Bits of Trauma

It was a couple of small pops followed by some strange noises that I couldn’t decide if they were animal or human. It was 9:30 at night and I was walking the little dog a few doors down from our home in the “townhome” side of our rental community. The next morning, my neighbor asked if I heard the gunfire as I greeted him while taking the dog out again. My fears were confirmed when a friend from the township police department called to let me know there had been gunfire, broken window, and argument, but no arrests. “Probably drug related,” he suggested.

Gunshots in the apartment side of the community. Gunshots fired in the building adjacent to the playground where my children swing and slide and jump their bikes off any possible knoll. Gunshots that could be a stray bullet piercing one of my precious sons.

I immediately put in a call to the property management office for the boss to call me and sent an email. He called back later the following afternoon. He had no concern and certainly had no plan to address the issue. “I can’t control who people invite over,” he responded. “No, we won’t extend the fence line; that would be expensive.” “The police do patrol,” he answered – “never seen them patrol,” I argued – “well, it’s at random times.” (Hmmm, nope, no one in the neighborhood has ever seen them patrol either.) Every suggestion I made, he had no interest in. “I’ll pass your concerns to my supervisor,” he concluded. I informed him that I was “tremendously disappointed in your clear lack of concern for the safety of the people who live here and for the children.” And then I left a message for the regional manager; and I’m still waiting a return call.

You see, last Friday we got a “letter” in our mailboxes saying that of all the nerve, there have been reports of kids riding their bikes on these dead-end streets and that from now on, all children must be supervised at all times when playing outside. I didn’t see on that letter that there have been any reports of people driving faster than the posted 10mph while on the same streets as the kids, but I pretty happily give these drivers the universal “slow down” hand signals when they come cruising along. I’m just wondering why management in their wisdom doesn’t want to put out a letter to help the entire community feel safer about the recent gunfire “incident.”

So this weekend, I took it upon myself to personally say hello to my neighbors, ask if they heard about the “incident” and let them know that “management” doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. I am therefore asking each of them to be more vigilant and keep an eye out for each other. I am asking them to call the police immediately if they notice anything troubling. I am asking them to speak up if they have a concern.

My boys have heard these conversations. We’ve talked about it many times. We’ve set new boundaries for where they can play and ride their bikes. We’ve reviewed safety guidelines. They seem to be coping better than I am. For they have the great perspective of a protected child; they can look at the adults around them and feel safe and loved.

Probably what was more “traumatic” to Super Tall Guy this week is that he twisted his ankle jumping on a “Jump Pad” at a local corn maze. He hobbled around for the foot-bootafternoon complaining that he couldn’t have any fun. He crawled around the floor the next morning until his aunt dropped off a pair of crutches. Finally he succumbed to my urging to get it checked and he walked out of there in a boot with a nondisplaced avulsion fracture in the ankle. Yes, he will likely remember this weekend of me downplaying his pain while my head and heart were wrapped around the needs of the community.foot-broken

It takes a village, they always say. We live in a small “village” here. Apparently our “leaders” are much more interested in collecting rent checks than providing safety, but we shall continue on and do what we can to protect each other and support each other. And we as parents certainly are looking out for each other’s kids.

And yet I shall continue to look for a new house….while also making sure that I land in another “village” to wrap around us all.

Rescuing our kids with a secret “Extraction Code”

I would not consider myself to be a Helicopter Parent. In fact, unless you awaken Mama Bear, I’m probably more like Mama Bird – “here, honey, let me give you a little boot out of this little ol’ nest and see if you fly. Come on, kid, FLY!  Huh….”

I do, however, spend a lot of time contemplating the shift to a digital connected world, its affects on social interactions, and the very real dangers associated with the vast anonymous internet. My kids are not yet digital. Other than school, relatives and babysitters, my boys are rarely apart from me, so I haven’t felt the need to equip them with digital devices. That is all about to change as the oldest continues to push into more independence.

The past few weeks, as an Internal Medicine-Pediatric physician (trained to care for kids and adults), I have filled in more on the pediatric side of the medical office. And when sitting with 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds and even 17-year-olds, I’ve found myself giving each of them (and their parents) a little bit of advice.

To the kid:

That cell phone you have in your pocket is a very important and potentially very dangerous device. You can get reach out to friends, family, and a whole host of people, which is really awesome. But you can also get yourself into deep trouble with that phone by texting or talking to the wrong people or putting up photos or a whole bunch of things. But, the reason your parents got you that phone in the first place is most likely they wanted to keep you safe so that you could call them whenever you needed.

What you need to do – tonight – is sit down and talk with your parents about your “secret code.” Your secret code is a short phrase, known only to your family, which tells mom or dad that you need them absolutely positively NOW!!

For example, you might text your mom with the sentence, “Gosh, I sure am hungry for pepperoni pizza.” The minute your mom reads that sentence, she will stop everything she is doing (and I mean everything), jump in her car and drive immediately to where you are. She will make up some really stupid crazy parent excuse for why she has come to pick you up. “Dear, the cat is sick and we need to take her to the vet now. I’m so sorry, but I need you to come along.” (Don’t have a cat – make it your sister….but not to the vet….maybe to the doctor!). Then you will roll your eyes, text your friend “my mom is nuts!” and get in the car.

You see, I can tell you’re a smart kid. But every single smart kid at times in their lives gets into uncomfortable or bad or stupid situations. Maybe you’re visiting a friend and maybe another person comes over too. And maybe this other person starts to do something that you just don’t want to get into. Maybe it’s making prank calls. Maybe it’s lighting up a cigarette. It could be anything. If you find yourself in any uncomfortable situation, you pull out your phone and text your “secret code.” Your parent will read it and come. Right then. Your friends will read it and say, “Dude! That’s stupid. Are you really hungry? You want pizza?” And your parent is already in the car and on their way.

To the parent:

Now, we all know the reason you got the phone is so your most precious Jenny or Johnny fits in with the social crowd….well, and because you want to know she/he is safe and because it helps with managing our crazy busy lives and schedules.

You also know that the phone can be a very dangerous possession and I’m sure you’ve already talked with your son or daughter about the dangers. I’m also sure that you randomly confiscate the device and check all the texts, Snapchats, Instagram and whatever other apps and accounts.

What you will do – tonight – is sit down with your kid and develop a “secret extraction code.” (see above) And you will, at the moment that code comes in, drop everything you are doing (and I mean everything – your meeting, your treadmill run, your quick errand at the grocery store, your nice warm cozy bed) and you will turn on your tracking device, see where your kid is, jump in your car and drive over there.

The whole way your heart will be pounding in your ears and you will be scared about what you are about to walk in on, but you will take deep breaths and think of your stupid extraction excuse. “I’m so sorry, Johnny, but your little brother is sick and I need you home now.” And you will promise yourself over and over that these are the only words you’re allowed to say when you see Johnny.

In fact, you’re not even allowed to talk to Johnny when he jumps into the car. You’re not allowed to say a word except “I love you” until he begins to talk. And if he doesn’t talk for minutes or hours or even until the next day, the only thing you can say is “I love you. I am always here for you.”

Johnny needs to know that you’ve got his back. Johnny needs to know that no matter what, you are there for him. Johnny needs to know that you love him so much that no matter what he was doing, no matter what his friends were doing, no matter what – you will keep him safe.

Every parent has looked at me and nodded their head. They know. Deep down we all know the world can be a scary place. We all pray that our kids will make good choices and will never need their extraction code. But we also need our kids to know how to call for help in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their safety, that doesn’t embarrass them in front of their peers, and that doesn’t put the blame on them.

Our kids need to know that we love them so much that we will do whatever it takes to keep them physically, emotionally, mentally safe. No matter what. Mama Bear/Papa Bear will be there.

What’s your extraction code?

I would really like to trust you…

I really wanted to trust you. It’s my nature to start with trust. I’m not sure when my uneasiness began and the trust faded, but it finally started to bother my brain enough to make me jump in the pool shortly before the closing whistle to be nearer to my boys.

You had arrived just a bit earlier. I haven’t seen you at the community pool before though we’ve been there almost every sunny day. White man. Graying hair. Alone. No wedding band. As a single woman with hopes of someday changing that status, I pay attention to these things. You had a friendly smile. You noticed my middle child’s dive off the board and gave him a passing “Good job.” You swam. You were playful and went down the slide. You noticed the boys’ skill in swimming.

But then I noticed that you noticed my boys. poolSuddenly I noticed that I was noticing this notice. I peeled off my warm outer layer and jumped into the pool. We had a great time in the setting sun and the cooling evening. We splashed and raced each other around the pool. I caught the Little Guy over and over as he flew from the edge into my arms without his protective “floatie.” We played until the whistle blew and the pool closed. You said, “Thanks for sharing your pool with me” as you departed.

Leaving the pool, I tried to catch the manager but found him busy setting up for a private party. I made a note to call him later. I would like his help. I’d like him to remind his staff that the threat of human trafficking is real, even in this “safe” and seemingly small community. I’d like them to help me as a mother make sure that my boys never walk out of the pool area with anyone but me. I know they can’t keep track of everyone, but a gentle to reminder to keep an eye on kids and non-parental adults couldn’t hurt.

On the way home, I turned off the music in the van and asked for the boys’ attention. “Hey guys, I know that man we talked to seemed really nice today. And he may be a really nice guy. But we just met him and we don’t know him. So I need you to remember that you will never leave with someone or go to someone’s car unless you “Ask First” and I say it’s okay. Even if that man said to you, “Let’s go get a chocolate bar out of my car.” You would say, “I have to ask my Mom first.” Remember, you always Ask First.”

I really wanted to trust you. Maybe I can. Maybe we’ll see you around this summer. Maybe you’ll eventually become a friend. Maybe you’re actually a really nice guy. I hate that I have to become paranoid. But that’s the way it is, sir. This world seems a bit too crazy. My boys are way too precious to me. The thought of them caught up in abduction or trafficking makes my heart pause and my breath stop. They are my life, my joy and my responsibility.

Stay away from my boys.

Thank you.

 

 

 

Why getting to know each other matters (based on a horrific example)

There is such a sad story from my neighboring community this weekend – a 22-year-old mother was found dead on her bed and her 10-month-old baby dead nearby in the living room. Her cause of death is unknown and his is suspected to be a result of dehydration and starvation. The story is not yet complete and details are still unfolding, but the family and the neighborhood is reeling. And the neighbors who live in the same apartment building are wracked with guilt.

My soul aches since hearing the news. I fall asleep thinking of a little boy crawling around on the floor searching….searching for food….searching for water…searching for his mother….crying out for someone to help him. And though his cries were heard, the incredible weight of them, the life and death significance of them were not known until too late.

“If I took the time to get to know her I probably could have helped her” said a tenant in the same building as quoted in the newspaper story.

His remorse hit me. We have gone too far. We have let too much distance exist between us. When parents are afraid to reach out for help, we are letting them down and we are putting children at risk. When people worry that their neighbor will “call child protective services” against them, we are pitting family against family. When we lose a sense of community and of watching out for one another, we become isolated and lonely and we cannot thrive.

We need to change. We need to reach out to each other. We need to carry each other’s burdens. We need to take the time to get to know each other.

I am parenting three young boys. I’ve made a point of meeting my neighbors. I let a nearby friend know that she’s number one back-up call in emergencies since she’s the one closest to us. I’ve talked to my children about what to do if x, y or z. I sincerely thank friends who offer help whenever needed and I reciprocate the offer, pausing to look them in the eye to solidify our agreement. I frequently think about the community that surrounds my family and whether I’ve built up enough of a buffer base for my children.

Last week, my middle son turned six years old. His birthday party was attended by three

Cupcakes decorated to match my son's typical drawings.

Birthday cupcakes decorated to match my son’s typical drawings.

boys from his day care center, one boy who used to attend day care with him, two boys from his prior kindergarten class, one boy from his new kindergarten class, one boy from the neighborhood, and two boys from friends of the family. I looked around the room with a smile as they sang Happy Birthday To You, off-key. My son’s net is wide. There are many connections. There need to be for him to know that he is loved, that the world is full of good people, and that there are people who will come if he cries.

Every child needs love and protection and a wide, wide net.

Take the time to get to know one another. It just might matter.

 

 

 

 

Resetting the independence-o-meter

Many years ago I stood in my grandmother’s kitchen relishing in the rich aroma of an entirely home-grown, home-cooked meal on the farm. My mother and I were deep in conversation about travel plans for my upcoming medical school interviews. She suggested I travel by plane and rent a car. I countered that I’d rather drive and be able to navigate my own schedule and timeline. She replied, “You know, I knew my job as a parent was to raise you to become independent, but you don’t have to be sooo independent!”

I think of that phrase often in my own parenting. My job is to help my boys become “independent” – not needing me anymore ….able to live on their own, cook for themselves, clean, work, love, create, inspire, dream….all on their own. Some days I wonder when they’ll ever be independent! I’d be happy for toilet trained! After all, I have another 16 years before the last one is “technically” independent. Other days, I can’t even imagine them not needing me anymore or what it will be like when I don’t know exactly when they last ate, how much they slept, and whether or not they pooped yet today!

Part of this independence “training,” naturally, is giving them the chance to practice. So, two nights ago when we attended a pasta dinner for a friend’s charity, I gave Micah some “space” to play with the older boys. They ran around the building, ducked in and out of the main eating room, and found their own fun. I thought to myself how wonderful this was….and how nice not to worry about him too much as chasing little Seth (who has absolutely no issue with claiming his own independence at the tender young age of just TWO!) was taking up 97.5% of my attention span, with Noah’s occasional whine requiring the other 2.4%.

When I gathered Micah about an hour into the program to head home for bed, I learned that I probably should have given him more than his allotted 0.1% for the evening. Apparently he had been asked three times by a friendly adult (and friend) to stop throwing rocks from the second floor onto the main entrance concrete stairs.  Ugh.

Not surprisingly, I fell into the parent trap of ranting most of the way home – “what do you mean you were throwing rocks??? Why didn’t you listen when an adult told you to stop?? If the boys told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it??? Don’t answer that!”

So, I decided that he would be “grounded” the next day from going to fun places like the Children’s Museum with my sister and her boys….and instead must stay home. Halfway through the morning, as we were deep in the middle of a hockey game in our tiny back yard, he said, “This is really a lot of fun to be home today.”  I’m thinking the concept of “being grounded” didn’t really sink in, but maybe what he really needed was to spend some time together.

And it was good to give him a test run…and to reset my expectations for just how much independence this boy is ready for.  Zero.

We’ll try again some other day….

….when rocks are nowhere to be found!

(ps, we had no problem with getting lost or wandering off this time though – that was the lecture on the way to the event – “You MUST check with me first before leaving my eyesight!”).

I try not to be a Helicopter Parent….

….but I probably should hover just a little closer sometimes. The fact that I only temporarily “misplaced” three out of five household boys during a recent event seems pretty good (unless you calculate the percentage and then 60% loss is…well… kind of high).

In my own defense, I’m going to argue for the “it takes a village” philosophy and I had an over-reliance on the village….perhaps without informing them too clearly that they were the village. It’s those crazy situations where you are so thankful that everything worked out, but looking back, it probably would have been nice if it didn’t seem like every 30 minutes one of the organizers of the race was searching for one of her kids!

JP5K (293)You see, it was race day. The first 5K run/walk we had organized for the non-profit I’m working to create. I was there early for set-up and my head was spinning all morning trying to keep details and people organized. I was not prepared for my “work role” as well as the role of attending a function as a mother of three kids. So before I knew it, the gun was going off and both 6-year-olds of the house wanted to “run” with me for the 5K. This meant that Ryan wanted to RUN and Micah wanted to sprint….walk…. sprint….stop…..sprint….. stroll…. sprint. Meanwhile, Ryan was “gone.” And though I was informed that he had made the turn-around at the 5K water station, my sister’s face when she said she hadn’t seen him cross the finish yet made me a bit concerned when we sprinted-walked-strolled back. So I sent a villager off to find him only to realize that my Godson had already discovered the young nephew – who had run almost all of 5 miles! Nice job, Ryan. Next time can you do it without panicking everyone??!?

I returned to meeting and greeting people and shortly afterwards found myself searching for the curly headed boy in a red and grey shirt. No, not at the Family Fun activity booths. No, not at the playground. By the time I had 5 or 6 villagers looking for him, he was discovered by my mom in the bathroom by the playground. Don’t anyone panic!

After this second one, I decided I needed a better hover strategy. We reviewed the “you must check with me first” policy as well as “blue shirts are safe” new rule (since the race volunteers wore blue).  I kept my eyes on the boys much more closely, though it was also easier as a friend had decided that Seth was adorable and she would just follow him wherever he walked. My mom took over supervision of Noah’s mud pie factory and I had the “easy” job of making sure Micah was scampering around under the watchful eye of other friends and their kids.

It’s not always easy in a crowd, however, and soon I was at the point of wondering why I didn’t see him with the group of friends I thought he was with. Knowing they had all been down by the lake, I looked behind the boat house and just froze. There was the most picturesque scene of a little brown boy in a white t-shirt sitting next to a tackle box with a fishing rod in hand….perfectly still. The water lapped near his feet. The wind rustled in the trees. And the stranger beside him cast out his line.JP5K (311)

Now I wrestled with all the analytical thinking. I had just spent two days at a “child maltreatment” conference and though we know statistically that strangers are far less dangerous than people the children know….I didn’t know this fisherman at all. And as peaceful as the scene was, how could I trust that it would remain so? And yet, Micah clearly was in his own little heaven. He had just asked me last week for a fishing rod for his birthday since a classmate had brought one in for show-and-tell.

So….I hovered. I walked down and “checked in” – thanked the man for teaching Micah to fish, chatted with Micah for a bit….and then retreated to the top of the hill to watch from there. I knew that Micah needed a bit of space. As hard as it was for me to juggle “work” and “mommy-ing” at this event….it had been hard for Micah to deal with all the crowds, with the disappointment of not winning a medal (as Ryan had for his 5 miles of running), and with a mother who was clearly distracted. Watching the bobbin bounce along in the water, scooping a worm out of the bucket of dirt, anticipating the possibility of a catch….this is what Micah needed.

I could hover as much as I needed to feel a tad more comfortable….but I also needed to give him a little room to engage the world….to connect with a stranger….to learn a new skill.

The smile on his face when I walked down to him and he turned and said “Mommy, this man is learning me to fish” was just priceless. Sometimes we work so hard to keep the kids in a safe “bubble” that we lose out on moments that can just “be.”  It’s clearly a hard balance for me.

(ps…and such a hard balance the last few days that my writing got terribly delayed 🙂

Disturbances of the peace

I am on my couch with a new laptop…replacement #2.  Somehow my 1-month-old laptop started confusing its numbers with its letters (a feature I found quite annoying) and I returned it and got a smaller, sleeker more fun model :). So I sit reflecting on the week, with a laptop in my hands, an empty ice cream dish beside me (my current concoction is a mix of Edy’s French Silk, Archer Farms Belgium chocolate, and a dash of Ben & Jerry’s VolunTirimisu – don’t even ask!), and a 3-year-old dreaming on the couch nearby.

I glance over at Noah sleeping on the other half of the replacement sofa (courtesy of the foam-hungry police dog’s owner. I’m going to shy away from leather sofas in the future though – they’re ice cold as our temperatures plummet and the boys have noticed – didn’t take long when they plop down in their undies in the morning – and now jump onto the comfy chairs).  Noah looks so peaceful….and I realize I wish I could be in that state – blissful slumber without a care in the world (other than the fact that Micah using the purple lightsaber all day was just “not fair”).

Instead, my peace this past week has been disrupted by too many “incidents” – teen boys in New Jersey who lured and killed a 12-year-old girl, two infants hospitalized here in the city from injuries by their parents, a nanny in New York killing two children in a family.  I feel the pain of these families.  I fear the world in which my boys are growing up.  And I wonder about my ability to prepare them for this world.

It seems parenting is hard enough just taking care of the physical aspects, like

–          Micah throwing up three times on Monday just as I put him to bed…and again and again as soon as I change the sheets

–          Stephen emptying a whole half gallon of milk onto the dining room table and splashing in it in delight as we hurriedly wiped it up with any and all available towels

–          Taxiing Micah to basketball for half a session, rushing by the house to change into soccer gear, and dashing off to stand in the rain for the final game of the season (shhh, don’t mention that we’re missing next week’s make-up game…there’s too much going on as it is already!)

–          Trying with all my will power to breathe quietly and drive safely as the 3 older boys chattered and teased and fought and screamed for an hour and 15 minutes after we left a Halloween party near Cleveland last night – and just as the third one finally drifted off to sleep – the baby awoke and whimpered and cried and spluttered for the rest of the way home.  7 minutes  from the house (according to friendly GPS Jane), the car was quiet….and then we carried them all inside!  (must remember never to do that again!  Or just give in and turn the TV on – who cares if they don’t fall asleep for a while – they didn’t anyway!).  And whose bright idea was it to give the boys tons of dessert and candy and then put them in the back of an enclosed moving vehicle and buckle them up?!?

But it’s more the emotional challenges that drain me, like

–          Trying (unsuccessfully) to stop myself from scolding Micah for soiling his underwear.  I know he didn’t mean it but I keep saying “you’re 6 years old….why do I have to clean you over and over?”  And I know full well that this is not only NOT a useful tirade to be on, but it is not healthy for his emotional state.  Yet, I am frustrated to be dealing with it again.

–          Worrying about whether my boys are in the “right” care settings and how well they’re handling them, especially when Micah states he doesn’t like one of his afterschool teachers because she’s always putting him in “time out.”  And I keep thinking that I don’t want him to develop a construct of being the “bad kid,” but he certainly does pull for a lot of disciplining.

–          And I’ve been very unsettled by an article written by two of our Child Advocacy physicians earlier last week about a recent court decision that would allow people who abuse children (as shown by “substantial evidence”) to not have their names registered as an abuser (because it’s not “clear and convincing” evidence). In which case, even though someone is a known abuser, they may still “clear” the background checks and thus drive my children to school, serve as their sports coach, even teach our children.  I’m pretty frustrated that my state shows so little concern for its children – the future for all of us.  And I realize that I need to be wary and even more protective of my children and yet not wanting them to grow up in fear.  What a balance!

So if you have any of this all sorted out, I’m eager to hear!