A New Member of the Family

How did you acclimate to a new member joining your family?

It’s not an easy transition, right? My family has recently expanded. No, not with another child, but with a pet. A nine month old cat from our local animal shelter. Our family has been talking about getting an animal for a while. The kids were hoping for a pet for Christmas, but there was just too much going on, and we told the kids not to expect one so they wouldn’t get their hopes up. Following the holidays we revisited the idea of getting a pet. My husband and I agreed there would probably never be an ideal time to get an animal (there’s always something that is going to be on), but if we wanted the kids to experience the joy and responsibility of raising an animal the time was now. So we got in the car and headed to the shelter with two very excited kids.

I should have known when we walked into the shelter that we would be walking out with a pet, but foolishly thought we’d just look and have time to continue to prepare before bringing one home.  The kids saw the cat, everyone thought the cat was a good fit, so the cat got a new home…with us. My husband and I both grew up with pets. Our respective pets lived mainly outdoors. Living in a high traffic area with cold and damp weather, our cat will be an indoor pet so we needed to quickly prepare for our new arrival. Conveniently, there was an pet store practically next door just waiting for folks like us to come on in. 🙂 We grabbed everything we thought we would need, headed back to the shelter, got our cat and headed home. We scrambled to get prepared, but running over to a pet store and stocking up on supplies might get you physically prepared, but not mentally prepared. If the cat had come in, liked where the food and water was, found an easy place to sleep, etc. it would have been wonderful. But like any new member of the family, there was going to be an adjustment period. We were ready for starting the cat off in a small space (thanks to the shelter’s guidance). We weren’t ready for the cat’s near constant meowing once it was in our house, or for the cat to reject the kitty litter and go outside the box (yep, got to experience that on day one), my husband and I learned that while we knew a lot about raising animals, we still have more to learn.

I went to bed the first night thinking what have we done? What have we gotten ourselves into? I woke early the next morning thinking are we really ready to be this cat’s caregivers? I was taken back to when I first became a mom. Regardless of the long preparation (9 months) while the baby was growing inside me, I still felt ill-prepared when my son first came home. I’d taken classes, asked questions, gotten the house ready, but still I had the same questions…what have we done and gotten ourselves into? Are we going to be good parents?

I know it will take a while for our cat to adjust to our home and us, and us him. The kids love the cat and the cat is quickly taking to the kids. Pets played a big role growing up. I can recall my pets giving a sympathetic ear when I was down, or sitting in my lap just when I needed someone. Pets are magical in that way, and I hope my kids will have the same experience as I.

Are you a pet owner? How did your family adjust to having a new pet?

 

New (Year) Insights

Do you have a resolution for the New Year?

I am continuing to become smarter about my youngest son who has high functioning autism (better known as Asperger’s syndrome) and plan to continue to do so in the New Year. I don’t know that I would call it a resolution per se, but I feel like I’m an ostrich pulling my head out of the sand finally. I think talking more openly about my son being on the spectrum has empowered me to be more open, proactive, and grateful for the information I am coming across — lectures, videos, books — I am not alone in trying to educated myself and am thankful so many others are doing such great work in this space.

One of my son’s spectrum traits comes across in his passion for geography. He is not just interested in geography but fixated on it. He can name practically every country in the world, tell you little known facts and provide insights into the country’s flag, population and more. In his mind, he has already mapped out his future (literally and figuratively). He has had a friend/fiancé since he was 7 and decided when his friend got engaged that they would live in NYC when they get married at 25 (it still makes me smile to think that they came up with that all on their own at such a young age). Since then, his love (fixation) on geography has grown and he has become borderline obsessed with moving to Australia. To a small remote town on the east coast of the country. My husband and I are not sure how he found the city exactly (we’ve never been there), but he didn’t pick it willy nilly. He clearly put some thought into it and has big ideas for this town — he’ll be a teacher, or he’ll build a new building, or maybe be the mayor. At the end of the day, he sees himself positively impacting this town. That’s hard to argue with, however, I had to get my son to think about his girlfriend. He knows he wants to go to this town and live there someday, but what about her. Would she?

“What if she gets a job somewhere else?” I asked him, “Or doesn’t want to live there? What will you do then?” He got sad. He cried and I was sad I’d upset him, but I wanted to make sure he understood in any relationship both people have a say, and where you live is an important decision you have to make together. After he had somewhat calmed down he started saying, “I’m a bad person. I’m a bad person.” This worried me. Why was he saying this? I asked him to talk to me and explain what he was saying. “I just realized that I don’t give her enough of my time,” he said. “Your girlfriend?” I asked. “Yes. The way my mind works, I have these thoughts and I really like thinking my thoughts. And there isn’t a lot of room for me to think about other peoples thoughts. And it’s not because I don’t want to, it’s because my mind really, really, really wants to think about what it wants to think about. Like moving to Australia. I can’t imagine not moving there but I hadn’t thought about her not wanting to move there too, and that makes me a bad person.” Before I could respond he continued, “It’s like if you think of my mind like a pie. I want to think about what I want to think about 95% of the time. That only leaves 5% for other people.” He paused then continued on, “That’s the problem with having friends. I want to have friends, but my mind doesn’t have space for them.” Whoa, I thought, I just got some very valuable insights into my son. I was blown away by his self-awareness and his ability to articulate the way he sees his mind working. I told him as much then I tried to get him to rethink how he could broach the subject with his friend, who happens to be visiting Australia presently. “Why don’t you ask her what she thought of the country? See what you can learn from her about it, and see if she might be interested in living there one day,” I suggested. “And you’re not going to live there for quite a while, you never know where life will take you. Maybe you’ll get a chance to visit there, or maybe even go to school there.” My son seemed to perk up as the conversation went along, “Yes!” he said, “maybe I can visit or spend some time there and check it out. And maybe she can come visit and then we can decide from there.” I loved that he was figuring out how this could potentially work.

My son continues to surprise me. I have thought my son’s relationship with this girl would have ended a while ago, but it’s continued to go on three + years. I know the likelihood that they’ll end up married and living in this remote Australian city is slim, but I love how big my son is dreaming. I love that he is better understanding himself and is willing to share how his mind works, and is open (at least starting to be) that he may have to build some new muscles if he wants to keep this relationship and have it grow.

I look forward to the New Year and the insights I will gain.

What do you hope to gain in the New Year?

What a Gift

“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.”
– Alice Morse Earle

Have you ever experienced anxiety? If so, what did you do to calm yourself?

Middle school is stressing my oldest son out. I get it. New, larger school (3x the number of students than his elementary school had); new teachers; getting used to have six different teachers with different expectations; and a locker. Getting used to a new routine can be stressful for anyone early on (regardless of age). My son has high expectations for himself. He gets stressed when he doesn’t know what to do, even if he’s had little exposure, experience or training. In other words, no one holds him to the same expectations he holds himself to. It can be frustrating as a parent to watch. My husband and I do not push our son to be perfect. We encourage him to be open, willing to learn and apply himself. When he gets worked up in his failure to adjust as quickly as he’d like in a new situation, my husband and I try to talk him down often with mixed results — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t — it feels like we’re failing when our words don’t help our son.

I thought my son’s anxiety would start to wane after a few days at school, but they remained strong. One morning he came to me and shared how worried he was about the upcoming day. Instead of trying to calm him down with another speech, I thought, I’ve got to do something different, but what?  Then I thought about what has worked for me when I’m stressed and I thought meditation! I know I was reluctant to try meditation when someone encouraged me to consider it and wondered if my son would feel the same way. “Have you ever heard of meditation?” I asked my son. “Yea, but I don’t really know what it is,” my son said. “Well, meditation is something that can help you with stress. It gets you to relax.” I knew I was oversimplifying it, but was trying to find the words that would make sense for my son. I continued, “there’s an app I use sometimes called Calm. It’s got some really good meditations on it. Want to give it a try with me?” My son didn’t hesitate for a second. “Sure!” he said with a smile. I was surprised how quickly he agreed to try it. I quickly opened the app and scrolled through the meditations until I found sessions under “Calm Kids” (I love it because the app even breaks down the sessions by age group). I launched the intro session and my son and I meditated.

During the session the speaker shared the quote I wrote above. She attributed it to Master Uguay in Kung Fu Panda (I’m guessing so it would resonate more with the sessions younger audience). It made my son smile. I thought the quote was very appropriate. My son was stressing about yesterday, and worrying about the future. How many of us do that? I am guilty of this. Many, if not all, of us are. Instead of dwelling on the past or fearing the future, we have the present right in front of us. It is a gift.  The quote seemed to resonate with my son as well. We continued with the session, which talked us through how to ‘be in the present’ by simply paying attention to our body — our breathing, and how our body felt. Pretty simple stuff, but often overlooked or dismissed as something that isn’t worth our time. I’d beg to differ. When the meditation finished, my son and I opened and locked eyes. He had the biggest smile on his face. His demeanor had changed significantly in eight minutes. He was more relaxed and enthusiastic about the coming school day instead of being riddled with angst. He looked at me and said, “Mom, I’m not nervous anymore. I feel pretty good.” I felt relieved and elated. There is no better feeling for me than when I’ve helped my child. It was yet another gift.

New beginnings can be stressful. I’m glad my son was willing to try the meditation and hope it will continue to help — we’ve already got several more sessions under our belt, so right now they are working and I’ll take it!

How do you help calm your child when they are stressed?

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.

Parenthood – Cracking the Code

What’s the best parenting advice you’ve ever received?

A good friend recently had a baby and was asking for advice and my take on her baby’s progress. The baby, who had once been a good sleeper, was now sleeping in short stints which concerned her.  As we talked about the situation she shared how much she craves learning parenting tricks-of-the-trade, in hopes of shortening the length of time she continues to feel anxiety as a new parent, and fearing she is somehow unknowingly doing wrong by her child simply because she doesn’t know everything.

“No one knows everything,” I told her, “No matter how long you parent. Much like you’re child is learning, so are you. But let’s think about what insights I can share that might help.” I don’t know if I came up with anything profound. I think I shared what most parents do…what worked for them.  “The bouncy ball was a miracle worker for me and getting my son to sleep.” “Rubbing the baby’s back helped calm him down.” “Swaddling stopped him from startling himself.” It was frivolous insight. It was my experience and what had worked for me. I decided instead to turn the conversation back to what seemed more truthful and valuable. “Parenting is hard and scary, and what you are feeling is normal. I wish there were shortcuts, but everyone’s parenting experience is different. You will get through this phase with your child and their sleeping pattern, and then something new will come up and you’ll figure that out as well. If you make your decisions based on what you think is best for you and your family, you are probably doing just fine.” I knew she was hoping I was going to give her some silver bullets around how to get through parenting, but in my time as one, I’ve never seen two parenting experiences that were the same.

I admire my friend’s desire to be the best parent she can as fast as she can be, and look forward to watching her son grow, and her as a parent. As much as she thinks she may be learning from me (and others), I will be learning from her too. It’s reinvigorates me as a parent to see a new parent starting from scratch. I’m reminded of my own anxiety from way back then and how far I’ve come. I am grateful to those who helped share their advice and insights along the way that helped me be a better parent and look forward to continuing to gain knowledge from others who are further along in their journeys than I.

What advice has helped you as a parent? What advice have you shared with others that helped them?

 

 

Stretch Goal

As a child, did you ever push yourself, or have someone encourage you to try something new? How did you handle doing something you weren’t comfortable doing?

I was encouraged periodically during my childhood this way, and I always experienced the same feelings: fear (what if I’m not good, what if this is a disaster), nervousness (I want to do well but am afraid I may make a fool of myself and people will laugh at me), and curiosity (what if I can do it? How cool would that be?). While my fear and nerves would initially deter me from taking on the new challenge, curiosity almost always won out. I had to figure out if I could indeed accomplish the new task or not. Even if I wasn’t perfect, or great, being able to say I did something new successfully (even in the slightest way) was a real confidence booster for me.

My oldest son recently joined a soccer league. He’s been playing soccer since he was young, but has never played in an official game. He knows how to play soccer, but doesn’t understand all the rules (my husband and I didn’t play soccer growing up ourselves, so we’re not much help here either, unfortunately). My son was reluctant to go to the first team practice. “I don’t want to go, I don’t want to play soccer,” he said. We reminded him that he was committed, we had already paid for him to play when he said he wanted to sign up. We inquired further, “What’s really going on? You love soccer, and have many friends that are on the team. Are you nervous? If so, that’s normal. Most people get nervous when they are trying new things.” You could tell he was thinking about what we were saying. I added, “The coach’s job is to teach you. He’ll help you learn the rules of the game.” My son seemed to find some comfort in this. I finished with “You might even have fun.” He still was nervous about playing, but was becoming curious about whether he might be able to play on the team, and enjoy it.

As he and my husband left the house to walk down to the field I felt for him. I know that nervous feeling, that uncertainty that comes with trying something new. I knew he would be fine, but hated that he had to experience it. No parent wants to see their child suffer. Yet, I knew he’d grow from it, and gain confidence in the simple act of showing up and trying. My husband said about ten minutes into practice our son was all smiles and his worries seemed a distant memory. It was comforting to hear.

How do you experience trying new things? How do you encourage your child to try something new?