In these fifteen searingly honest personal essays, debut author Susan Olding takes us on an unforgettable journey into the complex heart of being human. Each essay dissects an aspect of Olding's life experiencefrom her vexed relationship with her father to her tricky dealings with her female peers; from her work as a counsellor and teacher to her persistent desire, despite struggles with infertility, to have children of her own. In a suite of essays forming the emotional climax of the book, Olding bravely recounts the adoption of her daughter, Maia, from an orphanage in China, and tells us the story of Maia's difficult adaptation to the unfamiliar state of being loved. Written with as much lyricism, detail, and artfulness as the best short stories, the essays in Pathologies provide all the pleasures of fiction combined with the enrichment derived from the careful presentation of fact. Susan Olding is indisputably one of Canada's finest new writers, one who has taken the challenging, much-underused form of the literary essay and made it her own.
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From “Push Me Pull You” (Pathologies):
A holiday weekend, and I am walking with my daughter to the park. She is not quite five. She sniffs the air like a young filly and canters into a pile of leaves. “Hello!” she whinnies to every stranger we pass. “Happy Thanksgiving!” And even, “You look beautiful today!”
I set my face in what I hope is some semblance of a smile. This smile is my shield for what I know will come next: “How adorable!” “What a sweetheart!” “How old is she?” And of course, the inevitable “You are so lucky!”
When we reach the park, Maia wants me to push her on the swings. Her hair streams out behind, a black banner glinting with red highlights. “Now you get on, and I’ll push you,” she commands. She is strong enough to do it, too, though she forgets to get out of the swing’s path on its return, and I have to stick my legs out and drag my boots in the sand so I don’t slam into her. She laughs. “You stay sitting and I’ll come join you,” she says. She clambers up and positions herself face to face, astride my lap. Snuggling closer, she rests her head against my shoulder. “Swing, please. Rock me.” This is an old ritual of ours, one begun when she was still a baby. I croon her favourite lullaby. When she looks up into my eyes, her own eyes shine with the purest trust and affection. “You’re the best mum in the whole universe,” she whispers. “I love you to infinity and beyond.”
I am so lucky.
That night, after I’ve read stories to her, brushed her teeth, cuddled under the blankets and banished the monsters from the closet, I tuck her into bed and lean across for a goodnight kiss. But instead of the soft pressure of her lips or the butterfly’s brush of her eyelashes, I feel her small hands come up around my neck. Her thumbs are at my windpipe. She squeezes. Hard. I wonder if I am imagining this, if she’s really just trying to hug me in some new and original fashion. She’s creative and dramatic and physical and she likes to invent all kinds of games. Surely she’s just fooling around. She doesn’t really know what she is doing.
But she does know; she knows exactly what she is doing. She wants to choke me. To choke me.
Maia is the human embodiment of Dr. Doolittle’s Push-Me-Pull-You. Dr. Doolittle is what I privately name each of the so-called experts whom I consult in search of explanations and help. These are the labels they try on and cast aside, for none of them fits exactly or covers completely:
Difficult temperament Regulatory disorder Sensory processing disorder Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder Non-verbal learning disability Gifted, with asynchronous development Unresolved grief or loss Oppositional defiant disorder Post-traumatic stress disorder Reactive attachment disorder
Many, if not most, of her more challenging behaviours can probably be traced in one way or another to her early abandonment. In public, she plays two roles. At times, she’s the poorly governed wild child. At others, she’s the beautiful, exuberant charmer, perhaps a shade too friendly with strangers, perhaps a bit too “busy”—but precocious and delightful, just the same. Meanwhile, at home, we see the complicated self beneath the masks.
Living with Maia is like living in a hurricane zone. You can’t relax because you’re always scanning the sky for signs of trouble. Winds are generally high, and it’s hard work at the best of times to clean up the falling debris. And when the storm breaks, it’s all you can do to keep yourself intact in the face of its fury. Unless, of course, you find yourself within its calm, still centre. The hurricane’s eye surprises even the weariest with hope.
Her first year with us was relatively easy. She was active, yes—unusually so—but just as the orphanage’s paperwork had noted, she liked to cuddle, loved to laugh, and made good eye contact. Encouraging signs, and we felt encouraged by them. Even during her second year, warnings of trouble were subtle, mutable, and easily missed. All two-year-olds throw tantrums. Most four-year-olds don’t, though, or not often. And if they do, their fury stops somewhere short of compelling them to fling chairs across the room.
She spins, hangs upside down, jumps down hard onto harder surfaces, and shows other evidence of early deprivation to her proprioceptive and vestibular systems—those subtle but all-important senses that tell us where our bodies are in space and help us to maintain our balance. She suffers from subtle developmental delays; she did not establish hand dominance until she was nearly five. She struggles to sit still; she chatters and asks countless nonsense questions. Driven by impulse, she grabs and interrupts. She resists or defies almost every parental instruction, and can be so peremptory with us that we have nicknamed her “Miss Bossypants.” Yet at the same time she demands our constant attention. Until she reached the age of four, she could not bear to be in a separate room from me if we were in the same house. Our recent move across the country has thrown her back to that emotional territory, and if I happen to leave her side now without repeated warnings, she screams.
And often, in the guise of seeking closeness, she aims to harm. “I’m sorry,” she will say, after landing an elbow in my stomach, after leaping headlong and unannounced into my arms, after cutting me off and tripping me up on the sidewalk. “Ouch,” I shout, as she plonks herself into my lap and the top of her head hits my jaw. “Oops,” she says. I can’t tell if that’s a smirk on her face or a smile. She doesn’t, yet does, want to hurt me.
And why shouldn’t she? The person she was closest to in all the world deserted her shortly after she was born. The fact that her birth mother may have made that decision under enormous social or economic pressure, at great personal cost, and with only her baby’s interests at heart is irrelevant to Maia. Deep in her cells, she knows only this—at the age of one week, she was left, helpless and alone. Then she was institutionalized, where, despite the best intentions of the harried staff, she was neglected and unloved for ten long months. Finally, she was handed off to a pair of weird-looking, strange-smelling strangers and taken a whole world away from everything known and familiar. And all this without explanation and entirely without choice. She was powerless, and being powerless felt bad, and now that she has finally gained some small measure of security and safety in our family, she never wants to feel powerless again.
Hence her constant jockeying for control. She hones her considerable charm, sharpens her wits, and strengthens her will for violence. Far below consciousness, in the primitive part of her brain, she knows her survival is at stake. And her anger—the anger that should rightfully be aimed at her birth mother or her birth-father or the nannies at the orphanage; at a sexist culture or oppressive family-planning laws or long-standing customs militating against domestic adoption in China; or, perhaps most of all, at the vast global network that permits middle-class westerners like me to whisk children like her away from their countries of origin—all that anger, the full, fierce force of it—she points directly at me. At the person who, however guilty of participating in an ethically questionable system, is also the one who feeds her, bathes her, diapers her, teaches her how to walk, teaches her how to read, sings to her, plays with her, holds her, comforts her. And loves her. Loves her. Loves her.
I live with a level of uncertainty about my mothering that is unusual even among the other adoptive parents I know. I am never entirely sure where I stand.
Around age two and a half, Maia went through a phase of aggression towards other children. Or, more precisely, towards babies. At her preschool, at our kinder-gym, at the park, even in our own house—whenever she saw a crawling infant, she would stomp over to him, loom above him menacingly, and then, with a glazed, cold, almost inhuman expression on her face, shove him to the ground. Snatching up the latest victim and rocking him, his mother might scold, “You need to set firmer limits. Give her some consequences!”
“There, there,” others would sigh. “It’s all because you are too strict with her. She needs you to be more nurturing.”
“Never mind,” counselled a third group. “All kids do that.”
Or, in its nastier form, “What are you worrying about? She’s normal. You’re the one with a problem!”
Any way you look at it, I’m to blame.
I’ve seen those baby books in which proud parents are supposed to record developmental milestones. First tooth, first step, first word. The milestones I should have recorded, but didn’t:
First kiss not flinched from First time she played for more than two minutes on her own First adult conversation she allowed to proceed uninterrupted First time she did not shriek in fury when I left the room First time she could play quietly on her own beside me First time she co-operated immediately with a parental request First time she did not explode when a parent refused a demand First time she truly relaxed
Then again, maybe it’s better we didn’t record these. The first step and the first word are assumed to lead naturally to the next and the next and the next. A simple, reassuring linear progression. But just because Maia did not explode when I disciplined her last week is no reason to think that she won’t explode today. Just because she has accepted a kiss in the past is no reason to believe she won’t brush it off tonight.
At the age of four, Maia told me, “I had a nightmare about a mean mummy with mustard teeth. And she was always mean to me. And I sang a happy song and put her in jail and then my nice mummy came back. But the mean mummy looked just like you except she had mustard teeth.”
With Maia, normal parenting does not work, or does not work reliably. Although Maia understands the relationship between cause and effect, between her actions and their repercussions, she often cannot stop herself from doing what she knows she should not. Mark and I must become a species of super-parent, the “therapeutic” parent. We’re not just here to raise her, we’re here to heal her. The Drs. Doolittle agree that what children like Maia need is “high structure/high nurture” parenting; sadly, they agree less on the precise meaning of that term. Consistent consequences, or paradoxical reactions? Time-in or time-out? Love and Logic or 1, 2, 3 Magic? Boot camp with bottle-feeding, is what it sometimes feels like. What it doesn’t feel is natural. The learning curve is steep and I don’t have my climbing equipment.
I know we are not perfect. No parent is. But I know our parenting is at least as good as that of the smug know-nothings who sneer as I drag Maia kicking and screaming out of the park. Because I am Caucasian and Maia is Chinese, people don’t always recognise immediately that I’m her mother. In the face of what the good doctors would call her “negative persistence” and the seeming absence of a parent, people sometimes feel free to treat her rudely. “Stop that,” they say, in tones I know they would never use with their own children. In tones they would never need to use with their own children. When they learn that I’m her mother, they can barely contain their contempt. I want to scream at them. “Do you think you could do better? Go ahead. Give it a try. Be my guest.”
Copyright © Susan Olding, 2008