“For Years I Felt Like a Bad Mother — Until My Son’s Diagnosis Changed Everything” originally appeared on Modern Mommy Madness under the title, “Finding the Missing Piece,” and was reprinted here with permission.
For almost 9 years, I’ve operated under the belief that I must be not that great at parenting, despite all my efforts. After all, I’d never changed a diaper before I had my first child, so it’s not too farfetched to assume that my struggles are due to my own ineptitude.
Despite my insecurities, part of me knew that I must be a passable mom, because when the nurse handed Maverick to me on September 3, 2008, for the first time in my life I felt a sense of purpose so distinct that it was palpable. As we stared at each other, I thought, we were chosen for each other.
As the years marched on I’ve questioned myself more and more, but that unforgettable moment of meeting my son for the first time was what I always went back to. When faced with a seemingly insurmountable situation, I remind myself that I’m meant to do this. After all, we were chosen for each other.
I was so overwhelmed with the stress of raising a child who didn’t seem ordinary (in addition to his two younger siblings), that I turned to the only thing that has ever helped me process my thoughts: writing. I wrote and I wrote, and people responded, because let’s face it — none of us know what the hell we’re doing. I needed to understand why motherhood was so hard, and why it was only becoming more difficult. I traded ideas with women from all over the world. I read all of the parenting books and applied all of the principles.
Maybe we needed more Jesus. Maybe we needed probiotics. Maybe we needed more sunshine. Maybe something was so significantly lacking that it was screwing up our family dynamic, and if I could just find that one missing piece, everything would fall into place. Maybe Robbie and I needed more date nights. Maybe we needed more money, a different house, a new school, more kids. We tried it all, and nothing worked for longer than a few days at a time.
Although Maverick does not seem overtly unusual, I knew something was off. I struggled to put my finger on what it was, and naturally everyone had an opinion. “He’s too smart,” they said. “He’s just bored.” Robbie kept telling me that Maverick probably had ADHD, just as he did as a child, and assured me that our son would be fine.
“Nothing is wrong with Maverick,” he said, countless times.
Maybe something was wrong with ME. But I needed to figure it out, because we were chosen for each other.
I tried harder to create an interesting, stimulating environment at home to help satisfy his craving for information. His memory is incredible. He can recall in vivid detail the time I took him to the park when he was two years old and he had on his red t-shirt and lost his truck under the monkey bars. He quotes facts about famous scientists and the surface of Jupiter; after hearing a song only one time, he can repeat all the lyrics. He can add large numbers in his head, quickly.
I cut out red dye #40. I cut out processed foods. I limited screen time. I spanked, a lot. I tried time outs, a lot. We took away toys and privileges.
I cried. A LOT.
The older Maverick got, the harder he became to handle. His emotions were big — exuberant one minute, and terrible, raging fury the next. He was scary, sometimes. Robbie works insane hours, and I was in way over my head. We now had a family of five, and while Maverick loves his siblings, he lashed out at them a lot. Every day was filled with drama, and I kept hitting rock bottom.
Over and over again, I found myself in terrible situations with my kid, not knowing what to do to make it better, and quickly running out of ideas. When no one has a child like yours, it’s very lonely. My friends offered support, but they had no advice.
Our pediatrician said he was perfectly normal. When speaking, Maverick makes eye contact and articulates like an adult. He understands humor — when he was 5 years old, he did a stand up comedy routine for the school Talent Show and brought the house down. Despite what the doctor and even my husband said, I knew they were wrong. Either something was going on with my kid, or something was terribly amiss with me as a parent.
We were chosen for each other. This is what I kept telling myself.
I swallowed my pride and got professional help. By then, Maverick was 7 years old. They suggested psychological testing, but it was expensive, so we waited on that, and toughed it out through talk therapy. I hoped that they could tell me how to best parent him, because I constantly feel like our relationship is war-torn. My son thinks I do not like him. My son questions whether or not he is worthy of love.
Talk therapy, as it turns out, does not help much without a diagnosis. We said that we wanted to go ahead with testing.
“He’s a very complicated case,” said the psychologist, weeks into the testing process.
“No sh*t,” I replied.
After months of evaluation and many more issues at home, Robbie and I were called in to go over their findings. As we sat in the doctor’s office, I thought about how it took not one, but two, doctors of psychology to diagnose our son. I thought about how tired I am. I thought about how I would do whatever they said would make things better. But most of all, I thought about how we were chosen for each other.
And then he cleared his throat, and in one simple sentence, the psychologist explained why motherhood is so hard for me.
Maverick has a form of autism.
The way I felt when he told us is almost exactly how I felt when my mother told me she had been diagnosed with cancer — utter relief to finally have a reason for all the madness, followed by grief and guilt. The grief I feel over Maverick’s diagnosis is purely from all of the mistakes I’ve made over the course of his life because I truly could not understand his behavior. I misinterpreted almost everything he did and said, and that makes me profoundly sad.
Guilt and grief aside, I am incredibly proud of my kid. I’m proud of who he is and what he can and will accomplish. He has an enormous responsibility because his brain is special, and I look at this as a gift. His super brain is his gift from God, and Maverick is God’s gift to me.
We weren’t sure how or when we would tell him about what the doctors said, but it turned out that we didn’t have to. Two days after we learned of the diagnosis, I was tucking Maverick into bed when he sat up and said, “Am I autistic?”
“What makes you ask that?” I said, shocked.
“Well, I asked you that a long time ago and you said no. Do you remember?”
“Well, am I autistic?”
“Yes, Maverick, you are. You have a form of autism. It was hard for them to figure out, because most kids with autism aren’t as social as you are. You’re actually really lucky, because you’re good with people and you have a super brain!”
We spent the next hour lying in his bed, talking about how he’s always known he was different from the other kids, which is why he’s always gone out of his way to be kind to the weird ones. I told him that we’re going to learn about his brain, together, and that he is a very special kid.
“So special,” I said, “That it took TWO doctors to figure out what kind of brain you have.”
We were chosen for each other, and I couldn’t be more proud of us.