Featurette: A guest piece written by one of our readers. A small narrative vignette inviting us all to see the world from behind their eyes and hearts for just a moment. You can submit your short story for consideration here. Today’s guest piece is written by Jenny Hochmiller.
Being an educator takes a certain type of person, and I question if I am that type of person. After 6 years of experience, how is my level of confidence still shaky? Yes, my level of confidence is unrecognizably stronger from my initial days in the classroom, but I feel inept in my ability to make a strong impact. Am I in transition, or not? These conflicting thoughts bring such a strong wave of emotion, as if I’m a part of an abusive relationship – one I want to leave, but have such an unhealthy attachment to.
Going into education seemed like a natural fit. My teachers were some of my strongest mentors, and being a contributing member of a vibrant school community was something I longed for. Of course, a teenager’s perspective of a career versus the actual realities that exist within that career create a strong collide. I had more discourage me from going into the classroom than tell me it was a good idea, and the retention rates spoke for themselves. Yet, I refused to be a statistic.
So I dove right in, right into the Montbello neighborhood. Boy, was I in for a huge wake up call. My first year greeted me with teaching credit recovery classes on computers for every subject under the sun, an Algebra class full of 40 freshmen, three rooms to travel in between, a board vote to phase out our failing school over the next four years, a building void of a principal halfway through the year, and having to re-interview for my position three times within that year. Thank goodness for a strong bond with so many of my students and colleagues – we held each other up during what I regard as such a dark time. Many days I had to remind myself to breathe.
But for some strange reason, I wanted to stay. There was such a stark contrast from the environment I grew up in and the education I received, to the job I stepped into. Yet, I couldn’t imagine myself going anywhere else. The way I saw it, education is what defined my family. Education brought them from blue collar to white collar, no high school degree to ivy league degrees within just one generation. How could this community be denied what is considered the great equalizer of our time? From my perspective that equated to staying, because the more who stayed, potentially the less unstable the school would be. This was considering how teachers who had been there for two years were seen as veterans, and gained unprecedented respect from the students because they showed they cared enough to stay.
Flash forward to six years later, and I attribute so much of who I am to what this community has built within me. Perseverance and resilience, from days this non-crier would come home sobbing from brokenness in every aspect of the word. Drive to be the best educator I can be, despite feeling like the measures to meet this goal were impossible. Having so much of me being intertwined with a people who are now my family. And an endless desire for excellence, even if it feels like such a false hope that’s a dangling carrot in front of me.
The question now is, whether the level of self-sacrifice is too strong to continue. To be excellent requires a great deal of time. Time that bleeds into the evenings and weekends, when I’m supposed be enjoying time with family, friends, or simply indulging into necessary self-care. Time that I so freely gave away through the majority of my 20s. And in my experience with school reform, it has been so heart wrenchingly painful. My greatest mentors that I have stood side-by-side with have either voluntarily left, or been involuntarily removed. I look around, and only two remain from that first year I began, and both question their ability to continue.
Will I stay or go? Am I grieving the end of a huge chapter in my life, paralyzed with fear and standing in the neutral zone refusing to move, or starting a new beginning by entertaining the idea of moving in another direction? Getting a thrill out of the unknown has never been me – I am terrified. Terrified to leave, as well as terrified that I’ll never leave. I have no desire to go in any other direction, as well as no desire to stay. I question if know who I am. But a mantra I repeated to myself over and over on my drive to work last year, in an attempt to begin the process of surrendering control, was that my job does not define who I am, and God will continue to love me despite my successes or failures.
Featurette: A guest piece written by one of our readers. A small narrative vignette inviting us all to see the world from behind their eyes and hearts for just a moment. You can submit your short story for consideration here. Today’s guest piece is written by Beth Bruno.
In this Mediterranean climate, the air is still warm. The open-shuttered windows let in a refreshing rustle through the newly turned leaves. Though my kids donned costumes and gathered sugar late into last night, my husband and I are half way around the world celebrating 20 years of marriage. The Italian guests congratulated us with “bravo!” this morning at breakfast. Indeed, we know it is something worthy of no small bravo.
It is a monumental passing.
But this week while we traipsed around medieval hill towns, I missed my oldest daughter’s monumental passage. She sent me a brief, “It happened” on kik, the wifi messaging app we are all communicating with, and we struggled to talk around her school schedule and a 7 hour time zone. I fought back tears at the thought of being absent for such a significant week, yet at the same time, thankful for all I had already done.
I have been on a journey with my tween daughter, intentionally ushering her into womanhood through a year I call “becoming.” I have been searching for core, intrinsic attitudes of women which supersede culture and history and that far surpass the more traditional focus on periods and purity.
Of course, periods and purity are conversations worth having. But we’ve been having them for years. The only way to normalize a thing is to talk about it casually and frequently. I’ve been prepared and preparing my daughter for the onset of her period increasingly over the past months. We knew it was coming.
Unlike some 30 years ago when my own first began.
We are a full day’s car ride from home and surrounded by all the relatives. My Grandparent’s house is nestled in a wood with corn fields behind and a mortician living down the lane. The small town feels isolated, stalled, and like their home, frozen in time. The baby blue toilet with the padded seat cover is my hiding place. I am 12 and something is happening.
In the kitchen, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and the mortician neighbor enjoy happy hour. It is Christmas and we are all together. There is no privacy, though I pull my mother down the hall to the baby blue bathroom next to the 13 inch TV with Miss Piggy sitting atop. I am horrified. My underpants are brown and sticky and I have absolutely no paradigm for this. My mother pauses. An embarrassed smile is gone as quickly as I detect it and she brushes it off, “too much chocolate” she says.
Six months later it is Spring and the sticky returns red. Now, from health class I presume, I know what this is. I know what to ask for. I know what has happened. Years later, on the eve of my wedding, when the same smile returns to her face, I will recall the baby blue toilet. I will remember that at age 10, I had asked what French Kissing was and she said she had no idea. I will remember another toilet at age 14, from which I received coaching from a friend. She handed me a tampon and mirror and closed the door, not letting me out till I was successful.
And though I managed despite my mother’s embarrassment around intimate and feminine topics, what I recall her telling me that Christmas at my Grandparents, has framed the bulk of my parenting: there will be no topic too intimate to discuss candidly (and age appropriately) with my kids.
So my daughter and I have been having body talks for years, whenever her curious mind pops a question. In 5th grade, I bought her a little coin purse, put some sanitary pads in it, and told her to keep it with her. She has been prepared and knows what is coming. There will be no public celebration, but I will try to muster excitement (tell me a woman who actually enjoys this reality! We aren’t spending 5 days out of the month sequestered in a red tent with our friends and sisters after all!) I will do my best to welcome her to this life-giving gift we have of bringing babies into the world.
At the same time, she is joining the ranks of women from all time, from all over. I want her to know that though she’ll continue on as a kid who now has pads in her backpack, still getting tucked into bed at night, some of her global sisters are experiencing a radical change of life. At the same age, a young girl in Afghanistan or Yemen is now declared eligible for marriage. A peer in Uganda may stop going to school at this point because she lacks sanitary pads to keep her clean. In fact, maybe our celebration of her first period will be to sponsor a year’s supply of pads for a girl of the same age.
These are all thoughts I’ve been having leading up to this reality. But here it is and I am not even with her! By the time I return, she’ll have endured her first cycle. In all my determination to handle this differently than my own mother, in the end, it was out of my control. And in the greatest irony of all, my mom is the one with her right now.
In God’s great sense of humor and grace, my mom gets redemption.
I have contended from the beginning of this process that ushering our daughters through a process of becoming touches our own story and soul. It is as much about the mother as the daughter. It can be both painful and restorative to rifle through our narrative. But what a delightful surprise that my mom is included. Removing me from the picture allowed her to do things perhaps the way she always wanted to, but wasn’t free to at that point in her own process of becoming. We’re journeying together, across generations.
And for now, across oceans.
Camiece is a beautiful and fierce mama to three little dudes. The third of the bunch was still nestled all snug in her belly when we met for a warm drink early one morning back in November. Though I had heard bits and pieces of her story prior to our interview, nothing had prepared me for the honesty and beauty I would encounter that day.
This is my story, but it’s also our family’s story. It’s specifically the story of my second son, Milo.
There’s not even a concrete beginning. Milo was a normal baby. Around 15 months my husband, DJ, and I were aware of the fact that he wasn’t talking yet and wasn’t eating normal solid foods. He would only eat graham crackers, peanut butter crackers and purees. We knew he had some minor delays but weren’t that concerned initially, but we took it seriously enough to start on the path to early interventions. Qualifying for and acquiring services while a child is under the age of three is relatively easy. We started getting speech services at home. Through that, we eventually began occupational therapy for his issues with eating and a few other sensory issues. We had two therapists coming to our house every week and were hopeful that eventually things would get better. The services did seem to be helping, but in March of 2013 our therapists both sat DJ and I down and discussed with us their concerns that Milo’s issues were more substantial than had been initially assessed. He was a bit of puzzle to the two of them, but at the time they were concerned that he might have some sort of neurological delay, like autism, or something on that spectrum. Those words, that conversation was life shattering at the time. That potential diagnosis was never on our radar prior to that conversation.
I was shocked that anyone would even think that Milo could be autistic. He had gained words through speech therapy and was making small strides in other areas. I had a stereotypical image in my mind of an autistic child banging his head against a wall repeatedly, or behaving in other extreme ways. Milo just didn’t match the stereotypical vision of what a child with a substantial neurological delay might look like. Or at least, that’s what I thought at the time.
In a single moment, the way that we looked at our child completely changed. Now I look back and I’m heart broken at my initial response because he was still my little boy. He was the same boy in that moment that he was before that conversation. But it felt like our whole world came crashing down around us because of our own fear and misconstrued perception of Autism at the time. We felt like everything we had ever hoped for him was just gone. The two months following this life-altering conversation was by far the most difficult season of my life up to that point.
Everyday was a struggle because we were looking at our son through a completely different lens. It was really hard on our marriage, because we dealt with this disruption to our lives in very different ways. DJ was far more resistant to the idea of this diagnosis, not necessarily in denial, but he questioned things more than I did. I was much more devastated at the possibility and what it would hold for our life. But at the same time we came together in a new way because we were both in the midst of this really challenging experience.
We spent the next couple of months waiting for a team of all different types of therapists as well as a neuropsychologist to come to our house and conduct all different types of assessments. The waiting was so challenging especially because I was looking at Milo during that season as though he was no longer the kid he was before. I paid close attention to every thing he did that was different than our first son, Embry. It wasn’t at all fair. Embry is pretty much atypical in the opposite direction of the spectrum. He’s an extremely calm child with a laid back temperament. To compare the two of them wasn’t fair to either of them at the time.
After months of waiting, watching and wrestling we were finally able to complete the evaluation. It was conducted over the course of a couple of weeks. We were hoping at that point for an answer so we could just move forward, process through how much life had shifted and come up with a plan. As the evaluation was still being conducted we spent a lot of time with one of our therapists. She sat us down one night to ask us what we were thinking. She instructed us to stop thinking that Milo was anything other than who he was, and that if we continued to see him in a certain way, shaped by whatever stereotype we were holding, that he would become that image. She told us that every single kid that has any kind of atypical neurological symptoms presents in their own unique way. She knew we needed to see him as simply our child once again. Her words were incredibly helpful in preparing us for what we would gather from the assessment.
We sat down with them, and they didn’t have an answer for us. I wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad sign. I didn’t really know what to think or feel in response to that result. They said that they didn’t think that he had Autism but that he was neurologically atypical and they didn’t exactly know what that meant. He was still not considered “normal” in the eyes of a medical or neurological expert, but he wasn’t Autistic. We were informed that we would eventually have to get him re-evaluated a few years down the road. Milo was only 2.5 at the time and kids with Autism typically tend to be about a third of the way behind other children. Such delays are more difficult to measure with younger children.
At 3 years old he ended up loosing services through the state because he no longer qualified for state funded services. He had to be in the bottom 7% to be in the system. I’ve had to be proactive and become his advocate. So even though he didn’t test to be in the bottom 7%, you can still request for your child to be assessed educationally. We had that done and he still didn’t qualify. For education services you have to be in the bottom 15%. My thought is, if we let go of these kids now only to have problems in four years because of lack of services, why wouldn’t we provide services from the beginning? Why stop services for a kid who had access to them since he was 15 months old? So that continues to be an extremely frustrating aspect of this story in our lives. I continue to advocate and sort through what types of private services we can access to support him.
At this point, between Milo’s therapist and our own understanding of our son, we are leaning toward the possibility of him having a sensory processing disorder. Unfortunately, it is not an official diagnosis yet, but Milo’s symptoms match the criteria being compiled for this potential future diagnosis. That is how we are treating him at this point – taking efforts to balance his brain when it comes to sensory experiences. We have a fairly good understanding of the circumstances or situations that will affect him and then it’s about learning how to balance him out in the midst of such experiences.
What has support looked like for the two of you throughout this journey thus far?
We kept this entire story close to chest while we were in the middle of it all. Honestly, our families probably don’t even know all of the details of what we’ve gone through for the past year. I struggle with worrying that other people will fail to see my son for who he is if they hear any kind of term or label associated with him. If I struggled to see him for who he really was and made all sorts of assumptions about what this would mean for his life, then I imagine others would struggle in the same way.
Their preschool has been a really important part of our support. We see that there are cases far more challenging than ours and then we also see that we’re not the only family going through these challenges. I am able to see now that Milo is going to be able to function in this world. There will be a place for him in this world, and it may not be the place that other kids may be, but there will be a place for him. Just being able to walk into a classroom with children who have all different strengths and weaknesses and being able to interact with them has really added to our sense of hopefulness for Milo.
How has this story impacted your imaginings or fantasies of motherhood?
Motherhood has been so different than what I imagined it would be like. I feel like in some ways I had to grieve the picture or the life that I thought I was going to have. I had to grieve the life I thought my child was going to have. And I’ve learned that those imaginings were all an illusion anyway – because I don’t even know who Milo would have been had he not had these kinds of neurological issues. So this kind of experience causes you to examine your ideals, the ideas you set before your children that you probably never should have had to begin with…even though we all do that. I had to come to terms with the realization that my children will truly write their own stories. And you can help them, as their parents, but you can’t be the one who writes it for them.
Have you noticed any theme in this part of your story that connects to the larger story of your life?
I feel like I’ve had a history of taking care of things all on my own. That’s my personality. I probably rely too little on other people. That’s how I’ve always been. This experience has been hard because I feel like it’s just furthered that reality for me. DJ’s been great about trying to meet me in that place, trying to take things off of my shoulders. Otherwise, I think I’d be completely overwhelmed and I still have days of being overwhelmed for sure.
How has this story impacted your spiritual life, your sense of what life is about, or your relationship with God?
That’s really a shifting picture day by day. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to God as much as I have in the face of this struggle. Who else is going to help us face all of this everyday? Whenever anything happens in life where it completely alters the trajectory of your life, I feel like I don’t have any other choice but to say, “Okay God, where are you taking us?” I have no idea what the hell I’m supposed to do with all of this, or where I’m supposed to go with this, or what it means for the future. So I rely on just trying to trust God every single day. Even if I don’t believe it, I try to say it. I continue to just return to communicating with God all that I’m feeling and that I’m trying to trust even though I know God isn’t a magician and can’t take any of this away. Trusting that even if I don’t know what the meaning is, that God is in the midst of Milo’s story and our story. Really, just that God is hearing me in all of this and helping me to realign myself to the story that is rather than getting lost in whatever I thought the story could have or should have been.
The truth is Milo proves all of my fears wrong each and everyday. He is hilarious. I love him so much. After all that we went through, I look at him now and I see so clearly that he is the baby that I had, he is the baby that I birthed, and he will always be that. Whatever he is supposed to be, he will be. I believe that even on his hardest days. This is the story that is meant to be.
Have you been able to be kind to yourself in this process and the ways you’ve had to grow in the midst of this story?
Over time, it’s been easier for me to accept that there is only so much I can do. DJ has probably been the most instrumental in helping to remind me that I’m doing the best I can and that I’m a great mom. The days that I give myself less grace, I find it in DJ and in the moments where my kids climb up to me and give me a hug.
What do you want others to learn from your story?
I wanted to share our story because I want people to know what can happen when we see through the lens of stereotypes or diagnoses. I wanted to put our story out there incase someone else goes through something similar. And I want people to think before they speak, to really listen and pay attention to the stories all around us.
Lastly, we can’t end without asking you what your favorite drink is?
Anything fruity…alcoholic or not.
I realize that I am in the minority, but I have absolutely zero interest in watching football. The reasons for this are legion, but primarily, I don’t like watching football simply because I’d rather be doing something different instead. And when everyone else is glued to their screens, it means they are not on the streets, or in stores, or at parks. So the city is empty and quiet and I feel like I have the whole place all to myself.
Last year, when the Denver Broncos (my hometown team) and the Seattle Seahawks (my current city team) faced off in the Super Bowl, I was gleefully taking my time walking around a nearby lake enjoying the quiet and stillness and silence. Last week, during the final playoff game, I was meandering through Home Depot picking paint colors for a new project and tickled that I was the only one in line at the paint counter. I haven’t yet planned my adventures for this year’s Super Bowl Sunday, but am excited to begin imagining how I am going to spend my time alone.
Super Bowl Sunday is just one of very few days out of the year when I don’t feel guilty for doing exactly what I want. My husband and kids like watching football and end up seeing them on the big screen at a church party, or over at a friend’s house. And since they are so excited about watching the game and being fed by the potluck tasties, I don’t feel like my presence is required, needed or even missed!
I recognize that as I write this, I am both acknowledging and somewhat accepting of the reality that I don’t carve out very much time for myself; that I have to pamper myself only when everyone else is otherwise being cared for. I look forward to Super Bowl Sunday every year as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Am I equating my work as a mother, a wife, and a financial provider as the same as being in jail? Maybe. Yes, definitely. All the time? No. But women are socially and culturally constructed to be care takers of everyone but themselves. We are nurses and therapists, cheerleaders and teachers, maids and cooks, seamstresses and bankers, decorators and curators, artists and landscapers, gardeners and excavators. As mothers, as wives, as workers and as friends, we spend a lot of our time, our energy, and our finances to provide for the needs of others. When do we invest those kinds of resources in ourselves?
When my daughter’s tennis shoes showed signs of wear and tear, I went to the store that day to find her a new pair. And yet, I have chronically been walking around in flats that have an outright hole in the bottom of the sole. This dichotomy in treatment seems unnecessary. Why did I not get myself a new pair of shoes at the same time? Did I not have enough money? No. Was it an extra trip just for myself? No. Did I go to a store that only sold girl’s shoes? No – because my 10-year old and I now wear the same size. So, why did I not feel the urgency for to care for myself, but I did for my daughter?
I understand that being mama bears and lionesses means we care for our cubs and defend and protect them at all costs. But how can a weak, depleted, fatigued and sick mama take care of anyone? So, really, is it just that we aren’t that weak or that depleted or that fatigued or that sick? How bad do we have to get before we begin taking care of ourselves?
I spent the first week of this year detoxing off of caffeine and sugar. Maybe sometime I will write about the exquisite pain I was in for five days straight as a result of that decision. But in brief,
I realized that addiction to caffeine and sugar was just a way to keep going – to push through the weakness, the depletion, the fatigue and sickness. And when I arrested my use of those things, I crashed and burned and realized how poorly I had been caring for my body, soul and spirit.
I expect myself and have expectations thrust upon me to be a superwoman and the only fuel I have to keep going is several cups of coffee and some gum drops? That seems absolutely insane. But I have been a mother for almost 11 years and a wife for 15 and a student and a professional and on and on, and have known no other way how to play those roles and take care of myself at the same time.
So, I start by not watching football. I start with one day a year that I look forward to, and cherish and hold sacred as a day where I can begin taking care of my needs, replenishing what has been lost, honoring my hard work and taking time to pause and ask myself, “What is it that you need or want to do with yourself by yourself this Super Bowl Sunday?” I can’t wait to hear what my long lost long-suffering self has to say.
For the past five years, I have only been responsible for dropping off the kids and picking them up from school about 10 percent of the time. One of the greatest blessings of our lives is that my husband works from home. So, all the times I was attending classes, or sleeping in from staying up doing homework until 2:00 AM because of said classes, Karl was available to get the kids ready for school and drop them off.
Now, he is the master of their morning routines. He knows exactly how they like their breakfast (Lucy likes the crust cut off her ultra-grain toast and Peter doesn’t like any liquid in his oats), what gets packed in their lunch and more importantly how it all fits in those tiny lunch bags, what time the school bell rings and what time to leave the house in order to make it there beforehand. I can humbly acknowledge this truth today because Karl is out of town and those AM duties have fallen to me. When I have to ask my 8 and 10 year old how to fit all those tupperwares in those tiny bags, I feel a certain amount of shame for being a mother who doesn’t know these things, but in the same breath I feel immense gratitude for a husband who has this corner of our world under control ninety percent of the time.
Somewhere during the ten percent of times I was in charge of the drop off, I discovered that what was important for Lucy early on was a means of transition from home to school.
Leaving the warmth and comfort and security of home when you are five years old is scary! A little one doesn’t know if they can trust that their needs will be met with kindness and consistency; if their teacher will be available to support and encourage them on any given day. So, in order to bridge the divide of preoccupation and fear, we needed to establish a leaving ritual.
From all the baby books I had read before even having children, I gleaned that routines and rituals are important for a child’s sense of safety. Doing the same thing over and over again gives children the sense that they can control their world by predicting it. While I took that advice too literally and didn’t allow enough depth and breath to our daily routines of naps and bedtimes, and wouldn’t recommend similar rigidity, I would, however resoundingly endorse the importance of rituals.
Fortunately, Lucy’s kindergarten teacher, Ms. Montes, must have also read the same parenting books as me because on the first day of class she provided us with the inspiration for a leaving ritual that has continued up until this very day. Lucy came home from school with her first K5 art and craft – a tracing of her hand cut out of construction paper with a kiss placed in its palm. I later learned that this was done after reading “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn.
The story, in brief, is that little Chester Raccoon doesn’t want to go to school. He wants to stay at home with his mom and play with his own friends, his own toys, and read his own books. Mrs. Raccoon explains to Chester that sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to do that are strange and scary. But she goes on to tell him that she knows a very old secret that will make his time at school as warm and cozy as home. It’s called, “The Kissing Hand.” Mrs. Raccoon leaves a kiss on Chester’s palm and he closes his hand around it tight. And whenever he misses his mom or thinks of home, he opens his hand, places it on his cheek and magically feels her comfort and warmth.
After I saw Lucy’s craft, and read the story for myself, I committed to intentionally making this our leaving ritual. So, every day before Lucy lined up to go into class, I would put a kiss in her palm, she would make a fist and hold onto it really tightly. And since she is a very literal girl, she thought she might have to hold her hand around it that tightly all day long or it would blow away, so, she quickly learned to put it in her pocket in order to set her hands free for more arts and crafts. And in the event that she didn’t have pockets, she learned to trust that by pretending to put it in a pocket, she could pretend to take it out later in the day and put it to her cheek to feel as warm and cozy, as safe and secure as she does at home.
This morning, because we were running behind since I neither knew how to fit all those tupperwares into their tiny lunch bags, nor knew what time the school bell actually rang, I shuffled them off to line up for class a few minutes late and was preoccupied with getting them where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. But even in the midst of harried rushing, Lucy wouldn’t leave without me placing a kiss in her hand.
She reminded me those rituals that we established over 5 years ago are meaningful. Those little repeated actions remind us of something…sometimes we either forget or don’t have time to acknowledge the verbal something (“Mommy loves you and is thinking of you and wants you to feel warm and comforted”), and just need the shorthand, the ritual, to give us the feeling of the thing we can’t quite remember but know we need it when we get it.