TLC

August 04,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

On Monday afternoon, right after lunch, and right after Scott and I set up T. with an episode of Martha Speaks for a quiet rest time, and right after I'd settled into my "writing chair" with my MacBook, ready, at long last, to seize a sliver of peace and get some writing done, the phone rang. Of course. Isn't that always the case? It was L.'s school. He had a stomachache and a headache and wanted to talk with me. We spent a good 10 minutes discussing all his symptoms until the kind and patient front desk lady thought enough was enough and she took the phone away. "What should I do?" she asked me. I thought about this. I really didn't think L. was sick. His anxiety levels have been very high since school started last week. When he gets very anxious his stomach and head hurt; when he gets overloaded sensory-wise, his stomach and head hurt. He called right before lunch in the cafeteria (an experience bound to push even less anxious kids over the edge) and math, which has been the source of much anxiety for him this year. But these calls are always so difficult for me. My instinct is to slam the phone down and race out the door to retrieve L.; to rush him home, where he so wants to be; to shelter him from the chaos of the outside world. Still, we want him to learn to push on a little, to learn to test himself, to see if he can pull it together enough to continue on. What will happen when he's older? When he has a job and feels overwhelmed one day? Will he just leave and walk away? Retreat from every setback? Anxiety is a tricky beast--the best way to help kids cope with it is to give them the skills they need to cross through it, to conquer it and feel triumphant that they can. "Let him go back to his classroom," I told the kind and patient lady. "If he tries and feels he just can't do it, call me again and I'll pick him up." I put the phone down. I gave the whole thing about 30 seconds and, sure enough, about 30 seconds later the phone rang again. "I'm sorry," the kind and patient lady said. "He says his stomach hurts too much." Scott offered to go pick him up but I knew my writing time was shot. My mind was already in a million different places, racing ahead to embrace the million different worries and thoughts that had been suddenly let in through a just opened door. This start of the year has been so hard, how can we make it next year? "I'll get him," I said grabbing my keys. Back at home, L.'s relief was almost tangible. I put on the classical station in the kitchen, and cooked him up a pot of rice pudding--comfort food, if ever there is one. And, coincidentally, just as the smells of warmed milk and cinnamon and honey filled the kitchen, L.'s stomachache began to fade. "Do you think it was a sick stomachache, or a worry stomachache?" I asked L. as I dished out the rice pudding into little bowls. " I don't know," L. said. "I think it was an I-just-needed-to-be-home stomachache." And that's when I shut the door on all those worries about the future, and the worries about what lessons he needs to learn now, or that he's not learning, or that maybe he won't learn in time (for what?). What mattered was the here and now: the bright kitchen, the smell of cinnamon, the cat winding herself around L.'s legs while he stooped to pick her up, exclaiming, "Look Annie! I'm home!"