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Growing Up

By Megan Wilcox Goates

At what point does a person realize she is now more or less old?

Is it when she personally finds the cold-shoulder trend in women’s clothing hideous? Or is it when her teenager inadvertently points out her agedness? (Asking for a friend.)

Seventy-five percent of my children have special needs. This is not hyperbole, it’s math. I have four sons; three of them are on the autism spectrum, albeit at various points and with vastly different ability levels. My eldest son does not have autism.

Because this is my rather specialized life experience, I often write stories about disabilities parenting. It’s like regular parenting, but next-level!

(Special needs parents are basically just parents, but we deal with way more poop.)

The exception to this family dynamic is Eldest Son. He is my other, my “typical,” my trial run and guinea pig. And he came first, so the poor boy is the recipient of me figuring out how to do parenting, even as I am attempting the esoteric raising of my other sons.

“Why is Jack eating chips for dinner? I want chips,” Eldest Son was known to ask about Second Son in his younger days.

“Because Jack won’t eat what we’re having for dinner, but he will eat chips, and I need him to eat so he won’t be grumpy and hurt people,” are actual words I have uttered in response to such questions.

The other day Eldest Son fell asleep on the couch after high school while I exercised nearby in front of the TV. I have one main health goal: to increase my core strength, which giving birth to my children annihilated. Whatever core strength was left after I birthed my kids, I then destroyed in those early child-raising years by prioritizing sleep, sugar, and survival over working out.

With my pregnancy days in the past and a radiant desire to banish persistent back pain, I now do a daily series of targeted exercises, which are making me stronger, yet simultaneously more irritating to Eldest Son, apparently.

With a grumpy face, he looked over his shoulder at me during my workout.

“Can you stop doing that?” he asked, bleary-eyed from his napping couch. “It’s annoying.”

My crime? Exhaling as I did lunges.

The teen, the firstborn of my womb for whom I sacrificed my abs, my sleep, and my personal freedom, was annoyed by the fact that I was BREATHING.

Sometimes he will get up off the couch and try out the exercises I’m doing. Inevitably, he tells me, “This is so easy. It’s actually hard for you?”

“Of course it’s easy for you,” I glare. “You’re sixteen and an athlete. I’ve got news for you, clown. I lost my healthy core giving you life and raising you up, so show a little respect.”

Now that he is driving and dating, and now that I am (to him) old and infirm, the relationship between Eldest Son and me is changing. He’s eager to point out that he brakes better than I do when driving (which is actually quite subjective), and that I know nothing about teen girls (though I used to be one) and am surely a suspect source of advice.

He’s allergic to me.

At least, that’s what a recent New York Times article on teens says. My sister sent me the piece, which talks about how teens reach a point where they desire to distinguish themselves from their parents. It’s a by-product of their burgeoning independence, this sudden-onset parental allergy.

It’s normal developmental step that is so very far away from the day when my then-four-year-old Eldest Son sat eating a grilled cheese sandwich in the kitchen before preschool and asked in his little voice, “Can I live with you forever, Mom? When I grow up, I always want to stay with you.”

As we drove around running errands together last weekend, I helped him prepare the lesson he was assigned to give in his Priests’ Quorum. He noted in his phone, word for word, every point and suggestion I made for the topic of The First Vision.

“Wait, say that again,” he said more than once as his thumbs flew over his phone screen.

Do you realize you’re old (ish) when your progeny finds your very presence maddening? Or are you wise (ish) when said progeny comes to you for help?

His brothers are special, with distinct needs, and thus Eldest Son’s role in our family is also unique. From an early age, he intuitively stepped in to help his brothers, protecting them from harm, and defending them from judgment. He came first, I am convinced, to lead the way. In some ways, he bridges the gap between a parent and a big brother: caring, helping, teasing, tormenting, teaching.

He has watched, his whole life, as his mom and dad have struggled mightily as special-needs parents. He’s an independent teen now, and while he spends his time doing teen things, he still plays with the boys. He understand them. He accepts them.

My firstborn may be allergic to my very presence at the moment, but as we coexist, I see him teaching me what charity looks like.

He is getting older, and I am too. We’ve grown up together: he through his childhood and me through my Everest of motherhood.

On the Thanksgiving when he was six years old, I asked him what he was thankful for, fully expecting him to say “Power Rangers.” But he sat thinking for a minute and instead said, “Well, I’m thankful I have a brother.” He was thankful for Second Son, his little brother, who couldn’t speak, who still can’t speak.

The years of trauma spent caring for family members with extreme behavioral disabilities often featured my husband at work and me on the front lines of autism. I believe this is the other reason why Eldest Son was born first–to be with me through the hardest days at home. Even as a little boy, he did this. He stood by me through the worst days. He just knew. He understood and he helped.

Two weeks ago, Eldest Son sliced off a chunk of his right index finger with a utility knife while trying to punch a hole in a leather belt. He hurried to my husband and me, dripping blood and visibly shaken. While we applied pressure to the rather gruesome wound, he turned and looked down at me (he’s taller now) and admitted, “I’m scared.”

We stood face to face, my brown eyes holding his green gaze. Our heads, topped with different shades of red hair, leaned in close together and I assured him, as he has done for me with his intuitive and compassionate presence these last sixteen years:

You are going to be okay.”

About Megan Wilcox Goates

Megan Wilcox Goates is raising four fire-cracker sons while reading all the books and teaching writing to university students. She writes about faith and special-needs parenting at tooursurvival.com

8 thoughts on “Growing Up”

  1. I see so much of my own relationship with my teenage oldest son in this writing. The only difference in our case would be that while he too is older brother to a younger sibling with special needs and behavioral difficulties and has watched his parents "struggle mightily" with that, he isn't understanding. He is angry. I don't know how to fix it, and his criticism cuts me so much more deeply than he knows; it is probably one of the most painful parts of this parenting experience.

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  2. Beautiful Megan. He sounds like a great kid, a great teen kid even. And while he is very understanding, I can't help but think someday when he's raising hellions of his own and the full weight of that responsibility settles on his shoulders, that your standing in his eyes will go from "mom I'm allergic to who breathes too hard" to "most amazing woman in the entire Universe." He may not know it now, but one day he will stand in awe of you. I know I do.

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  3. Oh, this is a difficult time. I have a 20 year old and a (nearly) 17 year old. They are pushing me away very strongly (unless they need money). When I was in my twenties, I read a poem (which I can't name or find) about a man walking with his two school-aged children. It's evening, and the sun is casting their shadows before them. The children run ahead and step on the shadow their father is casting. He asks, "Will I love you when you grow up and really step on my head?" I've read the psychology about individuation, but it still hurt when my son bellowed at me the day he left on his mission: "Eighty percent of the reason that I'm going on a mission is to get away from YOU!" Fun times. Hugs from me as you "catch your breath" through this stage.

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