Taking off the Training Wheels

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“Pedal faster! Keep the wheel straight. That’s it!”

“You won’t let go?” I asked her.

“No. I’ve got you.” She said, but something in her voice sounded peculiar to my young ear. I turned my head around, expecting to see her running lopsided behind me while holding the back of the flowered banana seat I was perched on, but she wan’t there. Instead of helping me balance on this contraption, she was on the other side of the vacant church parking lot laughing and clapping!

“Mama!” I cried out in anger and fear.

Her face reflected my fear and she yelled, “Watch where you’re going!”

I crashed in into the shrub-covered fence row before she finished her admonition. I lay there tear-stained and twisted in thorny bracken—my hands and knees bleeding from the painful prickles and pavement. It would be several months before I attempted to ride a bicycle again.

Remembering the difficulty I had in learning to ride a bike, (I finally did, thank you very much) has caused me to put the lesson off as long as possible for my own kids. However, for Christmas two years ago, they both got bikes. I, as the perpetually fearful mom, made certain they came with training wheels. They adored riding them, and I loved that the training wheels kept them upright and scab-free. They soon broke the training wheels and out-grew their bikes, and it became clear to me that they would need new outdoor play things this Christmas. To continue procrastinating the bicycle lesson, I searched for alternatives to the two-wheeled-thorn-crashing-machine. I finally settled on my items; getting one kid a knee board and the other a pair of skates. Based on their squeals and excited, “Yes!” exclamations, I nailed Christmas and congratulated myself for both appeasing them and steering clear of bikes for another year. Enter my awesome Uncle and Aunt from Knoxville.

We don’t visit with them enough throughout the year. Isn’t that what we all realize about our family during the Holidays? Each year, they drive down to celebrate with us, but have only recently started a new tradition of sorts with their great-nieces and nephews—a Christmas shopping spree. Essentially, they give each kid a wad of cash and set them loose in Wal-Mart. My kids are the youngest, so I accompany them on this much-anticipated outing every year. This year, I followed my talkative children to the toy section and watched their eyes light up as they surveyed aisle after aisle of potential playthings. Esther settled herself in the pink aisle full of dolls and teas sets, and Josiah wandered through all the Star Wars and Super hero figures. All was well. Then Josiah saw the bicycles.

“Mama! A bicycle! Look!”

Shit.

“Mama! It’s a blue bike! Look a blue one! You see?!”

“Yes, I see. It’s just, well, I don’t know if you have enough money for a bike, baby.” I lied. He had more than enough money for a new bike, but I was certain I could sell him on another toy of some kind.

Josiah was visibly heartbroken. “I don’t? Oh…are you sure?”

The mom guilt tasted like rotten potatoes and soured milk combined. “Let me check again for you.” I said optimistically. I pulled out his little zip-lock bag of cash and made quite the show of counting the bills. I gave him a toothy grin. “Wow, Josiah! You do have enough!”

“Can I get this blue one?” He was so full of happiness, he nearly yelled the question.

I couldn’t help but laugh from my own happiness as I looked at his smiling face, and checked the price of the blue bike. “It looks like the blue one is too much money, but look! You have enough to get this awesome red one here!” I pulled the cumbersome two-wheeler free from its hanging restraints and set it in front of him.

“WOW! That is so cool!”

Okay, Sharon Kay, suck it up, butter cup. He loves this thing.

I immediately went to the nearby aisle in a frantic search for training wheels which, we later discovered wouldn’t fit the back axle. To ride the bike, he is going to have to ride it for real. We are past the point of training wheels. This means that I will have to do what I’ve been dreading. I will have to teach him to ride a bike.

He will fall. He will get hurt. He will cry. He will be angry. He will be sad. He will hate it. He will want to quit.

I will encourage. I will cajole. I will console. I will doctor the scabs. I will help him balance. I will wipe away his tears. I will help him back on the bike.

I will let go.

I will let go, and he will balance without me.

I will let go, and he will shout, “Look, mama!”

I will let go, and he will laugh with pride.

I will let go, and he will ride his bike like a champ.

I will let go, and he will peddle away from me.

Maybe what I’m discovering—while writing this piece, actually, is that the training wheels were for me, after all. Maybe I’m still trying to find my balance—but not on a bike. This time it’s as a mom—the balance between keeping them safe and pushing them to learn to ride on their own, and I’m always afraid I’m screwing it up.

When we got Josiah’s Autism diagnosis, it knocked the wind out of us. We saw many of the dreams and ideas for our son blow away. I battled in the only way I knew how, I jumped right into research and advocacy. I’ve spent the years since his diagnosis trying to anticipate what may cause a massive meltdown with him so that I could help him side-step it. In doing so, I began to get a “feel” of how to parent him. To give you an example of what I mean, I’ll tell you another story. This one is about his birthday this year.

Josiah loves Rise of the Guardians, Star Wars, and Spiderman 3–”the black one, mama!”

I got him none of those things for his birthday. You see, I had suffered with him through too many, “I’ve lost/broken my very favorite toy” meltdowns to get him birthday gifts he would fall in love with. Typical children will throw a tantrum. Josiah will cry for hours, and obsessively grieve for months. (This afternoon, he began crying in his room over a toy lion he had broken beyond repair last year.) I decided that, to help him avoid being hurt, I’d keep him from falling in love. So, I concocted a mom-plan that became my mantra for awhile—get him things he’ll like, but not love. At his party, he opened all of his gifts from me with a general, “meh.” Exactly what you want from your kid when you give him a present. Apparently, my plan had worked like a charm.

After he was so crestfallen at his birthday party, I made the brave decision to get him all the things he would genuinely love for Christmas. Should meltdowns occur, I’d just deal with them. His squeals, laughter, and exclamations of happiness on Christmas morning were a balm to my worried soul. It felt, to use the word all families of children with special needs avoid, normal.

He’s growing up, and so am I. We’re both still figuring this thing out, and we’ll both learn how to keep the balance together. I can’t tell you that we won’t get hurt, or that we won’t feel brokenhearted, but I can tell you that I’m sure that now is the time. For Josiah and for me, it’s time. It’s time to shed the training wheels, give him a gentle push, and lift my hand off of the banana shaped seat—but not before checking the immediate area for menacing thorn bushes.

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Finding the Sibling Balance

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“Mama, what’s Autism?” she asked. “ ‘Cause Josiah has it.”

“How do you know that, baby?”

“He went up front at the balloon thing. They said if you have Autism, come up front, and you took Josiah.”

I smoothed the honey-blonde head on the pillow next to me, and smiled against tears welling up in my eyes. “Yes, baby. Josiah has been diagnosed with Autism.”

I knew I’d take part in a conversation like this someday, but never expected to have such heady and important dialogue with my six-year-old daughter. To my complete amazement, she took everything in and wholly digested it—asking questions like a professional researcher after I explained certain manifestations of Autism.

“Is that why he gets mad when things mess up?”

“Is that why he goes to the Reading Clinic?”

“Is that why he had seizures ‘long time ago?”

“Is that why he has so many teachers?”

“Is that why he doesn’t play toys with me?”

“Is that why he takes medicine?”

“Is that why he doesn’t listen good?”

Esther is two years younger than Josiah, but most everyone we meet mistakes her as the older sibling. This is understandable partly because of her height, (she will grow to be a drop-dead glamazon sooner than I’d like) but mainly for the way she has always looked out for Josiah. It’s not unusual for her to redirect him prior to a meltdown just like a seasoned behavioral therapist, keep a sharp eye out for him on the playground, make sure he has all his belongings and school materials before walking out of the door, or even give him “orders” like, “Josiah, you need to eat your supper first THEN you can have dessert.” To be honest, I find myself relying heavily on her. She’s such a mother hen.

There’s a certain mom-guilt that comes with having a typical child and a special needs child. At least, I’ve found that to be the case. I feel like I’m always playing “catch-up” with Esther to even out the mom-attention. I don’t mean for it to be that way, not at all, but Josiah takes up so much time. I drove Josiah to Nashville twice a week for an entire school year for tutoring. I spend tons of time researching effective methods of instruction. I spend hours compiling all his data for upcoming IEP meetings. I give him more one-on-one tutoring time than I give Esther–and this is all in addition to how Josiah’s needs sometime trump Esther’s.

Josiah is very particular about certain toys. He can share others just fine, but there are some that he refuses to share–Esther thinks this is unfair. Esther has had to settle for what movie Josiah wants to watch so many times that I feel badly for her. I even broke my “no TVs in the bedroom” rule just so Esther could watch her Princess movies. Josiah also doesn’t compromise well. If Esther wants to play tag, and Josiah wants to play hide and seek, they always end up doing what he wants to do. Explaining all of this to her is difficult. I’ve played with her numerous times to make up for the fact that she didn’t get to play with her brother. I know that I’m second best though—playing with your sibling is so much more fun than playing with your mom who gets winded too easily. Keeping a balance of my attention between them is really hard. Am I allowed to say that as a mom? Despite all that I do to keep it even, (hello, hours of cheerleader practice and Saturday morning football games) I’m terrified that in years to come Esther will emotionally vomit up all of her many woes and injustices on some therapists couch.

This is why I cried hopeful tears when the hot-as-hell-hubby showed me a video someone sent him. I was working on my research paper, which coincidentally enough is about using music therapy practices in the general music class to help children with autism, when he poked his head into the bedroom.

“Need some inspiration?”

“You gonna get naked?” I joked. (ok. Maybe I was serious.)

“Naw, for real. You need to see this.” he said and handed me his phone.

I then watched the viral video about the two brothers, one with autism and one without.

I cried. I cried and thought about my Esther and Josiah. I thought about how Esther will most likely always love and look out for her brother, even though it will be frustrating and oftentimes feel unfair. I thought about how Josiah will love her his entire life, and know that she has his back. I thought about how the two of them together have a story that is completely separate from the one that I have with them. I thought about how I can’t wait to read it.

Esther and Josiah compliment each other so beautifully. They’re like two sides of a coin. I have come to realize that I don’t need to worry and stress about keeping any type of balance—they already do.