Sometimes I get this image in my head of our family as a ship, a big wooden Viking ship or a medieval galleon, sailing in a stormy sea, battered by rain and rolling ocean waves, but strong and solid and plowing through steadily on its course. And in this image, my son Charles is the figurehead, a mighty figure at the bow of our ship, bearing the brunt of the elements are we forge ahead. This mental picture gives me mixed feelings. I am proud of my son’s strength and his natural integrity, I’m grateful to him for showing us the way forward, but I don’t want him to be out there in front, in the wind, in the harsh rain, pummeled by waves. He shouldn’t have to have that job – he’s not a mighty figurehead, he’s just a small child – but sometimes it feels to me that that’s been his role in our family.
Before I had children I had thought that the essence of the parenting gig would be to teach, discipline and nurture my children into adulthood. An active job, done with compassion but a fair amount of control, like keeping an orderly vegetable garden, if I might switch metaphors for a moment. Water here, weed and prune there. Which would make me, of course, the gardener – above it all, reaching down to pluck the fruits when ripened. I had no idea of the strength of them, the wild and unstoppable way they will grow and grow. I had no idea that I would not be separate from them and standing above, but down there in the dirt with them every day. I had no idea of how little control I would have, how control would not be the purpose of it all or even terribly useful, or how good it would feel to give up the idea of being their gardener and just be another wild and wonderful flower growing beside them.
Moments after Charles was born, he looked straight into my eyes and held my gaze for a minute that felt like a lifetime. In an instant I knew that he was a whole person who already knew everything he needed to know. I knew that I would have to love him and be there for him but he was going to show me what he needed, not the other way around. I knew. He was telling me so.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t scary sometimes, giving up all that control I thought I’d had or thought I’d wanted to have. It was frightening, at first, to confront the reality that Charles (and later, Sandy) was a person with his own mind, his own sense of autonomy, right from the start of his life. It’s always frightening, isn’t it? – to let go of the illusion that you can control other people, and realize that you must learn to trust the ones you love.
In so many of our choices as a family, Charles has led the way. I didn’t go into parenthood intending to share my bed with my children, but that’s what Charles (and later, Sandy) needed when he was little, and it was good. I didn’t think I’d ever want to homeschool, but seeing the way Charles naturally learned and how at-odds that was with traditional schooling changed all of my preconceived notions about education, and now we feel homeschooling is a good choice for all of us. I never imagined there was a way to parent without using rewards and punishments to control a child’s behavior, but in seeing the negative effects of both on Charles (yes, he really hated being rewarded for “good behavior” because he did not like to be manipulated and controlled), I found that new way and it was good. I certainly could not have imagined that I could have an autistic child and not have to spend all of our time in therapies, correcting him, shaping him, intervening, but that instead we could just let him be himself and thrive, and that this could be so good.
I do often wish, though, he didn’t always have to be out front this way. I wish it were me out there in the storm when the seas get rough, lashing myself to the mast – I wish I could protect him better. I suppose that’s just part of being a parent, though – the infinite bittersweetness of loving your children that feels almost like an ache sometimes.
In the end I know we are all in this together, and we’re all good.