I’ve been the recipient of the “you’re a bad parent” glare enough times to be impervious to it. Knowing that the look is inevitable is almost comforting. Call it a chip on my shoulder, but I prefer to call it a thick skin. I know that where ever we go, I am going to piss someone off. Or leave them misunderstanding our situation.
I once had a woman on a motorized scooter chase after me in Shop Rite to tell me what an awful job I was doing raising my children (at the time, I only had two.)
I’ve had people tell me that an “old fashioned smack on the butt would straighten (Finn) right out.”
That was before his autism diagnosis. Before I had a rebuttal that would shut down even the most ignorant person. It was a time when I was struggling so hard to figure out why. Why was it so hard to go grocery shopping? Why can’t he just sit with the other kids at story time?
Eventually, I just stopped going anywhere. It was too damn hard. Not just for me, but for Finn. And for Charlie. It was too disappointing to have to leave in the middle of something fun for Charlie, but excruciating for Finn. Onlookers would stare as I gathered up our belongings, scooped up the screaming two-year-old under my arm while the four year old straggled behind. A look of longing and disappointment on Charlie’s poor face, but ultimately knowing that it was beyond his control.
I recently went back to story time with the twins. It had, for so long, been off our radar, that I forgot that it was an option for us. Back in the day, we used to do well at story time… for the first 5 minutes… until they brought the instruments out and Finn would go nuts. I couldn’t figure it out. But now, the twins do everything. They play instruments. They sing the songs. They sit next to other kids during the puppet show. Tallulah marvels at other little girl’s “sparkly shoes.” It’s amazing. It’s effortless. And yet it’s bittersweet.
I sat back and watched Henry and Tallulah in awe. I even got to have a conversation with another mom while the twins played with her daughter. It was every bit a “normal mom” moment and yet autism is always on my mind.
You see, there was another mom there and I knew her. Well, I didn’t know her, but I’m pretty sure she was me four years ago. I knew the look on her face. Frustration. Fear. Confusion. Her boy would run from her arms for a moment or two, perhaps to grab an instrument or sit on the rug, but he never stayed long. He was all over the place. She kept trying to wrangle him back to the group, but he didn’t want anything to do with it. All the kids were watching the puppet show and he was trying to climb behind the curtained stage. All the kids were singing “Open shut them” and he was crawling under the tables and chairs.
Any “normal mom” would look at this mom and say “what the heck is wrong with your kid?” But not me. What I saw was a little boy in a lot of pain. He was dysregulated. He was in panic mode. He didn’t know how to calm himself down and his mom looked at the end of her rope. I know that feeling. It’s taken me years to recognize it in myself and in Finn.
I wanted to give that mom the “I know” look, but I’m not sure I pulled it off. The poor woman was sweating from head to toe. I’m certain all she saw were disapproving eyes. I had no idea if her child had a diagnosis. I certainly didn’t want to say anything to her, but I wished I could’ve eased her pain.
I recently got an email from an old college friend. She told me about a recent visit to a Children’s Museum where she and a group of Mom friends were gathered with their toddlers. Another Mom was there with her seemingly “out of control” child. It was only a matter of time before this poor Mom would frantically gather her tantruming-ear-covering child’s things and skulk off to avoid a scene. My college friend said the other moms exchanged disapproving looks, but she said that because of my blog she knew better. I was so happy and humbled that I opened her mind to see more than just a tantruming child. She saw more than just a frustrated Mom. Perhaps that boy didn’t have autism. Perhaps that Mom is not on the same path as me, but my friend empathized with her pain and she certainly didn’t join in on the “bad parent” glares. She realized that perhaps things aren’t always what they seem.
Even “normal moms” have to skulk off with their tantruming child every once in a while. Sure, it’s far less often than some of us, but the innocent onlooker doesn’t know how many times (today) I’ve had to drop everything and run out the door. And sometimes seeing another mom who says “I know” or “I don’t know, but it’s not YOUR fault” or “wanna have coffee someday” can be a lifeline like you wouldn’t understand.
Because we are all just trying to row our boats and stay afloat. Some of us seem to do it better than others. Some of us are constantly bailing water out of our boats. Some of us dropped a paddle and are set adrift. And some of us, despite our boat’s perfectly cleanly appearance, feel like we are clinging to a dingy. But the truth is that most of us have been in every one of those boats at one point or another and there’s comfort and strength to be found in another person who realizes that nothing’s as it seems.