Has anyone seen the goalposts?

Four chickens in grey leaf litter, yard infrastructure in midground @careerusinterruptus.com

It is a neurodivergent parenting fact, that the minute you figure something out about what makes your kids tick, or how to help them overcome a particular challenge, they move the goalposts. Not just a few feet left or right, forward or back, but usually into a strange, new, dark dimension populated by angry hammers. An issue that you’ve been contorting yourself, trying to grasp and manage, disappear overnight, to be replaced by a new impossible that has never, ever, been an issue before and the first you know is when it whacks you upside the head.

The joys of asynchronous development. I may have mentioned it.

If you have more than one kid, they psychically coordinate so that every once in a while they all do it at the same time. (The rest of the time, only 7 of the goalposts are doing the time-warp.)

And if you’re really, REALLY lucky, you might find your own goalposts hoiking their skirts and heading for the hills at the same time.

This has been 2021 in our house, so far. Hammer, hammer, hammer.

One of the kids has taken a massive forward leap, gaining about eight years’ maturity in eight weeks. Suddenly issues that had previously produced nothing but screaming, are being calmly clarified and the kid wants both more responsibility and more autonomy for resolving them. That’s great – amazing! Wonderful! – although it does entail a lot of work for me, scrambling for opportunities and resources. (And, of course, figuring out how to manage the gap between their goals and their abilities, without sounding as though I lack faith.)

Simultaneously, anxiety has driven the other kid backwards almost as far. Every last scrap of independence has vanished. I’ve had to take over all decision-making (I mean all of it) and my presence is required every minute of the day and quite a few of the night. I am gritting my teeth and clinging to the knowledge that in the early years, wobbles this big usually often preceded a magnificent leap. Nevertheless, neither of us is enjoying the reprise.

(Coincidentally as I’m writing this I’m overhearing my son’s homeschool class on Wells’ The Time Machine, and I have to say, never mind the Jurassic, try going back to the preschool age.)

And – sigh – apparently, I’m really, REALLY lucky, because just before Christmas I discovered that I have a specific learning difficulty. I’m in the process of recalibrating everything I know about myself and my abilities. In fact I’m at a stage in my (erratic, eclectic) reading where I’m starting to wonder whether all four of us aren’t afflicted by a particular exceptionality—but that’s a story for another day.

This day all my energy’s going into taking care of myself and – between tethering the kid out in future space and holding a lifeline for the one in the past – trying to stay grounded in the now. And oh, man, that involves a lot of adult self-talk: A small cup of tea is okay; the bucket you’re tempted to drink will just burn through all your reserves by lunchtime. Skip it. Drink water. Eat salad. Order the groceries. Talk to that friend. Avocado for afternoon tea instead of cookies. Okay, and *a* cookie. Take some time to watch the chooks. (Chickens are an extremely under-rated therapy. Trust me.) Drink more water. Cook the dinner. Make the extra effort to do grain-free pasta for yourself. Spike the kids’ dinner with sedatives. Wait, not that one. Wash the dishes. Shower. Go to bed. Remind yourself that this too shall pass.

Because it does. It always, eventually, does.

The perfectionism is a @#$*!! post

out-of-focus picture of gum tree branches against sky
©careerusinterruptus

Ho, boy, perfectionism. THAT miserable disease. Too often the term’s bandied around like it belongs to high achievers: Strive for perfection, get straight As! Sure, sometimes they can be a little driven, but hey, on the whole, it’s a good thing, right? That tendency will get them far in life.

Bollocks.

Perfectionism in our house bolted the door and hamstrung the horse before it ever left the stall. Perfectionism is a caltrops, a shackle, a monstrous barrier to progress. Perfectionism is a severe learning difficulty.

Lemme tell you a story.

One day somewhere in his third year, Mr Pixel wrote me a note. I couldn’t read it, of course, because it was unformed pre-school scribbles, but I made valiant efforts to guess at the content.

He wasn’t fooled. He wanted me to READ it. When he realised I couldn’t, a look of pure disgust settled on his face, and that was it. He was done with writing. DONE.

Just how done, I had no idea.

You see, Mr Pixel had decided that since he couldn’t, instantly, write intelligibly, then by god he wouldn’t write at all.

I didn’t know that, of course.

How could I?

He wasn’t even three, for goodness sake; I just figured, it would come.

So we gave him plenty of opportunities. Besides free painting and drawing, there was colouring-in, dot-to-dots, white-boards, and mazes – ways to practice writing-like movements more forgiving than forming letters. Mr Pixel wasn’t interested. (In retrospect, I should have twigged when he’d use his finger to trace a maze, but nothing that left a mark.*) We had fat crayons, markers, pencil grips. He ignored everything.

Perhaps he had fine- or maybe gross motor issues? We swam, we had Lego, play-dough, squeeze-balls, kinetic sand – anything to strengthen his muscles.

We tried an occupational therapist. Lovely young woman, sporty, full of giggles. Mr Pixel adored her – though not enough to do what she asked. “It’s my pencil and my hand, I’ll hold it how I want,” he said, barely five years old. (SAF. It’s frickin’ real.) $900 later we quit flogging that horse, because having refused to play any of the OT’s homework games with me, Mr Pixel had eventually quit engaging with her at all. He’d worked out what was really going on, and he wasn’t having a bar of it.

School didn’t push. They recognised that kids mature at different paces and were confident that he’d write when he was ready.

Which may well be shortly after hell freezes over. Five years later I’m pretty sure you could fit every mark he ever made at school onto one sheet of A4 with a nice wide margin for framing.

Yes, I know. Dysgraphia. But how can you tell? It’s a completely self-reinforcing cycle. Is he refusing to try because it’s difficult, or is it difficult because he refuses to try, or both? How do you help someone who has simply decided they Won’t? Hint: treating it as if it’s dysgraphia – offering to scribe, for instance, typing, or voice-to-text software – doesn’t work. All you get are dirty looks and a zipped lip.

Text-to-voice, on the other hand, worked brilliantly for about a fortnight, during which Mr Pixel typed reams of swear-words into my phone for my car to say while I was driving.** (Cheers, inventors of Bluetooth, bet you didn’t foresee that.) Then the novelty wore off and we were back to No Writing.

Not writing has one major benefit, you see. Most schoolwork requires writing, so a kid who won’t write has pretty effectively shielded themselves from ever have to risk being wrong, or making a mistake that others might see. This principle works right across the board: If there’s any chance an activity won’t be instantly mastered – which is pretty much everything – it’s off the agenda.

THAT is perfectionism, people.

It kills me and it breaks my heart.

I have no answers. It goes without saying that anything Mr Pixel does want to try is greenlit. As parents we talk frequently about our learning efforts in his hearing, emphasising the frequency and usefulness of mistakes. He watches educational videos and we talk ideas. And we keep providing opportunities, not just for writing but other, low-risk, open-ended activities like paint-pours or making fimo beads – our homeschool group is perfect for this, god bless those people.

Minecraft and Lego have both been great for trying and failing, without losing face. He’ll type texts for me if I’m driving and when his server crashed, he asked for help composing support messages to the host.

And after years of that, we are finally starting to see writing, in the sanctuary of our homeschool group, with a teacher who absolutely gets Mr Pixel (and a class full of others like him). With their encouragement – and their very broken-down, structured lessons – he’s begun producing stories and paragraphs that don’t just say ‘poo poo poo poo’. (Even that was only a one-off.) He’s getting there, having a go, learning what success feels like and more importantly, that mistakes are survivable. Which after all, is really the only way to break perfectionism’s paralysing grip.

* = I figured it out when CraftyFish – who owns many untouched workbooks, including The Gifted Kids’ Workbook, Create This Book, and The Big Life Journal – explained that she won’t write in them for fear of “ruining them”. At least she Wrecked This Journal; Mr Pixel wouldn’t even do that.

** = Yes, I let him, because HE WAS MAKING WORDS. Plus, the pair of them giggling their heads off was such a nice change from the screaming.

Progress report 1/21. Or, staying sane when the brown stuff flies

My golly goodness it’s been a shit of a time, hasn’t it?

I am, as always, struggling to keep a lid on the global despair, but instead find I keep having to move it to ever-bigger pots. Happy your state elected its most diverse cabinet ever? Discover they’re allowing hundreds more coal-seam gas wellson the site of our worst environmental disaster – which that same company caused. Coping with the pandemic? Fine, have a coup as well! Thankful the coup failed and we’ve reinstalled a degree of intelligence in the White House? Read about how thoroughly and justifiably unimpressed First Nations folx are. All that before Jan.26, Australia’s annual celebration of racism.

Even just within our house, the brown stuff’s been flying thick and fast and all over the shop. I don’t even want to think about the details. Let’s just say that the month has featured blood-stained pet diarrhoea, pet lice, kid anxiety, back/nerve pain, employment uncertainty, tears, broken sleep, broken appliances, and – as a result of all that – a parade of big, fat, unexpected bills. Most of it, more than twice. That time I got sprayed with baked-bean juice was just another sigh moment in a month full of them. (I’ll let you imagine the circumstances that led to baked-bean juice being sprayed. Whatever you come up with is probably saner than what actually happened, which involved a chicken.)

Rodrigo the bean-juice-spraying chicken

So, I’ve been concentrating (for a given value of ‘concentrate’) on the stuff I can do. I’ve cleaned out the shed so the bikes actually fit inside, I ordered printer cartridges, I painted the bird-bath, I booked the dishwasher repair dude, I paid some of last-term’s overdue bills, I returned a ton of overdue library books, I found a vacuum-cleaner repair dude, we can now escape out the fire door without breaking our necks on ancient ride-on toys and chicken wire. I’ve showered, like, at least twelve times.

And there’s been progress – if not completion – on a few other projects, as well. As of yesterday, I finished putting six months’ worth of expenditures into the spreadsheet, I’ve seen the exercise physiologist twice, I’ve worked out a schedule for doing weekly housework, I’ve, uh, moved some big landscaping rocks, I handed Mr Pixel the crowbar and pointed him at the old pavers…

I mean, sure, I still have to take the vacuum across town to the repairer, and crunch the expenditures data into a budget, and do my damn exercises, and level the soil before we can re-lay pavers, and wade through the inevitable pre-housework tears – every frelling week. And fine, okay, I haven’t even touched on any of the Big Stuff.

But you know, people, VISIBLE PROGRESS. In this month’s avalanche of bad news, I’m taking any minute where I’m not driving, or doing emotional support, to go outside and look at the hacked-up dirt, and breathe. It’s a small patch, maybe only a metre square, but it represents progress. Tiny, visible progress. I’ll take it.

Sensitivity is brutal

When I was about 23, a friend cast me in his university revue – The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse Go Camping – as War.

It hurt my feelings.

I mean, I was an anxious, dreamy gal, wanting nothing more than to read every book ever printed and, thus informed, bring about world peace. I couldn’t even handle a horror film, let alone—I mean, War? Me?!

Nevertheless, everyone in our circle agreed it was perfect casting.

Hmph.

Fast forward twenty years, and someone gives me Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Child because she thought it fit my kids.

Sure enough, they ticked some HSC boxes, but damned if I saw us in those pages. Aron writes of mothers so averse to loud noises they commit to never calling their child from another room; she writes about sock-seams; she writes about kids who only eat bland food, who get stress stomach-aches, and who ‘cry easily’ over small injuries, animals, or art.

Who were these delicate beings?! Not us!

So long as they were with me, my kids loved new experiences. (Although they were less keen if the new experience involved other kids.) They tried any new food they were offered, they adored restaurants and Avengers movies and rough-housing, they are hugely, inappropriately, funny, they loathe museums/art galleries, complaining bitterly whenever we go. Wet’n’Wild, though? AWESOME. Outside school, they only ever melted down in public once each.

But at home? The screaming. I may have mentioned it once or twice.

They screamed in frustration, they screamed in disappointment, they screamed in panic, they screamed because it was funny. If I yelled, they screamed back twice as long. They did not scream for any sensory issue, ever, and I never thought of what they were doing as ‘a tantrum’. They just took things badly. So badly that a neighbour – the lavishly tattooed, grey-haired Serb from across the road – once nervously mentioned it. The guy with a kid the same age, that we never ever heard.

Sensitive, my kids? Pfft. They were the Brute Squad, making up in volume what they lacked in size and strength.

Another pointless parenting book. I lent it out.

However.

In my quest for Clues, I had also joined a group for parents of HSCs, and one day a baffled mama asked the magically-worded question that finally tricked my laggard brain into assembling all the pieces. I forget how she phrased it, now. But my answer went something like this:

Stimulus (physical, emotional, or intellectual) slams into our consciousness like a bullet. (If we were off in our thoughts, it’s more like a meteorite.) All the consequences appear instantaneously, like cracks shooting across a windscreen, so we respond, with shock, to a lot of information. As a result, our responses come out fast and hard. BAM! POW!

For instance, if I postpone a trip to the library because we’re all tired, it isn’t ‘just’ disappointment over the missed outing. The missed outing is itself a constellation of disappointments: fun car-ride! Fun place! Adults who enjoy talking to book-loving kids! Fun at the playground afterwards! Fun eating a snack out! Fun using a strange toilet! With strange soap! And strange taps! ALL GONE! Adding insult to injury, this adventure has been curtailed for tiresome old REST, at boring old HOME?! They HATE resting!

And beyond all that, the rich promise of a shelf full of new books, obliterated. And beyond that, what if something happens and we NEVER get to the library?! Can you see the crescendoing crisis, here?

Cue much, loud protest. And then, as Mama remains unmoved, more ramifications unfold: Perhaps I do not understand just how much they want to go to the library and how PROFOUNDLY DISAPPOINTED they are at missing out. Perhaps I – gasp! – do not care. (If I did, I’d change my stance, right, to save them this suffering?) Perhaps they need to express themselves more vehemently.

Ah.

Now that I put it like that, I can see how we might come across as a bit, um, forceful.

Martial, even.

Of course, the kids could never have articulated it like that, and at the time I probably couldn’t have unpacked it like that myself. I would have been too busy dealing with the screaming.

Unfortunately, as a parent with the exact same wiring, I may have dealt with some of it by – yep – screaming. Sometimes literally, sometimes not: it scarcely matters. Their brains and ears are so finely attuned to every nuance of information, so hyper-alert to any perceived threat, that my plain-old, everyday certainty (formed exactly as fast and hard as theirs) sounds like a bomber roaring over their heads. When our brains have raced, laser-fast, to different conclusions? Obviously, it’s war. God help us if anyone digs in.

So the trick turns out to be pulling back from those distant conclusions. Dialling down my conviction, even when (I think) I know exactly what’s going on and what is unequivocally The Right Answer. Nodding thoughtfully buys time to apply a mental fire-extinguisher, creating a gap between the first answer smashing into my brain and the words erupting out of my mouth. I am learning to brake my speech, softening my fast-and-hard reaction with pauses and questions. “I wonder…” is hands-down the best parenting tool ever. I use it about as well a goat with a screwdriver, but eh, I’m learning.

Eventually, the friend returned Aron’s book, and this time, I slowed down enough to recognise us. After all, it’s sensitivity that brings so much information so fast to our brains, even if it’s the gifted that races away and sounds the air-raid siren.

Here we go again

In honour of #HurrahForGin’s classic cartoon (and if you don’t want to marry her, what is WRONG with you?!) I’m dubbing the time between Christmas and New Year’s, “Cheese Week”.

I mean, I’m perpetually confused; I only know what day of the week it is in term and even that’s hardly reliable. And it’s probably fair to say I’m usually more full of cheese than I should be.

But during Cheese Week? Phew.

The house is trashed, full of boxes and packaging and proudly-displayed new Lego builds; we’ve been out too much for me to have time to tidy any of it up and where will the new stuff even go? Everyone’s sleep has gone to shit in various ways. And nobody knows what we’re doing at any given time but it always seems to involve crisps, friends we haven’t seen for ages, and board games, so everyone’s constantly either over-excited, over-tired, bored, elated, hungry, disappointed, or all of them at once.

It’s hard to imagine a worse time to try and get one’s shit together.

And yet, you can’t help it, can you?

I mean, it’s a New Year, and all that crap.

Even I cannot resist. Sure, resolutions are just setting yourself up for failure, and yes, I still come over all snarky around motivational words.

Nevertheless, I’ve spent large chunks of the week unravelling our finances in the hopes of finally figuring out where the reins are and grasping them. In between I was reading “writer’s life” type articles, pondering writing and financial goals. With nothing in the calendar and hubby home to keep on top of the laundry, I determined that *this* year, dammit, I would DEFINITELY start with A Plan.

Needless to say, that didn’t work out.

Instead, a beloved pet became very ill and I spent three solid days finding help, supporting the kids, and then dealing with all the grief once she’d passed away. I forgot we had the pest control guy booked and dear friends we rarely see found an unexpected opening in their diary. The week cost us damn near a thousand bucks.

So we’ve arrived in 2021 our usual way: tired, papers all over the table, my screen open to my novel, dirty dishes in the sink, and I can’t find my glasses.

And yet, I’m okay with that – it’s just life, after all. Of course nothing changes on New Year’s Day.

The trick, as Neil Gaiman put it so beautifully, is to just keep walking towards your mountain.

Gaiman’s genius – unlike SMART goals, five-year plans or any of that protestant-capitalist bullshit – is acknowledging that we don’t have control. Because the universe unfolds according to its own, profoundly unknowable plan, we cannot see the whole road ahead. Bulldozing one will likely end up in the Fire Swamp.

Ditching a set route lets you respond to opportunities as they arise, rather than fighting to stick to the path, despite them.

Ditching the time limit allows you to slow down for fellow travellers, or because it’s dark. It allows you to stop and smell the flowers. It acknowledges that despite the best-laid plans, sometimes the Fire Swamp opens up right there under your feet.

By keeping the mountain centred in your field of vision, you can still find your way.

We may have left 2020 behind, but we are still in the Fire Swamp, and the R.O.U.Ses are still in charge. All we can ask of ourselves is to keep fit – eat salad, exercise, ablute, sleep – and keep walking.

Anything else is a bonus. Be grateful.

Backstory

One TL;DR version of my autobiography could go something like this:

Identified as a gifted kid by two different American school systems, I grew up knowing I was smart and struggling with the expectation of academic excellence. I mean, I could get top marks fairly easily – except at math – and I generally did, although the margin of achievement diminished as I got older.

Besides, after year six, no one ever mentioned my giftedness again. Perhaps it had worn off.

By the time I got to University, studying science, I was miserable and so were my grades. The first thing I ever failed, I was expecting – I’d skipped all the tutorials and most of the lectures, and after trying to cram the whole subject the night before, found on the day I couldn’t answer a single exam question. Fair enough – but what bothered me was, why had I skipped everything in the first place? Venomous and Poisonous Animals should have been an interesting subject, it wasn’t even remotely difficult, and I’d known what the consequences for not attending would be; why couldn’t I make myself go to classes?

Then I failed something I’d kinda enjoyed and worked for, with no idea why. (The lecturer, who’d gone on sabbatical, was unavailable to provide feedback.) And there were some subjects I wasn’t even game to try. Clearly, I was getting stupider with every passing year.

Things improved dramatically when I moved into the Humanities – my grades shot back to the expected level and I found great joy in my field – but I still felt a glass wall between me and my colleagues, a feeling that increased when I went on to further study at a more prestigious institution, and which still exists around my few remaining academic friends. These people are smart, funny, interesting, shared similar politics, interests, and tastes, and yet… there was some difference I just couldn’t put my finger on. They were thriving, but the longer I stayed, the worse I felt.

Eventually I tapped out of academia, exhausted by feeling that I struggled with and resented what everyone around me enjoyed; feeling that the monoculture of it was killing me, without even being able to articulate what I meant by that. I wanted to start a family and that was impossible while putting so much energy into a career which, anyway, still wasn’t meeting some vague, unformed needs. The split was as painful and bewildering as a divorce. Where had the joy gone? Where was the love?

It wasn’t until I started learning about giftedness in my forties that this disconnect began to make sense. My kids’ version of giftedness is all about the emotions, the creativity, and the recalcitrance. Though they are bright, they flat out refuse to achieve academically. And now that I understand why, I understand myself so much better. Achieving well academically was a byproduct of interest; without interest, I had nothing. As Jacob Maslow put it,

“Gifted children…are primarily motivated cognitively. When they achieve excellent grades in a certain subject, it’s because their intellectual curiosity was sufficiently fired by the material provided.”

Maslow, 26/10/2018, retrieved 27/12/20

Ah. Yes. That sentence explains my whole history. I could achieve well, when I had my cognitive hooks into something; without that, a grade, a publication, or a promotion, were never enough to motivate me.

Figuring out that that’s how I am, has been like taking off a too-tight pair of pants I’ve worn my whole life.

So now I let it all hang out. Smart enough, I guess: also creative, empathic, and curious, a dabbler, happy doing a whole lot of things not very well, far more motivated by wonder than by anything else. Trying to figure out if I can do that, then changing tack once I can – this is what gifted looks like.