Tag Archives: fear

How to Succeed in Parenting by Really Trying

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This is how I surprised my son at school on his 12th birthday. I never thought he’d pick up my flair for dramatics.

Although I don’t talk much about it any more, my husband and I raised a child with what has become known as “special needs.” When I gave birth to him in April of 1995, there was no indication that he was anything other than a healthy nine-pound baby boy. But three years later, a developmental pediatrician would rock our world.

“In my opinion,” the Air Force doctor at RAF Lakenheath said looking into our widened eyes, “your son has Atypical Autism.” A couple of hours later, we were frantically grabbing every book on the subject in the library, determined to prove the doctor wrong.

I recall one passage in an outdated book that painted a grim picture of the “typical” scenario: Parents receive the diagnosis and are determined to get their child all appropriate treatments. They are encouraged when their child makes progress with aggressive interventions. But as the child grows, the gap between him and his peers widens. As an adolescent, he wants friends, but is confused by nonverbal cues, facial expressions and gestures. Unable to develop peer relationships, he seeks the comfort of his daily routine — watching the same television shows every day, and pacing around the perimeter of his backyard. The parents realize that their son’s delays are insurmountable and accept that he will never lead a normal life.

We put that book back on the shelf. It was the only time in our marriage I would ever see my husband cry.

This prognosis was too painful to consider, so we did whatever we could. The next eight years were a blur of home therapies, speech therapies, occupational therapies, physical therapies, gluten-free casein-free diets, prescription vitamins, sensory integration regimens, IEP meetings, monitored peer play dates, doctor’s appointments, and mountains of insurance claim forms.

Fortunately, in the fourth grade, our son’s doctor told us that, while he should continue to work through lingering social delays and sensory issues, he no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for autism or any other developmental disorder. We were ecstatic about our son’s progress, but kept our lifestyle of combating autistic symptoms in place. Just in case.

Now 18, our son will most certainly “lead a normal life.” He is in his senior year at his third high school, and has already been accepted to colleges. He has earned four varsity letters in football, is a gifted musician, has taken eight Advanced Placement courses, and is an Eagle Scout.

Despite his obvious success in conquering a serious developmental disorder, we still have regular moments of worry because our son is still “quirky.”

There are days when we see autism creeping around like a phantom, threatening our son’s future. A far away look in his eye. The sound of him muttering to himself in the shower. His stubborn aversion to certain textures in food and clothing. His social awkwardness. His tendency to avoid interaction.

We try to put it out of our minds and hope that these ghosts of his past are simply personality traits that won’t stop him from forming meaningful relationships in life. But I still worry.

Recently, our son landed the role of J.B. Biggley in his high school’s production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” We didn’t know anything about the musical, and as usual, our son was not forthcoming with any details.

We arrived on the night of the first public showing.

Buying our tickets and finding our seats, several parents accosted us, gasping, “Your son is the one playing JB Biggley?! He is amazing! He steals the show!” Knowing our son’s lack of interpersonal skills, we thought they might be misinterpreting his quirks as character acting. However, when he made his appearance on stage, we understood what everyone was talking about.

Simply put, our son blew everyone away.

At the curtain call, the actors took their turns bowing to the audience. When our son stepped up and bent at the waist, the crowd jumped to its feet, giving him the loudest standing ovation. And no one knows he was once diagnosed with autism.

Sitting in our seats in total disbelief, it was as if all our years of hard work had come to fruition. Like comprehending the vastness of the infinite cosmos, my mind was boggled by the magnitude of our son’s potential and the promise of his happy future.

He’s going to be just fine. 

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Attack of the Killer Teens

Photo courtesy of www.cinemablend.com.

Photo courtesy of http://www.cinemablend.com.

This week, my youngest child turned thirteen, making me the mother of three teenagers.

For those readers who have raised (i.e., survived) teenagers, I could end my column here. There’s no need for lengthy anecdotes. Upon reading my first sentence, other parents of teens most likely heaved a collective groan, and instantly understood the prickly muddle of pride, anguish, adoration and frustration involved.

But for the benefit of the rest, I’ll trudge on with my story.

“I’ll take a hot chocolate with whipped cream and a large sausage Calzone,” my 18-year-old son blurted to the waiter before anyone else had a chance to order. It was his youngest sister’s 13th birthday dinner out, and he was starving.

Incidentally, that was after he had polished off a barrel of popcorn and a gallon of soda at the Island Cinemas, where I spent $60 and three-quarters of the movie covering the birthday girl’s eyes to shield her from what I realized was a totally inappropriate horror film.

The next morning, I got up early to drive my son to his first job at Yagoog Boy Scout Summer Camp. I tiptoed to keep from waking my new 13-year-old – she slept with me thanks to my stellar movie choice the night before – but I had no idea that I’d be tiptoeing around my son’s attitude all morning.

“Hey Buddy?” I gingerly hailed my son as he carried his sleeping bag through the kitchen, “I think you should wear a troop shirt instead, because there’s a pretty strict dress code for Scouts at camp.”

He stopped with his back to me, and like the demon-possessed character from the previous night’s movie; he turned his head slowly, squinting his eyes. In a low, guttural tone, which spewed pure aggravation, he muttered between gritted teeth, “I’m not a Scout, I’m on the Staff.”

Ten minutes later, my son appeared at my minivan, wearing his troop shirt and a scowl.

After a silent drive, we arrived at Camp Yagoog. While checking in, we realized that my son needed uniform socks, so we stopped by the Camp’s Trading Post to buy a few pairs.

Knowing I was about to leave my only son there for the rest of the summer, I was feeling generous.

“Hey Buddy, don’t you need one of these belts like the other Staff had on their shorts?”

My son spewed, squinted and gritted, “NO, MOM, my shorts have a built-in belt,” stated in such a way that implied, “you idiot!”

That was it. Something in me snapped. I dropped the socks and announced, “Buy your own socks. I’ll see you on pick up day.”

I could see mild panic in his eyes. The six pairs of socks would wipe out his spending money, and he had no way of cashing future paychecks without a ride to the bank. And then there’s the issue of his laundry.

I stormed out of the Trading Post to find my minivan.

Three yards from the store, I was seized by a rush of overwhelming realizations. This person, my son, was a huge bearded ball of contradiction. He wanted nothing to do with me, yet he was totally dependent on me. He believed he was omniscient, yet there was so much he needed to learn. He was technically a man, yet he behaved like a petulant boy.

Despite the fact that my lioness instinct was urging me to cut the apron strings and go, I didn’t want to leave him on such a sour note. I found my son in the Trading Post, still looking stunned at the socks.

“I’m sorry,” he offered, “I didn’t realize I was being disrespectful.”

Leaving the camp and my son behind, I wondered what it is that possesses teenagers. An instinctual drive to alienate the tribe and strike out on their own? Raging adolescent hormones? An underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex? Evil mutant zombie demons?

Whatever it is, I’m scared and my teenagers are too.

But I learned an ironic lesson from that inappropriate horror film: When things get really scary, parental guidance is strongly suggested.

Pretty scary, hu?

Feel it in your rear

“God help us all,” is often muttered in response to news that a teenager has begun driving. Other responses include, “Run for your lives!” “Hit the dirt!” and phrases implying apocalyptic events.

We all universally recognize that teenagers don’t know much about life, and that placing one in control of a one-ton combustion engine with the intent that he propel it over concrete at high speeds, is really stupid when you think about it. Nevertheless, our laws provide that 16-year-olds can drive, so we put our parental instinct aside and allow them to do it.

My son has his learner’s permit, and until I rode in the passenger’s seat while my sloppy, brace-faced teenage son lurched our minivan along the open road, I had no empathy for my parents. Now, I feel their pain.

It was June 4, 1984, my birthday, and I was twirling the barrel of my curling iron through my bangs for maximum height. I heard my mother’s voice calling from outside our brick ranch, “Sweet pea! Come out here a second!”

I tsked loudly, rolled my eyes, and ignored.

“Honeybunch? C’mon, it’ll only take a sec!” she continued, eventually appearing at my bedroom door. In classic teenage style I sassed and whined at my mother, annoyed by what I saw as her rude interference with a crucial task in my routine – curling my bangs.

Eventually, I succumbed to her pleas, but not without attitude. I appeared outside, slump-shouldered and eye-rolling, where the cause of her interruption was revealed: on our lawn sat a pale blue 1974 Volkswagen Beetle tied up in an enormous yellow bow.

I offered no apology for my embarrassing behavior. Instead I screamed and ran to claim the gift, which I assumed I wholeheartedly deserved.

That day, I had to deliver pizzas for our Varsity Letter Club fundraiser. My father thought this was the perfect opportunity to use my new Bug. There was one problem that my father cast aside as a minor detail – I didn’t how to drive a stick.

My hair properly coiffed, I jumped excitedly into the driver’s seat and awaited my father’s instructions.

A gruff, ex-college football player, he was not accustomed to being delicate. He operated on pure instinct, street smarts, and gut feelings. I, on the other hand, had no innate abilities, instead relying on conscious analysis to learn. My father didn’t use maps, instructions or cookbooks. I relied heavily on them. He was not articulate, using facial expression and volume to communicate. I spoke in great detail to explain my thoughts. So, when it came time for me to learn how to drive a stick, we were not exactly a good match.

After several stalls, I eventually got my new Bug onto the road. I made every first-timer mistake: revving the engine, sputtering and stalling, rolling back after stopping on an incline, riding the clutch, and constant lurching. Each time, my father bellowed, “Easy, easy! No, not now! There, there! Now! Shift! The clutch, the clutch!” I could not process the words he was blasting in my ear and continued to grind, lurch and stall.

Being the typical hormonal teenage girl, I soon began to cry as my father’s frustration mounted. “Feel it in your rear! That’s how you know when to shift!” No matter how hard I tried, I could not feel anything in my rear or anywhere else for that matter.

I was able to hide my tears at the first few pizza deliveries, but after more yelling and a near catastrophic stall downhill from a barreling coal truck on Route 286, I was soon a blubbering, red-eyed, snotty mess.

“[Sniff, snort] Hello Ma’am, I, I, I, [sniff, rubbing nose with sleeve] believe you ordered two [hiccup] pepperoni pizzas?” I managed to say after ringing doorbells. “Oh, Sweetie, sure! Do you want me to order more? Would you like to come inside and sit for a while?” my customers would offer upon seeing my pitiful condition.

I somehow managed to deliver all the pizzas without anyone calling child protective services, but was devastated at my complete failure to “feel it in my rear.” It was not until I drove alone on the road in front of our house that I was able to think for myself. Without anyone to tell me what to do, I quickly learned to drive a stick like a pro.

I never really felt anything in my rear as a teenage driver; however, I can now say that riding in the car when my son is driving could be described as a huge pain in the butt. Perhaps that is what my father was referring to. Regardless, my childhood experience taught me to hold my tongue when my teenage son is driving so he can think. Parental instinct may urge me to scream, “Holy Mother of God!” and grab for the emergency brake, but I’ll sit quietly and allow him to figure it out for himself.

Beyond the Whipping Post: Thoughts of a conference newbie

Photo by Larry Najera

It feels good to leave the grit and hustle of the city behind. A fish out of water in the sprawl of streets, strip malls, and strip joints; I’m glad to get a break from city life during my drive to Macon, Georgia for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ Conference. As I put miles between my minivan and Jacksonville, I watch a Deep South documentary out my front windshield.

But the once prosperous small towns where roadway and railway intersect don’t look as charming as I’d imagined. I see old homes with missing shingles and broken porch rails. An abandoned factory stands as a memorial to a heyday years ago. Old storefronts and buildings lie empty, or are occupied by bargain stores, pawnshops, and used car dealerships.

With my shirts hanging in the window and a cold cup of coffee sloshing in the console, I feel like a cheesy traveling salesperson, on my way to my next pitch.

As the bug carcasses accumulate on the windshield, my mind wanders away from the barbecue-joint-strewn scenery, and to the conference. I’m a newbie, a novice, a nobody. They are real columnists, and I’m just some 45-year-old housewife with no journalism experience. What if I find out I’m not cut out for this? Will I be forced to give up my dream of becoming legitimate? Years from now, will my family reminisce, “Hey, remember the time Lisa tried to be a columnist? Yea, that was funny.”

I resist the urge to make a sudden u-turn, and press on.

Macon appears before me quite unexpectedly without the usual urban sprawl. In the Marriott parking lot, I swallow hard, take a deep breath, and head for the entrance. A few minutes later, I am nervously hand shaking and hob-knobbing in the conference area.

I spy Suzette Standring, a comforting familiar face from the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop only two weeks prior. I cling to Suzette, who has achieved a sort of sainthood as author of the wanna-be columnist’s bible, The Art of Column Writing. The word according to Saint Suzette teaches us to believe in being a columnist, and we worship her for giving us faith.

Using Suzette as a life raft, I’m able to tread water and mingle amongst the more experienced newspaper industry veterans. I’m struck by how many of the columnists were full-time staff columnists who “retired” after being bought out or replaced, or who jumped ship when their papers were in decline and now freelance and blog. I hope this is anomalous and am optimistic that I’ll meet thriving syndicated columnists in the morning.

I face the day with guarded optimism, but am soon overwhelmed with the stark reality facing the industry. I can’t help but notice that none of the keynote speakers are presently working as columnists, and each conference session seems to have the underlying message that we need to change our way of doing things because the heyday is over.

Later, a trolley transports us to some much–needed southern food and shameless frivolity at a private dinner and Allman Brothers concert. As I watch the veteran columnists dancing wildly to a 15-minute rendition of “Tied to the Whipping Post,” I wonder what it all means for me. Am I just circling the drain? Will I be able to swim out of this rip tide known as the digital age? Or will I drown, washing up on my own doorstep, regretting having tried in the first place?

Later in the hotel hospitality suite over cocktails, I take a closer look at the eccentric bunch I so desperately wish to call my colleagues. They don’t seem plagued with pessimism; they’ve accepted the changes in the industry, because they know that nothing in this business has ever been easy.

I’m suddenly able to look beyond my fears and see the brave veteran columnists from the New York Times, Kansas City Star, Macon Telegraph, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and other respected publications. They are the real deal. They made it in this industry because they were good at it, they worked hard, and they adapted. If those rules still apply, maybe I have a chance.

The next day, in keeping with the strange irony that seemed to permeate the convention, the most uplifting message to come out of the entire event is delivered by someone admittedly battling depression. Tommy Johnson, former President of CNN and publisher of Los Angeles Times and Dallas Times Herald, utters the phrase that we all longed to hear:

“Columnists DO matter,” he says.

Not in a cheesy, motivational speaker sort of way, but as a knowledgeable industry insider, he tells us that readers, whether they hold a newspaper or digital device, will continue to seek out the unique viewpoints of columnists.

The next morning, I’m back on the country roads leading me home. I pass through the same tiny towns, but this time, I notice the velvety green grass. I see lovely farms and sturdy houses. I see people conversing outside local restaurants. I see charming vegetable stands with Vidalia onions, fresh peaches and boiled peanuts for sale. These towns are not exactly the same as they were 25 years ago. They are different, for sure. They have adapted to our changing times, and they continue to thrive.

Finally at home, I plop down in front of my computer. I find another rejection letter from an editor of a Virginia daily newspaper. He writes that he cannot publish my column, explaining that his slim freelance budget is reserved for local writers only. I skim through the explanation, and focus my eyes intently on the last three words of his message: “Keep at it.”

That’s all I need to know.

Dissecting the Teen

SCENE ONE: (Mom cheerfully sweeps kitchen floor. Front door opens. Brooding Teen in hooded sweatshirt enters. Without looking at Mom, Teen shuffles down hall toward bedroom.)

MOM: (Hurriedly following.) “Hi Honey! How was school today?”

TEEN: “Nghu.”

MOM: “Hmm? What was that?”

TEEN: “Nghoo.”

MOM: “I’m sorry, Sweetie, but I couldn’t hear what you said. Give it to me one more time.”

TEEN: “Ngood.” (Teen slams bedroom door, leaving Mom alone and dumbfounded in hall.)

END SCENE.

This little vignette is reenacted over and over again in our house. Day after day, week after week, month after month.

Now that my son is a full-fledged teenager, all affection, conversation and attention are forced under threat of house arrest, or bribed with expensive electronics, edible treats, or cold hard cash.

His father and I used to rock his world just a few years ago. He would burst out of school each day and find me waiting there to walk him home. His eyes would light up, and he would often run at me full pelt, plowing into me with open arms. He would linger a few seconds so I could run my hand through his sandy colored hair and kiss him on the head.

But then, he became a teenager.

When he first started withdrawing from us emotionally, I panicked and thought, “Why did I let him watch that PG-13 movie when he was twelve?! And, he’s always resented me for those cute bowl hair cuts I used to give him. I knew I never should have spanked him when he put that waffle in the VCR! Oh God, what have I done!?!”

We worried and watched, waiting for a call from the police informing us that our son was holding the school principal hostage or that he was hitchhiking across the country on an historic crime spree.

Even though the police never called, we feared that our son’s withdrawal from us was clear evidence that he was on the brink of some kind of teenage nervous breakdown, all caused by our overbearing demands and inadequate parental nurturing.

Eventually, we did get reports of our son’s behavior, but not from public authorities or school officials. Other parents told us what our son was doing outside our home.

“My daughter told us the funniest story about your son at supper last night – apparently he had the whole literature class laughing yesterday at school.”

“That skit your son did for our Cub Scout den was priceless. We videotaped it!”

“Your son was so chatty and polite when I gave him a ride after football practice yesterday.”

“You must be so proud that the Biology teacher played your son’s cell project video to all the classes. It was so well done.”

Initially, we thought, “Are you sure you have the right kid here? Our son is the one that never wears anything but that hooded sweatshirt, doesn’t make eye contact and grunts. What skit? What cell project?”

Slowly but surely, we began to dissect this brooding man-child living in our house. By examining his separate and distinct parts, we started to understand the creature our son was becoming.

We discovered that our son isn’t an axe murderer, he’s just a teenager.

Outside our home, he is a smart, funny, outgoing football player, scout leader, band geek and math tutor. When he gets home, he withdraws and hides his burgeoning personality from us, afraid that we will interfere or attempt to change him. His “split personality” enables him to grow, mature, and as much as we hate it, become independent from of us.

We have to let our son create himself, whatever that creature may be, and in the meantime, we must learn to find complex meaning in the grunts and grumbles he emits.

For example, “Nghu” really means, “Wow, thanks for asking about my day at school, Mom – it actually went quite well despite the fact that I missed you terribly and couldn’t wait to come home and eat your delicious home cooking.”

Nowadays, when I force my son to let me hug him, I interpret the pained expression on his face to mean, “Mother, my gratitude and respect for you are so intense that I can only bear it for a second before I must shove you away.”

Another thing I’ve learned: Asking one’s teen for a kiss on the cheek definitely requires bribery. Pepperoni pizza and chocolate chip cookies work for me.

[See the hilarious Neuron Cell project video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OH37g_KDM_s.]

The Wheels of Change

Right about now, many parents across our great land are experiencing a nervous mix of extreme terror infused with tremendous relief. As they ship their kids off to college, parents worry that their kids will not be able to survive on their own. At the same time, they rejoice at the return of their freedom.

Part of the fear/freedom mix is giving the kid his own car. This presents a whole sub-category of potential problems such as insurance payments, fender-benders, speeding tickets and expensive mechanical troubles. Worse, college kids who have cars are tempted to engage in quasi-criminal activity such as road trips; tailgating; and transporting kegs, stolen mascots, and/or fraternity brothers in their trunks.

But to most parents, giving the kid a car is worth the risk because it means they don’t have to drive all those hours to go pick him up at Thanksgiving. 

My parents underestimated the inconvenience of the holiday pick-ups and didn’t allow me to take my 1974 VW Beetle my Freshman year. Truth be told, there wasn’t much practical use for a car at Miami University. I could walk from the center of campus to the outskirts of tiny Oxford, Ohio in less than the time it took to boil soup in a hot pot.

But after several drives through six hours of mind-numbingly boring pig farms to pick me up for holidays, my parents were ready to let me hitchhike back from school if need be.

So in the fall of my Sophomore year, I packed my Beetle with clothes, posters, and my popcorn popper, and off I went.

It wasn’t long before my parent’s fears about giving me the car were realized. 

It was Labor Day weekend, when folks from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana flock to “Riverfest,” Cincinnati’s end-of-summer celebration with music, food and one of the largest fireworks displays in the Midwest. There wasn’t much going on in sleepy little Oxford, so four sorority sisters and I decided a road trip was in order.

I responsibly filled the Bug’s little tank with gas and checked the oil. I covered the tear in the horsehair-stuffed back seat with a fresh piece of duct tape and put a Squeeze cassette in the tape deck. The battery was temperamental, but I was prepared, having perfected the art of popping the clutch by myself, pushing it from the driver’s side then jumping in and putting her in gear.

The Bug was ready to go.

On the ride to Cincy, I heard a funny rubbing sound coming from the back left wheel. Although I wouldn’t know a mechanical problem if it slapped me in the face, I stopped to look under the fender. I couldn’t see any obvious problems, so we kept driving, making it safe and sound to Sawyer Point on the Ohio River.

We spent the day ogling cute guys, rubber ducks, grilled sausages, and fireworks. After an earsplitting finale, all half a million people sitting on the riverbank got up from their blankets and headed to their cars in one gigantic human wave.

It seemed like everyone got on Interstate 75 all at once. Six lanes of wall-to-wall traffic, all moving north at 60 miles an hour.

My little Bug was somewhere in the middle of it all, chugging right along, keeping up with the pack. Just then, I heard that rubbing sound again.

This time, the excited chatter of my girlfriends could not drown out the problematic noise coming from the back fender. It was getting louder, but there was nothing I could do. I was surrounded by moving cars on all sides.

Just then, I felt a jerk, followed by a loud boom. The entire car shifted back and left as we careened down the highway. My girlfriends started to scream, and as I held on to the steering wheel, I screamed too.

Somewhere in my panicked peripheral vision, I saw my wheel bouncing across the highway. The back left axle was dragging directly on the asphalt, sparks spraying into the air in a massive arc as we fishtailed across three lanes of traffic.

Miraculously, the cars parted like the Red Sea, and we were able to avoid collision as we ground to a gradual stop.

My shaken friends and I got out of the paraplegic Beetle and wondered how we were going to get back to school. We didn’t realize there were countless good citizens (lecherous males) ready to offer us five girls a helping hand (grope) and a room for the night (motel) if we so desired.

As luck would have it, there was an honest mechanic in the pack who retrieved the wheel from a ditch and put my Beetle back together. Apparently, the whole mess had been caused by a broken cotter pin – a tiny piece of metal that held the wheel onto the axle.

Thanks to a bobby pin found in my purse, I made it back to my bunk that night, no worse for the wear, and was able to drive myself home for the holidays.

So don’t be afraid, parents. Sit back and enjoy your empty nests. Your kids will do just fine.

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