There is so much talk, anymore, about parents and their overuse of smartphones while in the presence of their children. If I took the time to scroll through a day or two on my Facebook feed, it wouldn’t take long to find that one of my “mom friends” shared a piece like this one, titled “Dear Mom on the iPhone: Let me tell you what you don’t see.”
Now, I’m not for a second saying I’m perfect. I’ll be the first to admit I’m far from it! My phone is more of an appendage these days than it is a device. I am a mother of three young children. I work full-time. A significant portion of my non-working hours are spent facilitating the care of my youngest child, who has special needs. I write, and when an idea inspires me, I pick up my phone and transfer the idea to something concrete. Otherwise, amidst the shuffle of daily life, these moments that become the stories I share will be lost on me.
So, while you might look at me in those moments and think to yourself that I had ought to put my phone down and attend to my children, I would like to tell you what you don’t see.
The photos above were taken early on a Sunday morning on a weekend trip to the beach. This was on a “date”, to which I was invited by my six-year-old son. He has earned the nickname “Rooster” because no matter how late we keep him up, he awakens with the sunrise, ready to take on the day. On this particular morning, we set out early to walk the shoreline and collect shells. These particular photos were taken just moments before my phone slipped out of the pocket of my sweatshirt and into the ocean water.
That Sunday morning, I lamented the loss of that phone, but it wasn’t because it meant I’d be disconnected from the world around me. I was saddened, because the loss of that device meant the loss of a weekend’s worth of family photographs. In particular, I was upset about the loss of the simple photos above.
What you didn’t see when you saw me pull out my phone on the beach was Cameron, asking me on that date, with sincerity in his big blue eyes, pleading for some time alone with his Mommy. You didn’t see the afternoon trip to the aquarium the day before, cut short by the meltdown of his little sister, who has autism. You didn’t see that we almost didn’t make it into the aquarium at all, or his frustration as I couldn’t stop to talk about the sharks, which are his favorite. You didn’t see a little boy who tells me a lot, lately, that we don’t get to spend enough time together. You didn’t see him at my bedside that morning, as he took my hand in his and led me to the door.
I take photos of my children, and in moments when they seem to feel less than special, I pull them out and we retell the stories within them. I use them as a tool to help them remember the details of those moments. These stories stop time, and make them realize that while they don’t always get enough of me, the moments I do get with them are dear to my heart.
Our date to collect shells didn’t end when my phone slipped beneath the waves. In fact, we walked for over an hour, his hand in mine, inspecting and discussing all that had washed ashore after the storm the night before. I may have my phone in hand more than you deem necessary, but I don’t rely on it as I enjoy the company of my child. Just being with him is enough.
If you see me out with my children and I pull my phone out of my pocket, I’m more than likely just making an effort to capture a precious moment. Spare your judgement in those situations. If you choose to judge, anyway, ask yourself this – How many of you are reading this on your phone, right now, in the presence of your children?
Today, that phone came back to life long enough for me to upload those memories. Tomorrow morning, I will show my son these pictures and spend a few minutes remembering. He will start off his day with a little extra love in his heart, because of what that device afforded me to do on that walk alone on the beach. As the days turn into months, then years, I will get asked out on far less dates. If using my phone in the presence of my children means that I can keep them little a bit longer in my heart, perhaps I’m not the negligent mother you saw at first glance. Perhaps before you choose to judge me, you should realize that you don’t know me, at all.
Today, like every Monday and Tuesday, I picked Piper up from school to take her to therapy. I’ve grown to love this routine for many reasons. I love the one-on-one time we share in the car. I love how proud she is when she finishes each session with Kate, her speech therapist. More than anything, I cherish the look of elation on her face when she spots me walking toward her. She hugs me with every ounce of love inside of her, and leaves her friends and teachers with a smile, an emphatic wave, and a heartfelt “Goodbye!” She brings light and pure, innocent happiness whenever she goes.
Today, though, something just felt “off” as soon as I laid eyes on her. Almost immediately, guilt set in. A rainstorm had slowed my drive. I was five minutes behind, and instead of sitting in her normal spot by the front entrance, she was with her teacher, loading her friends into the vehicle that takes them home. Her teacher reported that she’d had another fantastic day, but I could see she was hurting. I assumed that by being a few minutes late, I had thrown off her routine and had been the cause of her melancholy spirit. She didn’t say goodbye to anyone. She clung to me, and stared over my shoulder at the school.
As I carried her towards the car, she let out a whimper that I’d never heard before. I stopped walking, and attempted to meet her gaze. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” I said. “Are you sad because you didn’t get to ride home with her friends?”
Her eyes were still fixed on the school. “No. I don’t want that.”
With a heavy heart, I buckled her into her seat. It was when I fastened the last clip that I saw large tears rolling down her cheeks. My sweet child was crying, silently. She looked completely heartbroken. I tried to hide my own heartbreak and once again asked her what was bothering her. Because she still struggles to consistently carry on conversation, her direct response stopped me in my tracks.
“I want my MiMi, and I can’t get her!” (MiMi is her baby blanket- her security.)
Not fully expecting her to further respond, I asked if she had left MiMi in the car, with her friends.
“No, Mommy. In Rachel’s room .”
Relief washed over me. I quickly unbuckled her and reassured her. “Come on, P. We’ll go get her.”
We didn’t even reach the door before her teacher rushed up to us and offered her apology for not packing the blanket in her backpack. Another teacher overheard our conversation and offered an apology of her own. She explained to me that Piper had tried to tell her she needed to take MiMi home, she had mistakenly thought it was just a blanket for rest time, and had denied her request.
“She really did try to tell me, over and over. She’s a smart little girl. I’m sorry, Piper.” Her apology was heartfelt.
With that. MiMi was returned. Piper relaxed and offered up the goodbyes she had withheld just moments earlier. Just like that, my child’s sweet demeanor returned. I got her situated in the car one last time and we set off to therapy.
It was while I waited in the therapist’s office, or ‘Kate’s house,’ as Piper would say, that I had my “Ah-ha” moment.
To many moms, the above exchange might have been received in a whole different way. Instead of feeling guilt over throwing off my child’s schedule, I might have been annoyed that my own timeline had been interrupted. I say this not to pass judgement; I say it, because I’ve been that mom in the same type of situation with my older children. In my head, I might have said to myself “Are you kidding me? We’re running late to begin with, and now we have to go all the way back into the school for a blanket!”
Not this time, though. This time, as I sat there, the significance about what had unfolded at school that afternoon washed over me. That small exchange left me in complete awe of my little girl and all she has accomplished.
Six months ago, a moment like that would have been a complete disaster, because six months ago, my daughter could barely communicate basic needs. She would have felt lost and scared without MiMi, and would have had no way to let me know. I wouldn’t have realized MiMi wasn’t in her bag. The further away we got from school, the more terror she would have felt. Undoubtedly, it would have quickly turned into a full-on meltdown.
Not long ago, Piper could barely find the words to tell me she was thirsty. Today, we made a true connection, She was able to show me that she was upset, and using the words that were trapped inside of her head for so long, she clearly and concisely communicated to me what the problem was. Even more, she had communicated it to her teacher! I’m sure that I can’t even begin to imagine the relief she must have felt.
It’s amazing how empowering an exchange like the one we had today can be! It’s something truly worth celebrating. She’s had to work incredibly hard, hours on end, just to get to this point, and I’m not ashamed to tell the world how proud I am.
When you have a child with autism, like Piper, these are the exact victories that demand to be celebrated! In failing to do so, we would be failing to recognize the hard work and sheer determination of our children. If we didn’t celebrate these breakthroughs, we would be failing to recognize the therapists who dedicate their lives to helping our children find their voices, and in turn, change our lives, as well.
There is no shame in making mountains out of molehills. In doing so, we are showing our gratitude and building the confidence of our children, who will undoubtedly move those mountains, someday.
“Ladies and gentlemen- fasten your seatbelts. The sky may look clear, blue, and beautiful, but the ride is about to get very bumpy.”
If parenting a child with an autism spectrum disorder actually came with directions, the specific instructions above would be referred to daily! You see, to parent such a child is to understand what it is like to have your heart swell with so much pride over her accomplishments that you feel it might explode, and then have your heart hurt so badly when you see the world melt her down that it practically brings you to your knees…all within an hour’s time. Today was a perfect example of such turbulence.
Piper started her new school program on Monday. Previously, she attended her private preschool for three half-days a week. As part of her IEP, she is now enrolled in one of our county elementary school’s Pre-K programs, which runs full-time, five days a week. (This means she now attends school for the same hours as her brother and sister, just at a different elementary school). The past two days have been a complete change to her routine, and she has been a champion! When I picked her up today to take her to speech therapy, even her teacher was beaming with pride! She couldn’t get over how well she had taken to the classroom, how quickly she had become involved in activities, and said she’s even seemed to make some new friends already. (She didn’t really interact with any of the other children when observed at her preschool previously, so this is a HUGE accomplishment). The school’s occupational therapist had come to observe her today, and was full of compliments on her abilities, as well. To sum it up, when we left school today, we all looked like this:
Then, she had a FANTASTIC speech therapy session. Afterwards, she began playing with a little boy in the hallway as I spoke to her therapist. “Ready, set, GO! Come on little boy! Run Faster!” We both just sat back and watched, hearts full of joy, knowing how far this little girl has come. Piper seemed to feel the elation, too. She pranced out to the car, greeting everyone along the way.
A quick trip to the grocery store on the way home changed everything. Usually, this doesn’t bother her a bit. Perhaps the new schedule with long days, and therapy today on top of it made it all too much for her. Whatever it was, I could literally feel her anxiety as soon as we walked in the door. I really needed a few things, though, so I tried to talk her through it. And wouldn’t you know it- Harris Teeter moved their free cookie display. My one saving grace was nowhere to be found. This was where her little world crumbled. The shoes came off. When the shoes come off, all hell is sure to break loose shortly thereafter. Waffles, almond milk, and orange juice. I made a beeline to the back of the store (of course they couldn’t be by the door), and the screaming started. No matter how many times it happens, you feel like you’re in the spotlight. There is always a kind mother who says she’s been there, and maybe she has. I love that mother, because it takes a kind person to express empathy. I try to be that mother every time I can. (That mother actually approached me at checkout and asked me if I needed her help, so she was of the exceptionally kind variety!) But no matter how many times it happens, there are the people who look at you with disgust. Their looks all but say “How dare you continue to buy breakfast food so that your other children can eat breakfast before school tomorrow instead of removing that screaming, thrashing child immediately?”. They actually look mortified when I comfort Piper, rather than correct her.
Well, I finished my shopping. I made it through checkout. And I found the cookies. They are now located on the way out of the store. As I reached in to grab one for my still-crying child, a woman actually asked me if I was sure I should give in to her after the way she carried on. I’m fairly certain some very unkind words were forming in my mouth, when one of the young men who works there offered to take my groceries to my car. I thanked him, and explained that I didn’t have much, and was in the very first spot. He has accepted that answer from me many times when I’ve been alone, but tonight, he said “I know, but at least I can get them into the car and you can take care of getting your little one buckled in”. This was very true, and I thanked him and accepted his help. As I buckled Piper in, he put my two small bags in the trunk and said “Ma’am, here’s your receipt. But mostly, I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry about that. There is a lot of ignorance, but so many of us see what you are doing, and that you are handling it wonderfully, and the best you can.” I could barely manage a thank you, and thankfully he walked away before the tears started to fall. I sat for five or ten minutes in the backseat with Piper, who relaxed the minute she returned to her car seat, her safe place. We ventured home from there, where she refused her hot dog for supper, and instead, ate most of my shrimp and grits.
Tonight, Dave put her to bed as I dried and straightened Kaydie’s hair. (She donated ten inches last week, and we have to style it the night before now). Then, I went in to kiss Cam goodnight, and he wanted to talk for a while. He asked if we could get a puppy after “Clover Day” (St. Patrick’s Day) and if he could name it. He really wants a Dalmatian. We discussed how this is not the right time, but someday. By the time I got to Piper’s room, I fully expected that she’d be asleep.
Quietly, I opened the door and approached her bed. I leaned in to kiss her sweet cheeks, and was surprised by a big smile and bright eyes. “What are you doing up?” I asked.
“Under-nee the moon!” (Our song.) She was waiting for me to sing with her. “I love you in the morning, and in the afternoon. I love you in the evening, and underneath the moon! Skittamarinky dinky dink, skittamarinky do- I LOVE YOU!” And so my heart swelled with pride once again.
That’s the thing about turbulence. It doesn’t last forever. It shakes you up, sure. It’s unsettling. But it makes you really appreciate the moments where everything flows smoothly.