“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my tenacity”
~ Louis Pasteur
Buttoning, I think I mentioned recently, is a new, hard won skill. But like all new skills in our world, it’s not consistently available. It plays hide and seek and dissapears just when you need it most.
But once in a while, it’s in the void that we find greatness. It’s the times that ease is farthest from us that we find out who we are. And sometimes, something as simple as a button can help us define our character.
Brooke’s Hello Kitty pajamas have just three buttons down their front. They are oversized pink plastic numbers, just as you’d expect to find on children’s pj’s – made to enable the young wearer to button them fairly easily by themselves. Well, most young wearers of course.
Brooke took the pajamas from my hands. She laid the pants out on the floor, sat down in front of them, and pulled them up. As soon as she couldn’t pull anymore she stood back up to get them over her little bottom. She then tried to put the shirt on over her head, but it wan’t going to make it. She cried out as her head got momentarily stuck in the too-small hole.
I reached out to help, then pulled my hand back as I saw that she had found her way out. She managed to get the shirt off and she laid it out on the ground just as she had done with the pants. I watched her meticulously unbutton each of the three buttons, then pull the top on like a jacket. Without fanfare, she went to work on the bottom button.
She was tired and easily frustrated. It was right before bed, for goodness sake – the worst possible time to be working on something challenging. She began to cry. “Brooke,” I said as gently as I could. “Can Mama help you, honey?”
I didn’t want her to feel defeated. It was late at night. It wasn’t the time to be a hero.
She looked right at me (yup, right at me) and with all the conviction in the world she said, “NO.”
She twisted and turned that damned button. She yelled out in frustration.She pushed and pulled and contorted her little fingers until she got it halfway through the hole. And then the sucker slipped right out. She yelled out again.
The tears streamed down her face. “Honey, I know you want to do this yourself, but maybe we should try it tomorrow when it’s not so late,” I said, feeling completely impotent.
She cried harder, but didn’t make a move.
“Brooke,” Katie said softly. “Do you want us to stop looking at you?”
I hadn’t even thought of it. We were simply adding to the pressure, staring at her, looking for all intents and purposes like we might pounce at any time.
“Yeah, Katie. You would,” she answered.
We turned our bodies to make it clear that we were no longer watching her. And I did my best to conceal my furtive peeks.
Brooke turned herself around and faced the wall as she began to work again. I did my best to pretend to be engrossed in conversation with Katie. “Oh, yes, love, that sounds wonderful. I’m sure you’re going to love the trip to the arboretum.”
Once in a while I offered quiet praise. “I’m proud of you, honey. You’re doing so well.” She didn’t respond. I didn’t ask her to.
Nearly twenty minutes. It took my girl TWENTY GOD DAMNED MINUTES to button her PJs. And she stuck with it. For TWENTY MINUTES. She worked through her frustration and her tears and SHE DID IT. She would not give up.
I’ll never forget sitting across from our beloved neuropsych, Dr. I’dfollowthismantotheendsoftheearth about a year and a half ago. He was making an impassioned argument for addressing Brooke’s anxiety. We had been holding out, trying to avoid medication, exhausting every other option first. Part of the reason we were attracted to the doctor in the first place is that he’s not a guy who is big on meds. Unlike many other doctors that we encountered along the way, he doesn’t view himself as a giant Pez dispenser, indiscriminately handing out psycho pharmaceuticals like candy. Ask me sometime about the developmental pediatrician who once told me in a six minute phone call that she’d happily write a scrip for my daughter, whom she’d never met. She’d just like me to stop by with her for ten minutes or so just so she could see her first. It was the first and last time I ever spoke to the woman. But that’s just not Dr I’dfollowthismantotheendsoftheearth’s MO – so when he brought it up, we listened.
He made the very convincing case that the risks of letting Brooke’s anxiety run unchecked were far greater than the risks of the miniscule dose of medication that we would ultimately decide to give her. He actually said that he’d never felt more strongly about it with any child he’d seen to date. This ain’t his first rodeo. He’s seen a LOT of other children. He talked that day about the ‘hump of frustration.’ In order to learn anything new, he explained, we all have to push our way up and over the learning curve. And there’s stress involved in doing so. To take on anything new, one has to be able to make it through their frustration. At that time, Brooke wasn’t learning a whole lot of anything. She was screaming. And crying. And getting stuck over and over and over again in the vortex of her own anxiety.
I still worry about the medication. I think about the risks every single day. But – they gave her the ability to push her way over the first hump. And then another. And another. And along the way, she’s been able to pick up a whole lot of tools that had been previously out of reach. She’s learned how to calm herself down. She’s learned to ask for what she needs – breaks, walks, headphones, hugs. Once she began to understand that frustration was surmountable, there was nothing she couldn’t do.
Like buttoning herself into her PJs. All by herself, thank you very much. And the result – the pure, unmitigated joyful pride on that little tear and snot streaked face – was worth every bit of angst it took to get there.
You know, so often I feel like we project our own tenacity onto Brooke. Defiance, my friend M likes to call it. As in, ‘this kid defies any and all limitations.’ And she does. But she doesn’t always own it. Accomplishing a goal someone else sets just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
But as she stood there beaming in her buttoned up jammies, it couldn’t have been more clear – this one was ALL Brooke.
Ed note – many of you who wrote to me offline in response to this post suggested that we should be upping Brooke’s dosage. But, just as we did when we made the decision to medicate in the first place, we are exhausting other options first. After a long conversation with her developmental pediatrician, I feel very comfortable with our decision to hold off. I shared the same thoughts to her that I’d written into the post’s comments the night before –
after hearing from so many of (my friends) (both online and off) that (their) little (and not so little) ones are struggling right now too, i’ve come to believe that the time of year has an awful lot to do with the added stress on their already taxed systems.
the rapidly changing seasons, the screwy weather (at least here in the northeast where we’ve vacillated between 38 degrees and snow and 68 and sun all within 24 hours), the dramatically shorter days and far less time out of doors to get the jigglies out are conspiring to make life tougher for our kids.
add to that the fact that expectations are ramping up dramatically at school right now – the early days of getting to know classroom routines and reviewing old material are quickly giving way to getting down to business.
it’s not easy on kids who thrive on routine and who need to know what to expect.
She not only confirmed my reasoning, but told me that nearly every child she follows is having a tough time of it right now. She said the changes of season are always harder for our kids (we knew that, didn’t we?) and that anticipation of the holidays likely isn’t helping either.
“So, what do you want to do?” she asked.
I told her what we had done the night before. We had gone to a ball field after dinner. We played imaginary baseball and ran the bases. We played tag and we chased each other in and out of the dugout. We ran until the last of the light finally disappeared. And as I watched Brooke, I welled up with emotion. It was suddenly so obvious, watching her run. She’s fast, that kid. She has this funny little upright trot and her hair trails behind, looking like its trying to catch up with her. She was smiling. From ear to ear she smiled as her face cut through the wind. I said to Luau,”She’s FREE.”
It was good for ALL of us.
We are now on a mission to make up for the exercise she’s lost to the waning daylight hours. Yesterday at school her aide worked with the OT and they came up with a slew of exercises and activities for her. They ran outside twice yesterday. They took a break in the fitness room. They jumped over a balance beam and designed a stretch against the wall. It’s helping. A LOT. Her aide reported a great day.
And Mama’s breathing again.