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Good Letters

20101102-we-collect-words-by-jessica-mesman-griffithWe’re in the six-month slump. I remember it well from the first baby. The euphoria wanes, the hormones settle, and the delightful newborn grows into an impatient dictator, waking ten times a night to nurse, ready to move and play but unable to do so unassisted, unhappy unless making direct eye contact with another human. There are days when I feel like I’ll never write again. Or shower.

To complicate matters, our four-year-old sailed off the deep end sometime around last Monday. Her teacher stopped me at the door after I dropped her off (late, again). I could hear her crying upstairs—screaming, actually, and pounding her foot. “It’s the squirrel song,” the teacher said.

Say no more, I thought; the squirrel song gets her every time. “Have you had a chance to talk to her pediatrician about her anxiety?” she asked. She’s been fidgeting, zoning out, picking fights, dissolving into a puddle of tears at the slightest provocation. I assured her I’d call.

It’ll be months before we can get to the doctor, so I did what modern mothers do: After the children went to sleep, I googled “anxiety in toddlers,” which led me to a page listing the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in children: a tendency toward perfectionism and stubbornness; disproportionate reactions of anger and guilt; a tendency to be disruptive; a hyper-active fantasy life; excessive religiosity.

Does this describe my daughter? Pretty much. But it’s an even more accurate description of me.

Reading this I remembered the first time I submitted a piece of writing about faith for a workshop. Someone wrote in the margins: this doesn’t sound like religion; it sounds like obsessive-compulsive disorder. I guess they’d been reading the DSM-IV.

I was a very religious child, even though my parents were not. I was also anxious, prone to bouts of melancholy, and had at least two panic attacks so intense they left my face numb. My fantasy life was so hyper-active that I convinced myself I was in a serious relationship with Martin Gore from Depeche Mode (he’s the little blonde one who favored leather skirts and dog collars). I was devastated when I found out he was married with children. I sat on my best friend’s bathroom floor and cried. I knew it was crazy, but it had all seemed so real. It was scary.

I still have the ability and the desire to get completely lost in a world of my own creation, for better or worse. I’m a writer.

Most of the time I can convince myself that it doesn’t bother me that our children might be different or even weird. I think it’s cool that they’re being raised by writers, living on the campus of a liberal arts college, sharing meals and conversations with philosophers, poets, and artists every day.

I was, perhaps, more okay with it when I thought this little brother would be the mellow, unflappable child—when I thought my daughter was a (much beloved) fluke. But now, in the six-month slump, he seems every bit as frenetic and demanding as his sister, and I—prone to disproportionate reactions—am wondering if he’s headed down the same road, and if our problem is one of nature or nurture.

In short, I’m wondering if we’re making our kids crazy.

Because sometimes, when I pick up my daughter from her little pre-school, I stand at the fence and watch her on the playground. Usually she’s alone, riding aimlessly on a tricycle, or talking to the teachers on one of the benches while the other girls play house on the jungle gym and the boys destroy stuff in the sandbox. Any sort of pride I might take in our family life is easily trumped by this image of my beloved child, alone and misunderstood.

Times like these, artists be damned, I don’t want my kids to be weird. Or crazy. I want them to be happy.

My daughter befriended a German composer in residence at the artists’ community where I work, and he sent her, as a gift upon his departure, the book Frederick by Leo Lionni. In it, a family of mice is busy preparing for winter, gathering corn and nuts, wheat and straw. All except Frederick. All he does is daydream, stare at the colors in the meadow, study the light of the sun. The other mice gather food; he collects words.

When they’ve eaten through winter’s stores and exhausted their conversations, it’s Frederick who saves them from the cold and drear. Frederick, who studied the sun, can help them to imagine again its warmth. He’s an artist. In dark moments, when practicality has run its course, it’s the artist who brings hope. What a wonderful gift. It was intended for her, but it came just in time for me.

Maybe our children won’t be artists, though some days, it seems inevitable. But I hope that growing up among them will be a blessing and not a curse. Their family may not always attend to the practical. We have a tendency to be late. We may be a bit dramatic in our reactions to what others see as everyday problems.

But we also study the sun and the meadows; we collect words.

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