In my children’s world of military chaos and disorder, I am the constant, the always present person and place. But this role isn’t easy.
At our new library, we walk into cheerful chaos: children shouting, towers crashing, bright clothes blurring in motion.
Older children sit at tables piecing together lego bricks. Toddlers wobble drunkenly on a rug in the center of the room, pulling Duplo blocks out of each others’ hands. My boys find an empty space at a table and sit down together on one chair, turned slightly away from each other so both their bottoms fit. My daughter pads over to the snack table, chubby fingers outstretched for a Dixie cup of Chex mix.
I settle on a patch of carpet in front of the lego table, my daughter in my lap and a few blocks in front of us. I’m attempting to show her how to stack them when a familiar wail rings through the room. I turn around. My six-year-old is red-faced and quiver-chinned, squeezing tears from his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, annoyed. He’s one of the oldest kids in this room–too old to be throwing a tantrum if someone grabbed the brick he wanted or knocked over his creation.
“I thought I was lost,” he says with a hiccup.
Guilt courses through my body—a sickening wave of shame from assuming his outburst was due to immaturity. I should know it’s because he feels unmoored.
I stand, pushing past the mothers and diaper bags lining the walls to get to his side of the table. “I wouldn’t leave you here, buddy,” I say, pressing my hands onto his shoulders. “I’m not right next to you because I’m watching your sister, but I will not leave this room without you.” He nods, eyes still overbright, but seconds later his head is down as he goes back to work on his multicolored monster. In the sea of toys and children, I am the stable mom he looks to.
My boys are living in their fourth state in four years.
As we unpack the boxes in our rental, they ask where our next house will be. Their father is working eighty hours a week in a prosthodontics residency. They don’t have friends to anchor them to this place. I am the touchstone, the familiar territory, even if I’ve only just stopped plugging the grocery store into my GPS.
Our military life requires frequent moves and adjustments. We start over and over again, and despite my weaknesses, I am the foundation, the constant. I am with my children always, even when I’m so anxious that I fret my skin until it bleeds, even when my voice rips out of me in a roar that leaves them reeling back and crying out.
Four years ago, my doctor printed an antidepressant prescription I didn’t want. “Your children need you stable,” she said, holding eye contact until I took the paper and fled the office. The prescription lay buried in a pile of papers on my nightstand for months as I worked at night and cared for my children during the day.
One afternoon I called my husband during clinic hours. I told him I was counting Tylenol, wondering how many would quiet the whispers of inadequacy assaulting my mind.
At that time and in that moment, I was anything but stable.
He called my mother and the pharmacy. I swallowed the pills, gulping water to wash the bitterness off my tongue; I kept swallowing the pills to make myself stable.
I quit my night shift job and tried to follow everyone’s tenuous admonitions to practice self-care. I started running, calves burning as I chugged up Palms Avenue until I could see a sliver of the ocean over the rooftops. I dyed my hair pink. I wrote, bleeding the poison from my mind into words on the page. I cried less in front of the kids.
During our years in Los Angeles, I grew used to earthquakes–the trembling of the walls, the groan of the building as the ground shifted. In those moments, I never thought of the safety drills I’d done in school, hiding under my desk. I stood in place, dumbfounded and vulnerable at the unsteadiness of the planet. Only after the moment passed did I remember my children.
And yet they look to me when they are lost and when “home” shifts and transmutes into something they no longer recognize. I may feel that I am the cracked foundation or the unstable ground. But my children cling to me like I’m driftwood in a river. So I try to plant my feet, to hold together. I try not to be wood, eroded by the currents of change, but stone.
I try to be the stable one – for my children, for my husband, and for myself.
Are you (or someone you know) in crisis and need help immediately?
Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, visit their website here or go to your nearest emergency room.