I used to be deeply committed to the proposition that we had to do everything as a family. Trip to the zoo? All of us. Out for Chinese food? All of us. Vacation in Florida? All of us. And so on and so on. It just seemed wrong to me that we should be separated in any way, and it seemed like we’d be admitting defeat if we left our autistic son home. Instead, we compelled our other kids to do lots of things they probably would have preferred not to do because well, we are a family damn it, and we should stick together. Always.
My firm beliefs about family unity notwithstanding, life has a way of kicking you in the teeth—or at least knocking some sense into you. I’ve gone from my rigid, fundamentalist posture of wanting us to do things together—always–to thinking of ways for us to parcel ourselves out so we can maximize our enjoyment, and meet our kids’ (individual) needs just a little bit better.
Now don’t get me wrong; it’s painful to leave our autistic son home and exclude him from activities and occasions, like my nephew’s recent wedding. But we long ago learned that bringing him would just add stress to what’s supposed to be a joyous event. He’d spend the entire time asking to leave, and ruin it for the rest of us. On top of that, he’d get nothing out of being there. But the pain is actually muted at this point. In fact, it barely registers. Maybe that’s because we’ve been dealing with the do we include him dilemma for so long that it’s a relief to have just let it go.
Unless you’re walking this walk, it’s pretty much impossible for you to understand the ways in which decades of trauma-infused child rearing and trauma-infused family dynamics can wear away at you, stripping you of your energy, your will, and your commitment always and everywhere to be fully engaged, fully committed. Sometimes—or maybe more often than sometimes—you just want a break.
I know there are those for whom a break might just be a dream, because their child has behavioral or other issues that make leaving him home or with a caregiver a rare or never possibility. I can’t even imagine what that feels like. For us, our bench might not be deep, but it is amazing. My husband’s brother and his (second) wife have been a special, surprising blessing in our lives. They have taken Noah for a week at a time, more than once, and are planning to do so again this summer. It is a gift to us—and for him—that I cannot even begin to imagine how to repay. My husband’s sister and her husband used to stay over at our house so we could sneak away for a few days now and again. And my older sister and her husband are happy to watch Noah for a day or an overnight when they can. Those lifelines are what allow us to breathe. They are what give us the precious bandwidth to be able to relax just a little, and to recharge our batteries for all the other stuff life throws at us. Knowing that Noah is loved enough by others to be away from us, and with them, is what makes that possible.
Right now, Noah is at sleepaway camp. I didn’t join my husband in dropping him off. My daughter did. They then headed up north for a 48-hour stay in the country, and some time in the woods. I stayed home with my older son, as I didn’t want him heading off on his summer vacation with his law school friends without a kiss from his mom. And no, I haven’t missed having Noah around. Not yet. And probably not for the entire time he’ll be away. Our being a scattered family in this moment is, given the meandering, exhausting journey it took us to get here, a very good thing…
Nina Mogilnik’s professional career has encompassed work in the philanthropic, nonprofit and government sectors. Nina is also an avocational writer, and has had a number of essays about her experiences dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s and her son’s autism published in Haddasah Magazine and in The Jewish Week. She was recently invited to blog for The Times of Israel and has been contributing her take on life and current events. Nina’s proudest accomplishment — and hardest job by far — has been as a mother. Nina has degrees in philosophy from Union College (B.A.) and from the University of Chicago (M.Phil). She lives with her husband and kids (human, feline and canine) in New York City. Read more from Nina Mogilnik here.
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