A parenting manual I could use

Like any neurotic 21st century mom, I’ve read a lot of books on parenting. I just can’t accept that children don’t come with a manual. Everything these days comes with a manual. I’ve bought moisturizer that comes with a manual, so don’t tell me I can’t get one for a child.

Unfortunately, few of the books I’ve read have been useful, as the advice offered rarely applies to children who are neurologically and developmentally atypical.

Also, many of them are horses—t.

Each book I’ve read contradicted the one before. And while the content is different, they all do a fantastic job of describing how horrible my children will become should I fail to follow their advice.

My first foray into this world of bestselling confusion was made when I was pregnant with my son. At the time I was living in England, where the most popular baby book on the market had been written by a dour and frightening neonatal nurse who seemed to hate parents.

From page one she made it clear SHE was the only one who understood babies, everyone else was WRONG and that under no circumstances were you to trust YOUR instincts because she was the S—T and you were just some slack-jawed slob who probably didn’t even know she was having a baby until you tripped over the umbilical cord on your way to the kitchen for more pork rinds.

In Nurse Happy’s world, babies needed to be kept on a rigid schedule or they would become confused and miserable and grow up to be criminals. Or lawyers. If your baby didn’t wake at 7 a.m., the time given on her schedule, you dragged that lazy little f—ker out of his crib and made him snap to it. If he didn’t eat or nap at the exact time she said he needed to, then he was a manipulative bastard who needed to be shown who was boss.

The question-and-answer section consisted of two words:

“F—k you.”

I then turned to a book that advocated a softer approach, one based entirely on the premise that African babies never cry. Like, ever. This is because African mothers are the only ones in the entire world who know what they’re doing. (So, you know, nice try, Asia Minor.) Unlike their dips—t counterparts on the other continents, African mothers understand that only babies who are strapped to their mothers all day, fed on demand and put to sleep in hammocks grow up to be well-adjusted individuals. African babies are also toilet-trained by the age of six months, talking by seven months and by the time they take their first steps — at exactly nine months — are capable of rudimentary calculus. If you don’t believe all of this then you are a jaded a—hole who has obviously never been to Africa, unlike the author, who has. Twice.

Completely overwhelmed, I switched to biographies about serial killers, paying acute attention to their early childhood years. I figured even if I didn’t know the best way to parent, I could at least avoid damaging them to the point where they killed people and made suits out of their skin. What can I say? I aim high.

It was almost a relief when my children were diagnosed as neurologically and developmentally atypical. There are significantly fewer books on kids with special needs and the experts in this field tend to agree with each other.

And yet, every now and again I have a sort of religious revival when it comes to parenting books, thinking “this one will be different.” I can almost hear Amazon laughing at me when I click the “Place Your Order” button. It was during one such lapse of judgement that I became the disgusted owner of a book that made the staggeringly brilliant observation: “Parents have been parenting a long time.”

I was actually compelled to buy my most recent parenting manual by the teachers at my son’s Montessori school. The book they recommended promised “enhanced communication” between parent and child, and an end to “the fights, nagging and distance” that, according to them, plague all modern families.

Reading it is like having a front-row seat to the world’s most bizarre s—tshow.

The following is the type of exchange the authors insist are taking place between parents and kids across the country every day:

Bobby: (slamming the front door) That Timmy makes me so mad!

Father: Don’t say that! Timmy has been such a good friend to you!

Bobby: Dad, you don’t understand!

Father: I do understand! You are just so ungrateful!

Bobby: (stomping out of the room) You never listen to me! I hate you!

Okay, I’m sorry, but what. The f—k. Was that?

Maybe we just haven’t reached that age in our house — my children are only 6 and 5, after all — but are kids and parents really this dramatic? I mean, apart from on the Lifetime channel? For that matter, when was the last time you came across a male under the age of 40 with the name Bobby? Little boys these days are all named after activities or trades (Hunter, Cooper, Mason). Hell, in the South I’ve come across a Walker, a Butler and a Baker.

Also, what’s the dad is doing home in the middle of the afternoon?

Suspending my growing disbelief, I kept reading and learned how the dad should have handled the situation:

Bobby: (slamming the front door) That Timmy makes me so mad!

Father: You are really mad.

Bobby: Yeah, I want to punch Timmy in the face. He won’t sit next to me at lunch.

Father: Mmmm.

Bobby: It’s all because I didn’t choose him first in gym class for our kickball team.

Father: I see.

Bobby: But I had already promised Joey I would pick him first because he picked me first last time.

Father: Hmmm.

Bobby: I’d really like to punch him.

Father: Mmmm.

Bobby: I know, I’ll promise to pick him first next time, then he won’t be angry anymore. Joey would understand.

See how the dad handled that? He hardly said a thing. He echoed his son’s sentiments, didn’t question his feelings or tell him how to think and made noises encouraging him to talk through the issue at hand. This way, Bobby solved his own problem, there was no major conflict between father and son, and Dad can go back to looking through the want ads for a job. Or drinking. Probably drinking.

I tried it on my own kid, whose main problem is fear: he is or claims to be afraid of everything.

The other night he came into the living room after I put him to bed.

“My room is so dark. It’s scary.”

Now, I know for a fact that the kid’s room is lit up by two night lights and a fish tank. The old me would have said:

“I think you’ll be fine. Go back to bed.”

And he would have. And if any damage had been done, I would have been blissfully unaware of it.

But because his teachers want all the parents in his class to be employing this technique, I tried it.

Son: My room is so dark. It’s scary.

Me: It sounds like you are scared.

Son: Yeah.

Me: I see.

Son: It’s scary.

Me: You are scared.

Son: I just said that.

Me: Hmmm.

Son: (concerned) Mommy, are you okay?

Obviously, the technique didn’t do much for us. But when I checked back with the book, I got the disclaimer the authors put at the end of the chapter. It said, essentially, that if the technique is unsuccessful, you’re doing it wrong. How could I do it wrong when it involves saying jacks—t? As I kept reading the authors went even further with this theme. “This technique won’t work on every child,” they wrote, almost gleefully, no doubt high-fiving each other because they already had their advance from the publisher.

What the hell, authors??? Are you telling me I shelled out $12.99 plus tax to be told that either I’m failing your simple formula or that my child won’t fit into your mold? I could have told myself that for free.

My kids have really specific issues that I have yet to see a parenting manual address.

If I could ask any parenting experts out there for some help, I would ask them to answer the following questions in their next manual, which I will totally buy because I’m still a complete sucker:

1. My child would like to wear mascara but is only 6 years old. And has a penis. What do I tell him when he asks every single morning?

2. My son has autism. After a long day at school he will self-soothe by running in frantic circles around the house, humming or grunting as loudly as he can. How many minutes do I allow him to do this before pouring myself a stiff drink?

3. How much psychological damage will I cause when I start withholding affection from my daughter in an effort to potty-train her? I ask because all the typical incentives — stickers, sweets, a convertible — don’t hold any appeal for her and yes, she’s mentally several years younger than her chronological age but the fact that she changes her own diapers makes me think she could totally do this if she put her mind to it. And please remember, the question isn’t whether I should play mind games with her but how much will I need to put away for her later psychological repair, because this s—t is so on, no pun intended. (Extra credit: What would Freud have to say about her protracted stay in the anal stage? Extra, extra credit: If Freud were a modern-day parenting guru, what would the title of his first book be? His domain name?)

4. When your child draws a toilet on the sidewalk with chalk and then proceeds to avail himself of said commode, do you punish him or applaud his creativity? What do you say to the officer responding to the neighbors’ complaints?

5. How do I fairly and effectively settle a fight over a piece of string? A piece of f—king string.

6. Either one or both of my children are frightened of the following:

  • dogs
  • the dark
  • school buses
  • the deep end of the pool
  • movie theaters (too loud)
  • blenders (“”)
  • vacuum cleaners (“”)
  • the art museum (too big)
  • walks in the woods during a bright summer day (too dark)

How much of this can I blame on the fact that their father is British?

Experts, I await your wisdom.

llll

He’s no Rain Man

Every now and again, someone will ask, “Is Jack really autistic?” If I weren’t so friggin’ pleasant and well mannered I would reply:

“He’s not. We just enjoyed schlepping him to Sunshine New Horizon Keystone Crossroads Touching-of-the-Good-Kind Therapy five days a week when he was a toddler. The waiting room had battered, sticky issues of ‘Woman’s Day’ from 2007, and you know what a sucker I am for 10-minute dinner recipes.”

Obviously, this question touches a nerve for me, even though it shouldn’t. Most people think of “Rain Man” when they hear the word autism, and that’s just not my son.

Jack looks nothing like Dustin Hoffman. If you dropped a bunch of matches on the floor and asked “How many?” he would eye you warily and walk away. I’ve tried.

He interacts socially with about as much ease as your average 6-year-old, which isn’t saying much, but is probably more than Raymond Babbitt — the real Rain Man — could muster.

What acquaintances don’t realize is that it took years of therapy for him to get here, and that the so-called “social unease” associated with the condition is only one of many ways it manifests.

To be fair, I knew little about autism myself when Jack’s pediatrician suggested he might be “on the spectrum” at his 18-month checkup. It never occurred to me that this could be the reason for his speech delays, or his constant humming, or his tendency to line up alphabet blocks in correct order — from A to Z and Z to A — on the kitchen floor.

When his doctor recommended enrolling him in preschool so he could be around typically behaved kids, I readily agreed. It wasn’t long before his teacher approached me to suggest that he might have autism.

“Yeah, his doctor suspects that, too,” I said.

The times I observed or helped at school, it was obvious his behavior was atypical. Most of the kids ran around exploring and climbing, or hitting each other and screaming. Jack withdrew to the play house in the corner with a book, humming to himself. While most of the kids couldn’t wait to paint with their hands or dig in the sandbox, he sobbed with anxiety if anything remotely sticky or gritty touched his skin.

But even if I hadn’t believed his teacher or his doctor, the changes that came over him when he started an intense course of therapy — including speech, occupational, physical and feeding — would have convinced me. Once you’ve seen a child’s entire demeanor change because you body brush him every day or have him wear a weighted vest, you’re pretty much ready to drink the Autism Spectrum Disorder Kool-Aid.

The first time he agreed to touch Play Doh, I snapped pictures. When he spoke his first sentence shortly after the age of three, I wiped away tears.

Jack continued therapy until the age of five. He still gets regular evaluations to see if he needs more help and we have been prepped in exactly how to encourage typical behavior.

Unless you know what to look for, he comes across as an average kid. Perhaps a little obsessed with machines, numbers and the exact time, but otherwise fine.

So why, if we have pushed him to behave typically, does it bother me if people doubt he has autism?

Because I am a defensive, neurotic mother. Duh.

As parents, my husband and I made a lot of tough decisions regarding whether and how to seek treatment for him. We agreed to an MRI, which involved putting him under anesthesia, which was just a sucky experience for all involved.

We let complete strangers take him out of his comfort zone, often making him cry, in the name of therapy. We have kept a strict daily routine that has friends convinced we are borderline lunatics.

“Would it really make a difference if he at ate dinner at 6 instead of 5?” another mom once asked. Trust me, if you have to ask that, you’ve never dealt with the complete emotional breakdown that comes of messing with a Spectrumite’s sense of order.

So, when someone asks, “Is he really autistic?” what I hear is, “You did all that for nothing,” or, “You are making a big deal out of nothing.” Oh, how I wish.

My husband and I didn’t choose this for him, we accepted it. We didn’t get a free tote bag from the National Autism Society when he received his diagnosis. (I asked. They hung up on me.)

The most you could say we “got” was an excuse for when he does something irredeemably socially awkward. And that is cancelled out by the fact that he has done something irredeemably socially awkward.

When Jack’s autism was more apparent, I was terrified he would be victimized for it. Now that it only comes out here and there, I worry people will think he’s just a weird kid.

In my mind, having autism is nothing to be ashamed of. I’m not gonna go as far as the strange lady who suggested his condition makes him some sort of prophet. The kid thinks the garage door responds to the sound of his voice, so let’s not go nuts.

But just being weird is another story. I was weird growing up. (Hard to believe, right?) It sucked. And like most parents, I devote a lot of energy trying to guarantee that my children avoid the hardest parts of my own childhood.

What’s glaringly obvious is that the only one I can change here is me. I need to acknowledge that the few people who question his diagnosis are probably just curious. If they really do doubt it, I just have to remember what my grandmother always said: “Some people are &%*#ing &%*#wads. &%*# ’em.” (I’m paraphrasing. Sue me.)

Before I sign off, the word nerd in me wants to explain why I refer to Jack as “having autism,” and not “being autistic.”

Long before I had kids, a colleague whose son had autism gave another colleague a verbal smack down for referring to someone as “being autistic.” (Someone who did have the condition, that is. She wasn’t just being a weenie.)

When you call someone autistic, he explained, you make autism their sum total. When you say they have autism, you acknowledge it’s only a part of them.

It’s an interesting distinction and nails exactly how I think of Jack. My son has many characteristics: a curious mind, a generous spirit, strength, stubbornness and, of course, autism.

And yes, I’m pretty damn sure of that, so stop asking.

llll

Patience is an effing virtue

They say God/Mother Nature/fate never gives us anything we can’t handle. I just wish He/She/it would put it to a committee first.

It’s my personal belief that we are given the exact opposite of what we can handle, that we are tested most in the areas where we are weakest. It’s probably the universe’s way of making us grow as human beings. Or something.

Take me: I am terrible under pressure and have a temper like a light switch. So what did the universe do? It gave me two kids who require a tremendous amount of patience.

To make it worse, before I had children, impatient parents were the kind I hated the most. I witnessed their outbursts and assumed they were miserable people who shouldn’t have reproduced. That may be true in some cases but some of us are really nice.

We’ve just been pushed too far.

Take, for example, a recent day out with my kids.

To start off, I was a wee bit stressed. The kids were off from school and an ice storm was coming so I knew we were facing days cooped up in the house. I was also sleep deprived, because my 4-year-old had woken me up at 2 a.m., just to ask how I was. The plan was to get them out of the house and moving around, and then deal with the dishes, laundry, etc., later.

Going out with my kids can be — interesting. Jack’s autism means he can be single-minded to a maddening degree. His current obsession is hand dryers and he must check every public restroom to see which kind they have. He also needs to know exactly where everyone is, all the time.

Charlie is 4 but has yet to master toilet training. Also, her speech can be difficult to understand and her receptive language is delayed. As such, we have frequent and frustrating exchanges in which one of us is telling the other something really, really important that just can’t be understood. Often tears are involved on both sides.

We headed to Monkey Joe’s, one of those bounce house valhallas that kids love and parents loathe. I particularly hate it because I always get static electric shocks out the wazoo when we’re there.

Since school was out, the place was packed with squealing kids. Every 20 minutes, Charlie would ask to use the bathroom and we would push through the crowds to get there, but every single time she had already filled her diaper. She has this bizarre ritual of greeting her waste, asking after its health and saying how happy she is to see it. She bids it farewell and sometimes even cries when we throw the diaper out. (Yeah, we use disposables and therefore suck.) Perhaps it’s her Celtic blood that makes her take a few minutes to reminisce on all the great times she had with that Pull-Up. Whatever it is, it tacks an extra five to 10 minutes on every trip to the bathroom. Jack happily accompanies us each time to study the hand dryer.

“It’s an Xlerator, Mama!” he shouts happily.

By lunch time I have been zapped by static electricity roughly 5,000 times and I’m ready to leave.

On the way home, Jack asks if we can eat at McDonald’s. Why not? I think.

Yes, I sometimes let my children eat McDonald’s but before you go all Jamie Oliver on me, let me stress the sometimes part. Also, that part about it causing cancer?  I’m not buying it. Besides, my kid already has cancer and I figure, what are the chances of the universe kicking us in the nuts twice, am I right or am I right?

Anyhoodles…

…we have never been to this McDonald’s before and the kids are thrilled by the play area, which is teeming with children climbing what looks like a primary-colored intestine.

My son inspects the insides of the tubes and finds the ones that lead to the “baby” slides. My daughter starts climbing and doesn’t stop until she is waving at me from a window about 20 feet off the ground. She has joined a pack of 10-year-old boys, who don’t see her as a 4-year-old child but as an inanimate object they can push past and climb on top of to get where they are going.

After a few minutes, Jack comes over and asks for Charlie.

“She’s up there,” I say, pointing to the highest tube.

He looks horrified.

“That’s so high up. She’s going to get scared.”

“She’s not scared, buddy.”

Suddenly, I hear her voice right behind me.

“Mama! Hi, Mama!”

I turn around but she’s not there.

“Mama!” I hear again. “Mama! Where are you?”

It takes me a minute to realize she is at the top of the tallest slide and that her voice is carrying through the tube.

Jack starts to cry.

“She’s stuck! She’s stuck up there!”

“She’s not stuck, buddy. She’ll come down when she’s ready.”

But she doesn’t. Several boys slide down and one of them tells me, “She’s in the way. She won’t come down.”

Oh, great.

“Charlie!” I call. “Charlie, come on down.”

And then I hear the words that make my stomach sink.

“Help you?”

Crap.

“You can do it on your own, sweetie,” I call up cheerfully but I’m not convinced. “Just come down the slide. Or turn around and climb back down.”

There is a pause and then again:

“Help you?”

Jack cries harder.

“She’s up there all by herself!” he sobs. “She’s so scared.”

I kneel down in front of him and put my hands on his shoulders. Damn it, another electric shock.

“She’s going to be fine,” I say.

“But she’s all alone!”

“Jack, I need you to be a big boy and stay right here.”

I turn to the opening of the tube.

“I’m going in.”

Even though I am short, climbing up those pipes is nearly impossible. The angles are so steep I have to belly crawl, pulling my body weight with my arms. Kids scramble past me, claw over me, to get where they are going. Seriously?

It occurs to me as I inch up that no one has cleaned this thing in a while, if ever. It smells like feet. The plastic is grey with dirt and stray hairs cling tenuously to the bolts holding it together.

I hear Jack sobbing on the ground and Charlie calling to me from above. Another group of kids comes up behind me and tries to get past but I turn and block the tube with my feet.

“Guys! Seriously. Stop. Wait your turn.”

One tries to push past me again and I grab him by the arm.

“I said stop! Get behind me and WAIT YOUR TURN.”

This time they listen and we inch up the swerving tubes as a pack. We finally round a corner and there’s my Charlie, smiling sweetly, her feet dangling down a — HOLY HELL, they call that a slide??? It’s practically a vertical drop.

An unmistakable smell hits me and I realize that the sight of the laundry chute McDonald’s is calling a McSlide must have really scared the crap out of her because she has filled her diaper. The last diaper we had. Damn.

“Mama!” she cries, grinning, and crawls to me. I reach out for her and as my hand touches her shoulder all the energy I’ve built up sliding along plastic tubes is discharged in a massive, painful electric shock so strong I can hear the pop.

“HOLY F*CKING SH*T! F*CK! F*CK! F*CK!!!”

I grab her wrist and pull her back down the tubes feet first. We emerge into the relatively fresh air and Jack smiles through his tears.

“Mama! Charlie!” he cries, and throws his arms around his sister like he hasn’t seen her for weeks. I smooth my hair from my face and stand up. Suddenly I notice the once loud room has gone quiet and that the parents are glaring at me.

“What?” I want to shout.

And then it hits me: the tubes. The tubes carry sound. They carry sound really, really well. Every profanity-laced sentence I uttered on the way up and down, every time I yelled at their kids and my own, has been carried and broadcast to the room with alarming clarity.

Slowly, I lean over to Jack and say, “Get your shoes.”

“But — but — but I’m having so much fun!” he cries.

Turning to him, I growl in a there-is-no-Dana-there-is-only-Zuul voice: “We are leaving. NOW.”

We pack up and go quickly and quietly, our tails between our legs except for my daughter, who doesn’t have room because there is an enormous pile of crap in her pants.

The point of all this is that yes, I am still working on my temper. But I have dropped a habit equally as bad, if not worse: I no longer judge parents who are losing it for no apparent reason.

What I now know is that there’s ALWAYS a good reason to be yelling at your kids, and that when I come across a mom — or dad — turning purple with rage, I’m witnessing only a part of what could well be a trying day. I get that I wasn’t there when she patiently answered her children’s questions and calmly responded to their needs. I don’t know how many times she has been zapped by static electricity, or listened to her daughter eulogize her own feces, or heard her son wax lyrical about the Xlerator’s newest model.

All I can say is that if the universe is indeed testing us, it really better have an excellent reason, such as strengthening us or improving us in some way.

Because otherwise, it’s just being a prick.

llll