Postpartum Anxiety

Dear Joelle,

The last sixteen months have been the hardest months of my life. While I’ve always been a worrier, nothing could have prepared me for the gauntlet of anxiety that is having a child. The bad news is that some of this anxiety, this propensity of mine to be worried about every tiny thing that could go wrong, will absolutely transfer to you. With that in mind, I’ve been working hard to limit your exposure to my worrying. However the pediatrician recently said you might have a speech delay and it’s taking everything I have not to completely lose it.

I’ve been burying it in my body. I cram it down between the fibers of my muscles and sweep it underneath my organs. It feels like my skin has become the final line of defense protecting the beauty of who you are from the rot encased within me. (Sometimes I try to imagine a million tiny corks being wedged into each of the million tiny pores covering my body.)

I’m normally someone who believes in the cloying cliche of ‘what you resist persists.’ But this anxiety is too much. I can’t let the wolves in for even a second. So I just keep burying it.

That’s why Daddy has to turn away sometimes when we’re playing. I don’t want you to see me unravel. I know you can probably sense it. Maybe there’s some sort of tell: a momentary dullness behind my eyes or the way my body seems to glitch for a second. You’re probably too young to name what you see. I bet you can feel it, though.

I’m writing this to you but I’m not sure it’s really for you. I just have to do something with the anxiety so I don’t choke. Maybe writing about it will help me excise it. Every paragraph another slice.

Nah. I’ve been writing and hurting long enough to know that the former doesn’t always alleviate the latter. Well, maybe it can, but the reprieve is ephemeral. I would have to chain myself to a pad and pen in order to sustain some sort of emotional equanimity.

It would be impossible for you to somehow avoid soaking up my anxiety. That’s why I recently reconnected with an old therapist to explore ways to help me deal with this constant panic that everything is already ruined. I want you to know that no matter what happens with Daddy, he’ll be ready to help you navigate your own mental health struggles.

Time to go. You just woke up from a nap and you don’t sound too happy about it.

I love you so much.

Daddy

Shhhhhh. It’s okay. I’m here, now.

It’s okay to go to you if you’re crying.

It’s okay to spend my night cradling you in my arms.

It’s okay to feed you when you wake up hungry.

(Maybe you’re not hungry. Maybe you just need reassurance and comfort. It’s okay then, too.)

It’s okay to tell you that daddy is here and that everything is going to be alright.

It’s okay to act on the protective and nurturing instincts that have helped this species survive.

I will not feel bad for taking you out of your crib, rocking you, and feeding you.

What matters is that I recognize not only your personality and temperament, but the fact that you are literally learning how to be a human.

And it’s okay to experience a level of exhaustion beyond what I ever could have imagined.

What matter is that I am here for you right now.

And at 10pm.

And midnight.

And 1:30am.

And then again at 3:00am.

Maybe it’s a nightmare. Maybe it’s a tooth. Maybe you’re lonely and need someone to sit with you and hold you during the predawn darkness. It doesn’t matter why.

Shhhh. It’s okay. I’m here, now.

Dear Joelle: One

Dear Joelle, 

Your mother and I agreed to write you a letter every year on your birthday. This letter is a little late, but that’s okay because you can’t read yet! I’ve hemmed and hawed over what to write and how to write it. I settled on a “slice of life” post. By the end of this letter, you should have a decent idea of what life was like for you and your family during the summer of 2019. 

Right now I’m sitting in my old room in Nana’s basement surrounded by crumpled up gum wrappers and stained coffee mugs, each filled with varying levels of caffeinated sludge. I can hear your small and sweet giggle coming from upstairs where you’re playing with Nana and Papa. 

The summer of 2019 will be ending soon. Your mom got a new job working at a place called ManTech (what a silly name!). I’ve been teaching middle school English for the last ten years. Since I’m a teacher, I got to spend the entire summer hanging out with you. It has been one of the most fulfilling chunks of my life.

Let’s run through a typical in the life of Daddy and the Bean. Daddy is BIG into routines and schedules, so most of our days followed the same format. You would wake up around 6:30 AM, eat breakfast lovingly and graciously prepared by Mommy, then play with your toys until around 9:00 AM. That’s when I would pack our things into the car and drive to “soft play.” Soft play is a big room filled with squishy equipment for kids to crawl on, over, and under. You always charmed whoever was there with your playful demeanor and friendly disposition. We would spend an hour at soft play. 

After we got home it was snack time. I would spoon feed you from a single serving packet of baby food (always a fruit + veggie combo). Then the two of us plopped down on the floor to watch some Sesame Street videos. When you read this, find me and say “This is a song about Elmo, who likes to sing and…” I am 100% positive that I will answer with “YELL-MO!” 

Lunch was always at noon. Me: burrito. You: squishy vegetables and some sort of protein. Normally you would be getting sleepy at this point. I always knew because you would rub your tiny eyes with your tiny fists and take off take your tiny glasses. The two of us got so good at this that by the end of summer, I could take you upstairs, change you, and put you to sleep in under thirteen minutes. I timed it! 

You’d nap until 2:30. While you napped, I exercised, cleaned the kitchen, and read. Always in that order. The time between 2:30 and when Mom returned was often a grab bag of activities. Sometimes we stayed home; sometimes we went to Nana’s; sometimes we went to another soft play session.  

After a family dinner around 5:30 the three of us would play in the living room. Your favorite game was (and still is!) to be chased. You would stop every few feet to turn around and make sure someone was chasing you. The closer we would get to you, the more you would giggleshriek. When we got to you, we would snatch you up and tickle you under the arms or under your chin. Around 6-6:30 we would bathe you, read you a story, and tuck you in for the night. This pattern repeated for the entire summer. 

And then you came down with a stomach bug. The next seven days were scary. Our beautiful routine that ensured a healthy combination of play, rest, and nourishment collapsed as your fledgling immune system struggled to keep up with what must have been one heck of a bug. You were inconsolable. I spent hours cradling you in the dark as you cried and bucked wildly against me. I wanted you to know that I loved you and that I was with you in the darkness. You couldn’t keep anything down, so your mother and I took 30 minute shifts holding you and squirting micro doses of Pedialyte into your mouth with a plastic syringe. We literally nursed you back to health. I became convinced that you would never smile again. But after ten days or so, your sweet self finally returned.  By the time you healed, our summer together was just about over. 

I wonder how old you will be when you first read this. What is life like? Are bananas still your favorite fruit? Do you still like to pull on Daddy’s beard? Is Lola still alive?

Love you always, 

Dad

P.S. If you’re having a hard time reading this letter, that’s okay! You will become a strong reader as you get older.

Until then, here: Hi, Joelle! I love you so much. The two of us spent your first summer playing, eating, and laughing. You are the best thing to ever happen to me. You are funny, smart, curious, and playful. I am writing this in 2019 and you are 14 months old. Bananas are your favorite thing to eat. You love being chased, caught, and tickled. You also like to dance to music and to pull on doggy’s ears and tail. I love you I love you I love you.

I’m Right Here with You

A flash storm blackened the sky and pelted us with rain as we scampered down Nana’s front steps towards the car. Although you’ve never been a big fan of car rides, I knew something was off. You were fussier than usual. 

If I wanted to maximize my chances of putting you to sleep successfully, I needed to calm you down ASAP. With one hand on the wheel I fished around in the back seat for Kitty Kitty Meow Meow, a stuffed cat that lived in the car for just such occasions. 

I propped Kitty Kitty up on the top of the passenger seat so that it was facing you. Meow Meow! I squeaked, fiddling with the cat’s head and limbs in a way that I hoped looked comical. Meow Meow! It worked. Your plaintive mewling turned into exquisite giggling. You thrashed your arms and legs with glee and cackled in the back seat. This distraction technique, like all distraction techniques with babies, yields diminishing returns. I had to keep the puppet show up to keep you satisfied. MEOW MEOW PEEK-A-BOO MEOW MEOW! I shouted, lifting the cat up and down to mimic your favorite now-you-see-me/now-you-don’t game. 

With my other hand I navigated through blacked out intersections and block after block of darkened store fronts. Nothing along our street was lit, so I knew we would be going back to a hot and dark house. 

I parked the car and hopped into the back seat with you to wait out the worst of the rain. Your ratio of cries to giggles began to even out and I knew I had to get you inside soon. Thankfully the two of us only had to wait a few minutes before the worst of the weather was over and I could ferry you inside.

Doggy greeted us as soon as we entered. I plopped you down onto the floor, took off your glasses, and corralled the dog outside. I looked back from the backyard door to see your face crumple. Your cry rose up and pierced the silence of the house. 

You weren’t normally this upset. My brain wracked itself trying to figure out what was wrong, but I had no idea. Thankfully, doggy dislikes going outside as much as I do, so she was quick to come back in. I scooped you up off the floor, got your bottle ready, and snagged a clean binky. 

You’ve always hated getting your diaper changed, so I wasn’t too phased by your back arching and binky chucking. The real problem began when I sat down on the rocking chair with you to administer your bedtime bottle. You finally committed to the complete and total explosion that you had been flirting with for the last hour.  

You thrashed, bucking against me, clawing and pawing at everything within reach. Your terror wailing blocked out my vision and overloaded my circuits. You didn’t stop screaming. I had no idea what to do. I was afraid to move you too much too fast. I quickly lifted you up and did a 360 degree spot check. No blood or strange marks. I checked your fingers and toes but every digit was in the right place. The only thing missing from our normal bedtime protocol was a story. I’m pretty sure your explosion wasn’t caused by not hearing about how the pigeon doesn’t need a bath for the gillionth time.

Sweat poured down my face in rivers, soaking my beard and your polka dotted pajama onesie. I held you in place with my body. You roared and contorted, doing your best to escape my grasp. I tried to strike the right balance between giving you enough inches to move while still keeping you contained. You were deafening. You seemed to be in so much pain and I was helpless before you.

I remembered hearing a story once about a Buddhist monk who found himself feeling nervous before giving a talk to a large group of students. The monk stood in front of the audience, closed his eyes, and began naming his anxiety. He shut everything out and tuned into his experience. By the time he opened his eyes, the entire audience was in meditation with him. I couldn’t fix what was wrong with you, but I could hold you and be with you.

So I started talking. I verbalized everything that was going through my head. I needed to get my brain back online and refocused. Like writing, speaking forces me to put one word in front of the other. 

okay so joelle so right now you are screaming really loudly and i don’t know what do and i’m we’re sitting here and it’s raining and the power is out and i’m sweating you seem to be in pain maybe i don’t know what’s wrong everything is going to be okay everything is going to be okay i’m right here with you i’m so nervous oh god what do i do everything is going to be okay i’m right here with you 

Tremors moved through you in waves. I held you through the aftershocks. Finally, the only one shaking was me. Once you were still for at least five minutes, I put you down in your crib. Your hair, drenched from banging and rubbing against my arm, was plastered to your scalp in coils and curlicues. You were asleep. 

I sat on the rug and watched you sleep. I don’t know how long I sat there. Finally the various electronic beeps of electronic machines turning on signaled electricity’s return. I felt confident enough to tip-toe out of your bedroom and into our bedroom. The exhaustion of my frayed nerves belied the early 6:30 hour. I closed my eyes and waited for sleep.

Be Curious, Not Furious: On Student Behavior

James* bursts into my classroom late, singing at the top of his lungs. “WHAT ARE WE DOING?” he shouts to no one in particular. I point to the SMART board where the warm-up instructions are posted. He stomps to the middle of the room, stops singing, and starts dancing. “WHAT ARE WE DOING?” he shouts again while gyrating. And again I catch his eyes, point to the warm-up instructions (read independently for ten minutes), and pantomime opening up a book. “WHAT DID WE DO IN SCIENCE CLASS?” James yells out to no one in particular. Most of the class continues to read. I bring over 3-4 books I think James might like. “I HATE READING” he shouts at me. I continue to breathe deeply and slowly, paying special attention to keep the muscles in my shoulders, face, and hands relaxed. James picks up one of the books and then puts it back down.

“HEY WHAT ARE WE DOING IN SCIENCE CLASS?”

This moment has played out in some form or another since September. Sometimes James has in-school suspension. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I breathe a little easier on those days. Without James I can spread my energy around to other kids in the class. Kelly for instance has awe inspiring impulse control issues. With James gone I can park myself next to Kelly. It’s the only way I’ve found to decrease her ceaseless flow of colorful commentary.

I’ve met with James, his parents, other teachers, and the counselor in a variety of configurations. His grades are in the tank and he floats in and out of various detentions and suspensions. It’s obvious that James needs a lot of support. The meetings always end the same. We tell James to go to homework club. We tell his parents James can get make-up work from his teachers and have extra time to complete it. But a couple of weeks later everyone is back where they started.

I have a lot of kids who struggle like this. They might not be as disruptive to the classroom, but they’re floundering the same. These are the kids teachers and schools often pathologize as “lazy” or “undisciplined.” Schools and teachers are much better equipped to deal with a “lazy” student than they are a traumatized one. Kids who aren’t doing their work can go to homework clubs. They can get help before, during, or after school. They can get make-up work from teachers. Their progress can then be monitored by parents and counselors via online gradebooks.

In a way, the availability of these resources can make it harder to respond to a child with compassion. You can have a million different hammers, but you’re still out of luck if you have to do anything other than push in a nail. And with students like James and Kelly, it’s obvious there’s more there than a kid simply choosing to ignore their studies.

A Twitter exchange between Shana V. White and Daniel Torres-Rangel sums this up:

BCNF

Social Psychologist Devon Price recommends we respond to a person’s behavior with curiosity instead of judgement. I know how hard this can be. We’ve explained the directions, had a student repeat them, projected them on the wall, and yet some students remain absolutely clueless about what they’re supposed to be doing. The meritocracy that permeates our air often speaks through us. If only these kids would try harder. Concentrate. Behave. Follow directions. The problem is that these demands might outpace the student’s ability to self-regulate.

Executive functioning, the umbrella term for cognitive mechanisms related to self-regulation, can take a big hit when someone experiences trauma. And we know from various studies that a large percentage of children experience some sort of trauma. Trauma can keep the body’s nervous system in a perpetual state of fight or flight. The effects of constantly elevated stress hormones can lead to memory and attention problems

So how can we reorient ourselves, our pedagogies, and our schools to better help students who have experienced trauma? Alex Shevrin Venet suggests starting by sweating the small stuff. Build our capacity to live in the moment and offer individual therapeutic moments to our students. Express kindness and unalloyed compassion. Look beyond the behavior to try and figure out what’s really going on.

There is no quick fix. Schools are filled with hurt and traumatized children. And so many of us teachers were those children. We can refuse to take part in a culture of academic shaming and begin to construct communities of healing that understand and honor the connections between mind and body. Get curious, not furious.

 

* James and any other student mentioned in this post are not real kids, but a composite of multiple students I’ve had at multiple schools across multiple years. This is to preserve anonymity while keeping the spirit of the events true.

 

Asserting Basic Dignity in the Classroom

Last week was Black Lives Matter at School week. All across the country, teachers delivered instruction based on the movement. On Friday I talked with kids about affirming queer and trans Black lives, two of the movement’s 13 guiding principles. While I’d spoken about trans and queer lives before, the subject matter was always secondary to whatever content area skill we were focusing on. This lesson put the subject front and center.

We watched a short video of people talking about their experiences being both Black and queer. We read the horrific statistics behind transphobic and anti-Black bullying and made connections to what we experienced in our own school.

In every class period a handful of students explained that their religion and/or home cultures looked down on being gay, trans, etc. I told them emphatically that while that’s their business, there was nothing wrong with being gay, trans, etc. They made faces, protested, and told me I was wrong. I repeated myself and reminded them that our classroom was no place for any hate, prejudice, or bigotry. I tried to push our conversation away from individuals and towards the social structures that reinforced certain beliefs, but it was tough.

I was pulled aside a few days later to have a conversation about what I had said in class that day. Specifically that I needed to be more careful about letting my own beliefs influence the things I said and the ways I reacted to students. The conversation wasn’t threatening, but it wasn’t ambiguous, either.

I was making value statements about what some students heard, felt, thought, and said. I was explicitly stating that some of the things my students heard at home, in their churches, and in their communities had no place in our classroom. But if basic dignity was truly axiomatic, I wouldn’t need to assert these ideas. I wouldn’t receive push back against absolute bare-minimum messages of equality. And I wouldn’t have felt a minor shudder of cognitive discomfort when I said it.

The conversation reminded me just how insidious and pervasive white supremacy and heteronormativity is. There is nothing revolutionary about asserting someone’s basic dignity. Yet doing so was enough to alert the systems that continuously reinforce and reinscribe ideologies of discrimination and hate.

This is why it’s essential to assert and proclaim that Black, queer, and or/trans lives matter. To speak these truths into existence bluntly and without equivocation. And for teachers like me to use our privilege to break white male solidarity. Lesson by lesson we can work with students to carve out the spaces that everyone deserves.