Fireside Chat

Where do you have your best conversations with your child?

On a camping trip my husband and my older son decided they wanted to hike a trail not far from our camping site. We had just finished a different hike and my younger son and I were happy to sit by the fire and relax. After sitting by the fire for a few minutes, I could see my son was thinking about something. “What are you thinking about?” I asked. I thought he might reply, “nothing” or that he was reflecting on the day. Instead he said, “I’m thinking about life.” He paused, “And what the point of it is.”

Our earlier hike had taken us to a military cemetery where service and family members were buried. There was a large section of infants and young children in the cemetery and I had wondered, as we’d looked at some of the headstones, how the kids might be impacted by seeing so many lives lost so young. The experience reminded my son of two of his peers who have passed. A classmate from pre-school who died of cancer, and an elementary classmate who died from drowning. As a parent, both of these children’s deaths had shaken me to my core and reminded me how fragile life is. In both cases, I grieved desperately for the parents and what they must be going through, and was so grateful my boys were healthy and alive. I never knew if my son really grasped the finality of either death and the feelings that go along with it.

My son continued, “I think of my friends. They didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t understand why what happened to them had to happen to them.” He was tearing up. “They didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. “It’s one of the hardest things to understand in life — why bad things happen. Especially when it’s to good people or small children who haven’t had a chance to even truly experience life.” I paused. “You’ll never be able to make sense when these things happen. Life’s just that way. Sometimes bad things happen. I think their deaths are reminders of the gift we’ve been given — life. It’s a reminder to not take it for granted. To recognize the beauty around us, and to help others see it too.” I’d gotten his attention. “I miss them,” he said. “I know,” I said, “You’ll never forget them. They’ll always be with you. The hardest part is knowing they’re not here and that you won’t have new memories with them. But you can live for them and the lives they didn’t get to live. You just have to see what’s around you and appreciate it for however long you have on this Earth.” I knew what I was saying was a bit heavy, but he seemed to take it in and embrace it. Being in a nature setting while having this discussion really helped. I finished my thought with my son, “You know you show beauty often to others in how you treat them. You’re gift is kindness and happiness. You accept people as they are, where they are. That’s a gift. I hope you always remember that. Lots of people need people like you in their life. You might be the beauty in life they need to see.” He smiled. I used to smile too, when my father gave me insights about myself. There was something magical about being able to carry on the tradition with my son. “Life is hard sometimes. Life can be confusing and sometimes make you sad or angry, but the happiness will return. Just keep remembering to appreciate it, and treat it for what it is — a gift.”

My husband and older son walked into the campsite around this time. My younger son and I just sat there. “What have you been up to?” my husband asked. My younger son piped in, “We’ve been having a very important conversation. VERY IMPORTANT!” He gave me a knowing look. My husband caught my eye and I could almost read his mind — what exactly did you all talk about while we were away? In a way, I wish my husband had been there for the conversation, and my older son — it would have been a good conversation for us to have as a family — but if they had been there, maybe the conversation wouldn’t have happened, and I’m glad that it did.

Where do have your most meaningful conversations with your child?

 

Into the Wilderness

Anyone like exploring new territory?

I love finding parallels in life and parenting. Hiking into new terrain is much like parenting — there is always a new path or trail — sometimes the view is beautiful, sometimes it is challenging; you can feel safe and confident and other times lost and scared — what are you supposed to do next? The more you hike, the more prepared you feel to handle the unexpected. Much like parenting. Though you can still be caught off guard from time to time when you face something new, regardless of your preparation or past experience.

We will be doing some hiking this summer, and while I’m looking forward to spending time with my kids, I stepping into the wilderness in a more parental way. Our son has autism. He is high functioning but exhibits some tell-tale signs that he is on the spectrum: arms flapping when he’s interested in something or he gets excited (often paired with a humming sound); and struggling with picking up on some social cues. We have known this for several years, and have enlisted the help of several professionals to help us and him. With that said, my husband and I hadn’t shared our son’s diagnosis with him, nor spoke about it openly (outside of talking with teachers, counselors and other professionals) until now. My reluctance to talk about it openly was not because I was embarrassed or ashamed, but because I didn’t want a label attached to him–I didn’t want people to think of him as being ‘different’ or less than (because he isn’t). I didn’t want it to define him — what he’s capable of and who he is and will be. I convinced myself that by keeping quiet I was protecting him and, if I’m being completely honest, also protecting myself — somehow I felt like his diagnosis was a failure on my part (yes, I realize that is not rational). I didn’t want to have to discuss the situation with family or friends. I didn’t want to shine a spotlight on it. In talking with an therapist she told me it was time to embrace the diagnosis, let my son in on what he was dealing with so he understood his own behavior and why it was different.  I am the adult in the situation and have grown a thicker skin. And while I may be concerned that sharing this could draw judgment, or pity; I know that those that love my son and our family will be supportive and caring. My son needed to know, and I needed to get over my fears.

We sat our son done and explained his diagnosis. “Being on the spectrum simply means your brain works differently than others. You have advantages that others don’t because you are on the autism spectrum. And you have disadvantages,” we told him. We shared examples of where he is advanced (academics, conversations with adults and younger children) and where he is challenged (building relationships with his peers/friendship; controlling how he expresses interest/excitement). We sat our older son down and explained to him what was going on as well. We thought it was important he understand what his brother was dealing with, and why his brother does what he does. “His brain is wired this way,” we told him. “If someone asks you why your brother is acting weird/strange/differently, you say, “that’s just my brother being my brother” and leave it at that.”

I’m grateful for organizations like Autism Speaks. And the awareness that is being brought by parents and the medical field on this topic. Yet this still feels very unfamiliar to me. It’s almost as though I’ve been studying a map for a while, and I’ve decided to start on my journey through unchartered territory. I am going into the wilderness. Its new. Its scary. I think I’m prepared, but am I? Will I encounter something new I’m not prepared for?  I know I’m going to make mistakes. I know I am going to learn. I am praying I do right by my son and our family.

How do you navigate unfamiliar territory? How do you handle talking about uncomfortable topics?

I will be taking a few weeks off to enjoy the summer with family and will be back in August.