A mother’s story of denial, discovery and healing through love, and the lessons she learned about raising a “perfect” child.
I was never one of those moms who could relate to any particular kind of mainstream mom group. My kids weren’t extra sporty, geniusy, clubby, horsey, any of those things. One remained perpetually angry and challenging until I changed the way I parented, and that only took 17 years; one kid struggled with two learning disorders and a blooming anxiety disorder.
I also had (and have) one feisty, determined, independent-before-her-time daughter. Charlie is pretty much my clone, but much taller, with a sharp sense of humor, an iron will and resilient spirit. She is too hard on herself and worries about failure at the vulnerable age of 15. Before this year, she had never presented me with a problem we couldn’t work out together. We’d hang out and draw, paint with acrylics, jazz Pandora playing in the background. No problem there.
Charlie had secrets. Even though I’d always figured she was okay, bouncing along, doing what she needed to for herself much in the same way she addressed chores, without compunction or urging, a mini me. Or a major me — take your pick.
Over the past several years, yes, she had changed, but I referred to my watch and agreed she was right on schedule. When it came to her development, she toed the line as the curve dictated. Her moods spanned the poles as most teenage girls do. Understandably, it’s challenging when thrown rudely into the body of a woman, while possessing a personality and emotional range closer to a child. It seems when girls mature they are handed a different set of rules. They are expected to be quieter, to resolve quandaries using rationale, and act generally more polite as they exercise introspective surgeries of fellow human beings. We saw Charlie struggling with her initiation into womanhood, and were comforted.
I never imagined that Charlie wasn’t anything but on par, because she had been the easy kid, the kind of kid for whom parents beseech the stork.
And I had prayed for Charlie. After two boys, I wanted the girl experience, the frilly, lacy, ruffled dresses, and the booties with bows. Her nursery theme would be angels, if she was a girl. Problem was, no store had an angel theme. At that point, I hadn’t even confirmed the gender of my baby. My heart sank with disappointment when I couldn’t find angel bedding.
At 20 weeks, after having a protein blood test done, the doctors told me they were concerned my baby might have Down Syndrome. I had a second stage ultrasound and an amniocentesis performed with a needle as long as my forearm and then waited two agonizing weeks for the results. From the amniotic cells, they would also know one hundred percent the sex of the baby. They called and told me my baby, she, would be okay. She was healthy and she was a GIRL. I cried and hugged my belly as relief rolled through me. I knew I would have been able to handle anything, but this was, of course, the news any parent wants. I had never even picked out a boy name, to me, “Charlie” was 100 percent girl.
I found the angel bedding and completed the nursery.
Never would a daughter know more love than Charlie. Who cared if my morning sickness had been as severe as Princess Kate’s – then, an unknown and a baby herself? I’d been diagnosed with the dreaded hyperemesis gravidarum, but even in the midst of such nauseated misery, Charlie was completely worth it.
After she was born, Charlie continued to be more than okay. Always cruising along, hitting the benchmarks, rising above her own feelings to come to me after an argument and apologize, and then asking if everything was okay again. She fought with her brothers on queue, but all my kids have razor-edged tongues, so I advised them to watch it, dreading they severe a vital bond. I worried a lot about raising them, pushed myself as a parent, attended counseling, fussed over their weight, any unexplainable fevers and yo-yoing grades. But I never worried about Charlie.
Even now, trying to remember how it all came about, I get the details confused. All my brain recognized was that it had to process new information. My little girl, my angel, was unhappy. She was so unhappy she had started cutting herself. She’d locked herself in the garage this summer and I’d had to get my crippled self up the stairs as fast as I could. I banged on the garage door with my fist and announced in a shaky, shrieky voice that she had to come out. My heart pounded once more as she raced past me and into the house, then pounded up the stairs to her room.
My son came to me and said he was worried she would hurt herself and my heart attempted to leap out of my throat again. He tore up the stairs and in the next minute, she stood in front of me, her arm bleeding, a knot of anger contorting her face. We’d had a disagreement, I recall that much, and I can say confidently, shreds of the topic now the only available reference in my head, that it was not important. Never has an argument been less important.
As she sat across from me, red and hot, her arm leaking blood from a terrifying angry line screaming her feelings and all the hatred in the world at me, I cracked inside. I ran to get the bandages, asking her as I went and returned about her habit. I pressed and pressed and pressed to move past her watertight fury.
Horrified and disappointed, mostly in myself for being so stupid and not believing her pain, I went into immediate parent-mode burn and cursed my life again. Why were we different? Why were there always problems? Why couldn’t anyone around here resolve a damn thing themselves? I was mad because I was scared out of my head. And I yelled. Maybe that’s not the recommended response, but I wanted her to know this was a big deal. I knew her friends had tried it before, but for some kneejerk reason I’d always elevated Charlie, pronouncing her smarter, more advanced than other kids, than her friends, some of whom spouted insane drama. My girl had her shit together and because I believed that, I ignored her, and I told myself again, I failed her.
Charlie loves sports and regularly participates in the North Star Women’s Fire Fighter’s Expo, an event that encourages women to experience what it’s like to be a fire fighter for a day. Women wear the fire fighter turnouts; full bunker gear (pants with suspenders and a heavy coat.) They use a jaws of life to cut apart a car and peel the roof back like a tuna can, a halogen tool to smash windows; extinguish simulated room and content fires; drag 200 pound mannequins; race stairs, and practice forcible entry procedures. I had to sign a special waver to allow the expo to permit Charlie to participate.
Last year, her third year, she was appointed a helper to newer, much older girls. Charlie is artistic and buoyant and possesses the most beautiful spirit, she is indefatigable, unconditionally accepting, and the epitome of Phoenix. Her laugh makes anyone around her stop whatever they are doing and join in. She is a ray of light who can wriggle into anyone’s heart.
I never gave her the ability to handle peer pressure or bullying because she was the good one, the kid I’d created to give me rest and joy. My other children bring their own special qualities, of course, but Charlie has always been my place to pause, my daughter from whom I have since learned a major life lesson.
A child with mature looks is deceiving. You can never stop your gentle prying into their life to confirm how they are doing, assessing if they have the tools to handle growing up well. If you have even one doubt they are okay, they aren’t. It’s called parents’ intuition for a reason. P.S. There’s no such thing as the “good” kid.
I knew nothing about cutting, but that night I didn’t feel she was safe from herself, and much as a mother raptor would, I unfurled my wings and wrapped them around her. I tucked her into bed beside me, I prodded until she talked, promising amnesty for anything she’d confess, and I upheld my pledge. I no longer cared that she had done “things”, I only cared she was hurting and that I had failed her.
Yes, that thought echoed through the night. Thank God for my disease, I thought as I returned to the bathroom for another paper towel. The medication I’m on resolves not only nerve pain, but prevents anxiety. I was as calm as I ever had been, sure and strong as I held her and she and I cried together, and I kept swinging that sledgehammer through her walls, crashing them down and letting Charlie know there was nothing she could say that would shock me, nothing she could have done, or felt, or contemplated to push me away. Man, I was strong.
I told her counseling was a must and I wanted her close because I couldn’t trust her actions that night, that if I couldn’t take care of her at home, we would get her the help she needed to stop cutting. But she had to spend the night right by me. I think she wanted to, because she agreed with sad eyes that also held a trace of relief. Her life had engaged into the right gear again because mom was here.
She slept beside me all night, a longer version of her preschool self, when she would curl up on my lap and want her mother for comfort, her mother who could fix anything. I hoped that trick would still work. As she slept, the tension flowed out of my shoulders until my body turned to mush. We stayed side-by-side until the morning.
What you don’t know about cutting can hurt you and your child inside and out. After speaking with a counselor, we learned about it. Cutting doesn’t seem to be as mainstream as might be implied and I had a hard time finding information about it that I could use when working with Charlie. I needed a credible source of information; this was something I couldn’t screw up. I don’t want any other parent to experience that frustration, and crippling fear so let me tell you what worked for us.
Children (yes, boys, too) cut because they are uncomfortable expressing emotion.
Since they rarely do, when they are upset enough they need a release. The physical sensation from cutting allows them to let out some of their pent up feelings. This is why the pain can feel almost good. However, pain continues to build even when a person cuts. This is why a cutter holds deep, deep pain, pain they personify into a physical manifestation.
If your child is cutting it doesn’t mean they are suicidal.
I was very worried about this, but was reassured by the therapist I spoke to that this cutting usually doesn’t lead to suicide because the mindset of the cutter differs from that of a suicidal person. Cutting is meant to release emotion and even shallow cuts allow the cutter to feel enough pain that it satisfies their need. That being said, a suicidal person may also be a cutter. If you have any doubt, seek immediate help.
Be that annoying parent.
Charlie has been doing very well for a while now, but that doesn’t mean she still doesn’t need to check in with us. We need to make sure she is keeping her end of the bargain and practicing good emotional habits. I will ask straight out to see her arms and ask more questions about her day, following up on events I might have brushed off before as “kids just being kids,” whether it be a smart retort or a playground scuffle. Kids get their feelings hurt in multitudes of ways. When they cover it up, the hurt lingers underneath.
You cannot handle such an emotional addiction without qualified help. If you’re like us, you might begin by denying that the behavior exists, or by assuming your love and attention can cure anything. The pain that cutters feel is exquisite and buried, and it appears to involve layer upon layer of hurt, injustices, misunderstandings. A cutter needs to learn how to reach those layers in a healthy manner and not fall back on the bad habit they learned to liberate those emotions.
Cutting is not a cry for attention.
In our case, Charlie hid it very well. She was angry with me for not noticing she had been cutting for over a year! I don’t blame her, but I was also unfamiliar with the signs of cutting. She had been wearing long sleeves and long pants on hot days, her interactions with us were cut short and terse. She seemed angry a majority of the time. Cutting was foreign to me and I had no idea that parents really dealt with that. I comprehended nothing about the motivations behind it, and I certainly had no worries about Charlie.
When Charlie came downstairs and walked toward me, holding out her arm, the image became branded in my mind, her arm above her pinched, furious face as she fought so hard to contain everything she felt. She disclosed later that crying weakened her. I reassured her she couldn’t be more wrong, and then I did what any mother would who wants to heal her child would do: I showed her how to cry without embarrassment, without averting my eyes. We ugly-cried together.
Flash-forward and Charlie comes to me when she needs a good cry, and I hold her just like I used to when she was little. She dampens my shoulder and I am proud that she had the courage to conquer this demon. We spend more time together and I realize she needs me through every step of her childhood. Before she told me she was cutting I’d thought I was losing her, that she wanted space to mature without me. My instincts have never been so wrong. It is critical try to ensure my kids feel listened to and loved, that they know they’re accepted, and that failures, pain, and frustration are inevitable to everybody. I’d focused so much on making sure all the boxes we checked on development, nutrition and academia, I’d forgotten to take a peek at their insides. It’s a mistake I will never repeat.
Cutting is not the only danger a “good” kid can face. If things are bobbing smoothly along and seem too good to be true, it’s time for a chat to press out anything your child might be dealing with, or hiding out of fear or shame. Plenty of “good” kids use alcohol, sex, and drugs to cope with avalanching adolescent problems they have no idea how to solve. Learning Charlie was just as vulnerable as any other child has brought us closer. We’ve discovered what we have in common and paint, play, or watch movies as she spills issues weighing on her mind, and her teenage adventures. Charlie is not just a good kid, she’s a great kid. Thankfully, I got the chance to realize it.
Photo: Flickr/Jenny Hudson