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.