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Tuesday, August 29, 2006


Santiago and his chicken

When I was in kindergarten, my teacher called my parents in for a conference.

She was concerned. I couldn’t count, she told them. Not even to ten. I was falling behind the other students, and perhaps I lacked the aptitude for kindergarten. I was the youngest student in my kindergarten class, after all, and maybe I just wasn’t ready.

My parents informed my teacher that I could count just fine. In fact, I could count all the way to one hundred. This confused everyone.

Why did I flat out refuse to count for my teacher, at the risk of looking like I was incapable?

I didn’t like her.

In my young mind, why in the world would I jump through hoops for someone I didn’t even LIKE? Who the Hell did they think I was anyways? Some kind of teacher-monkey trick pony?

I don’t remember WHY I didn’t like her. I have a vague recollection of feelings of residual bitterness over the fact that I didn’t get the pretty teacher who wore her long brown hair in a bun. My teacher had short gray hair. I was already predisposed to prejudice based on appearance. I admit it. I was barely 5 years old. Sue me.

Throughout my elementary school academic career, I flip-flopped between good years and bad years based on whether or not I liked my teacher.

In the first grade, I had a great teacher, Miss Kreevey, and I did well. In the second grade, I had an okay teacher, Miss Archibald (we called her Miss Itchy-boobs). My year can be summed up by one word: “meh”. In the third grade, I cried all the way home from the first day of school. I had been assigned the “mean teacher” Miss. Hanson. I was inconsolable. This proved to be my first lesson in forming my own educated opinions about people. Miss Hanson ended up somehow communicating to me that I was definitely not stupid, I just needed to TRY. And I blossomed that year into the avid reader I am today. That was a great year, because Miss Hanson was a great teacher, even if she did talk incessantly about her childhood dog, whose name escapes me now, which is driving me batty.

In the fourth grade, my happy school days and the learning that went along with them, came to a screeching halt. You know how Jerry Seinfeld can only speak Newman’s name with utter disdain? That is the only way I can even utter the name of my fourth grade teacher. “Miss Wenger” (hiss). The fourth grade brought with it the pinnacle of my academic trauma in the form of a year-long stand-off with the worst, meanest, nastiest teacher I ever had. She didn’t like me, and I knew it. Miss Wenger (hiss) SUCKED. She only liked girls like Jessica Rose, who had long hair, and perfect freckles, and wore pure white pleated skirts and new shoes, and probably bathed with regularity. If you could conjure up the image of a girl exactly the opposite of that, you would have me, in the fourth grade.

The fourth grade was the year of “Santiago”. “Santiago” was a story in our class reader, about a boy and his chicken. I spent the majority of my fourth grade year on the story on Santiago and his fucking chicken. I started out the year in the highest reading group. By the time I finished that goddamned story, I had fallen back two groups. Miss Wenger (hiss) would not let me move on to the next reader until the stapled packet of goldenrod paper with questions about Santiago and his fucking chicken was completed with no errors whatsoever. It will suffice to say that I was not the worlds most detail oriented child. She refused to educate me further until I had every comma and period in the right place. Reading comprehension, and the big picture, meant nothing to this woman. She was all about the details.

I turned the packet in, Miss Wenger (hiss) marked it up with her red pen and gave it back to me, and I erased my errors and started over. Repeat this scenario approximately 47 times over the course of 6 months for which I was kept inside for recess. When I had erased my wrong answers so many times that I created HOLES in the goldenrod packet for the story of Santiago and his fucking chicken, I was given a new packet with which to start over. This was the only act remotely resembling generosity I ever witnessed from Miss Wenger (hiss).

I would like to say that I carry no hate in my heart, but I HATE Miss Wenger (hiss). She is dead. And I still hate her. THAT’S one for the confessional.

My mother, who is and was a teacher, had to request a meeting with this horrible woman to insist that I move past the story of Santiago and his fucking chicken, thus releasing me from Santiago and his fucking chicken purgatory, to read a new story for the love of God. The reading packet for the subsequent story was mercifully NOT goldenrod.

The evil in this woman only found a new host in the form of our winter poem packet. Miss Wenger (hiss) assigned us the task of writing an entire book of thoughts, feelings and poems about winter. My first poems were written in neat letters, and went something like this:

“I like snow. Snow is nice. When it’s snowing, I eat rice.”

Towards the end, after I was forced to stay inside for recess for 2 months straight, the poems took on a darker tone:

“I hate snow. Snow is yucky and dirty. And I hate it”

This was scrawled, nearly illegibly, by a pencil in the hand of a very angry and frustrated fourth grader.

And that is all I have to say about Miss Wenger (hiss).

In a lovely bit of merciful luck, my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Bevans, was truly amazing. She raised my broken self-esteem up about 25 levels and I will always love her for it. She reminded me that I was bright and creative and worth getting to know. God bless that woman. She was a gifted teacher.

This story comes to mind this week for a reason.

It’s time to leave the Hellish purgatory of Miss Wenger’s fourth grade class and the story of Santiago and his fucking chicken.

I am disappointed in myself for not finding a way to get past this habit I have of not performing to my full potential for people like Miss Wenger. I cut off my nose to spite my face, it seems, when dealing with the Miss Wengers of the world. But I have spent a long long time on the story of Santiago and his fucking chicken, and it’s time to move on to happier classrooms. Because I know I can do better. And I don’t care to impress Miss Wenger, because I can’t stand her.

It’s time I moved on to a classroom more like Mrs. Bevans’.

Friday, August 04, 2006


Letting the cat out of the bag

I disclosed something very personal and very frightening to two mothers in two separate conversations this last weekend at the BlogHer Conference. I admitted what it has taken nearly two years for me to muster the courage to share.

Well that’s not really true. I made the same admission to a good friend of mine once, while we were walking, about a year ago. She had just had a baby, and because of that, I thought she would understand. I blurted it out, and my words were met with a look of sheer horror. My friend’s mouth gaped open, and she promptly slapped a hand over it. I quickly brushed it off with a “But I’m fine now”, and kept right on walking. I decided then and there, that this was something I was better off keeping to myself.

This weekend, for some reason, I shared the same admission with two women in two separate conversations. Neither one of them looked one bit horrified. In fact, both of them nodded in recognition, and shared their own frightening and personal experiences with me in turn.

When my daughter was tiny and helpless and newborn, I was afraid to walk by the butcher block on the kitchen counter while I was holding her. I was afraid that my body would involuntarily pull a knife from the butcher block and use it to hurt her. And I was terrified. I didn’t know at the time where these wild thoughts came from, but I know now. I was suffering from postpartum depression.

PPD is terrifying. I don’t think I have ever been as afraid of my own mind as I was in the first few months of motherhood. All my life, I knew I wanted to have children. When I was pregnant, I fantasized about what my daughter would look like, and how I would talk to her and hold her, and how I would do everything in my power to keep her safe and help her grow. I loved her long before she was even born. With all my heart, I wanted to adapt to my new role as mother with aplomb and ease. I wanted to feel a connection with her, and I wanted to do right by her, because she deserved all the love the world could ever offer up in a million years. I wanted to be a good mother.

But my mind was uncooperative and stubborn. It just wouldn’t work right. I didn’t feel connected to my baby, or to anything for that matter.

I dreaded the sunset every night. The impending darkness stirred up the very worst of my anxiety and panic. Every night at dusk, claws of terror gripped me until I was nauseated and shivering with cold. I sat on the couch next to my husband and sobbed. I sputtered things through my tears like “she deserves a better mother than me! What if she gets cancer? What if she gets hurt and I can’t help her?” And I would look at my tiny baby girl and just cry. I was inconsolable.

The thought that anything bad might happen to my daughter shook me to the core. Yet there I was, afraid to walk by a maple butcher block full of the gourmet knives I loved to cook with. It was not the knives that scared me. It was ME that scared me. I felt crazy and disgraceful and ashamed for even conjuring up such a horrible image. I didn’t trust myself, and wondered “What kind of mother THINKS these things?”

My worst fear was confirmed. I was a horrible mother. I had no business caring for an infant, and I was mortified by my inadequacy. I sank deeper into isolation. I was afraid of being judged an unfit mother. Instead of seeking out help, I dug my heels in, and attempted to muddle through. I refused to fail.

I didn’t seek out medical help because deep down in my soul, I knew I was not capable of hurting her. Looking back, I think it was very unwise of me to ignore those frightening symptoms of post partum depression. But I did ignore them, because I didn’t want to be weak. I didn’t want to be weird.

At the time I really could not recognize what was happening. I thought that even if I had to fake it forever, she would at least have a decent parent in her father.

Depression is funny in that it’s very difficult to recognize when you are smack-dab in the midst of it. Two years distance has me looking back thinking to myself “knock-knock puddinghead! That was a CLASSIC case of Postpartum Depression, and you were taking an enormous risk, tackling that on your own.” But at the time it was terribly confusing and I kept thinking I just needed to walk it off.

It wasn’t until I started feeling better that I considered admitting there might be a problem. I have always been frighteningly good at faking it. Eventually, during a phone conversation with my mother, I managed to squeak out “I think I’m having a little bit of a hard time.” That statement alone seemed to set off a few alarm bells, and I started receiving daily phone calls from my mother and sisters just to check in to see how I was doing. As someone who has never liked giving any impression of weakness or neediness, it was really hard to accept that kindness and concern, but I will be eternally grateful for it.

I told my husband, about six weeks into it “If I don’t feel better in two weeks, I am going in to talk to the doctor”. Then it was one week. Then it was two days. By then I felt like maybe, just maybe, I was beginning to hit my stride and the oppressive force field I was trapped under was beginning to let up.

Things did get better. I gained confidence, and eventually I got to a point where I felt right, being her mother. One day I just knew with all my being that there was no one else in the world who was better equipped to take care of her than me. The love I have for that child knows no boundaries. It has seeped into every corner of my life. It has made me a more compassionate person. It has taught me to slow down and pay attention. It has helped me to be more forgiving, even to myself.

I am a great mother. I can acknowledge that now, with confidence. I didn’t always feel that way. I did not have a white-light moment in the delivery room. It took a little time for me to get to know my daughter, and to get my footing in my role as her mother. I know now what I didn’t know then. Once you fall in love with your own child, it’s impossible to un-do the power of that connection.

This is what babycenter says about post-partum depression:

Our society also makes it difficult to admit to having negative feelings about motherhood or the baby. When mothers do express feelings such as ambivalence, fear, or rage, they can frighten themselves and those close to them.

It was shame that kept me from seeking out help. Postpartum Depression is a physiological and psychological condition that deserves medical attention. I hope that sharing my story helps remove that shame from the equation for someone else. It was the courage of the two women who shared their stories with me that helped me muster up the courage to write about my own experience.

Postpartum depression can happen to anyone. Even the best mother in the Universe.

I would not allow things to get so bad a second time around. If I have another child, I will be much more aware, and much more careful. If that scenario plays itself out again, I will be on the phone to my doctor faster than you can say “anti-depressant” to get some help.

For anyone out there who might be struggling with Postpartum Depression, here are some links, and here are the symptoms, according to wellmother.com:

• Feelings of sadness or "down"-ness that don’t go away
• Inability to sleep, even when the baby is sleeping
• Changes in appetite – eating much more or much less
• Irritability, anger, worry, agitation, anxiety
• Inability to concentrate or make decisions
• Inability to enjoy things you used to; lack of interest in the baby; lack of interest in family
• Exhaustion; feeling "heavy"
• Uncontrollable crying
• Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
• Feelings of hopelessness or despair
• Fear of being a "bad" mother, or that others will think you are
• Fear that harm will come to the baby
• Thoughts of harming the baby or harming yourself
• Thoughts of death or suicide

Please don't let fear or shame prevent you from recongnizing and treating a very serious medical condition. Postpartum depression can and should be treated.