Friday, February 8, 2008

naps are for suckers

My one-year-old son has never been a big sleeper. Recently he seems to be trying to kick the habit altogether. The fifth time he woke up last night, I decided to get tough. "I'm not playing with you now. It's snooze time." Closed my eyes and rolled over to show him I meant business.

Which resolve lasted about 12 seconds, until he started bellyflopping on my head, laughing like the diabolical mastermind I know him, at 2 a.m., to be.

When he had me where he wanted me (head under the pillow, whimpering pleas for mercy), he rolled to the edge of the bed and said something like, "later for you, sucker" as he waddled off toward his toy box. Or maybe he didn't; it was all a little blurry. But the point is that being a parent is really hard. Harder than I imagined anything could be, before I became one. And it's also better than I ever imagined anything could be. My son and I are one another's centers of gravity, and I can only envision the particles of my body disconnecting, my self drifting into an awful nothing if I didn't have him to make me make sense.

I've seen it happen. I used to work with HIV+ youth in Oakland, California. There are two young women in particular, the memories of whom sit like rocks in my gut. Y and M were both near the end of their teens when I met them. They had both grown up in foster care, been sexually abused, bounced from placement to placement, run away several times and ended up doing sex work to (meagerly) support themselves.

They were both wildly bright, in two senses of the word. M had a sneaky sense of humor and a way of stepping in close as though you and she were the only ones smart enough see what was so funny. Y was abrupt, especially when she got excited, all white teeth against violet lips. She was generous with everything she had -- clothes, money, cigarettes -- and then surprised that there was nothing left after she'd given it away. M wore sex like jewelry. Y was more physically intimidating -- beautiful, but I can't imagine someone picking her up on the street unless he had some taste for danger. I saw her temper explode with more than a few doctors and social workers. They were terrified.

I remember a therapist explaining to her that she had the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, which I thought was both a woeful understatement and ironically inaccurate, given that there never actually seemed to be a "post."

She believed she'd gotten HIV when she was raped at gunpoint in an alley.

Both Y and M had been incarcerated several times, since before their teens. M got her HIV diagnosis in juvenile hall. Y had spent time in an adult women's prison for assaulting a police officer. They had both dipped in and out of destructive drug habits. M's preference was heroin, Y's was crack, just like their respective mothers. Both had already given up custody of a child when I met them, and both got pregnant again while I knew them. These were the most intensive periods of our relationships. They needed help finding housing, getting drug treatment, stabilizing their incomes, dealing with the child welfare workers who would inevitably come into their lives. Babies orient people forward, and it was during their pregnancies that I saw most clearly the sparks of Y's and M's ill-nourished but extant senses of their own potential.

The most frustrating thing about working with people with drug problems, is that when they want help, it's hard to get. There are residential drug treatment programs in Oakland that accept women with babies, but they often have waiting lists of months. Potential clients have to call every day at a certain time -- a challenge for someone living in hotels or on the street. If you do get in, treatment centers are often run down and crowded, sidelined into neighborhoods where it's a lot easier to find crack than say, produce. They have roaches. Residents argue over food because there isn't enough to go around. Which isn't to say that some people don't do really well there, but I can't help thinking that I wouldn't be one of them.

For reasons that were complicated in the particular way that defines the intersection of drug use and social services, neither Y nor M had stable housing when their babies were born. They both lost custody immediately and were given reunification plans.

Which raised an endless series of questions: Could they conform their lives to a list of elaborate and often arbitrary rules? Could they find a place to live? Could they present themselves at 5 appointments a week in various parts of the city? Could they appear clean and composed when they did so? Could they negotiate with social workers and their children's foster carers to maintain a consistent schedule of visits? Could they remain calm, mature and solicitous in the faces of all the people who now had power over their lives? Most importantly, could they convince a series of skeptical caseworkers and judges that they were fit to be parents to their children?

It is a hard thing to think yourself worthy of raising a person, to accept the devotion and trust of someone who doesn't know enough to judge. I don't like pat psychoanalyses that lock people into their victimhood, but I can't imagine from where in their experiences of the world either Y or M would have found confidence in such a conviction. In the end, they both lost parental rights to their children.

And at least up until the end of my knowledge of their stories, that was game over. The next time I saw Y she was sitting at a bus stop, so high that a 10-second delay lodged between her thoughts and her ability to voice them. M called me twice from payphones near the SRO's she was sheltering in. She wanted to get clean. Could I come meet her? But by the time I arrived she was gone, dancing on the head of a needle.

That was eight years ago. I don't know what's happened since. I hope that Y and M found something around which to organize their lives, some path to follow forward. I hope they're not dead. I hope that their children are well somewhere. I don't know what else to do with the sadness of so much potential, dispersed into nothing. I think of them as supernovas. I list the things they would have needed to make their families work. I sing to my son when he wakes up at night.