Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Learned Weakness

In my past life as an Early Interventionist, learned weakness was a concept I spoke to parents about all the time. Parents of a child with a disability tend to have an urge to do things for their child because they don't want them to have to struggle. Heck, most parents have that urge - but it is often more pronounced among parents of children with special needs because just the day to day existence stuff is so often a struggle for them. They don't want to add to it if they can help it. It was my job to remind them that the struggle would make the child stronger and that the feeling of success they would achieve after working hard to meet a goal would be worth far more than achieving the goal itself.

An excellent example of a parent who chose this path presented itself when we were working with a child with multiple physical disabilities. Every night his mother made him climb the stairs for his bath. It was hard. It was a struggle. With every step he would beg her to carry him the rest of the way and she would say no. She watched him do the work. She helped him if he needed it, but she never did it for him. It was grueling for him, both physically and emotionally, but when he got to the top his pride radiated throughout the whole house. He would scream, "I did it! I did it!" announcing his nightly victory over the stairs, and his dad and his siblings would respond from wherever they were in the house, "Good job, buddy!" Mom? She would help him with his bath, help him into bed, and cry herself to sleep. Watching him struggle when she could have so easily carried him up the stairs was hell on her, but she knew that his rewards were twofold. He got the short term reward of pride in a job well done and he also got the long term reward of strengthening his body. Win/win.

Another parent on the other end of the spectrum referred to her child as her "cross to bear" and did everything - and I mean EVERYthing - for a child who was capable of actually doing quite a lot on her own - out of a sense of penance.

Twenty years later I don't have contact with either of those families, but if I had to hazard a guess as to which one was leading a more independent life, I'd put my money on that little guy who climbed the stairs every night. Although the extent of the little girl in the second scenario's disabilities was far less than his, his mother had taught him to be strong where hers had taught her to be weak. When presented with a task, his first answer would probably be a confident, "I can do that!" whereas hers is more likely to be a resigned, "I can't do that."

Her mother thought she was being kind. Her intentions were good. The result was a child who has learned only to ask for help.

Obviously one doesn't have to have a disability to be an "I can do anything" type or a "I can't do anything" type. I drew from what I know for those admittedly extreme examples.

Me? (come on - you KNEW we were gonna talk about me, right?) I was taught that I couldn't do anything. As a child I was rather obedient. I feared authority. If I was told not to do something, as a rule, I didn't do it. Case in point: In fourth grade, my Science teacher had to call my parents because I was so adamant about not lighting matches - which was something we had to do for many of our experiments. I remember being torn. I wanted to follow my teacher's instructions. I was - as we've established - a rule follower and a respecter of authority. But my parents were the ultimate authority and they'd said "never light a match". They'd been very clear on this. So, in an unprecedented move, I defied my teacher. My parents were quite embarrassed when he called and they changed the rule that night to "never light a match unless you are being closely supervised by an adult". That seemed to cover all the necessary bases.

I have never mowed a lawn. Growing up, I was told it was "too dangerous for you". I believed this without question. In the years when I might have been prone to a lawn mowing rebellion, I lived in apartments and it was not a necessity. When I got my first adult lawn, I was married and pregnant. That's no time to learn. Now it's too late. Tom has taught Lea to mow the lawn. I can't watch. There is still a little piece of me that thinks this is a very dangerous activity for a fourteen year old girl.

Even more dangerous than bumper cars.

That's right, bumper cars.

You can get whiplash, you know.

Just ask my parents.

(Avert your eyes from my arms for a second and look at the face of a 44 year old woman in her very first bumper car - 8-15-07)

So you get the idea. I was raised to believe that the world was scary and that I was ill-equipped to handle it. Somewhere along the line - not entirely by choice - I ended up alone in that big wide scary world. And I managed. I managed to drive without getting lost and pay my own bills and matriculate like a mofo and make my own mistakes. Managed? Hell, I thrived. Life was a bumper car ride and I was daring whiplash to catch up to me. I worked and played in the city and could parallel park in three swift moves. If I'd had a lawn, I would've mowed the hell out of it. I lit matches just to smell the sulfur.

That's right.

I was just that bad.

And now? Now I'm scared again. I'm scared of everything. My confidence is shot.

I hate feeling this way. I don't know what happened. I've lost my mojo. I decided to take action in what will sound like such a small way.

My sister had just cleared some ground and put down some pavers in her front yard. It looks great and it took her less than an afternoon to complete the job. I had something similar in mind in my own back yard on a much smaller scale. I asked if she'd help me do it and she agreed. But she's out of town for two and a half weeks. So I thought to myself, I thought: I can do this without her. I can do it without her and I can do it without Tom and I'll have time left over to run through the house with scissors. Pointed any damn way I please.

That was five days ago.

I don't even have the area excavated, much less the project completed. I spend a good bit of time just looking at the mess I've made and thinking, "what the hell have I done?" followed by "THIS is why I don't take on DIY projects".

Should I keep climbing the stairs? I sure would be proud of that little bit of landscaping... Or should I wait until my sister gets back and humbly turn the job over to her? She'll get it done and it will be nice. I can spend the next two weeks reading on the deck (with my chair turned so that I can't see the mess) and drinking summertime malt beverages. But then I'll have to put the scissors and the matches away and stay clear of the bumper cars.

And I kind of remember loving the bumper cars.

(hmmmm - there's got to be a nature vs nurture post in here somewhere, since my sister grew up with exactly the same parents but a completely different set of issues...)


Liz Mays said...

Keep going, my friend, you can do this. Just think how you'll feel!!!

I relate to your trepidation though. I really do!

Alex the Girl said...

Aaahhh (scream). What a mess. First, let me tell you, as a mom of a 2 year old diagnosed with CP, your intro totally pulled me in. I think I can I think I can, and he can, trust me!!!

As for your personal project...who needs a back yard??? (easy answer there, huh?) It goes inline with me helping my oldest get started for college. I'm looking at all this confusing paperwork kind of like you're looking at your back yard. I think I'd actually like having an excavator come in and haul it all out for me.
Mess aside, you've come a long way, baby.

Unknown said...

Great post. It's interesting how siblings grow up in the same evironment and turn out differently. I'm the youngest of 7 and am so different than my older siblings that some people joke that there must have been a mixup in the hospital nursery when I was born! (Except that there are enough subtle similarities to convince me that's not true either!)

Rosa said...

1. You two are an absolute doctoral thesis in nature vs. nurture. Just saying.
2. Finish that landscaping! You'll be happy you did and every time someone looks at or mentions it, you'll feel like you built the Taj Mahal.
3. I freaking LOVE that picture of you and Lea in the bumper car. It's priceless.

Gibby said...

Tammy, you are so damn funny! "I'll have time left over to run through the house with scissors. Pointed any damn way I please." This phrase alone still has me laughing out loud!!!

I grew up similarly. I was terrified to break the rules and felt that most things were meant for others to do. But then I went away to college and afterwards moved away to a strange city and lived on my own. I HAD to do things because there was no one there to do them except for me. I felt so empowered and exhilarated. I truly believed that I could do anything.

Then I got married and as the years have passed by spent at home, I have lost some of that vigor. I tend to wait til Hubs gets home because I can have him do it. Sometimes my excuse is that I won't do it right and he will be upset (strange, because that man has never been mad at me for anything like that in our entire relationship, but I pretend that he would be mad) and I end up just waiting for someone else to do it. Usually that means nothing if very little gets done. If this is how my girls end up, I will be PISSED. So Tammy, I will do things if you will do things. So I say, go ahead and finish the paver project, and if it's not perfect, tough shit, at least it's done. And THEN, face your chair TOWARD the pavers and drink that Shandy with a ridiculously mad smile on your face!!!!!!!

Mandy said...

Do it! If you want to read a book, pick up the "lawn projects for dummies" book and read that before you get started! ;-) Give it a try.... if you make a mess, your sister can help you fix it and you can both get a laugh out of it and enjoy some cocktails. Would Austin Powers give up on his mojo? NO! Stop talking and take action! Don't be a sideline watcher... Be a team player OR at least be a Spartan cheerleader! :-) If you don't then "Touchdown Jesus" would have burned down in vain.... maybe that was a sign that life is too short Tammy, even for a hideous Jesus statue in Mason, Ohio!

BONNIE K said...

I agree with Kittycha! Seriously, tho, I saw myself in there as the mom who wanted to do too much for her son who struggled. And I should have done less. And he's going away to college in the fall and this oughta be very interesting. As for your mess, I'll go out on a limb and say just wait for your sister to return.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I think you WANT to finish the job yourself. But if you wait for your sister, don't just turn it over to her... ask her to help you. Do some of the work and learn as you go. Maybe get it a little more organized in the meantime. Learning to ask for help is also a skill that some of need to strengthen.

Joanna Jenkins said...

I'm thinking, go for it Tammy. I bet you can get it done--or at least make a big dent in it and you'll be thrilled when you do.

Again, you are a wonderful storyteller. The story of the two kids and their parents is stunning.

Hang in there. I'm cheering you on.

Cheryl said...

If you're up to the challenge of doing something you've never done before and willing to have it be less than perfect, go for it. If not, wait for your sister to come home and have her show you how she did it. DIYers are a breed apart and they do so love to teach.

Macey said...

OH geez. I'm thinking about the mom who watched her boy struggle up the stairs every day. This makes me cry, but I applaud her resolve.

Carma Sez said...

although I did have to mow the lawn at an early age - just about everything else was not a wise decision according to my parents. Why would you want to do that?? etc etc etc. I learned about Umbrella insurance (just in case) before most kids even had a clue about regular insurance. To this day I am highly cautious (read: not fun)