A couple of years ago—and for a short time—my sons were in a band. The band rehearsed nightly and loudly in the bathtub. My oldest son was lead singer and wrote all the songs. My younger son sang backup and got in trouble for messing up the lyrics. The band eventually broke up after a particularly contentious session almost left the house flooded. I'm sure that's what happens with lots of bathtub bands.
I still sometimes catch myself singing their big hit song, though. It goes likes this: (Big air guitar solo intro) "I'll see you tomorrow… like I did today. I NEED A BREAK! I NEED A BREAK! I NEED A BREAK!"
My oldest son has Asperger's Syndrome, a kind of autism, and when his body and his mind get overloaded (which they often do), he does something called stimming (short for “self-stimulation”). When he was small, it looked like he was flapping his fingers like the fins of a tiny goldfish. As he grew older, the movements got bigger and he began to need to hold something, like a wooden spoon or spatula, in his hand. Sometimes he runs around the room making what sounds like laser shots from an intergalactic battle.
Recent events have made me realize that I, too, am easily overstimulated. I think we all are when we are going through something stressful.
My husband moved out in December. This was definitely the right decision for our family but, even so, it has been hard for everyone. While working out the complicated logistics of two households, there was a stretch of time when I had the children with me every single night for 38 nights. This, of course, happened right when I was going back to work five days a week for the first time in close to a decade. I got a little stressed. I focused all of my energy on making sure the boys were okay with all the changes and, in the process, I forgot to take care of myself. What I mostly forgot was to schedule time to go for a run or a bike ride or a swim with my friends. I had no shortage of support; people offered to meet me for coffee and lunch and said I could call them any time. I replied, though, that I didn't have time for that.
One day I found myself pacing back and forth, back and forth, ranting and raving about how unfair it all was. I caught my reflection in the mirror and realized I was stimming. That same day, my son had a particularly epic meltdown. As I was holding his shoulders and attempting to steer his flailing body away from anything breakable (including his little brother), he stopped in his tracks, looked me dead in the eye, and said, "I need a break from you." The words cut right through me. "That's okay," I returned. "I'll fix it and get us both a break from each other."
A psychologist recently told me that it takes 24 hours for cortisol, sometimes called the stress hormone, to leave a person's body. The boys now spend two nights a week with their father, and I make a point to spend some of my time allowing the cortisol to leave my body.
It's not easy being a mother. I am the mother of the child who scored a goal at the soccer game. Yes, the child who is explaining to all within earshot that this isn't a real soccer game because they are not really following the rules, that one is also my child.
I am the mother of the boy who tied for third place in the school-wide spelling bee. I am also the mother of the boy who had to be reminded that school is not a "pants-optional" environment.
If you judge me by my children's behavior, some days I am awesome and some days I stink up the place. And it's not just other people judging me; I can be my own toughest critic. No matter what else I accomplish in my life, I will consider myself a failure if I mess up being a mother.
About a week ago, there was a knock on the door. One of my son's classmates was standing on the front step holding his mountain bike. Two more boys stood in the driveway balancing on their bikes. I knew all but one of the boys. More importantly, I knew their mothers. I quizzed them on road safety and told them how far my son was allowed to ride on his scooter. I told them I was happy to see that they were all wearing helmets. My younger son rolled his eyes and went back into the house. One good thing about my oldest son's autism, a kind of silver lining, is that he is seldom embarrassed by what I do or say. He either misses other people's nonverbal reactions or it just doesn't occur to him to worry or even wonder what other people are thinking.
I stood in the driveway and watched them pedal down the street. One of the boys circled back to keep pace with my son who had started off clomping along but was beginning to relax and lift his leg a little to glide on the scooter. I felt a flutter of panic in my chest but also a strange sensation that I think was joy. I watched until they disappeared around a corner. I would like to say that I did not keep walking to the end of the driveway to watch for their return or have moments of panic regarding the kids being hit by a car. After what seemed like a really long time, I saw my son loping back into view. He was beaming. He came back sweaty and happy and full of stories of the adventures they had somehow managed to have without crossing any major streets.
The next week when some friends asked me to go on a bike ride, I said yes. I wound up riding alongside a person I had never met before on an unfamiliar route with more climbs than I had been expecting. Gazing out at the view from one of the summits, I suddenly realized I was happy—that giddy, buzzy kind of happy that can only happen when I push my body enough to clear my mind.
On that bike ride, I decided to give myself a present this year for Mother's Day. I'm going to give myself a break. I'm going to try to see me the way my son does—a mother who does a really good job taking care of him. I'm going to delete that chart in my head that is lousy with mothers, real and fictional, all ranked by fitness, sanity, and organizational skills. I'm going to stop competing for a spot on that leaderboard. I'm going to tell myself I am doing the best that I can with these two extraordinary boys and I am worthy of being their mother. I encourage you to do the same. Happy Mother's Day.