Back in December, I found myself volunteering at Martin’s class Chanukah party. I read The Runaway Latkes to the class, served latkes—I’d brought Martin’s from home—, and helped Martin’s desk cluster play Chanukah bingo. I also facilitated a dreidl game. Martin played dreidl without incident, but another boy cried or complained every time he had to surrender chips, and finally refused to play any longer, instead yelling, “I’m a sore loser! I’m a sore loser!” I was reminded of when the behaviorist told me, “Martin is not the behavior problem in his classroom.” Overall, the morning went smoothly for Martin, and I felt optimistic.
While I and the other parent volunteers were packing to leave, the teacher called the kids to the rug for another story time. The kids were fussing and settling, and the teacher said above the murmur, “Children! This book is scary! You might want to snuggle up with a good friend!” Everyone squealed and began linking arms into groups of two or three. Tristan immediately grabbed Spencer. Those are two boys I know. Tristan’s mom was born in the same country as Adrian. We have done play dates with Spencer (on a parent-organized, not child-initiated, basis). Martin gravitated to them also, and sat himself very close to Tristan. A second later, Tristan pushed Martin away, and even from the classroom doorway, I heard Martin ask, “Why not? Why can’t I be?” I don’t know exactly what Tristan said to Martin, but given that it followed “. . . snuggle up with a good friend,” I can guess. When I left, Martin was sitting alone, two feet from Tristan and Spencer, listening as the teacher began the scary story.
I worry so much about Martin’s self-esteem. It’s probably what I worry about the most, even more than his attention deficit and immaturity. I wonder how many times per day his self-esteem endures hits like Tristan pushing him away and saying he’s not a friend. The ten or so kids other than Martin at his morning bus stop are all girls, except a boy named Nathan. One of the mothers is pregnant with twins and just found out she’s having a boy and a girl. When she told the bus-stop crowd, Nathan’s mom said, “Oh my gosh, Nathan, are you happy? Finally another boy around the street!” She said this while Martin was standing next to her. Perhaps she confused social challenges with hearing, understanding, inferring.
Seeing the way the world treats Martin has caused me to do some hard reflecting, again, on the way I treat Martin, and how I might also be injuring his self-esteem. Multiple times each day, I become frustrated with Martin for behaviors that are likely outside his control. On any given morning, I might say the following:
-“Martin, why did you spill all the juice? Weren’t you being careful? This is expensive juice.”
-“Martin, I told you to finish eating while I got dressed. You haven’t eaten even one single bite!”
-“Martin, why can’t you just put your shoes on? Feet. Shoes. It isn’t hard.”
-“Martin, we are going to miss the bus! Listen! Pay attention!”
-“Well, that’s it. We’re late. Again.”
Or take this very afternoon, a Monday. I’m going to be honest here, entirely honest, even if doing so brings me to tears while I’m writing: I have been frustrated with Martin since the minute he returned from school. Everything was wrong: Last night I slept only three hours, because I was working on a memo. This afternoon I ended up doing more office tasks than I planned, and my lunch date was more than half an hour late, so I still had to make dinner once Martin was at home. Let me add—Martin had a fantastic weekend. He chatted conversationally, he had no meltdowns, he focused at taekwondo class. So I expected a fantastic today. I knew today would rock. And then it didn’t. Martin cried and complained his way through 40 minutes of homework (worksheets that should have taken no more than 10 minutes), and he still wasn’t done, not even close, when I called him to get ready for taekwondo. I reserved 20 minutes to get us out the door. Twenty minutes to put on a taekwondo uniform and sneakers. And yet we were late. Like junk expands to fill a basement, Martin’s needs expand to overflow whatever time he’s allotted.
My role in all this? I’ve spent the entire afternoon being unreasonable. I’ve told Martin to stop complaining, I’ve grown frustrated, I’ve blamed him for our lateness. I’ve told him to act like an eight-year-old instead of a baby. Once or twice I’ve raised my voice. Constantly I’ve thought, “I would like a glass of wine,” and responded to myself, “A glass of wine will not solve anything,” and then argued with myself, “I think it would.”
My attitude, this afternoon and many mornings, is problematic for two reasons. First, it is unfair unfair to Martin. It’s not that Martin “isn’t being careful”—it’s that his ADHD and lingering coordination issues make him clumsy and distracted. It’s not that Martin “isn’t hurrying”—he lacks the ability to focus. It’s not that Martin is “ignoring me”—listening and paying attention go to the very heart of his disorder. To be sure, some of his conduct may be behavioral. But most of it is not, and it upsets him to be reminded of his shortcomings.
Second, my attitude pretends like I’m not the issue.
If Martin is spilling juice, I am the issue. The juice should be in a safer spot, and in a spill-proof cup.
If Martin isn’t finishing breakfast while I’m getting dressed, I am the issue. I need to get dressed before Martin eats so that I can supervise him.
If we are not getting out of the house on time, I am the issue. If 20 minutes is insufficient time to prepare, then somehow I need (1) to find more time and (2) to organize so that I have nothing to do except shepherd Martin’s preparation. One might argue that Martin needs to be developing more independence; clearly, however, the “independent Martin” strategy is failing at this time. Maybe I can leave one, and only one, task for solo performance: teeth brushing, or bag packing, or sneaker tying. For now, I need to “scaffold” massively (think “build extrastructure”) and withdraw support as Martin’s attending improves.
The truth is—and I think most biomed parents will agree with this—it is very frustrating to spend almost every waking moment working toward recovery and still get hit with waves of perseveration. Still never get out of the house on time. Still wonder why the child never listens. Still endure moments of hopelessness.
But that truth doesn’t excuse me from acting like the grown-up in this relationship.
I wrote this post yesterday, Monday. When Adrian arrived home, I said, “It’s been an afternoon. Will you pour me a glass of white wine?” He noted that the only white wine in the house was a bottle of questionable quality that the pool company had dropped off before Christmas. I told him to proceed. I drank two glasses. I woke at 3:30 am with a headache. I took ibuprofen and went back to sleep, propped on pillows, then managed to oversleep until 6:00 am.
Despite being rushed, I worked swiftly and organized the morning well. Martin cooperated more than yesterday. I was so proud of us when we were ready for the school bus three minutes early.
After Martin departed, I realized I’d forgotten his after-breakfast supplements.
He arrived home with a report saying he’d needed an unusual amount of prompting during the school day, and had refused to participate in Valentine’s activities. Now he’s in taekwondo again, and instead of participating, he’s jumping.
Still, the grown-up in the relationship feels okay. Must be a sleep thing.
Martin, at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. He’s not the issue.