Me and Casey Anthony
My daughter, Short Stack, was 2-1/2 when Gavin died, and Caylee Anthony was nearly 3 when she “disappeared.” So every time I heard someone say, “how could a mother possibly hurt a little angel like that?,” speaking of what Casey allegedly did to her little girl, I took it a little personally.
That first year that Shortie and I were alone — the year from 2-1/2 to 3-1/2, which started on the hot summer day we came home from hospice without her Dad — was, in many ways, hell.
Shortie was still in diapers and I was still nursing — rushing these difficult and untimable aspects of her development had not been priorities during the two years Gavin was ill. On my own for the first time as a parent and grieving hard, zombied out, barely coping, the two developmental milestones, one at each end of my girl, seemed like Everests — I couldn’t imagine where I’d even find foothold. A critical survival technique: do the least you can get away with.
Among the worst memories was the constant fight in and out of her car seat. What an irony that this constraint was for safety! There was no way to be a “good” parent: I could force her in, cursing between my exertions, or fail to protect her. The lose-lose equation of single parenting was never in higher relief than during those four or six muscular tussles each and every day.
Another daily, deadly pain was anytime she needed to sleep, or I did. Shortie hadn’t napped since 16 months and every afternoon was a long, drawn out struggle of wits and blood sugar against a soft mattressy background. If you want to feel drained, try waking up at dawn, running around till afternoon in an effort to tire a curious toddler, nursing her in bed and feeling the reciprocal relaxation and comfort …then having that child STILL not sleep. I felt used and abused — and more so, the more I nurtured her.
That year also held many sweet moments, milestones of wonder, and huge growth for both of us. She attended day care for the first time with hardly a whimper. She learned new words every day. She was a talented artist, drawing faces “wif two eye” and experimenting with paints with great concentration and zeal. She shared her feelings, bit by bit, and sometimes turned to comfort my hurting heart. One morning, I woke up to find my face tenderly cradled in her hands: “Mommy, you tow pooty!” Who had ever adored me so?
I learned to listen to the hardest things she said, day in and day out. She didn’t understand he was gone, and she was constantly curious and exploring, but without much verbal variety. She was at an age where a sensitive parent can see the confusion and the searching in her eyes, “see the gears turning” in her mind, but it’s stifled, it can’t quite come out. Which results in white hot animal rage a lot. You cherish that your child is learning what works for her and what she likes and that she’s learning to express her wishes, but of course, you don’t really like getting hit or bitten.
Gavin and I wanted to be parents, more than almost anything. We were in different stages of what is nicely called an “infertility journey” for around 8 years. He was, in a way, more maternal than me. He was the one who stayed home with her while I worked, and he played “the nice one” with the outside world, and in nearly all matters. We were good complements…. I never thought I’d be parenting on my own.
I remember being shocked, even before I’d met my husband, when a friend — a wonderful, involved Dad — told me, after a difficult New Year’s Eve in a fancy hotel room with his warmed-up wife and their 3-year-old, that he understood why people would want to kill their own children. I avoided his eyes. That will never be me, I thought.
I also thought I’d never let my child watch four hours of television a day. Whatever rules we hoped to live by — and use to run our good, competent households …. A real child would require them to “flex,” at least.
Having a child — a real, physical, delicate child in my custody — is a challenge that few of us are prepared for. It stresses our systems and relationships in pretty much every way. Most parents talk about moments of overwhelm with humor and awe, but you can tell they never knew they’d live on this distant planet: “I can’t believe they are sending me home from the hospital with this thing…”, “now I know what it’s like to see my heart living outside my body,” and “don’t break the baby.” We feel rooted, or perhaps screwed down solid, both feet paralyzed: there’s no way out once that kid hits the air.
Being a single parent is exponentially more difficult — being an ONLY parent even more so: not twice as hard, much, much harder. I had no rest, no relief, no days off. All errands, all support were undertaken WITH the child. (Don’t tell me you enjoyed taking a 2.5 year old to a supermarket.) Day care and babysitting were critical but had to be used sparingly — mostly saved for the necessaries, like work. I had no one to play “bad guy” (or in my case, “good guy,” no one to suggest alternatives or take a turn being hit “by accident.” (And this is without taking any account of my own needs or emotions at the hardest time in my life, or working Mommy guilt, or how broke we were).
So I could see how someone could hurt a toddler. Even a really good parent occasionally calls their two or three year old “monster,” “wild animal,” and “alien,” alternately with “angel,” “muffin,” and “monkey.”
Don’t get me wrong: I love my daughter and I’m a reasonably good mother, possibly an excellent one. I’ve never hit her (though I pinched her pretty hard once). The only time I came close to hurting her was the hot afternoon I craved to crash my car and do us both in. Gavin was still alive, barely, but still my partner, and the impulse lasted just a moment (I screamed enormous release and pulled the car over — then retraced my two block progress to arrive back home and throw my girl at him). Bedridden with treatment side effects, recovering from surgeries, and with the merest spark of life remaining in his thin frame, Gavin was kind and able to handle my child and lighten my burden. I could hand her over to him after a frantic yell of a drive and know she’d be okay. I could cry upstairs, revelling in what a terrible parent I was, and still be free of custody for a few moments. Hell, he was even able to get me a yogurt and a beer.
A kind authority figure might say, A child’s needs are non negotiable. An authority who doesn’t have much faith in you tells you, Once you have a child, you can’t just take it back to the store, you know. Other authorities say, As soon as you get used to this stage, they’ll grow into another one. I say, Be honest about the strains, but write down those beautiful moments and days and phases, too, so you don’t forget them. (And remember one really bad one — preferably, a poop or throw up story — to pull out on prom night.)
Because kids at that age — at a certain stage, which I hear can happen between 2 and 4, and can last around six months — are totally fucking impossible to deal with.
Mr. Fresh, my new husband, attended Gavin’s memorial service. When he saw me, knowing my daughter’s age, he was hit back to the reality of his kids at this age. Oh God, he thought. She’s alone with a kid at that age. How awful. (He told me this just a year ago).
Since Gavin died, for five years now, still, whenever I see a child at that age — yelling in their car seat, playing “the yes/no game,” arguing endlessly and physically , exercising more will than a wild animal but only slightly less force and, O blessed!, duller incisors— I am reminded of those terrible days and empty, drained nights. Witnessing a real child and frustrated parent gives me a validation that heartens me, even though I’ve learned it over and over again.
I thought it was just my grief. I thought I was a terrible parent. But they’re all like that.
So when I heard the suspicions about Casey Anthony, how she might or could have killed Casey, including so many folks who wondered “How could someone kill a beautiful child like that?” I thought: you must not be a parent. Or maybe you just haven’t spent enough time with a kid that age. Because when I hear about this terrible crime, I say a little prayer of gratitude for ending up, myself, in a better place: there but for the grace of God go I.
Author’s note: Just to be absolutely clear: I’m not justifying anything Casey Anthony did or is alleged to have done. I’m not saying that all kids are impossible, even at this age; not all parents feel, even for a moment, capable of hurting their child. I’m saying that anyone COULD get close to hurting their child. *I* felt it for a moment and kids that age are really, really difficult.