I was losing it with my daughter and needed help; my plea was answered by many other parents.
Chelsey and Katie were pretty good kids but after we moved to Long Branch, New Jersey, homework became a nightmare for Chelsey and me. The school had not received the transfer documents from her previous school so to place her in a class they asked her to read and then put her in a gifted first grade. She read beautifully but she had a communications handicap that included behaviors associated with it. She quickly began bringing home two hours or more of homework every single day with no break and no help from Mr. Ramirez; if anything, he was more likely to lose control than me. All the work fell on my shoulders and I needed some serious help or I was going to lose it.
Calling the Department of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) was a last resort but a step I was willing to take to protect my girls. DYFS Supervisor Dorothy Monroe came to our home and listened to me, and then talked to both my girls while I went outdoors. I waited anxiously because I knew sometimes things could go haywire with DYFS. Finally Ms. Monroe opened the door and both girls giggled since they are so talkative.
“There were no signs of abuse,” she said, “but you could probably use someone to chat with.”
Ms. Monroe linked me up with Family Companion volunteers Toby Costic and Ann Gans. They introduced themselves and we talked for several minutes. Toby was to be the person I would talk with by phone any time I felt stressed out. It was nice to be able to talk to someone who was objective about my situation, but the problems were still there and we had nothing in common.
A few weeks later Toby asked me if I ever thought about going to a support group and told me about Parents Anonymous. I kept putting Toby off because frankly, I pictured people in trench coats and disguises slinking behind corners. With a name like “Parents Anonymous,” it must be for people with alcohol problems and I certainly did not drink. It just did not sound like anything I would be interested in. A couple of weeks later I finally gave in and agreed to go with her to a meeting. Toby drove me to the first meeting so I could learn the directions; we were the first ones to arrive. She introduced me to a woman named Arlene Prince, the facilitator of the group.
Arlene reassured me saying, “We’re all the same here; I’m really glad you could come!”
Arlene was very personable— nobody could smile that big and then kidnap your children. I poured a cup of black coffee and sat at the table nearest the door; I was still a little afraid and wanted a quick escape just in case. Other mothers began arriving, some with toddlers and some alone but I noticed right away everyone seemed happy to be there.
The meeting began as Becky, the Parent Leader, told me about Jolly K. and how Parents Anonymous had been started by a mother who could not seem to stop abusing her daughter. She told me how Jolly K. and her social worker, Leonard Lieber, arranged the first meeting and then how it spread like wildfire across the country.
Becky handed me a blue booklet with parenting information in it and better than that – it had all the members’ names and phone numbers in it so I could call them if I needed to talk. The “I am a Parents Anonymous Parent” (IPAP) booklet explained the organization and the different kinds of abuse.
Next, I listened as each member told me her name, how many children she had and a little about her own situation. I was amazed at all our similarities and that each in her own way was working on her problems. When it was my turn, I tried to relax but gripped the sides of my chair and my knuckles turned white.
“I’m no Joel Steinberg* but I sure could use some help with my kids.” I said nervously.
I did not know where to begin or what to expect, but what I got was several mothers who listened patiently, asked questions and truly seemed to care what I was dealing with at home. I listened and learned and began to feel as ‘normal’ as the other parents, something I really needed. I was even able to help other moms with a few suggestions and tips with their kids. By the end of the meeting I had begun to relax and actually enjoyed talking with the others; those two hours flew by.
From the other mothers I learned that homework is the child’s responsibility. They also told me a child in first grade should never have to work on homework all afternoon and if she was, then something was terribly wrong. I was so concerned with Chelsey finishing the work for school the next day that I never questioned the amount at all. From that time on I learned to look at my children’s world through their eyes. When I left the first meeting I was feeling much better about myself as a parent and my children. I felt like I had options to try and could see a light at the end of the tunnel.
As I met with the teachers and the principal to discuss the changes I wanted in class for Chelsey, I felt as if I had all those mothers right there behind me with every step. The principal and teachers did not want me to take her out of the gifted class and I found out why. If I removed Chelsey from that gifted class, they would lose the extra teacher’s aide. They cared more about getting the extra aide than in doing what was right for my daughter.
Within a very short time in the new, regular class my daughter began to relax and be a normal, happy kid again. She caught up with the work and began excelling again. To see her laugh and actually be excited about going to school in the mornings was nothing less than wonderful. She was back to her old self in no time.
The next week I went to my Parents Anonymous group and told them what had happened and how I imagined them standing behind me, giving me courage to do what needed to be done for my daughter. Little did I know then that I would continue going to Parents Anonymous for another eighteen years. I wonder— what would I have done without the hundreds of parents I met along the way?
*Note: A high profile case at the time, Joel Steinberg was convicted of first-degree manslaughter in the beating death of the illegally adopted girl Elizabeth “Lisa” Launders. Steinberg is a free man today.