where to find all the empathy

Let me tell you two stories.

* * * * *

Jesse has a friend named Ben. They don’t really have a whole lot in common, except for both being charming, quirky, and likeable. They like different books and games; they do different after-school activities. But they seem to be genuinely fond of each other.

Ben happens to be on the autism spectrum with some anxiety and maybe ADHD thrown in for good measure. Jesse happens to be on the anxiety spectrum, with OCD and Tourettes thrown in for good measure. Both of these kids have labels, and also some social cuing problems, emotional unevenness, issues with perseverating, and internal dialogues that can be hard for others to follow. Both can have trouble connecting socially at times. None of these challenges and labels are a barrier to their friendship.

We happened to be at a local pool one day with a handful of friends, including Ben’s family.  Jesse and Ben wandered off to the water slides together. At some point we observed them at the top of the stairs to the slides, having a conversation we couldn’t hear. Jesse was gesticulating with her hands, leaning in to Ben and speaking intensely. He looked at her seriously. A moment later, they disappeared from view — which means down the slide they went.

That evening, I asked Jesse about what I had observed. This is what she told me, in a nutshell:

A potential crisis developed as the two stood at the bottom of the stairs to the slides, waiting for the possibility of a two-person inner tube. These are in extremely short supply at our watering hole. Two kids came off a slide in a rare two-seater. Jesse and Ben asked if they could have it now. The kids said no. Ben told them in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t fair, and he went on about it. Ben gets stuck sometimes on fairness issues. He knows what the rules are and he thinks everyone should follow them, just like he tries to do.

Oh boy, has Jesse been there. She watched Ben arguing at the kids, and in her heart she agreed with him. She also observed the other kids staring at Ben without speaking, in a way that was unkind. But she didn’t join in the argument. Instead, she got close to Ben and spoke quietly to him. We can go up with just one-person tubes, and then you and I can race down both slides together at the same time. It’ll still be fun.

Ben decided this was a good idea, and they headed up the stairs together. But they were in different spots in the lines as they waited their turns. Ben became very concerned about it, and was headed down the road to being upset. Another glitch in the plan. How would they race if they had to go down the slides at different times?? Oh boy, has Jesse been in that emotional spot herself. She offered Ben a solution: if Jesse got to her turn in line first, she would just let kids pass her until Ben caught up. And he could do the same thing if he got there first. She explained it a couple times until he got it. Problem solved. Fun racing ensued.

As Jesse shared this story with me, I marveled with pride. Jesse had just given me a textbook lesson in empathy. She accepted Ben as he is. She saw his side of things and responded to him from a place of respect. She tried to help him solve the problems that were eating at him, without a single didactic interlude. She didn’t even waste her energy on the kids who were hogging the double tube. She knew instinctively there was nothing to be done there. She paid attention to her friend instead. There were no labels between them – just friendship and open hearts.

* * * * *

Our local state university outlet – University of Wisconsin Milwaukee or UWM – runs a summer program for kids and teens. One of their offerings this year was a course on painting with acrylics, two hours a day for two weeks. Jesse has been busy exploring painting this past year, so she was enthusiastic about the class. On the other hand, we’ve never done any UWM summer classes before, so she was really stressed out about it… which means her obsessions and tics would flare… which created even more stress in her mind as she anticipated the flare… and so on in a vicious cycle. She was pretty much a train wreck on the first day of class, but she hung in there and kept going back.

By the second week of the class, Jesse was clearly getting even more unhinged than usual. She eventually shared with me a bit about her experience, and a sadness creeped over her.

She had made so many screeching sounds on the first day, she told me, that people didn’t want to be near her. Everyone else seemed to know each other, but Jesse had trouble connecting with anyone because of her tics.

I asked if Jesse had tried to explain her behaviors.  “Did you tell them about any of your mental health disabilities?”

“No,” Jesse answered firmly. “I didn’t want to.”

One girl in particular really struggled with Jesse. One day this girl was getting upset about her painting — a feeling Jesse is familiar with — so Jesse tried to offer her praise and encouragement. The girl responded sharply, “Stay away from me.”

Jesse snuck a starburst onto her chair one day, as a way to sort of say sorry. The girl snapped when she saw it. “Who put this here??”

Jesse said she did, to which the girl replied gruffly, “I don’t want it!”

Jesse was sitting in my lap as she shared these anecdotes in a dry, sad voice. I buried my face in her neck and staunched my tears. I didn’t know what to say.

“I’m sorry.” It was all I could muster.

“It’s okay,” answered Jesse. “I deserved it.”

There was one girl who actually was a little nice to Jesse. One day Jesse asked her how old she is.

“I’m thirteen,” the young lady responded. “How old are you?”

“I’m twelve,” Jesse replied. She noticed two girls standing nearby listening in. The girls stared at Jesse; they looked meaningfully at each other; they looked meaningfully back at Jesse.

Jesse – being the child of my heart – took that nasty shit on. “Why did you stare at each other like that and then at me? You don’t believe I’m twelve? I am twelve, I’m just really small.”

“No, it’s not that,” one of them answered with a bit of a sneer. “It’s just, if you’re twelve, why do you make noise like that?”

My heart squeezed in pain as Jesse shared this little bit of weird nastiness with me. I hugged her tight and mumbled into her hair. “What did you say?”

Jesse pulled back and looked at me. She shrugged. “I thought yeah, they’re right.”

Later in the evening, after my hurting for my baby girl had subsided, I marveled with sadness. Jesse had given me another textbook lesson in empathy, only it was from the other side. She accepted these mean girls’ reactions to her, even as they refused to accept her in return, refused to make any real effort to comprehend her. She understood their point of view, even though she’s never shared it. She didn’t judge them. She didn’t try to make them see her side. She knew instinctively there was nothing to be done there.

* * * * *



Most kids with behavioral and emotional challenges learn early on that they need to do a better job of understanding how their behaviors impact others. It’s pounded into their heads with emotional jackhammers, by parents, therapists, doctors, counselors, teachers, school administrators, all the adults all the time.

So who’s teaching those lessons to the neurotypical kids? Who says they’re not the broken ones? Where is the mutual empathy and acceptance that kids like Jesse and Ben deserve?


Cheers, from my anti-depressant to yours

It’s been just about a month since I started taking an anti-depressant. My drug of choice is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) called citalopram, popularly known as Celexa.

I need exogenous chemical intervention because I’ve been trying to fight off depression and anxiety for the past couple years, and I recently hit the bottom of the dark, gloomy pit.

Actually, if you’ve been following my blog, you might have realized long before me that I’ve been hitting the bottom over and over again. I can’t even give you links to particular blog posts that illustrate this problem. There are too many. Just go scroll if you must.

Actually, if you’re my husband, you’re apparently of the view that I’ve been hitting the bottom like a panicked fly smacking a clean window for the past decade and a half. Anthony started a sentence a couple weeks ago with, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” and I knew nothing good would follow. He finished the thought by remarking that I’ve been depressed, on and off, pretty much since my dad died in 2001.

* * * * *

So you might remember that when I popped my first pill, butterflies flew out of my ass.  The next pill, it was unicorns out my nose. Day three, a rainbow entered my left ear and exited my right, leaving a trail of glitter behind.

But look, never mind the butterflies and unicorns. This is kind of hard to talk about, kind of hard to admit that I’ve had a serotonin deficit for so long that I didn’t even notice it, kind of a bitter pill to admit that I’ve been harming myself and my family through my untreated long-term clinical depression.

On the other hand, it’s kind of easy to admit that the drug is working.  It’s working so well that I’m almost giddy. Sometimes I just croon at Anthony, “serotooooooonin.” Sometimes I even smile and hug him for no reason, and I feel happy and peaceful.

It’s weird and unfamiliar.

Sometimes I walk out to Anthony’s car with him as he’s leaving in the morning. I might even be cheerful and upbeat, which is all kinds of messed up that early in the morning. He might roll down his driver window and I might lean in for a kiss.

The words inevitably come out of me with a laugh. “CITALOPRAM-A-WHAMMA!!”

* * * * *

I know the antidepressant is working because I’ve gotten more done in the last month than I did for the two years that preceded it. I am so functional and productive that my body can hardly stand it. I’m falling apart at the seams physically.

I do laundry.

I clean toilets and mop floors.

I wash dishes from breakfast before I eat dinner. As Anthony pointed out, this is not only pleasant, but also hygienic.

I don’t spend much time anymore sitting on the sofa pondering all the things I have to do and don’t feel like doing. I actually get up and  do them.

In the past 30 days, I’ve thrown three parties — one for a friend, one for my kid, and one for Anthony’s graduating seniors. I believe I was pleasant at all of them.

I did our taxes on time. (but only barely)

I don’t yell at the kids very much. Instead, I problem solve. Could I be more annoying?

There’s an intangible change in how my mind is working. I’m having real trouble finding words to describe it. My personality hasn’t changed: I’m still really grumpy and I still laugh at poop jokes. But before I started taking this daily pill, I was always on the brink of collapsing into morose blankness, for any reason or none at all. I stopped being able to even fake it.

That’s changed. I feel like there’s this space in my brain that used to fill up with my black moods, a space that now fills up with something more capable and resilient — more like who I used to be, back when I was an active and lively person. When Jesse’s in crisis, I find that I’m more able to identify her needs and respond with love and kindness, rather than despair and anger. When things don’t go the way I want, I don’t give up as readily. I can go with the flow a little better. Well — a lot better.

* * * * *

I know  the antidepressant is working because I wanted to do a bunch of woodworking chores — refinish a couple tables, craft some built-in drawers, finish some wood trim and such — but Anthony wanted desperately to build a retaining wall, and he won and I’m not angry or depressed about it.  Instead, I chipped right in because the faster we get this horrifying task done the faster I can get back to what I want to do.

That is just disgustingly well-adjusted.

Anthony won by going outside one day and digging a trench, right where he wanted the wall to go. But then, because he’s kind of lame (I can say that with grumpy affection and pure love now, instead of with bitter bile and disappointment), I had to lead the effort to figure out all the details — wall height, how much and what sorts of materials we needed, where to buy them cheapest, and how to get them all delivered.

So I did all that. I just did it, because there was this trench in our backyard and Anthony wasn’t going to make the next move.

I also figured out how to get the internet company out to lay a new cable line right away, after Anthony severed our existing line while digging the trench. When it happened, he looked up at me with his sweet earnest eyes and announced simply, “Look Carla, I cut a cable.”


Look how hard he must have worked to cut that cable in  half with a shovel. Sigh.

But I didn’t scream or get super angry.  Helium-filled pink puffy hearts came out of my butt and floated me peacefully into the kitchen, where I tracked down a phone number and called the company and waited patiently through fifty-nine selection options and eventually had a new internet line installed within three hours.


And then we persistently and ploddingly built a wall. We said we were gonna build a wall, and we built a wall. It’s the most fantastic wall you’ve ever seen, it’s a big, beautiful wall, made of the best materials. I don’t think there’s ever been a wall this amazing. All the neighbors came by and told me, “that’s the most beautiful wall we’ve ever seen.” All of them. Trust me, you’ve never seen a better wall.

Here, let me photo-journal-ize the building of the wall for you. You just keep chanting “build. the. wall! build. the. wall!” as you scroll through these pictures.

Let’s start with Anthony happily hugging a bag of gravel, because America first and making Anthony great again and he’s just happy to have a job.


Here’s the wall starting to go in:


Anthony said I had to lay the base course because I’m good at it. So I did what he asked, with good cheer. Look at all the levels I had to use. I had to lay each base stone so that it was level side-to-side and front-to-back, and also level with all the other stones in the row. This wall is about 35 feet long, each stone is 11.5 inches long, and it took me between 10 and 15 minutes to install each base stone. You do the math on how long it took me. Every third stone or so was really tough, and I would get really frustrated. So I would sit back and take a few deep breaths, or walk around the yard a bit, and then get back to work.


Perfection: look at that bubble.


And here are some progressive shots of the wall going up. You see Anthony backfilling with gravel:


And here’s the nearly-completed wall:IMG_3654

Frankly, despite its apparent hugeness, the wall looks small when you compare it to the house and yard:IMG_3656

Still, it should be big enough to keep out the riff-raff aliens, all those vicious rabbits and  chipmunks and robins that are constantly trying to raid things around my house.

I was so excited to build this wall, because the system we used only takes thoughtful effort on the base course. After that it’s pretty much just like stacking legos: 350-odd super heavy legos. It’s hard labor carrying those stones around, and backfilling with fill dirt, and dragging around 50-pound bags of gravel.

Did I fail to mention the fill dirt? I ordered 12 cubic yards — which, it turns out, might have been a bit too much, like maybe by a factor of two. And there’s nowhere to dump it except on the driveway.


We moved about half of that into the space behind the new wall, one wheelbarrow at a time.

As for the rest, Anthony came up with a plan: let’s build more retaining walls now instead of waiting a while like we had originally planned!


It was clearly important to him, so I set aside my woodworking dreams again, without a bitter heart. (Thanks, citalopram!)

We laid out lines for two new trenches. Anthony already has begun to dig.


I measured and ordered more stone and gravel and leveling  sand. I’m so thrilled that soon I will be laying the base stones for a 50-foot retaining wall, and then another 30 to 40 foot wall. Look at these delicious materials:


I can’t wait to break my back for the next  two to four weeks building more walls, even more fantastic and beautiful than the first.

I walked outside this morning to take these pictures to share with you, and for a brief moment I quailed. It’s so much work, I thought. Uugh.

But then I looked over to the other side of our yard and noticed how lovely the faux-wilderness garden looks this spring. La-lala-lala. The bleeding hearts and hellebores are spectacular, thanks to global warming, and everything is vibrant and lively, a perfect mash-up of yellow and green and purple and red. It distracted me from the funk that loomed, and I was happy to wander around pulling a few weeds and snapping shots of my lovely baby plants.


Thanks to citalopram, Anthony and I are actually going to get those walls built, whether or not the Mexicans pay for them. I’ll just keep going and going and going, piling stone on stone and shoveling gravel and dirt to my heart’s content, building slowly and inexorably without ever giving up. I’ll even remember to hydrate, because it’s important that I take care of myself in all these labors.

There’s a metaphor to be had in there. You figure it out.

mommy needs meds too

Last week I picked Jesse up from school, as usual.

As usual, she was emotional wreckage. That’s just how it goes for Jesse these days. She works as hard as she possibly can all day long to control urges and impulses, and to tuck away all those intrusive thoughts that get in the way of learning and fun, and to dial back her emotional outbursts. By 3:00 p.m., she’s done. Stick a fork in her.

So last week, yeah, as usual, she was whiny and unhappy. As usual, she unraveled into her miserable self-reporting cadence. I did not know (until I knew) that constant negative self-reporting is a form of “checking” behavior associated with OCD. Almost every weekday, Jesse starts her after-school conversation with me by generating a microscopic run down of all the shitty things she did that day.

If I believed her self-reporting and self-assessment, I would conclude that she’s like the girl from The Exorcist, head-spinning, vomiting, and demon-talking her way through each school day, with tiny flames shooting out her butt.  There’s probably a little of that, but not as much as Jesse would have me believe.

I’ve tried and tried to get Jesse to tell me about good things first, but it just doesn’t roll that way. She can’t stop it yet. She can’t see herself as something good.  Yet.

I hate it so much. I hate her negative self-reporting and her self-loathing and the miserable exhaustion in her face at 3:00 on every school day. It breaks my heart a little every time, because I wish there was some way, finally and finally and finally, to break through.

But also, it just wears on me. I get bleak and blank, and on many days I find myself unresponsive. I really don’t know what to do. Usually we just drive grimly over to the elementary school to pick up Nick. Sometimes we natter, sometimes we yell, and sometimes I make Jesse get out of the car and walk because she’s kicking the back of my seat so hard.

So anyway, last week, as usual, I walked into the school house and found my miserable child. This time she was in the hallway, sitting on the floor next to her locker, mewling about I-don’t-know-what. A school administrator was hanging out with her, in a really good-natured way. But Jesse wasn’t having it. She looked up at me from the floor and almost yelled at me (as usual). But for some reason she went a step further on this particular day. She stuck the emotional knife between my ribs. “This is just the way I feel at the end of the day, mom, because I’m tired, okay?? This is how I am after school because I’ve worked hard all day! And DON’T DO THAT THING AND GET ALL DEPRESSED LIKE YOU DO EVERY DAY.”


* * * * *

The timing couldn’t have been more uncanny. I stared down at her and nodded. I chatted a bit with the administrator. We picked up the pieces of Jesse that we could reach and pushed her back together, and got her stuff in her backpack, and then she and I walked out together.

I put my arm around her shoulders and stuck in my own knife. You’re right, I told her. I’ve been depressed. I do let you down every day when I pick you up. I need help.

In fact, I had just been to the doctor that very morning and gotten a prescription for an antidepressant. So I told Jesse about that and assured her I would start taking it, and maybe I’d finally be able to get past the gloom, get some energy back, be a fun mom again. Be the patient, supportive mom Jesse needs, which I really haven’t been lately.

“Noooo Mom,” Jesse countered. “You have been patient! You’re always there when I need you. You never let me down!”

Nope. She didn’t say that.

What actually happened is this: she nodded with a look on her face that was somewhere in the zone between “about time” and “good luck.”

I told Nick too, that evening. Mommy’s going to take some medicine, the way Jesse does, so that I can be less moody, and maybe I’ll have more energy to do things like fold your laundry and clean the house and exercise and play, because my mood has been really messed up lately.

Nick didn’t protest either.

* * * * *

I’ve never taken an antidepressant before.  I’m scared, but I know it’s the right thing to do.  All the signs are there.

I’ve been going through the motions for a long time now. I’m good at it, for sure — I do volunteer advocacy and school volunteering, I take my kids here and there, I laugh and make jokes, I work on positive self-talk, la la la la. But I can’t maintain it except in short stretches. I rarely feel deep joy anymore, that feeling that blossoms in your bones and gut for no particular reason. Everything’s flat and mushy, like a wet fog.  I rarely even feel especially sad. I don’t have tears except when I’m utterly full of despair. I feel occasional moments of pride and hope for my kids, but I can’t sustain it. My self-care has suffered. I can barely motivate myself to get exercise, when it used to be a daily refuge. I rarely look in the mirror. I forget to comb my hair.  I drink too much.

I don’t think I’m very funny anymore either.

The thing is, I have no excuses. I have nothing but blessings around me. I have a financially secure life. My family is in pretty good physical health. I’m supported by a man who apparently has an unfathomable love for me. Since I’ve been in this funk, he’s pretty much taken over the laundry and housekeeping. I couldn’t be more spoiled. I have two beautiful children who, despite their issues, are surviving and thriving. I have friends and community. I even have self-awareness and intelligence.

It’s an easy out to say that having a kid with unique mental health challenges makes for extra stress and can lead to depression and emotional exhaustion. But I can’t put this one on Jesse. The truth is, everything would be easier for her — and therefore for me — if I wasn’t such a Debbie Downer these days. I am still the parent, and she is still the child, for many years to come. She needs me well, and it’s my job to make me well.

And right now, the truth is that I need a jump start to get there. I need some real pharmaceutical help to get me over the hump so that I can rediscover some of the fundamental joy and humor in life that used to sustain me.

I took my first pill last night and sat in the living room by myself. Anthony and the kids had fallen asleep. I waited for something magical to happen, and suddenly it did! I looked out the window and saw the moon, shining silver down upon me like a messenger. An owl hooted in the back yard and I ran outside in my bare feet, the wet grass clinging to my toes. I looked up at the moon and stars, and a feeling welled up in my heart that hasn’t been there for months, and I raised my arms in a primal dance as I turned in a circle with my eyes closed, feeling the mix of winter chill and warm air that defines a Wisconsin spring. I howled like a coyote and reconnected with Mother Earth, and I knew all would be well.

* * * * *

Ya think?

No. I sat on the dirty living room sofa and mostly I felt kind of extra gassy, but that might have been from the gelato.

Still, who knows? Give me four to six weeks, and I’ll let you know how I’m doing.



money well spent

My son Nick, a first grader, looked over my shoulder as I thumbed through Facebook on a recent snow day. He saw a picture of a classmate standing bundled in the snow. He knew her name, so I asked him about her. I’ll call her Jane.

I like to ask my kids about their classmates. I like to nose around in their relationships at school, to get a feel for how they’re interacting with their peers and  what sorts of issues and non-issues are floating around. I’m a nosy mom.

“Do you like Jane?”

A smile hit Nick’s face like sunshine as he answered promptly and cheerfully. “Yeah!”

“Do you play together sometimes?”

“Kind of.”

“Do you ever play with her on the playground?”

“Kind of… she has a helper.”

I know Jane’s a child with a disability or two, but I don’t really know how her abilities and behaviors are affected.

“Do you ever talk with her?”

Nick unexpectedly made a sad face. He shook his head no, and he wouldn’t answer me aloud.

“What’s wrong, Nick?”

He shrugged.

“Is she non-verbal?”

He still just looked at me.

“Does Jane talk?”

With that question, it seemed he decided I was going to get it, so he finally answered. “Not really. She makes some noises and does this sometimes.” He flapped his hands a little.

“Does that bother you?”

“Of course not!”

He looked at me like I was daft to ask.

“Do you like having her in your class?”

“Yeah,” he answered without hesitation, and then he explained to me a bit about how Jane has a helper with her in class so she can do things, and sometimes she does hand-over-hand writing, just like he had to do through much of kindergarten. He also pointedly informed me, in a sort of remonstration, that Jane is not the only child who needs extra help in the classroom. He mentioned a couple kids with behavior issues, chattered about special ways teachers and aides work with them, and didactically made sure I wasn’t singling Jane out as being especially challenged.

* * * * *

There was a time not so long ago that I would have said I was proud of Nick for his attitude toward Jane, but I’ve come to realize that pride is a patronizing, almost offensive, attitude in this context. Why should I be proud of my child for looking at a human being with a disability and seeing… a human being?

We sat quietly for a moment, and I decided to take it up a notch.

“Nick, do you know that there was a time not so long ago that Jane probably wouldn’t have been allowed to be in the same class as you?”

His mouth fell open in an exaggerated expression of shock, and he yelled in my face, “WHY?”

I winced. Nick has a decibel disability. He was apparently born without volume control.

“Because she’s different. Grown ups would have said she doesn’t belong in the same class as kids like you.”


“People with disabilities would have been put in separate classrooms, or even in totally separate schools. In some schools they wouldn’t have even been allowed to come in the same school doors as kids like you, so you wouldn’t have even known they were there.”

Nick was disgusted. He couldn’t believe a world like that could exist.

“People would have said that if someone needs a helper in the classroom, she shouldn’t be there.”

“That’s so wrong!”

“Do you think your class would be better without Jane there?”


By now my daughter Jesse, a fifth grader, had joined our conversation. Jesse copes with an anxiety disorder and OCD and Tourette’s. Jesse is sometimes beset by coprolalia, one of the most offensive manifestations of Tourette’s.  Jesse has a long history of therapy and treatment; she takes meds for the anxiety and tics; and she has an Individual Education Plan at school that ensures she gets much-needed special ed support and accommodations. As a result, she’s doing really well, and most days you wouldn’t know she’s anything but neurotypical.

I went in for the kill.

“There was a time when kids like Jesse wouldn’t have been allowed to be in a regular classroom.”

The kids were silent and shocked. It seemed like it was a lot to take in.

I gave it a name. “But some of our schools have changed a lot. We call it inclusion. An inclusive classroom, where all different kinds of kids can learn and play together. Do you like having inclusive classrooms?”

You know what the answer was, my dear reader.

* * * * *

Don’t think for a minute that I’m suggesting my incredible parenting and saintly values are turning my kids into inclusion champions in the schoolyard. I’m not even remotely that good. Frankly, I didn’t even have any idea what the concept of “inclusion” meant when Jesse started tormenting her teachers in preschool. I spent most of those early years apologizing and ducking my head in shame. And yet here was my young son now, instinctively embracing the heart of what inclusion is all about.

I didn’t teach him that. Rather, inclusion at school has created an environment where my children don’t really comprehend its absence. Inclusion at school has taught me that my own children are welcome, whatever challenges they may face in the years to come; and thus school inclusion has taught me to believe my own disabled child deserves to be included. Inclusion has moved me from a place of patronizing compassion and sympathy for others, and guilty shame for myself, to a place of co-equal acceptance and mutual empathy. Inclusion has taught my children and me that different is same, and same is different.


Inclusion doesn’t happen because one day people wake up and say, “hey, let’s include everyone, no matter what their abilities and needs are! Yay!! Inclusion!!”

Successful inclusion takes effort and commitment and advocacy and good laws, of course; and it takes creative, educated thinking to identify and develop accommodations, modifications, and therapeutic tools. But also in the crassest sense it takes money, which most families raising children with disabilities don’t have enough of. We rely on private health insurance to cover the costs of treating our children’s unique disabilities and providing interventions and therapies to improve the quality of their lives; and more of us have been able to do that now, thanks to the ACA. When that’s not enough, we turn to public resources like Medicaid. We look for help in our public school systems too, through special education programs and occupational therapists and speech therapists and school counselors and whatever else we can get our hands on. Those resources are funded through school budgets but also in part through Medicaid.

Is it taxpayer money well-spent? Of course it is (even leaving aside social justice issues and basic human decency), and not just for the individuals who rely directly on these resources. Anyone who thinks Jane is the only one benefiting from inclusion — including the therapies and modifications and aides that make it possible — is living in a narrow, dark tube. Jane’s inclusion benefits all the children and families around her just as much as it benefits her, short term and long term. 

Nick isn’t having a better experience at school because he’s learning to “tolerate” Jane. He’s having a better experience because Jane, his peer, is a unique, fully formed human being in his classroom. He’s learning broader skill sets in human interaction, thanks to diversity. How will he treat kids who are mean or kind? Kids who are hostile or bullied? Kids who are verbal and non-verbal? Kids who learn quick and learn slow? Kids who can sit still and can’t? Kids from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds? Kids who have visible disabilities and invisible disabilities? The last is just one more in a long list of questions we ought to be confronting as we grow up.

Someday, as an adult, Nick will enter the workforce. He may have a boss, an employee, a co-worker, or a client with a disability. How will he handle it? Before inclusion, he likely would have been facing that question for the first time as an adult, with a jarful of ignorance, bias, and misinformation.  With school inclusion, right from his earliest memories, Nick will have experiences that inform his thinking and decision-making, that will help him make intuitively respectful, wise choices in how he engages with people.

I can’t readily put a price tag on that. But I know the number would be high, really high.

* * * * *

It’s easy to wring hands about the sometimes astronomical dollar costs of providing therapies and services for people with disabilities, at taxpayer expense. I haven’t dug too deeply into the justifications for moving to Medicaid per capita or block grants, but I suspect that this is a big part of the problem: some people just don’t think it’s right to put too much tax money into one person. They’d like to cap it.

For my part, I find it easier to wring my taxpayer hands about the costs of not providing needed services. There are plenty of resources out there for you to find, if you want to, about how much more it costs on the fiscal front for our governments not to include, empower, and enable people with disabilities. And no one can really quantify the moral cost to a society of having people with disabilities living in dehumanizing institutions or abandoned to the streets, unable to find employment, unable to live independent and healthy lives because we’ve failed to provide them basic supporting resources. I’m with Nick in feeling a sense of disgust that this is even up for debate.

So I’m trying not to be swallowed by despair, as we watch American leaders start to tear down Medicaid and the ACA, which have been instrumental in supporting people with disabilities as they strive to live fully enabled, human lives.  I’m trying to stay focused on the day-to-day, right here in my tiny world in Wisconsin. I’m thankful that I live in a place where regular kids like Jane and Nick can be in a regular school together. If Jane requires a little or even a lot more assistance to make that possible, so be it. Someday it might be Nick who needs an extra hand. Allocating money to need doesn’t mean Jane is unfairly getting too much.

Allocating money to need makes equal inclusion possible, and therefore it is exactly what fairness looks like. It makes Jane and Nick equal children in our society, just as they are equal humans in our species. And I’ll always take equal over a tax break.

First grade is for the perfect birds 


Let me just say this up front, before I move on to complaining: I pink-puffy-heart the public schools my kids attend. Our school district is incredibly diverse for Wisconsin, both economically and racially. Our teachers are mostly wonderful, and our experience with special ed has been better than it could have been. (This is a rousing endorsement, coming from me today.)

Teachers in Wisconsin’s public schools don’t feel especially loved these days by their state government, whose Republican leaders tend to create the impression they think PS teachers are whiny spoiled brats and lazy overpaid bums working in schools that are overwhelmingly failing because of a lack of competition from private schools, which problem can magically be fixed by vouchers.

I’m not buying it. I know our PS teachers are using their own money to make up for gaps in school budgets for much-needed supplies in their classrooms. I know they work overtime without compensation, because I see the odd hours at which they send out emails to parents. On weekends. I know how engaged they are with the curriculum. I know how they have loved my kids. They are not whiny babies, and they are not overpaid, and they are decidedly not spoiled.

I also know that public schools don’t suck and aren’t failing. Maybe some are, but in general public schools are doing great and are seriously under appreciated. A thriving public school system is, in many ways, the beating heart of a successful democracy, a great institution that helps create a well-informed, literate voting population. Hypothetically.

Anyway, I’m a supporter of our PS teachers, period.

So understand that my complaints here are about early education models, not about my school system or public schools or my kids’ teachers. These are hard times for PS teachers. I don’t want to pile on.

(Except now I will.)

* * * *

I’ve been hearing on and off all year from Nick about a sliding-scale behavior chart they use in first grade. Nick — an otherwise cheerful and well-adjusted young laddie — was very apprehensive about it at first. He told me last fall that there was a big chart in the classroom with every student’s name on it. Next to each name was a sliding marker on a color scale. If you screwed up, your marker slid down the scale to a bad color. If you didn’t screw up, you stayed at the top on a good color.

I was a little shocked, skeptical even. It sounds a lot like public shaming, like a new iteration of the dunce-cap model. I thought we don’t public-shame our kids anymore.

I asked about a bit and learned the entire first grade team uses this system. I intended to visit the classroom and check it out, and inquire and wheedle about it, but I became complacent quickly. Why? Because Nick is a compliant, hardworking, easy-going kid who handles himself really well at school. After years of Jesse’s struggles, it’s easy for me to be lazy about Nick, whose needs are far less immediate and intense and obvious.

But then last week this came home.

It made me really, really grumpy.

* * * * *

I generally hate color-coded rating scales. Remember when the Homeland Security color chart came out after 9/11?

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 10.23.51 AM.png

I made so much fun of that, living in Washington, D.C. where we felt unsafe every day for a long time after 9/11. There was something stupid about the color-coded system. The different categories felt arbitrary, filling me with meaningless rhetorical questions that distracted me from my job. What is, after all, the difference between a “high risk” and a “significant risk”? And why in that order? Doesn’t “significant” belong above “high”? Why do three of the five categories include the same word in the header and description, but “guarded” goes with “general” and “elevated” goes with “significant”? Why even have the category “guarded” (aka general)? Isn’t there always a general risk of terrorist attacks?

Head scratchers.

I felt the same way when I saw Nick’s behavior chart and the colors.


I couldn’t stop the stupid questions.

Why is there any category higher than “ready to learn”? Doesn’t that seem like, I don’t know… the pinnacle of what we’re looking for in school? What more do you want from these little 6- and 7-year-olds, most of whom are still only barely capable of wiping their own butts after pooping?

What makes a choice good versus a great one? What’s outstanding? Why isn’t outstanding about choices too? Is it meant for the teacher’s pets, like some categorical recognition that you are generally an amazing person regardless of the choices you make?

Why is there a tattle category? Or maybe it’s better to think of it as the nuclear option category, the grown up equivalent of “I’M TELL YOUR MOMMY!” Why isn’t the tattle built into the top of the scale too? Don’t I deserve to be contacted if my kid is “outstanding”? (which, you will note, Nick apparently is, la la la la.)

What silly person picked the colors? Why is PINK outstanding and RED super bad? Pink, after all, is simply white-diluted bled-out red. Is there some secret, insidious, gendered message contained in that choice? I noticed that the color progression follows the rainbow, except one color is missing. Why replace indigo-in-the-middle with pink-on-top?   Every modern rainbow has seven colors, one of which is indigo. Look:

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 10.35.35 AM.png

People really need to commit to a thing and do it right. If you’re going rainbow, just GO FULL RAINBOW. Otherwise, you’re just confusing the kids.

* * * * *

After I failed to get over the color coding, my eyes fell to the “Behavior Codes.” I don’t understand. They’re not codes. They’re a top-eleven (why? why?) list of all the (apparently) worst things kids can do at school.

I scanned the list and finally understood something I’ve been struggling with all year.  When I pick up the kids from school, I like to ask questions like, “Tell me something good you did at school today.” I’ve worried because Nick either can’t or won’t answer that question. He typically shrugs, makes “I have no idea” eyebrows, and runs off to pretend sticks are alien laser-shooting weapons. But he’s always ready to tell me about the tiny ways he messed up.

And now I get it. If I asked Nick what he did wrong, he’d have a ready answer. The school has provided him a handy list of fails by which to measure his days.

More questions stacked up. Nick has told me you can slide up and down the color chart through the day. It’s constant surveillance. But how do you go up or down?  How do the behavior codes translate to the color chart? Is there a counting and adding and subtracting system? Do some fails move you more on the scale than others? Is  it arbitrary and secret, so the kids have no real idea how their behaviors will affect their color? What if you were out of your seat for a good reason, like you were about to vomit and you ran out of the room? What if you save a life by doing CPR? Does that make up for a whole mountain of bad and put you on perma-pink? What if you “misbehaved” (don’t really know what that means without more information, if you have social cuing issues like me) because you have a mental health challenge? Does it still count? Do you get sent down the color scale, or do you get a modification? Does that need to be in an IEP? Does a parent need to formally request a 504 accommodation?

I stared at the chart and behavior codes and tried to slow my racing thoughts, and then a bit of an ache touched my heart. Imagine what this sort of plan does to a kid with severe anxiety, or the extreme-moral-self-judging down side of OCD, or ADHD, or a variety of behavior challenges or home situations that make this stuff hard. Imagine a kid who’s looking for direction on how to behave, not how not to behave. She won’t find it on this list.

I thought of my Jesse in first grade. I think they had a similar system in place, but I was too exhausted from other issues to pay any attention.  Jesse would have been paralyzed in the face of this sort of behavior chart, until she would have exploded in raging fits. Which is pretty much what she did. It would have been an exquisite torture. She would have wandered over to that chart every day and volunteered herself right down to red, in a desperate attempt to be free of the overwhelming, unachievable task of staying good. She would have obsessed on all the ways she could screw the pooch, those thoughts filling her head thunderously until all her self-control was drowned in the noise and she tic’ed her way down the bloody scale. Being on red would have satisfied her, allowing her to discard the dissonance of hating herself while seeing evidence that someone else didn’t think she sucked completely.

I sat back and shook my head. How do we end up here as adults? How do we convince ourselves that these are good ideas? I’m not judging, mind you. I’m the fool who made a behavior chart for Jesse, just last year, that started with “do what you’re told, when you’re told to do it.”

It would be so easy to fix the negativity embraced by this first grade chart. You just flip it to the positive, and see where it takes you.

I stayed in my seat.
I waited my turn to talk.
I followed directions.
I was respectful.
I behaved well.
I helped a friend.
I was kind.
I was fair.

And so on. Kids would have behaviors to shoot for, instead of behaviors to avoid. They might become more aware of all the good things they do, rather than the bad. I think it’s easier to strive than to avoid, even if striving is hard. I think most of us would prefer to climb a steep mountain than to walk through a minefield. Why would we ask anything else of our children?

I have no doubt that most of our elementary school’s teachers actually focus on positives in the classroom (or else how would you ever make it back up the blessed sliding scale?). I know Nick’s teacher seems to be flexible and realistic about what kids can accomplish at this age. I wish the first grade team could just put that attitude on the chart to send home.

* * * * *

The kicker on this list, the thing that made me tell Nick I don’t care what color shows up on it, ever, was the note to the parents.


Parents are only invited to talk about the chart with their kids in cases of failure.

I consider that limited exhortation a full-on system failure.

Parents should be invited to talk about the chart with their kids no matter what. Why in the world would we only focus on what’s negative? If your kid’s coming home PINK every day, doesn’t she deserve a hefty back-pat? I’m not talking about false praise or puffery. I’m talking about reinforcing behaviors we value.

What if we replaced that parental directive with something like this:

Please talk with your child about what color day he had. Ask him what he did right, and what mistakes he made. Talk with him about how positive  behaviors make school more fun and help him learn better.

* * * * *

Jesse came out of school today telling me about some pretty gnarly stuff she did. Definitely in the red zone for a fifth grader. I told her it was unacceptable, and I was a bit of a wanker. At least while she screamed at me and kicked the back of my seat in the car, I didn’t scream back; but I failed to dig for any deeper story. After we picked Nick up, Jesse innocently started telling me about a break dancer who came to school today to do a presentation. Among other things, he was doing the crotch grab-and-grind that Michael Jackson popularized.

Ah. Of course.  There was a reason her obsessions with sexuality had bubbled up. I should have hunted first, instead of just assuming she had let things get out of hand today through lack of effort. She didn’t just go to the red zone; she was ushered there as well, by the school, however inadvertently.

So if I was queen, I would add this to the parental exhortation, in fine print somewhere on that stupid calendar, because I wish someone had said it to me when Jesse was in first grade, so that I could have been a better parent to her. I wish someone would keep saying it to me now:

If your child had a bad day, STOP. Take a breath before you react. Before you get suspicious, angry, or disappointed, before you punish her, before you natter at her… Give her a hug, a kiss, and a snack. Tell her you love her, and nothing will ever change that. Ask her if she’s okay. Ask her to tell you her side. Recognize that every peer in her classroom knows she had a red day, and that is humiliating. Sure, discipline her, have a consequence, whatever. But also help her pick up the pieces. Help her find courage to go back and try again. Tell her about the things she does right.

Tell her she’ll always be pink to you.


I did it again (reflections on the joys of mediocre advocacy)

Last week I had my first private conversation ever with an elected official who represents me.  It was terrifying at first and I had an anxiety attack, but everything turned out “okay,” even though she’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat.


I know, crazy talk.

So I did it again on Monday. Last week it was by telephone, but this week… He came to my house. Eek.

It meant I actually had to clean up. It was a hefty price to pay to engage in mediocre advocacy, but I was willing to make the sacrifice of having clean floors, cleared surfaces, dust-free furniture, and an absence of mildly gross smells in the kitchen.

This time my assembly rep, Dan Knodle, came over. He actually agreed to come to my house! He wanted to come in the afternoon, his aide told me. I explained the situation in basic terms to make sure Dan knew what he was stepping into: two potentially feral children in the house. He said it was okay.

I prepared the kids over the weekend. In particular, I made sure Jesse knew and was on board about us discussing her mental health journey through the school system. Some of the conversation might be painful for her.

She said yes. Also, she insisted on calling him “Mr. K-noodle.” So did Nick. Much giggling ensued.

I prepared for the worst.

* * * * *

At 4:30 p.m. on Monday, a clean-cut, straight-backed, snappy-casual gentleman knocked on my kitchen door. Definitely a politician. I was nervous, of course, and feeling significant anxiety. But then in stepped Dan and I realized I was on terra firma, my own kingdom, the place where I am the boss of all things. I felt good. It occurred to me that Dan has some courage to visit strangers, albeit constituents, in their homes.

Any stranger who comes into my house with an agenda of any kind is immediately at a disadvantage, because the very first thing you have to do is take off your shoes. I try to be nice about it, but Americans like their shoes. With Dan I said something like, “We have a strictly shoe free house. Would you mind taking off your shoes? If you’re not comfortable with that, it’s okay, but also you could put on my husband’s slippers to be more comfortable.”


I invited Dan in and suggested we stay in the kitchen, because the furniture in our living room is beyond disgusting, thanks to the existence of children. And there we sat in my kitchen and talked, for a full hour.


It was a sprawling conversation, but I only want to tell you about the important things.

* * * * *

Dan arrived with very little idea of what I wanted to chat about. So I gave him a copy of the mental health initiative that’s in Governor Walker’s budget. Six million dollars to provide staff training and to increase mental health services on school campuses. Dan took it in like a good Republican: “This is new money.”

Yup, I said, it’s new money. It’ll probably require a new employee in the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). And it’s really important that we spend the money, though I would prefer a “zero” after the “six.”

I’m not sure he thought that was funny.

In fact, he said he wasn’t aware of the provision at all until I brought it to his attention.

GOOOOOOOOOOOL, screamed a tiny voice inside my brain. I just scored a tiny point, because the first voice Dan was going to hear about this initiative was mine, and the first story he was going to hear about it was Jesse’s. I never underestimate the power of a first mover advantage.

* * * * *

What followed was a long discussion about how children with mental health challenges are, as I sometimes say, the bottom dwellers of school intervention, relegated to the counselor’s office as disciplinary problems and truants. Teachers frequently don’t even know what clues to look for to identify basic symptoms of common disorders like anxiety, OCD, tic disorders, and depression — let alone how to work with them in a classroom setting. And there’s still this wall of stigma, which leads people to believe that “developmental disabilities” are things schools can address, but “mental illnesses” are best left to the private medical sector.

I made my big picture pitch. When it comes to disabilities, the broad arc of history in our public schools has been one of expanding inclusion and comprehension. We used to exclude pretty much everyone with differences from “regular” classrooms and schools. But now we have this growing awareness that schools can and should, through well-trained staff and in collaboration with parents, ensure a robust and inclusive education for people with physical disabilities, birth defects, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, and a wide range of differences. My kids’ school system commonly and confidently provides supports to students with a ton of different issues.

So why should we not provide the same confident supports to people with mental illnesses? Why can’t we start to see those as “disabilities” as well? They are, after all, lifelong conditions that people have to learn to cope with, live with, deal with, just like any other disability. We’re not asking schools to treat mental illnesses through teaching staff, but rather to do the same thing they do for other disabilities: provide supports, develop accommodations and modifications, show compassion and understanding, refer children to private therapy if that’s appropriate.

I think I got a little excited. I discovered I was leaning forward in my chair toward Dan (I hope I didn’t get in his personal space, because he would be too polite to tell me). My arms were flapping around in big arcs, apparently to demonstrate my vision of expanding services for children. I think I was getting bug-eyed.

Dan expressed some surprise.  He apparently had not been aware that mental illnesses like Jesse’s aren’t viewed as “developmental disabilities” and don’t provide as good a passport to services.

GOOOOOOOOOL!! Screamed something inside me. I just scored another tiny point.

I taught my representative something. It wasn’t because I’m an amazing advocate. It’s just because we were talking, and he was listening, and he asked the right questions. All I had to do was take the chance of answering them.

Dan, a Republican, shared his thoughts about how spending money like this on early interventions will likely cost the state less in the long run because of improvements in outcome for people at risk. Yes, Yes, I said. I, a Democrat, shared my thoughts on how lucky Jesse is to have well-to-do and well-educated parents who can  provide private supports and advocacy, and how I would like kids whose parents can’t provide those supports to still have as much success and support as my Jesse. Yes, yes, said Dan.

We were seeing the same coin from two sides. We connected, I think, on fundamentals.

* * * * *

As we wound things down, Dan offered me a couple eye-opening thoughts.

Now that he’s aware of this provision in the governor’s budget, if it ever comes up on the chopping block he’ll be able to say, “I have a constituent who cares very deeply about this budget item.” In his little list of budget issues, there’s a “K” for keep or a “P” for protect next to this item.


My tiny voice made that happen. How cool is that?

If and when this is voted in with the budget, he added (and he seemed to think it has a good chance of making it through), I would have homework to do. I could make sure my school district applies for a grant under the program that’ll be set up with this new money. If there were any hiccups, I could follow up with Dan and our state senator to ask for their assistance in the grant process.

I can do that?

Yes. Apparently, as a voter and constituent, I can. I actually have tiny power that goes along with my tiny voice.

What a concept.

* * * * *

I suspect I threw a whole lot of words and information at Dan, and maybe I got too excited at times, and sometimes I made no sense, and I was having a bad hair day, and maybe I was offensive? I don’t know, I really don’t.

Plus every five to ten minutes, one of my kids came into the kitchen with important matters for me to address.

“Mom, can I have a frozen yogurt?”

<Jesse drapes herself over my back and stares silently over my shoulder at Dan.>

“Mom, can I play with the Xbox?”

<Nick stands very close to Dan. I manage to blurt just in time, “You’re not allowed to jump on Mr. Knodle.”>

“Mom, I’m going to the basement so I won’t interrupt you. Okay? Can I do that?”

All of that makes me a pretty mediocre advocate and human being, I guess. But I still feel like I did the right thing, inviting Dan into my home, and taking time to tell him too many details about what’s on my mind when it comes to mental health issues. Someday maybe it’ll be something else, something more controversial or more important. But Dan and I know each other just a little now, and I hope we’ve laid a good first paving stone on our journey as representative-and-constituent.

We may just be two tiny voices in Wisconsin, but we’re listening and trying, and I have to give myself (and of course Dan) credit for that.

If you’ve ever had a pack of goldfinches land in your yard, then you know that it doesn’t take many tiny voices to make a beautiful noise. So whoever you are, reading this, if you haven’t done it already, go make your tiny voice heard. You might be pleasantly surprised by what happens, even in these challenging times.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-01 at 11.37.52 AM.png

(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.