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My Husband Doesn’t Believe Me

12 Mar

Being a mom is very hard work, especially when you add autism into the mix. While it is more rewarding than anything else in the world, it is also exhausting and overwhelming. At times we special needs moms feel isolated from “real” life, misunderstood by friends and family members, and under-appreciated by our spouses.

Very often, it seems as if we have to carry the full load by ourselves. We are the ones who make sure the laundry is done and the dishwasher is packed. We supervise homework and get the kids to bed at a reasonable hour – at least, we try to. When a child has a sensory-induced meltdown, we are there to catch the fall-out. Many of us also have jobs that involve lengthy commutes, and most of us will sometimes pretend we need to use the bathroom just to get a couple of minutes to ourselves.

I would venture to say that at some point in time, all special needs moms – and possibly all moms in general – feel as if our husbands just don’t get it. They don’t understand how hard it is for us or how overwhelmed we feel. They get confused when we say we are lonely, because they don’t realize that our lack of a circle of friends is not a matter of choice. And sometimes, they are absolutely baffled by the resentment we express when we work ourselves to the bone until late every night while they sit on the couch watching TV.

I am generalizing, of course. There are plenty of men who are not lazy, self-centred and disinterested, just as there are plenty of women who are. Most dads do step up to do the parenting thing, and they do it well. They at least try to be supportive of their partners, even if they don’t always “get” it. I know some of these men. Hell, I’m married to one of them. Even on days when things are less than perfect – you know, those days when I complain about how hard my life is – I am grateful to have a husband who loves and supports me and is Dad to his kids in the ways that really matter. In fact, my husband doesn’t believe me when I tell him about things that some other dads either do or fail to do.

I belong to an Internet support group for parents of children with autism. The vast majority of members are moms, but there is a sprinkling of dads. A thread that’s going on in the group now makes me reflect on how lucky I really am.

You see, parenting a child with autism goes beyond the usual tasks of providing nutritious meals and ensuring that clothes are clean. You have to do things that you wouldn’t have to do for typical children, like teaching basic living skills that other kids naturally pick up from environmental cues. For example, I’ve never had to teach the toothbrushing routine to my younger son, who does not have autism. But for my older son, who does have autism, I have visuals set up and I have to give him verbal prompts throughout. And still, he requires a certain amount of hand-on-hand assistance for this task.

Where boys are concerned, there are certain life skills that it’s far easier for Dad to teach than Mom. Shaving facial hair being one. Aiming properly while peeing standing up being another. Women don’t have the need for one or the equipment for the other.

One of the dads in my Internet group posted a message several days ago offering tips for teaching a boy how not to pee all over the bathroom. Some of the advice was based on the notion of the boy’s father teaching by example. A mom in the group responded to the message by saying that her husband refused to teach their son this particular skill. Her response generated a number of other messages from moms in a similar boat.

Seriously? A father cannot take the time or trouble to teach his son such a fundamental skill? Yes, teaching stuff relating to bodily functions can be less than pleasant, and yes, this kind of thing does come with a certain lack of privacy. But these are our kids, and if we don’t teach them this stuff, who will?

I’m not saying that the dads I am referring to are bad fathers. You don’t have to teach your son how to pee properly in order to be a good dad. I’m just suggesting that it is perhaps a short-sighted approach, and that sometimes we just have to put the needs of our kids over and above our own sense of discomfort. The discomfort is temporary, while the skill learned will last forever.

There are times, of course, when male input is not available. Single moms, or those whose husbands are too incapacitated to help out, make a plan to teach their kids whatever skills are needed.

But dads, if you are present and physically able, please help teach your sons the stuff that dads can teach best. You will give your boys essential skills that will stand them in good stead for the rest of your lives, and the mothers of your children will be that much less frazzled and stressed. Who knows? It could even lead to you and your partner having more quality time to spend together.

And in a world that is high on pressure and low on time, that can only be a good thing.

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Remembering Dad – Seven Years On

6 Dec

I was watching The Apprentice when I got the news that my Dad had died. I should have known as soon as I looked on the phone display that something was wrong. Although it was a reasonable enough hour in my own time zone, it was three in the morning in South Africa. Be that as it may, when I answered the phone, I had no idea that I had lost a parent. Even though Dad had been gravely ill in hospital, the news came as a terrible shock.

The story of Dad’s illness and death is all too common these days. He had been sick on and off for a couple of years, but despite numerous visits to the doctor, cancer had only been diagnosed six weeks prior to his death. By then, the tumour in his bladder was too big to remove, and Dad’s only shot at survival was aggressive chemotherapy followed by surgical removal of the entire bladder. He survived the chemotherapy – only just – and he made it through the twelve-hour operation. In the end, though, his body was just too weak to survive all that it had been put through, and a few days after the surgery, he winged his way from this world to the next.

It was December 6th, 2004. Seven years ago today.

When we lose someone close to us, we are supposed to go through the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

I had heard of this theory, of course, but I had never really found it to be of any use. It suggests that these stages happen sequentially, that you cannot ever get to acceptance until you have passed through the other four stages. According to this theory, once you are in the Acceptance stage, you’re done with your grieving.

The reality is that grieving is such a personal, individual process, and everyone does it differently. Denial has definitely been a big part of my own experience, and although I am mostly over that, I still have moments of thinking, “Gone??? What do you mean, gone? That’s impossible!” By contrast, I have not spent a single moment in the Bargaining phase, although that could still be coming.

What about this one, though? Guilt. Where does that fit in with this whole stages of grieving thing? I’m sure I’m not the only one to experience it with the death of a loved one. What could I have done? Why didn’t I travel home to see him before he died? Why am I remembering every argument we ever had, when I should be focusing on the many good times we shared?

The stage of grief that I have the biggest problem with, though, is acceptance. This is supposed to be the pinnacle, the reward we can all look forward to if we can just get through all of the other stuff that comes before it. But is it really truly attainable? Yes, we can get to a point where we can lead our lives without the person we have lost, but can we ever fully accept it? Can my Mom, who was married to Dad for forty years, be reasonably expected to completely reconcile herself with the fact that her husband – her best friend, the man she lived with, travelled with, and raised children with – is no longer by her side?

Here’s the bigger question: what does acceptance really mean? It seems to me that once someone reaches that magical stage, they are expected to be OK. They are not allowed to be sad anymore because their grieving is done. And honestly, there is a part of me that doesn’t really want to reach that stage. Because doesn’t acceptance imply that you are OK with the person not being around anymore? And isn’t that a form of betrayal to them? Like you’re prepared to finally let go of what little you have left of them?

To some people, the stages of grief can be a useful roadmap, a guide to let them know what’s coming next. For me, it’s frustrating. I loop back and forth between the stages too much, and I’m ambivalent about the prize. I mean, how likely am I to strive for acceptance if it’s not what I really want?

So today, seven years after Dad left us, I don’t really know where I am with this whole grieving process.

What I do know is that Dad was many things to many people. He was a great marathoner in his youth and he fuelled my own love of running. He was an astute businessman who gave me countless tidbits of financial advice and did my taxes every year in exchange for a bag of sugar-coated almonds. He was both reader and storyteller, dramatist and comedian. He had an appreciation for the simple pleasures in life, and would take his time washing the dishes just so he could watch the sunset through the kitchen window while he was doing it. He adored his dogs and cats, and spent many Sundays polishing his car surrounded by family pets. Along with my Mom, he gave me and my brother the opportunity to grow up witnessing what a loving, supportive partnership should look like. To me and my brother, he was Dad – the best one we could have asked for. And during the brief period of time for which he shared a planet with my son George, he was the most loving, doting Granddad any kid could wish for.

I don’t know what happens to us when we die. I choose to believe that Dad is around somewhere, watching fondly over his grandsons, cheering me on when I run races, clicking his tongue impatiently when I make stupid decisions, and having a good old giggle when I get caught in the rain and wind up with a bad hair day.

Rest in peace, Dad. Someday, I’ll see you on the other side.

Three Generations Of Runners

2 Nov

James preparing for his first run

One of the best races I ever ran was my first-ever 10K event starting at Mel Lastman Square, on the northern fringes of Toronto. This was back in 2001, before my long hiatus from the running scene. The run was called the Ismaeli Run For Charity, and although it was a small event with only 300 or so runners, it was festive and well-organized. This particular race stands out in my memory not because of the run itself (I actually remember it being a very hard run: race day coincided with the start of an intense heatwave in Toronto), but because my dad was there. It is the only time my dad got to send me off at a start line and cheer me on as I crossed the finish.

Dad played a pivotal role in my running. Having been a top-class marathoner in his youth, he became my mentor when I first took up running, way back in 1996.  He gave me advice on everything from race-day strategy to the importance of having the right socks. He showed me how to tackle hills and demonstrated how incorrectly laced shoes can make your feet hurt. He advised me not to rely too much on technology in my training, pointing that in his youth, the only tool a runner really had was his own body. He told countless stories of the races he had run and the people he had encountered on the way.

He was immensely proud when I started running. Passing on his stories and his wisdom to me meant a lot to him, and the day he stood waiting for me at the finish line was absolutely momentous.

Now, I get to pass on the legacy as a third generation is added to the line of runners. My son James, who is all of five years old, has been taking an interest in my running for the last year or so. He wishes me well as I set out for my long runs, and stretches with me when I get back. He fussily makes sure I have enough water to drink, and for some time, he has been talking about going running with me “one day”.

Recently, when I registered for the upcoming 10K event at the Whitby Waterfront Races, James asked if he could be in the race too. Deciding that he was ready, I registered him for the 1K kiddies event. And this weekend, his dream of going running with me came true as I took him out for his first real run.

I did not have any real expectation for the run. I just wanted to see how James would do over a full kilometre, and more importantly, I wanted to get a sense of whether he would really enjoy it. I made it clear to him that he could stop anytime he wanted, and that he didn’t have to do it in the first place unless he was sure. This earned me an eye-roll so intense that I thought his eyes would fall out of his head, and he said impatiently, “Mom-meeeee! Can we please go now?”

I needn’t have worried. Although he briefly slowed to a walk three or four times, he ran the kilometre I had measured out with no trouble. I marvelled at his natural form as his body just fell into the posture and rhythm that articles in running magazines are always saying we should adopt.

I also needn’t have worried about whether he would enjoy it. He loved it. He wants to go again, and as the day of his first race approaches, he is getting more and more excited.

I realize that anything could happen: the kid is only five and he could lose interest tomorrow. But by all appearances, he is really interested in running being a part of his life, and what I do as a parent could either cement that or dissipate it. I feel that I am witnessing the emergence of a new runner: a runner who I get the privilege of nurturing and mentoring, just as my dad did for me.

I feel that in guiding my son, I am a part of something big, something special, and something that I consider to be a great honour.

I only wish my dad could see this. Who knows? Maybe he can.

Welcome, James to the world of running. I hope you choose to stay here, and if you do, I hope we get to run many miles together.

(Photo credit to the author)

Christmas Without Casualties

29 Dec

Christmas is always such a weird time of year in my family.  It’s a mixed bag of emotions for me, ranging from the very bad (my Dad’s death three weeks before Christmas six years ago) to the very good (my younger son’s birth on Christmas Day five years ago).  Then there’s the fact that almost every year, I find myself inthe midst of some strange family drama that has very little to do with me.  I have to deal with someone threatening to boycott Christmas, someone else threatening to decline gift exchange, bizarre arguments, and plans that change multiple times before landing on the original arrangements.  Then you add a child with autism, and built-in resistance to changes in routine, and the picture gets very interesting.

This year it wasn’t too bad.  As always, I missed my Dad in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but took heart from the fact that Christmas was his favourite time of year and he would be bitterly disappointed to see me having a miserable time on account of his passing.  So it was with nostalgia and bittersweet memories that I put up the Christmas decorations this year, just a week before Christmas.  Dad would have approved of the Christmas tree laden with ornaments, including James’ plastic Playdough scissors that he insisted be hung on the tree right below the angel.  He would have loved the little village I have in George’s room, complete with lights and snow, and he would have nodded approval at the little Christmas tree with lights that I got especially for James’ room.

Here’s the amazing thing that happened this Christmas.  There was no family drama.  Let’s say that again, shall we?  No.  Family.  Drama.  Admittedly, we came close.  Gerard and his mother had some words.  Said words were taken out of context by both parties, and a big misunderstanding ensued.  I have so enjoyed the wonderful feeling of peace and harmony that we have been experiencing with my mother-in-law, and I did not want to let that slip away because of one stupid conversation.  I spoke to Gerard.  I spoke to my mother-in-law.  I smoothed the waters, and explained to each of them what the other meant, and peace reigned again.  Mother Theresa would have been proud of me, and for the first time in years, we were able to celebrate the festive season without waiting for the other shoe to drop.  It was truly a Christmas miracle.

Things were OK on the George front as well.  His resistance to changes in routine has intensified over the last few weeks, and while this did cause some difficulties, there were no crises that we couldn’t handle.  They were little things, like the fact that he got extremely anxious whenever the lights on the big Christmas tree were turned on (interestingly enough, he has no problem with the lights on the little tree, or the lights in the village in his room).  So, we dealt with it in the simplest way possible.  We did without the lights on the tree.  When he saw presents, he wanted them opened right away.  Seeing a wrapped present that he’s not allowed to open is not a pleasant experience for George.  Lots of distraction and tactical planning later, we had all survived, and apart from one casualty, all of the presents were left intact until the proper time.

There was one very difficult moment on Christmas Eve, after my brother-in-law had left with his wife and baby, when we were trying to get the kids settled for bed.  Both of the kids, no doubt reacting to the excitement and pure overstimulation, had meltdowns.  One autistic, one neurotypical, manifesting their pent-up anxieties in different, but equally loud and stressful, ways.  Simultaneously.  It was like Meltdown Central at my house, and it took a long time for calm to be restored.

In the end, though, Santa was good to everyone, and we all got through several days of Christmas (and one birthday) as a harmonious, happy family.   I can truly say this: Dad would be proud.

The Running Man – continuing the legacy

6 Dec

Six years ago today, my Dad died.  Dad had been many things to many people.  He was many things to me – in addition to being my Dad, he was friend, financial advisor, giver of wise advice, and provider of corny but very, very funny jokes.  He was also my unofficial running coach.

Dad grew up in a small town in South Africa.  In his early years, he was raised by his mother while his father fought in World War II.  The war split the family apart; my grandparents divorced, and although my grandmother remarried, the new union did not create financial stability.  Dad and his siblings were fed and sheltered, but there was only money for the bare necessities; certainly no luxuries.  His childhood was probably typical of the late war and immediate post-war years.

Dad did well in school, academically outperforming most of his peers.  There was no money for university, so he had to get his education in the School of Hard Knocks.  At some point in his youth, possibly when he was fresh out of school and newly employed at the bottom of the totem pole, he joined an athletic club.  He was physically fit out of necessity, having had a childhood where he had to walk or bike everywhere.   He started entering races, running longer and longer distances.  And he started winning.

In the days before there were heart rate monitors, motion control shoes, and online training programs, Dad made an impact on the South African running scene, distinguishing himself as one of the elites of his generation.  I have a folder full of newspaper clippings featuring his victories, and my Mom’s display cabinet at home contains medals and trophies.

Dad never tried to push me into running – far from it.  In my school days, I was hardly a poster child for athleticism.  But still, the sport of running always held a fascination for me.  Every year starting from when I was twelve or thirteen, there was one particular day when Dad and I would get up before six in the morning and spend the entire day riveted to the TV.  That was the day of the annual Comrades Marathon, South Africa’s premier ultramarathon.   It is the world’s oldest ultramarathon and draws more registrants than any other event of its kind.  Dad and I would watch the start, we would be watching when the first runners completed the 55 mile race about five and a half hours later, and we would still be watching when the final gun went off signalling the end of the eleven hours that runners were allowed to complete the race in.  Most years, Mom would be in the kitchen baking cookies.  She said it was the one day of the year when she could any baking done without the entire family getting under her feet.

I made my own personal acquaintance with running when I was 26.  I had decided to give up my ten-year smoking habit, and was preparing by taking on healthy lifestyle habits.  My first runs weren’t really runs.  They were walks with the occasional burst of running here and there.  But soon, with Dad’s help, I was following a program of walking and running that slowly but surely built me up.  Before I knew it, I was running and walking in equal proportions, and soon after that, the running overtook the walking.

I did not run my first race until I was 30, and that year, I did a 5K, a 10K and a half-marathon.  Out of all of these races, the one that is by far the most special to me is the 10K.  Sure, the half-marathon was a tremendous accomplishment, and as soon as it was over, I was on the phone to my Dad in South Africa, telling him all about it.  Earlier that year, however, Mom and Dad had been over to Canada on a visit, and they were there with me when I ran my first 10K race.  It is the only race that Dad was physically present at, where I crossed the finish line and saw him on the other side.

During those years of running, Dad gave me countless pieces of advice.  He coached and mentored me.  He told me what I doing right and where I was going wrong.  He was thrilled to have a receptive audience for his running-related wisdom.

By the time I started running again after my seven-year gap, Dad was gone.  But his words lived on in my head, and when I find myself hitting a rough spot either in a training run or a race, I say to myself, “What would Dad do?”  I draw on his advice time and time again – advice about everything from nutrition to shoes to running form and pacing.

Every time I run, I think of Dad.  Sometimes, when my energy starts to flag, I feel a sudden burst of energy, as if something unseen is lifting me up and helping me soar.  And so the legacy of the Running Man in my life lives on.  I am proud that I can call myself his daughter.