Mom knows best

After last night’s session with Ethan’s new therapist (D), I feel even more sure that Ethan’s problems in school are very heavily grief-based.

She started by asking really basic questions to get him more comfortable. (Where do you go to school? What grade are you in? What’s your favorite school subject? What do you like to do for fun?)

Then she moved to word association. Mom, she said.

“Pretty good,” Ethan said. “Nice, but I get mad when she won’t let me play my 3DS.”

D looked at me. I could see her smile through her eyes. Grandma, she said next.

“Good,” said Ethan.


Ethan’s body tensed. He covered his face with his hands. He started to get very fidgety. His fists balled up. He arched his back.

“It’s okay,” D said. “How do you feel about your dad?”

“I don’t have a dad,” Ethan said.

“Yes you do,” D said. “He’s just not here with you. How do you feel about your dad?”

Ethan started punching the ball he was holding. “Mad,” he said. “I told him to stop drinking beer. I threw some of his beer away once. I got in really bad trouble.”

“What happened?” D asked softly.

Ethan continued hitting the ball. He turned his back to us and punched at the ball.

“Daddy yelled – LOUD. Then I got send to my room. He should have stopped drinking.”

“It’s okay to punch that ball,” D said. Ethan continued his physical outburst for another minute or so.

D looked at me and whispered,” Did you see those physical changes? There’s a lot going on there.”

I nodded.

The rest of the session went well. It was hard for Ethan to focus after talking about his dad. The three of us played a game involving placing stones on Ethan’s body to encourage him to lay still. Then we played a board game called Stop, Relax & Think, which got him opening up a bit about his feelings and start thinking through possible ways to relax and deal with stressful situations or things that make him angry.

At one point in the Stop, Relax & Think game, I had to sing a song until D told me to stop. Ethan apparently was not amused with my singing and told me to stop a few times. I kept going until D told me to quit, per the rules. D turned to Ethan and explained that it was never the job of the child to tell his parent to “stop.” Instead it is the job of the parent to correct the child. I liked D even more after that.

We go back to D in a week. She’s going to do good things with Ethan.

I’m relieved.

30 hours

Not every family is created equal. And I’m pissed. Warning: ranting follows.

I received an email today from Ethan’s school. It was a mass email to all the parents about how families aren’t volunteering as they should. The email said that every family needed to commit to a minimum of 30 volunteer hours in a school year.

That’s fine. Doesn’t seem outrageous, given that this time is spread from September through June. I already volunteer in a variety of ways – I copy papers for the teacher twice a month; I’ve made (or purchased) treats for the class for various activities; I participated in making pies for the big fundraiser.

About making those pies…

For that fundraiser, every family was asked to commit to three three-hour shifts from Friday morning through Saturday night. I volunteered for one three-hour shift. As the pie fundraiser was drawing closer, I listened as the moms talked about splitting the volunteer time between themselves and their husbands. I overheard divorced parents talking about dividing their time to meet the obligation.

My thought was, “Fuck it. I don’t have someone to split my time with so one shift is all they get from me.”

And that was fine.

But now, being asked – required? – to commit to 30 volunteer hours in a school year makes me angry. I can’t split that time with anyone. It’s me. All me. Thirty hours from ME. There isn’t a significant other to offset that commitment.

That means 30 hours taken away from my kids, and that seems pretty contrary to how a parochial school should operate.

And if I don’t do my 30 hours of volunteer work – as tracked by some fancy new tracking website? Apparently, there’s a “buy out” option that I can use to PAY my way out of the obligation. (Because paying tuition and buying uniforms every three months because of Ethan’s growth spurts and all the other nickel-and-dime charges through the year isn’t enough…)

I understand volunteering. I get the need for involved parents – hell, I am a pretty involved parent. But to be told how much I have to do – and to have the obligation the same for ALL families, regardless of their structure or resources – is bullshit.

I don’t often play the widow card, but the school might be getting a smack down from me in the next few days as “volunteering details” and tracking software are unveiled.

Because I have time for this…

One Year Ago: My Sister

My sister and my niece arrived at the hotel for Mike’s funeral on January 27. We all went to dinner, and my sister said that she was there to help in any way she could. She sounded sincere, but given her history of being unreliable, I had my doubts.

“Just help me with the kids,” I said at dinner when they arrived in town. “That’s what I really need right now. Mom has been such a huge help these last few days, and she needs a breather. I don’t ask for help often, but I’m asking you, I’m looking you in the eyes to say that I need help with the kids over the next few days while I handle all kinds of funeral-related things. Can you do that?”

“Anything,” she said. “I’ll keep the kids busy. We’ll have fun.”

My mom had been eager for a haircut, and she had been so helpful and strong over the previous days that I wanted to treat her. I called a local salon and made a cut-and-color appointment for her. I told my sister at dinner that night that I would need her to help me with the kids while I took mom to get her hair done the next day.

“Great,” she said. “I’m here for you. No problem.”

On the 28th, the kids, my mom, my sister, my niece and I went to lunch then headed back to the hotel. I told my sister that I would pull up to the front of the hotel and she and my niece could get the kids out of the car because my mom and I needed to get to the salon.

“What?!” my sister yelled. “It’s my birthday! I’ve invited friends to celebrate with me! I can’t watch your kids on MY BIRTHDAY! That’s not fair!”

(Side note: She was turning 37 years old – not a milestone, and she wasn’t a child. Even with all the other stuff going on in my life, I didn’t forget about her or her birthday. I ordered a birthday cake for her, and the kids bought her a small present and flowers. She wasn’t forgotten, but this wasn’t her day either. Also, we were raised that birthdays, after you reached 16 years old, weren’t really big deals.)

I got out of the car, walked over to her side and whispered in her ear. “We talked about this yesterday. I need help with the kids over the next few days. I want to treat our mom to a few hours in the salon. Please…” I begged.

“Whatever,” she said and walked into the hotel. “I can’t believe you’re asking me to do this ON MY BIRTHDAY!”

Fast forward a few hours and my mom and I returned from the salon – and the bakery with her birthday cake. My sister was nowhere to be found. My 16-year old niece was alone in the hotel room with Ethan and Lauren. “Where’s your mom?” I asked.

“With her friend,” she said, rolling her eyes. “She just keeps saying it’s her birthday and she’s going to do what she wants.”

Right after we left, my sister’s friend arrived and she dumped the kids with my niece. She hadn’t so much as checked on her daughter or my kids in the last several hours.

I was furious. Trying to take my mind off things, I started looking at my Facebook feed. There were several posts from my sister about how she was “partying” on her birthday, and how any friends in the area should stop by, and how excited she was to be with friends her birthday. There was also a check in from her “friend” at the hotel – “Partying with J on her birthday, so glad she’s in town to celebrate with me!”

I was pissed. She was in town because MIKE DIED. This wasn’t Party Town. This was the Grief Train. She was there because she was supposed to be helping after the loss of her brother in law. She was staying in a hotel room – paid for by my mom – to attend the funeral for my husband. It took everything in my being to NOT reply to the friend’s check-in: “Glad you’re having fun. I’m preparing the funeral of MY KIDS’ DAD, which is why she’s in town….”

I knew that I would lose it if my sister and I were together much that day. A group of college friends were coming into town and had texted to ask if I was interested in going to dinner with them. I needed the escape.

Dinner with friends was nice. We laughed. We cried. We told stories about Mike and caught up on each other’s lives. I was touched that they all came in for the funeral from faraway places, and it was nice to spend time with them before things got crazy with the viewing the next day.

When I got back to the hotel, my sister was on a rampage in the hotel lobby, waiting for me. “I can’t believe you didn’t have dinner with me ON MY BIRTHDAY!” she said. “I can’t believe you WENT OUT ON MY BIRTHDAY! I would never do that to you on your birthday!”

“No,” I said. “You would just make my husband’s funeral miserable. Today wasn’t about you – we’re here because Mike died. We’re going to see my children’s father tomorrow. He’s dead in a box.”

“But it’s my BIRTHDAY…” she screamed after me as I walked to the elevator.

I left her in the hotel lobby. She would never change. Selfish when she was a kid, selfish now. I just couldn’t take her ridiculousness. Tomorrow will be one of the toughest days of my life, I thought.

One year

Today is one year. As I write this, it’s one year to the exact minute that I received the call from Mike’s mom.

I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, just another day. I thought I was okay.

It’s hard.

I woke up with a throbbing headache at 4:30. Lauren was crying out for me at 5 a.m., and she and I cuddled for a half hour. I showered, got dressed, packed my lunch. If I didn’t have to interview a job candidate this afternoon, I would have stayed in bed.

It snowed last night. Not much, but a slick snowy coat covered the roads as I took Ethan to school.

I thought about cancelling my oil change appointment, but I was already WAY overdue. Of course, I was ridiculously early for the appointment, so I went through a drive thru – maybe caffeine would help my headache, I thought. (It didn’t.)

Then I drove around. I wanted to find an empty parking lot and just sit, maybe sneak in a 10-minute nap. But the snow… nearly every lot was being plowed, and those that weren’t plowed REALLY needed it.

After driving around for 20 minutes, I found an acceptable lot, parked and sat. I couldn’t move. I just stared at a discount dry cleaners, a hair cut place and sandwich restaurant. I watched the reflection of the cars from the road behind me. As the reflections moved along the plate-glass windows, their shape changed – short to long, thin to fat, tall to short. It was like watching a fun house mirror.

I was very conscious of my breathing. In, out. Deep breaths.

I felt like I couldn’t move anything other than my eyes, watching those cars in the reflection. Several times, I thought, “It’s time. I need to get to the car dealer.” But I couldn’t seem to lift my head, let alone my arms or legs to physically drive the car.

My email dinged. New message. It was about tomorrow’s alumni board meeting at my alma mater. There’s no way, I thought. It took everything in me to pull my head off the back of the car seat. I emailed back: “I thought I was fine. I’m not. Won’t be there tomorrow.”

I glanced at the time. Just enough time to get to the dealer.

Pulled into the garage, checked in, walked to the waiting room.

I emailed a few people at work (someone from IT was coming to check my laptop and a student wanted to talk about internships) – I’m going to be late, I wrote, blaming it on the weather and road conditions.

Of course, as soon as I walked into my building, the IT guy and the student were waiting for me in the hall outside my office. I rushed through both meetings, sent them on their ways, and shut my door.

I walked over to my window and looked out at the snow-covered quad. Without warning, the tears just came.

Finding help – I hope

I met with the new therapist last night. (Man, it was a cold night with -25 degree wind chills… If this wasn’t for Ethan’s benefit, I would have stayed home in my sweat pants under a down blanket!)

New therapist (D) is awesome.

Her office was filled with kid stuff, toys and books and games. It was very different from Ethan’s previous therapist’s office, which was cold and not kid-friendly with its diplomas on the wall and mismatched dorm-like furniture. I was also relieved to see two other kids coming out of another office – the boy was about Ethan’s age and the girl was maybe a year younger. Proof that this place GETS kids and knows how to work with them. (Never really saw kids at the old therapy place – no one under teen years.)

We sat down and she asked me to go over the timeline of events starting with Mike’s death last year.

“Actually, I think it started before that,” I said.

I recounted for her what’s happened in two years – Lauren’s birth (Ethan was no longer the only child), finding out Mike was drinking and lying and hiding it (lots of tension and arguing in the house), my dad’s death (Ethan let out a piercing, heart breaking howl when the Marine presented my mom with the American flag), neglect when Ethan was left alone with Mike (Mike drank until he passed out and forgot to feed or care for Ethan), my mom moving in with us, more tension at home as Mike was dropped from the outpatient rehab center, the loss of my job and the drinking ultimatum I gave to Mike, going to court, Mike being taken to the hospital and moving in with his parents a few states away, relocating the family to another state, Ethan starting a new school, Mike dying.

I explained to the therapist that Ethan’s behavior is very different at home and school. There’s no anger at home. There isn’t impulsive behavior or inappropriate outbursts when he’s with me or my mom. I talked to her about my belief that Ethan is processing his grief and losses, and he’s worried when he’s not around me or his grandma. I told her others want to diagnose him as ADD/ADHD, but that I wanted to hold off until I thought Ethan could process and deal with the grief issues. She nodded, she understood my theories.

D listened to everything, taking notes, asking occasional questions. She asked about his previous therapy experience and what was discussed. I told her that the former therapist never broached the subject of death or grief. Instead he concentrated on helping Ethan get along with his peers – necessary yes, but not helping the underlying problem. D was mortified.

“This kid’s been through a lot,” she said. “Grief and loss are major parts of his life. We’ll work on it.”

Ethan has his first appointment with her in one week. Fingers crossed.


On a related note, it’s been a tough week for Ethan. He’s been in trouble at school for outbursts and anger and arguing with teachers.

Last night, I was on my way to pick him up from the after school program when the director called. Ethan was having a panic attack, she told me. He was yelled at for pushing a kid while playing tag and he lost it. They couldn’t calm him down.

Luckily, I was minutes away from the school. When I got there, Ethan was in a quiet, dark room across the hall from the rest of the kids. He had his head down and was sobbing. One of the program leaders was talking to him, rubbing his hair.

I asked him what was going on, what happened. He lifted his head and said that it’s almost the time when his daddy died last year.

We sat in the dark room and cried together for a few minutes. I gathered his things in the other room, and we left.

Right or wrong, I’m not going to lecture or yell at him for misbehaving this week. He has enough on his seven-year old mind this week.


Late last night, I got an email from one of my mom friends. This mom knows the anniversary is coming up. Her daughter is in Ethan’s class:

During prayers tonight, I asked the girls if there was anything special they wanted to pray for and KL said, “I would like to pray for Ethan.” I said that was a great idea but asked if she had any reason and she said, “He just looks like he needs a friend, mom.” So I told her maybe she should try to be a better friend if it looks like he needs a friend.

I fear that Ethan’s anger and outbursts will alienate kids (and their parents), leaving him without friends or a support system. I only hope the other moms and kids in the class show this kind of compassion as we continue to move through these tough times.

It’s a good reminder not to judge others: you just don’t know what they’re going through.

Parenting is hard.