Christy is my son’s physical therapist. There have been weeks in the last few months where I have spent more time with her than my husband. A while ago, she called Connor "a therapy kid." If Connor is a therapy kid, I thought, then I am a therapy mom. I’d never thought of myself that way before. Therapy has influenced how I parent more than any book I’ve ever read, more than my own upbringing or my husband’s.
Christy has three fingers on each hand, well maybe four on the left, I try not to stare. She’s upfront about her birth defect; she’s candid about everything. After a trip to a specialist about Connor’s wrist—his right radius is a centimeter shorter than his ulna, we found, he has some carpal bone malformations and so has a limited range of motion—I was angsty about it. I am a professional at angst. I’m also very talented at feeling desperate, hopeless, and twitchy. Christy knows me well enough to know about this lovable character flaw. She looked at me like she could read my thoughts on an invisible crawler above my head. She squared her shoulders and held up both of her hands as if she was motioning me to stop,
“Kate, look at my hands.” I did as I was told.
“I’ve been able to find a way to do everything I’ve ever had a mind to do: play piano, ride a motorcycle. He’ll be fine.”
I believed her and that was that.
Christy is stern and caring. And a little sassy. She dyes her hair bright shades of turquoise and purple, to throw off her autistic kids. "It's a good way to teach them how to cope with things they can't control and changes they don't anticipate," she said by way of explanation. "But I also just really like the colors turquoise and purple."
At home, when Connor and I do his exercises and he balks, when Finnly and I work on something he can’t do perfectly just yet and he melts down and throws his crayons on the floor in frustration, when Jojo climbs up the ladder and is then afraid to climb back down, I try to be like Christy who wouldn't stand for such a thing.
“I blog sometimes,” I told her last week. “I want to write one for therapy moms. What advice would you give them?”
This is what she said.
“Don’t handicap your child by making their life easy.”
Training is sweaty and near constant work. Strategically sabotaging a kid’s daily life so they learn vital skills requires tenacity and planning. It demands creativity to somehow make the crushing chore palatable, fun, even a joy. “Pick up your toys like you’re a monster! Do a monster walk with me!” Connor growls in frustration, rolls his eyes, whines a little, “You gotta do it, buddy,” I’ll say and then we’ll do it together and laugh at how silly we look, bent over at our middles, picking up blocks slowly.
“The goal is their independence; you won’t last forever. Their struggle builds strength which leads to independent children who become independent adults.”
When Connor was a non-walking toddler and we were in our first round of PT, I learned I could teach him, train him to do what I needed him to. And I needed him to walk. I learned that I needed to be part cheerleader, part taskmaster, part trickster—see, kid, it’s all just a game. A very hard game. I learned that struggle created strength and strength meant progress and progress eventually produced independence.
Struggling is soul work, it’s refining. Pushing back against failures, struggling through to the other side to do it again and again as the goal line continually gets pushed back, it builds strength and character. The rewards build confidence. “I did it, Mommy!” is the best thing I ever hear. Progress is a slow, spiraling climb.
“Can’t” is a four letter word.
“I can’t do this, this is hard.” He says this a lot while I work to make his life challenging so he becomes stronger. I always say back to him, “we can do hard things.” Or I say, “you can’t do this yet, so we’ll keep working.” I'm a broken record some days, I repeat myself so often.
I wrote "yes, I can" on a little card and put it on my bathroom mirror. I need to remember this too. It's a powerful mantra.
The goal of therapy is discharge.
I am already planning his graduation ceremony once we complete this journey. I cannot wait till he gets there. Of course, in the absence of a hard diagnosis, I’m not sure if we’ll ever get here, if whatever this is is chronic; I begin to worry and fret. But then I repeat to myself in my very best Christy impression, “He’ll be fine. Yes we can. He’ll get discharged.”
Make your life therapy, but don’t make therapy your life.
Back in October, I decided to keep my life going while I walked on this journey with my oldest son. This was very brave of me because pain is scary. Uncertainty is even scarier. I decided to keep planning birthday parties, to take that aerial yoga class with my friends, to go on hikes even if Connor cried loudly in pain. Something magical happened when we looked back at our life, he forgot the pain of the hike and remembered the bright colors of the turning autumn leaves and splashing in the river with his friends. I forgot the angst and remembered with satisfaction the success of that silly birthday game, how fun and freeing it was to dangle upside down with dear friends who were hooting and howling in laughter at their improbable, tangled positions. I declined the fear and embraced the life.
Therapy, like a bright red strand, has woven itself into the tapestry of our daily life. It changed the pattern of how we relate, how we move; it shifted the perspective from which I see the world. Because I'm a therapy mom, I've had to become fluent in the language of tough love and believe in the audacity of hope, which shouts "yes, I can."