On Being Something Else

They tell you to find yourself. As a child, they ask you what you want to be. What do I want to be? You say alive, you say happy. No, no, what do you really want to be? The answers you give aren’t enough. They’re too vague. Okay, you say. Then you give a better answer. You say superhero, professional baseball player, princess, ballerina. No, no, they say. They want to hear police officer, firefighter, teacher, lawyer. They want to put you in a box of textbooks and scholarships and medical school applications, close the lid, and seal it with packing tape just so, to send you into the real world. Ready to find yourself. Ready to be yourself. But selecting from a predetermined list of choices, of careers, doesn’t necessarily help you find the real you. In fact, that very same choice may actually hide you for a while. Or for always. You might get lost in it. Think it’s all you’re meant to be.

I made choices throughout my life, and still do. As a child, I wanted to be a writer. Piles of filled journals and typed up pages decorated my bedroom and closet floor. And in my head, ideas and words flowed faster than I could pen them. But writer wasn’t on “the list.” So, as a child, I decided to become a teacher. I played school with my little brother. I liked being the boss. I enjoyed seeing my handwriting on a white board and smelling the dry erase markers—I still do. As an adolescent, I made choices. College is expensive, they said. Going out of state is even more expensive, they said. I wouldn’t want to leave my home, my boyfriend, my family. I made choices. There’s no money in writing, they said. So I made choices.

I majored in education. And I loved it. Many days, I still love it. But I know I won’t “find myself” in a classroom, walking between desks, ticking off boxes, making copies, learning this year’s evaluation system and next year’s standardized assessment format. I may help a student find him/herself, and for that, I feel extremely fortunate and satisfied. As for me, I’m still wandering.

I made choices. My husband and I started a family. The identity I knew muddled as I figured out my changing roles. Wife. Teacher. Mother.

My husband and I are fortunate that most of our plans—even if sometimes I think they were the “safe” plans—panned out well. We are fortunate. We own a home and rent a beautiful better home. We have a happy, physically healthy child and a well-behaved dog. We have a good relationship with each other, with friends, co-workers, and family members. We get to go on dates and have money for hobbies. My husband has received multiple promotions. I love the school where I work and I love the school where my son attends and receives so much support. We are fortunate.

But in some ways, our life doesn’t look like what we pictured. In one particular way, our roles have evolved into something we never expected.

We are special needs parents. Autism parents. Something I’ve noticed is that autism crept into our lives slowly, unassumingly, and then one day, it forcefully took over. Took over our thoughts and our decisions. Took over our conversations before we fall asleep. Took over my Facebook and my blog. Took over our free time—I can’t even remember having any.

Thing is, I don’t want to be just an autism parent. Like I don’t want to be just a teacher or just a wife.

Every person, in his or her life, wears multiple hats. Right? So why have I taken off so many of mine and tossed them into a hall closet?

While I do have to drive my son to appointments and fill out paperwork, and while I may need to consult support groups and Pinterest for speech and occupational therapy ideas when I’m home with my son over the summer, and while I may vent on my blog once in a while, I can’t be just an autism parent anymore than I can be just a teacher or just an anything.

I need to be a full, healthy person.

For a the last almost three years, I have found myself on the treadmill and yoga mat and machines at the gym. I have found myself in sweat and tears and growing muscles and shed pounds. I have strengthened myself physically and mentally, and I will continue to do so. Because it makes me feel healthy. It helps me keep going. And recently, while I was running, I thought about something else that would keep me going.

So I made a small decision. A very small decision.

Right now, I can’t make big goals. I can’t commit to a Master’s program (I was thisclose to starting one over a year ago, and I’m so glad it didn’t work out). I can’t and won’t be changing jobs. I can’t make any huge moves in my life right now because my son has to be my focus and because I want his development to be my focus and my little family to be my focus. But. I can make small steps to continue to “find myself” and “be myself” in the midst of this crazy special needs parenting life.

This summer, William is attending extended school year for 10 half days. During those three hours a day, I am going to try to avoid the housecleaning, the laundry, the cooking. I’m going to try to stay off my Autism board on Pinterest and leave the lesson plans for August. My decision is that I am going to reread the novel I completed in November. I’m going to delve into it with a fine-toothed comb, edit it, make some contacts out of state to verify the validity of its setting, and begin the process of self-publishing.

Because deep down, if I’m being honest, where I really find myself is in every thought, every handwritten word, every tap of the keyboard, every sentence of every chapter of every story I write.

That’s where I live. I think as a child, as an adolescent, as a student, as a teacher, as a wife, as a mother, as a sister, as a daughter, as a friend, as the parent of a special needs child, it’s where I’ve always lived. It’s where I belong.

And I want to—I have to—even if for a few short hours of the day, be something else.

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