“I’m NOT going to school!”
Vanessa says this before she is even out of bed, pulling her blankets over her head trying to disappear. I feel the heat rising up my spine and my heart beating the tiniest bit faster. It was going to be one of those mornings.
I never know which Vanessa I’m going to get. Sometimes she’s perfectly agreeable and gets up happily. Other times I have to fight her tooth and nail every step of the way. On those days, it takes most of the day for my anxiety to go away long after she’s gone to school.
“Vanessa, you have to go or you won’t get your star.”
We started the star thing last year. If she gets five in a row, we give her $20.00. The stars are still important to her, even at age 11 and in middle school. It’s enough to get her out of bed and over to the table to eat the breakfast I made. Some days, the stars don‘t work at all.
The guidance counselor at her school suggested the stars. My husband wants to spank her and force her to get ready. I never do. I internalize everything instead and stuff it all down, leaving me frustrated and feeling like a terrible mother.
I shuffle around the house, having woken up early during a fibromyalgia flare. There is a dull pain in my neck, shoulders, legs, and back that is getting worse by the minute. All I want is to be back in bed.
Vanessa resonates throughout the whole house complaining about her breakfast and stating she’s staying home. I wish I could tell her it’s not all about her, that her dad and I have our own problems, but she’s a pre-teen. The world revolves around her at all times. I was like her once, and I try to remember that as I gather her stuff together.
“Mom! You didn’t give me a napkin! God, are you stupid?”
I give Vanessa a stern look as I hand her a napkin. Please don’t let her start with the insults, I beg silently. There is a delicate tightrope we walk every morning, the line between still getting her to school on time and the point of no return.
I feel the pressure of every word I say or anything minuscule going wrong at the moment to send her over the edge. Sometimes in past years, she hasn’t made it to school at all, and I don’t want another repeat of her reaching that point and becoming hysterical.
It scares me when she can’t calm down, but it scares her even more.
You Always Hurt The Ones You Love
Her father wakes up and heads for the kitchen for coffee. He’s half asleep but still stops to give me a hug.
“Dad, are you staying home today?” Vanessa calls out from the table.
My husband sighs and says yes. He knows she‘s going to complain no matter what he says. He sometimes works his IT job remotely from our house. It doesn’t affect Vanessa’s life in any way whether or not he’s home, but on this day she decides to make it a sore spot.
“Whyyyyy?” she whines. “Can’t you just go to the office?”
Her squeaky voice cuts the air like a knife slashing its intended target. Her dad turns away so she doesn’t see the look of sadness on his face.
My husband goes out onto the patio. His feelings are hurt, I can tell. My skin is thicker, having been the subject of Vanessa’s rants so many times they barely touch me. I follow him outside.
“Honey, you know she’s just stressed about school, right?”
My husband smiles weakly, “She’s just a kid, I know that, but she can be really cruel.”
Vanessa is the smallest kid in sixth grade, born premature 11 years ago and still catching up physically. Learning new things is sometimes hard for her, so she struggles in class. Some kids want to protect her because of her size, but other kids use it as an opportunity to pick on her. They call her a third-grader and tell her she walks too slow in front of them.
Vanessa is always tough as nails. If being bullied bothers her, she never tells me. I worry about the toll it might be taking on her and encourage her to open up. Kids can become depressed and lose their self-confidence.
How much is too much for her to handle?
The Hardest Part Of All
There’s something else…
I feel a lot of guilt regarding my daughter. Between the ages of five and seven, she lived 1000 miles away with my mother because my life was such a mess. The arrangement was supposed to be for a couple of weeks, but it lasted two years in the throes of my addiction and instability.
Weeks would go by where I didn’t call her, feeling too ashamed that I had no idea what was happening in her life. When I did call, she always asked the same question. “When can I come home?” One conversation with my daughter could send me to bed for days feeling heartbroken for my child.
I didn’t have a home for myself, much less for my daughter. I took a series of baby steps that added up to big ones, and each positive change I made brought me closer to her. When Vanessa finally came home, I worried about what kind of mother I would be. We had to get to know each other all over again, and there were bound to be bumps along the way.
At first, I tried to be the perfect mother. When I fell short, I beat myself up mercilessly. There was so much I had to make up to her, all the time we missed together. She deserved so much better than a mom like me.
Still, I can’t let Vanessa get away with hurting her father’s feelings. She’s been back with me for three years now, and I have to put my foot down. I try to talk to her about being mean to her dad, but she doesn’t want to hear it.
She finally gets dressed and her teeth brushed, and at my urging she gives her father a hug on our way out the door. I catch her smiling.
She loves her daddy.
Vanessa is quiet in the back seat of the car. She‘s still too small to ride up front. I think about what a fighter she is. She survived being born three months early, a heart surgery, a diagnosis of ADD and being without her mother longer than she should have.
The experiences she’s been through might break any other little girl, but my daughter is a fighter. She stands up for herself and her friends and perceived injustices. She’d make one hell of a lawyer.
The Heart Of The Matter
When we get to school, it’s hard for Vanessa to get out of the car. Tears spring to her eyes and she fake kicks me with her foot, but she grabs her backpack and we both step onto the pavement.
“Mom,” she suddenly cries, “I don‘t want to leave you!”
I hug her and kiss her on top of the head. She’s still not embarrassed for any of her friends to see. I give her an extra squeeze and tell her to have a great day.
“Mom, you’re going to come exactly at three, right?”
I promise her I will. She’s afraid I won’t show up. She’s afraid I’ll leave her again. It breaks my heart.
I know she’s terrified, and I’m powerless to stop it. It’s so important to be as consistent as possible for her so she learns to trust me again, but even after three years back together part of her still doesn’t. She has major abandonment issues, and I’m the one who caused them. How can I ever forgive myself?
I see Vanessa waving at me as I put the car in drive. A friend sidles up alongside her, and they shriek happily at the sight of each other. I roll down the window and hear them giggling. My shoulders begin to relax.
“Bye,” I call out.
Vanessa doesn’t hear me, but it’s okay. I’ll see her again at exactly three and every school day after that. I know it’s a test, just like when she yells at me to make sure I still love her. Someday I hope she realizes I’m not going anywhere, but it’s good just to get through today.
How does your child handle stress, and how do you help them?