Thursday, August 28, 2008

Time Out Wonderland

The other day I got a very long, apparently thoughtful comment from an anonymous stranger, self-reportedly a fellow psychologist, concerned about my mental health. Because my first instinct is to generally give people the benefit of the doubt, at least until evidence points me otherwise, I worked very hard at being non-defensive (because: I'm a psychologist, people; we're not the type to believe there is any shame in experiencing emotional struggles. Everyone does, at one point or another during life.) and in considering this comment nothing but empathic and well-intentioned. The commenter even expressed, more than once, kind sentiments regarding my value as a person and her hopes that the stresses in my life settle down soon. Clearly, her writing was supportive and helpful.

Only I'm not so sure.

Is it truly supportive and helpful to, on the basis of ten months of blog posts (I began writing for MotherVerse in October, 2007, when the reader said she first discovered me), diagnose someone you don't know and have never met with four years of untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Is it kind and empathic to inform me that I do not like being a mom ("and that's OK!"), that I've probably never liked being a mom ("the problem was exacerbated further since the birth of your second daughter") and that my toddler misbehaves because she knows I don't want to spend time with her? Really? That's what you'd say to a stay-at-home mom client in the early years of baby parenting? Really?

Huh. 'Cause I was thinking more along the lines of recognizing that hating nonstop toddler screaming is a normal reaction, not a DSM-IV diagnosis. That having a tough summer due to UNBELIEVABLY TERRIBLE TWOS and a ridiculously stressful and unexpected series of events at one's unfortunate volunteer job does not mean one has been miserable since having one's first baby four years ago and that one truly wishes to be a career woman rather than a SAHM. (Read the archives a little more deeply. Find a copy of the Summer issue of MotherWords, and read my published essay entitled, "Confessions of a Contented Mom," written approximately one year ago.) That disliking nightly hour-long screaming fits at bedtime and daily screaming fits at naptime does not mean one does not like being a mom. I was thinking more along the lines of this kind of knowledgable, empathic reaction. Or of this blog comment (scroll down), the one by kind and astute Squab.

I have a problem with assuming that the solution to a challenging toddler stage is medicating the mama. Don't get me wrong; I totally respect the need for psychotropic medications as appropriate. I've been on them, during my long-past disaffected youth; most everyone I know has, too, at one point or another. I advise my clients on them. But I personally know that I don't need a prescription for Prozac; I need a baby who moves on from the nonstop tantrums, the sleep rebellion, the CONSTANT SCREAMING. I also need my free time back; in the past five weeks, most of my precious down-time--the hours I used to fill with self-nourishing activities such as reading, writing, running, and indulgent cable TV--has been suddenly and unavoidably eaten up by unexpected needs at a volunteer job I didn't know would turn into a giant time-drain.

All of this armchair-diagnosing, this "mama is depressed because she's oppressed and thwarted in her true desires to experience career adulation," this "mama is miserable and her children can tell she doesn't like them and that's why they cry at night," this "you need therapy or medication" business, has a strangely anti-woman air about it. I'm not really feeling the love and support; I'm actually feeling some crazy-off-the-wall criticism. (The idea that I have ANY DESIRE WHATSOEVER to resume my career--at present, anyway--is so incredibly inaccurate as to trigger a chuckle from anyone who truly knows me. As is the idea that my sixty-something, partially disabled, raising-three-grandchildren parents are in any position to help me more with my children.)

I completely, 100% realize that I ask for this kind of thing when I author a personal blog, so I take responsibility for that. My blog IS my therapy, like it or not (you're totally welcome to not like it; I don't care one bit if you read here or not). It's annoying, negative, and complaint-filled at times; for the past 6-8 months, perhaps most of the time. But that's how I write myself better; that's how I move on and fill the rest of my hours with sunny walks, art projects, sidewalk chalk. It's not an ideal set-up; it's not an ideal life. I'll be the first to admit that this summer has been HELLA CHALLENGING for me. But honestly: being sad about zero free time, screaming babes, and a tight budget is pretty normal. And if I were in session with a harried, exhausted, young mom, THAT'S what I'd say.

I'd also say that we should ALL feel sad about world events over which we "have no control." THAT'S not clinical depression; that's a discouraged Democrat, waiting for Obama salvation.

I've been considering, off and on recently, closing down Mama in Wonderland. This recent comment makes me feel even more that I should. I don't mind my babes growing older and reading that their nonstop screaming drove me to fantasize about a playdate with myself and a bottle of wine; I hope they do read that, and know, when they themselves are new, overwhelmed mamas, that they're not the only ones to feel that way. What I don't want them to read is that their mama dislikes being their mama, that she doesn't want to be around them, that as babies they knew this and cried. It might be time to shut the doors.

No matter what I decide, I will continue to receive notice of comments via my e-mail, so I will know if any readers leave a message here for me. Please do, if you'd like. I have made so many wonderful, genuinely supportive friends via this blog---friends who have been my saving grace during these baby years. I will always, always be grateful for that, and continue to read their blogs. THANK YOU. You know who you are.


[Edited to add: a million thanks to good friend Donna, who actually called me from Hawaii this afternoon to express her support after reading this post. Once again proving that true friends--real-life or virtual--don't roll their eyes and think, "GOD. More complaints?!" when they hear about one's struggles, but instead say, "Been there, sister; you're doing fine. Hang in."]


Laura said...

Yowch. I can't believe someone said all of that. I completely agree with you - hating dealing with an hour of screaming every night HAS to be normal.

FWIW, I've really enjoyed reading your blog (and also loved the swiss chard quiche recipe you posted a while back - so good!). I'll miss reading, but totally understand wanting to back off for a while. Best wishes for the rest of the nursery school project and for a happy, healthy fall.

Anonymous said...

I am also a frequent reader and have to admit I am totally addicted. I am not a mother yet, but I feel like your blog paints a more realistic picture of life with kids than the mainstream media. Don't let one comment rain on your parade. I completely understand a hiatus. But seriously, don't let one apple spoil the bunch. I don't know if I would ever start a blog but I think you and your husband deserve kudos for putting it out there for all of us to gasp, sigh, laugh, and cry right along with you.

Missy Mattson said...

Glad I googled you before you stopped blogging! Not sure if you remember me from your Mhd days, but we shared a notebook in 7th grade that I recently uncovered in my boxes of stuff. Feel free to contact me at

Mom and Kiddo said...

Well, whenever I catch up on your blog I think, "that sounds just like my life, I can't possibly be too insane since she is obviously normal." It's nice to feel like one is not alone.

I'll miss reading your blog if you go on hiatus, but I obviously understand as my own posts have become less frequent.

Elise said...

The thing is, your kids aren't even going to pay attention to misguided comments like the one from anonymous psychologist - for one thing, you're raising them with more powers of critical thinking than to lend an ear to such nonsense, and for another, you've just written a beautiful and persuasive rebuttal. As Dooce says (and I know you believe), mothers writing about mothering is critically important. ALL kinds of mothers, experiencing ALL kinds of mothering. Not just for our sisters (and brothers) -in-arms, but for future generations and for our culture as a whole. I'm not trying to say that you or I are going to single-handedly shift perspectives, of course. But every voice counts. If you feel like it's time for you to take a break for YOUR reasons, by all means feel empowered to do so, and know that your loyal readers and friends will support that choice. But I hope you won't do it for someone else's reasons.

Question said...

Directly, I know nothing about being a mom. But I can say that the stuff you write about is exactly the same sorts of things I hear about from the other (non-blogging) moms I know. Parenting (and in particular being a SAHM) is the toughest job in the world.

I'll miss you (and hearing about the kids) if you do take a break.

MamaKel said...

Guaranteed (underlined and bolded) that anonymous phycologist lady does NOT have kids! I so feel you lady - dont let her get you down.

Mnmom said...

Your blog is for YOU, as you say. Don't let that one person's view stymie you. You KNOW I have personally experienced everything you are going through and I've always validated that this is the toughest job on earth - perhaps second only to receiving direct enemy fire on the battlefield. You know I'm serious.

All due respect to your profession, but some psychologists are just regular folks full of run-of-the-mill BS.

Anonymous said...

Maybe a password-protected Wonderland for those of us who love your writing and identify with your day to day struggles?

Christopher Tassava said...

Having finally had the chance to read both this post and the comment that elicited it, I want to say that I hope that you don't stop blogging, for several reasons:
1. I know you enjoy it (mostly now, but entirely, when you have your usual amount of discretionary time).
2. It's a great platform for your budding writing career.
3. It's often entertaining.
4. It's always informative. (I bet I learn as much about you and the girls from the blog as from actually talking to you.)
5. You can't not write.
6. It's in your DNA.
7. You need it to work off your stress.

Plus, you know that winners never quit and quitters never win, right?

Reading The Infamous Comment, though, I'm also moved to defend the commenter a bit. (And not only because bloggers love commenters!)

Accepting uncynically that she is a psychologist and a mother, I think that her reactions are pretty much on the mark for the Shannon that appears in your blog. You admit - and even make self-deprecating fun of the fact - that MiW right now is pretty much just your forum for stressing out in print. As such, I can readily see how she - who knows you only through the blog - would make, and would be right to make, the conclusions that she does. She's got no evidence to the contrary!

If she knew you in "real life" - if she went on playdates with you, if she knew us as a couple, if she went to coffee with you - or if, yeah, she read and digested the whole MiW blog and maybe leavened it with some of my posts on B&D, she'd see that you are actually a pretty happy person, who not only enjoys her daughters a great deal, but who has continued to do every last stinking one of the household chores that you always do and who also held it together pretty damn well through the Preschool Predicament of 2008. (You can choose which task is the more thankless.)

But the commenter doesn't - can't - know all that, because it's not in the blog, and much of it will never be. (Readers, I have been explicitly forbidden to either take or post photos of Shannon doing the dusting. It's the world's loss.) So the commenter made the call she thought she had to make, in - I think - a pretty brave and even caring way. And she's right - Blog Shannon probably does need some Prozac, if not some Xanax. On the other hand,
Actual Shannon - who looks rather fetching with her new haircut - is a different person, who I can tell - based on nearly 15 years of experience now - is doing just fine, and will be doing much better soon. At the very least, the commenter doesn't deserve to be run down for trying to reach out to you. She means well for you, just like everyone else who's commented there and here.

Shan said...

I want to clarify, in response to my spouse's comment, that I don't blame (much) this commenter for perceiving me only as miserable and distressed on the basis of the content of this blog (although, if she was a bit more observant, she'd note that prior to late July I described several fun summer days, and prior to this past spring, when the baby truly began her campaign to drive Mama insane, there were many, many entries over the past 2 years that are full of life and love).

My issue is with the commenter's galling tone. True, at the end she expresses some apparently caring thoughts. And a quick read might cause a person to interpret the comment as "caring."

But upon additional reading and a great deal more thought, the shocking authority of the comment really hit me. I don't buy, not for one second, that the core message of this comment--"you have a mood disorder; you have PTSD, you do not like being a mom; your children are emulating your behavior; nothing can make you see beyond your misery; you actually want to resume your career"--is a caring one. For some reason I, too, thought so at first; but then I came to my senses.

I do not believe that proclaiming with certainty that someone you have never met has a diagnosable psychological disorder, let alone that they clearly don't like motherhood and that their children can tell, is even remotely caring. I think the commenter might BELIEVE that she's caring, or that she wants to APPEAR caring, but that she is actually judgmental and misguided. I also, like Mama Kel, have a hard time believing she actually has children. If she does, there is no way they are still at the under-five stage, or she'd have a better understanding of what it's really like to be a full-time mom to two toddlers.

And I will say this: my deepest sympathies to any client who ends up in this commenter's therapy office with similar (or even dissimilar) emotional challenges. I repeat, for the record, that personally this is NOT the way that I, as a therapist, would talk to an overwhelmed new parent muddling through the toddler years. There is a way to express empathy and care, and even suggest change, that does not involve presumptuousness, overstepping one's boundaries, labeling, or employing mama-guilt/shame.

I appreciate all comments on this post; I am reading them all as they come in and am weighing my blogging options and feelings. I welcome any and all additional thoughts. I will probably take a week or so off and then see how I feel. Your feedback, dear readers, is invaluable to me.

Heidi said...

A word from "Mama's" sister: I'm not sure I've ever seen parents-in-action w/ their preschooler/toddlers who were/are as patient, gladly engaged, and delighted to share time with their kiddos as Shannon & Christopher. Now, if someone perceived that *I* tend to get bored w/ long days when I am the sole parent at home w/ my 3-yr-old, they'd be dead right! I love him to death, but am not myself stimulated by swing-pushing, playdoh-shaping, and dinosaur-talk-imagining. I *do* love engaging him in "real-world" activities like going to the post office, visiting at the nursing home, baking banana bread, and playing preschool-appropriate board games. But I'm not much one to organize a craft project each day or make up "pretend" games to head off clamoring for videos. I myself can't *stand* our 3-yr-old's still-frequent tantrums and we had to pretty much take me "out of the mix" at bedtime in order to make bedtime "work." Sometimes our 9th-grade summer childcare provider was more patient than *I* would be in dealing w/ our little guy. But Shannon, for the most part, is "in her element" as a SAHM at this point. *Everyone* experiences job frustrations -- no matter what the job. It doesn't make sense to think there would never be any such times. Also, I have seen *directly* that my nieces are very *happy* little girls in general, and specifically w/ their parents. I don't agree w/ *all* Shan & Christopher's parenting decisions, but that's OK. As regards the issue at hand, I think the anonymous commenter is mistaken, at best.

While I'm at it, some kudos for Christopher: While visiting at Mom & Dad's house, he did not simply agree to the kids' request to go to the park (as I would have done, somewhat sluggishly), but *initiated* the activity AND offered to take nephew Gabriel (my 3-yr-old) along as well! Now *that's* a dedicated parent! And I LOVE his supportive comment for Shannon -- what an excellent model of putting one's spouse's best interests first, even when (as I know) it may cost *him* some sacrifice of time and effort -- a fine, fine example to *all* married folks, w/ or without kids.

Shan said...

Nicest comment ever from my big sis, above. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed your blog for nearly a year now, Shannon. As the mother of two small girls myself, and as a part-time SAHM/part-time public school teacher, it's a true gift for me to tune in to each edition of MiW and know that I am not alone in the joys, frustrations, and wildly challenging emotions of parenting small people. You tell it like it is, and I appreciate your candor. I will greatly miss sharing this cameraderie and window into your life if you choose to stop blogging, though I understand your position. So, that said, and with my sincere support for whatever you decide, it will come as no surprise to you that my selfish vote would be for you to keep blogging! Take care.

Anonymous said...

You know what? You are absolutely correct. I obviously didn't have the whole picture, and had no business weighing in. I am very sorry if my comment added to your stress. It really was meant in the very best of intentions, but that's not important at all. It just matters how you took it.

So, please accept my sincere apologies. Clearly the solution is not for you to stop writing, but for me to go away and stop reading, since I am seeing the situation as one-dimensional and can't help interjecting my opinion, which you don't need.

Again, I am sorry. You have a readership that finds your work therapeutic. Certainly don't stop writing on my account.

I am very glad that things are not just what they seem, and will not bother you again. I wish you the very best and hope for a happy fall for you.

--Anonymous Psychologist

Mnmom said...

OK, I want to see you blog about having a babysitter!