MONSTERS OF OUR OWN MAKING
Our dreams for our children begin long before they are born. We want to do more than just provide for them, we want to shower them with any and all of the things that we lacked as children. From the deep well of our love we long to bless them abundantly by granting them a Magic Kingdom childhood. If you are fortunate enough to attain a level of wealth that makes that giving easy, then there is little to hold you back apart from your own spending habits coupled with the principles that dictate your spouse’s spending habits.
All of this is well intended but it is not without its consequences. Over time, ease creates the expectation of comfort. Meeting every whim and expectation creates entitlement. Exceeding those expectations creates pampered princes and princesses. You realize that going without certain things and being told ‘no’ at times taught you to appreciate gifts when you did receive them. Lack and struggle were not only solid character builders but fueled within you ambition and motivation. It turns out that the privileges and luxuries that we work hard and sacrifice for can become the pedestals on which we inadvertently teach our children that the world owes them everything without requiring them to strive, work, or achieve anything. The couches and cushions that we seat them on can become the palanquins on which we regretfully bear them on throughout their lives. What separates kindness from coddling? How do we know what hardships we should spare our kids from and which we should allow them to endure? These are by no means rhetorical questions. My inquiring mind really wants to know these answers.
I’m pondering all of this as I’m examining the ways in which I have practiced attachment style parenting in some ways and free-range parenting in others. I want to raise secure children who know they are deeply loved and feel safe enough to explore the wide world at more than an arms-length away. But then I think about that Cosby show episode where Claire Huxtable tells Denise that the only reason she is comfortable mouthing off to them about the fact that she can spend her money any way she pleases is that she knows that she has them as a safety net. Isn’t it kind of a bad thing to be such an effective safety net for your kids that they don’t even realize that you are providing one at all? And furthermore, how does one proceed to remove the net so that your children can function on their own as well-adjusted adults? It’s not like there is a way to gradually remove a safety net. It’s either there or it’s not. Again, not rhetorical. I’m really asking.
You know those days when your kid does or says something that is so awful that it makes you question your abilities as a parent? You find yourself asking questions like, did I screw up really badly with this kid at some point and now its coming back to bite me? Or, am I the world’s worst parent after how I mishandled things today? Or, can I just quit and let someone else do this because I am clearly not equipped? These days are real and revelatory. They stretch the bounds of unconditional love and make you feel like you’re the one who needs a time out. A long one, in a corner far, far away. That’s been the sentiment that has been brewing in my household for the past few days.
Add to all of this the additional angst of parenting an autistic child. There are things that my daughter does that are pretty typical and buys her zero sympathy. But there are many other things that she does that are confusing and distressing that my husband and I feel ill-equipped to manage. I feel like I am all at once living out a horror show, a feel-good comedy, and a family drama. When I wake up in the morning, I never know what version of my kid is going to greet me. I can also count on the fact that the Ellie I wake up with is not the Ellie that I will meet at lunchtime and most certainly not the Ellie that I will end up putting to bed. She is three months from turning five years old at the time of this posting. The tantrums are far less frequent than before but, in many ways, far lengthier and more melodramatic. She now has the stamina to escalate in a way that she didn’t when she was two. We have more tools and strategies to head them off than we did when we started out. I would say that more than 50% of the time we can avoid a full-scale meltdown by giving several cues about what is coming next, using a timer, and giving the choice between two desirable options. The past few days have reminded us that there is a difference between spoiled Ellie throwing an Ellie sized tantrum versus a full-scale emotional meltdown.
I’m realizing that what may start out as a run of the mill tantrum for her will at times escalate into something she can no longer control. Imagine the last time you unintentionally let yourself get really sad about something. Maybe it was a really good movie that touched your memory and emotions to the point that you found yourself sobbing by the end of it. Then as the credits were rolling and everyone was getting out of their seats you found yourself embarrassed that you were snotting and unable to collect yourself as quickly as you would like to. I think this is what sometimes happens to Ellie but on a much larger scale. One or both of us yelling at her only adds to her frustration and humiliation. And while my husband and I may not understand why her emotions got so out of control in the first place, it’s always interesting to note that when we question her after she has collected herself, she really can’t explain to us what happened either. There is always a preceding identifiable trigger. She didn’t get her way, something enjoyable is ending before she is ready, or she is overstimulated (by things like loud noises, a crowd, too much attention, etc.). But what ultimately pushes her over the edge tends to remain a mystery.
I have found that a huge part of parenting effectively is simply knowing your kids and knowing yourself. Of course, neither of these things are actually easy things to do. They take time and intentionality. The truth of the matter is that autism diagnosis or not, it wouldn’t take much for us to turn Ellie into a monster of our own making. She has all the makings of a natural born diva and easily charms everyone she meets without much effort at all. On the other hand, there are things about her personality that are clearly driven by developmental delay and autistic features. Teasing out the diva stuff from the social/emotional impairment can get very tricky but its very necessary to do so. The diva stuff requires regularly chin-checking her and reminding her who the parent in the situation is. The other stuff requires a ton of patience, learning, therapy services, and trial and error. Our sympathy for the autism stuff can’t negate the need to cut through the drama and hold her to a higher standard of socially appropriate behavior. But our firm handling of ‘Sasha Fierce, Junior’ can’t blind us to the moments when she needs us to show her grace and compassion as we guide her through the perils of sensory overload and a short-circuiting neurological switchboard. There is no rule book. Just good old-fashioned learning as you go and a willingness to share your failures and victories with other frazzled parents running the same marathon that you are.