Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Pondering God the Father

A not-altogether-uncommon scenario had me recently pondering God the Father in light of my own internal emotional failings as a mother.

Back in September or October, with the academic year newly underway, we were all a bit tired and being struck down one by one with colds.  I was filled with a dual sort of dread: so early in the fall, and already we were being struck down with illness; and also, it would just have to be that particular week, when I had three rehearsals and two concerts and would be getting very little sleep.

I was trying to catch a nap alongside Molly one day, the girls having been duly instructed to stay in their rooms and play quietly during their usual quiet time. Things began to unravel, as I was awakened a few moments after dozing off to the sounds of the two older girls squabbling loudly about something insignificant.

My first hazy thought as I was jolted awake?: "I'm about ready to kill them."

Then: "Is this how God feels?  When we're down here running around on earth just being wretched all the time?"

Oh wait.  No.  Quite the opposite, I guess.

I'm about ready to die for them.

But I really read them the riot act before quiet time!  I reminded them what was expected...!  I told them it was important!

Oh, you mean like the Ten Commandments?  Some basic rules?  Not too many but not too few?  Just a doable amount of rules?

But I really condensed it to just two things.  Stay in your rooms.  Play quietly.  Lots of freedom within that.  So much freedom!

Ah, two things.  Like love God and love your neighbor, for example?  How's that going down there?

Oh.  Right.  Good point.

Well, shoot then.

So there I was, and here I am, knee deep in this weird mixture of chaos and frustration and love.  Knee deep in my own sanctification.  I maintain that if I hadn't had children I might have labored under the illusion that I was an OK person.

How humbling it is to realize that not only have I not loved my neighbor as myself, but I have not even loved my own children as well as I ought.

She doesn't always sleep, but when she does, she's awfully cute.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Wendy, Peter Pan, & Tinker Bell

Well, Halloween 2018 is in the books, leaving me with a poignantly thematic sense that indeed, "All children, except one, grow up."

The older two girls have been much enamored with Peter Pan ever since seeing a family friend and babysitter starring as Wendy in her school production last year, and I am currently reading the book aloud to them, which they are loving.  It seemed a foregone conclusion since months ago when they first began dreaming about this Halloween, that a family of Peter Pan costumes was in order.  Daddy could be Captain Hook, of course!  And as for Mama, she had a rehearsal on the night in question, so it was a good thing that we had the essential characters of the story covered without me needing to be terribly involved.  All that was necessary was for me to acquire and/or make costumes for the little Darlings, so to speak.

Nell's costume consisted of a beautiful vintage dress and shoes that were gifted to us, Molly's was a second-hand costume I acquired, and Ree's was a shirt from Savers I embellished with felt leaves, an old belt of mine, a felt hat complete with requisite feather I made for her (she sat in my lap and helped me sew on the machine).  Her fabulous dagger was constructed for her by a friend at her request, and she was quite pleased with the outcome.  {Thanks, Patrick!}

{The Tink topknot was just slaying me with cuteness.}

“Forget them, Wendy. Forget them all. Come with me where you'll never, never have to worry about grown up things again.” 

"I can't fly."
"I'll teach you."
"Oh, how lovely to fly."
"I'll teach you how to jump on the wind's back, and then away we go."
"Oo!" she exclaimed rapturously.
"Wendy, Wendy, when you are sleeping in your silly bed you might be flying about with me saying funny things to the stars."

"How sweet!" cried Wendy.
"Yes, I'm sweet, oh, I am sweet!" said Peter, forgetting his manners again.

“When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.”

“Tink was not all bad... on the other hand, sometimes she was all good. Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time."

"Wendy... Wendy, one girl is more use than twenty boys."

“Proud and insolent youth,” said Hook, “prepare to meet thy doom.” 

“Dark and sinister man,” Peter answered, “have at thee.” 

“Pan, who and what art thou?" 

"I'm youth, I'm joy," Peter answered at a venture, "I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg."

"Now Wendy was every inch a woman, though there were not very many inches..."

"Second to the right," said Peter, "and then straight on till morning."

“Come on, Tink,” he cried, with a frightful sneer at the laws of nature; “we don't want any silly mothers!”

“Keep back, lady, no one is going to catch me and make me a man.”

“Would you like an adventure now, or would like to have your tea first?”

In the end, the best laid plans were slightly thwarted, but adventure did indeed win out and a sprinkling of fairy dust and magic prevailed despite it all.  Nathan, who was slated to be Captain Hook in my inevitable absence and to take the kids trick-or-treating, was delayed in getting home thanks to unusual amounts of traffic on the commuter rail coming out of the city.  I had hoped he'd be home in time for me to at least do a portion of the neighborhood rounds with them all, but he arrived barely in time for me to snap a quick picture of them all together and dash out the door to my gig.  

I do believe that it was all "an awfully big adventure" for them, and a good time was had by all.

And I'm left with the sense that: "I suppose it's like the ticking crocodile, isn't it? Time is chasing after all of us."

Sunday, August 19, 2018

the new computer and other trivialities

{I just found this post lingering in my drafts and decided to publish it, for the sake of the family record-keeping.  Not that a computer is a family member exactly, but I think it counts in the overall timeline of significant family events.}

Nearly eight years ago, a few months into graduate school, living in our first house, before any of our children had yet arrived on the scene, I got my first MacBook Pro.  She was called Shiny, and she served me through many a class, many a late-night paper-writing session, many a blog post, many a photo upload.

She was nearing the end of her life, sadly - her battery unable to hold a charge, crashing each time she lost the feeble, tenuous connection with her frayed charging cord; spinning her colorful wheel for long minutes any time I tried to use her to do a task.  She also wasn't meeting our photo storage and accessibility needs.

With our first year of "real" homeschooling right around the corner {is it possible that the child younger than that first MacBook Pro is already going into first grade?}, it was becoming apparent I would need a workable computer solution at the ready.  As usually happens in these sorts of situations in our home, Nathan brought up the subject of buying me a new computer, and I declared it an unnecessary financial expense at this time.

Fortunately for me, he didn't listen to my protests.  Off to the Apple store he went, taking all three of our children with him, as I had a concert to play at the time.  This was evidently a fortuitous turn of events, as he attributes what followed to the fact that the store employee helping him thought the kids were cute.  Somehow he was offered a student discount from a current promotional, so I arrived home from my concert to find not only the most beautiful, sleek, fast-functioning space gray MacBook Pro, but also a rose gold pair of Beats wireless headphones, which had been included free.

The main question now is, does this lovely computer on which I now find myself typing inherit the name of Shiny?  Or is a beloved computer irreplaceable, and does the next generation receive its own new name?  Since space gray is literally less shiny than Shiny was, perhaps this computer is... Foggy?

In any case, I'm looking forward to a renewed ability to document and keep our little lives through increased ease of use with this new computer.  I'm looking forward to being able to do homeschool planning, send emails for work, and keep up with other tasks much more easily.  I'm staying cautiously {foolishly?} optimistic that it will help me stay on top of the many responsibilities I always feel like I'm not quite keeping up with.

Although, realistically, I suppose time will tell if the faster-functioning abilities of the new computer as compared with the old dying one will really offset the fact that three children have arrived in our family in the intervening years.  And I have a feeling those small fingers reaching and grabbing for my keyboard at this very moment have a lot to do with finding it challenging to keep up with all things computer-related at times.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Reeims, Vol. 5 {the four-year-old edition}

Marie turned four last month, and a few days after her birthday I lamented to a friend, mostly joking, "For a year I've been telling myself to just hang in there through the threes, to just wait until she turns four and it'll get easier, but here she is four and it's still the same!"  Surprisingly, it would appear that these maturations don't happen overnight, not even when birthdays are involved.

The thing about Ree, at the end of the day, is that she just defies any kind of labels or boxes.  She's equal parts sugar and spice, with some snips and snails thrown in for good measure.  Any time I think I have her figured out, she throws me a new curve ball and I'm scratching my head in wonderment again.  She's equally likely to creep quietly up to my bed in the morning and snuggle silently and sweetly beside me, or to come throw a wooden car at Molly's sleeping head at 5 am and then, when I send her down to her room and ask her to wait quietly for me, to scream unrelentingly, "I'M HUNGRY I'M HUNGRY I'M HUNGRY....!" until the entire household is awake.  {HYPOTHETICAL OF COURSE}

She's equally likely to be fiercely independent and refuse all forms of maternal or paternal aid, or to have a meltdown at the prospect of putting her own underwear on.

She can often be disdainfully dismissive of Daddy, and entirely preferential of Mama... and then she may run circles around the house for ten minutes when Daddy leaves for work, bemoaning the fact that he can't take her with him.

And sometimes she even has a fit because she needs to go potty but she doesn't want to.

Is this what age four is like, and I've forgotten how it was for Nell?  Or perhaps this is all peculiar to this specific child of mine?  In any case, there is a lot of screaming but also a lot of laughter, a lot of nonsense singing, and a lot of sweetness these days.

I think she could have a great future as a social justice warrior, because she feels things very strongly and advocates for human rights ceaselessly.  Well, actually so far she only advocates for her own rights, but ... we're working on it.  Often any corrections or admonitions on my part are met with, "That's not OK for you to talk to me like that!"  Or, "Hey! You're being rude to me!"  Or even the somewhat precocious, "Hey, be kind to me, because I'm only a small child!"  She's certainly doing her part to keep me at my best as a parent.

Several times a day, Ree will come to me wailing like a siren, and declare, "Nell hit me and kicked me and pounded me!"  Always all three in rapid succession like that!  And always a rather one-sided story I'm being told!  It's all I can do to keep a straight face every time, to tell the truth.  Something about the "pounded me" bit cracks me up every time!

Lest you think Nell is the only guilty party in these inevitable sibling altercations, I can attest that a common scenario around here involves some form of verbal provocation, examples of which include: 

"I love Mama and Daddy and Molly and everyone.  But not Nell."

"Nell is bad."

"Nell is not very fancy."

And other such subtle commentary.

Each of these types of comments {sometimes even set to song} is immediately followed by a sweet smile and, "Oh, I'm sorry Nell!  I'm sorry!  It was an accident!  I'm so sorry!"  Or sometimes, in an attempt to course-correct, "Nell is a fairy!  Nell is a princess!"

I genuinely think we will all laugh about these days someday, but in the meantime, if you see me and my hair is turning grey and I've developed a nervous twitch, you'll know why.  Ohhhhh very clever second child of mine.  Perhaps soon you can find a source of power outside of tormenting your extremely sensitive older sister?

{I'm only recording these exchanges here after a lot of thought -- will this someday reflect poorly on Ree?  Or are these the typical silly sibling clashes that we'll all have a good laugh about someday?  We're pretty sure it's the latter.}

She's tough as nails but also feels things strongly, like one morning recently when in a period of about a half hour she had been quite sad about:

not wanting to grow up
wanting to be a baby forever
wanting to keep her 'woof-woof cup' {dog shaped cup from IKEA} forever
wanting to have a hundred babies in our family
wanting Molly never to grow up
the devastating fact that Nathan had left to go to an appointment
wanting to marry Daddy someday
wanting to sit beside Mama at meals
wanting all her dresses to be twirlier

... and all of this culminated in Nell being sad too because she loves Marie so much and is so happy she'll have a sister forever.

{Sometimes I cannot even imagine what this household will be like when these girls become teenagers!  Let the good times roll!}

She calls swimsuits "swimswoots," a mustache a "mushtash," and pistachios "spasmashios."

* * *

I recently overheard her encouraging our robot vacuum, "Cinderella, you can do it!"

* * *

"Mom, what do sunflower seeds come from?  The sun?  Or seeds?  Which one?"

* * *

"When I was a little girl I used to pee and poop out of my foot."

* * *

"Princesses like yogurt."

* * *

When she was in the bathroom a little bit too long and things were a little bit too quiet, I dashed upstairs to check on her only to see her quickly shut the bathroom cabinet and say, innocently, "I was just checking on all your flosses and lotions and things."

"But where can Nell and I go to get married to our boys someday when we want to get married?"

* * *

Hiccupping: "I hicc-ed up."

* * *

{pointing to her side}: "I have a headache right here."

* * *

"Sometimes God laughs."

* * *

"Daddy doesn't like fruits or vegetables.  Sometimes boys just like chocolate."

* * *

"Elephants don't paint their nails."

* * *

Thoughtfully: "If a bear or a snake was eating you, you could just ask your Mom or Dad for help."

* * *

Walking into the music room one afternoon while I was teaching lessons, she turned a small end table  over on its side, and announced with pleasure, "It's an idiosyncrasy!"

Sampling a sip of a milkshake we were all sharing: "This is yummy!  I want all of the milkshakes!  So many milkshakes!!"  {I pretty much feel the same way, let's be honest}

* * *

Me: "What do you want for your special birthday dinner?"
Ree: "Carrots, and maybe some wine."

* * *

Me: "Ree, I need you to wash your hands now before dinner."
Ree: "Don't be mean to me! You're not in charge, only God is!"

* * *

Ree (talking about some friends) "... one of the sister boys."
Me: "That's called a brother."
Ree: "Oh yeah.  A brother."

* * *

Feeling indignant: "Molly's smiling at me and it's not very polite because I'm sick today so she shouldn't be smiling."

* * *

Talking to her baby doll: "You are beautiful.  But you ate too much food last night and now you are all plumped up and your belly button might fall out."

* * *

"Hey Mama, you are super huge and big."   {#blessed as always by her uplifting comments!}

* * *

As I took a completely plain, not-yet-decorated brown grapevine wreath out of my car, Ree noticed it and exclaimed, "Is that for us?? Is that for our door??  It's SUPER CUTE."

 When she was sick with a stomach bug recently, she started whispering miserably, "Hoop!  Hoop!"  I asked her what she meant, and she replied, "'Hoop' just means you're not feeling very good and you might need a snuggle."

* * *

"Mama, I remember when you broke your foot once.  But now you have a new one so I guess it's OK!"

* * *

Watching me do a workout DVD: "Those ladies are not wearing very many clothes.  I don't want to see their icky icky bodies!  I only want to see my Mama!"

And later during the same workout: "The boys are always naked.  They aren't wearing shirts so they're naked.  I'm glad OUR Daddy is not always naked."

And yet another workout commentary: "I think Daddy needs to do a workout.  Because he needs to be stronger."

* * *

Nell got a very fun set of walkie-talkies for her birthday from her Grammy and Grandpa, and after they had been being used with great pleasure for at least a week, it became apparent that there was some confusion over the name, brought about by neither sister being quite fully able to say the letter "R" correctly. 

Ree: "Mama they're really called rrrrrockie-talkies, right?  And Nell just says walkie-talkies?"
Me {cracking up}: "No, they are really called walkie-talkies!"
Ree: "Mama, are you trying to say rrrrrrockie-talkies?"

Watching the winter Olympics: "Mom, I really want to learn to ice skate.  TODAY.  RIGHT NOW."
Five seconds later: "WHY isn't ANYBODY in my family letting me skate?!"
{I know... we are so unsupportive of our children's dreams.}

* * *

Me: "Ree, we need to comb your hair before we go - you look like a wreck!"
Ree {offended}: "I don't look like a wreck, I look like a beautiful star."

* * *

At church one day during Holy Week, clearly focused on all the right things: "Those two girls have sparkly shoes and I don't have sparkly shoes and I'm sad because I don't want anyone to be fancier than me!"

* * *

"I'm drawing a picture of me as a ballerina dancing on a stage and peeing in a pull-up." {she hasn't worn pull-ups in ages, but clearly the dream lives on}

* * *

Drawing a family portrait: "Daddy doesn't need to look fancy in my picture because he isn't fancy because he doesn't have any dresses."

* * *

In the bathtub: "There's not going to be room for Nell in here because I'm doing so much important work.  I'm practicing pointing my toes so I'll be ready to be a ballerina on toe shoes."

* * *

Me: "Hey, Marie?"
Ree: "No!  Call me 'Princess of the Twirl!'"
Me: "Ok.  Hey, Princess of the Twirl?"
Ree: "YES!!!"

We love you, Princess of the Twirl.


Monday, May 21, 2018

on the pursuit of a perfect life

The world, or at the very least the internet, seems to be perpetually telling me that if I simply do A, B, and C in the correct order, things will be... Easier.  Better.  Maybe perfect.

I find it all too easy to fall into this way of thinking, and I'm finding that it only leads to frustration.

If I could just implement the right method of organization, my house would be tidy and stay that way for more than a half hour.  If I would follow the right parenting advice, my children would frustrate me less, if at all.  If I use a weekly chore chart, the cleaning tasks like mopping and bathtub scrubbing will start happening regularly.  If I follow the right baby advice, my baby will sleep easily and often and will do this by herself.  If I paint all the rooms in my house the right shades, my life will be brighter and therefore happier and my pictures of my children will all be instagram worthy.  If I declutter according to the right methods, I'll experience a lightness of soul previously unknown to mankind.  If we establish the right budget and use the right budgeting app, we'll begin easily socking away thousands of dollars a month for our future.   If I avoid distractions and maximize my time, I'll get everything done with time to spare.  If I follow the right diet and exercise plan I'll look the way I've always wished I looked.  If I find the right health guru whose advice I can follow, I'll achieve health for my children and myself and we'll be impervious to the really bad and scary stuff in life.  If I can force myself to be in a good mood, if I can muscle my way through these difficult days by sheer force of will and do it with a smile to set a good example, my kids will likewise be cheerful and love one another and get along well and be cooperative at all times.  If I manage my time better I'll have time to practice scales and etudes every day and thus keep my violin playing in tip-top shape instead of scrambling to get ready for gigs as they come along.  If I'm more productive during certain designated housework hours, I'll have ample time to read novels like so-and-so who reads a hundred books a year.  If I could only have a newer and faster computer, I'd be able to organize our photo storage and also blog more frequently to record our family memories.  If I do a capsule wardrobe, I'll finally look sophisticated and amazing all the time instead of tired and lumpy.

You get the idea.  It goes on and on.  I find myself constantly imagining that if we could just get the right system in place when it comes to so many aspects of our life, well then, things would be easier.  Maybe not perfect, but good.  And the internet in all its glory perpetuates this idea, that with the right system (oh, and it might cost you money, by the way), everything will be a breeze.

Perhaps the worst of the lies -- if I just tried harder...!  Worked more...!

* * *

What really needs to be said, instead of all these If-Then statements, is that it's just hard.  There is no simple "If you do this thing, everything will be easy, breezy, beautiful."

Of course, I'm not saying we shouldn't strive to improve our habits, our homes, our lives.  I'm not saying that minimalism, or fitness, or a tidy home, or kind and loving children, are not things worth striving for.

I'm just saying that there isn't an Easy Button, and I need to stop telling myself that if I could just {fill-in-the-blank} then at last I could stop being stressed and frustrated.  As though there's an external solution to it all, always just out of reach.  {Ironically, I think the very process of constantly being in search of a fix for it all actually contributes to my frustration!}

* * *

If you have children, it's hard.  If you're a homeowner, it's hard.  If you have bills to pay, it's hard.  If you're breathing, this life thing, it's hard.  There's not a magic solution to make it all easy.

There is no perfect system to make human babies sleep easily and alone.  Biology, human nature, years of evolution, call it what you will -- small humans are wired to need their parents' touch, often, and for many years of their life.  It's a long road.  Personal space is a thing of the past.  Sometimes that's snuggly and wonderful, and other times it's hard.

There's no perfect organizational system that can eliminate the basic fact that children have stuff and that their stuff, in the process of their play, will end up all over the place, and will need to be put away many times each day.  They will need help in this process for many years as they begin to learn habits of tidiness.

There's no way to change the reality that feeding five people three meals a day creates a lot of dishes, all of which need to be washed.  I can carve out specific times in my day that work the best for the washing of these dishes, but it will continue to take time and work.

Likewise, there's no way to change the fact that five people, three of whom are rather young, create a lot of laundry needing to be washed.  I may decide to minimize our wardrobes and declutter our closets in an attempt to mitigate the Mt. Everest of laundry, or I may long for a washer and dryer on the ground level of my home rather than in my basement, but I cannot completely "fix" this "problem" of laundry no matter what methods I employ.

There is no amount of minimalism that could possibly make my house look like a Pottery Barn catalog.  Pretend houses occupied by imaginary people don't have real stuff.  Real people, even people who eschew excessive amounts of toys for their children or regularly purge their closets, have stuff, and stuff occupies space.

There is no budgeting app that will double our income and grant us a sudden influx of disposable money to be spent on vacations or a cleaning lady or a lawn service.  There isn't a budget plan that will magically allow me to work less and thus be less stressed.  Sometimes you really are being almost as frugal as you possibly can, and it's still hard.

There is no parenting book that can make it easy to be in charge of the nurturing and raising of young children.  There is no method that is fail-safe or fool-proof.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with little people.  You can't put in a quarter and push a button and get a guaranteed result.

There's no fitness program that will deliver lasting results in the sense that you can just stop your efforts for a bit and coast, or go back to stress-eating ice cream every evening when your kids go to bed instead of working out.

There's no perfect diet that will eradicate all illness and disease for myself and my children, no supplement that will grant us guaranteed perfect health and long life.

There's no book you can read or method you can employ that will make getting along with all the people you're living in very close proximity with a blissful, peaceful, dreamy situation every single day.

* * *

Life is just hard.  It's good, but it's hard.  This evening I've already spent longer than I wanted to putting the baby to sleep and then 50 minutes later, I had to go resettle her, and again just now, another 50 minutes after that.  I've already been up and down the stairs more than a half dozen times, thrice intervening while my four-year-old was getting out of bed and getting into things she had no business doing at all, let alone after bed time. Today I emptied my six-year-old's bowl of throw up at least ten times (I lost count), and since bedtime we've added twice more to that number.   This is how my evenings often go, when I'm home and not out working at a gig.  Even if I'm not doing chores, even if I'm trying to claim a moment to think and write, like tonight, I'm interrupted over and over.

What little time I had that felt "free" today, I spent folding clean laundry and then watering dead patches of our lawn in the mostly baseless hope that it could revive itself or that the grass seed I sprinkled in some patches would somehow actually grow this spring, unlike in past falls or springs when I've attempted this process.  I walked the perimeter of our yard and asked Nathan if we'd ever have the time and money to tear down the ugly, very ugly, oh-so-ugly tiny screened in porch with ripped screens and rotting floor boards that currently graces the back of our house, and to build a beautiful and functional porch I could sit on with the girls and hang our swing on, so we could swing together on warm days, toes dangling, making memories.  He shattered my dream with the reality that we are years and years away from being able to do anything like this.  The back portion of our house, which looks rather like someone parked a double-wide in our backyard, glued it onto the original brick house, and walked away, is here to stay for quite some time.  It doesn't matter that we have dreams and ideas for how to fix things up; we can't possibly make many of them become reality for a very long time.

It's not that the dreams and plans for things to be better really don't matter -- of course they do.  The parenting articles I read really do inspire me to be a better parent, little by little, one baby step at a time.  The homeschooling articles or books I peruse do gradually fill my arsenal with ideas so that I'll be slightly more prepared next year than I was last year.  The work Nathan does on fixing up our house really does make a difference.   The efforts I make towards minimizing our possessions really do help things feel less cluttered and overwhelming -- for a while, anyway.

But it's never going to stop being difficult.  And the working out of this life, the difficulties along with the joyous moments, is slowly sanding down some of my rough edges.  {Although, to be honest, some days it feels like the difficulties just make me a worse person than I used to be, and on those days, I find myself illogically resenting my children and my life for bringing out my true colors and making me deal with my ugly bits!}

The only thing I can do with the difficult things is to allow them to be what they are, even as we continue to look for solutions or strive for improvement in some areas.  I can embrace the reality of these days, so often somehow both busy and monotonous at the same time.

* * *

When I look back through the recent pictures on my phone, I see dandelion crowns, smiling faces, children skipping through fields.  I see small faces peering over picturesque rock walls at the faces of brown calves, and I see videos of my baby daughter calling me "Mama."

But too often the pictures in my discontented heart are of a mama who weighs more than she wishes she did and is a bit too squishy about the middle.  A home that is always too messy and is closing in on me somehow.  A car that is frustratingly filled with hastily shed sweaters and rain boots, finished drawings and other scraps of paper, granola bar wrappers.  A yard that is unattractive and insufficiently inviting for summer barbecues and childhood play.  Relationships that are frustratingly imperfect.  Children that require every moment of my attention on some days, sweetly and maddeningly so.

It's not an If-Then statement with a simple output, but the closest I've ever found to a fix is just this one little thing:


Thank you, God, for this baby who needs me so much and brings so much joy to our family.

Thank you for this house with all its imperfections and even its crumbly bits and flaking paint.  Thank you for the people it shelters, my family, and for the friends it welcomes to share time together under its roof.

Thank you for a life steeped in music, even if much of it is scrambling for a moment of hasty, last-minute practice, and the rest of it is young violin students who don't practice quite enough adding to the chorus of chaos.

Thank you for my body, which grew three children and nourished them, and which continually allows me to care for them, and to climb stairs and mow the lawn and go for a jog and play the violin and do so many other things.

Thank you for my messy, messy car and even messier house, because as a friend once said to me, the only place that's perpetually tidy and organized is a graveyard.  This mess means life.

Life isn't an If-Then equation.  Life isn't a mathematical proof.

It's so much more.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Time We Were Investigated by DCF for Child Neglect

As for you, you whitewash with lies;
worthless physicians are you all.
Oh that you would keep silent,
and it would be your wisdom!
- Job 13:4-5

Just after turning ten months old, Molly fell off the bed one night while Nathan was out of town.  She escaped past my barricade of pillows at the edge of the bed.  Poor baby!  She was upset but not inconsolable.  After checking that she was still doing the things she does (clicking her tongue, saying “mama,” making kissing sounds) I nursed her back to sleep, and she slept until morning.

When she woke I was concerned, because Molly was unhappy, and was favoring her left arm.  Her underarm felt a bit different when I went to lift her, sort of lacking in resistance.  I called a dear friend who is a nurse to ask for advice.  She advised that I take her to be seen when our family practice opened later that morning, and that there was no immediate need to go to the ER.  It was a Monday morning, MLK Day, but fortunately, our practice was open.  I called and was given an appointment with a doctor, new to the practice, that we had never seen before.  She referred us for an x-ray, which we got taken immediately, and which revealed a fractured clavicle.  Poor, poor baby!  Guilty, sad Mama!

Nathan returned from his travels that evening, and complimented me on keeping my head on my shoulders -- not sobbing hysterically or beating myself up endlessly, but focusing on getting Molly the care that she needed.  As we talked about what happened, I remember saying that I hate that we live in a world where a tiny bit of me was afraid to take her to be seen, because you never know what a doctor might think when a baby has an injury.  He reassured me that the people at our family practice have known us for almost six years, and no one would doubt that I was a good mother who cared for my kids well.

* * *

Fast-forward to that Friday evening, just before 5 pm, when our home phone rang and it was for me.  The man calling said, "I'm calling from the Department of Children and Families.  We've received a report alleging medical negligence..."  

I'm sitting here now, weeks later, and yet the memory of that moment is a stark, clear one: the pit in my stomach, the disbelief that this could be happening.  I unleashed a slight outburst of shock and outrage on the DCF agent before bursting into tears and handing the phone to Nathan, who graciously took over the phone call.  There was to be an investigation at our home the following Monday morning.

* * *

Let me back up and fill in a few blanks here.  The truth is that I remember calling Nathan right after Molly's initial appointment as we were on our way to get x-rays, saying, "I had a weird feeling about the doctor we saw.  She seemed more concerned about the fact that Molly hadn't been at every CDC recommended Well Child visit than about the fracture."  It was true -- the doctor had looked at Molly's chart and said very dramatically, "WHO has been seeing this baby?"  Confused, I had replied, "She's a patient here."  The doctor responded, "She hasn't been seen here in MONTHS!  It is really important that she come to every Well Child visit so that we can weigh her!"  

Now, to my credit, I did not roll my eyes back into my throat, but instead responded with a smile, "I have a scale and weigh her at home."  The doctor did not seem reassured by this at all, but said, "Well, we also need to make sure she's hitting her milestones."  Again I smiled and said, "As a third-time mom I have felt confident in assessing that she's growing and developing right on track."  At this point, the doctor said, "Well, I'm going to follow you out to the front desk after this appointment and make sure you schedule appointments for all your kids," which seemed pretty dramatic to me.  Our older two children already had their yearly appointments on the books, scheduled since their previous physicals.  In any case, it all gave me an odd feeling at the time, but I was preoccupied with the fact that my poor infant daughter likely had a fracture and I pushed the encounter with that doctor to the back of my mind.

No one wants to be faced with the thought that taking a child for medical care will be worse than the injury.

* * *

That first Monday evening a nurse from the practice called me to deliver the results of the x-rays.  She advised me that these fractures are relatively common, and that all we needed to do was to safety pin her sleeve to the bodice of her clothing each day to limit her mobility and create a sort of a sling.  She also recommended a follow-up at Boston Children's. 

The following morning I called the nurse back to ask a few questions.  Was the follow-up in Boston so the x-rays could be read by someone more specialized?  Was there a chance she would need surgery?  Would they advise treatment more intensive than the safety pin?  Should I give her motrin if she was in pain?  The nurse reassured me that Molly would be fine and would heal quickly.  She also indicated that the follow-up in Boston (while something they routinely offer a referral for) wasn't necessary if we preferred to follow up at our local practice in a week or two.

Since lengthy rides in her car seat seemed uncomfortable for a baby with a broken clavicle, and since our oldest daughter also had a lingering cough that had been causing chest pain, I decided that avoiding unnecessary trips into the city was an excellent plan, and agreed to follow up at our family practice.

Molly already seemed significantly improved by Tuesday.  I held her, snuggled her, was careful what positions she slept in, and kept her sleeve pinned -- although she fought it and kept trying to crawl, pull herself up, and continue in all her usual tricks!  All seemed to be well -- or at least, I felt assured that it would be.  

* * *

That Thursday, I took our oldest daughter into the practice for her cough.  A year ago around this time she suffered a bout of pneumonia, and so when she had complained to me that it hurt to breathe deeply, I went on the alert.  Her cough was sporadic and not severe, but I still thought it was worth getting checked out.  At that appointment, no one at the practice indicated that anything might be amiss.  I had no idea that, as we would later learn, a report had been filed with DCF the previous day, and I would only learn about it the following day.  No one in the office mentioned making any attempts to follow up on Molly's care or to reach either Nathan or myself.  I took our five-year-old for a chest x-ray as recommended, and then headed home.

Friday morning was Nathan's day off from work.  That morning he was catching up on some paperwork and other matters, and found himself listening to several unheard voicemails from unknown numbers that had accumulated on his cell phone.  We were both sitting in the living room together when he got a very surprised and confused look, and said, "Babe, I think I have a voicemail from that doctor who saw Molly."  He put it on speaker so I could hear.  We were very perplexed, to say the least.  In the voicemail she said she was "Calling to make sure that Sarah was following up on Molly's care" ("Is this the 1950's?" I asked Nathan), and that she "understood that we might not be following up at Boston Children's, and that's okay..." but went on to say that Molly was at risk of her clavicle puncturing her lung, and that she needed to be seen again at the practice immediately for her arm to be properly immobilized.  She also said she understood I might be giving Molly Motrin (I wasn't, but it's what the nurse had suggested over the phone) and that I should absolutely NOT be doing this as it would impede her healing.  She concluded the voicemail, which had been left on Wednesday, by asking Nathan to call her back "by tomorrow."  Regrettably, this was now Friday.

We were quite confused as to why a nurse from our practice would give us such a reassuring assessment of the situation and such a low-key treatment plan, and then a doctor from within the same practice would tell us there was a risk of a punctured lung.  Naturally, this made me a bit nervous.  We were also completely bewildered as to why the doctor had called Nathan's phone, since I am the primary caregiver, the parent who takes the kids to their appointments, and the parent she had met at Molly's appointment.  No attempts had been made to reach me -- I had no missed calls or voicemails on my cell phone.  And come to think of it, that started to seem weird, because at previous times when our kids have been sick, someone from the practice, some friendly nurse or someone, has always called later to check in and make sure everyone is doing well.  Why hadn't anyone called me?

I immediately got on the phone and placed a call to our practice asking to speak with our primary care doctor so that we could get a straight story.  (As a side note, the wonderful primary care doctor we had seen for nearly five years had left the practice a year ago, and since that time, while we had been reassigned to a new PCP, we had actually had our appointments with an NP who is a lovely and wonderful woman, so -- in a humorous but perhaps not uncommon situation -- we had not actually met our new PCP).  Our PCP called me back soon after I called for her, and she was lovely over the phone.  She apologized for the miscommunications, and told us Molly was fine and would continue to be fine, and was not at risk for a punctured lung. She did say to go ahead and schedule a follow-up with a specialist, but said following up locally with a pediatric ortho in town would be absolutely fine; no trekking into Boston with three kids in freezing temps necessary.  I ended that phone call and immediately called Mass General in Danvers to schedule a follow-up for Molly.  

* * *

And it was at the close of that day, much of which I spent on the phone sorting things out with doctors and other doctors and insurance providers and such, that the DCF investigator called me.

It will remain in my memory as one of the worst weekends of my life.  That Friday night I cried, and cried, and cried.  I wept until my head pounded and my face was puffy.  I was overwhelmed by so many feelings: anger at that doctor, fear of the possibility (however remote) of having my children taken from me, embarrassment that it was somehow possible I could be the kind of mother who gets reported for neglect.  Nathan and I stayed up late into the night reading any information we could find online about what to do if you are falsely reported for abuse or neglect.  There were lots of frightening accounts online of falsely accused parents losing custody of their children for extended periods of time while cases were sorted out, and we were really scared.  

{We would later hear characterizations from lawyers agreeing that DCF is indeed guilty of overreaching at times in taking children from their homes.  The Massachusetts supreme judicial court has concurred with this and passed down a ruling in the past year limiting the way DCF functions -- comforting, I suppose, but comfort amidst alarming facts is only mildly comforting.  One doesn't have to look too far to find stories of parents currently going through complete nightmares like this, having had their children removed from their homes and needing to fight tooth and nail to get them back.}

I typed up a complete timeline of events while everything was fresh in my memory.  I called my parents, and they advised us to get an attorney, as we were thinking of doing, to be at the home with us during the investigation.  

We worked hard over that weekend, not only to tidy up our home and make sure that nothing whatsoever could be found amiss, but we also contacted four medical professionals and got signed letters detailing that we have always provided for our kids' medical needs.  {We remain grateful to these four people for being willing to do this.  We felt it was really the key to immediately disprove that there could be any validity to the accusation of medical neglect.}

Saturday night, after an unimaginably stressful and worrying day, we decided to order pizza and watch a movie.  What's a good cartoon option the girls might enjoy?  Nathan suggested Dumbo, and we were all in agreement that it would be a good choice.  Oh, how wrong we were!  As it turns out, the film I remember as being primarily about a cute flying elephant is actually about a baby being taken from its mother while the mother is locked up as an unfit parent!  Let's just say the girls weren't the only ones crying as we watched it.

* * *

Sunday, the day before the investigation, our three year old declared angrily, "You're a BAD MOTHER!" when it became apparent that breakfast was not what she had hoped it would be.  I remember thinking to myself wryly, "Perfect.  Just tell the gentleman who comes to our house tomorrow morning and it'll all be cleared up!"

It wasn't until the investigator arrived at our home Monday morning that we would hear in full the allegations against us.  I was accused of medical neglect; in other words, the issue was not the fracture itself (and there was no suspicion of abuse), but the allegations were that I was not following up on her care.  I was accused of giving my children improper medication, not providing them with general medical care, and not taking measures to immobilize Molly's fracture.  {There were other things said, too -- I don't remember them all now.  We have to write to DCF to request a copy of the full report now that the case is closed, at which time I'll be able to see everything.}

As he read the report, I was both devastated and angry.  I could not ever recognize the negligent mother the report described.

The doctor claimed in her report that she had left me three unreturned phone messages.  

We also learned that the doctor had filed her report on Wednesday, yes, the same Wednesday when she asked Nathan in her voicemail to call her back "by tomorrow."  Apparently it wouldn't have made a difference if he had gotten that voicemail a little sooner, because she did not even wait three hours after that call before reporting us.

In speaking to the investigator, we felt very able to tell our side of the story, and it was easy to prove, for example, that I had no missed calls from a doctor claiming to have left me three unreturned messages.  We played her voicemail on Nathan's phone, so the investigator could hear her saying it was "okay" if we didn't follow up in Boston, and other discrepancies in the story.  I detailed how I was doing everyone the nurse had told me to do for Molly's care, and he could clearly see that she was behaving quite normally.  

The investigator asked us a lot of questions, and tried to ask our kids a question regarding discipline in our home, as well.  He also asked to inspect the rest of the house, and specifically the sleeping arrangements.  At that time our lawyer spoke up and said he didn't think that would be necessary, since it was beyond the scope of an investigation alleging we had not followed up on our daughter's medical care.

I believe that in all, the investigator was at our house for about an hour and a half.

At some point during that time, I looked over to see our three year old had helped herself to a muffin I had left for her on the kitchen table, and was happily eating it ... off the floor.

Well, kids do know how to make a good impression.

* * *

Following that investigatory home visit, we breathed a partial sigh of relief, thinking it had probably gone as well as it could.  

The following day was Molly's pediatric ortho follow-up.  Everything I was told at that appointment corroborated what the nurse from our family practice had told me.  There was no concern expressed whatsoever about the nature of Molly's injury.  I was again told it was a common fracture.  There was no concern about my home care of her.  When I asked the doctor if there was a risk of a lung puncture, he actually laughed!  He and his assistant asked me where I had heard that could happen, as they only see that in extreme trauma such as a car accident.  When I replied that I heard it from the doctor who reported me to DCF, their eyes widened and they said in disbelief, "You got reported for this?!  I'm so sorry!" I was then told, "Any doctor who would report this injury or claim you weren't doing the appropriate care must not understand ortho at all.  She just must not understand.  She must not be informed." 

The doctor's assistant and I chatted briefly about how important it is for mandated reporters to have a good degree of common sense and discernment, and not to report frivolously on people, because of the serious impact it can have on a family.

The orthopedist said I could continue to immobilize her arm if I wanted to, but said that actually four out of five of the orthos at that office, himself included, do not believe clavicular fractures such as Molly's needed to be immobilized at all.  

In other words, a far cry from the hysterical claims of the doctor's DCF report.

* * *

After all of that, we waited several weeks before receiving another phone call from DCF.  This time, the case worker was following up because, when he spoke further with the doctor who reported us, she told him that we co-sleep with the baby.

He asked me over the phone if this was true, and I replied that yes, it was.  {It had not come up in the investigation at our home specifically, but I suppose we thought it was somewhat obvious given the baby had fallen out of the bed in the night.}  He then told me that while cosleeping "doesn't technically fall into the category of neglect," it is extremely dangerous and he would be sending me pamphlets to read and making a note in my file.  

It's still so surreal to me that I have "a file" with DCF at all.  

I started to say to him that unfortunately, many families he may work with would have risk factors making cosleeping unsafe such as alcohol or drug abuse, but he interrupted me to say that it is equally unsafe across all kinds of families and all lifestyles, so at that point I realized it was best not to discuss it any further -- although for the record, I still believe that cosleeping has been a wonderful thing for our family, a true sanity-saver, and if anyone thinks we shouldn't do it, well, we invite that person to come put our baby back to bed.

every. forty-five. minutes. all. night. long.


* * *

After that, DCF called some of our babysitters to check up on us, just to be sure that our humiliation was complete!

We received a letter in mid-February saying that our case had been closed and the allegations were marked as "unsupported."

We are relieved that we can put that behind us, and now we are planning to bring complaints to our {soon-to-be-former} doctor's office as well as to Lahey in general.  I believe there is also a way for us to file a counter-complaint to DCF alleging that we believe we were reported on vindictively so that future reports this doctor may make might be evaluated closely before action is taken.  These are the fun things we get to learn about now!  But we think it's important, because the more we learned about our situation, the more we realized there was really no other conclusion to draw but that the doctor who filed on us was either an unqualified doctor or a person who simply didn't like other personal choices our family was making.  The facts as we know them don't allow us to understand it any other way.  No second, third, or fourth opinions we sought from other medical professionals corroborated the "facts" the way this doctor presented them to DCF.  

* * *

In the days following the investigation, I wrote a little "personal impact statement" to eventually submit to our family practice:

"We can hardly begin to express how this experience has shocked and confused us, when we thought we were known and cared for at our family practice of nearly six years.  We now feel fearful and distrustful of the doctors with whom we thought we had a mutual relationship of trust.  Our friends who are aware of our situation are terrified at the thought they might ever find themselves in these circumstances without so much as a phone call being made before a report was filed.  Many of them have expressed their intent to leave {this practice}.

"In the days leading up to the investigative home visit, instead of having ample restful time to hold and care for our baby, we had to retain an attorney, spend time and money making sure not a single thing could be found amiss in our home, and contact multiple medical professionals to obtain letters attesting to our longstanding exemplary care of our children.

"From the time I first received the call from DCF, I have been having difficulty sleeping.  I have felt literally sick to my stomach and had episodes of shaking from anxiety and shock.  Instead of being cared for as a family by our "family practice," we have been victimized by a doctor there.  We were not treated fairly when with no probable cause whatsoever Dr. ________ set circumstances in motion that will have long-lasting effects on our family life.  Furthermore, we have learned that another medical professional at the practice vouched for us to Dr. ________, saying she should have no concerns whatsoever about our family -- yet still Dr. _________ chose to ignore the expertise of her colleague who knows us and has seen our children several times over the past year, and filed a report in direct opposition not only to the medical facts of the situation but also in opposition to the knowledgeable opinion of her colleague.

"As we try to make sense of this situation, we can only conclude that Dr. ________ is an unqualified doctor, having made hysterical claims to the DCF in direct contradiction to the opinions of every other medical professional, or that she has targeted us based on other factors she may have seen in my children's medical files, such as the fact that the children are not in public school, or the fact that we co-sleep, or the choice (made together with our longstanding family doctor) not to follow the CDC-suggested visit schedule to the letter."

* * *

Does that all sound really dramatic?  Maybe it does.  It's hard to explain that kind of fear.  You might think that being investigated by DCF really wouldn't be a big deal, because if you're not guilty it'll all work out fine.   And I get it.  DCF does good things for some kids who are truly in traumatic home situations and need help.  And they are obligated to follow up on the reports they receive, of course.  But when you're the one being investigated, the emotions surrounding it get pretty confusing.  It is probably hard to imagine if you haven't been through it, or at least had the fear of something like this happening cross your mind.

Or maybe you get it.  Maybe you can imagine the terror when you realize that you're not in control anymore -- that someone else gets to come into your home and decide if your life, your choices, your decisions, your care of your kids is acceptable or not.  

It's a really scary place to find yourself, I can tell you that.  Even if 90% of you believes it'll all be worked out and anyone will be able to see it was all a misunderstanding, there's at least 10% sheer terror.  I may or may not have been mentally considering an escape plan across the border to Canada, should things become dire!

* * *

I've learned something, though, and I think it's really important.  I think doctors and parents need to have some serious conversations about what is really happening in the medical world.  Who is in charge?  What does it mean every time you are asked to preemptively sign a consent to treatment form on behalf of your child before they are even seen at a visit?

All this time I've been taking my kids to the doctor viewing myself as holding the proverbial reins.  Yes, I want their expert opinions.  Yes, I want to know what they see, what they think.  But I thought it was okay that sometimes I'd opt not to give the antibiotics, but to try something else first, for example.  That, after extensive conversations with the doctor who knew me and my kids best, if we decided to skip a Hep B vaccine, for example, then that was our decision.  That sometimes we'd take into consideration several medical opinions before coming to a conclusion.

Now I'm beginning to realize that some doctors may view the scenario quite differently.  Perhaps they think they are in charge, and if they don't think you're jumping through the right hoops, well, they're going to make some phone calls.  And if this is the medical climate in which we live, I think all parents need to know about it.

* * *

So there you have it.  The story of that time I was accused of neglect.  Here's hoping it's the first, last, and only time!  I suppose the doctor who reported us would tell the story differently, but this is our story.  

Through it we felt surrounded by the love and support of family, friends, and those within our church families.  Nathan and I must have said to each other a dozen times during those difficult weeks, "What do people do during times like this if they don't have a church?!"  We are immensely grateful for the ways we were upheld with advice, support, love, and prayer.  We are critically aware that we had resources and support at our fingertips that not everyone facing this kind of event has access to.  

* * *

Do you know what the legal definition of neglect is?  It's a failure to provide "minimally adequate" care for your children.  

At first, when I received the phone call alleging neglect, having that piled on top of my normal amounts of "mom guilt" was almost more than I could bear.  Not only should I probably read to the kids even more than I do, or take them to museums more often, or be more patient with them at all times, or parent them more perfectly, now -- now I might actually be considered a truly neglectful mother?!

But then Nathan read me that definition.  And he laughed.  And at some point, I think I'll be able to laugh, too.

If I've learned something from all of this, perhaps it's this: I'm actually doing an okay job.  And if anybody tries to come between me and my kids, I will fight for the right to continue to love them to the very best of my ability.  I am far from being the perfect mother I would like to be, but I believe I'm the very best mother my own kids could possibly have, simply because they're mine, and I love them like crazy.