Written by Ginny Grant
I stand in the middle of the living room surveying the chaos around me. It’s almost as if a cyclone has passed through the room, wreaking devastation. Tropical Cyclones (TC) S and E, two busy toddlers three years and under. Everywhere I look, there are signs of domestic destruction.
I steal a glance at the kitchen wall clock. It’s only 8.48 am and already we have faced so many issues: tantrums, accidents, squabbles about turns and toys – all problems that I as a parent am no doubt well qualified to resolve. Or am I?
The Peppa Pig theme song is playing on the TV for the twenty-second time, each new episode an assault on my ears and my nerves. I close my eyes. I just cannot focus my thoughts on what to do next for all the mess, the crying, the screaming … that damn theme song.
TC E wants another cuddle. We’ve been cuddling since she began the day at 4.45 am. Surely it is enough already? As lovely as the cuddles and snuggles are, I just want – need – some space for me. Now she’s crying again. I let out a long breath. My eyes tingle, then fill with tears.
TC S interrupts my thoughts. Asks me if it is water on my face. ‘No, not water,’ I say, ‘tears.’ And in that moment I decide to tell her the honest truth: I am crying because sometimes Mummy finds things difficult. She looks confused. I sit down on the couch, press my hands over my ears, intermittently wiping my tears. TC S climbs up for a snuggle, closely followed by her sister.
Motherhood, it’s not at all what I expected. And I am not the mother I thought I would be.
I went into this parenthood business with bold ambitions: I would be everything my children needed me to be. Nurturing, caring, patient, calm, informed, active, playful. I would do this thing right – no, more than that. I’d do it perfectly.
In spite of my perfectionist nature, I soon learned that there is no such thing as the ‘perfect parent’ – that it just doesn’t work like that. Because more often than not, parenthood is not a predictable kind of thing, and from pregnancy and birth complications, to feeding and settling issues, medical problems, developmental differences, and undetected postnatal depression, we had encountered it all.
In fact, if anything, it appeared my little growing family and I specialised in unpredictability. We just didn’t seem to follow the program. And that idea in itself was enormously stressful to me.
The truth is – and I can recognise this now with the wisdom of hindsight – many of the things I grappled with as a parent were in fact my own struggles: my need for control, for predictability, for perfection. My own sensory issues around childbirth (which frankly still traumatise me eight years on), the chronic lack of sleep, the near-constant presence and touch of my children, the noise. Always the noise.
As a new mother, I had tried so hard to build a support network around me. I thought that attending every meeting of my parents’ group would help, and as kind as the other new parents were, as the months passed the differences between my journey and others’ only felt more pronounced.
Socialising as a new parent did not come easily either. I attended playgroups but seldom, if ever, initiated conversation with the other parents; mostly I just absorbed myself in my children, hoped we all could hold it together, then left as swiftly as possible. I worried daily about being judged as a parent, by other parents, by professionals, the general public, and on many occasions, I felt my children and I were misunderstood.
At home I often felt I was drowning – in clutter, chores and life admin, admittedly a longtime weak point. (Hello, executive functioning, are you in there?) But truthfully, I rarely had time to get to these things as I was too busy parenting in a way that felt very natural and right to me but occupied a great deal of every day and night.
By natural, I mean that I put my children’s emerging divergent needs and preferences first every time. I tried very hard to understand what they were communicating and I gave them the comfort I felt I would have liked in their place. Cuddles – or not – pats, stories, songs, joint attention on tap and so much more, all while trying to complete my work as a freelance book editor. I wanted my children always to feel content and safe and loved in our home.
My focus on my children’s needs was steely, unwavering, and I had no issue compromising my own needs in the process.
After some time, I felt the return of anxiety and depression that had haunted me on and off throughout my adult life. In truth, it had been lurking there from day one of my parenthood journey. This time, however, I didn’t reach out for support. I didn’t want to lift that veneer of ‘parenting success’ to reveal the incompetent mess beneath. So instead, I camouflaged my difficulties and pressed on.
I began to research some of the challenges our family was facing. And time and again, those challenges seemed to come back to developmental differences, and one word specifically: Autism. I didn’t recoil from this idea at all, as some parents might; rather, it actually made a lot of sense. I didn’t hold a negative view of Autism; I simply saw it as a different way of experiencing the world.
Eventually, I sought assessments for my children and was told by professionals, just six months apart, that each of my girls was – is – Autistic.
But the similarities between me and my children were strong. Many of their early experiences, their strengths and their struggles, were mirrored in my own.
My children and I share many Autistic traits. All three of us notice and relish the small details in life that others seem not to observe. We see patterns all around us. We are creative. We love playing with language. We’re straightforward, honest. We remember everything. Our passions run deep and we love to talk about those things. We share a love of visual and tactile stims.
We also understand that there are some things about being Autistic in a world not built for us that can make it very difficult – new people and experiences and unexpected change, non-autistic ways of communicating and socialising, sensory overwhelm in a bright, loud, chaotic world, for starters.
Over time I became increasingly convinced that I too was – am – Autistic. I was thirty-nine years old when I received my official diagnosis.
Now six and eight years old, my children know that they are Autistic, and that I am Autistic. At times our Autism may set us apart from others, but it always unites us three. In each other, we find common experience and meaning. Autism is a part of us, and will always be so.
I’m not the mother I expected I would be. But moreover, I’m not the person I thought I was before I met these two amazing human beings, TC S and E.
I now know that there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. And I also know that being Autistic helps me be a very good mother indeed.