I’m being completely honest when I say that for all the “how to raise a healthy baby books” I read when I was pregnant, I did not read one single book on child behavior, discipline, and parenting. First of all, my parents kept 6 of us in line when we were growing up, so I figured I’d just follow their example. Secondly, I was an elementary school teacher and had read many books on child psychology and classroom management. As a teacher I was strict and structured, but loving and fair, and once my class understood my expectations we were able to do fun things.
Strict, loving, fair, and fun.
If I could control classrooms full of 9 and 10 year olds and get them to learn stuff and actually enjoy it, then parenting ONE kid? Pffft! How hard could it be?
Yup, when it came to the behavior of my future child, I was bursting with the self-assured confidence of one who knows they have set sail on a ship that is absolutely unsinkable.
From my vantage point on the deck of my absolutely unsinkable ship, I could glance askance at the red-faced, “totally about to lose her shit” grocery store mom with two screaming kids in tow and vow with certitude that that would never be me.
Now I’ve mentioned in previous posts about how Fate delights in serving up a healthy helping of humble pie in response to statements of unabashed overconfidence. I’ve also warned against passing judgment on those who find themselves stuck on a dinosaur-filled island, lest a T-Rex or a few velociraptors be released in your general direction. I’ve also suggested being pragmatic when planning for a zombie apocalypse, because the grasshopper that sings instead of making preparations is destined to be eaten alive.
These are all topics I’ve explored since arriving in my alternate universe. Keep in mind that at the time of self-assuredness described above, my son had yet to be born. So although I had battled anxiety demons my whole life up to that point, I was (comparatively speaking) still but a singing grasshopper in a dino-free, unsinkable universe.
The reality of just how ill-prepared I was for my son’s behavior became apparent when he was around five years old. For now, let’s abandon the zombies and dinosaurs and stick with just the Titanic metaphor, which actually makes sense since an iceberg is quite analogous to the challenging behaviors that accompany my son’s autism.
The challenging behaviors to which I’m referring are aggressive behaviors like scratching, hitting, pinching, and biting that some (not all) autistic individuals engage in. If you’ve heard the statement “just the tip of the iceberg,” you know it means that you are seeing only a small part of a much larger whole. So it is with my son’s behavior – it is the tip of the iceberg, the visible part above the surface. The much larger part, the causes or antecedents, are below the surface.
My son is nonverbal, and he sometimes uses these behaviors to show his frustration at not being able to communicate basic needs and feelings. Because of his sensory issues, he might act out aggressively as a means of defense from over-stimulation in an overwhelming environment. He might also lash out to escape or avoid a task that is confusing, difficult, frustrating, or simply something he doesn’t want to do. It could be a combination of all of these things…or none of them. Sometimes with his “icebergs” we can only guess at the causes that lie beneath the surface.
If this was the maiden voyage of an average ship in average seas, I would be hanging out on the poop deck, having a drink with “angry, red-faced grocery store mom,” commiserating about how much our kids are driving us nuts.
But my story has icebergs. My ship of confidence is going down, and we’re sending up flares and distress signals, hoping help will arrive in the form of a behavior therapist or autism expert, someone to lead us to calmer waters.
Let me tell you – to fall from such lofty heights and plunge into the icy waters of reality below has been shocking and painful, the most chilling part being the guilt that accompanies the recognition that I am far from being the perfect parent my son deserves.
I, more than anyone else in my son’s life, should be patient and understanding about his behaviors. But the truth is when he is pinching and punching and biting and scratching me…I’m angry. And those red-faced, “totally about to lose my shit” moments I swore I’d never have? Some days that is my entire state of being.
And therein lies my glacial guilt, that icy realization that I’m not kind enough, not patient enough, not understanding enough…that despite the fact that I love my son more than anything else in this world, I’m still failing miserably as a parent.
I’m inclined to believe that sometimes when Fate sets you adrift in frigid waters, the Universe aligns to throw you a life preserver. Because in one of my lowest, most guilt-ridden moments, I happened across this quote from Fred Rogers:
“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? Love is an active noun. It’s not static, exact, or definable. It has no limits or boundaries to mark its presence or outline its shape. It grows, moves, evolves, transforms. And in love, as in nature, such processes require struggling and striving and enduring.
Even when your love for someone is as deep and wide as all the world’s oceans, it isn’t like you’re floating in the tropical Caribbean Sea every day, basking in the warm, blissful state of “perfect caring.” Yes, even with a love so deep and wide, you may still end up spending some time treading water in the iceberg-filled Arctic. Those days can be a mental, physical, and emotional struggle.
And so we struggle and we strive, my boy and I.
I wake up every day and strive to better understand and accept my boy’s icebergs. My boy wakes up with smiles and hugs – his way of letting me know he’s striving to accept my mistakes and failures, too.
We are doing the very best we can just as we are, right here and now. It’s not perfect, but it is love.
* * *
It’s been a challenging day, and I’m rocking my son to sleep like so many countless nights since the day he was born. He is 6 years old now and 50 pounds, his head resting on my shoulder, his body stretching down past my knees. My arms are wrapped around him, my cheek resting on his head.
His chest rises and falls – his breathing, slow and rhythmic, like waves on a beach.
I smell the familiar scent of his hair and feel the comforting weight of his body, his heart beating right next to mine.
The waters are calm. Not an iceberg in sight. We gently rock in the warm glow of his musical projector.
We drift and float,
lulled to sleep in this moment of perfect caring.
Rogers, Fred. “The World According to Mister Rogers – Important Things to Remember”. New York: MFJ Books/Family Communications, Inc., 2003.