I am a polygamous parent. We all are to some degree. If you have more than one child you know they need different parenting styles and norms. In our case having two sons who are neurotypical or normal and one daughter who is severely autistic, we are almost constantly managing two distinct families. We are lucky in that our sons adore their sister and vice versa. Since the moment they left for sleepaway camp she has insisted on spending hours sitting in the car. Despite the fact that she can’t speak she understands that eventually that car will bring her back to her brothers wherever they may be.
As parents, the experience of two of our children leaving for a month is really strange. There is the constant and vague feeling that I have misplaced something. The chores are greatly diminished. Both the dryer and dishwasher must be secretly wondering why they are experiencing this reprieve from constant activity.
I miss my sons, but the opportunity to be just a special needs parent, to not have to toggle back and forth feels like a break. I can cater completely to Mae’s needs. I can sit with her in the car in the driveway, or hold her hand while she eats, or take her outside so she can tap and touch every surface of our deck. I can do all of this without feeling like somewhere a boy is bored or needs help with his homework. Our boys are safe and happy, camping and swimming off the coast of Maine, while we are able to live on Planet Mae and not let anybody down.
The hardest moments are when the boys have disputes that need settling or hurt feelings from an event at school. They will come rushing in the door, desperate to tell me their tales. If the timing is right and Mae is at ease, I can listen completely and offer advice or just my lap. If the timing is wrong and she is upset, they will strain to tell me their story over her wailing and I will strain to listen, with all of us unable to ignore the friction between the two worlds that coexist in our house.
Being a polygamous parent is hard. It involves managing different school systems and communities. It requires babysitters for family dinners or trips to the movies. The upside is that when I have the luxury of only parenting one child in her very specific way, it feels like a delicious holiday. If I was left with only one of the boys it would be excruciating; he would follow me around endlessly wanting me to fill the shoes of the brother who was away at camp. However, with Mae she is thrilled to have us live in her world, to have our house be quiet and predictable. It’s emptiness means more space for her to roam on her missions whose purpose is known only to her.
We will all be delighted to see the boys, and Mae more than any of us. She keeps going up to their room as if they are hiding under the bed or something. But in the meantime I will enjoy not having to change gears, I will live in Mae’s world with no sense that I am letting anyone down and it will be lovely.