Hold it Lightly

Published on January 15th, 2020 | by Cheryl Klein

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Dear No One, Who Are You?

When my four-year-old son’s daycare sent home a clip art-spangled flyer advertising a dance class that kids could take during the school day, my first thought was, Nice attempt to get us to pay an extra $50 a month to watch him while you’re already watching him. I tossed it in the recycling.

A few weeks later, I picked Dash up from daycare. I’d barely buckled him into his carseat when he erupted in tears. 

“I didn’t get to go to dance class! Serenity and Patrick S. and Patrick P. went to dance class in the gym and I had to stay with Teacher Belva.”

I picked up the pieces of my heart and signed him up. 

At home, he proudly demonstrated yoga-gymnastics moves like “mermaid” and “basket.” He shook his hips and mimicked various animals. He did something I assumed was supposed to be a plié.

In June, my partner and I dressed him in a white T-shirt and black pants, charged up our phones, and drove to a random elementary school in the Valley for the StarDreamz dance recital. 

Looking back, there were some signs it wasn’t going to go well, like the fact that he repeatedly said “I don’t want to go.” 

“You don’t have to get onstage if you don’t want to,” I said, “but let’s go and see what happens.”

I hoped that once he saw his friends and his dance teacher, he’d get excited and start shimmying to Beach Boys tunes.

Reader, he cried backstage and spent the entire show on my lap.

And that was how I learned that my very outgoing and extroverted child–the same kid who happily joins packs of children running through the park, like a fish sidling up to a school of finny friends–hated being in the spotlight.

Photo by Stephen Love

Later in the summer, he was the ring bearer in my sister’s wedding. His only job, since we didn’t entrust him with carrying the actual rings, was to walk from where Mommy (me, the maid-of-honor) stood at the back of the aisle to where Mama (my partner, the officiator) stood on a small wooden platform, a distance of about twenty feet.

Reader, he cried as I carried him down the aisle, and he cried throughout the ceremony.

*

Jan Kristal was a counselor and psychology professor who wrote a book called The Temperament Perspective, which taxonomizes temperament along axes including: sensitivity, activity, intensity, predictability, persistence, adaptability, approach/withdrawal, and distractibility. I learned about her book from her daughter, Nicole, who is one of my best friends, and who was the first person I knew to self-identify as a Highly Sensitive Person. I’ve only read excerpts of the book, even though it is fascinating, because my temperament is Person Who Has A Mild Allergic Reaction To Parenting Manuals

Highly Sensitive Person isn’t in the DSM, nor is it a disorder. Like any identity label, it’s shorthand. It is a useful way to describe a person who can’t fall asleep at a new beau’s house without a Xanax, or who goes to elaborate lengths to help a person she just met. Like any identity label, it’s not the full picture, and it can be fluid.

I don’t know if I’m a Highly Sensitive Person, but I’m sensitive. As a child, I sobbed when a beloved My Little Pony went missing at a park. I worried that my toys knew I had favorites. When I was five or six and my family visited a California mission on vacation, I wandered through the cool adobe hallways singing “My Country Tis of Thee” in a low voice. We never went to church, and it was the most reverent thing I could think of. My mom thought I would grow up to be a nun. 

I still have dreams about all the pets I loved but didn’t care for properly (my parents did; the pets were fine). In the dreams, the pets are alive but neglected. My rat Rosie has been in her cage for decades without fresh shavings or water. 

To be sensitive, I think, is to be haunted by the present. (“Nature is a haunted house–but Art–is a house that tries to be haunted,” wrote Highly Sensitive Person Emily Dickinson.)

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

When I described one of Dash’s meltdowns to another self-identified Highly Sensitive Friend (I have a type, clearly), she asked whether Dash, too, might fall into this category. 

My first thought was No. At almost five, Dash still thinks falling down–whether it’s himself or someone else–is the pinnacle of comedy. He screams just for fun. He is not the child in the corner, reading quietly. He is part of the group wielding their backpacks like battering rams before the bell rings. And when his reserves are low, he still hits and bites.

But also: He bites his nails far more often than he bites me. He is still preoccupied with what happened to the body of our cat after he died two summers ago. (“They put it in a big fire? Is he sand now? He’s not breathing now?”) He wonders about the woman we saw at the park, who’d broken her arm moments before our arrival and was waiting for the paramedics. When he describes a kid being mean to him at school, the story is “They said I was bad,” regardless of what words the child actually used.

These things feel as heavy and familiar as my own blood, even though we adopted Dash. But they were hiding from me–because of the goofing around and the falling down. How could a kid who loved to scream need quiet? How could a kid who regularly called me “poop” hear the slightest firmness in my voice as “yelling at him”? 

And–this is the part I’m not proud of–I think I overlooked his sensitivity because he’s a boy.

ADHD and autism are among the brain differences that are underdiagnosed in girls and women. Gender can mask a condition either because the traits present differently, and/or because the bells and whistles of gender are louder than the condition. Dash may be a shouting, farting, truck-loving boy, but those qualities don’t make the Abominable Snowman in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer any less scary to him. 

When I finally applied the sensitivity lens to my view of Dash, I was ashamed it had taken me so long. My job as a parent is to be attuned to What He’s Like And What He Needs. My job as a feminist is to interrogate gender and identity. The reality, though, is that my child and the world change and change and change, and I run after them, breathless but doing my best.

*

I don’t know much about astrology, but when I tell people I’m an Aries/Cancer Rising, I say, “I think it means I can dish it, but I can’t take it.”

The same might be true of my sensitive, rambunctious son. At the end of a long day, when there has been too much input and his brain is overloaded, he sort of loses control of his body. When he flails and hits, I hold his arms at his sides. He says “You’re hurting me!” and demands an apology. This feels highly unfair, and the five-year-old in me wants to snap “You were hurting me more, you hypocritical asshole.”

The sensitive person in me believes I’m as terrible as he says, and is done with the day by that point as well. I grit my teeth until bedtime. His and then mine.

My partner is a sensitive soul too, and when we fight, it’s usually because we’re sensitive in different arenas. She feels every nuance of her interactions with friends, and if her social calendar is too sparse, she despairs. If my social calendar is too full, and I don’t have time to clean the house, and our living room is covered in tiny bits of half-dried Play-Doh, I feel murderous. When we say various innocuous things to each other, we rarely take them as such.

And so Dash was adopted into the best family or the worst. One that sees and values feelings, but one that seems to have too many of them, all at once.

*

These are the axes I’m thinking about: sensitive/blunt, introvert/extrovert, shy/ham, masculine/feminine. I’m a sensitive introverted ex-cheerleader femme married to a sensitive extrovert who is a chill public speaker, raising a sensitive extroverted boyish boy (albeit one who likes tutus) who will dance like no one is watching until he realizes someone is watching. 

Is trying to taxonomize these traits a useful exercise? Humans aren’t math equations, after all. Or maybe we are at some atomic level that’s far above my pay grade, that place where God and physics collide. Psychology, astrology, numerology, religion–they’re all languages for describing the world and ourselves. They’re all imperfect, but they are jumping-off points. Language itself is a collection of stereotypes: “table” is a flat surface with legs, but surely not all tables are flat.

But if you paint enough dots on a canvas, you have The Island of La Grand Jatte.

*

Dash’s newest move, when introduced to a new person, is to shout with a nervous grin, “I’m not Dash! I’m no one!”

People either play along or say “You seem like someone special to me” or roll their eyes after they’ve seen it a few dozen times.

Maybe I should worry that this signals some kind of deep self-esteem problem, but my interpretation is that this is Dash’s way of saying, “Don’t look at me” and also “Look at me.” And also “I could be anyone.”

How dreary – to be – Somebody!

How public – like a Frog – 

To tell one’s name – the livelong June –

To an admiring Bog!

C.C. showed Dash a YouTube video of someone reciting Emily Dickinson’s most famous poem. If it resonated at all, he disguised it by immediately demanding Peppa Pig. 

I am the Bog in this story, admiring and fretful, always trying to do better, always exhausted. I try to create a homey swamp where my little No One can try on being different anyones. A place where the line between earth is water are soupy and malleable. The air is humid; it, too, is almost water. And in the fog, my not-Frog dances.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press), and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, and several anthologies. Her work has been honored by the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Cultural Innovation. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Cheryl is currently looking for a publisher for Crybaby, a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. Follow her on Twitter: @meadowbat.



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