The terrors of advocacy

Today I did something I’ve never done before: I spoke with an elected official to advocate about something I care about.

I experienced near-panic as the appointed time for the call approached. I sat with my notes, reviewing the budget item I wanted to talk about, going over my talking points, re-reading the material I had emailed ahead of time to my state senator. I fussed about the kitchen, remembering to get myself a glass of water in case I developed paralyzing dry-mouth during the call.

10:30 arrived and the call came in. I answered with trepidation, though I hope my voice didn’t shake too much.

It was the senator’s aide, calling to let me know the call would be delayed by 10 minutes.

Great. Ten more minutes to wallow in my terror. I sat still in my chair for a moment, filled not only with fear, but also with gratitude that the senator had been forced to turn my in-person meeting into a telephone call, because now as we talked, I could shake my legs wildly to vent my anxiety without her noticing. 

* * * * *

I was a piano geek from when I was really little, and a performance major in college. I spent my early years doing piano things — recitals, concerts with the local youth orchestra, accompanying gigs, money-making gigs where I played background music for events, early church services on Sundays, master classes, pretty intense competitions. Eventually I guess I habituated to a lot of the performance anxiety I experienced, though for big solo events I still had panic attacks accompanied by bouts of diarrhea.

Then I was a litigator for twelve years. I participated in mediations and arbitrations and jury trials and evidentiary hearings, took and defended depositions, made arguments to judges, met with mean partners and confused witnesses and scary opposing counsel, and did all sorts of other stuff that made me pretty darn anxious. I guess eventually I habituated to a lot of those terrors as well.

I’ve spent the last seven years advocating in various ways for Jesse in the school system and in extracurriculars and in the medical system. I meet with people, talk with people, share information with people, write emails and letters to people, argue with people, beg people for what Jesse needs. It all makes me anxious, but I’ve gotten used to the players and mostly we’ve developed collaborative relationships and it’s not so bad anymore.

You would think talking with my state senator on the phone for ten minutes would be no big deal.

But I feel a lot of generalized social anxiety just thinking about meeting with or calling any legislative peeps. I can’t explain it. It just is. Still, as the moment of this call approached, I was shocked to find that my mood was approaching full-on panic. It was BAD. My stomach churned. My heart rate was badly elevated. My skin crawled. My armpits started to smell. I was having trouble breathing. I paced around the house shaking out my arms and legs, and cracking my neck again and again.

* * * * *

So finally the actual  call came from my senator. I managed to pick up the phone without dropping it. I prepared myself for a call that would undoubtedly leave me feeling inadequate, thick-tongued, and foolish.

My state senator’s name is Alberta Darling. She’s the chair of the joint finance committee here in Wisconsin, which makes her very powerful indeed, and that makes me a lucky constituent.

I had already informed her scheduling aide what I wanted to talk about, which is a line item in Governor Scott Walker’s budget that proposes about $6 million to support school initiatives relating to mental health — basically training for screening, intervention and referral; and grant funding to help schools form collaborative relationships with local mental health providers so students can obtain services more easily. It’s not much, and it’s not enough, but it’s a start.

A couple days ago I had emailed the aide an article on mental health issues in children that ran last year in the  Milwaukee Magazine, in which Jesse was highlighted. I sent links to a couple blog posts of mine that touched on school issues Jesse has contended with. I just figured, why not do what professional advocates say we’re supposed to do, tell an authentic story that explains why something matters?

Senator Darling started right in on our call with, “I just want to tell you up front…”

I cringed in real time with the words, and I prepared to do battle.

But she didn’t go there. Instead, she told me she fully supports the proposal. She got Walker to increase the budget amount assigned to it. She gets it. She supports more funding for mental health services for children in schools. It’s a terrible problem. We need to help. I want to tell you that up front, she said, so you don’t think you need to convince me.


Thank you, I said.

Then I waited for her to find an excuse to hang up quickly on me, since she didn’t need me to convince her.

But she didn’t go there. She just sort of… outwaited me. And listened. I told her how happy it would make Jesse to know that our senator understands how important mental health issues are for children. I went on for too long about how Jesse’s “mental illnesses” — Tourette’s and OCD — are poor passports to services, whereas closely related disabilities like ADHD and autism are good passports to services, and that’s not fair. I talked about how unfair it is that children with mental illnesses don’t have well-trained staff in schools to help identify issues and develop toolkits to support their needs, and that these kids are too often chalked off as disciplinary problems.

She listened. She asked questions. She clarified. She seemed to be taking notes.

She thanked me for my advocacy.


She invited me to come testify at a joint finance committee hearing about my support for this budget item. Those hearings are zoos, all-day affairs with massive numbers of people lined up to have their short turn to be heard. I told her Jesse might like to testify, since  this is really her story. Senator Darling sounded delighted, and she suggested I let her aide know if we were coming so that she could anticipate us and invite us up earlier in the day to testify, instead of making Jesse wait around interminably.


We wound up the call and said cordial good byes, and I sat back, relieved to find that I was still alive and still all of one piece, and also I hadn’t peed my pants.

* * * * *

So here’s the weird punch line: I, a lifelong Democrat, am planning to go testify at an open hearing in support of a hard-core Republican governor’s budget proposal to put $6 million new dollars into mental health initiatives in public and charter schools. My senator, also a hard-core Republican, supports the measure as well. And if it makes it through, I’m going to thank them.


It occurs to me that one of the reasons I fear political advocacy is that it creates an internal dissonance in this overwhelmingly polarized, hyper-partisan age. We are either Democrats or Republicans, and any third or fourth option is meaningless. We’re like two feral packs of dogs, one on each side of a bottomless ravine, slavering and snarling at one another across an unconquerable divide.

But life isn’t so simple, and the broad range of issues we face — not only at the national level but also in our local communities — are too complicated to fit into a binary bracket. This is a time and place in American history where everyone not only deserves to be heard, but needs to be heard. There has to be value in speaking, and speaking, and speaking, as respectfully and persistently as we can, to the values and policies that matter to us as humans, not as Ds or Rs or Is. 

So I think I will accept the internal dissonance, because maybe it’s a fiction, and I’ll keep on calling and meeting with elected people, even if we disagree on a lot of issues. There are more nonpartisan issues in this world than we know, I’m thinking — we are, after all, human beings first, not political affiliations first. And as weird and awful as other people’s political positions may seem to me, I know it’s time for me to start looking for some basic shared values that underlie our different points of view. Because I know they’re there, those shared values. They have to be, or else we’re doomed. 

And here’s the thing. For me, political activism is about making the world better, for the future, for humanity, and for my children. I would throw myself in front of a freight train for my kids. I would exchange my life for theirs without a second thought. I would chew my own arm off if it meant a better life for my children. I would give up anything for them. 

I can also talk to my legislative representatives for them, despite my fears and social anxiety. It’s probably a better option than dying or chewing off limbs. 




Why I don’t homeschool (episode 4972)

I dragged myself out of bed this morning, my nose still congested five days into a cold that’s been just bad enough to make me kind of miserable and deny me sleep,  but not bad enough to take me down into bed-ridden incompetence. In some ways that’s the worst kind of cold, because I don’t have a legitimate excuse for sitting around being lazy. I have to make up fake excuses instead. Excuse me, alternative excuses.

I sat up and tried to breathe through my clogged sinuses. I stretched my feet before I stood, so that the pain from my plantar fascitis (plantar fascist is more like it) wouldn’t make me fall over. I hobbled over to the bathroom and got through my morning routine. (Not much to it really. Eye drops. Pee. Brush teeth. Avoid looking in mirror. Dress in something not stained or smelly). I hobbled downstairs and got to work on breakfast and school lunches, alongside Anthony.

Some days, right at this point, when I’m feeling tired of this never-ending routine, when I can’t bear the thought of packing another lunch, when I’ve been sick and I can barely get my eyelids to lift off my eyeballs… I wonder what it would be like to homeschool. I wouldn’t have to make school lunches. I wouldn’t have to rush about on someone else’s schedule. I wouldn’t have to worry about making sure the kids take the right books, papers, and equipment with them to cover the next seven hours without me. I wouldn’t have to worry about whether the curriculum they’re stuck in is appropriate for their developmental levels and current interests.

I could sleep in. Sleeping in is a significant factor favoring homeschooling.

Also if we home schooled, we could eat when we want, learn when we want, and go outside when we want. We could be doing a lot of very cool stuff.

But I know there are significant impediments to home schooling, mostly involving my personality and all the questions. I would have to decide once and for all (unlike in this written piece so far) whether homeschooling is one word or two. If it’s one word, does that make me more Germanic? Because I don’t think I’m Germanic at all, but in that language they like to string lots of words together to make new words, right? If I homeschool instead of home school, do I have to teach my kids German?

Does it still count as home schooling if I outsource 80% of the actual education to others? Why isn’t that called “private tutoring”? Is it still homeschooling if I have the kids do all their learning through on-line courses and materials? Why is that home schooling and not computer schooling or on-line schooling? Do I have to make flash cards and maintain an apocalyptic supply of glue sticks? Can I get away with unschooling and just do whatever the *#)% I want on any given day? Will my children still have good hygiene skills if someone doesn’t tell them twenty times a day to take a squirt of hand sanitizer before doing the next activity? Does digging for worms and making a garden count as physical education? Does trying to figure out the vector of falling leaves and catch them before they hit the ground count as science? Does using the garden hose on the kids count as giving them a bath?


Gosh it’s been a while since this happened, but… I can’t remember what I was going to tell you about. I’m pretty sure this isn’t it. Hold on a second while I rummage.

* * * * *

AH! That took a few minutes. Here we go:

I woke up this morning and made it downstairs. (Right, that’s where I got distracted.) The kids came down for breakfast and we had a pretty typical morning conversation as we ate. Nick was joyfully shouting completely random numbers for no apparent reason, while Jesse hung her head in moping annoyance. “Forty one!” “Nine hundred fifty two!” As I headed to the basement to find a juice box for each kid’s lunch, I yelled  back at Nick, “Every time you say a number, I’ll say one back!”

So we did that for a couple iterations with integers, and then when it was my turn again I shouted “PI!”

Anthony and I cheerfully explained pi and why it’s a unique and important and cool number, but there was zero interest in the seven- and eleven-year-old set in our household.

Nick said another number. I answered, “i!” Anthony explained about this important imaginary number.


We went again. This time I said “C, from C equals M C squared! Speed of light!”


We had a curiosity-filled conversation about whether it’s in fact true that the speed of light is as fast as anything  can go, and what light-years mean, and how the speed of light is different from the speed of sound, and how it’s all waves. Or particles. Or waves. Or something else.

We stuck with waves. Anthony remarked on how cool it is that sound comes at us in WAVES, and then I tried to explain how a sonic boom happens when something approaches and exceeds the speed of sound. I used the fingers of one hand to show how the waves start to smoosh up closer and closer together, and my other hand was the jet getting faster and faster and causing the waves to smoosh even tighter until they were all smooshed up together, and then BOOM!

It’s kind of hard to explain actually, isn’t it. Oh well. If I were a home schooling mom, I thought, we could spend the next week studying light and sound, and how cool would that be. I’d actually learn something.

I should have let my mind dwell on that, but instead I was mindful, I did the mindful thing, I mindfully returned the present and mindfully continued to interact in the present moment with my mindful family. This is when I made a crucial mistake.

In a sorry attempt to make a joke, I said, if Nick ran faster than the speed of sound, it would be more like a sonic shriek than a boom.

Nick thought that was funny. I suggested he give it a try—

Wait, what?

What did I say?

Why? Why would I do that? WHY???

As the words came out of me, like a tic-ish blurt over which I have no control, Jesse hung her head so low her nose almost touched her plate, and she almost imperceptibly shook her head in a tooth-gritting silent scream. Anthony muttered, “please don’t. No.”

Nick got up from the table and skipped into the living room. Everything was still. Three people in the kitchen breathed a sigh of relief.

A short moment later, Nick started screaming at maximum volume as he raced around the house.

It turns out that Nick can make a sonic shriek even without achieving the speed of sound.


And this is why, when I dropped Nick off at school earlier than usual today, the thought of home schooling was far from my mind. Instead, I was filled with even more gratitude than usual for the extraordinary teachers who take my children, day after day, and fill their academic cups. Without me there.

nuclear option

One of the great side effects of having a child in therapy for many years has been my blossoming understanding of some of my own issues.

I’ve learned a bit about OCD and finally can acknowledge that, given a chance, most psychologists would diagnose me.

I have a lot of counting behaviors. I count random stuff aimlessly all the time, and I look for certain number sets. Just for fun, I used to tell myself, but I’m recognizing it as a function of OCD now. I make lists about anything and everything, and then I rewrite the lists, and I number the lists, and then I reorder them, and count again to make sure I haven’t dropped items, and so on. I used to lie awake at night, obsessively counting how many years of my life are likely to remain, as compared to the years that  have passed, and calculating how many days of the remainder of my life I would actually spend with my parents (pretty depressing calculation when you live thousands of miles away, really). I’ve tried to cut that out, but recently I realized I’ve just replaced it with counting days and hours. How many hours until I have to pick up the kids; how many days left in the week; how many weeks left in the school year. I can spend a whole day checking in every 15 minutes or so on how much time I have left before I have to go get Jesse from school.  It can be debilitating. I’ve set five weekday alarms on my phone for place markers through the day, as an aid in getting me to stop checking the clock. They help a little, but only a little. I spend my time counting the minutes until the alarm will go off.

I become obsessed with tasks. Badly, down to tiny details. Anthony is kind and says it’s just how I do things. I read and plan and read and plan before I start home improvement projects. I buy too many books, I make the inevitable lists and develop pages and pages of calculations about costs and materials and time and so on. Yes, some of this makes sense, but I inevitably go too far. It’s overkill — it weighs me down and slows me down, without adding value at some point.

I’m a disordered person, but in certain limited contexts I become extremely and unreasonably obsessed with having things a particular way, and I’m hypercritical of jobs that I do. The tile that didn’t go in just exactly right, the wood finish that isn’t perfect, the seam that has a bump in a stitch, the sentence that isn’t quite right. It drives me crazy.

And worst and most important of all, I apply an extreme moral code to myself, one that I can’t meet.  My behavior is never good enough, my choices never mature enough, my communications never thoughtful enough, my actions never responsible  enough, my heart never generous enough. And as a parent? My god. I’m a walking fail. I should have the word tattooed on my forehead. Everything is my fault.

It turns out I picked a couple perfect professional venues for expressing these qualities. As a classical musician, I walked into a world that’s well suited to someone who counts obsessively, focuses on minute details, and is hypercritical of herself. The harsh feedback from teachers was never as harsh as my own inner voice, so I could take it. As a billing attorney, I stepped into a world where I could break down my hours into 3-minute segments (.05 of an hour) and count my days out beautifully. And also there was the constant criticism, the threat of malpractice and incompetence and failure leering over my shoulder, perfectly in tune with my own self-loathing.

* * * * *

But there’s another aspect  to my self loathing, which I’ve refused to acknowledge openly until now. I think I’ve been the subject of abusive gas lighting my whole life.

I know, I know, I make fun of pop culture phrases like gas lighting, and they’re emotionally monosyllabic. But it happens to be a perfect fit here. I have a brother, three years older than me, who’s spent my entire life putting me down. Hard as it is to admit it, I’ve allowed it to shape my self image.

When I was little, he told me I was a cry baby and a big baby. But it wasn’t really as normal as it sounds, I realize now. As little kids he would punch me so hard it left bruises, and then mock me when I cried about the pain. He never apologized. Instead, even into adulthood, he would complain that I bit him so hard I made him bleed and show people some alleged scar. He didn’t mention the way he beat me up. I was the bad one.

As the years progressed, the words and accusations changed, though the physical abuse attending the words didn’t. You’re stuck up. You think you’re better than everyone. Shut up, bitch. Punches and shoving were inevitable, and bruises. He never apologized.

You’re a tattle.

Only I wasn’t. I didn’t show the bruises to my parents. I was ashamed of them. I kind of felt like they were my fault. If I were tougher, and not a cry baby, and if I could gain a little on the 50 pounds he had on me (probably closer to 90 by the time we were in high school), I could stand up for myself better. If I weren’t so stuck up he wouldn’t get so mad. Was I stuck up? I wasn’t sure. I was willing to ask myself that question. Why else would my brother beat up on me so much and put me down so much and pick fights with me so much?

He punched holes in the walls of our house, screamed at all of us, intimidated everyone. I helped mom patch the holes. So I was a kiss ass. I thought I was helping mom through a really, really hard time because her son had screamed at her and called her names and wrecked the house. But the gas lighting, combined with my own OCD, worked. Was I a kiss-ass because I helped mom? I couldn’t help but wonder about it. It never occurred to me that this idea was pure nonsense.

By high school I was an A student. I didn’t especially like being an A student. I didn’t really tell anyone. There was a voice in my head, in my real world, and in the bruises on my arms. My brother never congratulated me about my academic successes. He put me down because of them. You’re a stuck up bitch, you think you’re better than everyone because of  your grades. Did I think that? I couldn’t help asking. I didn’t want to be stuck up. I just wanted to get into college on scholarships because my parents couldn’t afford to pay and I really, really needed to get out of my home town, plus my mom told me she would probably kill herself if I didn’t have a successful run through college. So I needed to get A’s and be on top of things. I should have been proud, but I wasn’t. The gas lighting worked.

When I was 16 and my brother was 19, I was trapped in a car with him driving to our parents’ small business. He was doing  his road rage thing, and scaring the crap out of me, and I asked him to stop. He started punching me in the arm as he drove, tailgating all the while, and yelling at me. He punched me over and over again, deliberately in the same spot, and in that moment I did something I’d never done before. I mocked him. “Oh big maaaan,” I crooned, “Aren’t you the tough guy, beating up on your sister who weighs a hundred pounds less than you. Tough guy, what a tough guy.” It didn’t stop his punches, but it stopped my tears. When we arrived, he got out of the car, still yelling. He stuck his head back in and spit a giant wad of spittle in my face, called me a “F**ing C**T,” and stormed off.

I never got an apology, though it was the last time he ever hit me. That event was my fault, in his view. He was stressed out. He had this issue and that issue. I was a bitch. I was stuck up. I always got everything I wanted. I did this bad, and I was that bad, and I was bad bad bad and it was all my fault, and it was never his fault.

And so it has continued through the years, through the half century of my life. After we were adults, the put downs and insults continued, though there haven’t been as many opportunities for them, and though there have been moments of calm when the ugliness doesn’t rise up. Even with this blog, where I mock myself frequently without mercy, my brother likes to pile on. Yeah, that’s true about you, he’ll comment about some self-criticism. There’s no irony in him.

As adults, he also added a new element — the threat of disowning me. “You’re not my sister anymore.” “I’m done with you,  have a good life.” “I never need to speak with you again.” “If  you don’t  blah blah blah, you don’t ever need to be part  of my life again.”

And every time, I’ve let it go. I’ve made excuses for him. Maybe I was too harsh. Maybe I was unkind. Maybe I wasn’t sensitive enough to his profound self esteem issues. Family first. Mom needs us to be a family. And so on. He never apologizes, because it’s never his fault. It’s always mine.

So it happened again over this weekend. His daughter, my niece, and I had a back and forth that devolved to her doing the same stuff he’s done to me for my entire life — calling me names. I’m disrespectful, I’m rude, I’m a bully, I’m this, I’m that. For some reason, this weekend I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I hit back.

The details don’t matter. What matters is that I went low. I definitely did not go high. I was acutely upset and I spoke harshly, including criticizing my brother. My niece shared my words with her dad (is that tattling? I’m not sure), and then he sent me a text chewing me out for going after his kid and telling me to “have a good life.” Also the classic: “You don’t know me.”

But I do, I thought sadly. I’ve known you my whole life. You’re the jerk who’s been gas lighting me my whole life.  This is what I wrote back:

I’m sorry. She was really nasty to me. And had I not been so angry and hurt, I would have added that you’ve changed so much. I love you. I’m sorry you want to reject me. It feels  like a lifelong story of you looking for reasons to hate me. I guess you finally have a reason. But I would still throw myself under a bus for you.

And still I couldn’t help it. I still felt like the bad person.

I know, all the way to my bones, that my brother will never apologize to me for anything. Nor will his daughter. It is not in their constitutions. And they will say I don’t know them at all, but on this I surely do. Nothing is ever their fault; it’s always someone else’s.

Actually, it’s always my fault, because I’m rude, I’m stuck up, I’m a bitch, I’m nasty, I’m a know-it-all, I’m a horrible person.

They are gas lighters.

* * * * *

I cried about it for a while, with Anthony beside me, thinking hard thoughts I’ve had almost since I can first remember having thoughts. Am I a bad person and a cry baby and a stuck up bitch and a know-it-all and too pushy and everything else this person has ever called me?

But last night something new happened. A light dawned unexpectedly, one that’s been waiting to dawn for a long time. Anthony had read the entire exchange between my niece and me, and between my brother and me. I wanted his insight and advice. He spoke these simple words, from the place of love and compassion that he’s always reserved for me: “Please don’t beat yourself  up too much, Carla. It’s not your fault.  Sometimes we get pushed too far. You’re allowed to be human. You tried your best. They went too far.”

I think maybe it’s the years of therapy with Jesse paying off for me. I finally felt it in my bones. Racing thoughts filled my head. Am I being too hard on myself because of an extremist moral code that’s a symptom of OCD? Is it actually rationally possible that everything is my fault and the other humans involved did nothing wrong? Is it rationally possible that Anthony, who’s always brutally honest with me, is lying to me this time instead of letting me know I really screwed the pooch?

* * * * *

I went to sleep with a surprisingly light heart and woke up this morning from a sound night’s sleep. I felt at ease as I drowsed in bed, which is really unusual for me under any circumstances. Many thoughts swam through my head, as Nick snuggled up his little body next to mine:

I’ve been really patient with my brother’s abuse of me through these many years. It’s okay to not feel patient anymore, especially when one of his children looks to be carrying it to the next generation. Last straws happen, and it’s okay to draw a line in the sand. It’s okay not to accept his false image of me anymore.

Anthony has offered me an alternative truth about myself through the years, persistently, despite my rejection of it. He has told me so many times that I’m a decent person, a kind person, a good person. Why does he have to keep telling me? Because I keep rejecting it. Maybe it’s time to see not only my flaws through other people’s eyes, but also the things that make me lovable and good. Maybe Anthony’s truth about me is more true than my brother’s.

I make friends. I’m always surprised by this, and I sometimes express that surprise aloud. Why are we friends? Why do you like me? It’s kind of embarrassing. Pathetic, really. And how many times have my friends answered me with jolly kindness and an eye-rolling head shake. I guess they don’t think I’m a selfish, stuck up, self-aggrandizing bitch. They think I’m okay. More than that, they seem to think I’m a really good person. Maybe I should respect their opinions.

It’s very hard to explain how profoundly difficult that is for me to accept. It actually makes me weep, to realize I’m okay. I have to rationalize it, still, over and over again, like Stuart Smalley.

I know I listen to others about myself, because otherwise Anthony would stop bothering to be honest with me about my negative behaviors. My friends wouldn’t mock me and laugh. You can’t do that to a person who takes stuff personally and thinks she’s right about everything.

I know I’m open to debate and different world views, because I have open exchanges with conservative friends about big issues and we don’t tell each other to go away. That wouldn’t happen if I were disrespectful and rude.

I have easy-going, healthy relationships with my other brothers. We speak openly with each other about our weaknesses, without anger or bile or accusation. If the problem was me and only me, that could not be true.

And the hardest thought, but one I’m feeling at ease with today, is this. A person who says he’s disowning me over and over again, through decades of my life, isn’t just making idle threats. He’s bullying and abusing me. I have the power to dismantle the threat by acknowledging it in the open air — as I am boldly doing right here, right now, despite some misgivings — and simply accepting it. So I accept the very real possibility that this relationship is over. I didn’t end it, but I don’t need to try to rekindle it anymore. I accept the very real possibility that I may never again spend time with a person who brings a lurking sense of hostility to every encounter with me, a person who has spent a lifetime making gaslit, false accusations that I suck to the root of me. I’ll be sad for sure, because family is family, but I think I’ll also enjoy the absence of this source of stress.

I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m always going to take responsibility for my own words and actions, and of course I feel badly about word-battling with a grown-up teenager. I should have gone high. And yes, I suck, because well, people suck and I am a people. But also, I’m allowed to look after myself. I’m allowed to feel good about myself, even if I make big mistakes. Not OCD nor some mean-spirited gaslighter is going to take that away from me anymore. Not without a fight anyway.


Mommy fail, version 2935.3 (post-Trump edition)

I’ve been yelling at the kids a lot again lately. It will be a lifelong battle for me, I know, but still it gets me down when I flare. I haven’t been doing a good job of walking away when the weird rage bubbles up. As Anthony says, I need to make a plan again. I need to practice self control.

Don’t make any excuses for me, dear reader. Yes, I’m justified in being aggravated by the kids; but no, I’m not justified in yelling and yelling.

Then again, sometimes I don’t even have to yell to get things all mixed up.

* * * * *

Jesse gets a small allowance every week, and also she gets cash from her grandma for special occasions. She’s welcome to use that dough on what she wants, but she’s a money hoarder. She doesn’t like to spend it. She’s not sure what to do with it. She doesn’t care all that much about things. Nick, not so much. I wouldn’t describe him as greedy, but he’s very interested in spending, usually even before he has the money in hand. He’s destined for debt. Two kids, one house, two very different personalities. Nick’s wallet is always almost empty; Jesse’s is always overflowing.

For a while when she was little, Jesse wanted to take her small wad of cash to school to give to friends she felt were poor. That led to interesting conversations about the unfair stigma associated with being poor in America, and the resulting need for social sensitivity and coyness in how you address the issue.

As she got older, Jesse began to talk about charities. Just last week she was saying again that she wanted to give all her money to a charity. Sometimes when she breaks something expensive, she’ll run upstairs and bring her purse to me in atonement, insisting that I take all the money I need to replace whatever she broke.

Her selfless attitude imbues our lives in small and large ways. We renovated our house a year or so ago, expanding the kitchen and so on. Jesse regularly reminds me that she preferred to the old kitchen better, because it wasn’t so fancy. Thanks to her, I’m always aware of how luxurious our life is compared to most of the world. She gives freely to her brother and her friends. She shares relentlessly.

I know without any question that Jesse is not a greedy or selfish child.

* * * * *

But Jesse also has OCD in a version that fills her head with contrary and taboo thoughts now and then (okay fine, every day), and Tourette’s in a version that compels her to express those thoughts aloud. This can make life aggravating and complicated.

A couple days ago, Jesse was wandering around the house before breakfast with her well-stuffed little money purse in hand. I asked her what she was doing with it. She answered in the strange, almost-chanting timbre that signals she’s expressing unbidden intrusive thoughts. “I’m gonna take it to school to show everyone, and tease them about how I’m richer than them and I’m better than them.”

I knew those words weren’t true. I knew she would never actually do it. I knew those words are contrary to most of what I’ve observed in her behaviors during her brief life. I should have hugged her, reminded her that those thoughts don’t reflect what she actually believes and does, assured her that she’s still a decent and amazing human being despite the intrusive thoughts to which she gives undue weight.

But that’s not what came out of me. In that moment, under the stress of everything that’s been going during the beginning of Trump’s presidency, something snapped a little inside me. It didn’t take me to the yelling rage that unleashes itself on people I love when I’m not working hard enough to beat it back — but someplace really, really sad.

Jesse sat down at the counter for breakfast, with Nick next to her. “That’s really mean, Jesse,” I said unnecessarily; I was practically whispering. “Do you really think you’re better than people who don’t have as much as you?”

It was a stupid question; of course she doesn’t actually think that.

Nick replied promptly and earnestly, “No! We are not better!”

Jesse pondered  for a moment. “No? I mean yes, yes I’m better.” It was her tic voice.

She paused. “No, I’m not.” Ah, that sounded like my true Jesse.

But still, I was stupefied by the initial “yes.” Part of my brain was sending me red alerts. “Warning! Warning! Tourettic OCD in action! Do not respond! Do not respond with anger! Do not be didactic!”

But a bigger, hurting part took over. I grabbed my phone. “You think you’re better than people who are more poor than you, who have less than you? Then let me show you someone you’re better than.”

I don’t know what I looked or sounded like, but I was just pulled together enough to notice the kids had stopped eating and were staring at me, unblinking and anxious.

I searched for “dead toddler refugee” on my phone.  I pulled up this infamous photo of the toddler who drowned as his family escaped from Syria.

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(I’m not sure how to give proper  credit here, and I don’t know if I’m violating a copyright law. I know wherever I find this pic it says “Credit: AP photo” so hopefully that takes care of things)

I showed this heartbreaking photo to Jesse, even as my brain told me I was doing wrong. “Look at him, Jesse. See this dead little boy? Look at him. He died trying to get away from war with his family. This is how they found him, washed up on a beach. He had nothing, and he’s dead now. You’re better than him for sure.”

Jesse, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, had a look on her face I could not place; but she was silent and still. I went on, and this is what I said to my children.

You are not better than that little boy; you’re just alive and he’s dead. You’re just lucky you don’t live in a land at war, you don’t live in poverty, you don’t have to run in fear for your life from the soldiers and guns and bombs. You didn’t have anything to do with your good luck! All you should be feeling right now is a whole lot of gratitude for being so lucky.

Being richer doesn’t make us better. But it’s making our country greedier. And now, our president Donald Trump has said that this little boy, even if he had made it alive across the waters, would have no place in America. He isn’t welcome here. Because we’re not rich enough or strong enough to help him.

By now I was in tears. Jesse simply stared at the photo.  I went on, because I couldn’t stop, even as I wandered around the kitchen cleaning up and making school lunches.

This  is the battle of our time, I said. There are children and innocent people dying all over the world right now, and they need help.

“Children?” Nick asked incredulously. He started to cry too as I yammered on quietly.

This is why people like your daddy and me are so upset about Donald Trump, and we want to rise up in protest and action against everything that he stands for. This is about what kind of people we want to be, what kind of basic values we have as human beings. Donald Trump thinks we should think about ourselves first. Do I have a car that’s as nice as I want in my garage? Do I have as much money as I want? Are my clothes fancy enough, and is my closet stuffed full enough? Do I feel safe enough? Do I really have to share the incredible wealth we live in with others, like this little boy who died? He didn’t do anything to anyone! He didn’t deserve to die!

I looked  at the kids pointedly. Do you want to live in a world where we only think about ourselves first?

Nick was bawling by now, I was crying full on, and Jesse’s face had slumped. But they gave me the correct answer.

I asked my kids another question: if I told you we could give some children safe refuge from war and fear and hunger, or I could get a new car instead, which would you choose?

They gave me the correct answer as I wept.

You’re okay with me driving that beater VW until it dies?

“Yes!” they answered. “Drive the old car!”

I asked my kids another question: if I told you our leaders could give us tax breaks so we can have more money in our pockets, or our leaders could have us pay a little more in taxes and spend some of that money to give hope to refugees around the world, which would you choose?

They gave me the correct answer.

The conversation petered out, the tears slowly dried up, and we were silent until it was time to take Jesse to school.

* * * * *

I felt pretty awful afterwards, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that horrible conversation. It was unfair of me to unload these issues on them. It was profoundly unfair of me to imply to Jesse that her intrusive and obsessive thoughts are in any way related to the intentional, deliberate choices being made by the Trump administration and the GOP. I know where her compassionate and generous heart lies.

It was a definitive parenting fail moment, even though I didn’t yell even once.

And yet… And yet I know that my kids need to be aware of what’s going on in the world around them.  Maybe if a two-year-old has to drown to death while escaping from hell, or an innocent five-year-old has to be put in handcuffs at an airport, my seven- and eleven-year-olds could do with some reality checks.