Our son has always been “extra.”
I don’t know how else to describe it. Well, actually, with lots and lots of parenting books dog-eared on my nightstand … I guess I do. Oliver is relentless, dogged, determined, laser-focused. He is perceptive, bright, curious, hilarious. In a word, Ollie is spirited.
Being our first child, one who arrived eight weeks early, Oliver came with no frame of reference or guide for his dad and me. Is it normal for babies to scream for hours on end? Is it colic? Gas? Is he cold? Wet? Hungry? Teething? Hot? … Why is he so mad?
When Ollie was around six months old, he once cried so hard for so long that my husband and I took him to the Emergency Room at two o’clock in the morning. I was delirious, despondent — I literally had no idea what was wrong, where to begin, how to help. I thought he must have broken a bone or something … without my noticing. Because I was a terrible mother. Obviously.
Ollie turned out to have a fever that eventually bloomed into hand foot mouth virus — the first of many illnesses in that first year that tested the limits of my sanity. He recovered well, thank goodness.
I did not.
The ER night was the eve of our second wedding anniversary. We’d planned for a day spent just the two of us — something we desperately needed, and I’d been looking forward to. Obviously a sick baby meant we were staying home, and I felt more isolated than I ever had.
It did not help, of course, that I was struggling with postpartum anxiety and depression. Or that I was embarrassed to still be feeling rattled from Ollie’s premature birth and month in the NICU. I knew I “should” feel grateful to have survived such an ordeal with a healthy child, particularly as I began hearing so many terribly sad stories from the preeclampsia community.
Instead, I just felt jumpy, exhausted, and awful.
Having a baby who never seemed to just freakin’ relax and be a baby … that magnified everything else.
“Are we doing this wrong?” I kept asking Spencer, looking at friends’ infants curled up like sleeping cherubs in the middle of a boisterous get-together.
“Why is everything so hard?” my husband would whisper back, turning to face me in the darkness over the wails of a child who wouldn’t — couldn’t — rest.
One crystallized memory of this also happened around the ER night. We’d gone to visit Spencer’s friends for a baby shower. At six months old, I assumed Ollie would sleep in the car for the hour-ish ride there and also snooze on the way back to a family birthday party.
Two events in six hours. Two loud, packed events in a very pre-COVID world — with folks smashed in, passing Ollie around, cooing at the first grandchild and great-grandchild in our family.
We left my grandparents’ house way past Oliver’s normal “bedtime,” whatever that was. And he cried. And cried. And cried. He screamed for so long that I wound up stumbling outside in the dark, barefoot, just to get away from the noise. I felt like I was losing my mind.
“I need a minute,” I said, over and over. I need a minute. I need a minute.
“I need a minute” has become my catchphrase. I find myself saying it so often that Hadley actually incorporates it into her dolls’ conversations.
I need a minute, I say, and then I come back. Of course. And I came back then, holding Ollie and rocking him and murmuring in his ear. We gave him a bath, hoping the warm water would quiet his screams … and it did. Eventually, he passed out.
“You know, I think he’s overstimulated,” I remember saying — a word that shot out like a lightning bolt.
Overstimulated. Where did that even come from?
Takes one to know one, I suppose.
Ollie didn’t have the vocabulary to tell us something was too loud, or hot, or bright. Even now, when those things are weighing heavily upon him, I don’t think he realizes they are. He just knows something is “off.” Something feels wrong. Maybe it’s a scratchy tag in the back of his T-shirt, or socks with a seam that sits strangely on his toes. Maybe it’s a TV cranked past a comfortable level, fireworks cracking overhead, or a slice of cake with a crumbly texture he wasn’t anticipating.
No matter the source, these are the things that turn Oliver’s emotional regulation down to zero. Anything upsetting the apple cart becomes the impetus for a black-hole of a meltdown — one born of exhaustion and intense frustration.
Those are the rough ones. Hard to pull out of.
Oliver is 5 1/2 now. He is a loving, sensitive, clever kid … and every bit as intense as he was during his baby- and toddler-hood. Demanding. Serious. Relentless.
I know all kids go through the sorts of “no, I need the green cup, not the blue cup!” phases. And I know this because our second child, Hadley, is firmly there now. But Hadley does not fall into a well of despair if you ask her to wear jeans. Or a jacket is too tight, or too warm, or too scratchy. Or the milk she was expecting at a cafe had to be substituted with lemonade.
These things are tough to manage with Ollie. But we’re making progress … and I’m the right person to help him. Turns out I had to learn myself.
A friend whose child has autism once told me it can be difficult to examine a child’s behaviors because we may not be prepared to see so much of ourselves reflected back. No one wants to think of their child as “different.” And no one wants to place themselves in that category, either.
But as I began researching sensory processing disorder (SPD) and the many ways it can manifest in children and adults, I felt an overwhelming sense of recognition. Then: relief.
Emotional regulation has been challenging for me. Anyone who knows me well will likely tell you that my face speaks before my lips do. The two times I got detention in school were both for rolling my eyes. I was voted “moodiest” in my high school theatre troupe and had a reputation as a drama queen, on stage and off.
For better or worse, I’ve always felt the lofty highs and frosty lows of life. I am not one speed. I am 32 speeds, switching gears repeatedly.
Like many parents, I’d wager, I don’t often feel like I’m the mother I “thought” I’d be. Though I love my children fiercely, I often end the day totally depleted. I am not my best self. Even before the pandemic, I worried daily … about everything, but especially if I was doing parenthood “right.” Intellectually, I understand there’s no such thing … that all I can do is love them hard, tell them, and try. But it doesn’t always feel that way.
Why is my patience always so thin? My heart always pounding? Why do I feel so overwhelmed when my children cry, scream, or even just laugh too loudly? More often than not, I find myself walking away during Ollie’s meltdowns because I need to calm myself down. It’s a fight-or-flight instinct as powerful as anything else.
Of all things, my Facebook feed helped me figure some of this out. A friend from high school — who also happens to be a licensed therapist — shared this graphic, and it caught my attention. I studied it, saved it to my phone, texted it to my husband.
Omg, I wrote Spencer. It me.
Though I’ve never been able to get my face wet (not in the shower, not in a pool … not anywhere), cannot stand the feel of dirt (or anything really) on my hands, get extremely anxious in loud restaurants, and am constantly scraping my hair into a ponytail to get it away from my face and off my neck … I hadn’t ever viewed those behaviors through a sensory lens before.
Makes sense, I kept thinking, Googling more and more. Makes sense why I never learned to swim. Why I automatically butter toast with a clean “thumb hold” square in the corner. Why I often have to take a break at parties, lingering in the peaceful bathroom just a little too long. This … makes sense now.
I have so many examples. Suffice it to say that the more I read about SPD, the more I began to understand the coping mechanisms I’ve developed to overcome challenges … ones I can help Oliver hone, too.
Though nothing has actually changed, I give myself some grace now. I’m not broken. I’m not a bad mom. I’m frequently an overwhelmed mom, and often I can set myself up for success by planning ahead to prevent sensory overload.
Knowing how upset I get when I’m hot, for example, I dress coolly at home. Yoga pants, tank tops. Put my hair up. Turn on ceiling fans. Try to stay comfortable.
I keep the TV on low and minimize “background noise.” Noise is a major trigger for me — having Alexa streaming music, the vent over the stove buzzing, and “Peppa Pig” snorting away in the living room is just too much.
I walk around when I’m feeling anxious. Often, this means stepping outside in the dark when Ollie and Hadley are going at full-volume. Rather than exploding (my gut reaction) when they’re just being kids, I force myself to tap out and gulp cool air.
So what does this mean for Oliver? Well, we’re still figuring that out. I know I see progress; he’s grown up and changed so much in the last year.
For now, it means having a dry washcloth ready to catch rogue water droplets near his eyes at bathtime. It’s making sure I have a three-size span of the only soft cotton jogger pants he wears (cripes, what if they’re discontinued???) and ensuring his shirts are tagless. It’s providing ear protection during plane take-off at Gravelly Point and digging around at the grocery store for the smooth vanilla yogurt, not the fruit-studded strawberry that makes him gag.
More than anything, I hope learning to wade through these waters will be easier with my arm around his shoulder — the squeeze that says I understand, and I’m here, and my buddy, we’ll figure this all out together.