Let’s face it, family holidays—including Mother’s Day—can be stressful, even under the best of circumstances. The old cliché of in-laws not getting along often holds true. Add a son or daughter with autism to the celebration and the result is often less than celebratory. In my case, I always start the holiday missing my son who is unable to join us because he lives in LA. Later on at the dinner table, I always worry about how to properly include Samantha in conversations with both Dad and Grandma.
As a result of her autism, my daughter often veers from silence to interrupting or dominating the conversation. Samantha correctly insists that she has “a right to participate and not just sit on the sidelines bored.” Endless listening is not her favorite activity. To be fair, no one in my family enjoys being quiet for long periods. . . . My mother feels strongly that she deserves to be the one in the limelight because of her advanced age (now 92!) No matter that she is extremely hard of hearing and unable to respond to ANYONE even when we speak slowly, repeat ourselves or try to engage her.
My mom often criticizes Samantha and me for speaking too quickly or monopolizing the conversation. Mostly she wants Samantha to “share me” with her, “because my daughter sees me all the time.” What’s lost in this emotional tug of war for attention is that Mother’s Day is also MY day, and I just want to relax and try to enjoy EVERYONE’s company. Reluctantly, my mother spares Howard because he’s the one buying her an expensive dinner. Not surprisingly, Howard—who lost his own mother when he was 19—does not enjoy financing these occasions.
With all of these recurring challenges, maybe I’m crazy to insist on a family and making the effort to communicate across three generations.
“Why bother and why spend the money?” Howard asks every yeaMy answer is always the same. “You’re doing it for me, and you know it’s the right thing to do. My mom isn’t going to be here forever. . . and maybe this year will be better.” Even though Howard is a successful lawyer, he has a big heart and doesn’t argue although Mother’s Day has been challenging the past few years.
Mother’s Day 2019 was happily different. My mother wore her new hearing aids for the very first time. After several weeks of complaining about the hearing aids and all of the necessary adjustments, finally my mom could hear us! Instead of listening to her complain about the hearing aids and all of her ailments (remind me not to do this with my kids if I live that long), we could actually have a reciprocal conversation. For my mom, her newfound ability to re-enter the world of connection and communication was deeply moving. She kept apologizing for talking about the hearing aids—a generous gift from my best friend whom she disliked for my entire childhood and now describes as “an angel.” (!) She wanted to know if she was talking too softly or too loud. Did we think she was hearing her better? We didn’t mind talking about her hearing aids. We were happy for her and relieved that she could hear us.
Unlike in previous years, Samantha graciously agreed to let me talk to my mom uninterrupted for a few minutes as part of her Mother’s Day gift to me. While I devoted my full attention to Mom, Howard successfully engaged Samantha in a conversation about our planned trip to Spain at the end of the summer.
While waiting for dessert, Howard asked Samantha to tell us what she had learned in her Sign Language course over the past four months. Asking this question at what had so far been a successful evening was a big risk. Several times before Mother’s Day we had asked her what—if anything—she was learning in Sign Language and whether she wanted more lessons. In the past, Samantha had become defensive, thinking we were “testing her” and refusing to talk about Sign Language, while insisting we pay for more lessons because “I really enjoy it and I’m learning a lot.” (?!?)
Sometimes taking a risk with a loved one on the spectrum turns out much better than you could have imagined. As dessert and coffee arrived, Samantha began demonstrating all that she had learned in Sign Language. Eagerly she spelled our names with her hands and fingers; she showed us the signs for mother, father, grandmother, short, and tall. She also demonstrated some simple phrases. Despite her weak fine motor skills since early childhood, Samantha was communicating with us in a language we hadn’t been sure she could physically master. Watching her slender, nail bitten fingers move faster than we ever thought possible was a joy and a revelation.
Mother’s Day 2019 will always stand out for me as the day my mom started to hear again and the day my daughter with autism demonstrated an emerging ability to communicate with the deaf. What a special milestone!