“It’s funny, but as a kid, you also kind of watch your parents grow up.”
We had been joking about grey hair and reading glasses—the impending signs of middle age.
I turned to see his profile next to me in the passenger seat—this 16-year old son of mine who is so full of life, he might burst.
If you ask my kids about their favorite childhood memory, all five of them will say it was time we had a carrot fight after dinner.
It wasn’t the perfectly planned vacations, or the cloth napkins at Thanksgiving, or the matching pajamas under the tree.
It was ducking around corners, giggling into our hands, orange flying through the air.
Motherhood is complicated. I think we can all agree on this.
For years, we are deeply entrenched in the smallest tasks.
Slowly, oh so slowly, our children learn to do these things for themselves. We feel glad, but also sad.
When my kids were infants, toddlers, middle-schoolers, I never pictured life any other way.
I never pictured a time when our house would become a revolving door of hungry teenagers.
I never imagined what it would feel like to have them, one by one, pack up their things and leave for other cities, campuses, dorms.
Our second son has autism. His name is Jack. He is eighteen.
He is eighteen in years, but closer to eleven in spirit. He is young. He is naïve.
A month ago he moved to a program a few hours ago.
Time and time again, autism brings me to my knees. This next season is no exception.
Hours away from us, he is trying to figure out complicated ideas like friendship and social pragmatics.
I am terrified he’s in over his head.
I am in over my head.
I want five minutes with a 4-year old. I want to hear that little voice. I want to hold a small hand in mine.
I would buy the ice cream. I would get the balloon. I would sit right down on the grass and listen and laugh.
Childhood is a weighty responsibility.
Did I do it right?
I can’t say I have regret. That’s not quite the right word. I know I did the best I could, given who I am and where I came from.
Still, there are things I would tell my younger self—the new bride standing at the altar, the young mother standing at the stove, the lost advocate standing tall but shrinking inside.
I would tell her to stop standing all the time. It’s okay to it down once in a while.
Mostly, I would tell her to relax.
Relax into this family.
Relax into the diagnosis and this boy.
Smell his soft head.
Sit on the floor and stack blocks.
When it comes to life alongside autism, nothing lasts forever.
Not a behavior, a season, a habit, a phrase. Not even puberty.
I would tell her she doesn’t have to be perfect.
None of it matters—cloth napkins, the evergreen tree, the pajamas.
After all, the best of family is in the bloopers.
Photos gone wrong.
Rainy days at the beach.
A Christmas tree toppled to the floor.
Life’s tapestry is in the details—the smallest brushstrokes of color and light.
Singing in the car, mismatched candles on a lopsided cake.
Running through the airport to catch a plane, burgers hot off the grill, puzzles at the kitchen table.
Waiting for the bus in the morning, driving home after practice in a deep purple dusk.
This is what I remember. These are the memories I hold dear.
I’ll never know if I did enough.
I only know I tried my very hardest.
One by one, my children are learning to fly.
I miss their tiny voices the way winter trees miss the fiery autumn leaves.
Motherhood. No one departs unshaken.
Perhaps you are in the trenches right now. Perhaps you are wiping noses and filling plastic cups with milk.
Perhaps you too are buckling beneath autism’s demands.
The moment where you stand will not last forever. It will pass. When you least expect it, it will pass.
Change is ahead.
Stay the course.
Do the work.
Smell his head.
You are doing everything right.
We don’t have to be perfect.
We just have to be here.