My 18 year old son recently severed himself from our family. In case you think this is unusual, you might be surprised to hear that it is not uncommon. I have struggled as to how to respond when people inquire about my son. At first, I simply ignored the question. I realized as time marched on, I was in essence building a facade. The second problem – I felt I needed to explain the look of pure sadness on my face and the water which pools in my eyes at unexpected moments.
For me now, the world is divided into two groups: Knowing Mothers and Others. Knowing Mothers are my heros – they are the ones who are brave enough to admit to more than a June Cleaver existence. When I answer the question about my son gently and truthfully, Knowing Mothers speak softly to me and tell me their child’s story. They never ask, “What happened, did you have a fight?” In fact they never really question anything. They simply wait for the story to unfold, piece by piece, whatever one is willing and able to share. They understand the situation immediately. A few words and they get it. They also almost always say something hopeful, reassuring, or insightful. And they aren’t afraid to ask how things are going after that.
These Knowing Mothers, it turns out, are everywhere. I have found them at the office, at the clinic, in my family, in other community groups I attend, etc. We are part of a circle we never planned for or dreamed about. No one taught us what to do when things don’t go as planned. I am surprised there aren’t any Knowing Mothers support groups. So instead, I attend the NAMI family support group.
I recently had my annual physical, which I had waited months for. The first question the doc asked “how are you?” What a bombshell! I asked her what she meant by that (might she really want to know?). “What’s going on in your life?” she clarified. Again, water in the eyes. She handed me a tissue. It turns out, she had an even more dramatic happening. She came home from work on the eve of her son’s 18th birthday and found an empty room without any notice or warning. We shared for 30 minutes. My high cholesterol and borderline hypertension could wait. We had important work to do together. The sharing, camaraderie, soul searching were key. She understood immediately that pretty much nothing else mattered to me at that moment. That understanding was so settling for me. I loved hearing that although it took a few years, they are back as a family. This gave me hope. Priceless. We have a follow-up appointment in two months.
Another Knowing Mother’s story. She says with a smirk, when her son calls, she and her husband exchange a glance. They wonder if everything is okay. Who will pick-up this time? They take turns. Deep breath out, he wants to take them to dinner. He seems settled into a good life, living and working in Boston. This is after some legal scrapes, leaving school in Florida for 2 1/2 years and forgetting to tell his parents.
The parents in my support group chuckle when I tell them the following story. When my son was ten and playing soccer, another mother and I stood on the sidelines. She turned to me and suggested that my son needed to smile more often as he always looked so serious. When I told her that he was diagnosed with autism, she felt so badly about her remark and apologized profusely. It wasn’t exactly true but somehow this just slipped from my mouth, totally unplanned and without much forethought. This still makes me smile today! I never corrected it or felt badly about it. After all, I truly believe that we are ALL on a spectrum of sorts, some more at one end than most but we each have traits, behaviors, idiosyncrasies in common. It’s called being human.