I cried once during our family vacation to Austin last week. Elliott and I were locked in the “family” bathroom stall of a movie theater. He was screaming at me, threatening to throw his chew necklace onto the bathroom floor. We had been watching Monsters U in 3D. (Side note: I hate 3D for the headache it causes me and the extra expense, but it was all that was playing at that time.) During the climax of the film, Elliott accidentally bit his finger. He roared in response. I threw everything in my lap onto the floor and whisked him up into my arms, as the whole theater seemed to turn and stare at us. He was angry that he had bitten himself. He was angry that I was rushing him down the dimly lit stairs and away from the movie. We were in the last row, and it seemed to take hours. I wasn’t worried about him. I know the difference between his screams of rage and his screams of real pain. I was mortified. I was frustrated. I was exhausted. It had been a difficult day.
We burst out of the theater door, and the ushers stared at this screaming, kicking child and his mother who had forgotten she was still wearing the goddamned 3D glasses. They seemed to find us mildly amusing. In the bathroom, I put Elliott down and caught a glimpse of my ridiculous self in the mirror. “I WANT TO WATCH THE MOVIE I WANT MY GLASSES I HAVE BOOGERS EXCUSE ME I HAVE BOOGERS I WANT TO WATCH THE MOVIE NO THANK YOU NO THANK YOU,” he screeched. As calmly as I could, I told him he needed to stop screaming or we would not be going back. He screamed for several more minutes. I considered my haggard, pathetic face in the mirror. I wondered if the people in the hallway could hear us, the horrible things they must be thinking about my parenting abilities. I felt tears well up but I pushed them away.
He finally stopped screaming. We watched the last two minutes of the movie, which no longer made any sense. He wore my 3D glasses because I couldn’t find his, so the final scenes were blurred for me. As the credits scrolled, he said, “Did you like this movie, Mommy?” as if nothing had happened. I had to put my face against the filthy, cold theater floor to reach far enough under my seat to collect all of the items I had dropped.
We stepped out into the blinding light and overwhelming heat and humidity. He demanded his sunglasses, which I produced from my purse. We walked to the car, the boys happily chatting about the movie. Meanwhile, horrible thoughts ran through my brain. I wondered if he loves me, if he has a conscience, if he will be like this, or worse, when he gets older, when puberty hits, when he is bigger than I am. Will he still kick me and scream at me? Will he hurt me? I thought about the woman I know whose autistic son nearly drowned her. He was 22 and had a tantrum in the pool. She had bruises all over her body.
My thoughts were very bleak, and I was feeling very sorry for myself, and I am not proud. As we walked to the car, my face twisted up and tears started pouring. Ben saw me and got upset. Unlike Elliott, Ben has a surplus of empathy. One kid couldn’t care less, and the other cares too much. I know I shouldn’t have cried in front of him, but I couldn’t stop.
Most of the time, I don’t feel like this. Most of the time, being Elliott’s parent is pretty incredible. Every year, every week, every day he is doing something new, and every accomplishment feels like an occasion to celebrate. Most parents are happy when their kids are potty trained, but when Elliott finally pissed in a potty chair, we jumped around the house, giddy with excitement. I felt like shutting down the streets and throwing a parade. It had taken him nearly 3 years.
This morning, I had to wake Elliott up very early to go to an occupational therapy appointment we had been anticipating for months. Elliott has been doing this for years. The appointments are generally several hours long, and the assessors are sometimes patient and kind, and sometimes not. Elliott is asked to perform task after task, often with no breaks. Balance on one foot, skip, do this puzzle, spin, close one eye, do this with your tongue, wear this cap, go into this tube, say this, etc. During the long, traffic-filled drive, Elliott and I played word games, listened to music, looked for sight words in the billboards. I marveled at him. Most kids don’t have to do the crap he has to do, and he is generally so amazing about it. During the assessment, he listened well and tried his hardest. It was over after 2 hours, and he was allowed to play for a few minutes while the therapist discussed the results with me. As he laughed in the other room, she told me everything that is wrong with him, and there were a lot of things. My face grew warm and it became difficult to swallow, but I pushed it away.
I cried as quietly as possible in the car as Elliott sang along to the Hairspray soundtrack. Somewhere inside, I already knew the things she told me, but it didn’t make it less difficult to hear. I took him out to lunch, and as we waited for our food, we played Rock, Paper, Scissors, and he cheated, like always. Then, he grew serious and said, “I love you, Mommy.” He almost never says this unprompted. He was immediately silly again, doing crazy dances to the music playing over the restaurant speakers. I watched him and wondered if he knew that I had been sad, if he was trying to make me feel better in his own way. Who knows.
My highs are a little too high and my lows are a little too low, and that’s how I’ve always been. Maybe it has something to do with my mother’s bipolar disorder. Or maybe that’s just what it’s like being a parent of a kid with special needs. Maybe it’s a little of both. In any case, after some time alone, during which I chainsawed some vines outside and bought a cute new dress, I felt so much better.
My friend Lashawn reminded me of Elliott’s epic tantrums last summer. He would scream and rip away his shoes and clothing, throwing each item in our direction, his face angry and red and tearful. Once naked, he’d throw his body around, slap his own cheeks, writhe against the rough carpet. This would go on for 20 or 30 minutes. This was his response to our first family vacation, to Portland and San Francisco. This went on for weeks, nearly the entire summer. I had actually forgotten about it, maybe because I wanted to. This year, he whined a little and had one major tantrum (fully clothed!), and now he is back to normal. He threatened to throw the necklace, but he ultimately put it back on.
Things still need to get better, but I need to remember how things keep getting better.