"Normal" Is A Dryer Setting

Parenting A Child On The Autism Spectrum


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The Beautiful Surprise

She discovered with great delight that one does not love one’s children just because they are one’s children but because of the friendship formed while raising them. ~ Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera 

Parenting has no road map because it is a unique experience for everyone involved. No two relationships are the same, and what works for one child may not work for the other. As we go through life, each of us continually becomes reshaped and redefined based on our environment and our experiences. To have an end goal for raising a child often feels like a moving target to me. When all is said and done, this is what I want for my son Tim:

I want my son

To become a responsible adult

Who is capable of holding a job and living independently

And enjoys life to its fullest

Surrounding himself with people who love him.

As Tim’s mother, I by default am one of those people who love him, and I certainly hope he wants me to be around him. Tim and I have fun together, for example

Tim and me on the way to my youngest brother's wedding.

Tim and me on the way to my youngest brother’s wedding.

We were just getting started on that afternoon. What I love most about being with Tim is that he and I share a special connection. We understand each other’s jokes, moods, body language, and communicate both verbally and nonverbally. We are in sync. We get each other. One afternoon, when I walked through the front door after a long day at work, Tim took one look at me and said, “Mom, you need a hug.” Then this teenager who has a personal space bubble the width of the Grand Canyon proceeded to walk over, put his arms around me, and squeeze. I looked up at him, my son, who is now inches taller than I am, and said, “How did you know I needed that?” He just knew.

Tim and I no longer have a parent-child relationship the way we used to when he was younger. He is the most well behaved teenager I have ever met. When I was fifteen years old my parents probably thought my primary objective was giving them heads full of gray hair and worry lines across their brow. Not the case with Tim. As a result, the relationship he and I share is evolving into something quite unexpected. We are becoming friends.

Being my son’s friend is a strange concept to me. I have always approached our relationship as his parent, which means that I am his

“Friend” was never part of the relationship until recently. Many of the words that I used to define my role as Tim’s parent also overlap with synonyms for friend, such as

Supporter

Advocate

Confidante

Encourager

While I will always be Tim’s parent, the added dimension of friendship provides a depth and roundness to the love that already exists between us. Seeing the first buds of friendship in the relationship that Tim and I share is a most wonderful, delightful, delicious surprise. One of the best that life has offered so far.

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The Communication Gap

Any problem, big or small, within a family, always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn’t listening. ~ Emma Thompson

Jill The Hippo, selected especially for me by my offspring.

Tim had a really good week at Camp Discovery, despite his claim that it wasn’t any fun. He even brought me a souvenir. After we had packed up and were on the road, he told me that he had won two prizes at the camp’s Carnival Night, and one of them was for me. I couldn’t imagine what he had chosen, and when we arrived at home I, never being the patient type, told him I wanted my present NOW. He presented me with a stuffed hippo wrapped in a leaf and informed me that her name is Jill.

After telling Tim that I absolutely adore my present, which I do because Jill is extremely cute, her leaf unwraps, and I love how Tim was thinking of me during his week away. I asked him why he thought I would like a hippo. He said he didn’t know, he just saw it and thought it looked like me. For now, Jill The Hippo is sitting on our piano, but I plan to bring it into work and put her somewhere in my office as a daily reminder that there will always be one person in the world who loves me and thinks about me each and every day.

Tim’s opinion on camp was interesting. He enjoyed spending time with the adults. The other campers, not so much. I asked him if he talked to any of the boys in his cabin of four, and he said no, they didn’t talk to each other. One boy cried constantly, one boy was very quiet, and one boy’s entire vocabulary consisted of Yo’ Mamma jokes. The only time the Boy Who Cried Constantly wasn’t crying was one night when Jokester Boy was lying in bed with a steady of stream of Yo’ Mamma jokes. Then the crier was laughing uncontrollably and no one was getting any sleep until a cabin leader intervened.

Communication skills are extremely important, even more so since our world has become so digital over the past decade. The amount of face to face conversations I have each day at work have slowly but surely become replaced by email, instant messaging, and the occasional phone call. If I get up from my chair and walk to someone else’s office, there is the implication of importance. The main reason why I sent Tim to camp was to force him to communicate for a week. It was not to torture him like he thought. When I picked him up, his counselors told me that he had a good time, and that he is intelligent, amazing at math, and has a great sense of humor. It sounds to me like a certain someone started communicating just fine after he adjusted to his new environment.

In case you are wondering, in Tim’s absence there was an example of communication gone awry. Here is what happens when the lines get crossed:

Daniel’s parents have been visiting for the past month. Despite all of Daniel’s pleading, his mum, who is 76 years old and still full of energy, insists on doing his laundry. She not only washes and dries everything, but it all gets ironed, even the underwear, and neatly put away. Now about the underwear…this is where the problems began. Daniel noticed that his underwear wasn’t fitting right anymore. He thought his mum was using a new detergent that for some reason stretched everything out. I was on his porch innocently grilling supper one evening, walked into his living room where he was sitting with his parents, and was accosted with the following:

Daniel: There’s a problem with me underwear.

Me: ***What…***

Daniel: Me underwear doesn’t fit me anymore. I thought me mum was using a different detergent that stretched it out.

Me (looking over at his parents, who were eyeballing me): Um. OK.

Daniel: But she wasn’t. It turns out that she was putting me dad’s underwear in me drawer, and since they weren’t fitting I was throwing them away. Me dad wears a size larger than I do.

Me: Hmm…well maybe your father needs the extra space.

I glanced over at his parents and was greeted with smirks. These are the same people who a few years ago sent Daniel a pair of Union Jack boxer briefs from Next with “100% British Beef” stamped across the waistband, so there are no worries here about offending the senior citizens in the house.

When I went outside to check the grill Daniel’s neighbor M came over. She has been busy this summer landscaping around their condominiums, and I had recommended a tree trimming service for her. While M and I were talking Daniel popped out and said to her, “You’ll never believe the conversation we’re having inside.” After he brought her up to speed, I told her that my theory on it all is that Daniel’s father needs the extra space. When  Daniel replied, “Well I don’t need a 36-inch waistband,” I said, “That’s not the kind of space I’m talking about…it’s too bad not everything is hereditary.” Then I walked back inside to tend to some deviled eggs while M nearly collapsed on the deck from laughter.

Communication is key to not only building but also maintaining relationships. It can make or break a business relationship, a friendship, a marriage, or a home. It can become especially complicated when you need to communicate news the other person may not want to hear. I admire people who go into careers such as psychology and medicine because an important part of their job is knowing how to effectively communicate negative news to another person in a positive manner. This requires tact, knowledge of how to use body language, and an enormous amount of emotional stability.

Tim’s communication skills are improving over time. Placing him in District 916 last winter for school has helped him tremendously in a short amount of time. Tim communicates well with me, but up until about six months ago that has been it. Part of the issue has been  a lack of self-advocacy on his part. Tim has to learn how to make his needs known. I left him at camp for a week so he would have to start talking and interacting with other people. When we go shopping or out to a restaurant, I usually have him speak for himself, and he usually does a good job. When he is away from me, however, I have heard from his teachers that he can have a hard time getting the words out. Tim may be making small steps in communicating with others, but at least he is moving in the right direction.

He also thought the underwear fiasco was HILARIOUS.


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Shades of Gray

It doesn’t matter how many times you tell your child that the cat’s tail is not a purse strap, they aren’t going to listen until they learn it directly from the cat. ~ Jenny Lawson

Last week was more eventful than it should have been. My cluster’s new manager is riding us at warp speed, which I never doubted for a minute she would do. On top of the work, however, the new, exciting, all-encompassing, brain-breaking work, I come home Wednesday afternoon to what should be Normal. But it isn’t. But I don’t realize that at first.

First thing I always do the minute I walk in the door is yell downstairs to Tim, “Honey, I’m home!!!” As if he didn’t hear the garage door opening and my Jetta Wagon barreling in. Tim, being a teenager, doesn’t come upstairs expressly to greet me but rather to find one of our two cats, usually Amber, and pick her up and carry her around against her gently begrudging will. So Tim came up, walked past me, located our dear Amber, walked past me AGAIN, A SECOND TIME, and went back downstairs. I asked him how school went, and he replied fine, and I left it at that. I was doing some sort of mom stuff in the kitchen, such as sorting through mail, putting away groceries, anything but looking at my child.

Oh my.

After starting supper in the oven I go downstairs to our living room to see how Tim’s day went. He had Amber with him on the couch, and when I was halfway down the stairs I almost tripped over the remainder because I could not for the life of me figure out what on earth had happened to his face. Tim looked like he had been attacked by a wild animal due to the long, bloody scratch marks around his right eye.

I froze for a moment out of shock but then ran up to him for a closer look. Here is how our conversation went:

Me: WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?!?!?!?!?

Tim: Someone scratched me.

Me: Well I can see that. Do you want to talk about it?

Tim: No.

Me: I think you need to talk to me about it because you know I will find out the real story from your teacher.

Tim: One of the other kids was saying mean things and I was telling him to stop.

Me: Were you yelling at him?

Tim: No.

Me: OK. Then what happened?

Tim: He attacked me.

Me: Did he attack anyone else?

Tim: Yes. I’m glad I’m not the other boy.

Me: What happened to the other boy?

Tim (gesturing by drawing his finger in a long arc down the side of his cheek): He was worse.

Me: Where was your teacher?

Tim: She was out on break.

Me: WAS THERE AN ADULT IN THE ROOM WITH YOU?

Tim: Yes. She was on the phone calling for help.

Goodnessgraciouslordhavemercy.

Here is what actually happened for reals when I talked to Tim’s principal on the phone the next morning:

The three boys were arguing and got into a fight. The whole thing happened in less than 10 seconds. After Tim got scratched up, he retaliated by picking up a chair and holding it between himself and his attacker. Tim was also the only one who voluntarily took himself to the office when everything was over. Even though Tim should have stayed out of the fight, he exhibited maturity and made the best decisions he could under the circumstances.

That evening, after hearing the unabridged, adult version of The Fight, I reminded Tim that he needs to let the adults take care of these types of situations. As I said this, a little voice in the back of my mind reminded me that my son himself will be an adult in a little over four short years. Tim told me that when he started arguing with the other two boys, he was defending one of them. The funny part is that the boy Tim was defending is currently classified as one of his Enemies, but Tim thought he was right in this particular situation. When I told Tim he should not have become involved in the fight, he told me that his options were A) to fight or B) to feel guilty. When I asked him why he would have felt guilty, he said that he couldn’t stand by and watch the other boy (Mr. Enemy) be attacked.

Tim’s thought process is complicated and drives me up the wall. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is supposed to be rule-bound and think in black and white. However, Tim’s thinking is rarely black or white, this or that, tit for tat, whatever cute little catch phrase you may have running through your mind. He thinks in shades of gray, and while sometimes it is the same shade, day in and day out, I have an extremely difficult time figuring out what goes through that mind of his. And when I ask him questions, all I receive are the Shortest Replies The World Has Ever Seen, and it’s not due to him having an attitude, it’s just due to him stating the facts, and answering my questions as they stand.

This was Tim’s first fight, the first time another person attacked him physically. He has been teased, bullied, and gone through some rough emotional tortures by his classmates, but never a physical attack. The good part that came out of this is that Tim knows now why you do not fight. Why sometimes, especially if there are higher forces that be in the area, such as a teacher, or a bouncer, or a police officer, you need to remove yourself from the situation. Unfortunately for Tim, this is a lesson that he has learned through experience, even though I have been telling him for years to LEAVE THE OTHER KIDS ALONE and IGNORE THE OTHER KIDS WHEN THEY SAY OR DO MEAN THINGS. Just walk away. But he can’t do that, and he has to be true to himself, even if it means defending someone he considers his mortal enemy.

The big question that I have been pondering in my own heart and don’t have answer for is:

If I were in Tim’s situation, would I defend someone I considered my enemy?

Definitely food for thought.


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The Ten Year Plan

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.” ~ A.A. Milne, Winnie The Pooh

Daniel and I usually meet up for happy hour each Friday night at Sweeney’s in St. Paul. It is a nice way to end the work week, and it gives us a chance to relax and catch up since we can often go Monday through Friday without seeing each other. Some nights are longer than others, depending on whether or not we have our boys, but we always try to meet up for at least a little bit. If any of you local readers decide to stalk us, here is what you can expect to find 99% of the time: look for a group of men at the far end of the bar. They will all be standing, leaning on their chairs, and drinking pints. In the middle will be a woman the size of a 13-year-old girl drinking either water or a Diet Coke, depending on how crazy the evening is starting to become.

This past Friday, however, I decided to go all out and actually order a mixed drink. Sweeney’s recently changed their Bloody Mary mix, and I, being a huge fan of Bloody Mary herself, decided to give the new mix a try. My beverage came with the usual accompaniments for Bloody Marys, which my favorite bartender arranged on a toothpick in a rather interesting manner. After several photos and a ton of jokes, he eventually gave me a free beer to apologize for the harassment. I said no apologies necessary, but thanks for the pint, and Daniel and I resumed the conversation we were having with one of our friends.

Our friend was discussing a business venture he was pursuing with another friend, who had already gone home. The business venture was a type of partnership that involved large sums of money in addition to a lot of sweat equity. It also included an emotional investment, which began to have Daniel and me a bit concerned for our friend. Daniel started asking him how well he had thought all of this through, and he responded by saying that he had a ten year plan. He then proceeded to begin outlining his plan that he was envisioning with his business partner.

Since the discussion was starting to become serious, getting into the six-figure range, I stopped our friend for a minute and told him (and Daniel) that with all the friends and family I have, and I do have a lot of friends and a lot of family, there is only one person in the world that I have a ten year plan with, and that person is Daniel. No one else.

The food I find myself buying for us is one example of how accustomed we have become with each other.

The food I find myself buying for us is one example of how accustomed we have become with each other.

Now friends and family, I love each and every one of you dearly, but we are talking about who My Person is. The Person that I have made a voluntary decision to bind myself to and begin intertwining my life with his. As the words came out of my mouth, I looked at Daniel and he looked at me, and there was no expression of surprise, or fear, or downright horror, on his face. He looked at me as if he already knew. When we were cooking supper later that night, there was no discussion of what I had said, and believe me if Daniel had a different idea I would have heard about it. He has no qualms about telling me when he thinks I am out of line, which is one of the many reasons why I love him.

Daniel and I aren’t big planners, especially when it comes to long-range goals. I don’t know why he isn’t, and I don’t really give it much thought. For me, when you have a child with special needs, it is nearly impossible to plan because nothing ever goes according to schedule. There are developmental delays, extra meetings at school, time away from work for doctor appointments, and the list goes on and on and on. Life is rarely as it should be. I feel like the Romanichal, wandering from place to place with no permanent home. This is why the idea of us being in each other’s lives in ten years is striking…because I am not sure that either of us has really planned for anything else. Or thought to think that any other type of plan needs to be made than the one lying directly in our path.

All that begins to change, however, when you find the right person. Knowing that someone has your back and you have theirs makes life more manageable. Mountains become molehills. And plans don’t really matter as long as you have Your Person, the one constant that doesn’t change. This is good for us, and it is good for our children. About a month ago Daniel was laid up for a Saturday with a stomach bug, and Peanut and I spent most of the day together. It occurred to me sometime mid-afternoon that Peanut may not remember a time in his life when I was not there, and that struck me as a rather serious matter to consider. Tim is also entering his teenage years, when he needs the adults in his life to be solid and supportive. Again, a serious matter to think about.

I am still thinking about all of it, with no firm answer yet. I don’t think we need one, though. Life works itself out in its own time, and right now time is fortunately what we have. The long range plan.


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The Grasshopper

I lost my sense of passion and direction to protect myself from hurting and despair. ~ Heart of Stone, Erasure

Last week at work our group had a poster session, just us. This is the first time in the seven years I have worked at this company that our small cluster has been highlighted. Usually we get pushed down to bottom of the pile, under all of the optical films, adhesives, and nonwoven technologies. We had one executive come through who was particularly hostile at my poster, but his mood changes at the drop of a hat, so I shrugged him off, figuring he was having a bad day.

Later in the afternoon my coworker Crixus and I were standing around in my lab talking. We call him that as a joke. He is named after the character in the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand. He started it by calling Daniel “Dominus”, after John Hanna’s character, and Daniel started calling him “Crixus” since he is as physically strong as an actual gladiator. He finished last summer’s Warrior Dash in about 20 minutes, and he is the person who held my hand off the Leap of Faith at our Mudrun last fall.

Anyway, I digress. Crixus and I were shooting the breeze when in walks The Grasshopper. One of our newer employees, I actually call him Grasshopper because he has a desire to learn, to work hard, and continually asks questions to help advance his knowledge on, well, everything. He asks about how we know when to file a patent, whom he should inform when he goes on vacation, and recommendations for a good dentist. On this particular afternoon, however, he walked into my lab distressed.

He wanted to know why the angry executive liked everyone else’s posters except for his. I told him that the angry executive was angry at my poster too, and, as I later found out, he was actually angry at ALL the posters. Crixus, for all of his brute strength, informed us that when Angry Executive made his grand entrance, he actually left the room and hid since he is a recent addition to our group that the executive may have not officially OK-ed yet. I told both Crixus and Grasshopper that I don’t really care what Angry Executive thinks at this moment because overall he is supportive of us, and everyone has bad days. My guess was that something set him off in the morning before he came over to our building.

Grasshopper left feeling warm and comforted instead of being a tiny spot rubbed into the carpet. One of the most difficult positions for me to put myself into is that of the other person. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”. That is some heavy duty stuff. If my coworkers and I have a hard time being empathetic, imagine how Tim feels. His world can get rough sometimes due to his lack of being able to see the other person’s perspective.

The longer you are a scientist, the thicker your emotional exoskeleton becomes. It has to be or else you don’t survive. We are constantly having our data and results called into question, mostly because what some of us work on, like Daniel, Crixus, and myself, are products that keep people healthy. The product Daniel launched in December is a diagnostic kit for the food and beverage industry. This allows manufacturers to test for pathogens in their food before they ship to groceries and restaurants. Imagine the consequences if people didn’t put Daniel’s product through the wringer to ensure that it is the real deal.

The hard exterior of an insect such as a grasshopper is just that, however…the outer shell. Inside is a soft, squishy spot that can leave permanent damage. If you are the person being poked under your armor, empathy can become excruciatingly challenging. Instead of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, the more self-protective route may be to add more armor. That way the hurt doesn’t hurt as much, and no one sees how vulnerable you really are. Several months ago Daniel stomped on me without meaning to. He didn’t realize what he had done until it was too late, and even though he apologized, and has been trying to make it up in every way possible, nothing has been good enough for me. On my pedestal, I have been carrying a boulder of mental pain around in my heart. And I did not share with Daniel how much hurt and resentment I had.

My thinking place.

I uncovered the back story by accident a few days ago. The week actually balanced itself out because when I realized why Daniel did what he did, the boulder in my heart shattered and the empathy rushed in. He had been protecting me the only way he knew how, and he had become a victim of his own actions. People tend to see only what they want to see, and in this case I had wanted to see him as a villain, not a hero. I should have known better. I should have trusted him like he asked me to. I should have been empathetic from the start. Fortunately that afternoon I had to split out some cells for an experiment. Cell culture helps me relax and think. It becomes a meditative process for me since working with cells requires repetitive, precise measurements and movements. They also look beautiful under the microscope.

Empathy is something I need to keep at the forefront of my mind all the time, not just when it is convenient for me. It shouldn’t matter where my place is in a given situation. Sometimes we tend to be hardest on the people we love the most, the people in whom we have placed the most emotional investment. What I need to practice instead of judgment is love, loyalty, and understanding.


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室內花卉

I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return. ~ Frida Kahlo

“I call him ‘Indoor Flower’.” This is what one of my coworkers called her husband, and since she is from China, the Chinese characters in the title of this entry say “indoor flower”, at least according to Google Translate. Our cluster was out for lunch, and my coworker seated across the table from me was talking about how she loved to be outside, in nature, walking through the woods. Her husband, however, preferred to stay inside, thus the nickname. My other coworker seated next to me almost spit his food out laughing as we all dissolved into giggles at the thought of this woman calling her beloved husband “室內花卉”.

I went to this same coworker’s wake this morning, where I gave her husband a hug and told him how very sorry I am about her passing. I have shared lab space with her for the past two years, and she was always smiling, always joyful, finding the good side of everything. On the rare occasions where I saw her frustrated or having a bad day, she shook the off part off and continued on with her life. She was also a brilliant scientist, and her office is full of plaques with her name on it for patents, leadership awards, and technical achievements. Last May she went to the doctor for a lump on her leg that turned out to be skin cancer, and unfortunately it had metastasized too far by the time she started to feel ill. Once she left work last spring on long-term disability, she never came back.

When our cluster found out a few weeks ago that she was being put on hospice, one of my lab neighbors and I set up a time to go through her samples. Her lab was full of tubes, films, and reagents, and we needed to sort what to keep and what to dispose of. We didn’t know if anything was hazardous or what the shelf-life was, and we had her former technician come in to help us out. We set this up for last Wednesday, thinking that we would still have time to contact her if we had questions. Even though she had been put on hospice, which is usually end of life care, we all still hoped that she would recover and return to work. Monday afternoon, however, I received a message in my email inbox that she had passed.

With that news, I spent Wednesday afternoon sorting through a dead woman’s belongings. When her technician arrived, she said that most of the samples in question were garbage, either because they were several months old, they didn’t work, or they could easily be made again if need be. We filled up a waste drum, set a few tubes aside at a coworker’s request, and that was that. As I looked into the waste drum before I sealed it up and took it to our building’s loading dock for disposal, I felt as if I had thrown this woman’s career into the garbage. I had minimized her life as a scientist into a single bucket.

My coworker is not the first one of us who has become ill. I have had two other female friends die from cancer over the past few years, and two who have had tumors removed and are currently living normal lives. Most of my female friends in graduate school miscarried during their first pregnancies. What is unclear is whether these occurrences are work-related regarding exposure to chemicals or too much stress, or whether there is no connection. I had my own tumor removed last October, as well, and the past few months I have spent a lot of my time mulling over what my mortality means to me.

One non-negotiable for me is telling Tim, every day, that I love him. He needs to hear it, and I need to hear myself verbalizing it to him. We hear about how love is a verb, and actions speak louder than words, but in this case I think the words are important. Tim and I don’t have many bad days where we are at odds with each other, and I keep waiting for him to hit the teenage years where he shuts me out of his life. It hasn’t happened yet. The worst I have weathered with Tim is, when I tell him I love him, he makes a joke of it and mumbles back, “Yeah…Iluvvvvyewwwtoooo…”.

I have also been thinking about how I spend my time, and whom I spend it with. Am I being real in my relationships, or am I surrounding myself with people who make me feel good in the moment? Am I being supportive of my friends and family, and letting them know how important they are to me? Am I doing everything I want to do, and seeing everything I want to see? Right now I am working on finding a balance between nurturing new friendships while maintaining the well-established ones. The bottom line is to live life to its fullest, the best way I know how, and to make sure Tim is along for the ride as much as possible.


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The Control

Even imperfect families – and aren’t we all imperfect? – can effectively support a child. ~ Harriet Brown, Brave Girl Eating

Books galore!

The book Brave Girl Eating by Harriet Brown made it to the top of my stack o’ bedside books recently. I picked it up a few days ago and have been unable to put it down. It has traveled with me to Daniel’s house, to the gym, to the doctor’s office, and all around my own home as I read bits between loads of laundry and cooking supper. Brave Girl Eating is about how Brown’s oldest daughter struggled with anorexia nervosa at the age of 14. The story is difficult to read at times, and one of the underlying themes that Brown alludes to throughout her account is how a perfectly normal, fully functional family fell down a rabbit hole.

In the first few pages of the book, Brown mentions how anorexia is still, in the 21st century, a misunderstood disorder. Because we don’t fully understand it, we tend to dismiss it as a scheme for getting attention, or we blame family dynamics. She points to other forms of mental disabilities and/or illnesses that have received more social acceptance and tolerance due to a better understanding of their pathobiology, such as schizophrenia and autism.

Wait…what? That stopped me in my tracks for a second. Autism, really? Receiving all the necessary support it needs? Since when? Then I realized that this is her perspective, not mine, and my heart broke when I saw that, compared to Tim’s  disability, the struggle Harriet’s daughter went through was largely on her own. I love stories about strong women, and this had the makings of a good one, so I stayed up far past my bedtime reading on until I practically fell asleep with the book in my hands.

What the author and I have in common is that we second guess ourselves when our children stumble. When your child has a disability, like autism or anorexia, that looms larger than life, you don’t just second guess yourself for a minute or for a specific occasion. You second guess every single thing you have done for your child since you knew that person existed. You backtrack through the months, through the years, one by one, asking yourself if you really should have put your child in karate, let them eat too much gluten, or not spent enough time in creative, interactive play with him or her when they were three months old and could barely move. This train of thought is a downward spiral that leads nowhere but to despair.

Enter the second child. Harriet had two daughters, the younger of which was a healthy 10-year-old. Through the trama the family endured, this second child was an anchor for her mother even though neither of them knew it at the time. She was the control in the midst of the storm of unpredictable variables. When Harriet began questioning her capabilities as a parent, she had this other child in her life as a reminder that she and her husband were raising their family just fine.

Tim for the most part is a very good boy. He always has been. From a young age he has always used his manners in public. He knows when to speak and when to wait to be spoken to. He brushes his teeth every night. He knows that he is not supposed to swear, lie, handle electrical appliances without checking first, or run his bathwater too hot. But in the midst of all of his careful planning to do good, he has these genes that don’t work right. A multitude of them. And try as he might he will always be different from most everyone else he comes into contact with. And I have decided to stop trying to “fix” him, trying to “repair” him, because there is nothing broken. Just different. This autism thing does, however, cause me to sometimes mightily question myself as a parent.

Peanut helped hold the bowl for me.

Fortunately I also have a second child in my life. Last weekend Daniel’s parents wanted to go shopping in downtown Stillwater, so they dropped Peanut and me off at my home for the afternoon. I have spent a lot of time with Peanut over the past few years while Daniel runs various errands, so this is nothing new. We started out by making popcorn, which Peanut had never done before. He didn’t know how an air popper worked, so when the popcorn started to rise up through the plastic chute, he began laughing uncontrollably.

One of Peanut's masterpieces.

After making popcorn, we headed to our den to watch a movie. Peanut saw Tim’s Fuse Beads and wanted to make some, so I showed him how to make decorations on the different molds we have. Then I watched Peanut spend the next two hours sitting on the carpet, patiently positioning each bead just right to make a picture. After he made three of them, we took them upstairs to iron them out. When Daniel and his parents returned, Peanut proudly showed them his handiwork.

This may sound boring to some of you, but for me it was a wonderfully normal afternoon. I treat Peanut the way I would treat my own child, so it’s not as if I was going through great lengths to make sure he told Daniel he had a super-fun fantastic time. I don’t use Peanut to manipulate his father. Instead, I am simply myself, and Peanut is simply himself, and I have my parents to thank for the example they taught me in how to interact with children. When Tim was small and I parented him the only way I know how, and he responded negatively, I wasn’t quite sure what to do because I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong. I know now that I was doing everything just fine. Peanut helps reinforce that.

We are put in each other’s lives for a reason. You know how someone seems to pop into your universe at just the right time? The relationship that Daniel and the boys and I have is an interesting reciprocal one. I came into Daniel’s life when he needed a companion to help him raise Peanut. Through Daniel, Peanut came into mine right after I had an exceptionally rough year with Tim due to problems at school. Daniel is someone Tim admires and looks up to. Everyone wins.

I haven’t finished my book yet, but I assume there is a happy ending.