At Home Parenting
Updated: Jan 9
Yesterday was my son’s fifth birthday.
For much of the last five years, I have not felt at home as a parent. His birth made me a mother, yet, I have never felt so distant from myself or so uncomfortable in my own skin. Especially in the nearly unbearable times that we weathered as a dyad in the first year - the severe post-partum depression that a traumatic birth ushered in, the four months of relentless colic, the reaction of my body to weaning him, and the subtle at times, more pressing at others, sensation that something was off, that this wasn’t how it was supposed be between mother and child. That babies weren’t supposed to cry for this long, that there shouldn’t be this much anguish, that my son should be learning and growing in a way that engendered delight, rather than rote repetition until a word or movement finally stuck and lodged its way into his brain.
Deep in my heart, I have felt estranged within the experience of motherhood. An experience that I peered at through a partially-fogged window, saw other women doing the same thing I was doing, with children the exact same age, and yet. I was just going through the motions and in my gut, I knew it. I was not at home with my own child or in my role as a mother. What I didn’t know, however, was that my son had sensory processing disorder and other developmental challenges, yet I was trying to parent a neuro-typical child. Unsurprisingly, this led to a situation where I had limited insight or appropriate support systems in place, and it was a labor of shear will, devoid of success or joy.
During these past five years, I also did not feel particularly at home in the D.C- area. It felt too far south, too warm, too corporate, and too hard to be a parent there for those of us existing just below the nanny/au pair financial threshold. The many wonderful things like beautiful art museums, great restaurants and concert venues, they were places that felt just out of reach for us once we became parents. We were too afraid to leave T with a babysitter because of his challenging behavior and when my-mother-in law would take him for a night, my husband and I were too drained to leave the house. We spent the time trying to “get back to neutral,” as we called it. Dishes. Laundry. Budgets. Logistical planning. Sleep. Precious, precious sleep. And we wondered how everyone else seemed to be getting by and managing date nights and even hanging out with friends on occasion.
One of my biggest fears when we started seriously pondering a move, around the time when I first got pregnant with D, was that I was equating not feeling at home as a parent with not feeling at home in D.C. I feared that my sense of estrangement would follow me to Michigan, that I would drag my family across the country to set down roots in another place that would feel just slightly off.
But a few days ago, I noticed it. I was driving on the highway to take T to his occupational therapist appointment and I took a deep breath. I felt more air enter and depart my lungs than I thought possible in recent months, maybe years. Something in my chest had released slightly. And I realized, that on this random highway in mid-Michigan, I felt at home.
Something in my body registered that I was back in a safe place – the place of my childhood and young adulthood. Where my sister lives. Where my mom lives. And although the drive wasn’t particularly pretty, the trees were bare and the land was flat, populated with farms with red barn silos and billboards in equal measure, it felt viscerally familiar, and therefore beautiful. And although it was an unusually sunny day in January, I was reminded of how on the deepest level of my being, I don’t mind the gray winters, or the cold, and in fact I love the depth of the seasonal change. Because all of this is etched into my DNA and part of sensory map of my life and part of who I am. And that these gray highways and billboards and the act of recycling pop bottles at the grocery store are part of the muscle memory of my Northern soul. And I just don’t have to think that hard about it, because that is what home is like.
I had the space to think about all this during the drive, because T was unusually quiet in the back seat. Recently on these drives, he has been chatting with me about the shapes of clouds – anteaters and pirates – and asking about earthquakes and how dangerous they are (much? very?) and whether his younger brother will catch up to him in age someday or if he will catch up to his slightly older cousin. And while he has always been “typically” verbal in the sense that he used words at the appropriate age milestones, I have never heard him communicate like this.
From the moment T started to learn words and grew into speaking, he described what was in front of him, reacted to questions with short sentences, and made requests known, but he didn’t chat or tell stories or express imagination the way I always thought that babies and toddlers and kids did at ages two and then three and then four… At the time I fought my anxiety by telling myself that maybe it was his temperament (just a literal type of guy) or the fact that he was in an in-home bilingual daycare (read: only Spanish spoken) in Petworth, D.C. from age eight months to a year-and-a-half. But now that I have a one -year-old who carries on entire conversations with inflections that make me think he knows a secret language I haven’t yet learned, I know deep down once again, it wasn’t that bilingual daycare.
That one looks like a squished Christmas tree, mama.
His sentence breaks my thoughts. And my heart swells because he is sharing this idea with me and I am beginning to understand what happens inside that brain of his. And I realize, oh, this is how it feels for other parents much of the time. Just natural. Part of the DNA. And they know deep in their gut that their child is growing and developing in the direction they expect and hope for, yet it is a direction they have probably never thought about. Because it just is and everything is progressing naturally. And it feels like home.
May you find yourself deeply at home in your life and your surroundings and may this home give you the strength to parent a child with individual differences. May you have the support you need to get through your hardest days, and space in your lungs to breath in the unexpectedly beautiful moments that life hands you.
ps. This lovely song has been on my mind during the return home.