Ophelia, Holden and Me
I was a month into my final internship for a Master’s of Social Work, barely seven weeks pregnant with our second child, and in the midst of a move to a new home. My daughter was attending a co-operative preschool that required parents to volunteer in the classroom. It was after such a volunteer day that my daughter’s preschool teacher approached me.
Ms. Avie was a gentle and soft-spoken, with hair like steel wool pinned back by two barrettes on the side of her head. She was heading out the door in her beige raincoat with burgundy tote bag in hand. I was cleaning up from the day’s activities.
“Lucy has been very sensitive lately,” she said, pausing by the door to look at me. I stopped sweeping.
“She’s a sensitive kid,” I said, then resumed my task of sweeping up stray bits of goldfish crackers, glitter, and dried play-dough into a pile.
“There have been lots of tears,” Avie paused. “She asks for you a lot. I think she misses you.”
How could she miss me? I was right there, volunteering at her preschool. I wasn’t even working full time. I read her bedtime stories every night.
The classroom debris on the floor began to blur, but I stared at it anyway. I couldn’t look at Ms. Avie. I couldn’t let her see me cry.
“I’m trying my best.”
“I know,” Ms. Avie said and then left the room to go home.
I had a difficult childhood, punctuated by memories of a drunk father and desperate mother all while submerged in a foreign culture. By the time I was ten years old, we had lived in Panama, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Virginia, Arizona, Texas, and Minnesota. My parents were never violent or physically neglectful; in fact, they were as loving as they could be. But, they were so wrapped up in their own drama that they were rarely emotionally present for their children in the way I wanted to be for my own.
I’ve spent every Thursday morning in therapy since my daughter was born, learning how to be an emotionally responsive parent. I’ve learned how to recognize when my child is scared or angry and how to respond to it. What’s more, I’ve learned how to recognize when I’m scared or angry and how to respond to myself. These emotions were like outmoded cellphones to me. I knew everyone had them, but I didn’t know what to do with them. Stuff them away and ignore them? Save them up for one particular day?
In my family, we denied such emotions existed just as we denied the severity of my dad’s alcoholism. It has taken a lot of hard work to identify these negative emotions and to break the familial cycle of alcoholism and emotional numbness for the sake of my sensitive little girl.
But there are days when I feel like I’ve deliberately walked right back into my family’s insanity, days when all of my self-reflection and improvement disappear. Never was this more apparent to me than on that chilly October day in Ms. Avie’s classroom.
I had been so preoccupied that I hadn’t noticed Lucy missed me. Of course she was hurting right now. Everything was changing in her young life. An upcoming move, mom away all day at her new internship, and a baby on the way. Why hadn’t I thought of how hard this would be on her? And on me?
Despite having just bought our first house and having a new life growing in my belly, nothing seemed right in our lives. Our dinner all week had been boxed macaroni and cheese because it was the only thing Lucy and my queasy, pregnant tummy could agree on. I had missed a birthday party for a good friend because I forgot about it and went to bed early that night instead. I was distracted during the few hours a day I did spend with my daughter, finishing up a paper for class while she was plopped in front of PBS Kids, or checking my smart phone for e-mails from professors while we ate dinner together. I couldn’t focus on her the way I wanted to and certainly not the way I had been taught to in therapy. I had to finish graduate school.
I was already six years into a program that should have taken two years to complete—two years if you don’t have a baby, move three times, and transfer your degree to a new university halfway across the country. I was one of the oldest students in my class, a haggard thirty-year-old intern amongst a sea of young, thin, idealistic coeds. And now I was pregnant with a second child. If I didn’t finish this program now, I knew I would never finish it.
So every morning we went through our routine. We woke up, ate breakfast, dressed, drove to preschool, had an elaborate drop off ritual which included no less than ten kisses, and then I headed to my internship where I sat alone in a windowless office and proofread hundreds of pages of educational advocacy handbooks. And every evening we would do the routine in reverse—leave internship, pick up preschooler, drive home, eat dinner, go to bed. After my daughter was asleep I would go to class, read assignments, or write papers.
Our routine repeated in this way – day after day – for nine months. Was I happy? No. But I was finishing my degree. Were we eating healthy meals? No, we were eating easy meals. Was I making up for lost time on the weekends? No, I was writing papers, doing group projects and leaving her in the hands of her very capable father. Did Lucy embrace that her mom needed to do something for herself and therefore gain a new sense of independent maturity? No.
I had to accept that I couldn’t respond to Lucy’s every hurt. But that didn’t make me emotionally unavailable or numb. All the work I had done to avoid becoming my parents wasn’t undone, because even in the midst of the last stretch of my marathon of graduate school, I could still see her hurt. I couldn’t fix it or make it better. I didn’t minimize it or tell her to get over it. I simply acknowledged it. “Yes, it sucks to have a mom who was once one hundred percent focused you, but now has to focus on other things too. I can’t imagine how hard that transition would be.” I let Lucy own her feelings of grief and loss, even if I didn’t understand them. Because, honestly, I didn’t understand them. My mom was never one hundred percent focused on me. And now, as a mother myself, I can understand why. How could she be focused exclusively on my sister and me with so many other more basic needs unmet in her life?
On a recent visit to see my aunt in Minnesota, she pulled out a box of old letters my mom had sent while my family was living in Mexico. One particular letter caught my eye. It had been written on my sister’s and my first day of school in Mexico City. I was seven. My sister was five. My only memory of that day was arriving at school the only children not in the school’s gray jumper uniform with a white peter pan collar. We had no idea where we were supposed to go or who our teachers were. We stood frozen in the bus loop and cried until an adult helped us. I thought my mom had abandoned us that day.
In the letter to my aunt, I found a different story. My mom described how she tried to board the bus and ride with us to school to help us buy a uniform and get to class, but the school bus driver told her that wasn’t allowed. In my mom’s limited Spanish, she couldn’t explain to him why she needed to go with us. At that point, we didn’t have a car, and it wouldn’t have mattered if we did, because my mom didn’t have a Mexican license. My sister and I had to get to school, and the bus was the only way. After sending us off, my mom returned to our small apartment and cried. She too saw our hurt.
At night with Lucy, the pinnacle of our daily routine was a reflection and prayer together. I lay on the carpeted floor next to her toddler bed and listened to her tell me of the good things and the bad things that had happened in her day. The “bad things” were usually a little sing-song chorus that went like this, “Ophelia and Holden and You”—a complete list of people she felt had slighted her in life. Ophelia was “bad” because she refused to give up purple as her favorite color, and according to Lucy, no two kids could have the same favorite color. Holden was “bad” for hitting Lucy on the head with a plastic shovel over a year ago. I figured if those were the worst things that had ever happened to Lucy, I could stand next to them and feel unashamed. I knew I wouldn’t be in the “bad” category forever. After our prayers I would hug her, kiss her and reassure her that I loved her deeply.
I bought my cap and gown on the same day that I bought the new baby’s car seat. At thirty-eight weeks pregnant, I walked across the stage and accepted my Masters of Social Work diploma. Glued to my mortarboard was the “I Love Lucy” logo from the 1950s T.V. show and a sign that said, “Baby on Board.” I had made it. And for the first time in a long time, I felt another feeling I was unaccustomed to—joy.
K.T. Sancken has worked as an education reporter for the Fluvanna Review, and her work has been featured in Charlottesville Family Magazine as well as GreatMomentsInParenting.com.