A personal note on me, and my parenting
Part of why there is such a gap in my series is that this chapter caused me to take a really long look at my identity as a parent.
I am at a mostly “Empty Nest” stage as my youngest has one toehold under our roof as he spreads his wings. Mid sophomore year at a large university quite far from us, he relies very little on my guidance. My oldest has graduated college and has a rewarding job that keeps her busy on the other side of the country to me. I love that she still insists she values my input and wants me in her life but I find myself seeking her counsel more often than not.
While both my technically adult children have helped me in some of my pondering on my parenting of late, my son’s last word on the matter of my success or failure at this point mirrors my own pragmatism when he says “you really can’t say yet that you are a successful parent because one of us could still mess up at any moment”. This is not a reflection of his opinion on my parenting so much as a result of a person who grew up in an era where schools and buildings had to have their names changed due to reputation damming revelations even when named for people decades posthumously. It might also be a reflection on the fact that there is no clear time when parenting seems to stop. I do not intend to be done until I am no longer on this earth, as I see my role of parent as one for life.
One thing is clear, my offspring do not need me in many of the ways that they used to need me and that has freed me to think about my own needs. Parenting has been less of a focus. It might feel incredibly different from all the other stages of their life and mine, but it is absolutely the same in the way of feeling my way through on instinct.
At first, I approached reading this chapter before I examined my life as a parent. I panicked thinking “what if her account makes me realize I have done it all wrong”? Then I panicked thinking my kids turned out pretty great “what if I think everything she says is all wrong, how will I write anything”? All this panic and I did not process anything at all as I read it the first time through.
I did not go around it by skipping chapters, I went through. So here we are about one month after my last Takeaway. I have read the chapter twice in entirety and several parts many times more.
I am shocked at how similar I parented. Of course, I relate, why do I not know this, as I have related to every single Spectrum author so far at least on some level.
It would be a shorter list to note our differences than our similarities.
I can surmise that my upbringing and experiences of being parented were very different, so our similar philosophies are intriguing.
For one, I have major baggage. At 53, I am still sorting out the neglectful, obviously abusive and inconsistent parenting mess that was my formative years. Writing that feels beyond guilt-inducing, shaming, painful, and angering to me. Part of me bought into the fact that most parents do the very best they can with what they know, the other says no one can be so oblivious to the cruelty as to treat someone that way, or as seemingly ignorant to the damage when they appear otherwise well-informed. Is my mother an ignorant innocent or egregiously cruel? No one, not even she, knows the answer.
Like so much of my life, I was sleepwalking on my part when the decision was made to become parents. It did not feel that passive at the time because that was my life. For me, it was just another “because it was what was done”. It was incredibly uncomfortable having such monumental and world-changing choices on my hands in creating a new human and sending them off into the world. Fool or Angel, in spite of my fear, I rushed in.
I went back to study for my teaching certification when my youngest was 2 years old. I learned in my Educational Psychology, and Adolescent Psychology classes that while parenting styles could be somewhat assessed the only sure thing was that inconsistent parenting was the absolute worst with authoritarian parenting without emotional security coming in a close second to worst.
Being consistently inconsistent is my life’s catchphrase. Perhaps it is best that I did not realize the alarming fact that if the above premise was true, my parenting could be worse than my own parent’s approach; I solidly believed in the power of unconditional love. What I learned from my experience is that the Socratic principle “the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing” applies to parenting as well. If I thought I knew how to parent, that would have been disastrous. It was having to stay on my mental and emotional toes to tune in, to meet the real needs as they arose, to make decisions based on actual contextual facts, to follow my gut instinct and intuition and let fierce unconditional love be my ever guiding principle that was the real “universal guide” to parenting. As individual as each child, each situation, each day, no specific rules ever applied to anything, much less everything.
Due to my own social failures, I was terrified of raising a girl. I simply knew I could not guide her in the ways of it. In the end, I parented a girl who was not happy with the societal expectations of a girl through her own thinking and no intentional influence of my own. Not only were we on the same page, but she had the confidence I lacked to buck the system. It was like a do-over for me to see her succeed. That did cause some unhealthy anxiety on my part, I often directed her in ways that I see now were conformity; to her extreme credit, she resisted. I was so fortunate in her ability to take her own reins quite early. This was an 8-year-old girl who resented that she had to do girl scout nonsense because the girly girls were in charge and that it made no sense that she could not join boy scouts and learn “real skills”. In this, there could have not been a more clear contrast to my efforts to fit in and mimic what others cared about. Is her confidence to be herself a measure of my success? We can not know.
In teaching at the school that my kids attended my parenting was on much more clear display than anyone would want. Sentiments like the one surrounding girl scouts were not kept to ourselves. I caught so much criticism and flak, overtly as well as covertly, but never backed down. In this, perhaps I modeled some confidence. In parenting from the heart, I was firm in my belief that no one else knew how to parent my children; I was adamantly secure in that fact.
A Real Parent
I see Samantha’s chapter as divided into four areas of thought, that somewhat overlap her titled subdivisions. It made more sense to me to follow my grouping when expressing myself so I have used my four divisions and included her titles where I find them to be useful to provide correlation.
Unique Personal Circumstances
She begins with her accounts of her unique situation and lifestyle of raising children with higher demands on her limited personal resources both due to her circumstances and the particular individual challenges. These are tales of found strength, resourcefulness and ingenuity on the backbone of pure autistic determination. I do not believe I could have handled her situation at all. For any parent who has had challenges, I can only see this as a fact that challenges can be met and overcome.
Reflections on Particular Choices and Actions
In her personal reflections on the actions that she took in the circumstances, she provides an analysis of the reasons for success.
Under the heading of “Adaptation and order” Samantha explains how while she turned to extreme planning to ease anxiety, she learned she could manage without any planning if she needed.
Personally, I tried, but I could never keep up extreme planning. I falsely believed that I was a flexible person in my approach but I was simply unaware of how I had actually planned for every conceivable scenario in my over-thinking well enough to have anticipated nearly every circumstance as they arose. It was not me being flexible so much as having considered ahead what I would do in that circumstance.
In “The importance of humor and logic” Samantha recounts how humor and logic are essential counterpoints to her challenges.
“Although I struggle in some areas, such as my need to plan and ever-present anxiety, I am often able to view my own life experiences through the lens of humor and logic to improve my outlook.”
One of my strategies in the most extreme uncontrollable circumstances is to stop and comprehend absurdities in the situation. I laugh in the face of what can be seen as small tragedies to some but where there really are no options for better. A completed project falling into a muddy puddle, the baking dish for an all in one meal shattering in the oven, at that moment you can scream, cry or bust out laughing and honestly the laughter is the best.
We don’t get to choose our emotional reactions, in parenting we get gut-punched, and especially being autistics who do not handle changes well, nor ever really naturally have the complete grasp on emotional regulation. To survive, we must adopt strategies to respond in appropriate ways in the moment where our kids are concerned. A kid who presents, or for whom life presents, an unexpected challenge, and choice, especially if it seems against our own values, requires a supreme effort to extract our own ego from the equation. Logic is a great help in gaining perspective and seeing things from a non-emotional, impersonal, point of view.
In “Uniquely you” and “Free thinkers and authority” Samantha presents her personal underlying philosophies on parenting.
“My care for my children extends into upholding their ability to make their own choices and to find their own way.”
This mirrors my philosophy of autonomy, my unique children communicated to me what their needs were. Sometimes they needed me to be the boundary setter, to spell out the parameters, to say no when they were not sure. Conversely, sometimes they needed me to approve and respect when they broke those boundaries by making a different, yet fully informed choice. To be less abstract, in some instances they did not allow my anxiety in the form of reason against or for activities and commitments to hold them back.
Samantha expresses this same concept when she says that she did not allow her own personal struggles to stifle her children’s opportunity for growth and experience. In a neurology that almost always comes with fear and anxiety built in, this is a particular challenge.
“I don’t feel like the boss and I don’t feel like a friend. Because I can easily see the gray area between right and wrong. I am susceptible to a flexible outlook and influenced by differing opinions. Compromise, collaboration, joint problem-solving are familiar and instinctual. Firmness and the concept of “my way or the highway” are foreign ideals.”
I could have written the above quote in its entirety.
Evidence of ideals in her sons as indicators of a job well done.
In “Mama bear and moving forward” and ” Miraculous Seeds” Samantha expresses through self-reflection and comparison of her ideals and those character traits and actions she sees in her sons, if parenting is to be judged by the ability to instill in others that which we most value, her method of parenting has been a success.
In the same way that being autistic presents different strengths and challenges to anyone it also presents the same to our ability to parent. The answer is always in the balance.
No one can say that autistic parents do not have all that it takes to parent, and that possibly we are better suited to parent an unpredictable child or one with needs we may not understand than those that have rigid ideas of “normal”.
What anyone reading this, parent or not, would do best to take away is what I think I have concluded correctly that Samantha and I agree is the most essential truth; good/successful parenting is different for each child.
Beyond providing the safety of a positive nurturing attention, meeting physical and emotional needs of a child, the only “universal” rule is to love fiercely and unconditionally enough to respect that child’s intrinsic autonomy and take direction from them in understanding what their needs are and how they are met.
Dr. Michele Garnett’s summary of Chapter 8
One of the advantages that Dr. Garnett points out struck me as a profound accolade.
If a mother makes parenting her special or intense interest she will be relentless in her passionate determination to research, understand and implement every bit of information. The pitfalls are that this perfectionism and idealism can turn on her.
“She stretches herself to confront and master sensory and social challenges for the sake of her children, where her natural reaction would be to shy away.”
Dr. Garnett includes wonderfully detailed lists of the strengths and challenges quite often displayed in autistics who take on parenthood.