Musical Rx II — March 17, 2019

Musical Rx II


Behavioral Definition: You have “a type,” and it’s a type that breaks your heart.

What do they all have in common? Potential. The potential to love you the way you need to be loved. They’re not there yet, but you see the progress. Besides, the chemistry between you is so intense, it must be true love.

You’re with someone now who feels perfect for you; perhaps you feel like you’ve known them forever or like you were fated to be together. But the more time you spend with them, the more sure you become that you’re going insane. The simplest arguments between you spin out of control. You’re angry at them for things they didn’t do and you still feel the weight of every injustice that’s ever been perpetrated against you.

Symptoms: Emotional volatility, increased anxious thoughts, depressive feelings, inability to self-regulate.

Musical Therapeutic Intervention: Listen to the following song once a day.

Buttons by Sia

You got me pushing imaginary buttons
Step away from me lover, away from me lover
You got me counting imaginary school children
Get away from me lover, away from me lover
Yes, I can see that your carpet is animated
Walk away from me lover, away from me lover
Yes, I see open wounds in everyone I’ve dated
Away from me lover, get away from me lover
I am no good for you
I’m seeing ghosts in everything I do
I am no good for you
I’m seeing ghosts in everything I do
I am no good for you
I’m seeing ghosts in everything I do, oh oh oh oh
I am no good for you
I’m seeing ghosts in everything I do, oh oh oh oh
You got me turning all the lights on and off
Walk away from me lover, away from me lover
When will you see that I am carrying this stuff?
Walk away from me lover, away from me lover
Can’t you see that I am losing my marbles
It’s marvellous losing another, losing another
I am no good for you
I’m seeing ghosts in everything I do
I am no good for you
I’m seeing ghosts in everything I do
I am no good for you
I’m seeing ghosts in everything I do
I am no good for you
I’m seeing ghosts in everything I do
Walk away from me lover, away from me lover
Get away from me lover, away from me lover
Step away from me lover, away from me lover
Walk away from me lover, away from me lover

“Buttons” by Sia
primary femininity — March 10, 2019

primary femininity

My toddler’s feelings about me are all over the map. 

She’s deeply attached to me, and I to her. This is convenient, because when we’re not snuggling in front of the fire, reading House at Pooh Corner or hiding under blankets and giggling, we’re getting on each other’s Very. Last. Nerve. 

To her, I must seem like an erratic and volatile despot. Sometimes I’m loving and gentle, endlessly patient. Sometimes I’m the ruiner of fun, the destroyer of plans. I take away things she loves and when she pitches a fit, I threaten to take away more. And worst of all, I keep treasures hidden from her, only to grant her access – under supervision – when I deem appropriate: my makeup, perfume, jewelry, and nail polish. 

It all started with dental floss. Before she could even talk, she insisted on carrying it around the house with her. She’d bring it with her in a little makeshift purse when we ran errands. She loved to unspool the floss, taste the mint-flavored wax. I’d cut small pieces of it for her to chew. But it seemed less like she was a developing passion for dental hygiene and more like she viewed the floss as quintessentially adult. She seemed to think the dental floss made her look sophisticated, like kids used to with cigarettes. Both my husband and I thought this was adorable, but it was less cute when I went to floss my teeth each night and couldn’t find the floss anywhere. For the first time, my daughter and I were competing for resources. My husband’s solution was to go to Costco and buy floss in bulk.

Then her fixation expanded to flavored lip balms and tiny bottles of hand sanitizer from the mall, marketed for kids and scented with names like A Thousand Wishes. And thus began a peaceful phase of our relationship, because those items cost so little that I didn’t mind if they melted in the driveway or got covered in sand at the beach. Moreover, they were hers.

Then she discovered where I keep my makeup and things got serious. I tried to use my opponent’s weakness to my advantage, figuring I’d use her blossoming interest in girly things as a bribe. She was allowed to look at my makeup while she sat on the potty. But the clever girl always managed to smuggle a few items into bed with her.

Somehow, my harmonious relationship with my daughter had morphed into something resembling squabbling college roommates. I knew my reaction was irrational. My helpful husband was quick to remind me that this was all my fault. So I put all the prohibited items into one room and installed a child lock on the door. There was peace in the kingdom once again. But it didn’t last long.

One night, after I failed to shut the door all the way, she got up before dawn, found my nail polish, and painted her bedroom door, her clothes, her fingers and sheets. 

Another time, I left a drawer unlocked and in the middle of the night she grabbed six or seven tiny sample perfume bottles and brought them back to bed. They were all empty when I found them the next morning and my daughter’s bedroom smelled like New York Fashion Week. 

I’ve been surprised by my annoyed reaction to all this, which has been mostly angry, with a bit of amused mixed in. 

“You’ve wanted to be a mother almost as long as you can remember,” I’d remind myself. “This is part of the deal. They trash your stuff. You can get new stuff. You’ll miss this when she’s older.” 

Yet each time I find an uncapped lipstick in the landscaping, or a cache of tweezers and nail files she’s squirreled away, I growl. A deep, guttural, Marge Simpson grumble.  

She’s plenty angry with me, too. It’s her will against mine, most of the time. Throughout the day, we battle for control over what and how much she eats. We battle for control over when she gets dressed. Over where she goes and when we turn off a video she’s watching. She seems almost frightened by the aggression of her own fury towards me. Yet she still needs me and desperately wants to be in harmony with me. She’s likely afraid that if we lose the close connection between us, she’ll lose me (though she wouldn’t). 

Yet most of the time when she’s most upset at me, I’ll try to stay close by. Because we’ve been here before and I know what’s likely going to happen next. She’ll go from screaming at me and throwing things at me to asking me to pick her up and soothe her. 

We both know she needs me for lots of things – including showing her how to find her own identity as a girl and then a woman. Not just how to use makeup, jewelry, nail polish, and perfume. But how to be aggressive and angry. How to care for herself and others, too. How to navigate the rough terrain of puberty; the vast landscape of adult sexuality. I don’t want her to turn into me, but I hope she can turn to me at each stage in her life. For support and guidance, or even to decides she wants to do something differently than I did it. 

Based on Bernstein, P.P. (2004). Mothers and Daughters from Today’s Psychoanalytic Perspective. Psychoanalytic Inquiry 24:601-628

Lovey destruction — January 3, 2019

Lovey destruction

My daughter has a lovey. A’s is a baby blanket, basically, with an animal head in one corner. And like all loveys – whether it’s a stuffed animal, a blanket, or some hybrid of the two – it comforts the baby the way the primary parent or caregiver does. Its texture and smell evoke that important person and calm the baby down. My daughter uses hers to keep me with her, even when I can’t be there in person. The lovey is me. That’s why I should’ve started to worry when she began gnawing at the corners.

joanna and jessica 1977

I was very young when I first fell in love with babies and decided I wanted to be a mother. (I’m in the photo above in the groovy 70s rainbow jeans with my cousin Jessica.) But I didn’t actually become a mother until I was 45, which gave me a lot of time to imagine what kind of mother I’d be. In those long, exhausting, isolating days of parenting a newborn, I’d talk to myself. It probably sounded like the pep talk an Olympic athlete might give herself before stepping into the stadium: “You’ve been training for this your whole life. Now go on out there and have fun.”

And we did have fun, my girl and I. Almost everything we did, almost everywhere we went, we were happy and in synch. Even when she was tiny, I didn’t struggle to figure out what she wanted. I was responsive to her needs, sensitive to her changing mood, attuned to when she needed to be energized and when she needed to be soothed. And she calmed me down, too. I’ve always been the most comfortable, the most confident, the most “me” when I was alone with her.

For two wonderful years, we lived inside a bliss bubble of mutual regulation. Other people entered our bubble, of course – her dad, other family, other caregivers. But it was mostly us. There was an invisible thread between us at all times. We used the thread to communicate “you are loved” and “you are safe” and to absorb those ideas and translate them into self-esteem and a sense of security.


The lovey had always looked and smelled pretty rough. Like most kids, A hated when we washed it. But now the corners were in tatters. A was the one tearing at it like a tiger cub tearing at the carcass of a wild boar. Yet she seemed dismayed to see how her beloved looked in the cold light of day. One time, she got a chunk of it stuck between her teeth and squawked for me to get it out. When I showed her the little piece of blue fabric that I yanked out, she seemed genuinely surprised to see it. The only explanation I can come up with is that she’d gone into a fugue state, unaware of her actions.


Our bliss bubble seems to have burst. A can’t stand the sight of me some days. She tells me I’m not allowed to walk through the room she’s in. After I’ve had my coffee in the morning, she complains about my bad breath. She slams doors in my face, says she wants “me time.” She’s furious when I won’t pick her up and carry her when I’m already carrying lots of other things. It’s not all the time. I still get snuggles and kisses. But some days, she’s furious at me just for existing.

This has been the most painful part of parenting so far. I’m not going to lie. But then I remind myself that she’s separating from me. There was no way we could stay in that bliss bubble forever. She’s got to go to school and other places without me. This is natural. This is healthy. The timing is perfect. And because she doesn’t have the faintest idea how to sit me down and break it to me gently that our dynamic is about to change, she separates from me with a flurry of insults and a thousand little rejections. This is how my little girl grows up.

Based on: Assesment and Treatment of Difficulties in Mother-Infant Attunement in the First Three Years of Life: A Case History. Beatrice Beebe, Ph.D. and Phyllis Sloate, Ph. D. 1982.

“Anna in Frozen” braids — November 28, 2018

“Anna in Frozen” braids

Today the day finally came. I’d been dreading it.

I was about to do her hair, and A asked me for “two braids, like Anna in Frozen.” I knew what she was really asking. She wanted me to give her long, straight hair. White girl hair. All the books I’d read and the seminars I’d attended had led me to this moment. And the truth is I wish I’d handled it differently.

“Well, that’s a little tricky baby, because Anna has a different kind of hair than you do.”

“You can have this braid on this side of my head, over here. And this braid over here on this side. Like that, okay?”

“Uh huh.”

“And Anna has hair that’s brown and also hair that is white. I want you to make me look like that.”

“But baby that’s not possible. Anna has straight hair and yours is curly, coily, cotton candy hair.”

I was quoting a book title. I thought about the hundreds of times I’d read her that book and the other books like it, written to boost black girl self-esteem. The message is always that natural curls are versatile, natural curls are a lot of work, and there is no such thing as bad hair, no matter the curl pattern. I make sure her books and toys are filled with kids who look like her, I make sure she has loving relationships lots of people with hair like hers. I looked down at her sweet, hopeful face and wondered if any of these messages had sunk in. This was the VERY first time my daughter had ever requested a particular hairstyle, and she asked for the hair of a Scandinavian princess. A looked at me blankly, unable to understand why I was being so obstinate, so I said:

“It’s very difficult to make one kind of hair look like another. That would be like if Anna tried to have curls like yours. Can you imagine? I bet she’d dream of having curls like yours. But I just don’t think it would be possible, do you?”

She didn’t respond, so I said:

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Then I parted her hair down the middle, and covered her head with small, two-strand rope twists. Then starting above her forehead and holding the twists as though they were clumps of hair, I braided a large French braid on each side.



To be honest, I love the way the ‘Anna in Frozen” braids turned out. It was by far the most ambitious style I’ve ever done and I had no idea what to expect but it came out even better than I’d imagined. [Edited to add: it had no structural integrity and fell apart in less than 24 hours.] But those braids were two lovingly crafted cop-outs too, a missed opportunity to remind A about how many compliments she gets on her hair. I didn’t insist that she’s extraordinarily beautiful (which she is) or tell her that it crushes my heart a little that she wants to look like anyone else. Something told me not to discourage her from looking like Princess Anna of Arendelle, at least not today. My worry was that any pushback might cause her to dig in her heels. Instead, I tried my best to deliver on her request. And maybe when I did, it seemed like I thought Anna in Frozen had the most beautiful hair, too.

When I showed her the photograph above, she smiled politely. I asked if she liked them and she said she did, but she wanted hair that went “down to here” – she pointed below her shoulders. There are limits to what Mommy can do.

rebel rebel — August 22, 2018

rebel rebel

Here is a partial list of rules my daughter (3) doesn’t follow:

We ask for things nicely and say please.

We color on paper, not the walls.

We don’t sneak spice bottles from the kitchen and empty them onto the floor.

We don’t pull makeup out of Mommy’s purse and paint our face.

We only take toys into bed with us at night if they don’t light up or make noise.

We don’t pull strawberries off the strawberry plant until they’re ripe.

We play with play-doh, slime, and markers at the dining room table, not the couch.


Has A forgotten these rules? Not at all. She can recite them by heart.

Is she trying to drive us nuts? Not at all. She wants to please us.

We’ve reminded her of the rules countless times, but she doesn’t need a reminder. She just doesn’t care about the rule as much as she WANTS TO DO THE FORBIDDEN THING. Her brain isn’t developed enough for impulse control and she can’t consistently choose following the rule over breaking the rule.

It isn’t toddler defiance, although it looks a lot like it, especially when she doesn’t show any remorse. She has an incompletely formed brain. And like all 3 year olds, A is brimming with narcissistic grandiosity, omnipotence, egocentric thought, and self-centeredness. These are the very qualities that make her so hilarious.

When she breaks these rules, her dad and I don’t punish her. And we’re not being indulgent, although it might looks like it. I’m aware of how our parenting style looks to some other other adults; it seems we’re enabling A to pick and choose which rules she wants to follow. But judgment from other adults is no concern of mine. I know that asking my toddler to control her behavior with a 100% success rate is about as reasonable as asking her to complete a Sudoku puzzle with a 100% success rate. I can’t even do that most of the time.


bizarre love triangle — August 15, 2018

bizarre love triangle


So I want to warn you laddie
Though I know that you’re perfectly swell
That my heart belongs to Daddy
Cause my Daddy, he treats it so well
– Cole Porter

Despite being drama-averse in my private life, I’ve somehow found myself embroiled in a bizarre love triangle.

In the beginning, my husband was a loving and trustworthy parent who doted solicitously. He carried our daughter on his shoulders. He bounced A around, he tickled her, he swung her upside down. He was always lots of fun… but he wasn’t me. He was A’s second favorite parent. And I thought all three of us were fine with that arrangement.

Then she turned two and suddenly she only had eyes for daddy. When I made her mad, she’d cry for him. When he was working late and couldn’t get home in time to put her to bed, she’d beg to stay up late so she could see him. He became her sun and moon.

Now she’s a few months past her third birthday and her feelings for her father are only intensifying. When he comes home from work each evening, she loses her mind with excitement.

I started grad school fairly certain the Oedipal Complex was bogus and I quickly learned that most of what Freud had to say about women and girls has been debunked. But six (?!) years later, I’ve come to realize that the Oedipal Complex is true, but only if I don’t take what Freud said literally. Of course, my daughter doesn’t want to murder me and have sex with her dad. That’s a preposterous theory. She has no idea what it means to kill someone or have sex with someone.

But she knows about love. She craves attention, approval, and affection from her father. She used to crave getting those things from her mother, but now I’m in the way. This is developmentally normal, this is perfectly natural, and it’s healthy. (If she had same sex parents, this wouldn’t be happening, but as it turned out she has a mom and dad.) Developmental psychologists say she’ll likely move out of this phase around age 6. In the meantime, my job is to disillusion her in the kindest possible way. I need to let her know I love her and I don’t hold a grudge about her favoring her dad over me. I get it. But she can’t have him because I won’t give him up.


subtropical tantrum — August 6, 2018

subtropical tantrum


When my daughter doesn’t get what she wants, she’s been known to collapse to the floor, pounding her fists and wailing as though grieving the death of a life partner of 50 years. And with something like houseguests she loves saying goodbye and driving away, the loss is that monumental – at least to her.

I view tantrums the way I view those subtropical rainstorms that happen every afternoon in Florida. It’s a warm and sunny day, without a cloud in sight. Then all at once, the sky opens up and there’s storm-force winds, lightning, and a torrential downpour so violent that everyone runs for cover. It’s more than a little terrifying.

But even when – especially when – A is furious with me, she needs me to be the grownup in charge. That means keeping calm and staying safe.

I get down at her eyesight level so as not to appear intimidating. I keep my face very calm and sympathetic-looking. If we’re somewhere crowded with a lot of moving objects and people, I move us towards shelter. A quiet spot where she can throw a fit safely. If she’s flailing around and in danger of hitting her head, I’ll restrain her. But as lightly as possible – just enough to reassure her that I won’t allow her to hurt herself. I hold my arms stiffly around the her, but away from her body – as though my arms are the bars of a cage. She never likes it, of course. But it sends a nonverbal message that I’m still in charge.

The trick is to stop myself from doing anything to shorten the tantrum. It’s counter-intuitive, as tantrums are horrible. They’re stressful for everyone within earshot. But the logical, reasonable side of her brain has completely shut down at this point. It’s off line. There’s no point in trying to:

  • Hold her accountable for anything she says while she’s having a tantrum
  • Tell her why she shouldn’t be having a tantrum
  • Try to distract her or bargain with her so she’ll stop the tantrum
  • Soothe and comfort her in an effort to shorten the tantrum

Instead, I say, “I know you’re very sad. It’s hard to say goodbye to people we love.” I keep her safe, I keep calm, and I reflect what’s happening.

If it’s because I’ve taken away a toy she refused to clean up, “You’re really angry with me for taking away the toy. It’s upsetting to see your toy taken out to the garage.”

In short order, she runs out of steam. I can feel her soften. When she lets me know that she’s ready for comfort, my arms are in a position to easily segue to a hug.

And just when it looked like none of us may survive this thing, it’s over. The heavy rain stops, the clouds dissipate, and the sun comes out again.

agile baby — July 24, 2018

agile baby

fullsizeoutput_3236My daughter is gifted with a natural athleticism and physical coordination that has nothing to do with me. These are inherited traits, and I met her the morning after she was born. It’s when I met her birth mother and two half-sisters, too. They’re all very tall with extremely athletic builds. That could be said of exactly none of the people in my family.

It was clear pretty early on that A was strong and coordinated, with excellent balance. Now she’s three. And a highly confident three.

When she was one and still crawling, we sat on a blanket in a park with a friend. A crawled off, turning back to see me from time to time. I’d smile and wave and she’d continue crawling away. I was thrilled and so was my friend, another family therapist in training. Part of me cringed at the thought of what my daughter was crawling over and past. But I had an unobstructed view of her and the park was mostly empty. The truth is, I was dying to see how far she got. At one point, passersby saw this little African American baby crawling by herself and nervously looked around for her mother. Seeing only two white women seated on the grass in the distance, they grew alarmed. I waved and gestured wildly that she was with me, and that I saw her, and it was okay.

By not hovering over my daughter, I was letting her know that I trusted her and I knew she was competent enough to find her way back. And A was letting me know how capable she thought she was. Extremely capable, as it turns out. After a while, I called her back with a cheery voice. She turned around and crawled directly back, lay down, and put her head in my lap.

Like all babies, she wants to master new physical skills, to climb and conquer. But my girl’s not reckless. She meets all challenges with cautious, quiet determination. The first time she encounters a tricky ladder or rock wall, she’ll often say she’s not ready to try it yet. I never push.

She hasn’t reached the toddler milestones any earlier than other kids. She didn’t take her first step until she was 16 months. I did nothing to nudge her along in any way. I knew she’d walk when she was ready.

At two, she crawled out of our hammock as it was moving. We’d been in there together, swaying in the afternoon breeze of a perfect Southern California day. I’m not sure why she decided to exit the hammock at that exact time, but she began to lower her legs over the edge. I suspect a lot of moms would have vetoed her idea, and they’d be smart to. But I was curious if she could stick the landing. She held onto my arm until the hammock had swung to the highest point, dropped lightly onto both feet, then took a step back out of the path of the swinging hammock. It was masterful. I yelped in amazement, but she didn’t look surprised at all. She crawled right back into the hammock, which was still swinging.

Clever Baby Milestone — May 18, 2018

Clever Baby Milestone

I’ve discovered another landmark event of child development nobody talks about – it’s that moment when when you and your kid both realize that she knows something you don’t.

A few months ago, A corrected me when I was wrong about something. I was giving her a bath. She had a bunch of rubber toys shaped like animals in the tub with her and I misidentified an alligator by calling it a crocodile.

I was thrilled and amazed. I didn’t think to ask A how that moment felt – to know something that Mommy doesn’t. She’s very verbal, but even she might not know how to describe that. My best guess is it would feel like a cross between a proud moment and a scary moment.

…If she doesn’t even know that this is an alligator, then she’s not as smart and powerful as I thought. Maybe she shouldn’t be in charge after all. And if she’s not in charge, who is?

Certainly not this guy:


Musical Rx — April 23, 2018

Musical Rx

Behavioral Definitions:

You used to paint/draw/sing/dance/act/write/play an instrument etc. when you were a kid and you loved it.

Whatever your thing was, when adults asked what wanted to be when you grew up, you’d tell them about it. When you did it, you were lost in your own little world, with no sense of time. You felt at peace. You were gratified. The more you did it, the better you got. It began to look like you could maybe get serious about this thing, maybe study it in college, or become a professional.

But maybe you got bogged down by teachers/coaches/professors whose harsh critiques crushed your spirit.

Maybe the pressure you were under terrified you, so instead of failing, you quit altogether.

Maybe you gave it up when you became an adult in pursuit of “marketable skills.”

And now you wonder.

What would have happened if you’d kept making art/music etc.?

How good would you be at it now?

Could you be making a living at it?

If you did, would you be happy?


Pervasive emptiness, regret, a sense of feeling unfulfilled

Musical therapeutic intervention: Listen to the following song once a day

“Rings” by Aesop Rock