I bumped into a high school acquaintance today and excitedly told her my son started kindergarten in two days. She said, “Oh, take a picture, I can’t wait to see you post it!”
Through a gritted-teeth-smile all I could do was nod and say, “Of course!” As I’m sure you can imagine, that’s not what I was thinking. All that ran through my mind was, “Sure, as long as he’s not throwing an all out tantrum over a two-second, once-in-a-lifetime-picture-every-mama-needs.” I need this picture for my memories, for his senior slide show, for his future spouse I’m already praying for, for his kids to see someday. I. Need. This. Picture. But will I even get it? I hate that my mind goes here first, but this is our reality, and our family lives fully in this non-Instagram worthy world.
Change is hard for our little guy and he has no idea why. We have no idea why. In fact, we often get way too comfortable when things are in routine and his behaviors are at bay. We forget about the guardrails we have built around our son’s anxiety, safeguards in place to completely avoid meltdowns.
Often it hits seemingly out of nowhere. This summer he had a change in childcare when he got to move up with the school-age kids due to said upcoming kindergarten start. We had settled into our new normal after about a month of smooth sailing, not thinking about the change that happened, and all of the sudden the behavior hit. Literally: he started hitting and being aggressive. This time it was accompanied by behaviors like pants wetting that we’d never even had an issue with during potty training.
Finally, after too long, we realized he had just gone through this huge shift in childcare. Sure, it was still at the same daycare facility with many of the friends and teachers he already loved and knew, but it was different. It was full of field trips and independence, things that should be fun but can be so much for him. Different enough to build up in his little body and overwhelm him.
His anxiety often times manifests as violent hitting, kicking, yelling and looking for any way he can control the situation when his body and mind are fluttering out of control. We are always one change in schedule, one late night, one birthday party, one anticipated change (hello, kindergarten) away from all hell breaking loose. And sometimes, if it doesn’t happen immediately, it’s hard to figure out what the trigger is.
One direct trigger he has is overstimulation. When other parents so often say things like, “He is playing hard, he’ll sleep well tonight,” it now translates in my head as “He is playing hard, you’ve got a long night ahead of you.” Here’s the deal: all that activity doesn’t have an off switch in his brain and body once it’s done. It translates to the long, violent night terrors that he’s dealt with since he was 18 months old coming back. It means not listening and doing all things he knows he shouldn’t do. It means walking away (like down the street) from situations because he knowingly needs to give his body and brain some space, and trying to bring him back to the chaotic, loud place to process because walking down a street at a 5 year old’s birthday party is not okay. It’s about teaching him to deep breathe, and self regulate, and find his own safe place.
So you see, we sacrifice coming to your kid’s party. He wants to come. He loves his friends deeply because he feels all feelings intensely; the good and the not so good. We talk before we arrive about how loud and busy it will be. We practice the breathing and the self talk, but it’s often still too much stimulation and it sends him over the edge. Too much external chaos sends his little body into internal chaos far too often. Meeting at school or church after school? Recipe for disaster.
Oh, he will often be fine in the moment. As a result, people don’t understand why we don’t come. “He was fine,” they say. He was, but it’s the next day when he’s tired that we see the results of that outing. Scratch that, it’s the next few days that he’s out of control and we are all trying to recover. When he’s tired and things aren’t predictable it throws him even further off kilter. When it’s been a few days of being off, we often have to detox all the noise and reset.
So we do our own thing. We stay home. We follow a routine. Because when we don’t, and we don’t sometimes, that’s when you see the behavior that people judge. And people do judge; I see it, I feel it. I used to, too. I proudly proclaimed prior to having kids, “My kids won’t dictate my schedule. We are going to live at the ballpark.” I wanted to be that family. I imagined baseball games and movies and trips and all the loud, overstimulating things as part of our lives. I imagined flexibility and go-with-the-flow-kids. But for sanity, his and ours, we stick close to home.
So let me say, I’m sorry. I’m sorry we couldn’t make the get together with free childcare one evening, I’m sorry we couldn’t come to your child’s birthday party, I’m sorry we didn’t get a true picture of his first day of school at his new desk or with his teacher at open house. It was wild and we’re still paying for going. But we work around it; he put on his first day of school clothes and we did our picture the afternoon before. Because while he often grows overnight, as kids do, no one knows it wasn’t taken at 8 o’clock in the morning on his first day of school.
Right now, I sometimes want to protect him from the stares, and protect me from the judgment and forced explanations. I want to not feel like I’m making excuses for his behavior because the truth is it’s not okay. Maybe next year, next month will work out better, but until then, when we don’t feel like disrupting a good thing, we’ll be home, having a good time, making memories.
And we’ll take lots of pictures, but not the social-media-approved ones that make life look like everything’s easy. We’ll take the pictures where funny faces are being made and people are hanging upside down or it’s just a blur because who has time to stop for perfect pictures? And at least for now, we’ll take the important picture the afternoon before.