Hannah and I talk about things being pictures. I tell her the idol now in front of the school is a statue, and that the creature painted at the base is a picture.
She gets this, but I had to tell her. She didn’t know the difference between a picture and the real thing. I had tried explaining about saints—that the icons in the school are not of demons but of special people who can pray to God for us—but that was too complex. Pictures she can understand.
She wants something to hold onto, something soft and hand-sized. The end of my scarf will do. The edge of a blanket will work too. She is that age when children like holding onto a finger or two of a grownup’s, and it gives her the comfort of feeling that someone is there for her. The problem had been that she is too far dissociated from me—an under-two doesn’t blend well with writing pacing plans—and I didn’t realize she needed this until she was close to hysteria. So, I have been trying to remember, and as I sit at my desk and work, I just keep taking the scarf in my hand. And it has helped.
I have been coming home for lunch, and we sit in bed eating, wrapped up in a blanket, listening to lullabies. She holds the edge of the blanket and begins to feel better.
She has started to understand the idea of “safe.” Safe is soft things, safe is warm and not hungry, safe is getting to sleep when you’re tired instead of being forced to stay awake. Safe is having someone attend to your needs.
It was hard to get here, because I didn’t automatically understand this. I don’t know anything about babies, and the obvious didn’t occur to me. But also she can’t tell me. She does talk, but it is telegraphic speech—all of the meaning she wants to communicate is compressed into one or two words. When I know what she wants, or when some other part does, this can be translated into full, comprehensible sentences, but more and more, she resists this kind of blending. It feels “not her,” and part of being safe is getting to be out, getting to be herself, and getting to express herself in her own way.
So there is a lot of just, “Nata. Nata. Nata.”
What does that mean?
It means she wants the songs that remind her of Nata. But in a different context, it could mean something else.
She calls me Amma, which is interesting, because that is the word for mother here. She has been present enough to hear the children crying for their mothers, and maybe it is more comfortable for her because there is no confusion with a mommy who neglected and abused her. I don’t know, but it means the relationship is different with her—the other parts did not particularly trust me when they first started popping out. They did not believe I would or could take care of them, and they have learned about safety largely by learning to take care of themselves. Because for them, I am this figure who forced them to do dangerous things. I am someone who has hurt them in the past. I have ignored their needs and their feelings and their prohibitions and moved on with the life I wanted for myself without thinking about them.
And she doesn’t have this. In that way it’s easier. The hard part is just understanding what she needs, and it is very much like thinking about the needs of a real baby, because she can’t tell me very clearly. I have to guess, but like a real baby, there are only so many things that can be wrong. She can be hungry or thirsty or tired or cold or scared. Mostly, she’s scared. The solution for scared is to hold something, to be wrapped up in soft blankets if possible, but at a minimum to have something to touch that feels like it could be a hand so that she understands she is not alone. It is not about words. Words help—she understands more than she can produce—but not when she is at the height of her fear.
When she was very scared of demons, I kept a prayer card of the Virgin around for her to see, and this helped. Looking at something she felt could protect her helped, but now she is beginning to understand that demons aren’t, for the most part real. There might be demons somewhere, but there are no demons in the room with her. There are none in my house. There aren’t any at school. Now, she just needs a hand to hold, so that she knows she will be taken care of, because she has realized someone will. She has realized Amma will. I will feed her and keep her warm and give her a drink.
I am taking care of her, and she is beginning to feel safe. But there is also me. I have feelings too.
And I am doing these things and thinking this is what life was like for me when I was 9 months old. This is how I felt when I was a year old. This was my experience at 18 months.
I was not fed when I was hungry—I was ritually starved and maybe also simply neglected. I was not given a drink when I was thirsty. I was not held when I was frightened. I was not kept out of harm’s way. Things were done to me that terrified me—that should not be done to any child—and then on top of that there was no one to pick up the pieces for me afterwards.
And the wrongness of it strikes me so very, very deeply. I am just appalled. I had no childhood—or, you could say I had a childhood of horrors, but I also had no infancy. The pockets of safety in my life were so very, very small, and they did not come from my own parents.