Last week, Gina Crosley-Corcoran of the blog The Feminist Breeder wrote on her Facebook fan page that her oldest son was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. When I saw her post, I responded as I always do to parents sharing this news for the first time: “WELCOME TO THE CLUB!”
In my essay in the book The Good Mother Myth, I write about my son’s diagnosis:
…I hardly mourned when my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was seven. After all, as countless psychologists reminded me, this was likely the same neurological quirk that made Bill Gates the wealthiest man in the world. Hell, in my wholly overeducated social circle (I am one of very few with “just” a bachelor’s degree), you’d be hard pressed to find a young boy without a spot on the autism spectrum.
The words here are elegant and composed, but in 2007 I was a wreck. In truth, I had been a wreck ever since my perfectly adorable infant opened his mouth in February 2000 and SCREAMED. He wouldn’t stop for months.
So I did mourn: I mourned the stubbornly persistent belief that parenting was supposed to look like it did on TV, that my child and I would be so naturally in sync that I would know his every need, that my child would be warmly accepted into the fabric of modern society by virtue of his very existence.
Instead, I had a kid who was regularly singled out by frustrated relatives as well as preschool, kindergarten, and grade school teachers for not being their version of “normal.” I had his preschool classmate tell me, upon learning whose mother I was: “I don’t like Elliott. He screams a lot.”
I have to pause here an collect myself because I am tearing up. I haven’t thought about that preschool experience in years, yet the memory still makes me clench my teeth so hard I can feel my crowns loosen.
It is painful to imagine a world that might not love your child as much as you love him. This is true for any parent of any kid, with or without special needs. A childhood diagnosis, however, kicks this panic up a thousand notches, for moms especially.
Why moms? Because we parent under the excruciating glare of The Good Mother Myth.
Gina herself has an essay in this anthology, a poignant look at abuse and neglect she suffered in her childhood and her determination to break the cycle with her own kids. I write in my own essay about how much I fear passing on my family’s tendency towards anxiety:
My seven-year-old daughter Miriam bites her nails. She chews them down to angry red nubs that even I, her loving (good!) mother, must admit are really quite ugly. “It’s a bad habit,” she laments, using language she learned from a Berenstain Bears book on the subject. “I want to stop it, but I can’t.” I tell her I know how she feels. When I was her age, my fingers were raw and bloody too, like the tips of ten half-eaten hot dogs.
You didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyway: I believe that autism is genetic. My wholly unscientific theory is that in the latter part of the 20th century, nerds and geeks who might have been isolated from one another were suddenly let loose on the campuses of research universities and liberal arts colleges where they met, fell in love, and decided to breed (this theory holds true for my friends in same-sex couples, who selected donors that shared their interests, like, y’know, science and engineering).
Gina is very well-known in the blogosphere and in social media, so naturally the post about her son drew a lot of traffic. What drew even MORE traffic was a series of followup comments and posts between Gina and autistic self-advocates who objected to what they perceived as Gina’s desire to “cure” her son of his condition. I won’t take a side in the debate, which as of this writing has devolved into a very bitter affair that includes name-calling, accusations of lying and harassment, the works. Nothing good comes of that, online or elsewhere.
Here’s what I do know: there is genuine and deep pain on all sides. Autistic adults hurt because they feel humiliated and denigrated when the complexity of their lives is reduced to the image of a missing puzzle piece and ridiculous stunts like turning the Empire State Building blue. I can’t speak for Gina, but holy crap did I feel hurt and vulnerable when people tried to tell me the “best” way to support my son’s diagnosis. For a few years there I walked around like an open wound. Every suggestion stabbed my heart to a very familiar refrain:
“YOU ARE NOT A GOOD MOTHER.”
There is good news: my son is the coolest boy in the universe, and I would not change a damn thing about him. Not a damn thing! I WANT to give him the tools he needs to be a happy, socially successful adult., so I offer him help with skills that don’t come naturally–like reciprocal conversation, sensory processing, nonverbal communication, etc–but I wouldn’t change him. He knows he has Asperger’s, and he’s not ashamed of it. In fact, he wrote a short essay for his school newspaper about his life as an Aspie. I love him so much that I want not only to be a GOOD mother, but the BEST mother that he needs.
I don’t always succeed, though, and that’s why I’m sharing some other good news: the kind people at Seal Press, publishers of The Good Mother Myth, want to send a Radical Housewife reader a copy of the book for FREE. Yes, FREE! In addition to Gina and me, contributors include Sharon Lerner, K.J. Dell’Antonia, Soraya Chemaly, Jennifer Baumgardner, and many other smart, funny, thoughtful parents who are committed to doing the best they can.
Which is pretty good, I think.