This is beyond Mary’s ability to tolerate. We’ve been at the roller-skating rink for almost 2 hours and she has not yet mastered the art of flawless skating. She is also skating in a rink without her parents. We have been meeting her on the sides and encouraging her as she clings to the edges and slides precariously around the floor. There is loud music. There are lots of people. It’s fun, but it’s also a lot of stimulation.
Luke and I have taken Mary and Carl out with their godmother and her two stepsons. The 4 kids are a regular crew of pals and enjoy spending time together. We want to celebrate finishing the first week back to school, including me. Normally, I would put on skates and get out there. After my recent surgery, however, I have to be very careful not to fall. Instead I try to content myself with watching from the sidelines like the other grown-ups.
After about an hour of falling and then determinedly righting himself, Carl has the hang of this. He is still unsteady, but for the most part he is skating with purpose. He is on his skates more than he is on the ground. We cheer and clap for his persistence. We cheer for more than just skating. This week is full of accomplishments for Carl. He has started 5th grade. He is trying his best on his football team, even though he is with older kids now. He is working hard at school, even though he misses us when summer ends. He is trying hard in therapy even though that’s just plain hard all around. In short, he is persevering no matter the difficulty of the task. His hard work is paying off.
Traditionally, the start of the school year is hard. It’s a very big transition. The kids are spending less time with us and more time in school. As a teacher, I enjoy summers with my children and then return to work a few days before they return to school. This year is hard because I’ve been home with a back injury for some time now. The kids get nervous when they don’t exactly know where I am during the day. They wish I would just stay at home where they leave me. In their experience, mothers are a slippery thing to keep ahold of.
In addition, I have to go to physical therapy 3 times a week after work. Then the children have sports. Don’t get me wrong, they love to be on teams and it’s been good for them. It’s just that we normally have more time to connect after school and before football/cheerleading activities. Carl has come up with a solution. He asks to go to PT with me. He puts on his football pads and loads his gear into the car. As the therapist works on my back, he drapes himself over my head in an awkward, yet endearing, snuggle of sorts. Then, when I do my exercises, he performs them side-by-side with me.
It hasn’t been as easy for Mary. I try to lie down with her for a bit at night. We whisper and giggle in the dark. I spend time snuggling with her on the couch after she showers in the evenings. It’s never enough. She’s been like a colander this week. Every time I try to fill her up with love it just all leaks out and she is never fulfilled. She has become louder, more upset, more persistent, and more antagonistic of Carl. In these ways she seeks attention. From time to time she throws hurtful words my way. I’m guessing that she is merely seeking the attention an argument will bring. Seeking to find out if I care enough to be wounded. I won’t argue with her, and I’m not mad. Just concerned.
So here we are at the rink. I’m taking pictures of the boys skating and Luke is on the other side with Mary. I don’t see my cell phone buzzing. I don’t realize that my husband is texting me an SOS. Mary is smacking the side of the rink with her fists and spewing vitriol at Luke, and everyone unlucky enough to be near.
“This is stupid!” she screams. Her face turns red and blotchy and her breathing gets shallow when she is angry like this.
“I hate this stupid place and all these stupid people! These skates are stupid! You have to come in here with me! Right now!!”
“Stop looking at me! LEAVE ME ALONE! LEAVE ME ALLOOOONNNNE!!!!!”
Someone else is clinging to the side nearby. She shoots him a look filled with daggers and screams, “Well if HE won’t move then I guess I’ll be stuck here FOREVER!! STUPID!!!”
Of course the man moves and my husband mutters a “Thank you.” This isn’t the first time we’ve gone down the path of Mary’s “big feelings.” Obviously we don’t want her pounding on things and screaming at strangers, but parenting a kid with trauma is a process. This has actually gotten a lot better over the years. At this point, Luke and I know how to handle the situation. Her anger is really a form of fear. We are fairly seasoned therapeutic parents.
When she is finished screaming and pounding her fists on the divider, she puts her head in her arms and cries. After a few minutes Luke is able to coax her out of the rink and she makes her way across the room to me. She is sobbing out-of-control and cannot catch her breath. It comes in huge, hiccupping hitches and her body shakes. When I see what is happening I gather her into my chest and squeeze. She collapses against me like a ragdoll and her words all come spilling out. She feels stupid. She is embarrassed that she isn’t good at skating. She didn’t get to spend enough time with anyone today. She fears that all of the people in the place have been laughing at her. All day.
Mary is afraid she has blown her only shot to see her friends and her godmother ever again. Ever. All because she is awful and stupid at skating. Also she is awful and stupid for yelling at Daddy. She believes that she has ruined the day with her stupid big feelings and now it will be over. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Only, that isn’t at all true. She is brilliant. She has managed to hold on to her “big feelings,” and express them with her words. She has come to me for regulation when she was unable to regulate on her own. She hasn’t hurt anyone, hurt herself, or broken anything. She is coping. Amazing.
As I hold her chest against my own, we take deep breaths together. She shoves her face directly into my sternum and inhales. Instantly she is able to match her breathing to my own and we stay this way for a few minutes, just inhaling and exhaling. Finally she is calm. “Did I ruin it, Mommy?” She asks. “Did I ruin the playdate?”
“No, honey,” I tell her. “We are going to practice our coping skills until you’re calm again. Then we are going home with our friends for pizza. You’re doing a great job coping with your feelings.”
“Can I handle that?” she ventures.
“Yes,” I reply confidently. “I know that you can. And if not? I’m here.”
As her sniffles taper off, she looks up at me. “How do you always know what to do?” she asks. Despite the stupid place and the stupid skates, I am wise. I know the answer. My reply is simple,”That’s easy. Because I’m your mom.”
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.