In retrospect, there were many instances that should have given me some inclination that my youngest son was...different. Now, I don't mean The Omen
different, or solving mathematical theorems on his etch a sketch different, or talking to the animals different. But he definitely had a purposeful intensity that was sometimes merely frustrating; sometimes downright frightening. Looking back, I should have seen these instances as symptoms of a larger issue, rather than isolated events that often caused me to meet my husband at the door with a wad of cash and beg him to take the kids to McDonald's playland while I had a quiet breakdown huddled in the shower.
It wasn't until my sister, who has holds a degree in Child Psychology and who worked for many years in a home for profoundly disturbed children, came to me somewhat hesitantly to suggest that he might be "Spirited
", that I ever considered his "differentness" might have a name. She also mentioned the term "ODD". After clarifying the exact meaning of "ODD" (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) I did not comment further, and she wisely took this as my unwillingness to even consider that my son might be suffering from such a pernicious sounding disorder. I had considered that he might be Autistic, however. He didn't speak a word until he was three years old and at times, he seemed to be completely oblivious to my presence, despite the fact that I was screaming at the top of my lungs..."Diminutive One...NOOOOOOO!! Do NOT flush that down the toilet/put that in your mouth/dump that on the living room carpet!!!
The speech thing in itself gave me many sleepless nights. My oldest said his first word at ten months and was speaking complete (ableit short and simple) sentences at about fifteen months. Therefore, Diminutive One's lack of verbalization worried me a great deal. Should I take him to a therapist or should I just wait him out??? I wondered. My husband thought it was a moot point. "Honey, he can follow detailed commands, he's invented an entire language of hand signals that other people actually understand, and he knows how to use the remote and the VCR. He doesn't have scrambled eggs for brains. He'll talk when he's ready." he reasoned. Easy for him to say. It's not the Dad that gets blamed when kids end up scarred for life. It's always the Mom. But he was right. Cognitively, Diminutive One did seem to have a leg up. In fact, he was almost too smart, as was clearly illustrtated to me the day of the Great Bathtime Fakeout.
Diminutive one has always loved to bathe. When he was just a tiny infant he would kick and splash with glee when placed in his baby tub. He would pucker up and wail disconsolately when removed, even when the water had gone cold. During his bath was really the only time I could expect to sit for an extended period, as he would happily remain in the bath for an hour, sometimes more, and so I gladly indulged his love of bathing.
One evening when Diminutive One was about 18 months old, I had bathed and jammied him and then put his brother in the bath to soak while I read Diminutive One a story. Diminutive one was not happy that a bath was taking place without him in it, and repeatedly pantomimed that he wanted to get in the tub with his brother. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly he accepted my refusal, as normally such an instance would provoke hours of begging, pleading, and tantrumming. I should have known his relatively swift acquiescence was too good to be true, but I assumed it was because it was near bedtime and he simply didn't have the energy to kick up much of a fuss. He had unceremoniously given up napping about a month earlier you see, much to my deep and abiding sorrow.
So, accepting defeat, he performed a series of gestures that roughly translated, meant: "Mother, I am desirous of reading Goodnight Moon. Sadly, it was left in my brother's room when you read it to both of us last evening, and now I must retrieve it so that you can read it eleven more times. I do so enjoy the lively verse, you know." I nodded my assent and settled back in the rocker, trying not to let my eyelids drift downward. Suddenly, I heard a splash and an indignant shout. I knew immediately what had happened. He had faked me out. I rose wearily and shuffled to the bathroom. Sure enough, there sat Diminutive One, fully dressed, splashing happily and looking as smug as a person realistically can with an Elmo pacifier nestled between their rosy lips.
That should have been the catalyst for some clarity and realization. Perhaps not complete realization, but at least sneaking suspicion. But instead, I was amused, and grudgingly impressed with his ingenuity, as well as his determination in achieving his objective. I thought it was cute. The wily little varmint.
Things escalated as things like that have a way of doing, and I often felt that my days were just a series of near catastrophes strung together. The daunting task of keeping him alive was wearing me to a frazzle. I could not take my eyes off of him for a single moment, which resulted in a lot of domestic backsliding. Being a neatnik, that was getting to me almost as much as being on gaurd against impending disaster every moment of every day.
Finally, I hit upon the idea of creating a giant playpen out of the toy room, which in actuality was our dining room, and was centrally located on the lower level of our home. It was PERFECT. I could see and hear him from just about any place on the lower level. I installed heavy duty baby gates on each of the two entrances, baby proofed the hell outta the room, and voila! He was secure. And the real beauty of it was, that he rarely even realized he was being confined. I could clean again! I could go get the mail. I could have a bowel movement without having to stop mid-poo because things were simply too. damned. quiet. I allowed myself to be lulled into a false sense of security, which set the stage for the Great Refrigerator Caper.
You have to know that what Diminutive One loves best, are sweets. Left to his own devices, he would gorge himself on cakes, candy and junk food until he fell into a diabetic coma. We figured out pretty quickly that cabinet locks are absolutely useless when you are living with the mother of all sugar addicts and so we took to storing the forbidden fruit on top of the refrigerator. Nevertheless, I would often find him roaming around with a sweet treat clutched in his sticky little fist. It seemed he had learned to save for a rainy (or cookieless) day, but my search for his secret stash was unsuccessful. One day I happened to move one of the living room chairs to vacuum beneath it and out fell an amazing assortment of contraband. Problem solved, or so I believed.
Later that same day, after disposing of his stockpile, I deposited him in the "playpen" and ran upstairs to gather up dirty laundry. The laundry room is just off the kitchen and as I passed through, my heart leapt into my throat and I dropped the laundry basket in abject terror. Diminutive One was sitting on top of the refrigerator, blissfully munching frosted animal crackers. As I clambered up to retrieve him, he giggled. "MMMMMMMMMM", he said and rubbed his tummy.
A quick glance told me all I needed to know. To clear the baby gate, he had constructed rudimentary stairs out of Chubs (obsolete brand of baby wipes) boxes. They looked like giant legos and so we kept them to play with. Since we had started collecting them when my oldest was a baby we had a plentiful supply. They were made out of sturdy plastic, and interlocked quite nicely. They made ideal building material. I can't help thinking that he had been hatching the idea for quite some time, but knowing it was a one shot deal, had saved it for a worthy occasion. After that, he used a combination of kitchen chairs, stepstools, and the shelves of the kitchen cabinets to reach his destination. He was 2 1/2. My peace of mind was shattered. I cried knowing he would never, ever be safe.
It seems only fitting that the love of his life (sweets)is what finally compelled him to speak his first words in an astonishing display we now refer to as The Great Birthday Revelation.
My oldest son was turning 6 and for the occasion I had fashioned two gigantic Pokeballs out of yellow cake baked in semi-spherical baking pans. I laid them on a field of green coconut and placed key Pokemon characters all around. It was quite artistic, if I do say so myself. I kept them under wraps until we were ready to sing Happy Birthday and was highly gratified by the ooohs and aaaaaahs that were inspired by my creation. As I was cutting the cake, Diminutive One was sort of lost in the sea of gimme hands, and apparently felt it incumbent on himself to make his needs absolutely clear. He tugged on my shirt and when he had my attention he opened his mouth and said "I want summa dat. MMMMMMM." he pointed to the cake, just to make sure there was no mistake. My husband and I looked at each other, agog. "Did you...?" "Did he....?" Oh my God, he can speak!!! Whereupon we both burst into tears. Mr. Moot point was clearly was not as blase as he had led me to believe about the whole thing.
So...there you have three examples of fledgling "Spiritedness". I relate them to you here for all those parents who might be thinking that their child is "different" in some way. I want those of you who are struggling to know that it is possible to one day look back and laugh at the many adventures of raising a Spirited Child and also, to understand that it can be an incredible learning experience. I must constantly redefine my parenting beliefs and that's really not a bad thing. It has resulted in tremendous personal growth and increased self-awareness. It has forced me to take a more creative approach to parenting issues I once thought very cut and dried, and to think more carefully about the kind of parent I want to be. My Spirited Child has taught me far more than I have taught him.
He is an amazing kid, and one thing I have learned is that qualities I find so frustrating and challenging now are those that will take him far in life. I have learned to see them not just as parenting challenges, but assetts that will allow him to achieve any goal that he sets for himself. I've also learned to separate the kid from the behavior, and not allow the many fine qualities he possesses to be eclipsed by it. He has a fabulous sense of humor, he is incredibly creative and he has an insatiable curiosity about how things work. He can argue a point like Clarence Darrow. And he has a tender streak that he doesn't often allow to be seen, but which seems to assert itself just when I need it most.
So though he still challenges me on a daily basis, I think we're going to do okay. We talk a lot, and we've both perfected the art of apology. I still have days where I believe I am screwing him up beyond repair, but they are fewer and farther between now. Of course, I don't know what the teen years are going to bring, but his father, of whom his paternal grandmother swears he is the spit and image in temperment as well as appearance, made it through adolescence in almost one piece, so I am cautiously optimistic.
In the South there is an aphorism that states "You pay for your raising", which means that the heartache you caused your parents will be revisited upon you by your own children. If there is any cosmic sense of fair play, he will marry a girl with similar proclivities and be repaid, erm...blessed with children even more Spirited than he. Only then will he fully appreciate the fact that human mothers do not devour their young.
I'm perfectly willing to wait.