I am blessed to be the mother of FIVE beautiful, healthy, smart kids. They are incredibly resilient and have adapted well to the catastrophic changes in their lives. Each has had a unique journey, according to their developmental stage and personality. But Baby Jeannie's path has been, by far, the most troubling for me.
We call Jeannie our "bonus baby." We'd not planned on having a fifth child, so I've cherished every moment with her as the Godly gift that she is. I kept Jeannie very close to me; but, when she was 13 months old, our relationship was traumatically disrupted. I became deathly ill, and I was away from her for 100 days. Even worse, when I came home, I hardly resembled any memory that Jeannie had of me. Instead, I was wounded, decrepit, sick, and made up of more bandage than body.
In the time I was gone, Jeannie was loved, snuggled, and cared for by the women nearest and dearest to my heart. Her aunts (biological and honorary), her grandparents, and my best girlfriends. But her caregivers were different each day, and they weren't me. Through her eyes, as soon as she'd attach to one person, it'd be time to go to another.
After 100 days of missing her, and all of those days of using her picture on my hospital room wall as an incentive to heal and recover; I came home from the hospital, and I was yearning for her love. I couldn't WAIT to get her back in my arms. I knew, however, that it'd take time, that I would need to approach her slowly. So I remained on the sidelines; I didn't push myself on her or insist on holding her.
I was happy she had been cared for so well, but it was agonizing to see her loving every woman but me. I observed from across the room. For she would not come within yards of me. When someone would lovingly place her in my arms, she would be noticeably terrified. Her fight or flight response made her kick and scream, hit and punch me. She'd physically hurt my weakened, battered and fragile body. But that was nothing compared to what she was doing to my heart.
Day after day, night after night, I'd endure. Every day I'd start over. I'd smile at her from across the room. I'd sing what used to be our favorite songs. She'd scream, "No, stop that! No sing!" I'd stop. I kept watching from across the room, no matter how hard it could be. I would try to put myself in her shoes. I could see how she'd be angry with me. How she could think I did this on purpose. How she'd blame me. People kept trying to endear me to her. The other kids would hug me and then declare, "See Jeannie, Mommy is nice." Jeannie would only ask when she could go to La-La's (my sister's) house.
My other kids would refer to me as "Mommy," and I watched as Jeannie tried to decipher the meaning of the word. She also watched my sister's kids refer to my sister as "Mommy." "Mommy" is a universal word. Some version of it - "ma," "mo," "Mimi," "Mame," etc. - can be found in every language across the world. Universally, it means the primary caregiver. Jeannie said, "Mommy" often, but she used it to refer to whomever was going to get her milk that day. Whoever dressed her, fed her or otherwise meet her needs was called "Mommy."
For a long time, I was really upset when Jeannie would cry and say she wanted milk because I could not answer her plea with a full sippy cup. I would tell her to go ask Daddy. Which she did; and she always got what she needed. But you know what upset me even more? What hurt me to the core of my being? The fact that she got to the point where she would no longer ask me. She got to the point where she did not for one moment consider me. She'd go straight to her dad. Or her Aunt Lala. Or her big sister. Or her babysitter. Or the neighbor. Heck, she'd ask her "lovey" before she'd look in my direction.
After a great deal of time, effort, and practice, I actually COULD pour milk and screw on the lid of her sippy cup, but she wouldn't ALLOW me to do it. She just assumed I couldn't and move on. In fact, she was so confident in my incompetence that she'd deny me the chance. "No, Mommy, you can't do it. Daddy do it."
The worst was when she'd fall. She would scrape her knee and automatically run away from me. I would use every ounce of energy I had to get up and go to her, and she would push me out of her way to get to her sister Caroline. Or, even worse, to her babysitter, Tricia. "No. No touch me, Mommy," she'd scream. "I want my Tricia." I found myself feeling jealous of our babysitter and (embarrassingly enough) of my older daughter Caroline as well. I thought Jeannie loved everyone else more than she loved me. Objectively speaking, she did.
Things were tough between us. I remember when she first started preschool, I worried that she might not come to me when I arrived to pick her up. I remember skipping the class parties, for fear that she'd slap my hand away or refuse a hug in front of the other moms. Because these were things that actually happened around our house on a daily basis.
Several times, I have accidentally pinched Jeannie with my amazingly strong prosthetic fingers while trying to change her diaper. "Boo, boo!" "Mommy, you hurt me!" she shrieked the very first time I tried it independently. Those few pained words were enough to keep me from trying again for months. I wanted to help her so badly! God designed a child's shrill cry well. It makes a mom naturally want to respond, to save a child from feeling anything uncomfortable like hunger or thirst or loneliness, even boredom. But every time I tried, I was reminded that I was NOT the mom I wanted to be. Still, I tried.
The first thing I tried was sleeping on her floor. Sounds ridiculous, right? For a sick woman who is trying to recover from sepsis and amputations to purposely sleep on the floor. In graduate school, I had learned Attachment Theory, which purports that babies need to develop a healthy attachment with the primary caregiver in order to form healthy attachments with others.
Biologically, a baby uses the smells, touches, and sounds of that primary caregiver to attach. But, how could Jeannie know my smells, sounds, and touches if she wouldn't come near me? That's when I had the idea that I could get 6-8 hours of time with her by literally sneaking onto her floor at night. I thought she might warm up to me because I would be there for her when she'd wake in the middle of the night. MOMMY would be right there to talk, touch, and comfort her all night. The first person she'd see each morning was me, her MOMMY. Slowly, she started to recognize and accept me.
The second idea I tried was to get Brook to strap Jeannie into the stroller. She liked walks, and she didn't have to look at me, so she tolerated my being the one who pushed her. There were a lot of them. I would sing. And talk. And point out the flowers. Slowly, she began to talk back. And request certain songs. We'd find certain colors in the flowers, and I discovered that she liked the yellow ones, so I picked those flowers and tried to buy her love with them. (Insert public apologies to my neighbors with flower beds here. This was important, guys!) Once she even initiated a walk! I knew things were turning around.
Soon, Jeannie tolerated being placed in my lap. This is when my third idea kicked in. I declared bedtime as MY time with Jeannie. No one else was allowed to put her to bed or even be in the room. At first, she kicked and screamed and cried. But I persevered. I made Brook shut her bedroom door, and I held her tightly in my lap. I sang to her until she settled down, then I read her a story, said her prayers, and sang a song... Same thing every night. Soon, she screamed less. Then, not at all. Then she actually started to request that MOMMY be the one to put her to sleep at night. And sleep on her floor. To this day, she asks that I "sweep on hur fwore," and she gets downright angry when I won't. I keep telling myself, "Remember Kristan, you prayed for this."
Over the past eighteen months, we've had ups and downs in our relationship. There were days when I thought she would never come around. One dirty look of hers could send me over the edge into depression. One day, we went to the movies, and I found myself crying because she wanted to sit on a babysitter's lap rather than mine.
But today Jeannie loves me, her Mommy. She asks for me to read her a story at bedtime, say her prayers, and sing her songs while I rock her. (And I am a sucker for her tricks; she might just want to stay up later.) She also comes to me crying when she's gotten hurt. And runs to me with joy when I pick her up from school. She obeys my rules, though sometimes I have to threaten a timeout on the steps.
Together, we've learned to deal with the everyday challenges of having and being an amputee mom. For example, we know to take off my (prosthetic) hands when we cuddle because they are made of hard plastic that does not lend itself to warm and snuggly caresses. We know to be very still when buckling the car seat to avoid an accidental but painful pinch. When I do accidentally pinch her, we blame and punish the hand, not me. And Jeannie has learned to be very industrious and independent - she does things the older kids still can't do for themselves!
I have set my goals high, and I've practiced and practiced. Allow me to brag for a moment: now I can change her clothes (as long as there are no buttons), I can pick her up and carry her down the stairs, make her breakfast of instant oatmeal, pack her lunch, and put a bow in her hair.
With Jeannie's help, I can buckle and unbuckle her car seat - I fasten the bottom ones, and she does the top! I can easily turn the pages now when we read storybooks at night. Jeannie and I love to play with play-dough, and we build towers with blocks. We've named all the cows that we go to feed in the field down the street, and we know the names of all the librarians at our little local library where we attend story time and where our books are always overdue. (Sorry, Ms. Terri) These are all ordinary things that I did with of my other kids; but because they almost didn't happen, I find them extraordinary with Jeannie.
There is one thing for sure, and it can be summed up in the following song that I always sing to Jeannie:
Mommy comes back
She always comes back
She always comes back to get me.
Mommy comes back
She always comes back
She never will forget me.