Today’s guest post on motherhood comes from my friend Rev. Melissa Traver. I knew I wanted to be friends with Melissa the day I met her. She is hilarious and kind and has a servant’s heart. We had the privilege of not only being the only two young women pastors in the same town, but also of being pregnant at the same time. There is nothing that bonds you to a woman like taking the pregnancy journey together. I am so grateful to have had her by my side then and to continue to call her and her family friends. Below, Melissa shares her story of being a mom to a child with Aspergers. I appreciate her sharing not only the struggle, but the JOY of having an aspergers child. Knowing and loving her son since birth, our family too has known his differences not just as a diagnosis, but a wonderful part of who this delightful child is.
Dena asked me to write about the experience of being a mom of a kid “on the spectrum.” I’m not sure I’ve thought about that much, probably because that’s the only kind of mom I know how to be. My “spectrum” child is my first child, so from his first moments he taught me to be a mom. I was his mom for years before we officially knew he had autism. Looking back, I did know that I couldn’t do the same things other moms could like sit on those pretty benches at playgrounds or have grown up conversations at toddler’s birthday parties. Even so, I didn’t really consider that I was somehow a different kind of mother… I was just busy being the best mom I knew how to my particular son.
One thing I can say is that it is not hard to love and appreciate the ways in which a spectrum child is different.
In fact, part of the pain and fear of diagnosis is that many of the quirks and habits that you absolutely LOVE and have considered things that make your child fabulously unique and interesting are now described with words like symptom, sign, deficit, and characteristic trait.
My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s at six years old. In general, he is affected most by the more “annoying” characteristics and not the detrimental ones. So, many hours of doctor’s visits, multiple therapists, and countless hours advocating/arguing with the school system are not part of my experience as it is for others.
I think the greatest thing I have had to learn as a mom is to learn how to breathe. A while ago, I realized that I spent most of my son’s early life holding my breath.
As a mom, you are supposed to know your child better than anybody. You are supposed to know what he eats, when he is tired, what makes him upset, when he is sick, what he is afraid of, and what he likes. You should know what toys will thrill him and what he won’t care about at all. You should know how high he is likely to climb or how far away from you he will run. But I never knew any of those things. His behavior was always unpredictable. He often did things that would never occur to me or any other child in a split second. Sometimes those things could be dangerous to himself, other children or breakable objects. Almost from the time he could crawl, I knew I had to be within arm’s reach ALL the time. Every situation, every moment held the potential for something cute, wonderful, and new, and the potential for complete disaster. So, I was constantly on edge. I just never knew what was going to happen because I couldn’t predict what my child was about to do. Moms are supposed to know these things. But I NEVER did. So I followed him closely and held my breath.
I also held my breath whenever I was away from him. Trusting caregivers from grandma to teachers was difficult. I worried they wouldn’t watch carefully enough or be quick enough. I worried he’d get hurt, or they’d tell him he was a bad boy. His first day of preschool, I was called because when they lined the children up to wash hands and put a little soap in his hand, he immediately put it in his hair. They were concerned he’d be traumatized by their attempt to keep hand soap out of his eyes while getting it out of his hair by holding him awkwardly over the little classroom sink.
I finally realized how much I held my breath when he was asked to read a short passage from the Bible in front of 1200 people at 6 years old. I knew he could do it. He was an excellent reader and clear articulate speaker. One of the gifts of Asperger’s is that he had absolutely no concept of stage fright, no anxiety about embarrassment (because he didn’t know what that was) and no doubt in his ability. However, he also had no concept that this was a big deal. He had no concept that this was an important worship service and a very small range of behavior was acceptable. He had no idea that he was to only read what he had been asked and to do or say nothing else. I also knew that his children’s Bible from which we had practiced so diligently had a hidden cricket on each page which we searched for every night at bedtime. He often interrupted his own reading to comment about the cricket. Even though, he had been warned that he could NOT talk about the cricket in ANY way as he sat on the stage waiting his turn, I waited nervously in the wings. I had NO idea what was about to happen. He could do brilliantly or he could begin talking to the congregation, explaining about the cricket or commenting on his own large image staring back at him from the big screen. All options seemed equally possible.
He did great. However, he did stop in the middle after reading a portion and look up at the minister standing next to him to ask, “Is that true?” which was cute and endearing. When he walked off the stage to me is the precise moment that I realized I was holding my breath the whole time he was speaking.
My journey of motherhood over the past few years has been learning to breathe and trusting my son and trusting the world with him more. I’m trying to give up my need to “explain him” to others or “explain others” for him. He will always see the world differently. He will always do things in unexpected ways. Some people will understand, some will laugh, some will be kind, others will not. I will be here to help him when the world is mean. (One of the other gifts of Asperger’s is sometimes he doesn’t notice the mean.)
But I can’t keep holding my breath. I have to learn to breathe deeply and just go along for the ride. Yes, I am supposed to know my child and as his mom, I know that I will never be able to guess how he will react to something, what he will say, or what he might do next. Our life together is a wild and wonderful ride. Learning to breathe while watching him means that I trust him. He will encounter the world in his own unique way and on his own terms. Instead of being scared of that, I’m learning to enjoy it.