Parenting with bipolar

There is nothing like being a parent to induce a need for other people’s approval and sympathy.  Suddenly, your every move is held to a higher standard, by yourself and others.  And when you struggle with mental illness, that standard can seem impossible to meet.

So, looking for some validation, or just to remind myself I’m not the only mentally ill parent, I searched around for blogs and articles on the topic.  This one by Jane Roper is my favorite— it hits some notes that resonate very much with me.  In particular, this passage:

“My thoughts were panicked and pessimistic: What if I didn’t get better this time? What if I ended up having to be hospitalized? What if this was the way I was going to feel for the rest of my life? What kind of mother could I be?”

I confess to having teared up a little reading that, because those same questions had been circling my (very depressed) brain all day, and it was relieving to have a reminder that other parents struggle with them, too.  And yet, in some respects I came away more disheartened than when I started reading, because I realized anew how severe my problems are compared to many people who struggle with clinical depression, and how much that affects both my ability to parent and the way I interpret my failures.

This is not to dismiss the struggle of Roper or others who share her experience.  Depression is awful and painful and destructive at any level.  But I was unable to identify with most of the positive thoughts that lent the article its hopefulness.

It starts in the second sentence: “My husband watches them most of the week while I’m at work…”.  Two glaring discrepancies between Roper and myself.  She has a husband who actually gets up with the kids most days– a situation I’ve never enjoyed, having become a single mother almost five years ago after leaving a husband who callously neglected both my and my son’s needs.  And she goes to work.  Thanks to my disabilities, I haven’t had a job since a brief stint as a care worker in 2007.  In total, I have worked full time for about six months of my life.

Roper goes on to say, “I’d been able to effectively manage my condition with medication. When I did have depressive dips, they were short-lived, and not debilitating.”  I have never had a depressive phase that wasn’t long-lived and debilitating, and when I’m not curled up shaking with anxiety or feeling dead inside, I’m often manic, which brings its own set of parenting issues.  I track several aspects of my mood on a daily basis, so I can say with certainty that with the exception of ten eustatic (i.e., “normal”-mood) days in late November/early December, I’ve been severely depressed for all of the last three months.

Of course, I’ve gone through things that precipitated that.  Medication changes, and a very sad breakup.  But there are always factors.  Life is complicated, and mine tends to be especially complicated, partly because that’s the nature of being disabled– a lovely feedback loop.  I’d have trouble looking back at any time in my life and going, “Wow, I was really doing okay for a while there.”  I never was okay.

All of which means that the reassurances in Roper’s last paragraph ring hollow to me.  Ask for help?  I’m barely able to maintain a few loose friendships; the person to whom I turn for babysitting, my mom, is already overburdened with the task.  Let the kid(s) watch TV?  I already do that on a daily basis; my son goes over his theoretical screen time limit almost every day because I feel too worn down and apathetic to work at interesting him in something else.  Let things slide?  What things?  Everything already slid, a long time ago, the cooking, the cleaning, all the responsibilities.  It’s not a supermom on my shoulder, I feel; it’s just a normal mom, who looks at what I’ve turned out to be and is appalled.

When you have moderate periodic depression, it makes sense to take a sick day, or two, or even a sick week or a sick month if you are able.  When you are clinically, severely depressed about 75% of the time, things get less clear-cut.  What if every day turns into a sick day?  I share Roper’s fear that I will always feel this way, but perhaps with better reason: in my case, it may not last forever, but how long will it last, and when it goes, how soon will it return?  I already know the answers:  A long time, and soon.

And as a result, I have to deal with the questions that follow.  Should I even be a parent?  Was it wrong and irresponsible of me to get pregnant in the first place?  Has my child inherited my bipolar, and will he someday have to feel like this, too?  Would it be better for him if he lived with his dad, and am I being purely selfish by maintaining custody?  Is he even getting anything out of his time with me?

My reality is akin to Roper’s worst fears, and the same is true of every other piece I read.  So who do I identify with?  Who has answers and reassurances for me?  And are there even any to be had?  I was searching for evidence that I am not alone.  What I found instead was more evidence that I am.

Why I stopped killing myself

There are many reasons I started drinking.  There’s only one reason why I stopped.

I remember the first time I got well and truly drunk.  I was 19, and I had bronchitis, as I tend to do several times per year.  I found that the only thing that soothed my cough and let me sleep at all was a bottle of wine that my mother in law (with whom I and my then-husband were living) had had in the fridge for some time.  I had sipped wine before, but never gotten more than a little buzz.  Without even realizing it, I ended up drinking the whole bottle of wine, and what I felt I had never felt before:  total relaxation, not caring anymore, feeling as if nothing mattered because a simple drink could make me forget it all.

Prior to that night, I had disdained alcohol.  I would go to parties at my parents’ friends’ houses and see people drinking and acting like fools, laughing too loud and talking too much, and I always thought “I never want to be like that,” so I would choose a glass of ice water over wine or beer.  In that moment, with that bottle of white zin, everything changed, even though I didn’t know it for a long time.  I started keeping a bottle of vodka in the fridge and making a Bloody Mary or The Vodka Still Works (= ginger ale + bitters + vodka) when I felt stressed out.  (To his specious credit, my then-husband would get upset with me and pour out my drinks, saying he “wouldn’t let me become an alcoholic,” although I think his motivations had much more to do with control than concern.)

But it wasn’t until a few years later that I really understood what alcohol could do for/to me.  I was divorced and had just gone back to university, and every time I was assigned a paper and tried to work on it, I froze up, panicked, couldn’t work, and the more I couldn’t work the more I hated myself and the more stressed I got.  So one night, convinced I was going to fail at anything I ever tried to do and never be loved or understood by anyone, I went to the store and bought a bottle of Merlot.  I drank the whole thing, and I lay on the floor puking into my wastebasket and I thought: “This is it.  This is the solution to every problem I’ve ever had.  If I could just feel like this all the time, everything would be okay.”  And being that I had drunk such small amounts before, I had virtually no hangover/withdrawal, so it seemed there was no downside.

Within the year after that, I began to have opportunities to socialize with people I’d met in class, which scared the fucking shit out of me.  It had been years since I’d had a “friend” or really spent time with anyone who wasn’t my abusive, possessive husband or partner.  Suddenly I understood that if I drank while I was with other people, I could stop feeling so petrified and actually talk to them. 

For the first time in my life, I went to parties, I chatted, I flirted.  I did the things I didn’t know how to do, and I didn’t realize until much later that I was actually being my usual bumbling, bizarre self only less toned down because I had no inhibitions while drunk.  I said whatever came into my head, which, it turns out, usually means I’m being a rude, insensitive asshole. 

I started making stupid irrational decisions, dating people with whom I had nothing in common and then suddenly declining their calls and dropping off the face of the earth.  I had unprotected casual sex even though I hated it, because it just didn’t seem to matter one way or the other.  I didn’t care about anything anymore.  I stopped planning my time and would rush off my assignments while shit-faced drunk at 3AM, knowing in my overconfident stupor that I’d get an A anyhow.  I burned a hole in my stomach that still flares up in times of stress.  I started to have constant tremors and sometimes hallucinations when I didn’t drink, and the obvious solution seemed to be to drink more, to drink all day every day, to just never be sober on the days when I wasn’t caring for my son.

Then I met Person of Interest, and for the first time somebody had a genuine, vested interest in asking me not to drink and abuse drugs.  I knew he loved me, though I didn’t understand it, and I knew why he wanted me to be sober.  But it wasn’t enough.  I would try very hard for weeks to not drink at all, because I was madly, head over heels in love with him and I wanted to do anything that would make him happy.  And then something stressful would happen and I would go on a total bender.  My mental health was beginning to decline drastically, and it was a terrible time for that to happen, while navigating a new relationship.

 Fast forward 9 months; I was hospitalized and then went into rehab.  I tried twelve-stepping.  I attended and I listened and I thought, and at first it seemed like magic, and then pretty quickly it seemed like pretense– just another religion I didn’t really believe in, with its bible and its catechisms and its rituals.  But there was a moment in rehab when everything changed, and it had nothing to do with AA or NA or abstinence or any of the rules or skills I was taught.  As often happens with me, my life changed because someone told me a story.

If you’ve read my Dysfunctional Fairytales, you will recognize this story as incorporated into the first, because it made such an impression on me.  During a meeting, a young woman stood up and recounted the story of how she watched her sister die of an overdose.  “She was a beautiful African-American woman,” she said with tears rolling down her cheeks, “and when I looked in her eyes, I could see that she would be dead, because they were grey, they were just grey.” 

And then she spoke of the children of her sister.  “I try to be close to them, but I can barely stand to be around them because the girl, she looks so much like her mom.  And the boy, he was two when she died, and I was taking care of them.  He’d wake up at night sweaty and screaming and crying ‘My mommy died.’  I miss her, she was my sister, but I hate her a little bit because of what she did to that little boy.”

I am a parent of a little boy, who was five when I heard the story.  And my heart broke.  I realized how selfish I had been, and that no matter how bad I felt, no matter how much agony, my son was worth any price.  As long as he was in this world, unless I abused him, which I would never do, it was better for him to know his mom– even if he ended up hating me– than to know that I killed myself, poisoned myself slowly, before he could even know me and decide.  I couldn’t– I can’t– bear the thought of him going through what that poor little two year old did, and I knew that I had a choice to spare him.  How could I choose any other way?

I’m not going to lie; I’ve gone on a few benders since that night.  I’m no angel.  I’ve relapsed, but it doesn’t last long, because with every drink I’ve taken since then that little boy’s face and voice, as I imagine them, have haunted me.  I may be many things but one thing I cannot do is harm a child, and to kill myself would be to irreparably harm the most beautiful child who has ever existed.  And to continue to drink day and night, to fool myself into treating it as a medication that I deserve, is no different from slitting my throat very slowly.  Any day, I could have gone into DTs and never recovered.  Any day, I could have been gone.  No matter how much it hurts, no more.  Never again.

We are accomplished

Shame is one of the most crippling aspects of any non-visible disability.

There is a constant struggle to figure out how society’s expectations can be molded to fit within individual limitations– or, more usually, vice versa.  Often, we expect being disabled to translate into simply working harder, so that we can have a “normal” life.  When we do this, pushing ourselves to succeed in school, work and other sanctioned accomplishments, we’re often lauded as “brave” for “overcoming” something.

So when we’re not able to make up in determination what we lack in functionality, the default message is that we are less brave, less heroic, less worthy of acknowledgment.  We’re either a source of disgust– benefit scroungers, mooching of the state or dragging our families down– or we are simply ignored.

This bifurcated judgment is in many ways the worst slight that can be perpetuated against people with disabilities.  We are basically being encouraged to aspire to “normalcy” no matter the cost, cultivating an ethic of overwork and obsession that would be recognized as unhealthy in more able individuals.  While they are being encouraged to seek a work-life balance and reflect on what they love to do, we are being implicitly told the opposite: that the only way we can contribute to society and be worthy of admiration is by throwing ourselves forcefully at any obstacles to our path of integration.

The downside is that rather than crushing those obstacles, we’re just as likely to bash our heads in.  Those are the stories you won’t hear.

We have goals, like anyone.  We grow up, in the last couple of decades, being told like our peers that we can do anything if we try hard enough, and we want it to be true.  There are disabled people who are hard workers, diligent, talented; who aspire to leadership, power, knowledge, and all the other virtues considered worthy by our culture.  And yet this guarantees nothing.  Insurmountability is very real and very scary, and as bad as it is to think about it– as paralyzing as it can be– it’s just as life-shattering to suddenly realize that your faith in persistence and discipline has left you short of the mark.  All the more so when you’ve never been told that this can happen to you, or that there is any other explanation than personal failure.

There is a lot we can teach each other, and so much support we can offer, when we simply take the time to be authentic and truthful, perhaps brutally so, about our difficulties.  The benefits of non-pharmaceutical therapy are lauded in most circles, yet rarely is it acknowledged that changing your lifestyle can mean much more than doing yoga, walking, meditating, eating kale and quitting smoking.  Many of these treatments are geared at reducing stress, yet for a person with disabilities, they may well never be enough.  Sometimes, life itself– as defined by ableist culture– simply offers more stress than your mind and body can tolerate, regardless of what other measures you use to combat it.

This might be because a chronic physical illness leaves you feeling exhausted and ill, and in no condition to cope with high-pressure situations, which often make the problem worse.  Or it may be because activities most people don’t even think about can be overwhelming due to mental illnesses.  The fatigue and lack of focus that comes with depression and the sensory and social issues inherent in autism are two excellent examples of the latter.  And again, placing oneself in stressful situations– as defined by the stress tolerance of the individual– with the expectation of attenuating or adjusting to them often creates a feedback loop in which stress exacerbates symptoms, causing mood swings, meltdowns, and hospitalization, which in turn cause more obstruction and stress.

We need to be unafraid to tell each other this.  “I can’t work” is not a dirty phrase.  It’s often a true one, and one that needs to be uttered; to be admitted, first of all to oneself.  Or whatever limitations are true for any given person.  “I can’t handle a large group of friends.”  “I can’t work overtime to secure a promotion.”  “I can’t keep up the grades for an honors degree.”  None of these should feel more shameful than admitting that you can’t work the assembly line because your arm is broken.  We should not be reluctant to refuse expectations that are not only unrealistic but harmful to our health.  In doing so, we could be setting ourselves back years, decades, on the path to the lifestyle that keeps us well and lets us be our best.

After more than ten years of scrambling to attain a bachelor’s degree, I am finally being forced to admit that I may not be capable of pursuing my long and resilient ambition to being highly educated and work in academia.  And I am deeply ashamed of the sense of release I feel at that admission, because two words run themselves on a ticker through my brain:  Giving up.  Giving up.  Giving up.  Society hates few things worse than a quitter, and that’s officially what I am becoming.

Yet if I wasn’t pushed into that shame, if I hadn’t forced myself down the same rocky path for so long, I might very well be healthier and happier than I am.  By dedicating the bulk of my energy to a suitably “brave” and “determined” goal, I deprived the rest of my life of much-needed care.  Without single-minded aspiration, I could never have gotten as far as I have.  But along the way, how much did I lose?  How many panic attacks and bouts of substance abuse did I push myself into with impending deadlines and ridiculous self-expectations?  How many six-month pitch black depressions did I trigger?  How much work on my parenting ability, my self-care, my home life did I brush off and throw away because I had “braver” things to worry about?

I’ve noticed a pattern lately.  Every day that I spend mindfully bonding with my son, cooking beautiful meals with him, doing crafts, talking about science and history and Scooby Doo, I feel like a little bit of some giant, gaping wound inside me heals up.  I feel stronger: less depressed, less anxious, less on edge; more confident, more ethical, more whole.  When my son’s not around, getting up early, exercising, washing the dishes, and sending a long email feels like a good morning.  Deep down, underneath the angst and shame this supposed time-wasting causes, I feel like a good person, and I feel genuine happiness, a feeling which until recently I’d kind of forgotten.  And I know that if, in the back of my mind, worries about achieving something more are present, I feel like nothing.  I am less successful at the things that keep me well, and still unsuccessful at the ones that were just never designed for someone like me.

So surely, to pursue something of questionable attainability at the cost of my health, my happiness, and my contribution to my family, is not nearly so much brave as foolish and irresponsible.

By this, I mean no disrespect to motivated people with disabilities who doggedly pursue whatever ambitions they possess.  They have a right to that lifestyle choice and I respect their perspective and achievements.  And some people are able to manage their disabilities in such a way that their balanced lifestyle can include paid work or full-time study; I bear them only good will.  All I want is to know that, likewise, my choice to drastically simplify my life and focus on the day-to-day is one that is respected and valued by others, disabled and not.  I want to be able to say to someone, “Today I took my son to practice soccer at the park, made dinner for the family, and wrote a blog post before going to bed,” with the same satisfaction with which I’d say my semester went well or I got a raise.

All in all, we should not ascribe traits like bravery based on the limited slice we see of others’ lives.  To deviate from the norm and succeed within the bounds of what your body and mind need is just as brave as to work your ass off for conventional achievements.

When all you know is what you see, you have no idea what someone goes through to get where they are.  You see a clean-cut version of me conscientiously studying Old Norse on my bus ride home, and you think, “There’s smart girl, a good student.”  You don’t know that I am at that moment trying to ignore heart palpitations and an encroaching migraine, and that when I get home I will pass by the convenience store and buy a bottle of vodka, which I will finish just in time to get three hours of sleep before my exam the next morning.  Conversely, you see me curled up on the couch for a Star Trek break in the middle of the day, and maybe you think, “She’s getting lazy.  This is just escapism.”  You don’t know that I am taking an hour to do something that makes me smile because my hands had been shaking, and that after relaxing and feeling better, I got up and spent another hour making flying paper dragons with my kid, and later that night I will enjoy a cozy meal with my partner and go to bed content.  Do I not have a right to that?  Is it right– is it good for anyone– that I should be pushed to bash my head against barriers instead of finding the beauty in where I am and making it the best it can be?

I am not prone to bragging, but I will say this:  I am accomplished.  You just don’t know at what.

Parenting: the endless social experiment

I was nineteen years old when my child entered my life (twenty when he reluctantly saw daylight) and without a moment’s notice I went from a messed up young lower-class drudge to something a whole lot scarier:  a Parent.  Suddenly, a new life depended wholly on my choices.  That’s the obvious part.  But as he’s grown, something infinitely more complicated and just as inescapable has crept in.  A parent is the only philosopher in the world in the eyes of her young child, and whether she chooses to accept it or not, that responsibility is equally as heavy as survival.

It started with that word so many parents dread:  Why?  Suddenly, as a sharply perceptive and insatiably curious two year old, my son wanted to know why it was raining; why the dinosaurs died; why humans walk on two legs; why playdough gets hard when you leave it out; why mommy needs to be alone so much; why carrots are orange… the list is endless.  And the trite answers were never enough.  Without fail, he repeated the question until a point at which the succinct, formulaic responses were exhausted and we entered the territory of theory, critical thinking, scientific reasoning– in essence, of belief, doubt, knowledge and meaning.

I have with such frequency indulged in this kind of questioning myself that it came as a shock to me how exhausting and disconcerting it was to be faced with such demands every day, by a person who still couldn’t put his own shirt on or count to twenty.  I realized that however often we might think philosophically, in order to function in the world we wear blinders the vast majority of the time, allowing ourselves the kneejerk assumptions that keep us from existential paralysis.  To be faced with an eager mind that has not yet formulated these assumptions is a momentous and kind of terrifying task.

I didn’t have a tried and true method of handling this job, so with much trepidation I faced it as a sort of endless experiment.  We would have to teach each other.  I would have to listen to what he needed and what he could understand; there was no possibility of preparing some kind of lesson plan to guide him through life.

Furthermore, no matter how intellectually open I tried to be, it was literally not possible to give him answers that wouldn’t guide him in a certain way of thinking.  I could be idealistic about it and convince myself I was setting him on the right path; I could alert him to the subjectivity of my explanations; I could feel cynical and try to ignore my limitations, but none of that would change the basic fact that I was molding my child into the person he will become.  I am the game master.  His responses are his own, but the cues, the board he moves on, are mine.

It’s my job to not just say what comes into my head, but to calculate how it will affect him, and monitor his response.  Sometimes it’s distasteful.  Sometimes it feels artificial and arrogant.  But I remind myself that it’s better than the alternative, which is to attempt, self-deludedly, to deny my power and let my words push him where they will.  I hate to judge others, but I see parents attempt that “strange denial” every day, and I see the chaos and confusion in the faces of their children; the parroting back of heartbreaking, thoughtless attitudes.  I do not want this.

He walks sleepily out of his room in the morning and finds me plucking stray eyebrow hairs by the bathroom mirror.  He wraps his arms around my kneecaps and asks what I’m doing.  I tell him.  He asks the requisite question.  I hesitate.  A multitude of answers flood over me.  Because I feel obligated to by society’s norms of what and how a female-bodied person should be?  Because when I didn’t, I was teased and put down for “looking like a butch dyke”?  Because I spend time looking in the mirror disliking what I see and agonizing over the best ways to make myself palatable?  Because I can’t excise the part of my mind that insists shapely eyebrows are objectively beautiful?

All those statements are true; but are they the truths I want him to carry with him?  No.  They are not ideas with which he is equipped to deal.  They serve no purpose to him, not now.  They are not shameful, but they are sad truths, and ones he not only can’t yet understand, but should not have to.  I settle on another truth, one that is kind, to him and to myself in his eyes and mine.  “Because I choose to,” I tell him; “I like the way they look better this way, and it’s fine to look however you choose to.”

This registers in his gaze.  “I want my hair to look like Shaggy,” [i.e., from Scooby Doo] he says, grinning.

Another day, he asks me why I have so many piercings, and I give him roughly the same answer.  “Can I get rings in my ears too?” he asks.  “Not now,” I say.  “That’s not a decision kids can make.  But when you’re eighteen, you can get any piercings you want.”  He considers this.  “Well, I don’t want to,” he says decisively.  He never wanted to.  He just wanted to know where he stood.  Sometimes, he is experimenting with me, as well, and I’m okay with that.

We are in a diner, indulging my craving for hashbrown potatoes with jalapenos and onions, and he is coloring a picture of two children buckled into a car’s backseat.  One of them, who has Princess Leia buns, is becoming blue with orange hair; the other, with glasses and a baseball cap, is getting orange skin.

“Will his hat be blue?”  I ask.  He doesn’t hesitate to think about this, but I immediately do, and become self-critical.  Since when do I buy so wholly into gendered signifiers?  Why would I impress such an assumption on him?  I try to make a quick save of the situation.  “Or her hat,” I amend.  “We can’t really tell, can we?”

“This one is a boy,” he says definitively.

“Why?”

He shrugs.  “Because I decided he is.  They are brother and sister.”

The results of my inadvertent experiment are confirmed.  There must have been uncountable instances in which I unthinkingly perpetuated similar gendered, archetypal ideas; so have all the other adults in his life.  Regardless of how he chooses to frame it, he understands that cartoon people with glasses and baseball caps are male; those with buns are female; and male-female pairings are by default siblings.  I have taught him to assume ideas that sicken me.  And I have proven that I still hold those assumptions much more than I’d like to admit.

The good part is:  Lesson learned.  Now I am more cognizant.  When we encounter characters whose sex and gender are not specified, I either use gender-neutral pronouns, or I challenge common practice by defaulting to feminine ones.  I’d be the last to say make any kind of gendered assumption, with or without signifiers, is an end goal, but in the interim it’s a way to compensate for the conditioning he’s clearly already internalized.

I watch him to gauge the results.  The change is slow, maybe imperceptible.  But I try, and I watch and listen.  That’s all I can do.  That’s all any of us can do.  The important thing is to know we’re doing it.

Why I let my kid swear

As he’s become more engaged with the people and conversations around him, my four year old son (or four and three quarters, as he will very vocally insist) has begun to pick up many of the “bad” words in which I have a tendency to indulge.  I’m aware that most people who know us are fairly appalled by this, as evidenced by tensed jaws and searching looks at me that ask, “Aren’t you going to tell him not to say that?”

In short:  No, I’m not.  And it’s not just because I don’t give a fuck (irony intended.)  As with most issues in my life, I insist on making this decision deliberately and with open eyes.  And as with any controversial choice, a lack of action is an action in itself.  A child’s development is a trajectory of intense momentum, reflecting every aspect of its surrounding chaos, and what we don’t do is just as determinant as how we intervene.

For one thing, I’d feel like a hypocrite telling him not to use words reserved for “grown-ups.”  An incident from my childhood that I now find rather hilarious, but that I confess at the time was rather confusing, was when I told my cat to sit and for some reason it came out sounding like “Shit!”  (I must have been about 3.)  My mom was standing by, and immediately chastised me, concluding, “I’m sick of you kids’ god damn swearing!”*  Why, I wondered, was this word (which I hadn’t even said!) so offensive to her?  Why was it okay for her to say “god damn” but not for me to say “shit”?  And if it was, phonetically, so close to an innocuous word like “sit” that the two could be confused, what made one word bad and the other okay?  Nevertheless, I learned my lesson and did not say “shit” for many years; but the questions remained.  I never found any sensible answers, which is why to this day I have no problem swearing.  And since I have no problem with it from myself or the adults around me, I don’t see any reason to have a problem with it from my son.

“But”, the counterargument runs, “other people are offended by it.  He’ll get in trouble with teachers and with friends’ parents.  Don’t you want to protect him from that?”  Of course I don’t want him to run into unnecessary antagonisms.  But the answer to that danger, for me, is to speak frankly and openly about the issue with him.  Just as I warn him to tactfully avoid telling his preschool classmates that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, even though I make sure that he knows this, I also remind him that even though words can never be bad, some people don’t like certain words and so he shouldn’t use them everywhere.  He seems to understand this, since I have received no complaints from teachers or other parents.

The idea that words can not be inherently wrong is something that is very important to me as well.  Words are arbitrary signs created by humans to suit our communicative needs.  Field research indicates that no language should be considered “primitive,” i.e. less functional, than any other because they all adapt to the needs of the culture and location in which they are used.  Like any other word, swear words have arisen as a means of expressing what speakers feel is important; which function they serve– whether it’s to communicate strong feelings, as a marker for social divisions or contexts, or what have you– is by far less important than that they do serve any function.

This is my beef with the argument that our language is poorer for including swear words, because they limit the vocabulary of those who habitually employ them.  I am a strong proponent of broad vocabularies, but you can not realistically expand something by means of limiting it.  Censoring swear words is no less harmful than the removal of any other word set, in that it limits speakers’ overall range of self-expression.

That is, were it even possible for such censorship to ultimately succeed.  Where there is a need for language, language will exist, and its meaning derives, again, from its function, not its form.  Somehow eliminate the use of “fuck,” “shit,” “bitch,” etc., but unless you also eliminate the reasons why people use those words, new forms will quickly and inevitably arise or shift to take their place.  It’s called pejoration, and it’s an attested and ubiquitous sociolinguistic phenomenon, and it’s how today’s swear words came to be offensive in the first place, most of them having originally been completely commonplace.  (Which is a whole ‘nother complaint of mine– that the daily language of a conquered people becomes pejorated, while the language of the ruling class of invaders is considered polite.  What’s polite about invasion and subjugation?)

And that, I believe, is the root of most censorship proponents’ real issue with swearing.  Not the words themselves, or even their “crude” or “blasphemous” etymological origins, but the function they serve.  It is offensive to society’s mores that individuals should express such intense anger, frustration and loathing.  It is offensive that people should think or speak about sexual relations or bodily functions in terms that are not either blindingly euphemistic or coldly scientific.  It is offensive that people should openly express the ugly nature they perceive in others.

If it is offensive that adults should express these ideas, it is all the more so that children, to whom we insist on attributing lily-white innocence of thought, should do the same.  This is probably also why female children seem to be more harshly reprimanded for swearing than are boys:  everyone knows that boys like to think about sex and poop and get mad instead of sad and be mean to each other.  Girls are, per Victorian ideals, meant to be moral paragons who don’t want to get their dresses or their mouths dirty.

It is for the same reasons, then, that I wholeheartedly oppose such censorship.  The answer to negative sentiments is not to smother them by excising their means of expression.  It’s to deal with them as they come.  If my son stubs his toe and yells “Shit! Fuck!” just the same as I would, I am not concerned that he said the wrong words, but that his toe hurts.  If he throws his toy and yells “God damn it!” I’m concerned that he is having trouble problem solving and coping with frustration, not that he used the “wrong” words to talk about it.  And when he gets older, if he hears ideas he thinks are dumb and says “Fuck that!” I will listen to his objections and encourage him to follow up, rather than replace, the emotional interjection with rational discussion.

There are a hell of a lot of things I hate to hear out of my kid’s mouth more than swear words.  Among them are: “I’m going to kill you!”  “I’m dropping a bomb on them, boom!” and “That’s for girls!”

In fact, there are a lot of other parenting issues that concern me more than whether or not my son swears.  The world is fraught with dangers to his conscience, safety and self-image.  I’d rather spend my time teaching him how to navigate in that world than policing his language.  And if he hears offensive comments like the examples above and, rather than parrot them, responds, “Fuck that shit!”– all he’ll get from me is a sigh of relief, a high five, and wholehearted agreement.

 

*NB:  Since initially writing this, I’ve been informed by my dad that while he remembers this happening, he’s certain that my mom was making a joke, which I at my tender age couldn’t recognize.  Sorry, Mom.