Talking With My Daughter About My Service in Iraq
By NICOLE GOODWIN
“Mom, what did you see over there? What was it like? Did you have a gun? Did you kill anyone?”
The first time my daughter Shylah asked me about being a soldier in Iraq, she was 6 years old. Her class had been studying the war.
But I had no idea how to answer her questions. I had not figured out for myself why I had been in Iraq. I didn’t know what sense to make of the horrors I had witnessed. Nor had I dealt with my guilt that I had chosen to stay in the military and leave behind my child when I had no certainty that I would return.
Did I want to tell my daughter about all the children I had seen in orphanages or begging at the side of the road? Would I ever be ready to tell her that, while looking for insurgents, I’d had to intimidate people? Or that when I was guarding prisoners, I’d had to shut off all feeling and act like a stone?
How could I ever tell my child that real-life bogeymen exist and that, for the Iraqi people, I was one of them?
It was only a month after Shylah was born that I kissed her goodbye and flew off to Iraq. When I returned, 10 months later, I was riddled with anger, self-hatred and loneliness.
My daughter was my one bright spot. I saw her eyes light up when it dawned on her that I was her mom. That gave me great hope that I could make things right. At first, I did. But over the years, my post-traumatic stress disorder and depression grew worse. I had nightmares so bad that I would wet the bed.
Then, three years ago, around the same time Shylah began asking me about my experiences at war, I slapped her. She told her therapist and the therapist called Child Protective Services, and they took my daughter from me.
Again, I was determined to make things right. During the six months Shylah was in foster care, I saw her almost daily, and I spent time in therapy facing the bogeymen inside me that I had been running from for so long.
Still, I never told Shylah that my problems had anything to do with Iraq. I just told her that mommy was sick and sad.
When she came home, we had to deal with all the anger, fear and guilt she had felt when she was separated from me. It was then that I realized I would need to find a way to share my experiences of war with her. I couldn’t lock away everything I’d experienced without locking away parts of me that Shylah needed.
But what could I share? I didn’t want to traumatize my daughter. So I approached the subject slowly, and from a distance. I started with cartoons.
When I was a little girl, growing up poor in Brooklyn in the crack era, “Tom and Jerry,” “Ghostbusters,” “Beetlejuice” and “Batman” made me feel strong enough to laugh despite all the violence and craziness around me. They made me feel like it was O.K. to be silly and angry and to make mistakes.
With Shylah, I watched “Adventure Time.” Marceline is a little girl orphaned by war, and the Ice King is a compassionate person who would sacrifice himself to ease a child’s suffering. He takes the crown of power in order to stop the war and save Marceline. But taking power also takes away his memories, and his sanity. He winds up a strange and lonesome man who lives with a bunch of penguins and doesn’t have any human friends.
One time, Shylah and I watched an episode where the Ice King was fighting the process of losing his memory. He was writing down anything he could remember on the back of newspapers and scraps of paper. Marceline went to visit him. There was rubble all around and the Ice King turned to her and sang: “Marceline, is it just you and me left in the wreckage of the world? That must be so scary for a little girl.”
The scene reminded me of the children standing in the rubble by the road in Baghdad begging for money, for gas, for food. They reminded me of feeling like my hands were tied — I was powerless to ease their suffering, or even to be there for my own daughter. For a moment, I cried.
As I cried, silence filled the room, but it wasn’t the eeriness that used to come between Shylah and me when I tried to shut off my feelings. It was a connected silence, a quiet understanding. For once I wasn’t afraid to be sad, and for my daughter, that seemed to come as a relief.
Then the cartoon returned to being funny, and we were able to laugh again, together.
When my daughter is older, I think I’ll start showing her some of what I’ve written about her and about my time at war. I think it will help that I write. I’ll be brave enough to say, “Here, I wrote this,” when what I’ll really want is just to run out of the room. I’ll be able to share instead of hiding, stay connected instead of breaking us apart.
It’s important for me to keep finding ways to let my daughter know my story, because my story is a big part of her story as a person. For us, our story includes the war.
Nicole Goodwin is a single mother, veteran and graduate of the City College of New York. She writes for Rise, a magazine by and for parents affected by the child welfare system.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Moms in the military
Thanks to Iraq Veterans Against the War member, Nicole Goodwin, for writing this piece that was published on a parenting blog in the New York Times on May 5, 2013: