The Happy Middle Years

The Happy Middle Years

By Rachel Pieh Jones

the happy middle1For my children, the ages 6-12 have been the ages of ‘no longer’ and ‘not yet.’ No longer in diapers, not yet smoking pot. No longer waking up all night, not yet staying out all night. No longer fed from the breast, not yet developing breasts or obsessed with breasts, depending. No longer sitting backwards in a hard plastic seat beneath layers of car seat buckles, not yet behind the wheel.

No longer fighting with me over the biggest brownie (I totally won that battle), not yet fighting to wear the smallest swimsuit. No longer needing me to read homework instructions, not yet needing me to remind them that these grades count toward something more than five extra minutes at recess.

I know the middle years aren’t like this for every family or every kid, but so far, for my youngest, Lucy and I, these feel like our golden years. She is witty and strong, creative and self-entertaining. She is helpful and curious and generally a joy to spend time with.

This feels peaceful. And, this feels dangerous, slippery.

Now that Lucy is eight years old I feel like I am free. After years of focusing primarily on family, I can develop more outside interests, focus on my writing, help coach a running team. I have the mental capacity for conversations about politics and social issues instead of sleep schedules, to read books about genocide instead of about potty training.

I sense the dangerous possibility of letting these years slip past and of letting my happy middle-aged daughter slide from between my arms while I am finishing an essay and she is practicing piano on her own or making brownies on her own (having kicked me out of the kitchen and demanding I not intervene no matter what).

If we begin to go our separate ways now, if I sidestep out of her orbit because I am no longer required for basic survival and functioning or bottom-wiping, if she slides away as I become addicted to hours of quiet writing, and if I neglect to be intentional because she isn’t rocking my world with the wrong friends, bad grades, dangerous driving, or inappropriate clothing, what will happen during the next season?

What a silly fear, as though I feel required to be anxious about something. Since Lucy is thriving and I can’t be anxious about the present, why not project fear into the future?

I don’t want to live in this happy middle season with this unnecessary anxiety, dreading a dire future of my own creation and afraid to enjoy a satisfying time of life. I also want to take advantage of the relative ease now to invest in this almost-tween, to build on the foundation of the early years and to create scaffolding to guide her into the tumultuous teen years.

I Googled, “books parenting ages 0-5” and got 11,400,00 results. I Googled “books parenting ages 13-18” and got 5,750,00 results. I Googled “books parenting ages 6-12” and got 1,300,00 results. Loads of advice on getting started parenting and on finishing up before launching our kids into the scary beautiful world. Not nearly as much about what to do in between.

Once our children know how to tie their own shoes, read chapter books, fix their own breakfast, and self-soothe to sleep, the parenting section of Barnes and Noble or Amazon would have parents think our job is done. At least for the next six years, we can go into coasting mode.

We are still cool, we are still in control. We are still bigger and stronger and presumably wiser but we are on the verge of losing all these advantages. This is precisely why I cannot settle into coasting mode. These might be the happy middle years for (some) kids but they are also foundational and the habits, relationships, and attitudes cultivated now are what they will carry with them into and beyond the teenage years, even if those values appear to remain dormant or to disappear entirely for a season.

These are prime years to instill in Lucy a love of literature, a global worldview, a secure spiritual foundation. We talk about bodies and healthy attitudes toward food and exercise, respect for the opposite gender. We laugh really hard and ask questions we don’t know the answers to, then search out those answers. We take risks and practice courage.

I will not worry about the future, this now is when she is eight and this here is where we will learn and love and create. Instead of living afraid that the peace is precarious, I’m learning to embrace these happy middle years with intention.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

This is Childhood, a book and journal about ages 1 -10 of childhood.

Blind Curve

BT 14 Blind Curve Art 2By Debbie Hagan

I pause at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the teenage residents hall in this psychiatric hospital where my thirteen-year-old son has spent the last few weeks. Though I’m in a hurry, with an only an hour to have dinner with Connor, I stare at the fortress-like balustrade. For the first time it occurs to me, from the bottom I can’t see to the top. The stairs go up, curve at the landing, then disappear.

Then I realize these stairs were boxed in to keep mental patients from hurling themselves off the top. A cold bead of perspiration runs down my spine as I edge up the stairs, turning blindly around each corner—almost as if I’m in a funhouse where the floors are slanted and the water runs uphill. When I reach the top, a curious eye peers through the wire-mesh. The latch releases, then the steel door groans open.

Inside the air is thick and moist like a locker room smelling like dirty dishes and teenage sweat. I turn left, past the common kitchen, hurry through the boys’ living room and down a dark, narrow hall.

Connor’s room is the last one on the left. Inside, he’s sitting on his bed, perched on a pile of rumpled sheets, his ash-blonde hair gelled straight up held by something he calls “glue.” He wears tan cargo pants and a white T-shirt hand-lettered with the words: Counter Clockwise, the punk band he formed last summer. Now he stares into space, his eyelids between open and closed.

The room looks more like a college dorm than a hospital: two twin beds, a wooden desk, and an armoire with the door hanging cock-eyed from one hinge. In the corner, a mouse has chewed a half-circle hole that looks like a sketch from a Tom & Jerry cartoon. I notice something on the floor. When I edge closer, I see chunks of the homemade brownies I’d baked a few days ago.

“I can’t stay long,” I tell Connor, setting the Taco Bell bag on his desk. “I’m teaching a class at eight.”

Connor moves sloth-like, an obvious side effect from the new drug. The psychiatrist says it will take the edge off of his explosive moods. My son picks through the paper bag, pushing aside the napkins and sauce as if he’s not really hungry.

I look down to Connor’s desktop. Someone etched into the wood, with a pen, a chubby marijuana joint with smoke curling from the tip. It reminds me of a 1960s Robert Crumb cartoon—a bit too sophisticated to be Connor’s.

“What’s four-twenty?” I ask, pointing to the numbers above the joint.

“It’s the international pot smoking time,” Connor says in a tone that says, Stupid, everyone knows that.

I laugh. “So everyone’s supposed to light-up at 4:20?”

He shrugs, “I guess.”

Maybe he has smoked a joint, but I doubt it. He’s just thirteen. He looks older, being six feet tall with a youthful fuzz of beard. On his arms, he writes punk lyrics, such as, “I have a heart full of napalm, babe.” With his spiked hair, black leather trench coat, eyeliner, and “Fuck off” attitude, he gives the impression that he’s a tough street kid.

I look into his face, and I’m reminded of what the middle school counselor once told me: “He’s so thin-skinned. He has no armor to protect himself.” Now it’s as if I see it—faint lines of blue crisscrossing beneath an ivory scrim.

I stare at the marijuana drawing, and I wish he were in a more nurturing environment. Connor is the youngest of the twenty or so boys on this hall; all seem to have a history of drugs and petty crimes.

While McLean Hospital has the reputation for being the world’s leading psychiatric research hospital, I’m not sure this is a good fit for him. His stories about this place scare me. First there were the boys who stole a spray bottle of cleanser from the janitor’s closet and huffed it. A counselor found them delirious, sprawled over a bed. Two other boys bragged about having sex in the bathroom. This week, a boy became violent and beat another patient.

The atmosphere here is a little prison-like and makes me wonder how Connor can get well. I’d bring him home, but I worry, would he just go back to running away, cutting, and trying to kill himself? I don’t think I can live through that again.

“Are you sleeping okay?” I ask.

He raises and lowers a shoulder, biting his burrito. He chews a little and looks as if he needs to pick through the cotton in his brain to find the answer.

“Last night the strangest thing happened,” he says. “There was this blue streak of light that came into the room. It was right about here.” He gets up and stands in the middle of the room.

“I was asleep,” he points to the spot where I’d first seen him. “And I saw it…there was something here.”

“Was it a ghost?” I ask.

“Hmmm. I don’t know, but it was something.”

He’s staring into space, curling into himself, pale and nervous.

“So what did you do?” I ask. “I prayed to God that it would go away and leave me alone.”

I watch my child, standing in the middle of his room talking about ghosts, and I feel more alone than ever. No one can help me, not even my husband who’s angry with Connor for acting out. I try to tell him, it’s not Connor’s fault. Even the doctors don’t seem to get it. They tell me he’s obstinate and defiant. I argue, this isn’t my son. It’s as if someone stole my son and replaced him with someone who looks like him. They stare at me as if maybe I’m the one with the problem.

I look at Connor, searching his room for ghosts, and I’m feeling alone and scared, and I don’t know what to say. I change the subject.

“So how was the Fall Fling?”

All week he had practiced his cello for the patient variety show. He had chosen William Squires’s “Tarantella”—a strangely hypnotic tune about a woman bitten by a tarantula who falls into a zombie-like trance, which seemed apropos for here.

Connor raises and lowers a shoulder. “Ehn.”

“Wasn’t it fun?” My voice sounds insistent, practically begging Connor to say, yes.  His lips quiver. He can no longer wrap them around his burrito, so he sets it aside. The back of his hand wipes away a tear. Dear God, please give my child one moment of joy.

Connor is crying. I close the door and sit next to him. I place my arms around him and squeeze his shoulders. I’m amazed when he doesn’t brush me away.

“It’s okay,” I murmur. “Just tell me what happened.”

He gives me bullet points. The patients on the third floor—boys and girls—gathered under the trees, on the terrace behind East House, for a picnic. All of the kids sat with their friends. They laughed. They talked. They ate. They played games, like the three-legged race, but no one wanted to talk to him. No one wanted to be his friend.

“Surely there was someone,” I say.

Connor shakes his head and tells me that one of the boys on his hall said something mean.

“What?”

He shakes his head. His face twists into a painful grimace. He cries, “I can’t even get along with people in a mental institution.” He bats away tears.

There’s a thickness in the room, making it difficult to hear or speak or feel anything—as if I’m bound motionless in my chair. I try my best to keep a poker face, because I don’t want Connor to suspect that I’m confused and frightened.

“Let’s face it, Connor, a mental institution isn’t a great place to make friends. Everyone here has issues and trouble interacting with people.”

Frankly, I don’t know a lot about mental illness. Over the past few weeks, ever since Connor was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I’ve read a stack of books. I’ve learned one thing: mental illness strains all relationships. It makes those with the illness behave unpredictably, and those who love them afraid, frustrated, and sometimes angry.

As for kids, this has to be the cruelest part. Kids with mental illness stand out profoundly, and, thus, become bullying targets. That’s why Connor is a victim no matter where he goes—even here.

“I know what people think,” Connor tells me. “I can look at them and tell what they’re thinking.”

“Oh, Connor,” I say.

“No, it’s a gift and a curse!”

I stare at the broken dresser, the mouse hole, and my son who now believes he can read minds. I zip up my jacket but it doesn’t stop my shaking.

I’ve forgotten about time. When I look at my watch, I see it’s already past seven. I have to cancel my class. When I call the school, the administrator warns me, canceling a class at the last minute violates my teaching agreement. I apologize and say, “It’s a family emergency.” Still, I know how these things work. I’ll be taken off the roster next semester.

My whole life is derailed—my teaching, my graduate studies, even my relationships with my husband and other son.

I dig through my purse and find a pen and a small notebook.

You’re going to take notes?”  Connor asks.

“This will help me remember,” I say.

I notice Connor is now sitting forward, almost leaning into me, rather than slinking back into the folds his hoodie.

 “You should be a psychiatrist,” Connor says.

I’m a little surprised by the way he has perked up and wants to talk. I decide to seize this opportunity, but I remind myself: Play this cool. Be calm.

 Right away, Connor tells me, “One of my friends cut himself today.

“Hmmm,” I respond and write it down.

“What do you think will happen?” Connor asks.

“Well, he won’t be going home.”

Silence.

It lingers too long, and when I look up, I see Connor’s lips are chalky, his gaze far away. My heart sinks.

“I cut myself.”

“When?”

“Just before you got here.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

“I didn’t know your number.”

He had it, but he likely acted first, then thought.

For about thirty seconds, we stare into the void, searching for how to move on.

I go back to playing psychiatrist, writing random words in my notebook.

Connor tells me that after the boy said something mean to him, he grabbed a plastic knife and ran to the bathroom.

“I stood staring in the mirror, and I couldn’t even control it,” he says. “It was my choice.  I could stop, but I didn’t want to. Sometimes the dark side takes over, and I’m not at all me. I lie to people to make them think I’m in a good mood, but I’m not.”

I write, and I wonder if this is new or has he always been this way? Could I have misunderstood my son…all these years?

“Where did you cut yourself?” I ask.

Connor points to his thigh.

“Can I see it?”

“No!”

I’m acting like a mom again. That won’t work—not tonight. As long as I’m playing psychiatrist—open and emotionless—he will talk.

Still the mom in me worries about the cut. I look at his pants. I don’t see blood. I decide he’s not going to bleed to death.

I push on, because there’s one subject I really want him to talk about. It’s the seventh grade school trip. That’s when Connor’s behavior changed. He had told me that he was bullied. I’d mentioned this to his psychiatrist, but Connor refused to talk about it.

I scribble as I gather my bearings. Then I take a deep breath, “Can you tell me what happened on that trip to Washington D.C.?”

Connor squeezes his eyes shut and grimaces. I expect him to explode, order me out of the room, and then bury himself under his covers.

Instead, he’s silent for a long drawn-out minute. Then, to my shock, he begins telling the story. He picks up from what I already knew, how his roommates made him sleep on the floor, so they could have the beds. Then they refused to share their sheets and blankets. They made fun of his deodorant, calling it “women’s deodorant.” In fact, it was a unisex deodorant, which I had bought, thinking it was more fitting for a thirteen-year-old—better than Old Spice or Axe. I couldn’t imagine it could be turned into a joke.

Now he begins talking about the second day of the trip, when all of the seventh grade buses pulled up to the U.S. Mint, and the kids gathered in groups. Suddenly Connor’s roommate, a boy named Mark, shouted to the entire group: “Connor wears women’s deodorant.”

As Connor tells me this, his voice rises in pitch, exaggerated and sing-songy. I stare at him as he clenches his fists and bares his teeth. I’m frightened, because, in this second, I don’t even recognize him.

As if he’s reliving the moment, he shouts out, “Shut the fuck up, man! I don’t use that stuff.”

The fury in his voice makes the hairs on my arms stand up.

Connor composes himself a little, telling me that everyone laughed at him. They looked at him and pointed. Then Mark repeated the phrase he’d read on the side of Connor’s deodorant: “strong and beautiful.” The boy said it mockingly, girly, and the crowd laughed even harder.

Connor told Mark to stop, but he wouldn’t. He kept shouting and laughing, spurring the crowd on. So Connor grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off the ground. Joe tried to pry his hands off, but Connor said he wasn’t about to stop.

“I wanted to kill him.”

“So what happened?”

“One of the teachers pulled me off and told me to take some space.”

“That was it?”

“No one ever does anything,” Connor says. “The teachers saw what had happened, but they don’t care.”

I am stunned. How could this have happened in front of teachers—chaperones who are supposed to keep kids safe on these trips? And no one said a word to me or even tried to find out from Connor why he acted this way?

“Did you really want to kill Mark?”

“He’s a sadist. He deserves a spot in eternal damnation!”

I fall back in my chair. To think my son could have killed this boy—over deodorant. Connor’s a big, strong kid and given his level of anger, he might have done it. This scares and confuses me. How could this be the same boy who gives brownies to mice, who sleeps with a rainbow-striped dolphin?

Connor continues, “I heard it everywhere I went. I heard it in my hotel room, at dinner, on the bus all the way home. Twelve hours I listened to it in my ear: strong and beautiful; strong and beautiful; strong and beautiful. I thought I was going to explode.”

By Monday, all the kids in school knew about the deodorant. They ran up to him in the hallways and yelled, “Strong and beautiful.” They shouted it during homeroom, and at lunch. Two of the popular girls handed him a present tied it up with a bow. Excited, he tore off the wrappings only to find a stick of girl’s deodorant and a Cosmopolitan magazine. They roared in laughter. He ran to the bathroom and cut himself with a paperclip.

“I don’t like to talk to people anymore,” Connor tells me. “I can’t make friends without thinking how they hate me. I can’t trust anyone.”

For the first time ever, I understand how this chain of events unfolded and how my son ended up here.

Connor grabs me and hugs me hard. When I start to let go, he grabs me again, tighter, his breath moistening my hair.

“I want to go home,” he whispers, “but I’m not ready.”

I realize, he’s afraid too. He’s afraid of being hurt again.

I bury my head in his T-shirt, soaking up his warm, musky scent.

“It’s okay. You’ll come home when you’re ready. It will be soon.”

On my way out, I’m not so sure. I look back down the stairs, dark and boxed in. A few hours ago I couldn’t see my way to the top. Now I can’t see my way to the bottom.

Author’s Note:  The notes taken that night enabled me to recall our conversations just as they occurred, in addition to the other small details. Connor spent about a month in the hospital, followed by four years of working with therapists and psychiatrists who helped him deal with the pain caused by school bullying. Today Connor is 22 years old, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and enjoying his life—without medication.

Debate: Is Rewarding Kids a Good Parenting Practice?

Debate: Is Rewarding Kids a Good Parenting Practice?

 

No, it’s the wrong message

By Kathy Gillen

debatenogifts“It won’t hurt much,” I told my two-year-old, Paige, as she waited for her immunizations. “It will be all done real fast.” Part of my statement wasn’t a lie.

Later, in the car, Paige examined her Pooh Bear bandage. Her tears were gone, and the trauma seemed to be fading. I was still shaken. But I knew just how to ease my pain: produce a little magic. “We’re going to go to the toy store,” I told Paige, “and you can pick out something because you were so brave when you got your shots.”

As the stiff plastic packaging and wire ties were removed from the new baby doll, delight filled my daughter’s face. The doll traveled by her side … for about a day. Paige never mentioned her doctor visit and soon abandoned the doll for her play kitchen. Later, as I tidied her room and placed the doll in a basket with other toys, I wondered: Did she deserve a treat? Pain is a part of life. Should she receive gifts or a lollipop for enduring her day, for growing up, for eating beans?

I continued to struggle with my reward system for a long time as Paige faced rejection from the neighbor kid, tackled a pile of cooked spinach, and lost her status as an only child as we added new siblings every other year.

When does behavior deserve a reward? After Pilates class, I used to treat myself to a Starbucks mocha. A pedicure is a treat I justified because I hauled sandals and swim noodles and beach towels to the pool all summer. And if I finished folding my laundry and put it all away, I decadently lay on my bed and got lost in a novel. But how would I teach my children that not all struggles end with a Crunch Bar or new Mario video game, when I often rewarded myself for enduring small inconveniences?

My answer came with my fourth child. Merritt had a degenerative, genetic disease. She would never develop beyond her present infantile state. Not even a side-by-side refrigerator or fresh family-room carpet would work on this hurt.

My mom friends tried to soothe me. Homemade dinners and certificates for massages were well-intentioned and appreciated, but when you win the horrible-things-that-happen-to-kids lottery, there is only so much a roasted chicken can do.

Still, the rewards kept coming. “You deserve it,” became a phrase used over and over by my well-intentioned friends. I bought into the mentality, too.

We desperately want life to be fair. We want goodness and love and great schools and healthy children for everyone. And when we realize it won’t be fair, we’re quick to offer rewards for pain. It’s easy to offer our children gifts and treats in exchange for their hurts. It seems the obvious thing to do, to try to take away their troubles.

When we act is if parenting produces hardships soothed only by rewards, then we model entitlement. Moms, of course, do deserve a break, dinner out, a kicking new outfit, and anything that helps self-esteem, but we need to set parameters for our rewards. If I had continued to rely on treats to help me cope with the daily chores of raising a special-needs child, then I would set a poor precedent for my children’s ability to handle adversity. And it isn’t just the demands of a handicapped child that can wear me down. If my kids see me fleeing the house for a mid-week shopping spree and I tell them, “I deserve some time alone,” then I’m teaching them that inconvenience is a reason to max out the credit card, or worse, that they are causing me grief which can only be fixed with a trip to the mall.

The doll I gave to Paige after her shots only taught her that the unpleasant parts of life will be rewarded. Well, sister, there will be a lot more unhappy times than a couple of shots. What will I do when she struggles with homework? Give her ice cream? When her first love breaks her heart, will I buy her a designer handbag? If her number one college pick sends her a thin letter, should I send her to Paris?

I don’t want my kids to be like dogs, anticipating a treat each time the cupboard of disappointment opens. I want to empower them to face adversity, solve problems, and understand that a positive attitude can be the quickest way to gain their equilibrium. Nobody wants hardship for a child, but amazing, life-altering joy can be found in even the dark corners of life. Teaching kids to embrace hardships without the aid of rewards can be the difference between understanding life and just muddling through it.

I recently heard of a girl who, while in the hospital with a rare kidney condition, decided to tell the people who sent her gifts to instead donate the money to an organization helping AIDS orphans in Africa. A child who is able to see beyond her own suffering and understand greater pain is rare. Children are self-focused, and when they are in pain they expect all of their parents’ attention and love. But in a society where parents try to cushion every blow their children receive, we need to teach our children that love doesn’t have to come wrapped in a brightly colored cardboard box or scooped into a cone.

Pain shouldn’t always be alleviated. Some of our children’s greatest lessons will be learned through their struggles. My compassion for others and gratitude for each new day has intensified through my own pain. Sure, I could have done without a few of those horrific months, sitting in labs, hospital rooms, and doctors’ offices while searching for answers. But my kids might have perceived Merritt as a hardship if I had rewarded myself with a new car or diamond tennis bracelet. Instead they see her as a special girl who doesn’t get ice cream after therapy or baby dolls after the doctor but lots of hugs and rounds of Itsy Bitsy Spider.

Do I deserve a break? Sure, I need time to myself, to regroup and relax. My kids need to see me having fun. But I hope they see me enjoying life, not rewarding myself for living it.

Kathy Gillen lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and four children.

 

Yes, parents have the power

By Renée Hill

debateyesgiftsThere is a conversation I have had with my mother many times since the birth of my first child four years ago. The basic outline goes like this.

I didn’t have a lot of theories when I first started rewarding my son for his good behavior. The fact was, his birthday is in December—the same month as Christmas—and by late spring, I wanted to get the kid some new, age-appropriate toys. I thought it would be a bad precedent to set, if all he had to do was ask for them. So I started tying the acquisition of new playthings to his behavior. Voilà: My practice of rewarding his good behavior was born.

We’ve been chugging along like this for years now. He got M&Ms during potty training, plastic dinos after vaccinations. He gets new games for his Gameboy after good report cards and jaunts to the bookstore after a week’s worth of saxophone practice. When school lets out, we take a vacation.

You can call it bribery. I call it, “Hey, kiddo, I’m proud—let’s celebrate.”

I know the arguments against what I’m doing. The kid will come to expect rewards for any little thing. He’ll become an insufferable brat. His expectations of the real world will be unrealistic. He’ll grow up and be unable to handle his adult life, all because a well-meaning adult (me) taught him that life rewards good behavior, jobs well done, hard work.

But, jeez, it’s not as if he’s been sequestered in a bubble the span of his formative years.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a child, I was well aware of all the ways my small world was unjust. It wasn’t fair that I got my glasses broken in dodgeball, or that the richer kids seemed to be the more popular ones. It seemed arbitrary that we had to ask to use the bathroom at school, or that we could only get two library books at a time. It seemed cosmically wrong that, while a bunch of us girls were talking during class, I was the one who had to sit out recess.

These days, they don’t play dodgeball anymore (sorry, optometrists!) and you might get a note home from the teacher when some social situation goes awry. But, really, in the course of a childhood, hundreds of injustices are visited upon our kids. Small ones, we hope. Invisible to us, probably. But it happens to my kid, your kid, every kid. That’s the way the world is.

What I don’t understand is how we collectively got the idea that home is supposed to simulate the big, bad world. Why, again, are we supposed to try to mirror the reality that rewards aren’t necessarily handed out equally, or at all? It seems to me that the goal of any home should be the opposite: to offer a respite from the daily grind of the world’s uncertainty and injustice. I want my home to be the place where my son can expect unconditional support, where his efforts go rewarded, and where his biggest fan lives.

What I’m creating in our house, I suppose, is more like an ideal world. Here, there is compassion, in the form of making banana bread together when someone’s had a rough day. In our house, if you’ve worked to the best of your abilities and accomplished a goal, you might get a new CD. If you do something kind, someone takes notice, and there might be a trip to the ice rink in your future.

In many ways, my rewards system is more realistic than expecting the boy to find his work rewarding in itself (remember learning the times tables?) or hoping that he can find a vein of altruism to mine. Because, as imperfect as the world is, most of us adults work for the reward of money. We’re capitalists, after all. But I’m careful, in rewarding him, to give bonuses for effort, not his innate qualities like his handsomeness or athleticism. Besides, he can suss out what’s subjective mama-love (you’re so gorgeous!) and what’s genuine pride in his accomplishments.

My son will someday be an adult in this dog-eat-dog world, and with any luck, he’ll have a measure of power. He knows the great feeling of getting a reward. And he knows—because I’ve made it obvious—that I’ve gone to some effort to reward him when I get him a new gizmo or celebrate with a special outing. He’s learning that grown-ups—whether they’re parents, teachers, or bosses—have the power to reward. They should use it.

Renee Hill is a freelance writer. She’s currently at work on a collection of essays.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008)

Subscribe to Brain, Child

I Am A Fraud

I Am A Fraud

By Kelly Hirt

IAMAFRAUDI planned on writing about something else today; I intended to write about yesterday’s fencing class.  I was impressed by my long and lanky eight-year-old boy. There was a level of persistence and focus that I was proud to witness.  Despite other people taking their own lessons in the gym, mine listened to his instructor and focused on his directions.  He was challenged in ways that my son doesn’t normally tolerate.  At one point, my son tripped and fell hard to the floor. I gasped out loud.  In previous activities or other years, that would have ended the instruction immediately, but he stood up and was able to shake it off. He continued the lesson and there were even a few smiles that helped bandage whatever pain his knees were feeling.  There was a celebration in the car on the way home as we reviewed the successes of the morning.  He was proud and sat taller during that ride home.

Yesterday, it was a great day. Today was not.

It was a challenging day to parent my twice-exceptional boy—he’s intellectually gifted with extremely immature social skills—and my reactions weren’t ideal.  I feel like a fraud because I didn’t do what I write about.   I didn’t brush it off like I usually do, like he was able to do yesterday at fencing.

Frequently, I write about the need for recovery on the weekends.  I know that my boy needs it.  I know that his home and his parents are refuge for him; we take his frustration because he feels safe with us and he is more fragile after tolerating the discomfort and stress of school.  On most weekend days, I understand it.  I expect it.

Today, I didn’t want it.

Typically, I don’t let myself get sucked into the negative talk and escalate an emotional rant with my own visible frustration.  I usually let him walk away where he cools off in privacy and returns with an apology.  Sometimes his door is closed for twenty minutes as he collects himself and then he can enter back in the coming and goings of the house with grace and some dignity.

Today, I didn’t allow it.

The frustration when his computer game didn’t go his way or he was asked to do something that he didn’t want to do was just harder to take. The ongoing complaining about laundry and cleaning his room and the sermon about the cruelty of homework on the weekends, was painful.  I can usually distract him with a game or a snack or a favorite book. If it gets too much, I usually remind myself that he needs the help, the tools and I am able to join in and help problem solve.  I can put aside my own thoughts of unfinished work or upcoming challenges and focus on his needs for order and calm.

Today, I was annoyed by the inflexibility.

Instead of listening, I lectured.  Instead of waiting, I stomped my feet and found things to randomly pick up and move to other places to keep my body active while I was filled with words of frustration.  Instead of accepting, I pushed back and wished for what I wanted instead of what is.  These acts were exhausting my body and mind, but I was consumed in that moment with all the things that were hard, the “I can’ts” instead of the positive and the progress.

Like many mothers, I don’t usually promote the bad days.  I don’t post pictures of the tantrums and tears on Facebook for others to witness.  I show the posed pictures and I share the successful family gatherings. Maybe, I needed to share it today because it got to me today.

How can I be a parent that shares the needs of twice-exceptional children with others, and be the parent that ignores my own son’s needs? I feel like a fraud.

Then, I retreat to my room.  I allow myself the same opportunity for recovery and I begin to think that the sharing of only the good on Facebook … well that could be considered the fraudulent act.  The perfect picture at the pumpkin patch or the toothy smiles on the first day of school provides such high expectations that other parents wonder how they can match it. They wonder when they don’t have those same moments in time, why parenting is harder for them.

I look at all of this differently now.  I realize I am not a fraud, I am honest.  I make mistakes. I am a parent.

Kelly Hirt is a mother, teacher & writer.  She started her blog http://mytwicebakedpotato.com/ as a way to support and connect people parenting twice-exceptional children.  Kelly’s work has been seen in Macaroni Kids, Huffington Post, and many other sites. 

Subscribe to Brain, Child

Family Affairs

Family Affairs

From Brain, Child (Fall 2009)

By Meagan Francis

fall2009_francis_ringFour-year-old Charlie has no idea—yet—what transpired between his mom and dad late last year.

Stationed overseas while her husband was on active duty in Iraq, Charlie’s mother, Stella, began to notice her husband, Tom, becoming distracted and disinterested. A picture of her husband sitting with a young woman on his lap on a mutual friend’s Facebook page aroused her suspicions, and the constant texting and e-mailing when he came home on a break confirmed them. Finally, Tom admitted he’d been having an affair with another soldier and said he was in love with her, though he claimed they’d never had a physical relationship (something Stella doesn’t believe).

As she watched the effects her husband’s withdrawal was having on her son, Stella got angry. “Tom was so disengaged that Charlie started wanting nothing to do with him,” she says. Before the holidays, Charlie’s class was working on a project to send deployed dads a “Christmas hug”; a paper outline of the child’s arms on a piece of paper. “Charlie sat in the time-out cubby all day, refusing to participate,” Stella says. Because Charlie is speech-delayed, Stella explains, figuring out what he’s thinking can be a challenge, but after some questioning, Charlie came out with it. “All done with Daddy,” he said.

Lonely and confused, Stella began spending a lot of time with a longtime male friend. Then, while recounting the story about her son’s school to him, Stella found herself thinking, “My marriage is over.” Soon afterward, things between her and her friend got physical and she began a brief affair of her own.

Stella and Tom are hardly unique—infidelity is one of the oldest of human stories. Chances are good that even if infidelity isn’t part of your own life story, you’re hearing about the affairs of your friends or neighbors or watching it unfold in the life of a public figure. The chatter surrounding an affair almost always seems to focus on what it will do to the relationship under stress—the adult relationship, that is. Will they or won’t they stay together? Can he forgive her? Will she walk?

But what about the children? When they figure into the discussion, it’s almost always as an aside. When the Monica Lewinsky story was breaking, the national discussion was about Hillary and the state of the Clintons’s marriage, with far less attention paid to how the scandal might be affecting Chelsea. Ditto John and Elizabeth Edwards, who have three children, or most recently, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his wife, Jenny, who have four.

Or take the saga of Jon and Kate Gosselin of the TLC show Jon and Kate + 8. When news emerged that impossibly laid-back Jon—arguably the more likeable of the couple—had had an affair, public sentiment seemed to shift. Sure, the show’s most rabid viewers thought that Kate was still bitchy and controlling, her hair had gotten utterly ridiculous and who did she think she was with the huge sunglasses, fake tan, and designer clothes anyway … and yet … she’d been cheated on. The viewing world seemed to divide into two groups: those who thought Jon was a cheating bastard and worried that those eight kids would grow up in a broken home, and those who thought Kate had brought it all on herself and needed to give up the public life before she drove Jon further away and wound up raising eight kids by herself.

What nobody seemed to be asking was what affect the affair itself would have on the kids. Even if Jon and Kate had stayed together, news of Jon’s infidelity had been splashed across tabloid covers and blogs for weeks. There’s no way the kids can stay sheltered from that forever. So what happens when they figure it out? And what lingering effects might have haunted them even if the marriage had lasted?

Even if you’re not in the public eye—if you’re a Stella or a Tom, say—there are plenty of questions to be asked. Will your little Charlie one day be blaming you in therapy for mishandling the whole affair? Is there a right way or a wrong way to explain infidelity to children? Does it make a difference to the emotional health of the children if they’re told of the cheating right away or kept in the dark? Are they affected differently in the long run if Mom and Dad reconcile or eventually split? And, given how widespread a phenomenon this is, we have to wonder: Why is there so little research on the effects of infidelity on children?

*   *   *

Recent studies from the University of Chicago indicate that one in ten Americans (twelve percent of men, seven percent of women) will have an extramarital affair in their lives—and those are among the most conservative estimates. Researchers at the University of Washington recently found that twenty percent of men and fifteen percent of women under age thirty-five say they have cheated, while twenty-eight percent of men over age sixty say they have cheated. (The actual numbers are likely to be higher, sociologists say, because people tend to lie about sex.) While it’s equally difficult to pin down what percentage of people having an affair also have children, one recent survey provides an eye-opening clue. In a poll of thirty thousand mothers conducted by Cookie magazine and AOL Body in May, 2008, thirty-four percent of respondents admitted having an affair since giving birth to their kids, and more than half (fifty-three percent) said they’d considered an affair.

Thanks to The National Center for Health Statistics, we know how many people marry and divorce each year. And the short- and long-term effects of divorce on children have been tracked through longitudinal studies like the one performed by psychologist Judith Wallerstein, a former senior lecturer at the School of Social Welfare at The University of California, Berkeley. But when it comes to how children are affected by infidelity per se, the research is conspicuously scanty.

Ana Nogales would like to change that. Nogales, a family therapist in Southern California, has watched the effects of infidelity on her patients for years. To synthesize what she was seeing, she designed a study of eight hundred adults whose parents had been unfaithful. In June, she published the study as a book, Parents who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful.

What emerges from the survey is a mixed bag:  Some of the long-lasting effects of infidelity on the respondents are what you’d expect, while others are more surprising. Nogales’s respondents skew heavily female—eighty-four percent women compared with just sixteen percent men. (This may be because women are more expressive, Nogales says.) Many more respondents (seventy-three percent) report that it was their father who was unfaithful; only sixteen percent report a mother’s infidelity. About fourteen percent of respondents report that both parents had an affair.

Three quarters of the grown children of adulterers report that their relationship with the unfaithful parent changed as a result of that knowledge. The same percentage report feeling betrayed and even more said they felt angry with or hurt by the cheating parent’s actions. Eighty percent report that their attitude toward love and relationships was affected by their parent’s infidelity. About the same percentage say they now feel that people regularly lie. More than half of respondents are afraid of being betrayed by a partner, and more than two-thirds say they have a hard time trusting others.

Yet almost ninety percent of adults who in their childhood experienced the infidelity of one or more parents still believe in commitment, and nearly eighty percent report that they believe in monogamy. Whether they can carry through with those beliefs is another story, though; forty-four percent report having cheated at one time or another.

*   *   *

All this data seems to mean something, but what, exactly? Nogales is the first to admit that her survey isn’t scientific: Participants are self-selected, and it’s likely that the people who feel most affected by a parent’s cheating are the first to get in line to fill out a questionnaire about it. Participants assess their own mental and emotional health, further adding to the subjective nature of the study. There’s also no comparison data and so no way to know whether adults whose parents cheated are any worse off, emotionally, than kids whose parents stayed faithful. We all screw up and fail our children in some way. Is infidelity statistically worse than our other failings?

Many questions linger on the perimeter of the data. If the parents stayed together, did the infidelity continue? If the parents split, did the offending parent stay involved in the kids’ lives or did he or she disengage? Was the cheating a one-time event or chronic? How did the kids find out, and how did the parents treat one another during the crisis? In other words, did the affair lead to family dysfunction, or did family dysfunction come before the affair? How long ago did these marriages and these affairs take place and in what kind of socio-cultural environment?

In Nogales’s study, fifty-eight percent of marriages survived the infidelity. (National averages may be higher; a recent study of 1,084 people whose spouses had affairs found that seventy-six percent were still married to the same partner years afterwards.) Whether or not the parents divorce after an affair is discovered changes the way kids react to the affair, according to Nogales, but neither outcome is all good or all bad: “When the parents didn’t divorce, the children were better able to trust, but felt more shame and had a harder time forgiving,” says Nogales. “When the parents did divorce, the children had a harder time trusting, but an easier time forgiving. They saw the relationship as something in the past that had come to an end.”

Eighty percent of survey respondents reported that their relationship with the cheating parent changed when parents divorced. Nearly that many—seventy-two percent—reported that their relationship changed with the cheating parent when the parents stayed together. There was no significant difference in the relationship with the betrayed parent, whether or not the parents divorced.

Though those questions aren’t answered via the survey responses, the book is full of personal stories that shed some light on the various ways infidelity plays out in the family.  And from those stories and the conversations I had with people who’ve been there, I learned that the effects of infidelity are as individual and unique as the families themselves.

Take, for example, Jennifer Canzoneri, a twenty-seven-year-old mother in Roanoke, Texas, whom I spoke with recently. Jennifer was not merely a bystander to her dad’s infidelity; she was made an accomplice of sorts. When she was about seven, he began taking her and her sister to dinner with a “friend” of his who worked in his building. “I guess he assumed we wouldn’t catch on,” she says. “We caught on. But as a kid, it’s kind of hard to wrap your brain around what your suspicions really mean.” The infidelity continued. Eventually, Jennifer’s mom and dad split and her dad remarried; he later broke up with her stepmother while he was in another relationship.

Jennifer says the affair made her have some trouble trusting people. “I won’t cheat—I can say that with much certainty—and I won’t stand to be cheated on,” she says. “But trust is difficult. I look at my husband, who’s nothing like my father, and sometimes wonder if he’s keeping things from me. He’s open and honest and has given me no reason to doubt him, but as a child of infidelity, you doubt and fight insecurity.”

Again, not surprising. But digging deeper into Jennifer’s past indicates that it may not just have been her dad’s cheating that affected her so strongly, but the way it played out in her family.

“My sister and I told my mom [about the other woman], and, sadly, we tried to defend him. I remember my mom wasn’t surprised, which saddens me a lot in hindsight,” she says. “The woman we met wasn’t his first mistress, and my mother knew of them all. She stayed with him, she looked the other way, and she didn’t demand that he stop cheating or lying. He convinced her she wasn’t worth being faithful to and so she never said she was worth being faithful to. I needed to see, through her actions, that no woman should allow a man to cheat on her. I didn’t see that.” Jennifer tells me that it took much therapy for her to be able to trust, and even now, she finds divorce devastating: “When I see friends go through it or even some random celebrity couple, it physically affects me.”

With that kind of fallout at stake, it’s understandable that a parent might try to keep an affair completely removed from the kids. “In the military, with so many spouses on active duty for much of the year, there are women who have boyfriends practically living with them—picking the kids up from daycare, even—while their husband is gone,” says Stella. She opted out of that kind of arrangement when her own affair began, trying hard to keep Charlie in the dark. “If I wanted to see [the other man], I got a babysitter and went out. My kid was not around.”

Stella and her husband are attempting to stay together, mostly for Charlie’s sake, and she says they have no plans ever to tell their son about their infidelities. “I think adultery always has been and always will be around, and it’s separate from your kids,” she argues.  “There’s this feeling that once you get married and have kids everything is supposed to revolve around the kids. Honestly, I think that’s why some women have affairs—to have some kind of life that’s outside of the cocoon. But I think it can remain very separate. It depends how it’s all handled.”

*   *   *

I can see her point. After all, we don’t involve our children in our sex lives. Why involve them in our affairs? Is it ever appropriate for them to know all the ins and outs of our marriages?

My own parents split up when I was about five, and soon after, my dad moved across the state to live near a former female co-worker. Within a couple of years, the two were married. (They later divorced.) When I was in my late teens, my mom told me that my father had cheated on her with my to-be stepmother. I remember being remarkably uncurious about it, never asking if she had proof, or why she would believe such a thing. In my subconscious, I probably knew that it was true, but as it was all in the distant past, I didn’t have to grapple with the “what does it all mean?” questions. So I chose largely to ignore this tidbit of knowledge and went right back to worshipping my father.

Now that I’m an adult and see things with clearer eyes, I suppose I could confront my dad and ask if it’s true. I’m sure he’d deny it; I’m not so sure I’d believe him. But at this point, what difference would it make? In hindsight, I can see that nothing is black or white. My dad’s purported affairs weren’t a rejection of me personally (my mother was not an easy person to live with—hell, I left her, too, moving in with my dad at the age of thirteen). My dad is a fallible human being. Mistakes were made.

But if I’d been told about his actions at the age of, say, eleven? I’m not so sure I’d have had the same confidence in my view of human nature or clarity to see my parents as they really are.

Nogales would argue that I’m kidding myself. On some level, kids know about affairs even when they don’t know the actual facts, she says. For that reason alone, honesty is always the best policy. “If you keep lying to your child, the child will have more and more problems,” she argues. “You don’t have to give details, but you have to ask your child if he or she has any questions and respond with the truth.” Even if your child doesn’t exhibit signs of knowing about an affair, Nogales believes they should be told.

That position strikes other family dynamic experts as extreme. Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem, a family therapist in Burlington, Ontario, thinks children should be told about affairs—but on a need-to-know basis only.

“High stress comes from having a lot of responsibility and little power,” Belleghem argues. “Giving children information that they’re powerless to do anything about increases stress.”

On the other hand, if a child has a sense that something is off, it’s important to validate that knowledge, she says. When kids see something that doesn’t fit into their idea of the world—for instance, they think “Daddy loves Mommy” but then see Daddy kissing the neighbor—they need to know how to make sense of it, says Bellenghem. “When they learn that their perception was right, they say ‘Whoa—what I thought I saw, I really saw!’ It builds their confidence and self-trust.”

Bellenghem suggests that while childhood might not always be the right time to spill the beans, the time will come eventually. Let’s say an affair happens when a child is three, and the parents work through it and agree to stay together. Should the child grow up with the knowledge that one of his parents cheated on the other? No, she argues, but it could be shared when the child has reached young adulthood and is grappling with relationship issues of his or her own.

Emily Brown, Director of Key Bridge Therapy & Mediation Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment (2001), says about affairs, “In most cases, it needs to be part of the family story in some way. It’s not a secret, it just hasn’t been shared yet.”

And if this is the route you’re going—if you’re going to explain the complexities of an affair to your child, it makes sense to have a good grasp what exactly was going on in your own marriage. Why did it happen, after all? Brown, a frequent media commentator on infidelity, has identified five types of affairs, each with its own kind of motivation and potential fallout.

“Conflict avoiders” are the “nice” people who are too afraid of abandonment to resolve their differences directly, she says. The marriage erodes, and so they look outside the marriage for intimacy. “Intimacy avoiders,” Brown says, communicate via intense fighting, and often both partners wind up having affairs. “Split Self” affairs happen when people are so intent on doing their marriage “right” that they deprive their own feelings and needs, and end up getting those needs met in a long-term, serious affair. “Exit affairs” happen when conflict avoiders are looking for a way out of a marriage, and use an affair as a way out. And finally there’s the sexual addict, for whom sex is a compulsion more than a choice.

Within those five types, there are even more differences: serial cheaters and those who have a single, brief affair; those who involve their children and those who work hard to shield them from it. There are cheated-on parents who stand up for themselves and those who allow the infidelity to continue without taking action. There are couples who have mostly respectful, peaceful relationships in which affairs happen and couples who never cheat but scream and throw things at each other. The kids involved can be anywhere from not-yet-born to adults (sometimes, a child is actually a product of the affair, which throws a whole new wrench in the works). But whatever the details, they matter. When it comes to explaining matters of the heart, context is everything.

*   *   *

Like every other issue we face as parents, there’s the ideal, and then there’s reality. No one (well, almost no one) goes into a marriage expecting to cheat or be cheated on—it’s no surprise, therefore, that so many parents find themselves muddling through the aftermath. And whether they get everything out in the open right away or put it off for a later date, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to fumble and fail.

But they’ll also have lots of opportunity to try again until they get it right. Because whether you’re talking with a child about drugs or sex or God or infidelity, no single discussion shapes his or her understanding of the entire topic.

At least that’s what Stephanie, a thirty-five-year-old mother of two from Virginia, is banking on. Last winter, while she was struggling with depression and the demands of caring for two closely spaced young children, Stephanie’s first love showed up on Facebook, and the two reconnected. “I told myself I was just catching up with an old friend and gaining some closure, but I knew I was heading into dangerous territory,” says the attorney, who wrote about her affair on her blog, lawyermama.com. “This was a man I had never entirely gotten over; someone I had always loved.” On a business trip to Chicago not long after, Stephanie got together with the man, Mark, in person, and that meeting sparked a five-month affair.

When she returned, Stephanie’s husband figured out something was up right away; the two of them separated but eventually reunited. “I guess you could say that I came to my senses,” she told me. “Even though I was in love with two men, I realized that I had to make a choice. I chose my family.”

The children don’t know about her affair … yet. At only three and four, Stephanie thinks they’re too young to really understand: “Hell, even most adults don’t understand.” But she admits that she learned the hard way how perceptive even little kids can be. “During a car ride with my three-year-old, I was on the phone with Mark, just chatting, but I guess there was something in my voice,” she says. “When I hung up, my son asked me, ‘Mommy was that Daddy?’ I said, ‘No, sweetie that was Mommy’s friend, Mark.’ He was quiet for a while, and then said, ‘But who is he? Is he Daddy?’ After that, I never spoke to Mark on the phone with my children in the room.”

Since the affair is out in the open—and on the Internet—and both families involved know about it, Stephanie figures it’s just a matter of time before her children find out what happened. But whether the news comes from a gossiping cousin or Google, Stephanie and her husband are prepared for the discussion they’ll have one day. “We’ve agreed we’ll talk to them about it together and tell them as much as they want to know,” she says. “We plan to tell them that marriage is really hard work and sometimes we make mistakes, but we’re a family first and foremost and we did everything we could to keep it that way.”

*   *   *

Perhaps the reason there’s been so little research on the effects of infidelity on children in the past is simply due to adultery’s secrecy and the difficulty quantifying an experience that’s largely individual. Studying divorce, by contrast, is easy: Either a couple is divorced or they are not. The life cycle of an affair is a much more nebulous concept. We don’t like to talk about affairs in public to begin with; we certainly don’t want to admit to having had one (or several). We even have a hard time defining an affair: Do you have to go all the way? What about emotional affairs? Internet affairs? Sexting?

Maybe the definition doesn’t matter. Bellenghem is quick to point out that it’s the dishonesty—not the sex—that makes infidelity damaging to kids. “Having an affair isn’t just betraying the spouse, it’s betraying what family is about,” she says. “And a family is usually created on the premise of monogamy.” In open marriages or cultures where infidelity is the norm, Bellenghem suggests that sex outside of marriage wouldn’t have as devastating an effect, precisely because it wouldn’t catch either parent—or their children—by surprise.

It’s that surprise, shame, and confusion that often leads parents to deal with the infidelity in a way that’s not necessarily best for their kids. Trying to normalize or cover up the situation to the kids, the betraying parent will often either deny the obvious or—worse—bring the children into the “secret” (outings with mommy or daddy’s “friend”; keeping secrets from the betrayed parent). As for the cheatee? “Usually the parent who’s betrayed goes through a period of obsessing and questioning, and is unable to stop thinking about [the affair],” says Brown. “There’s no way the kids don’t hear that.” Trying to help children deal with the confusion of the family upset in a healthy way may be easier said than done when a parent him- or herself is in the throes of pain and feelings of rejection.

If there’s a silver lining to the often grim reality of living through the aftermath of an affair, maybe it’s the opportunity to get a little more real with their kids about the realities of marriage: the fact that marriage is messy, takes a lot of work, and sometimes, the people we love the most will disappoint us in ways that are both simultaneously shocking and clichéd.

Author’s Note: When I was growing up, secrecy and privacy reigned supreme in families; now, the cultural norm seems to be shifting rapidly toward total disclosure. When it comes to infidelity and kids, I wonder what that will mean for everyone involved. Less shame and isolation, perhaps, but also the potential for an unhealthy dose of TMI. Presumably, it’ll be good for today’s children that we’re more honest than previous generations of parents, but I hope it’s something my kids won’t have personal experience with.

Meagan Francis has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, the Chicago Sun-Times and elsewhere. Her website is thehappiestmom.com.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.