Shadows of the Past
Last November, our son's preschool teachers expressed some concerns about Kiddo. He's a sweet little guy, but like Mama, he's in his own head a lot and not always attentive to what's right in front of him. He's also a child who hasn't mastered that whole "look a person in the eye when speaking to them" thing. Apparently, while the former 'distracted by one's thoughts' thing might be hereditary, the second is somewhat common in families with "only" children. That is, we parents of Onlys don't do as much modeling of this "look you in the eye" thing because, when there's only the two of us around, we each know who the other is talking to. Heck, there's only two of us. So if Kiddo was chatting away about something, it was usually at me. Or I'd be working at the sink and talking to him, my eyes on my task. This is easy to understand.
Another observation they'd made was that our little guy wasn't always on the same page with his peers, conversationally. They'd be talking about the teacher's goats and he'd be talking about fire trucks. Huh? Friends were beginning to become unresponsive to the non sequitors and would move their interest elsewhere. Teachers were concerned how this would impact him socially, especially once he'd entered kindergarten.
Get him to this speech therapist for an evaluation, they said. She's great at nonverbal communication stuff.
And she was, but our experience of the agency she worked through was stressful and unsatisfying. As parents, we were pretty chewed up and had already decided, due to our insurance coverage, to move Kiddo's therapy work to the nearby clinic. This started another round of endless paperwork and first, another evaluation with a new speech therapist...
who told us there was nothing wrong with his speech; in fact, he's a slight bit ahead of his peers. (I am not boasting--this could even out next week, right?) Perhaps Occupation Therapy would help?
Now, over half-a-year out from The Conference that Started it All, we are still trying to find the right something for Kiddo.
When you are floundering like this, small comments become magnified. A blog post on another parenting blog suggested that kids who don't make as much eye contact, who aren't happy to see us after school--perhaps those kids don't have good connection with parents. The parents are withholding, not connecting enough. At preschool pickup, sure enough, there are kids who squeal with delight and rocket into their parent's arms. Not my boy. His head is probably still somewhere else--in the cloakroom, in a conversation-- and it's almost like you can see the gears turning with the effort to make the transition of leaving school. It's a little like watching a creature emerge from an underground burrow, eyes squinting, sniffing the air, as if to say "oh, yeah, so it's daytime... and where am I? Oh! yes. Right here." (This isn't to imply that Kiddo is simple, but that he is very cute and cuddly like a woodland creature. )
In any case, sometimes a Mama just takes it all on herself. Perhaps I wasn't connecting enough? Perhaps I hadn't been enough for him? What if he didn't do well in kindergarten, because I know how hard it is when everyone else is here on Earth but our thoughts are off beyond the atmosphere? What if other kids stopped trying to play with him, because he was talking dinosaurs while they were talking Transformers?
What if? What if?
The final straw was a comment from someone I deeply respect, who suggested that Kiddo might have ADD/ADHD. I think my head blew off-- the capacity of the pressure valve had been exceeded and something had to give. If I'd wrecked him, somehow, I'd fix him. Right?
There is no feeling worse or more helpless than having people say "your kids has this problem" and to not know what to do with it. And so, for a week or two, I decided that we were going to Fix This. This was draining. This was reminding him "eyes", firmly, every time he didn't make eye contact. This was constantly correcting him when he'd abruptly start with a new subject. Fixing meant that We Would Pay Attention the first time. (I'm not even going to describe how futile that felt.)
At some point one afternoon, after a good cry, I realized that I was caught in a trap I hadn't even been aware of. I was doing what my own mother did, which I'd hated. I was trying to 'fix' my really-not-doin'-too-shabby kid. My conversations with professionals and teachers had felt so deficit-oriented that it was hard to see all the good. Kiddo's a polite kid. He's very loving and snuggly. He's bright and we have some interesting conversations. He's a nice friend to his friends and shares his toys easily. He can go off and amuse himself and comes up with fun, fascinating ideas when given some tape and a drawer full of found objects.
What the hell was I worried about?
It took that good cry for me to realize that I am one of those parents who comes to the job at a loss. As a child, I was never allowed to feel "okay" for just being myself. I was never unconditionally loved or considered Acceptable, As Is, by my most primary caregiver. I believe that this has a lot to do with my mother's undiagnosed mental illness, and I forgive her for this. But I've gotta say---it's hard to be your parent's favorite 'self improvement' project. That sort of thinking, I believe, goes something like this:
"If only my kid weren't so X, my life would be perfect."
I don't suffer from the delusion that all of my problems rest on the shoulders of my son. Not at all. That sort of scapegoating was very different from what I got stuck in, which was relapsing into my childhood experience of Parenting Means Making Your Kid Perfect. I don't have a visceral sense of being 'fine' in her eyes just being myself. This dynamic has contributed strongly to the social anxiety I still suffer from time to time. It's difficult to flourish when a parent is constantly rejecting you for not being good enough. It's also emotionally difficult to remember that I had a parent who wasn't able to model being relaxed about parenting, who couldn't model acceptance, and that this has cast a hard shadow on who I am as a parent.
But it's only a shadow. When we raise a lantern in that darkness, we can see our way more clearly and find what we need.
Once I'd come to the conclusion that I was dangerously close to repeating some of my parents' mistakes, and why, there was a sense of illumination. "Oh, yeah... no wonder...." Instead of going on Red Alert, I've forgiven myself for starting down that bad path. Now that it's been identified, I can recognize it for what it is-- a shadow from the past which does have the potential to temporarily obscure healthy thinking. I can see that this more relaxed, accepting sort of parenting is something I have to learn from scratch. I'm up for it.
Kiddo is a light in my world. I can see it in his eyes, the joy when he giggles and smiles. He IS beloved of his playmates--no, not every second, but they do like him for his kindness and his interest in them, their concerns. They want to play with him and ask their parents to see him. He and a little friend saw each other the other day: that other little boy came up and gave him a huge hug. We'll still go forward with the OT, but I'm beginning to believe that time, gentle encouragement and love are the fixers. Fear casts the shadow, but love shines the light.
*I read this post after I'd come to my own realizations, but it just confirmed for me how important it is to accept our children for who they are--and their abilities here and now--and how important is is to keep the long-term, bigger picture in view as well.