Throwing Out Everything I Thought I Knew About Being A Parent

Last week, our son was diagnosed with a form of autism. He’s 8 years old, which means that I am struggling with the knowledge that for the entirety of his short life, all I’ve done is nag and berate him for things that he truly did not know how to control.

“Parent Coaching” is a nice way of saying “You need to re-learn how to parent your unusual child.” Yesterday I attended our first coaching session alone, because Robbie was stuck at work and unable to go.

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HOLY CRAP.

I learned so much in those 45 minutes. Parenting Maverick has been a huge mystery, a constant uphill battle, and now suddenly all the information is unlocked! It’s flying at me at warp speed — all I have to do is to hang on and keep up.

I learned that when he’s beginning to get upset, we have been approaching him in a way that upsets him even more.

I learned that once the rage cycle starts, he won’t hear or be aware of anything else. That’s why sometimes he denies having said or done certain things after the fact and refuses to apologize. He honestly doesn’t know he did them. OH MY GOD, THAT IS SUCH A RELIEF. I literally thought I was raising a sociopath.

The therapist also made a huge deal over how impossibly, impossibly hard it is for any human being to handle a child on the spectrum without losing her shit. Because it’s not just difficult, and it’s not just challenging. It requires superhuman mindfulness and patience that I have not yet achieved, but hopefully, through the miracle of modern medicine and practice of breathing techniques, I will one day master it.

I learned that my expectations need to be run over, smashed into smithereens, and destroyed. I’m going to have to eradicate every idea I’ve ever had about my child and what he is capable of. I’m going to gather all of the knowledge I’ve gleaned from parenting books and articles and burn it, because none of that applies anymore. I now know that my child thinks differently and copes differently, and it is our job to be flexible.

Even though I have so much to learn, we are definitely on the right path. As the therapist talked to me, my eyes were opened to what I’ve really been dealing with all this time. We’ve already put some strategies into place, and guess what? Things in our house are already so. much. better.

I feel more hopeful than I have in a very long time, and I am grateful to be on this journey with my fascinating kid. I promise to do better now, Maverick. I promise to do better.

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Finding The Missing Piece

For almost 9 years, I’ve operated under the belief that I must be not that great at parenting, despite all my efforts. After all, I’d never changed a diaper before I had my first child, so it’s not too farfetched to assume that my struggles are due to my own ineptitude.

Despite my insecurities, part of me knew that I must be a passable mom, because when the nurse handed Maverick to me on September 3, 2008, for the first time in my life I felt a sense of purpose so distinct that it was palpable. As we stared at each other, I thought, we were chosen for each other.

As the years marched on I’ve questioned myself more and more, but that unforgettable moment of meeting my son for the first time was what I always went back to. When faced with a seemingly insurmountable situation, I remind myself that I’m meant to do this. After all, we were chosen for each other.

I was so overwhelmed with the stress of raising a child who didn’t seem ordinary (in addition to his two younger siblings), that I turned to the only thing that has ever helped me process my thoughts: writing. I wrote and I wrote, and people responded, because let’s face it — none of us know what the hell we’re doing. I needed to understand why motherhood was so hard, and why it was only becoming more difficult. I traded ideas with women from all over the world. I read all of the parenting books and applied all of the principles.

Maybe we needed more Jesus. Maybe we needed probiotics. Maybe we needed more sunshine. Maybe something was so significantly lacking that it was screwing up our family dynamic, and if I could just find that one missing piece, everything would fall into place. Maybe Robbie and I needed more date nights. Maybe we needed more money, a different house, a new school, more kids. We tried it all, and nothing worked for longer than a few days at a time.

Although Maverick does not seem overtly unusual, I knew something was off. I struggled to put my finger on what it was, and naturally everyone had an opinion. “He’s too smart,” they said. “He’s just bored.” Robbie kept telling me that Maverick probably had ADHD, just as he did as a child, and assured me that our son would be fine.

“Nothing is wrong with Maverick,” he said, countless times.

Maybe something was wrong with ME. But I needed to figure it out, because we were chosen for each other.

I tried harder to create an interesting, stimulating environment at home to help satisfy his craving for information. His memory is incredible. He can recall in vivid detail the time I took him to the park when he was two years old and he had on his red t-shirt and lost his truck under the monkey bars. He quotes facts about famous scientists and the surface of Jupiter; after hearing a song only one time, he can repeat all the lyrics. He can add large numbers in his head, quickly.

I cut out red dye #40. I cut out processed foods. I limited screen time. I spanked, a lot. I tried time outs, a lot. We took away toys and privileges.

I cried. A LOT.

The older Maverick got, the harder he became to handle. His emotions were big — exuberant one minute, and terrible, raging fury the next. He was scary sometimes. Robbie works insane hours, and I was in way over my head. We now had a family of five, and while Maverick loves his siblings, he lashed out at them often. Every day was filled with drama, and I kept hitting rock bottom.

Over and over again, I found myself in terrible situations with my kid, not knowing what to do to make it better, and quickly running out of ideas. When no one has a child like yours, it’s very lonely. My friends offered support, but they had no advice.

Our pediatrician said he was perfectly normal. When speaking, Maverick makes eye contact and articulates like an adult. He understands humor — when he was 5 years old, he did a stand up comedy routine for the school Talent Show that brought the house down. Despite what the doctor and everyone else said, I knew either something was going on with my kid, or something was terribly amiss with me as a parent.

We were chosen for each other. This is what I kept telling myself.

I swallowed my pride and got professional help. By then, Maverick was 7 years old. They suggested psychological testing, but it was expensive, so we waited on that, and toughed it out through talk therapy. I hoped that they could tell me how to best parent him, because I constantly feel like our relationship is war-torn. My son thinks I do not like him. My son questions whether or not he is worthy of love.

Talk therapy, as it turns out, does not help much without a diagnosis. We said that we wanted to go ahead with testing.

“He’s a very complicated case,” said the psychologist, weeks into the testing process.

“No shit,” I replied.

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One of the best things about this kid is his zest for life.

After months of evaluation and many more issues at home, Robbie and I were called in to go over their findings. As we sat in the doctor’s office, I thought about how it took not one, but two, doctors of psychology to diagnose our son. I thought about how tired I am. I thought about how I would do whatever they said would make things better. But most of all, I thought about how we were chosen for each other.

And then he cleared his throat, and in one simple sentence, the psychologist explained why motherhood is so hard for me.

Maverick has a form of autism.

The way I felt when he told us is almost exactly how I felt when my mother told me she had been diagnosed with cancer — utter relief to finally have a reason for all the madness, followed by grief and guilt. The grief I feel over Maverick’s diagnosis is purely from all of the mistakes I’ve made over the course of his life because I truly could not understand his behavior. I misinterpreted almost everything he did and said, and that makes me profoundly sad.

Guilt and grief aside, I am incredibly proud of my kid. I’m proud of who he is and what he can and will accomplish. He has an enormous responsibility because his brain is special, and I look at this as a gift. His super brain is his gift from God, and Maverick is God’s gift to me.

We weren’t sure how or when we would tell him about what the doctors said, but it turned out that we didn’t have to. Two days after we learned of the diagnosis, I was tucking Maverick into bed when he sat up and said, “Am I autistic?”

“What makes you ask that?” I said, shocked.

“Well, I asked you that a long time ago and you said no. Do you remember?”

“I do.”

“Well, am I autistic?”

“Yes, Maverick, you are. You have a form of autism. It was hard for them to figure out, because most kids with autism aren’t as social as you are. You’re actually really lucky, because you’re good with people and you have a super brain!”

We spent the next hour lying in his bed, talking about how he’s always known he was different from the other kids, which is why he’s always gone out of his way to be kind to the weird ones. I told him that we’re going to learn about his brain, together, and that he is a very special kid.

“So special,” I said, “That it took TWO doctors to figure out what kind of brain you have.”

We were chosen for each other, and I couldn’t be more proud of us.

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The World Needs More Kind People.

I’m an imperfect, mess of a person who married an imperfect, mess of a person. Together we have spawned three imperfect, messy people.

Robbie and I recognized early on that we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. That became clear 7 years ago in our Intro To Parenting class when the instructor said “Raise your hand if you’ve never changed a diaper!” and we were the only two people in the room with our hands in the air.

Our unborn child was screwed. We knew it, the instructor knew it, and the 15 other couples in the class knew it.

Because of our apparent lack of knowledge, we have made it our practice to set the bar of achievement at a reasonable level. We encourage our children to do their best and we are proud when they succeed, but more than that, it is important to us that we raise them to be kind.

I don’t just want my kids to be kind to people who look and act like they do. I want them to be kind to everyone. Yes, black people. Yes, brown people. Yes, yellow people. Yes, gay people. Yes, strange people — and don’t call them strange, because we’re strange too.

Yes, homeless people. Yes, punk rock people. Yes, baby people. Yes, old church people.

Yes, even your own brother and sister.

PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE. BE KIND TO THEM. This is our family motto.

The thing about parenting is that you never really know if what you’re doing is working. You just do the best you can, and as days stretch into weeks you keep trudging along until something happens that lets you know that you have either failed miserably or done something right. Recently something happened that let me know we’re doing something right.

My 6-year-old’s teacher sent me a text letting me know that she selected him to receive the “Good Citizenship” award because of how kind, helpful, and patient he’s been with a boy named Gabriel in their class.

“Who is Gabriel?” I asked. She replied that Gabriel is a little boy with autism.

“Maverick is so patient with him,” she said. “He’s made such a huge difference.”

Maverick has mentioned to us a handful of times that there is a really funny boy who does silly things and I had no idea what he was talking about. We have friends who have kids with autism, so Maverick may not even realize there is anything different going on with his friend.

The next morning at breakfast, we asked about Gabriel. “OH!” he said, “Gabriel is my friend. He has a disability. I know all about disabilities. Gabriel’s disability is that he just can’t stop being funny!”

As I turned away to hide my face, because I was doing that ugly cry thing that moms do when they are moved by something, I heard Maverick say “His favorite color is rainbow! Isn’t that awesome?!” before shoveling more cereal into his mouth.

Several days later, I found myself standing in a sea of other proud parents. My son sat quietly through the awards ceremony; he had no idea that his name was going to be called, and certainly didn’t know the reason why.

I watched him, feeling the condensation drip from my iced coffee, wondering when the transformation happened. Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, he’s changed. A year ago he would have had trouble sitting there quietly. And now, just look at him.

Raising a kind child.

Me and my kid.

Later, I arrived at his classroom for the end of year party. “HI, MOMMY!” he yelled, in typical exuberant fashion. He was sitting outside next to a little boy I’d never seen before.

“Hi! Who’s your friend?” I asked.

“Oh! This is Gabriel!”

“Hi, Gabriel! I’m Maverick’s mom.”

Gabriel smiled. I liked him already.

The world doesn’t need three more assholes. The world needs three more kind people.

I hope my children can be those three kind people.

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