"When my son was young he had a biting problem. I remember being so embarrassed and horrified. I stopped going to playgroups and the park because he usually ended up biting someone and I would feel awful. It was a really hard time."
This was the memory of one friend, looking back on her child's toddler years. Another talked about how she struggled with her child that couldn't integrate into the common play settings either, and how frazzled she felt at making all the effort to reach out socially, only to have things go poorly with her children, and leaving feeling like a failure.
What I'm learning (foster) parenting a "difficult" child is that it can be socially isolating. Our outings seem to be an even mix of "somewhat successful" and "absolute disaster". Friends point out to me that we have come a long way in the "somewhat successful" category, and I appreciate that, especially when I am overwhelmed with experiencing the "absolute disaster" that has just taken place.
We are two weeks into the school routine and things have been challenging with B. It often starts in the morning with him working himself into a full out tantrum because the breakfast is not! getting! in! his! mouth! fast! enough! No matter that you're mixing it in front of him, speaking to him calmly, patting him for reassurance. "I want it faster! I hate you for not meeting my needs fast enough!" That is what his screams say to me.
The morning tantrum can often last the full hour of getting ready for school time. Then, at school, he's happy! He likes the bustle and the people and he likes going places! But then, something will go wrong for him. He'll want to run to the other side of the school grounds and I'll say no, or he'll want to play in the water fountain and I'll say no, and then the tantrum hits like a truck. He's down, he's screaming, he's rolling, he's flailing, and I am scooping him up, kissing my kids goodbye, and beating a hasty retreat away from the school, all the while B is turning heads with his passionate efforts at eardrum annihilation.
I've felt lonely standing around the Year 2 classroom, feeling unable to engage with the parents I don't know, because most morning end with me doing the scoop and run, and it is more embarassing if I am right in the middle of meeting a new parent when that happens.
Preschool has been worse. There is water play out every morning and B wants to get into the water more than he has ever wanted anything, ever before. But, with his own daycare drop off yet to come, or a trip to the grocery store or the doctor, or whatever, I can't let him go into the water. Each preschool drop off for Finch has been brought to an abrupt halt by me carrying a hysterical toddler out to the car.
I feel bad. This is Finch's first year at preschool. I want to be there to help him settle in. I want a meaningful goodbye with hugs and kisses. I want to be present in the experience.
I am also embarrassed. I have not met a single parent yet, because how do you introduce yourself and make small talk when you are holding a high-volume protester, who is doing his best to pull your hair, rip at your clothes, and scratch you? These people don't know us. They don't know our story. They just see me struggling to strap B into his car seat, and you can still hear the screaming after the doors are closed.
I stand outside the car door for several moments to straighten my glasses, smooth my disheveled hair, and reposition my rumpled clothes. This gives me time to take a few deep breathes and steel myself to the continued screaming that I know will last for several more minutes, at least. I am thankful that my job is to drive the car, and that it is okay for me to tune him out until we have both calmed down.
It is hard. I feel isolated. I am embarrassed.
For me, this particular challenge, with this particular child is temporary. I can look ahead to a time when life will become easier after B goes. I hope then to become more connected to my children's classrooms and school and preschool communities. Having this experience has really given me more insight into how life feals for carers raising a child that doesn't easily navigate typical social settings.
I also think about families where these challenges aren't temporary, rather this is the life they have to live.
I had B to the pediatrician today and I wanted to discuss his behavior and how we are addressing it. As if on que, B became frustrated with some small thing, and ended up having a meltdown in the doctor's office. One minute he was delightful and engaging and fun, and the next he was bashing the walls, kicking on the floor, and trying to knock the toys over.
The doctor said 'I can easily see that he has issues with regulating his emotions, and managing frustrations. He is, as you say, a roller coaster, and that is likely the challenge his temperment will present him for life. We just need to help him learn how to manage that as best as we can."
It just felt so reassuring to be seen in the midst of a difficult moment, and for someone who knows about it to say "yes, this is hard, but you're doing the right thing."
I guess it just helps to be seen in the struggle, and affirmed for my efforts, even if the big picture might not look like success.