To Belize and Back: How Far One Mother Went to Help Her Child

Filed under: Opinions

Author Hope Edelman says alternative methods healed her daughter. Courtesy Hope Edelman

If anyone had told me when my daughter was born that one day I'd take her to a shaman for healing, I would have laughed.

Me? Ha! Never. But soon after she turned 3, I found myself carrying her into a Mayan healer's cabin in Belize. I tell the story in "The Possibility of Everything," a book that recounts a very shaky time in our family.

My husband was working 90-hour weeks, which put a terrible strain on our marriage; my writing career was unraveling as I struggled to be a de facto single parent; and I was consumed with self-doubt as a mother without a mother or older sister to help me navigate early parenthood.

Even though I live in funky Topanga Canyon, Calif., where lots of moms give birth at home and use homeopathy and herbs to treat illnesses, I'd chosen to parent by the books. Authors T. Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach became my parenting gurus. Our pediatrician was a mom and I treated her recommendations as law. The responsibility of parenthood awed me, and consulting the experts at every juncture helped me feel knowledgeable and competent. Following their clearly prescribed instructions gave me the safety I craved.

I looked at the alterna-moms in my community and I just didn't understand their choices. Were they clueless? Didn't they care about safety? Craniosacral therapy for colic? What the heck?

Then, at age 3, my daughter developed an imaginary friend. That alone wasn't a problem: Loads of kids have them. From the start, though, my daughter's "friend" didn't fit the descriptions in parenting books. She claimed the friend egged her on, provoking and tormenting her. She spoke to him -- the friend was a "he" -- in a cryptic language and described the "big, cold island" where he lived in elaborate, chilling detail. Her temperament changed dramatically, and in a day's time.

To state it bluntly: I was scared.

The pediatrician assured me that imaginary friends are a normal developmental phase. The therapist I consulted said my daughter was splitting her ego and taking her frustrations out on me. My friends told me I was crazy for worrying. "Ignore it and she'll grow out of it," they advised.

Was I crazy? I felt crazy at times. But a mother knows in her bones when something's not right with her child. And I knew it, in the way only a mother can. As the situation in our house became more unmanageable -- instead of growing out of the phase, my daughter seemed to be growing deeper into it -- I began to wonder about handing my authority over to a doctor who saw my child once every three months, and following the leads of authors who'd never met her.

Who was the real expert here?

We'd been planning a family vacation to Belize, so, instead of researching dive spots or jungle resorts, my husband and I started reading about Mayan healing. A few weeks later, we traveled to the rain forest in western Belize and asked the people there, who have a tradition of spiritual healing, for help.

Our situation didn't impress or surprise them. They assessed it quickly and got to work. Six days, two healers and one bag of flowers and herbs later, our daughter -- who was at our side the whole time -- was returned to her prior, cheerful self. The imaginary friend never bothered her again.

So simple, yet so effective. How could that be?

The shamans said a meddlesome spirit was released. My therapist friends thought a week of family time, unplugged from computers and cell phones, was key. Most likely, I think, was the discovery that our whole family needed to be healed and committing ourselves to that task.

I've taken some heat for telling our story. Some readers label me an irresponsible mother. Or overreactive. Or "crazy." I understand their judgment. I once shared it, too. Except now I believe that all kinds of viewpoints, and all kinds of mothers, create the global parenting community we can all benefit from and share.

I still don't understand what happened in that rain forest. But I do know this: If I hadn't been pushed to a breaking point, and released my arrogance and judgment about what's "crazy" and what's "safe," I never would have witnessed the moment of pure innocence and grace when my daughter was healed in Belize. I wouldn't have given it a chance.

I surely don't suggest that every child with an imaginary friend needs a trip to Central America. But I do champion a mother's right to trust her intuition about her own child. If that intuition tells her to listen to the pediatrician -- as mine still often does -- then more power to her for honoring that. If her intuition urges her to consider other options that are legal and don't harm her child -- as mine did -- I support her right to do so without condemnation.

A mother's intuition can be a powerful parenting tool. Listening to it just might introduce her to a new way of connecting with her children, her husband and herself. It did for me.

Hope Edelman is the author of five nonfiction books, including the bestsellers "Motherless Daughters," "Motherless Mothers" and the recent memoir "The Possibility of Everything," set in Belize. Read her blog on Red Room.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.