In Her Own Time


selfMy daughter has a tendency to use me as a human shield between her and other people when she has to interact with adults. She’ll stand plastered to me, arm rigidly locked around mine, her face half-hidden behind my sleeve as she tries smilingly to answer any bit of chit-chat thrown her way.

If you’ve seen my daughter sing, act, or dance on stage, then you know that this is not truly her. My daughter is actually the furthest thing from a wallflower. Her stage personality is big enough to reach people in the furthest corners of a theater, pulling them in to her performance.

I’ve wrestled with this paradox for a long time, trying to figure out why she is anxious in innocuous contact situations. I think I’ve finally teased a few things out.

I have a tendency to swoop in to my daughter’s rescue when I know she is struggling. Like any mother, attuned to her child and steeped in the knowledge of what makes her tick (to the cellular level), I can anticipate when my daughter is going to flounder. And to my chagrin, I realize that it has been many a time when I have anticipated that she was going to be two beats behind during an exchange of witty repartee or when a social reference was going to be over her head, and I have stepped in and provided the words.

And not just the words. I’ve supplied the context, the requisite emotion, and the answer in one fell swoop, thinking I’ve saved her from embarrassment. But looking back, I wonder if she experienced that as a silent communication that she is incapable.

I fear that I’ve somehow given her the message that she can’t and I can, and therefore, she can take herself off the hook.

Have I disempowered the very creature that I swore I would send out into the world, ready to rule it? Am I the one who stilled her tongue? Did I steal her swagger, relegating her to a secondary place at my side rather than standing tall in front of me?

I think I am speaking the deepest fears of many parents of children with disabilities. In the desire to protect, we often pave the way too much. It becomes a terrible endless cycle that sucks us into never EVER dropping the ball. It comes from an altruistic place really, because no parent wants to see their child suffer or have them feel the sting of humiliation. So that “one time” of saving them becomes a relentless domino of duplicate events (because which situation is really the “safe” one to let them fall?).

And yet, what mettle have I given to my daughter to confront the world with? I am faced with the dilemma of having signaled her one too many times that I will be her filter, I will cue or direct her, and thereby keep her from stumbling. I can see why she would then automatically defer to me, all the while getting reinforcement that she is not capable enough. This is a terrible disservice to her, done with best of intentions.

It is the toughest test of parenthood to allow the struggles to form, and observe (rather than react) when your child is tasked with seeing those problems through to completion. Like many a parent before me (particularly parents of special needs children), I have been silent witness to the times when children and adults subconsciously react to my child’s awkward moments. When she has struggled socially, I have seen the “moment of disconnect” on the faces of others, when they are done listening and or haven’t gotten the response they expected.

She has been left in the lurch many a time, or tried painfully to grasp for the “right” response, digging herself in deeper and looking progressively more like a fish out of water. That is a mighty difficult thing to watch, and it is thus even harder not to step in and interject to smooth things out. But she will be the one that has to maintain the relationship that I’ve fostered, so yet again, what have I signaled to her about her capability, and what have I left her with?

I often resolve that the next time, I will let her fully steer the ship. “I have to,” I silently will myself, because I know that I won’t be there forever. She has to develop these skills herself. She has to know how to meet both cruel and kind. If I deprive her of those early experiences, she’ll never find her own tongue, nor figure the basis of her own soul. She has to meet the world as she is, imperfect and perfect at the same time.

And while I know that the world will try to beat her down, how can she rise up if she never fell once? My hope is that by allowing her to stand alone more frequently, she will eventually find her own tribe of those who will be with her because they love who she truly is. That is something absolutely worth seeking.

This appears to be such a given, but it is harder to practice than it seems. The challenge of finding a “presentable self” that the world will accept and yet is one that is crafted on your own terms, is really the struggle of a lifetime. I can only resolve to try, as often as I can, to let my daughter navigate her interactions, and guide her when I’m invited into her struggles.

This will mean that conversations will have awkward silences that I have to promise not to fill, and she will have to find her own way to respond to those who shoot her “the look.” She’ll stumble, she’ll fall, she’ll cry, and get hurt. All of the things that I wanted to prevent.

But in doing so, maybe she’ll finally find her own voice, and walk tall in front of ME.

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May Hwa-Jones was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens. She interned at Rolling Stone Magazine and Elle Magazine in college, and was a freelance editorial assistant at Family Life Magazine. With a Bachelor’s Degree from NYU and a Master’s Degree from Stanford University in Literature, May explored editorial life in NYC, but moved towards a teaching career instead, which led to a teaching certification in secondary education and the eventual achievement of a second Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Denver. As a licensed clinical social worker, May has practiced psychotherapy for nearly seventeen years in multiple settings, from substance abuse clinics in hospitals to community mental health centers, finally finding her passion working with families in a school for severely emotionally disabled children in Westchester County. She is married to a self-proclaimed red neck from Colorado and has three children, who are the beloved centers of chaos in her life. Formerly a ballet dancer and musician for over 20 years, she now does Zumba to keep her joints from locking up and is an avid cheer-soccer-tae kwon do-music-art-dance mom. Her husband regularly begs her to stop volunteering to run more activities, but she never listens to red necks.