy, and he had a very strained relationship with his parents throughout his adolescence and early adulthood. I started thinking about all the children, who were deemed troublemakers as young children, and the effect that those labels had on them. Even though people sometimes claim ADHD didn’t exist when they were children, kids with ADHD-like behaviors and neurological differences have always existed. Parents and teachers just didn’t have the tools to deal with the behaviors. I don’t think any child wins when that child has been pigeon-holed as a bad child at an early age. That kind of labeling only exacerbates situations rather than ameliorates them.

Finally, ADHD affects so much more than a child’s ability to sit still in class. My own son, when interested in a topic, can sit still for hours or hyper-focus (also a symptom of his ADHD). He can listen to audio-books for hours, build elaborate lego creations, and draw. However, during hyper-focus, he cannot pay attention to anything else but the task at hand. Unless you touch him on the shoulder and look him in the eye, he won’t hear his name being called. He also won’t stop what he is doing to go to the bathroom. At school, he has difficulty sitting criss-cross applesauce in a group, walking silently in a line, concentrating in a normal-sized classroom of 22 children, and following multi-step instructions. His ADHD affects his visual tracking and focus. His optometrist told me that whereas only 5% of the population has problems with visual tracking and acuity, 80% of her patients with visual tracking problems also have ADHD. Other studies show that children with ADHD concentrate better when they move, as opposed to neuro-typical children who become distracted by movement. In short, children with ADHD are simply wired differently.

If you've ever doubted an ADHD diagnosis, read this.

In many ways, I am grateful for the ADHD diagnosis, because there are a lot of research-based methods proven to help children with ADHD. I also realize how mistaken I was. All of the things that I thought might cause ADHD (schools with limited recess and emphasizing rote learning, poor diet, excessive screen time, lack of outdoor time, etc.) were not present in my son’s life. Yet, my son still had ADHD. When we moved my son to a wonderful school with an hour and a half recess, project-based education, small student-teacher ratios, and tactile learning, my son’s ADHD didn’t disappear.  He still struggled. However, the teachers at this school were willing to implement accommodations to help him succeed.

As far as parenting, my husband and I have attended lectures and therapy sessions to learn how to parent our son better. Because psychologists have been studying ADHD for over 50 years, we have benefited from their research and findings. My son is a creative, sweet, thoughtful, passionate, energetic and smart little boy. Like my husband, ADHD both helps him in some areas and hinders his abilities in others. I would much rather live in a society that gave these kids the tools to succeed than a society that penalized these children for being different. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that scientists blamed autism on the autistic child’s “frigid” mother. As for the claim that French children don’t get ADHD, research reveals that approximately 3 to 5% of French children have ADHD just like the rest of the world. ADHD may still be over-diagnosed in the United States, but I think the next generation would benefit much more from a society that helps kids with learning differences succeed. No one wins in a society that refuses to accept the fact that some kids are wired differently and may need different tools and accommodations at home and in the classroom.

Helpful Links

ADHD Resources from the CDC

ADHD Myths

ADHD Blogs

Collaborative and Proactive Discipline

 

 

Tips for helping your child when he can't feel the need to go. Encopresis

Encopresis…When a Child Can’t Feel the Urge to Go

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Encopresis. It’s a problem I wouldn’t wish on any family. The Mayo Clinic defines encopresis as the following:

“Encopresis, also called stool holding or soiling, occurs when your child resists having bowel movements, causing impacted stool to collect in the colon and rectum. When your child’s colon is full of impacted stool, liquid stool can leak around the impacted stool and out of the anus, staining your child’s underwear.”

Tips for helping your child when he can't feel the need to go. Encopresis

Basically, if your child poops in his/her pants after the age of 4 on a somewhat regular basis, your child has encopresis. In most cases, the child has become so impacted that he/she has completely lost nerve sensitivity and no longer feels the urge to go. This is what happened to our son. Initially, we didn’t realize that my son had encopresis. In fact, I didn’t know the condition existed. Our son didn’t have the classic symptoms of encopresis or chronic constipation. He would have bowel movements every day, but when he had to go, he had to go right that instant. Somewhat frequently, he would simply poop in his pants. My sister told me that some mothers in her mom’s group had children with similar problems, and that they had been constipated. As a result, I took my son to the doctor, and they performed an x-ray. The x-ray revealed that my son was so constipated that his colon had stretched to an abnormally large size. As a result, he simply couldn’t feel the need to go.

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I was shocked. Our son ate purely whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, bran cereal and oatmeal; yet, he had become completely constipated, so constipated that a prescribed dosage of laxatives from our pediatrician didn’t even get rid of the entire stool collected in his colon.

Like most parents when something goes fundamentally wrong during the parenting journey, I blamed myself and wondered whether I had done something to instigate the encopresis. I had heard that children could develop problems if you punished them for accidents or pressured them during potty training, so I never punished my son during the potty training process. Instead, I used sticker charts, rewards and apps as incentives (the potty training app being the most effective). As it turns out, I don’t think the problem necessarily had anything to do with my parenting. My son simply became too engaged in his play to stop what he was doing and go to the bathroom. While I didn’t know it at the time, difficulty in shifting attention from one thing to another or hyper-focus is one of the symptoms of ADHD. While not all kids with ADHD have encopresis, a German study showed that children with ADHD were 4 times more likely to have daytime wetting accidents. Another study showed that kids with ADHD were almost twice as likely to have encopresis than the general population.

Regardless of why or how the condition starts, it is important to treat it as soon as possible so that the colon can regain its shape and elasticity. Our treatment involved visits to a gastroenterologist, a complete colon cleansing for a weekend similar to prepping for a colonoscopy, daily dosages of miralax and fiber gummies, discussions with my son’s therapist, and my own realizations about my son’s behavior. I also have a friend whose daughter had encopresis, and she helped me a lot. Reading message boards about encopresis online was more discouraging than helpful. While we are not out of the woods yet, my son has had marked improvement since we discovered the problem. Aside from the medicine, here are the things that have helped my son:

  • Regular sitting on the toilet 20 to 40 minutes after a meal. I usually schedule these sitting times after breakfast, after school snack, and after dinner. In the morning, I make my son sit on the toilet for at least 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Having your child place his/her feet on a foot stool. Apparently, legs dangling off the toilet are not conducive for having a bowel movement. As a result, we keep a set of stairs (the kind a child uses to get into a bed) in our bathroom.
  • Bringing toys, markers with paper, legos or anything that will distract your child into the bathroom. I noticed that my son was having accidents when he was drawing or relaxed. As a result, I started storing some paper and markers in the bathroom. 
  • Using an incentive chart. The incentive charts have not been as helpful with my son’s encopresis as they have been with other behavioral issues. However, I give him a quarter to put in his piggy bank every time he goes to the bathroom by himself.
  • Taking a daily probiotic. I’m not sure if the probiotic has helped, but I figure it couldn’t hurt.

Like I said, my son isn’t cured from his encopresis, but he has far fewer accidents than before (one accident every two weeks as opposed to an accident every day). If your child has this problem, I wish you the best of luck. Dealing with encopresis takes a lot of patience, a lot of soap, a good washing machine, and compassion for a little body and mind that are not cooperating with each other.


Helpful Links:

The Mayo Clinic’s information on Encopresis

Kids Health information about Encopresis

A Seattle based child psychologist’s take on Encopresis 

 

Reflections on My Initiation into Motherhood

Reflections on My Initiation into Motherhood

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Reflections on My Initiation into Motherhood

I wish I could say that I took to motherhood immediately. My own mother did. She says that the first time she saw my sister, her firstborn, she had an overwhelming feeling of love. Scientists attribute these all-encompassing feelings of love to the surge of oxytocin that occurs during labor and the postpartum period. My mother, who recalls waking many hours after my sister’s birth via C-section, may not have had the hormonal surge during labor, but she nonetheless instantly bonded with her newborn. Even though I gave birth vaginally, I didn’t feel that instant bond with my son. My initial reaction to motherhood was more akin to shock.

History is full of idealized images of motherhood–from Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and Child, to Mary Cassatt’s wonderful renditions of everyday interactions between mothers and their children, to June Cleaver in the 1950’s, to modern-day, airbrushed photographs of celebrity mothers, Facchinetti_Maternal_lovehair coiffed and in full make-up, holding their smiling babies. Although I love Mary Cassatt’s paintings as well as Raphael’s Madonna and Child, none of these representations accurately reflects my initial experience of motherhood. If someone had painted a portrait of a sleep deprived, bleary-eyed woman, shirt soaked with leaking breast milk and splotched with spit-up, that would have more accurately portrayed me in my first few weeks of child rearing.

Modern childbirth, only relatively recently (and thankfully) out of the closet from a private affair between a woman and her doctor, has also developed its own mystique. Some people have very strong opinions on “natural” childbirth versus births with some sort of intervention like an epidural, etc. Having given birth both ways, I believe that people should do whatever makes them most comfortable. If a detailed birth plan, a water birth or a home birth is the way you want to go, then more power to you. Likewise, if you end up having a cesarean section, then I’m happy that medical interventions can help you and your baby stay healthy. Many times, no matter how much you plan, your body has different ideas.

nicognome3In my own case, I assumed that I would have a cesarean section, because both my mother and my sister had to have one. I also assumed that I would go into labor past my due date. In reality, I started having contractions 3 weeks before I was due. My water broke, so I went to the hospital. My labor, however, wouldn’t progress even after the doctors gave me Pitocin. Because the contractions under Pitocin were so painful, I asked for an epidural, which relaxed me enough that my cervix could finally begin dilating. After three hours of pushing, my son was born. Without warning, the doctors put my infant son on my stomach. Because I had closed my eyes while pushing, I did not realize that my son had even been born. I didn’t have any idea what they had put on my stomach. When I finally realized it was my son, they whisked him away to weigh him and check his vitals. The doctor, who had not been my regular obgyn, soon left and let a medical student stitch up my torn perineum.

I was lucky. I did not have any problems breastfeeding. My son was born healthy, and I went through childbirth in a relatively short time. I did not, however, feel elated. Instead, I felt exhausted and nicohandsuckcloseupwholly unprepared to take care of this tiny being. Add to that some incontinence, pain from my tear, and the fact that the medical student had mistakenly left gauze inside of me (something I would discover 12 days after giving birth), I wasn’t in the best of spirits.

I also felt unprepared to suddenly accept my new identity as a mother. The nurses, unaware of the jarring feeling one can have when becoming a first time mother, stopped calling me by my name and started calling me mom. I was prepared to have my son at some point call me mom, but not four or five adult nurses.

To add to my feelings of incompetence, my son choked a couple of days after he was born. He slept in a bassinet right next to me, and I didn’t even notice. A nurse happened to be in the hospital room and rushed quickly to his bassinet, picked him up, flipped him over and slapped him on the back. I was shocked and worried that he might choke in his sleep, or nicotoolswhile I was sleeping. The nurse told me that I needed to watch my child constantly, so that I could intervene if he started to choke. She said that I, as a mother, would be able to sense when he was about to choke, even if I were asleep. A couple of days later, my pediatrician informed me that the nurse was completely mistaken, that babies never choke to death while sleeping on their backs. However, prior to that initial well-check appointment with my pediatrician, I was terrified.

The first night home, I didn’t sleep because my son wanted to eat constantly, to bring in my milk supply, and also because I was so afraid he would choke to death. I remember wondering in the middle night if this was really what motherhood was all about. Nothing can really prepare a person for the prolonged sleep deprivation involved in caring for a newborn. Jennifer Senior, in a Fresh Air interview about her book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, divides new parents into three groups: those who can function with sleep loss, those who are “compromised and cranky,” and those who are just complete “basket cases.” In those first few months, I probably fluctuated between the latter two. I was especially an emotional wreck when we had to return to the hospital two days after coming home, because my son had jaundice. Watching the doctors put an IV in his tiny arm was simply too much for me. I may not have had that initial outpouring of love, but my connection to him was more primal. I simply couldn’t stand to see someone hurt him.

I was fortunate to have a great deal of support from my husband, who fell in love with my son instantly and completely. He wanted to spend every waking moment with him. My husband was the type of father who took off his shirt to hold our son because he read it was beneficial for ry=400newborns to have skin-to-skin contact with their parents. My mother and sister also staggered their visits so that I had someone helping us the first month of my son’s life. All of their support took a lot of the stress away from adjusting to motherhood. However, during those first weeks that I cared for my son, held him, changed his diapers, and breastfed him, I still felt more overwhelmed than “in love” with my newborn. It wasn’t until everyone had left, my husband had grown accustomed to having our baby in the house, and I had the chance to sit alone holding my son on my chest as he slept, that I began to appreciate and get used to motherhood. Since that day, I haven’t looked back. Like most mothers, I love my son more than anything (except of course my other child), and that love continues to grow. I also have earned my stripes as a mother. I have gotten up in the middle of the night with sick children countless times, cleaned up vomit and excrement and urine, wiped tears, kissed cheeks, snuggled with my boys millions upon millions of times, and fallen completely and utterly in love with my children.

However, in a time when popular media still represents motherhood as an instantaneous bond between a mother and her newborn, it is important to remember that, for some of us, the whole motherhood thing might just take a little longer to take in.


 

***As an aside, I may have had one negative interaction with a nurse, but the rest of the nurses were rock stars. The second time I gave birth, I returned to that same hospital with a different doctor, and I had the most wonderful, empathetic and caring nurses.


Image Attribution:

Fachinetti: Maternal Love

Fight Flight Freeze

Fight, Flight or Freeze. My Responses to an Attempted Assault.

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Because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I decided to take a break from writing about parenting. Instead, I wrote about an experience I had pre-children.


Fight Flight Freeze. Response to Attempted Assault.

Five guys in a car. Two in the front, three in the back.

My friend and I walk alone on a Sunday night. It is 10 pm.

We knew better than to walk alone. In this particular South American country, where I have been living for three years, women don’t walk alone on a Sunday night when the bars, restaurants and stores are closed. We tried to call a taxi, but it didn’t show. Usually, there is one on the street, but on this night, the streets are desolate. Six blocks we walk. We talk about the academy awards, which we have just seen at a friend’s apartment with cable. These are the days before everyone has a cell phone, internet, and live streaming technology.

A half block before the street dead ends at my front door, we see the car—a red, Mazda sedan. A friend of mine drives the same model. I think it is my friend as the car slows. Gliding close to the curb, the door opens and a foot hovers above the sidewalk. A man suddenly stands before us. There is an empty parking lot to our right. “This is not good,” I say to my friend before the man steps closer. “I know,” she replies. And that is the last sound I consciously process. In memory, the rest is silent.

April is sexual assault awareness month. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 women in the United States and 1 in 59 men have been raped in their lifetimes. Because rape often goes unreported, the statistics are probably higher. While many women fear the possibility of a sexual assault while walking alone in a parking garage or on a desolate street, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that most victims know their attacker. Many times, the perpetrator is the victim’s friend, classmate, neighbor, coworker, or relative. Because victims are still sometimes blamed for the assault, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center points out that “it doesn’t matter what someone is wearing or how they are acting, no one asks to be raped.” It is also important to highlight the fact that no one knows how he or she will react in a dangerous situation.

childreninhellIn my own dangerous situation, my reaction boiled down to a concept I learned in Psychology 101: Fight or Flight. Basically, my consciousness reverted to survival mode. I stopped thinking, my autonomic nervous system took over, and I ran. I didn’t even realize that I had run until my consciousness returned, and I was no longer standing in front of the man. I was in front of the car, probably trying to cross the street, so that I could reach the one or two bars/hostels open on a Sunday night. My logical mind had returned, because I had a decision to make. Two of the other men were getting out of the car to get me. I turned away from the men, and I saw my friend. She hadn’t fought or flown. She had frozen. The man held her close by the shirt with one hand and was repeatedly punching her in the face with the other. Without thinking, I threw a 64 ounce water bottle at the man. Known for my clumsiness, I could never make a basket or play any kind of sport, but the bottle struck him straight in the head, stunning him for a few seconds. The next thing I knew, I was back in front of the man pulling his arm away from my friend so that he couldn’t pull her into the car. I was in fight mode, and none of my actions stemmed from conscious decision. Suddenly, the man released his grasp, and he slipped back into the car. And just like that, the car was gone.

When my friend and I looked up, we saw a guard from one of the neighboring hotels. “Run! Get to your homes! They’ll be looking for you,” he said. Within a minute, we made it to my apartment, locking the large wooden door behind us. My friend’s face was bloodied and badly bruised, but we were safe. Both of balconyus, even my friend who had received the brunt of the attack, were lucky.

Later, when talking about the incident to my neighbors, I discovered that I had screamed repeatedly for help. They told me that they recognized my voice, and that all the neighbors had gone out to their balconies to yell at our attackers. The guard had obviously heard the commotion and come to help. While I may have briefly tried to help my friend, my neighbors and the guard had truly saved us. After all, without anyone’s help, those five men could have easily forced both of us into their car. I was truly grateful to all of them.

I do not know if men intended to rape us, but the possibility was there. It was a close call that changed my life. To date, I never walk alone after dark. I am more aware of my surroundings, the cars passing, the people surrounding me, the avenues to safety. My friend, who had only lived abroad for a few months, cut her trip short and returned home. I didn’t blame her. She didn’t have years of positive interactions to counteract such a negative experience, and she had been the true victim in the attack. For me, I viewed the experience as an unfortunate blip in an otherwise rich experience. People had generally treated me well during my time abroad. Women, who ran food stalls, invited me to their homes for dinner. People had kindly listened to my broken Spanish, encouraging me to learn more, teaching me with patient corrections, and painstakingly pieced together my ill-formed communications. Others had directed me and lent a hand when I had gotten lost. My neighbors brought me fresh mint, chamomile and lemon grass when I got sick. For the most part, other than a few incidences of being pick-pocketed, I had felt relatively safe. After all, the city where I lived had a much lower violent crime rate than a city of comparable size in the United States. The attack could have happened anywhere in the world.

What shocked me about the experience is that I didn’t have any control over how I reacted. While I had previously imagined how I might react to an attack, that imagined reaction had little to do with reality. Again, because a victim has little control over a crime, it is crucial to emphasize the importance of not blaming the victim. It is also important to define what that crime means. The National Sexual Violence Center defines sexual violence as an incidence where “someone forces or manipulates someone else into unwanted sexual activity without their consent.” In crimes of rape, the concept of whether or not someone gives consent is essential. In our situation, because the perpetrators were strangers, most people would view us as not giving consent to our assault. However, in situations where the victim knows his/her assailant, the waters unfortunately become murkier in the public’s view.

People not only question the behavior of the rape victim prior to the crime, they also question their reaction to it. In 2012, a Superior Court Judge in California was reprimanded for claiming that a woman wasn’t raped because she “didn’t put up a fight.” Jenny Wilkinson bravely narrates her own rape and discusses her critics, who blamed her for the rape because she had been drinking and didn’t fight back. The fact that her rapist had drugged her did not matter to them. However, even if a victim isn’t drugged, neuropsychologists discuss the complex chemicals that get released in the brain when presented with trauma. This is why police officers often don’t believe a rape victim. In her presentation of the Neurobiology of Sexual Assault, Rebecca Campbell discusses how various neuro-chemicals cause rape victims to have lapses in memory or even act loopy (the body releases its own natural opiates to protect the body from pain). During the attack, as discussed above, the brain and neuro-chemicals can prompt a person to fight or flee. However, the hormonal activation by the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenals can also trigger an entire shutdown in the body. In other words, the victim shuts down as a reaction to trauma and physically cannot fight back. This was my friend’s reaction to her assault in South America and many victims’ reaction to a rape. They simply freeze.

If I had never been in any kind of traumatic situation, I wouldn’t have fully understood just how out of control you are. While I both fought and flew during the assault that night in South America, I cannot promise that I wouldn’t react differently in another situation, on another day. I cannot promise that I wouldn’t freeze.


References:

The Transcript from “The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault,” by Rebecca Campbell, P.h.D.

Resources for Sexual Assault Awareness Month:

Statistics: CDC, The National Sexual Violence Resource Center and RAINN

Types of Sexual Violence

Ways to Get Help Following Assault

National Sexual Assault Hotline for the US: 1-800-656-HOPE 

Kindergarten Bullying

Kindergarten. Bullying in the Age of Clip Charts and No Child Left Behind

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Kindergarten Bullying

Here is where I will begin: a No Place for Hate march at my son’s school. The children stand on patchy grass and hold Styrofoam plates sewn together with yarn as improvised tambourines. They wait for the teacher’s cue to begin, and the dried beans inside the two plates slightly rattle. The head teacher yells, “Okay, let’s go! No place for hate.” The children chant after her and bang the tambourines at random. The parade snakes back to the school building, and it is over in less time than it took the children to get organized. Along with a few posters on the wall, this is the school’s response to bullying. It is also indicative of how the school addressed most issues, making some noise and appearing to tackle a problem while actually doing very little.Kindergarten No Place for Hate

 

Our family began my son’s kindergarten year the previous August at a dual language public school in central Austin. My children, half South American/half North American, spoke Spanish and English fluently due to the fact that they had grown up in a dual language household. We applied to get my son into the school after attending a school tour, where the principal promised a positive behavioral approach to discipline, a focus on project-based learning, an integration of drama into classrooms through puppet shows, and social/emotional learning incorporated into the curriculum. The school also had an organic garden, a turtle pond and chickens. We were all excited. Neither my son nor I cried that first day of school. As someone who loved books, my son was most excited that the school had a library.

In a very short time, we realized that the reality was a far cry from the tour. Within a week, I learned that the positive behavior reinforcement was actually a way for the teachers to publicly shame the students into behaving. Like many public schools, my son’s school employed a behavior clip chart with the numbers one through four. When the student behaved well, he remained on a four. If the student misbehaved, the student had to move his/her clip down a number. While I didn’t mind the number system, I didn’t like the fact that it was displayed prominently in the room for all to see. My son began to refer to the other students by their behavior number. Within a short time, my son became known as a one or a two.

Kindergarten Behavior Management FolderEven worse were the green folders. In these folders, the teacher wrote down every single infraction that the child committed during the day without mentioning anything positive. In my son’s case, these included minor incidents like saying he wanted to kiss one of his friends (“a boy,” the teacher wrote), to getting out of line, to things I would want to know about like hitting another student. From a management standpoint, I thought this was a horrible idea. Can you imagine going to work and having your boss write down every mistake you made during the day without commenting on anything you had done right? The technique would make you discouraged at best, angry and disengaged at worst. Even though I disagreed with the school’s discipline system, my husband and I, wanting to support the teacher, talked to our son about his behavior, took away privileges like television for days that he misbehaved and instituted rewards for the days he behaved well. In our house, giving positive feedback for good behavior, taking away toys or giving timeouts for bad behavior had worked fairly well.

Kindergarten nearly broke my son.

Kindergarten Teacher NotesAfter a month of being in kindergarten, my son made several heartbreaking statements. While reading Beauty and the Beast, my son stated that he didn’t think he was beautiful inside because he couldn’t behave well in school. He planned a soccer game for his friends and asked me to invite his teacher so that she could see that he was a good person. A friend of mine also reported that she overheard my son’s classmates taunting him and calling him bad. I talked to the teacher about the incidents. She offered to work with my son, applying different teaching approaches, which involved putting him in the corner all day to complete his work and sending him to the preschool class when he didn’t behave. I brought a behavior chart, so that she could place a star on desired behaviors, but the teacher abandoned it after one day. We also asked her to report on the positive things he did during the day, so that we could praise good behavior. She refused, telling us to ask our son to report the good things he did.

At home, my son began to throw fits after school. He said that he would rather be homeless than go to school. Talking to a parent of an older student, I discovered that multiple students had had problems with this teacher. I also found out that the teacher did not use many of the kindergarten staples like centers or manipulative materials for teaching. Instead, she relied heavily on the overhead projector and worksheets. We immediately began the process of moving my son to another class. We also began therapy to address some of my son’s behavioral issues in school.

His new teacher was a godsend. Trained in special education, she had a number of tricks up her sleeve to work with all kinds of students. However, the publicly displayed discipline system and the green folders remained. My son, because he had problems following directions and listening to the teacher, began to get teased. “Look, he has bugs in his ears. He can’t hear what the teachers are saying,” the children said. To make matters worse, he had another teacher, who taught Language Arts and simply could not deal with him. My son told me that she instructed the students to write a sentence. My son, who was only in his second month of kindergarten, said, “I cannot write a sentence. I can only write my name.” Even though the teachers hadn’t even taught the entire alphabet at that point, the teacher replied, “That’s not good enough. You need to write, “My name is ________.” Unable to do the work, my son began to put himself in the class’ “peace center,” a glorified time out area in the classroom, where he remained all day, every day until I picked him up.

Navigating the 504 process.

Upon the advice of our therapist, I met with the assistant principal and asked the school to conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment, so that their school counselor could observe my son in class, discover the causes for his behaviors, how the teachers were responding, and recommend some accommodations for the classroom. The school refused, saying that I would need an outside diagnosis. His pediatrician and therapist could not diagnose him with anything, but gave me the numbers for several neuropsychologists and pediatric psychiatrists. I took the soonest appointment possible for a neuropsychology assessment, but we still had to wait another month.

Because I thought the school might have refused to do the Functional Behavior Assessment due to costs, I arranged for someone from my son’s therapist’s office to do her own evaluation of my son’s behavior in class. I notified the teachers of the upcoming observation. My son’s therapist spoke with the school principal, informing him that someone would be coming to observe my son in class the following day. When the evaluator came, the principal sent her away, citing a concern for the other students’ privacy and a need to get the evaluator approved by the district. While this may have been true, the principal should have informed my son’s therapist when he originally spoke with her. Still wanting to work with the school, I attributed the event to miscommunication and talked with the school officials. They promised to get the evaluator approved and to email or call us when they had approval from the district.

We had multiple teacher conferences. The teachers brought out the Texas Essential Knowledge (TEKS) standards and my son’s test results. Even though my son could easily count to 20 or more, was starting to read, and came home from school and dictated stories to us so that he could create his own comic books, the school rated him as only being able to talk in complete sentences. We brought this up to the teachers, and they replied that even though they knew he could count to 20 (one of the requirements), he didn’t count well enough to meet test standards. When discussing his ability to dictate stories (another requirement), the teachers replied that he could only dictate a story that he found interesting or one that he created. The teachers said that they weren’t interested in his ability to create stories or talk only about stories that interested him. He would have to repeat the story that the test chose. In other words, the school wasn’t interested in his ability. They were interested in how well he could perform on a test. The teachers further discussed the need for students to separate fiction from non-fiction and to start to create a rough draft. Listening to the teachers rattle off the TEKS mandates, I felt the list sounded developmentally inappropriate and somewhat arbitrary. I wanted my son to develop a love of reading and to expand his notions of reality, rather than limit concepts through categorizations of literature at such a young age. The teachers said that unless my son could master all of the Texas Essential Knowledge and do well on the tests, they would have to recommend holding him back. In another meeting with the assistant principal, where she refused again to do any kind of behavior assessment or to offer my child any accommodations until he got a diagnosis, the assistant principal echoed the teacher’s belief that we should simply have my son repeat kindergarten.

My child was almost left behind.

In the meantime, my son began to call himself dumb on a daily basis. He said that he wanted to die, because he couldn’t behave in class. He hated being publicly demoted to a lower number in class, but the demotion did nothing to change his behavior. It only made the other kids call him bad. The new teachers sat him close to them. They tried some accommodations, such as behavior charts and fidget toys to keep my son in circle time. While some of the accommodations worked, the teacher abandoned them because the fidget toy broke or they simply forgot to use the behavior charts. My child also began to run away from his language arts class. While the teachers cited this as simple misbehavior, a friend informed me that she saw his Language Arts teacher yelling at him in the hallway, asking him if he wanted to get a “0.” I asked my son if he understood what getting a “0” meant. “It means my teacher doesn’t like me,” he said.

At that point, it dawned on me that my child was essentially the child being left behind by No Child Left Behind. We did not face any serious economic problems. We had read to my son every day since he was only a few months old. My son hadn’t watched television or played apps until he was almost four years old. Although he now watched television, we limited his television time to below the American Pediatrician’s Association’s recommendations. Furthermore, I spent ample time with my children and cooked them a well-balanced meal every day. We never ate fast food or processed food, and my children went to bed at 7:30 every night. Yet despite all of these facts, my child could not succeed in school. His homeroom teacher was wonderful, but she could not compensate for a developmentally inappropriate curriculum, ineffective classroom management, and an administration that preferred to fail students rather than figure out the causes behind a student’s classroom struggles.

My family is lucky. We have the resources to look for other options. However, not all families can afford private neuropsychological testing or therapy. Many families also might not have the time or resources to navigate the bureaucracy of the public school system. We withdrew my son after his first semester and put him in a small preschool that includes a kindergarten. Within a month of attending the other school, my son began reading, could count to 100, and started doing simple addition and subtraction problems. More importantly, he stopped calling himself bad and dumb.
We also received the results back from his neuropsychology test. My son has ADHD, which explains his behavioral difficulties. Academically, however, he was exactly where he should be. Therefore, holding him back in kindergarten would have been a mistake. It also would not have solved his behavioral problems.

No child should fall through the cracks in Kindergarten.

I return to the No Place for Hate march on that beautiful fall day. A single march and a few anti-bullying posters will not do anything to solve the complex problem of bullying, especially in a school with a discipline system that highlights the negative and publicly shames students. Standardized testing and No Child Left Behind will not cure social inequalities. In my opinion, educational funds would be better spent on teacher training and lowering class ratios. There are many public schools that are doing a phenomenal job, but no child should be failing kindergarten. Kindergarten should be a year when a child falls in love with learning. Despite my son’s negative experience, we’re lucky he did not lose his interest in learning. Many families are not so lucky. Too many children simply fall through the cracks in a system that places more importance on state mandates than on the well being of a child.

In case you were wondering, when we withdrew my son from the school two months later, the principal still hadn’t followed through with our request for professional observation of the class. Additionally, the day after we decided to remove my son from his public school, the school’s name appeared on a list of the worst public schools in Texas.