Friday, June 19, 2015

Weird Kid Genetics

As adults, we are conditioned to pursue self-improvement. Eat healthier, lower your cholesterol, lose weight, quit smoking, quit drinking, be more organized, be less organized, have more fun, have less fun?, exercise more. There’s a self-help book for every obsession, affliction, personality quirk and nuance, and ten minutes with Oprah or Dr. Phil will make you painfully self-aware of every flaw.  And you might pick something – for me its patience – to work on. And if you’re like me, you’ll make the effort daily and most likely you’ll fail, daily. But it’s okay, or at least you’ll tell yourself this as you fall asleep, because there’s always tomorrow.  Today was just a crazy day.

But then one day, you see yourself in your kids. 

L is 4, a frustrating age anyway. Then again are there non-frustrating ages? I don’t know…yet. I’m hoping. But no matter the task, she doesn’t need any help. She knows everything. Just ask her, she’ll tell you. And I smile through clenched teeth because she is just like me. Down to the face she makes when she’s mad, her independence, her inclination for solitude, her wandering. 

It’s a relentless challenge to battle L’s unyielding stubbornness with give. To show her patience, not just tell her about it. These are real teaching moments – there are actual lessons in there, for both of us.  But what about accepting, even loving, all the other imperfections?  The ones that make her, her…even if they also make me, me.

This weekend, we went to a birthday party. When all the kids were outside, playing in the sprinkler, L was inside playing at the kitchen set by herself. When all the kids came inside for cake, she went out to the picnic table to color. Mr. Beaker leaned over and whispered to me: I think our kid is the weird kid. And we laughed because yeah, she totally is. I whispered back: Your wife was, too.
I think it’s a hard lesson to learn that you can’t self-help your way into fixing your kids. I hope that I’m learning that when she’s four, not fourteen or twenty-four.  It’s both exhilarating and terrifying to watch your children and see yourself, like looking into an eerie crystal ball. Knowing the hardships they’ll face because they have your foibles and fallacies, and the successes they’ll have because they have your strengths. 
Will she be bullied in school because she is different, more imaginative? It’s possible. Can I do anything about it? More importantly, should I do anything about it? Can I, or should I, teach her how to fit in? Encourage her to play with the other kids at the party, even if what she really wants is to play alone? I honestly don’t know. I didn’t. Truth be told, I sort of enjoyed watching her.  

Doesn’t that imply some sort of self-acceptance?  Well, take that, Oprah.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Words Matter, Says the Writer

One of the things I’m doing right now is research for my fourth book. I love this stage, brainstorming, researching, learning about a world I know nothing about letting the story take me where it will. One of the places it’s taken me is Autism.

Autism is a scary place, you guys. I don’t know the right vocabulary. I don’t know the right questions to ask or the right words to say and ASD moms are amazing (and judging by the comments sections of articles on the internet, they are also passionate and fearless) and I’m SCARED to ask people. But silence breeds ignorance and that's not right either. It's complicated. 
My kids are not on the spectrum. I can’t possibly understand. Can I?

I mean, to some extent, we’re all parents. Doing the best we can.

I want to write books with a lot of different kinds of people in them. I don’t even need these people to be the main character (not always or not yet, I should say), I just want them to be in the story. #Diversebooks and all. I think it’s kind of important to write about people who are not me: middle-class, heterosexual, white, neuro-typical. The more books and shows and movies that include minorities, women, people of color, people with disabilities, people on that giant spectrum, it can only be a good thing, right? So, the only way to do that is to ask questions. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s scary, though. What if I say the wrong thing? Use the wrong words? What matters more -- the words or the intent? 

Sincerely Becca is a mom who blogs on ASD and other mom things (and sometimes eHarmony) and she says there are no bad questions, which is why I really, really like her. A lot. 

Go visit her because she's amazing. Click on the picture. I mean right now, go there. 

But the thing is, if I'm writing words that people will read, then both words and intent matter very, very much. 

Research is important, as a writer, sure. But to me, this isn't about "craft". It's less cerebral than that. It's about stepping out of my little box and being able to capture someone else's life, a life that is completely different than my own, with its own challenges and hardships. I can't do that without recognizing my own privilege: the idea that don't have to think about any of this unless I choose to. I do choose to because to continually write about people who have had life experiences only similar to my own is both 1. ignorant and 2. boring. 

I’ve spent hours on the phone with special needs moms (and more hours than I care to count reading blogs**). They’re amazing. They’ve answered all my silly questions and helped me hash out stereotypes and learn about the messy realities of autism spectrum disorder. They’ve told me their stories so that I can tell their stories to people who aren’t like them in a way that isn’t preachy or soap-boxish. 

They don’t know they’ve made me cry. 

I can’t even pinpoint the reasons, except that I’m new at this. They’re not. They’re hardened and matter-of-fact and cavalier and I can’t lie: It’s hard to listen to. I’ve been so sheltered.

I don’t cry because I feel fortunate. I cry for them, literally years after they’re done crying for themselves. They’re used to this, it’s old hat (except when people are mean to them in public, which is like, constantly. So, please settle down with that, mmkay?). Their kids are their kids and they’re doing their thing*. To be honest, my vulnerability is embarrassing, but then again, I’ve cried at Hallmark commercials, so I don't know if it's just me.

It's not just me. Being a mom is hard. Being a special needs mom is harder.

And that’s the crux of it, I think. I don’t live with autism. It’s a new, shiny thing to me but I can’t let it become a novelty. I worry about that. To these parents, it’s real life and it’s not trendy or cool, or neat or charming or buzzwordy, and the kids it affects are not token kids. I have to be careful. Can I make a character that fully embodies a little boy on the spectrum, and accurately portray the challenges and triumphs this family faces while not exploiting it? Will it mean more or less coming from me, a person with zero personal experience with ASD?

It’s a big responsibility. My words matter.

*This sentence was a crazy grammar exercise and I have no idea if I got it right.
** H/t to autism blogs that are amazing: Sincerely Becca, Go Team Kate, Autism in Our House, Mixing the Autism Cocktail. Some of them have no idea that I've read their blogs which is either going to be awesome or creepy for them if they find out. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Life is Too Short for Matching Mittens

This morning was like most mornings.

Hectic. Yelling. Scarfing down frozen pancakes and trying to throw blueberries on their plates so I can non-hypocritically ask them to make "healthy choices" today.

L says, "Mommy, can you make sure I take a blanket and books to school this week because last time you forgot and I was the only kid in school without a blanket and books?" (Can your heart break while you roll your eyes?)

A says, "Can I take a lollipop to school for snack time?"

L says, "Mommy, why do I always have to borrow pencils from other kids and I don't have my own?"

I say (FINALLY): Hey, YOU. Do YOU think lollipops are a wise snack choice? AND YOU, I don't know when you run out of pencils, so I might have forgotten to send in a blanket THAT ONE TIME but some things have got to be your responsibility. TELL ME when you run out of pencils. How else would I know? BESIDES, where exactly do all your pencils go?

And then the bus pulls up and L is halfway down the driveway before I realize her toothbrush sits on the counter, untouched. And A is climbing into the car when she says, "Mommy, why don't I have gloves?"

YOU DO HAVE GLOVES. YOU DO! I'm failing at this mom thing. I mean, it's thirty degrees out and NO ONE HAS GLOVES ON and L is gone and it's too late to worry about her hands (or her teeth) (or her choices) (or her pencils).

I run back inside and dig through the glove bin only to find this:

None of these things is just like the other.

I almost cried because what kind of mother sends her kid to school with two different gloves on?

But, I don't cry. Instead, I take this picture. This ridiculous, funny, hopefully relatable picture. I wonder where all the one-socks, one-gloves and one-flip-flops go to party? All together?

Also, how lucky are we that we once owned NINE PAIRS OF GLOVES. That's four and a half pairs of gloves per kid. I mean, arguably, this is horrendously wasteful and gratuitous. There are people in this world who don't own gloves and if they do, they hold onto their one pair as though their life depends on it. Sometimes it does.

I have two choices: scour the house for matching gloves, cranky and hot OR go with the...ahem, hand I've been dealt. I take the whole pile to A and say, PICK TWO!

Tomorrow, I might make a different choice. It might matter to me, tomorrow, that my kids look socially acceptable, wearing clothes that match. I know that I can't rate my motherhood based on what I'm not doing anymore. I will not be defined by my failings.

I look in the rear view mirror and A has her arms waving out in front of her and she is LAUGHING. She laughs all the way to school.

Gratitude hides in small moments and sometimes, very small hands.