I still haven’t written an update on the books I’ve finished over the last few weeks, and yet here I am feeling the urge to write about a book I’ve only read the introduction of thus far. Or really, it’s not so much the book itself, but some of the thoughts and reactions I’ve had to it. I read for a lot of reasons: to learn, to feel, to grow. I just love seeing the world and experiencing the struggles and joys of life through the eyes of people whose lives are far different from mine. But sometimes, I pick up a book because I think it will validate my own feelings and struggles. You know, just hoping that someone will “get it.” And I think that’s part of the reason why I picked up Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me about a Parent’s Expectations by Ron Fournier.
In this introduction, Fournier talks a bit about his son Tyler, his son’s Aspergers diagnosis, and what led to the string of road trips he takes with Tyler. But he also talks about the expectations parents have for their children. As much as I’d like to think that I don’t project my own expectations onto my children, to really believe that would be lying to myself. I’ve had this inner mantra about the four things I want for my kiddos: 1. I want them to be kind. 2. I want them to take responsibility for their choices. 3. I want them to be happy. 4. I want them to be who they are. I can live with those expectations without feeling too guilty; I wish those things for everyone. But it doesn’t end there, I know this. Every time I find myself feeling disappointed in Max for doing poorly on test simply because he didn’t study, or I find myself feeling frustrated because Gray doesn’t bring up the dirty dishes from his room in a timely manner, or I find myself feeling annoyed that Annie sleeps until 1:00 on the weekend–at these times and many more, I have to face the fact that I do have expectations of them that really are largely about me. So yes, I am not blameless in this expectations game.
Even with that admission, and the knowledge that we’ve failed in ways we don’t even realize, I can say we’ve tried hard to let our children be who they are, not who we or anyone else thinks they should be. And I wouldn’t change that for anything. But I do think that may be at least part of the reason that Gray wasn’t diagnosed with Aspergers until he was a bit older than most kids are these days. We just accepted, and in most cases, celebrated his many, many quirks. He is who he is, and hooray for it!!! The problem of course is that society is not so “live and let live” in its attitudes, is it? It was the way others treated him, most especially at school, that set him on a road that made being who he is a tough thing. I gotta tell you, it was shocking to me just how early kids can start the picking on those who are different. How can it be that a 1st and 2nd grader can be bullied by his peers?!! Well so much for my naivete. And so this sweet, happy, quirky-as-all-get-out little boy started to loose the “happy” piece of himself. By 4th grade, he’d stopped talking in his classroom at school. Let the diagnoses string begin: sensory processing disorder, selective mutism, social anxiety disorder, trichotillomania. And eventually Aspergers was brought into the mix of all these related pieces. Maybe this is too simplistically put and maybe it’s not, but I feel it wasn’t the different way that Gray sees and processes and responds to the world that was the problem, it was the way that society responded to those differences.
One thing that struck me in the introduction, was the author’s and his wife’s reaction to their realization that their son had Aspergers. There were no tears in our home over Gray’s diagnosis, because the label didn’t change anything about who Gray was. He was still Gray, but we now had some useful information to help us find ways to help him navigate this world. I am NOT saying that we’re somehow better than anyone else because we weren’t anguished over the fact that our son was on this thing called the autism spectrum. I think what I am saying is that we, in a sense, were lucky because we didn’t feel blindsided.
I’m worried that I’m sounding like this has all been easy, that I’m somehow this amazing parent who just takes everything in stride and supports her children unfailingly. And well, that just isn’t the case, no matter how much I wish it were. I fail on a far-too-often basis. And just because I didn’t sob at Gray’s diagnosis per se, I have most definitely sobbed, sometimes huge ugly snot-filled sobs, out of frustration. While I feel incredibly blessed to have this young man in my life and to get to gather glimpses of the world from an entirely foreign-to-me perspective, I’d be lying if I said it was always easy. I feel like a failure when I miss the signs of a coming meltdown. An Aspergers meltdown looks remarkably like a temper tantrum in a toddler, but it is a different sort of thing, often brought to a tipping point by too much sensory overload. And I admit fully, that I fear Gray’s public meltdowns viscerally. Maybe part of it is my own social anxiety even on a good day, but the reactions of others to my teen son’s “tantrum” can make me want to hide away in our house forever. These meltdowns are becoming a much less common occurrence as we learn to watch for stressors. Then there is this whole lack of caring about hygiene thing; I’d gladly give up the struggles over showering. Anyway, here I am back at expectations…expectations for my children, that I try so hard not to have. And yet I do. Seems my best efforts aren’t enough. And I suspect they never will be. But that realization is gold, if it leads me to keep a better lookout them.
I suspect I may have a few more posts in my future as I continue reading this book. And I realize that I will never be able to objectively review this book, with a subject that hits far too close to home. But already, I can find myself grateful for reading it, not only for the familiarity of experience but also for the distinct differences. And I’m reminded again of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had to say about the danger of a single story.