You know what happens when your car is making a weird noise and you take it to the mechanic? Right. Nothing. Suddenly everything is smooth as silk and the noise has mysteriously gone away.
Lei has always been like this. No, she’s not a car, but when she was a baby she could have a high fever, or never make eye contact, or emit a horrible high-pitched shriek all day every day, but as soon as we were in the same room with a doctor, she was golden. Bright, alert, looking that doctor straight in the eye, as if to say, “I’m the healthiest, happiest, milestone-hittingest kid in the world, doc.”
And the doctors mostly thought I was extremely neurotic. It was great.
Last month I took Lei to the doctor for her 11-year-old well checkup. Our family doctor, Dr. F, asked me some questions, then turned her attention to Lei.
“How’s school? How are your grades?”
Lei answered, wrinkling her nose, “My grades are fine, but I’m not doing so well socially.”
“What do you do when you feel down or upset about that?” Dr. F asked, “Do you have someone you can talk to, like your mom?”
“Oh yes,” Lei answered. “I can always talk to my mom. I tell her about everything.”
Dr. F nodded, “That’s good! What about boys? Are you thinking about boys at all?”
Lei squirmed a bit, then said, “Well, a little.”
Dr. F said, “Do you and your mom talk about boys? What about sex. Can you ask her if you have questions about it?”
Lei nodded emphatically. She said, “Oh yes, my mom and I spend a lot of time together, so we talk about all of that!”
That one brought a hastily-wiped tear to my eye. Reassurance is not generally considered part of the tween repertoire.
Besides, after struggling for so long, feeling overwhelmed by Lei’s needs, fearing we had nothing in common, being angry at her because I felt like such a failure at parenting, suddenly I felt … hope.
When I first saw the movie Tangled, I saw myself in the flinty pseudo-maternal manner of Gothel, the woman who kidnapped and raised Rapunzel. She wasn’t loving. She didn’t love Rapunzel. She was pretending to be a mother without feeling any of the beautiful, warm and connected parts of motherhood.
That was me. For years I didn’t feel many positive emotions because of my depression. Even after I thought I was no longer depressed, I still felt rather hollow in a lot of ways. And I knew I was supposed to love my daughter, so I pretended to. But I really didn’t feel it very often. I was frequently impatient, and I felt disconnected, unattached, distant.
After seeing Gothel, and realizing that “fake it till you make it” wasn’t working, I knew there had to be a way to actually feel the love I knew I had, though buried deep, for Lei. A smart person would have gone to therapy or somehow reached out for help. Instead I turned to my science background and came up with the Oxytocin Cure.
Oxytocin is the “bonding hormone” that our brains produce when we touch, snuggle, or hug another person. So I figured that if I wanted to feel more connected and, well, bonded with Lei, I would try increasing our daily dose of it.
No, I didn’t go get a prescription. I’m a DIY kind of gal, so I made my own oxytocin through a complicated procedure that had to be repeated multiple times throughout the day. I believe the technical term is “hugging.”
Here was my protocol: Throughout the day, often in the midst of low-level frustration at the many small ways in which communication went wrong for our family, I would get Lei’s attention and say something like “I have a hug for you.” Then I would wrap my arms around her skinny frame and pause.
Lei is not a big hugger. As a young child if someone asked for a hug, including me, she would stand with her body at a 45 degree angle relative to theirs, arms at her sides, and lean ever so slightly towards them. We joked it was her way of saying, regally, “You may hug me now.”
So I figured I would have to just try to make the hugs happen. The occasional awkwardness was worth it.
And it actually helped, too. I started to feel less frustrated and more connected. It turns out that a little bit of oxytocin cures a multitude of tired, impatient mommy ills. However it was only a first step.
Around that time my sister-in-law gave me The 5 Love Languages of Children. Now, generally speaking I loathe parenting books and fantasize about dancing wildly under a full moon under a giant bonfire fueled mostly by Dr. Sears’ ouvre. But I thought I would give this Love Languages book a try.
Needless to say, I spent a solid two weeks after reading it in a deep depression. Because that’s how I interface with parenting advice.
Once I got back on my feet, I appreciated that the book had a lot of potentially useful things to say. One of the things the book recommends is asking one’s child when she feels most loved. It sounded so doable, how could I not?
When I posed the question to Lei, who was then 8, she said she feels most loved when her dad or I take her on a date to a coffee shop or out to eat. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me because she was always asking to have a date with us or go to a coffee shop.
Armed with this information and the context provided by the Love Languages book, I started trying to make this happen on a regular basis. Thanks to my chronic fatigue and poor executive functioning, I didn’t succeed very often at first.
However we eventually fell into a rhythm. After Lei’s occupational therapy on Monday evenings, she and I would go get dinner together.
The amazing thing about this is how much of a difference it made for both of us. We argued less, she was more cooperative when asked to help out in the house, and I felt better about myself as a parent.
Lei just “graduated” from OT, which is to say we decided, after a lot of consultation, to give her a chance to try out other activities that she will enjoy on weekday evenings. We are saving up for something and trying to eat out less. So this weekly date needs to find a different niche, but it still really needs to happen. Kids don’t outgrow their love languages, and they certainly still need good relationships with their parents at Lei’s age.
And to be frank, it’s still a struggle. Lei gets sick a lot – I did, too, as a kid, and she just lucked out with my genes – which interferes with numerous routines, including school. And she can be a very intense person to be around, so when she is sick and doesn’t go to school, I get pretty worn out. A little nagging voice inside me insists that I should still make our dates happen when she’s been at home sick and I’m at the limit of my endurance. Whether the voice is right or wrong, when my kids are sick and I’m caring for one or both of them around the clock, self-care becomes the most urgent need.
So things are far – astronomically far – from perfect. But taking Lei to the doctor and hearing her say that things are really good … that was awesome.