13 January 2004

Saturday afternoon. A bright, warm day. The kind of out-of-time winter day that lures people to move to California. We were at a kid’s birthday party. Dan and I sat in the shade (the sun was too hot for us, would you believe?) watching the kids play. Damian came up, tugging on my sleeve. “Mommy, I’m bored. What can I do?” I suggested he scoot around in the little red-and-yellow ride-on car. It’s a trifle small, but why not let him enjoy the toy as long as he can fit inside? He liked that idea and trotted over to fold himself into the vehicle’s cab and “drive” (ie: walk while sitting on his butt) across the lawn.

As soon as he did, though, another boy flung himself on the mini-car’s roof, draping his limbs down like an exhausted octopus and adding his thirty five pounds to the weight this V2 boypower engine had to pull. Other children converged too and a few stray adults stood in the way chatting, like human cows companionably chewing their cud, oblivious to my child’s desire for locomotion.

Damian unfolded himself and bolted back to me. “Mommy! I couldn’t drive the car because there were too many people in the way and I couldn’t get past them!”

Dan smiled. Damian identifying and voicing his frustration in a public setting is always a good thing. I thought I’d see if he was ready for the next step. “They don’t know they’re blocking your way, sweetheart. Why don’t you go back and try it again, and this time if anyone gets in your way, just ask them nicely to move so you can drive. I’m sure they won’t mind.”

He headed back to the plastic car. As we watched, he did indeed run into a human roadblock. And he did indeed ask – very politely – for the cows to clear. Which they did, being obliging bovines.

The woman sitting next to me smiled as she cradled her sleeping baby. “Shy, is he?”

I almost said yes and left it at that. It would be so much simpler. But that didn’t feel respectful of Damian’s achievement with his roadblocks, now and in the past. Nor did it explain what could be seen as my pushiness. Why force a shy child to do what doesn’t come naturally? That’s not very nice. But autism is a big word and a harsh label to toss into casual conversation. So I chose a simpler version of the truth. “He has had some issues around this. He’s getting therapies and is doing well, but still, he has some issues left.”

I expected questions. What I got instead surprised me.

She launched into a story about her own son, who had had a mild behavior quirk that was cured quickly but involved some visits to a child psychiatrist. Interesting. A reminder that everyone has a story to tell. Nobody’s life is as simple as it looks.

But then she went on. You see, this condition her son had, it’s often liked with a high level of intelligence. This fact gave her the excuse she must have longed for to launch into an extended brag about her son.

Twenty (thirty?) minutes later, I extracted myself from the monologue to see how Damian was doing. I was shaking inside. I realize now writing this that the woman may well have been compensating for the revelation that her son had a (minor, easily solvable) problem with this recitation of his innumerable virtues and great gifts. But for god’s sake. I’d just revealed that my son has problems severe enough to warrant ongoing therapies, and not only does she not ask or show any interest, but she brags at great length about her own kid? Talk about myopia. Talk about insensitivity.

Damian is mainstreaming in the fall. I think he’ll be ready. I’m not so sure about myself. I know from Diane’s descriptions of fellow moms that this kind of bragging behavior is common – every parent around here seems to think their child belongs in the gifted classroom, and has been able to tell from age minus one. I have a friend, mom to a playmate of Damian’s, who does the same thing. She’s a good person: smart, blunt, fun, warm. But boy does she go on about her kid. I accept it in her, it’s an almost endearing character quirk. But if it’s not? If it’s Standard Operating Procedure? I’m not sure I’ll be able to take it.

Look. I think Damian is smart, sweet, funny, and wonderfully imaginative. I’m proud as hell of his accomplishments. But I also see his deficits: the way he’s still so lost sometimes in social interactions with his peers, the way he withdraws from challenge, the fact that his thought processes and motor planning sometimes stutter and slow, the way he sometimes checks out. And sometimes the things I celebrate are things any other parent would take for granted. I know that and I know I can’t really express the myriad ways I feel about his progress to any random playmate’s parent. And that feels scary-alone.

When I chat with the parents of Damian’s classmates in his special needs school – some of these people have become friends, others are just friendly acquaintances – I love the fact that we speak the same language. We talk about how our kids used to act, how much they’ve learned, what concerns we still have. Sometime they focus on the negative more than I would like, but I understand that. We share sleepless nights, worry lines, and that constant evaluation and analysis. We share the fact that we can’t take our kids’ accomplishments for granted.

But these other parents, the ones with typical kids, the ones who feel the need to brag all the time? They unnerve me; how in that long recitation of achievements can I say “My kid is wonderful and I love him, but he’s got problems”? These discussions are thinly disguised contests to see who has the more stellar child. It’s a contest I can’t win and don’t want to enter.

I can’t help wondering where it comes from, this need to have strangers at a party agree with your assessment of your child, agree that yes, he’s something special indeed. Is it part of the Los Angeles culture, that constant status consciousness, that need to parade obvious success so that your own children become yet more symbols of your own prowess? Or is it something else, some cultural insecurity, a kid can’t be a kid, he has to be The Best Kid Ever or at the very least, gifted beyond compare?

Why can’t we love our children regardless of their abilities? For that matter, why can’t we say, isn’t he sweet, isn’t he funny? Why do they all have to be smart-smart-so-very-smart? I think Damian is smart, by the way. He may in fact be somewhat gifted, though it’s really too soon to tell. But I don’t care as much as I’d expected I would except that it may make his life choices more plentiful, and I definitely think it’s helped him figure out how to get past his neurological deficits. In that way, his intelligence is indeed a gift. And yes, I’m proud of the fact that he’s deciphering text now (ie: beginning to read) and so on. And yes, in the right setting, I too can brag on my kid. But that’s it, I think. I do it in the right setting, with receptive listeners, people I think truly care about Damian. Other parents I’ve met, including the woman at Saturday’s birthday party, don’t really care about their audience. They just care that you’re there and you can listen, or at least nod a lot. It’s a way of being perceived, maybe. Being appreciated through their children. But it bothers me because it leaves me – and my son – out.

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