Next Time

On Thursday night I flopped into bed after one of those days that just didn’t start well. We had overslept, scrambled, took showers throughout the morning between meetings, the luxury of working from home I suppose. It was just one of those days, and we could all feel it, especially Mark. As I laid in bed, at the end of a day that made my skin crawl, I was watching the news coverage of the riots in Minnesota, feeling the sadness and heaviness, and I could hear Mark screaming from his room. He was sobbing and yelling indecipherable things, and as usual, because he can’t tell us what’s wrong we had no idea how to help him. Ike went in and redid the bedtime routine, putting his blankets back in the bed, reading him a story, and singing his goodnight song. As soon as Ike left the room, Mark chucked everything out of his bed again and resumed the screaming. Sadly, we’ve been through this routine many times before. We go through bad sleep jags which include weeks of screaming before falling asleep, night waking, and all the usual suspects of the poor sleep that seems to come along with an autism diagnosis.

It’s hard to find the words to describe not being able to comfort your child. I hear parents vent about their frustration, or guilt, with co-sleeping. And I know many parents love it because it’s bonding and snuggle time, and everyone gets to sleep. For us, it’s not even an option. Our boy will scream, and no amount of snuggling, soothing, or co-sleeping will stop it. It is probably one of the hardest things we deal with in the “unable to help him” category. 

Over the years, we’ve tried lots of things, honestly, too many to list. And what always seems to happen is that once I’ve ordered something on Amazon to help us address it, he’s mysteriously gone back to sleeping normally. 

So on this night, after the screaming and sobbing had gone on for close to two hours I said to Ike, “should I go in there?” Please understand that every ounce of me wanted to run into his room, rock my seven-year-old, and tell him that he’s safe, loved and that everything will be ok, but I’m also very aware of the heartache I carry around knowing that those actions and words likely won’t remedy the situation, and likely, will leave me feeling defeated. But, even so, Ike said “go be a mama to him”.  

So I took the risk. I went in, opened his enclosed bed, put the pillow and blankets back, and climbed in. He continued to cry so I wiped his nose and face, rubbed his back as the sobs lowered to whimpers. I then laid down and tried to coax him to lay down with me. He remained in a seated position on his knees staring out the opening of his bed at the color-changing essential oil diffuser perched on his dresser. As he watched it change from red to blue to purple, I could see his features soften so I began to sing to him. Hid forehead relaxed, his right cheek dimple appeared, and he slouched in relaxation as I sang several of his favorites. After I finished singing, I just laid there for a while watching him stare at the colors. Occasionally he would look down at me curiously, but mostly just stared. I reminded myself that he does a lot of looking at us through using his peripheral vision so I imagined the staring at the diffuser was staring at me. I talked to him, reassured him, and touched his hand. He mostly sat motionless with no response. 

As I laid there, I worried that if I got up and left he would go right back to crying, so I lingered awhile. He never laid down or cuddled with me. We did what we often do together, be together without words. He sat next to me in silence, content, and tolerant of my presence, and knowing my son as I do, I knew that was significant. 

Eventually, I climbed out of the bed opening, closed the door, and left his room telling him that I loved him. As I walked back to our bedroom, I listened, waited and it was quiet. When I entered our room, Ike looked at me and said “you fixed him!” And dumfounded, I realized that I had.

For the first time in seven years, I was able to soothe him. I’ve spent so many nights rocking him, reassuring him, pleading to God to stop the screaming. I’ve felt like such a failure for not being able to do something that I felt as a mother I should be able to do. I still don’t know what was wrong or what he wanted, and I wish I knew what parts of that recipe were helpful, but I came away with the confidence to try again next time.

Had Enough

I spent my Saturday morning catching up on school work with my children due to my inability to manage their schooling while I’m working. As I sat next to my seven-year-old with autism repeatedly giving him verbal prompts not to eat crumbs off the floor, and to focus on the computer screen, my almost nine-year-old daughter appears next to me and asks why our playroom is such a wreck and why it can’t be cleaner and more inviting. I thought my head was going to explode. I’m doing the best that I possibly can and it’s still not enough. And then I thought that this was a perfect metaphor for what’s happening in all of our lives. We are living in this giant uninviting, mess and we are trying to check the boxes, get the work done, and pretend that everything is ok when really it’s not. Now is not the time to point fingers, but I will point something out because I have had enough.

Why are we playing this elaborate game of make-believe? It is not possible to simultaneously work and homeschool children. It’s not just difficult, it’s not possible.

Our children have been ripped away from their classrooms, teachers, routine and established expectations, and have been thrust into their homes left to navigate their assignments without the swath of support that typically surrounds them while they face the uncertainty, the anxiety, and the unease that this pandemic has brought everyone. My daughter clutches to a little essential oil bottle called “Tummy All Better” as if her life depended on it. She’s desperately grasping for something that will ease the worry she feels in her belly and I can relate.

Teachers, I know you are doing the best you possibly can. I see you juggling your student’s needs along with the needs of your own household, and trying to survive just like the rest of us.   

School system administrators, your students will not be performing at their previous level. They will lose skills and that’s not your or the teacher’s fault.

Employers, your staff will not be producing the amount and level of work they did prior to the pandemic. And if they do, that means something else is likely suffering, perhaps their sleep, their family or their mental health.

Many of my own college students are struggling. They’ve been ill, have had ill family members, lost their jobs, and struggle significantly with their mental health. They are unable to function. They are trying really hard, but what we are asking them to do, keep trudging along and meeting deadlines is just too much. Some have cried out for help, some have dropped out, but a number of them have faded away without a word.

The message our family has been receiving from all directions has been, try to keep up with the work but remember to take a walk, enjoy the sunshine, and take care of yourself. This feels like someone telling a soldier in the middle of combat to take a breather and grab a coffee, while bombs are dropping around them.

No, no amount of usual prescriptive self-care is going to unravel the significant amount of turmoil and stress that we are all experiencing. 

Why aren’t we talking about mental health? Why aren’t we acknowledging it’s significance and importance? Why does it feel like an afterthought?   

Caring for our selves and others is about adjusting our expectations to our present reality, giving grace, and offering copious amounts of flexibility. This is not just about saying to employees “remember to take care of yourself”, it’s realistically leveling the expectations. My kids seemingly cute cameos during Zoom calls are just the tip of the iceberg. Their needs trump my work, as they should.  We need to be ok with work piling up and giving an abundance of flexibility to staff who are caring for others. That may seem counter-intuitive to the push to reopen the economy and return to business as usual, but the only way we are going to return is if we can survive this pandemic, both physically and mentally. 

The mental health toll that this is taking is grossly underestimated. Whether you believe this virus is a political scam or you recognize this pandemic as a very real threat to American public health, the fact is, this change in life has had a powerful, tremendous, and underestimated impact on all of us.  And it’s time that we stop pretending that it’s not. 

I’ve had enough, and I’m sure you have too. To me, the answer isn’t found in circulating political vitriol placing blame on both sides of the aisle. The answer is adjusting our expectations to the present reality and embracing the fact that we are not returning to pre COVID-19 reality any time soon, or possibly, ever. This is not temporary. This has changed the landscape, and we need to fully wrap our heads around that fact and respond appropriately, and we desperately need to be gentle with each other.

We need to take a break to enjoy the sunshine, breathe in the fresh air, and be away from a screen without the resulting guilt and weight of heavy expectations. We need time to wander, to explore, and to rediscover ourselves without the tug of looming assignments and deadlines. If we could release some of the pressure then I’d venture to say we would be more productive and capable of contributing and reopening the world. 

Let’s walk the walk of patience, love, forgiveness, and grace and bestow those gifts to others. We need these now more than ever.