Walk With Me (#35): The Second One Is Still Hard

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

Dear Asha,

My husband and I are fortunate to be the parents of two wonderfully audacious boys. Our oldest is 14 and was diagnosed with high functioning autism just before he turned 4 years old. We also have a 6-year-old who is neurotypical, as much as that is possible for anyone.

As a former teacher, I honored the individuality and differences of all children and worked very hard to meet my students where they needed to be met to take ownership of their learning. As a parent, I am struggling with this. I spent 8 years raising a human with limited comfort zones and interests. Now I have this 6-year-old human who is chomping at the bit to explore the world (dang it all to the pandemic).

I know my situation is pretty specific but I bet there are other parents out there scratching their heads about how to truly honor the differences in their children and offer them all the opportunities possible, without feeling too horribly overwhelmed, or like a complete failure. Any insights you can offer would be a fantastic help!

Much love, E

Dear E,

Though there are specific considerations in your situation due to your older son being on the spectrum, I think any parent of more than one child can relate to the situation you’re in. My children, anyway, seem remarkably persistent in being totally different from each other — different needs, interests, and capabilities. It’s maddening.

I remember when my two kids and I first moved into the house we live in now, just the three of us. My oldest was eleven and my youngest was seven, so not as wide a spread, age-wise, as yours, but enough that they were at completely different developmental stages. They were both young enough to want to hang out with me all the time, though, so we were constantly negotiating what we could do together that everybody could handle. I remember particularly that my oldest was nearly to middle school and was increasingly drawn to shows and movies that were scary and emotionally complicated. Not adult fare, mind you, but more advanced than a seven-year-old could handle.

I was constantly having to tell him that such-and-such a movie or show was just too much for his little sister, so we needed to find something else to watch or do together. He would get so frustrated with me! And resentful of his sister, too. It was a rough time.

I could have staggered their bedtimes in order to give me and him time to do things that he wanted to do but as a single mom, I will admit, bedtime was a daily finish line that I staggered across every single day. To move the goalposts was more than I could handle. So, I asked him to suck it up on his sister’s (and my) behalf over and over again. Family is unfair like that sometimes.

This brings me to the first thing that I would say in response to your question: As a two-parent household, you have more energy and people to work with, and that’s a tremendous asset.

If you want to do things together as a whole family, like all families, you will have to accommodate everyone’s interests and capabilities, but you don’t have to do everything together. You can tag-team. One of you can accompany your younger son as he plays games, or watches shows, or participates in activities that his older brother can’t or would never want to, while the other parent hangs in the zone that is more comfortable for your older son. Maybe it’s important, given the particular personalities in your family, to make sure it’s not always the same parent taking one or the other role. Or maybe you or your husband can find something that really enlivens your younger son that becomes the special thing that you always do together.

If, because of jobs or patriarchy or comfort, one of you has taken on the lion’s share of the kid management, you may have to have some conversations with your spouse about how everybody has to participate in order to make this all work. There are time and presence resources that you’re going to have to provide equally, but there’s also emotional labor involved in all of this that you have to acknowledge and spread evenly between you. All of the jobs — figuring out what everyone needs to develop optimally, the logistics of who is going to do what to support that development, as well as the actual time and energy to accompany both kids — need to be acknowledged and shared to the largest extent possible.

The caveat to this tag-teaming plan, I think, is how you talk about it all with both of your kids. You don’t want to stigmatize your older son for being on the spectrum, nor do you want to build up your younger son as “better” or “easier” or “more capable” because he’s neurotypical. They’re just different people, with different interests, and so you are trying to make sure everybody gets some time and space to pursue their interests. Period. If there emerge things that your younger son wants to do, and your older son wants to do them too, but can’t successfully, I would revert to that time-honored parenting tactic — distraction. Give him something to focus on that he gets to do that is more exciting than the thing he wishes he could do with his brother. He may still have to wade through some disappointment or frustration, but he’ll be okay.

For my son, who we recently found out is also on the spectrum, learning how to weather frustration and disappointment over the things he can’t do as easily or as well as neurotypical people is an essential part of his life. All I can do is provide him loving company while he does this learning; I can’t learn it for him. Helping my daughter learn how to accommodate her brother’s challenges in a loving way is also part of our life in this family, and is equally, if differently, difficult. I wish I could just download patience and compassion straight into her, but I can’t. I can only insist she learns, and provide her loving company while she does it.

All of this management of learning, needs, and capacities is, of course, complicated by the pandemic, because the wider world isn’t accessible right now. Right now you’re together all the time, as we all are in our families, and you may have to accommodate your older son more than is optimal for your younger one. But remember, your youngest is only six. In the grand scheme of his life, this time period will be a tiny blip on the radar. The world is going to open back up soon, and your options for supporting everyone’s learning and growth are going to open up again, too.

Finally, if you’re feeling challenged by this new world of having a neurotypical child who wants to grab life by both hands and run, it’s okay. We feel so incompetent with our first children; then the second one comes along and we think, “I’ve got this!” Kid #2 then insists on being a completely different person than Kid #1 and we’re thrown back into feeling incompetent again, except this time we’re not expecting it. It’s very overwhelming.

You’ll get there, though. Be patient with yourself and each other. Trust that the way forward will present itself, over and over again, if you’re just open to seeing it. I believe that we choose our families on some deep, inexplicable soul-level because they will teach us the lessons we need to learn. You are all learning, I suspect, how to love much bigger and deeper than probably either you or your husband ever anticipated. For your sons this epic loving will just be a matter of course, and what a gift to the world that will be.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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