Parenting To The Lowest Common Denominator

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My daughter is almost six, though she will correct you immediately that she is “five and three-quarters” if she hears you say that because she is precise, and detail-oriented, and very much her father’s daughter in that way.

But she is my daughter, too.

A daughter that I was petrified of having, and then elated that I was having – all because of a very tumultuous past I have with my own mother.  And becausewhile my experience with my mother may be unique, I realize that anyone who is the daughter of a mother or the mother of a daughter has a bond that is fraught with all the complications that have been written about, talked about, and psychoanalyzed long before Freud ever uttered the words “Electra Complex”.

All of this, while walking that tightrope of parenting that that cautions against becoming one of the many stereotypically “wrong” types of mother. You can’t be a “Helicopter” mom or too much of a “Free-Range” mom, and the “Tiger” mom is too overbearing yet the “Best Friend” mom is too permissive.

I just want to be her mom – yet I feel that I have failed her to a certain extent in successfully figuring out who exactly that is, and how exactly to execute that role successfully.

Because I am also someone else’s mom.

When she was born, I became a mommy. Sixteen months later, when her little brother was born and we found out that he’d had a stroke in utero – eventually resulting in multiple diagnoses that included Cerebral Palsy and Autism  – I became a Special Needs mommy.

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The two of us went away together this weekend on a four-day road trip we have both been eagerly looking forward to.  Watching her run free, being able to say “Yes, we can go on that ferryboat” because I’m not worried about her trying to throw herself overboard, or “Yes, we can go down all of those big waterslides” because she is big enough and her brother wasn’t there to get upset that he couldn’t go, or “Yes, we can play Skee Ball and Air Hockey at the arcade” because I wasn’t concerned that she might send those wooden balls or plastic pucks flying into the heads of other unsuspecting game-playing patrons, well, it made me realize something with a jolt that felt very much like a figurative slap in the face.

As she stood on the deck of the very same ferryboat I had sailed on during a childhood field trip, as I watched her take it all in – waving to the people parasailing on the lake, eyes twinkling as she listened to the boat playing cheerful tunes on its calliope, face upturned to the sunshine – it hit me.

“We have been parenting to the lowest common denominator.” I told my husband later that night.

We have held her back when it was unsafe or unwise to push him forward.  I have been unable to let go of the vigilance I need to hold onto as his mother and find a way to let loose and sometimes just be her mommy.  It is an occupational hazard among the medical, sensory, and therapy-heavy day-to-day life we are currently living.  If I loosen my stronghold on control, on looking out, on keeping watch, on making sure and double-checking, there’s no saying what might happen. Temporarily loosening my grip on on small hands turns into darting out into busy parking lots, and running downhill becomes a buckled knee or twisted ankle and a trip to the Emergency Room.  Saying “yes” to her, often means saying “no” to him – or forcing him to watch from the sidelines.  Saying “no” to both seems easier – more fair – though I am now seeing that it is the former rather than the latter.

She is cautious, shy, naturally anxious, sensitive and introverted.  She is fine with her father and I going out at night for the occasional dinner with friends or to work events, but worries about what time we’ll be home.  She is happy to play “school” or “camp” or “house” in her room for hours – often preferring long stretches of time by herself. She simmers in her emotions quietly, trying to push them down, worried that if she allows herself to fully feel them, they will somehow wrench themselves from her control and overpower her.  She is afraid that she will not get them back somehow.

She lashes out, then weeps as she apologizes for it.  Afterwards, she relegates herself to her room, emerging a short time later with a picture she’s drawn of you holding hands with her under a blue sky and a bright yellow sun with the words “I em Sorrie” or “I wul be beddur” written beneath in her preschooler’s scrawl.

It is heartbreaking to watch her inborn tendencies towards empathy clash with the developmentally-appropriate Id of an almost-Kindergartner. Having a brother with a potpourri of Special Needs only complicates things further. I look at her and just know that she is shouldering the self-imposed burden of feeling like she has to hold it all together at all times as she watches her little brother constantly coming apart at the seams. 

A version of a line from one of my favorite songs always reminds me of the two of them and describes them in relation to each other perfectly.

She is a china shop…and he is a bull.

He is hearty and she is delicate. He is impetuous where she is cautious.  She walks the perimeter and observes while he makes a beeline for the center of the room.  He will scream when you introduce yourself as she is hides behind me.  I need to give her permission to fly and I need to reign him in.

So how do I find a way to loosen my grip without letting go entirely? How to I find the switch within that allows me to tell my perpetual inner-lifeguard that it’s alright to go off-duty for a little while? How do I parent two completely different children with two very different sets of needs simultaneously and successfully – and safely?

We have indeed been parenting to the lowest common denominator. And that worked – for a time.  Until it didn’t add up anymore. Until the calculated risks that always seemed too high for him, have morphed into a price she is paying for all of the caution we’ve exercised. Until I saw her this weekend, until my eyes were opened up to the limitations we’ve been putting on her.

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And she lost it a few times this weekend. She freaked out, lashed out, cried out. Same as it always is when her fears or insecurities or anxiety overtake her.  But something was different in me.  Instead of clenching up, usually already exhausted from holding on too-tightly to them both, my shoulders were down and I wore an expression of calm.  I crouched down, held her hand, and looked her in the eye.

“Hey, it’s okay to be mad, or sad, or frustrated,” I told her. “You can let it out. I’ll still be here when it’s over. There’s nothing you can say or do that will make me love you any less. I’m not going anywhere.”

And it did pass. And she looked up at me and smiled her shy smile and I squeezed her hand.  And we didn’t talk about it because we didn’t have to. And I had the energy and the time and the patience to wait it out this weekend, to really see her.  And now that my eyes have been opened, I know I can’t go back.  I owe her that.

There will be no more parenting to the lowest common denominator.

She is one quarter of this family.  She is one half of our children.  She is a whole person.

And she counts.

About the writer

@jamiekrugauthor

Jamie Krug is a writer, wife, and stay-at-home-mom with a full-time job as the CMO (Chief Medical Officer) of her family. Her work has been featured on the Huffington Post where she is a regular contributor, as well as AOL and a number of other publications. She has also been published as a contributor in the nonfiction anthology The HerStories Project. She is mother to an inquisitive daughter named Parker and the mischievous-grinned Owen. She prides (embarrasses?) herself by stating out loud what other mothers may feel but wouldn’t dare say…  Jamie can be found at JamieKrugAuthor.com, as well as on TwitterInstagram, and on Facebook.

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Lasrmom 11 months ago

My husband is the younger sibling of a profoundly delayed, autistic older brother. His brother was diagnosed shortly after my husband was born. Under ideal circumstances, his parents (especially his mother) likely would have been very loving, attentive parents. But they were isolated, immigrants living in a strange place with no one else like themselves nearby and a culture and religion that blamed the older boy’s disability on them. His mother did the very best she could, but she held him back and overprotected constantly, and like many siblings of disabled children he absorbed very early on that he had to hold it together, because his brother simply could not.

How did he turn out? Well, like all the men in my life he could use a little therapy. 😉 But despite lovingly imperfect parenting he’s a very productive member of society, a loving husband, and a very wonderful dad.

One thing though — I desperately wish he could have been involved in sibling support as a child. “Sibshops” are available across the country and give siblings of children with differences a sense of belonging and “horizontal family” that they usually can’t find otherwise. They’re wonderful, and they even help me, as his spouse, get a better insight into what makes him tick as a sibling. If you haven’t heard of them, please do look into them; I’m sure that like all support groups they only improve with larger numbers!

Chris Turner 12 months ago

Beautiful

Mary Olsen Schumacher 12 months ago

Try it handcuffed by ill-informed society, with 186 teenagers you get 30-40 an hour.

Amanda Gamosh 12 months ago

Bought tears to my eyes – good luck mumma – you’re doing such a greAt job xx

Emma Lane 12 months ago

I know exactly what you mean. I have DS14 and DD13 who are neurotypical and DS11 on the spectrum with various mental health issues as well. As a single parent it’s a daily battle to be fair to the older 2 without putting us all at risk because DS11 just doesn’t cope with daily life in the same way they do but I don’t have the support to be able to do things individually (no contact with their dad). Great post and a timely reminder about getting the balance right.

Jade Ritchie 12 months ago

Your posts truly make me feel like I’m not alone. Best blogs over ever read!

Jennifer Caballero-Milko 12 months ago

When you know better, you do better.

Karen McClelland Farrell 12 months ago

Believe me when I say that you haven’t lost who you are… You are just finding yourself through your children…

V 12 months ago

I think just the fact that you recognize the 16-year-old still needs parenting is a great start. I have two much younger siblings, and once I got to be about 14, my mom decided that she was “done” parenting me and I could look after myself. She was right in the sense that I knew how to make my own meals and get myself back and forth to school, but the total hands-off approach really made me feel like she didn’t care about me. I have an almost-16-year-old myself now, and I don’t ever want to feel that way – I’m constantly trying to nudge her to be more independent while reassuring her that I’m still here for her and she’s not all on her own.

Adrianne Ward Burney 12 months ago

So would I; I feel like I’m the only one!

Leah Kent 12 months ago

I had a suspicion that I was doing this, but this
Article opened my eyes. Literally in tears right now. My son is just like your daughter.

Monica McMonigal 12 months ago

My oldest is 12 and followed by a 4 and 1 year old and another due in a couple months

lesbomom 12 months ago

This was beautifully written. I could feel both your pain and your struggle to do what’s best for your children. You make it crystal clear that what is best for your children may not be best for the individual child.

Tara Rose 12 months ago

Beautiful thanks

Nora Fallon 12 months ago

So perfect. One of my nephews is Deaf and my sister has always restricted one to only doing what they both can do. (Which imo is silly since Deaf kids can pretty much do anything.) I never had the words to explain the fault in that but this says it perfectly. I also have 2 kids. Since they’re young I don’t know their “limitations” just yet buy this is something to always keep in perspective. Thank you.

Linda Pedersen-Sutcliffe 12 months ago

This is so endearing. I have 2 boys with autism and 2 lovely perfectly fine (whatever that is) girls. I so get it. I am crying in my cornflakes right now.

Alicia Mullin 12 months ago

Well said

Shannon Castaneda 12 months ago

I understand completely, and wrestle with this as I have 4 kids 15, 12, 6 and 4. All in different schools, at completely different stages, one with autism, and a military husband who has been overseas for 10 months. Talk about tough. But Gods grace is sufficient! He fills in my enormous gaps:)

Susan Whittingham 12 months ago

This is beautiful! Ur a great mom!

Kerry Kincanon Hrametz 12 months ago

Wow. Crying. Thanks for your great, honest post.

Catherine Honse Le 12 months ago

Love, love, love…

Heather Holder 12 months ago

Beautiful.

Mary Ann O’Neill Shirven 12 months ago

If you are having trouble with Kindergarten and Preschool you’d better start preparing for college now. HUGH leap of faith, huge anxiety.

Nicole Van Hoose 12 months ago

My husband and I plan separate “dates” with our boys. They are different ages, with different interests and abilities. We do most things together, but a few times a year we will plan something special that each boy would or can do that we may not be able to do or like to do as a family. My older son is bored of bowling, while my younger son loves it. My older son loves scary rides, and my younger son hates it. My younger son gets easily overwhelmed and tantrums when stressed, where the older is laid back. So while big brother plays laser tag, the little brother goes to a painting lesson. My husband and I switch kids too, so we get to have some alone time with each of our boys. They really look forward to it and are usually planning their next date before the current one is over.

Eva Vilhelmsen 12 months ago

Just simple ❤

Angel Allen 12 months ago

Yes!

Julia Harvey 12 months ago

Tears and love.

Sarah Pullan 12 months ago

I have the opposite as my oldest is the SN kid. We just came back from a week away and it made me realize how much I say no to little guy because big brother doesn’t have the same awareness. Have been battling these thoughts all weekend.

Ashley Doyle 12 months ago

A perfect read!!! Thank you for sharing!

Rita 12 months ago

I am nearly 50 years old, and this made me cry because reading the description of your daughter felt like looking in a mirror and seeing the girl I once was. And it still hurts. We didn’t have a correct diagnosis for my severely autistic brother until he and I were adults, but it didn’t really matter. He impacted everything (in ways both good and bad) about my childhood. I know my parents were doing the best they could with what they had. I always felt loved unconditionally. But yes–lots of time alone in my room and lots of (self-imposed and not consciously understood) pressure to be perfect. Your daughter is lucky to have you (as I was lucky to have a mom who also saw and mitigated as she could the pressures on me). She’s also lucky to have her brother. She’s learning things about love that others might never learn, and it’s hard (really, really hard) but her heart and life–and those she touches through them–will be richer for it.

Michelle Lau 12 months ago

I feel ya. I have a 19 yr old with aspergers, an 8 yr old with autistic traits and diabetes….and one 7 yr old with a half life because everything is tailored to the other 2.

Nicole Bliffen Luke 12 months ago

Oh my gosh. I am bawling over here. You must know my family. We are just like yours. Thank you thank you. I have felt this and never knew how to say it. I can’t thank you enough.

Kimberly Whitcher 12 months ago

Thank you

Adrianne Ward Burney 12 months ago

What *I* want to know is this: How do you parent a 16-year-old & a 4-year-old? Nobody’s written a book on THAT!

Chantelle Esteb Morris 12 months ago

“Hey, it’s okay to be mad, or sad, or frustrated,” I told her. “You can let it out. I’ll still be here when it’s over. There’s nothing you can say or do that will make me love you any less. I’m not going anywhere.”
LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE

Nicole Ciavola Stack 12 months ago

Love…

Kristina Sodeman 12 months ago

Thank you! Amazing words and it really hit home.

Cori 12 months ago

You could have been my mom. My brother was diagnosed with Asperger’s at a time when no one really knew what it was or how to deal with it. Much of my childhood was spent entertaining myself because my parents had to devote so much energy to my brother. I treasure the rare instances when I had my mom’s undivided attention. Yes, parenting to the lowest common denominator is easy, but I encourage you to try to make more mother-daughter trips. Those times will stick with her. She’ll understand one day why things were the way they were when she was child, but those special times will help.

Ginger Gendreau 12 months ago

Beautifully said

Melissa Marion Henriquez 12 months ago

Beautifully written!

Anastasia Bodnar 12 months ago

Thank you for this glimpse into life as a special needs mom

Becky Gibson Pilcik 12 months ago

This is great

Kristin VanderHey Shaw 12 months ago

So lovely, Jamie, as always!

Jill @ Ripped Jeans & Bifocals 12 months ago

Very well written. I am a mom to two children with special needs and so much of this resonates with me.