At the grocery store this morning, I saw an acquaintance. We did the I Haven’t Seen You FOREVER; How ARE You?… Oh, I’m Fine. Busy, But Fine… How Are YOU? dance.
And it’s not that it’s not true.
And it’s not like there was time between the sour cream and the cheddar cheese sections and the breaking up of kids’ fights and the Oh Geez, I Really Wish I’d Brushed My Hair, to tell a deeper truth.
It’s just… I was left kind of longing to sit down right there in front of the eggs and the butter, and to fold my legs criss-cross, and to draw her down beside me, and to hold her hands in mine and to invite other mamas to join us until we formed a giant circle blocking All the Dairy Products and to tell How We Are.
To say, “My shirt is wet all over my belly because I did dishes this morning and I didn’t have time to change. BUT I DID DISHES! YAY, ME!”
And to say, “My bra underwire snapped in the car so my boobs are even more lopsided than usual. Someone tell me you didn’t notice. Lie if you must.”
And to say, “I’m tired. And I feel so silly saying that because we’re ALL tired and I’m never NOT tired these days, but I’m so tired. So, SO tired.”
And to say, “I don’t know how to do All of the Things.”
And to say, “Some days I’m lost and some days I’m found, and I’m learning to be content with both because Grace, it turns out, isn’t just for when we’re found.”
I left the store mourning a little bit, that lost opportunity to say How I Am and to say, You’re Fine and You’re Busy, But What ELSE?, even though it wasn’t the time or the place. And then I remembered that THIS is the time and the place and YOU are the mamas and dads and friends and acquaintances in the circle, and it’s not an opportunity lost but an opportunity gained, and I’m still learning how to turn the one into the other.
So I thought I’d ask, because I’d really like to know, even though I can’t solve anything except to sit here with you a while between the eggs and butter, How ARE You?
And then you responded and blew me away with your stories, your honesty and, above all, your mamaraderie … and dadaraderie … and humanaraderie… in other words, by being a community to each other.
I’ve thought a lot about you and the “how are you” question ever since. About the times we just say “fine.” And about the times we pick “busy.” And we’re not lying. Not always. Not necessarily. But I still longed for a better question to ask.
Then I read two stories – the two excerpted below – one by Carly Gelsinger and one by Carrie Cariello, and I realized… I’m not longing for a better question. Not really. I’m longing for connection. And How Are You?, it turns out, is one of the very best ways to offer it.
After all the “What NOT to Say” articles that drift around the internet (about which I’ve written here), I’m very excited to share these two stories. What TO say.
I do hope you enjoy these as much as I did. And that you’ll answer the important question at the bottom of this post.
With Love, always,
In the weeks after Baby G was born, I went on an irrational parenting book reading spree, probably because my hormones were raging and I didn’t know how to make my baby stop crying. Somewhere in this sleep deprived, sour-milk-sheets coma I ingested bits and pieces of about a dozen baby rearing books I picked up at the library. Thus began my rude entance into the world of parenting wars.
Before Baby G was born, I had no idea that there were some moms who were against the use of strollers, and a whole different camp who believe babies are taught morality by being left to cry in their crib. I had never heard of “cry it out” or “attachment parenting” or any of that stuff. I was so blissfully naive.
I learned early on that it was very important for me to subscribe to some type of parenting philosophy that would define what “type” of mom I am.
I remember one of the first times I attended a local moms group at the park. Baby G was about three months old. There, I was barraged by a super fit, high strung 25-year-old mom who described all the things she does that make her an exceptional mom. She breastfeeds, she sleep trained her baby starting at two weeks, she only serves organic food. And more stuff I’ve chosen to forget.
I got myself outta there ASAP, and shied away from moms groups for months.
It’s a funny parenting culture that we live in, that when one young mom emerges from her first year of parenting and meets another one in the thick of it, she thinks to brag about her chosen method of motherhood instead of asking one simple question:
How are you?
What a powerful question for a new mom to hear. Had someone asked me, I may have started bawling and hugging that person. Now that I think of it, that’s probably why most people didn’t.
But in this strange motherhood-as-a-competitive-sport culture, we’re too busy crusading for our parenting decisions. Do we babywear? Do we sleep train? Do we feed on demand or on a schedule? Each side claims the other is detrimental to a child’s development. Each side claims the other is sure to churn out narcissists, sociopaths and adults incapable of contributing to society.
Perhaps the combativeness and the desperation to prove the other side wrong comes from insecurity – that maybe deep down inside we’re all afraid we’re screwing up our kids. So to mask that fear, we bash others who are different from us.
Now when I meet a new mom, I try not to enlighten her about all my parenting strategies, as wonderful as they are.
What I do tell moms is to trust their instincts. And ask…
How are you?
A couple of weeks ago I connected with a social media personality who goes by the name of Autism With a Side of Fries.
Every now and again she posts thought-provoking questions for her readers to consider. I never answer them, partly because my thoughts don’t like to be provoked—they like to stay safely tucked away in my little head mulling over high-level ideas like which flavor of cake is better: vanilla or marble swirl.
But I also don’t answer because it’s really hard for me to answer a big important question in that teeny comment box Facebook provides.
On Saturday morning , I saw this on Facebook:`
“So imagine this. A parent sits down next to you and says they just found that their kid has autism. What would you tell this New to Club Spectrum member?”
Huh, I thought to myself. What would I say?
Because of the book, I do have the opportunity to talk to a lot of parents with newly-diagnosed kiddos. My first instinct is to console, to soothe. Oh, I am so sorry to hear that!
But then it occurred to me how insulting that reaction is to the blue-eyed boy standing right next to me. It’s like saying, “Listen, I know I pretend to really like you and I tell you autism is all sorts of cool, but it isn’t. And when I hear someone else has it I feel bad for them.”
So I stopped doing that.
My second instinct is to start blabbing my fool head off about a bunch of random, disconnected ideas:
“Are you doing sign language how about ABA a lot of my friends love ABA maybe you should try ABA I hear good things about hyperbaric chambers the gluten-free diet is supposed to help look up ABA!”
Meanwhile, I don’t really know what ABA is, we don’t own a hyperbaric chamber, and every Saturday Jack eats gluten-full pancakes like it’s his job.
So, I stopped doing that too.
I thought about Autism With a Side of Fries’ question. But instead of concentrating on a good answer, my mind kept darting back to a late-summer memory.
It was about a week before school started, and I had taken Joey and Charlie shopping for new sneakers. On the way home, we stopped at TGI Fridays for lunch.
From the moment we sat down, we could hear a little boy shrieking and banging and crying from two tables away. His voice was shrill. Over and over his mother carried him out to the bench in the vestibule with a weary expression on her face. Through the glass doors I watched him relax into her shoulder, only to stiffen and screech again once they returned to the table.
I know tantrums; with five kids, I figure Joe and I have lived through at least 9,434 of them.
But there is a difference between where are my chicken fingers and the world hurts it’s too bright and too loud and too salty and too itchy and too much too much too much.
Because if Joe and I have lived through 9,434, probably 8,922 of them have been thrown by Jack. And oh, I don’t know, maybe 3,156 of them were—and continue to be—in restaurants.
Listening to the little boy shriek reminded me that before there was kale, there were upturned dinner plates and chicken on the floor and lots and lots of screaming. Before there was sleep there were long, wakeful nights—nights when I could neither soothe the cranky infant nor silence the nagging pit in my stomach.
Sitting with Joey and Charlie in the darkened TGI Fridays, I thought about all the things I wished someone had told me about autism, back when two-year old Jack was diagnosed.
I wish someone had told me that yes, he would start to talk. And yes, we would teach him not to bolt out the door like an inmate escaping prison. And yes, eventually he would sleep through the night.
But how the old problems are simply replaced with new ones: instead of he doesn’t play with other kids, we have why won’t he stop asking all the girls in his class how many radios they have. Yes, Jack eats kale, but now he thinks we should eat kale with every single meal.
I wish someone had warned me that when Jack was in second grade, he would lock himself in the bathroom off the kitchen at 4:00 every day and sit and scream in gastrointestinal agony. How I would go in to try to help, only to discover that in his distress, he had smeared the walls and floor and sink with excrement.
How every day at 4:00 I wanted to open the front door, step outside, walk down our long driveway, and never come back.
But I didn’t. Because I came to terms with a lone truth: only I can do this. Only I can be this boy’s mother and ease the stomach cramps and wipe up the mess without shaming him.
And every day since I feel the tiniest bit more confident that I can do it. I am doing it.
I wish someone had told me how over the years, Jack’s special needs label would come to mean nothing more than that he is special. And he needs me.
It would have been nice to hear someone say that one day I would adore every single thing about my Jack-a-boo; his fleeting smile, his one-armed hugs, his robotic voice. His autism.
I wanted to say all of this to the mom in TGI Fridays last summer. I wanted to tell her I know how she feels and it will get better and tantrums are the worst. I wanted to tell her I am rooting for her.
I put my napkin down and walked over to their table. The little boy was calmer, his small face streaked with tears and ketchup.
But I didn’t say any of it. I didn’t bring up ABA or pretzels without gluten or eye contact or spectrum disorder. I simply stood awkwardly at the end of their table and asked, “How are you?”
As I pulled into my driveway on Saturday remembering our summer lunch, I decided that’s how I would answer Autism With A Side of Fries’ thought-provoking question. In fact, it’s what I will say from now on to any mother or father or grandmother or sister or uncle who tells me someone they love has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
How are you?
Carly Gelsinger is a wife, mother to a 1-year-old girl and an overall mess maker. In September 2013, she stepped down from her job as a newspaper reporter to stay home with her daughter. Her blog is a result of writing during the baby’s naps when she really should be cleaning the house. She writes about rediscovering Jesus apart from her legalistic past, her chronic struggle with feeling like an oddball, and her journey toward letting go.
Carrie Cariello is a fellow mama of five and the author of What Color is Monday? How Autism Changed One Family for the Better.
Carrie lives in Southern New Hampshire with her husband, Joe, and their five children. She is a regular contributor to Autism Spectrum News and has been published in several local parenting magazines. She has a Masters in Public Administration from Rockefeller College and an MBA from Canisius College in New York. At best estimate, she and Joe have changed roughly 16,425 diapers.
So. How ARE you?
Pull up a seat here in the dairy aisle and let us know.
You can see all of the Parenting and Imperfection posts here.