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When My Mom Became 'Halmeoni' to My Son on the Autism Spectrum

The Mighty logo The Mighty 6/16/2021 janeykim
a man and a woman standing in front of a laptop: Jane’s parents and son. © The Mighty Jane’s parents and son.

When you have a child that is non-neurotypical, the mother-child bond is often tested. But that’s not the only relationship that is affected. There’s the relationship with your spouse or partner, your other children, your siblings and your friends. And then there’s the relationship with your mother.

Before I became a mom, I was keenly aware that moms were a distinct breed, part of a “Members Only” club. They looked and acted different from me, possessing a rare combination of intelligence, cynicism, condescension and empathy that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I witnessed it at the office, in my neighborhood, amongst my friends with kids. My own mom once told me she could tell the difference between a woman with a child and a woman without a child within a minute or so of observing her interaction.

As I approached my mid-30s — still childless by choice — I wondered if I would ever truly understand her intense love for me and my sister. Would she reveal her disappointments in the choices we made and confide any regrets she may have as a mom? I wanted to understand her better. When we’d face off about various issues with no resolution in sight, her last words were often steely and prophetic: Just wait until you become a mom.

As a child, I took these words to heart. I was waiting for that proverbial day that would bridge the divide between my mom and me. I never thought it was a possibility that day may never come.

Motherhood, by itself, can be overwhelming. Add medical complications and diagnoses coupled with the uncertainty about your child’s future, and the stress can be debilitating. For neurotypical kids, pediatricians often say it’s a phase and they will grow out of it. For non-neurotypical kids, pediatricians often say the future is uncertain, and no one can predict what will happen. There’s a drastic difference in that messaging, and any new mom that hears the latter – or a variation of the latter – needs the appropriate resources to enable her to be the best advocate she can be for her child, her family and herself.

Historically, I turned to my mom to eliminate (or at least greatly reduce) some of the uncertainty I was feeling. As a toddler, she assured me there were no monsters under my bed. As a tween, she promised me I’d survive – maybe even forget in a month or so – if I didn’t get those $50 shoes my friends had. As a teenager, devastated because I failed my driver’s license exam, she calmly told me I needed to practice more and was certain I would eventually drive. She was right on all accounts.

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When I entered adulthood, things shifted a bit, as they should. When I sought her advice, her answers were no longer definitive, but more instructive. Even then, she encouraged me to think carefully about the choices I was making, adding her knowledge and wisdom along the way. I was grateful to leave most conversations feeling more confident and secure about the future, about the direction my life was heading.

When my son was born, and I struggled with an atypical developmental trajectory of his early life, which eventually led to an ASD (autism spectrum disorder) diagnosis, my Mom could no longer tell me what I desperately needed to hear the most: that all would be OK. Unlike many new moms of neurotypical kids, my mom and the network I grew and nurtured as an adult were not initially able to provide me with the resources I needed to feel like I was moving in the right direction.

We both felt the stress of it and reacted in our own ways. She may have even felt a bit shortchanged. I know I did. She couldn’t pass on her knowledge as a mom and I could no longer ask her to guide me in the right direction. The bridge connecting the chasm between the two of us that was slowly being built during my pregnancy came to a halt. Alone, I set out searching for a life raft in dark waters.

She tried to help in other ways, in ways that were more familiar to her, like cleaning and de-cluttering my home. She emptied my dishwasher, but unbeknownst to her, the dishes were dirty. She combined my Seventh Generation Free and Clear natural dish soap with my Palmolive antibacterial dish soap, because why have two half-empty bottles when you could have one? And then one cold day in January, she decided to take down my Christmas tree, unaware that my son and I had a special lighting ceremony before dinner and would sit in the glow of the twinkling lights, at the end of the day. It was a rare shared moment of pleasure and peace, haphazardly tossed outside by the curb. After my son went to sleep, I sobbed that night for that lost moment, our strained relationship and the stress of it all.

In retrospect, I’m not sure what I would have done if I were in her shoes. She wore a different size and didn’t share my fondness for color — so what would become of our relationship?

After some therapy and personal reflection, I realized what bugged me: she never asked how she could help. Our roles had reversed, and I was teaching her new things about raising a child, things she knew nothing about. I needed her to listen, not to take charge. And her doing things without my OK unintentionally limited my choices — the one thing I desperately craved as a new mom to a non-neurotypical child. At that time, I needed to feel the power of choice and the hope of more possibilities.

Over the years, things have changed in a wonderfully positive way. Our roles are less defined and more fluid. And maybe that’s part of the challenge with the mother-daughter bond anyway. When we strayed a bit from our traditional roles, our relationship started to blossom.

Today, my son has a special bond with his grandmother. Aside from his dad or me, she’s the person he most wants to spend time with — and that shows me we both did something right.

I’ve learned that common experiences can draw you together, but it’s the intangible stuff that keeps you together: love, support, an open mind and a willingness to learn. Mom, it’s OK that you don’t understand what I’m going through. It’s OK that so far, we have had vastly different experiences as moms. And it’s OK for me to continue to ask for your help.


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