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The Full Spectrum: When Mommy Friends Go Bad

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The Full Spectrum focuses on the trials and tribulations of raising a child who ranks on the autism spectrum.

Google “how to survive motherhood” and you’ll find the most common answer is friendship (a good washer and dryer helps, too). When you have a challenging child, your need to feel normal and understood by friends becomes even more critical.

When my older son S. was diagnosed with Aspergers two years ago, I felt like I had been transported to a foreign land in which I didn’t even speak the language. My instinct was to look around and find a “support friend” ­– someone who had been in my shoes and could mentor me through this big life change.

It wasn’t a frivolous pursuit. Once you get an Aspergers diagnosis, you don’t have time to sit around and see how things will play out (at least not if you’re neurotic like I am). Research indicates that early therapeutic intervention is the key to helping your child thrive. So on top of trying to deal emotionally with the fact that my son wasn’t just “immature,” I also had a ticking time bomb weighing on my shoulders.

Seeing as I’m a Type A person living in a Type D body, my reaction to all these choices was to freeze and defer. My husband was around a lot in those early days of diagnosis; even though I did the leg work of finding names, he would schlep S. to the actual appointments and make decisions about who and how we were helping our child develop his social, emotional, fine and gross motor, and organizational skills (to name a few). And so, with my husband by my side, I set out to find a friend who could steer me in the right direction.

Existing friends set me up with other moms who, as they put it, had “kids on the spectrum.” But I never found my match. I actually had many first dates with moms, where we’d shared our two-hour-long stories of pre- and post-diagnosis, along with current regimens, only to be left with a hug at the door and the half-hearted promise of a call in the future. After a year or so of not finding my partner in (Aspergers) crime, I moved on from my dream.

Like all good love stories, it was only after I stopped looking that love came and found me. A fellow mother that I had always liked (and flirted with in that platonic kind of banter) called me out of the blue to discuss some challenges she was having with her son, as she had heard I was dealing with similar issues. We wound up talking effortlessly for hours. Turns out I had been looking so hard for a friend who could guide me that I hadn’t considered the possibility that I could be the mentor and still gain the friend I so desperately needed! I was off to the races with my new friend – sharing coffees and resources and feeling ecstatic at the possibilities of us skipping through the halls of group therapy together. This was all a beautiful fantasy until something surprising happened.

I was a really bad friend.

It all began when my NBF wasn’t sure if she was even going to get her son officially diagnosed for Aspergers (he had already been diagnosed with a separate attention disorder). This was none of my business and yet I couldn’t help but try and convince her that she was making a mistake (and by ‘try’ I mean loudly and incessantly arguing my point). I seduced her with visions of understanding teachers, families and friends who would all be ready to embrace her difficult child in the name of autism.

She ultimately went for the psychological assessment (likely for her own reasons that had nothing to do with me) and indeed he did receive the Aspergers diagnosis. I felt badly about how hard I had pushed against her denial (as I saw it), but now it seemed as if we were ready to move forward together.

Not so fast. Even though her son had been diagnosed with an ASD, she continued to leave that part out of our conversations, choosing instead to refer to his “attention challenges” (not once mentioning Aspergers). Again, I pushed too hard and stuck my nose in where it didn’t belong; I even went so far as to blurt out in an accusatory tone, “You just can’t give it to him, eh?” (refering to the diagnosis).

Needles to say, my “friend” was going through hell – and I was busy making her feel worse. I tried to stop. I truly tried to be supportive and understanding. But every conversation caused even greater tension. It was as though she was insulting my child by refusing to acknowledge her own son’s diagnosis. This was, of course, irrational thinking on my part but I couldn’t help but feel that if Aspergers was such a terrible diagnosis, then what did that say about S. and his value in this world?

In one of our final conversations, I actually listed the horrible things that can befall a kid with Aspergers who doesn’t get the proper therapy (suicide, bullying) and laid out the challenges of the next 10 years (isolation, puberty, sexual dysfunction). In retrospect, I can’t even begin to imagine how many “how to support a friend” rules that conversation broke.

I reached out to other friends who reminded me to give her some time and let her come to things in her own way. I sent apology emails and tried to rekindle our sporadic conversations. But the love was gone.

Let me be clear that I understand why friendship is cited as the main factor in surviving motherhood: friends provide support, guidance, assurance, instruction, wisdom and time away from the often isolating world of babies and toddlers. The challenge is that as our children grow and get more complicated, so do our adult friendships. The stakes get raised beyond those first-year milestones of walking and talking to school grades, universities, jobs, marriages and so on. And all of these fears and feelings get mixed up with our friends and their children.

I’m still embarrassed at what a bad “support friend” I was but I haven’t given up on finding my “mommy friend” soul mate. When it happens, I am going to do what is required of all good friendships: keep my big mouth shut.

(Photo: Jupiterimages)

3 Comments

  1. sara winter

    June 3, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    My heart broke when I read this. I’ve so been there. You get so caught up in “wisdom and experience”, the ability to truly empathize gets diluted. Love your candor and honesty. I think a lot of us can relate.

    • alison

      June 3, 2011 at 8:09 pm

      thanks Sara! It wasn’t my finest moment but hopefully i can make up for it! it’s so true that we think we are being helpful when really everyone just wants someone to listen!!

  2. Lizarde

    December 2, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    D’oh.

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