Life Before PDA
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
As a child, I melted myself into the uncomplicated rhythms of school – result came with effort, effect had a cause. I never questioned authority or the logic that governed relationships between children and adults. In adulthood, I continued to seek the rational scaffolding of academics, finding comfort in the dim light of Midwestern libraries and snow falling outside of the warm cerebral work.
During my PhD, there was safety in the precision of econometric models, although I often struggled to integrate the rigid contours of an academic discipline into my thinking. After years of collecting data in rural Colombia, I squeezed the brightly colored experience into statistical models and a doctorate degree. Then, I worked at a research non-profit in Washington D.C, leading a team to ensure the institution’s research process followed the rules of social science.
On metro rides home in the evenings, I quietly dreaded my arrival at home. Because behind the linear progression of my career and my organized desk, my home world was caving in on itself. My 4.5-year-old son was spiraling out of control. Off and on throughout each day he descended into feral and volatile meltdowns, seemingly to protect himself from dangers my husband and I could not perceive. His outbursts were as explosive as they were unpredictable. I felt trapped in an abusive relationship I could not leave, bound by my deepest biological responsibility. For years I slept on a different floor of our house, because the sound of my son’s waking voice triggered my own panic attacks. He had spent his first four months of life back arched, face purple, screaming and screaming at invisible stimuli.
On those metro rides home, I daydreamed about writing a book. My face would then suddenly flush with shame – How could I write a book about peacebuilding when – despite my best efforts ---my son used physical violence when asked to finish one apple slice, pick up one toy, to remove the pillow from his infant brother’s face? In those moments when he spiraled, I would grab my younger son and run into the street. Neighbors in our Maryland suburb rolled down their windows as I wept.
Was I ok? No.
My heart finally broke into a thousand pieces. I surrendered to the chaos. I left my job. We moved back to the Midwest. At the time, I had never heard of Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). I did not comprehend that the demands of my son’s daily life – that he eat at the table, that he wear shoes – were accumulating and had become too much for his brain to bear. That I was unknowingly forcing him to be a child he could not be. Yet, for a long time, I was wed to structure and linear progression, a tendency reinforced by professionals.
But he makes eye contact. He talks. Have you tried a support group for parents of difficult children? Maybe take him for ice cream. Or to the psychiatric ward of Children’s Hospital.
There was no category in the DSM that described this, so it became my problem. And I realized, that despite the acronyms following their names, professionals didn’t have a clue. Their diagnostic tools failed to capture the complex, exploding reality. As a political scientist with my own acronyms, I knew that measurement tools were as imperfect as the humans that made them. I asked myself: Would I shove my breaking son into their categories or would we press reality into their outdated paradigms?
Now my son and I are both putting the pieces of our hearts back together, as I learn his invisible logic. I wish I didn’t have to tread so carefully, always fearful that if I impose too much structure onto our collective life or eke out too much space of my own, we will fall apart again. That the fragile equilibrium we are inching towards will suddenly crumble before my eyes. And I often wonder if my life will always be like this: a direct trade-off between his well-being and my own. Because the truth is, I miss the dim light of libraries and the quiet within my own mind.
I suppose now it’s time to let go of the young girl who needed cause and effect to feel stable, because she is no longer serving us. And to recognize that there is freedom when a force larger than yourself explodes your stability apart. Because in the wake and the residue of that chaos, you get to rebuild from scratch, according to your own paradoxical logic, as you replace the broken shards of your hearts.
Our rightful task as educators is to remove hindrances
Each child comes to us from divine regions
and it is our task as educators to remove bodily and soul hindrances
so that the child may enter into life in full freedom. -- Rudolf Steiner
What was my life like before becoming a mother?
I was a Waldorf kindergarten teacher. I served on committees at the school and sat on The College of Teachers, one of the three governing bodies in Waldorf Schools. I taught teacher training and was a mentor for new teachers.
Prior to that, I played many professional roles. I was an ESL tutor, a high school teacher, a waitress, a nanny to twins, a camp counselor at both residential and traveling summer camps. Throughout my time juggling all of these different jobs, I maintained (and challenged) my balance by teaching yoga all over Ann Arbor: for U of M students, for babies and parents, 80-year-old cancer patients, theater students, fancy Ann Arborites and an elderly woman living out of her car. I co-lead many week-long yoga retreats. I was the “A” in “Namaste” on a greeting card made by a local colleague and artist.
Given all of this experience, I felt like being around children and being positive and calm, centered and present was my area of expertise.
I was eager to become a mother. When I became pregnant in September of 2013, one month after getting married, I was overjoyed, albeit shocked. My pregnancy progressed throughout the school year. Gradually, I inched my chair further and further from the low snack table as my belly grew. During rest time, each kindergarten student had a chance to sit on my lap in the rocking chair, and they would startle and smile when they felt my baby kicking and flipping when they rested their backs against my body.
We bought a house, one hell of a fixer-upper in December that year, in the middle of a polar vortex Michigan winter. We spent the next four months living in our 400-square-foot apartment while Paul and I both worked full time jobs. We would come home for dinner, and after, Paul would leave again to work on our new house. I'd lay in bed (sick with "morning sickness" through the night) worrying about Paul while he chiseled ice dams off of the roof and returned home at one in the morning.
The house was ready enough for us to move in in April. On the last day of school, there was a morning assembly six days before my due date. Realizing I wanted to be with my new baby longer than the three months of maternity leave, I chose to leave my position with no guarantee of a spot when I returned. At the assembly, I was called up to the stage and the school community expressed gratitude for my teaching and well-wishes for the upcoming birth of my first child. Once home from the assembly, I took a nap, began painting the baby's room until it was time to go to our niece's birthday party, and once at the party, ate nearly an entire party-sized bowl of guacamole. Then we went to see the senior play at the high school. During the play, I started getting contractions, and by the end of the play it started to feel pretty real. We hurried home, making a quick stop at Potbelly's for a chocolate malt that I needed!
It was a beautiful, long, intense, hard eighteen hours of labor. It was a home birth, completely natural, supported by a midwife, my husband, mom and sister. There were parts where I felt absolutely elated and like the goddess of the universe, and parts where I felt like I would split in two and die. It was an out-of-body experience and also a time when I was in my body more fully and completely than any other time in my life before or since. I was so focused that I kept my eyes closed almost the entire eighteen hours. During the birthing process, I fractured my tailbone. But I did it. I gave birth to a 7 lb., 14 oz. baby girl. Pink and healthy. We had cloth diapers and all the attending accoutrement. We had wooden toys and sheep skins. Soft salt lamps to gently light the bedrooms. Waleda baby oil and creams. Everything natural, wholesome, beautiful.
As a Waldorf teacher, I said this verse regularly: "Our rightful task as educators is to remove hindrances..." These past six and a half years of motherhood have been full of hindrances. "Entering into life in full freedom" has been, and continues to be, enormously challenging for my daughter. Looking back, I wonder if the day my labor started was the last time I had a day that productive. I did what I wanted, I ate what I wanted. I napped when I was tired. I went out at night - to two events!
The "stuckness" my child experiences in life is now my experience, too. We are looking for better ways to be free. When I slow down enough to notice it, this child who has made me feel so trapped, so "un-free" so many times, is also the one who is bringing liberation.
It is unfolding.