Archive for the 'caregiving' Category

What I Learned from Mr. Rogers

amywink July 19th, 2018

When I was in college, my summer job was day care. Aside from the excruciating tension headaches I also experienced with the job, I loved it because I enjoy playing with the children. I just liked them, partly because they can be a lot of fun, but also because they are often ready to be present in a way that adults don’t often allow themselves to be. Children just like you to be who you are and I like being with people like that, even if they are new people.

When I was in graduate school, I had a second job working at a church nursery where another friend worked. In the middle of the rigorous intellectual pursuit of my PhD, I got to play with babies and toddlers. It was great, very grounding, except on the days when more than one child was Not Happy and Not Going to Have Any of This, though really, I could always sympathize. Who has not felt like screaming their head off some days? There were really amazing moments too, like the time I watched a two-year old just work on figuring out how to put the nesting animals in the right order so they all fit back inside the cow. It took him a while but I was watching his brain grow and it was amazing. Watching someone learn is fascinating if you understand what you are watching. I now know so much more about brain development and the neuroscience of learning and as that child put those pieces together, his brain was forming new pathways, making neurons fire, creating insight and understanding, growing his brain. Every “ah-hah” moment we have as humans is actually a neuron firing and making a new pathway of understanding. Brains are really cool. And children are always learning and I love learning with them. I’ve joked with friends that I am very popular with the three-year old set and it has always been very grounding when I hang out with children.

Going back to church has brought children back into my life and reminded me of the fun I used to have at the church nursery during graduate school. It’s fun to hang out with the future. Watching the recent documentary about Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, also served to remind me how I learned to present with children, and what a challenge when they ask really hard questions, like “are you ever afraid of the dark?” or “why do people get sick?” Sometimes, if you really listen, they remind you of things that are so deeply human, your heart will break wide open.

I’ve been thinking of one of those moments recently, given the news these days. I don’t shut off the memory because it’s the memory of how I learned, yet again, to be present, as a person, as a teacher, as a human being. There was one child (there’s always one) at the church nursery who was a handful, frustrated, and prone to episodes of anger. She was two when I started working there and was somewhat infamous. But she liked me and I liked her so we got along, though not like the two children for whom I eventually became the favorite baby-sitter. When Bethany finally learned to talk, it became clear that her frustration had simply stemmed from not being able to explain what she was thinking, which was quite a lot. Once she was talking, she was fascinating, engaging, and not nearly as difficult to deal with. Once she knew how to speak her feelings, she enjoyed life a lot more (and we are all so glad!) She was also delightfully bossy and assertive, acting much more mature than she actually was. It was endearing. But she could still throw a tantrum if she needed too and her emotions were still very close to the surface. Her bold air also made people forget she was still new and working out her way in the world.

One evening, I was engaged to babysit my regulars and Bethany was added to the evening, which was entirely manageable. Except, when she and her family arrived, it was obvious no one had told her she’d be staying behind, and I could see the betrayal on her face, the fear, and then the anger at the betrayal. I am, and was then, a person sensitive to the emotions and feelings of others, and I knew what I was watching and I was also becoming angry, as I always do, when I see people ignore the feelings of another, or, worse, intentionally hurt the feelings of another person. And when that person is a child, I am both shredded and outraged. It is the double-edged sword of my compassion. I’m not much of a gatekeeper but if you want righteous anger on your behalf, I’m right there. Some friends have accidentally hit that button and some friends have gotten exactly what I have to give in moments when they needed it.

But Bethany was just four and an outraged adult is not what any four-year-old needs in her face at the moment when she is overwhelmed by her own anger and fear. As she raged at the door her parents exited, I sat with Emily and Alex, the other two children, who were also trying their best to figure out how to react to the episode. Emily, who was quite mature and sophisticated at 5, looked at me and assessed the situation before she pronounced, “She’s just being a baby.” It was a test, for her, for me. I responded, “No, she’s very angry. I think she has to be angry for a little while.” And I left it at that while we settled into our evening together.

Nothing major happened. Bethany eventually calmed down. We all watched a movie and the night got later and later. I put Emily and Alex to bed but there wasn’t any bed for Bethany, so we sat on the couch together and started talking, like friends do late into the night. I cannot recall what we talked about exactly, probably the movie, but I remember how present we were, how close to each other. Then, we got to the heart of the matter and in our quiet conversation together, Bethany said “Sometimes when my mommy goes away, I get really scared.” I responded like a friend should, “I know. It’s really scary when that happens.” It was the right answer. She paused then she crawled onto my lap, draped her arms around my neck, sank her body into mine and held on for a long time, until she fell asleep. I held on too as my heart broke wide open to hold her.

Failure in Translation

amywink June 14th, 2018

A friend I knew in graduate school used to tell the story of how her friendship with the cluster of Italian graduate students began at a museum in Italy, where she, speaking Italian, had constructed her sentence in the language she was still learning and instead saying “I have made a mistake” she had, in her usage, said “I am a mistake.” To which the kind Italian stranger standing beside her had responded effusively, “Oh, you are not a mistake!!” and had helped her understand the difference in translation so that she would not longer announce that she was some kind of “mistake of the Universe” and had only, like humans do, made a small mistake.

Our American cultural narrative of success provides no such nuance and moving home at 36 means only one thing: failure, as in “you are failure.” Our belief that if we work hard, do the “correct” things, follow the conventional path, we will be rewarded for our efforts has no room for what happens when a person does all those things and still cannot find the job. The external cultural narrative exerts a great deal of force on the understanding of experience, even if the knowledge of what has happened complicates the prevailing idea. Add to that the popular misconception of work in higher education as some kind of easy life in the ‘Ivory Tower’ completely divorced from reality (and therefore the target of a fair amount of cultural hostility) from which no one can ever be fired. Let me just say, I have never encountered this utopian vision of academe and when people talk about the “liberal” slant of higher education and the feminist paradise that exists there, I laugh (but that is another essay for another time.)

I had not lived at home since the summer of 1987, when I left Austin to pursue my graduate degrees at Texas A&M, after completing 4 years of undergraduate school at Southwestern, also not living at home. I had not lived at home for a long time, for good reason. Our cultural narrative of “moving home” implies that home is a safe place; that one is returning to the nest seeking the comfort of a welcoming family. The cultural narrative has no room for the problematic return to an environment complicated by mental illness. When I knew that the only path before me was the road home, I was afraid. Afraid because it seemed right and afraid because I knew what I was heading into, except I didn’t really know that what I was about to encounter was worse than I had expected. Yet, failed and afraid, I came home in May of 2001. My parents did welcome me and were also afraid.

It would be unfair of me to claim that they did not want me home or thought I was a failure just as it would be unfair to claim that I was not relieved I had a net at the bottom of my fall from grace. They both worried, about what this meant for them, what it meant for me, what it meant for us, and a lot about how would we all afford this. My mother was a retired teacher, my Dad also, though he was working at Home Depot. Our home, the house we had moved into in 1974, was not large, 1300 square feet. I moved most of my things into storage and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, since my conventional plan had not worked at all. I was about to have a book, I had a lengthy vita, I had years of successful teaching experience. This was the thing I was made to do. I had a gift that no one wanted, a calling that culture refused to answer.

It was a hard place to be.

When people say “embarrassment won’t kill you,” I have often responded “No, it’s worse because you have to live through it.” The same goes for failure, you have to live through it. I understood, on most days, that I was not failure, that the system was the problem. While academic and popular culture might push the narrative that I was a failure because of my own fault–something I hadn’t done, some step I hadn’t taken, something wrong with me– I understood that the story people might be telling themselves was a story for their own comfort, whistling past the graveyard of failure themselves, holding onto their ideas of rewarded merit. I had tried to follow convention and it had not worked at all.

I had fallen. I was flat on my back. I was no longer looking down at the frightening fall. I had to look up. I also looked around. My parents were in serious trouble. My mother’s bi-polar disorder was poorly treated. My father, though we did not know this at the time, was beginning to feel the effects of Parkinson’s disease (which would be diagnosed in 2005). The house was in disrepair with half-finished renovations my Dad could no longer manage and also filled with things my mother refused to part with (yes, it was a hoard). I knew I could not live like that. I knew they could not live like that.

I had come home hoping to leave as fast as I could and suddenly I understood I could not leave.

“I cannot leave.” I told Stacey, who said she always remembered the moment when I said that. And it didn’t matter what culture said about failure. What mattered was not abandoning my parents in their difficulty even if that is not what I wanted.

It did not look like my calling, and yet, here was what I was being asked to do: care.

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