“But Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. An unhealthy mother’s love is withering.”
Anne Lamott, “Why I Hate Mother’s Day”
In honor of my child, Micah, and with a nod to Anne Lamott
Not sure who started it, but “luv you, buv you” caught right on in our family. We say it a lot. We say it in our king size bed when the three of us lie down, all cozy, and talk our 7 year old son to sleep. Some nights lately, Micah says “luv you, buv you” or just “luv you” to us a dozen times, and each time, we say it back, until it is tempting to ask him to stop. It finally occurred to me, that there must be a reason he keeps repeating this. He’s not quite getting his love needs met. Our languid “luv you buv you, too”s weren’t doing it.
One day recently, he walked into the little room where I exercise to DVDs, and said, “Mom must be turning 79 on your next birthday in July,” and then “You don’t love me as much you used to.” Somehow, death was linked with the loss of love in this seeming non-sequitur. I had felt gloomy and was withdrawn that day, even though I thought it wasn’t showing much.
Micah picks up on these things. It doesn’t take shouting, harsh reprimands, irrational punishments or crazy consequences for him to know when he is not being loved. He’s always been that way. When he was 3, we read a book called The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron, and thought, “This is our kid.” By the time he was 5, we were hearing painful echoes of “Asperger’s,” “Autistic Spectrum Disorder,” and “Sensory Processing Disorder,” from people like our pediatrician, the preschool teacher, and even strangers.
It took a long time to come to the conclusion, with a psychologist, that he is on “the spectrum,” if on the high functioning end. One of the reasons it was hard to accept this diagnosis is he so exquisitely sensitive to us, to God, to animals, to plants, and to anything created. When he was 3, we often watched home repair videos on the computer because he enjoyed them. When a commercial for a mouse trap was advertised, Micah’s eyes welled up with tears. We have introduced the idea of the food chain very slowly to him even though he is 7 now. He has finally accepted that fleas must die in our house.
Rondalyn Varney Whitney, author of Nonverbal Learning Disorder: Understanding and Coping with NLD and Asperger’s—What Parents and Teachers Need to Know, says this of Spectrum kids, “The message these kids bring is, ‘If you tell me exactly what you mean, if you are honest with me and kind to me, I’ll be the most amazing kid you’ve ever met. And if you’re not, I’ll be your worst nightmare. Not because I’m trying to punish you, but because I don’t know how else to be. So you can use me as measure of your clarity, your honesty, and your kindness. Here I am.’” And she is right. There is no fooling our child (or any child) with conditional love.
Sometimes, when Micah can’t get a bad memory out of his head, something that I have done, he says, “I love you…but sometimes you make mistakes.” And we talk about the memory. Lately it is a memory of a time when Micah and I drove to the pet store in town—two years ago. He enjoyed watching a worker install a water filter in a fish tank, and peppered him with questions. Until the guy stopped talking, entirely. Embarrassed, I tried to get Micah to leave with me, but he wouldn’t. Finally, I pulled him out of the store.
For many children, this is one of many every-day scenes where parents take control physically, or deliver consequences as though the child actually had bad intentions. Too many moments like that to remember, and maybe kids get used to it, or change their behavior, or harden their hearts. But our son won’t let us get away with the parenting we ourselves were raised with.
From reading Alfie Kohn (Unconditional Parenting), to Naomi Aldort (Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves), I have had to look at my parental underbelly and see what was there. I realized that I learned, somewhere along the way, to live in my head, and to keep my emotions well in check. Not because I don’t feel them; just the opposite. But I have learned a self-protective way of being in the world. That emotional style impacts how I parent Micah.
The last year, Micah has been intensely, loudly sad and scared over many things—monster play at preschool, our two cats getting out of the house and disappearing for a day, moving from a house he loved, and seeing a deer carcass in the forest near the new house—to name but a few. My son has expressed deep and terrifying emotions—guttural cries, copious tears and much anxiety in the aftermath.
Around the time all these crises began, I read The Whole Brain Child, by Siegel and Bryson, which helped me see how I needed to change my response to Micah’s emotional storms. I realized that I retreat to my rational left brain when overwhelmed. I needed to re-engage the right brain, where my emotions are formed, in order to truly connect with and calm my son when he was distressed. My too-calm voice when he was upset did not match the measure of my love and commitment to Micah’s well-being.
So I have gone to work on my brain in those moments that frighten us. I have looked carefully at Micah’s tear-stained face and tried to remember feeling that tenor of sadness, fear and vulnerability that only a child can feel. I have felt that upset, too; we all have. And somehow that memory trace from my own childhood has been just enough to kick-start true feelings of empathy that Micah can lean on in his most scary moments. When I empathize with my words, my feelings match now.
The other day, I read this cool verse from the Bible, and thought of Micah not being quite satisfied with our responses to his love at night: “He will exult over you with singing, as on the day of a festival” (Zeph. 3). God will karaoke and have a party over you. Just as Micah needs my true empathy, so he needs that kind of delight, exultation, rejoicing over who he is.
In my “I love you”s and “luv you buv you”s, he wants to hear in my voice tone the height and depth of my emotions. What Micah demands is divine love. That’s what he knows he deserves. And as I tap into both divine rejoicing and my right brain, he will know for sure that he is loved.