Otto and I spent most of the spring and part of the summer talking about, planning for, and perhaps-a-little-too-gleefully anticipating our empty nest. It’s not that we don’t adore the children—of course we do!—it’s just that… one, we’ve never been “just us” the way a traditional first-marriage couple gets to be, and two, have you met my children? They’re amazing, but I’m tired. We’re tired. It’s been a long nineteen something years since I first surrendered myself to motherhood.
Raising kids on a completely normal/expected trajectory is hard, I assume. I mean, people tell me that it is and I believe them. I don’t know about that, firsthand, on account of my children have never been normal. (I say that with love, you understand.) So: normal childrearing is hard. Childrearing with divorce and remarriage and special needs and giftedness and trauma and mental illness is HARD. And yes, sure, it’s the toughest job I’ll ever love and all of that, but: hard. No one gazes into the eyes of their newborn and thinks, “Wow, I can hardly wait until the first time he swears at the principal,” or “She’s so precious, it’s hard to believe that someday she’ll have a middle-of-the-night nightmare/flashback/sleepwalking episode and flee the house and wake up barefoot and distraught in the middle of oncoming traffic while we and the police are searching for her!”
It has been worth every single moment and every gray hair. (And I’m not just saying that because my kids will read this, even.) But we are tired. So of course we saw what seemed to be a logical endpoint and upcoming reprieve and we were giddy. And then it didn’t happen.
Monkey is still here at home with us, and that is fine. More than fine; although more and more about questionable happenings during his summer session have come out in drips and drabs, and I would love to simply blame that (and that alone) for his subsequent illness and related difficulties, the reality is that Monkey wasn’t ready to go. Beyond that: the reality is that we all—Monkey included—may have suffered from some tunnel vision this year, in our eagerness to assume that any difficulties were behind us and college would be a whole new world.
I need you to understand that I am ABSOLUTELY an equal-opportunity offender when it comes to both OVER-estimating and UNDER-estimating my children’s capabilities. I always have been. One of my very favorite posts about my kids is this one, largely because I think it sums up their personalities. At the same time, I said something in there… lemme find it. I said: “When Monkey was a baby and then a toddler I believed—I swear before God this is true, and I’m embarrassed about it but here I am telling you anyway—for YEARS that he wasn’t very bright. Oh, he was cute and wonderful and charming, but I figured he was of utterly average intelligence.” (I then went on to explain that Chickadee was a very early talker, but because she was my first I thought that was normal, and Monkey both talked later AND had a charming habit of throwing himself off precipices and then being astonished that he’d hurt himself, so it seemed like a reasonable conclusion.) One of my readers at the time left a horrified comment about how if I wasn’t joking about that she was done reading me, because she was so offended by this.
That’s always stuck with me, for some reason. Why would it have been offensive to believe my child was of average intelligence?? I think that said a lot more about the commenter than me, but whatever.
Anyway, the point here is that when you have kids who are twice exceptional (insert your own special snowflake emojis here!), it’s really hard to figure out what’s “normal,” or baseline, and it’s often even harder to figure out when you’re over- or under-estimating them, because (say it with me, friends) progress often isn’t linear.
So: We were alllllll focused on college, we alllllll figured Monkey had cleared every hurdle, and while I wouldn’t say we assumed it would be smooth sailing, I will admit that our concerns about his particular challenges were taking a backseat to our excitement and anticipation. The result was an unprecedented health crisis (both mental and physical) and a reorganization of our expectations and game plan. I have spent a lot (a lot a lot A LOOOOOOT) of time reiterating that we are now moving forward with the “right for right now” plan, and I think (hope) Monkey is coming to believe it.
Otto and I are perfectly okay with this delay. Life is short, blah blah blah, but we have time. It’s all good. And so our focus now is make sure that Monkey is healthy and whole and moving forward. That’s it.
We started with the obvious things: When you come home bedraggled and ill and sad, we treat the physical illness first, the sad and disheartened part second, and once that’s handled, we do the post-game analysis. Guess who hates this? GO ON, GUESS. SO SURPRISING AND WEIRD, I know. Monkey is uninterested in going back to analyze Things Which Are Unpleasant, so the mere process of explaining (again) that we have to use The Yucky Stuff to inform any ways we could AVOID said stuff in the future is a struggle. So just for example and related to nothing that has actually happened in anyone’s life recently, just throwing it out there, perhaps the NEXT time you start experiencing crippling stomach pain and constant vomiting, you could go to the Health Center to get checked out. Stuff like that is useful to know!
Another example, wholly fictitious and just off the top of my head: When it becomes clear that you are the only autistic student in the group and some assholes are going to use that as an excuse to tease and isolate and otherwise “other” you for being different, the choice to try really really hard to not appear different may not be the best one. Because first of all, nobody’s gonna just, I dunno, STOP BEING AUTISTIC because they decided to, and second, be proud of who you are because WHO YOU ARE IS AWESOME AND P.S. THOSE GUYS ARE ASSHOLES, and finally—again, just shooting the breeze here, making stuff up, no real reason—it turns out that “trying to be less autistic” is a really good way to make sure that whatever challenges you face as an autistic are exacerbated about a hundredfold because hello anxiety and all that.
Here is where I pause to say that with twice-exceptionality, the line between “supporting a kid’s challenges” and “celebrating their successes” is razor thin, and if I was talking about anyone in particular here, I might say that it’s possible that a parent is apt to fuck up that balancing act a lot, perhaps especially when said kid has just graduated with honors and is headed to a nationally-esteemed university. I mean, hypothetically. Just guessing!
So hey, totes unrelated *knowing side glance…*, one of the things Monkey is doing right now during his semester of Get Healthy, Get Happy, Get Realistic is attending a support group for college students on the autism spectrum. This group was available to him last year when he was dual-enrolled at our local university, but he didn’t want to go. And it’s possible he doesn’t want to go now, but guess what! He’s going! And I was nervous, because I am really good at being worried about everything, and he wasn’t super enthusiastic, headed into it.
That’s roughly 1,300 words of preamble to what I really wanted to share, which is this: The group is run by a couple of psychology grad students, and they did an ice-breaker thing at the first meeting that goes by a few different names, but I know it as Meet Me In The Middle. You all stand around in a circle, and someone goes to the middle and makes a statement about themselves. If that statement applies to you, too, you go join them in the middle. Then someone else takes a turn, etc. It’s pretty straightforward, and when Monkey got home and started telling me this story, he was already sort of shaking his head and snickering, and I thought, Dear God, what about this simple exercise could have offended him so?
Well. According to him, one of the grad students started off to show them how it’s done. She went to the middle and said something about how she loves to binge on Netflix shows. No one moved. She tried something else (also hobby-related, I think). No one moved. Visibly flustered, now, she tried a third thing, and again, no movement from the rest of the group. Finally—and here Monkey could hardly contain his glee—she says, “I love hugs!” No movement, and this time, an embarrassed silence.
Another kid in the group, after a beat, almost too quiet to hear: “You do realize this is an AUTISM group, right?”
Hilarity ensued. This turned out to be a good ice breaker (go figure), and when the laughter died down, the leader asked who wanted to go next. Monkey volunteered (in my mind’s eye, I could see his arm flying into the air, mischievous grin on his face, because he already had his plan) and leapt into the center of the circle. “I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE TOUCH ME!” he declared, and every single kid in the group joined him in the middle. His delight in this story was contagious and I laughed along with him, but then headed to the bathroom so he wouldn’t see my tears.
I wish… well, a lot of things. I wish we’d made him do this group last year. I wish we’d done a lot of things differently. But… I’m also grateful for where we are now.
I have been remiss in alerting you to what’s happening at Alpha Mom, so if you haven’t been following along, here’s some more reading for you:
Do you need advice on college textbooks? The comments there are better than the post, honestly.
I’m still answering your burning questions (don’t forget you can send them to me at alphamomteens on the gmail thingie), and recently I waxed philosophical about a particular teen dating drama as well as going braless around your sons.
Finally, I recently did a stupid thing, so naturally my first inclination was to tell you all about it. You’re welcome.