Climbing Lessons

Editor’s Note: I published this nine years ago today on my first blog, Suburban Sirens. The boy in this essay is almost 18 now, and we talked yesterday about how he has changed from a 1st grader who was failing reading and struggling with low self-esteem into a high school junior who is an honors student running varsity track. The decision to medicate our son with ADHD is not one we took lightly, but it was the first step in changing Joe’s trajectory through life. It may not be the right choice for everyone and it isn’t without its risks, but he and I are certain it gave him the opportunity to rise to every occasion and find his best self. Could not be more proud of our climber.

Recently, my son delivered a 10-minute oral presentation about rock climbing to his 2nd grade class. As I watched from the back of the classroom in one of those kid-sized chairs, I was guardedly optimistic. We certainly had practiced enough. I was impressed with how well he knew the speech and how calm he seemed. Honestly, though, most of what I felt was clouded by the sheer shock of how well it was going. If my son had been reporting on Jesus and ended his speech with a walking-on-water demonstration in the classroom, it would not have made a greater impression on me than his climbing speech did. That may seem like a bold claim, but it’s true. A year ago, I could never have imagined what I was witnessing in that classroom. I sat there smiling at Joe as he looked up from his 4 x 6 index cards at me, thinking the entire time about the colossal difference time can make. Funny how 365 little days can add up to one huge year.

Last year at this time, Joe was struggling mightily in first grade. He was a bright kid who hated school. We battled every night over the homework that took most kids in his class just 15 minutes to complete but on good nights never took Joe less than an hour. He was getting failing marks in reading. Each night we worked on his studies and each night one (if not both) of us either cried or had a full-scale tantrum. Our home was a den of stress and friction. I could not comprehend how he could recall every character name and story line from six Star Wars movies but he could not remember our 10-digit phone number. He could not tie his shoes or complete one-step commands to put his dinner plate on the counter or put his shoes on the stairs. His handwriting was illegible. When Joe was nervous or excited, he would flap his hands as if he could simply take flight to avoid the situation. He would repeatedly do things I had asked him hundreds of times not to do and that he knew were wrong; when I would ask why he was doing them, he would frustratedly answer “I don’t know.” Yet through all this, I still spied a boy who was capable of drawing correlations between complex subjects and who spent time philosophically pondering evolution and God. Although he was just 7, he was my “deep thinker.”

Despite his intelligence, Joe just could not convert his knowledge into practice at school. And, because I had never struggled in school, I could not understand what that felt like. The situation was ruining our relationship, killing Joe’s self-confidence, and making me feel as if I was getting the worst employee review I’ve ever earned at a job. It was breaking my spirit, and my disappointment was readily registered by my sensitive son who wanted nothing more than to make me proud. We both wanted to make the other happy, but neither of us had a clue how to do it.

We had noticed early on that Joe wasn’t quite like other kids, but we kept thinking he would catch up. He was born prematurely, so in the beginning we used that as an excuse. Then, as he grew older, we explained that he was a late bloomer. In kindergarten, his teacher suggested that he might have sensory processing disorder, which means that he can’t filter out outside stimuli so everything in the world is overwhelming. We took him to a pediatric therapy service that specialized in helping kids learn to cope with sensory processing disorder. The owner of the service administered tests and noted he was years behind in simple things we all take for granted, like balance and motor planning (knowing how to make the body do things like climb up ladders or catch a ball). At last, we thought we had found a pathway to help him catch up and achieve the way we knew he could. And, he did make strides for a while. Then he hit a wall again, and we were stumped.

Along the way, a few people had suggested to us that perhaps Joe had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We scoffed. We fought it. Maybe denial isn’t just a river in Egypt? But, we were running out of possible ways to help him. What if Joe had ADHD and we, in our intense aversion to the idea of medicating him, eliminated the one thing that would help him reach his full potential and remove his immense frustration? I talked to a few close friends about the situation. A couple of them reacted negatively to the idea that we would willingly medicate Joe. Their fears reminded me that a positive ADHD diagnosis would carry with it a stigma. Finally, after discussing my dilemma with another friend, I finally heard the encouragement I needed; “Take whatever help you can get and don’t look back.” It was good advice.

Before second grade started, I filled out myriad forms and mailed them off to the psychiatric section of Children’s Hospital in Denver. We set up several appointments with different psychologists and a psychiatrist. During those meetings, Joe’s behavior was downright painful for me to witness. He wouldn’t look at the therapists. He refused to answer questions. When he did talk, he was curt and borderline disrespectful. He wandered the room nervously, flapping his hands the entire time. He crawled under furniture. He was distracted by every possible sound and item in the room. I cringed. Three mental health professionals spent time with him and all three said they were certain that our sweet son was struggling with ADHD.

Dr. Lippolis, one of the incredible psychiatrists at the hospital, explained in the simplest terms to Joe what was happening in his brain. She told him that in the front of his brain there was a little man who was responsible for making choices and that right now the little man was asleep on the job. With the right medication, that little man would wake up and Joe would be able to do all the things he wanted to but couldn’t. Joe told the doctor he would like to try the medicine. And, for our part, we had exhausted every other way of helping him, and he’d gone through his entire first grade year miserable, frustrated, and hopeless. We couldn’t imagine an additional 11 years of having Joe return home at the end of the school day saying, “I’m the dumbest kid in my class.” If the notion of medicating him made us nervous, the mere thought of him going through his entire life with low self-esteem and no feeling of personal success was downright terrifying.

Joe started on Concerta, the long-lasting stimulant meant to wake up the little man in the front of his brain, during his first week of second grade. We saw a difference in him nearly immediately. Within two weeks, his handwriting was neater and he was writing stories on his own. Our child who had refused to draw or color was suddenly sitting and happily doing art projects. He was following multiple step directions. He was bringing home papers with A and B grades on them. He could carry on a prolonged conversation without distraction. His reading skills improved exponentially overnight. We heard a lot less “I can’t” and a lot more “Let me try.” His nervous hand flapping ceased. He was smiling again. In short, he was the Joe we knew he was meant to be. When I ponder how he must have felt as he tried valiantly to pass along what he knew but couldn’t, my heart hurts. I wish hindsight, with its flawless vision, sold tickets for time travel so I could go back 365 days and show more patience and compassion to my son as he struggled with that little man asleep at the wheel. All I can do now, however, is follow my friend’s advice, take the help I can get, and try not to look back and question the choices I’ve made.

Most parents hope to impart some wisdom to their children. I must admit, though, that I have probably learned far more from Joe in his time with us than he has learned from me. It’s appropriate that he chose climbing as his speech topic because climbing is what he has been doing since the day he showed up seven weeks early in June 2001. If the past year is any indication of where his climbing will take him, I’m fairly certain not even the sky will be his limit. As for me, I’m going to follow Joe’s example, look ahead, and start climbing too. I think he might be on to something.

Never Tell Me The Odds

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My son’s prized book collection hidden behind a clay tank he created and his Pop characters

Dyslexia. For most of my life, the word conjured in me a sense of doom. Like so many people, I imagined a dyslexic person would be sentenced to a life without reading, a life without higher education, a life being thought of as a dummy. I never imagined dyslexia would touch my life. And then I tried to teach my sons to read.

Joe struggled with simple character reversals, consistently transposing b and d and 2 and 5. He couldn’t say his alphabet, always leaving letters out, skipping from p to v. His first grade teacher gave him a failing grade in reading during the first trimester that year, and I could not figure out how a child in first grade who was learning to read could be failing at it. We later discovered Joe had ADHD and mild dyslexia. Luke’s reading issues were worse than Joe’s. Luke not only transposed letters but couldn’t seem to stop confusing entire words, like what and that and the and who. When we tried to get him to read to us, he had every excuse imaginable. When he hit third grade, he began falling behind and we had him tested. Luke was diagnosed with moderate to severe dyslexia. We were told he needed to be taught to read in an entirely different way from his classmates and would either need to enter an intensive reading program for three months, which meant taking him out of school for that period, or be moved to a remedial school. I was crushed.

At that point, we made the decision to put both boys into a private school for children with learning disabilities. There they received not only reading instruction delivered in a way that allowed them to catch up to their peers, but also individualized math lessons and time with occupational and speech therapists. They began to blossom. We all began to see their strengths more than their struggles and started feeling hopeful about their prospects despite their dyslexia.

People often speak of their heroes: brave soldiers, firefighters, police officers, and selfless volunteers. I have never believed heroism belonged solely to people who save other’s lives or make immense sacrifices. I choose to find heroism in those who face adversity and rise above. My sons are my heroes. They started out behind their peers and have been working to catch up since birth. They’ve never given up. They’ve never accepted less for themselves. They’ve figured out how to embrace their strengths while working to overcome their struggles. It’s been a gift watching them develop and grow and push beyond the limitations inherent in the way their brains are set up. They inspire me.

Luke reads every day in his free time. He is not a fast reader, but he soldiers on. He challenges himself. He never quits. In seventh grade, he got 100 pages into self-chosen Mein Kampf before deciding he might not be mature enough for it yet. Last year in eighth grade Honors literature, he read White Fang, 1984, Watership Down, Of Mice and Men, as well as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and in his spare time he also read the 650-page biography of Steve Jobs and The Man in the High Castle. This summer he chose to read Homer’s The Iliad and then followed it with The Odyssey. On his Christmas list is a rare book about World War II written in 1948 by a Jewish soldier in the British armyHis teacher this year assigned Bless Me, Ultima and then said she was hoping they could compare that to Like Water for Chocolate, which she hasn’t yet assigned but he has finished reading anyway. I have no idea how this is the same kid who fought us when we asked him to read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

A few weeks ago Luke said something I have been turning over in my mind since. He said, “Dyslexia is not a reason not to read. It is a reason to read.” And that sums up Luke. He’s Han Solo who says, “Never tell me the odds” or John Locke from television’s Lost when he exclaims, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” I’ve thought a lot about his attitude, about taking what is difficult and turning it to your advantage, about being told who you are and proving them all wrong. As a child, it’s easy to take what you are told about yourself and believe it. I know I did. But I think it’s time I start looking at life through Luke-colored lenses. Maybe all the things I was told I can’t do should become all the things I have to do. By my side will be the child who has shown me what it means to believe in yourself, naysayers be damned.

The Inchworm in the 200 Meter

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On your mark

Our oldest son, a high school freshman, joined the track team last month. For most people, having their child participate in an extra-curricular sport is no big deal. But our kids, while not being completely unusual (well, except for Joe’s inexplicable obsession with K-pop), have struggled with sports. We provided and paid plenty for opportunities in activities like swimming, baseball, soccer, and golf, but nothing has stuck. I decided to accept that they were geeks, and sports were not their passion.

As winter gave way to spring this year, Joe expressed an interest in joining either baseball or track. We had been trying since the fall to steer Joe toward running for two reasons. First, he has these crazy long legs (he’s five inches shorter than his father right now but has the same inseam). Second, baseball requires mad hand-eye coordination while running requires, well, legs. We felt track would be a much better fit as a first sport for him, but no kid wants to be told what to do by his lame parents so he had been resistant. When he told me he was set on baseball, I gently reminded him that track is a co-ed sport where the uniforms are tank tops and short shorts. Ding. Ding. Ding. Winner, winner, chicken dinner! We were suddenly track parents.

I had no idea what that entailed, honestly. If I had known that track was going to require Saturday morning alarms set for 6 a.m. and meets in distant towns that ran from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. in unpredictable and often downright cold spring weather, I might have given baseball a second thought. Still, a couple weeks ago we headed out for his first track meet and got to be spectators as our child participated in something.

Joe is our little inchworm. With his ADHD and his sensory issues and learning disabilities, he’s been a bit behind the pack from the beginning. His growth and development in most areas has been slow, steadily moving an inch at a time while other kids leapt forward in great strides. Joe approached the meet with the laissez-faire attitude and lack of competitive spirit he’s always shown knowing himself to be that inchworm. He ran his three events and finished last in each heat. We decided to count our blessings as they were. He was attending daily practices, taking responsibility for his uniform and gear, talking to different students, and committing to weekend events that encroached on his precious free time. Those are impressive feats for a teenager whose typical weekend events include marathon texting sessions, non-stop You Tube video viewing, and competitive carbohydrate consumption.

Toward the end of the meet, a fellow teammate backed out of the Men’s 200 Meter. The coach dropped Joe into the event in his stead. We had planned on cutting out a bit early, but bellied up to the fence to witness his last race. The starting gun popped and he was off. It looked like we were headed for another participation-ribbon run but, as he rounded the last turn, something clicked. Maybe he was tired of finishing last. Maybe he just wanted to be done more quickly. But, for whatever reason, he turned it on. We watched and cheered as he passed two other runners to finish 6th out of 8. It might not seem like much, but to me it was everything. I was teary eyed. He blew me away. I could not have been more proud if he had placed first in the fastest heat against the best runners at the event. It didn’t matter. He had progressed before my eyes, and it was beautiful.

After that race, I caught up with him. He was tired, but I had to ask. What was behind the change in that last 100 meters in his last race at the end of a long day? What was up with the afterburners? He told me he just decided to push himself and see what happened. He had his answer. His swagger had increased tenfold. He had found his motivation. Running with people is fun. Passing people every once in a while while doing it is more fun.

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Not in 8th anymore

Since that first meet, Joe has made continual improvements. His coaches have him working on his stride and pacing. He’s learning to use his upper body to add momentum. He’s using the starting blocks to his best advantage. He’s finished heats in second place, not eighth, and he’s done well enough to advance to more difficult heats where he is now finishing in the middle of the pack. My kid, who a few weeks ago told me he would finish out the season but didn’t think this was his thing, told me yesterday that he may do track and cross-country next year. I smiled inside but didn’t let on because, well, I wasn’t born yesterday and am not stupid.

Full disclosure. There have been times in Joe’s almost sixteen years when I wished he would hurry up and reach his stride. When would our inchworm start moving a little more quickly? I reasoned that at some point he would have to go at breakneck speed to catch up. Well, he’s running now, but he’s still an inchworm. He’s making incremental gains in his own time on his own schedule because an inchworm moves the only way he can, the way he does it best, slowly. He’ll never be a jackrabbit or a cheetah. It’s not his deal. I’ll never be able to speed Joe up to reach the milestones I had met by his age. It’s not happening. Instead, he’s teaching me to slow down, to be patient, and to trust that everything will work out as it should. I believe the world gives you what you need. I’ve spent most of my life running around without purpose in large circles and getting nowhere. It took an inchworm who runs track to show me how to gain ground with intention.

That Time Whip-Nae-Nae Saved The Day

Nothing stinky here
Nothing stinky here

As our children grow, most of their changes occur imperceptibly. One moment you are gazing into their chubby, little cherub face and the next you are looking directly into the eyes of a slender-faced, high-cheekboned teenager and wondering what wicked sorcery changed them overnight. And while their adult appearance seems to develop in the proverbial eye blink, the transformation in their personalities as they mature from tantrum-tossing toddler into too-cool-for-school teenager seems to take forever. My sons both pitched fits in public places that I swore would last longer than the Cenozoic Era. I watched with grateful glee as the tantrums decreased in duration over the years, evolving from epic, hour-long fuss fests into eye-rolling disgust lasting two seconds from start to finish. It was marked forward progress and it was much easier to notice because it directly impacted the level of peace and quiet in my daily life. Over the years, I have become guardedly optimistic about my sons’ potential to become respectful, open-minded, kind, and decent adult humans because I have witnessed their emotional growth firsthand and been present to overhear other adults as they remarked on it too.

On Halloween evening last weekend, our oldest son did something that proved he is more mature than his meager fourteen years might assert. Right around 6:30 pm, as costumed children began serenading us with Trick-or-Treat calls from our front step, our sons finally decided to get their teenage acts together and get into costume for what Joe proclaimed would be his last year trick-or-treating. For the auspicious occasion, he had chosen a demented, shiny skeleton mask in his first-ever attempt to dress in a costume that could potentially unnerve small children. As he was donning his scary costume, however, there was a wardrobe malfunction with the mask that required last-minute triage with super glue. He put the mask on after the quick-fix solution and discovered the fumes from the not yet dried glue made his eyes water. Not good. We waited a few minutes for the glue to dry and he tried again. Still no go. Everyone else in the trick-or-treating party was ready to hit the road, but Joe’s costume was suddenly out of the question. I immediately apologized for not foreseeing the potential sticky situation in my instant glue fix, but he brushed it off without another thought.

In years past, our ADHD son would likely have in the same situation devolved into a weepy mess and declared the holiday a total loss. He might have thrown himself on his bed and cried in frustration. This year, though, was different. I was the one who was irked and disappointed about the worthless $25 mask that could not be worn. He was calm and collected. Reasoning that he was already dressed in full black, he decided he could easily transition his costume from scary death apparition to scary mime with some white face paint. (Mimes are a freakishly scary Halloween costume, you have to admit.) I dug around in the costume bucket only to discover there was no viable white makeup to use for his transformation. Dammit. Joe and I started brainstorming. I ran to the basement to my containers of old Halloween costumes and searched for something he could use in a pinch. The least feminine item I was able to turn up was a headband for a skunk costume. I brought it to him.

“What about this?” I asked, adding, “I also have a black cat headband, but the ears have a glittery, bright pink in them.”

“I can be a skunk,” he announced confidently and without the slightest hint of teenage embarrassment or disappointment.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “I can probably figure out something better if you give me a few more minutes to dig around,” I explained.

“Nope. The skunk is good. I can be a skunk.”

We found some white felt fabric in my office and safety pinned a stripe down the back of his otherwise all black outfit. I pulled out a black eyeliner pencil and drew a skunk nose and whiskers on his face. He put on the headband and checked the mirror.

“I look a little bit like a girl,” he assessed, “but I don’t care. I’m not missing trick-or-treating. Luke and Anthony might make fun of me, but I can deal with it. I’ll just tell everyone I’m doing the stanky leg,” he said, giving a nod to Silento’s Watch Me song.

(Thanks to Joe, I spent the entire evening with the watch-me-whip-watch-me-nae-nae chorus running through my head. And now it is probably in yours. You’re welcome.)

I handed him a flannel pillowcase and he was off, taking on the mantle of leader of the pack with confident aplomb. We’ve spent years working with Joe, both explaining and demonstrating ways to transform lemons into lemonade and chicken shit into chicken salad when things did not go his way. While Luke has always been capable of adjusting quickly when things went awry, Joe has struggled for years, full of sulks and things-always-go-wrong-for-me woe and hours of perseveration. Each meltdown has brought with it an opportunity for growth, and we’ve watched it occur slowly. But this time was markedly different. This time there was zero meltdown. This time he pulled a page out of my fix-it-on-the-fly handbook and adapted to the unfortunate change in plan without a second thought. I’m not sure I have ever felt prouder than I did as I witnessed his determination to jump over this pothole on the greatest of all kid holidays. He did at fourteen something I was not able to accomplish until my mid forties. He made a conscious choice not to take himself so damned seriously. And he rocked it.

As for me, I am going to follow Joe’s example and continue to work at not taking myself quite as seriously. Also, I will never again hear that ridiculous Watch Me song without thinking about the way inspiration and strength can come from the oddest things…like the stanky leg.

If You’re Not Hungry Enough To Eat An Apple….

Some fine table manners right there.
Some fine table manners right there, I tell you. Come get him, girls. 

Dinnertime is frustrating for every mom. I think that’s just a universal reality. If you’re lucky enough to belong to a family where your children sit at the dining table and eat all the food you cook (or microwave or pick up at the drive-thru window) without complaining or begging to watch television or texting or playing video games or burping the alphabet, if you belong to a family where mealtime each evening is a pleasant affair where your family calmly and politely discusses the events of their day over the mutual breaking of bread, well, then throw yourself a frigging fish. You’ve got yourself and your family trained better than circus seals.

I spent the first eight years of our sons’ lives desperately trying to make dinnertime a good experience for all. Nearly every evening, somewhere between Luke’s penchant for puking at the sight of any food of which he does not immediately approve (which narrows the family menu down to chicken nuggets, steak, or pizza) and Joe’s ADHD-driven inability to sit for more than three minutes, our dinner routine would downward spiral its way into cajoling, shouting, bribing, and eventually crying, most of the time on my part. Around the time the boys turned seven and nine, I decided that I’d had enough. I’m a slow learner, but I eventually catch on. I gave up trying to make our boys well-rounded eaters who used manners and ate everything on their plates without argument. I figured their wives could figure out how to do that someday. I had less frustrating things to focus on, like teaching them math facts and educating my husband about proper shoe storage. If I take the time to teach my boys everything polite society would have them know, when would I have time to drink wine?

Eventually, the boys did learn to eat more foods just as I suspected they would. And I figured out some meals that I could prepare that all four of us could ingest without anyone puking or swearing or even crying. It has taken me many, many years, but I’ve finally gotten dinnertime running nearly as smoothly and reliably as a 10-year-old Honda. Tonight, for example, I served grilled chicken (courtesy of my husband), pasta for the boys, quinoa salad for hubby and I, steamed broccoli, and fresh strawberries. We had a brief flirtation with polite conversation before Joe spilled his entire glass of ice water all over his brother. Somehow, once that was mopped up, we still managed to have 10 minutes of cordial mealtime. Because the boys are growing and sucking down food with the unbridled ferocity of our Dyson vacuum, our table time is minimal, but I don’t care. When it’s over, if all the food is gone and we managed more than few grunts in between scarfing bites, my goal has been successfully achieved. The kitchen gets cleaned, the table wiped down, and I slink upstairs to our bedroom where I hope to become like the Cheshire Cat and fade into the bed so that I won’t be noticed for the rest of the night. My work is finished.

Or is it? Every night between 8:45-9:30, Joe decides he’s ready for “second dinner.” Now, I never planned to condone the notion of second dinner. Dinner is served just once. That’s how it was in the house where I grew up, and that is how I planned for it to be in our home. Life, however, laughed at my plans. Joe takes medication for ADHD, and that medication is a stimulant that deeply reduces his appetite while it’s on board. Because he doesn’t eat much at lunch, consuming approximately the daily caloric intake of a waif-like, chain-smoking, Diet-Coke-swilling runway model, he is famished by dinner. That hunger is merely pacified by the full meal I prepare at our usual dinnertime, which leads us to second dinner. Second dinner, it was long ago decided, is his problem. By the time second dinner rolls around, the cook has gone home for the night.

Tonight I went down to refill my water bottle and found Joe staring longingly into the stainless, silver box in our kitchen, both doors wide open in an effort to cool the room, apparently.

“I think I am going to make this salmon,” he announced, hastily grabbing a frozen fish steak from the lowest tray in the freezer.

“Ummmm….no,” I replied. “You’re not flash-thawing salmon and then cooking it. That will take about 45 minutes. What other ideas do you have?”

He dropped his head, begrudgingly returned the salmon steak to its home, and closed the freezer door. He then inched his way closer to the open refrigerator side and peered in.

“You could make me some sautéed kale,” he suggested.

“Ha. Good one,” I replied. “I’m not cooking anything. The kitchen is clean and it’s closed.”

“I could do it myself,” he said.

“You’re going to wash and chop kale and sauté it on the stove and then eat it?” I said with a bit too much incredulity.

“I could,” he replied.

“You could if the kitchen wasn’t closed,” I reminded.

I was getting annoyed by this process. Why couldn’t the kid eat a bowl of cereal like his father would be doing in an hour? Why does everything have to be a production? He should just plan to head to Broadway after high school. I’m sure he would fit right in there.

“You know, Joe? Eat some baby carrots. Eat an apple. No cooking.” He stared me down with his steely teenage glare. He’s practicing his intimidation, but he’s not quite tall enough yet for that to be working for him with me. I continued, “Dude, if you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re not hungry. Period.”

He shrugged, picked his iPad off the counter, and headed up the stairs. Game. Set. Match.

I was pretty proud of my brain for coming up with that appropriate little nugget of wisdom, discovered just this week courtesy of a Facebook meme, and perfectly echoed in this clutch situation. Sometimes, Mom, you’ve still got it, I told myself. Now, if I could convince myself to live by that phrase, perhaps I could be swimsuit-ready by the time pool season gets underway.

Asleep At The Wheel Again…ADHD and Motherhood

The day my 8 year old decided to cut his own hair and photograph it.
The day my 8 year old decided to cut his own hair and record the event. Not his best decision-making moment, but it has made for some good laughs.

It’s laundry day. Well…actually, every day is laundry day, but today I finally decided to toss a couple loads into the washer. As I collected the boys’ hamper, I noticed that Joe had thrown a couple of his jackets in. I hate it when he does that. Sometimes the hamper is replete with clean clothes he tried on but decided not to wear. While I’m grateful that he’s finally learned to put his clothes into a hamper after thirteen years, he now puts everything in there. He often puts his shoes in there. His shoes. It’s much easier to toss everything into the bin than to put it away, right? It keeps the floor clean and then he doesn’t have to listen to me complain about that too. It’s genius, actually. A simple, expedient filing system that gets me off his back, at least for the present moment. And Joe is 100% in the present moment all the time.

Frustrated by the discovery of the jackets, I confronted him.

“Joe…why are these coats in here?”

“I wore them,” he said with typical teenage attitude, eyeing me like I am a moron for not realizing that dirty clothes go in the hamper.

“You can wear a jacket more than once before it needs to be washed. Unless it’s got a stain or it stinks, you should just hang it up to wear again,” I informed him.

He appeared uninterested.

“Every time you do this, it’s more work for me. I know we’ve talked about this before,” I said with the usual tone of parental disappointment that is meant to encourage enough self-reflection and remorse to induce self-awakening and, hopefully, an apology. If you’re wondering if it ever works, the answer is no.

“I know,” he admitted.

“Well, then, why do you keep doing it?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t mean to do it. It just happens on accident all the time.”

And, there it is. A succinct description of exactly what ADHD is. Joe’s ADHD includes impulsivity, inattention to detail, and inability to focus. So many times when he was younger I would repeatedly scold him for the same behaviors. Once, before we’d diagnosed his ADHD, I asked him why he kept chewing on his shirts even though we had discussed ad nauseam that he needed to stop doing it. He said he didn’t know why he did it. He knew it was wrong, but he simply couldn’t help it. That explanation was mind numbing. Here was a kid who was obviously intelligent, who could repeat minutiae about different dinosaurs from different epochs, remembering the dates they existed and statistics about their size and weight, but there he stood telling me he didn’t know why he kept gnawing his clothing like he was a goat. As a parent, it frustrated the living hell out of me. How could he be so smart yet so unaware at the same time?

When we had Joe evaluated for ADHD, the psychiatrists at Children’s Hospital explained to me that the frontal lobe of Joe’s brain simply doesn’t work the way mine does, ultimately leading to his greater difficulty in choosing between good and bad actions. As a child, if I was punished for something one time, the frontal lobe of my brain would remind me of that event and help me make better choices the next time I encountered a similar situation. Joe’s frontal lobe, however, simply isn’t as active as mine. The doctors explained that it is as if there is a little man in there whose job is to help him make good choices but that little man continually falls asleep on the job. It wasn’t until much later, when Joe better understood himself and his brain, that he was able to admit that his inability to stop negative behaviors when he knew they were wrong frustrated the living hell out of him too. We’ve spent the years since his diagnosis working to understand how we can help Joe and what we simply need to accept is part of his make up. It’s a work in progress.

I’m laughing now thinking about the question I posed to Joe earlier. I know how he works. I just needed to remind him again and move on. He will eventually stop putting clean clothes in the hamper, just like he eventually started putting dirty ones in there. It’s merely going to take a lot of patience and a lot of repetition. Six years into my understanding of this ADHD world, I am still making silly parenting mistakes with Joe.

You’ve got to wonder when the little man in my frontal lobe started taking so many naps.

A Belated Holiday Letter For All The Late Bloomers

On their way to becoming awesome…someday
On their way to becoming awesome…someday

I was rifling through a stack of papers on the counter yesterday and came across a holiday letter that arrived in a card from some friends of ours around Christmas. Okay. I feel your sneer of judgment. Yes. I still have holiday mail on our kitchen counter. Guess what? We still have a broken, faux Christmas tree lying on the floor in the rec room too. I’m leaving it there at least until Easter to prove how very zen I can be in the face of ridiculous things. So there. Anyway, I opened the letter and reread it. It was, as most family holiday letters are, a beautifully composed, loving tribute to our friends’ apparently flawless, exceptional, decorous, loving children. I’m a natural skeptic, so I’ve always assumed children like the ones outlined in those letters are figments of fantasy, like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and men who multitask…a charming idea, but a complete fabrication. Still, we get many letters just like that one every year, rife with phrases like Eagle Scoutstraight A honor studentVarsity letter, State championships, class president, volunteer hours, and first place, which are aimed at making me believe that children like this exist in families all across this nation. It must be reality for some people.

Friends have asked me why I do not send out a letter with our Christmas cards. They figure that a writer should be at the top of the list of Persons Most Likely To Write A Holiday Letter. But I don’t because comparison is an ugly thing. We don’t have the kind of children who look good on paper. They’re off schedule and complicated and not in line with many other children their ages. In terms of learning, our children are classified as “atypical” and that doesn’t play well without lengthy and exhausting explanations. Even though we don’t write holiday letters, we think they’re awesome. We’ve just accepted that their beauty sometimes gets lost in the comparison game.

If I were to write a holiday letter, it realistically might contain paragraphs that read something like this:

Joe is thirteen and in seventh grade this year. He’s completely immersed in Pokémon and adores Japanese culture. He keeps asking when we can go to Tokyo. He used most of his Christmas money to buy Pokémon plush toys that he and his brother use in elaborate stop-motion video stories they are creating for their YouTube channel. Despite his ADHD and dyslexia, he’s making great progress at school. We are so proud that he’s using capitals and periods in his schoolwork on a more consistent basis these days. He’s still reversing his Bs and Ds, but we are hoping that he’ll have that mostly figured out by the time he’s writing college entrance essays. Joe has finally mastered the coordination and multiple steps to tie his own shoes now, which has taken one thing off my plate. He uses about 400 knots to make sure they don’t come untied, though, and that has created a different hassle as I now have to unknot his shoes each morning. Be careful what you wish for! After two years of private ski lessons, his core strength and coordination have improved enough that he has a mastery of most beginner slopes. We hope to have him exclusively skiing intermediate slopes by the end of next season. His favorite books are graphic novels, his favorite food is pasta, and his classmates call him “Puppy.” He never misses his nightly spa time, which mainly involves sitting in the bathtub while watching a continuing stream of Netflix videos on his iPad from across the room. Thank heavens he was gifted with great eyesight and the brains to know not to bring the iPad into the tub with him.

Luke is eleven now and in fifth grade. He is a talkative, class clown, and his teachers have initiated a rewards system to keep him reined in during class. So far it seems to be working because our last parent/teacher conference went off without tears. This year his decoding skills have gone off the charts and he is reading at a beginning of fourth grade level. He’s still struggling with fine motor skills and his pencil grip is downright bizarre, but his handwriting is bafflingly lovely. He loves to draw, write stories, build Legos, and watch episodes of Parks and Recreation. And, this year he began catching footballs successfully. He’s still two inches shy of being tall enough to ditch the booster seat in the car, but he’s getting there! His latest career aspiration is to be an entrepreneur/architect/engineer, but he’s planning to author books in his free time, which we think will make him quite well balanced. His sensory issues force him to sleep in a nest of blankets, pillows, and plushes, but he showers regularly, doesn’t eat in bed, and sleeps on the top bunk so we are reasonably sure there are no rodents up there with him.  All is well and we are grateful. 

Now, this holiday letter fodder might seem a bit hyperbolic, but overall it’s an accurate account of life with our exceptional sons. They are not straight A students. They are not athletes. They are not overachievers. They’re not on the Dean’s List. They’re not first chair in orchestra. They struggle a lot, work hard to catch up with other kids their age, and keep plugging away. They are, in every way I can see, damn near perfect human beings, emphasis on the human part. And I may never be able to write a holiday letter extolling the impressive scholastic or athletic achievements of their youth, but I could not be more proud of my young men.

I don’t begrudge any of our friends the joys of having children who are achieving at a high level already. After all, it’s a lot of work being a parent, and a smart, capable child who is excelling in many things can only do so with personal support and chauffeur services. My friends have earned the right to brag about their offspring. As for our boys, I suspect they are simply late bloomers. Sooner or later, all their hard work and dedication will pay off. And someday I’ll send out a holiday letter to share how far they have come. Our Christmas card with personal letter in 2035 might just blow your socks off.

Like Sands Through the Hour Glass…

Our water boy
Our water boy

Oh, boys. Today, Joe had a friend come over to hang out. Everything was going well until they decided to take a hockey stick and hit some home runs using Luke’s Lego models as the ball. The basement survived these antics, but of course the models did not. Luke, who was already feeling excluded and lonely, added furious to his list of emotions. We could not blame him. Demolishing Lego models, while impressive to friends, is not the way to keep peace with your younger brother. Now, we know that 1) Joe was just showing off for a friend and 2) his impulse control is not the best to begin with, but this was not the first time Joe has destroyed some of Luke’s Lego creations. He’s been punished for this infraction in the past. It hasn’t made an impression.

We decided to hold a family meeting over dinner to discuss what to do with the repeat offender. We offered Joe the opportunity to explain himself and argue his case. Then we asked Luke to rate his level of sadness about the loss of the models. With both boys still at the table, Steve and I began discussing punishments. Ultimately we decided that Joe would be allowed to rebuild the models to Luke’s satisfaction to lessen the duration of the punishment, which we determined was a week without his nightly baths.

Yes. It’s odd that our nearly 13-year-old son takes nightly baths in addition to his morning showers. As high as our water bills can be, it’s hard to complain that our son likes to be too clean because I’ve had the opportunity to catch of whiff of some other teenage boys and they smell. Badly. I write off Joe’s water obsession because he’s a Gemini with a Pisces ascendant and a Pisces moon, so water is his primary element. Joe says he’s water obsessed because he’s Sharkboy, and during the day he is just a fish out of water. We knew this would be a rough punishment, but we were determined to make it stick.

When we got home, Joe went to work rebuilding the models. He was able to fix one quite easily. The other one he recreated (albeit with modifications) to earn Luke’s stamp of approval. Joe came before the parole board, and we agreed to lessen his sentence to a meager two nights on Luke’s recommendation. (Luke, god bless his tender heart, hates to see Joe suffer.) The reduced sentence, which teetered on the edge of being way too lenient by our standards, did not appease Joe in the least. Nope. When he realized he still would not get his bath tonight, he perpetrated a sizable meltdown in protest. He wheedled. He argued. He cried. He wrote notes of apology. He wandered in and out of our room muttering curses until we were ready to tell him that although he couldn’t have a bath we wished he would go soak his head. Because we felt too generous already in the sizable reduction in his sentence, though, we held steadfast and refused to cave. He could live with two days’ punishment.

Joe’s meltdown continued for about 30 minutes. Finally I pulled out the Bunny Buddhism book and shared this doozy with him when he again wandered into our room in protest:

The wise bunny knows life is full of suffering and chooses not to create more.

He was not impressed with my bunny wisdom. Joe is the King of Drama. When he was younger and in trouble for a transgression, he would tell us that he wanted to beat himself as punishment. I started to wonder if he had been a member of Los Hermanos Penitentes in a former life and that was why he was advocating self-flagellation. It’s hard to know sometimes if his histrionics are the genuine result of his ADHD-enhanced lack of control or an elaborate ruse meant to elicit guilt. He is capable of working both ways.

I’m not sure why Joe insists on ratcheting his initial Level 3 DEFCON misery to DEFCON Level 1, but I keep hoping that he will learn what the wise bunnies know…that inventing additional suffering is ill-advised. So far that lesson has not kicked in, but I hold out hope. Hopefully he chooses to stop making unpleasant situations into unbearable ones. Hopefully he learns to channel his energy into reducing the drama in his life rather than creating more. If not, I guess there’s always a future on Days of Our Lives. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that. I’ve seen enough of Stefano and Marlena.

The Tale of Two Bunnies

These two bunnies may resemble each other but they are unique in their bunniness.
These two bunnies may resemble each other in form, but at the end of the day they are unique in their bunniness.

I have two sons. Although there are some similarities between them, mothering these two boys forced me to acknowledge the universal parenting truth. Parenting is not a case of nurture versus nature, but rather a case of how you choose to nurture your child’s nature. Now the fact that I know this to be true should in no way imply that I understand how one actually achieves this goal of parenting differently in the best interest of each child’s personal growth. I struggle with this daily because, like most parents, I would like to believe that in a nod to fairness I love my sons in the same way and treat them equally. It’s just not true on a day-to-day basis. They’re different people. They have different strengths and weaknesses and present unique challenges and lessons to me as their mother. They are both easier to raise than their brother in some ways and more difficult to raise in others. It is what it is.

My oldest son, Joe, has moderate ADHD. What that means for him is that he is impetuous, has a hard time focusing on anything, and even though he often knows the “right” way to do something he usually forgets to do it. As a parent trying to teach him to function in the world, his struggle with working memory has been a plague upon us both. When he was very young, his lack of follow through was something I did not think much about. I wrote it off saying he hadn’t yet reached that developmental milestone. But by the time he was six and his four year old brother began following through on things and completing multi-step directions where his older brother could not, I knew something was amiss. Still not aware that his brain struggled with working memory and processing speed, which was why he could listen to me rattle off a short list of things to do and then not remember to do them, I wrote it off as his personality. Joe was forgetful. It was his nature. It was my job as parent to correct this error in his way of doing things. I hounded him. I repeated things until I was hoarse. I followed him around, riding rough-shod over every single thing I asked him to do to make sure he would do it. About this time in my parenting journey, I really could have used today’s Bunny Buddhism quote:

I cannot impose self-discipline upon other bunnies.

I cannot force Joe to behave the way I behave because he is not me and he never will be. His brain does not work as mine does. It is as unique and interesting as he is. And no amount of badgering, belittling, or begrudging will make him act in the disciplined way I wish he would (if only for the sake of his own well-being and sanity). Even if I nurture him by providing charts and introducing him to life hacks to work around his memory issues, this is his dragon to slay. He will take from me what his mind is willing to accept and use and in time he will find his own way through trial and error, peaks and pitfalls. Likewise, I will never be able to stop his brother Luke from chewing on his shirts and leaving holes as if a goat has been wearing them. I don’t understand why he does it, but I know I can’t make him self-disciplined enough to cease and desist. It’s just not happening.

Perhaps someday Joe will remember to hang up his towel and put his clothes in the hamper. Perhaps not. He is his own bunny. He needs to find his own way in his bunniness. I can nurture his nature, but I can’t affect the outcome. And to try to do this only damages the relationship we have. I have made my own bunny peace with Joe’s memory issues. Oh. I still make him come back upstairs to hang up the towel he left on my bathroom floor because, well…I’m not his slave. But I no longer think it is my duty to turn him into the towel-hanging kid his brother is. He’s a different bunny than his brother who chews shirts who, in turn, is a different bunny than me (the one whose mother tried unsuccessfully to stop her from biting her nails).

My journey to zen is aided daily by my children who are teaching me more than I will ever be able to teach them.

Our Perpetual Lady of Slow Learners

Lovely couple of kids
Lovely couple of kids

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my journey as a parent, it’s that expectations can be your undoing. In terms of expectations, mothers are doomed from the start. From the day we pee on a stick and see pink lines, we are an expectant mother. Our pregnancy bible is entitled What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and we devour the information between its covers because pregnancy is so new and different and impending parenthood is equal parts exhilaration and terror. We want to be prepared…as much as anyone can be prepared for the arrival of something so much a part of oneself and yet totally unlike anything anywhere else. While our children begin their lives unencumbered by the existence of expectations, we embark on our parental career ready to measure them against the rubric of the typical. And that’s the point when we make our first big mistake.

I knew fairly early on that our sons were not typical. They did not follow growth and development charts. They were on their own schedules. Things their peers were readily learning, our sons could not. They skipped letters in the alphabet  and struggled to write their own names. They were uncoordinated with sports and were unable catch a ball or skip or follow rhythm. Physicians noted their shortfalls while reassuring us that they were fine. In school, they displayed obvious intellect while retelling stories or playing creatively, but rote memorization of math facts escaped them. They began to get poor marks on tests science and social studies tests despite knowing the answers when asked orally. We were frustrated. We knew they were intelligent, but their grades didn’t reflect it. Teachers told me they weren’t trying, but I knew how hard they worked. I could see their constant struggle to keep up and fit in with expectations they now innately understood by watching their classmates and receiving their report cards. When we finally realized that they had learning disabilities, the damage had been done. Our sons no longer believed they could be successful. Expectations were crushing them.

This year we pulled them out of traditional school and did what we swore we would not. We put them into a special school, a school for children who think differently, a school for the atypical. We’d been hesitant to take this route, fearful of pointing out to them and to others that they weren’t measuring up in regular schools. But the time for denial being a river in Egypt was over. They needed help…no matter what that help looked like. Their new school was a big adjustment for me. You see, there are no grades there. None. Kids aren’t in 4th grade and they don’t earn letter grades. They’re not evaluated that way, and teachers and students don’t discuss grades. They discuss progress. They discuss solutions to struggles. While the kids are evaluated regularly, they are assessed solely on improvement. If they’re improving, they’re on the right track. If they’re not improving, it’s time to re-evaluate how they might learn better and pursue a different route. It’s so simple it’s scary.

And, honestly, this new system of analysis did scare me. I was so tied to our traditional conventions that the variation seemed dubious. As a culture, we subsist on numbers and quantitative results. Our conversations with other parents about our children often revolve around concrete standards. Bobby came in First at State. Jimmy has a 4.0. Sue got a 1300 on her SATs. Hey. I get it. It’s an accomplishment and a feather in our caps when our child is successful in a way that we can readily point out. I know from personal experience, though, the other side of that equation. When our sons were earning C and D grades, I perpetually feared having someone ask me about their report cards. I knew that based on their grades our boys would be marked as sub par by others, and that was frightening. And now when they’re getting no grades, well that’s even scarier. When you tell someone your son is “around the 4th grade level and is a consistently improving student,” they look at you as if you’re sporting three heads. No one is up for flexible standards of personal success although that is the only type of personal success there is…the personal kind.

If we’re going to live by expectations (which we seem bound by human nature to do), perhaps we could be a bit more flexible with our assessment of others? We could accept steady improvement as our rubric. We could value overall forward progress over typical milestones because the truth is that not everyone is typical in every way. Our sons are slow learners because their brains process information differently than the majority. So what? It’s taken me almost 46 years to believe that a piece of paper doesn’t prove wisdom and all the outward success in the world doesn’t make you a better person than the next guy, and that makes me a pretty slow learner too. I’m learning to let go of expectations and becoming more patient with myself and with others. It might be two steps forward and one step back, but I’m making progress just like my sons. By the end of my life, I like to think I will have evolved not just to standards but beyond them in ways that are immeasurable.

I threw away the books that told me how my children should be. I now appreciate them for how they are.