The morning started at 4:30 A.M. and 4:30 A.M. and 4:30 A.M. I kept checking the clock on my night table and the blue numbers seemed to blink 4:30 for hours. Wow, I thought, this is the longest 4:30 of my life. I couldn’t sleep. My mind kept replaying the phone call I got just before bed.
I was wiping up the kitchen counters when my cell phone rang. It was my friend–I’ll call her Tania. Tania and I had known each other for years and our sons were friends. At that time, they were in the same third grade class.
“We went bowling with a bunch of people today,” she told me. “One of the mothers mentioned your son.” She paused and took a deep breath. “She said he was not a nice kid.”
I felt the wound before I processed the words. It was like a lash from a stingray’s tail. Sharp and painful.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you should know.”
My son was diagnosed the year before with ADHD, hyperactive/impulsive type. The neuropsychiatric evaluation concluded that my son had ADHD and that while his IQ was on the far right side of the bell-shaped curve, his ability to read social clues was on the far left–the very far left.
“What are you saying?” I asked the doctor, clutching my husband’s hand.
“Reading facial expressions is hard for your son,” he explained. “The nuances of social cues may be even harder.”
I thought of all the times I’d gotten frustrated over the years. “Can’t you see he doesn’t like that?” I asked my son about a friend. “Don’t you know that upsets her?” I demanded. He’d shake his head, look down at the ground, or storm off. I didn’t know what to do.
In preschool, the principal told me that my son was “too rough.” She didn’t offer support, just a warning that having him in the class made it harder for the teachers because he required so many reminders. I tried to get a “shadow,” a personal aide for him, but the school district turned me down–twice. I didn’t know where to turn and the message I received from the school was: Your child and you are not welcome.
As my son moved on to elementary school, his impulsivity and hyperactivity made him–and me–easy targets for other parents’ judgment. I took notes at weekly sessions with a behavioralist but, by the time of the bowling incident, I had already spent years yearning for a more compassionate community and wondering how I could “fix” things–as if there was anything to “fix.”
I am older and wiser now–well, definitely older–but the pain and isolation of those early mommy years is embedded in my memory. The bowling incident was one of a long string of episodes that caused a much-needed shift in my expectations of what parenting would be, including what it would be like to raise a child with special challenges.
People say, “It takes a village to raise kids,” but what if you’re not welcome in the village? Parents can be judgy and excluding. That hurts, especially when you want to be in a certain village–the one at the school or the local soccer field. The bottom line: There are seven billion people on the planet, and when you get over where you want the village to be, you may find friends in surprising places who love and accept everyone in your family, just as we did. It’s liberating.
At other times, I felt frustrated that the same things–not being invited, a parent’s finger pointing–still hurt me. I thought I was “over it.” I thought I’d accepted that some people just don’t get it. But I discovered that there is no road stop named ACCEPTANCE. Acceptance is a process, not a destination. There is no line to cross, after which you are miraculously transformed. It depends on the day, how the incident affects your child, how much coffee you had that morning. Like driving over speed bumps: Some bumps are more jarring than others; some you can cruise over without a hitch. I found that loosening my grip on the wheel and slowing down helped me traverse the road with a lot more ease.
They say, compare = despair. It’s basic but it’s true. There are some things that a kid with certain challenges is going to struggle with–he may never be Student of the Month, she may never be the most easygoing. But my son is an amazing chess player. He gives great hugs. He says, “I’m sorry” when he’s wrong. We are all good at different things. Different is good. I do my best to remember that. When I gauge how things are going, I measure us against ourselves: where we were versus where we are now. This highlights how far we have come.
My friend Tania told me about the bowling alley incident because she thought, “I should know.” In the past, I thought that, too, and wanted no hurtful comment to go unmentioned. But I realized that was not nurturing–not to me, not to my child, not to my friendship with Tania. I called her back after my second cup of coffee.
“I know what some people think,” I told her, “but it hurts to hear. Please don’t share it with me anymore.” She doesn’t. We’ve remained close. So have our boys.
Later that morning, my son woke up and came into the kitchen. “Morning, mom,” he said, giving me a big hug. This is what it’s all about, I thought to myself. I put down my coffee mug, wrapped both my arms around his shoulders, and squeezed him back hard. No, parenting isn’t what I expected it to be. It’s challenging, messy, and unfathomably meaningful. I would not change a thing.