Parenting my spirited daughter, S, has always been a balance of encouraging her admirable sense of adventure while setting limits to keep her safe. When she was in preschool, the other moms of young children would look at me with scorn as I allowed S to climb to the very top of the “big kid” structures… well beyond what they considered to be a safe place for a three-year-old to be.
But that’s how it’s always been with S. Her independence, curiosity and fearlessness are a powerful cocktail of personality traits that always send her seeking the next big challenge. When those traits are channeled in a positive direction, it is a sight to behold. One of my favorite activities of the week is gymnastics. I love to sit in the viewing area and watch S in her natural environment. I’m not a gymnast, so I don’t know the names of anything… but she’s recently learned to do this stunt where she bounces on a mini-trampoline, launches herself hands-first onto a raised mat, then does a flip into the foam pit. The look of pride and confidence that radiates from her face as she emerges from the pit is absolutely priceless. It makes me want to rush down to the gym floor and envelope her in an enormous maternal bear hug. But I resist.
I resist not only because I would look a little ridiculous down on the gym floor, among the leotard-clad pre-teens. I resist because S is not one for bear hugs, maternal or otherwise. Unlike G, who I often have to pry off me, S is not big on physical signs of affection. They intrude on her growing sense of independence.
You may have noticed that most of my parenting stories on this blog are about G. Yes, this blog is about autism, and G is the one who is actually autistic, so it’s natural that the focus is on him and his challenges and successes. But, the truth is, it’s deeper than that.
My relationship with G is straight-forward. Uncomplicated. When I think about parenting G, I reflect on moments when I’ve needed to learn new skills. I’ve needed to adapt my understanding of a situation or adjust my thinking to include a new perspective. But whatever the external challenge, the bond between me and G is solid. I am the center of his universe, period. Whatever difficulty he is facing, he looks to me to fix, and I do.
My relationship with S (at least at the moment) is much more complex. When she is facing a challenge, I am much more likely to be the source of her difficulty, not the solution. I am the rule-maker, the limit-setter, the enforcer. These days, she is often mad at me, or we are mad at each other. She wants so much independence. It’s a challenge for me to maintain a connection when she is pulling so hard to establish her independence.
Every once in a while, the small child I know is in there rises to the surface. She had had an argument with a friend over the weekend, and on Monday I could tell it was still bothering her. Everything about her body language was closed off, and she was refusing to talk about it. After resisting my overtures for an hour, she finally broke down. She climbed onto my lap, rested her head on my shoulder and cried. The words came spilling out.
As much as I hated seeing her in distress, I was relieved when she finally let me in. Standing on the other side of her emotional wall, there was no way for me to help. I was grateful that, once she opened up, I was able to bring some comfort to her when she needed it.
I look ahead to the turbulent tween/teenage years. I know S and I are going to have some difficult times. I completely admire S’s independence and determination. Those are the qualities that are going to separate her from the pack. She has the fortitude and the confidence to take risks, and you can’t accomplish anything important without taking risks. I just hope that we will continue to share a connection even as the pull of outside challenges grows stronger.
For now, while I love the fearless, independent S… I’m also grateful for the moments of dependence that are growing fewer and farther apart. And because she is a bit more reserved with her affection, I’m enormously grateful for the moments when she expresses those deeper feelings. (Picture below of the best Mother’s Day card I could possibly ask for… made even sweeter by the fact that she made it on her own, completely unprompted).