I turned 40 this summer, and now I have something new to worry about. Ever since my birthday, any ache or pain that arises I think to myself, did I sleep in a weird way or is this 40? A few weeks ago I went for a run on a very hot day. I had stayed up too late drinking tequila and laughing with friends. Needless to say, the run was not a thing of beauty. The whole time I was thinking to myself. This is awful. Is it the tequila or is it 40?
The number has become a catch all for my fears. I have fallen asleep on the couch a couple of nights in a row. Am I tired or is it 40? My jeans are a little tight. Is it the guacamole or is it 40? It’s a game with virtually no end, and in some ways it’s nice to have something to blame for any unwanted behaviour. I don’t have to take responsibility for my short temper, or my disinterest in cooking. I can blame it all on 40.
Of course I know this is ridiculous but it is very funny to see how this new excuse came to live in my head. There is no question that my forty-year-old hips and knees feel different than my twenty-year-old ones did. The equipment has had industrial use; it’s entitled to some aches and pains. Should I be gentle with myself if I am feeling short tempered or achy? Absolutely. Should it have anything to do with me turning 40? No.
What I can say is that I now have the wisdom to see when I am getting in my own way…sometimes. While it can be handy every once in a while to make excuses, the old ones of stress, exhaustion, or infants don’t really have the oomph they once did. 40 is like a whole new landscape of excuses. I was explaining to a friend this new story line of mine. We were laughing about it because it does sound so ridiculous when you say it out loud. She confided that she found herself doing the same thing except for her the phrase is “I am almost 50…”
Age, like weight, is a useless statistic unless it is somehow way outside the norm. After you stop counting your age in weeks or if you aren’t deep into your 90’s your age is really subjective. I know very few people who hit their stride in their twenties, but many who did in their forties. I am, as always, a work in progress. If I stay up too late drinking tequila and then decide to go for a run on a hot day, and it isn’t awesome….that’s not 40’s fault. That is only proof that wisdom doesn’t always come with age.
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.
When a house is filled with young children it vibrates with movement. Even when they are absent their clothes swirl in the dryer, their dog snores on the couch, their toys wait patiently on every available surface. I have found that it is easy to get caught up in the movement, particularly if both parents are working. There is always something to do: a meeting to attend, a room that needs picking up, an appointment that needs scheduling, cupcakes that need to be made…..The days seem to gain speed until all of a sudden they are years. I remember holding Benny once when he was small, it was two in the morning and he was on an elaborate sleep strike. It felt personal, as if his 8 or 9 week old self was deeply committed to disrupting my sleep, potentially forever. I was giving an internal finger to all those well meaning people who had looked at my newborn and said “enjoy it, it goes so fast…” Not at 2 in the morning it doesn’t…..
Of course, now I look at his long arms and legs, his eleven-year-old self, and it does seem to have gone by in a flash. Those two a.m. meetings of ours feel like yesterday, and another life all at the same time. A very wise friend said to me once after we had finished talking about how exhausted we were by our toddlers, “But this is the good stuff, when we put our children in bed at least we know where they are…” I hear that phrase so often in my head, “this is the good stuff.” she was right, this busy-ness, this intensity, this constant change, this is what a life is. The catch is, that we have learn to pay attention to it, we have to learn to slow down within the movement and the busy-ness to be able to really appreciate it.
In Buddhism it is an accepted principle that there are two realities or two truths. There is relative truth, which is what we think we see, the whirlwind of the every day, and there is absolute truth which is what exists underneath all of that. it is the reality that we and everyone we love are just temporary, existing for a short time in the same place. For me parenting was the first time I really thought about absolute truth. My own mortality and that of my children weighed on me. The thought of something bad happening to them makes me close my eyes and hold up my hands, just the thought of it inspires deep physical reactions. As the mother of a child who will probably never be able to live independently, my own mortality became even more of an obstacle. On more than one occasion I have thought to myself, I have to figure out how to live as long as she does so I can take care of her, she is 8 and I am 40….it’s unlikely I will live to 120.
The relative truth of parenting, the small successes and failures, “he sleeps through the night, and eats green vegetables,” give way to “he reads, and has friends.” He complains mercilessly about homework, doesn’t make a team, has his heart broken, each moment feels enormous and real, and defining while it’s happening. They should. This is the good stuff. The absolute truth as I experience it is within the relative truth: it is allowing each of those moments to really sink in. It is not trying either to hold on to them or to ignore them, but to be fully present with them. The absolute truth of my life exists in all of the relative details, in the way I make my bed, or the dinners we eat. The amount of attention and care that we bring to the ordinary is what makes it come alive.
Today is World Autism Awareness Day, every day is Autism Awareness day in my house. I am re-posting this, please tweet it, Facebook it, raising awareness increases sensitivity.. And that’s better for everyone.
My daughter is 1 in 68. The CDC recently released numbers saying that 1 in 68 children are Autistic. Each one of those children has two parents who also carry that diagnosis with them, always. Does that make me 1 in 34? I think it does.
In every house, in every child, in every family, Autism looks different. But if you are a parent of a child on the spectrum, no matter where they fall, there is some common ground. I know you when I see you; we walk the same path lined with eggshells, and potholes, but it’s ours.
Below is a list that anyone in the 1 in…
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Recently, we have had a few teachable moments with the boys. We have been faced with situations where they have broken a rule or abused a privilege, but rather than punish them, we have given them the opportunity to repair the damage or remediate other consequences of their behavior. In both instances, once their relief at not being in trouble subsided, they rose to the occasion and demonstrated maturity that impressed us and, more importantly, themselves.
The whole experience got me thinking about teachable moments. The writer Annie Lamott describes how she had to retrain her inner voice from one that would order her to sit down and write, using phrases like “sit your lazy ass in this chair” to one more like a gentle maternal coaxing “just try and write one paragraph you clever girl.” Clearly, one is more pleasant and arguably more effective. When we manage ourselves and our relationships skillfully we are better able to identify teachable moments.
Even our bodies have teachable moments. When someone is training for an Ironman or marathon, that is not the time to start an aggressive new yoga regime. We will not be teaching our body anything; we will just be stressing it even more. When training for an event, most bodies need days of rest and long slow stretches, extended hip openers and chest openers with lots of support. Learning to listen to the cues our body is giving us is one of the most important steps to lasting wellness.
Often teachable moments rise out of unpleasant experiences, but that isn’t always the case. Remembering how much better we feel after enough sleep can mean that when we are tempted to stay up a little too late, we remind ourselves of that good feeling. A friend and I were joking recently after a huge dinner that our diets would start Monday. Later when thinking about our conversation I realized that even that sort of habitual thinking isn’t healthy. Even though we were both kidding around it is that “I will start tomorrow” mentality that prevents us from doing so many things. Maybe the teachable moment there is just noticing the habit. Every day there are opportunities to be accountable for our behavior, to wonder whether we could have handled interactions more skillfully, with more insight or compassion for ourselves or others. I am so completely convinced that we learn more when the methods are loving and patient than swift and punitive. I am going to start paying more attention to the teachable moments in my every day. I know they are there and there is an awful lot to learn.