Sometimes facing your child’s issues means facing your own issues. In this installment of “Love, Recorded,” Matt Salesses breaks down over sensory problems he didn’t know he had.
For the last few months, my daughter has been meeting with an occupational therapist, to help with her sensory issues. An OT was one of the first things we looked into when we moved. Our new OT has Grace play with quinoa because she refuses to put her feet down on sand. He gets her hands sticky and tries to distract her cries to wash them. He gets her shirt wet and tries to distract her cries to change.
I didn’t realize I had sensory issues until I learned about my daughter’s. Then it made sense why I hate turtlenecks, or why I freak out if my clothes stain, or when I feel constricted, constrained. I didn’t realize my problems weren’t just a problematic personality.
When we were first finding out that Grace won’t eat spongy foods, or doesn’t like kids her age (too unpredictable), or can’t stand clothes too tight on her arms, my mom would sometimes say something like, That’s how Matthew was. And I would learn about my genetic handicaps from things I had forgotten about myself.
My genes, my fault. My genes and faults that I can’t trace back to someone else.
I remember I used to have desperate fights with my father over mowing the lawn. I remember it felt like I was being dropped in acid when the grass would shoot up from the blades and touch my skin. I couldn’t breathe. used to run away from home over this. I fought until my parents must have thought I was crazy. If only we had known these were sensory issues. I couldn’t explain what was wrong.
They thought I had a behavioral problem.
The things parents learn over generations.
Today, the OT had us buy whipped cream and blueberries. I have stayed home for the day to drive to the grocery store and now to help out. The OT sprays the cream on a paper plate and drops the blueberries in it with tiny foamy splashes. Grace watches. He asks her to pick them out of it. He asks her to decorate her plastic cake. He asks her to sort the blue from the white.
At first, this is all fun and games. Then the cream dries into a layer of film. It gets on Grace’s clothes. It clings to her hands. When she whimpers, when she begs, it breaks my heart. She holds her little palms out to us. The OT makes this moaning sound and says, “Uh oh,” and claps at her like a dog. The OT says we should put our hands in to show her it is okay.
Cathreen puts her hands in, so I have to put in mine. I have to keep my face looking happy, encouraging, but the feeling of the cream makes me want to run. The only reason I do not is that I am doing this for my daughter. The embarrassment alone would not stop me now. Looking like a scared toddler would be an easy trade for clean hands, if I didn’t have a scared toddler of my own.
“See,” Cathreen says. “It’s okay.”
“See,” I say. “It’s okay.”
Grace plays a little longer, then cries more. It is all I can do to sit still now—something crawls up the insides of my ribs. I can’t even encourage her, I can only keep my face from mirroring hers.
The layer of dried cream—is like I’m wearing a dead person’s skin as gloves.
Finally, Grace can’t take anymore, and the OT lets us get the baby wipes. I try not to grab at them. As soon as I can, I make a break for the kitchen.
I hear my daughter rallying in the other room, doing better than I am. I wash once, twice. I smell my hands and they still smell like cream, and just the smell brings on dizziness.
I can feel tears, unstoppable tears now. I can’t manage this mess. I haven’t cried like this, without being sad (or knowing why I’m sad?), in years. I try to think whether there might be some memory, or trauma, connected to this feeling, but I don’t get anywhere. Soon I am crouched down in a ball, weeping as silently as I can.
When the OT comes out, I quickly stand and wipe my eyes. He says what a good job Grace did. I try to get him to leave.
When Cathreen comes out, I tell her what happened. I tell her I had zero control over what happened.
“That is why we doing this,” she says. “We don’t want her to become you.” I am opening and closing my hands into fists. My palms feel like deserts.
The awkward phrasing stings, but I understand what she means. We don’t want Grace to become me. We want her to become something far better: herself. We will have failed as parents if she doesn’t improve on us generationally.
We want our daughter to grow out of her sensory problems, or at least understand them if they still exist later. We want her to know she is understood. We want her to know when to push herself or refuse to push. We want her to learn who she is, to discover each day a little more of what might even be a mystery to us.