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Fern Ridge Press -- Eugene, Oregon --
IN THE NON-TRADITIONAL FAMILY
By the time my little boy was born, I had read all the child-rearing books I could lay my hands on. He was everything I could possibly have hoped for in a baby. He spoke unbelievably early. Had ten words by the time he six months, forty by the time he was a year old. From this I presumed one thing: He was a happy little creature who knew that he was being listened to.
When he was three, I went with him to wonderful Parent Education classes and watching him with the other children, saw that he was far more outgoing, receptive and alert than most. I traded experiences with the other parents, and watching my happy little fellow, patted myself on the back, that I must be doing something right!
He was three and a half when the nightmare began. My husband and I, in order to keep him secure, shared the taking care of him. My husband worked part-time at night, I part-time during the day. This way one of us was always around. Now it was three o'clock at night, and as often happened when the child had gone to sleep too early, he woke up and came into my bed. Exhausted as I was, I told him rather sternly he could stay, but would have to go back to sleep. He stayed quiet, but at 4:30, when his father came home, he was still awake. I told him to ask Daddy to give him breakfast and the two "men" ate something in the kitchen. A little later they both come back to into our bedroom. As the child limbs back into my bed, he asks for a bottle, and I tell him there is one in the icebox. He paddles back into the dark kitchen and gets his bottle out of the refrigerator. I remember being proud of how fearless he is.
Bottle in one hand, security blanket in the other, he cuddles next to me. I am groggily hoping for a bit of sleep. Suddenly the child lets out a scream of terror that my own heart jumps with fright. Without looking to see what is frightening him, I bend over him and reassure him: "It's all right! It's all right!" When I ask what scares him, he points to the picture of a large-eyed owl that has sometimes frightened him a little before. I immediately remove the painting.
The room is now in dim light. There's a light on in the hall and the door is open. A minute later, that same desperate scream. I turn on the light. The look of terror on the child' face is unbelievable. He points to the vacuum cleaner I had left in the corner, hoping to clean the room first thing in the morning. I quickly remove this too and try to calm him. This time a shadow frightens him. Water dripping outside from the roof! Now a hook on the wall!
At this point a very grumpy father takes over. "Here, John, Daddy will protect you!" and the child climbs gratefully into his father's bed and hides under the blanket. I turn off the light. Again that piercing, terrible, horrified scream!
I pick up the child and carry him into the kitchen, turning on the light as I enter. "There now, there's nothing there!" But there is. "The bugs, the bugs!!!" every spot on the floor has turned into a bug! In desperation I ask him what they look like. He only points, his face distorted and red with fear. I had spattered some ink against the wall. The spots are bugs crawling up after him! I give him a rag and some Ajax. His face still flushed, he scrubs away, but the stains hardly budge, even when I help him with it. And besides, when one spot disappears he finds twenty others. He is clinging to me like a little monkey. I assure him I won't let them get him. They are flying at him now, he is straining out of my arms so I can hardly hold him, scrambling onto my shoulder, trying to climb on top of my head to get away from whatever it is. - I am nearly screaming myself.
Again I take him out of the room. No, the living room is full of terrors too. I manage to get him into his bedroom and find some innocuous book to read to him. The distraction works for a while. The moment I stop reading the pointing and creaming starts.
It is now 6:30; light is dawning outside. I tell the screaming child that I will take him outside, wake a very angry father to hold the screaming boy while I dress. Outside the sky is slowly turning from gray to blue. For over an hour I carry him in my arms. He is fearful of every shadow and many of the things he has known all his life. Slowly he calms down as the day becomes brighter.
As the day progresses, he plays outside, but refuses to go into the house. Finally, he falls asleep on a blanket in the garden. I carry the sleeping child in and put him on my bed, and try to catch a few minutes of sleep on my husband's bed next to him. I barely drowse when that dreaded scream tears me awake. He is pointing in terror at the owl! His thoughtless father had put it up on the wall again, and I, stupid fool had not noticed it. This time I tear the hook off the wall too.
Now two things occurred which prevented me from taking some kind of action soon: I went to the Gesell Institute's book "Child Development" and read up on fears. Fears, it said, at three and a half mostly take the form of bugs. The child is afraid of bugs under his bed, and so on. "Aha," I thought, "He is right on schedule." And I felt slightly relieved. Now came the other point. My husband and I, to save our marriage, were going to group therapy. This day, however, I would not leave the child and asked my husband to get advice from the psychologist.
At home, in the meantime, John tells a little friend: "You can't come to my house, there are things there."
The advice my husband brings home is this: Children at this age are becoming aware of many new things and need to be reassured as to what they are. Point out to him what things are and keep him away from furry animals. They seem to create fear. I spend the rest of the day explaining every shadow, every leaf and every spot on the wall or on the floor. I put a mild sedative in his bottle and he sleeps through the night.
The next day he is extremely fearful, screams at the sight of every fly. At "Story Hour" at the library, he tells the librarian: "There are things flying around in my house!" We figure out that maybe he is seeing after-images from having stared at a light too long. Perhaps even a dark spot might create its own colored after-image. He might be seeing the little dust particles, the motes, that drift past the iris in your eye and which you can see against a pale sky. I explain it to him, but he is only three and a half and it is hard to do. He seems to buy the explanation and is calmer. I keep him away from the house most of the day.
When I try to take him home toward evening, he gets absolutely hysterical: clawing wildly not to have to going inside. Only now he is almost as afraid of the flies and the shadows in the garden. I have is father carry him - outside - while I go in to put a call through to our pediatrician. She is not in, but I tell the child that she will give him something to make him feel better. This calms him sufficiently to let me carry him into the house.
In a short while the Doctor calls, but refuses to prescribe medication, -- that might make it worse. She insists that something has frightened the child, that the fear will disappear in a few days and not to punish him for them. I hang up. No help! In the meantime, my child, his face a mask of terror, is screaming at the white, long spots in our bathroom tiles. "The slugs, the slugs!! The Daddy slugs!" John has a "water gun," the kind of sprayer that women use to moisten their clothes for ironing. I bring that thing and tell him to shoot the "Daddy Slugs."
At first I have to do it, then he fires away with terrible intensity and great fear, trying to get them before they get him. He finally has a weapon! After he has been shooting for a while, I tell him to call the slug's dirty names, all the dirty names he can think of. At first he does not know what to day, I say it for him: "Stupid fool, you stupid fool Daddy slugs!" Then he supplies:"Cry baby!!! Dummy!!" these are the worst things in his vocabulary. There is a little cup on the sink, he fills it with water and has me throw it on the slugs. This I do with much gusto and much anger, and he supplies me with the words he wants me to use. Finally he does it himself, saying: "Tell me what to say!"
We alternate the procedure. It goes on monotonously for about forty minutes. When the bathroom threatens to float away, I suggest he dump the water into the toilet bowl. We do this for about ten minutes and he pretends it is the noise his friends make when they go to the toilet. I have to dump it most of the time, and he tells me which one of his friends, both male and female, are performing the act. He is laughing uproariously at this play-acting. When we go back to shooting the slugs again, I ask if there are Mommy slugs too. At first he says: "No" then after a while he sees Mommy slugs too. "They are laughing and talking together!!" I tell him to shoot them, and he does. Then back to the toilet.
After a while I say: "After this session, we'll have another one at shooting the Daddy slugs!" He: "No, after this session we shoot the Mommy slugs." Finally, he shoots both the Mommy and Daddy slugs and shouts with deep and real anger in his voice: "Dummy! Crybaby!"
We leave the bathroom. He is only slightly apprehensive that evening, and the next morning he is his own cheerful self.
I wish I could say that this was the end of the episode, but John did not forget so soon. That day after the water play the night before, I tell him to leave me alone to have a rest because I get cranky when I get tired. He says: "Do you get cranky at Daddy?" I explain that we all get cranky at each other and then, after a while, feel better and everything is all right. He thinks about it a minute and then seems to decide that it is better to play outside the house.
That evening he is apprehensive again, and his father, forewarned, tells him that he can shoot it out with the bugs in the bathroom, but he wonŐt allow any of his imaginary bugs in his bedroom. And John goes to sleep in his father's bed, secure in the knowledge that he is safe from them there.
The following day he is fairly apprehensive, but not unwilling to let me go to work. When I come home, his father tells me that he had gone to play with the neighbor's child, but had returned ten minutes later, scared to death and had spent the rest of the day in front of TV in his DadŐs room - the one place off-limits to the bugs. He cheerfully tells me that he understands gravity (!) and that there were cartoons on our TV. (So far there had been cartoons only on the neighborŐs TV sets.) After a good dinner we decide to go shopping. He takes my face between his hands and says: "Let's leave Daddy at home!" And again, after groping in the dark for days now, I understand what it is all about!!
Freud has said that the "Wolf" the child is afraid of is the symbol of the father. So far, so good, but then I suddenly remembered the case of the four year old daughter of a friend of mine. There was a new baby, and the mother, thinking herself modern, permitted the child to strike the new baby and to hit her to let out the jealousy. Suddenly the little girl became paranoid. When people came to the door she'd scream:" TheyŐre coming to kill me!" My friend who was seeing a psychologist at the time, took his advice and no longer let the child hit either her or the new baby, telling her daughter: "I will not let you hurt the baby and I will not let you hurt me!"The child needed to know there were limits to her anger, and the fear stopped.
(Maybe Freud in his case history of "Little Hans." was wrong, and the fear of the wolf was not so much the fear of the child's father, but the fear of the child's own anger. At that age, still feeling himself omnipotent the child is terrified of what he may do to his father!)
So now, when my son said:" Let's leave Daddy at home: "I gave him a big hug and said: "You want Mommy all to yourself. And you want Daddy all to yourself. And I love you like no one else in the world, but there is a special kind of love between Mommy and Daddy, and that's the way it is, and that's all there is to it!" He is perfectly cheerful when we all go shopping and repeats: "I want Daddy all to myself!"
That evening he is completely free from anxiety. Later, I build him some space men and a rocket ship out of clay according to his directions. After I finish the spaceman, he wants me to make him a "space boy." I make him a smaller model, but he wants it " - just as tall. Just for today he is grown up!" We end up with a remarkable space rocket with all three stages and a fine nose cone.
A little later he tells me laughingly; "I want to pee pee in your pants!" To which also laughingly reply "You want to pee pee in my pants?" I now recall that the night before he had climbed on top of me as I was lying on the floor and said "I wet you!" and sure enough he had wet his pants a little and had tried to pass it on to me.
By this time it is Saturday. He still has some fear, but it is not the helpless, screaming kind. As I rest for a nap, - we are in our bedroom - he says: LetŐs close the door fast!" I say, "You want to keep Daddy out!" He adds quickly, as if he hadnŐt heard: "I'll get a rope and tie it shut!" I tell him again, that he wants me all to himself, and I love him, but that it takes a Mommy and a Daddy to protect a child, and that Mommy and Daddy love each other a special way, and he'll have to put up with it.
Later that evening I play more shooting slugs with him, but he loses interest fast. He tries to hit me, but I won't let him. He calls his father "Dummy." There are no more fears. Next time at naptime: "Let's get another bed for Daddy!" and again I repeat yesterday's statement with slightly different words. He is no longer interested in slug shooting.
Today, eight days after the first attack, there are no more fears, beyond his wanting to have the light on at night. He has mentioned that something squirts out of his belly button and I have to set him right about the functions of his anatomy. There are no more bugs around the house.
It is now six months later. I have a noisy, lively, typical four-year-old on my hands. In our house the shadows remain simply that, shadows. The spots on the floor are spots. We saw a slug the other day, and he wanted to know what it was. "A small snail without a house," I told him. There was no fear connected with the question.
I am tremendously grateful that before this frightening episode had happened I had read Dorothy Baruch's book "One Little Boy." I had also read her "New Ways in Sex Education." And I had been acquainted with Freud's case history of &Little Hans." From this came the knowledge that finally helped my son. Doctor and psychologist had been of no help, at least at a distance. Even if we had been able to afford the services of a child psychiatrist at the time, it would have meant weeks or months of more terror for my little one. A little later, as his fears were already diminishing, I searched for more answers, and the only ones I found were in Mary Wickes classic "The Inner Life of Your Child."
It is startling, even to me, that this account reads like a textbook case. I had forgotten most of it, as one forgets about the pain of childbirth, and at the time I rewrote this from notes I had taken because our pediatrician had asked me to let her know how the child was progressing. I think the jealousy in John's case was more frightening to him than the normal occurrence at that age because his father took care of him almost as much as I did, and was therefore more important to him than most fathers are at this stage of life.
While I was writing this up - I still had the paper in the typewriter - my husband came and put his arms around me. John came and pushed us apart. As usual I said gently; "Now you know Mommy and Daddy belong together!" He backed up a little and answered with a sheepish grin. "I belong to you!" pointing at me. "And I belong to you" pointing to his father!
I no longer sleep half awake, listening for the penetrating scream that would send me tearing to his bedside. And if the fears come back - the Gesell Institute says that four and a half the fears come in the form of lions and tigers - I will be a little more prepared to deal with them.
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