I’m the parent of a fourteen-year-old son, and sometimes it feels like he doesn’t like me very much. He barely speaks to me at all, and when he does he’s likely to be listing my faults. He hates my rules and has opinions about my politics. He prefers to spend time alone in his room, and he makes fun of the way I talk. He’s even mentioned on multiple occasions that he’d like a new mom.
Ironically, this same teenager loves to snuggle under a blanket with me on weekend mornings, and will let me hug him for long, cozy stretches of time. Every night at bedtime when I ask him what he’s going to dream about while he’s sleeping, he smiles and says “You!” When I’m not around he asks for me repeatedly, and when he’s feeling insecure he looks to me for comfort. If no one else understands what he wants or needs, or can interpret what he’s trying to say, he finds me because he knows I’ll get it.
His daily vacillation between wanting independence and needing his mother is adorably predictable, if not a little exhausting to navigate. I was a teenager once, and I’ve raised another teenager, so I’m familiar with this push and pull, hot and cold, love and hate performance. I understand that when teenagers act like this it is often their (not so lovable) way of saying they’re ready for more independence and responsibility. The books even tell me it’s developmentally typical.
Nate is Autistic though, and very little about him has ever been “developmentally typical”. He was late to walk, crawl and climb, and he’s still working on his talking and reading. He’s impulsive, emotional and rambunctious, and he requires almost constant supervision. He got the smelly feet, eye rolls and bad attitude of a teenager right on time, but most other milestones are arriving on their own schedule.
Nate’s desire to grow up is undeniably complicated. How do I allow for increased independence when my teenager has an interest in cooking but also has a history of starting fires when he gets close to the stove? How do I encourage a growing autonomy when he’d like to go places on his own but doesn’t remember to look both ways before crossing a street? How do I give him space when he often uses that space to make huge, uncleanable messes?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I owe it to Nate to be looking for them. He is a person with a disability and he deserves to experience the pride of accomplishing something completely on his own. The satisfaction of serving his family a dinner he made with no help. The joy of playing a video game he bought with his own hard-earned money. The freedom of being alone and getting lost in a crowd.
It seems small, but one of my first steps is to focus on the language I use when I talk to him. Although the name “Babycakes” rolls off my tongue as my automatic term of endearment for him, and I’ve been saying it with love to address him for the past fourteen years, Nate has started to object. When I call him Babycakes he screams “Not a baby!” and refuses to move on until I acknowledge my mistake and choose an alternate name. It matters a lot to him, so I’m working on it.
I’m also trying to come up with tweaks to our daily routines that provide him with more choice, more freedom, and more of an opportunity to manage his own time. That’s hard to do with a kid who would choose nothing but his iPad and goldfish crackers if he had freedom and choice, and who eats his meals slower than the pace of evolution, but it’s still important. Until a few weeks ago I was prompting him through each bite of dinner, reminding him every few minutes that it was time to take another mouthful. It was my way of making sure dinner didn’t last so long that it gradually morphed into breakfast. Now, I set a visual timer and give him thirty minutes to complete his meal. How much he eats, and at what pace, are up to him. The results have so far been mixed, and we’ve had more than one bedtime argument over how hungry he is, (“perhaps next time you’ll consider eating more at dinnertime…”) but we’re making progress.
I think my most important effort towards embracing Nate’s growing independence is looking towards the expertise of my adult friends and colleagues who are Autistic or have other developmental disabilities. I know a tremendous amount about being Nate’s mom, but I have no experience being an Autistic person. I don’t know what it’s like to have feelings, ideas, and needs I can’t verbally express, or to see my older brother get a driver’s license when I know I never will. I can’t imagine what it feels like to want desperately to grow up, but to have most of the adults around me trying to keep me childlike and dependent.
By listening to my friends and colleagues I hope to learn what independence and maturity means to them, and to understand their path towards achieving it. How do you forge independence when in some ways you’re still very much dependent? How do I balance Nate’s safety with his freedom? How do I respect the adult he’s turning into, while still maintaining the circle of support around him that’s he’s likely to always need? Again, I don’t know the answers, but I do know it’s critically important to start asking the questions.
Yesterday I opened a heavy glass restaurant door and, while holding it with my raised hand, gestured for Nate to walk under my arm and into the building. It was a ritual I’ve done a thousand times as a parent and it’s my way of ensuring the door doesn’t swing back and smack him in the face while he slowly meanders through the threshold. It’s a choreographed routine we’ve done so often as mother and son that it happens automatically.
This time was different though, because suddenly Nate was too tall to walk under my arm. Instead of holding the door out of his way and ushering him safely inside, I had no choice but to hand him the door and let him hold it open for himself. I knew from experience that by handing him the door, anything could happen. He might have decided to stand in the doorway for a few extra minutes studying the lock mechanism and causing an obstruction to other patrons wanting to get in. He might have decided to close the door between us, turning around and running the other way while I sprinted to catch up with him. He might have let the door slip out of his grip and had it bump him painfully in the shoulder, causing a scream and raised welt. And of course, there’s the very likely possibility Nate would choose a fourth option that I don’t even have the creative capabilities, free time, and open-mindedness to imagine.
Being fourteen means standing in the doorway and determining for himself how the story ends. Being the mom of a fourteen-year-old means standing back and watching, scared and uncomfortable but also mesmerized and excited. Being the mom of Nate means there will be messes, mishaps, and incredible moments of joy, and also a wide-open future full of potential and adventure.
My promise to Nate is that I’ll keep pushing myself, even when it gets uncomfortable, to let him grow into the independent, self-determined grown man he wants to be. My other promise is that if the door swings back and hurts him, even a little bit, I’ll always be there with giant bowl of goldfish crackers and a very long hug.