Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Birth Day

This is the way we met the newest member of our family.

The day before, Friday, I had a constant dull, nagging backache I hadn't had before. Foolishly, I called the doctor, thinking maybe they wouldn't dismiss me with a wave of a hand as just another one of those 9-months-pregnant women looking for hopeful signs. Alas, they did. So I went about my day.

Fast forward to 2:45 on Saturday morning. I woke up and was laying there thinking about inconsequential things when I literally felt a pop! Suddenly, my nagging backache was much worse. And I realized my water had broken.

To understand what happened next, you have to know what happened with our other two kiddos. My water broke and...that was it. No contractions, nothing. We sat around for hours, waiting. Finally, at the hospital they had to get things going for us. With the other two, they were born a full 15 hours or so after my water had broken.

Even though third babies tend to come faster, I figured I had, if not all the time in the world, plenty of time. Especially because, while my back was hurting badly, I wasn't feeling those classic contractions everyone talks about.

So Dan and I got up. Wouldn't you know, he had a hugely busy day scheduled over at the business. He also wasn't quite prepped for it and had planned on heading over there early Saturday morning to do a few things. "Why don't you go over now?" I suggested. It was sometime past 3am. "We have time."

So Dan showered and left the house and I puttered and try to tie up a number of last minute loose ends. Sometime in the next hour I started to feel what I thought might be contractions. What did I know? I'd never felt a real one, only those induced by drugs. And of course they didn't feel the way they described in the books, and the timing didn't seem to match the book descriptions, either. Nothing wrapped around from my back and tightened in my stomach. Everything just HURT, but mostly in my back. And they didn't seem to come in waves that were predictable. More like calm and then a bunch of waves not spaced evenly.

I called Labor & Delivery and learned my least favorite OB doc from my practice was on call that night. Darn. A one in six chance, and he was the one available. I entertained the idea of waiting awhile to call, thinking maybe someone new would come on in the morning, but after a bit I knew there was no holding off. Maybe it wasn't textbook, but I was in labor. The doctor told me to head in. I called Dan and told him, "I think you need to come back."

A few minutes later I realized I'd have to wake the kids. It was about 5:45. There was no time now to wait for family to come stay with them. In typical fashion, Anna woke blearily while Ethan bounded out of bed. "I can't wait to meet my new friend today," he announced. While they dressed I kept being driven by pain to sit down. I knew very shortly I was going to become very scary to my kids.

"Ethan," I said when I had a breather. "I'm going to be in a lot of pain, and I don't want you to be afraid. That's just what happens when people have babies. I'm going to be okay." He seemed to be listening.

Thankfully Dan arrived not long after, and we all piled into the car. The sky was still dark and the air frosty. Then we began our 15-minute caper to the hospital. For the first time, I realized how close we were cutting things and wondered how we'd gotten to this point. Two hours before I'd barely felt contractions. Now I was gripping onto the door for dear life. I thanked God our ride was 15 minutes and not 50. I wondered how in the world I was going to get out of the car and walk inside.

Just as we pulled in and parked, I got another break from the pain. We had to walk down an endless hall and take the elevators. Once we got into Labor & Delivery I tried to explain to the staff that I wasn't doing well. Yet still they had me standing there, signing my name on papers while I struggled to hold the pen and focus.

Finally -- joy of joys! -- they let us all back there and got me hooked up to monitors. Dan looked at me and looked at the kiddos. "I have a bad feeling I'm going to miss this," he said. It was true. He couldn't keep the kids with us much longer or they'd be traumatized.

"Why don't you take the kids to the waiting area and we'll send someone in a little while to sit with them?" a kindly nurse suggested. In a moment, they were gone...and then I entered into some sort of Twilight Zone punctuated by lots of pain and voices all around me. There were people there, and I'm assuming most of them were nurses (although at least one or two were residents), but I could barely focus on their faces. For some reason, they didn't seem to have my records. So, as they hooked me to IVs and monitors, they kept throwing questions at me. Do you have any allergies? What is your blood type? that took all of my effort to answer. At one point they asked me to roll onto my back. I never want to feel pain like that again. I can't even describe what I felt.

A side note here: I always wondered what it would be like to go through labor naturally, even though my experience with an epidural with the other two went just fine. I toyed with the idea, but truly thought I wouldn't be able to handle it and I shouldn't get my hopes up.

Now we were at a point where there was no turning back. The staff told me I was 8cm dilated. There was no time for drugs to kick in, even if I wanted them. I didn't have the time or effort to digest that. Staff people kept telling me how to breathe.

It's funny, the things you think in these moments, even while feeling halfway delirious with pain. I remember trying to breathe and feeling like I wanted to push and then thinking about how all of this seemed very much like a TV-sitcom kind of birth, as if I were some sort of cliché. Images of Family Ties and Growing Pains "very special episodes" momentarily popped in my head for a moment, and if I hadn't hurt so darned much I would have smiled. Apparently I watched way too much television as a kid.

In the haziness I learned the doctor hadn't arrived and some on-call resident would deliver the baby. "Don't push yet!" they were yelling to me. At some point Dan had come back in the room. There was activity all over the place but I have no idea what people were doing. People told me to push and not push. I tried to comply from my loopy land of lots of pain.

And then, she was here. All seven pounds, 12 ounces and 21 inches of her. Chloe Grace arrived at 6:59 a.m. We had checked into the hospital at 6:30.

It goes without saying that suddenly, I felt MUCH better. And better still a few minutes later when they let me hold her, and she looked up at me with a rather quizzical look on her face.

A few minutes later, the kids came in. The nurse looking after them had let them eat cake for breakfast. Now they had a new sister. Talk about a good morning.

We are all very much in love, even if our girl does not like to be put down and does not like to sleep alone. Sleep? What's that, anyway?

Lesson learned here: don't always trust the "experts." Don't trust books and your friends' stories. Listen to your body and by all means, get to the hospital unless you feel like becoming one of those six o'clock news stories about giving birth on the side of the highway. And just because something happened one way once or more than once does not in any way mean it will happen that way again. That's not just a birth lesson. That's an everyday life lesson.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Pinch Me

Pinch me, pinch me, cause I'm still asleep
Please God tell me that I'm still asleep.
-Barenaked Ladies
I used to wonder if Ethan would ever be able to tell me his dreams. I'm pretty sure I don't have to worry about that anymore.
Lately Ethan has not only been able to tell us about his dreams in detail, but he's also awed by the realization that sometimes dreams feel so real.
"I dreamed we were in this tall building," he told me the other night. "And you were making flowers out of a flower machine. And this duck kept banging against the glass to try to get in. And Elmo was there."
I had to smile at the image that conjured in my mind.
"Mama, sometimes in my dream I try to get back to my bed. And it feels like real life. but I keep trying to get back to my bed."
I made the mistake then of telling him one of my worst nightmares, still emblazoned in my head afte nearly 30 years. Wild dogs were chasing me and I was trying to climb a tree to get away from them. I willed myself to wake up, and felt the relief of starting to wake up, followed by the horror of only seeing myself wake up in the dream. For a moment I felt I was trapped, like I was never going to get back to the land of the living.
This obviously struck a nerve with Ethan. After we talked a little bit more about other scary dreams I'd had (mostly recurring sagas involving elevators that plunge but never hit bottom and tornados that always almost suck me up into their vortex), he kept going back to my waking in a dream, of trying to get out but not being able to.
"Mama, what if you wake up but it's not real?" he asked. "How do you know if it's real?"
I stood there dumbfounded for a moment, incredulous that I was discussing this with a six-year-old, and one on the spectrum, no less. I had this weird kind of deja vu creepy moment kind of like my very first class in college, Philosophy 101, when Professor Foard held up a piece of chalk and asked us all, "How do you know there is one piece of chalk here, or 25 for each person in this room?"
"What if this is a dream?" Ethan was asking, and I tried to put away metaphysical thoughts, like that all of this temporal world would seem like a mere dream in the grand scheme of eternity. My boy genuinely looked scared.
"Ethan, I promise you this is real life," I told him. Yes, but how do you KNOW that, I could almost hear Professor Foard probing.
"How do I know?" Ethan asked, echoing the professor's words.
"Well, dreams don't last all afternoon like this," I tried to explain.
"They can too last for hours," Anna had to pipe in. "I've had dreams go on and on and on all night."
I thought back to cliché. "Ethan, if you want to know if you're dreaming or not, pinch yourself. If it hurts, you'll wake up. Then you'll know that it was a dream."
Ethan pinched his hand, lightly. "It didn't hurt, though."
"Yes, but you're still here, right? You didn't wake up, so this has to be real."
In bed that night, saying prayers, Ethan took the dream issue to God. "And God," he added as an addendum to petitions about getting a good night's sleep and blessing the family, "please help these dreams that are like real," he said earnestly.
"Help you to not be afraid of them?"
As I tucked him in and gave him a kiss, I had that weird other-dimension, Twilight Zone kind of feeling again. What if this were a dream? Stranger things have happened. Who knew?
Then I couldn't help it. I pinched myself. Just in case.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Rules, Revisted

Ethan got into the car glumly one day last week. He was having friend troubles with one of his two close buddies in class. We'll call him "Jake."

"We were trying to do Eeenie, Meenie, Minee, Mo, and Jake is doing it wrong," Ethan announced.

"Oh yeah?"

"He's saying that I have to say 'and you shall BE it' instead of 'you shall NOT be it,'" he continued. "I tried to tell him."

"Sometimes people learn those little sayings differently," I replied. "You could do it his way, too. Both ways are okay."

"No, I tried to tell him that," Ethan said. "I said maybe we could do it both ways." I was glad to see him using some compromising tactics from the social skills group. "He said no. It had to be HIS way."

Sigh. And this is what happens when you teach kids with autism social "rules," but other typical kids act like, well, kids, and come off as just as inflexible as the person on the spectrum.

"Then during Chutes & Ladders, he said we had to go down the ladders and up the slides." This clearly was not to be viewed as a goofy approach to the game, but an insult. "And when he went down a slide, he knocked me off and said I had to get knocked to the bottom with him."

I asked him what happened next. Apparently Ethan complained to the teacher, who told them to play the right way, and before the conflict could continue, they were saved by the bell, so to speak. Indoor recess had thankfully drawn to a close.

We just can't get away from talking about the rules around here. This is what happens when you have a child who needs to put everything into neat categories, into specific boxes, in order to better understand his world.

The rules have of course oozed into Ethan's understanding of football. I can't emphasize how much the kid likes football: the scores flashing on the bottom of the screen, the clock, the different teams' records. Of course, all of these numbers stick in his mind like glue, so he's likely to come out with something like, "Remember when the Patriots beat the Browns 30-27 when there were two seconds left in the game?" And I sit there thinking, We played the Browns this year?

Ethan's self-devised football rule a month or so ago was that the team with the better record will always beat the team with a worse record. This all got blown to pieces when he started really paying attention. "Why did the Dolphins beat the Patriots?" he asked, confused, back in December. "The Patriots are better than them!" Then we had a talk about sometimes the worse team winning, and that being called the "underdog" and one of the things that make sports exciting.

So of course that explains why I heard Ethan, the apparent kindergarten expert on the Patriots, talking authoritatively to a friend on Friday.

"Denver is a little bit better than Tom Brady," he said, pontificating about Sunday's game. "But you never know. The Patriots could win. Anything can happen."

Side note: I guess it's a blessing the Patriots lost, because we've been watching way too much football around here. Or maybe we just need to mute the commercials. All I know is, Ethan announced during dinner the other night, "Did you know that Bud is the official sponsor of the NFL?" Not good.

And then there are the rules that lead to insipid arguments. Most siblings have them. You know those "did not!" "did to!" tiffs that seem neverending and leave you wanting to scream? The argument in our house involves seasons. Yes, seasons.

So Ethan started learning in school about when the different seasons begin, and it was easy for him to say, go over to the calendar, find the month of June and see the indication on June 21 that THAT was the first day of summer.

Only Anna has this thing about her birthday (June 18) and summer. She REALLY wants to have a summer birthday. So she's taken to claiming her birthday is in summer. To make her case, she quotes local weather guy Joe Furey, who's always talking about "meteorological" summer or winter or whatever season. In weather-speak, meteorological summer would be June-September, while true summer is of course approximately June 21-September 21.

Meteorological summer doesn't go over very well with Ethan. He will continue to stand on a chair, gripping the calendar page, and claiming, "Anna, your birthday is in spring. It says right here -- first day of summer, June 21." While Anna yells and puts her fingers in her ears and says "I can't hear you!" This happens at least once a day.

We won't even talk about the mix-up in Ethan learning what happens with daylight in the summer vs. winter.

"In the winter, the days are getting shorter and colder, and in summer the days are getting longer and warmer," he announced proudly one day, after reading a book about it in school.

A part of me wanted to start in with the whole, Yes, but technically... argument that once summer starts, you're actually losing sunlight. And vice versa. But I didn't have the energy. Sometimes, when it comes to the endless list of rules and regulations that make up Ethan's world, you just can't go there.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Not Always What You Expect

Ahh, the What to Expect books. Virtual "bibles" of pregnancy, babyhood, and toddlerhood. Most moms have them or have read through them. I used to have them all, then ditched them, then got one back. While at the library the other day, on a whim I decided to check out What to Expect the First Year. After six years, I figured I needed a little refresher.

I flipped open to the first chapter and promptly started to panic.

Maybe panic isn't the right word. Let's call it, and I apologize if it seems I'm using the word flippantly, a mom's version of post-traumatic stress. My heart started pounding. I got a bitter taste in my mouth. My mind started flashing back to six years ago.

Here's the thing about these What to Expect books, if you haven't read them. They generally divide up development by months, and they have this handy-dandy section at the beginning of each chapter that covers milestones. There are four sections:
  • What your child should be doing (milestones 90 percent of kids that age have reached)
  • What your child is probably doing (milestones 75 percent of kids that age have reached)
  • What your child is possibly doing (milestones 50 percent of kids that age have reached)
  • What your child may even be doing (milestones 25 percent of kids that age have reached)
When Anna was a baby, reading these monthly markers was a source of great fun. She was often ahead. She rolled over at 10 weeks. Said her first word at 6 months. Like most new parents, we felt we could pat ourselves on the backs. The kid was a genius, clearly!

Then Ethan came along. Then the What to Expect books became decidedly less fun. The problems started from the beginning. I know now that some of the (minor) physical delays he had probably stemmed from having low muscle tone. At three months, he would struggle furiously to get up on his hands and pick his head all the way off the floor. He finally rolled over both ways when he was 5 months. You could see it wasn't that he was fat and lazy like some babies slow to reach milestones. He was clearly frustrated. My heart went out to him.

Then there were the social milestones. Eeek. He would reach them, for the most part, but quite slowly or not completely, and nowhere near when his sister did.

After awhile, like the Birth Club board on Babycenter that I'd abandoned because Ethan kept falling behind, I started to hate the What to Expect books. Those bullets brought me nothing but worry and a sense of impending doom.

I hadn't thought about any of this for awhile, so of course it was natural for all of that to come rushing back as I flipped through the book's pages. And then I thought about where to go from here, with baby #3, and how to use all I've learned.

I know now to approach these books not like gospel, but as one of many resources. I don't need to rush to them breathlessly every month to check and see if my child's on track. But it can't hurt to keep an eye on progress just to catch red flags early. If I'm honest, I know that as annoying as the milestones charts were, they did help me know when to bring up concerns with the pediatrician, or begin the process of getting him evaluated.

I know now that in most cases, meeting these milestones early is not all it's cracked up to be. There's no need to call MENSA. Yes, Anna is a smart girl with many talents. But over time her progress slowed. Just because she was talking in full-sentences at 18 months didn't mean I needed to start reading the "gifted child" chapter quite so early.

And I know that how you start isn't nearly as important as how you progress...and just like a child's height and weight on those growth charts, it's most vital to look at the child's individual progress first before comparing to everyone else.

Back when Anna was about three, she really started getting into the Berenstain Bear books. This quickly became an obsession. We built up quite a collection, and every time we'd go to Barnes & Noble or the library, she'd scout out ones we hadn't read yet.

When Ethan was three, I'd glance at the Berenstain books on the shelves and wondered if he'd ever look at them. He was so far from comprehending never mind the themes, but even the plots to the stories. So the books sat...and sat...and sat.

And then sometime last year, he discovered them. He wanted us to read them to him. The finer points of the story still went over his head. But over the past six months, slowly he's begun to pick up more and more about the "object" to the story, the lessons learned. And now, just like his sister, he wants to devour every Berenstain bear book he can find.

His sister was way early. I read her Charlotte's Web when she was four, and she got it. Ethan, we have learned, seems to reach most of his social-emotional milestones about two-three years later than his sister did. But he is reaching them. Maybe there are gaps. But this boy, who by milestone charts alone in the beginning would have appeared to be someone far less than a genius, actually has a high IQ that he uses to make up for the areas where some of the "pieces" are missing. The What to Expect book didn't show us that. Only time did.

So I will take the milestone charts, in small doses, thank you very much. I'll take the information gleaned and put it in my back pocket to pull out for future reference, if needed...but not as my guiding light. Not as the final say in how my child will develop, grow, and thrive.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Questions and Evaluations

I feel as if I can't complain. There are numbers of people I know who have had far greater issues with their public school system, as far as it relates to their child with special needs.

So I won't say I'm complaining. It's more like I'm conflicted. And maybe a little confused.

Here we are, and while it seems hard to fathom, the time to plan out next year for Ethan isn't far on the horizon. At December's parent/teacher conference with the special ed. teachers, they reiterated what I'd started to hear at his last IEP meeting -- that it may be time to look at whether or not Ethan is going to leave special education and go onto a 504 plan instead.

I won't go into too much detail about how it's taken three months now to get this year's revised IEP to sign off on. Apparently the special ed. department in our town is in disarray. The person in charge actually got dismissed for some kind of mismanagement of funds (sigh...). The point is, after several phone calls and a few pointed discussions with people in the main office, I'm finally getting the paperwork. And while we had discussed at Ethan's planning meeting three months ago to NOT move ahead with his tri-annual testing required by law (unless the parent declines), as I thought more about what's looming on the horizon, and began talking to the people running the department, I realized that actually, testing right now is probably a good thing.

In the words of "C." on the phone the other day, "it's all about the data."

Of course. This makes sense. How can we (in the words of the principal in October) question why Ethan is receiving special education services, yet in almost the same breath dismiss the importance of comprehensive testing to see just where he stands? This doesn't make sense, and aside from the fact that it took me several months to realize, I can't get why the professionals in the room didn't offer that up.

But there's no need to dwell on that. The point is: the school is considering dismissing Ethan from special ed. Before they do, we need to make sure this is a wise decision. Obviously, testing will help confirm or dispute that. And so, over the next few months, we're pulling out the big guns. He'll be tested in school and by his developmental pediatrician. And while no one is saying he is going to lose his diagnosis, I am curious as to just what these tests will show.

Here's the thing: I am one of those people who likes to take into account a variety of opinions before making a decision. And when it comes to keeping Ethan in special ed. vs. a 504 plan, I hear many different voices.

I hear the voice of the school staff, saying he'll "be just fine;" he learns quickly; he doesn't need a specialized plan any longer, just some accommodations.

I hear the voice of friends who have older children in special education, their quiet voices of caution that we don't give up too much, too soon, only to find ourselves in a bind later when Ethan runs into new challenges with fewer services at his disposal.

I hear the voice of the developmental pediatrician, always one to downplay the school's enthusiasm, to acknowledge that yes, my son is doing very well, but yes, my son still has a diagnosis and needs more than perhaps the schools want to sometimes give.

And I hear the voice of my mom, one who tries to understand but sees Ethan through the lens of experience with a very different kind of autism, my brother's. When I talk with her, I hear the regrets of living in a different time, with schools that didn't even have an IEP for Andy until he was 7 years old; that let him play in the sink half the day in preschool because it "made him happy;" that claimed his autism "wasn't that serious" so they could deny services, although he tried to bite the people performing his evaluation, and they had to bar the doors to prevent him from bolting. To my mom, I know my concerns are almost superfluous, frivolous. To her, Ethan is a regular kid with a few quirks.

When I talk with her, I began to feel guilt seeping in. I wonder why I would fight for services if it means possibly taking resources away from a child who really needs it?

I wonder, seriously wonder, what, if anything, we should be fighting for. Ethan doesn't seem to need a paraprofessional right now. He doesn't currently need modifications to his schoolwork. He is wrapping up his time in OT. He doesn't have behavioral issues that disrupt the classroom or his learning. He just has some social challenges. I wonder how much, aside from a social skills group, the school is required to help him "get along" with others socially. I wonder if, 30 years ago, Ethan would have just been considered one of those quirky types that doesn't quite fit in.

I wonder if we are living two sides of the coin here: that we've wonderfully reached a point where Ethan no longer needs supports, yet worriedly reached a point where Ethan no longer needs supports, because there isn't much more we can do to help him along with his social challenges. I don't want to change him. But it pains me to think that we may come to a time where he will either have to realize through ridicule or rejection that he needs to change himself in order to get along with other people...or he will remain blissfully unaware, and the fact that he is unaware will hurt only those who love him, while keeping him in own protected little world, happy but alone.

And I wonder if it's possible to argue for services that we might need, in a future we can't see yet. Those at the school like to chide me for thinking of what ifs and making plans just in case. And maybe I do need to be more of an optimist. But at the same time, as a parent, isn't that my job? Don't I need to try to peer down the road and think about possible pitfalls as Ethan heads towards adolescence and beyond? If his parents don't, then who really will?

So, it's a time of questions. I'm tremendously thankful for the way the school year has gone. I really like Ethan's teacher. I can see he's learning in leaps and bounds, and in the social areas, he is growing in smaller leaps and bounds. I just can see that we are straddling this very interesting world between the typical and the not. From our little tightrope we get quite a good view of both worlds...yet don't quite fit into either one of them.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


Back when I sang on the worship team at my old church years ago, we used to do a song called "Undignified." I haven't heard it in years but as I'm writing I can hear the tune running in my head, and remember singing:

Teach me to have a childlike heart
Free me to be undignified
Teach me to have a childlike heart
Free me to walk all over my pride
Of course, the grand irony is when we went to sing the song the first time, several members of the worship team were up in arms and didn't want to sing it. Why? Because the song was simple and in their words childish and it made them feel, rather well, undignified. But that's a story for another time.
These days I'm thinking I don't need a church song or Bible story to remind me about losing my dignity. Pregnancy has to be the greatest teacher of all.
I don't know why this is bothering me so much, this time around. I have many faults but I wouldn't put pride at the very top of the list. I freely share my failings, often in this very blog. I often tell stories about my various airheaded moments. I've found it helps others when you can be as honest as possible about times you've really goofed up.
I've also had two other children. I've been through the drill. I know everything I'm dealing with is for the most part temporary. So I don't know why I'm so touchy about feeling like some kind of specimen.

Here's the thing: pregnancy seems to free up some people to lose their inhibitions and speak more freely than they perhaps normally do. That's the only way I can explain why I've had numbers of people (including staff members at Ethan's school, and the plumber) ask if this baby was a "surprise." Then there is the well-meaning church member who for several months has liked to comment about how a. big I am b. tired I look or c. both whenever I see her. And then there are the touchers. Thankfully, I don't know many of those. As someone who's not normally a huge hugger, there's nothing scarier than someone you don't really know coming at you and wanting to touch your stomach.

But I guess that's not even what I mean when I talk about loss of dignity. Maybe it's the physical ailments. Any woman considering have a child should crack open the "What to Expect" book and jump to month 9 of pregnancy, the "What you may be feeling" section. It's enough to scare anyone away. I recently ran down the list, mentally checking off items. Heartburn? Yup. Swelling feet? You got it. Breathlessness? Check. And on and on. I knew if I attempted some much-needed deep cleaning around the house, I'd feel wiped out. But what's really bad is when climbing out of bed or getting dressed leaves you panting and wanting a nap.

Or maybe it's the visits to the doctor's office, being poked and prodded and studied. I had one doctor unceremoniously squeezing my legs the other day, reassuring me the "swelling wasn't too bad." The sharp pain jutting down my leg to the back of my knee was blown off as just "the baby sitting on a nerve." The male doctors? I have to bite my tongue with this certain one, because he likes to hand out platitudes or wave his hand dismissively. "Every pregnancy is different," he likes to say before I can even finish asking a question. I want to ask him to just pretend to care or listen, because he hasn't done this, and no matter what his books or his experience have taught him, he just doesn't know.

As I'm writing, I guess it's dawning on me, the real source of my indignation. Like new moms, it's good for pregnant women to hang out in "tribes." If you have a group of women basically going through the same thing, who are in the same stage of their lives, you can all commiserate instead of whining to everyone else. Only -- now I'm an older mom. Most people my age have moved on. Their kids are in middle or high school. They're not talking diapers but dating, for goodness sake.

This is a very weird experience, having grown up with parents who had me when they were 20; having a December birthday that always made me the youngest in school; starting several jobs where I was the youngest in the department.

There's nothing like pregnancy to expose it. Darn, when did I get so old? People my age are rejoicing at having some independence; getting their bodies into the best shape of their lives; working jobs and exploring hobbies and are decidedly not walking science experiments, like yours truly.

If I'm really honest, if I really want to shed light on some of that pride I supposedly don't have, I can see that for a long time, I kind of relied on being the youngest one in the room as a sort of excuse. If I hadn't "arrived" yet; if I did something dumb; if I didn't have all the answers, well, it was because I was young and naive. I don't have that luxury anymore. It's time to grow up. Of course, part of growing up is realizing that it's okay to always be learning and to be vulnerable.

In the end, it's all okay. My child is a gift and I already wouldn't trade her for the world. If I lose my dignity but gain a miracle, how can I complain? And like that long-ago song, about the childlike heart, about walking over the pride I claim I don't have? If being undignified means being more like a child...letting go what others think and of my own excuses...being real once again so someone doesn't feel alone in their struggles...having my flaws honestly...loving freely...

...well, then I can shrug off a few well-meaning comments here and there, and I can soldier on through my ailments. The results are well worth it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

For the Love of Northwest (no, not the the Kim and Kanye kind)

Ethan has a new love. It's a direction: namely, northwest.

So, my car has a tiny display screen in the rear view mirror that shows the temperature and direction. Lately we've all had fun watching the thermometer dip precariously close to zero. At the same time, Ethan started learning in school about the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Add that to learning how to read all of the highway signs right near our house (91 North-Springfield/South-Hartford), and directions are becoming a big deal around these parts.

Of course, around here the roads are not straight and simple, as in some places I've visited in the Midwest or west (it's funny to think of driving on cruise control and barely tilting the steering wheel for miles and miles). We always seem to be weaving our way around hills or across rivers or past old cities that were planned by people who weren't thinking. As a result, the directions on my display screen are constantly changing. This had not really been an issue, until Ethan started watching them like a hawk.

"Oh! It's south now! Now southeast. Now we're going west. Back to south." This running commentary would have been bad enough, but Anna decided to get into the action. She taught Ethan about normal and cardinal directions (apparently what she meant to say was "ordinal," not "normal" directions, but whatever!). Then, ever the one to think of ideas her brother would enjoy, she invented what I'd call the "robot announcer" (a.k.a. the Guaranteed-to-Give-Mom-a-Migraine) game. Ethan's role is to announce the temperature, which direction the car is driving, and whether it is a "normal" or cardinal direction, and Anna makes a brief comment on the current weather, followed by a thank you to their imagined listening audience. So, picture something like:

Ethan (in robot voice): Twenty. Eight. Degrees. Southeast. Cardinal direction.
Anna: And now it's time for another weather report! We're seeing mostly cloudy skies with a chance of snow later. Thanks for listening to Anna and Ethan radio!

Four seconds later, as soon as Ethan sees the direction change:

Ethan (robot voice again): Twenty. Eight. Degrees. South. Normal direction.
Anna: And it's STILL cloudy outside, and it's going to snow out there, so bundle up, people!   ...and on and on  and on.

Who knew that on a simple seven-minute ride from Ethan's school to home, we'd change directions about 33 times? Imagine my chagrin when Anna said excitedly, "Just WAIT until we play this game the next time we drive up to Maine!"

Ethan has started to pick up a little more, geographically speaking. In addition to knowing where the sun sets and rises, he's also informed me that south is New York City, and north is Gramma's house.

Somewhere along the way, he also noticed that whenever we pull our car into the driveway, we are pointing northwest. Something about that impressed him -- probably the comfort in the sameness. He knows no matter what, when we pull up and park the car, no matter where we've been, no matter that the temperature may have dropped 40 degrees in eight hours (as happened yesterday), that NW will still appear faithfully in the display.

Northwest has grown near and dear to his heart. As we drive, he takes special pleasure when the display changes to NW. "Northwest!" he always announces happily. "Just like in our driveway." No other direction gets such special treatment. Sometimes he'll even call to me: "Mommy, look! Northwest!" not wanting me to miss the moment.

One day we discussed the northwest. Anna has been to the northwest U.S. -- we took a trip to Seattle when she was two. We talked about what would happen if we got in the car and drove nowhere but northwest, non-stop. My geography could be failing me here, but I thought we'd end up somewhere near Alaska.

But Ethan doesn't want to go on any grandiose adventures. He just wants me to drive to the grocery store or to get gas, so he can watch the directions change. And if we happen to go northwest, well, he's about as happy as any six-year-old you'll find.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Smoke vs. Steam

Those of you with children, have you ever noticed how kids have a way of making you think about questions you'd never pondered before?

Add to that a child on the autism spectrum, and you may really find yourself delving into unfamiliar territory. Before Ethan, I'd never considered why Massachusetts seems to favor "Dead End" signs while Connecticut prefers the "No Outlet" route; why "Mr. John" next door has a fan built into the wall of his garage; or whether a church had bells hiding somewhere (all former Ethan obsessions).

And then I made the mistake of cooking turkey burgers and setting our smoke alarm off.

We cook with ground turkey a lot in our house, probably because I live by this mostly misguided idea that turkey is oh-so-much healthier for us. It's the little things, you know, like ordering that Diet Coke with your McDonalds value meal. So we tend to have turkey burgers, and while I've perfected the recipe (meaning they actually taste like something now), what I can't change is the fact that frying turkey meat make the house really smokey. And our lovely 1940-Cape with no vent for the kitchen stove that wouldn't involve cutting through the ceiling of the next room means our house tends to get smokey whenever I make them. In fact, the smoke alarm almost inevitably goes off when it's winter and no windows are opened.

When I took out the pan, Ethan remembered the last time I'd made them. He stared at the burgers in a panic.

"No, you can't cook burgers," he protested.

"It'll be okay, buddy," I said matter-of-factly, firing up the stove. He continued to stare with laser-like focus. "I don't want the alarm to go off," he whimpered.

The pan started sizzling and the burgers went in. I walked over to the smoke alarm in the dining room, dish towel in hand, preventively whipping at the air to keep smoke away. This sometimes works. Thing is, while cooking dinner, life happens. Someone needs help with homework; the phone rings; I run down to the basement to throw in another load of laundry. As usual, I left the pan for a little too long and forgot about my smoke elimination measures. The piercing beeps started. Ethan threw his hands over his ears, eyes on the alarm, close to tears.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I kept muttering, whipping at the smoke to make it stop, turning down the pan. The whole incident lasted less than a minute. Of course, as with many things with Ethan's mind, it left an indelible imprint of sorts.

I knew it the next morning, when he went to cook his oatmeal. He likes to do everything himself, and takes great pleasure in taking a steaming bowl of instant maple & brown sugar out of the microwave.

This time, he eyed the oatmeal warily. "I don't like that smoke. Is that going to make the alarm go off?"

"Don't worry, that's just steam, not smoke. It's fine."

Ethan liked this answer. It was another rule to add to his repertoire. Smoke sets off fire alarms. Steam does not. And so, for the past few weeks, every puff of white emanating from something hot has gotten the question. "Is that smoke or steam?" he demands.

Of course all of this made me realize once again that, along with math, science is not one of my strong points. What is the difference between smoke and steam? I started to wonder. Am I even giving him the right information? (One more reason right there, folks, why I wouldn't make the world's best homeschooling mom.)

And so, Google was my friend. In case you are wondering:

- Steam is pure water vapor, produced by boiling water.
- Smoke includes water vapor, but also soot and gases like carbon monoxide and sulfur oxide.

The more I kept reassuring Ethan that the pot of boiling pasta water was not going to set off the smoke alarm, the more I wondered: Is that even true? And so I delved and learned that that depends on the type of smoke alarm, and that the cheaper ionization detectors are made to recognize primarily smoke but can sometimes be fooled by steam. Doh. I guess all that steam could technically set the thing off, and then Ethan would feel betrayed. But I'm not saying a word.

That's the tricky thing about talking with someone who has an autism-wired mind: those gray areas. Saying something like, "Well, the steam probably won't set it off, but it might" will cause Ethan undue anxiety. He wants to know yes or no, all or nothing, if this/then that.

Another gray area: how much smoke will actually set off a fire alarm. This kind of all-or-nothing thinking has gotten Ethan into a ball of stress because he thinks anything that is smoking is going to set off the alarm. That includes the smallest of wisps, such as from birthday candles. When we went to church with Dan's parents on Christmas Eve and he saw everyone lighting candles, he was not amused. (Of course, he had already noted where the smoke alarm was the moment we entered the sanctuary). I had to repeat in his ear several times that the candles we were lighting during "Silent Night" were not going to set the smoke alarm into a frenzy.

So here we are, and I'm sure in time the smoke vs. steam obsession will fade into the background, like so many other Ethan fixations. For now, though, I've had my little science lesson, and Ethan remains on the defensive. Just the other day I caught him in the dining room, glaring up at the smoke alarm. With a fierce look he sneered, "I'm watching you."