This week I watched the new NBC show, Parenthood. In addition to a great ensemble cast (featuring Lauren Graham, Monica Potter, and the guy from Six Feet Under) and some damn clever writing, the debut episode includes one storyline that particularly caught my attention: a couple in the early stages of realizing their son may have Asperger syndrome.
In the pivotal scene, the shell-shocked mother is trying to share the educational consultant's findings with her husband. The father, meanwhile, is literally talking over her to avoid hearing it, clinging to his last shred of hope that with one more small change ("He just needs a tutor!"), their son can still fit into a 'normal' school environment. It's one of those moments that goes on just a little too long and gets a little too painful.
Finally the mother, increasingly desperate to be heard, says: "It's not just the fear of fire, it's not just the biting, it's not just the tantrums ... it's everything. There's something wrong with our son."
* * *
It's not often that a TV show gets it so right. I sat there thinking, I've lived that moment. My daughter has sensory processing disorder, not Asperger's, but some of the characteristics can overlap: social 'quirkiness,' difficulties with emotional regulation, and of course, sensory defensiveness. Because these kids are often high-functioning in other areas, both syndromes can go undiagnosed until the early school years.
And I remember that moment vividly. That moment when you realize it's not just the tantrums and the maddeningly age-inappropriate biting. It's not just the obsession with tornadoes or fire drills. She's not "just hungry," or "just tired," or "just quirky," or even "just trying to control us." It's something else. Something more.
Don't get me wrong: this has nothing to do with the fact that, in the TV scene, mom was doing the talking and dad was doing the talking-over. Truth is, I did both. I spent weeks, arguably months, with two parts of my mind at odds: the part still hoping I could find the critical mistake I'd made, the right parenting book, the magic trick I was somehow missing that could make Sweetpea's behavior more 'normal.' And the part with the dawning realization that no matter what I did on my own, it wasn't going to be enough.
It's human nature not to want to see it, even when the evidence is piling up so high it can probably be seen from space. Once that veil is lifted, you can no longer harbor that image you've had, maybe since before her conception, of the 'perfect' child. You have to admit that your kid is -- and might always be -- different from other kids. Really different. That there's a name for it. A name that is long, and scary, and has the word "disorder" in it, and might mean other things you haven't even considered yet. It might mean that all the parenting manuals in the world aren't going to be enough to smooth the way for your kid or for your family. That you're going to need help -- something you're maybe not so great at asking for.
At the same time, it's a hopeful moment. Because in that realization, lies the start of healing.
You probably won't see it for weeks, or even months yet. But looking back, you'll realize that this was the moment when you started to stop blaming yourself and your child for things neither of you can control.
It's the moment you began to lay down your shield -- that one you'd been using to defend yourself from those aspects of your child you didn't want to see, and your fears about what they might mean for your child and about you. To protect yourself from those looks from other parents, the well-meaning questions, and the persistent and numbing sense of failure.
And, in setting aside the shield of self-defense, you freed up the hand you needed to start fighting for your child.
* * *
In the last scene of the episode, we see the boy's cousin singing in a church choir, with the whole extended family in attendance. We see the gruff, you-just-need-to-toughen-that-boy-up grandfather notice that the boy and his father are missing. He finds them outside, dad standing at a distance, watching his son splash in puddles.
"What's going on?" grandpa asks, with a touch of impatience. "Get back in there, Max."
"He can't go in, Dad," the boy's father replies, still watching his son.
And this is the part where I finally broke down. Because what the father says next, he says without apology, without defensiveness, without a trace of blame: "There are candles in the hallway, and he can't walk past them."
"Nonsense!" says grandpa.
And then the dad, again: "It's not that simple."
It's a sad moment, in many ways. It signals the father's resignation: "There's something wrong with my son."
But to me, it's also a beautiful moment. It's the moment the father crosses over. He drops his defenses, and he begins the difficult, heart-wrenching work of standing with, advocating for his child.
The episode ends here. As viewers, we are left with no illusions that everything is neatly wrapped up. We know it's not the end. There will be many more moments of grief, and loss, and doubt, and ... yes ... self-flagellation to come.
But, heart-wrenching as it is, we also know: Now the healing can begin.