Good intentions lead to therapyBy ELIZABETH QUINN,
My son is going to need therapy. I am 100% sure that the events of the last couple weeks have left him with PTSD. It began with his birth. Well, kind of. I was recently at a meeting with the OBGYN who delivered him. My son asked me who I was with at my meeting and I told him, “The doctor who was there when you were born!” Because I haven’t learned anything in my 10 years of parenting, I didn’t consider the multitude of follow-up questions this might cause.
I hired a birth photographer, the lovely Jess Bollaert Eddleman, to document my last two births. She compiled the photos into a slideshow set to music, and the videos she made of those two births are absolute treasures. While I love all kinds of birth photography, I know it isn’t for everyone. My videos are very PG—unless you consider a newborn nursing to be too graphic for PG. I do not, but that’s probably a whole other article. My point is that the slideshow is lovely and tame and something I have shared with people without reservation or awkwardness after they’ve watched it. There is nothing in it that one might consider ‘traumatic.’
One of my favorite parts of having a birth photographer was that she was there to take pictures of our families when they came in to meet our kiddos. We didn’t have to worry about documenting the event and could just enjoy the fun. My husband and I have never found out the sex of our babies before birth, so our families meeting the new baby was always an exciting moment and I loved being able to revel in it in real time instead of through viewfinder. I knew there was a photo of me holding baby boy with Percy and the amazing Dr. Saint Shiflett included in the slideshow, so I told him I would show him when I picked him up from school.
My third daughter asks to watch the video from when she was born all of the time. The last time we watched it; she said, ‘Sometimes, when I watch this—wet stuff comes out of my eyes. It’s not tears because I’m not sad.’ I told her, ‘It makes me cry too because I remember how happy I was when you were born.’ She replied, ‘Yeah, it makes me happy too,’ and snuggled in closer to me. I wasn’t expecting my son to have that reaction, but I certainly didn’t foresee what was coming. I was feeling good about having remembered and followed through on the promise to show him the pictures when I picked him up from school. I used the video to lure him into the car seat he never wants to get in and felt like a genius—but most of my parenting fails follow a feeling of having really nailed it and this was no exception.
He started asking me questions like ‘what’s that on your finger?’ Without being able to see the video, I knew he was asking about the band aid covering a knife/bagel/finger incident that occurred the day before he was born and told him it was just a bo-bo, but he was still concerned. He followed this with a few concerned ‘oh’s’ and a scared sounding whimper. I couldn’t see him because his seat is rear-facing—but I was becoming concerned. There were a few more sounds of anxiety and alarm—and then he lost it.
He started screaming, ‘What’s wrong with Gammy? Why Gammy crying? I donwanGammycryin’, what wrong with Gammy?’ Gammy is my mother-in-law who is pictured in the video with her mouth wide open in a cry-laugh-scream. Every one in that section of photos has the exact same look on their faces because my husband had just told them that our fourth and final baby was a surprise boy after three girls. We were all shocked and laughing and it was hilarious. But Gammy happened to be in the middle of this photo and she has never been accused of hiding her emotions—so it was clear that she was feeling some big feelings, to put it in toddler emotional intelligence speak. My poor child thought Gammy was freaking out, so he started freaking out and I’m trying not to go over the edge of the I-55 bridge as I say, “Gammy was happy! She was laughing! Gammy’s okay!” into the rearview mirror.
He was beyond listening. He was literally twitching in tears when we got home. He keeps asking to watch the video again but I show him still photos of his sisters holding him and smiling, Gammy smiling, Mommy smiling—everybody was happy! But the damage was done. I don’t know what he thought was happening with Gammy when he was born—but I sure hope his therapist can sort it out one day.
Fast forward a few hours to the kitten. For reasons that are complicated and convoluted and already explained in a previous column—we got a cat. We got the cat on the same day I traumatized my child with a slideshow of the day he was born. The night the kitten joined the family, my husband had the kids lined up on the couch when I got home, a row of beaming faces absolutely vibrating with excitement for the surprise they had been told I was retrieving. Percy filmed my arrival—so we have video documentation of this portion of my son’s trauma.
When I walked in holding a tiny black and white ball of rescue kitty fur, the girls come up off the couch seemingly propelled by the force of their screams of joy. It was all I could do to get them to stop squealing and back up so I could get in the room. As soon as there’s a break in the screaming, we hear baby brother, ‘IDONWANDAKITTY!’ He is not a fan. He’s raring back away from me as I approach with the kitten. He stops trying to climb over the couch and out of the window only after I move across the room with her. Setting her down on the floor sets off a new wave of terror and screaming. It appears he is deathly afraid of cats. Who knew? By the end of the night, he’s willing to approach her while she’s being held, even reach out a finger to touch her—but he is not on board with this plan. He just needs time, we all think.
Four days, and not much improvement, later—there was an incident. Our adorable, but still unnamed kitten, loves to climb up on my shoulder like a pirate’s parrot. I pushed for the name Polly, on the suggestion of my friend Chase—but it was shot down. The girls like to try to get her on their shoulders too and during one of these attempts, Not-Polly got startled and launched herself into the air just as baby brother was approaching. He had the misfortune of being in her flight path and her claws scratched his face as she tried to keep from falling to the ground.
Not finding purchase there, she slid down to his chest where she got a good grip on his clothes. My poor child starts reeling backwards in pure terror, arms flapping as if he’s trying to fly away from this horror. Our blind dog is sprawled on the ground behind him. He trips over the dog and lands on his back, with a terrified cat latched on to his chest and proof that he was right: she wants to kill him.
We really were making some progress before that—he would approach to pet her and was even staking a claim in the naming discussion we had going. Some of the contenders were Rosetta, Maya, Midnight, Socks, Bertha, Fancy and his contribution was Palmer—which is also our cousin’s name who lives next door. It’s been a real setback. It meant days more of him refusing to let me put him down on the ground unless I showed him that she was closed up in the bathroom. He’s been spending a lot of time on the counters.
I may start a GoFundMe campaign to get a head start on paying for the psychotherapy that’s in his future—because we aren’t getting rid of the cat. We did finally name her, though. My clever friend, Marty Kelly, suggested Wanda from the, ‘idonWANDAkitty,’ that you hear my baby boy wail in the video of Wanda’s introduction to the family.
I know all parents unintentionally inflict emotional scars on their children; mine did. A neighborhood dog was overly fond of the ducks in the pond across the street from my home growing up and often tried to get a taste of one. My dad ran him off after witnessing one such altercation, but wasn’t there fast enough to save the duck. I had been inside and missed the attack, but heard the ruckus and went looking for my dad. I found him on the side of the house with a piece of firewood raised over his head and a mortally wounded, but still alive, duck on the ground in front of him. I didn’t know the meaning of the term ‘mercy killing’ and didn’t know that my dad was trying to do the humane thing—I just ran off screaming for my mom that Daddy was killing the ducks.
What’s a misunderstanding of facial expressions of joy and a little kitten with sharp claws compared to duck murder? I turned out alright. Maybe there’s hope for my boy after all.
Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.