Archive for November, 2009

Making mama-bear waves.

It’s been an exhausting week. Halloween week always is around here.

My 9-year-old is a highly sensitive child. She’s been one since the day she was born, and her sensitivity levels were one the major reasons we decided to homeschool in the first place. She’s always been anxious in crowds, and loud noises freak her out, and she simply cannot handle disturbing visual stimuli well at all. We keep television viewing to a minimum, and we maintain a soothing household, and for the most part, she does fine. But Halloween season is always particularly difficult, because everywhere we go, she sees things that are — quite frankly — deeply disturbing. Halloween decor has really changed since the days of Casper the Friendly Ghost.

During the month of October, I rarely take my daughter into any stores at all because of the decorations, the scare-factor amplified even further on most of the stuff with audio tracks of horrifying screaming and gibberish that send her into full-blown panic attacks. Even grocery stores tend to drape the cereal aisle in fake cobwebbing and then glue terrier-sized fake spiders onto it all. In October, she keeps her nose tucked way down in a book whenever we’re in the car, because she just can’t handle all the TABLEAUX OF HORROR displayed on half the front lawns we drive by.

The Catch-22 in this situation is, of course, the fact that she loves Halloween. She loves dressing up in (non-scary) costumes, she loves going to Halloween parties, and she loves trick-or-treating. Of course. So, I spend the month of October mostly getting her through all of this, and by the end of the month, I’m often exhausted from the effort this requires, and from the fact that she comes to visit me a lot more than usual in the middle of the night.

So, now that I’ve explained all that to you, I’m going to tell you what happened on Saturday afternoon at the Halloween party held by the karate dojo the girls attend, and I want your honest opinion about what happened, and how I handled it. Because I probably got some people “in trouble” and I probably now have a “reputation” around there as “one of THOSE moms.” And I’m okay with that, I guess. But I’m curious what your opinions will be about this, so here goes:

The dojo hosts a Halloween party every year, and the girls really liked it last year, so we signed up for it again this year, and I gritted my mental teeth and donned my Getting-My-Sensitive-Kid-Through-Yet-Another-Halloween-Party hat, and we went. And right off the bat, I’ll admit that there are a few adults there that just irritate the living hell out of me. They have kids who attend the dojo, but they also take classes themselves, and they’re a tight group of people, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but they do often act a bit… well… juvenile. At this party, they were all dressed up and acting like adolescents more than responsible adults. One of the men was dressed as a teeny-bopper cheerleader, which was… well… kinda… GROSS. Especially at a party designed primarily for young children. Others were dressed more appropriately, but were acting like they were at a frat party, running around wildly, jumping on furniture, throwing food at each other. I watched them and realized that if any of the children at the party behaved like that, they’d be reprimanded. And the double standard really bothered me.

So, I was already irritated. But I let it all go for the most part, because this party wasn’t about me. This party was about my kids and my job was to work my 9-year-old through her anxiety, which took some effort. Because, first of all, the party was dark. They’d turned off all the overhead lighting and everything was eerily lit by spooky jack-o-lantern plastic lamps and purple spider web light strings stuck to the walls. My 9-year-old really struggled with this at first, but she soon realized that she could escape the dark room by walking up the short hallway to the front waiting area. There’s a large picture window there that let in a decent amount of sunlight. So, when she began to feel anxious she’d simply leave the main party room and go stand in the light near the window for a few minutes. I realized quickly that she’d found a way to self-comfort. I allowed her to do this, and I’d just follow along and stand with her and let her talk to me if she wanted to. She’d say things like: “It’s much easier to see what I’m eating up here,” and I’d chuckle a little and agree with her. There is such a thing as saving face. I get it.

[Interesting side note: most of the times we traveled up the hall to stand near the window, we’d find two other children — always the same two kids–  sort of hovering in the light as well. How much do you want to bet they’re highly sensitive children as well? And that they, too, had found a way to cope with the unnerving visual situation happening in the back area?]

I was pleased with my daughter. Because what I saw was that she had made significant progress. She’d found a way to resolve her own anxiety, instead of just collapsing into utter panic like she used to as a younger child. So, she relaxed into the afternoon and was able to watch a group of teens (some dressed in very disturbing costumes) do a demonstration, and then participate in the games and have a few snacks, and the whole bit. All without freaking out. And every 15 minutes or so, she’d take a quick break up in the front room where the light was, and then she’d come back for some more fun.

Fast forward about 45 minutes:

I had stationed myself near the hallway so that I could see my 9-year-old when she went up to the front. The main door is there, and it’s always good to make sure no one is leaving or coming in unexpectedly. I was talking to RegularDad about something, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw my 9-year-old break away from the main party and once again head for the hallway. For the light. For her Comfort Zone. This time, there were two large men lounging near the hallway exit. One of them stood at least 6 feet tall, maybe more, and was a black belt of some degree or other. He’s a creepy-looking guy.

My 9-year-old approached them and tried to slide between them to get into the hallway, but before she could do that, the two of them drew together in front of her to form a solid wall of Very Large People. The black belt was holding a banjo as part of his costume. He lowered the banjo like a sword and used it to further block my daughter’s path. The two of them looked sternly down at her and one of them said:

“We’re under strict orders to take down anyone who tries to leave this room.”

And my daughter’s face… oh my God… her face PALED and her eyes got very large and her whole body shrank away from these two men.

And what I saw instantaneously was that they were just joking with her. That obviously someone had asked them to make sure no kids were messing around unattended up front, and that this was their way of trying to make light of their assigned position. But what they didn’t know was all the stuff I told you at the start of this post. What they didn’t know — couldn’t know — was that in my child’s mind, two very large strangers were keeping her away from the one place in the building she had established as Her Safe Place. My child — my daughter — felt threatened and menaced by two very large, very burly men, (one of whom was an accomplished higher degree black belt) in a place where I took her twice a week to learn karate, a place that was supposed to be a safe environment for children.

All of that happened in the space of maybe 35 seconds.

And every single Mama Bear Instinct in every fiber of my being went into TOTAL SYSTEM OVERLOAD. I took two large steps and as my daughter’s body was still shrinking away from these men, my own body was there in time to back her up.

I looked at those men, who had no idea what they’d just done, what their idea of a joke had cost my child, and inside my head I was ROARING and HOWLING and SCREAMING, but what came out of my mouth was a fumble of words, mild and pleasant, something to the effect of:

“My daughter needs to get through here. It’s okay. She has my permission to do so. I told her she could go through the hall.”

They separated from each other and my daughter shot through the gap and disappeared into the light. I followed her and found her sitting on the floor with her arms wrapped around her knees. She was crying and hiding her face. She thought she’d done something wrong; she thought she was in trouble; she was frightened; she just wanted to stand in the light for a minute.

“It’s okay,” I told her. “They were just trying to make a joke. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Yes I did,” she cried.
“No, you didn’t. You were just going to a safe place. Going to a safe place is never wrong.”
“They said I couldn’t. I’m not supposed to.”
“They were wrong. Honey, listen to me: those men are not in charge of you. Only I am in charge of you, and I told them that you are allowed to be up here.”

We sat together for a few minutes, and then she was ready to go back to the party. No one was guarding the hallway when we went through it. My daughter wiped her tears away and disappeared into the darkness. It was almost time for the pinata.

I stood there for a few minutes, trying to get my act back together. While I was standing there, the woman who runs the office, dressed as a witch, approached me and asked if I was okay. I guess my face looked funny. I sure felt weird. And so incredibly tired of Halloween. I tried to pass it off on that, too. “Oh, this just isn’t my favorite time of the year,” I said to her. She nodded — all understanding — and said… oh, I don’t know what she said, but pretty soon I was telling her the whole damn story, everything I just told you here, and I knew, the whole time I was talking, that she’d tell it to the owner, who is a very nice man, and very gifted with teaching children, a man who never, ever, EVER would have done something like that to a child.  The woman winced a lot as I talked, and she apologized for the whole thing, and I nodded and said that I understood that the men were just trying to be funny, but that the joke had fallen so incredibly flat that it was actually creepy and horrifying. She said she understood. She has a daughter herself, who takes classes at the dojo. She got it.

We left soon afterwards. And we’d been home maybe a half hour when the phone rang. It was the dojo owner. He asked me to tell the story again, and I did, and when I got to the part where the men said they were going to take her down, he started saying oh my God… oh my God… over and over again in a very tired, whispery sort of way. I reiterated the fact that I understood that they were just kidding around, and I made sure he understood I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble over this, but I told him quite simply that the adults who attend his classes need to be more careful and more aware of how they approach the children in the program. These kids know who the black belts are. And the adults have a responsibility to conduct themselves so that no children feel threatened while in their presence. And the bottom line is just this: One day, my daughter will grow up and be a young woman. She will face risks that women the world over have faced for eons. And I enrolled her in a karate program so that in the event that she finds herself threatened by a man, she will have some potential to defend herself. I find it incredibly upsetting that she found herself in a situation that looked too much like that type of scenario for my comfort. In a place where she is supposed to BE SAFE. The owner said he understood, and that was the end of the conversation.

And that’s what happened at the Halloween party yesterday. So, tell me: did I over-react? I was already irritated with some of the adults’ behavior before the whole thing at the hallway happened. How much of that irritation fueled my response? Does it seem more like I was looking to pick a fight? What would you have done, if it had been you? I need to know. Because I’ve made some big giant mama-bear waves over this one, and we still have to see these people and if I was wrong, I need to know. I need to find a way to apologize. Because this is a good karate place, and I don’t want to pull my kids out of it.

Tell me what you think. Tell me what you really, honestly think.

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