A Previous Life
Updated: Dec 31, 2019
In my previous life, and for a fairly brief moment in time, I was a political scientist. I spent three years learning to estimate statistical models and rapidly consume peer-reviewed journal articles about political-science-y things, like voting behavior, democracy, and institutions. After passing my qualifying exams and defending my research proposal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I spent another three years collecting and analyzing data and writing about local peacebuilding efforts among rural communities in Colombia, South America. (If you are interested in this particular chapter of my previous life, you can find my dissertation here).
Lately I have been thinking a lot about a particular methodology seminar during my
second year of the doctoral program. On a snowy afternoon, the class had a rather heated debate about what defined the parameters of true "political science" scholarship versus another academic discipline, such as history or literature (By the way, I can't help but laugh when I re-read the words "heated debate" in this sentence).
The class agreed on three things: political science should be generalizable, empirical, and causal.
In terms of generalizability, this means that one's research should be applicable beyond a particular place, moment in time, or the individual actors involved (i.e.the people doing stuff). Secondly, to be part of the political science club, all inferences should be based on, or concerned with, things we can observe with our own two eyes, rather than theory, pure logic, or making guesses about peoples' inner emotional states, preferences, or motivations. (As a side note, this makes it quite difficult to study interesting things like culture, social capital, and trust, but that is a topic for another day). Finally, as political scientists, we must also be concerned with knowing that if X happens,Y will surely follow as a result.
Unsurprisingly, the disciplinary training I received did little to prepare me for parenting a child with pretty intense behavioral challenges and some devastating developmental delays. Not that any rational human would expect a doctoral program in the social sciences to prepare them for parenthood - because I didn't - but I did hope for some new skills to apply in the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Ya know, science.
The professors at Wisconsin trained me to think in terms of large samples and average relationships between variables, however, this way of thinking did little to help me understand a 4-year-old boy who is (developmentally and behaviorally) a stark outlier. Instead of that arrow straight regression line blasting through the densest constellation(s) of data points, my child has been that lone data point floating out there in the ether of the scatterplot. He has been the epitome of the unique case.
Over the past year, as I have continued to observe baffling and paradoxical behaviors from my son - things that he did not outgrow, but rather that got worse after the toddler stage - I had to give up a reliance on empiricism. I have learned slowly that I could not depend exclusively on the "observable indicators" as measures of my son's true nature, or I would have quickly inferred that my child was a monster. With the help of professionals like wonderful occupational therapists (OTs), psychologists, child development specialists and speech pathologists, I learned that my son's behaviors were really the tip of the iceberg in terms of what was going on in his inner, emotional, sensory, and cognitive life.
And the nail in the coffin is - I am hazy on causality these days. Although I believe our new parenting approach is having a positive impact on T.'s behavior and happiness, that my departure from my job has probably helped with family harmony, and that the OTs are working wonders with T.'s ability to self-regulate, I truly have no idea what the counterfactual would have been, which of these changes has mattered most, and where we will end up as a family over the coming months and years. There are too many confounding variables. Oh, and by the way, I have been praying (I am not a religious person) and going to shamans and healers and wishing on stars. And I also believe that this has helped T.'s behavior and happiness too.
So I don't think I am being overly-dramatic when I say that the last year - in particular the parenthood aspect - has unraveled the epistemological underpinnings of my life. The experience of 2019 has shaken the very foundation on which I have built knowledge about the way the world works and discerned what I considered to be true.
All this brings me to an important caveat as I begin this writing practice: this blog is not intended to offer generalizable insights about all kids with sensory challenges, anxiety, developmental trauma, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Certainly, it is not going to apply to everyone's parenting experience and, to be honest, I really hope it doesn't. I genuinely hope that you have found more joy and connection in the journey as a mother or father than I have thus far. Regardless, I imagine that certain themes will be relevant to other parents who are struggling - all the losses and wins and sadness and healing. And that over time and with lots of therapy for both of us, I hope that my experience will someday shift closer to a more "typical" parenting path.
So as 2019 draws to a close, it seems a perfect moment to say "goodbye" to the straight-regression-line-parenting-experience we all expected and "hello" to the a-typical and unpaved road. And let me also offer a sincere "cheers" to all you other parents of outliers. Hopefully it won't be so bad out here together, floating in space.