Failure to Thrive

Is existence, in and of itself, a legitimate source of hope? Is any source of hope legitimate?

Best American Short Stories 2009I was reading from a collection of short stories last week. “The Best American Short Stories, 2009,” to be precise. It was an uncharacteristically jubilant burst of reading (no interruptions), and eventually, I circled back to the introduction by Alice Sebold, who is perhaps best known for her novel, “The Lovely Bones.”

In her preface, Ms. Sebold explains her process of selection for the annual volume; inclusion in any of the “Best of” series is quite an honor. She leads us through her reasoning as she initially eschews the desirability of book awards or honors, only to ultimately conclude that recognition does indeed hold an important place in any field.

Pointing out that assessing literary works is inevitably subjective, she nonetheless believes that we should acknowledge storytelling – all sorts of storytelling – and the act of doing it well.

I found myself nodding in agreement as I continued through her thoughtful introduction, even reaching for a pen to mark a passage that stopped me cold.

It was this statement:

Often, a reflection in the mirror, even if hideously accurate, stands as confirmation of existence, and this mere confirmation then serves as hope – we are still alive in dark times.

Alive in dark times

As a nation, one could say that we are all “alive in dark times.” As an individual, knowing the full flesh of my own story, I am certainly alive, and in a very long and dark tunnel. There is light at moments, but overwhelmingly, “dark times” would describe recent months and more generally, recent years.

As for Ms. Sebold, she was speaking of a brief period following 9/11 during which poetry seemed to flourish, and we seemed to be swept up in a national wave of mainstream commercialism. It was as if in both we were trying to re-establish balance, to find normalcy even as we marched stalwartly (if somewhat blindly) into our current economic woes including the unfortunate downsizing (and reshaping) of the publishing business and related fields.

Being, in my own minuscule way, a casualty of that imploding industry, I had a particle of skin in that game, and perhaps at the worst possible time. Likewise, my skin in the corporate game was lost to a crumbling culture just as the domestic bubble burst on millions of families, leaving us disoriented and licking our wounds.

Welcome to America in the 21st century. Certainly, I have not been alone in this recessionary abyss. I have not been alone in the obliteration of decades of savings. But in the swirl of water under the bridge (and down the drain), I’ll return to my immediate response to Ms. Sebold’s comment on existence as a source of hope.

I don’t think so.

Reflections in a personal mirror

As a woman at the half-century mark, I no longer relish any view in my personal mirror, and it grows harder to hold the mirror steady. Yes, reflection confirms my existence, and along with it – the process of aging and doing so alone.

It could be worse, I tell myself, as I move on to other priorities: parenting, making a living, regaining my health after injuries. But I take no hope in gazing in the literal mirror.

Next I examine my writing. This is a more objective activity and a different sort of analysis, one which encompasses a greater range of observations than loosening skin or graying hair. The fact that I persist in writing daily, albeit at times mechanically, is an affirmation. But is it busy work or self-indulgence, or in fact, an armament against despair?

I consider my half-empty nest. Is getting up each (school) morning, making a bag lunch for my teen son, then riding alongside him in the car “hopeful?” Or is it responsible action, habit, and unspoken commitment – all of which constitutes a parent’s unwritten job description?

If muddling through 20 hours out of each 24 on the smallest amount of expenditure possible is existence – shutting off lights, turning down heat, narrowing the list for the supermarket yet again – is that hopeful? Yes, there is still a roof over our heads and still a grocery list to scrape to the bone, for now. I am not complaining; I am evaluating. But none of this feels hopeful.

Then I fall upon words and their place in my life, their beauty and their power. My fists unclench, my muscles let go their knots just a little, and I admit that in writing daily, I am alive in a brighter darkness. I force letters to stand at attention, to assemble in formation, to march their units one in front of the other, sequentially. I cajole and coax each one through a chaotic funnel in my brain where sequential is not the order of the day until I insist: language must appear, however listlessly, and ultimately obey. And it does, as words offer a grudging glimmer of optimism in their manufacture.

Health check: failure to thrive

When running Ms. Sebold’s perspective through my mental machinery, I had another thought, seemingly out of nowhere, of our children. Our collective children. Our moral compass in this country, such as it is. And our failure to thrive.

My mother knew all about “failure to thrive.” She was an expert, in more ways than one. A complex and troubled woman, she was the source of my greatest pain. She also laid the foundation for my most profound passions: language and art.

On the plus side, she was brilliant, clever, theatrical (which is useful at times); if it did not involve those closest to her, she was capable of enormous generosity. It was generosity in service of her narcissism, offered at a distance and strangely abstracted, yet those facts do not diminish the end result. She spent hundreds of hours in her seventies donating time and raising money for a children’s clinic in a large local hospital. Specifically, it was a clinic for infants and toddlers who suffered from “a failure to thrive.”

She promoted the work of the clinic, as well as raising thousands of dollars over the years. For someone of modest means, that was a considerable achievement in a life of unusual gifts that were overshadowed by disappointments – a slow deadening of potential I never came to understand.

As for failure to thrive, it is a descriptive term, and comprises a number of observable problems that indicate lagging development in key areas. While it can occur in any infant or child, the organization my mother assisted dealt with babies and toddlers of poor women. To a certain extent, the term was a euphemism for starvation – insufficient or improper nutrition, and neglect, benign or otherwise.

I remember being baffled by my mother’s devotion to these children, though I was glad that she was able to contribute in a positive way to something. Why was I confused by this preoccupation of hers? Suffice it to say, she made life miserable for those who attempted to love her. There were few exceptions; I was not one of them.

Also ironic – my mother was morbidly obese, incapable of ever feeling full enough (of love, attention, or food). Yet she turned her charitable efforts to those who were being starved, physically and emotionally, just as she was, in her own way.

No one knew what went on behind closed doors in our murky household: the oddities of food abuse, violent outbursts, the jealousy of any accomplishment I cared to call my own; daily life was interwoven with cruelty and intimidation. That is starvation of a sort, though I didn’t realize it at the time. And so it remains odd for me, from the vantage point of midlife and mothering my teenagers, to examine my upbringing, even then, alive, in dark times.

Reflections in a societal mirror

Is failure to thrive the same as slow starvation? Is it a collection of ills that impedes growth and development? Does it cripple the capacity to trust, to give, to love, to accept love? Does failure to thrive dwarf the ability to hope?

I see the contradictions (and tragedy) on my block, in my school district, and in my city. Indeed, in my country, where we epitomize a failure to thrive when it comes to the moral contract we make as parents, as siblings, as spouses, as neighbors. Where are our priorities? What do we value? Are we guilty of dismissing failure to thrive even in our professional roles as writers and poets, as politicians and clergy, as teachers and physicians?  Who hasn’t walked away from the stranger who needs help? Or worse, the friend?

I return to Ms. Sebold and her words: where there is existence, there is hope.

In literature, there are lessons and there is beauty. Both embrace us as we read, as we ride their pulsating heartbeats, as we reassemble understanding courtesy of imagination, talent, craft. The best of these tales spin us our heavy coats in winter when we are chilled, and the gossamer sleeve for summer’s heat when we are flushed and spent. We choose our words carefully to construct possibility; our words choose us to relate their stories.

If I refuse to be the same sort of mother as the one I was born to (and I have), if I can still honor the great gifts she gave me (and I do), then this journey which has been all too dark all too often is not without purpose. I have not failed to clothe (in words or love); I have not failed to parent my own sons.

But have I parented myself, providing sufficient nourishment to do more than exist? Have I parented my neighbor, my community, my country?

We stagger through our days and nights dutifully, even lovingly, raising our children and commuting to jobs, if we still have them. We couple and uncouple, at times dully, at others, with genuine caring. And we continue. That we do not take the easy way out (most of us), leaping from buildings or deserting our families – is it enough? What if we believe that failure to thrive is unacceptable, and we give “thriving” a run for its money? And what if that fails?

Does existence guarantee hope, or only extend the length of time that we fail to thrive?

Doing the work, recognizing the work

In the spirit of Ms. Sebold’s recognition of work well done, however imperfect the machinery of our society, I should give credit where it is due.

My mother helped infants in her community. She planted seeds of learning in my earliest experience. As for me, I am still capable of choosing to turn forward or back. These are not my only choices; there is plenty of fertile terrain in between. Yet I know that my mind resists stagnation even on the bad days. I remain nimble enough to circulate through a maze of possibilities, pin a word to the page, and hold it until I pound out its outline through keys whose letters are wearing away.

Failure to thrive is a contagion; I am as caught up in its viral consequences as any of us, insofar as our society is like a child, developmentally stuck, malnourished, neglected when it comes to the simplest and most vital elements of our humanity. Caring for one another. But I am aware. Perhaps where there is awareness, there is hope. And maybe that is as much as Ms. Sebold can say to me.

If we accept that we are suffering from a failure to thrive, then what are our next steps beyond the plodding of a numbed, adolescent nation, the disenfranchised follower, or the happily ignorant? Where there is hunger, are we capable of culling sustenance from consciousness, and securing a way to feed our children, and the child in each of us?

I would like to believe the answer is yes. I would like to believe that words will do their duty as good soldiers in this fight; peacemakers of a sort. I would like to believe in Alice Sebold’s hopefulness, and that we needn’t accept a failure to thrive, on any dimension, in any community, at any age.


© D. A. Wolf


  1. says

    I can’t say for sure whether or not existence itself is a source of hope, but what is a source of hope for me is your steadfast commitment to writing, to parenting, and to living in spite of the things you have seen and lived. Taking this post in concert with the piece of yours that I’m hosting today, I stand in awe of your ability to persevere and to provide breadcrumbs, stale crusts, and powerful essays to the people who depend on you for sustenance – not only your sons, but also your readers.

  2. says

    We all fail to thrive in one way or another, don’t we? Recognizing just how we fail (or fail to “succeed,” which is a murky term all its own, as you pointed out recently) is half the battle. Or maybe it is the battle. And maybe your mother was never able (willing?) to fight that battle, but you are, through your blog, your books, your outlook, your parenting.

  3. says

    “Failure to thrive is a contagion” I read your post earlier and had little time to comment. But this phrase stuck in my mind. So I came back to read it again. And it bothered me. Because I didn’t want to believe you (optimist that I am). But you are right. While failure to thrive encourages some to make a change it can pull others under. It’s what you do with adversity – what you do with your choices – that can make all the difference.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      And your comment, Jane, gave me much to think about. When I say that failure to thrive is a contagion, I mean our willingness to accept mediocrity and so much worse. It is easier to turn away from hard problems, and of course I’m using “failure to thrive” in many ways in this essay – for the child who literally is strangled by poverty long before he or she ever has a chance, for those who are abused and thus never fully develop – or at the very least – must find different ways to flower. And of course, we are a country that is in turmoil – and not just economically. I’m all for freedoms, and I run a pretty liberal household and always have, but we’ve lost touch with basics. The most fundamental values to do with caring for each other, being honest, respectful of each life. We speak the words, but we don’t walk the walk.

      And it’s the world we’re making for our children that concerns me. Yet even as I write these words, I know we aren’t beyond doing better. Look at the kindness and generosity in this community – largely (but not exclusively) women. Look how we hold each other up, listen, empathize, connect, encourage, share. Somehow we have to bring this sort of virtual kindness activism into our tactile, real worlds. Beyond cliché. Into our kitchens with our kids. Into our classrooms, our community centers, our doctor’s offices, and threaded through our political structure. I don’t know how we do that. I sense that we must.

  4. says

    Really a beautiful post. It’s always struck me that the term “failure to thrive” is so much bigger than just referring to babies, but until you wrote that, BLW, I don’t think I actually thought about it in terms of my own life or the lives of the women in my family. It’s so true, of course. And it makes me think about the ways in which I’m failing to thrive each and every day and what it is, exactly, that’s holding me back.

  5. says

    Failure to thrive has stuck with me for 23 years like a plague. The smallest of my twins was diagnosed with it. We, as in myself and my husband, the pediatrician, my OB/GYN, took steps to help her get through this failure to thrive. Whatever it was – and looking back, I now have a better idea that I didn’t then – that help her along must have worked as she graduated sixth in her high school class of over 200. She went to a fairly difficult university and made Dean’s list every semester.

    So, to bring this all back to society, we do need to look at what may be causing the failure to thrive in our society. Then, we – and a collective we – need to find the steps to encourage thriving. In the case of my daughter, it was formula as her twin brother was nursing too much and she was not getting enough. In the case of our world, the support for those who suffer – underemployment, unemployment, hunger, faithlessness, homelessness – must come from all of us to all of our human family.

  6. says

    I think perhaps I tackled reading this piece when I am much too tired and I won’t do it enough justice in my comments, but I wanted to weigh in if only with a short comment or two. I think we exist along a continuum of realities, that change and flow based on the circumstances we find ourselves, our lived experiences and our realities as we pereceive them. Along that continuum, and depending on the immediate circumstances we will be faced with realities that may be distinguished as a failure to thrive. I know, there have been moments, days, months, perhaps even years in my life when I saw little purpose and struggled to define myself. I still do, everyday. But I can’t identify that as as a failure to thrive because I continue to search for the means to thrive. That, in and of itself, is what makes the difference, what in the end keeps propelling us forward. I’m not sure we all have the means, but clearly you’ve found it through your writing. For others it may be in music, art, simply breathing each day. That is what makes us human, our amazing ability to find ways to cope and discover. Through self-discovery we can search for the recipe we need to thrive. To me the willingness is more important than the end.

  7. says

    You amaze me daily. Your writing totally astounds me. You write indepth, clearly, honestly, and precisely every single day. How do you do it? Are you a writer by trade? Your talent is what I dream to possess! I suppose it is safe to say that existence gurantees hope, but one must have the will or make the attitude adjustments necessary to make changes. I don’t think that failure to thrive is the same as slow starvation. I feel that failure to thrive is more like being stuck, and slow starvation is more like losing momentum. I’m sorry, I’m sure that was a poor choice of words.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thank you Suzicate. Believe me, plenty of days the words don’t flow. I force them out. Practice writing.

      I see why you say failure to thrive is like being stuck, and starvation is like losing momentum. (Not a poor choice of words at all.) I guess I feel like we live in world in which to remain still is to fall back, so to not thrive is not only to be stuck, but to lose ground. Sometimes irrevocably. In either case, failure to thrive implies that something is terribly wrong. That thriving would be the norm, and something is missing, preventing it. I guess I’d like to think that one day all infants would get the nourishment – physical, emotional, communal, educational – to have the hope of a quality life. I’d like to think that children and adults wouldn’t be crippled by cruelty or indifference – indifference delivered at the hand of individuals and institutions. I guess I’m a dreamer at heart.

  8. says

    If we focus on failing to thrive, we will fail to thrive. Instead, if we focus on prosperity and creativity, we will be creative and prosperous. At least that’s the mantra I like to believe.

    Very well-written post.

  9. says

    I don’t agree with Sebold that existence=hope.

    Failure to thrive is something that babies cannot help. Children cannot, usually, help. But as we grow older? Then failure to thrive is a choice. Certainly, there are hard circumstances and obstacles and horrible betrayals, but what we DO with all of that determines if we drown or swim. We get up in the morning. We mother our children. We toil and do meaningful work, even if some days we’re not sure it’s doing any good. We continue to dream, even though that dream might feel far, far out of reach.

    This post hits so close to home. My sister, at age 44, fails to thrive. And she does so because rather than doing ANYthing that is remotely hard or honest or courageous, she flings blame and expects others to rescue her. You fail to thrive when you refuse to help yourself.

  10. says

    Hi, I’m here. And I’m reading. But I feel completely unable to comment. Again.

    Perhaps my feeble mind is the result of too often breezing through my thoughts and not stopping, as you always manage to do, to dive a little deeper.


  11. says

    Very provocative. You raise great questions and invite us to broaden our perspective. Perhaps “failure to thrive” is really many different failures—from kids well fed but not held (relating to Harry Harlow’s research on attachment) in “modern” clean orphanages, to kids whose physicality (or maybe spiritual leanings) make it extra hard for them to be in our world, especially at their beginnings.

    As a society, perhaps we can apply what I have found to help with children: offering a mental/psychological space for one to be held until one develops the capacity to hold one’s self in mind; attentiveness to basic needs, so that one can develop basic trust and, from there, thrive with industry and playful curiosity; and finally, accurate understanding (where the mirror of the OTHER serves to see us, not just the cold matter-of-fact mirror of the bathroom cabinet or of Narcissus’ pond), an understanding that holds the opposites (such as hope and despair, light and dark, life and death).

    I see our culture as highly adolescent—and maybe it’s not just failure to thrive, but developmental self-centeredness, rudeness and lack of compassion that we just might grow out of… by honestly and bravely helping each other to thrive, if we can, as you do with your words both unflinching and laced with true compassion.

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