One afternoon several years ago my normally happy-camper daughter had a meltdown of epic proportions at preschool. One minute she was fine, and the next minute she was possessed by the devil. Shrieking till she was red in the face at an unholy decible level. Shaking, flailing, back-arching, freaky gutteral noises.
Not quite three, she was unable to tell me why she was so upset, plus she was practically hyperventilating. I held her in my lap while the teacher, a child psychologist, explained to the other children, who were saucer-eyed and frozen, "Franny is having a hard time. She's going through something, but her mother is holding her and she's going to be okay."
It was just a year after my ex-husband and I had separated. My son Luca, then seven, was regularly exploding at home and at school. My ex-husband was also regularly exploding. Both of them blamed me for the problems Luca was having and I had come to believe them, that I was, as Prince opined in bold font with lots of exclamation marks in his daily e-mail tirades, "an unfit mother!!!!"
Except when it came to Franny. Franny was a resilient, joie-de-vivre kind of kid, generally easy to soothe after standard-issue toddler upsets. I was not an unfit mother when it came to Franny, I convinced myself.
Until that day when she needed an exorcism.
I started babbling to the teacher about the divorce, and her brother, and how maybe I hadn't recognized that she too was irrevocably damaged. I don't remember exactly what he said to me. Something about divorce trauma. He trained at a therapeutic preschool, he said, where he had seen "this kind of thing" all the time. He was going to stay with me and help me "support Franny," he said. He had a very somber look on his face. This is bad, I thought.
He said puzzles were good for helping kids calm down and suggested I do one with her. This did not strike me as a puzzle moment, but he had a PhD and I didn't so I figured he must know what to do. I put a puzzle in front of Franny. She hurled the pieces at the wall. The teacher's aide promptly removed the other children from the room.
* * *
A half hour later, Franny was her old self. I stood on the playground watching her chat up a preschool homie in the sandbox. I, on the other hand, felt like a wrung-out dishtowel. I turned to the co-director of the preschool, a stout, unflappable woman who was not a child psychologist but who had been working with kids for about ninety years.
I told her what had happened. I rambled on about the divorce trauma, and how my son was a mess, and now maybe Franny was going to be a mess too. Neither kid seemed to get upset with their dad, I said, because this is what he told me. I asked her why she thought this was. She paused. I waited for her to give me an in-depth explanation of my parental failings, complete with sobering statistics and references to Alice Miller.
Finally, she shrugged and said: "Mothers are just the crap-catchers. I don't know why that is, but it always seems to be that way. My kids blamed everything on me too."
* * *
Now, seven years later, Franny's meltdown is just an inexplicable sepia-toned blip in the development of a 99% of the time easy-to-parent kid.
Her brother's meltdowns, however, never subsided. As is the case with many special-needs kids, the meltdowns were particularly spectacular in situations where we were on a tight schedule (driving to school) or in public places (grocery stores, social gatherings, movie theaters).
The mothering experience I had envisioned -- cheering with other moms on the sidelines at soccer games; carpooling; arranging playdates and hosting birthday parties -- was something I watched slip further away the older Luca got and the more his reputation grew into the "problem kid." I became that mother from whom other mothers kept a polite distance on the schoolyard. Calls for playdates went unanswered. Birthday parties were canceled because everyone was "busy."
Once when Luca was in 3rd grade, his dad told me "Jonah" wanted him to come over. I approached Jonah's mom at school and relayed Prince's message, that Jonah really wanted a playdate with Luca. She eyed me with something that seemed very much like contempt and replied, "No Luca's dad asked if Luca could have a playdate with Jonah. So I said okay. Sure," she said, dripping with insincerity, "he can come over."
I did not take her up on her invitation.
* * *
I think it was the fourth therapist we took Luca to who blamed my son's problems on the fact that he was not "securely attached" to me. He did not seem to feel that the relentless bad-mouthing of me by his father had anything to do with that. No, he said, after inspecting Luca's bedroom during a home visit, it was because Luca's bedroom was upstairs, too far away from me.
"You have him upstairs, where it's Father-Sky. He is not ready to be Father-Sky, he needs to be next to Mother-Earth."
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"You need to build a room for him outside your bedroom door."
Mind, you, we lived in a tiny house and outside the bedroom door was the living room. When you entered the house, you stepped directly into the living room, which the therapist was now suggesting should no longer be a living room, but a boy-cave.
"Drape a canopy over a couple of bookshelves, line the floor with cushions, and let him sleep in there. This is how he'll form an attachment to you."
I protested. I said I did not believe Luca's behavioral problems would be solved by setting up a metaphorical womb outside my bedroom. I also wanted to know why the therapist had not visited my ex-husband's home as he had visited mine. This seemed, I said, rather biased.
The therapist said nothing, but sighed, resigned, at the news that I would not be building a shrine for my son outside my bedroom door. He didn't have to say it, I could tell by the look on his face.
I was to blame for Luca's problems.
* * *
"Refrigerator Mother" was a term used in the 1950s to describe mothers of children with autism and schizophrenia. Psychologists believed that children suffering from these disorders did so because their mothers were cold and distant. Never mind how cold and distant the father might be. Never mind Aunt Jane who never spoke or Grandpa Bob who heard voices. Nope. A child became autistic or schizophrenic solely because his mother was aloof.
Since the era of the Refrigerator Mother, we have developed space travel, eradicated many deadly diseases through vaccination, and created social media so powerful that millions of protesters can effect healthcare change in a matter of days.
Yet having a special needs child still is too often perceived as a shameful thing, and mothers still are too often blamed for their children's issues.
When I flew to wilderness camp to visit Luca, I sat glued to my seat, unable to put down my iBook copy of Live Through This, a brutally honest memoir written by a divorced mother whose two daughters derailed during adolescence, leaving their middle-class home to become drug-addicted runaways.
Debra Gwartney's account of her daughters' spiral into mental illness felt freakishly like my own. She was a single mother whose every effort to help her children proved fruitless (now in their 20s, her daughters did indeed live through this and are fine). Her description of isolating herself during school functions because she felt such intense shame about her home life was an experience I had lived for years, but hadn't realized was shared by other moms.
I e-mailed Debra and asked her about her own experience with Mother Blame. This is what she wrote:
"This idea that there are some who are intent on blaming mothers for pretty much all the ills of society struck me after my daughters and I appeared on a segment for This American Life. Most of the letters about the program were inquisitive, positive, supportive, but there were a few people who were determined to make our problems all about the bad mother. And with such vehemence! I was amazed at the vitriol in those postage messages--and later, after the book came out, on other internet sites that mentioned the book or ran an interview. Of course they're all anonymous, as such attacks seem possible only under the cloak of anonymity. I also noted that most of these people admitted they hadn't read the book, whipped up into a fury merely at the mention of a mother writing about the troubles in her family."
Blogger Gabi Coatsworth, who writes about her sons' struggles with bipolar disorder, said Mother Blame "made me think for many years that my sons' mental health issues were because of the way I'd raised them. And so it delayed a proper diagnosis and treatment, and made their lives a lot harder. My daughter (now diagnosed as ADHD) was doing badly in High school (aptly named) and wanted to go to a boarding school. The counselor we hired to help place her told me I was a lousy mother and that's why she was out of control. And we PAID him! Actually, my second (and current) husband more or less agreed with the counselor."
Missy Boyter, co-founder of LAMomsDig, a blog with a section featuring resources for L.A.-area special needs kids, has two children on the autism spectrum. She says she feels less blamed by others, and more by herself -- and on occasion her husband:
"Most everything we've done has been wonderful and the kids have made HUGE progress. Maybe I'm lucky, but I haven't ever been blamed for their delays - at least not to my face. The issue that my husband and I deal with is more of a self blame thing. We ask ourselves what did we do wrong? Or was it our 'faulty' genes that are to blame? Who knows.
I do resent my husband pointing the blame finger at me. It makes me feel like I'm slacking when it comes to taking care of my kids. We argue about it and I usually tell him to stuff it and then he quits - until we have a new obstacle to overcome."
* * *
After Luca, now 14, went to live with his dad full-time and went completely off the rails, after umpteen diagnoses and medication trials and more ineffectual therapists, after I relented and let Prince make all decisions for Luca, after Prince sent Luca to wilderness camp and a residential treatment center, prompting my son to beg me to get custody back because now I was suddenly the Good Parent -- after all this, I finally stopped blaming myself for all of Luca's problems.
There are too many factors that go into making up a Special Needs Child -- psychiatric conditions; developmental delays; unforeseen situational circumstances; co-parenting conflicts -- to point the finger at any one culprit.
Pointing fingers never helps. Understanding does. So does empathy.
So the next time you pass that mother trying to scoop her tantrumming child from the floor of the cereal aisle, consider that the problem may not be her indulgence, but her child's sensory integration deficits, or generalized anxiety disorder, or clinical depression masquerading as brattiness.
And if you notice the mom of "that out-of-control kid" hanging out on the margins of the Third Grade Parent Mixer, go stand next to her. Find something positive to say about her child. Ask her if she'd like to set up a playdate.
And know that there but for the grace of having a neurotypical child, you'd be the target of Mother Blame too.