Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Parenting Mirror

Rosie is a thirty-seven inch, thirty-four month bundle of energy and muscle. She turns somersaults, jumps effortlessly to the ground from the fifth step, scales the fronts of cupboards, and throws and kicks with amazing accuracy. When she goes into the back yard, the first thing she wants to do is play basketball, much to the delight of her father. Ed was an All-State basketball player in high school, and although has half a dozen kids, Rose is the first one who has shown much interest or proficiency in throwing a basketball.

"She gets her athleticism from me," he says, deadpan, waiting for someone to come in and correct him.

We've also been known to joke that the only way Ed was going to get kids with dark hair and eyes like he has was to adopt them from China.

Parents seem quick to attribute their children's good qualities to their own genetic contributions; I've also been known to attribute some of the kids' less-than-stellar qualities to their dad. The boys' lack of interest in leaving the house once they've come home for the day, even for something fun, is so frequently seen among members of Ed's family that it even has a name-- Minertia.

Ten years ago, I was still finding my footing as the mom of my first child, Bryce. We'd spent the first three years of his life delighting over all of his superior qualities. As a baby, he had enormous blue eyes and a cue-ball bald head. When he walked at nine months and started talking shortly thereafter, I patted myself on the back, because I must have been doing something right, or at least contributed my superior genetics. We loved the way that he learned entire movie scripts verbatim and repeated them whenever he watched the films-- he'd grow up to have a mastery of standardized tests, just like his dad. We praised and praised and praised him, and saw ourselves reflected in that praise. The things that raised red flags for his preschool teachers (no interest in playing with other kids, having a hard time sitting during circle time, not making eye contact) were things that to us just showed a strong will that would serve him well later in life.

So when the teachers referred us to Early Intervention and he was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, I was crushed. Yes, part of it was solely worry on Bryce's behalf-- would he ever go to mainstream school? Would he be smart? Would he be able to live on his own? Make friends? Have a fulfilling life? Whenever I asked these questions, the specialists were evasive. "It's too soon to tell," they said. But a large part of my anxiety at that time was also self-directed. Was there something I could have done to prevent this? Was it because he was so small when he was born? I'd followed What to Expect When You're Expecting to the letter, and the doctor had assured me that babies are sometimes small, but what if I did something wrong during my pregnancy that I didn't know about? Had I been too indulgent during his babyhood? Should I have forced a greater variety of foods on him? Were my genes bad? In some ways, I feel like the diagnosis tarnished how I saw him-- it took away my innocence and my joy-- the things that had made him special now just made him abberant. It took me a long time to get the joy back.

Bryce was almost eleven when Rose was born, half a world away in China. We did not contribute her genetic makeup, I did not grow her in my womb, but she has been our daughter in our hearts ever since she was five months old, and has been with us now for nearly two years. We brought her back to the hotel on the day she was placed in our arms, and looked her over from head to toe. Unlike with our biological kids, we didn't try to figure out, "your toes, my hair, your long body, my gentle personality." She was completely herself. And over the last few years, as the force of her personality has become evident (a force that likely kept her alive during the first few months living as a cleft baby in an orphanage), it's been freeing to attribute those personality traits only to herself. Her sense of fun, her determined will, her propensity to throw and hit and kick at everything in sight when she gets angry.

And while I've learned lots of lessons over the last several years of being an adoptive parent, one of the most surprising has been the way it has changed the way I see all of my children. I do my best to raise them, individually, according to their needs, but ultimately, they are all their own people, and not reflections of me. By divorcing my genetic contribution from the equation with Rose, I could see that the important factors in parenting all of my children were my actions as a parent and my children's actions, and not all of the complications of the mirror. I couldn't see that with my older kids, and in some ways it makes me wish that I'd adopted Rose and Eli first, because it would have taken some of the pressure off everyone else.

Last weekend, when Annie and I were out of town together, we were stopped several times on the street by people who said, "Wow, you must be mother and daughter, you look exactly alike." It was kind of fun (at least for me, Annie may have been mortified), and I know that Rose and I will never have that experience. People are more likely to say, "You're her mother?" with incredulity in their voices, or just to assume that I'm the nanny. But we both know that we're mother and daughter, and I think that in becoming her mother, I freed myself of some of the pressure that so many of us feel with parenthood, that our children will reflect us in a positive light. I will push this girl to be the best Rose she can be every day of her life, but it's for her, and not for me.


Sarah said...

Thanks! I really enjoyed hearing your perspective - a perspective that I don't think I'll ever have, but such an important one for me to understand. You've given me some good things to think about. :)

bluestocking mama said...

Love this, Shelah. I have a hard time ignoring that parenting mirror.