Saturday, November 26, 2011

There's a Gown for That

Headed out to the library? Confused about what to wear? Ask Sophie. There’s a gown for that.

Going up to Grandma’s and its freezing out? There’s a gown for that.

Need to pick up a forgotten ingredient at Wegmans, but your pink taffeta is in the wash? Don’t worry. There’s a gown for that too.

These days, I am either picking gowns up off the floor, prying dirty gowns off Sophia’s body, or arguing their inappropriateness. They are slowly, insidiously taking over her wardrobe.

It started fairly innocently. The first gown, a rainbow-tutued Cosco nightmare, was purchased by my mother. It came with matching wings. Sophie was delighted. So were the neighbor girls. Sophie would resort to fisticuffs if anyone lay a finger on it, and it was soon evident that if we didn’t stock up, there might be bloodshed.

My friend Emily came to the rescue, passing on several silken frocks that no longer fit her daughter. Peace was restored in the kingdom.

Then, in need of some new duds myself, Sophie and I went to TJ Maxx. As I piled a few garments into our shopping cart, Sophie said, “I want to try on something too!” Okay, fair enough. This might even be a good strategy—keep her occupied. I grabbed the first thing that I thought might appeal to her—a pink velour generic princess dress. Sophie grabbed it out of my hands, “OH I LOVE THIS MOM!” Inside the dressing room, as I tried to eye my butt from all angles in front of the mirror, Sophia pushed me aside, exclaiming, “I’m so BEAUTIFUL! Can I have it? Please? PLEASE?” She skipped out of our stall, prancing down a narrow hallway towards the three-way mirror at the far end. Other women heard her exclaiming over the dress and leaned out to see what all the fuss was about. “Oh look at you!” “Aren’t you the cutest!" "Oh mom, you have to get it for her.” Sophie mugged and grinned and posed, and I quickly realized that I was not getting out of TJ Maxx without this dress.

“We’ll see…” I said, drawing upon the rich tradition of evasiveness that exists in my maternal line. But, of course, I left with the dress.

Little did I know, it would become Sophie’s daily uniform, a major point of contention, and probably, the most appreciated thing I have ever given her.

When Sophie wakes up in the morning, the first thing she does is don her princess dress, several necklaces, a headband or tiara, silver slippers and grab her magic wand. Then, she heads into my room to tap me awake. Were her magic as strong as caffeine, I might be able to roll with this program. But, alas, polyester and plastic do not confer any real powers, and the only effect this has is to make me very, very grumpy.

Her first question is, “Can I wear my princess dress to breakfast?” to which, if this is a day when she has to go to school and I have to go to work, the answer is no. This frequently devolves into a wrestling match. Tuesdays are the worst, when she has gymnastics and, because there is tumbling involved, I insist on pants. Pants have become abhorrent to Sophia. It began with a hatred of jeans. If I tried to pull them on, she’d scream, “NO! They’re too scratchy! They’re too stiff!” This squared with her whole sensory-defensive thing, so I didn’t force the issue. No skin off my nose. She seemed okay with leggings for awhile. But, once she discovered gowns, she started rejecting anything that had a whiff of masculinity. Anything that wasn’t “beautiful.”

At first I was disturbed by her princess aesthetic—for one, it was alien to me. My mother likes to talk about how she used to have to steal my jeans to wash them once a week because otherwise, I would wear them every single day. “They could practically stand up and walk away by themselves,” she told each of my boyfriends.

I was a self-proclaimed tomboy. When I was four, I told my friend Christine that I wanted to have all the boy toys in the world. I also told her that I could push a nail into board with my bare hands.

I couldn’t.

But I really, really wanted to be able to. I don’t think pushing a nail into a board with her bare hands has ever occurred to Sophie.

And then there’s the whole feminist thing. I just don’t like her holding up princesses as a feminine ideal—the simpering, need-to-be-rescued, will-give-up-my-fishtail-to-be-with-the-man-I-love thing. Haven’t I supplied her with a better model than that? What happened to her aspirations of dentistry? Of all the things she thought she could and wanted to be—a daddy, a dance teacher, a bus driver?

But, then I unearthed my old copy of Grimm’s fairy tales. We were sitting in the doctor’s office when I read the “real” story of Cinderella to Sophia. It’s far more gruesome than the sanitized Disney version, e.g., when the stepsisters try on Cinderella’s slipper, they each slice off a section of their foot to make it fit. I hesitated over this part. I didn’t want to give the kid nightmares. But when I finished, Sophia exclaimed:

“Read the part about them cutting off their toes again!”

Ah! There are my genes!

The fact of the matter is, I really loved—love—fairytales. I love the drama of good triumphing over evil, of there being a reward for suffering. I love magical possibility. I love talking animals and kids who outsmart witches and wishes that come true. And so does Sophie. She wears her gowns, not to emulate Disney princesses, but to fully inhabit the world of pretend. At naptime, I prick her finger with a spindle so she’ll sleep deeply. Before dinner, I might suddenly cross the floor on all fours, my eyes round and threatening and Sophia will shriek with delight, “What are you? WHAT ARE YOU?” And after we’ve eaten, I might roast her arms and legs in the oven for dessert. Sophie offers up a piece to her father, “Daddy, would you like my tickle bone?”

The gowns are the vehicle. Not steering her toward a feminine ideal, but down the rabbit hole, into a world of fantasy. She manages to look stunning while retaining every bit of her wild, dark, vicious self.

Feeling sinister? There’s a gown for that.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Sophia’s fourth birthday was somehow easier to stomach than her third. As I try to put my finger on why, the first thought that occurs to me is that the transition from two to three is a bit more dramatic. At two, children still retain some baby-like features. Though their temperaments are fairly evident, their personalities are still emerging. Language provides insight into their needs and desires, but not into their thoughts or perceptions. At two, you are still essential. They seek you out for entertainment, for soothing, for permission. They are still somewhat manageable. Still redirectable. Still pick-upable in their worst moments.

But then comes three rushing in, filled with opinions, curiosity and a drive to break away. They make friends, buck the system, tell you how it is. The transformation is remarkable. Dramatic. Dizzying.

They volunteer the emotionally salient information completely out of context: Sophie’s teacher told me one of the other parents, a state assemblyman, came in to talk about his job during Community Helpers month. In the midst of explaining voting to the children, Sophie raised her hand to say, “Last night, Mommy opened my car door and my balloon escaped. She was very sad as it floated away into the sky.”

They refuse to talk when you’re dying to know the information:
“How was your first day at school? What did you do? Did you eat your lunch? Did you make any friends? How did it go?”

“Fine, Mom. Now can you put on my Beauty and the Beast music?”

Though two is generally considered the first period of separation and individuation (the second occurring during the onset of adolescence), I disagree. I think it really begins to take shape at three, as the child really becomes a person, interacting with the world in complex ways, wanting a life of his or her own.

Four simply seems to be a continuation of this trajectory. A deepening of three. A blossoming of self. There is nothing to mourn. The babyhood is long gone, already fading from memory. Instead, there is a growing relationship, a fuller engagement with this person I have made, no longer an extension of myself, but an individual. I can make predictions about her, but I’m not always right. She surprises me with a sudden, “I love you.” A difficult question, “Are badgers scary? What is scary about them? What do they do?” A poignant wish, “Mommy, I want a twin so I can have a best friend who lives in my house forever.” An invented joke, “Mommy, what do mommy cows like to drink? Cow-fee!”

Staring into the face of four, there is nothing to be sad about. This is a joyful time. If I look back, I will not be able to train my eyes on what is happening right now. In front of me there is a brilliant chrysalis. A beating of wings. My girl, stretching out into world.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cherishing Difference

In Expecting Adam, author Martha Beck tells her story of carrying and giving birth to a child with Down Syndrome and what she learned from this experience. The following is a post, inspired by the book. As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received a free copy of the book from the publisher. I was not paid to write this piece. You can read other members posts inspired by Expecting Adam here.

If there is one thing I learned from teaching children with autism, it’s that there is no right way to be in this world. A good life is defined in infinite ways. There are many permutations of happiness. I had a sunny little boy who rarely spoke except to say, “Jungle Book,” but he often smiled. I had another student who lived in a cartoon world that merged seamlessly with our own. When I sat him down for a lesson, he would dangle an invisible pendulum in front of my eyes and say, “You are getting sleepier and sleepier. You are now to be scissors!” And I would run after him opening and closing my arms and legs as he giggled with glee. Yet another young man, brilliant beyond his five years, splattered paint onto his easel and said, “Look, Melissa, I’m Jackson Pollock!” (Though if he actually got the paint on his hands he would fall to the floor, burst into tears and exclaim, “I’m going to DIE!”) All three of these children were all blissfully unaware of their disability. They all experienced intense, daily joy unlike most of the “neurotypicals” I knew. They taught me patience, that great satisfaction can be derived from the smallest of accomplishments, and that it did not matter what everyone else thinks.

I don’t mean to paint an overly romantic portrait of what it’s like to be a person with autism. There are children who are self-abusive or aggressive or who experience the world as a series of impingements. And no child is blissful all the time. But I also don’t think of a diagnosis as a death knell. I know that there is a special joy that comes in having a child who lives in our world differently.

Now, as a psychologist, I frequently grapple with the question: what is illness? Who gets to decide? Are people only as sane as society perceives them to be? I once saw a movie about a man with Tourette’s Syndrome. He had corprolalia, the obsessive or uncontrolled use of obscene language that rarely accompanies Tourette’s, and tics so violent, they would take him to his knees. He found it hard to function in mainstream society, but he worked on a farm with horses, animals he adored. The horses were completely unaware of his disorder. They were not offended by his language. They did not judge him. He was deeply happy. He had found his place in the world.

I think the goal—of education, of therapy, of life—is to find this goodness-of-fit. A place where we can be ourselves, without having to conform to a social ideal of a life worth living. As parents, we are both charged with teaching this lesson and helping our children to identify their specialness. It’s a daunting task. How do you help your child to be one way, when there are so many forces demanding that they be another? What do you do if what is special is not something universally valued? How do you avoid the mantle of the impossible ideal of normal?

There is no recipe. It is a fine, intuitive dance of indulging interests without holding onto expectations, of modeling originality with causing embarrassment, being curious about our own judgments and preconceived notions. And, sometimes, just letting things be.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Apology

I struggle with whether or not to extract apologies from Sophia when she does something hurtful or naughty that has an impact on another person. Certainly, I want her to experience remorse and to express regret when she wounds another. At the same time, I know she isn’t quite developmentally there yet. She’s still moored in a very egocentric view of the world. She isn’t sorry, and making her say she is doesn’t make it so. Her prompted apologies sound hollow and false. They aren’t satisfying to me or to her victims.

Of course, I still do it. There is a part of me that hopes, simply by sheer modeling and repetition, she will come to understand that the right thing to do when you have erred is to apologize. If I teach it, she will learn. (Even if she never develops a conscience, perhaps she’ll be a polite psychopath.) But the real reason I stand over her and make her say the words, “I’m sorry,” is because I know other parents expect me to.

At this stage, direct, immediate consequences for aggressive behavior seems to me to be the only thing that evoke true feelings of regret. For example, the other night we were at the library for a family music event. Throughout the first half of the show, Sophie was blissful, turning back to look at me and share her enjoyment after each song. Eventually she warmed up, rose from her seat, and broke into a completely unselfconscious, hopping dance, her silver mardi gras beads swaying with every movement. When she went to sit back down, a slightly older girl spread herself across two seats, and told Sophie, “No. I’m sitting here.” Forbidding Sophia only made her want it more, and so she tried to force herself upon the girl. “Go sit somewhere else, Sophia,” I warned. But Sophie was already on edge. I could feel her mood had changed. After one last provocation, Sophie moved to another seat. The singer announced to the group that after another song, everyone could have pizza.

“Can I have pizza, Mama?” Sophie asked, eyebrows raised in hope.

“No, Soph. We’re going home to have dinner with daddy. He’s coming home tonight!” Kevin had been in DC on business and we hadn’t seen him in three days.

“I want PIZZA!” Sophia whined.

“We’re not having pizza.” I said definitively

And then she did the unthinkable. She turned around and popped a toddler in the stomach.

The punch was fairly low energy and the toddler looked unphased, but I was livid. “Oh we are so out of here.” And I plucked Sophia up from the ground and forcibly carried her out. I imagine I may have left a parent in my wake, awaiting an apology for her two-year old son, who had already forgotten the incident. But I knew it was far more effective to punish Sophie by removing her from the event than to stay and say, “I’m sorry.”

“You are NOT allowed to hit people. If you are angry, you tell me ‘I’m ANGRY! You don’t hurt others. And you never NEVER lay a hand on a younger child.” I was pissed. I kept going, “That is NOT the way we handle problems. Have you ever seen me or daddy hit another person? NO. We might yell. But we DON”T HIT PEOPLE.”

“Can I listen to my music?”


The next evening, Sophie and I were out at Wegmans, having pizza. I am often loathe to take Sophia out to dinner because she cannot sit still. She is so highly distracted by everything going on, so overstimulated that it’s almost impossible to eat. I have three restaurant rules that I try to practice with her on brief outings in places where she won’t cause a disturbance or fatally trip a waitperson:

1. Sit in your seat.
2. Keep a low voice.
3. Eat your food.

Doesn’t seem like too much to ask, but for Sophia, it’s a Herculean task. I have tried everything. Social reinforcement (Good! You’ve been sitting in your seat for one second!), guided imagery (Imagine that a snake has wrapped each one of your limbs to the chair and you can’t move.), threats, (If you get up from your seat one more time, I’m going to put you in a high chair), and tangible rewards (Follow your rules and we’ll have mini-ice cream cones when we get home). Nothing has worked, because much like her inability to experience remorse, she has not yet developed the internal controls to sit still in exciting environments. Still, I rehearse the skill with the hope that one day, she’ll get it without needing me on top of her.

This was not to be the day. The dining area in Wegmans is on the second floor, looking over the prepared foods section. Sophie was trying to scale the iron railing that was the only thing preventing her from falling 20 feet into the hot soup. I repeatedly ask her to sit down.

“What if I dropped my shoe down there mommy?” She asked, while I tried to shove a few bites into my mouth.

“Well, for one, you might hurt someone with it.” This possibility seemed to delight her. “Or it might fall into the soups and you’d have no more shoes.” She laughed at this, got out of her seat, and ran over to hug me, one of her ploys to avoid eating. I was already on my second slice, and she hadn’t even had her second bite. “I love you Sophia, but I don’t love your behavior. Please sit down and take a bite.” She turned around and hopped over the cracks from tile to tile until she reached a row of fake plants. She gave one a tug. “Sophia! Come here and take a bite!” This time I held up the pizza to her mouth. She took a big bite, bigger than I expected, and bit my pointer finger with it.

“YOW!” I screamed in pain. When someone bites down with the intent of severing a mouthful of pizza from the rest of the slice, she bites hard. I felt the full force of her little jaw close onto my nail and the tender pad of my fingertip. I sat back down, holding onto my finger, waiting for my brain to release some goddamn endorphins.

Sophie looked stricken. “Mama, are you okay?”

“I’ll be okay, Sophia. I know it was an accident, but you bit me really hard. It hurts.” She ran up to me and kissed me on the hand.

“Don’t worry, Soph. I’ll be fine. It was an accident.” I repeated. Within a minute or so, my body worked a chemical miracle and the pain drifted away. Sophie and I resumed our struggle. Two thousand prompts later, she had finished a slice.

“Okay. It doesn’t look like we’re having dessert tonight. You didn’t follow your rules.”

“But I still get a book, right?”

“Yes,” I sighed, “you still get a book. I’m not taking anything away from you. You just aren’t getting anything extra-good tonight. Maybe next time.”

The next morning, Sophie woke me and then disappeared back in her room to don her princess gown. On my way to the shower, I leaned my head into the room and said, “you can wear the gown until I get out. But when I’m out of the shower you need to get dressed.”

“Okay, Mommy.” Sophie replied, adjusting her crown.

I climbed into the shower, mentally rehearsing what I had to do that day, the hot water coaxing me into consciousness, when Sophia drew back the curtain part-way.

She was completely dressed. Not as a princess. In clothes.

“Look Mommy, I’m completely dressed. Before you even got out of the shower.”

“Oh Sophie! That’s fantastic. I’m so proud of you. You put your tights on by yourself and everything.” I was in shock. This was a first.

Then it happened. Unprompted and real.

“And Mommy. I’m sorry I was naughty last night.”

Sophia, apology accepted.