This is from a couple of years ago and it is a sweet photo but at this moment it is an example of all I want to overcome. Now, suddenly, as adulthood looms for real, the endearing photo of a birthday hug from Elmo only tells me that we need to do more to make the adult world accessible and palatable – no, joyful – to our boy. Adulthood is daunting to all of us, so how do we differentiate childlike from childish, nurturing from insulation, love from coddling, wisdom from denial, bravery from cruelty? The lines between all of these things shift on me, all day, every day.
That’s what my Dad used to say to me all the time. The first time he said it I was very small and absolutely horrified, and I heatedly insisted that my feed DID match. Then he took my tiny toes in his hands and pointed out that my big toes were on different sides and that if my feet truly matched they would look exactly the same. Stubborn as I was, I did not like to be teased in this way and for a long time I scowled at him every time he said it. The older I got it became progressively more annoying until – poof! – it it became endearing, one of many stock phrases he could be counted to toss out in the course of a day. And eventually I started saying it to my own kids, and they find me annoying. Surprise.
Last Sunday morning it came to mind when my boy padded into my room and slipped into bed with me, taking up the spot usually occupied by his traveling Dad. As I snoozed on my right side, he lay on his left side playing with his iPod, and he lined up his feet so that the soles of his matched up with the soles of mine. An excellent case of respecting personal space with me, as I jealously guard the few weekend mornings when I can sleep in.
I used to think more than I should have about the matching feet thing – it took me longer than usual to grasp the concept of symmetry, I guess. It bothered me when I was little, because I was the youngest and hardly ever in on the joke and thus took everything so literally (case in point: I thought the guerillas who terrorized the Olympic village in 1972 were men in gorilla suits). Sometimes I still miss the cues and can be gullible, which makes me love living with this boy even more because his syntax and receptive language are all over the place – it can be hard to know when he is being silly and when he is earnest. He relies quite heavily on scripted speech and so some of the mashups that come out are priceless. A few weeks ago after being rude and subsequently scolded he asked, “Did my popping off cook my goose?” The latest favorite happened when he got into the car after a long bike ride with a friend: “Man! I have a splitting butt ache!!”
Our feet might not match, but I think we understand symmetry. And, unlike his mother, he has very nice feet.
Thanks again cable news for the sideshow. Let’s pit Ann Romney against Hilary Rosen and watch the sparks fly. What a fabulous use of everyone’s time. And yet, I jump in. Frank Bruni pretty much got it right when he said that inclusion does not quite reach the stay-at-home Mom. Who came up with the idea that being a Mom isn’t work if you have money? Nobody ever said that about Jackie Kennedy. Who thought it was a good idea to denigrate the experience of one woman to validate the choices of other women? Just because you have a Mom or are a Mom does not give you the right to pass judgment on other Moms. Everybody knows that’s what playgrounds and playgroups are for, not mass media.
We can’t seem to embrace the individuality of motherhood because it is such a universal and formative experience; we all develop ideas about what it is supposed to be, and women in particular see the quandaries coming far in advance. But there is only so much we can plan for.
I read a Facebook status the other day that tugged at my heart. A working Mom spoke eloquently about the career that was waylaid by the appearance of autism in her life. Sometimes it sneaks up on her, she says, and she allows herself to daydream about what might have been. Sometimes I think my own motherhood was high jacked by autism – that I never got to be the kind of mom I truly wanted to be. More of a free spirit – a gallivanting museum hopping different activity every day type.
I recall the day I realized I would have to rethink everything. We were with our playgroup at a new indoor playplace that was all the rage in the 90s – a converted house with rooms for dress up, crafts, and tons of opportunities for free play. And while my girl danced about in a tutu and feather boa, my boy fell apart – unable to share or cope at all among the noisy activity. I took him out to the car and there we sat, each of us stunned and bewildered in completely different ways. Both of us felt like our fun was taken away. I knew at that moment that we would need to plan better where we went and what we did, and I felt all sorts of fun things drop off the to do list.
After that there were long periods where I could not take joy in parenting the same way I had before. I wanted more than anything to be a relaxed mom. I know autism moms who are at peace, but that’s not the same as relaxed. I am much better at exhausted than I am at relaxed. And it was so ironic because I was fully prepared to mourn the suspension of my career to full time motherhood but I am still coming to grips with the lost opportunities of parenting – I was thrust into a kind of motherhood for which I seemed ill prepared. Or I thought I was. I was – and remain – frustrated about the things I cannot do, and the lack of spontaneity that comes from wanting to avoid meltdowns. Through the anxiety and exhaustion I had to improvise and become the mom I needed to be as opposed to the one I wanted to be. Sometimes I think that if I was a better mom maybe I could have found a way to build in the freedoms I lost. I’m still working on this.
All of this is tempered by the reality that, by and large, autism has made me a better mother, and a much better person that I ever could have been without it. I am more empathetic and accepting of the different ways people perceive and function in the world, I understand my husband and typical kids better. I am more attuned to people’s need for sameness balanced against their capacity for change. I still need to be right but am much more willing to change my mind – I always did work mostly on instinct; I now understand the value of being data driven because the regular kind of parent intuition often doesn’t work with autism.
Most of all, I saw that I needed help if I was going to manage this family properly and be a good parent to all of my kids. The product of parochial schools, I didn’t understand that I could get extra help from my school district, that there were therapists and teachers and doctors who could give me advice (in the early days, unfortunately, a lot of that advice was lousy). When my husband travels it was – and sometimes still is – difficult for me to rely on friends and neighbors to help us keep everyone on track and happy. It is work – physical, emotional, administrative, mind-bending, and incredibly rewarding work.
So if Ann Romney has money to spend on raising her kids, I don’t see where that means she doesn’t work and I don’t think she should have to outline her challenges the way I have outlined mine to justify the life she has chosen. Money can’t buy happiness but I don’t see that it trumps credibility in parenting. I hope that she is the kind of mom who values her children and spends time with them, knowing them, teaching them. There are plenty of well-to-do working moms who choose to raise their kids differently, using their salaries to provide their children with other loving presences in their lives. It is disheartening to think that, with all of the talk of women and choice, women can’t even respect each other’s choices. In life, mutual respect is one of the very few choices we are always free to make.
As the Easter Season winds down and we put the harbingers of Resurrection away, I must recognize the egg tradition as it plays out here. This year, our boy chose to dedicate his annual painting of the wooden eggs to his trains and tugs. Borne of my desire to avoid the smell and potential disaster of eggs and vinegar dyes, the wooden eggs painted by all of us over the past dozen years are scattered throughout the house. Each year, it brings the renewal of the spirit home for us.