Still Breathing
April 9, 2008

I was, apparently, a good baby. (I know, what happened, right?) As the first-born, of course, my parents had no real idea what they were getting themselves into, and like all new parents, they thought I probably cried too much. I was put on the very healthy soy formula, since that was the thing at the time. Apparently I was congested so much of the time as an infant, my mother was just certain that I would be claimed by SIDS. Part of that fear was "just" the paranoia of a new mom, part of it was my congestion. But it wasn't long before I settled into a fairly quiet routine. I'd play in my crib, gurgling and goofy in the morning until Mom was ready to get up - a note in my baby book says that it was a great way for Mom to wake up in the morning, greeted by baby's smile.

Despite my determination to play no matter how I felt, by the time I was three, it was obvious that something wasn't right. After a myriad of tests you don't want to give to a three year old in 1971, I was diagnosed with both allergies and asthma.

A partial list of allergies:
Foods: soy, tomatoes, green beans, peanuts, peas, broccoli, most every green vegetable and I believe every legume -- luckily I do not get the anaphylactic shock reaction, so I can tolerate some amount of these things
Outside: grass of multiple varieties, ragweed, pine trees, cedar trees, cottonwood trees, most flowers - pretty much everything that grows outside, I think
Animals: cats and dogs and bird feathers
Inside/Misc.: mold, mildew, dust mites, cockroaches, ampicillin

The asthma could be triggered by humidity, cold, smoke, and "excessive" activity. Yeah. What's excessive activity to a three year old?

The doctor told my mom the bad news: she needed to keep not just a clean house, but an ultra-clean house. My parents needed to stop smoking. And they'd have to watch me carefully outside. And, of course, I'd have to start getting allergy shots.

I started allergy shots.
Mom covered my box springs in a plastic allergy bag. And my mattress. I think we tried the pillows, but I couldn't sleep for the noise it made.
Mom gathered every single stuffed animal and doll that I owned, put them in bags and into the car. I thought Mom and I and my toys were going for a car ride - we did - straight to the Salvation Army. Stuffed animals and dolls were dust catchers. (Try explaining this to a heart-broken, screaming three year old. Doesn't work very well. Obviously, as I'm still whining about it.)
Mom began a cleaning regime which developed into a full-fledged OCD drama. Vacuum on Mondays and Fridays. All clothes, including the bedding, washed on Thursdays. I don't recall a specific day for the dusting, but it was also done often.
Mom was nervous every time I went outside, exhorting me to not run (didn't work).

Out of those two lists, what didn't get done?

I know it was the early 70s. Everyone smoked. Including my parents.

I can recall going clothes shopping (against my will) with Mom and everyone smoking in the mall. The clothing stores had ashtrays in the dressing rooms and I recall one time in particular when I was a bit older. Left alone in the dressing room while Mom went to hunt down another size (I was "saving" the dressing room so someone else couldn't take it), Mom left her lit cigarette in the little stall with me. Brave, I picked it up, surprised a bit at how warm it was, and I carefully stubbed it out, trying not to damage it, just to make it quit stinking up the place so bad. She came back, went for a drag, and was stunned to see that it had "gone out." She re-lit it, took a few puffs, tried on some stuff and again left me there while she went back out to find something else. This time I broke the cigarette and when Mom came back, I was really surprised, but she wasn't really mad. Just said she didn't realize it bothered me so much. That was the only time I ever held a lit cigarette.

So much of my childhood was structured around avoiding triggering my asthma and allergies - but the smoking was something that drove me crazy. I could feel the "dirt" in my lungs from it. The smell got up into my sinuses and drove me crazy. But it really started to get to me when other people assumed that I smoked simply because everything I owned smelled of it, and I smelled of it. The breaking point was the evening I went to babysit for a new client and the mother literally turned up her nose at me and said, "You smoke." I replied that I did not smoke and never had. She sighed dramatically and pointed to a remote location of the backyard. "Smoke over there, where the children can't see you. They are not allowed to see people smoking."

It didn't matter how I protested, I was a teenager, I smelled of smoke, and she was a judgmental woman. Of course, by then, the mid 80s, smoking was becoming a habit to restrict and to drop. I began a "quit smoking" campaign with my mother, but it wasn't until she decided to rejoin the workforce and was afraid that being a smoker was one strike against her too many, that she decided to quit smoking. And she did it, first time, with the help of the nicotine gum.

I know that in the early 70s, it was not easy to quit smoking. Hell, I realize that for most people, it's not easy to quit now, even with Zyban, the patch, the gum and all the rest of the quit smoking aids.

But it was truly one of the great frustrations of my childhood to know that I was expected to not run track, not join a swim team, have all of my stuffed animals given away in front of me, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera - and still have my parents smoke in the house, the car - constantly.

It was a constant mixed message. We care so much about you we wrapped your bed in plastic and we restrict what you can do - just so you stay healthy. On the other hand, my food allergies were completely ignored and the most frequent household chores I had (besides doing dishes) was to dust and vacuum. Even though particularly dusting the house was prone to give me a terrible sneezing fit, clog my sinuses and irritate my eyes.

You have asthma, you can't run track. Go dust the house.
You have asthma, you don't need to be building a clubhouse. Go weed the front yard.
We want you to be healthy, as they blew smoke in my face.

Don't mistake me. I'm actually not trying to vilify them for this. I'm trying to understand it.

Mom once told me that when the doctor told her that she and my father needed to quit smoking, she knew that Dad never would. She made the decision at that time to do everything else possible. I told her, but the smoke wouldn't have been as bad if it had just been Dad. He was only home evenings and was outside most of the weekend during the warm months. Her unspoken answer was plain on her face: if he wouldn't give it up, it was unfair to ask her to give it up.

And to a certain extent, I get that. I can imagine how difficult the craving would be with no patch or gum, the moment Dad walked in the door with a lit cigarette. I have no doubt it would be maddening, and I am pretty certain that Mom simply didn't have the willpower at that time in her life to quit smoking under those conditions. I do get that.

But it doesn't really touch the double standard of how my allergies were handled.

Anything that impacted my parents in a serious way was ignored. Mom literally forgot that I had food allergies until I was digging through some paperwork one day and found the results of one of my old allergy tests. I was stunned at how many of the foods I really, really seriously hated were on that list. I tried to point this out to my mom, to point out how unfair it was that we bent over backwards to avoid using cow's milk because my sister was lactose intolerant - and yet I was told to eat food I was allergic to almost every day.

It was a few weeks after finding that paperwork, that I began to have a recurring dream, one that I would have until a few months after I moved out of my parents' house. In the dream, I was at my pediatrician's office (instead of my "grown-up" doctor) and he was listening to my lungs and tsk-ing. I just knew I was in trouble. I'd done something wrong, but I couldn't figure out what.

"She's got to stop breathing," the doctor told my mother. "It's going to kill her." Mom stood across the examining room and looked disapprovingly at me - as if I should have known better. As if she'd been telling me for years that breathing was bad for me and now I was making her waste precious time and money by having to go to the doctor - only to have him tell me to quit doing this.

In the dream, I am too shocked to say a word. How can breathing be killing me? Not breathing is what kills; not continuing to breathe! But they are both looking at me so seriously, so gravely.

The dream cuts to a return visit to the doctor. This time I'm attempting to hold my breath as the doctor examines me. To breathe on the sly, taking stolen tokes of oxygen. It's to no avail. He sighs, shakes his head and again ignores me to look at my mother. "She's been breathing again."

It's a pretty simple dream, really. Obviously by the time I was a teenager, I believed I was being held to impossible standards that other people were not held to. Some twenty years later, I can see that feeling was pretty accurate. I was expected to do everything exactly right, no matter how much that inconvenienced me, whereas my parents were very much allowed to take any shortcut they chose.

Of course, a portion of that is simply the difference between being an adult and being a teenager, but I can also see where my parents were simply not ready to take responsibility for their actions - to think through how what they did affected their children.

I see on a variety of blogs over at Cre8Buzz how different parents today are thinking through what they do and how it affects their kids. Of course, these parents are my age or younger. They've learned from their own mistakes and the mistakes their parents made. I've seen some amazing parents say, "Eh, ya know what? I'm spending too much time online. I'm going to take charge of my life and ration the time I allow myself to be online. I need to go play with my kids more." I've seen them discuss quitting bad habits, talking to their kids about serious issues, pulling their kids out of crappy schools and agonizing over whether to home school or take on an additional job to pay for private school.

I find that introspection and self-examination and honesty a breath of much-needed fresh air.

Ultimately, what many of these bloggers don't realize is that not only are they in conversation with other parents when they share a story about parenting or their kid. (Because by no means are all of these people "mommy bloggers" or "daddy bloggers" - many of them are "regular bloggers" who happen to include their family life in addition to everything else they write about.) They are also, in an odd way, helping those of us who did not have great parents or a great childhood to gain some perspective and attain some healing. Reading one parent say how they tackled a problem with their kid can lead to me thinking through how my parents handled a similar situation - and in spending time analyzing that it becomes easier to see what is a normal bump in the parenting road, and what was perhaps a freaking boulder from the sky.

I suppose, then, that this post is really a thank you to all the folks who brave the stigma of being branded a parent-blogger. You're not only helping out other parents with tips and techniques, you're not just making us laugh with you - you're also helping us to re-evaluate our own childhood and parents.

And that's a good thing.

Posted by Red Monkey at April 9, 2008 10:46 PM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |

Free Pixel Advertisement for your blog