I’m a therapist-in-training looking for a good therapist. My program requires 20 hours of personal therapy, which I think is a good idea anyway. The only problem is I haven’t found the right one yet.
The first therapist I tried was a sixty-year-old woman with a bowl cut who told me I lived too horizontal. I wasn’t sure what that meant except that in order to live vertically I had to stop keeping track of the number of times I meditated in a week. She said her key to staying vertical was repeating a spiritual chant in her head—“up to fifty times a day,” she told me, which was too much information. At the end of our first session, she pointed to a half-finished sculpture of Michelangelo’s David that sat on her desk, saying, “We’re all just trying to do this.” Nice call, I thought, except then she said it the following week and the then week after. During our fourth session, I asked for the title of a book she had mentioned, and she responded with frustration, saying the title didn’t matter and this was another example of me living horizontally. I secretly wondered if a) she just wanted that book all to herself and b) if she had ever read My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler which was about leather dress-ups and Vegas strippers.
Therapist Two looked like the mother of one of my best friends growing up, so I immediately liked her. However, on session number three, her eyes began to glaze over. I had just gotten to the part where I’d been feeling terribly nauseous in the mornings for some reason—I wasn’t sure why because I wasn’t pregnant—when she yawned. Twice. I didn’t blame her, I was being boring. Couldn’t I come up with something better? Something really “wrong” that she could help me “fix”?
The worst part about trying to find a therapist is that, at least initially, they see such a narrow version of me. I bring in my worries, my shortcoming, my rainy days, because that’s why we’re there right? But there’s so much more. At least I like to think there is. So maybe Therapist 3 will be a Positive Psychologist, who focuses on what people do right. I like the sound of that, because my own head criticizes me enough. And anyway, for the most part, I enjoy my horizontal life, thank you very much.
To commiserate the last day of spring break, Johnny got the chickenpox. He woke up screaming in the middle of the night, his forehead on fire and eyes plastered shut with green gunk. It was terrifying to see him like that. We rocked him, tried to wipe his eyes, gave him Infant Advil, some water, and a banana.
“Ride it out,” said our pediatrician, as the red bumps continued to spread across his body and face.
After several days of this, I finally let myself cry, while Johnny lay asleep in his crib. I thought about how hard this was—to experience my little boy experiencing pain—it made me feel raw inside and guilty and powerless.
“He’ll be okay,” Dave said, always able to see the bright side. “Babies get sick,” he added, which was the truth. Not my baby, I wanted to say, because secretly I thought a good mother would never let this happen.
The next day Johnny was in good spirits. He rummaged around the kitchen cabinets for stray Tupperware and chased our cat, occasionally stopping to pinch at his skin. I took him outside for some fresh air and he pushed his little blue wagon down the block, searching for interesting objects. He came across a small rock, grabbing at it with such glee you would think he had just stumped upon a rare crystal. He held it up to the sky for a few seconds, admiring the cracks and specks of dirt. Then as if to say, life is good mama, he looked at me through crusty eyes and smiled.
Johnny on day 5 of the chickenpox, having a good laugh with our cat, Tuna Melt.
One of the things I love about Johnny is that he has no concept of other people’s stuff. For example, if it were up to him, he would spend all day examining our neighbor’s screen door and rooting through their recycling. He would pick up the broom they left on their porch and walk halfway down the block with it, dropping it there for someone else to play with.
It’s beautiful really—a world without “theirs” and “ours.” He does not see the boxes we use to separate our lives, both physical and imaginary, or the walls we put up. Instead everything is fluid and bleeding peacefully into everything else. It reminds me of John Lennon imagining no possessions, all the people sharing all the world.
It will be a sad day when Johnny learns the word “mine” or when he comes to realize that most of the world (other people’s stuff) is off-limits. Of course, this is all inevitable. But at least this time did exist—for all of us at one point—this hiccup in space when there was no difference in our minds between where we end and where the universe begins.
Johnny and Teddy Bear as one.
You know it’s been a hard week when you wind up wanting to tell an absolute stranger in Kmart to go f**k himself. It started off friendly enough. “Looks like you got your hands full,” the older gentleman chuckled as I walked down the aisle carrying Johnny in one arm (who is now approaching thirty pounds) and maneuvering my squeaky cart with the other. Johnny recently decided that he will not ride in a grocery cart unless I keep it moving at all times, which I usually try and fail at. Today we made it to the lotion aisle before I broke stride (hesitating between jasmine or lavender) and he started to scream.
I don’t mind the looks-like-you-got-your-hands-full comment, which I get quite frequently when in public. Sure it states the obvious, which is annoying, but at least it validates the challenge of going about life at times like a human chariot. So there we were, Johnny in one arm, me with sweat running down my back wishing I had worn a tank top, and the stranger followed up his comment with…
“You just wait.”
Did I mention that I had spent the morning changing three poopy diapers, scraping Johnny’s breakfast off the floor, and was now attempting to lift my spirits by buying scented lotion and Cadbury Cream Eggs from Kmart? I get it, the man was joking. And he was referring to all the potentially horrible things to look forward to down the road—drunk driving, teen pregnancy, peer pressure, drugs, etc. But really, why remind me of this now? Don’t you see the food stains on my shirt? The tangled hair? My tired mother eyes?
Right now I need to believe what many people have told me—many very, very smart people—that the first five years are the hardest. Yes, I choose to believe this. I need to believe this.
“No,” I heard myself telling the older gentleman, “things will get easier.” Then I forced a smile, knowing that he meant well. He chuckled again and I rushed off, my arm burning underneath Johnny’s weight, cart flying out in front, nearly knocking over a tower of chocolate bunnies.
Thanks to my dad, Johnny recently discovered the joy of climbing into holes at the beach. For his first hole (dug enthusiastically out of the sand with a bucket) the little guy approached it the same way he does the playground slide—headfirst before his mama can slow him down. Once inside, he sprawled out, grinning with a mouth full of sand.
That day his papa also taught him how to create a sand castle. “Like this—pat, pat, pat,” my dad instructed as he packed wet sand into a plastic bucket. And just as the castle was being revealed, Johnny destroyed it, making my dad howl with laughter.
It was an important day, the kind that later feels like sand slipping through my fingers. The same weekend I held onto Johnny’s tiny lock of hair after his first haircut and thought for an instant, I could save this. Time actually froze as I thought this, sand hanging midair in an hour glass. But I knew this couldn’t be and that Johnny wouldn’t want it to be. So I looked up at the trees, opened my palm, and let the wind carry away from me those beautiful strands.
Johnny’s first beach hole – with his papa mike.
January was a big month—Johnny started walking and I went back to school to become a licensed marriage and family therapist. I keep reminding myself of the Lao-tzu saying: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” For Johnny, it’s literally a first step, towards more participation in life and love and all that mysterious energy outside of his mama’s arms. Each day he goes further and faster. He walks wobbly and excited like a drunk person who just won the lottery.
I walk slowly, humbled and thrilled to be back in school. This path is something I always wanted to take but never felt brave enough. Until now. And meanwhile Johnny walks. He takes such delight in the process, even laughing sometimes when he falls. He is very wise in this way. This is something I must remember as I learn my own new walk—that the journey won’t be fast and it won’t be perfect. But I will arrive. And hopefully I will have enjoyed it. And be ready to help others in their walks too.
“Parents are either bad parents or jerks,” said a friend one night after Johnny had gone to bed. I panicked for a moment, wondering which one he thought I was. Then we all started laughing and he told us about this one time as a kid when his mom made him eat the same bowl of cereal for dinner that he had refused to finish during breakfast. “It was disgusting.”
Later I found myself thinking about this conversation and wondering again, bad parent or jerk? Obviously I’d rather be a jerk than a bad parent. But that’s not the point, I told myself. I finally decided that when my friend said “bad parent” he just meant that no parent was perfect. And perhaps if you think you’re perfect…then you’re actually being kind of a jerk.
I liked this conclusion, a lot. It reminded me of how someone once said that children are like a pane of glass and parents are the smudges—some parents are messier than others but in all cases smudge up the job a bit. In other words, we do our best to be loving, kind, patient all the time but we are never perfect and our fingerprints are everywhere.
Some of us may deal with the “bad parent or jerk” conundrum by becoming Attachment Theory overachieves. Others may quit breast feeding at five months and then blame ourselves and lack of milk-producing stamina when our child comes down with a cold. In my case, it’s probably the second. But at least I still have a happy baby despite the runny nose and friends who help me feel like less of a jerk.
Here’s Johnny finishing his sweet potatoes. I promise I won’t make him eat the leftovers for breakfast.