Health & Family

Modern Love: Bringing daughter back from the brink with poems


When George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, my 13-year-old daughter, Marisa, was so angry she stopped wearing shoes.

She chose the most ineffective rebellion imaginable: two little bare feet against the world. She declared that she wouldn’t wear shoes again until we had a new president.

I had learned early in motherhood that it’s not worth fighting with your children about clothes, so I watched silently as she strode off barefoot each morning, walking down the long gravel driveway in the cold, rainy darkness to wait for the bus.

The principal called me a few times, declaring that Marisa had to start wearing shoes or she would be suspended.

After about four months, she donned shoes without comment. I didn’t ask why. I wasn’t sure if wearing shoes was a sign of failure or maturity; asking her seemed like it could add unnecessary insult to injury.

All of her rebellion that year wasn’t so harmless. I feared she was acting out in dangerous ways.

As we walked through the grocery store one day, she reached out for an avocado, causing her sleeve to fall back, revealing a scary-looking scab on her wrist along the meridian where a watchband would be.

I grabbed her hand. “Oh, Marisa. You must be in a lot of pain.”

She looked away, saying nothing.

I tried to squelch a wave of nausea, chilled by the knowledge that my daughter was harming herself.

I did what parents do: I engaged with professionals and took their advice. Marisa went to a counselor alone, and we went to a different one together.

I felt a pit of horror in my stomach as a psychiatrist told me, in front of Marisa: “She shouldn’t be left alone, and she shouldn’t be allowed to handle anything dangerous. No knives. If you have any medication in the home, keep it locked up and away from her.”

Later that evening we were unloading the dishwasher together. I unconsciously passed her a sharp knife to put away.

“Mom, are you sure you can trust me with this?” she said jokingly.

I had held it together pretty well up to that point but started sobbing uncontrollably when she said that.

She looked surprised, and gave me a hug. “I’ll be OK,” she promised.

I started Tuesday Night Dinners, to which I’d invite everyone we knew who would be fine with the chaotic scene of a weekday family dinner.

Other evenings were filled with sullen, delicate silences punctuated by minor conflicts.

It wasn’t clear to her whether she should bother growing up. She would ask me, “Do you like your life?” Her tone implied judgment of my life without her having to spell it out: You drive, work in a cubicle, do chores and are terminally single. What’s the point?

What I could count on

I started leaving poems in her shoes in the morning. She had used the shoes as a form of quiet protest, so I decided I would use them to make a quiet stand for hope.

Before she went to school in the morning, I wanted her to read the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver that talks about not having to be good and not having to walk on your knees for miles, repenting. As Oliver writes, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Would she get my message that the world loved her and she should really try to start loving it back?

I wasn’t going to talk her out of how dire things were on the planet, but could she, even so, find reasons to put shoes on each day? Raising a child who had no hope for the future seemed like my biggest failure.

It suddenly struck me – me, who loves science, data, facts and reason – that it was poetry I could count on. Poetry knew where hope lived and could elicit that lump in the throat that reminds me it’s all worth it. Science couldn’t do that.

As the days grew longer, she became more involved in life. She made plans, took up running, planted seeds, decorated her room. I could see that her putting on the shoes wasn’t defeat, but maturity.

Questions for the abyss

At some point, I knew she had come out of a long, dark tunnel. I also knew it wouldn’t be her last tunnel.

The most optimistic people often struggle the hardest. They can’t quite square what’s going on in the world with their beliefs, and the disparity is alarming.

She was temporarily swamped at the intersection of grief over a bleak political landscape, transition to a mediocre high school, and the vast existential questions of a curious adolescent.

In retrospect, my poetry project was a harmless sideline that kept me benevolently out of her way as she struggled not just to see the horizon but to march bravely toward it.

A few years ago, she was interviewed to join a group of students on a long trip to Sierra Leone. The professor explained that it was likely to be a very difficult time, far from home, with physical and mental hardship.

“What would you do,” he asked Marisa, “if you get to the abyss, and it begins talking?”

“Well,” she replied, “I would have a lot of questions for the abyss, indeed.”

Betsy MacWhinney is working on a memoir about single parenthood.