Sunday, August 29, 2010

Transforming from Teacher (of Children with Autism) to Mother

The following blog was inspired by the memoir, Cowboy and Wills, in which Monica Holloway shares the touching story of her son's (Wills) diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder and the golden retriever (Cowboy) who coaxes him into the world. Cowboy and Wills was the August selection of the online book club From Left to Write.

Much in the way that when I was a teenager I was fairly certain I knew what it felt like to be an adult, when I was a teacher of children with autism I thought I knew what it was like to be a parent.

I loved my students. I was fortunate enough to work in a system where continuity of care was valued, so the babies that came to me in preschool, barely verbal, developmentally delayed and whirling dervishes of frustration remained with me through their primary years. Across this span of time, I saw children who could not make sounds in imitation learn to speak, students who could not tolerate getting a drop of glue on their finger participate in art projects and kids who would eat nothing but plain bagels expand their palate. For many of the kids who were fortunate enough to receive early intervention, their progress was at once miraculous and a lot of hard work.

There were methods behind the miracles:

  • Discrete trial teaching—breaking down tasks into their smallest component parts and introducing them with painstaking repetition. Keeping data on every single trial and only moving on to a new skill once the child had “mastered” the task and “generalized” it across settings and situations. Teaching, not only was this picturing of a white fluffy Persian a cat, but so was this Calico, this Maine Coon, this Manx, this Scottish Fold.
  • Backwards chaining—taking a simple task of everyday living…something most people do without giving it a second thought…breaking it down into steps, and gradually fostering independence by fading out ones “prompts” backwards, step by step: wet the toothbrush, put on the toothpaste, brush the right upper quadrant, the left upper quadrant, spit…etc.
  • Social stories—scripts of how to conduct oneself during everyday events, demystifying the process for those who didn’t understand “neurotypicals” bizarre social rituals: When I meet a new child I smile, say “hello” and ask his (or her) name, looking into his (or her) eyes.

All of which had to be taught with great patience and hope.

As a teacher, great patience was my job. I had nothing else I needed to focus on. I could say something once and make a child follow through. I could environmentally engineer the room to minimize overwhelming stimuli. I could help a child take a jacket on and off over and over and over again, without the press of having to get out the door.

And, I could do it all without the great pain of thinking, this is my child: Will he ever tell me he loves me? Will she ever use the bathroom independently? Will the sound of the fire alarm always cause him great physical pain? Will she have a happy and meaningful life? I did wonder and care about these things, but not with the intensity that the parents did. How could I? I had my kids on loan for six hours a day. And even worse, one day they would leave me for another teacher, another class, another school. My time with them was limited. I was attached, but I knew that one day I would have to let them go.

So, if my students were every to achieve the goals we set for them, their parents would have to become teachers as well. They would have to set aside their frustrations, their disappointments, their sorrows and persevere. It is hard, as a teacher who is not yet a parent to understand that divorcing emotion from experience is an impossibility.

It took having a child for me to get it. If Sophia refuses to eat…how deeply panicked it can make me feel. If Sophia refuses to sleep…how everything is made more difficult by our mutual exhaustion. If Sophia lashes out at others…how deeply embarrassed I am. Her tenacity is unlike anything I have ever experienced. The pressure to give in to her demands is enormous. And when I make a decision, I often question whether I am doing the RIGHT THING.

Like me, the other teachers turned parents I know have had to learn how to let things slide. For example, that one can’t necessarily make a resistant child say “goodbye” to a friend…and is the fight, which won’t result in a genuine expression of affection, really worth it? How do you decide what to let slide and what to enforce? What is the magic formula that results in general compliance and healthy development? When do you cross the line into spoiled brat territory?

It isn’t quite as cut and dry as I once thought it was.

Life outside the classroom is messy…filled with the unexpected.

As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received Cowboy and Wills from the publisher free of charge. I was not paid to write this essay. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Learning to Say I Love You

I said it in the general direction of my distended belly, certain she could hear through the stretched dermal layers that separated my words from her ears.

I whispered it into the spongy, uncalcified surface of her head, certain the words would be absorbed into the delicate folds of her gray matter.

I assured her of its truth as I rocked her from tears to sleep, when her eyes first met mine in the morning, when she smiled with recognition at my face, when she crawled towards me babbling mama, the earliest of her words.

I love you.

Long before she could understand the sentiment, I sensed she understood the emotion. She did not yet love; not in the way that I loved her. She was dependent on me. She felt comforted by me. But she did not know where she ended and I began. She didn’t understand me as separate, let alone as an object of love.

No matter. I could live with this intense unrequited passion. I did not love her to be loved. I loved her because she was. I loved her with primal ferocity and maternal tenderness. With deep gratitude and a bit of disbelief.

It’s crazy love, one of my friends tried to explain what it was like, before Sophia was born. There’s nothing like it.

But like all lovers, I eventually began to wonder when I would hear those three words directed towards me.

The words came in stages. For about six months it was said as a ritual, something she parroted when Kevin and I put her to bed or whenever we parted. She clearly felt deep affection for us, and she was expressing that affection, but it was rote. Any words could have replaced, “I love you,” and they would have held the same meaning.

I determined that, unlike the understanding of other feelings (look at my eyes, they are filled with tears, I feel sad), love could not be taught. The ability to say the words and mean it is something quite magical. Almost everyone has the capacity to love, but it is the most ineffable of emotions.

I would have to wait until she had her epiphany. It came one night, under the most quotidian of circumstances. We were sitting together at dinner, Sophia, Kevin and I eating something unmemorable, talking, listening, laughing. She suddenly looked at us with a new light in her eyes.

“I love daddy; I love mommy; and I love me. We are a whole family,” she observed.

Even now, I am awash with the simple truth of it. She learned to express love through the experience of being loved. And hearing it over and over and over again.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Course of Potty Training Ne'er Did Run Smooth

We are driving up to my mothers. Looking up at the rearview mirror, I glance at Sophie who is wearing a thoughtful look on her face.

“Does grandma have a pink potty just for me?”

I try to remain casual. Any investment on my part in tone or facial expression is enough to incite rebellion, “Why, yes. Yes, I believe she does.”

“I think I want to go pee pee on that pink potty.”

I try to sound bored. “That sounds like a good idea.” And it was. An excellent idea, really. The best idea I had heard all day. The problem was, we were still about a half hour away from grandma’s. “The thing is, Sophie, you have to hold in your pee until we get to grandma’s house.”

“I will hold it,” Sophia is quick to assure me.

The word of a two year old is not enough for me. She needs some coaching on this one. I explain, “You’ve got to squeeze your muscles that hold in the pee.”

Sophie clenches her fists and squinches up her face real tight. “That’s it.” I tell her. “Keep doing that. Hold it in.”

A half an hour later, we pull into my mother’s driveway. My mom greets us at the car. My poker face belies the great yellow hope I am holding onto. “Mom,” I say, Buddha-like in demeanor, “it’s not a national emergency, but Sophia told me that she’d like to pee in your pink potty.” My mother catches my drift. She helps Sophie out of the car and up to the bathroom while I get our gear and follow them in. I can hear the thin stream hit the bottom of the plastic bowl before I see them. My mother is beaming. Sophie looks surprised.

“I did it!”

“You did!” My mother and I explode in unison. “Let’s do a potty dance!” I suggest, and we pony around the bathroom as Sophie watches, bewildered. I get the sense that this is an insufficient reward. So, we clap and congratulate her and marvel at the product of her efforts. Mom wipes her, pours the urine into the toilet and Sophie flushes it with great √©lan.

Let’s pause to take stock of what happened here:
• She knew she had to go to the bathroom
• She communicated that she had to go to the bathroom before she went
• She held it in for 30 minutes
• She peed in the toilet and appeared to feel proud of her accomplishment

Seems to me, the kid gets it. What more is there to grasp, really?

But then, she refuses to go the rest of the weekend.

A week passes, and though I routinely suggest the potty, I am routinely rebuffed. I decide that, perhaps, it’s time to pull out the big guns and get some Big Girl Underwear. So, on a night that Kevin has to work late, Sophie and I head over to the mall for a shopping expedition. We find the holy grail of panties. They are pink (“Pink and blue are my favorite colors!”) and they have a picture of a kitty on the front. (“I love little kitties!”) Not Hello Kitty! But some generic pussy cat strategically curled up you-know-where. A little inappropriate, I admit, but high fashion in the eyes of my toddler. We got a matching lunchbox and sweater, because you need to match your panties to your clothing and accessories when you are two. Damn Gymboree and their Gymbucks.

The next day, we are both jazzed about the panties. They are all the rage over breakfast. We talk about how we’ll try them out this afternoon (we were seeing a play that morning—not the venue I wanted to take Sophie for a diaper-free test drive) and we’ll show them to Daddy that night.

We see the play and stop off at a florist on the way home. Sophie announces, “I’ve got to go to the potty. Do they have a potty here?” The florist emerges from the backroom. She has a young child. She understands the import and time-sensitivity of this request. “You can use the bathroom upstairs,” she tells me. Again, I remind Sophie to hold it until we make it up to the bathroom. She takes off her diaper, and it’s dry as a bone. I hold her over the toilet, and to my great surprise, she pees. Once we are back downstairs she shares her success with the florist, who gives her a flower to celebrate the event.

We both leave, happy. I tell Sophie that she did a great job telling me she had to go to the bathroom and holding it until we got there. I tell her I think she is ready for the pink kitty underwear. We are giddy with excitement. We get home, tear off the (still dry) diaper, and Sophie dons the panties. She lifts her dress so I can get a photographic record of this great leap for Sophie-kind. We text Daddy the photo. I remind her that if she needs to pee, all she has to do is let me know, and I’ll take her to the potty. She nods.

I decide to make a picnic lunch, figuring if she has an accident, at least it will be outside. We have a lovely time and after Sophie has eaten her salmon salad sandwich and about forty grapes she stands up, half way.

Wait a second. Is she squatting?

Her face turns red. Her eyes get watery. And then she sports a beatific smile. “I made a poop in my panties.”

Monday, August 9, 2010

On Being a Fallible, Accountable Parent

This blog is inspired by Maddie Dawson’s new novel, the stuff that never happened. The stuff is the August selection of the online bookclub, From Left to Write.

The Stuff That Never Happened is thematically rich, and I found much to relate to in its engrossing pages. But the one theme that gripped me and possessed me to write was of the line parents walk between trying to be a positive role model for their children and being the fallible human beings they are. Every time we lose our temper, smoke, drink, kiss a handsome stranger, use some really juicy language, argue, lie, steal, cheat, gossip…do the things that people do, we convey a message to our children. Decontextualized, i.e., without explanation or exploration, the message becomes “This is okay,” However, if we reflect with our children on what we’ve done “I regret having done this because….” or “This is okay for me but not for you because….” or “I hope when you are older and forced with a similar choice you will choose to (insert choice) because….” the experience can be instructive. Edifying. Life changing.

In the novel, Annabelle McKay’s adult daughter learns of her mother’s affair…an affair that took place early in Annabelle’s marriage, before she had children. Sophie (her daughter and, coincidentally, also the name of my daughter) is aghast and struggles with this new version of her mother. Her mother struggles alongside her, trying to help Sophie understand the choices she made and how these choices have affected the course of her life.

I can remember the exact moment when I had the same epiphany about my own mother. It also happened as an adult, when, for a course in family therapy, I created a Genogram and began asking questions. My mother, for reasons I still do not understand, took this opportunity to reveal some very painful truths. There were truths that made me angry. Truths that made me cry. Truths that explained a lot about my past and my own internal conflicts. They were truths that ushered my mother off the pedestal upon which I had placed her and brought her back down to Earth. Through it all my mother allowed me to ask her questions and answered them patiently, accepting my reactions, apologizing for choices she had made that had negatively impacted me. This is where her model was key. Not when she was actually making the choices, but how she handled our processing of them. She was so brave, my mother. And once we had been through it, several times over, I came to terms with it. And now, I believe, we are much closer for it.

If I peer into the future, what choices will I have made that I will be held accountable for by my Sophie? Given the strength of intergenerational patterns (i.e., making the same damn choices our parents did) and my track record of transgressions, chances are, one day she will be disappointed with me, or shocked by my behavior or just plain angry. I can see myself sitting across from a full-grown Sophia on a luncheon date, her huge gray eyes growing larger and rounder as I blurt out the thing I have told no one. Perhaps it is because she wants to know and because I cannot lie to her. Perhaps because I can no longer keep it a secret. I can see her expressive face registering shock. And then I can see the way she looks at me, once wholly adoring, changing forever. She sees me more clearly now. More authentically.

I believe we each need the opportunity to be angry with, disappointed by and forgive our parents for the choices they have made. (Just now, I struggled with whether to write “mistakes” or choices. But to call them mistakes is judgmental. As Miranda July once said, “Things usually make sense in time and even bad decisions have their own kind of correctness.” In the book, I don’t think Annabelle deemed her affair a mistake so much as a choice she made that had both positive and negative consequences. She experienced an intensely passionate relationship, something that was lacking in her marriage, but she deeply hurt and sacrificed the trust of those she loved. When her daughter inquires about the affair, Annabelle admits its wrongness and explores the meaning it had for her. She is not perfect, but she holds herself accountable, takes responsibility for her actions. And out of the discussion there emerges several life lessons—that marriage has its ups and downs, but neither is a static state. That “you cannot completely know or completely control another person.” And that “anything can happen” in life; part of happiness lies in embracing the uncertainty.” By the end of the conversation, Sophie appears to be letting go of some of her own fears about her husband’s fidelity.

I know it is inevitable that I will make bad choices my daughter will have every right to question. I will not promise to be the perfect role model, setting myself up for certain failure. But when the time comes. When we are sitting across from each other over crisp salads and glasses of wine—Sophia on the brink of womanhood and I in the midst of its decline—and the truth suddenly, surprisingly rises from a deep place within me. I will not backpeddle. I will not run. I will do as my mother did: sitting before my daughter, answering her questions, mourning the loss of her image of me and revealing myself as the fallible yet accountable parent I aspire to be. And hopefully, we will be closer for it.

The stuff that never happened was provided to me by the publisher free of charge through my participation in the online book club, from left to write. I was not paid for this review. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.

Monday, August 2, 2010


I distinctly remember my mother always saying the same thing when we went on vacation:

“This is no vacation for me.”

For the first decade of my life, Atlantic City was our vacation destination. We didn’t have much money then. Those were the days when, towards the end of the month when dad’s paycheck was running out, we ate Campbell’s soup for dinner. In AC, we rented the attic of a rooming house owned by a congenial woman who covered her considerable girth with housedresses. She gave my sister and me pieces of fudge in her cramped kitchen. My mother recalls that the room had no air conditioning. At night, we would lie awake, sweating. In the morning, Dad would sit on the porch playing penny poker with the owner and some other folks who were staying there while we lolled around in the common room watching TV with the other kids. One of these kids told me that your body continuously made blood. Getting a cut was God’s way of making the excess blood come out. I believed him. When we tired of TV, we begged my mother to walk on the boardwalk and buy us salt water taffy or go swimming. I remember, some days, there were so many jelly fish in the water that we couldn’t go in. They would wash up on the beach clear and gelatinous. I poked them with a stick, fascinated and full of fear, unsure if they could muster one last attempt to impale me with a stinging cell.

After the casinos came in 1980, we started going up to Cape Cod. There the beaches had horseshoe crabs and were speckled with black flakes of iron. My mother showed us that a magnate could draw specks up out of the sand. They coated the magnate the same way my father’s several-day-old beard furred his face. The dunes were magnificent then. Stories high. It was back before crossing them with dune buggies or climbing them on foot was outlawed due to erosion. Once, standing at the top of a dune that overlooked the ocean, my sister leaned forward too far and fell. My mother watched from the top horrified and helpless as Jennifer tumbled head over feet, kicking up clouds of sand, to where my father stood at the bottom. Miraculously, she was fine.

We always went back to the same place in North Truro. It was an efficiency—two double beds: one for my parents and one for my sister and I—and a kitchenette. It was the efficiency that made our home away from home all too much like home for my mother. She cooked, which she hated, she cleaned, which she also detested, and then she had us to deal with. Sisters, 18-months apart, living in close quarter, stealing each others blankets, leaving clams in our suitcases only to be discovered once a foul smell permeated the room.

I don’t mean for it to sound like our vacations were squalid. We had fun, too: my father waking me up in the wee hours of the morning to gaze at a sky singing with stars. Comets whizzed past and I wished on every one. Watching crabs skitter sideways in Welfleet, and taking out a Boston Whaler in the bay. Watching the sun set into the water…one of the few places you can do that on the East Coast.

Now, as an adult…a mother, I am embarking on my own family vacations. This past week, Sophia and I drove 400 miles to New Hampshire to spend the week at a friend’s lake house. Like my mother once had, I prepared well. I took all the comforts of home: the pack n’ play, the portable high chair, bags of organic food, Snakie Pie, her pink flannel blanket, a stack of books, the monitor….it filled the trunk of my Outback and then some. Sophie was a gem in the car. I broke up the trip into 2-3 hour increments—two hours, lunch with a friend in NY, two hours, a hotel in CT. We chatted, snacked, listened to hours of Dr. Seuss on CD, played I SPY, and she looked at the books while I listened to Fresh Air. As we neared the hotel I fretted about how to bring everything and Sophie inside. But it was simple. To Sophie’s glee, I loaded her and the suitcases onto a cart. In the hotel, Sophie was giddy with adventure. She ran through the hallways and pressed the elevator buttons with abandon. Once inside our suite, she flicked every light switch on and off. The bedroom had a whirlpool tub for two. We climbed in together and she squealed with delight when I turned on the jets.

The next morning we drove to the lake. There was intimacy in it just being the two of us. It was work, but a joyous labor. I prided myself on maintaining some level of consistency in an alien space.

The days went like this: Sophie woke me at our usual time. I changed her diaper, dressed her for the day and made her breakfast. My friend’s twin six-year-old boys joined us and I played with the three of them until lunch. Again, I fed Sophia, put her down for a nap and went to my room to steal an hour and a half for myself. Then it was back on the job, with a diaper change and preparations to go swimming…a coating of sunscreen (more protection from micro-organisms in duck excrement than from the sun), bathing suit and swim shoes. I’d carry her over the pebbled yard to the deck, squeeze her into the life jacket, sit her on the raft and push her around the dock like royalty. I held onto the side of the raft treading water, the top half of me placid and smiling, and beneath the surface my legs doing everything they could to keep us afloat.

Then it was bathtime, dinner, and her bedtime routine. The twins took turns reading Fox in Socks to Sophie while I brushed her teeth. And finally, twelve hours from when she first woke, I carried her to bed, laid her in the pack-and-play, and sang her a lullaby. The boys watched from the doorway, laying in wait to beg me to play Parcheesi or Life or Cranium.

Was it fun? Most definitely, but not the sort of fun I’m used to having on vacation. It was a vicarious fun—the pleasure of experiencing the vacation through Sophie.

Was it a vacation? If we are to rely on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word (“freedom, release, or rest from some occupation, business or activity”) I’d have to agree with my mother. No, it was not. It was a different backdrop, a change in milieu, but it most definitely not a vacation.

I suspect there is no vacation from motherhood.