More on the Autism Dialogue - "HENRY'S OTHER MOTHER"

Here is an amazing, heartfelt piece I received this AM in an e-mail from a former patient of mine, the mother of an autistic boy. As part of the ongoing dialogue I've been having on the subject of autism and parenting, this stands out as a shining example - actually two examples - of what loving motherhood can look like.
"K" - the biological mother, and the author of the letter - and "L" - the step-mother of the boy - couldn't be more different in some ways. But in the way that counts - and it's clearly why they connect to each other so well - they are the same: they love, truly, from their hearts and souls, from that place where the boundaries and constrictions and contracts of modern relationships and parenting don't apply. This is a radical thing to say, under the circumstances you'll read below, and the judgments you may be inclined to have, but K and L are BOTH great mothers. It's all about the love.

Read on:

by "K"

"She was the only one who hugged me when I lost custody of my son. I remember. Hunched over the table, in the court room, silently sobbing, and yet feeling like I had no right to do so, I felt warm arms around me from behind, hugging me hard. The arms belonged to "L," my ex-husband's wife - Henry's new Mother. At the time, I was so insane with grief, so dumbstruck by the consequences of my own actions, I didn't realize how much her gesture would resonate for years to come.
"I am an alcoholic. An alcoholic who had been put on warning: "Give up alcohol or you will lose your son.' I didn't. And I did. And for that, I cannot ever forgive myself.
"It's hard for people to feel sorry for someone like me, someone who had all the support and help and yet still chose drink over her son. I don't feel sorry for myself. I only hate myself - feel horrible and unnatural. How many times do we watch in real life and in TV and movies, the single mothers who posses such tremendous strength of character, such moxie, they will die before they will give up their children. They will sacrifice everything for their offspring. Where am I in all that? Nowhere, I'm afraid. I could easily wallow in the self-pity of my self-hatred, But to what end?
"Henry is a beautiful boy. He would probably like me to mention that he is a beautiful 'cool teenage boy.' He is fourteen years old, and autistic. He is also funny as hell, incredibly sweet and thoughtful, and often 'needs breaks' from talking. He acts out a lot of his life pretending he is 'Napoleon Dynamite.' I didn't understand many of his comments and expressions until I saw the movie. His step-mother, L is the one who clued me in. She told me to rent the movie, said she'd seen it so many times, she could recite it along with Henry. She explained to me that right now Henry is Napoleon Dynamite. But this is not really about Henry, or about me. This is about L.
"The first time I heard about her was through a friend. She spotted her with my ex-husband in a pottery barn. Her words: 'She's beautiful, I guess, but in that really put-together way. You can tell, no personality.' Ha. I laugh now. I appreciate the fact that my friend was trying to protect me. Trying to make sure I didn't feel inferior or rejected. But D and I had already made our peace with the fact that our time as a couple was over. I don't think either one of us was ever jealous of other partners. Regardless, at first I guess I did have kind of a pride thing. I enjoyed thinking of her with a miniature prada backpack, lots of make-up, humorless. During exchanges with Henry at D's apartment, I noticed some pictures of her. She looked beautiful - long blonde hair, perfect teeth, but far from humorless - always laughing at the camera.
"I met her during the summer at my ex's beach house. She was wearing a sarong and was very tan. And very tiny. I towered over her and felt way too big, like I did in 6th grade, when I had already reached my 5'7" height. She had a big smile, and a surprisingly big laugh for such a small woman. In fact, everything about L is big, except for her size.
"In those days, Henry was still so much MY BABY. My husband, "D," had left when Henry was two, so Henry knew nothing except for the two of us. We were a team, albeit, a team with a developing alcoholic at the helm. But then, who knew? Certainly not me. And I assume, certainly not my ex-husband. I was together enough to do the right things. Got Henry into the right special ed schools in NYC. Harder than getting your kid into Harvard, let me tell you. I was a good mother. A fun mother. We laughed a lot, and if I let Henry stay up late at night playing the pots and pans with my musician friends, and eating spare ribs in bed, naked, well, so be it. Henry was at the peak of his autistic behaviour. Couldn't bare transitions, and hated leaving me. Everytime I left him with his dad for the weekend, he would shriek and scream for 'MOMMY.' Heartbreaking.
"Ultimately L and D got married. Ultimately I went to rehab. Wish this is how it ended, but it's not. During the course of a year, I went through the whole rehab, relapse, rehab, relapse, rehab, relapse. Well, that's what some people would say. I would say I never relapsed. I never really stopped drinking in my heart. So I lost Henry. And after I lost custody, even though it was my own fault, I lost hope. Funny. no-one in my first three rehabs knew I had a son. There were no pictures over my mirror, no sharing about him in meetings. Too painful. I felt like he had died.
The court decided I couldn't even telephone him. Brittany, I feel your pain...
"Good news now... I get to see Henry - at least monthly. We usually go to the movies and then have run of the Hicksville mall. I live for the visits. He has far exceeded my expectations. And that's where L comes in. I worry that I sound cavalier. Like, oh yeah, I completely screwed up, but luckily L was waiting in the wings, so all's well that ends well. That's not how I feel at all. I just find it fascinating that someone is raising my, I mean our, son in the exact same manner I would if I were a better woman. The line from 'As Good As It Gets" comes to mind. When Jack Nicholson says 'You make me want to be a better man,' I feel like saying to L, 'You ARE my better woman.'
"I know a lot of step mothers raise children with tremendous love. And I know biology does not a child make. At this point, the fact that I gave birth to Henry means so little. However, I never expected for L to 'get' Henry like she does. She laughs with him. And laughs at him. And understands how his mind works. No easy feat that. After the grieving, I've grown to love their relationship. I love how much she loves him. and I love how much he loves her. it's not painful when he gets insecure and needs to check in with 'mom.' I find it comforting that, although I completely made a disaster out of Henry's life, L repaired it. He feels secure. And loved. I can tell that they share a unique mother-son relationship. They adore each other. They have fun with each other. L reminds me of me letting Henry play the pots and pans, only she probably makes sure he gets to bed at a decent hour.
"I don't want to seem too adoring, so I will mention, I think she makes Henry a bit more of a germ-a-phobe than I would have. And, I notice, unlike all my nieces and nephews who swear like sailors, Henry cannot sit through a movie if there is any cursing, causing lots of movie anxiety for me, as the adult movie matron. However... she is amazing - fills his life with joy, just like I hope I would have done. As I said, big in every way, but stature. Her heart mostly - it surely must be enormous. The fact that she has such compassion for me awes me. The fact that she loves my son so much is beyond my comprehension. Wait, strike that. Henry is her son."

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