On Being the Mother of a “Challenging Child”
By Karen S. Mittelman
I tell myself that only neurotic mothers with shriveled imaginations get their kids to school on time every morning. I see those mothers sometimes, in the supermarket or in line at the post office or the pancake house, so I know for a fact that they do exist. They're the ones who can silence their three and four year olds with a sharp, authoritative stare while my son, at the same age, yelled out loud, tossed Cheerios into everyone's hair with abandon and blissfully ignored me.
Jake is what child psychologists politely call "challenging," a kid with stormy emotions and an iron will that disguises a great deal of struggle underneath. At age three and a half, he was diagnosed with "sensory-integration problems," which means that his brain doesn’t effectively integrate all of the sensory information it receives in the way most children's brains do. Children with SI disorders can be delayed in gross motor development, may be extremely sensitive to touch, sights, or sounds, are easily distracted, and often have difficulty making transitions from one activity to another.
All of those describe Jake as a three-year-old. He was tormented by simple tasks like pulling on mittens, his socks had to be exactly even or they drove him crazy, and he could have a colossal, two-hour emotional meltdown if forced to stop a game of dinosaurs mid-stream.
In preschool, Jake would climb up to the top of the slide and then forget completely where he was. I imagine him up there, staring happily out at the changed landscape, noticing crows rustling in the trees or catching the faraway, urgent honk of a stray goose over the marsh. He is miles from the playground below, from the clump of impatient kids waiting for their turn, the worried teacher repeating, "Jake! Jake??" who later calls me on the phone to say she thinks Jake might be having seizures. "He keeps spacing out."
My husband and I were convinced by teachers, therapists, and the clamor of our own fears that Jake's problems needed our intervention. We investigated epileptic seizures, autism, neurological disorders. We brought him to the hospital for an EEG after a sleepless night, to a strange room where an unkind nurse tried unsuccessfully to attach electrodes to my son's scalp. I have no memory of how we finally got Jake - sleepy, confused, sobbing - to lie still so that the machine could track his brain waves, little jelly-fish wiggles of pen on long green and white paper. Thankfully, all of Jake's medical tests came back "normal."
As he grew into a bright, loving, and independent six-year-old, many of Jake's difficulties faded away. But the "spacing out" and inattention persisted. Jake still has trouble remembering a string of tasks, or paying attention to what the grownups believe he should be attending to. Here’s a typical morning in our house: I'll send Jake to the bathroom to brush his teeth while I race down the hall to the bedroom to pull on pantyhose, blouse and shoes, scan my jacket for food stains, make sure my earrings match and swab on lipstick. Back down the hall to check on Jake. He is swaying in front of the sink, singing to himself and playing with the dog's thick white fur with one hand, head tipped back joyfully, in his own universe. "Jake, what are you doing?" He is startled out of his reverie and shakes his head sheepishly. "Um, I don't know." He can't remember why he is there or what he's supposed to be doing. At age six, my son seems sometimes like a train hopelessly off track.
My husband and I have spent many evenings arguing about how to get Jake back on track. I have endured wrenching discussions with family and friends who believe that we just need to be stricter, to learn to "draw the line." We have tried time outs, rewards, and sticker charts with visual aids. Each new strategy works beautifully for a week or so and then tanks, once the novelty wears off. Half the time, I'm convinced that Bill and I must be the world's worst parents. But the rest of the time - the fifty percent I'm trying to trust - I have a sneaking suspicion that there's nothing wrong with Jake at all.
It's beginning to seem stunningly clear to me that all my son needs is a little more time to let things unfold at his pace. One morning last week, Jake sat on the sofa trying to get my attention as I packed my briefcase for work. "Jake, are your socks on yet, honey? Jake??" I finally stopped in frustration and looked up. "Mom, my lucky penny must really be working," Jake announced from the sofa, a brilliant smile breaking on his face. "I wished that you would stop rushing me, and you did!" It melted my heart. Of all the things a little boy might hunger for - a new puppy, a trip to Disneyland, a hundred ice cream sundaes - my son's deepest desire was to stop being hurried.
And I can't help wondering what it would be like to quit rushing - to live with my son outside the crush of schedules and expectations. To accept that Jake has a unique mind that needs more room to wander, more patience while he works things out. As I understand more about how my son's mind works when given free rein, it takes my breath away. Jake hears numbers musically ("I know that three plus three equals six," he explained," because they have the same rhythm") and he associates colors with days of the week ("Monday is definitely red.") I know that I am drawing closer to seeing who my son really is, beyond anyone else's ability to mold him.
So I’m trying to learn patience (something that has never been my strong suit) and to push Jake only when it's absolutely necessary. My one ambition these days is to spend much more of each day in “Jake time” - in the absolute here and now, experiencing each split second of life as if nothing else exists and nothing else will ever exist, as if it's impossible to be anywhere else but right here in this moment. It means stopping in the midst of making dinner to notice the eggplant lying side by side on the kitchen counter, gloriously purple-black and round, as Jake grabs them in his arms like two footballs and asks, "Mama, did you ever love a food so much that you just had to run around with it?" It means being tutored in an entirely new kind of joy, the kind we have learned to squash inside of ourselves and our children.
Like the world's wisest Zen masters, my six-year-old son knows the importance and the art of simply being where we are. It's probably the greatest gift that anyone has given me.
So this morning, I don’t rush Jake to school. I let him sleep until he awakes on his own, at 7:30, and then we proceed to take two full hours to make our way into clean clothes, fill our tummies and drive to Riverside Elementary School. Before we tug on our coats and go out the door, Jake has shown me how to do a new yoga stretch he has just invented, he has changed shirts twice, we’ve discussed infinity and what kind of ears you would need in order to hear God talking. There is even time to bend down and touch the icicles that have gathered on the underside of our car on this stingingly cold January morning. As I pull up in front of the school building, my son and I are giggling like outlaws.
I suspect that these brief morning breaks are not enough – they are just little dribbles of water for a voraciously thirsty, growing, yearning little boy. I know that I am lucky to have a life that allows me even this tiny bit of flexibility. I don’t know where we go from here. But for now, these are good first steps.
Waving goodbye to Jake in the freezing school parking lot, I think maybe we’ll be late again tomorrow. I might make pancakes for breakfast – one of Jake’s favorites – and let him flip the brown, steaming cakes from the pan onto our plates. Who knows – maybe we’ll even toss some Cheerios up in the air and watch how they land.
Karen S. Mittelman, Ph.D.