Immediately after I sent all but the toddler off on their first day of school with that giant smooch they secretly love but pretend to loathe, I felt a wave of emotion that I instinctively knew I’d need to spend the day unfolding. This was not a surprise arrival. I knew this emotional release was inevitable months ago when we first discovered that life as we knew it would be dramatically shifting in a nanosecond. Look at me trying to sound witty and smart. Confession: I don’t really know what a nanoseconds is, but it sounds super fast, so I’m sticking with it. You see, nanosecond life-shifts by nature don’t allow the time and space to dig into deeper levels of the emotional and psychological processing of our experiences. But emotional data left unprocessed is persistent and perpetually attempts to make its way to the surface. I’ve learned at this point in life that it is much kinder to myself (and SO MUCH kinder to any and all creatures who come in contact with me) to greet the (re)surfacing of emotions with arms wide open. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few days – holding space for all that needed to surface.
Perhaps I should back up and catch all of you up just a bit. At the very beginning of our summer, the time of year that I most look forward to for a host of reasons that do not include an affinity for the warmer weather, we discovered that the path my husband’s career was headed down was a dead end and we were in desperate need for some re-routing. Within less than a week’s time, the re-routing we were searching for came clearly into view, but like most experiences in life, it possessed a duffel bag’s worth of pros and cons. Greater financial freedom and advancement in Brian’s career meant another relocation for our gang of six and an ending of sorts for my five year old private therapy practice.
Our summer consisted of selling our house, purging through and packing up our belongings, finding a new place to live and trying to wrap all of our minds around this sudden and unexpected disruption and uprooting of our lives. I knew that the real process of grief likely wouldn’t occur until we had moved through all of the steps involved with the relocation.
By the end of August, the initial relocation process was complete: I finished unpacking and getting everyone situated in their new space, completed and submitted a gazillion forms to process new school enrollment for each of the big girls and registered them for a year’s worth of classes, did all the back-to-school shopping madness, and took care of haircuts all while distributing a multitude of hugs and wiping away many tears as they each continue to grieve and accept this new reality. So there I was, standing at the front door of our temporary home (we’re renting to buy ourselves sometime to figure out where we want to plant our roots) watching each of my terrified yet courageous daughters walk TOWARD their next chapters. And I just knew it was time for me to find enough courage to face mine as well.
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.
“OK. So what’s a blow job?” She forced herself to ask as soon as she opened the car door and slid into the passenger seat without even so much as a glance in the direction of my face. The question didn’t particularly alarm me considering my adolescent clients keep me well informed on the milieu of current middle school culture. Oral sex is certainly a popular enough category for me to have estimated this type of conversation at some point.
“Well, I’m happy to unpack that with you, but can you first help me understand the context and why you’re asking?” I responded and watched her entire body sink into her seat as though she had been waiting for permission to wave her white flag and surrender all that she had been containing throughout the day.
She proceeded to share the details of a narrative involving a new friend being propositioned to perform oral sex on a male classmate in exchange for money, a school suspension, and perhaps even an expulsion. I could see her initially fighting back tears and then with another exhalation she let go of any remaining composure. The tears began to stream down her cheeks and eventually found their way into her lap.
I imagine those tears tasted of confusion, of the experience of indirect shame as she bore and divulged this narrative, of grief at the sense of her childhood innocence dissipating. These are often the most painful conversations I have with my girls. How can I explain sexual exploitation in a way that doesn’t frighten them? How do I name the horror of a world that has a long history of sexualizing and objectifying women and girls while buttressing their own capacity for agency and empowerment? How do I talk about the ways our culture has deprived boys and men from believing that they were made for so much more while keeping hope alive that there are boys and men who understand what it means to honor themselves and the women they know and love?
With courage. That’s what I’ve come to rely on heavily in these recent years of navigating the terrain of mothering adolescents. I have transitioned from being a mother of strictly little girls into a mother of little women rising. So with each step, with each conversation, I grab hold of the courage to just show up, to open up, to talk about the things no one ever talked about with me. We sit in the messiness of it all together so at the very least, these little women rising are not left to sort it all out on their own.
Karl and I had just sat down to take a brief reprieve from rigorous yard work. Lucy and Peter were across the street riding their bikes and we had just a few moments to ourselves before returning to the demands of landscaping and parenting. For our snack I had brought out full water bottles, ripe apples, and decadent dark chocolate for each of us. I started by savoring the chocolate first. Then, moved on to eating the apple. Mid-bite, with my feet reclining on the patio furniture, we heard Lucy scream that Peter had fallen. Naturally, Karl and I hopped to our feet and ran across the street to find him limping, crying and bloodied from a tough tumble he had just taken. Karl swept him up to carry him home and begin the doctoring and Lucy and I grabbed their bikes and helmets and trailed them not far behind. After leaning the bikes against the wall of the house, I rushed in to find Peter and Karl in the bathroom inspecting the damage. Peter’s lip was already cut and swollen and through his tears it was difficult to see what the damage was. Karl sat on the ledge of the bathtub and put Peter on his lap to calm and soothe him while I dipped a Q-tip in Vaseline to see if I could lift up his lip and see if his braces had cut all the way through. Surprisingly, they had not. However, he did have two splits in his top gums and would have a bee sting-like swollen lip for a few days.
Once my nursing was complete, I carried Peter out to the couch and got him tucked in with a blanket, a cartoon and an otter pop to numb the pain. That’s when I found Lucy curled up on the chair in the corner hugging her knees to her chest. Her tender heart can hardly tolerate anyone’s suffering, much less her baby brother’s. I worry about her as she will inevitably be exposed to the realities of this world where suffering is the norm. I asked her what was wrong and picking her up to sit on my lap, she explained how helpless she felt and that she just wished there was something she could have done, or could do next time. She explored the idea of always having an emergency kit with her wherever she went, including a wet rag. Those moments after she called for us and when we arrived were wrought with a powerlessness she wasn’t ready to encounter again soon. After she had been heard and understood, with a little extra squeeze and snuggle, I also tucked her in to her chair with a snack and her .mp3 player.
Karl had left the kids in my hands and rushed out to the backyard to finish cleaning up before the sun went down. I started dinner and was heading out to help him when I thought I’d save myself a trip and use the restroom before I headed out back. When I walked into the bathroom where the madness had been a half hour earlier, I saw it. There amongst the bloodied rag and Q-tips and toothbrush and toothpaste and other paraphernalia found in most bathrooms was an apple that had been half eaten. I looked and cocked my head to the right at the same time and wondered where it came from. Then, it dawned on me. I never set the apple down when I ran from the backyard to check on Peter. I carried it with me in one hand while I pushed the bike back to the house with the other. I didn’t set it down until I picked up the Q-tip and dipped it in the Vaseline.
The sight of a half-eaten apple on the counter in the bathroom struck me as so odd. Many thoughts and questions flooded through my mind. Why didn’t I set the apple down when I ran? Why did I hold on to the apple as long as I did? Was I being absent minded, or simply flooded with survival hormones that made my actions nearly uncontrollable? Or was there a fierce commitment to finishing the apple that I had started?
I imagine the apple is representative of many things in my life. I work hard as a wife, a mother, a woman, a therapist, an amateur landscaper. Then, when I attempt to settle for just a moment, to give myself what it is that I need, I’m often interrupted by ______________________ (fill in the blank). Yet, it is at that moment of interruption that I still must declare that I have a choice: to let go of what I need, carry it with me, or perhaps chuck it over the fence and grab another one later.
Finding that apple in the bathroom was representative of the choice I made in a moment. Something deep inside me chose to hold on to that apple. I chose to be as unwaveringly committed to my own pleasure, delight, rest, and sustenance, as I did the care, treatment and provision for another.
I choose me. I choose you. I choose both.
I am not a huge fan of the month of love. I have nothing against chocolate or flowers or sentimental cards. I’m actually kind of a reluctant sucker for all three if they are offered out of a heart rooted in desire rather than obligation. So yes, the contrived and constructed nature of Valentine’s Day certainly leads to some major cynicism. But that’s not why February is on the bottom half of my descending list of favorite months of the year. I think it has something to do with the momentum of January with all of its energy and newness beginning to stall, but it may also have to do with the bitter cold and amount of snow we tend to get this time of year in Colorado. I am only a fan of snow when I get to play in it or watch it from my window while sipping on Chai and reading a book, not when I must drive through it or shovel it or scrape it off my car. Lest I begin to sound like a whiner, I must confess that even my irritation with Colorado winters does not fully explain my less than fond attitude toward the month of February. If I’m truly honest with myself, I must name that there is a narrative component to this negative energy.
February 12, 1994 was the date of my first Sadie Hawkins dance. I was 14. The same age that my oldest daughter is currently. I had attended my first high school dance with a group of friends, my date being a dear and kind friend of my older brother. But I actually had a boyfriend for this dance which made it feel more significant. Or at least I thought he was becoming my boyfriend, hence the late night flirty phone calls that led up to this first date of sorts. He was only a couple months shy of his 18th birthday and I was still a rather naive freshman. He picked me up from my house that night with a corsage in hand, but as soon as we walked out the door he informed me that the day before he had been busted for having alcohol in his car while parked on school grounds. He was suspended so we would be unable to attend the actual school dance. As a grown woman, and a therapist who has now worked with a number of abuse victims, it is painfully easy for me to identify all of the red flags indicating the course of events that would transpire that night and the predictable path the “relationship” would take for the next couple of months. But there was no way for me to understand the trap I was walking into back then. There was no way for me to understand how my story leading up to that moment in time had left me vulnerable, characteristic of easy prey, and without the capacity to protect myself.
Faith, my oldest daughter, attended her first high school dance at the end of January this year. She went with a group of friends and had what she considered to be a fantastic time. After a full day of playing beauty salon and prepping her for the dance, her dad and I dropped her off with her friends, took a few photos, told her how much we adored her and then departed for the evening. Brian had to head to an event at his school for the evening (Assistant Principal duties) so I had a rather lonesome car ride home. It was enough space and time for the tears to emerge and trickle down my face in a way that felt cleansing, redeeming parts of me I didn’t know were still longing for redemption. I couldn’t protect or equip myself back then, but by the grace of God…truly by the grace of God, this child of mine has had a very different story than my own. I know that we do not live in a bubble, which means that a culture bent toward the objectification of women and girls has been woven into her narrative in ways that are seen and unseen. Just recently, the hype and buzz around 50 Shades of Grey necessitated a lengthy conversation around the disturbing content of the books and movie introducing categories I wish her mind did not need to hold. Heck! We returned from a weekend in Vegas for a soccer tournament only a few weeks ago, where each of my girls were exposed to the horror of strip club adds littering the streets. We were ALL literally walking all over the nude bodies of women. Images of their bodies, their beautiful and miraculous bodies- meant for SO MUCH more than being used as objects of pleasure for others – were being discarded like trash. I kept telling myself that each of these women have a story. They have a story. They have a being. They are not just a body. It’s the very same thing I keep trying so hard to instill in the hearts and minds of my daughters. Each of us are marked by this culture, there is no way entirely around that reality. But on that evening drive home, I saw the fruit of our efforts of resistance. At 14, Faith has more of a self than I was afforded at her age. And she continues to grow day-by-day in that direction.
February will likely always remind me that the battle against a culture of objectification, a culture obsessed with the sexualization of women and girls, must continue to be waged. It will likely always bring me back to the violation and darkness of that evening when I was 14, but perhaps facing death is the way toward life. Goodbye February of 2015, I am glad you’ve come and gone. Hello March. Hello Lent.
The night of Faith’s first high school dance. Woman becoming, a piece of my heart that lives and moves outside of my body, beyond my story and into her own. I love this child of mine fiercly.