When you start to notice that your baby is struggling to reach certain milestones, there are usually other parents around you with the same concerns for their own children. You hear from other new parents fretting about speech and spectrums. Not everyone is in that same boat early on, but there is definitely company on board.
Slowly, though, you start to watch as those outside children catch up. Suddenly, that other baby at Music Together is demonstrating all the achievements that you had been hoping to see in your own. The discussions about Autism or any other delays go from being multi-person conversations at Totnastics to internal monologues you have while laying awake in bed at night.
It’s easy to put those concerns out of your mind at times, as long as no one shines a light on things. Having only your child in the house makes his or her successes and failures seem “normal”. If your kid isn’t talking or walking, but there are no other babies of the same age under your roof, you don’t worry as much. Everything is fine.
That happened with my son. As he grew older, the waiting game for his words seemed to stretch further on. We waited for that “da-da” or, well, anything. In the back of my head, I knew he should be saying words. I figured he would eventually catch up to the children his own age who, I’m sure, were saying a basic ma-ma or ba-ba. My head-in-the-sand approach was so strong that I went out of my way to avoid everything that could remind me of the milestones he should be hitting. I even steered clear of watching any old videos of my daughter from when she was his age, for fear that I’d feel the harsh slap of reality.
Then, it happens. A friend comes by with their child, who is nearly the same age as my son, and says those words that start a chain reaction of shame, guilt, and confusion.
“Tell James about school.”
I look down with a smile, expecting some sort of “yay school” clap. Instead, I hear this.
I like school. My teacher is nice. We learning ABCs.
In my head, alarm bells went off. I wanted to grab the kid by the shoulders and scream, “Holy crap! You’re talking! What the heck!” It took all my effort to not turn to the parents and go, “Are you hearing this!? He’s talking in sentences! That’s what they’re up to?! Are you freaking kidding me!?”
It happened on more than one occasion and each time, I never anticipated it. For many years, every time I’d run into a child close to my son’s age, I experienced the same shock of the moment. Today, at eight, Lucas has yet to say his first word and, while I’ve come to a place of understanding, it wasn’t always like that. Staring at that other kid with his smile and stories of nursery school learning made me feel horrible for so many reasons.
The most obvious is that I want my son to have the skills that every child his own age has. That’s a regular part of parenting. My daughter doesn’t have Autism and speaks with no struggle. Yet, if I heard that there was a kid who has learned to fly by flapping his arms, a part of me would sadly think, “Oh. I wish Olivia could do that. She’d like it.” It’s only natural. This is similar to that. It brings some guilt with it.
That guilt was because I was still learning the difference between hoping and needing. I was hoping my son would speak. As I’ve come to realize though, I didn’t need him to speak. He’s a wonderful kid with or without words. I know that now. When he was three, though, I still wasn’t sure, and I hated myself for wondering. Like an onion of shame, this guilt had layers.
That feeling stretched beyond my own home. I was also dealing with guilt over being sad for the achievements of another child – not just another child in many cases, but the child to a friend or family member. Why did that kid’s successes make me feel bad? If little Billy Neighborboy speaks in sentences, it doesn’t affect Lucas. It’s not like there are only so many words to go around and he’s hogging them. If anything, I want that kid to be successful. Heck, I want all kids to be successful. Just because they’re not mine doesn’t mean I would want them to struggle. Who thinks like that? Bad people. That’s who. More guilt.
I want people, especially my loved ones, to show their kids off to me. That’s what friends and family are for. I want to do the same for them. It would make me feel ten times worse to imagine someone in our lives thinking, “I better keep my child hidden from James because it might make him feel bad about his own son.” Just writing that sentence makes me a bit nauseous. That’s because no other child can ever make me feel bad about my son.
That’s something that took time to realize. The guilt that I felt was both unwarranted, but necessary for me to grow as a parent to my son. For every gut punch I ever felt when hearing someone’s small child speak in circles, I never wished to trade my boy for theirs. Lucas has grown into a funny, loving, and unique part of my life. While I’m sure our friends can say the same for their own children, I wouldn’t trade him for anything. Even during some of our most uncertain moments, I always knew that. I didn’t want their kid. I wanted my kid to do the things that their kid did. I wanted that because I thought that would be best for him. The best for him was all I ever wanted and, when you think about it, there’s no guilt in that.
The irony is that it took all those years of watching other kids grow, learn, and surpass some of my son’s developments to see how much love I had for him. As difficult as it is for me as a Dad to admit, I was concerned early on about who Lucas would grow into. Back then, I barely knew him at all. He was still a baby and no one could give me a clear idea of how his Autism would affect our lives. I begged for answers, but no one could give them. So, I defaulted to an imagined image of doom and gloom. The reality never even came close to the fear I created in my head.
As all these self-imposed ultimatums and worst-case-scenarios came to pass, I saw that my love for Lucas still grew every day. I finally understood that those feelings of guilt and worry weren’t happening because I didn’t love him. They were happening because I do love him. I wanted him to be the best boy he could be.
Today, I know he is. He doesn’t need words or trophies to prove it either. All he needs is himself. No one else can compare.