All of the Trauma Mamas out there hold a single truth in common: we set the achievement bar for our children squarely at the “progress” mark. Our kids are healing and dealing and coping with trauma. Any progress that they make is worth celebration. Maybe your child hasn’t hit anyone in a whole day. Congratulations! Perhaps your child maintained eye contact for a full 5 seconds. Hurray! Maybe you have turned that amazing corner where you no longer have to hover around your child watchfully lest they explode into an epic tantrum. From the bottom of my heart I commend you.
Other parents just seem to have different achievement standards. Maybe this is true or maybe it’s just an illusion I see created by Facebook and Instagram. I see pictures of kids who made the honor roll, or student of the month, or performed in a recital. Their parents beam with pride in these photos as if to say, “See? My parenting skills paid off!”
Last week I was at a cookout with my children. There was another couple there with their 10-year-old son. They seemed like nice, engaging people. They spoke a lot about their son and how their schedules revolved around his sporting events. His father was a football coach for his son’s team. They had recently turned down a wedding invitation for the wife’s sister. They weren’t going to attend because their son hadn’t been invited and there wouldn’t be any children at the wedding. It sounded like heaven to me, but they seemed highly offended.
Luke and I had actually just attended an “adults only” wedding the previous week. My parents took the littles overnight. Luke and I got a hotel room and some invaluable alone time. I am not one to pass up grown-up time with my husband but hey, different strokes for different folks. If this couple wouldn’t go to events without their son, that’s fine. Good for them. Who am I to judge?
As we were talking the children were having a water balloon fight on the lawn. I was relishing the fact that I could sit with the grown ups and enjoy a glass of wine. I wasn’t worried that our kids would unexpectedly tantrum or hurt someone. They are doing so well and they have improved so much! I am triumphant in my repose. Victory is mine.
Mary approaches the little patio table between us. She sets down a “mama” and a “daddy” water balloon on a small towel. A few minutes later she comes back with tiny water balloons that the big balloons have adopted. She solemnly tells us all of their names and asks us to “keep them safe” while she goes back to the “war” area to save more balloons. I nod and play along, creating a makeshift towel shelter for the refugees. Next comes the “grandma” balloon that is “also a grandpa.” She tells us, “This balloon is both and grandma and a grandpa.” The transgender balloon also adopts a small balloon which is now the sister to the mom balloon and an aunt to the original adopted balloons. So far I am still following the family tree of refugee water balloons. How creative!
That’s when I glance up at the other couple. They have gone very quiet. They have a rather puzzled look on their faces about all of the balloon genealogy. “So…there’s a transgender balloon??? And what about all of these adoptions???? Huh.” I am laughing and having a good time. I love my daughter’s imagination.Their son is filling up water balloons and throwing them in the traditional way at other children. My daughter is saving them and constructing a family. I think both kids’ choices are fun and harmless.
That’s when things take a turn. Mary abruptly grabs the “parent” water balloons and smashes them on the driveway. She looks up from her water balloon carnage and mater-of-factly states, “It was nice knowing you, but you had to die.” Then she reaches over and plops one of the adopted balloon-young into her mouth and begins chewing. I calmly yet firmly make her spit out the “baby” balloon. At the same time that the other mom shouts, “Oh no! Don’t put that in your mouth!”
The other couple looks at each other in horror as my daughter gleefully kills off the family she has made. I’m not shocked by this at all. Mary vacillates between cooing softly and tucking in the balloons, and smashing them. My father has recently died and Mary is trying to make sense of death in her own way. This is very different than the time she was having homicidal ideations about killing us. During that time she was also having more than a few delusions and PTSD panic attacks. It was years ago. Now she is happily playing while I talk to grown ups. I feel proud.
I decide to tell them the story of Burton the pineapple to sort of ease their minds. “Our daughter is rather eccentric,” I tell them. “She once had a pineapple as a pet.”It’s true. She loves pineapples. Mary has pineapple shirts, pineapple dresses, a pineapple headband and a pineapple nightgown. We are still searching for the elusive pineapple flip-flops. Mary is pineapple obsessed.
One day, my husband made the mistake of buying her a pineapple at the grocery store. She instantly pulled it into the cradle of her arms and named it “Burton.” She snuggled Burton. She slept with Burton. She talked to Burton. Now, if you are going to cuddle a fruit, I would recommend something soft like, say, a kiwi. Pineapples are prickly and sharp. They are not an easy fruit to cuddle. But Mary is tenacious and she doesn’t give up. Her pineapple wears dresses and sits at the dinner table. Once it was next to me on my pillow when I woke up in the morning.
All pineapples must come to an end. Luke and I gently explain to Mary that we will soon have to eat her new pet. We show her the Dole tag that came with Burton. It shows how to twist off his “crown” and slice him open to get the fruit inside. She seems shocked at first. I imagine us battling over rotting fruit that she refuses to quit sleeping with.
“Pineapples are meant for cuddling!” she tells us with conviction.
Then it happens. I get home from work on a random day and Mary and Carl are sitting at the kitchen table eating pineapple chunks. My husband is looking smug. He did it!
Carl sympathetically comments, “I’m sorry we had to eat your friend. Burton does taste really good.”
Mary replies in a low and ominous voice, “DON’T say his name!” Then she promptly bites another chunk. Some of the juice is running down her chin and her eyes are closed in the sheer enjoyment of flavor. She is still enjoying Burton.
So here I am, relaying the story of Burton to the dismayed couple. I think it’s a quirky story that showcases the awesome strangeness of our family. The couple I’m speaking to look at me as though my child is deranged and quite possibly contagious. “Oh…weird…” is all they have to say. Now and again I catch them glancing at her nervously.
In the end, I’m sure they thought all kinds of things about my kid. The one obsessed with adoption, transgender water balloons, pineapples, and death. That’s OK. I’m not really sure I understand everything about their family either. I’m the mom with the kid who talks incessantly about death. I’m the mom who tucked my child into bed with a pineapple. I’m the mom who jumps at the chance to have a night alone with her husband, no kids. I’m the mom who is proud of this family.
I can’t say that I spoke to the other couple much that day. Later on my son and some of the other children complained to me about their son. He got mad during the water balloon fight and threw a lacrosse stick at some of the other children. Honestly, my kids have done worse. It’s normal for children to act like this from time to time. Secretly, I was bizarrely happy about this. A small part of me, an evil and vengeful part of me, delighted in the fact that it wasn’t my “weird” kids causing the mayhem this time.
Who knows? Maybe they never judged my child. Maybe I was the one passing judgement. It still felt good. I smugly rounded up my well-behaved children into the car to go home. We waved goodbye as their son was yelling at them. I had a calm sense of accomplishment warming me from the inside.
My self-satisfaction lasted all the way to the highway. Once we hit the on ramp, Carl started melting down about the unfairness of bedtimes. How can moms and dads get to stay up later?! He whined and yelled and cried and kind of lost it. But that’s a story for another day.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.