It’s a freaking miracle

©careerusinterruptus. Original art by CraftyFish

Have you noticed how, in order for a miracle to occur, a whole lot of smaller miracles have to line up first?

At time of writing, I’m 13 years and 17 minutes into a 2020 Mother’s Day miracle.

Which is to say: I’m in my home, alone, for the first time in at least 138 days. My first time alone, at all, in 56 days.

You cannot imagine how miraculous this is.

For this to happen, everyone in our house and the grandparents had to stay well through the first wave of COVID-19. Australia’s curve had to flatline and the Queensland government had to decide to allow the first tentative lifting of restrictions.

Quite apart from all that, we needed a whole string of tiny, personal miracles right here at home: we had to casually broach the idea of the Skeptic taking the kids to see their Omi without me, yesterday, mentioning it a time or two, so that no one felt either surprised or pressured by the idea.

Then the kids had to get to sleep at a decent hour. (This itself involved the miracle of CraftyFish having recently decided she does like reading after all, and choosing Harry Potter rather than a kung-fu rave haka for her pre-bedtime activity.)

They had to wake at a decent hour, too, not so early they felt tired and incapable but early enough to have a solid hour acclimating to Earth, before The Skeptic tried to move them out of the house. They had to be willing to go. This is always the most precarious moment, given that separation anxiety has its cruel claws deep in my kids’ psyches, entwined in their guts, and if I haven’t had any time off in 56 days, well, neither have they.

Spare me your ‘Mummies have needs, too’.

Of course we do. Gimme some credit, darl. I’ve been playing this gig for 13 years now and I was two hundred years old when I started. I’m fully aware of my needs – and of my kids’ need to learn independence and blah blah you know what? Hush up. I have been there, tried that. Bought the t-shirt so long ago, it’s now only good for gently polishing my gin bottles.

Because here’s the kicker: you know that thing about alcoholics, junkies, and bad relationships? About how, no matter what you know and however good your intentions, the person you want to help, has to want to change? Well, guess what? CHILDREN ARE PEOPLE TOO. Just like adults, they have to want to change – or at least, not be primed to full-body-contact fight to the death every single idea that didn’t originate in their own stubborn-as-fuck brains. And they will never, ever be un-primed if they’re feeling pushed.

Trying to get my kids to separate before they were ready has, over the past 13 years, earned me backlash you cannot imagine. I know that because in all that time I’ve only ever met one momma who said, “aw hell, backlash, I hear ya hon, pass the gin”. If you’re not that one momma, you’ll have to wait for the book. Meanwhile, please trust me when I say it took every minute of those 13 years for me to learn to leave it the fuck alone. My kids did not get their SAF genes from nowhere, no ma’am, so for years – YEARS – I pushed and they pushed back and I pushed harder and they threw things and I screamed and everybody cried. And then the next time I needed a bit of space, we’d do it all again.

Until I figured out that the struggle was not about my kids, it was about me. It’s about fighting my fear that they won’t ever get there and accepting that they’re doing the best they can. It’s about trusting that it is okay not to fight them. That it is not, in fact, my job to ‘make them’ anything, but to open the door and keep calm until they’re ready to go through it themselves. That last bit – the keeping calm part? That, my friends, is the fight, and I’m thrilled that these days, it’s one I’ve kinda sorta mostly mastered.

Not all the time, of course. I had a little cry about it last night, truth be told. Come on. 56 days without a break, and the chance that I still might not get the space I so desperately craved? ‘Course I cried. Duh. But just a little, and only at hubby. Does this make me some kind of patron saint of maternal patience? HELL, NO. Go back and re-read the part about the screaming and the throwing things. And the bit about the backlash. This is nothing to do with sanctity, and everything to do with practicing a hard-won skill.

But the fact that I’ve mostly got it – that I’ve learned (slowly, painfully) not to lose my shit when I’m not getting my needs met; to show my kids respect and tolerance instead of panic and anger; to not try and force them meet my needs; to instead nurse myself until I catch a break (to trust that I will catch a break, eventually); to let them know that sometimes, needs aren’t met immediately and while that’s no fun, it’s survivable; to be, in short, strong enough to hold space for them and show them how to do that – coming from where I was, that is a very big miracle indeed, 13 years in the making.

I would not be this person, without my kids. That’s the miracle.

Happy Mother’s Day, me.

The oh yeah, that’s right post

Bondi Rescue lifesaver Harrison, rendered in gingerbread ©careerusinterruptus

Sometimes I wonder if my kids really are gifted. (Hello, imposter syndrome!)

Sure, they read early and zipped through their first couple of years of math, but then ill health, anxiety, a bad school fit, and a dash of bullying brought a screaming halt to their academic advancement. Since then, their disinterest in book learning is a source of perpetual bemusement to their dad and me – neither of them, really, has an academic bone in their body. So when I read about kids doing calculus at 5, or teaching themselves multiple languages, I do sometimes wonder whether I’m in the right parenting group.

And then we’ll have a 24-hour period in which one kid (it doesn’t matter which one, they’re both over age 10 and both more than capable of all of this):

a) soliloquises extensively about how desperate they are to learn everything, and “know the answers to all the questions in the world”;

b) throws a screaming fit over wrapping a Christmas present – they cut too much paper, you see, and had to trim in both dimensions, which “ruined everything” and then they didn’t know how to do corners so the whole idea was stupid and just FORGET IT, JUST CANCEL CHRISTMAS NOW;

c) carries on the screaming fit with floods of tears, on the floor, because they wish they were learning, but they can’t because they are sick, and they can’t find their math book, and couldn’t do any even if they could find it because their entire body hurts, but they need to do it before school starts in 8 weeks’ time or they will grow up stupid and end up living in some guy’s basement playing video games for their entire life;

d) insists they would rather flush their head down the toilet than watch any educational YouTube content, even though they are sick and need to lie down watching TV, and they’re bored silly with cartoons, and to thwart me, they turn on the TV themselves, flipping through the channels until they get to … the ABC’s educational programming;

e) and finally, after more tears because it’s the 2nd and we’re not doing anything Christmassy, settles on decorating gingerbread men and spend the best part of three hours contentedly creating artworks like the portrait above. And below:

Gingerbread cookies in the CI house
©careerusinterruptus

Hilarious, aren’t they? Take a close look at the designs on those Christmas jumpers. Some of those sprinkles were placed using tweezers, for the love of God, and that one down the bottom was decapitated deliberately. The Santa hat one is decorated the same front and back because that’s how hats work. And when a cookie’s leg broke off during the transfer from worktop to baking tray, they made a gingerbread wheelchair to put it in, with a lecture to me on the importance of representing all kinds of people, not just people with legs. There was a drag queen cookie, too, and both a topless sunbather and the creep who took photos of her (a storyline lifted from Bondi Rescue. You may notice a theme, here.)

This day was like a masterclass in teh gifted, banging through all the boxes: Intelligence and a thirst for knowledge, tick. Rampaging need for autonomy, tick. A tsunami of emotion, tick. A stonking sense of humour, tick. Anxiety (not necessarily a gifted thing, but often comorbid), tick. Social justice campaigning, tick. Intense and asynchronous up the wazoo.

I know, I go on about it. Partly, dude, I just need to vent. I mean, you try living with this. Partly I do it for that other mum who may be out there, wondering what the hell is going on in her house. And partly, I need to remind myself: yes, actually, I am dealing with somewhat … unusual kids, and if we all struggle sometimes, well, that’s understandable. And finally, partly, it’s to remind myself that yes, I am in the right parenting group, even without the calculus, because this is what gifted looks like.

The asynchronous development is a PITA post

©careerusinterruptus

The thing about asynchronous development is, I can’t fairly write about how it looks in our house. All the stuff that would scythe right through popular one-dimensional notions of giftedness is too freaking embarrassing to my kids, and I respect them far too much to put it online.

Because the whole point of asynchronous development is that, whilst some of the stuff gifted kids do makes them look absolutely amazing, quite a lot of other stuff they do – or can’t do, or won’t do, depending on the issue – looks pretty bloody babyish. It is babyish. And my kids aren’t stupid; they know perfectly well they “should” have outgrown it like their age-peers have, but they haven’t, yet. That’s not down to my coddling or their manipulation or kids these days being soft/spoiled/getting away with murder, it’s just wiring.

It’s integral to the full picture of what we’re wrangling here, though, because the one thing us parents of gifties want you to know is that honey, we ain’t bragging. We cling to these words along with our gin bottles, because often, the “asynchronous development” part of the gifted diagnosis is the only thing that makes our kids make any degree of sense.

So instead, I’m going to share a moment from my childhood, when the asynchronicity – the all-over-the-shop development that makes gifted kids appear several ages at once – really twinkled, now that I look back through the lens of Much Reading.

On one hand, my parents bought me a subscription to Readers’ Digest for my sixth birthday, because I was desperate for reading material and they were desperate for me to stop asking questions – and they knew I’d love it. And, oh my god, I did love it. I devoured it, cover-to-cover, every month until we moved to Australia when I was 14 and the subscription lapsed. I can still tell you a whole stack of things I learned from Readers’ Digest. So on this hand, the expected precocious little smart-arse, right?

On the other hand, when my younger sisters ganged up to shame me out of thumb-sucking and sleeping with my Humpty, age 9 (first clue!), I epically lost my shit and bashed them over the head with a broom (second clue!). This hand – whoa. This hand was Daffy Duck, except actually dangerous. (Having been on the receiving end myself, I must say the tantrums of a three-year-old are a picnic compared to the same fury and lack of control whomping out of someone six years bigger and stronger.)

Now I know how today’s parenting forums would pile on. The “I would not stand for thats”, the “completely unacceptables”, the “9yo is definitely old enough to control their tempers”. It was completely unacceptable, obviously, but the point is – controlling your temper isn’t about age. It’s a learned skill. At 9, I had the self-control of your average three-year old, because I had never lost my temper before. Until that point, my parents would reasonably explain their position in any conflict and I would reasonably accept it. I’d never hit anyone; I’d never even thrown a tantrum. So my fit that night was a double-whammy: not only had I walloped my sisters, the fact that I could wallop my sisters came as a giant shock to all of us. It terrified the crap out of me, and I burst into tears every bit as loud as theirs. I was A MONSTER!

That’s asynchronous development. That’s the reason parents of gifted kids clutch their gin: at any moment, your hitherto rational, advanced, and well-adjusted child may suddenly be taken over by a foaming poltergeist of their much-younger selves – or, as in my case, a developmental stage they’d seemingly skipped altogether. (Tip: they never skip stages. If you think your kid has skipped a stage, by all means, read ahead and meet them wherever they are, but mark the place in your book. You will be revisiting it, sooner or later. Sometimes much later.)

Sure, some gifties lose their temper regularly and still take forever to learn that control. For others, it’s different aspects of development that are out of whack: they can read but not write, or recite the periodic table but not toilet-train, or calculate orbital trajectories in their heads but still need to co-sleep. The point is the lows that come with the highs and the vertiginous zipping between the two. One minute your nine-year-old is waxing lyrical about David Hartman, the first blind person to graduate med school in the US; the next minute she’s lost all self-control, everyone’s screaming hysterically, and you’re checking the littlies for concussion.

As a parent, I have suffered this whiplash so many times, it’s a wonder my head is still attached. It’s the thing I most wish to convey when I talk about the gifted. Sure, there’s an intellectual component to the diagnosis that hogs the limelight, but as a parent, you don’t really care about that. No, what keeps you awake at night is the berserker lurking behind the vocabulary, ready to leap out and wallop everyone when least expected.

That’s the thing that drove me to the forums and eventually, to my tribe of other, similarly-traumatised parents, and it’s why I’m sharing this now. Because if you don’t get what asynchronous development is, you might not know that this is what gifted looks like.

Teh stubborn

I known, I know. You’re not supposed to use that word, with all its negative connotations. Positive parents are supposed to frame it as “persistence”, a far more admirable trait.

But I’m going with stubborn. In part, this is because my kids own it; I’ve heard “because I’m a pig-headed little butthead” more times than I can count in recent weeks. And in part because it’s genetic. I know precisely where they get it from and this is one I cannot even begin to blame on the Sceptic. The Stubborn is all my family. It’s Mum and both my sisters and my brother and dear god, my niece and nephew, love ’em.

But mainly I’m going with ‘stubborn’ this week to focus on the bottom line. When they are little, conventional parenting wisdom is that you must show children who is boss. Whatever it takes – losing privileges, time-out, the occasional spanking “to get their attention”, you keep upping the ante until you get compliance. They learn through “consequences” to do what you say.

In our family, though, there is … something. Something that gets in the way of that process. My sister and I call it the “nose-cutting gene”: most of us would rather cut off our own noses than do something your way or (god forbid) ask for help.

So Mum, for example, has refused for thirty years to drink the glass of red wine a night her doctor said would help with her cholesterol. She took herself off any number of medications, continued seeing negligent doctors, ate foods that landed her repeatedly in hospital. She won’t use a walker. Recently, when she was completely crippled with back pain and I had to call an ambulance to take her to hospital, I joked, “No more soccer for you, Mum”, as she lay on the stretcher, just to see the look on the paramedics’ faces when she said, “I can if I want.”

My kids inherited that. Oh, they’re not stupid: they were never compelled to touch a hot thing, or pull free to run in traffic. When it comes to a battle of wills, however, there is no backing down. They will do it their way, not mine, even if it hurts them. If I call their bluff, they up the ante. As a gamer friend put it, if they have to suffer damage 3 to cause me damage 6, it’s worth it. The more I invest in my demand, the more they refuse.

On top of that, it didn’t take me long to learn that this likely to cause them to freak the fuck out, because if damage 3 is scary (and it is), being at war with Mummah is ten thousand times scarier. There’s nothing cold or calculated about it; if they lose the plot it is not about ‘making’ me do/give them what they wanted (ie, a tantrum), it’s because they don’t know how to back down and they are terrified of the consequences. So one of my biggest parenting challenges is to regularly model backing down.

Hold your knickers, there! I do not mean that I model “giving in”. They do not get it all their own way. But if I take the heat out of it – if I say, “Oh, you’re not ready to do that, yet? Well, could you do it later? (After food, or rest, or a tickle?) Or could you do this, instead?” then I am teaching them that their needs matter, that they can say what they need, and that we can both get our needs met. If I lower the bar, I take anxiety out of the equation and we are all free to move.

It’s hard, lemme tell ya. I’ve got the same bloody gene. I see a problem, I assess, I come up with The Best Solution, I have a plan, we’re gonna have this sucker fixed by Tuesday. That’s how I got through my whole life, pre-kids, and it worked. But post-kids, doing things that way has meant arguments, all day, every day, about everysinglebloodything, with meltdowns galore to boot. I tried it, okay? I flogged the You Will Go To School horse for five solid years, and all it did was make Mr Pixel hate school. And cause literally thousands of fights.

And I know that in a few years, backing down is going to be my kids’ biggest challenge (especially my son’s). They need to be able to tell the difference between doing what they want because it’s what they genuinely want, and doing what they want to prove me wrong, hurting themselves in the process. We need to be able to negotiate in a way that will not have an angry young person hurling him- or her-self out the door into a car, or into a bad relationship, or an addiction, or a shitty career, because all I’ve taught them over the years is to dig their heels in.

So this week, my big win was putting sums for CraftyFish on the glass door, and asking Mr Pixel to help with painting the bed. He’d watched his sister scribbling on glass with dry-wipe markers; he’d heard us work through several low levels of sum that weren’t too hard. And to my astonishment, he said he’d rather do that than paint the bed. So, okay! Quickly scrawled some sums for him. Which he took five hours to work up to doing, and then made lots of basic mistakes, which we laughed all the way through.

True, I didn’t get help with the painting. Irrelevant. No, insignificant. Mr Pixel negotiated, a crucial life skill that many adults lack. He voluntarily did something he usually pathologically avoids, and which I deliberately didn’t ask him to do, because I didn’t give him a chance to dig his refusenik heels in. He did it and not only was it not painful, he actually enjoyed himself, and building that experience around something he’s paralytically anxious about – and sharing a laugh with Mummah, to boot – that is priceless.

It won’t work twice, I know that. I know we haven’t ‘solved’ his math anxiety. I will have to find other ways around that and yes, it’s hard fucking work. But that’s okay, because we are both learning, and learning is good. I am proud of both of us.

Crazy, busy fingers

It’s a terrible photo, I know. But you try taking a photo of a pellet of gum, wrapped in five loom bands. Yes, you read that right: it’s a pellet of gum, wrapped in five loom bands. (I know, because I took them off and counted them, which is why I can’t take a better photo, and no I’m not asking her to do it again, because that would be crazy.)

This is a flag-staking post: my kids are gifted. No, I don’t have the certificates that say so, but we are an evidence-based household and the evidence is here in spades. Usually, on the floor. Scratch that: it’s on every flat surface, spilling out of drawers, in our beds at night. And so I offer Exhibit A: a pellet of gum, wrapped in loom bands.

A pellet of gum, wrapped in loom bands isn’t an IQ score. What it is is the product of a child so busy, so wired, so ON, all the time, that nearly everyone struggles to keep up with her ideas and her waterfall of talk, a child whose fingers and toes ITCH to be doing something, even when she’s already doing something. (As I write, she is making things with light clay, while watching videos online; I have about half an hour before she throws it down and begs me to wrestle her.) I already knew she was like this when I came across Heidi Klass Gable’s Ted Talk and first learned about Dabrowski’s over-excitabilities – this one, the crazy-busy fingers one, is psycho-motor oe. At the same time, I had a profound that’s MY child moment – the sort of moment I had not had when reading up on sensory-processing disorder or ADHD or anything else I could think of to explain the busy and the noisy and the intensity and her freakish ability to do many more things than I was aware of.

The profound recognition in that moment brought me to the other OEs: emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensory. We aren’t so much about the sensory. It’s there, but I know many people way more sensory than we are. The rest of it, though? The rest of it fitted us so well, I finally had to accept something I’d been denying for a long time: we are gifted.

I had a very hard time, coming to that point. There was the issue of my own baggage (another post entirely, or possibly a book); there was the issue of my leftie bias against any form of elitism; there were my friends who don’t believe in giftedness, those who think it’s merely a polite way of saying ASD, and those who believe it is a straight-up elitist scam. Certainly, there are contexts where those things may be true. We all make our own and group meanings out of the most fundamental phenomena; that’s human nature.

So I’m not going to try to convince you. I’m going to use the Columbus Group Definition that most educators (and parents of gifted kids) use:

Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm.  This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity.  The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.  (The Columbus Group, 1991)

And I can’t answer for anybody else. I’m just going to write about our experience of giftedness, because writing about it helps me understand, because finally accepting that label gave me a useful search term and some tremendously useful connections, and because maybe there’s someone else out there who’s as lost and confused as I was for such a long time.

Anyway, there it is: a pellet of gum, wrapped in five loom bands. In our house, #thisishwhatgiftedlookslike.