Westside Infant-Family Network (WIN)
Culver City, CA
Finding Joy in the Little Things
As told to Anna Henderson, WIN Executive Director
At three years old, Jasmine rarely spoke or played. While the other preschoolers at Westside Children’s Center explored around her, she sat quietly, eyes averted. At the end of each day, her mom Toni came to pick her up, but there was no joy for either of them. And something else was wrong: Toni always looked as if she’d been crying. She was embarrassed and excused it away as stress from work, but her case manager at the center knew that Toni and Jasmine needed help before these issues became bigger problems for the family and the school system. She referred the family to Westside Infant-Family Network (WIN).
When Linda, a Masters-level therapist from WIN, met Toni at her door for their first session, Toni invited her in politely, but her face was flat and unsmiling. Toni was in her early forties, and her house was spotless—impressive for a working mother raising a toddler alone. But the home was unnerving; the rooms were lifeless even under the constant chatter of the TV. When they walked over to meet Jasmine, she didn’t look up. She just kept whispering repetitively at the wall, rocking back and forth. She seemed uninterested in the toys that Linda had brought, and didn’t try to approach her mom during the hour. Linda kept reaching out to both of them, hoping to find a way in. Suddenly Toni looked directly into Linda’s eyes and said, “Ok—you are our therapist—so I’m supposed to be able to tell you things that I’ve never told anyone.” She took a breath and continued, “I never wanted to have children, but I went to a party three years ago and I was raped—and now I have Jasmine.”
Toni told Linda about that night, how difficult and humiliating it had been to go to the police, and how she struggled with her feelings towards her daughter. During the next few sessions, she began to share stories from her childhood. She and her three much older brothers were raised in a strict household run by her unmarried uncle. While he was a good provider, he was very formal, emotionally distant and rarely home. She couldn’t recall ever hugging him or playing games with him or even with her own brothers.
As Linda worked each week to help play and intimacy emerge between mother and daughter, she became less concerned that Jasmine was on the autistic spectrum. Instead, she understood that while Toni had worked hard to provide a clean home, good food and nice clothing for her, there was little emotional bond between the two of them. They were both missing out on a warm, loving, and safe relationship—and the consequences for Jasmine could be dire; she was already far behind her peers in language development and social skills. As Linda and Toni spoke about Toni’s parenting goals, Toni commented that she’d never seen Jasmine smile. Months later, in what might be a simple moment for many parents, it was a big surprise when Jasmine turned to her mom, handed her a pretend cup of tea, grinned, and met her eyes. Though they both looked away quickly, Toni told Linda that the little exchange had melted her heart.
After eight months with WIN, Toni and Jasmine are already a different pair. WIN and Westside Children’s Center helped Jasmine access speech therapy and other resources; the preschool reported that she was becoming more verbal and social and that her habit of speaking to walls had all but ended. Toni transformed her home by switching off the TV and decorating it with Jasmine’s drawings. Toni still doesn’t smile often, but Jasmine does; and though Toni still feels awkward getting down on the floor and playing, she has seen how she can make Jasmine happy. Toni is also working on feeling comfortable hugging—Jasmine loves it when she does, and it makes Toni feel good as well. Much to her own surprise, she has begun to think that she might be ready to deal with the rape. But that will come in time. Right now she’s feeling good that her little girl’s smiles are no longer broken, and that she is a part of her growing, joy-filled world.
*Names have been changed to respect the confidentiality of WIN clients