“How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not "the thing with feathers." The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich.”
- Woody Allen
For the greater part of a year, one of my children has been in a state of quiet crisis. Nothing earth shattering or physically dangerous: just a rut. Unhappiness. Lack of vision in a child who has always been a visionary. As is our usual way, LB and I addressed the problem head-on, asking direct questions, both together and apart. This was about as effective as one would expect. Teenagers can be fear-biting chihuahuas. They will pounce and snap, but if you were to reply in the same manner you could cause real damage. Despite the sharp teeth, a chihuahua only weighs about four pounds.
A few weeks ago in the car, this child and I were alone in the car and we had a break-through. I don't know how it happened: did I ask the right question? Was I quiet at just the right moment? Or maybe it was a matter of a geography: in the front seat of a small car you are close to each other, yet you are facing straight ahead. I felt my child relax. The moat surrounding the fortress of my child's psyche disappeared, and the circle of feral chihuahuas collectively looked at their watches and took a brief siesta.
I asked a favorite Perlman question: in a perfect world, what would you like to have happen? At first this child was reluctant. Perfect world dreams can feel outlandish, until you say them aloud and realize that the very act of speaking shrinks them down to the size of viable possibilities. There were negotiations and laughter and for my child, the realization that this fortress had an exit as well as an entrance. When we went back into the house, everything and nothing had changed. My child had a goal, a dream, and a deadline. Really, what more can we ask for in life?
There were many nights back when my children were toddlers, infants, and preschoolers where I would fall into bed at night with a sense worse than failure: the feeling of having achieved nothing of import. I learned to ask myself, "Did everyone eat today? Did everyone who needed a nap get the opportunity to have one? Have we completed another day of no work-related accidents? If so, pat yourself on the back."
But at that moment getting out of the car with my child, my heart soared with hope: like the thing with feathers. Like Woody Allen's nephew. I'd gotten through to one of my teenagers. I had to play it cool so that my enthusiasm didn't force my child to curl up like a pill-bug, but I wanted to do the Snoopy dance. I wanted to high-five myself. I was -- and here I cringe with embarrassment -- proud of myself.
It didn't last long.
Less than 24 hours later, one of my other children reminded me of a towel-snap of a remark I'd made in 2009 (dang these children and their lush, green brains that remember everything). Apparently, LB and I had just returned from our first parent/teacher conference, and the teacher had remarked that our child was quiet in class. He added that he's seen "sparks of genius," but that nevertheless, he'd like to see said child participate more. Now, I thought I had been calm and casual when I advised the child to join in on class discussions. But what I said was, "By this time, your teacher should be seeing a lot more than sparks!" Worse than that: according to this child, it didn't end there. For the next three weeks I brought it up daily and quizzed the child about class participation. I harangued. I nagged.
Meekly, I asked, "I...did I say that? I don't really remember..."
Then one of my other children, the one with whom I'd had that miraculous Ford Fusion Breakthrough, piped up. "Yes, I remember it. I even remember where we were sitting when you said that."
It's true I have no memory of the remark or ensuing weeks of festering, but the situation has "Jen" written all over it. LB had also been concerned about our child's lack of participation, and we're pretty careful about always presenting a united front. But if he'd made a zinger of a quip, no one remembered it. I'm used to being the bad guy; I'm generally okay with it. Someone has to do it, and I tell myself it means that my children are sure of me. It's safe to get angry with me; it's safe to quote, chapter and verse, times when I have been a Bad Mom. But this time recovery took longer because I'd been flying so high.
I should have Snoopy Danced when I had the chance.