The perception of danger and “The Possibility of Everything”

NOTE: I originally reviewed Hope Edelman’s The Possibility of Everything (with appropriate disclosures) in October 2009. I’m revisiting it in connection with the Silicon Valley Moms Group Book Club discussion of the memoir across its own sites and members’ blogs (originally scheduled for today), which will feature a Q&A with the author.

“It’s a phase. It’ll pass.” Those five words, repeated over and over, got me through some of the quirkier stages of my son’s early childhood. The most memorable of those periods  is the couple of months around his second birthday when he chose to have juice with his meals – poured onto the same plate as the food. But he ATE it that way, so I bit my tongue…and eventually he tired of all his food tasting like grape juice, and went back to keeping it in its cup.

Granted, I prefer to avoid confrontation whenever possible, but experiences like that one have taught me that there are times when the “ignore it, and it’ll go away” approach to problems actually has some merit. If no one’s really being hurt by the situation, sometimes calling too much attention to it just drags it out and makes it bigger than it needs to be. The “if no one’s being hurt” condition is key, though, and not every mom will define that the same way – some may see danger where others don’t.

On her personal blog, 455 Girls, author Hope Edelman talked about the danger she perceived from her two-year-old daughter Maya’s imaginary friend, Dodo:

“(O)ur daughter…had series of ‘friends’ at (the age of two). This alone was not a problem. I had an imaginary companion as a child; my sister did, too. Ours came and went freely, and appeared completely benign. My daughter, on the other hand, talked about one of her ‘friends’ constantly, in a manner more articulate and detailed than one might expect a two-year-old could manage. She described with utter conviction the island where he lived, a whole world she claimed she could see. As the months progressed, my husband and I became more than a little concerned.

Creativity or delusion? We couldn’t tell.

‘It’s a normal developmental phase,’ the pediatrician assured us. ‘She’ll grow out of it,’ the therapist with whom we consulted said. When my daughter’s behavior became mildly aggressive and she attributed her actions to her ‘friend,’ we were told this, too, was within the normal range. But we were the ones who’d witnessed our daughter’s development every day since her birth. We felt that something else was going on, that the rote explanations we were given somehow weren’t adding up.

Our quest to help our daughter eventually brought us to Maya healers in the Central American country of Belize. The trip yielded inexplicable yet effective results–a wholly unexpected outcome for a self-professed cynic like me.

To say some readers have disagreed with the parenting choices I made puts it mildly. Some have labeled me over-reactive and overprotective. The more blunt ones have called me a total nutcase.

What can I say? I also questioned my judgment, my motives, and my sanity nine years ago, and again as I wrote the story down (in the memoir, The Possibility of Everything). What kind of mother, I wondered, allows her imagination to tumble into such extreme and dramatic territory? Why couldn’t I sit back and let the ‘friend’ disappear on its own?”

The Possibility of EverythingHope Edelman discovered that her young daughter had a new imaginary friend when she was bitten on the leg by the child, who blamed it on “Dodo.” Imaginary friends can be disruptive, but the changes in Maya’s personality and behavior since he turned up were particularly unsettling to her mother. Maya became increasingly challenging – beyond what might be expected during the “terrible two’s” – and Hope’s concerns were escalated by a history of mental illness in her family. She was also frustrated by a perceived lack of support; her husband was working incredibly long hours with a start-up, and she still felt isolated and out of place from their recent move to Southern California for his job. Following professional advice didn’t seem to help; the only thing that briefly improved the situation was a ritual performed by the family’s Nicaraguan nanny, who believed “Dodo” was a malignant spirit. For that reason, and despite her own deep skepticism, Hope and her husband Uzi arranged to bring Maya to visit a shaman during the family’s winter vacation to Belize. Uzi was truly open to “the possibility of everything;” Hope wasn’t really as open, but she was disturbed enough by their situation that she was willing to try something unconventional.

I first encountered Hope Edelman over ten years ago, when I sought out her book Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss shortly after my own mother died. When she asks “What kind of mother allows her imagination to tumble into such extreme and dramatic territory?,” it’s a question she touched on in her earlier book; one of the effects of early mother loss can be a tendency to catastrophize. I saw this in my own mother, who was left motherless at six years old – and even though I didn’t lose her till I was in my thirties, I was certainly influenced by seeing it in her, and I struggle to keep my own tendencies toward it under control. The “ignore it” approach is probably, at least in part, my equal and opposite reaction to “making a HUGE deal out of it.”

I didn’t see any danger in juice-soaked chicken and rice, but another mother might have – and if my son had stopped eating (or if that unappetizing habit hadn’t gone away on its own), I wouldn’t have been able to keep ignoring it. I don’t think I would have seen the danger in my child’s imaginary friend that Hope Edelman did, and even if I had, I doubt I would have gone to the lengths that she and her husband did to deal with that danger – for as long as I could, I probably would have told myself “It’s a phase. It’ll pass.” But apparently, for Hope, “ignore it, and it’ll go away” just didn’t feel right, and ultimately, as mothers, I think that’s what it comes down to – defining the dangers, and trusting our feelings about what’s right for our kids.

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