One of the consequences of having an autistic child, was being left with the feeling that I am less than his mother: That I am his babysitter, teacher, therapist. I am all these positions and carry the responsibilities that come with them – the success of my caring, teaching and therapies are assessed by external agencies and the results shared with me. I am given feedback on how to improve, or pats on the back for doing a good job.
The feeling of constantly being assessed, and not having the freedom and rights of a mother, started prior to the diagnosis since I was initially held responsible for my son’s developmental delays and “behavioural problems”. It was made all the harder to feel like a mother, when my son wouldn’t hug or kiss or say “I love you” when he reached the age that he otherwise could have.
It got worse once I had the diagnosis because suddenly there were three government ministries deeply involved with our lives, constantly sending along people to assess my son, and my successes (or failures) as his “primary caregiver”.
I should add that I have often received glowing reviews, and even received the praise that I am the most dedicated parent one of the government therapists had ever worked with. But there have been plenty of “do this longer”, “do that less” and “you’re doing that wrong” along the way, that lead to physical and emotional burn-out more than once.
This feeling of being less than a mother, is made worse by living in a time of abundant “oughtisms”. I use that term to refer to the trend in the modern parenting world, where “shoulds” have seeped into every aspect of family life: where once there were many different and successful ways in which you might choose to raise your child – with your own common-sense, family values, motherly love and family support as all the guidance you needed (or wanted) to raise your child. Now instead you are expected and encouraged to do what you’re told by external bodies for every decision – from breast-feeding to nappy-changing to discipline. And not following the advice isn’t simply a “choice” as a parent, it is a morally reprehensible act. It’s not enough to use a legally safe car-seat, you have to use the rear-facing one with a 5-point harness until your child is four years old…
The internet and the opening of our lives on forums and social groups, intensifies this effect. It allows both friends and strangers to comment and criticise on parenting decisions, even when (as is usually the case) not enough information is provided to make such criticisms. I am reminded of being on a forum where someone shared a photo of her son expecting everyone to say how cute he was. What she got instead was a barrage of criticism that she had her three-year old still in a highchair, as he was in the photo. She tried to explain that it wasn’t a usual situation – that they were out in a restaurant at the time and other factors were going on, but she was so upset by all the comments that she took the photo down anyway.
I eventually reached the stage where I took the power back in my parenting – blocking out the constant stream of oughts, both in regards to parenting in general, and to raising an autistic child. I still take in all the information that comes forward, but I don’t let myself get emotionally blackmailed into going against my mothering instincts, and common-sense. Once I took that power back, I realised how all those “oughtisms” were also standing in the way of me feeling free to simply love my son, and not just feel like an underpaid worker looking after my son on behalf of society.
It has been much easier to feel like a mother to my second-born, because I’ve gained the strength through all the experiences with my first-born. We raise our second son according to our own ideals – for example we try to follow the Montessori method for raising infants, rather than the over-protective and restrictive modern preferences. I still get the barrage of shoulds that I always did, though at least no one’s attacking me this time around for delaying his development. I still have government agencies breathing down my neck for my first-born, with that unspoken threat of taking away my son if they see something they don’t like, but I don’t let that paralyse me with fear and the non-thinking compliance they seem to desire.
I love both my sons, and always will. And that is the best and most important guide to doing the best by my boys – all the oughtisms in the world can’t replace it.
I am a mother, nothing less.