What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done as a parent?
It’s not an easy question, is it? Your mind races back through so many snapshots; a fast-flipping Rolodex of moments and memories.
I remember my first (but far from only) hard parenting moment as if it was yesterday, and not already 13 years behind me. We’d just brought home our firstborn, a nearly ten-pound boy who emotionally enlarged my heart and physically exhausted my spirit. The staff at the hospital had intently focused on nursing and diapering to, I’d discover, the detriment of other little, important parenting things. Such as swaddling.
How hard is it to wrap a blanket around a newborn? you might ask. Well, let me tell you. I was close to freaking out when it was just the three of us at home–no nurses, no grandmoms–and I realized I had no idea how to wrap the baby and tuck those corners in so that the baby package stayed together. I laugh at it now–because, c’mon, anybody who has made a wonton, blintz or spanakopita can swaddle a baby–and know it’s a skill you never lose once you learn it. But there I was, an avid puzzle and game player, nearly brought to tears by one squirming baby and the blanket that just WOULDN’T STAY WRAPPED.
Of course, there have been many more difficult parenting moments in the ensuing years. Life has a way of throwing curve balls with no hints to warn of upcoming meltdowns and misadventures. Good intentions only get you so far, and usually that’s not nearly far enough. There are days when parenting is simply a minefield and you’re out there on your own, tiptoeing around, never sure if you’ll successfully avoid disaster.
Autism itself is a giant curve ball, but that doesn’t mean you can’t adjust your stance and master your swing. Parenting is compromise, revision, modification. I’ve learned to stop focusing on the home run—whether it’s the desire for a day out to go as perfectly as planned or a kid to have any interest in my favorite childhood book—and instead celebrate the times the bat simply connected with the ball. (Pardon the baseball imagery; themes crop up occasionally). After all, parenting is in the small things.
Of course, I miss those days when the worst I could do wrong was not correctly wrap a blanket, or warm a bottle, or answer a distress cry quickly enough. That 13 year-old is currently at sleep-away camp. It’s his second year and I’m the one who championed the experience. After all, children need space sometimes to discover who they are and who they can be. But I miss him. Daily. As we sit down around the kitchen table for dinner each night, there’s an empty space at the table that both tears at my heart and makes me thankful that it’s temporary. For now.
Because I know we likely have more years behind us than ahead of us in which either of our children will still be sitting around that kitchen table, telling us knock-knock jokes and testing out their newly acquired semi-raunchy vocabulary on an always-responsive and always-supportive audience. I also know that our protective control over their lives is slowly eroding as they grow and move on. At some future point, we’ll have to let them fly away, hoping to God that the world is kind and we’ve prepared them to adequately navigate through it.
The end game is always independence, is it not? The irony is that we are the ones who help them gather the feathers and teach them to make the wings that take them away from us. And that, my friend, is truly the hardest thing about parenting.
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