Sunday, March 27, 2016

Rolling Apples: Far From the Tree Makes Me Break My Parenting Silences

I am writing this at 1:30 in the morning on top of an opened copy of the book Far From the Tree. I’ve only made it 26 pages in (or virtually none of this 900-page tome), but what I’ve read so far has left me with that itchy feeling in my fingers and brain that I’ve come to recognize as a clear message: go ahead and write or you’re not sleeping.

Far From the Tree is a critically-acclaimed book that examines the stories of parents and children who differ in significant ways. If “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” these are the stories that prove exceptions. Author Andrew Solomon profiles parents of children with disabilities, children who have committed atrocious crimes, children who are prodigies, children who are transgendered, and more. In this first chapter, he has also woven his own story into the fabric of the book, explaining that his identity as gay was one that his own parents never quite accepted even though they loved him and wanted him to be happy.

He talks of vertical and horizontal identities. Vertical identities are the ones that are passed down through generations and genetics, racial identity is typically vertical. He also cites religious and cultural practices. Horizontal identities are the ones that we have to find outside of our biological family because they are the places in which we differ from our kin. Instead, we find ourselves seeking these “families” in peer groups. He places his own identity as gay as vertical (since he was born to heterosexual parents) and cites deaf children born to parents who can hear and child prodigies who are much more intellectually advanced than their parents among those who have to seek their identity peer group horizontally.

It’s so far a fascinating read, and I am a little worried how hard I am going to have to work to not sit here and read all 900 pages while shirking my other duties (including the biological ones like sleeping), but right now, I need to write.

The thing that has me furiously typing is a quote from the book that I have now returned to six times:

"We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate that same way of being. This is a false dichotomy. In physics, the Copenhagen interpretation defines energy/matter as behaving sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle, which suggests that it is both, and posits that it is our human limitation to be unable to see both at the same time. The Noble Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac identified how light appears to be a particle if we ask particle-like questions, and a wave if we ask wavelike questions. A similar duality obtains in this matter of self. Many conditions are both illness and identity, but we can see one only when we obscure the other. Identity politics refutes the idea of illness, while medicine shortchanged identity. Both are diminished by this narrowness."

There are several reasons that this passage has been drawing me back again and again (not the least of which is that this passage is so rife with the agonism that I spent the past few years writing a dissertation about), but the main thing that I want to talk about in this post is how it has me wanting to come out of the shadows about the position I’m in as a parent of a child that is both an apple close to and far from the tree, a rolling apple who I love very much and whose happiness and future path to fulfillment has become the primary driving force of many of my daily decisions.

I don’t talk about this much, and this is hard for me to write.

Writing and spilling it all for the world to see is a cathartic practice for me, and it’s what made me start this blog those six (six!) long years ago in the first place. I don’t hide many skeletons in my closet feeling very strongly that the skeletons are a lot less menacing when they’re out in the sunlight. It’s there that they often turn to dust, and what once seemed terrifying and heavy becomes light and blows away. Since this blog began when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter and since its earliest themes were squarely rooted in my burgeoning identity as a mother (and what that meant for the intersection with my identities as a feminist, wife, scholar, and professional), I wrote about my daughter a lot in those early years. I wrote about uncomfortable interactions surrounding her biracial identity, choices I made as to what she was allowed to watch on television, and struggles I faced when it came to negotiating parenting in an equally shared marriage. I wrote about my daughter, but mainly because I was writing about myself.

In those earliest years, I also posted pictures of my daughter and used a lot of personal details, but the anonymity of the Internet also makes it cruel, and the cruelest comments coincided with my daughter’s burgeoning maturity. It was much harder to write about her as this somewhat-abstract quality in my own life without fully considering the way that writing nibbled at the edges of a story that wasn’t mine to tell: her story. I stopped posting pictures publicly. I pulled back on the personal details in stories. I still talked about parenting, but it was always in a more distanced, buffered way. I found it harder and harder to talk about my specific experiences as a parent without talking about her specific experiences as not only my child, not only a child, but also just an individual person with her own right to negotiate privacy, sharing, and communication.

And because of those decisions, I have left out a lot of my experiences from this public platform. I have made a few one-line references to the fact that my daughter has had some behavioral issues. I have shared some funny anecdotes of her “spirited” personality. I have given cautious glimpses of some of the intense moments of my daily life that make parenting both an amazing well of inspiration and a tremendous drain on my emotional strength. But I have not talked about specifics. I have not waded into the waters of terminology or diagnoses. And I have done so not because I am ashamed but because I cannot at this moment tell where my story ends and hers begins.

Perhaps that’s because there is no such seam. She is five. She is old enough to have the autonomy to get herself strawberries from the refrigerator, pull the step stool from the wall, wash them, and eat them, but not yet old enough to remember to pick up all the discarded stems strewn about the floor like Hantzel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs leading to her book fort. She is mature enough to make insightful commentary about the nature of forgiveness and social pecking orders but still too immature to understand that the other children on the playground might not want to play her game and that doesn’t mean they “hate” her. 

When she has a public meltdown that has everyone in the vicinity staring at me like I have just severed someone’s limb in the middle of aisle 6 and am now holding it gleefully above my head just to disrupt their shopping trip, I feel very much like it is my story, like I am the one in the spotlight. But I know that later (sometimes only moments later), I will be holding a little girl who is spilling her deepest insecurities at my feet and trusting me to hold them safely for her until she can take them back, one by one, and process them. When I am getting phone calls from the school that give me actual anxiety attacks at work about her behavior at school, it feels like my story to tell, but I can’t separate that moment of dread in my belly as I sit in my office from the fact that my daughter (so little with such big emotions) is sitting a mile away with her own dread settling over her.

There has been no clear division separating her from me or me from her in this story, and so I have told almost none of it.

If I were a different kind of person, I think I would continue this way. I don’t think this story needs to be told in the sense that it is all that unique or all that earth shattering. But I am not a different kind of person. I am the kind of person who processes through dialogue, who shares, who finds strength in telling her own story and watching it form for an audience, who drags skeletons out of the closet and into the sunlight as a source of power. The fact that I have kept choking this one back down has been painful, and it’s been a pain I have felt that I was supposed to endure.

But parts of Far From the Tree have me questioning that impulse.

At one point, Solomon writes of his own mother’s aversion to his identity as gay and says this: 
“The problem wasn’t that she wanted to control my life—although she did, like most parents, genuinely believe that her way of being happy was the best way of being happy. The problem was that she wanted to control her life, and it was her life as the mother of a homosexual that she wished to alter. Unfortunately, there was no way for her to fix her problem without involving me.”

Elsewhere, he says of parents who have learned to accept vertical identities: 
“Broadcasting these parents’ learned happiness is vital to sustaining identities that are now vulnerable to eradication. Their stories point a way for all of us to expand our definitions of the human family. It’s important to know how autistic people feel about autism, or dwarfs about dwarfism. Self-acceptance is part of the ideal, but without familial and societal acceptance, it cannot ameliorate the relentless injustices to which many horizontal identity groups are subject and will not bring about adequate reform.”
Later, talking about the disability rights movement, he says that the movements “seeks, at the most basic level, to find accommodations of difference rather than erasure of it.”

And that, essentially, is what my silence has been doing. I have been erasing part of my own child’s identity because it has been labeled an illness. This brings me back to that first quote above and how both identity and illness can be found in the same quality but that trying to define it as one or the other can obscure and narrow the definition.

My daughter, after years of behavioral struggles punctuated with intense bursts of intellectual acceleration, has been diagnosed as having ADHD, giftedness, and some other cognitive struggles. The term most commonly used for this cluster of issues is “twice exceptionality,” which means that she scores above-average in some areas while showing delays or deficiencies in others. It is not, by a long shot, a worst-case scenario. She has amazing strengths that continue to blossom every day, but she also has challenges that are starting to show themselves as hurdles to educational environments and societal norms that present themselves as particularly challenging mazes.

And since at this point in her life I cannot untangle her story from mine, her challenges have also become my challenges. I am faced daily with questions about which aspects of my daughter’s many qualities to try to amplify and which to attempt to “cure,” through medicine, discipline, or otherwise. Which of her quirks and differences are to be carefully nurtured to their greatest potential and which are to be pruned or stunted until they fade to the background? And am I under delusions to think that I have control over these outcomes at all? And if I am not delusional about my level of control, what ethical right do I have to choose for her how to balance them out before she has the chance to weigh them for herself? More practically, how do I ensure she is in a supportive environment at home that allows her to master all of the skills she needs, not just those she naturally excels at honing? And, more difficultly, how do I make sure that environment extends to the educational setting she spends so much of her day inhabiting—environments where I am not present?

It’s this last one that has been such a conundrum. If I want her to get the accommodations that I think she truly needs to thrive in a school environment, she has to have a label. My life has become an alphabet soup of IEPs, ADHD, OT, PT, with a smattering of 504 thrown in to keep it interesting. High academic test scores become an ironic hindrance that somehow “prove” she doesn’t need help even as she sobs uncontrollably after yet another day of being a “bad” girl at school.

Parenting my daughter has challenged every assumption I ever made about parenting in ways good and bad. I have bent where I thought I never would and grown where I didn’t know I could. I have felt joy and pride deeper than I knew imaginable and felt shame and guilt that sliced like a knife. And I am only five years in. And I am starting all over with a whole new apple in two months that will undoubtedly throw me for loops in entirely different directions.

But this is my promise, today, to stop trying to hide this ever-growing bag of complications I’m carrying behind me. I believe it fully possible to respect my daughter’s right to tell her own story, to parcel out her own secrets, while still telling mine. Not only will I be, as Solomon so eloquently describes, a better advocate with her when my truth is laid bare, but I will also be a better knower of that truth because throwing it out here for the world to see makes me see it clearer, too. That is, after all, what most memoir is about, and it is, I suspect, why Andrew Solomon took on the massive project of Far From the Tree in the first place: to find his own truth about his struggles by throwing it out in the public eye.

I do not know which pieces of this I am getting right, but I do know that I am trying and that acceptance and love are at the foundational core of every parenting decision that I make. My daughter may be a rolling apple who visits pastures I cannot understand, but I think this tree has branches wide enough to cover her there.  

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