Friday, May 12, 2006

What Else Hurts?

Over the last couple of weeks — as things have gotten harder and harder — Sweet M has been making some drawings that are very telling.

She made this pencil drawing one Saturday afternoon after she'd been watching cartoons because her father and I were each buried in other concerns.

When he saw this drawing, he said, "Wow, bunny, that's a great drawing." Shortly thereafter she crumbled it up and threw it away, which is why it's all wrinkled. He retrieved it so we could think about it, and ask her about it. Our conversation went like this . . .

Me: These people look sad. Why are they sad?
Her: Because they are waiting for a contract.
Me: What will happen when the contract comes?
Her: The building will blow down.
Me: Why do you think the building will blow down?
Her: I don't want to talk about it.

Obviously I'm not an art therapist or we would have gotten farther.

The sunshine is happy enough, but check out the ferocious cloud, blowing on the flames coming out of the chimney. The contract is the rectangle between the weathervane and the chimney. And look at all of those sad people. And the sad dog. The only happy creature in this picture is the smiling cat in the bottom right hand window — famous, as cats are, for their ability to thrive on their own. And while all the other figures are sad, only the little girl on the left is crying. (If you click on the image, it will pop-up as a bigger picture that's easier to see.)

The background to her drawing is that I have been in negotiations on a consulting contract for almost 3 months, and it has created some financial tensions that we have been waiting for this to come in. I've turned down all kinds of other projects as I'd agreed to take on this consulting project, we've been just hanging on by a thread as the negotiations drag on.

One of the institutions involved in the negotiations is a major cultural institution in the city, and they have all the time in the world. They have third century BCE cuneiform tablets in their collections, and it sometimes seems that they'd be willing to wait several millennia to close a deal and cut a deposit check.

I don't know what Sweet M thinks about the contract — I was stunned that she was even aware that there is a contract in negotiation — but she seems to think that it will rock her world in all of the wrong ways, when in fact it should make all of our lives much easier.

She could also be picking up on the anxieties of our neighbor, who very anxiously shared the information that a giant apartment tower may be under consideration for the two lots next to where we live, so our apartment may lose all of its light and its one Manhattan canyon view. Apparently an international real estate development corporation, owned by the privately held Carlyle Group, has their eye on the properties adjacent to where we live.

And then there is the fact that the playground across the street from our home is now torn up, under renovation in a long overdue process that won't be completed until September 2007.

Finally, of course, there is the fact that we often lose sight of — that Sweet M saw the twin towers collapse twelve blocks from here.

In her world, buildings do get blown down.

The more colorful marker pen drawing was made on the day of her school music and art show. Normally she is very much a ham . . . belting out the musical numbers with her class. But this year she stood behind her teacher and refused to sing. Then she didn't want to show off her art. And her father did not show up at the performance or art show.

She did not want to be in the noisy, bustling crowd of parents and kids, so we went up to the quiet of her classroom and made drawings while we waited for the art show to end and for the teachers to come back. She drew the house first, then the clouds, then the sunshine, then the family on the right. In the middle of drawing the family on the right, she said, "Nope, wrong." and crossed it out. Then she drew the idealized family on the left. Then she drew the spiral, and crossed it out.

The next day, a family friend who is a therapist asked Sweet M to tell her about the spiral in the drawing. M said, "It's a wormhole." My friend asked, "Wow, it's a great wormhole. Can you tell me about wormholes?" And Sweet M said, "They suck up everything."

What else hurts?

It hurts when you can't seem to make your family, your neighborhood — your world — work well enough to make your child feel safe, secure, protected.



kristina said...

The wormhole spiral (target?) was what caught my eye first.

Charlie is always aware of the buzz of topics and worries around him (lately these have meant words like "hospital" and "dementia" and "nurse). He's not inclined to express himself graphically---thank you for sharing Sweet M's pictures, each worth about 10,000 words.

Zilari said...

I was stunned that she was even aware that there is a contract in negotiation

Sweet M sounds like a very perceptive, highly aware kid who would really benefit from being told what is happening with the grownups. None of us are really "in our own worlds" -- we're all here, together, in the same world, even when we're separated by walls or responses aren't what might be expected.

I'd guess that a good ground rule might be to, when something is a big source of concern for the grownups, to assume that your kid realizes that there's concern and explain to them what is going on.

My mother had some mental health issues when I was growing up, and by the time I was nine I was reading medical texts, and the terms "haloperidol" and "desipramine" were in my vocabulary, and I knew my mother hated these things because the side effects included weight gain. I'd guess that nobody had any idea that I knew this sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Sweet M saw something on TV that reminded her of the twin towers? Maybe an advertisement for the movie about the hijacked United flight?

Perhaps she thinks that if a giant apartment tower is built next door, it will get attacked by terrorists?

The picture looks as if she moved the family to put them in a safer place.

MothersVox said...

Thanks everyone. I agree with Zilari and Bonnie that Sweet M probably understands everything that's going on around her -- sometimes even more than we adults understand about the situations! I love Bonnie's interpretation that she's moved the family to a safer place!

Mom to Mr. Handsome said...

They say that children are aware of more than you know. It's easy to say that until your own children reveal the things that you thought you were so cleaverly protecting them from somehow reappear through drawings, play and everyday conversation. I realized this when Boo was pretending to feed her baby doll using the same ABA techniques that we use with GAbe. Sounds cute, until you realize that her doll is screaming "No!" and refusing to eat. Boo chose to recreate the beginning of Gabe's eating therapy and not the success that we are seeing now. I thought, how is she going to carry this with her? Simliar to Miss M and the Twin Towers, the wormhole and the contract. What is a momentary worry and what stays with them? That's what worries me the most.



Anonymous said...

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. Aside: you usually refer to her as Sweet M, but in the third-from-last paragraph you appear to be using her name.

I agree with what zilari said. Even little kids pick up (and often misunderstand) stuff. We want to protect our kids (NT or not) from adult worries--but they pick up the worry, not the source.

I know a family where the stepmother was undergoing fertility treatment, with the usual injectable medications. She did not want her stepchildren to know about the treatment. But the kids saw the needles in the trash and the medication in the refrigerator. Because she concealed the information, the stepchildren assumed the needles and drugs in the refrigerator meant that their father's previous cancer had returned. The kids were inconsolable. So much suffering over nothing! If the stepmother had just said, "I'm undergoing treatment for a medical condition. I'm fine, your dad's fine, it's nothing for you to worry about" months of worry (and poor behavior and perfomance in school) for the kids would not have happened.

You can make the explanations appropriate to the child's level of understanding.

I don't know Sweet M -- but if you tell her a contract is like a promise, where you promise to do some work and the other people promise to pay you, and the negotiation part is how much work for how much money--that's easy to understand. And if you say that the institution is really, really, really slow to make up its mind, and the slowness is giving you the heebie-jeebies (or whatever word your family uses for anxious impatience) that she can understand.

And if you mention that sometimes you remember when the towers fell down and it makes you feel sad, that's acknowledging a real feeling too.

Anonymous said...

Liz again. Happy Mother's Day. I read your writing about your beautiful girl, and I think you are an amazing mother.

MothersVox said...

Hi Liz, Thanks for the heads up about my proper name slippage. I guess I'm slipping! And thanks also for your thinking about age-appropriate explanations, and your kind words about my parenting. Sometimes I wonder about what I'm doing, but I do try to offer, or get, Sweet M what she seems to need.