I had a bit of a slap back into reality today, and, my gosh, it feels good enough that I need to share. It stung a little and I cried a little, but I know I needed it. Maybe you'll feel a refreshing slap at the end of it all, too.
We all set expectations for our lives -- for our spouses, our jobs, our morning commutes, the guy behind the counter at a coffee shop. Some expectations we can control but most we cannot. Usually the really important ones we cannot control. Like our children.
I was talking with a friend recently who just had her first baby. She was sharing with me her difficulties in letting go of selfishness and control. I told her it does get easier. But I didn't tell her that it ever goes away.
I really just have a few expectations for my children:
1. To be happy.
2. To love and be loved by others.
3. To be kind and thoughtful.
4. To make smart decisions.
But I cannot control all of this. As a parent I am supposed to guide my children in the right direction, but I can't control every little move they make. I know this, but I've still been quite the A-hole to myself . . . and worst of all to Mimi.
Oh, little Mimi. There's more personality and spunk in her left pinky toe than in most people I've ever met. This kid is bound for greatness, but that doesn't mean she's easy to parent. She does things the way she thinks they should be done and cares very little what others think about that, thank you very much. Moving to a new place where she had no friends was a little bit more difficult for her than I expected, but she has transitioned even better than I have. Other than telling a little boy at camp that he cried like a baby, but that's another story. . .
I've been pretty rough on her and it's not all her fault. She turned 5 a few weeks before kindergarten began, but I stopped seeing her as a girl who just finished being 4. She is a kindergartener. The expectations should change. She should do things the first time I ask. She should be able to get her boots on by herself. She should be able to remember her sight words. She should be able to subtract the apples from the bananas. She should not scream and cry when she has to wait her turn.
And I should have done a better job at teaching her these things. Or at least that's what I've been thinking. I should be more patient. I should know exactly how to turn a frustrating task into a game. I should set a better example for being independent. But neither she nor I have been living up to these expectations, and I have been very, very ugly about it all.
This morning I had the first parent-teacher conference of the year with Mimi's fabulous teacher, and I was a bit nervous going in. I was afraid to see how Mimi compares with her classmates. Afraid to hear about her lack of attention or ability to follow directions (yes, I've been worried about ADD). Afraid to hear that we may want to consider repeating kindergarten. Y'all, I'm very serious. Doing homework with this child makes me want to stick toothpicks in my eyes. We're both so mad at the end of it that I would drink vodka straight if someone handed me a glass. "Frustrating" doesn't even begin cover my emotions. And this school district we're in is serious business. Like 27 is the average ACT score at the high school. The high school that has about 1,300 freshmen. Seriously, shit just got real when I learned that.
Anyway, I didn't hear any of these things. What I did hear was that Mimi is happy. Happy every day and all day. Happy to talk with everyone. Happy to help others. Happy to check on a classmate who is sad. Happy to tell a silly story to make everyone laugh. And that she has improved so much academically since the first week of school. The teacher and her aide know they need to remind Mimi to stay on task from time to time, but they definitely aren't concerned. She just turned 5. She just finished being 4. She's being just exactly what she's supposed to be.
And she's loved. Her teachers love her, her after school instructors love her, and her friends love her. They love her personality and they love the way she treats others. They love that she's making smarter decisions about listening and waiting her turn.
And that's really all I've ever wanted for her . . .
She's not perfect, but she's learned some good stuff in her short life. She is listening to me and she is following some of my guidelines. She's trying really hard to stay in the boundaries, but sometimes it's just so much fun to cross the border a wee bit.
So I'm backing off of her and myself once again, and I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders.
I met a mom at a park recently, and we had a long discussion about the challenges with our sons. She also has a son who as a toddler struggled a little to catch up because of sensory issues similar to Mack, and although she was working so hard with her therapists she still felt like a bit of a failure. As she was pouring her heart out about this to her mother, her mom simply told her, "But no one is trying any harder. No one." And then she told me, "And no one is trying any harder than you are either."
I repeat this to myself occasionally when things just aren't turning out as I expected. I am doing all that I know I can do for my children -- just as most moms are. No one is trying any harder to raise our children than we are. So let's quit beating ourselves up, mmkay?
What about this guy?
1. Barely giving eye contact to his parents to giving eye contact to complete strangers and telling them, "Hi!"
2. Not tolerating my singing (who can blame him) to singing along with every cartoon theme song after hearing it only once or twice.
3. Shying away from all overwhelming social situations to finding a calming toy to play with in the middle of the chaos.
4. Staring at a toy car's wheels for long periods of time to actually playing with the car in a play garage, on the sidewalk, and all over the house.
5. Not allowing anyone but immediate family to touch him to walking over to a new babysitter today to give her a hug as soon as he met her.
6. Avoiding all children except his sister to telling a classmate, "Bye, Brendan" today.
If any of the beginning statements scream "autism" to you, you better believe they did to me. His initial evaluation last December also screamed the A-word on paper, but his therapists quickly realized that wasn't it. Mack was too overwhelmed and didn't know how to cope. Hearing and seeing and touching was too much for him, and learning to communicate was the last thing on his agenda. He just wanted to find a way to escape. So he wasn't learning as he should for a about a year and a half. But now he is and my word it is beautiful.
Yes, he is matching words with their beginning letter and lining them up in order. "I do it myself, Mommy!"
Several friends have asked about adjustments we have made, and I'll share a few of those in case you also have a little guy like mine. Some of these tricks work on all children (and adults) who get overwhelmed:
1. I've reduced the language. I don't say, "You need to put the banana peel in the trash before you can have your banana." Say, "Peel in trash first. Then banana." Lots of "first, then" statements.
2. If he's overstimulated, I match his excitement (or a little under) and slowly bring it back down. I slow down movements and language and even lower my voice and calm my tone.
3. I get on his level to speak to him. I am squatting all the time. I pick his toys that he's playing with off the floor and put them at eye level on the couch or coffee table.
4. I gesture a lot because sometimes language is too much. I pat the floor when I want Mack to sit by me. I wave him toward me when I need him to come.
5. I narrate his play, which annoys the crap out of me. "Oh, I see your horse is climbing up, up, up the hill, and whoa, now he is sliding down, down. Crash!" But it gives him some words to match his ideas and then he will begin to repeat this as he is playing.
6. I ask questions that require him to use language. "Do you want red or blue shoes?" "Milk or juice?" If he doesn't say any words after the third time I ask, then I give it up to not frustrate him.
7. I make sure he has a way to get the sensory input he needs before going into a crowded or new place. I let him push his large bean bag across the floor. I ask him to help me push a chair across the kitchen. I let him play at the park before we go into preschool. I let him chew gummy snacks or drink a smoothie through a skinny straw (yes, he will probably have 85 cavities in his baby teeth). Clint even makes Mack push him, which Mack thinks is soooo hilarious.
8. I let him stand up when he eats. This was hard for me at first because I'm Southern and we are supposed to teach our children to have impeccable table manners, but he has the wiggles. And he actually eats his food, which is more than some people can say about their three-year-olds.
9. If he begins to throw a fit out of frustration over something not happening the way he expects (block falls over, Buzz's wing keeps falling off), then I calmly say, "Aw, man" or "that makes me mad" or I simply sigh. Sometimes he still throws his fit but sometimes he says, "Aw, maaaaan," and it's the cutest thing in the world.
10. This is the hardest -- I am patient. I take deep breaths and remind myself that this is going to take a while. He's already come so, so far since therapy began at the end of January. He cannot learn if he is unregulated. And he will not be regulated if he senses I am a nervous wreck.
And he is the prettiest little boy I have ever laid eyes on.
He's a fantastic snuggler. I should know because he climbs in our bed every night, but we don't mind. Mimi just stopped doing it, so I'm a bit sad knowing this may only last a couple more years.
He loooooves to dance. The beginnings of cartoons are his favorites because of the music. When the song is over, he always strikes a pose. The dancing is a little Elaine-ish, so we're going to have to work on that . . .
Mack also loooooves his play therapy class and his preschool. Neither are close to my house, so I am on the road all day, which is kind of wearing on me but so worth it. And his teachers really love him, which makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.
Most importantly, my children adore each other. This morning Mimi told Clint and me that after kindergarten she will go to college and then she will marry Mack. We told her that a girl doesn't marry her brother. She asked who she should marry, and I told her she will marry her best friend like I did. She then said that Mack was her best friend so that is who she will marry.
About a year ago I wrote a post about how the pediatrician told me to pick up a copy of Bringing Up Bebe and sort of made me feel like Mimi was the reason that Mack wasn't talking. The pediatrician felt that Mimi commanded so much attention that Mack didn't see the need to ask for any. I'm mad at myself for even listening to her. Because this girl is so good for him.
And Mack is such a blessing for Mimi. Because of him she is thoughtful and caring. She constantly checks on him and in return he comes running to her when she's upset. "Mimi, you 'kay? Aw, Mimi." She chases him around the house and helps him get all his wiggles out. He follows her around with her friends at the park, and she tells everyone, "Oh, he's just my little brother Mack and it's fine that he's playing with us. C'mon, Macky." She has no problem standing up for him when another child points out that he isn't talking much. He's taught her that things aren't always fair, and she is learning to cope with that. Sometimes he does get a little more attention and extra help when she doesn't. We do have to sacrifice some things for him. She doesn't always get her way, and more times than not she is being very understanding.
So I am going to let them be 3 and 5 and quirky and wild and exactly who they are being . . . until I mess up and have to write a post like this again in a year . . .